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Tornadoes Devastate Alabama; U.S. Army Fires Walter Reed's Commanding General

Aired March 1, 2007 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Kitty.
Happening now, we're following these brutal storms sweeping across much of the country right now. Alabama bears the brunt of it as tornadoes tear through the state. A high school takes a very deadly hit.

Wounded troops trying to recover, but facing shoddy conditions in a complex bureaucracy -- now, after shocking revelations about a top military medical center, the U.S. Army fires the general in charge.

And the Taliban are back with chilling vows of vengeance against the United States. Their commander says he's in regular contact with Osama bin Laden and has hundreds of suicide bombers ready to strike on.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, a few parts of the U.S. look like a war zone. A severe swath of bad weather, blasted across the Southeast. Tornadoes obliterated parts of southern Alabama, leaving death, devastation, and nightmarish tales in their wake. One place, called Enterprise, was very, very hard hit.

One witness says the city's high school looks like a bomb dropped on it. As the storm approached, students sat in the building when it simply collapsed, trapping some students under cinder block walls. Eight people died at that high school alone. At least nine died in Alabama.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, winds killed a 7-year-old girl. We have reporters covering several aspects of the story, our meteorologist, Reynolds Wolf is watching all of this from our Severe Weather Center, but let's go to Enterprise, Alabama first.

Jamie McIntyre is standing by with an eyewitness account. Jamie, give our viewers an update of what has happened there today.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's a devastating turn of events here where school officials well aware that there was the possibility of deadly tornadoes moved the student population into a safe part of the building, the auditorium, in the center, when that was the part that got a direct hit from the tornado, resulting in, as you said, eight deaths at this high school. Here's how one student recalls what happened. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically, I was sitting in the science wing, and the tornado came through. And the roof came down on us. And luckily, it was built out of cinder blocks, so the walls held up and everything, but a lot of the exterior bricks came in and hit some of the people around us, a real good friend of mine and a couple of people down, cut her leg. Nobody was really around to do anything. I kind of took my shirt off and wrapped her leg up.


MCINTYRE: And it's not just this high school, Wolf. There was devastation in a full mile walking up to the high school. I passed house after house, single family homes, brick homes that were -- some of them only had a couple of walls standing and there were cars overturned. Trees ripped out. Power lines down. It, you said it looked like -- one eyewitness said it looked like a bomb. It looked like a whole bombing raid had gone off in this town. It's just heartbreaking for the people here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the eight people who died in the high school, are they all students or some faculty? Do we know how that breaks down?

MCINTYRE: We don't know. I talked to one eyewitness who said he was among the first people here and carried out the bodies of two young girls. Presumably, they were students. But we've been waiting for the officials here to give us an official tally of what they believe the toll is both in dead and injured. And we have yet to get that, Wolf.

BLITZER: How are people coping there in Enterprise, Jamie?

MCINTYRE: Well you can imagine people are pretty shaken up by this. I've seen a lot of grief-stricken faces. I've seen a lot of people either in tears or close to tears. And I've seen a lot of anguished parents as they were trying when they first got here to figure out if their children were among those who were injured. And part of the big job here has been sorting out, keeping -- making a record, and making an accounting of where everybody is to determine if anyone is missing and still in the twisted rubble that's behind me -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre was covering a story at Fort Rucker, not far away in Alabama. But when this hit in Enterprise, he made his way to Enterprise. Jamie, I want you to stand by because you're going to be coming back later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get the latest now on this powerful storm. Our meteorologist Reynolds Wolf is standing by at the CNN Severe Weather Center. This is part of a huge storm that has affected major parts of the country. Give us the big picture, Reynolds.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well Wolf, the big picture is this storm system is well over, well over a thousand miles long stretching from the twin cities to the Gulf Coast. And right now the most intense sector of it may be moving from parts of Alabama into Georgia. Now the storm that made its way through Enterprise, Alabama was kind of unusual in the fact that most tornadoes don't last that long.

In fact, many of them last for just a few seconds. Today's tornado was a long track tornado. It was on the ground for a very long duration. We may be seeing another one of these right now on radar. We believe this is a tornado just to the northeast of Columbus. Already there have been reports of widespread damage in Columbus, tree damage, roof damage.

Power lines knocked down. And this cell is actually moving to the northeast, south of Griffin, just to the east and southeast of Lagrange, as well as Gwinnett . We're seeing more of these pockets up near Macon, also near Milledgeville and I'll tell you, Wolf, this has just been kind of a bit of deja vu. This is what we've seen all across southeast Alabama, we're going to be seeing more of this through much of the evening -- back to you.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to check back with you, Reynolds. Thank you.

Let's move on to some other important news we're following. The man in charge of the Army's top medical facility is paying a price today for failing to ensure proper care for wounded soldiers. He's been removed from command at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in Washington. Top Army officials saying they lost trust and confidence in Major General George Weightman's leadership.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is said to have been very much involved in the decision to dismiss Weightman. This comes after revelations of deplorable conditions many outpatients faced at Walter Reed. Conditions some lawmakers are simply calling shameful. Weightman accepted responsibility just last week in an interview with CNN. Listen to this.


MAJ. GEN. GEORGE WEIGHTMAN, U.S. ARMY: A hundred percent of it falls on me. I'm responsible for everything that does happen or does not happen here at Walter Reed. And it was obviously a failure on my part to reach down and touch those soldiers and find out directly from them.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior national correspondent John Roberts. John, I guess the question a lot of Americans are asking right now, how could this happen at the premiere medical facility of the U.S. Army right in the nation's capital?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NAT'L CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is a place where all of these wounded are coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush goes to visit regularly, but he goes to what's called Ward 57, which is widely held and has been described as the spit- polished amputation wing. It's really -- that's the center of gravity of this particular hospital. These problems were in outlying buildings. One called Building 18, which used to be an old hotel, but it looks, Wolf, like this was a failure of the chain of command. And it's interesting that Major General George Weightman is taking the brunt of this because he's only been there for six months.

And these problems look like they've been there for a lot longer than that. Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, who is the head of the U.S. military command, has now been placed in charge of this medical center. But he was in charge of this before. President Bush is taking this very seriously. He's leaving it right now in the hands of Robert Gates, the president, I talked with the White House earlier today.

That's the phone call that came in when I was on with you on -- at 4:00. And they said that they believed that Gates is approaching this appropriately. The president believes that all of the service men and women who are coming back from Iraq with injuries need to be cared for all the way through this process of rehabilitation. So he's paying a lot of attention to this. But I wouldn't be surprised if this goes a little further up the chain and that somebody else may be held accountable...

BLITZER: You know Defense Secretary Robert Gates has appointed a commission to investigate, report back to him within 45 days, not only on what's going on at Walter Reed or Bethesda Naval Hospital, but all of the U.S. military hospitals across the country because there may be major problems else where as well. I suspect the political fallout from this is only just beginning.

ROBERTS: Oh, yes, Gates is not the only one that's appointing panels to investigate. Congress is talking about investigations, talking about hearings. Barack Obama wants to introduce legislation which would guarantee that all of these returning service men and women with injuries would be cared for adequately.

And Hillary Clinton just today sent a letter to the secretary of the Army calling for an independent investigation into what Army officials knew about the situation at Walter Reed, when they knew about it and what they proposed to do about it, Wolf. So this is -- I think we're just beginning to see the very beginning of what's going to be a lengthy investigation into not only what's happening at Walter Reed but other facilities around the country.

BLITZER: I think everybody agrees that the veterans deserve only the best. And this clearly was not the best. John, thanks very much.

Jack Cafferty is off today. Coming up, the Taliban makes a comeback and offers some chilling vows of revenge. I'll speak about that with counter terrorism expert Cofer Black. We'll talk about the threat and whether Osama bin Laden is at the center of it.

Also, coming up, John McCain's late-night presidential announcement. We told you about it last night. He's not the first, though, to go on the talk show circuit. Will it help voters take him seriously?

And President Bush tells Gulf Coast residents he gets their frustrations. But is he backing up his words with actions and cash?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The Taliban are back with some chilling new vows of revenge against America. Their commander says a major offensive is in the works with hundreds of suicide bombers ready to go. That's what he says. In a stunning interview, this veteran of terror wars says he's in regular touch with the top man of America's most wanted list.

Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is not the usual bravado from a fanatical militant. This man's reputation alone is one reason U.S. officials believe Afghanistan is on the verge of another violent spring.


TODD (voice-over): A man so feared, his presence even miles from the battlefield is said to unnerve the enemy has a message for American troops and their allies in Afghanistan. The Taliban's top military commander, a fanatic known only as Mullah Dadullah, says suicide bombers at his command are countless and ready to strike this spring. And in an interview shown on Britain's Channel 4, Dadullah says he keeps a line of communication with Osama bin Laden.

MULLAH DADULLAH, TALIBAN MILITARY COMMANDER (through translator): Only his comrades see him. We exchange messages with each other to share plans. We also go to the battlefield together. We actually meet very rarely just for important consultations. It's hard for anyone to meet bin Laden himself now, but we know he's still alive. He's not yet martyred.

TODD: We asked CNN terrorist analyst Peter Bergen could Dadullah really communicate with the al Qaeda leader.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Not directly personally, but through intermediaries. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are increasing more together ideologically and tactically than we've seen in the last few years.

TODD: Analysts say Dadullah is reminiscent of Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda's ruthless commander in Iraq, known for his flamboyant videos and brazen public claims, who was killed by U.S. forces last year. But unlike Zarqawi who American commanders once mocked for his seeming inability to handle a weapon in one propaganda video, Bergen says Dadullah is a hands-on fighter.

BERGEN: Dadullah is widely regarded as the most capable Taliban military commander. Somebody who has been engaged in, you know, battles in Afghanistan for years. And his main area of focus right now is south of Afghanistan where much of the fighting has been taking place in the last six months.


TODD: And his viciousness may sometimes be too much even for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who once reportedly relieved Dadullah of his command after he allegedly slaughtered several innocent villagers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you for that. So, what's behind this Taliban comeback? How big a threat do they really pose right now and are they working closely once again with Osama bin Laden?

Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Cofer Black, he was the nation's point man for counter terrorism over at the State Department after a long career at the CIA. He's now chairman of Total Intelligence Solutions. Mr. Black thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Is the Taliban seriously making a comeback, working together with al Qaeda right now?

BLACK: That's absolutely certain. There's a little bit of a cyclical nature to this. The Taliban have been conducting limited operations, probing NATO positions over the winter. Last year in 2006, there were approximately 136 suicide attacks. These guys, basically it's sort of like an equivalent of a revolutionary war. They go to winter quarters. They get prepared. They come out.

BLITZER: So we could brace for a lot more in the spring now, the so-called spring offensive that people are getting ready for?

BLACK: That's absolutely right. That's what we're getting ready for. We have 27,000 troops. We've got...

BLITZER: In Afghanistan.

BLACK: In Afghanistan -- we have the 173rd Airborne Brigade going in there and we're gearing up for toe-to-toe combat with the Taliban. Their usual stock in trade is ambushes, using snipers, and also (UNINTELLIGIBLE) attack people...

BLITZER: When this so-called leader of the Taliban says he's in contact with Osama bin Laden and they're working hand in glove, is he right? Is he doing that? Is there any evidence to back that up, that Osama bin Laden, that he's directly involved in this?

BLACK: This would not be in the American or the Western context. Yes, they are contacts. They are not real-time. They're indirect. And there are lines of communication that are there. But it's not a direct command controlled relationship. They basically coordinate the sense of how the struggle should take place. It's very clear that the Taliban will be coming out in the spring. They're positioned for this. They have their supplies reasonably pre-positioned. And they will be looking to engage in ambush. Those positions that that they consider to be weak or lightly defended using mortars, things like this, this is not a cataclysmic, you know, battle of course care.

This is basically a counter insurgence estimates. He claims to have approximately 6,000 fighters, so we have the troops to handle that. But it's going to be toe to toe. It's going to be rough.

BLITZER: Cofer Black speaking with me earlier here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Still ahead tonight, we're live in the tornado zone in Alabama for the latest on a killer storm, the horrors it left behind, where it's heading next. We're also standing by for a news conference with police officers in Enterprise, Alabama, where at least eight people, mostly students have been killed in that high school that was ripped apart.

Also a nasty turn -- the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich takes a verbal shot at White House hopeful Hillary Clinton. Is it a sign that he's ready to jump into the presidential race?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Parts of Alabama are simply wiped out. We'll get more now on our top story, the powerful tornadoes that tore through the southern part of the state. At least nine people are dead, eight of them at a high school in Enterprise, Alabama.

The Associated Press is reporting 13 deaths throughout the state. The twisters flattened a building, trapping students under heavy cinder block walls. One student says it looked like a bomb dropped. We're watching the story. We're going to have another live report from the scene in a few moments. We're also standing by for a news conference from the mayor. We'll see what he has to say as well -- all that coming up.

Meanwhile, other news -- President Bush trying today to convince residents of the Gulf Coast that their Katrina misery has not been forgotten. He visited the hurricane-battered region for the first time in six months. Some local leaders still are grumbling the Katrina recovery did not rate a mention in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address.

Our Gulf Coast correspondent Susan Roesgen covered the president's stop in New Orleans -- Susan.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president said he's fully aware of the frustrations here. But he also says it's not the federal government's fault.


ROESGEN (voice-over): At a New Orleans school President Bush asked the one question people in New Orleans ask every day.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If the money is out the door in Washington, where is it and how come it hadn't been out farther?

ROESGEN: In fact, federal money helped this school reopen after the hurricane. But the president blames state and local red tape for preventing billions of federal dollars from getting to many people who still need it. The president did not make a commitment to send anymore money to the Gulf Coast. Instead, he says, he wants local officials to use what they've got.

PRES. BUSH: I guess what I'm telling you is, is that, first of all, there's money in the pipe line that I hope will help improve lives. And if it is stuck because of you know unnecessary bureaucracies, our responsibility at the federal, state and local level is to un-stick it.


ROESGEN: The president also talked about his hope for rebuilding New Orleans schools. But he did not mention the tornado that hit the high school in Alabama -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Susan, thank you for that -- Susan Roesgen reporting.

Carol Costello is in New York. She's monitoring stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM from around the world. Carol, what's crossing the wires right now?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Hello to all of you.

Iraq is not out of the dark yet. Citizens hoping for around the clock power will have to wait to 2013. That's according to a top general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but that's actually not such bad news for Iraqis. Some of them only had power for as little as four hours a day under Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani says he is in very good health. He's being treated in Amman, Jordan for fatigue and exhaustion caused by lung and sinus infections. The president speaks with reporters today was weary, yet upbeat. His personal physician tells The Associated Press that Talabani is in very good health and recovering rapidly.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Ney has moved into his new digs. That would be the federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia. He will call it home for the next two and a half years. Ney pleaded guilty in October to charges related to the Abramoff corruption scandal. The six-term Ohio congressman has given up his $165,000 a year salary for a prison job that pays between 12 and 40 cents an hour. The USS John F. Kennedy has returned to its homeport of Boston for the last time. The third oldest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet is about to be decommissioned. It went into service in 1968, five years after its namesake was assassinated. The Kennedy, known affectionately as "Big John", will be in Boston for a few days of ceremonies before heading to Mayport, Florida where it will be mothballed -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I spent some quality time aboard the Kennedy over the years, especially when I was a Pentagon correspondent. It's an excellent aircraft carrier. I had some...

COSTELLO: Kind of sad.

BLITZER: ... good memories from that. Carol, we'll check back with you momentarily. Thank you.

Just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we're on the scene in Enterprise, Alabama, torn apart by a powerful twister. We're going to tell you what's happening there right now, where these storms are heading next. We're also standing by for a news conference, the mayor and the police in Enterprise speaking out about this disaster.

Plus did the U.S. get it wrong when it came to North Korea's nuclear program? We're examining whether a different approach could have steered the north away from building a bomb. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, devastation, buildings blown out, lives shattered by a powerful tornado. Witnesses say it looked like a bomb dropped at a high school in Enterprise, Alabama. We're going to go back there live in just a moment with an update on the deaths and the destruction.

Blizzard conditions are making travel treacherous in the plains in the Midwest right now. At least two deaths are reported, hundreds of miles of interstate highways are closed. Hundreds of airline flights have been cancelled.

Also, no verdict is likely this week in the trial of former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The judge granted the jurors request to go home early tomorrow. This is the seventh day of deliberations on charges that Libby lied and obstructed the CIA leak investigation.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get to more now on our top story, this violent weather system, making over 1,000 miles in part -- huge parts of the United States right now, already causing death and devastation. In southern Alabama, tornadoes tear through, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. Let's go to CNN's Reynolds Wolf. He's watching all of this for us from the Severe Weather Center. This is part of a huge weather system crossing big parts of the United States, Reynolds. Give our viewers a sense of the enormity of these problems.

WOLF: You're right, Wolf.

This is crossing over a great deal of real estate, as you mentioned from the Gulf Coast, clear up to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Well over 1,000 miles. The most troublesome weather we've been dealing with has been mostly in Alabama; Enterprise, Alabama, again, a scene of complete devastation. Those storms that produced all the damage, many of them moving into parts of Georgia.

The same tornado no longer exists, but we have seen rotation, super cells moving into parts of Georgia, now just to the northeast Milledgeville, moving toward Thompson, Martinez. Most of this is to the southeast of Atlanta at this time.

I will tell you, over all, the picture is looking better. We don't see the same violence, the same intensity with these storms as we saw earlier in the day.

Let's zoom out a little bit if we can and show you what's happening back out towards Alabama, as well, as in the Tennessee Valley. You've got this one line moving through Birmingham. In Birmingham things are getting better for you. Solacagas (ph), a strong storm still there. Up in Fort Payne, and Gadsden as well, as parts of I-59. Still, again, it is something easier to handle than what we had in Alabama earlier today.

That's the latest, Wolf. Let's send it back to you, in D.C.

BLITZER: All right, Reynolds, thanks very much.

I want to go back to Enterprise, Alabama, that's where so much devastation has occurred. At least eight people are dead. We believe a lot of them students at this high school, locally. Jamie McIntyre is on the scene for us -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we still don't know the extent of the devastation here. In fact, local authorities, at this hour, are still conducting house-to-house searches in the neighborhood surrounding Enterprise High School, where dozens of homes, perhaps even more were destroyed by this very deadly tornado.

It hit the center of this sprawling brick and steel school building, right in the area where students had been gathered in the center of the school in an auditorium, presumably, because that was believed to be a safer area. The area had plenty of warning that there were tornado, possibility, in the area. In fact, there had been mornings broadcast all day, and sirens that went off in the hours before the tornado hit.

But the irony is -- the bitter irony is -- it appears the very place where they gathered, the students took a direct hit from this powerful tornado. At least eight students, we have been told, have been killed. Perhaps there are even more. Not everyone has been accounted for at this late hour.

Right now, local officials, including the mayor and law enforcement officials, are making an announcement about what they planned to do about the loss of the school. The resumption of the school year; how to handle the students; and what to do about people who are still unaccounted for.

As you can imagine in a small town like this, this kind of tragedy really hits everyone very hard, a very close-knit community -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Jamie. Thank you.

And we're waiting to hear from the mayor of Enterprise, Alabama, the police chief. They're about to speak with reporters, update us on the death and the devastation in their small town. We're going to monitor that, and get you that information as soon as it comes in.

Let's bring in our Internet Reporter Abbi Tatton. She has some striking images now coming in from Alabama.

Abbi, tell our viewers what we're getting.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, to the Army's Fort Rucker, just outside Enterprise, where these images were recovered earlier on, sent into CNN. This from Warrant Officer Eduardo Alomar, recording the siren there, signaling the tornado warning. Recording the darkened skies. He said it looked like night. It wasn't, this was midday, right around the time that the tornado was touching down in Enterprise, just a couple miles away.

And going to Enterprise now at the same time, these pictures recorded by Richard Turk, Jr., standing on his front porch, witnessing the sky get darker and darker. He said it was dark for less than an hour. After taking shelter in his house, he ventured out when skies got lighter again, after the storm had passed through.

He said most every street he turned down was blocked due to downed trees, downed power lines. He said this wasn't even the worst of it. He wasn't even trying to get to the worst affected area. He was probably a mile way where he was. Richard saying now, he's staying off the streets, letting the emergency personnel do their work -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks.

Just to confirm, CNN knows that at least eight people are dead in Enterprise, Alabama, we believe students at this high school. One other person in the state of Alabama, in Wilcox County, also reported dead. A total of nine people dead in Alabama right now. Earlier, one seven-year-old girl died in a similar situation in Missouri, when a tornado ripped through parts of Missouri.

We'll stay on top of the story. We're standing by for that news conference with the mayor and police chief, in Enterprise. We'll update you as we get more information.

Let's turn to another huge story happening right now. Even before the war in Iraq, did bad intelligence lead the Bush administration into a nuclear standoff with North Korea? Did policy blunders make North Korea more eager to build a nuclear bomb? Could the recent testing of a nuclear device by the North Koreans -- could that have been avoided all together? There are new revelations coming in right now, and it's leading to a whole lot of important questions at this hour.

Let's turn to our State Department Correspondent Zain Verjee.


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPT. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's a growing debate on whether there's an intelligence failure on North Korea and whether or not it had a highly enriched uranium program.


VERJEE (voice over): Highly enriched uranium is the key ingredient for building one type of nuclear bomb. Last year, the North Koreans exploded a plutonium-based device. But back in 2002 the intelligence community was sure they wanted to build uranium bomb, too.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FMR. CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: We had high confidence that they were acquiring materials that could be used for a uranium enrichment program.

VERJEE: Intelligence officials at the time said there was evidence North Korea bought centrifuge equipment from Pakistan's nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan. And acquired quantities of aluminum tubes. But the intelligence officials say they lacked specifics, then and now.

MCLAUGHLIN: We did not know the magnitude of the program. Where they were in its progress, or where it was located.

VERJEE: In October 2002, the U.S. confronted North Korea about the existence of this program. U.S. officials say North Korea acknowledged it, at the time, in essence, admitting that they were cheating on an agreement not to develop a nuclear program. Now, there's a new deal with North Korea, the U.S. wants some answers.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE: We need to see what's happened with this equipment. If the tubes were not -- did not go into a highly enriched uranium program. Maybe they went somewhere else.

VERJEE: At a recent hearing, an intelligence official was frank.

JOSEPH DETRANI, U.S. INTELLIGENCE OFFICIALS: We still have confidence that the program is in existence, at mid-confidence level, yes, sir. VERJEE: Mid-level, meaning they're not absolutely sure. Critics say the intelligence community is softening its position on North Korea uranium program and may have exaggerated the information it had. But a senior intelligence official tells CNN that this thinking is wrong and nothing has changed since 2002.


VERJEE: Another U.S. official tells CNN there is high confidence North Korea was pursuing a uranium enrichment program. And according to a recently declassified report, acknowledges there are still questions saying the degree of progress toward producing enriched uranium remains unknown -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you. Zain Verjee reporting.

Still ahead tonight: Have the lives of American troops been, "wasted", wasted in Iraq? Republican White House hopeful, John McCain, backing off from that comment. But a Democratic rival offers some understanding.

And Newt Gingrich has some nasty things to say about Hillary Clinton. Does that mean he's getting serious about launching his own run for the White House? Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Tonight, Republican presidential candidate John McCain is taking back his words. The senator and former prisoner of war now says he regrets the saying the lives of U.S. troops killed in Iraq had been, in his word, "wasted." Some Democrats have been demanding McCain apologize, as Senator Barack Obama recently did after making a similar remark. But in an unlikely twist, one key Democrat is defending Senator McCain right now. Our Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash has more on this dust up -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT, Wolf, for all of the bipartisan outrage and growing opposition to the Iraq war, the one thing Democrats and Republicans both try to do -- bend over backwards to do -- is not denigrate the troops actually fighting the war. And John McCain is just the latest to find that even one wrong word on that front could ignite a political firestorm.


BASH (voice over): When John McCain made his bid for president official on David Letterman he also said this about Iraq:

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We wasted a lot of our most treasure, which is American lives.

BASH: The Democrat National Committee pounced, demanding an apology. Hours later, the Vietnam veteran and former POW made clear he regretted using the word "wasted." to describe troops killed in Iraq.

"I should have used the word sacrificed, as I have in the past, McCain said, "No one appreciates and honors more than I do the selfless patriotism of American servicemen and women in the Iraq war."

And guess who came to McCain's defense? A democrat running for president.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: John McCain and I may have disagreements. The one area that I don't think he can be questioned is his dedication to American troops. He's been there. He's done that.

BASH: Barack Obama may seem an unlikely McCain sympathizer. He's still smarting from having to apologize by saying virtually the same thing as he launched his presidential campaign last month.

"We now have spent $400 billion and have seen 3,000 lives of the bravest, young America's wasted," Obama said.

OBAMA: We have a duty, a sacred duty, to make sure we that are honoring their sacrifice by giving them missions in which they can succeed. I'm positive the intent of which he meant it, it was the same intent that I had when I made my statement.


BASH: McCain made clear he regretted using the word "wasted" to describe lives lost in Iraq, but not the sentiment behind it. He's in a very tough political position, of course, Wolf, in supporting the war, but also in wanting to make sure, over and over, that he makes clear he does not support the prosecution of the administration -- saying they made mistakes in the war.

In fact, check out the quote, the last quote in his statement here, next to me on the wall.

McCain said, quote, "we have paid a grievous price for those mistakes in the lives of the men and women who have died to protect our interests in Iraq."


BLITZER: All right, Dana, thank you.

Meanwhile, another ugly incident in the presidential race. The former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reportedly describing Senator Hillary Clinton as, quote, "a nasty woman." So much for the truce between the Republican and the Democrat who have teamed up on various political projects in the past.

Now, many people are wondering, once again, about Newt Gingrich's presidential plans. Let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching this story for us -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the zingers aimed at Senator Hillary Clinton are a change in tone for former Republican Leader Newt Gingrich. And some political observers say it's very telling.


SNOW (voice over): They have been dubbed the odd couple. Once foes, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and hard-line conservative leader Newt Gingrich even joked in 2005 about their political partnership when they teamed up to work on a health care initiative.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At our first meeting, when we were agreeing so much with each other, I think people thought, the end is near. It's a sign of the end times.

SNOW: As recently as last month, Gingrich, the former House speaker who helped engineer a GOP takeover of Congress had positives things to say about the one-time first lady. And described her as a formidable presidential candidate.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH, (R-GA) FMR. SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: And the word I associate with Hillary Clinton is -- nominee.


GINGRICH: Nominee.

SNOW: Flash forward to Wednesday. "The New York Post" quotes Gingrich during an editorial board meeting as calling Senator Clinton a "nasty woman", with an "endlessly ruthless" campaign machine. Saying, "Nobody will out-mud the Clintons." They're too relentless, they're too well organized, they have too big of a machine and they'll just grind you down."

With the gloves coming off, one Republican strategist, and former Gingrich aide, is reading the political tea leaves.

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Taking a shot at Hillary certainly doesn't hurt you amongst the Republican base. So, I think that this a calculated effort on Newt's part to reinsert him into the discussion about presidential candidates.

SNOW: In response to Gingrich's comments, a Clinton spokesman cited his recent complementary words about the senator and suggested a Gingrich candidacy is in the works.

Saying, "Before Mr. Gingrich started running for president, he repeatedly praised Senator Clinton. We take him at his word then."

Gingrich had said he won't decide whether to seek the Republican nomination for president until Labor Day. Some political observers say, Gingrich's stepped up rhetoric about Senator Clinton is his way of making sure he's not forgotten.


SNOW: And some strategists suggest that Gingrich also could be feeling pressure to get noticed since Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has been gaining in the polls -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's been very dramatic how Giuliani has been gaining at the expense of John McCain. We'll stay on top of this story. Mary, thanks so much.

And unfortunately, the death toll is rising in the state of Alabama. We're getting new numbers, now in from the state -- state wide. We are now told that 18, 18 people are dead as a result of these tornadoes that have ripped through Alabama, earlier in the day; 15 alone, at that high school in Enterprise, Alabama. A lot of them, we're told, are students.

Two other people died at Enterprise, Alabama, and one person now reported dead in Wilcox County in Alabama. So the death toll in the state of Alabama, now up to 18. Earlier, we knew a seven-year-old girl died in a tornado in Missouri, as well.

Much more on the story coming up here on CNN.

Also, coming up: We'll quickly shift gears. We'll talk about what's happening on late-night talk shows. And the political -- the political implications to win over viewers and voters. There are a lot of candidates now appearing with Letterman, Leno and others. We'll tell you what's going on. There's John McCain.

Also, they look like Barbie Dolls -- or like they should be playing with Barbie Dolls. But these teeny boppers are bandits -- or at least they're alleged to be bandits. And they're all caught on camera robbing a bank. We'll tell you what's going on.


BLITZER: Forget news conferences and town hall meetings, political candidates are increasingly turning to late-night TV to drum up support. Among them, Senator John McCain who declared his candidacy for the presidency on David Letterman last night. Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello once again, in New York for this -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, let's face it, if you're on Letterman or Leno, you become an instant celebrity, so much more interesting than a politician.


COSTELLO (voice over): Bill I'm-just-a-regular-guy Clinton jams on Arsenio Hall in '92, a wanna-be president on late-night TV was astounding, but, boy, was it effective. He became a star. Not everybody wants to be like Bill.


JON STEWART, THE DAILY SHOW: Do you have plans to announce it in, let's say, a more professional environment?


COSTELLO: The latest politico to do the deed? John McCain.

MCCAIN: I am announcing that I will be a candidate for president of the United States.



COSTELLO: McCain is no stranger to the entertainment aspects of the politics. He was on the neo-con favorite "24". Heck, he's hosted "Saturday Night Live".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What if President Bush does not run?

MCCAIN: I don't see any reason --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What if he forgets to run?


COSTELLO: Not bad for a 70-year-old guy who some analysts say needs to put the fun in his pro-surge, war hero persona. Hollywood helps.

DAN MCGINN, POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm a politician. I'm fun. I can connect with you. You ought to pay attention to me. It's not a boring thing to talk with me. I mean that's what they're doing.

COSTELLO: But putting the fun in politics can be dangerous. Take Rudy Giuliani, he hosted "Saturday Night Live" too, appearing in a skit in drag. It's an image, he's trying to shed, as he tries to win the Republican conservative base.

Or take Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who wanted to be president.

JAY LENO, THE TONIGHT SHOW: Have you reached the point where -- hey, you're the guy!


COSTELLO: His performance screamed, there is no fun in politics. He dropped out of the race a few days later.

MCGINN: When you choose to go on these kinds of shows you do have to be funny. You do have to be entertaining, but you can't do it in a forced way that people feel that's really not who you are.


COSTELLO: And that is a real challenge. That's why you don't see Candidate Hillary Clinton on Leno or Letterman -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot more difficult than it looks. Governor Schwarzenegger did a very good job on Leno when announced he was running for governor of California. Carol, thank you .

Let's find out what's coming up right at the top of the hour. Paula is standing by. Hi, Paula.


Just about six minutes from now, we will continue with the breaking news coverage of those deadly tornadoes in Alabama. We will be live from the town where one tornado hit a high school. The death toll, now, in that part of the country, 18.

Also, a big city scandal, why neighborhoods are turning into what people call food desert. Some say minorities are being discriminated against because there's not place to buy fresh food. Are grocery stores are not going into the inner city because they're bigoted or because they can't make any money. We're going to bring it all "Out In The Open" tonight. Coming up at the top of the hour, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Paula, thank you for that.

Here in THE SITUATION ROOM, still ahead, two girls walk into a bank and rob it. It's not a joke. Jeanne Moos finds punch lines. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Police in Cobb County, Georgia say they're questioning at least two persons of interest in Tuesday's robbery of a supermarket bank branch. Two robbers wearing sunglasses were caught on video laughing and smiling. Our Jeanne Moos takes a look.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They look like they should be hanging out at the mall, not robbing a bank. Forget Bonnie and Clyde. These two are known as --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Barbie Bandits.

MOOS: Millions of people are looking since Cobb County police, outside Atlanta, distributed these surveillance photos of a blond and brunette, described as turning heads in tight jeans and sunglasses, as they entered a grocery store and robbed a Bank of America counter located inside.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought, what are these children doing? They look like kids. We decided they must have skipped school to rob a bank.

MOOS: Sounds like a movie. Actually, it was a movie.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's it! A bank robbery!


MOOS: In "Sugar & Spice" a cheerleading squad, in masks --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is going to be the best bank robbery ever because --


MOOS: Robs a bank.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Down on the ground!

MOOS: Though the cheerleaders use their moves to block the surveillance camera. The real girls got caught on camera, smiling, no less.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like this is all fun and games.

MOOS: They did not display a weapon. They just handed over a note, demanding cash. Other nicknames range from Hottie Bandits to Bug-Eyed Bandits, after the sunglasses that don't really hide their identities. But the sunglasses do resemble Guccis, according to those who sell them.

(On camera): How much the price on these?


MOOS: I guess if you rob a bank --

(Voice over): You could afford them.

The police say only the girls got a considerable amount of loot. There have been other young female bankers, a 15-year-old in Ohio last year. The one in the hood. She got caught.

So did the then 19-year-old cell phone robber who was convicted of knocking off four Virginia banks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who were you talking with on the cell phone?

MOOS: She was sentenced to 12 years.

Police say they don't know if the Barbie Bandits used a get-away car. They don't know if they're old enough to drive. The cheerleaders in "Sugar & Spice" got caught an put in a line up. An eye-witness says the Barbie Bandits looked like they spent more time dressing for robbery than actually preparing for it. The photos resulted in a flood of tips to police, who sure don't think of the Barbie Bandits as Barbie Dolls.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And now she says --

BARBIE DOLL: Meet me at the mall.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's she going to say next?

MOOS: How about, I want to call my lawyer. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: That's it for us tonight. We'll be back tomorrow. Don't forget former Senator Max Cleland will be among out guests. We'll talk about what's happening at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center; tomorrow, 7 p.m. Eastern.

Let's got to Paula in New York.


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