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THE SITUATION ROOM

Army Secretary Resigns; National Guard Readiness in Question; Alabama Tornado Damage; Iraq Situation

Aired March 2, 2007 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Kitty.
Happening now, a change of command in the United States Army -- it's a high-level piece of fall-out for scandalous conditions at the Walter Reed Medical Center. Tonight former Senator Max Cleland is fuming about the situation at the Army hospital where his war wounds were treated.

Also this hour the National Guard in crisis, overworked and under gun -- there's a startling new report on the problem and a danger as this, that if there's a disaster or terrorist strike at home or abroad the U.S. National Guard might not be ready.

And the new turf battle between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. We're going to tell you what's at stake when the dueling Democrats are face to face this weekend and how Bill Clinton himself figures in.

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

A fresh fallout tonight from those deplorable conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center; that scandal now costing the secretary of the Army his job. It's just one of several new developments in the story that has Defense Secretary Robert Gates under a very, very hot spotlight and he is angry.

Let's go straight to CNN's Kathleen Koch. She's joining us now live from the Pentagon with the latest developments -- Kathleen.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the announcement this afternoon came as quite a surprise, particularly since it was just yesterday that those poor conditions, the poor outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had forced the Army to relieve from duty the hospital's commander, Major General George Weightman. But this afternoon a very angry defense secretary made it clear that he had his reasons for announcing very abrupt resignation of Army Secretary Francis Harvey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed. Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOCH: A senior Pentagon official on condition of anonymity told me that Gates was so angry because Kevin Kiley, the Army surgeon general, had been named as the interim head of Walter Reed and that concerned him because Kiley in recent days had downplayed the seriousness of conditions at Walter Reed, soldiers, families and veterans groups had said when Kiley was in charge of Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, he had been aware of these very same problems and had done nothing to fix them. Now we are told, the Army announced this afternoon that now Major General Eric Schoomaker will be permanently taking over the helm at Walter Reed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kathleen Koch, thank you very much and stand by because there's another important story I know you're working on as well. And I'll talk about all of this later this hour with former Democratic Senator Max Cleland. You're going to want to see this entire interview. He himself was a patient at Walter Reed after losing both legs and an arm in Vietnam. He now frequently visits troops being treated there and simply put he is outraged by what is going on. You're going to want to hear and see what he has to say.

Overworked, overstretched, dangerously thin and seriously ill- equipped, there's a new report out today warning that the war on terror and recent disasters here at home have left the National Guard in an unsustainable situation. One that's likely to deteriorate unless something is done is and done very, very soon.

Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. He's joining us now with details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the man behind this report says nearly 90 percent of the National Guard units stationed right here in the United States are not ready for a hurricane or a terrorist attack. And much of that shortfall is pinned squarely on deployments overseas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SHOTS)

TODD (voice-over): In combat they look, talk and fight like active duty soldiers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

TODD: But many of these front line fighters are supposed to be part-timers, now pushed into a category the Pentagon calls operational reserves.

MAJ. GEN. ARNOLD PUNARO (RET.), COMM. ON NAT'L GUARD & RESERVES: It's a predominantly part-time force but is being used on a day to day basis. And those that are not being used need to be ready to be used on a day to day basis.

TODD: From a commission led by retired Marine General Arnold Punaro, a sobering picture of a National Guard stretched thin at home because it's stretched to capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan. A National Guard official tells CNN more than a third of the total U.S. force now in Iraq and Afghanistan is made up of Guardsmen and Reserves. Many of them have been deployed in combat zones repeatedly.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What previously existed is a National Guard or Reserve unit had up to five years and within that five-year period you generally see one deployment. What has happened is the Army has gone back and said those rules were much too restrictive. We need to have access to those units more frequently and get them back into combat.

TODD: What does that mean for Guard units back home if they're needed after a natural disaster or terrorist attack?

PUNARO: Eighty-eight percent of those units are not ready due to equipment deficiencies.

TODD: Top Pentagon officials says it's just not practical to transport equipment back and forth overseas to make sure Guard units at home are fully stocked. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Army and Guard commanders told him this recently about Guard units in hurricane vulnerable states.

GATES: The Guard in those states have 100 percent of the equipment they need in order to be able to respond in the event of a disaster.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Manpower may be another matter. General Punaro says fewer service members are willing to go into the National Guard or Reserves once they leave active duty concerned that they'll be sent right back into combat. A Guard official told us today four more brigade size Guard units, at least 3,000 soldiers each, may soon be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and one Guard brigade now in Iraq has just been extended for up to four more months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A very worrisome situation, the stakes simply put are enormous. Brian, thank you.

Friday is the Muslim holy day but it brought no relief from the relentless sectarian violence in Iraq. CNN's Jennifer Eccleston is in Baghdad with the latest -- Jennifer.

JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Iraqi civilians and security services and American forces under attack this Friday. A bomb exploded at a popular used car lot in Baghdad Sadr City, killing 10 people and wounding 17 others, according to Iraq's interior ministry.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials also say the bodies of 14 police who went missing Thursday were found Friday in Baquba in north of Baghdad. And also today, the U.S. military announced two American soldiers and an interpreter died and a third U.S. soldier was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded northwest of the capital. Those soldiers were on a routine clearance patrol northwest of Baghdad -- Wolf. BLITZER: Jennifer, thank you very much.

Now to the devastation on a massive scale, a massive scale right here in the United States. At least 20 people are now dead a day after tornadoes hammered the southeast. In Enterprise, Alabama, the high school is reduced to rubble. Witnesses say the lights went out, the roof blew off, the screaming started and the fear set in.

Also hard hit, Americus, Georgia, where a hospital is in shreds. President Bush plans to visit the region tomorrow. Authorities say it could be days before we know the full impact of this storm.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre has more now on the dire situation in Enterprise -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, even though I saw this all yesterday, the day after in the bright Alabama sunshine, it's just still mind boggling the level of devastation by this tornado, which they now tell me the winds were estimated up to 150 miles an hour. I mean, you look around the parking lot and you see these cars overturned, the whole side of the school completely caved in.

People here are still trying to deal with the magnitude of the destruction here, not just at the school but also to the surrounding community. One positive thing, though, we've seen is that unlike the response to Katrina where authorities were completely overwhelmed, there's a very organized campaign going (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sort of clean things up, get the power lines out of the way and get the community back to normal. But at this point they're just starting the grieving process. And they haven't even scheduled many memorials yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre doing some excellent reporting for us from the scene of this devastation. Jack Cafferty is off today.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we're going to have more on the scandal over the miserable conditions at least at parts of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't blame the staff there. I blame the higher-ups that planned this war, a war with no end and with no real strategy to win.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Former Democratic Senator Max Cleland has a lot more to say as someone who's been a patient himself at Walter Reed.

Also, a clash of the titans coming up this weekend -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigning only blocks away from each other. We're going to show you whose votes they're trying to win.

And six people killed in a deadly bus crash, many more injured, some very seriously. We're going to get more from CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's a neurosurgeon at the hospital where some of those are being treated. A bus carrying baseball players from a college in Ohio. What a tragic story this is.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: How did this happen? Officials in Atlanta right now studying what happened after a bus full of college baseball players from Ohio plunged off a highway ramp to an interstate below. This is a simulation of the crash involving members of the Bluffton University baseball team. Many on the bus simply had no clue about what was happening to them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

A.J. RAMTHUN, BLUFFTON UNIV. BASEBALL PLAYER: I was asleep, like most of the guys on the bus. It was roughly 4:00 in the morning. All I remember, as I woke up, I woke up as soon as the bus hit the overpass's wall. And that's when I looked up. And the bus landed on the left side, which is the side I was sitting on. I just looked out and saw the road coming up after me.

And it just -- that's all. I remember our catcher Curt Schroeder (ph) tapping me on the head seeing if I was awake, telling me we needed to get out because there was gas all over the place -- this is something that's not going to leave the guys who were on that bus this morning. This is going to be with us forever.

And we've been living together, practicing together and just -- we've been a family for the past five months. And just -- something like this morning -- really makes you think twice about life and (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I just wanted to say -- I just wanted to give my condolences to the families who suffered losses. I just wish there was something we could do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Six people are dead and a little while ago we learned their names -- David Betts, Scott Harmon, Cody Holp and Tyler Williams. The bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer (ph) and his wife Jean (ph) were also killed. Twenty-nine other people were injured. Six of them right now remain in serious condition.

Our Chad Myers is at the CNN center in Atlanta with more details about this deadly crash -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, behind me what you're seeing right now on the right, I-75 southbound. This is the northbound side. I-75 in Atlanta has an HOV lane, high occupancy vehicle lane. It's the left-most lane like where that car is right here in this file picture.

Now up until this point, all of the exits for 75 southbound have been on the right side. So you have to get over, get over, get over, get over and then exit. This is the very first exit where there is an exit to the left. The bus driver accidentally stayed to the left of that barrier, ran up the exit ramp here.

Rather than being under the bridge and driving down the HOV lane into Atlanta, he rode up the bridge, and at this point saw a small stop sign right there and at that point had nowhere to go. Couldn't turn left, couldn't turn right, and couldn't stop in time before this bus went over the bridge and onto the roadway below -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chad, thanks very much. Apparently that's not the first time that accident occurred right at that location. Our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in addition to working here at CNN is also a neurosurgeon at Atlanta's Grady Hospital.

Sanjay, what happens at an emergency room in a hospital like the one you're at right now when there's a sudden arrival of a large number of patients?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a lot of pieces that come into place all at once, Wolf. First of all, you have obviously the paramedics on the scene who are immediately trying to evaluate the situation, determining how many people are critically injured, how many people need to come straight to the hospital and get CAT scans and be in the operating room. Those are decisions made pretty quickly.

They immediately, as they're putting patients on ambulances, radioing back to the hospital, which is right behind me and then bringing the patients here, communicating a patient's vital signs, their blood pressure, their heart rate, their level of consciousness or the injuries that they can see. And as soon as they get through these doors over there behind me, through those ambulances, they actually decide right away if they're going to put someone in a CAT scan or evaluate their brain, their chest, their abdomen, their pelvis.

My service, the neurosurgery, is called often to help take care of some of those patients as well. It's a fast process, Wolf. You've heard several times probably that paramedics are on the scene within 10 minutes. They talk a lot about a golden hour. The real goal is to get all these parts moving as quickly as possible. It's like this organized chaos to get the patients treated as quickly as possible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How does a hospital like Grady, where you are at right now, Sanjay, also prepare for this kind of contingency? They bring 20 or 30 badly injured people from a bus crash like this. How do they get ready for something like this?

GUPTA: It's not easy, Wolf. A lot of the hospitals, especially level one trauma centers like this, have built-in reserve. And what you mean by that is they have trauma bays ready to go in the emergency room standing by. They have nurses available, doctors. Trauma surgeons are always in the hospital, always on site here. Neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons are within 20 minutes. That's what it qualifies to be a level one trauma center.

They also have an operating room standing by, again, with nurses ready to go, all the equipment open and ready to go. And perhaps sometimes, most importantly, they have between 10 and 20 units of what's known as O-negative blood. It's a blood that you can give anybody. It's a universal donor blood. They have that ready to be able to transfuse people.

Again, a lot of these decisions are getting made as a result of several different parts coming together. Paramedics constantly on the scene radioing the doctors and saying we think this person is losing blood, have the blood ready to go. They're drawing blood as soon as patients get into the hospital, checking their labs and everything and it's a hospital that just keeps moving.

Even as I was standing here, Wolf, an ambulance drove by again. There are other patients, other traumas they continue to take care of in addition to the patients of this bus crash.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta reporting for us -- Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he's also a neurosurgeon. Sanjay, thanks very much for what you do.

GUPTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And still ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, courting conservatives, a very influential group gathered here in Washington right now. What are they looking for in the field of Republican White House hopefuls?

Plus, a change of charges against the NASA astronaut who confronted a woman she believed to be a romantic rival. We'll update you on this case.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is IN New York. She's monitoring all the feeds coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, all the wires. What's the latest, Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Let's talk about snow, Wolf. Because there's a lot of it. A storm system that dumped as much as two feet of snow lingering over the Northern Plains and upper Midwest. Snow is still falling in some areas and winds are gusting up to 55 miles per hour. There are drifts of up to eight feet. Hundreds of flights have been canceled. Hundreds of miles of interstates closed. The system is expected to move northeast into Canada this weekend. Good riddance.

No attempted murder charge for astronaut Lisa Nowak, but Florida prosecutors did charge her today with trying to kidnap a romantic rival with intent to harm, burglary with a weapon and battery. Nowak's lawyer says she's denying all of these charges. They come about a month after Nowak was arrested and you know the story. Police say she drove 900 miles to confront a woman whom she saw as a rival for another astronaut's attention. In downtown Columbus, Ohio, hamburger enthusiasts are saying good-bye to a fast-food landmark. The very first Wendy's restaurant will close its doors for good tonight. It was opened back in 1969. The company blames the closure on lagging sales in a part of town that is largely deserted after dark.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: You'd think they might have wanted to keep it as a museum or something, as some sort of shrine to Wendy's.

COSTELLO: Not in a great part of town.

BLITZER: OK. She knows Ohio.

COSTELLO: I do.

BLITZER: She's good. Thank you, Carol.

Just ahead, a veteran and former senator outraged, simply outraged over the conditions at the U.S. Army's top hospital.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's the mother ship of Army medicine in the world and to see what's going on there breaks my heart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I'm going to talk about the scandal over at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center with former Senator Max Cleland. He's also a former patient there.

And Hillary Clinton pulling out a powerful campaign weapon for the first time this weekend as she faces off with her top Democratic rival. We'll tell you what it is.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, a new report cautions the National Guard here at home may be near a breaking point. A commission says that's because the Guard is stretched to capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan. One Guard official tells CNN more than 30 percent of the total U.S. force in the wars is made of Guardsmen and Reserves.

What does reasonable doubt really mean? That's what the jury in the CIA leak trial wants to know. Today they passed a judge a note asking him to clarify that phrase. The jury has now spent more than a week deliberating the fate of Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

And the Dow ends the week with a downer, posted its worst weekly performance in four years. Today the Dow fell another 120 points in just over 12,114.

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

Let's get some more now on our top story. The scandal over those poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in the nation's capital. The Defense Secretary Robert Gates firing the Army secretary, Dr. Francis Harvey. At the same time, the president will order a bipartisan panel to examine military medical care. He'll make the announcement formally tomorrow in his weekly radio address. I'll talk about all of this in just a moment with the former Democratic Senator Max Cleland. He himself is still a patient over at the Walter Reed Hospital. He's also a frequent visitor there.

First, though, details of a possible smoking gun in the scandal. CNN congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel has that -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Wolf, that warning coming from the commanding officer at Walter Reed before he was forced to resign yesterday. Now House Democrats have issued a subpoena to Major General George Weightman to try to force him to testify when they hold a hearing next week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): Just one day after the commanding general at Walter Reed was removed from his post, House Democrats released a possible smoking gun, this internal memo from Major General George Weightman's deputy to the Army's medical command. Dated September 2006, the memo describes how the Army's recent decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed had sparked an exodus of quote, "highly skilled and experienced personnel", and as a result, Weightman's deputy warned that Walter Reed's base operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure.

Democrats investigating the situation say the Army awarded the five-year, $120-million contract in January 2006. At that time, they claim, Walter Reed had over 300 federal employees in support services. By February 2007, a year later, that number had dropped to under 60. Democrats say the company that took over, IAP Worldwide Services, was among the companies that had problems delivering ice during FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The CEO of IAP, Al Neffgen, is a former senior Halliburton official. In a letter to General Weightman, Congressman Henry Waxman said it would be "reprehensible if the deplorable conditions (at Walter Reed) were caused or aggravated by ideological commitment to privatize government services."

Even before news of this memo broke, Democrats were already calling for more heads to roll.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): We have the secretary of the VA come up here and say all is doing well, we have all these programs. Baloney. Baloney. The programs they have he would never accept for himself, or his family. We ought to be looking at a whole lot of people to be fired in this thing. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: Since Senator Leahy's remarks this afternoon, another head did roll, the Army Secretary Francis Harvey abruptly resigned. And that's before congressional hearings investigating the Walter Reed scandal get under way next week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, thanks for that.

Former Democratic Senator Max Cleland knows the Walter Reed Army Medical Center very, very well. Over these many years he's received extensive treatment for the injuries he suffered during the war in Vietnam. He's also been a frequent visitor to U.S. troops there recovering from injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's also the former administrator of Veterans Affairs.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Max Cleland joining us now from CNN Center in Atlanta.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in. Given your personal history, were you surprised by what has happened over these past few weeks? What we're learning now about the Walter Reed Army Medical Center?

MAX CLELAND (D), FMR. U.S. SENATOR, VA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, about a year ago, in my visits to Walter Reed I came across an employee who said we are drowning in war. I think in the words of W.C. Fields, the great comedian, we have to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.

We have to face the situation that there were two massive strategic errors that produced this situation. First, the commander in chief, the president, stood up three weeks into this war and said "mission accomplished. Major combat over. Bring them on".

That was an indication that neither he nor his team really were planning for casualties, especially the size of casualties that we have now.

Secondly, this administration signed off on closing Walter Reed. That meant -- that meant -- that they were going to be at the bottom of the list when it came to maintenance and repair. Now to see them privatizing key services.

This has meant an attrition at Walter Reed for being able to do the job. I don't blame the staff there. I blame the higher-ups that planned this war, a war with no end, and with no real strategy to win. And they planned the whirlwind and that's what we're seeing right now. We're reaping the whirlwind from the eras of the last three or four years.

BLITZER: You're referring to the base closure recommendation that Walter Reed be shut down. Clearly they did not do that. But what you're saying is because it was on that hit list, if you will, they didn't get the job, they didn't do the repair work, they didn't upgrade it, and do the work they should have been doing.

CLELAND: Right. Exactly. And I agree with Congressman Murtha. Who says we need to take Walter Reed off that base closure list. It's not just another base. It's the mother ship of Army medicine in the world. And to see what's going on there breaks my heart.

I came through there as a patient in '68. I know a lot of the problems there. But now to have a 1,000 young men and women just out there in a holding company, not knowing which way they're going, are they going back to Iraq, are they going to get a disability, or what's going to happen to them? And to have those conditions that have been revealed. It's really frightening.

And the American people deserve better. The soldiers, servicemen and women deserve better. But you know, firing a two-star general, and firing maybe a three-star general, maybe the head of the Army. That's not going to get to it. And creating three commissions, in three weeks, that's not going to get to the heart of it.

The president of the United States has got to stand up and take responsibility for the troops, and the Congress has got to do the same, and make sure they get the money to fix Walter Reed and the VA at the same time.

BLITZER: I want you to listen, senator, to what the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates says about all of this. Listen to this.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think that certainly everybody in the Army, and I believe everybody in the Department of Defense at this point, understands what I mean about accountability. And that I don't have very much patience with people who don't step up to the plate in terms of addressing problems that are under their responsibility.

BLITZER: He's only been on the job since he replaced Rumsfeld a few months ago. Is he doing the right thing? Do you have confidence in the Defense secretary?

CLELAND: Well, I got confidence that he's trying to shake things up. But the real authority here lies with the president of the United States. And the real authority for funding lies with the Congress. Whether it's funding or un-funding the war or funding or un-funding Walter Reed and the Veteran's Administration hospital system.

Keep in mind, we're now going into the fourth year of this war which has produced more than 1 million veterans. And 30,000 wounded. This could not have been a surprise. And we've got to address this now. We can't let this linger. Because it's really tearing up the morale of our troops, especially the young men and women laying in the beds at Walter Reed.

BLITZER: I heard Jim Nicholson, the secretary of Veteran's Affairs, say of those million plus who have actually served over the past five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe as many as 200,000 have asked for at least some treatment at the various veterans hospitals, at the military hospitals across the country. That is a huge percentage, who have come back at least requiring some medical treatment.

CLELAND: And there are 500,000 cases requesting help for PTSD in the Veteran's Administration that have not yet been adjudicated. So what we're seeing at Walter Reed, is a microcosm of the problems when you don't plan for casualties in a war. When you let it just go on and on.

Can you believe now this administration, this president wants a surge, in more troops. Unbelievable. That means more problems at Walter Reed, more problems in the Veteran's Administration.

The president and the Congress have to stand up, not pawn this off on two or three commissions, not pawn it off on a two star, not pawn it off on a three star, and say I'm the responsible officer in this government. I will take responsibility for this mess, and let's get it fixed.

BLITZER: Have they consulted with you to be a member of one of these commissions? And would you, if they asked?

CLELAND: Well, General Weightman called me personally, the other day. Unfortunately, it was the day that he was fired. And said, what would you do? I gave him four names. Not a bunch of admirals and generals and former secretaries of the Army. But of people who know the ground truth of what's going on at Walter Reed, the ground truth of what's going on in the VA. And the four people I gave to General Weightman, I think will help out tremendously. And I'll help out as a volunteer any time.

BLITZER: And if they ask you, you would be ready to come in and participate?

CLELAND: I will help out any time. I go over to Walter Reed. I've been going over there for two years now. And I just -- I love those troops. They've got so much bravery and courage about them. And they deserve better from the bureaucracy -- not just in the Army, but in this whole federal government. The Department of Defense and the total focus of this president and this Congress on getting their needs met. If you're going to support the troops, now is a time to do it.

BLITZER: Is this an isolated problem at Walter Reed, or are there similar physical problems at other military medical facilities and bureaucratic nightmares that are a problem across the country?

CLELAND: Yeah. The whole thing of outpatient status, or boarding in or boarding out of the Army is Army wide. It's DOD wide, quite frankly. Not just covers Walter Reed, but Bethesda and other facilities. So you have a bureaucratic nightmare here, where you're creating casualties. Three plane loads a week come in, at night, and send patients mostly to Walter Reed and certainly some to Bethesda.

Now somebody has to deal with those. Those wonderful doctors at Walter Reed, and nurses, stay up all night long caring for these patients. After a while they have to move those patients out of those beds to make room for more casualties coming in from Iraq and Afghanistan. And they don't know how long this is going to be. So they put him in a holding status. Well, that's a bureaucratic nightmare, as we have now discovered. It's Army wide and it's system wide. So we've got a real problem here. And we need the president to pull the rope, not just push it, not pawn it off on a commission. And we need the Congress to stand up and give Walter Reed and the VA the full funding that it needs to get this thing taken care of.

BLITZER: Senator Max Cleland, thanks very much for coming in on this important issue.

CLELAND: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead tonight, Hillary Clinton set to get some powerful presidential help -- from her husband. It's a fascinating new twist to her primary battle against Barack Obama. We'll update you.

And a full-court press for conservative voters. Republican White House hopefuls making their appeals. But are any of them getting in right? And why is John McCain not attending this conservative conference here in Washington? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now the two biggest guns in the Democratic presidential race will be on the same turf this weekend. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will appear at the site of an historic civil rights march in Alabama. The former President Bill Clinton will also be attending. And that's going to make the Clinton- Obama face-off even more interesting. Let's turn to our Mary Snow; she's watching all this. She has a preview -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's an event that is steeped in symbolism. The fact that Bill Clinton just signed on yesterday to attend has turned up the interest level even further.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice over): Enter Bill Clinton into what is promising to be a political showdown between his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton, and her rival, Senator Barack Obama.

Both candidates are scheduled to be within shouting distance of each other in Selma, Alabama this Sunday. They'll be on hand to mark the 42nd anniversary of the bloody civil rights march led the way to ending segregation. Former President Clinton, no stranger to Selma, will be inducted into the Voting Rights hall of Fame. The focus will likely be on presidential politics.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: There's no white politician in America who is more popular in the African-American community than Bill Clinton. So she has a very strong card to play.

SNOW: Some political observers suggest Senator Clinton may be needing to use that card. A recent polls showed that among black Democrats, Obama now leads. Clinton had been ahead in January. Some black Democrats say both are good picks.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D-GA): It's a very difficult position to be in, but it's a good position to be in. We have choices.

SNOW: But it's not just a choice between Obama and Clinton, some say, it's also a choice between the Clintons.

SIMMONS: There's a great deal of loyalty among African-Americans for Bill Clinton. The question is whether or not that loyalty transfers to Hillary Clinton. That's a test she's going to have to meet.

SNOW: Part of that test, say some political observers, will be how she appears alongside her husband. Selma marks the couple's first major public appearance together since Senator Clinton announced in January she's seeking the Democratic nomination.

STUART ROTHENBERG, THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: There is, of course, something of a risk that when the Clintons appear next to one another, sometimes Bill can outshine her.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: As for the Obama camp, on Bill Clinton's decision to visit Selma, a spokeswoman says the more people who commemorate this important event the better it is for all Americans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Mary, for that.

Let's check out the other side of the aisle. Tonight, an influential conservative group is starting to make judgments about the Republican presidential field. The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is meeting right now here in Washington. Most of the Republican White House hopefuls are appealing for the group's support, but many on the Republican right aren't necessarily all that impressed. Let's turn to Senior Political Correspond Candy Crowley -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Conservative Political Action Conference is holding a two-day meeting in Washington. Guess who came to call? Just about everybody.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: It was SRO in an outsized Washington ballroom as Republican conservatives crowded in to hear and applaud Rudy Giuliani. The presidential candidate with whom they arguably have the least in common.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We don't all agree on everything. I don't agree with myself on everything. And the point of a presidential election is to figure out who do you believe the most.

CROWLEY: That's going to be harder than it sounds. Conservatives are not knocked out about any of the three top polling Republican candidates. They disagree with Giuliani on social issues, worry about John McCain's maverick impulses, and doubt the sincerity of Mitt Romney's new positions on several issues. The trio is working hard to close the gap, all of which gives the also-runnings materials to work with.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R) FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Today we hear a lot about those who have had what's often called the road to Damascus experiences on every issue from guns, and same-sex marriage, to the sanctity of life and taxes.

REP. TOM TANCREDO (R-CO): It's just that conversions are supposed to be made on the road to Damascus, not the road to Des Moines.

CROWLEY: And that's the thing about this gathering, for so early in the game they are mighty quick to jump on each other.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Judges add things not in the Constitution, and they take away things that are in the Constitution. And in that regard, they let the campaign finance lobby take away First Amendment rights. If I'm elected president, I will fight to repeal McCain-Feingold.

CROWLEY: Ouch! John McCain was not present to pull that stinger out. He skipped the conservative meeting altogether.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: And his absence did not make the heart grow fonder. But camp McCain does not see this particular meeting as a necessary stop on the road to the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's their formal explanation for the senator skipping the meeting?

CROWLEY: The senator had a scheduling conflict. He was out in the West, and he had a couple of days worth of business to take care of and couldn't make it. That's the explanation.

BLITZER: All right, that's the explanation. All right, thank you, Candy for that.

Up ahead, move over Donald Trump. The investment guru Warren Buffet is looking for an apprentice. Might you be interested in running -- get this -- a $132 billion company? Maybe?

And new threats from China. Are they? There are new questions about a military build up. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are ominous new questions tonight about the threat from China and a new military buildup there. Let's turn to our Senior National Correspondent John Roberts. He's watching this story -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL, CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, let's just put this all in perspective, Wolf.

Remember what happened on Tuesday, the Shanghai stock market lost 9 percent of its value. Five years ago, nobody would have cared. Now because our economy is so intertwined with China, the Shanghai index loses 9 percent, the American stock market goes down by 500 points and it rattles the entire community.

We've learned from the Office of Naval Intelligence today that China is testing one of five new ballistic missile submarines that can supposedly carry 12 intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. They're coming up with some new fast-attack submarines, as well. Part of this big military build up, because China's economy is growing so fast they have a lot of money to put into this.

George Bush, as you remember, back in the 2000 campaign said, I look at China as a strategic competitor. But is it becoming now, a strategic threat, and what might its military be capable of? That's a question we put to David Shambaugh, who is the director of the China Policy Center at George Washington University, in "This Week At War". Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID SHAMBAUGH, DIR., CHINA POLICY CTR., GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV.: The Chinese military is no where near American capabilities, or NATO capabilities, or for that matter, Japan's capabilities. They have only one nuclear submarine at the moment. They have no aircraft carriers, they have no power projection. They have no bases abroad.

ROBERTS: Could you put the caveat -- yet, behind all that?

SHAMBAUGH: In 20 years the Chinese military will probably be able to patrol the Pacific Ocean, maybe down through the Indian Ocean, perhaps to the Persian Gulf, but not today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Not today, but in the years to come, quite possibly. And Mike McConnell (ph), the new director of national intelligence is warning that he believes that China is seeking parody with the United States at least in the nuclear capability. And obviously with the military buildup, they're trying to get, if not parity with the United States certainly closer to where they are now.

BLITZER: They may not be a military super power yet, but they certainly are an economic super power. And that was underscored this week.

ROBERTS: Because they own so much debt of our and because the trade deficit with them is so big now, if Shanghai sneezes, America gets the flu. That's one of the topics we're going to be covering on "This Week At War."

BLITZER: ALL right, good. John Roberts anchors "This Week At War." This important note to our viewers, it airs every Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, right after "Late Edition." "This Week At War" with John Roberts. You're going to want to catch it Saturday or Sunday.

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

Hi, Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR, PAULA ZAHN NOW: Hi, Wolf.

Today's horrific bus crash in Atlanta has brought a host of safety concerns right out in the open. In a special hour tonight, we'll have the very latest on the investigation. We'll also give you a unique way to look at highway dangers as seen from a bus driver's seat. And we'll look at ways to make bus travel safer.

Also "Out in the Open" why the federal government resists calls for seat belts on school buses. That's all on a special edition of "Paula Zahn Now", coming up just about seven minutes from now, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll be watching Paula. Thank you.

And up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, wanted, an apprentice willing to take over a multi-million dollar empire. We're going to have details of a very unusual recruitment campaign by one of the world's richest men. Carol Costello has the story. You'll want to see it. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A billionaire looking for an apprentice, but it's not Donald Trump and his hit reality TV show. It's the man known as the oracle of Omaha, the investment guru Warren Buffet, looking for someone to take over his financial empire. Let's go back to Carol in New York -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, at 76 years old he feels fine. He owes it to Cherry Cokes and hamburgers. Still, he is preparing for his inevitable last transaction in a way only he could.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): How does Warren Buffet replace Warren Buffet? A business whiz who runs Berkshire Hathaway. One share in his holding company, just one share, will cost you $107,000. Does he go the flashy way, a la Donald Trump?

DONALD TRUMP: You're hired.

COSTELLO: No Buffet does the apprentice Buffet style. Just as public, but more Nebraska humble than New York flashy. He, in essence, put a want ad in his annual report to shareholders seeking, a genetically programmed independent thinker, who could run a $132- billion company; one who is emotionally stable, and can avoid risks.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: That's totally not normal, what he's doing. I mean, it's totally different -- no one puts a help wanted sign in their annual report. COSTELLO: Usually companies hire big-time Madison Avenue executive search firms, but not Buffet.

SERWER: He's really literally saying, hey, come send me an e- mail, send me a letter.

COSTELLO: Unlike Donald Trump, Buffet isn't looking for an e- mail from his own genetic creations.

WARREN BUFFET, CEO, BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY: I do not believe in inheriting your position in society based on what womb you come from.

COSTELLO: No, not one of Buffet's three kids will take their father's place. Remember last year, when he gave away most of his $44- billion fortune to the Gates Foundation? His kids didn't get a nickel to enhance their personal wealth.

Buffet believes his money and his company should benefit others. So, perhaps it's fitting that whoever he chooses to replace him at Berkshire, will be hard to keep, even Buffet admits he or she could leave and make much more money elsewhere.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Thrifty to the end. Now this is why Buffet wants somebody good to take over. If you invested $100 in his company in Berkshire Hathaway in 1965, when Buffet bought the company, you would now be worth nearly $650,000. It's a great company, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a fabulous company. Let's see if that apprentice emerges.

Carol, have a great weekend.

COSTELLO: You too. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'll be back on Sunday for "Late Edition." Among our guests, an exclusive Sunday interview with the United States Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. He's getting ready to wrap up his tenure there. He's going to be the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad joins me 11:00 a.m. Eastern on "Late Edition."

Let's go to Paula, in the meantime, in New York.

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