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THE SITUATION ROOM

Pentagon Confirms Troop Increase; Is Kremlin Behind Murder of Former KGB Spy?

Aired March 7, 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, Lou.
Happening right now, an even bigger buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq, the Pentagon chief now confirming and defending a higher troop level than previously announced as the war zone explodes with new violence.

Also this hour, Russian spies and mysterious deaths. Is the Kremlin behind a trial of bodies leading right up here in the United States?

And dozens of passengers walking away from a fiery plane crash, the startling images of wreckage and survival, tonight, tips on how you might get out of an air disaster alive.

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

All that coming up, but, first, that big U.S. troop increase in Iraq apparently wasn't big enough. Now the Pentagon has decided to reinforce the reinforcements. Defense Secretary Robert Gates today confirming that the 21,500 troops being deployed will be joined by almost 5,000 more.

Let's turn to our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. He's got the latest details -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Pentagon said all along that the 21,500 would be joined by some support troops. It turns out now we find out that that number will be about 2,400 support troops. Those are to help the 21,000, but in addition, General Petraeus who is in charge there now says he needs about 2,200 military police because he's anticipating this Baghdad security plan is going to round up a lot of people.

He's going to have some significant detainee operations. If you add all those numbers together now, it puts the surge at more like just over 26,000 troops instead of 21,5, but still, Wolf, even with these additional troops because of the rotations the overall number of troops in Iraq, U.S. troops will be just over 150,000 at the height of the surge later as we get closer to summer.

BLITZER: Yes and one of the Pentagon -- one of the top generals in Iraq told me today it could go up to as many as let's say 27,000 additional troops, but we'll watch that together with you. Any idea how long these troops are expected to have to remain in Iraq. MCINTYRE: Well you know the Pentagon insists it doesn't know. They're only budgeting for the end of this fiscal year, which is the end of September, but privately they say it's likely they're going to have to stay for some months beyond that, probably well into 2008 and so when they're figuring out the budget for next year, they're already looking at that as a planning scenario.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie. Thanks very much. More troops on the way to Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraq's facing a furious new wave of violence. At least 30 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a very crowded cafe in the Diyala province that's north of Baghdad. The U.S. military says the attack in this mostly Shiite area bears all the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq. Shiites are coming under a barrage of bombings and bullets, also facing ambush after ambush just ahead of a religious holiday this weekend.

CNN's Michael Ware is in Baghdad. Michael?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, vicious attacks against tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia pilgrims slowly making their way on foot to the southern holy city of Karbala continue to add to a gruesome toll of dead and wounded in this country over the past three days. So far, with the holy festival to take place on Saturday as these pilgrims walk south, more than 160,000 civilians and police have been killed in a wave of suicide bombings and shootings, attacking these devotees (ph).

Since the pilgrims first set out earlier this week there's been at least three suicide attacks and car bombings. The worst of which came on Tuesday in the southern city of Hilla where at least 114 pilgrims were killed. However, with three days yet to go before the religious festival peaks on Saturday, American and Iraqi government officials expect the toll of dead and wounded to rise. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Michael. Thank you. Tonight, new signs that a leading Republican critic of the president's Iraq policy may -- repeat may be on the brink of diving right into the race for the White House. That would be Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He's a Vietnam War hero, who's known for butting heads with members of his own party.

Let's turn to our congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's been watching this story; she has got more for us right now -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one of the best ways to create attention and generate attention in politics is to create suspense. And that's exactly what Senator Chuck Hagel did a little more than an hour ago when he released a teaser of a press release. He said that at his alma mater, University of Nebraska, on Monday morning he's going to announce his future plans.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Whenever he's asked and he's asked a lot, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel is cagey about whether he'll run for president, like here on CNN earlier this year.

BLITZER: Are you getting closer to a final decision whether or not to run for president.

HAGEL: I'll let you know, wolf. I've got to make a decision soon and I will make that decision.

BASH: But this strategic buzz generating press release with a huge font you can't miss that he'll make an announcement Monday in his home state about his future plans is a strong signal that Hagel is jumping into the 2008 GOP field, especially since Hagel has already accepted an invitation to appear at a union forum next year for Republican presidential candidates along with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Whether candidate Hagel can raise the money or find support in an already-crowded Republican race for president is an open question.

HAGEL: And we better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.

BASH: But one thing that would distinguish the 60-year-old Vietnam veteran from leading GOP contenders is his unyielding opposition to President Bush's war plan.

HAGEL: No American foreign policy can be sustained without the support of the American people. He doesn't have the support of allies obviously on this. All of our allies with the so-called coalition of the willing are pulling their troops out of Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now there are other possibilities for what this cryptic announcement could be. Senator Hagel is up for reelection next year. He could, could be announcing he's seeking another term in the Senate or Wolf, he could be saying he's not running at all. We don't know yet exactly what it is. As we reported, all indications are -- is an announcement about running for president. We'll find out Monday morning if not before that.

BLITZER: All right. We're already though getting some reaction from a potential rival, a good friend of his, John McCain. What are we hearing from him?

BASH: Our congressional producer, Ted Barack (ph), just caught up with him in the hallway, Senator McCain, and he said that he thinks Senator Hagel is an American hero, but he also acknowledged that Senator Hagel has a very different view from Senator McCain and all the other Republicans when it comes to the war.

Here's what he said. He said quote, "It will certainly add another element because everybody else is sort of, at least to some degree or another, says they support Iraq -- some more quietly than others."

And according to Ted, Senator McCain was sort of chuckling when he said that, so this could be a very interesting wrinkle when it comes to the Republican field.

BLITZER: All right, it's going to be a fascinating race if he gets in. It's already fascinating, at least for us political junkies. Thanks very much, Dana, for that. Dana Bash, by the way, is part of the best political team on television.

And so is Jack Cafferty. He's joining us from New York. It's going to be fascinating, Jack. You've got a potential Republican candidate who's a fierce critic, arguably one of the toughest critics of the president's Iraq war strategy.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, I like Hagel a lot. I think he would be an interesting voice to add to the mix and further the national debate on this thing that's going nowhere over there.

On another issue, pork spending by Congress is way down. According to a watchdog group's annual pig book, Citizens Against Government Waste found more than 2,600 earmarks in the defense and homeland security spending bills that were passed by the Republican Congress last year. Now these projects totaled $13.2 billion.

That's not chump change, but it's down, way down from a record $29 billion the year before. The reasons for the sharp decline are several. There's voter outrage. There's a one-year ban imposed by the new Democratic controlled Congress on all earmarks, but the biggest reason for the decline is probably that only two of the 11 proposed spending bills were actually passed last year.

Don't kid yourself, though, lawmakers are still hard at work trying to get those federal funds for their pet projects. Some of those projects include $4 million to extend Alaska railroad's northern line. That's another pet project of Senator Ted Stevens. Maybe they can hook it up to the bridge to nowhere, 1.35 million to study obesity in the military, $1 million for a telescope to help in the search for extraterrestrial aliens, and 1.65 million to a Seattle firm working on how to improve the shelf life of vegetables.

Here's the question. Will it ever, ever be possible in this country to wean Congress completely off pork? E-mail us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. Looking at Congress, the shelf life of some of the vegetables in Washington is pretty good.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Few of those too. All right, Jack, thank you.

Coming up, statewide drive to impeach, yes, impeach President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Where are the supporters for this drive coming from and will their campaign get any traction nationwide?

Taking stock of Senator Barack Obama's investments, did the Democratic presidential candidate cash in on his own relationship with some big political donors?

And your best hope for escaping your worst airline nightmare, advice that could save your life in a fiery crash like this one.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the state of Vermont, calls for impeaching President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Towns around the state approved non-binding resolutions on the subject during the state's annual town meetings.

Let's turn to CNN's Carol Costello. She's watching all of this for us -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Wolf, you might say they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. And even if this effort doesn't pay off, they say it sure feels good.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): They turned out in droves in tiny Jericho, Vermont despite the cold and the long wait, for the town's folks, it was worth it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whereas George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have one, deliberately mislead the nation about the threat from Iraq.

COSTELLO: Voters love the impeach Bush resolution, passing it overwhelmingly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very dissatisfied with President Bush.

COSTELLO: The resolution is spreading like wildfire. People at more than 30 other town meetings across Vermont also voted to impeach Bush and Cheney.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what democracy is...

COSTELLO: Now keep in mind this is liberal Vermont, land of Howard Dean and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very, very much.

COSTELLO: It voted for John Kerry in 2004. And -- oh, yes -- one of the organizers behind the impeachment push is none other than antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. Some Vermonters say so what.

ELLEN MCCAY, VOTED TO IMPEACH PRES. BUSH: This isn't a liberal issue, this is an American issue.

COSTELLO: And the impeached Bush movement is moving so fast in the state, Vermont Congressman Peter Welch pledges to carry its sense of urgency to Washington, saying I will work in Congress to aggressively hold the president accountable through strict oversight and investigations that follow the facts.

Translation -- he'll do what he can because the speaker of the House has already squelched any congressional conversation about impeachment.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: I have said and I say again that impeachment is off the table.

COSTELLO: Some analysts say it's not so much that the Democrats wouldn't consider impeachment, but they don't want to give the president any ammunition.

STUART ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: I think the Democrats know they have the upper hand now and they want to keep pushing that without causing themselves problems.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Of course, no local resolution carries weight in Washington, D.C., but organizers hope at the very least much of the nation will jump onboard -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that.

Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign is on the defensive tonight, especially because of the senator's investments. At issue, a reported link between Senator Obama's stock trades and his political donors. It's a potentially embarrassing flap for a Democrat who says ethics reform is a top priority.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She has more on this story -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the investments in question are stock in two obscure companies. Senator Obama owned them for about eight months in 2005. His campaign wasted no time in addressing the scrutiny.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Senator Barack Obama and his staff moved swiftly to ensure his financial assets don't turn into a political liability. The Democratic presidential hopeful came forward after an estimated $50,000 in stock purchases became front page news on "The New York Times".

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: At no point, did I know what stocks were held. And at no point did I direct how those stocks were invested.

SNOW: But donors to Obama turned out to be backers of the companies he invested in, companies that stand to do business with the federal government. It started in 2005. Obama had a $1.9-million advance for his books and invested a portion of that money through a recommended broker.

At the time, he set up a blind trust. Simply put, he'd have no knowledge of what his broker was investing to avoid conflicts of interest. Turns out his broker had invested in a satellite communications business and a biotech firm, which is developing an Avian flu drug. Avian flu is an area where Senator Obama took the lead in 2005.

Obama says when he received the stockholder mailing he realized the trust wasn't so blind and sold the stocks at a net loss of about $13,000. So is there a conflict? Listen to Senator Obama.

OBAMA: What I wanted to make sure was that I didn't want to invest in companies that would potentially create conflicts with my work here or not abide by some public statements that I have said in terms of how things work.

SNOW: Some of his public statements have been centered on ethics reform. It's been a hallmark of his short Senate career and his presidential campaign.

OBAMA: I was proud to help lead the fight in Congress that led to the most sweeping ethics reforms since Watergate.

SNOW: One political watchdog group took notice of the speed in which the Obama camp came forward.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: The fact that he did take a loss ultimately overall helps him, it I think helps undercut the claim that there was some funny business going on here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now there are questions about why Senator Obama didn't have a conventional blind trust. Obama's office released legal documents tonight to answer those questions. It says the trust was designed to hold Obama to a higher degree of accountability to the management of his assets -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thank you, Mary for that -- Mary Snow reporting.

And ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, CNN's Nic Robertson takes us inside a NATO offensive against the Taliban under way in Afghanistan. He's with British troops engaged in some bitter fighting. You're going to want to see this.

Plus -- how did they do it? More than 100 passengers emerged from a fiery plane crash alive, their remarkable story. That's ahead as well. We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Carol for a quick look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Hi, Wolf. Hello to all of you.

A Miami jury finding John Couey guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in 2005, as well as kidnapping and sexual assault. Juries will decide next week whether Couey should get life in prison or the death penalty. Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, will be a guest on "LARRY KING" at 9:00 Eastern tonight, and at 10:00 p.m. Eastern "ANDERSON COOPER 360" has a special report on child predators, "Monsters Next Door".

NASA is firing former astronaut Lisa Nowak. She's the woman who had an affair with a fellow astronaut and is now charged with attempted kidnapping of a romantic rival. NASA says the move is no reflection of her guilt or innocence. Nowak has pleaded not guilty. She's scheduled to be arraigned this month.

And something's missing on some new dollar coins. That would be the phrase "In God we Trust." U.S. Mint officials say an unknown number of the coins were not properly struck. They know -- they don't know exactly what happened there, but collectors are snatching them up. Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM critics of the Russian government falling ill, even dying, under some very mysterious circumstances. Now one of them is hospitalized right here in the United States.

Plus, one winner revealed, the other still unknown, CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look at mega millions mania.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As we reported at the top of this broadcast, Pentagon adding more U.S. troops to the troop increase in Iraq, perhaps another 5,000 above and beyond the 21,500 already being deployed, a big part of the mission, the crackdown in the capital. U.S. Army Major General William Caldwell is the chief spokesman for the multinational forces in Iraq.

Let's talk about the security sweep underway now in Baghdad. I know you and Iraqi forces have gone into Sadr City. Give us a sense how this operation still in its very early stages is working out.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Wolf, you've got it right. It's the early stages. We still don't have all of the forces yet closed on the city. We'll -- about another week should have the last Iraqi security forces in, by the end of May, the last of the U.S. forces, which will then allow us to really move forward in this plan.

But we're in all 10 districts in the city. We're operating in all 10 of them right now and Sadr City where there's been a lot more coverage, there's cooperation ongoing with the mayor. They're establishing their joint security station. We've got just over 20 of them built in the city now. We've got the American forces with the coalition partners and also the Iraqi security forces down in the city with the people providing protection for the Iraqi people.

BLITZER: Are the bad guys, some of these radical anti-American Shiite militias, are they simply melting away? Are they laying low, hoping to make a comeback, or have they actually had a change of heart?

CALDWELL: Wolf, our assessment is that it's a combination of both. That in fact there were some that were probably associated with these militias just out of the fact that there was no security present in their area and they align themselves with them. But now that Iraqi security forces in fact are located throughout the all 10 districts in Baghdad with coalition forces working closely with them, we're not seeing the opposition that perhaps we had seen a few months ago with these militias operating freely in the city.

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

Happening now, could there soon be a bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran? Today the State Department is not ruling out that possibility. A State Department official suggesting the U.S. may be opened to a meeting between the two countries at a conference this weekend in Baghdad. The U.S. and Iran have not had formal relations since 1979.

Jordan's King Abdullah addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. The king is urging the U.S. to show leadership in the Middle East, saying the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is still the root of the problem.

All aboard the straight talk express. Republican presidential candidate John McCain is bringing back those bus trips he used in the 2000 presidential campaign. Over the next few days the express will visit Iowa and New Hampshire.

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

Tonight, a rare one-on-one interview with President Bush in the midst of major new controversies now weighing in on an already- embattled White House -- Mr. Bush is speaking out about the conviction of former White House insider Lewis "Scooter" Libby and about scandalous conditions at the nation's top Army hospital.

Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN Espanol pressed Mr. Bush today about his responsibility to wounded troops.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN ESPANOL ANCHOR: As commander-in-chief, what do you say to the veterans who have gone through a very hard time at Walter Reed and other hospitals? There are commissions. There are solutions that are being proposed, but what do you as commander-in- chief say to those veterans?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I say anything other than excellent care is unacceptable. And I have been to Walter Reed a lot. There's fantastic doctors, and nurses, and healers. And yet, we found that there were some substandard care in part of that organization and we're going to correct it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Another cloud over the president and the vice president tonight: Lewis Scooter Libby's conviction on four counts in the CIA leak investigation. In the same CNN En Espanol interview, Mr. Bush offered some of his first on-camera comments about those guilty verdicts.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, I want to ask you about the conviction of Lewis Scooter Libby. Your critics are saying that his conviction makes the promise that you made to bring honor and dignity back to the White House, that this promise will go unmet.

BUSH: First of all, this was a lengthy trial on a serious matter. And a jury of his peers convicted him. And we've got to respect that conviction.

Secondly, this is an ongoing legal matter. And there's more legal procedures to take place. And at this time it's inappropriate for me, or the administration, to be issuing comments about this serious matter.

On a personal note, I was sad. I was sad for a man who had worked in my administration, particularly sad for his family.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Once again, the president spoke with CNN's Spanish language network on the eve of a week-long trip to five nations in Latin America.

Let's talk more about Lewis Scooter Libby; the conviction, the vice president, the news media. Joining us is Tom Defrank. He's the Washington Bureau chief for "The New York Daily News", and a good friend.

Tom, thanks for coming.

TOM DEFRANK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: You have known the vice president. You've covered him for a long time. There are some people suggesting that Scooter Libby took the bullet for him. If he did, would the vice president feel guilty about this? Give us a little sense of the relationship between these two men.

DEFRANK: It's a cliche, Wolf, but everybody's call Scooter Libby Cheney's Cheney. I think that's really true. He was the right hand man for the right hand man, to the president of the United States. They were very close. They're very conservative, they're very loyal to one another. Libby was his alter ego, there's no doubt about it. These guys drove in a limousine to work together almost every day. They were extraordinarily close.

BLITZER: I remember when I covered the Pentagon during the first Gulf War, Scooter Libby worked for then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. So they go back a long time. Talk a little bit about -- I don't know if you have a good guess, because it's simply a guess. Why would Scooter Libby, who is an excellent lawyer, a smart guy, been around Washington for a long time. Why would he lie? Why would he engage in obstruction of justice, as convicted?

DEFRANK: This is just a guess, as you say, Wolf, I will always believe that if Scooter Libby did what the jury has said he did, my guess would be, he thought that he could lay it off on reporters, specifically on Tim Russert. Secure in the knowledge that reporters would never disclose their sources. Now, that's just a guess. That's speculation. But I've thought that for a long, long time.

BLITZER: What are the possibilities that the president would pardon Scooter Libby?

DEFRANK: I think the possibilities are very good. One thing that I can absolutely predict that if there's pardon, it won't happen before the November 2008 election. Because if the president were to pardon Scooter before that, the Republican Party would get flushed right down the drain in those 2008 elections.

BLITZER: Because presumably it would be very unpopular. Normally, when a president is leaving office, after the election, before January 20th of the following year, when the new president is sworn in, that's a moment for pardons.

DEFRANK: That's what his father did and that's what Bill Clinton did. They both did them going out the door, during the transition. But this Bush remembers what happened to President Ford. He pardoned President Nixon in September 1974 and the Republican Party went down the drain in the November '74 elections.

BLITZER: Do you believe the vice president, would squeeze or try to pressure the president, try to influence him before leaving office to pardon Scooter Libby.

DEFRANK: Sure. Sure I do. That wouldn't shock me at all. He, the vice president, has said many times, that Scooter Libby is one of the finest public servants that he's ever known. He said he was disappointed. I'm sure he's just ripped about it, more than disappointed. And that wouldn't shock me at all.

BLITZER: Tom Defrank of "The New York Daily News", as usual thanks for coming in.

DEFRANK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Up ahead tonight, it's among everyone's worst fears being in a plane crash. But there are ways for all of us to survive certain crashes. We have some advice for all of you.

Also, a Russian expert is shot, a KGB defector poisoned, and other critics of the Russian government dead. All a coincidence, or a conspiracy to silence those critical of the Kremlin? Our John Roberts standing by to take a close look. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The death count is now at least 23 in that fiery crash landing of an Indonesia airliner. But incredibly most of the passengers made it out alive. Extraordinary images, extraordinary tales of survival. CNN's Dan Rivers is in Central Java -- Dan.

DAN RIVERS, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you join me at the crash scene here. You might just be able to make out in dark behind me the white of the tailfin of this Boeing 737-400 that was engulfed in flames after it slammed into the field behind me, having overshot the runway.

The police have sealed off the area now. They're beginning this intense investigation into what went wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RIVERS (voice over): Within seconds of overshooting the runway, Garuda Airlines Flight 200 was an inferno.

This remarkable video was taken by a news cameraman who was aboard moments after he'd scrambled out. In spite of injuries he manages to film the awful scenes behind him.

Inside the burning fuselage, passengers who weren't so quick. Many horribly burnt, stretchered (sic) away by rescuers who fought the flames for two hours.

But incredibly many did make it out alive. Among the 140 passengers and crew, were nine Australians preparing for a visit by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

ALEXANDER DOWNER, FOREIGN MINISTER, AUSTRAILA: We have no reason to believe this accident was a result of sabotage or a terrorist attack, or anything like that. It does look like just a straight accident, where the aircraft apparently ran off the end of the runway.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RIVERS: Defense sources have told CNN that the initial Royal Australian Air Force assessment of what happened here, that simply the pilot was going too fast, which would explain why this plane skidded off the end of the runway, smashed through a fence, and then plowed into this field, and exploded behind me.

The investigation will obviously take several weeks to come to any firm conclusions. But at the moment it looks as if pilot error may well be to blame --Wolf.

BLITZER: What a horrific story. Dan Rivers reporting for us.

A plane crash is not something anyone really wants to think about. But how might you be able to survive one? Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's looking at this story -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, U.S. aviation officials tell us in survivable crashes like the one in Indonesia, most passengers actually do survive. And experts have some critical advice for increasing your odds.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice over): The plane's nose sheered off. Smokes and flames whipping around inside and out. A survivors says getting out alive meant getting out quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything was dark and smoky. People were shouting and screaming. And then 10 seconds after, everything was over, because we managed to get out the back door.

TODD: Current and former U.S. aviation officials tell CNN time is crucial in survivable plane crashes like the one in Indonesia, and the 2005 Air France crash in Toronto, when all 309 people on board made it out safely. Experts point to a simple rule.

DENESE GOUBIN, FLIGHT ATTENDENT: You have to be able to exit an aircraft within 90 seconds.

TODD: Federal officials tell us that in as little as a minute and a half, a fire like this one can erupt into a flashover, filling the cabin with deadly smoke, as shown in this simulation. How dangerous is that in a survivable accident?

BLAIN STANLEY, PLANE EVACUATION INSTRUCTOR: Most people, who are alive when the airplane comes to a stop, but end up dead, die because of smoke inhalation. They are consumed by the smoke and fire because the evacuation does not proceed rapidly enough.

TODD: To get out rapidly experts say, know ahead of time where the nearest exit is. After the crash, find that exit, or find any break in the fuselage. To get to it, crouch if you have to, but don't crawl.

STANLEY: Getting really low in an aircraft to evacuate simply makes it so people start to trample over you.

TODD: If you can't get to an opening right away, you can buy yourself a few more seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bring your shirt above your nose and mouth and breathe through it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now before those heart-stopping moments, before your plane even takes off, some other advice from safety experts. Wear long pants and sleeves and shoes that cover your feet completely to protect from burning.

And do something that most of us never do, pay attention to the flight attendants' preflight safety instructions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, do the experts say it's safer to sit in the front or the back of the plane?

TODD: Well, you know, the conventional wisdom is find a space in the back of the plane because the front of the plane is more likely to be damaged. You saw that video from Indonesia, where at least initially the front of the plane was sheered off. The back of it was in tact in those few moments, anyway. But experts tell us -- don't go with the conventional wisdom, because very often the back of the plane gets sheered off so as well. So, just defy those myths if you can.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you for that. Brian Todd reporting. Good advice for our viewers.

Up ahead, battling fierce militants who aren't afraid to wage a fight by blowing themselves up. NATO troops are battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, right now. We'll go there.

And lawmakers hoping to bring home the bacon, pork, or more money for pet projects. Jack Cafferty's asking this question: Is it possible to wean Congress off pork? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: NATO's on the offensive against Afghanistan's Taliban. Operation Achilles pits 5500 NATO and Afghan troops against militants in the northern Helmand Province, where the Taliban have made a comeback.

The Taliban say they have 4,000 well-armed fighters there, including suicide bombers. The allies trying to secure a major hydroelectric dam, so that a U.S. funded reconstruction project can be move forward. But there's been bitter fighting. Our Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson's with the British troops at Camp Bastion (ph) -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so far one day into the Operation Achilles, commanders here say they're being successful. They say they've had one decisive battle against the Taliban so far. The Taliban, they say, were trying to use the terrain, had built tunnels to try and hide from the troops.

The fighting has been at close quarters at times. At times, the soldiers needing to fix bayonets to their weapons as they went into fighting, which was quite literally just a few feet apart.

One British soldier has been killed so far. The fighting in this operation expected to go on for a number of weeks yet. It is part of a much larger operation across Afghanistan. But NATO focusing this, its biggest operation so far, around this strategic dam, the Kajaki Dam. U.S. funding, USAID funding, is providing the funding to reconstruct and rehabilitate this hydroelectric power dam over the next several years.

The Taliban have been trying to stop the reconstruction. If this Operation Achilles is successful the dam will be completed, the hydroelectric power plants will be refurbished. And it will provide electricity for about 1.7 million people And that is the heart of what NATO and the Afghan government are trying to do. To show the Afghans can they improve economy, improve the stability, improve peace and improve people's livelihoods -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Afghanistan for us.

Are assassins and hit men doing the Kremlin's dirty work aboard? There are growing allegations about attacks on those who do defy Russia's leaders. Could a seemingly random assault in the Washington suburbs be the latest case. Let's turn to our Senior National Correspondent John Roberts -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NAT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, was it a bad break or payback that put Russian expert Paul Joyal in the hospital? A gunshot wound to the groin. As the long arm of suspected Kremlin reprisals reached all the way to the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice over): Paul Joyal was a friend of Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB defector who died in November, poisoned by radio active polonium 210. While the Kremlin denies it, last week on NBC's "Dateline", Joyal charged Vladimir Putin's government was behind the killing.

PAUL JOYAL, RUSSIA EXPERT: The benefit, from their standpoint is, we are letting every one know that we will inflict a horrible death, a public horrible death, on those that speak out against us.

ROBERTS: Then on Thursday, Joyal met another old friend and KGB defector, Oleg Kalugin at a restaurant next door to the International Spy Museum. Shortly after they left, Kalugin got the band news.

OLEG KALUGIN, FORMER KGB: About an hour later, his wife called me and she was very excited and she said Paul was shot.

ROBERTS: Joyal told his wife he had been accosted by two black men as he arrived at home. He grabbed at one. The other yelled, just shoot him. Police believe it may have been a robbery attempt. Oleg Kalugin can't be sure.

KALUGIN: Well, I would not rule out any option. But, professionally, it doesn't look like special services were involved.

ROBERTS (On camera): Joyal's shooting could well be just a random act of violence. The story might end there. If it weren't for the fact that several critics of the Russian government have recently met tragic ends.

(Voice over): First, it was a journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote harshly about Russian's campaign in Chechnya. Shot and killed in an elevator last October. Then Alexander Litvinenko, who accused Putin of putting out the hit on Politkovskaya, dead a month later. Last Friday Ivan Safronov became the 14th journalist critical of Putin to die suspiciously. Russian police say he returned to his second- floor apartment after buying a bag of fruit, then inexplicably walked up to the fifth floor and leapt out this window.

Safranov's colleagues say he was investigating sensitive Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria.

ANDREI VASILIEV, EDITOR, "KOMMERSANT" (through translator): He could have been killed for his work. Everything is possible. But as yet we have no evidence. I just know he wasn't the suicidal type.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Add to that, yesterday's revelation that a Russian-born American doctor from Los Angeles, and her daughter, had survived a mysterious poisoning by Thallium, a favorite tool of assassins. They were in Moscow for a wedding. Russian police so far have no clue how they were poisoned, where, or why -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, john. Thank you. Very disturbing stuff.

Jack Cafferty is joining us from New York.

Jack, what's going on in Russia not pleasant. You know a lot of journalists have died over the past decade.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUAITON ROOM: Well, you know, there have been these rumors going around that Putin has gradually been consolidating his hold on power over there. And that to suggest that Russia has become a full-blown democracy is just silly. That it is no where near that. Look what happened to the big oil company.

What we need is Bob Ludlum to make a book out of this thing. I mean it's all right there. These are the kinds of novels Robert Ludlum sold millions and millions of at one time.

The question is: Will it ever be possible to wean Congress completely off pork in this country?

Eugene in California: "Jack, each and every member of Congress is hopelessly addicted to pork and to greed. The first step in eliminating pork would be to finally clean house in Congress by refusing to vote for any and all incumbents."

Where have I heard that before?

"The culture of corruption is deeply embedded and rampant."

Bernie in New York writes: "The reason the members of Congress will not wean themselves from the perks of pork, Jack, is that they profit enormously from it. Instead of using tax money to promote the general welfare, they divert it for their own benefit to projects important to their constituents in order to get re-elected. To expect Congress to give up pork is like asking Dracula to stop sucking blood."

Gene in Wisconsin: "Is it possible to wean Congress off pork, yes but only if they can agree to pass a bill that would allow a presidential line item veto. A line item veto would stop poke once and for all and might even get close to getting the budget balanced for once."

Jon writes: "While it may seem ridiculous to you a million bucks for a SETI telescope is a relatively cheap natural next step in our exploration of universe. What we should be questioning is manned space exploration since it is many orders of magnitude more expensive and much less fruitful."

Robert in Maryland: "Pork is so much a part of the bloodstream of Congress, it cannot be eliminated. It flows like cholesterol through the veins of power and we, the people, are the ones who suffer the heart attacks and strokes as a result."

Tom in Palm Springs: "Jack, all it will take is a couple more presidents like Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush, until the U.S. Treasury won't be able to pay for dog food, much less pork. The way it's going we'll see that happen in our lifetime."

If you didn't see your e-mail here you can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, see you tomorrow. Thanks very much.

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

Hi, Paula.

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

"Out In The Open" tonight, how Scooter Libby's conviction throws a very harsh spotlight on Vice President Dick Cheney. What's with all those calls for his resignation tonight?

Also, "Out In The Open", who's to blame for Americans staggering amount of credit card debt. The big banks say, it's not our fault. So who's fault is it?

Also, a respected city official who may lose his job because he wants to have a sex change. That's all "Out In The Open" tonight. Coming up at the top of the hour, Wolf. We hope you drop by then.

BLITZER: We'll see you soon. Thank you, Paula for that.

Still ahead here, in THE SITUATION ROOM. It's not a fire sale, it's more like a hurricane sale. We'll show you why a massive government sell off has some business owners worried.

Plus, millions of losers, but tonight one winner comes forward. CNN Jeanne Moos on the lottery mania gripping the country. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Carol, she's monitoring stories coming in from around the world -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A couple of things to tell you about, Wolf.

For sale: Thousands of FEMA trailers purchased for victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. The government is selling them at rock bottom prices and that is causing concern among mobile home dealers who worry that could have a dramatic impact on their own sales. FEMA says it will be cautious not to, quote, "flood the market".

The government is suing the nation's largest drugstore chain, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accuses Walgreen of discriminating against African-American employees. Most of the complaints that lead to the class action lawsuit come from St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, and Tampa. Walgreen's say it's committed to fairness and diversity and that it's saddened and disappointed by the lawsuit.

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

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, see you tomorrow.

We have a winner. At least one of them coming forward tonight to claim his share of a record lottery jackpot. CNN's Jeanne Moos has a most unusual take on the Mega Millions mania.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Check out this check -- $116 million is one lucky guy's share of the winning jackpot.

And now that he's rich, it will be $80 million after taxes. How long is this Georgia carpet mill truck driver going to stay a truck driver?

ED NABORS, LOTTERY WINNER: At least two more days.

MOOS: Fifty-two year-old Ed Nabors bought 10 Mega Million tickets at a store that lived up to it's name, Favorite Market, in Dalton, Georgia.

A second winning ticket was sold at this liquor store in Woodbine, New Jersey. Not far from Atlantic City. The New Jersey winner hasn't turned yet. But a lot of loser have.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It should have been me. I'm just fine, thank you, but I'm not a millionaire.

MOOS: Nope, she didn't have the right measurements.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 42, 39, 29 --

MOOS: But Ed did.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know what you're going to do?

NABORS: I'm going fishing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK!

MOOS: He said that when he realized he had a winning ticket, he just went numb and sat in his truck for 15 minutes. He said he can help a lot of people with the money. For instance, he would like to buy one of his daughters a house to get her out of her mobile home.

The press set up shop in the two shops where the tickets were sold. Folks were all shook up in the liquor store over the size of the pay day. He's the liquor store owner keeping an eye on the press.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You break it, you buy it.

MOOS: The only thing Ed broke, was the bank. His immediate plans?

NABORS: I'm going to sit down for a while.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Congratulations to Eddie Nabors. Good work, Eddie.

That's it for us. Tomorrow, among our guest, the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, let's go to Paula in New York.

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