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THE SITUATION ROOM
Cheney Visits Baghdad. Fort Dix Plot Supporters Speaking Out. "Vote Vets" Launches. Missouri's Weather Woes. Interview with John Boehner. Al Gore in the 2008 Race? Explosives from Tehran Hurting American Troops
Aired May 9, 2007 - 1900 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Lou.
Happening now, Vice President Cheney visits Baghdad with a tough message for Iraqi leaders, but some Iraqis have a message for him.
Your tax dollars pay for a network meant to air America's message in the Middle East, but has it become a platform for a man accused by the U.S. of leading a terror group?
Also, it's much too wet and desperately dry, either way that spells disaster, with floods in the heartland and wildfires on both coasts.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Tonight, a powerful one-two punch from the Bush administration on Iraq -- in Baghdad the vice president, Dick Cheney, delivering an urgent message to Iraqi leaders that it's quote, "game time." On Capitol Hill here in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warning Congress a proposal to fund the Iraq war only through July would be in his word "a nightmare." The White House backed him by issuing a new veto threat today. Gates also set his benchmark for making progress in the war zone.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The goal in September is not whether the violence has been significantly reduced, or stability has been brought, seems to me. But rather, whether it has been reduced to a level that the political reconciliation process is moving forward in some meaningful way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: An explosion rocked Baghdad's green zone today, during the vice president's drop-in visit. And he was burned in effigy by Shiite militants in Iraq. But Cheney wasn't deterred, telling Iraqi leaders it's time to start making some serious progress.
CNN's Hugh Riminton is in the Iraqi capital -- Hugh.
HUGH RIMINTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a surprise visit to Iraq from Mr. Cheney just at a time when frustration is building to an absolute crescendo, both in Washington, but also here in Iraq with signs of paralysis in the Iraqi government.
RIMINTON (voice-over): This is only Dick Cheney's second visit to Iraq since the invasion he helped engineer. The message now, "it's game time."
RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's a lot going on. It's a very important time and there's a lot to talk about.
RIMINTON: The talking began with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose national unity government faces a walk-out by Sunni Arab lawmakers as early as next week over a constitutional wrangle. The senior Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, was one of those Mr. Cheney got to meet as he urged all the major players to find ways to work together.
CHENEY: I do believe that there's a greater sense of urgency now than I've seen previously.
RIMINTON: Also raised, the two month summer vacation being planned by the Iraqi parliament. Mr. Cheney says that is a sovereign Iraqi issue, but...
CHENEY: I did make it clear that we believe it's very important to move on the issues before us in a timely fashion. And that any undue delay would be difficult to explain.
RIMINTON: The U.S. vice president says on key benchmark issues like a new oil law, provincial elections, and constitutional reform, he expects Prime Minister Maliki to make a formal statement next week.
RIMINTON: While Mr. Cheney was in Baghdad, a mortar round landed in the green zone, just a further reminder of just how volatile this place remains -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Hugh Riminton reporting for us from the Iraqi capital.
And while Baghdad today was once again the scene of bombings and drive-by shootings, Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, including the regional capital of Irbil, have been generally quiet. But that stopped today. A suicide bomber blew up his truck outside the Kurdish interior ministry in Irbil, killing 14 people, wounding dozens more. Police say the vehicle was packed with 1,700 pounds of explosives -- deadly attack in Kurdistan today.
The government calls them Islamic radicals, accusing them of plotting to kill as many American troops as possible at a U.S. military base in New Jersey. Now their supporters are speaking out.
Our senior correspondent Allan Chernoff is joining us from New York with the latest. What is the latest, Allan?
ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, family members and some defense attorneys are now criticizing the government for the complaint over here, the criminal complaint and the charges that the government made yesterday right here.
CHERNOFF (voice-over): The mother of one of the alleged plotters says her son Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer couldn't have planned a terror attack.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He didn't have anything to do, believe me. He worked the whole night and come here like in the morning, sleep and go back to work. This is his life.
CHERNOFF: Indeed, Shnewer's court-appointed attorney says he will definitely enter a not guilty plea. And he believes quotes of his client allegedly plotting an attack on Fort Dix may have been taken out of context. Lawyers for the defendants tell CNN they're concerned yesterday's publicity could taint the jury pool.
There's nowhere to run to get a fair trial in a case like this, said the attorney for Serdar Tatar. On Friday defense attorneys will have a chance to ask that bail be set. The government intends to argue the six still pose a danger and are a flight risk and therefore should be held without bail.
The New Jersey U.S. Attorney's Office also says it will move expeditiously to present the case before a grand jury to get an indictment. Only at that point would the defendants appear in court to enter pleas. For now the six are being held at a federal detention center in Philadelphia.
CHERNOFF: CNN has called all the attorneys representing the other defendants and is still waiting to hear back from them -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What do we know, Allan, about the person who initially tipped off the federal government to this alleged plot?
CHERNOFF: Wolf, this was an employee at a circuit city retail store, a person who was asked by one of the defendants to convert a videotape into a DVD. The videotape contained footage of the defendants shooting assault weapons and calling for a jihad. This person notified the authorities immediately.
BLITZER: Allan, thanks very much -- Allan Chernoff reporting for us.
Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File". Either those alleged terrorists are really, really stupid, or maybe they were doing something that we didn't fully understand by going to Circuit City to make a DVD.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, like what? BLITZER: I can't imagine.
CAFFERTY: If there's a trial, they will be convicted of being morons. I don't know about the terrorism stuff, but they'll do time for being stupid.
We're hearing from some retired generals on what they think about the war in Iraq. And it's not good news for the White House. The group "Vote Vets" is out with a series of TV spots that feature three retired generals, including retired Major General John Batiste.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have always said that I will listen to the requests of our commanders on the ground.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, you did not listen. You continued to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps. I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAFFERTY: These TV spots are running in states and districts of congressmen who are quote, "very close to breaking with the president on the issue of the war in Iraq." The local spots actually mention these lawmakers by name at the end and call on them to protect America, not George Bush.
"Vote Vets" plans another ad for next week. This one will feature retired Major General Paul Eaton, and then the third and final one will feature former NATO allied supreme commander General Wesley Clark. So here's the question.
Will TV ads featuring retired generals who say President Bush does not listen to the commanders on the ground in Iraq have any effect on policy? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that.
Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Congressmen Charlie Rangel on a possible clash of the New York Titans -- Hillary Clinton versus Rudy Giuliani.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If she can't beat Giuliani (UNINTELLIGIBLE), forget about the democracy that we know.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Rangel also takes on Senator Clinton's evolving stance on the war in Iraq. Is it likely to help or hurt her presidential bid?
Also coming up, we're going to take you to a flooded Missouri town that's living up to its name. It's one big lake tonight.
Plus we'll investigate a TV network in the Middle East funded with your taxpayer dollars. Is it creating a better image for the U.S. or channeling anti-American views? We're watching this story as well.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Wild weather from one end of the country to the other. In California, fire in Los Angeles' historic Griffith Park is scorching hundreds of acres. Major flooding is swapping much of northwestern Missouri to say the least and the water's still rising. Wildfires know no boundaries at the Georgia-Florida border where flames have charred 200 plus square miles.
And off the southeastern coast, early bird subtropical storm Andrea chugging toward land more than three weeks before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. Let's go to Missouri right now where the town of Big Lake north of Kansas City is largely underwater. Levees have been broken or been breached. Hundreds of homes have water. And the water is still rising.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is joining us now live from Big Lake. What's the situation like right now, Ed?
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. We just spoke with the sheriff here in Big Lake who says that even though the waters have been kind of stagnant here that there is still some concern it will take a long time for these waters to start receding. In fact, they have gotten word they think the water is about to start doing that.
But it is fighting all the other water, trying to get out of this area, so they say it will be at least next week before they'll start considering allowing residents back into this area where close to 300 people have homes here. We took a tour on boat with two officers from the Missouri State Water Patrol. We saw dozens of homes partially submerged in water, in some places up to five to six feet deep, in many places two feet deep as well. But this is an area that is completely blocked off, and no one is able to get to it tonight -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Where are the people who are stranded from their homes, where are they staying?
LAVANDERA: Many of these homes are weekend getaways for many people, about half the population that is here, this is just a vacation home. This is -- Big Lake describes itself as a vacation village, so many people have places to stay. But they have been coming in, trying to check up on what is going on. Many people are very anxious to see just how extensive the damage is.
BLITZER: Ed Lavandera on the scene for us -- thank you, Ed.
Let's get some more now on our top story. If the Bush administration needed stronger evidence that fellow Republicans are anxious, very anxious, for signs of progress in Iraq they got it this week from an influential GOP leader in Congress.
And joining us now from Capitol Hill the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Congressman John Boehner, the minority Leader. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us. I want you to clarify what you said on Sunday. You suggested this, you said "by the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn't, what's Plan B." You're referring to the new strategy in trying to deal with the security situation in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. What did you mean?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: Well, what I meant was is that all of our troops will be in place with the surge come the end of June. And so we'll have July, we'll have August, we'll have some idea in September how well this plan is working. We'll also have a better idea how the Iraqi government is doing in terms of the types of actions they need in order to take more control over their own destiny. And so that's -- it's a natural time, I think, in the calendar, members will have been home the month of August on a district work period, and when we get back in September, there's going to be a reassessment.
BLITZER: And if the situation, Congressman, is then as it is now, the insurgency continues, U.S. casualties continue, what would Plan B be?
BOEHNER: Well, Wolf, what I'm looking for is success in Iraq. And I'm hopeful that we'll be able to calm the violence. I'm hoping that when the violence begins to die down, the Iraqi government will have the room that it needs in order to make the tough decisions that they have to make. But right now, what we have to do is to get the resources to the troops in the supplemental spending bill here on Capitol Hill that's mired in mud.
The Democrats a week ago at the White House said that they would work with their Republican colleagues, they would work with the White House, to try to come to some agreement. On the House side, I can speak for. There's been no negotiation. There's been no reaching out. As a matter of fact, last night, there was a meeting with Mr. Bolten, Jerry Lewis, some ranking Republican, and Dave Obey, the chairman of the committee. And it was nothing more than a lecture from Mr. Obey about how he was going to proceed.
BLITZER: Well one of the proposals on the table is to fund the troops through the end of July, about half of the funding and then reassess what the situation is then and then come up with the balance of the funding afterwards. Is that an option that's acceptable to you?
BOEHNER: No, it is not. Treating our young men and women in uniform like kids on a monthly allowance I think demeans our troops. There's no planning that can go on in terms of getting supplies in line. No contracts can be let. This is no way, if you're trying to win a war. And my look at this proposal, all it is a prescription for failure in Iraq. BLITZER: John Boehner, the top Republican in the House speaking with me earlier.
Still ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the civil rights activist Al Sharpton under fire. Did he slam presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon religion?
And why would a new plan for churches to give sanctuary be controversial? Find out who would be getting safe haven.
Much more of our coverage right here in THE SITUATION ROOM when we come back.
BLITZER: If they get their way, Al Gore will run for president. Even though the former vice president is firm in insisting he has no plans to run, you might be surprised to learn just what his supporters are doing and what they're saying right now. Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's in New York.
There's been a reunion of sorts among a lot of these Al Gore supporters, Mary. What's going on?
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, last night a group of former Gore staffers and fundraisers met in D.C., they mark the 20th anniversary of Al Gore's first presidential campaign. Now some who attended say it was nothing more than a reunion and Al Gore wasn't even there. But it gained notice since it comes as speculation mounts about whether Al Gore will enter the 2008 race.
SNOW (voice-over): He may have no plans to run for president, but Al Gore has his hold-outs, hoping he'll change his mind.
ELAINE KAMARCK, FORMER GORE SR. POLICY ADVISER: I hear from people all the time, people who are friends of mine and used to work for him and also just people that I don't even know who e-mail me from around the country. So I think there are a lot of people holding out hope that he will eventually run.
SNOW: People close to Gore say there's no evidence he's gearing up to run. Still, one Democratic fundraiser who didn't want to be named told us he's withholding endorsing an '08 candidate, waiting to see what Gore does. As far as what Gore has said about running...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't have plans to be a candidate again.
SNOW: And yet, Gore shows up in presidential polls. His fight against global warming keeps him in the spotlight. On a recent Larry King show, even Gore's former boss didn't rule it out.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You've got the prospect that Vice President Gore might run.
SNOW: Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee says he'd be popular.
REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: I really think that the country, Al Gore's the type of person the country needs. He's got all the requisite experience. He's learned from his defeat.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (R), NEW YORK: I hope Al Gore enters the race. I think it would be good for the country.
SNOW: But skeptics say time is running out. And with the race so crowded there's stiff competition for staff and money.
DOUG HATTAWAY, GORE 2000 CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: People will hold out but only so long. There's a lot of enthusiasm about the current field of candidates and people are going to feel pressured to get involved before the trains leave the stations here.
SNOW: And some say realistically, Gore would have to get into the race by Labor Day at the latest, in order to be effective -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Mary Snow in New York watching this story.
Let's check in with Carol Costello. She's monitoring other stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Carol, what's going on?
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Let's start in Britain. British Prime Minister Tony Blair expected to lay groundwork tomorrow for his departure from office. Mr. Blair's spokesman says the British leader will announce his intention to step down as Labour Party chief. That announcement will touch off a leadership contest to succeed him as party leader and prime minister and that will happen in about seven weeks. Mr. Blair celebrated 10 years as prime minister on May 1.
The British Foreign Office is withholding comment but there is a new development in the case of a missing BBC journalist. Alan Johnston was abducted March 12 in Gaza City. A Palestinian militant group, Army of Islam, posted an image of his I.D. card on the Web today. In an audio message on the site, the group demands the release of a militant Islamic cleric in exchange for Johnston's freedom.
Churches in five U.S. cities say they plan to protect illegal immigrants from deportation as part of an effort called the "New Sanctuary Movement" -- churches in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and New York plan to participate. They'll provide illegal immigrants legal counsel and help them navigate through the courts. They say if officials try to deport them they'll offer sanctuary within church walls if necessary.
That's a look at what's happening right now, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Carol. We'll check back with you shortly.
Just ahead, he says President Bush probably has just one friend when it comes to Iraq. That would be Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel. He's going to tell us who that friend might be.
Also, they call themselves an axis of evil that you can laugh at.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the new enemy. We've replaced the Soviet Union and we are stuck here until somebody replaces us. That's why I'm begging all of you to help me taunt North Korea as much as possible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Comedians are using comedy to help explain some complex issues.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, President Bush as comforter and chief -- today he toured Kansas, comforting people hard-hit by those deadly tornado- packing storms. Mr. Bush went to Greensburg. That's the town that was virtually wiped off the map. He's promising speedy relief.
A critical U.S. troop rotation for Afghanistan -- the Pentagon says it will maintain a heightened force against the Taliban by sending new combat troops to replace ones already there. The Pentagon did not say how long those new troops would stay.
And what's on your mind as you consider presidential picks? Our new CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Iraq ranks as issue number one. Close behind, terrorism, education, health care, and of course gas prices.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Made in Iran -- the U.S. military says high-tech explosives provided by Tehran are helping Iraq's insurgents take a mounting toll on American troops.
Let's turn to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Iran's involvement in the war in Iraq seems to be growing.
STARR (voice-over): Attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq with powerful Iranian weapons reached an all-time high last month, according to top U.S. commanders. Lieutenant General (UNINTELLIGIBLE) multinational corps and in charge of day-to-day operations confirmed to CNN that in April, there were 69 attacks using explosively formed projectiles, EFPs. It's nearly double over March, which saw 38 EFP attacks. The April spike killed 14 U.S. troops and wounded 47.
GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: This month, than any month in the past, to the best of our knowledge all of them are manufactured in Iran. So that's not a good trend.
STARR: Until now, Odierno notes, such attacks had been dropping. The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran is the source of many EFPs. Advanced bombs that can penetrate U.S. armored vehicles, far more sophisticated than the improvised devices used by most Iraqi insurgents. U.S. commanders say Iran's Revolutionary Guard is mainly responsible for shipping the advanced weapons into Iraq.
Some captured weapons show Iranian markings. The U.S. has stopped short of holding the Tehran regime directly responsible. Odierno also confirmed that suicide bomb attacks have increased dramatically -- 47 attacks in April compared to 22 in January. Still, there are some indications attacks are easing up in al Anbar province, where Sunni tribesmen have been fighting against al Qaeda.
STARR: Explosive devices have now killed more than 1,500 troops and wounded nearly 15,000 since the war in Iraq began -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr reporting for us from the Pentagon.
As House Democrats weigh a new Iraq's spending bill that would fund the war only into the summer, the White House vows another veto. Does that set the stage for round two?
BLITZER: Joining us from Capitol Hill, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Charlie Rangel, Democrat of New York. He's also the author of the new book, "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since." Congressman, thanks for coming in.
REP. CHARLIE RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: Always good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the Iraq war funding legislation. The president vetoed it the other day. Now you're trying to come up with some sort of compromise. The Vice President Dick Cheney is in Baghdad as we speak. And this is what he said today. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They do believe we are making Progress. But we've got a long way to go.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's suggesting that this new strategy, so the-called surge as he calls it, is working. What do you say?
RANGEL: I think that Dick Cheney is probably the only friend the president has on this war. The American people have spoken. They're making it abundantly clear that surge, no surge, get the heck out of Iraq.
And no matter what it takes, we're going to keep sending that message. I tell you this, there are many, many Republicans that are ready to break with the president, so the president better get the message so that we can do this in a unified way and make certain that our troops leave in the safest way possible.
BLITZER: I spoke with the House Minority Leader John Boehner, the top Republican in the House. And like the White House, they're rejecting one Democratic proposal to fund the war through the end of July and then take up the funding bill once again later.
They say that's a nonstarter. You can't treat U.S. military men and women as if they're teenagers and fund them partially for good behavior. What do you say to their rejection of this proposal?
RANGEL: It's just the question of time. The American people have spoken. By the time they listen to their constituents, they'll find language that they feel comfortable with.
But the American people should know as you know, it's not really the technical language that's in this bill, it's how many times does it take for us to send a message to the president to force him to sit down and to change the course?
And so it doesn't bother me that the republicans don't like this. But if you take a look at the president's polls and take a look at the concerns that Republicans have in getting re-elected, it's just a question if time and how we do it.
BLITZER: The Iraqis themselves are appealing to you in Congress to give them some more time. The national security advisor of Iraq Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, he's quoted in the "New York Times" today as saying this -- "I know they are running out of patience, and I understand this very well. And we have to play the political game. But I feel we are on the last mile of a walk toward success, and if they let go and don't take our hand, I feel that we are going to lose everything."
He's appealing to you, Congressman, to help them in what he says is the final Stretch. What do you say?
RANGEL: Well, he calls it a political game. But the families of the 3,500 people who died and the thousands that have been wounded, they don't think this is a political game. They think it's serious.
I would tell them that there's no question that America and democracies around the country should want to be of some assistance in bringing peace to this area.
But what about the Jordanians? What about the Saudi Arabians? What about the Egyptians? If they cannot convince their own neighbors to participate in helping them to bring peace, then I don't know why it should be America that puts up the blood and the rest of them don't even hold our jackets.
BLITZER: Your colleague from New York state, Hillary Clinton, the junior senator, she's being criticized severely by the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, on her proposal with Robert Byrd in the Senate to deauthorize the original operation, the military operation, in Iraq. Listen to what Gingrich said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: But this middle ground of politically beating up the American government, making us look weak in the world, undermining the morale of the American troops, while young men and women are risking their lives every day, strikes me as the worst of all possible worlds. And I think it is a great disservice to the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's clearly going after Hillary Clinton for this Proposal. Do you like her idea?
RANGEL: Well, I don't know. Hillary Clinton has some political problems because of her initial vote. And if Senator Byrd and she believes that once again, they're sending a political message to the White House, I have no objection.
The whole idea of thinking that this is going to happen, I don't think that really is a reality. But I think what we all are trying to do, especially Senator Clinton, is respond to the voters. And even though the president is commander in chief as it relates to the military, we have the responsibility to provide the oversight for what is going on here and we're doing just that. Nothing is going to stop us.
BLITZER: Do you still support Hillary for president?
RANGEL: You bet your life. I think she's the best qualified candidate. I only hope I can get some support for Giuliani and Kerik on the other side, making it a New York thing.
BLITZER: But you'd want Hillary Clinton to beat Rudy Giuliani?
RANGEL: If she can't beat Giulian and Kerik, forget about the democracy that we know.
BLITZER: As far as we know, Bernard Kerik is not running for anything. You're obviously trying to make a point, though.
RANGEL: Oh, he can be drafted, what the heck, they're inseparable. They're joined at the hips, they've been together for years. This is no time to give up on your friends.
BLITZER: Charlie Rangel, Democrat, New York, thanks for coming in.
RANGEL: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Bernard Kerik, of course the former controversial police commissioner in New York under the then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Still ahead tonight, an hour of airtime for a man accused by the U.S. government of having a terrorist group. So why are American taxpayers footing the bill?
And the new president-elect of France, making waves for planning a luxurious get-away. We're tracking the outrage online. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Your taxpayer dollars paying for a news channel meant to soften some harsh anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. But can it do that by airing words from a man who despises the United States, who encourages death to an American ally? Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, tell us about this news network and why it's coming under fire right now.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's called Al Hurra, it's a TV news and public affairs network established to win hearts and minds toward American policies in the Middle East. And right now, it's accused of betraying that mission.
TODD (voice-over): A network underwritten by U.S. taxpayers for $63 million a year, set up to counterbalance the likes of Al-Jazeera, now accused of an outright double-cross, as it gave airtime to anti- American views.
Critics say, by airing an hour-plus speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, accused by the U.S. of heading a major terrorist group, Al- Hurra isn't exactly cutting through anti-Western propaganda in the Middle East.
JOEL MOWBRAY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: By the five-minute mark, he told the people in the audience, who were firing their guns in celebrations, not to waste their bullets, and to save their bullets for where they belong, the chest of the enemy, the Israeli enemy.
TODD: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a de factor member of Al- Hurra's board, has said this about the airing of Nasrallah's speech.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The new director fully admits it was a mistake.
TODD: Now, some in Congress who control Al-Hurra's purse strings are calling for Rice to investigate the network's practices and are threatening to withhold money if things don't change. REP. STEVEN ROTHMAN (D), NEW JERSEY: We should not be putting on terrorists who are advocating killing Americans on a U.S. taxpayer- funded television station.
TODD: Critics say Al Hurra, which means "The Free One" in Arabic, started to veer away from its mission last November, with the hiring of Larry Register as news director. Register, until 2001 an executive producer at CNN, has, according to his detractors, focused coverage less on corruption and human rights abuses in the Middle East, and more toward anti-American events, like the Holocaust-deniers conference in Tehran.
Register wouldn't comment. In a statement, a spokeswoman admitted some errors under Register's leadership, but said the network is committed to fairness, and added, "Al-Hurra is the only channel in the region that has programs dedicated to the discussion of the rights of women and human rights in the Arab world."
In the view of one analyst, the network's credibility depends on it airing all shades of opinion.
RIAD KAHWAJI, INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST AND GULF MILITARY ANALYSIS: If you keep getting guests that represent only one side of the equation, then people would look at you suspiciously. But, when you bring people that present all views, then you would be taken more seriously.
TODD: Still, critics say it's one thing to air a sound bite of someone like Hassan Nasrallah. It's quite another, they say to air his entire speech, with anti-Western rants and threats - Wolf?
BLITZER: So what do the critics in Congress want Al-Hurra to do now, Brian?
TODD: Some members of Congress and others want Larry Register to step down. The network says it stands by him 100 percent. Some congressmen also want the transcripts of the network's content produced constantly in English so that they can monitor those. A network official says that's too expensive, but they can provide transcripts on request.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thank you.
Still ahead here, a prominent reverend says something about a well-known Mormon. Now Al Sharpton's words, some people asking if he's a bigot. We're watching the story from both sides.
Also, general resignation? Might ads of retired generals saying President Bush doesn't listen to commanders on the ground in Iraq have any effect on policy? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail. All that, still to come.
BLITZER: The civil rights activist Al Sharpton is doing some damage control in the wake of the tempest that boiled up over a comedy day during a debate this week. It has the Mitt Romney presidential campaign bristling. Let's go back to Carol Costello, she's in New York. Carol, what's going on?
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's kind of turned into a he said, he said, Wolf. Al Sharpton accused of being a bigot, a hypocrite who maligned Mitt Romney's religion. As for what Sharpton says, well, he says he didn't mean it.
COSTELLO: He led the charge against Don Imus.
AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Yes, I think that this is sexist first. And I think racist equally.
COSTELLO: That was Al Sharpton last month as he put pressure on NBC and CBS to drop the talk show host after Imus used an ethnic slur to describe the Rutgers women's basketball players.
Now Sharpton's in the line of fire himself for comments he made about Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
SHARPTON: As for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway so don't worry about that. That's a temporary -- that's a temporary situation.
COSTELLO: The civil rights activist and former presidential candidate made the comment Monday while debating religion and politics with atheist author Christopher Hitchens, who's on a tour promoting his new book which rejects God.
Much of the debate revolved around Hitchens saying he doesn't believe in God. Sharpton says his words were taken out of context and denies he was questioning Romney's belief in God.
He tells the "Associated Press," quote, "What I said was that we would defeat him, meaning as a Republican. A Mormon by definition believes in God. They don't believe in God the way I do, but by definition, they believe in God."
Sharpton says his comments were directed at Hitchens, not Romney -- radio talk show host and CNN contributor Roland Martin.
ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The problem with this story is we don't have the proper context. First and foremost, this was a religious debate that took place.
COSTELLO: Minutes before the comments in question, the idea of a Mormon running for president was discussed. Then the conversation moved to faith and politics. Romney spoke out this morning saying.
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It shows that bigotry still exists in some corners. And I thought it was a most unfortunate comment to make. Reverend Sharpton's comment was terribly misguided.
COSTELLO: Sharpton counterattacked saying, "This is a blatant effort by the Romney campaign to fabricate a controversy."
If elected Romney would be the nation's first Mormon president. The former Massachusetts governor frequently talks about his faith.
ROMNEY: This is a nation after all that wants a leader that's a person of faith. But we don't choose our leader based on which church they go to.
COSTELLO: Is he right? Do Americans consider Mormons, Christians? A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll from last year found Americans split over the issue. But in a Gallup/"USA Today" poll in February, more than 70 percent, 70 percent said they were comfortable voting for a Mormon for president - Wolf?
BLITZER: Thank you for that, Carol Costello. This note, Reverend Sharpton will be a guest on "PAULA ZAHN NOW." That's coming up right at the top of the hour.
CNN has confirmed Ann Romney, the wife of the presidential candidate Mitt Romney, made a $150 donation to Planned Parenthood back in 1994. But a Romney spokesman says that because it was so long ago, Mrs. Romney is not sure why she wrote the check. The spokesman notes that the former governor and his wife contributed $15,000 last year to a group called Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
France's president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy is grabbing headlines in the French press. Sarkozy's luxurious post-election Mediterranean getaway is drawing some sharp criticism from his political opponents. Let's go to our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton. Abbi, what's the uproar all about?
ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it's about Sarkozy's decision to spent a couple of days preparing for the presidency on this, a 200-foot luxury yacht in the Mediterranean. Paparazzi have shot pictures of Sarkozy and his family on board the Paloma. Yachting Web sites report this is a yacht equipped with everything from scuba equipment to a karaoke machine, and it rents for around $250,000 a week.
Sarkozy socialist opponents have criticized the trip as ostentatious and offensive and the papers are having a field day with this. Some of the headlines today, vacation making waves, the Sarkozy era is bling bling. Sarkozy is reported as saying, "I have no intention to apologize." Wolf?
BLITZER: Bling bling, is that French?
TATTON: If they didn't translate that word, apparently it works in both languages.
BLITZER: Thank you for that, Abbi. Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York. Bling bling, all of a sudden the French got a new word.
CAFFERTY: Do you know what the translation is? I won and you didn't. And I'm enjoying my cruise and you're stuck on land.
The question this hour, will the ads featuring retired generals who claim that President Bush doesn't listen to his commanders on the ground in Iraq have any effect on policy? They're running these TV spots in various politically sensitive areas around the country.
Kathlyn writes: "I like the ads but I know they won't have an effect on Bush's policies. He's proven that he listens to no experts regarding foreign policy, the environment, the economy, and other key areas. I hope but I'm doubtful that the ad will change the public's views of the Republicans who have blindly followed Bush throughout his nightmare. They would rather go down with a sinking ship than admit this administration's been a total disaster start to finish."
Jan in Pittsburgh: "If all the retired generals say that President Bush does not listen to the commanders on the ground, then it probably would. But let's also hear from retired generals who say something different. However, I'm not sure the news media would be able to find anyone offering a different opinion. Can't believe they all agree."
Diane, a former U.S. army captain: "Thank god for the generals who can finally tell us what we already knew. It won't change policy but maybe it will stop the asinine comments by Bush and Cheney that if you criticize the war, you're not supporting the soldiers. As if putting them in their graves decades too early is."
Dan in Spencer, Iowa: "Probably not, but it's about time we hear the truth from the generals. It's too bad they have to retire in order to be able to tell it."
Sharon in Lenexa, Kansas: "I don't know the other generals, but I do know General Wesley Clark. He would never speak out so forcefully against the commander in chief if he were not concerned about our troops in Iraq, our image in the world community and indeed the survival of our country. Please heed these dedicated public servants before it's too late."
And Ilene in Livonia, Michigan writes: "I don't see that it's made any difference to date. Numerous generals have spoken out about Bush and his war policy. They're fired. Excuse me, they step down. And life goes on as it has been. More and more of our brave kids killed every day."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile where we post more of them online along with video clips of "The Cafferty File." We try to pick clips where I speak more articulately than I did in this particular segment here.
BLITZER: Thanks, Jack.
Let's find out what's coming up at the top of the hour on "PAULA ZAHN NOW." Paula?
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. Coming at you, about seven minutes from now, we have an exclusive interview with Reverend Al Sharpton. He will be here to explain his controversial remarks about presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Mormons.
Also out in the open tonight, violent gang members in the military. What's going to happen when they come home as trained killers? Plus, some absolutely appalling numbers. Why are teens dropping out of school at the rate of 6,000 a day? It's all coming up at the top of the hour. Wolf, we know you have nothing to do at 8:00 straight up so please join us then.
BLITZER: We will be there, thank you, Paula, thanks very much.
And still ahead here, now playing, what's being called the axis of evil comedy tour on radio, on stage. Comedians trying to help Americans understand Middle Easterners and getting some laughs along the way. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: When President Bush first used the phrase axis of evil he probably never thought it would be the catch phrase for four guys looking for laughs and understanding. That's exactly what's happened as CNN's Jill Dougherty explains.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Picture you're running through with machine guns, all right, knapsacks, machine guns and climbing under things.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, another stop on the axis of evil comedy tour. Another chance to explain the subtleties of Middle Eastern identity.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Iranians are Persian and not Middle Easterners.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not Arabs.
UNIDNETIFIED MALE: Why don't you guys move here?
UNIDENTIIFED MALE: No no, they are Middle Easterners, they're not Arabs, there's a difference.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very confused.
DOUGHERTY: This axis of evil is made up of four American comedians. Maz Gibrani (ph), born in Iran. Ahmed Ahmed (ph), born in Egypt, Aaron Qatar (ph), a Palestinian-American. And Dean Obidala (ph), son of a Palestinian father and a Sicilian mother.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the new enemy. We've replaced the Soviet Union. And we're stuck here until somebody replaces us. That's why I'm begging all of you to help taunt North Korea as much as possible.
UNIDNETIFIED MALE: You have to get them on board with you and let them know that hey, I get it, you guys have a stereotype of us and I know what you see.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the overall message is that we're proud of our background and ethnicities and that's why we're doing this.
DOUGHERTY: A lot of material these comedians use in their act comes from current events and they don't have to look far. Check out this article that appeared in the local paper the day they arrived. "Muslim leader gets death threat." Ahmed Ahmed (ph) gets stopped at airports a lot. His name matches an alias of a terrorist on the FBI's most wanted list.
UNIDNETIIFED FEMALE: Come on sir, oh, wait, you're supposed to take off your jacket. But I'll do a body search for you, oh!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is uncomfortable.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mmm-mmm.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not necessary, is it?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, it is, honey. Oh!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arabs love to cuss in English. They cuss their heads off in English. They won't do it in Arabic, because then God could hear them.
DOUGHERTY: Is there is a point you could go too far? Is there a line in other words in your comedy?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any jokes about Mohammad. Any jokes about Prophet Mohammad are forbidden. Stay away from him.
DOUGHERTY: Like his fellow axis of evil comics, he says you can scare people into laughing. He quotes a comedy colleague who's a rabbi.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He always says you can't hate anybody when you're laughing with them. So it's nice when we're doing our shows to see the diversity in the crowd and people actually laughing together. You see Arabs and Jews and White, and Mexican and Black, and they're all sitting together and they're all sharing the same laughs. Comedy's like food or music. It's universal.
DOUGHTERTY: Jill Dougherty, CNN, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
BLITZER: They really, really are funny. That's it for us here in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I'm Wolf Blitzer. Let's go to Paula in New York - Paula? TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com