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THE SITUATION ROOM

U.S./Iran Meeting. Candidates' Iraq Positions.

Aired May 28, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Happening now, an historic thawing in U.S. relations with Iran. The first high level talks in nearly three decades and a face-to-face warning about Iran's influence in Iraq.
Also, wartime tributes to America's fallen service men and women. President Bush marks Memorial Day with time honored traditions and facing growing pressure to bring the troops home.

Plus, on the presidential campaign trail, all roads lead to Iraq. Many candidates are spending this holiday explaining and defending their votes on war funding. I'll talk with Democrat Joe Biden.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm John King.

You're in the in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First this hour, America pauses to honor the service and sacrifice of U.S. troops amid unrelenting danger and bloodshed in Iraq.

A powerful car bomb ripped through a busy commercial district in central Baghdad today. At least 21 civilians were killed, more than 60 others wounded.

President Bush paid tribute to what he calls a new generation of heroes, including the 3,452 killed to date in the Iraq War. Mr. Bush led the traditional wreath laying ceremony that the Tomb of the Unknowns, marking yet another Memorial Day as a wartime commander-in- chief.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As before in our history, Americans find ourselves under attack and underestimated. Our enemies long for our retreat. They question our moral purpose. They doubt our strength of will.

Yet even after five years of war, our finest citizens continue to answer our enemies with courage and confidence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: No breakthroughs, but the Bush administration reports finding "brought agreement about the war in Iraq" today during historic talks with Iran. It's the first high level official meeting between the United States and Iran since 1979.

CNN's Paula Hancocks reports from Baghdad.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, there were always going to be sticking points, considering how little Iran and the U.S. actually agree on. But both of the ambassadors, separately, after the meeting, used the word "positive."

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

HANCOCKS (voice-over): No concrete results were expected from this meeting. But the fact it took place at all was significant enough. The Iranian and U.S. ambassadors to Iraq sitting across the diplomatic table from each other, discussing one of the many issues that divides their governments -- the security of Iraq.

It was the first time the U.S. told Iran face-to-face stop the funding and arming of Shiite militias in Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: The Iranians know what they're doing. Our point was simply to say, we know, as well, this is dangerous for Iraq. It contravenes Iran's own stated policy and it is dangerous for the region because it can produce widespread instability.

HANCOCKS: Iran denies it's financing the militia and, in turn, criticized the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq. It also said the U.S. failed to train Iraqi troops adequately.

The Iranian ambassador offered his country's help in training and providing equipment.

HASSAN KAZEMI QOMI, IRANIAN AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We affirm that the armed forces in Iraq are capable of resolving the security problems this country is facing, but they lack complete equipment to contain this crisis and we should prioritize this issue.

HANCOCKS (on camera): Ambassador Crocker described the four hours of talks as "positive" and "business-like." He also said both sides wanted a stable, secure and democratic Iraq.

Iraqi officials who also attended the meeting said the atmosphere was amicable.

DR. MUWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE, IRAQ'S NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: They shook hands. They exchanged very warm and friendly discussion. And they said nice words, as well, and they were -- they were smiling to each other.

HANCOCKS (voice-over): As if to underline the desperate need for security in Iraq, a car bomb ripped through a busy commercial area in central Baghdad as the meeting came to a close, killing two dozen and injuring many more. The blast also damaged one of the holiest Sunni shrines in the country.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

HANCOCKS: But Ambassador Crocker said that it's not going to be just words -- instead, changes on the ground that's going to convince him that relations between Iran and the U.S. can change -- John?

KING: Paula Hancocks for us in Baghdad.

And much more on those talks in the next hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Back here in the United States, the war in Iraq remains one of the most heated topics -- if not the most heated topic -- on the presidential campaign trail. That may be even more true today, given the focus of this holiday and the recent vote in Congress to approve war funding without a timeline for withdrawal.

Our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is in the lead-off primary state of New Hampshire, where Senator Barack Obama is campaigning today -- and, Dana, I understand the Senator actually had something kind to say about the Bush administration.

Tell us about that.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did, John. He actually said that he gives the Bush administration credit for what Paula Hancocks was just reporting on, the fact that they did engage with the Iranians. He himself seemed to be surprised to hear that come out of his mouth, to applaud the Bush administration for anything.

But for the most part, Senator Obama spent the day doing what other Democratic candidates did today -- trying to strike a balance between respecting the solemnity of Memorial Day and keeping up that red-hot rhetoric against the Iraq War.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BASH (voice-over): In some ways, Memorial Day on the campaign trail is just like it is everywhere else -- a day to pay tribute to fallen heroes of wars past and present.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Those who have provided that ultimate measure of devotion to this country deserve the utmost reverence and respect.

BASH: But if you're Barack Obama looking for Democratic votes in the first in the nation primary state, respecting troops means using every opportunity -- like this town hall -- to say those in Iraq now must come home.

OBAMA: And we now have spent half a trillion dollars and over 3,400 lives of young men and women like Jeremy have been lost. And we haven't become more safe.

BASH: Obama is still defending himself against Republican attacks that he endangered troops in harm's way by voting last week against money for the war. OBAMA: It's really a political argument designed to deflect criticism from the president's policies in Iraq.

BASH: Meanwhile in Iowa, Joe Biden is getting hammered for supporting the war spending bill. Democratic voters he needs are furious that he voted yes to fund the Iraq mission without a plan to end it.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DW), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Here we are Memorial Day talking about the need to take care of and protect those we put in the field and take care of those we bring home. I couldn't in good conscience vote to cut off the funding for them.

BASH: Tell that to John Edwards...

JOHN EDWARDS, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Congress has now, I think, let America down.

BASH: ... who used stop after stop in rural Iowa to slam Democratic leaders in Congress for allowing the war funding bill to pass, even as he took heat from veterans groups for using Memorial Day weekend as a call to action against the Iraq War.

EDWARDS: I will stand strongly and proudly against this president because he's wrong about this war. This war needs to end.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: Now, Edwards made a point of not campaigning against the war today. In fact, he's not campaigning at all. He's taking the day off.

So are a number of other candidates on both sides of the aisle. Hillary Clinton is off today, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani. Though, John, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, he is in his neighboring state, here in the Granite State. He is mostly spending the day talking to veterans -- John.

KING: And, Dana, it is cliche, but also true, that sometimes in New Hampshire you get these colorful retail politics moments. The candidates try to have face-to-face encounters in the restaurants and diners.

What's the favorite from this holiday weekend?

BASH: Well, the favorite for me comes by way of our producer Mike Roselli, who was up with Senator Obama in northern New Hampshire yesterday. And apparently Senator Obama went to get some carry-out from a local -- from a local pub.

And the waitress said, "Would you please put Joe Biden on the ticket? Would you make him your vice presidential candidate?"

And he said, "Well, do you want Joe Biden to be my V.P.?"

And the waitress said, "Yes." So he said, "OK."

So, there you have it -- Senator Obama making one campaign promise that if he is the nominee that Joe Biden will be his V.P. on the ticket.

Joe Biden, I think, is a guest of yours. I wouldn't -- I wouldn't tell him the story, if I were you -- John.

KING: I'll pop that with Senator Biden a little bit later and if he is the nominee and doesn't make that pick, he has some explaining to do.

Dana Bash for us on a breezy day in the kickoff primary state of New Hampshire.

Dana, thank you very much.

BASH: Right.

KING: And coming up here, Democrat Bill Richardson sweating it out on the hot seat.

Did his performance on a Sunday talk show throw a wrench into his presidential campaign?

Plus, President Bush's Memorial Day evolution.

What's he saying this year compared to holidays past?

And traveling with Nancy Pelosi -- the House speaker's cold, hard look at global warming -- with the emphasis on cold.

Stay right here.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

KING: Governor Bill Richard is spending this Memorial Day in his home state of New Mexico. He might feel like taking a break from the presidential trail a day after undergoing a tough grilling on national television.

Our Mary Snow is here with that -- and, Mary, a general consensus that Governor Richardson didn't do himself any favors in that appearance on "Meet The Press" yesterday, right?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John.

And it certainly seems that it has only increased scrutiny for the New Mexico governor.

This, as he was faced with a series of tough questions regarding his resume.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am running on my record.

SNOW (voice-over): Bill Richardson likes to highlight his resume on the trail and in a campaign ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM RICHARDSON CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fourteen years in Congress; U.N. ambassador; secretary of energy; governor of New Mexico; negotiated with dictators in Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Nigeria; Yugoslavia; Kenya; got a cease- fire in Darfur; nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times.

So, what makes you think you can be president?

RICHARDSON: I'm Bill Richardson and I approved this message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: On the campaign trail, though, it's not just what's in the candidate's resume -- it's what's left out.

On NBC's "Meet The Press," the New Mexico governor was grilled about his state's low quality of life rankings.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MEET THE PRESS," COURTESY NBC NEWS)

RICHARDSON: Well, we are a poor state, Tim. But the fact is that we have been moving forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Richardson was questioned about his pledge as energy secretary that America's nuclear secrets were safe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MEET THE PRESS," COURTESY NBC NEWS)

RICHARDSON: And there were problems -- and there have been ongoing problems, too -- with nuclear secrets at the national laboratories. But I took action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Richardson was also asked about his previous support of the Iraq War. A year-and-a-half ago in his book, "Between Worlds," he wrote: "At this point, we must see this mission through."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MEET THE PRESS," COURTESY NBC NEWS)

RICHARDSON: It was a mistake. I openly state that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Richardson also said he'll stop using the name of a Marine from New Mexico who was killed in Iraq. The governor attended the Marine's memorial service and tells how the Marine's mother thanked him for the federal death benefit she received.

Richardson recounts the story while campaigning, but the mother says the conversation never took place. The death benefits were certainly real, though.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MEET THE PRESS," COURTESY NBC NEWS)

RICHARDSON: I'm sorry for the way she feels, but I believe I acted honorably. Look at the result. The result was $400,000 life insurance for New Mexico National Guardsmen that served.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: Richardson says many states have now followed his lead on expanding death benefits.

But questions for Richardson and every other candidate will keep coming.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Every comment, every remark, every statement these candidates make is being analyzed and deconstructed. The path to the presidency is just as much about their past as it is about their vision for the future.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW: Now, we spoke with the campaign this afternoon. They put out a statement saying: "As Governor Richardson moves up in the polls, he expects the scrutiny to get tougher. And 'Meet The Press' is known for tough interviews. The governor is proud of his record, with many accomplishments during his 25 years of public service, and expects his record to be examined as he moves forward" -- John.

KING: Mary Snow for us in New York.

Mary, thank you very much.

And Richardson was also questioned about another divisive conflict -- one that's an issue, trust me, for a number of people living in the Northeast. I'm talking, of course, about the intense baseball rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

Richardson says -- if you can believe this -- he's a fan of both teams.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MEET THE PRESS," COURTESY NBC NEWS)

RICHARDSON: Mickey Mantle was my hero. If I weren't running for president and the Associated Press asked me, I'd play center field for the New York -- I wanted to be Number 7.

And -- but I still love the Red Sox as a team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But when pressed by "Meet The Press" moderator, Tim Russert, Richardson admitted the Red Sox are his favorite team.

And how did a person born in California and raised in New Mexico become a Red Sox fan?

Richardson went to boarding school in Massachusetts as a teenager, where he was a pitcher on the school's baseball team.

And I don't know if we can get them on television here, but there's a nice pair of cuff links right there, Boston Red Sox cuff links.

Can we get close enough to those?

There we go. We'll get those on TV. They might be too white for TV right there.

It's hard to focus on those.

But, Governor, let me tell you, you cannot be a Red Sox and a Yankees fan. It is impossible.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now in Europe, after traveling to a remote and frigid corner of the planet as part of a Democratic effort to sharpen their focus on climate change.

CNN's Kathleen Koch has details of Pelosi's trip to Greenland.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, scientists say one of the many signs of global warming is the melting of the Arctic ice caps and glaciers. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation stopped in Greenland this weekend to talk to scientists studying the problem.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

KOCH (voice-over): The helicopter carrying the eight lawmakers came hovering into Swiss Camp Saturday. Their arrival bumped up by more than 50 percent the population the Greenland research station, that normally holds 14. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the other members of the delegation donned parkas to brave the frigid temperatures.

Scientists have been there for decades studying the increasingly rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Since taking control of Congress, Democrats have proposed pushing for more reductions in carbon emissions. Pelosi has said she believes it's important that lawmakers see firsthand the economic and environmental impact of global warming.

The Greenland visit comes as the speaker prepares to move a major energy bill in the House sometime before July 4th.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KOCH: Pelosi's delegation is in Europe right now talking to politicians and scientists about global warming. They're eyeing new ways to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. All of that in advance of a climate change summit next month between industrialized nations -- John.

KING: Kathleen Koch for us on that trip. Some pretty pictures there.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, it's a day of tribute, but also a day of controversy. A veterans group -- a leading veterans group -- says John Edwards and other politicians should not be talking about the war in Iraq in a political context on Memorial Day. Donna Brazile and John Thierry square off in our Strategy Session.

Plus, the images, the pride and the heartbreak of this holiday in the middle of the Iraq War zone.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

KING: Our Carol Costello is monitoring the wires and keeping an eye on the video feeds from around the world.

She joins us now from New York with a closer look at other stories incoming to us on this Memorial Day -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John.

Hello to all of you.

They are believed to be job recruiters for bloodthirsty jobs. The 15 suspects are thought to be involved in the recruiting, training and financing of terrorists from North Africa. Today, police in Spain nabbed the suspects -- 13 Moroccans and two Algerians, ranging in age from 20 to 39 years old. Officials say they also seized computers, cell phone and documentation linked to Islamic Jihad.

A political scandal has led Japan's agriculture minister to commit suicide. Police say Toshikatsu Matsuoka hanged himself. It is the first time a Japanese cabinet minister has committed suicide since the end of World War II. The minister was recently criticized over a series of political scandals.

It's part of a big misunderstanding -- that's effectively what Paul Wolfowitz said in a radio interview. The disgraced outgoing World Bank president tells the BBC that a string of inaccurate statements led to an overheated climate which eventually helped caused him to resign. Wolfowitz came under fire for helping give his girlfriend a pay raise and a job promotion in 2005, and he says all the media attention given to it, "tells us more about the media than about the bank."

And new developments on a story we've been following about those two humpback whales lost in California. They're trying to make their way back down the Sacramento River to the Pacific Ocean. But officials are worried large ocean-going vessels could hamper their progress in the San Francisco Bay. The whales are injured, possibly from an earlier run-in with a boat, but, John, they're still trying.

KING: They're trying and we'll keep watching.

Carol Costello, thank you very much.

The state of Alabama has removed a Web site that classified gay rights groups and anti-war groups as potential terrorists.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner -- Jacki, why are these groups listed as terrorists in Alabama?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, John, it's interesting, up until very recently, the Alabama Homeland Security Department Web site linked this section that talked about single issue extremists. These are groups like animal rights groups, pro-life groups, anti-war groups -- all labeled as possible terrorists.

Now, the section was called "terrorism awareness and prevention." It has been taken down after the department received several complaints from activists in the state. But we found an archived copy of it online, and that's how we can show it to you.

Now, under a section labeled "domestic terrorists" were these single issue extremists. And the description of them said that they're willing to do anything for their cause -- not excluding murder.

Now these are groups such as environmentalists and anti-genetic activists, people who don't want crops to be genetically altered.

We put in a call today to the Pro-Life Coalition and its executive director told us that his listing under there as a pro-life group was "strange." He says his group believes in life from womb to tomb and every time they get together, they make it very clear that anyone predisposed to violence is not welcome.

The director of the Homeland Security Department told the Associated Press that this Web site has been taken down and it will go back up, but it will no longer single out individual groups -- John?

KING: Remarkable stuff.

Jacki Schechner, thank you very much.

And up next, President Bush's sixth Memorial Day as a wartime commander-in-chief. His words on this day very different than they were back early in his presidency.

And did Senator Joe Biden effectively side with the president by voting for Iraq War funding?

I'll talk to the Democratic White House hopeful about that pivotal vote and the Iraq battle still ahead.

Stay with us.

COMMERCIAL KING: Happening now, it's among many people's worst fears -- militants leaving Iraq to expand their pursuit of terror. Now, a top Lebanese official says there are real examples of Iraq exporting fighters.

Who read what and when?

A new book suggests Senator Hillary Clinton did not read a classified intelligence report about Iraq before she voted to authorize the Iraq War. Now some are questioning if other members of Congress read the National Intelligence Estimate before they cast their war vote.

And he's been convicted of repeatedly lying in the CIA leak trial.

But will "Scooter" Libby see any jail time?

His defense is asking the judge for leniency. But the prosecution wants Libby to pay with prison time.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm John King.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Flags and flowers, prayers and praise -- right now the nation is marking the service and sacrifice of America's war heroes. President Bush is, of course, among those marking Memorial Day with somber words and high praise.

But how have his words changed after so many years of war?

CNN White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, joins me now from the White House with more on the evolution of the president's Memorial Day message -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it's very interesting, having covered the president for the last five years. He's very consistent when it comes to actually talking about the troops, as well as the sacrifice of their families.

But you listen carefully, you hear a turn of phrase or even see a slight gesture, and it very much reflects how this war is going.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): President Bush's first Memorial Day speech was at a time when the nation was not at war. The idea of combat distant.

BUSH: We can never measure the full value of what was gained in their sacrifice. We live it every day in the comforts of peace and the gifts of freedom. MALVEAUX: That peace would be shattered three-and-a-half months later on September 11th. U.S. troops would go into Afghanistan to rout the Taliban and go after al Qaeda.

In 2002, Mr. Bush was notably more personal.

BUSH: For some military families in America and in Europe, the grief is recent with the losses we have suffered in Afghanistan.

MALVEAUX: In 2003, the president took on Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, a confident Mr. Bush declared major combat operations over. Three weeks later, he used his Memorial Day speech to honor the fallen, as well as taunt Saddam Hussein.

BUSH: That the moral force of democracy is mightier than the will and cunning of any tyrant.

MALVEAUX: That so-called tyrant was captured nearly seven months later. But, on Mr. Bush's fourth Memorial Day, there were 947 American dead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: America is safer. Two terror regimes are gone forever. And more than 50 million souls now live in freedom.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Just a couple days later, power was handed back to the Iraqis. They later held their first free elections in half-a-century. But, on the president's fifth Memorial Day, the U.S. death toll had doubled. He pleaded to stay the course.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MAY 30, 2005)

BUSH: And we must honor them by completing the mission for which they gave their lives, by defeating the terrorists.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: The administration made optimistic predictions about American troops coming home, until the bombing of a sacred Shiite mosque, which turned Baghdad into chaos. On Mr. Bush's sixth Memorial Day, the U.S. death toll stood at more than 2,700, and the president was fighting the perception he was out of touch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MAY 29, 2006)

BUSH: We have seen those costs in the war on terror we fight today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Many concluded, the cost was too high, and voted to put the congressional Democrats in charge to change course.

Now, with the U.S. casualty count over 3,800, the president is facing a war-weary nation, but remains resolute.

BUSH: They lived and died as Americans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: John, the bottom line here is that the president, on his seventh Memorial Day, clearly trying to make the case to Americans that it was worth it to go to war -- John.

KING: And, Suzanne, I was struck, listening to the speech today, at the point where the president said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of America's destiny.

I don't think anyone would deny the Afghanistan part. But the White House has to know they are going against the political tide in the country, certainly against the rhetoric and the momentum of the presidential campaign, in describing Iraq as a war of destiny.

MALVEAUX: And, certainly, they will -- the other critics will talk about the fact that it was a preemptive war, a preemptive strike, that, perhaps, it was not destiny at all, but, certainly, a choice -- John.

KING: Suzanne Malveaux for us at the White House on this Memorial Day -- Suzanne, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, what kind of job approval numbers has the president seen around Memorial Day during his term? In 2001, the president had a 53 percent job approval rating. After 9/11, his popularity soared, with 76 percent of Americans approving of Mr. Bush's performance around May 2002.

Fast-forward, though, to 2007, President Bush's job approval rating in our latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll is down around 38 percent.

Coming up: the former co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group. Would Lee Hamilton have voted to fund a war in Iraq without a timeline for withdrawal? I will ask the former Democratic congressman.

And what's cooking with the presidential candidates this holiday? A taste of their tastes ahead.

Stay right there. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Our Carol Costello is monitoring the wires and keeping an eye on all the video feeds coming in from around the world.

She joins us now from New York with a closer look at what's incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM.

Hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John.

Hello to all of you.

Britain hands Russia a formal request for the extradition of a Russian businessman accused in the poisoning death of a former Russian spy. That's according to British officials. Britain says it has enough evidence to charge the suspect with murder in the death of Alexander Litvinenko. But Russian officials say they will not extradite the man.

Iran has decided to raise its gas prices some 25 percent. Now that is shedding light on its highly subsidized economy. Experts warn of a possible backlash for Iran, as its citizens are not used to paying that much for fuel.

And Syrians vote in a referendum to endorse their president. President Bashar Assad is the only candidate. He's vying for a second term. But Syria's tiny opposition is boycotting the voting, saying Syrians should have more choices.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- John.

KING: Carol Costello, thank you very much, in New York.

And my next guest is often critical of what President Bush has to say about the Iraq war and his handling of it. But Democratic presidential candidate Democrat Joe Biden -- Senator Joe Biden -- recently voted for the supplemental Iraq spending bill.

Senator Biden joins us now from Dubuque, Iowa.

Senator, good to see you on this Memorial Day.

I want to start by...

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hey, John. How are you?

KING: I'm great, sir. Thank you very much.

We looked at some video of a campaign event a bit earlier. And you obviously had some anti-war activists at your event.

How do you answer those critics on the left who say Joe Biden sold them out by voting for a bill that funds the war, without a timeline to bring home the troops?

BIDEN: Well, the very language the president vetoed was the Biden-Levin language that had us -- a time set. He vetoed it.

We don't have the votes to overcome the veto. In the meantime, I'm not going to play games with the safety of the troops. There's money in that bill to provide for these mine-resistant vehicles that will save two-thirds of the lives being lost. And I'm not about to push that back another two months, and that impact on tens or hundreds of American lives in casualties.

And we just got to keep pushing. We have got to keep pushing it. Every single time we send him a bill, we have got to have those end dates that Carl Levin and I put in there, and keep the pressure on him, so we can turn some Republican votes. We need 17 Republican votes, John, to override the president's veto. That's -- they are the facts. That's the reality.

KING: So, let me take your words then, Senator. You don't want to play games when you don't have the votes to stop the war with a firm timeline. And you want to get the money there, so that the troops are not denied those armored vehicles that would make them more safe. - So, when Senator Obama and Senator Clinton vote no, are they playing games, Senator? And are they -- is their position something that would have delayed the necessary funding for the troops who need to be kept safe with more armor?

BIDEN: I'm not going to second-guess their vote, John.

All I can tell you is what is a fact. If we had been able to -- we didn't even have the votes, by -- there are only 14 people that voted against it. People like John Murtha and I and others who have been leading the fight against the war voted for it.

But those folks who voted against it, I respect their frustration, and -- but, if there were 51 votes to vote for it, it would have meant that it would have gone back to the president again. We would have been in the same spot.

We would have been another six -- two weeks to six weeks. And that would mean that six more weeks delayed building the 2,500 mine- resistant vehicles that we can have for those troops by the end of August.

And, to me, that was not worth -- was not worth it. We have other ways to continue to go at the president to get him to change his mind and to change the view of Republicans.

But I -- I respect my colleagues in their vote. I respect their frustration, and let them answer why they voted the way they did. But I'm telling you why I voted the way I did.

KING: Well, let me ask you to answer this -- answer this.

Do you think the left, the anti-war activists who say, stop the war, lay down the road to stop the war, deny the funding, do whatever it takes, don't give the president another dime for this war, is making that a litmus test in the Democratic primary something that could hurt the party, both in a general election in 2008, and perhaps even beyond?

BIDEN: By the way, they're -- they're not going to make that the litmus test.

I -- I was at the University of Iowa yesterday. There were a couple hundred people there in a pavilion in a park. There were anti- war protesters there, about a half-a-dozen to a dozen of them. I invited them in. We talked about it.

And I think all of them walked away. And one young man who was leading it said: Senator, do you understand? It's just our frustration. You -- when we won the election, we thought maybe we could actually stop it. We're just so disappointed.

But they know the reality. The reality is, votes matter. The reality is, we have got to get 67 votes, 17 Republicans, to change this war. I'm going to do -- continue to do everything in my power to do that.

KING: You are often very critical of this president and his handling of the war. Today, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad sat down with an Iranian ambassador. No breakthroughs, but they did have a first meeting in nearly three decades. There apparently will be a second meeting.

Is this a day to give the president some credit?

BIDEN: Yes.

It's -- it's about four years late, but the truth is, it's better late than never. And I think we should be doing even more. I met with the Security Council privately on Monday, the permanent five of the Security Council, up in New York City.

And I raised the question with them. I said, if the president came to you and said, we want to make this the world's problem, we want you to call an international conference on Iraq, and bring in the parties, so we can be -- come up with a political solution, would you do it? They all said, yes, their countries would.

That's what the president should be doing now.

KING: I want to ask you, Senator, about something that is back in the news because of one of the books written about Senator Clinton. And it's the whole question of, did those who voted, whether it was for or against the war in Iraq, fully read the intelligence available to them?

The question, of course, is, when the national intelligence estimate was available to lawmakers, back at the beginning of the war, did they fully read it, everything in it, not just the assess -- not just the summary, but the complete assessment, some of the dissenting opinions in there from the others?

We are asking all the candidates about this. And your office said that you were at a closed Foreign Relations Committee meeting on the NIE in September 2002 by George Tenet, Bob Walpole, who was the intelligence officer. It says you viewed the NIE at this time and provided a forum for his colleagues to view it as well. I want to ask you, did you read every word of it, sir, including the dissenting opinions at the time, before you cast your vote?

BIDEN: I not only read the dissenting opinions. I spoke to those who dissented.

And you may remember, John, on one of your programs, you asked me whether or not I thought that the intelligence community was wrong. And I said, the president was misusing the intelligence data available to him.

Remember what that resolution said. The resolution wasn't a resolution voting to go to war. The resolution was a resolution voting to avoid a war, to demonstrate that the United States was united in insisting that the -- that the inspectors get back in.

The president made a commitment he was not going to use that force. The president indicated that he was going to abide by what was requested. And what was requested was that we get the inspectors back in and let them do their job. The president did not keep the commitment he made.

I was meeting once a week with Colin Powell, who was telling me at the time he was confident he could get a resolution out of the Security Council, et cetera.

So, everybody looks at it now, everybody looks at it now, and says, we voted to go to war. It was not a vote to go to war. It was a vote to give the authority to the president to avoid war by keeping the pressure on Saddam Hussein. The president misused the power we gave him under that resolution.

KING: Point taken, Senator, but I want to ask you one more if you will make a contrast, then.

BIDEN: Sure.

KING: You say you read the report. You read all the dissenting opinions.

Anyone else who cast that vote, Democrat or Republican, if they cast that vote without reading the entire NIE to get the full scope of the intelligence, that that supported the president's case, the dissenting opinions that might have questioned the president's case, if anyone cast a vote without reading the entire volume available to them, is that irresponsible?

BIDEN: Well, in context, you might say it is, but I don't think so, for one reason, although I read it.

The only reason why I say it's not is because, remember, when the vote was cast, it was not cast as a vote to go to war. It was cast as a vote to avoid war.

Remember the speech the president made at the United Nations. Remember the speech that the secretary of state made. Remember, it was cast in the context of, "I need this moral authority to demonstrate to the world that they have to step up and keep the pressure on Saddam," because, John, what you were reporting back then was, the choice wasn't the status quo ante or war.

The choice was, do we lift the embargo, which the French and others were arguing against? Do we lift the no-fly zone, which many were arguing? Why were they doing it? Remember all that talk about we're killing innocent Iraqis by this embargo?

And, so, what we wanted to demonstrate was that the world had a responsibility to keep this embargo on and keep the no-fly zone. That was the context. And we did not go to war. We did not go to war for six months after that. We did not -- the president did -- initially kept his commitment.

And, John, you remember, I wrote a report, and from the Foreign Relations Committee, in that summer, saying, we should not go to war. It would be a decade we would be at war. We would take hundreds of thousands of troops needed if we went to war, et cetera.

So, what is -- everybody is losing in this. The context of when that vote was cast, it was not a vote for war. It was a vote for the president having the authority to demonstrate to the world that we were going to insist that the United Nations keep and increase the -- the pressure on Saddam, and get the inspectors back in. That was the context in which the vote took place.

KING: Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, campaigning in Iowa on this Memorial Day...

BIDEN: Thank you.

KING: ... and diplomatically kind to his rivals, and even the president, on this day.

We will make note of that, Senator. Have fun campaigning. We will talk to you soon.

BIDEN: That won't help me much, but thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Take care, Senator. Thank you very much.

Up next: John Edwards takes a very strong stand.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will stand strongly and proudly against this president, because he's wrong about this war. This war needs to end.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But did he overstep the line by calling for Memorial Day to be a day of protest?

And, on this day to remember the nation's war dead, we will look at some history and also some current facts about the holiday.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: On this holiday that is known for barbecues and picnics, the presidential candidates are weighing in on their favorite foods to cook.

This taste of what the Republican candidates like from the Associated Press: Rudy Giuliani says he likes to throw some hamburgers or a steak on the grill. John McCain also has a thing for barbecuing. Only, he prefers baby back ribs.

Duncan Hunter, the California congressman, has slightly more exotic tastes. He says chicken-fried venison is his favorite food to cook. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, opts for an old American standard, hot dogs.

In our next hour, find out what the Democrats are cooking up.

Today, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards again came out with a blistering critique of the Bush administration's handling of the war. That's where we begin today's "Strategy Session."

Joining me here, CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist John Feehery.

Thank you both for stopping by on a holiday.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: And let's begin with the criticism about whether this should be a holiday where there's any politicking at all.

This is from Paul Morin. He is the American Legion national commander. He's talking about Senator Edwards.

He says -- quote -- "Edwards is hardly the first politician from either political party to exploit this day, a holiday that was consecrated with the blood of American heroes. It needs to stop. This isn't about Edwards. It's about everybody. As national commander of the American Legion, I implore all candidates to refrain from politicking on Memorial Day."

Donna Brazile?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is a solemn day. And I believe we should honor those who have paid the ultimate price and those who are on -- those on the battlefield.

On the other hand, I think it's important to debate where we are today. The fact is, the Congress just approved and the president signed a bill that would continue funding the troops. Democrats, some Democrats, are disappointed that the leadership supported that bill.

What John Edwards is trying to do is continue to bring attention to what's happening in Iraq, and call on the Bush administration and Congress to eventually change course.

KING: Take a day off?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, there's the right way and the wrong way to do Memorial Day.

The right way is to call up your local veterans group and say, OK, what do you want me to do? The wrong way is to try to protest on -- against the war on Memorial Day. I think this is a very solemn day, as Donna said. And I think that John Edwards did it the wrong way.

KING: It's hard, though, in this climate, is it not, John?

You know, the president will be out at the wreath-laying ceremony. And he will be defending the war and supporting his agenda. And you are in the middle of this heated campaign where the war is, at least for now, the end-all, be-all.

Where do you draw -- how do you -- if you're a communications standpoint, if you're drawing up a speech, where do you draw the line?

FEEHERY: Well, like I said, what you -- what you do is, you try to be as earnest and as solemn as possible. You -- you don't try to take any cheap political shots.

You really -- you try to get as close to your veterans organizations as possible, and see if -- what -- what the right way to go is. You just can't go off on your own.

KING: I want to talk to you about somebody else in the -- in the context of the Democratic campaign and how the war plays in.

Senator Obama is out in New Hampshire. And, obviously, the big issue for all of these candidates -- We just heard Senator Biden as well -- is how they voted last week on the supplemental, the big war funding bill. The left says, if you didn't vote no, you have somehow abandoned them.

Senator Obama did vote no. So, the anti-war aspect of the party is happy with that vote anyway.

Listen to how Senator Obama responded when he talked about the difficulty of that vote.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand why my colleagues had a tough time on it. But I couldn't, in good conscience, say, we are just going to continue on a course that is not working.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Donna, you just heard Senator Biden say that he voted yes because he didn't want to -- quote -- "play games," that they didn't have the votes to stop this. The troops need the money. So, why play games and deny it? Just move on to the next round and try to stop it down the road somewhere.

The party is pretty split on this. Who is right?

BRAZILE: Well, look, Joe Biden and -- and several other Democrats who embraced where the president is standing today, I respect their vote.

On the other hand, I respect the vote that Senator Dodd, Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton took, because I believe that's the right vote. The fact is, is that we're five years in the war, and the president has not come up with a strategy for victory.

And what the Democrats are saying, it's time for a transition. Now, we hear stories that the president may come up with a plan B at some point. But the message last week was that it's time for a change of strategy, and our troops need to begin coming home.

KING: Now, you can...

FEEHERY: Can I jump on quickly?

KING: Fire away.

FEEHERY: The thing about the Obama and the Clinton vote was, they both waited to see -- make sure that the bill passed before they voted no, which I thought was a little bit uncool.

(LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: I mean, the fact of the matter is, you know, what Senator Dodd did was said, I vote no.

And he said it a couple weeks ago. Now, Senator Biden voted for it, too. But the other two, I think, they played games. And I think that is wrong.

KING: Are the Republicans going to come out with an ad and say that Senator Clinton was for the war before she was against it?

(LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: That's a good ad. I think they should.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: I don't think so.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Want -- I want to move on, lastly, to the latest conspiracy theory here in Washington, D.C.

As you know, there's two new books out about Hillary Clinton. And stories about these books, which are not yet out at the bookstore, showed up in the newspaper. And there's a theory -- unproven, but a theory, especially around the blogs -- that the Clinton campaign, Mrs. Clinton campaign, leaked the books to get the bad stuff out of the way on Memorial Day weekend.

Something a campaign would do?

BRAZILE: Well, look, I -- I believe they did the right thing to launch a preemptive strike against the -- against these...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: You believe they did the right thing? Do you know they did it?

BRAZILE: I don't know if they did the right thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: But, look, if -- if there's another trash novel about the -- about the Clintons, I think they did the right thing in getting the story out, and -- and putting the best light on it.

KING: From your days on the Hill, you have watched the...

FEEHERY: I'll tell you what.

KING: ... team Clinton work for a long time.

FEEHERY: Watching the Clintons operate, they are the best. They are the best spinners in the world. This is exactly how you should do it, if -- if you are working for Hillary Clinton, who is masterful.

Does it hurt him in the long -- hurt her in the long run? I don't know. We will see.

BRAZILE: It's old material, John. There's nothing new in the books.

I mean, I have seen some of the excerpts. And I can tell you this much. I will not stay up late at night reading those books.

Nor should you, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: Get your sleep.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: And, John...

(LAUGHTER) BRAZILE: ... just don't buy it.

FEEHERY: All right. I won't.

KING: We will let you both head out to a barbecue, I hope, Donna Brazile, from the left, and John Feehery...

(LAUGHTER)

KING: ... from the right -- just a little play on words there.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: Barbecued boudin, that's what all Democrats should...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: We will get your recipe up next year.

BRAZILE: Hot sausages.

KING: I promise, we will get your recipe up next year.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Thank you, both.

And still to come: Memorial Day, where war sacrifices are a daily occurrence, troops remember some of their comrades killed in an ambush this month.

And did some leading presidential hopefuls actually read a key intelligence report before they voted to authorize the Iraq war? Potentially embarrassing questions for the candidates.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A memorial service was held in Baghdad today for five Americans and one Iraqi killed after their position was ambushed earlier this month. Two soldiers are still missing from that incident.

CNN's Arwa Damon reports on this holiday in the war zone.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Thousands of miles from home, on Memorial Day, the men of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division honor five of their own and the Iraqi soldier who died fighting with them.

CHAPLAIN JEFF BRYANT, U.S. ARMY: Grant us strength and understanding, as we honor these brave men, and rebuild our lives amidst their absence. These men died as they lived, fighting together as a team. They gave their lives for their country. And we can ask no more from any of our soldiers than to make that ultimate sacrifice.

DAMON: Some are haunted by the events of that night.

CAPTAIN JOHN GILBRETH, U.S. ARMY: The problem that many of us have is that we keep looking back and asking what we should have done as they fought and died for us. They have honored us, so we must honor them.

DAMON: For the remaining members of 1st Platoon, honoring them includes finding the will, somehow, to keep going.

LIEUTENANT MORGAN SPRING-GLACE, U.S. ARMY: Sometimes, it seems like it's, you know, overwhelming. But, you know, you have just got to put one foot in front of the other and keep going, you know? You just got to keep driving on. We're here for each other, most importantly.

I mean, that's the main thing that -- that, you know, people don't really understand, is that we're here for all of us, you know, the guys to your left and your right, you know? We're here for each other, through the good times and the bad. But we're just like a big family, like a big bunch of brothers.

SPECIALIST CURTIS YORK, U.S. ARMY: Right now, we have got a job to do. And that's what this thing helps me do, is be able to let out all those feelings and emotions that I usually keep suppressed. And that's just something I will miss.

Sometimes, I catch myself looking around, and, you know, I think I see one of these guys standing there. And just kind of my heart will stop, you know, hopeful for a second.

DAMON: When they get home, these men will visit the graves of the fallen. But, for now, this Memorial Day ceremony has helped give them new resolve.

SPRING-GLACE: I don't know how -- exactly how this day would bring closure. It actually opens a page and gives us, you know, something to honor them with. You know, every time we go out from now on, you know, we go out, you know, with their warrior spirit.

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