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Congress Renews Debate Over Decades-Old U.S. Embargo On Cuba

Aired June 22, 2007 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Thanks very much, Lou. Happening now, skeletons kept in the closet for decades. Assassination attempts. Kidnappings and domestic spying. The CIA is revealing some of its dirtiest secrets right now.
Rockets ready to fire spotted in a schoolyard aimed at Baghdad's Green Zone. The U.S. military tells us they came from Iran. We have the exclusive pictures.

And Fidel Castro is aging and frail. Is it time to ease the embargo on Cuba? A furious debate cuts across party lines in Congress. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Secret CIA actions such as the abduction of terror suspects are sparking international debate and court cases these days. A generation ago, though, illegal CIA activities in this country grabbed the headlines. Reforms were made, but records of abuses were kept secret. Until now. They're being declassified. Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the records formally are going to be released next week. But we already have a preview summary. It provides a list of what the CIA called skeletons. How serious were they? In 1975, the CIA director reported to the president that in previous decades, the agency quote, "did some things it shouldn't have."


TODD (voice-over): Wiretapping, surveillance, break-ins, opening mail, infiltrating dissident groups. The CIA is prohibited from those operations domestically, but did so anyway in the 1960s. CIA Director Michael Hayden says next week he will declassify and make public more than 700 pages of old internal documents called the family jewels.

TOM BLANTON, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: This is the CIA's internal assessment written by the senior CIA officers of what might have been illegal, what crossed the line, what was over the edge, what was outside the charter.

TODD: Among the activities they found? Wiretapping and surveillance of several journalists, including Brit Hume in 1972 when he was a researcher for investigative reporter Jack Anderson.

PETER EARNEST, INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM: They used the phone, they see people, they travel about, they drive their cars, so at any given time they're exposed to circumstances in which their phones could be tapped. Their movements monitored.

TODD: Other illegal activities exposed in the documents, the infiltration of anti-war groups, opening mail from Americans to the Soviet Union and China, including four letters to Jane Fonda.

BLANTON: It was doing what it believed to be what it was being directed to do by the executive office. And by that, I mean the White House.

TODD: A front-page story in 1974 on eavesdropping prompted an internal review by the CIA director at the time. But the agency kept the lid on the family jewels for 30 years, then national security adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued in a 1975 meeting, quote, "if they come out, blood will flow."

For example, Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro. The plot never came to fruition. And political assassinations are now counter to U.S. policy.


TODD (on camera): Current CIA Director Michael Hayden says he's working to make the agency as open as possible. Today there is far more oversight from Congress and the debate over/ privacy and intelligence is more public, but it seems just as controversial, Wolf.

BLITZER: Given that debate, how do experts feel the CIA compares right now as opposed to then?

TODD: Well, Tom Blanton at G.W. pointed out these days some of the same topics are in the news and in fact they are. Kidnappings overseas and eavesdropping on Americans. But Peter Earnest, the former CIA officer says that now the agency has so much congressional oversight and as a consequence so many lawyers on hand, that he's concerned their hands are being tied.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Brian will watch these documents as they are revealed next week.

As we just heard, reports of CIA domestic spying led to urgent huddles at the White House in early 1975. Transcripts show top officials weighing the possible fallout, worried about a possible Justice Department investigation of the spy agency. Henry Kissinger warned the president at that time. And let me quote him specifically. "When the FBI has a hunting license into the CIA this could end up worse for the country than Watergate."

Two countries that were once bitter enemies are now talking things over. The Vietnam War ending back in 1975, but today the White House warmly welcomed the president of Vietnam for the first time since the end of the war. President Bush hosted the President Nguyen Minh Triet and welcomed warmer relations between the United States and Vietnam.

But while the two leaders have friendly discussions inside the White House, there were protests outside. Chanting, "Freedom for Vietnam now," activists protested Vietnam's communist ruled one-party government and Vietnam's human rights record. I raise the issue of human rights with the Vietnamese president in a one-on-one interview.


PRESIDENT NGUYEN MINH TRIET, VIETNAMESE PRESIDENT: Vietnam has experienced long years of war, and during that period, Vietnamese people did not enjoy full human rights. And many of us were arrested, put into prison, tortured without recourse to the court. And we conducted the liberation war in order to regain our human rights.


BLITZER: You can see the entire interview with Vietnam's president. That will air this Sunday on LATE EDITION at 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

Iran may be getting closer to a weapons-ready uranium stockpile even as it engages in critical negotiations with the west. Just how close is a matter of serious debate. CNN's Aneesh Raman is in Tehran. Aneesh?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Iran late today denied comments that had already been attributed to the interior minister over its nuclear program. Earlier today a semi-state-run news service had quoted the interior minister as saying Iran had right now in storage just over 200 pounds of enriched uranium. Analysts suggest Iran would need about five times that amount to produce one small nuclear weapon, and that Iran could do that within a year.

Now, Iran vehemently denies it's pursuing a nuclear weapon, denied the comments that were attributed to the interior minister.

But the reason it caused such a stir is that the comments that were originally reported came just ahead of talks on Saturday between Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and the E.U. Those talks are seen as a last chance to forge some diplomat breakthrough and prevent a third round of sanctions over Iran's nuclear defiance that seems now but inevitable.


BLITZER: Aneesh Raman joining us tonight from Tehran in Iran.

In another important story, a U.S. senator suggests that Vice President Dick Cheney is trying to operate above the law. His claim partly involves secrets the vice president's office is keeping. And Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate says represents, and I'm quoting now, "a dereliction of duty to the people of the United States."


SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D) IL: Here is a vice president who has sadly misrepresented this war in Iraq over and over again from the initiation of the war, the existence of weapons of mass destruction. And now is saying that he is not covered by the law when it comes to the disclosure of classified information within his own office. Mr. President, this really is evidence of arrogance of power. And it's unacceptable.


BLITZER: At issue of presidential order designed to safeguard classified national security information. The National Archives is charged with doing that. Today the White House defended Cheney's decision not to cooperate with the National Archives. The administration says the vice president's office is not bound by some parts of that presidential order, and denies Cheney ever suggested that the National Archives be shut down.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York. One of the arguments they make, Jack, is that he's also the president of the Senate. So technically his job is not just in the executive branch of the U.S. government, it's also in the legislative branch. As a result he doesn't necessarily have to do what everyone else in the executive branch of the government has to do.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: No. Of course not. But how do you claim executive privilege when things come along that you don't want to cooperate with if you're not a member of the executive branch. It's all pretty pathetic, I think. Senator Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet, sort of. Obama has revealed the 113 pet projects that he has requested in the Senate, and he's challenged his fellow presidential contenders who are members of the Senate to do the same.

Obama's earmark requests total more than $300 million. They range from $33 million requested with other senators for a nationwide project to promote civics among students. Isn't that what we pay the public schools to do? To $125,000 to add turn lanes and traffic lights at an intersection in rural Illinois.

Obama's the first Democratic candidate to make his earmark requests public. He's also only one of two candidates, the other one being Senator Chris Dodd, to release his tax returns. In fact just today Obama promised sweeping ethics reform if he's elected president. He says there's, quote, "more cleaning up to do in Washington" and that he would ban political appointees in his administration from lobbying the executive branch of government after leaving their jobs.

When it comes to earmarks, Senator John McCain's campaign responded to Obama, saying McCain doesn't have any pork requests and suggested the other candidates following McCain's lead and not request earmarks at all. From the book called fat chance.

Here's the question. How much do you care about a presidential candidate's tax returns and/or pork requests? E-mail, or go to Wolf?

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

Coming up, rockets at a schoolyard. Insurgents taking aim at Americans. We have exclusive video coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. You're going to want to see it.

Plus, the U.S. embargo against Cuba. We'll find out why lawmakers from farm states are now fighting to end it.

And another CNN exclusive. Inside the Secret Service. We'll find out why this year's presidential campaign is stretching agents fairly thin. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: U.S. troops are taking the fight to insurgents on the offensive outside Baghdad. But the Iraqi capital itself may face a new threat. Weapons from Iran.


BLITZER: Joining us now in Baghdad, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, the chief U.S. spokesman for the Multinational Forces in Iraq. General, thanks very much for coming in. Some new video. Pretty alarming video that you've made available to us now. And I want to show it to our viewers. But set the scene. Tell us what we're about to see.

BRIG. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCES: Wolf, what you're going to see is a line of rockets that are laid out in a schoolyard in the southern part of Baghdad. And you'll notice that they're under tarps, they're under cover to try to keep them from being detected by coalition forces or Iraqi forces. They're positioned in a built-up area where those who put the rockets in were clearly trying to use the local population as a shield.

And even further than that, as I mentioned, they're actually in a schoolyard.

BLITZER: And these rockets were going to be launched against targets in the so-called Green Zone, the international zone where most of the American diplomats, most of the Americans are, and the top Israeli -- excuse me, the top Iraqi leaders are as well.

BERGNER: That's right. It's where the government of Iraq's offices are. It's where a lot of Iraqi people work. And as you mentioned, it's where those of us who are trying to help the government of Iraq are also located. What happened was, our intelligence and surveillance capability allowed us to see those rockets, and we saw, as you see, a young man walk out and rearrange the camouflage that's covering one of them.

We were able to direct a ground force to that location where we were able to interdict the rockets before they were launched. And we were also able to detain those who were involved in trying to target the Iraqis and the international zone.

BLITZER: Did you determine who was responsible for this operation? Was it al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents? Who did it?

BERGNER: Wolf, we're still doing the tactical interrogations, the questioning and so forth.

One of the things we did learn, though, after we interdicted that operation was that the rockets that you see in that photograph our explosive ordnance experts tell us have Iranian markings on them. So the source of those appears to have been from some sort of Iranian weapons supplier that provided those to this group here in Iraq.

And so we continue to be very concerned about the flow of weapons, and munitions and other sources of support that are destabilizing Iraq.


BLITZER: And the conflict in Iraq, and what to do about it are serious issues on the front burners right now in the presidential race. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas is running for the Republican nomination. He has his own ideas about how to proceed.


BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: How worried are you, senator, that the president's Iraq policies could not only drag down the republican presidential ticket, but Republicans across the board? And I ask it in the context of a new poll that is just out by "Newsweek" magazine that has only 23 percent of the American public approving the president's handling of the situation in Iraq, 73 percent disapproving?

BROWNBACK: Well, Wolf, I think that's one of the lower level problems you're talking about, what it does to the Republican Party, and what it does to the Republican presidential candidates. The key here is we're at war. We've got a number of people losing lives every day. We're divided as a nation on it. And I think we've got to get policies that will move us back together as a nation and get us to a position we can pull our guys back from the front line.

That's why I've been pushing this policy with Joe Biden on a three-state, one-country solution in Iraq as a way to pull us back together, get a political situation that I think is attainable on the ground in Iraq.

BLITZER: Do you agree ...

BROWNBACK: And get the guys back from the front line.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Senator Biden, there should be a withdrawal date, a date to try to start withdrawing U.S. troops from?

BROWNBACK: I don't, Wolf. And I would love to have our troops out now. But the day you say a date to pull them out is that same day that we declare that day, is the day al Qaeda declares victory. I don't think we can do that. I don't think it's wise to do that. BLITZER: But you think the current strategy that President Bush has embarked on can work, that there will be a free and democratic, peaceful Iraq at the end of the tunnel?

BROWNBACK: I think we have a workable military strategy. I think we have a fantastic military that's executing it. What I don't think we have in place is a political strategy on the ground in Iraq that can get us to a durable position in timelines that the American people are willing to support. That's where I think we have a real problem and that's why I have a problem with the administration.


BLITZER: And still ahead, "Sicko" fears. Some 9/11 rescue workers worried the government will go after them now for traveling to Cuba with Michael Moore.

Plus, aggressive campaign tactics. An aide to Mitt Romney accused of posing as a cop. We'll tell you what's going on. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There are 18 declared presidential candidates. And others may jump into the race before some others drop out. And that's creating some major headaches for the Secret Service. Our chief national correspondent John King has been getting an exclusive behind- the-scenes look at what these Secret Service agents are up to. John, fascinating material.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's remarkable to watch this. You see them training for gunshots, for knife attacks, doing the defensive and the protective driving. We saw the presidential limo at one point up on two wheels doing a 360 backwards. It's pretty remarkable. The unprecedented training is because of the challenge ahead. And unprecedented amount of training, Wolf, that also will cost an unprecedented amount of money.


KING (voice-over): It is already a high-stress job. All the more so now because of the strain of an unprecedented presidential campaign challenge.


KING: So Secret Service deputy assistant director John Coyer finds a little humor comes in handy.

DON COYER, DEPUTY ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, SECRET SERVICE: We're lucky. You know, you elect them, we protect them. That's my motto.

KING: Getting it right carries a significant price tag, in both money and manpower. These agents being trained for campaign details are from Secret Service field offices from around the country. Being on the road with candidates means time away from counterfeiting, cyber crime and other investigative duties.

TERRY SAMWAY, RETIRED SECRET SERVICE AGENT: So the strain is really that we've now had to stop doing something to do this.

KING: The service also is asking other agencies for help. The Transportation Security Administration, for example, will assist screening event crowds for weapons from the obvious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think you're going to see this?

KING: Like this blade in an umbrella handle. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also being asked to help. Although an initial idea to borrow 2,000 ICE agents has been trimmed back to 200.

COYER: We layer these events with security and they play roles, I don't think we've put them into anything that they're not prepared to do.

KING: The close in protection falls exclusively to Secret Service agents. This training designed to test reaction to potential threats on the campaign trail. Maybe gunfire, or a knife attack along a rope line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the shift alerts, they're going to pinch between the protecting and the problem, and become a human shield. The detail leader is going to spin the protectee away. And actually shield the protect protectee with his back.

KING: These SUVs soon will be spread across the country with campaign use bought with some of the $110 million the Secret Service anticipates spending this cycle on candidate protection, nearly double of the $65 million. But that cost could go even higher. Senator Barack Obama picked up Secret Service protection in May, a full eighth months before training supervisor Renee Triplett anticipating deploying new campaign details.

RENEE TRIPLETT, SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE: A little bit of a challenge. But nothing that we weren't prepared for. So it worked. We just had to implement it a lot quicker.

KING: In questioning where the service needs more money, the House Homeland Security Committee put the cost of protecting Senator Obama at $44,360 a day or approximately $6.7 million through October, the end of the current budget year. In response, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said any proposed funding modifications for the Secret Service would be sent to Congress later this month.

One of the of the calculations is when additional candidates will come under the watchful eye of the campaign details now in training.


KING: And still only two candidates with that protection now, Wolf. Senator Clinton who obviously has it dating back to her days as first lady. Senator Obama who picked it up a few months back. Secret Service anticipates probably one or two more Democrats, and then one or two, maybe three Republicans late this year, definitely by early next.

BLITZER: What was it like being rescued, if you will, by those Secret Service agents?

KING: They asked me if I wanted to do that to get a feel for what it's like, how the different team members act. The two in front, as you saw, and they just described, they pinch in, essentially to take the blow. Whether it's a knife, a punch, a gunshot, whatever it is. They pinch in front of the candidate, the president, the protectee, whoever that is. Then the lead agent grabs you by the waist, lifts you a little and spins you. I'm not so easy to move. He did a great job doing it.

They wanted me to get a feel of how they all have to work together as a team. That is why that training is so important. The details training as a team out there will got out as a team on the candidates. So they spend a lot of time together, know each others strengths and weaknesses and know how to react when you have something like that.

BLITZER: We're glad they saved you, John. Thanks very much.

KING: A simulation but it's interesting.

BLITZER: Very nice. John King doing some exclusive reporting for us.

Just ahead, the battle over the U.S. embargo on Cuba.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just think the backwards American policy on Cuba hurts our U.S. producers a whole lot more than it hurts Fidel Castro.


BLITZER: Some lawmakers from farm states teaming up to open up trade with Havana. Will it help or hurt the effort to end the reign of Fidel Castro?

Plus, attack of the flying fish. This is a story you'll have to see to believe. Jeanne Moos has it right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, the House of Representatives has voted against sending any aid to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. provide a tiny bit of aid to the oil-rich nation. The measure is attached to a foreign aid funding bill for next year, must still debated by the Senate. Lawmakers now accusing the Saudis of religious intolerance and funding terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, outside the Saudi embassy in Washington, 200 or so local Muslims gathered to protest Middle East violence and terrorism. The leader of one participating group saying there's evidence suggesting some Saudis are supporting al Qaeda.

And the Space Shuttle Atlantis now finally back home. After a two-day extension of their mission plus a one day landing delay. The Atlantis crew members touched down today at California's Edwards Air Force Base. There were weather problems at the regular landing spot down in Florida.

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

We turn our attention now to the United States and Cuba. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has been in place for more than 40 years. Once again, today, on Capitol Hill today, some lawmakers think it's time that that policy should go away. Let's turn to our Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's an almost annual debate with supporters of the embargo determined to keep it in place in hopes of ending the iron-fisted rule of Castro's communist regime.


KOPPEL (voice over): The latest push to ease sanctions against Cuba comes as the 80-year-old dictator is ailing. But lawmakers on both sides of the issue aren't letting Fidel Castro's health influence a decades-old debate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The backwards American policy on Cuba hurts our U.S. producers a whole lot more than it hurts Fidel Castro.

KOPPEL: On one side, mostly farm state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, in favor of ending the embargo.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For too long ideological driven restrictions have undermined America's export competitiveness in a market 90 miles away.

KOPPEL: On the other side, anti-Castro lawmakers, many of them members of the influential Florida voting block, as well as President Bush.


KOPPEL: In 2000, before Bush became president, Congress voted to allow some sales of food and agricultural products to Cuba. But five years later, in 2005, the Bush administration put up new road blocks. The focus of this year's battle, a bill to end travel restrictions, as well as further open up U.S. agricultural exports to the island nation.

Idaho Republican Mike Crapo is a supporter, who says the more than 40-year-old policy hasn't worked.

SEN. MIKE CRAPO (R), IDAHO: Our efforts to isolate Cuba have simply pushed Cuba toward other nations as a trading partner. KOPPEL: If the travel embargo alone were lifted, the bill's supporters estimate it could create nearly 20,000 new jobs, and bring the travel industry about $1 billion in new revenue. But pro-embargo lawmakers, like Democrat Robert Menendez, himself a Cuban-American, says there's another bottom line that matters more.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: The real issue is here, do we prop up a regime through our dollars at the end of the day? In a way, that only continues the suffering of the Cuban people?


KOPPEL: That said, no one on either side of the issue is ready to predict whether this could be the year the embargo ends, or if Castro will survive to see yet another year the embargo remains in place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, thanks. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba was established in July 1963, in response to the Cuban missile crises. It's core goal is to deprive the Cuba's government of U.S. dollars by prohibiting direct imports and exports between the U.S. and Cuba.

The sanctions ban U.S. citizens from traveling to or doing business with Cuba unless the reasons are humanitarian, agricultural or educational. Even so, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in the first four months of this year alone, more than $115 million worth of U.S. goods and services were exported to Cuba. Only $200,000 worth have come out of Cuba to the United States.

If you're sick, it usually isn't a crime to take care of yourself, but tonight some 9/11 workers who went to Cuba for Michael Moore's new documentary film, "Sicko" are hoping the federal government doesn't make a federal case out of it. CNN's Carol Costello is keeping an eye on all of this for us -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, Michael Moore is now under investigation for traveling to Cuba illegally. We've told you about that. Now those he brought along with him, to get medical care for his documentary, fear they will go down, too.


MICHAEL MOORE, FILM DIRECTOR: Permission to enter! I have three 9/11 rescue workers!

COSTELLO (voice over): Michael Moore in his documentary "Sicko", traveling to Cuba onboard, three 9/11 rescue workers who say they became ill after working at ground zero, who traveled to the land of Fidel Castro to get medical treatment.

REGGIE CERVANTES, 9/11 RESCUE WORKER: I would go to the moon if they offered me free health care.

Reggie Cervantes and John Graham have lung problems. Bill Maher has stress related tooth grinding. Now they worry the federal government will go after them for traveling to Cuba illegally. CERVANTES: To tell us that we can't go 90 miles off the shore of Miami, to participate in not only a film about health care, but if we needed it, to get health care.

COSTELLO: Their lawyer says the trio hasn't received any notice from the government as to whether they're being investigated. This news conference is a preemptive strike. There are strict rules prohibiting most travel to Communist Cuba.

And according to the government, "It is not consistent with our policy to license travel to Cuba for medical care."

You can apply to go to Cuba as a journalist. That's what Michael Moore did. But the 9/11 responders did not apply for any license. They depended on Moore.

(On camera): It did Michael Moore tell them they had to apply for a license?


COSTELLO: He never said --?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He never said, you have to apply for a license.

COSTELLO (voice over): The rescue workers would not tell me how they got to Cuba without the proper papers. But in the movie, they did receive medical care. Maher who had virtually had no teeth left, got a new set. None of them paid a dime, they say.

MOORE: This is $120 in the U.S.?


MOORE: How much is that in American dollars?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's like 5 cents.

MOORE: 5 cents?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, more or less.

COSTELLO: But now if they are convicted, they face fines up to $65,000. Their lawyer says they could also face jail time.

WILLIAM MAHER, 9/11 RESCUE WORKER: I'm willing to tell them to send me to Guantanamo Bay, because I know I can get excellent and first-rate medical care.

COSTELLO: As for whether any of them blamed Moore for possibly using them --

JOHN GRAHAM, 9/11 RESCUE WORKER: I just have to tell you, I feel like Michael Moore is a first responder now. He responded to us, and he's being treated poorly. (END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: The U.S. Treasury Department, which investigates these matters, will not comment on the specific investigation. But did tell us, as I said, granting a license to Cuba for medical care is not something it would approve -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thank you for that.

How well does your hospital treat its patients? For the first time ever, the government is releasing information on certain types of patient care and making it searchable to the public. Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner is watching the story for us.

Jacki, what kind of health problems are we talking about?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're talking about the mortality rate for patients who suffer from heart attacks, or heart failure. The Department of Health and Human Services has put this information online, and you can take a look at it for your local hospitals, for yourself.

The 30-day death rate from heart attack is 16 percent, the national death rate from heart attack. From heart failure, it's at 11 percent. You can compare and see where your hospital stacks up.

I will tell you, of the 4,500 hospitals that were compared on this site, only about 50 of them were either above or below the average. That's because the average category was very wide. For example, you take an institution like the Cleveland Clinic, which is one of the top heart institutes in the country, they actually fall within the average of the U.S. national rate for mortality.

Now, we spoke to them today and they say they're actually happy with where they landed within this information. They say it's a very gray area and they were at the top of that ranking. But they say it's really good that the government is putting this information online. This is a very good step toward more transparency.

The Department of Health and Human Services says this is preliminary information. Go to their website. They have 20 factors that you can search to find out more information about your local hospital. They say those measures, in addition to this new information, will give you a most complete picture, Wolf.

BLITZER: Useful information for our viewers. Thanks very much, Jacki for that.

Up ahead tonight, a top aide to Mitt Romney taking a leave of absence after some very embarrassing allegations. What is he accused of doing? And how will it impact the campaign? We're watching this story.

John Edwards' pet project, the charity was started to fight poverty. Some critics, though, now alleging it was a ploy to keep Edwards on the political radar. Mary Snow watching this story for us. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: An embarrassing string of stories just cost Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney the services of one of his top campaign aides. Was that aide being overzealous? Did he break the law? Or was he involved at all? Our Boston Bureau Chief Dan Lothian is on the story -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN BOSTON BUREAU CHIEF: Wolf, this is an investigation that is taking place not only here in Massachusetts, but also in New Hampshire. In a case that at the very least could be a distraction for the Romney campaign.


LOTHIAN (voice over): At his campaign stops, all eyes and cameras are on presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But take a look at the guy several steps behind Romney. That's his campaign's director of operations, Jay Garrity. He's been part advance man and part security detail since Romney's days as Massachusetts governor. But as of now, Garrity isn't behind the scenes anymore. He's on leave of absence.

A phone call to this Boston-area plumbing company may be one of the reasons why. According to "The Boston Globe", someone identifying him as Trooper Garrity with the Massachusetts state police called Wayne's Drains last month to complain about one of its van drivers. The caller threatened to write the driver a ticket for speeding and erratic driving.

The Boston D.A. is now investigating because there is no Trooper Garrity. Jay Garrity's attorney, Steven Jones, tells CNN his client never made the phone call, has no connection to the cell phone where the call came from, and has offered to take a voice analysis test to prove it.

But Garrity figures prominently in another interesting story from New Hampshire. "New York Times" reporter Mark Liebovich identifies Garrity as man wearing an earpiece, who ordered him to veer off because he was following Romney's SUV between campaign stops. Liebovich says the Romney aide told him, quote, "We ran your license plate, and that people aren't allowed to follow Romney's vehicle." In reality, New Hampshire's law doesn't allow anyone outside of law enforcement to run other people's license plates. Garrity's attorney disputes the reporter's story. But New Hampshire authorities are investigating.

A Romney campaign spokesman says Garrity's leave of absence is to, quote, "resolve these complaints."


LOTHIAN: "The Boston Globe" also says Garrity has been in trouble before. That he was fined for equipping his car with flashing lights, a siren, and other police equipment in 2004. That's when Romney was still governor of Massachusetts -- Wolf. BLITZER: Dan Lothian reporting for us from Boston.

As he makes his second run for the White House, John Edwards proudly calls attention to an issue that isn't mentioned enough in presidential campaigns. That would be the fight against poverty. Let's check in with Mary Snow. She's checking out some new questions, though, about Edwards' priorities -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, those questions center on a non-profit center Edwards created after losing the 2004 elections, when he ran for vice president. One of the center's main goals was to fight poverty, but what's being asked is whether it largely helped him keep a high profile.


SNOW (voice over): For Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, fighting poverty is a constant theme on the campaign trail.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Having 37 million people in the richest nation on the planet wake up every day worried about feeding and clothing their children -- is wrong.

SNOW: But what he did to promote his stance on poverty, prior to announcing his candidacy, is now under scrutiny. "The New York Times" first reported on a nonprofit organization that Edwards founded, called the Center for Promise and Opportunity. Questioning how much of a role it played in keeping Edwards in the public eye.

Tax filings show the group raised $1.3 million in 2005, and lists several officers who also had worked on his prior political campaign. Some of the money spent was listed for retreats and seminars, held with foreign policy experts to discuss Iraq and national security. Watchdog groups say there was nothing illegal about it. But the center wasn't held to the same rules as the presidential exploratory committee would have been. For example, the organization didn't have to disclose donors.

MEREDITH MCGEHEE, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: He found a way to recreate a base where he could create the staff, the policy work, and the profile to ensure that he could continue to run for president in the next election.

EDWARDS: On why money was set aside to talk about Iraq, an Edwards campaign spokesman says "The Center for Promise and Opportunity was formed to focus on ways to move the country forward and address issues like poverty across the globe, and security of the world."

The campaign said no one from its staff was available for an on- camera interview but provided a college student who worked through Edwards organization to help rebuild New Orleans after Katrina.

BRYAN THOMAS, EDWARDS CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: There were 700 college students and our purpose in going down there was to rebuild homes. SNOW: One watchdog group says that while Edwards is credited for his work in fighting poverty, the public needs to accept the political reality.

MCGEHEE: He's a politician. And he was trying to find a platform. And that's the stark reality here.


SNOW: The policy director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, you just saw there, says the lines can sometimes be fuzzy when it comes to politics and policy. She says the most important thing is for the public to be aware of public reality -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks for that, Mary Snow reporting.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a former first lady hospitalized. We'll tell you what's going on.

Later, it's the running of the carp. You better get out of the way unless you want to be slapped. CNN's Jeanne Moos will have a most unusual fish story. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Let's turn to Carol.

Carol, what do you have?

COSTELLO: Well, Wolf, former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson is in a hospital in Austin, Texas. And Austin newspaper, quoting a family spokesman, says she is undergoing medical tests. The spokesperson adds she's awake and she's receiving visits from family members and friends.

The widow of President Lyndon Johnson is 94 years old. She suffered a stroke back in 2002, but the spokesman said she did not suffer one this time. He has not disclosed the symptoms that led to her admission to the hospital.

Take a look at this. Explosions this morning sent fire balls hundreds of feet into the air. The fire gutted a chemical recycling plant near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The fire is still smoldering. People living within three-quarters of a mile from the plant were urged to evacuate. State officials say monitoring of the air has not picked up anything dangerous. No one was injured.

And on the wide screen, a young woman who fell off an inner tube in swift water near Bakersfield, California. She is safe tonight after all of this. It may be because she was in the right place at the right time. A swift water rescue class was practicing drills in the Current River when class members spotted her. A man threw her a rope. The woman caught it. And she managed to pull herself safely to shore. Wow.

A new study finds that firstborn children have higher IQs than their younger siblings, but the researchers conclude it's because the way their parent treats them, not genetics. The scientists studied 240,000 Norwegian men. They found that firstborns have an average IQ of 103, about two points higher than second born males. And about three points higher than men born third. The study published in the journal, "Science" in case you want to read more about it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Let's go back to Jack in New York for "The Cafferty File"


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: Barack Obama announced today, all -- I think it was 113 pork requests that he had made as a member of the U. S. Senate. He called on the other candidates to do the same. Obama's one of only two to release his tax returns. So we asked how important is that stuff to you? A candidate's tax returns and/or pork requests?

John writes, "Jack, I don't care much about details of a candidate's tax returns or his pork requests. I pay much more attention to who is willing to make those items public and who feels he has something to hide."

John in Florida, "I'm not particularly interested in a candidate's tax return, but as a typical American voter, I'm very interested in pork. If the candidate represents my constituency, I want all the pork he or she can get. If the candidate doesn't represent my constituency, I want no pork. Sorry, Jack, this is obviously not what you're viewers want to hear, but it's the truth."

Brian writes, "These things matter because in America today leaders in all areas of our society fear only one thing, having their bad behavior publicly exposed. Money is the motivation for all government corruption. People running for office should be required to reveal all their financial dealings."

Jim in Florida, "I applaud Barack Obama's disclosure of his earmark requests. Not that I think it is the most important item in a presidential candidate's folder, but the type of earmarks that a politician requests is an indication of a politician's values regarding pork and handing out political favors."

Robert in Texas, "Empty rhetoric, I'm afraid. Doesn't Obama have the ability to sponsor ethics reform as a senator? He doesn't have to wait to be president. It is going to take more than telling me how much money you want to waste and what you will do but haven't yet done, in order to get my vote."

And Janet in Washington, "The income tax returns aren't that interesting other than knowing the sources of the income. That's their money. I want to know every detail about every earmark, that's my money."

If you didn't see your e-mail here go to We post more of them online, along with video clips of "The Cafferty File".

Wolf, have a good weekend.

BLITZER: You, too, Jack. See you back here on Monday.

Up ahead, fish are jumping all over the place, and you just can't take your eyes off of them. Jeanne Moos has a most unusual fish story. That's coming up next.


BLITZER: By this time on a Friday, most of official Washington have clearly hung out the gone fishing sign. But in some places it's the fish that are going after the humans. CNN's Jeanne Moos has a fish story that's most unusual.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): 'Tis the season for flying fish. The trouble is, they don't just fly, they land.


MOOS: And they landed on CNN's David Mattingly repeatedly. Grazed once on the leg, whacked on the arm.


MOOS: And slammed in the chest. The chest hit left a bruise the size of a tennis ball. And all this fish smackin' was caught from several angles. You didn't have to be an angler to appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That hurt! Knock the breath out of me!

MOOS: It seems like flying fish are getting a lot of coverage.

DIANE SAWYER, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Holy carp, Asian carp --

MOOS: Sure, getting smacked by a fish is funny, take Monty Python's Fish Slapping Dance.

But getting smacked can also be serious. This Florida woman lost one finger and had three reattached after she got hit by a flying sturgeon while on a jet ski.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A Mack truck hit me.

MOOS: Flying fish, flying anything can be dangerous. Remember when Fabio got hit in the face by a bird while riding a roller coaster? Though it cuts both ways, it was no feather in his cap.

But pitcher Randy Johnson struck a bird instead of throwing a strike. And birds can drop a bomb, even on the president. Watch the sleeve, screen right.

Bird droppings are expected. Fish aren't supposed to fly.

This guy doubled over after getting hit by a fish in the privates.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right in the mommy daddy button.

Boat engine vibrations tend to get them jumping. So does this device that delivers a small electric shock.


MOOS: Sometimes used by biologists to stun fish so they can be gathered for study.

(On camera): You know the expression, shooting fish in a barrel? With flying fish, who needs a barrel? Here on the Illinois River, an outfit called Bracket Outdoors specializes in extreme bow fishing. 1,000 bucks for four people. The arrows are attached with lines.


MOOS: They even do it at night with illuminated arrows. Some wear helmets or shield themselves with garbage can leads. But fearless David Mattingly was unprotected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh! Did you get that?

MOOS: Oh, he got it. At least fish magnet Mattingly looked better than the fish did. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: What a fish story. Jeanne Moos, she reports here, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Remember, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM, weekday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern. Back for another hour at 7 p.m. Eastern. Also this Sunday, on "Late Edition", my exclusive interview with Vietnam's president, Nguyen Minh Triet. That will air this Sunday 11:00 a.m. Eastern on "Late Edition, the last word in Sunday talk.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next, CNN special investigations unit presents, "Homicide in Hollenbeck".


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