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The "Gut Feeling" Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff Has. Chernoff Reports on New Charges in the Human Time Bomb Bank Robbery

Aired July 11, 2007 - 17:00   ET


MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, there were several worried that they wouldn't let us back in the White House, but we are back. And the total price tag for this project is unknown, but it started off at $20 million -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's well worth the money, I must say, having spent eight years -- almost eight years -- seven-and-a-half years of my life there.

Thanks very much, Suzanne.

The briefing room is laden with history. It was built over a pool built for President Franklin Roosevelt. President Nixon for the construction of the briefing room above the pool to accommodate a growing demand for TV news.

And, as I said, I spent a lot of time there. I didn't only see some spiders, I saw some actual rats -- and I'm not talking about politicians -- crawling through that space there.

Good news for the press corps at the White House.

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

Happening now, a gut feeling that the U.S. is at an increased risk of a terror attack this summer.

Is Al Qaeda up to something?

The man in charge of homeland security tells us what's worrying him.

His speeches weren't approved if they didn't mention the president's name often enough and he wasn't allowed to attend the events of a charity favored by the Kennedys. A foreign surgeon of the United States says the White House has been playing fast and loose with politics and it's endangering your health. I'll speak with Dr. Richard Carmona.

And a senator and family man outed as an alleged client of the D.C. Madam. "Hustler's" Larry Flynt tells why he's playing gotcha.

I'm Wolf Blitzer

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Are Americans at greater risk of a terror attack this summer?

The homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, says he has a gut feeling that the United States may be more vulnerable right now.

Let's go to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena. She sat down with the secretary just a while ago -- that gut feeling he's talking about, Kelli, it's drawing a lot, a lot of commotion.


And Secretary Chertoff says that he's actually surprised by the response to his comments. He says that he's been saying the same thing for several months now, just maybe not as colorfully as he did yesterday.

And I asked him to explain what's got him concerned on the terror front. He repeated that there's no specific or credible information about an impending attack on the United States, but he did say that there are developments that are worrisome.


MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We do see some general trends that are concerning. We see the fact that they are training in certain parts of Pakistan. We see the fact that they have now reached into North Africa and they've got an affiliate in North Africa. We've seen, over the last year, increased activity in Europe. And, of course, there's a vulnerability there because of our visa waiver program.


ARENA: Chertoff also says the public statements that we've seen with such frequency from Al Qaeda -- there was even one today, Wolf -- is a sign that maybe Al Qaeda is getting a little bit bolder and trying to raise expectations.

BLITZER: Kelli, as you know, some are suggesting that Chertoff is making these kinds of statements to sort of divert political attention away from the problems the administration is facing right now.

How is he responding to those charges?

ARENA: Well, Wolf, Chertoff says that if people think that somehow threat has evaporated, that somehow al Qaeda's statements reflect a change in its attitude, that they no longer want to carry out attacks, that they're welcome to make that case. He says he's got the basis of facts to support what he's saying.

BLITZER: Have investigators, based on everything you're hearing -- and you spoke to the secretary yourself today -- found any links, specific evidence, connections between the U.K. Suspected terrorists, connections here in the United States?

ARENA: Well, I asked him very directly, Wolf. And at this point, he said no, that there's nothing that you ties the threat in London to the threat here in the United States. But that's something that obviously is being continually monitored as that investigation continues.

BLITZER: Kelli, thanks very much.

ARENA: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Kelli is going to be working this story for us in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, as well.

Meanwhile, a strange turn of events in an already bizarre case. A pizza delivery man killed by a bomb locked around his neck. He said gunmen put it on him before forcing him to rob a bank.

Now, almost four years later, indictments are out, shedding new light on this mystery.

Let's go to our senior correspondent, Allen Chernoff.

He's joining us from Erie, Pennsylvania -- all right, Allen, who has been charged specifically?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: well, two people have been charged with this crime. But the real twist here, the real surprise, Wolf, is that the man who appeared to be an unwilling participant in the crime actually, according to prosecutors, helped to plan the bank robbery.


CHERNOFF: (voice-over): As bank robber Brian Wells sat in police custody with a bomb locked around his neck four years ago, he insisted he had been forced to rob the PNC Bank, forced to wear the explosive that was ticking away.

Minutes later, the bomb exploded, killing Wells. Despite that tragic outcome, prosecutors have concluded Wells, in fact, was one of the conspirators who planned the robbery.

BETH BUCHANAN, U.S. ATTORNEY: It was the participants' intention to have it seem as though the person wearing the explosive device was a hostage.

CHERNOFF: the mastermind, prosecutors say, was Marjorie Diehl- Armstrong, who allegedly recruited Kenneth Barnes to kill her father and wanted to pay him with proceeds from the bank robbery. Both are in prison for unrelated crimes and now face three criminal charges for the bank robbery that could face result in life sentences.

MARK POTTER, ATF: The brutality and utter lack of respect displayed for life displayed by the indicted is rarely seen outside of movie scripts.

CHERNOFF: Wells' family maintains prosecutors are mistaken. JOHN WELLS, BRIAN WELLS' BROTHER: Brian was a complete murder victim in this case. There is no evidence suggesting otherwise, or you would have heard that evidence today.


CHERNOFF: a source with knowledge of the investigation tells CNN that evidence includes an eyewitness who saw Wells attend a meeting with the other conspirators where the bank robbery was plotted.

And, Wolf, CNN has also learned that Wells originally, according to the original plot, he was supposed to wear a fake bomb and only at the last minute before the robbery, the real bomb was locked onto his neck.

An attorney for Diehl-Armstrong says she will plead not guilty to the charges -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That brother -- his brother was really furious, as you saw earlier, Allan, and arguing that the prosecution, the U.S. -- the attorneys, the authorities in Erie County, in Pennsylvania, it just makes their life easier if they implicate him, as well. He's a dead man. He can't respond for himself.

What are they saying about that charge?

CHERNOFF: that's right. They're saying that, in fact, the prosecutors, as you said, trying to take an easy course here. But the prosecutors say, hey, this was a four year investigation involving more than 1,000 interviews. And they said as many leads they chased, as well. So they're saying this was a very conclusive investigation and that they do have the evidence to back up the charges.

BLITZER: Allen, thank you very much.

Allen reporting from Erie, Pennsylvania.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty.

He's reporting from New York City -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, THE CAFFERTY FILE: One of the reasons to quit smoking -- here's another one. Congress is considering a 156 percent hike in the federal tobacco tax. Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee reached a tentative deal that would mean that smokers pay an extra $0.61 a pack for cigarettes. That would raise the price to $39 a package.

They say that this revenue would be used to expand health insurance to about two million children. It's estimated the tobacco tax would raise $35 billion over five years and would fund the biggest expansion of the children's health insurance program since it was created 10 years ago. That program has insured about 6.6 million children who are ineligible for Medicaid.

Republican Senator Gordon Smith, who proposed the $0.61 increase, said: "It really comes down to a choice between children and tobacco. This is a twofer. It decreases smoking and it connects public health care costs with one of the drivers of that cost -- and that's tobacco."

The House, working on a similar package. It's not clear where President Bush stands on this. Anti-smoking groups, needless to say, like it, saying the higher taxes would save lives. The tobacco industry, though, is opposed. They say that smokers already pay $89 million a day in federal and state taxes and in tobacco settlement costs.

So here's the question -- is it a good idea to increase cigarette taxes $0.61 a pack to help pay for children's health insurance?

E-mail or go to

You know, smokers are going to have to start working two jobs just to afford the habit, Wolf.

It's getting more -- getting up there.

BLITZER: Well, maybe she should quit.

CAFFERTY: Well, that's a good idea.

BLITZER: Yes, a very good idea.

Thanks, Jack, very much.


BLITZER: up ahead, a former U.S. surgeon general accusing the Bush administration with playing politics with his post.

Listen to this.


DR. RICHARD CARMONA, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: My speeches were not often not allowed to go forward because they didn't have enough political rhetoric in it.


BLITZER: You're about to find out why he says the White House tried to silence him.

Also, hours of newly released audiotapes paining an unflattering portrait of former President Richard Nixon. You're going to find out what he had to say about his opponent. It's not pretty.

And new details of a deadly attack right in the heart of Baghdad's high security the Green Zone.

Stick around



BLITZER: As early as tomorrow, the Bush administration will release a report on the progress in the Iraq War. To measure whether the president's strategy is working, Congress has set a series of benchmarks -- 18 commandments, if you will -- which the Iraqi government is supposed to fulfill.

Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

He's watching all of this unfold.

So are the Iraqis, based on what we're hearing, living up to their part of the bargain?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: well, Wolf, this is one case where you don't need an official program to tell the score. You can simply look at what's going on in Iraq and tell what's what.


MCINTYRE: (voice-over): Of the unmet benchmarks, none is more critical than number 13, as spelled out in the Congressional legislation funding the surge -- "reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq."

That is the linchpin on which the entire strategy surge strategy hinges, keeping the various factions from killing each other long enough that peace can be negotiated.

FREDERICK KAGAN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Political progress is something that follows the establishment of security, not something that causes it.

MCINTYRE: and the key to security is benchmark number 15 -- "increasing the number of Iraq security force units capable of operating independently"

Remember, when President Bush announced the new strategy six months ago, he said U.S. troops would just be helping the Iraqis.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents.

MCINTYRE: it hasn't worked that way so far.

KAGAN: Iraqi security forces, although significantly better than they were at this time last year, are still too small and insufficiently capable to establish security on their own.

MCINTYRE: all the political benchmarks, things like constitutional reform, de-Baathification laws, oil revenue sharing, provincial elections and protecting minority rights are stymied by the slow progress on stemming the violence. And few experts see that changing by September, when General David Petraeus has promised a forthright assessment on the prospects for success.

JON ALTERMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: We don't yet have any serious indicators that the surge is going to work within the time frame that the American public and that the U.S. Congress expects it to work.


MCINTYRE: so, Wolf, the July interim report will tell us what almost everybody concedes -- that the surge is not working yet. But the real question is can it work, given enough time. And how much time, how many American lives and how much money will that take -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

Thank you.

We'll stand by for that report, as I said, as early as tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in Iraq today, insurgents are keeping their assault on the capital. A car bomb targeting a U.S. military convoy exploded right in the central part of the city, killing a civilian. This follows a deadly mortar attack a day earlier, right in the heart of the capital.

And joining us now from Baghdad, the chief military spokesman there, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, U.S. Army.

General, thanks very much for joining us.

A lot of us are concerned about what's happening in the so-called International or Green Zone, these mortar barrages coming in, a fairly deadly series yesterday.

What's going on?

BRIG. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, Wolf, the indirect fire attacks against the government of Iraq and against the Iraqi people and also those of us who are here helping work with the government of Iraq are a serious concern for us. And I think, you know that -- in fact, I have -- I have shown you a couple of examples of our operations that are targeting those indirect fire cells. Just in the last few weeks, we have discovered and indicted five of them. And we continue to work very hard to reduce them and to protect the people who are here in the International Zone trying to help the government of Iraq.

BLITZER: So much of what General Petraeus is trying to do is get security in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. A lot of this U.S. military buildup is designed to do exactly that.

The filmmaker, Michael Moore, has been making a point about the road between the airport and downtown Baghdad. Listen to what he's been saying.

Listen to this.


MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER: We used to have leaders like FUNDRAISER, who defeated -- with our allies -- defeated the Nazis and Mussolini in less time than our commander-in-chief has been able to secure the road from the airport to downtown Baghdad.


BLITZER: Is that road still the so-called highway of death?

What's going on?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf, I travel on that road on a regular basis. And it's now secured by an Iraqi force who has armored vehicles. They are in good positions along the road. And it's also patrolled and secured jointly, as coalition forces operate there, as well.

BLITZER: But can average people --

BERGNER: There are periodically --

BLITZER: Can average people just get in their car and if they're flying out of the country, drive from downtown Baghdad to the airport on that road in a normal car?

BERGNER: I have seen Iraqis driving in that car, in their -- in their civilian vehicles, as well. And so it is used by both Iraqis, as well as the coalition forces and the Iraqi security forces.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this latest threat from the number two Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. And he says this: "The Mujahedeen of Islam in Iraq of the Caliphatan Jihad are advancing with steady steps towards victory. The first thing which our beloved brothers in Iraq must realize is the critical nature of unity."

Are they on the verge of victory in Iraq?

BERGNER: Well, actually, Wolf, I think that if you read the whole transcript and you listened to the video in detail, what you'd hear Zawahiri expressing concern about is the disunity, the conspiracies and the discord that is affecting the Al Qaeda movement in Iraq.

In fact, he goes so far as to call for the need for more foreign fighters in Iraq. And that's -- those are all a result of the people in Iraq increasingly turning against Al Qaeda. And it appears to be something that the senior leadership is increasingly concerned about.

BLITZER: There was also a statement that was put out on the Internet from the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, which is Al Qaeda, basically, giving Iran a two month ultimatum to stop interfering in Iraq, otherwise face all out war. What can you tell us about this?

BERGNER: Well, the Islamic State of Iraq is a pseudonym for Al Qaeda in Iraq. It's an affiliate. It's their principal tool, actually, to try to put an Iraqi face on what is largely a foreign led Al Qaeda movement here. And it's consistent with what we have seen in the past from Al Qaeda, which is an attempt to turn Iraqis against one another, to sow division between these different sectarian and ethnic groups.

And so it's very consistent with the nature of this enemy and the tools he has used in the past.

BLITZER: Is that just rhetoric, though, from Al Qaeda or do you think they really are serious about going into Iran and attacking elements there?

BERGNER: Well, Al Qaeda is known for the propaganda, the rhetoric and the use of media as a weapon. In fact, we recently -- we recently found an Al Qaeda media cell in Samarra and saw firsthand the kinds of propaganda tools that they use.

And so it's -- it's consistent with the past practice of using media as a weapon and it's consistent with their past practice of trying to sow division between the people of Iraq.

BLITZER: General Bergner, thanks very much for joining us.

BERGNER: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: And still to come, Congress right now demanding answers from the State Department over that passport meltdown, jeopardizing vacation plans for literally hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Plus, Republican president candidate Rudy Giuliani under fire from firefighters -- again. You're going to find out why some are now questioning his 9/11 credentials.

Stick around.



BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Let's go back to Carol -- Carol, what do you have?


A former cargo handler at New York's Kennedy Airport is pleading not guilty to charges he took part in an alleged terror plot to blow up jet fuel pipelines. Russell Defreitas is one of four men charged in the case. The government is trying to extradite the other three from Trinidad.

Well, prosecutors say they collaborated with a radical Islamic group.

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani is coming under fire from the country's largest firefighters union. Its putting out a video critical of his leadership before and after the 9/11 their attacks, including his decision to locate key emergency operations inside the World Trade Center, even after the 1993 bombing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he's the one that made the decision to put their bunker in Seven World Trade Center, which -- when I was down there on 9/11, that day, I've seen police detectives yelling in the streets that we told him not to put it here, you know, because that was the target of the terrorists.


COSTELLO: Now, Giuliani has faced similar criticism before and has dismissed it as politically motivated. The Giuliani campaign says that the firefighters union has a long history of backing Democratic presidential candidates.

A frightening sight at Miami International Airport. Flames and smoke shooting out of a tower used to assign gates to planes. The facility is part of an airport expansion and it was empty when the fire broke out. An airport spokesman says it apparently was caused by construction work.

A California lawmaker is withdrawing his controversial plan to have to -- to require most pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats. The measure is strongly opposed by breeders and others, and was almost certain to die in the state senate. The bill's Democratic sponsor says he plans to scale it back so it applies to only irresponsible pet owners, and reintroduce that measure next year.

But that that sounds like -- that sounds tough.

BLITZER: how do you define --


BLITZER: How do you define irresponsible?

COSTELLO: Exactly.

Good luck to him.

BLITZER: Thanks, Carol.

Thanks very much.

Coming up, a former surgeon general of the United States says he was muzzled -- muzzled by the Bush administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CARMONA: It wasn't so much you can't talk. But we already have a policy, you don't need to deal with that. Don't talk about it.


BLITZER: Is the White House playing politics with your health?

I'll speak with Dr. Richard Carmona. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And a senator exposed as an alleged client of the D.C. Madam.

Why is "Hustler" magazine's Larry Flynt now playing gotcha with political conservatives?

Stick around.



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

Happening right now, another Senate Republican signing on to a Democratic plan to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by next April -- that would be Maine's Olympia Snowe -- joining, among others, Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon in sponsoring the proposal, with a vote expected by early next week.

Also, a hearing about the passport meltdown by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The chairman, Tom Lantos, calling the massive backlog of applications, and, in his words, "a travesty and a national embarrassment."

And back in business -- the new White House briefing room. President Bush cut the ribbon, unveiling the new state-of-the-art facility following an 11 month renovation.

I'm Wolf Blitzer


Confirmation hearings are due tomorrow for the president's pick controversial to serve as the next surgeon general of the United States.

But is the White House spokesman playing politics with your health?

A physician who previously served as the nation's top doctor is making some shocking allegations about the Bush administration's health care policy.

And joining us now, the former surgeon general of the United States during the Bush administration, Dr. Richard Carmona.

Dr. Carmona, thanks very much for coming in.

CARMONA: Thanks, Wolf.

It's nice to be with you.

BLITZER: All right, let's get right to the heart of the matter. You say now -- almost six years you served as surgeon general -- that during that period, were you muzzled on many occasions by officials at the White House.

Tell us what happened.

CARMONA: Well, I served for four years, the statutory term of surgeon general of the United States. And the message today that Surgeon General Koop, Satcher and myself gave, representing all surgeon generals, are that there has been increasing marginalization and restrictiveness applied to the surgeon general when it relates to science.

BLITZER: But you have some specific complaints about what happened to you, and I want to walk through some of that.

Give us an example of some outrageous -- what you feel was an outrageous thing that they did to try to stop you from talking honestly about science and medicine.

CARMONA: I'm happy to address those issues. But I want to put it in the context of the larger issue, that this is all of the surgeon generals speaking about their experiences, which have a common thread.

But the previous surgeon generals have all said, Rich has had it worse than any of us did during our tenure.

BLITZER: Well, give us an example. What did -- what happened to you that you feel was totally inappropriate.

CARMONA: Well, there are a number of issues, whether it be stem cells, abortion, Plan B, whether it is global health reports, reports that were stymied, reports that were not allowed to develop that the public needed information that for political reasons that information was not allowed to get out.

BLITZER: So how did that happen? Let's talk about embryonic stem cell research. What would happen?

CARMONA: Well, stem cell research basically when I did speak out about that in some of my discussions, but it was limited because I was told policy has already been set. You know, this decision has been made.

But as I looked at the American public, there was a lack of knowledge about this issue of stem cells. Really people were what -- they didn't even know what a stem cell was, let alone could they make an informed decision.

BLITZER: And so what did they say to you? You can't talk about this?

CARMONA: Well, it wasn't so much, you can't talk, but we already have a policy you don't need to deal with that. Don't talk about it. And people frowned about -- on that if I stepped forward and continued to speak about it.

BLITZER: Well, how would they do that? I mean, how does that happen? Here you are, the surgeon general. You have to go out and speak. You have to testify. You have to vet all your comments with officials at the White House?

CARMONA: Well, it's interesting you should bring that up. It is not so much officials at the White House, it is people right within the agency itself, HHS, that are looking at that.

BLITZER: The Department of Health and Human Services.

CARMONA: Yes. And of course, they have communication with the White House as well. But...

BLITZER: These are political appointees you are talking about.

CARMONA: Political appointees. But you know, my speeches were vetted. My speeches were often not allowed to go forward because they didn't have enough political rhetoric in it. There -- it was devoid of science where I felt I should have been speaking about science, not political issues.

I had speechwriters who were constantly in an embattled position because they were trying to reflect my voice on science, yet they were being told more and more to put political things in speeches.

BLITZER: And to make in effect political statements.


BLITZER: And also, I mean, a simple thing like going out and speaking about or attending the Special Olympics. This was a shocking little tidbit that I heard, but tell our viewers what happened?

CARMONA: Well, what I have tried to do, like all the surgeon generals, is to look out at the nation and see, where are the health needs that are unmet? And one of the areas I saw and I put out a report, a surgeon general's call to action on the health of people with disabilities.

I got very involved with the disability community. And the Special Olympics was one of those areas. Best Buddies was another, dealing with children with intellectual disabilities. And I was invited to speak at the Special Olympics overseas, in Japan. That was denied. They never gave me an explanation.

So I backed away from it. The next year I was asked to come to a Special Olympics event and a Best Buddies event. And that was also denied. And when I spoke to some of the political folks about it, I was questioned, in fact, almost admonished as to, well, why do you want to do this?

I said, well, these are children who are disabled. And I made my case based on science. And I was told, well, aren't you aware that -- who is behind all of this? Why would you help those people?

OK? Meaning, people of the other party. And I said...

BLITZER: It wasn't just the other party, it was a specific family.

CARMONA: Well, I'm not going to mention specific names, but clearly I was...

BLITZER: Because the Kennedy family is so involved in both of these projects.

CARMONA: And I was admonished and I was told, no, you can't make the trip. My orders were not approved. So I just -- I had made a commitment already to the group, not a political family, but to children who had disabilities, who needed a voice.

And I went. I took time off and I went on my own dime, so to speak, to be with those children and participate in their organization.

BLITZER: And were you told, and this was during your testimony, I think, and correct me if I'm wrong, that you had to mention President Bush at least three times on every page of a major speech?

CARMONA: Well, I wasn't told, but I can tell you that my speechwriters were -- in fact often had my speeches vetted and they would count not only the president, but different names that were in there and political messaging. And if it wasn't there, they wouldn't approve my speech.

Finally, my speechwriters quit, they left. We got to a point where I told them, don't fight it anymore. Just let them put what they want in because I'm not going to use it anyway. I'm speaking to the science that the American public needs, not the politics. Other people need to deal with the politics.

But let me make the point also, Wolf, that Surgeon General Satcher, Surgeon General Koop, and other surgeon generals had the same problem, it just has become almost intolerable now.

BLITZER: Who made -- who did -- do you want to tell us, name some names?

CARMONA: I really -- I will tell you why I don't want to name names, because I think it is going to detract from the overall issue. I think both -- many administrations have complicity in allowing this to develop to this state.

And the reason we had three surgeons today is to show you that through liberal administrations and conservative administrations, this problem has been perpetuated. BLITZER: All right. Without mentioning names...


BLITZER: ... how high a level did these instructions (ph), did these orders come from?

CARMONA: Senior appointed officials, very senior...

BLITZER: Top officials?

CARMONA: ... appointed officials. Senior appointed officials. And they were different depending on the issue, whether it was a global health report, a preparedness report, whether it was stem cells, whether it was Plan B.

I mean, there were different people that were involved. But there was clearly a political agenda that is different than the public health agenda. And believe me, I understand the political agenda.

All I'm saying is the surgeon generals need to have to ability to transparently, openly and honestly speak to the American public about issues of health and science that are important to them.

BLITZER: And you believe the health of the American public was badly served as a result of this political pressure on you?

CARMONA: What I believe is, is that in a democracy, we should never restrain free speech. And surgeon generals should never be restrained from speaking about prudent science, not policy, not political agenda, but giving the best science to the American public so that they can make their decisions and hold their elected officials accountable based on policy that is ostensibly passed on their behalf.

BLITZER: Here is the statement the White House put out in response to some of your criticisms: "As surgeon general, Dr. Carmona was given the authority and had the obligation to be the leading voice for health of all Americans. It is disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating the policies that he thought were in the best interest of the nation. We believe Dr. Carmona received the support necessary to carry out his mission."

That is a carefully crafted statement coming from the White House spokesman (ph).

CARMONA: Well, I'm not surprised. I mean, you know, I have seen these kind of responses before through my administration as well as through the previous surgeon generals. But I don't think there is any reason to be defensive (ph).

Surgeon general (INAUDIBLE) Surgeon General Satcher are representing all surgeon generals basically did not point fingers. We purposely wanted to address this issue as a systematic failure because the public is not being represented well.

And rather than looking back and pointing fingers at who did what, let's move forward and fix the system so it benefits the American public efficiently and effectively, and not perpetuate this dysfunction that has been part of the Office of the Surgeon General for a long time.

BLITZER: We are going to leave it right there, Dr. Carmona. Thanks for coming in.

CARMONA: Thank you, sir.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Very sad news to report. CNN has confirmed that the former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson has died.


LADY BIRD JOHNSON, FORMER FIST LADY: I want it natural. And I want some multicolor.

BLITZER (voice-over): Larry Bird Johnson in 1996 talking about her beloved wildflowers. She may be best remembered for her calming influence during the tragedies and turbulence of the 1960s.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Mostly as somebody to make a little island of peace for my husband.

BLITZER: But her passion was for the land. All things in their natural state.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Beauty feeds the soul. There's room enough for the rest of life to for beauty and what it does for your spirit and your sense of well-being.

BLITZER: She launched a natural beautification campaign, blanketing her home state with wildflowers, trying to enhance the look of roadsides and highways and pushing for the creation of national parks.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: There's no reason why I planted trees another first lady has to water them, although I surely hope somebody will next. I would hope our president's wife would always have the freedom to do what comes naturally.

BLITZER: Claudia Taylor was close to nature almost from the time she was born in East Texas in 1912. The daughter of a well to do businessman, a baby nurse nicknamed her Lady Bird and it stuck. She was only 5 when her mother died and the experience toughened her. At the University of Texas she studied journalism and history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She went off to school when she was a very young girl. She has always had her own bank account and she's told me I would not have a joint checking account with the Angel Gabriel. I think that included the president of the United States.

BLITZER: Lady Bird fell in love with a young Capitol Hill aide in the 1930s, Lyndon Baines Johnson. They were married in 1934.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did my mother lead a very conventional, political wife role during her time in public life? Absolutely. She was a woman of her time in many ways. But she also was an independent professional. She was a broadcaster.

BLITZER: She always saw her first job as both a mother and a politician's wife. Campaigning tirelessly for her husband. Through his years as a congressman, as a senator and as vice president. The hardest day may have been November 22nd, 1963.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were rounding the curve, going downhill. Suddenly, there was a sharp, loud report. A shot.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She said to me, it's all been a dreadful nightmare. But somehow, we've got to have the strength to go on. And so she supplied that strength.

BLITZER: And go on, she did. Providing grace and a steady presence as Johnson took over the presidency.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was my father's right arm in many ways. She respected conventions. Expectations for a political wife. But she was an independent counsel for Lyndon Johnson. She was a person he could count on to tell him the truth as she saw it and she did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She also got him to care about certain things that he might not have otherwise have thought of, such as taking down billboards from the sides of highways.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: I guess nobody thought that I was a menace, an adversary. Somebody that they felt they ought to do battle with.

BLITZER: Their almost 40-year marriage was described as strong, but it had its rocky moments. She once said, he may not have been perfect, but at least he was fun.

After moving back to Texas and the 1973 death of LBJ, she continued working on her pet projects, such as this wildflower center in Austin, although a stroke in 1993 slowed her down just a bit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Daddy used to say there are two groups of people, the talker and the doers, Lady Bird Johnson was very much a doer.

BLITZER: She saw her work on behalf of flowers a symbol.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: Obviously wildflowers and native plants are not a great huge problem like keeping some of the rain forest which will affect the global climate and so many species. You get rid of hazardous waste, but it is a part of the whole mosaic and I think there's room left in this world for the joy, for pleasure, for understanding. It's all just a tangled web. Every part works together.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: And our condolences to the Johnson family. Joining us now on the phone is Leticia Baldridge, she was the social secretary for another former first lady Jackie Kennedy. Leticia Baldridge, thanks very much. Lady Bird Johnson was simply put, a wonderful lady. I wonder if you have some thoughts.

LETICIA BALDRIDGE, SOCIAL SECRETARY TO KENNEDY WHITE HOUSE: Well, she was an extraordinary woman, she was a great figure in American history and those of us who knew her in the White House absolutely adored her. In the Kennedy administration, she fill in for Mrs. Kennedy whenever Mrs. Kennedy couldn't be present at some of the many receptions. Jackie Kennedy had very fragile health at the beginning of the administration and had to cancel several things.

Well, Lady Bird always stepped in. Once, I called the Secret Service and asked them to get in touch with her because we had something happening that afternoon. We had 2,000 women coming, and Jackie was unable to meet them. She wasn't feeling well. And the Secret Service got her. And she turned around, got off the plane and turned around and came back without saying a word. We never knew that we had gotten her off of the airplane.

She was a trooper. She was a totally unselfish, wonderful woman, always ready to help the country, the White House. I can't tell you how much admiration we had for her.

BLITZER: We are hearing now that she passed away at 5:18 p.m. Eastern Time after a lengthy, a lengthy illness. Leticia, hold on one second. Frank Sesno is here as well. I think it's fair to say she was a very, very traditional first lady of the United States, if you drive around Washington, as you and I do, Frank, you see her work still very, very visible.

FRANK SESNO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Larry Bird Johnson Park in the springtime pops of tulips and great bursts of color. And it takes you back to a role that she played at a very turbulent time in American history. Lady Bird Johnson was for the beautification of America and the removal of the billboards as we heard in the piece. And it's a time when Vietnam and civil rights and so many other things were roiling the country. It was a time after the days of assassination when he lost a young president. And she brought class and stability, as Leticia Baldridge was talking about, and great elegance and her attempts to beautify the country really were a metaphor that ran much deeper than that.

BLITZER: Those were difficult days right after the assassination, the hours immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy. Tell us a little bit about the role that Lady Bird Johnson had in working with her husband who was about to become the president of the United States.

BALDRIDGE: Well, the days were turbulent, as you can imagine, Jackie Kennedy got out of the White House with her children within two weeks' time. And the Johnsons had to move their things in. The house was in turmoil with the changeover. With furniture and suitcases in trunks, and everybody under a terrible pall, a gloom, a depression. People walked, they walked on tiptoes, as if they couldn't make any noise with their footsteps. Never seen the house. So walked grim and glum.

A Lady Bird just went around and went to all of the staff that of course was remaining in their jobs, told them how happy she was to have them there to help her, that she needed their help. She needed their support. And, of course, they all just immediately turned from supporting the Kennedys to supporting the Johnsons. That's what the staff does in the White House. It's a very special calling.

But Lady Bird put up with all of the people trying to come and see the president and trying to come and get jobs in the new administration. The pressure was terrible. But she was a trooper and just kept everybody absolutely calm and quiet.

BLITZER: And she was a very, very strong woman, based on everything I've read about her, I've met her in more recent years. Frank Sesno, as turbulent as it was in the hours and days that immediately followed the assassination of President Kennedy when LBJ became president of the united states, then the Vietnam War escalated and this became such an enormous problem, a crisis for his presidency, and she was in the middle of it.

SESNO: She was. And it's important to remember, we talk about the war that we're experiencing today and the divisiveness, it's nothing compared to what it was then. We had people demonstrating in the streets. We had people saying we were in the middle of a revolution just about. And we had the civil rights disturbances at the same time. This was the Washington that the Johnsons inhabited.

And as much as LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, was the center of the crisis she was, to the extent possible, the center of the calm. And she really did bring that sense. I've spoken with her daughter recently, Linda Bird and Chuck Robb, the former governor and senator from Virginia. They've talked about her declining health. She's had a series of bad strokes. She suffered from macular degeneration in recent years. In fact in part of that interview that you were showing there, she was somewhat debilitated from that.

She kept going for quite some time but her health has been declining for quite some time. And at 94, I believe she was when she died Wolf, she's only the second first lady, the only other one was Bess Truman, who made it past 90.

BLITZER: Well, our deepest condolences to the family. Frank Sesno, thanks very much. Leticia Baldridge, thank you for your memories as well. Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady of the United States, dead at the age of 94.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, new revelations from President Nixon's Oval Office talks are now being made public. Brian Todd has the audio tapes. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Remember the Watergate tapes and those foul-mouthed tirades in the Oval Office? Now, there are more recordings shedding new light on the White House years with President Richard Nixon.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's joining us. This is material we haven't heard before, is that right, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We've not heard or seen this material before. Just out today, new reams of audio tapes, documents on the Nixon presidency, part of what the Nixon Library calls its new mission. Starting today, the library is under federal government control, and they say they want to give an unvarnished, non partisan view of the man, salty language included.


TODD (voice-over): Election night, 1972, Richard Nixon celebrating his greatest political victory, a landslide win over George McGovern. In a phone conversation with Henry Kissinger shortly after midnight. Nixon lets loose on his opponent.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT (audio recording): This fellow to the last was a prick. Did you see his concession statement?

TODD: That excerpt, part of the Nixon Library's new release of hours of Nixon's phone conversation from that period. Shortly after Kissinger's call, Nixon speaks to his deputy counselor, Harry Dent and has not mellowed toward McGovern.

NIXON: That son of a bitch. Didn't you think he was about the worst, candidate, Harry.


NIXON: What he said, I think, we're not going to let him get with that you know. Even last night he started out nicely in his thing but then proceeded to jut his jaw out and said he wasn't going to support this or that. Did you notice that?

DENT: Yes.

NIXON: What'd you think of that? As far as grace, I came on quite graceful to the son of a bitch.

TODD: Thirty-five years later, George McGovern listens to us with his old foe. He says he never refused to support Nixon. He jokingly calls it a great distinction to be called those names by the president. But ...

GEORGE MCGOVERN, (D) FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I also found it rather sad. Here's this man who has just won the most smashing triumph of his entire life. Angry, frustrated. Peevish.

TODD: The director of the Nixon Library adds this perspective to that evening. TIMOTHY NEFTALI, DIRECTOR, NIXON LIBRARY AND MUSEUM: On the night of his election, he's alone, contemplating the affect of his victory, complaining, if you will, celebrating. But it's Nixon alone.

TODD: A few days after his election victory, Nixon is shuffling his Cabinet, he talks about replacing the U.S. a ambassador to the UN, a man named George Herbert Walker Bush.

NIXON: You know that staff up there is violently anti-Nixon and Bush hasn't done one damn thing about it. He's become part of it.


TODD (on camera): We contacted George Bush Sr.'s office for a response for that remark from Nixon and aides said Mr. Bush would not comment, Wolf.

BLITZER: We've heard some of the audio highlights. There are documents that have been released as well. Some interesting nuggets there, I assume.

TODD: Well, Wolf, try this from Roger Ailes. He now heads the Fox News Network but in May of 1970 he was a media advisor to the President Nixon. In this letter to Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, Ailes critiques Nixon's appearance at an event in Houston, quote, "I think it is important for the president to show a little bit more concern for Mrs. Nixon as he moves through the crowd. At one point he walked off in a different direction. Mrs. Nixon wasn't looking and had to run to catch up to him. From time to time he should talk to her and smile at her."

How about that?

BLITZER: Good advice from Roger Ailes back then. Thanks very much. Brian Todd, going through the documents and the audiotapes. The National Archives is posting several of the never before seen Nixon documents and audio tapes online. Let's go to our Internet reporter Jacki Schnechner. What exactly can we see here.

JACKI SCHNECHNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's what you can see or hear, 11 1/2 hours of recorded conversations, not only from the White House telephone but also from the old executive office building and the Oval Office.

There's also documents here, historical documents, names you're going to recognize like Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove for example. There is also some interesting nuggets about Republican strategy.

For example, you hear one Nixon adviser talks about seeing John Kerry on the newscast saying he would make an excellent candidate, and someone should reach out to him, just not officially coming from the Nixon administration. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Thank Jacki, for that. Still to come, Jack Cafferty wants to know, is it a good idea to increase cigarette taxes 61 cents a tax to help pay pour children's health insurance? We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File." Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: That Nixon stuff is fascinating.

BLITZER: Yeah, it is.

CAFFERTY: It really is. Great stuff. The question this hour, is it is a good idea to increase cigarette taxes 61 cents a pack in order to help pay for children's health insurance.

Victoria, Little Rock Arkansas. "It's not a good idea. While I am a smoker, I cannot see how our Congress justifies this. If they do this then they should raise taxes on alcohol to pay for the medical care that it costs to treat babies that are born with fetal alcohol syndrome."

Jenny in New York. "Yes, many children suffer from second hand smoke of their parents so maybe this will cause some people to stop smoking, for the monetary cost if not for the health of their kids. And it gives smokers with no children an incentive to quit as well. Quitting smoking is a win for everybody except the tobacco business."

Vernetta in California. "I don't believe taxing smokers over and over again is the answer to insuring America's children. It's a piecemeal approach to solving the national healthcare crisis. Everyone should pony up their tax dollars to provide healthcare for everyone, period."

Steve in Mustang, Alabama. "Jack, rather than tax smokers, how about we just cease all medical payments for illegal aliens. That ought to be more than enough to help fund healthcare for children and a bunch of other services for legal American citizens."

Barbie in Utah writes, "I'm sick and tired of smokers getting the short end of everything. And sin taxes have got to go. Leave us poor smokers alone for crying out loud."

Doug in Miami, "Of course, it's the only intelligent thought to come out of Washington in recent history. They usually tax our vices just to pay for theirs. Once they have the money, let's hope it actually gets to the children, not to building bridges in Alaska."

And B.J. in Texas writes. "Hell yeah. And while they're at it, legalize marijuana and tax it like crazy, too. Think of the children."

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

BLITZER: As a former smoker, you understand why people smoke? CAFFERTY: It's a terribly addictive - nicotine is more addictive they say, than cocaine. I only quit because I had a collapsed lung. If my lung hadn't collapsed I'd still be smoking. I had my last cigarette 20 years ago.

BLITZER: I'm glad you don't smoke any more, Jack. See you in an hour. Let's go to Lou in New York. Lou?