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U.S. Intelligence Warns Iraq Might Become Terrorist Staging Ground; Earthquake Triggers Nuclear Fears

Aired July 17, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM happening now U.S. intelligence warning that Iraq may be the staging ground for a new Al Qaeda attack on the United States.
So how real is the threat?

And is it too little, too late?

I'll ask our man in Baghdad for a reality check, our own Michael Ware.

Also, an earthquake in Japan triggers a nuclear fear.

What about this country's reactors?

Could it also happen here?

And he does it again. Wait until you see how this Florida teenager topped his secret trip to Iraq.

I'm Wolf Blitzer

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's the number one terror threat to the United States -- Al Qaeda. And now this country's intelligence agencies are warning Osama bin Laden's group may be capitalizing on their experience in Iraq as they plan another deadly attack on U.S. soil.

Let's go straight to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena.

She's watching the story for us -- Kelli, what are we learning from this just released National Intelligence Estimate report?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, intelligence officials say Al Qaeda has made great strides in the past 18 to 24 months. It's not the only threat that the U.S. faces, but it is, by far, the biggest.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ARENA: (voice-over): Al Qaeda is regrouping, gaining strength and may be ready to attack the U.S. once again.

MIKE MCCONNELL, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: We are here in the United States in a heightened threat environment and that's going to continue for the foreseeable future.

ARENA: Intelligence officials say Al Qaeda has established a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan. There, leaders have reopened lines of communication across the globe. They're training operatives and replenishing their senior ranks.

BOB GRENIER, KROLL INCORPORATED: They have also been able to re- establish a number of key operation lieutenants. They've been able to replace key operators who have been lost.

ARENA: The report predicts Al Qaeda will draw even more strength and support from its affiliate in Iraq.

MCCONNELL: They know how to build explosives that can be incredibly destructive. And Al Qaeda in Iraq helps Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan energize a broader extremist community.

ARENA: And what of Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman Al- Zawahiri?

Intelligence officials say they remain in those tribal areas of Pakistan, providing inspiration to supporters, including an increasing number of independent Jihadists around the globe.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: There's no question that bin Laden and Zawahiri continue to be a threat of the security of the American homeland, not to mention the security of innocents around the world.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ARENA: The report also says Al Qaeda has upped its effort to get operatives inside the U.S. to do harm. So far, Wolf, there's no evidence that anyone has made it in.

BLITZER: Let's hope it stays like that, as well.

Thank you very much, Kelli, for that report.

So is the terror report telling Iraqis anything they don't know already?

Who better to ask that than our man on the ground in Baghdad.

And joining us now our correspondent in Baghdad, Michael Ware -- Michael, among other things, this National Intelligence Estimate report suggests that Al Qaeda is seeking to leverage Al Qaeda in Iraq for attacks against U.S. targets outside of the Iraq.

Now, you've actually reported on this extensively. You've met with Al Qaeda operatives inside of Iraq.

Is that your assessment as well?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me say this first, Wolf. I mean that statement in the NIE is about three years too late. The fact that Al Qaeda has reorganized itself through the war in Iraq that America handed it on a silver platter in its own backyard, that the war here through Al Qaeda in Iraq has energized the Jihadi community across the globe, that it has produced a whole new generation of Jihadis -- bolder, more brazen and more brutal and more committed, if that's at all possible, than the generation before it, is old news.

We saw that happen back in 2004. Since then, we've seen it nothing but flourish.

The question now is will an attack directly launched from Al Qaeda in Iraq against U.S. homeland?

Now many of us were saying back in 2004/2005 if, heaven forbid, there's another 9/11 in America, then of the next 19 hijackers, I'll almost guaranteed one of them will be Iraqi. And at least part of the plot will have been hatched here in Iraq.

That being said, while we are seeing the Iraq veterans -- these guy who come into a six month tour or a 12 month tour in Iraq, blood themselves against American forces and go home, they're creating a whole new momentum back in their homelands, be it here in the Middle East, be it in the Gulf, North Africa or be it back in Europe.

That being said, also, the true danger of the Al Qaeda in Iraq is the template or the model it offers. We've seen these bombings in the U.K. Now, these guys never came to Iraq. But as they said themselves, they were inspired by the war here.

Now in the midst of all of this, despite this material, this evidence, we must be aware of the spin -- the smoke and mirrors from the administration, trying to reshape the message on Iraq being specifically about Al Qaeda -- America's lingering, most familiar fear, trying to invoke some Pavlovian response from the American public, to fear them into again supporting the war. That doesn't quite hold water -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace, is there. He says in the past 24 hours or so he's been there, he's seen -- in his words -- a sea change, a sea change in the security situation. A very optimistic assessment.

Is that possible?

You've been there for four years. You haven't just been there for 24 hours.

Do you agree with him that there's been this dramatic sea change of improvement?

WARE: Well, with the greatest of respect to General Peter Pace, I mean, I think the general, unfortunately, is suffering from the luxury of distance. And I think he's expecting far too much to be able to peer through the U.S. bubble of protection in which he operates in his brief fleeting visit to Iraq.

I mean his briefings would be in the Green Zone. They would be in formidable American forward operating bases. I know he had a few hours' trip out to Ramadi. Again, he would have been in the embrace of the U.S. military's daunting protection.

You're really not getting a feel for the true situation on the ground.

Is he right about a sea change?

Yes and no. In al-Anbar Province, where he visited, yes, there's been a sea change. Attacks against U.S. forces by al Qaeda directed or led organizations have dropped from as much as 80 attacks a day to just 77 attacks two days ago.

But why is that?

It's because the military put pressure on Al Qaeda, sure. The real answer is that America subcontracted out the fight against Al Qaeda to the Baathist insurgents and the tribes. So he doesn't really tell us why that sea change occurred.

Is there a sea change in Baghdad?

Well, if he's seeing one, I'm afraid I'm not. And maybe you can see it from the Green Zone, but you can't see it out here in the red zone where Iraqis live -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Michael, thanks very much.

Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad.

Thank you.

WARE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Not mincing any words at all.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York. He's given us his own assessment, what he sees on a day to day basis. He's been there, as we've often pointed out, for more than four years.

CAFFERTY: Well, and I think Michael has no particular vested interest in telling the story one way or the other. I'm not so sure all of the politicians and military types can say the same thing.

With all of this saber rattling about Al Qaeda this and Al Qaeda that, the gut feeling about they might attack us this summer and they're training in Iraq to attack the United States, what if -- what if -- we have 158,000 troops in Iraq.

What if we had spent the last five years with 158,000 soldiers and $500 billion hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the border regions next to Pakistan?

I wonder if we'd still be hearing all of this stuff about Al Qaeda.

What if?

Anyway, on to other things, much more mundane. Some Virginians are very upset about their state's new abusive driver fees. They range from $750 to $3,000 and they're given to people who are convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor driving offense, like driving drunk or more than 20 miles over the speed limit. The idea was to raise $65 million a year from these fees. It amounts to a not so cleverly disguised tax increase and the Virginia public caught on right away.

Lawmakers say the fees will affect less than 2 percent of drivers. But it doesn't seem to matter. A lot of people are saying they've been inundated -- these are legislators -- which comments from constituents who are against the fees and want them repealed. The criticism is coming from all sides -- anti- conservatives, liberal activists who claim the fees unfairly target the poor.

So while these politicians are trying to do something to combat reckless and drunk driving, the residents of Virginia are not at all happy about it. Almost 100,000 people signed an online a petition against these fees and they say if the lawmakers don't repeal them, they'll be voted out of office come November. Some conservatives are even worried now that this issue could cost the Republicans control of the Virginia assembly.

So here's our question -- are bad driver fees of up to $3,000 a good idea?

E-mail caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I see the outrage. For rich people, $3,000 is not going to make a big dent.

CAFFERTY: Sure.

BLITZER: But if you're a working class poor guy out there, or gal, $3,000 is a lot of money if you're speeding.

CAFFERTY: Absolutely. Plus, I mean it is a tax increase. It's a de facto tax increase. The politicians didn't label it as such, but that's exactly what it is. They needed this money for something, I don't remember what it was.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

CAFFERTY: OK.

BLITZER: Still ahead here, an Army sharpshooter on the run, considered armed and dangerous. We're going to have details of an believable crime and a massive manhunt.

Also, vehicles proven to save lives, capable of withstanding roadside bombs. Find out why they are in critically short supply in Iraq. Plus, dozens of U.S. nuclear plants built in earthquake prone areas.

Are they radioactive time bombs in your backyard?

Stay with us

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He ditched his truck, but so far no sign of a former Army sharpshooter on the run since Saturday. Cheyenne, Wyoming police are tracking David Munis in connection with the shooting death of his estranged wife. They consider him armed and dangerous.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd.

He's watching the story for us -- what's the status of the search, Brian, right now?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, an arrest warrant for murder has just been issued and there are now at least 40 law enforcement personnel, dog teams, Black Hawk helicopters, searching for David Munis in a remote corner of Wyoming. The background of this suspect leads one police official to say he is "a danger to our men.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: (voice-over): It's David Munis' his level of training, survival and envision skills, police tell CNN, that make this a very difficult search. Law enforcement teams are coming through a remote wooded area called Rogers Canyon outside Laramie, Wyoming, near where they found Munis' black pickup truck. They have this warning for anyone who might spot Munis.

CAPT. JEFF SCHULZ, CHEYENNE, WYOMING POLICE: If they were to come in contact with him, please don't try to approach him.

TODD: That's because Munis is believed to be carrying a handgun and a rifle, possibly the same weapon, police say, he used to kill his estranged wife -- singer Robin Munis struck down on stage, a single bullet that witnesses say came through a plate glass window at this restaurant in Cheyenne early Saturday morning.

Ty Warner was performing right next to her.

TY WARNER: This part of her head was just absolutely -- it was gone.

TODD: U.S. military officials tell CNN David Munis is a staff sergeant in the Wyoming National Guard, a decorated former Army sharpshooter, trained at the sniper school at Fort Benning, Georgia, a course that includes wilderness survival and envision. Police say they found writings at Munis' home indicating he was about to commit this kind of act. But so far, CNN has found no indication he was in combat and no reports of previous violence.

We asked an expert on domestic violence in military families about possible factors she's seen in similar situations where's there no apparent combat stress.

CHRISTINE HANSEN, MILES FOUNDATION: That loss of control, they try to exert control within their most intimate relationships, and that's when these incidents occur.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Police say David Munis is not believed to be a wider danger to the public at the moment. But they say if he's cornered, he could be dangerous to them. Police also say they don't believe he's suicidal right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand you've spoken with a member of his family?

TODD: Yes. I spoke with Munis' aunt in Montana, where he grew up. She says people have made him out to be someone he's not. She says he is not a violent person and never was growing up. But she did admit she did not know his wife, so she may not be aware of his domestic situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd watching this story for us.

Thank you.

We know they save lives. But the U.S. military is having trouble getting its hands on blast-restraint vehicles, known as MRAPs, for Mine Resistant Ambush Protective.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, is watching this story -- what's the holdup in getting these badly needed vehicles, Jamie, to troops on the ground in Iraq?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there's no dispute that these heavily armored vehicles are the best defense yet against IEDs. But there's a lot of second guessing about what's taking them so long to get them in the fight.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: (voice-over): This video from a test last year at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground shows just how mine resistant these mine-resistant vehicles are. But commanders overseeing the current surge in Iraq are still waiting for them to show up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have none now. What I'm working with are up the up armored Humvees.

MCINTYRE: The Humvees are death traps compared to the MRAP, short for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The tragedy -- the tragedy is the number of wounded and the number who died who could have lived. And they say that 70 percent of the soldiers that died in Iraq had to do with IEDs and Humvees. That's hard to live with.

MCINTYRE: One problem -- a single company, Force Protection, Inc. was awarded a series of non-competitive contracts and then fell behind schedule. The company says it did its best to meet an overly ambitious schedule and pay penalties for late deliveries. And it insists its lie of MRAPs, including one model called the Cougar, is delivering on the key promise -- to save lives.

(on camera): Are the taxpayers getting their money's worth for these expensive armored vehicles?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. And -- but what I told people in the Pentagon is, since you've increased servicemen's group life insurance to $250,000 per soldier and Marine, you count up my eight seats in the vehicle, the taxpayer is getting a great bargain because everybody is coming home alive in (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: Now, Wolf, tonight, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is going up to Capitol Hill to try to get permission to shift $1.3 billion in the Pentagon's budget so they can buy about 7,700 of these MRAPs ASAP -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's see if he can do it.

Thanks very much, Jamie.

A good report.

Coming up, a former dictator's next stop. New clues about where Panama's Manuel Noriega may be heading next, after he gets out of a U.S. prison.

Plus, he made headlines with a secret trip to Iraq. Now, a Florida a teenager goes globetrotting once again, with another dangerous journey.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Carol what do you have?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I have a developing story to tell our viewers about right now.

According to our affiliates in Atlanta, Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick has been indicted in connection with a suspected dog fighting ring. Now, this dog fighting ring allegedly took place on a property he owns in Virginia. Back on April 25th, authorities raided that property. They found 66 pit bulls, a dog fighting ring and bloodstained carpeting. Michael Vick has always denied he had anything to do with this. He blamed it on relatives who were living there. Keep in mind that these charges that he's indicted for are felonies. Much more to come on this story, Wolf.

Also in the news this afternoon, at least 12 people are dead and dozens more wounded from a suicide bombing in Islamabad. The attack happened at a site in the Pakistan capital where a rally was planned in support of the country's suspended chief justice. The bomb went off about 150 feet from the stage before the event began.

A Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses convicted of infecting children with HIV will not be put to death in Libya. A Libyan court today commuted their death sentences to life in prison. It happened after families of the 460 kids were paid $1 million each. The health workers say their confessions were obtained by torture and they're innocent. Critics say Libya is using them as scapegoats for a failed health care system.

On the wide screen, take a look at this. In Phoenix, quite an ominous sight, to say the least. Look at this. An enormous wall of dust bearing down on the Arizona city. This happened yesterday. On the ground it was dark and the winds were so strong that people said it was hard to stand up. Dark clouds and rain followed to wash away the dust.

And thank goodness it began to rain -- Wolf. That's scary.

BLITZER: Scary, indeed.

Thank you, Carol, for that.

Coming up, nuclear power plants in earthquake country -- we're going to show you why there's new concern they may be radioactive time bombs. Plus, the president's homeland security adviser joins us. I'll ask Fran Townsend about the reports of a missed chance to nab Osama bin Laden.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, the Justice Department asks a federal court to extradite Manuel Noriega to France to face drug trafficking charges this summer. That's when the former Panamanian president's prison term for his U.S. drug conviction ends. Noriega's attorney says he'll fight extradition.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson announcing plans to resign his post this year. During his 18-month tenure, the Department came under fire for substandard care of war vets at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, among other places. Nicholson says he'll step down by October 1st.

And another historic day on Wall Street, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average flirts with the 14,000 mark, crossing it more than once. At closing, the Dow fell short, but still ended the day at a record 13,971.

I'm Wolf Blitzer

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

More now on this hour's top story, the just released National Intelligence Estimate. Among its forecasts, a continued Al Qaeda focus on attacks featuring mass casualties and dramatic destruction; continued efforts to get chemical, biological and radioactive materials; propaganda spread through radical Web sites; and Lebanon's Hezbollah more likely to attack the United States directly, according to this report.

So is the White House backing these assessments?

I asked Fran Townsend, the homeland security adviser to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: How confident are you the intelligence community is right this time?

FRAN TOWNSEND, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: I actually have tremendous confidence in the intelligence community and in this NIE, Wolf, because we have a stronger, better intelligence community. We've learned the lessons from the Silverman-Robb Commission. We've learned the lessons of the Iraq NIE on weapons of mass destruction. And this is an intelligence community that is stronger, better, better resourced, better trained and better equipped, frankly, to give us an accurate estimate.

BLITZER: Did the U.S. government, the Bush administration, specifically, miss an opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda after 9/11 by taking its eye, if you will, off the ball and diverting resources to Saddam Hussein, who had nothing do with 9/11?

TOWNSEND: Well, there's no question -- there seems to be an issue what about the president meant when he said it's the same people in Iraq who killed Americans on 9/11.

What the president was talking about is quite right. The Al Qaeda core -- al Qaeda in the tribal areas -- bin Laden, Zawahiri -- are the same people who led that organization on September the 11th. These are the same people who are guiding activities of al Qaeda Iraq.

We know that Zarqawi, who is now dead, but was the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, swore loyalty to bin Laden. There's no question we know Zarqawi has communicated with al Qaeda in Iraq. We know that al Qaeda in Iraq had been tasked to plan attacks against the homeland, welcomed that. We know that even recently Al Qaeda core tried to send Abdul Hadi al Iraqi into Iraq to plan attacks.

There's no question. These aren't separate...

BLITZER: Let me just rephrases the question, Fran Townsend. Looking back with hindsight, if you had not diverted the resources to go and overthrow Saddam Hussein but focused in on Afghanistan, the border area with Pakistan where Osama bin Laden and his number two Ayman al Zawahiri were on the run, would you and the American people not have been better off by destroying al Qaeda when you had him on the run?

TOWNSEND: But we did, we made tremendous progress destroying al Qaeda. And continue to ...

BLITZER: But he's still free at large?

TOWNSEND: That's right, but two-thirds of al Qaeda that existed on September 11th, Wolf, is dead or captured. There's no question we've had successes with our Pakistani allies in counterterrorism. Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, all of these people were captured with the help of our Pakistani allies. And so we have had tremendous success, we never took our eye off the ball.

BLITZER: Let me get you to respond to Senator Chris Dodd. He is going to be on our show as well and in statement he says, "The NIE plainly shows that our continued involvement in Iraq is making us less secure at home and abroad. Is that correct?

TOWNSEND: It's absolutely untrue. And in fact, what we know from our experience, including pre-9/11, is if we don't challenge al Qaeda where they seek safe haven, then they will use that as a place from which to plan plot attacks just like they did in Afghanistan. Not challenging al Qaeda in Iraq is not an option.

And in fact, Sunni tribes in Iraq now, we know have begun to distance themselves from al Qaeda in Iraq because they don't believe in their tactics.

BLITZER: Here's a technical point but it's said more than that, because a lot of people are questioning whether the al Qaeda in Iraq operation is the same as the al Qaeda operation under Osama bin Laden. In effect, what your critics are suggesting that United States helped create al Qaeda in Iraq by invading Iraq. And this is really, even though they pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden. It's really not the same al Qaeda as existed before 9/11?

TOWNSEND: We've gone through declassifying a number of intelligence reports. The president walked through those in the U.S. Coast Guard commencement speech in May. There's no question that Zawahiri is giving al Qaeda in Iraq direction. We know that there are communications back and forth. We know that they're trying to send fighters from Afghanistan into Iraq. This isn't an invention of our making. We know from the intelligence community that there are. And including the U.S. military who is present in Iraq have told us they continue to see those connections.

BLITZER: The president told me when I interviewed him last September that absolutely is the way he phrased it, if the U.S. had intelligence on where Osama bin Laden was inside of Pakistan, he would order an immediate strike to capture or kill him. You basically said the same thing today.

But there was a story in "The New York Times" on July 8th, among other things it said this. "A secret military operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas were aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan."

Is that true, had you all of the actionable intelligence you needed but you were afraid to jeopardize relations with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and as a result, you called off the operation?

TOWNSEND: Wolf, obviously, I'm not going to talk about classified military operational matters. Here is what I will tell you. The president has been very clear, job number one and nothing will interfere with us being successful at it is protecting the American people from another attack.

Number two, that there are no options off the table. If we knew where Osama bin Laden is, of course if he was in Pakistan, we would try to work with our Pakistani allies. Let's be very clear, there would be no action, intelligence, military or otherwise that would be taken off the table to protect the people.

BLITZER: So the U.S. would launch an air strike to kill him if necessary despite opposition from the government of Pakistan?

TOWNSEND: Make no mistake about it, if we have the opportunities to capture, kill bin Laden, we're going to take it.

BLITZER: I'll take that as a yes. Fran Townsend, thanks very much for joining us.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Japanese officials now say some radioactive material leaked into the air and sea at a nuclear power plant after yesterday's earthquake. It was a powerful earthquake. Tonight, similar fears here in the United States. Take a look at this map of seismic activities. No surprise the strongest earthquakes here in the red are in the West. But parts of the Midwest and the East are also potentially prone. Take a look at the location of the country's nuclear reactors, 104 of them to be precise. That doesn't include nuclear weapons laboratories. CNN's Dan Simon is joining us now from Berkeley, California. So Dan, you've been looking into this story. Who's at risk, potentially here? DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're in the San Francisco Bay Area. So you're going to have earthquakes here. There is no dispute about that. But there is a dispute of whether nuclear facilities in California can withstand them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON (voice-over): The image is vivid enough to prompt fears across the ocean. Some in the U.S. now questioning whether nuclear facilities here could be this vulnerable to earthquakes.

MARYLIA KELLEY, TRI-VALLEY CARES: I can't overstate how concerned I am that there will be nuclear material in the environment, in the event of a major earthquake.

SIMON: Just east of the San Francisco lies the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. It stores more than 1,000 pounds of weapons grade plutonium. One watchdog group believes the site poses a deadly risk in the event of a large earthquake. Seven million people live within a 50 mile radius.

KELLEY: These finely divided particles of plutonium could drift on the wind. They would be available to be breathed in or respirated by the people of the Livermore here in the Bay Area.

SIMON: A lab spokesperson dismissed those concerns saying, quote, "Our laboratory construction meets or exceeds all current seismic standards. We have had not have a problem with release of radioactive material in any past quake."

Similarly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the nation's power plants are safe and even earthquake proof. The Diablo Canyon in San Onofre plants in California both sit near active fault lines. Federal authorities say both were designed specifically to withstand severe earthquakes and would not have leaked like the one in Japan.

DALE KLEIN, NUCLEAR REGULATOR COMMISSION: It turns out, Dan, that the earthquake designs including both the reactor, as well as auxiliary components such as the spent fuel pools, these are designed to handle situations exactly like those that occurred in Japan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON (on camera): But, Wolf, officials do concede that nothing is absolutely 100 percent, as you saw in Japan. Even when there are safe guards, they don't always hold up.

BLITZER: Dan Simon reporting for us on an important story. Thank you, Dan.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, political wives standing by their spouses in trouble. Carol Costello wants to know why. And later, Farris Hassan does it again. When he was 16 the Florida teen snuck into Iraq. His parents took away his passport for a year. But when he got it back, he went overseas it again. Mary Snow is here to tell us where Farris went again. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Political wives standing by their cheating husbands. The wife of Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana isn't the first. He's back at work after a week in seclusion prompted by a prostitution scandal. Let's go back to Carol Costello. She is watching the series. A lot of people are asking, Carol, why these wives stay by their husbands after these scandals?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I wish there was an easy answer to give you, Wolf, but I can't. David Vitter, by the way, is back on the Hill. We just got word that he apologized to his fellow Republican senators at their weekly policy lunch but yesterday he stood in front of the nation with his wife Wendy at his side supporting him.

So why would she or any political wife endure this?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): It's a scene we're getting used to, powerful husband apologizing and by his side, the wife he's let down. Ready to show that the Mrs. is loyal no matter what.

JAMES MCGREEVEY, FORMER NJ GOVERNOR: My truth is that I'm a gay American.

COSTELLO: James McGreevey, then New Jersey's governor, apologizes for deceiving the public and his wife Dina. She stood beside him.

BARBARA KATROWITZ, "NEWSWEEK" EDITOR: She really looked shocked, stunned as though she had just found out. I think that was one of the most disturbing performances in this genre.

COSTELLO: At least amid the shock of revelation, Dina McGreevey was the loyal wife. Some though deny Gary Hart's wife.

LEE HART, WIFE OF FORMER SENATOR GARY HART: When Gary says nothing happened, nothing happened.

COSTELLO: Others take the political offensive.

HILLARY CLINTON, BILL CLINTON'S WIFE: I'm not only here because I love and believe my husband, I'm also here because I love and believe in my country.

COSTELLO: And then there's Senator Vitter's wife who says problems can be overcome.

WENDY VITTER, SEN. DAVID VITTER'S WIFE: Like all marriages, ours is not perfect. None of us are. But we choose to work together as a family.

COSTELLO: A former prosecutor actively involved in her husband's campaigns, she was once asked by the New Orleans paper what she would do if her husband cheated on her. She said at the time, "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

KATROWITZ: It's just now we have a scenario that they all get to act out. I think it's up to us as voters to decide whether we believe them.

COSTELLO: Such loyalty, misplaced or not doesn't always last. Dina McGreevey soon sought a divorce.

DINA MCGREEVEY, JIM MCGREEVEY'S WIFE: He had married me for political gain. He lied and cheated on me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (on camera): Of course, after admitting he was gay, Mrs. McGreevey's husband resigned. But all of the political pundits I talked to say usually a man can survive a sex scandal if the nation believes his wife forgives him. Wolf?

BLITZER: Carol, thank you for that.

Let's get some analysis. Arianna Huffington, she knows a little bit about these kinds of matters. Her ex-husband, former Congressman Michael Huffington revealed he's bisexual shortly after their divorce. Arianna, thanks much for coming in. Arianna has a popular Web site, huffingtonpost.com which I see every day, sometimes more than just once a day.

So what do you make of this? Because there's a lot of sense that these wives who stand by their husbands, I guess you can't put them into one category, but they have their own interests at stake as well?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Right, and the script here is much more like the Hillary Clinton script, the defiant. Vitter has kind of evoked the fast left wing conspiracy. And Senator Vitter talked about his enemies using his admission to spread falsehoods.

Wendy Vitter stood up and said I'm proud to be Wendy Vitter. So there's a lot of defiance. There's more defiance than contrition. And I think the thing that was really illogical was Senator Vitter going on about his enemies as though somehow it was not he who made marriage and the sanctity of marriage and faithfulness the cornerstone of his political career, not his personal life.

My feeling, Wolf, is that if politicians draw a clear line between their private lives and their public lives, then it's none of our business.

BLITZER: What about the politician whose make these issues, family values, if you will, such an important integral part of who they are, at least in their public political campaigning?

HUFFINGTON: Then they're exposed as frauds. And that's really what happened with Senator Vitter, whatever he may choose to say, he was exposed as a fraud. He had attacked same sex marriage on the grounds that marriage is an essential institution in western democracies. He attacked President Clinton in an op-ed at the time and talked about the moral and fitness to govern.

So when he made these issues cornerstones of his political life, he should not be surprised for what's happening. Otherwise, frankly, I believe that it's none of our business.

BLITZER: What about your personal experience? Because we remember your husband was a former congressman and wanted to be, what, senator from California. He was running and then there was a scandal?

HUFFINGTON: Well, in our case, it was very different because we had been divorced for two years. And he was no longer in public life. He was a private man. So it was really a footnote in the papers. There wasn't anything like what you're seeing now.

It's when you are in public life, when you are a senator or a governor or a president that these issues become important, especially if you've made such a big deal about them in your own policy statements. It's very heart for him, Wolf, now, to return to Washington and talk about the sanctity of marriage without people laughing.

BLITZER: But your heart has to go out, I'm sure it does, mine certainly does, to the wives of these politicians?

HUFFINGTON: Oh. Absolutely. To see them again and again standing by their man, it really hurts. Especially because afterwards, we see as with Mrs. McGreevey, that it was a different reality.

BLITZER: Very different indeed. Arianna, thanks for coming in.

HUFFINGTON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead, a journey to the heart of the war on terror by a Florida teenager. We're going to show you how he followed up his shocking trip to Iraq.

Plus, Jack Cafferty with your e-mail on the question of the hour. Are bad driver fees of up to $3,000 a good idea? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs getting ready for his show. It's a special hour that begins right at the top of the hour. Lou, tell our viewers what you're working on and why you're in Washington today.

LOU DOBBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, thank you. We're in Washington to report on among other things the new national intelligence estimate. And we'll be reporting on the first congressional hearings on what many call an outrageous miscarriage of justice. Senators today demanding to know why a U.S. attorney prosecuted two former Border Patrol agents who shot and wounded an illegal drug smuggler while giving that smuggler immunity.

Two of those senators, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Jon Cornyn joins us here..

Tonight I'll also be talking with a leading House supporter of those agents, Congressman Ted Poe.

The U.S. attorney at the center of this controversy, Johnny Sutton who strongly defended his conduct and passionate testimony today before those senators. U.S. attorney Johnny Sutton joins us as well.

And illegal alien supporters holding a protest on the steps of the Supreme Court, pushing amnesty and open borders. And they declare there will be no redemption for me, because I'm in serious trouble, as they put it. We'll find out what that means in the special report tonight. Please join us for all of that, all of the day's news coming up at 6:00 Eastern right here on CNN. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Lou, thanks very much.

Fair warning from the State Department to Americans traveling to Afghanistan. There's an ongoing threat to kidnap U.S. citizens. Crime including robbery and murder remains a significant problem. American citizens could be targeted. And drivers face the potential danger of rolling over land mines.

Despite all of the hazards, one teenager traveled to Afghanistan without his parents' permission. What's more, this isn't the first time he ventured into a war zone. CNN's Mary Snow is joining us right now. Mary, you spoke with the teenager who skipped town. What did he do? What's going on here?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, basically, Farris Hassan said he was driven to do this, to make this trip. He spoke to us today from Dubai. And he just spent about three weeks in Afghanistan.

He said he started planning a trip back in May, he just recently got his passport back because his parents had taken it away after that Iraq trip. Farris Hassan said he went because he wants to make a difference in Afghanistan to start a school for children. He says he knew he would have to go quietly or he wouldn't go at all.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FARRIS HASSAN, TEEN WHO TRAVELED TO AFGHANISTAN: I feel compelled to try and make a positive difference and help people who are less advantaged than me. You know, I believe it's a duty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: ... crazy by doing this, though, given the experience of Iraq?

SNOW: Yeah, you can just imagine her feeling. She said she was really stunned when she first found out he was traveling. She said he called her from Dubai after he left Miami and really slipped out. She said she was very worried and besides Iraq couldn't think of a more dangerous place to be than Afghanistan. But she said she felt reassured because her son was e-mailing every day. And she said eventually that fear turned to pride and surprisingly she says she can now understand why he did what he did.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHATHA ATIYA, FARRIS HASSAN'S MOTHER: I can only imagine when he tells me, mom, I'm going to Afghanistan, I say, are you crazy, absolutely not. And like any other kid, they will try to do it behind your back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: But what did shock her how her son 17 was able to buy an airline ticket to leave Florida, also get a visa and make his way to Dubai, then Afghanistan. We'll have more on that at 7:00.

BLITZER: All right. Farris Hassan, sort of like Ferris Bueller except to an extreme. Thanks very much for that, Mary. Much more of her reporting coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

Up next, one question in this hour, are bad driver fees of up to $3,000 a good idea? Jack Cafferty reading your e-mail when we come back. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: An online vote to bring John Edwards to one city in America is about to conclude and an unlikely town could be crowned the winner. The contest is happening on eventful.com, a site where users demand bands, artists and presidential hopefuls come to their hometowns. Let's go back to Abbi Tatton. She is watching this story for us. Which town does it look like John Edwards is about to visit?

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Los Angeles, Dallas, nope. It's Columbus, Kentucky, population 229. This tiny rural community currently leading the demands for John Edwards to come to their town on eventful.com after the former senator committed to listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Whatever place in America has the most demanders through eventful.com for me to come, I will come there. And I'll answer at least 10 questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: And the demands for Columbus have been flooding in, 1,700 so far, led by a former resident who has been pushing the vote as a why to highlight rural American communities. The vote has another. It's been going on for a month. And finishes tomorrow. And one local resident is even reporting an incentive that a haircut in Columbus costs less than $10, including the tip. Wolf?

BLITZER: That's pretty cheap. How does that town of 220 people what, already 2,000 votes?

TATTON: Wolf, because the online push has been spreading to neighboring communities, to other rural Americans. You can see from posts on the site that residents at nearby Clinton, a relative metropolis at 1,400 people, they've been pushing up the tally as well.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens. Thanks for that.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Next week they're going to have a poll of towns that don't want Edwards anywhere near them.

The question is this, are bad driver fees of up to $3,000 a good idea? Mike in Cherry Hill, New Jersey writes, "The Virginia tax increase - excuse me, driver enforcement is a perfect example of how Republicans lower taxes but then raise money by putting the burden on the average American. The rich get richer and the other 99 percent of Americans pay for it. It's another bogeyman we're chasing. Tax cuts, more laws on working stiffs and Osama will get you. Please, we're not stupid and will not accept this nonsense."

Teresa in Hawaii, "A fine of $3,000 slapped on an abusive driver is far less severe than the cost of a funeral to the family of his or her victim."

Dana writes, "I was nearly killed in Virginia by a speeding driver head on, 100 miles an hour, who was on the wrong side of the road. I was saved only by a new car with air bags. My intensive care through rehab bills, over $100,000, $3,000 sounds like peanuts to me for breaking the law and endangering others."

Don in South Dakota. "Let's remember this is not a mundane subject, as Mr. Cafferty said it was after the al Qaeda report where the troops are in danger. Remember that 40,000 plus Americans are killed on streets and roads at home every year. If there was a war on that killed that many overseas, we would be outraged."

Stan writes from Adirondack, New York. "I think it is only appropriate that the Virginia lawmakers get fined thousands of dollars every time they miss a vote. Perhaps then they'll be less anxious to tax the hell out of the rest of us."

Andrew in New York. "I think it would be a much better idea to get the abusive drivers off the road altogether rather than making them into an income stream for the State of Virginia."

And Bud writes, "If it keeps one drunk off the road and saves one life, it's well worth it."

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

DOBBS: Thank you, Jack, for that. Jack Cafferty. He is here with us every weekday afternoon in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're here from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We're back for another hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. That's coming up later tonight. Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. LOU DOBBS TONIGHT starts right now. Lou?

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