Return to Transcripts main page


Mychal Bell Free on Bail; Exile Deal for Saddam?

Aired September 27, 2007 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Kitty.
Happening now, breaking news, a black teenager accused of beating a white classmate in Jena, Louisiana is free tonight. It is a powerful new turn in the so-called Jena 6 case that prompted a massive civil rights protest. We're live in Louisiana where this story and the reaction still are unfolding.

Also, this hour, the offer that might have prevented the war in Iraq, was Saddam Hussein prepared to go into exile before U.S. bombs dropped. Tonight new reports of an all-out effort to try to get the Iraqi dictator out, an effort that didn't take.

Plus John Edwards on the CNN Election Express bus, he's making a surprise announcement about the way he'll finance his presidential campaign. He's also making no excuses for the provocative things his wife has to say.

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

But we begin with the breaking news in Louisiana. The last teenager involved in a racially charged case in the Jena 6 is you no free. Mychal Bell walked out of jail just a short while ago, but he is not yet free of his legal problems.

Let's go straight to CNN's Sean Callebs. He's in Jena and he's going to bringing us up-to-date, very dramatic developments only within the past few moments, Sean.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly, Wolf. Really, Mychal Bell had been incarcerated for more than nine months, the wheels moved very quickly today. His defense team finally filed a couple of motions early in the day with the appellate court, one, trying to Mychal Bell bond, which they were successful.

It was $45,000. It was taken care of a short while ago. Then things moved very quickly. And here are pictures of Mychal Bell walking out of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse within the last 20 minutes, very slight (ph) by his mother, his father, also civil rights leaders the Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III. Reverend Sharpton said very significant developments today. He stopped and he thanked everyone who was involved, including those involved in the massive demonstration last week for their efforts to have Bell released from jail.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REV. AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: We thank the governor for interceding and showing leadership. We thank those present here in this parish for some sober thinking. Now is not a time for high- fiving. It's a time for contemplation and saying that we must have a nation that has one law for everybody. There should not be different laws for Mychal Bell than anyone his age of a different color. That's why we came to Jena. Let Jena represent equal protection under the law.


CALLEBS: Mychal Bell did not address the two-dozen or so supporters who gathered to watch him walk out of the courthouse a short while ago. He is still facing, Wolf, some very serious legal challenges. He's facing second degree battery, a charge that was first pursued in the adult court. Now is going to go through the juvenile court. And if convicted, he could spend quite a deal of time in a juvenile facility, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the prosecutor spoke earlier in the day. And there were some dramatic words that he made as well. Update our viewers, Sean, on that.

CALLEBS: Exactly. Reed Walters has been prosecuted this case from the very beginning and his critics say that he is someone who has really dug his heels in on this case. He first pursued charges against Bell as an adult when Bell was 16. Now the D.A. makes no bones about it. He doesn't think that Bell is a choir boy by a long shot.

He has already been convicted four times in juvenile court for assault. And that is part of the reason the D.A. initially pursued charges against Bell as an adult. But what really got the attention of a number of black clergy here today, during his news conference earlier today Reed Walters in talking about the massive demonstration that unfolded in the streets of Jena last week between 15 and 20,000 people demonstrating peacefully. Walters told the media that the reason that demonstration was peaceful, because Jesus intervened.


REED WALTERS, LASALLE, LOUISIANA DISTRICT ATTY: I firmly believe, and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that.


CALLEBS: Now, Wolf, I had a chance to speak with one reverend who said it was simply an insult to the 15 to 20,000 people who demonstrated peacefully last week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sean. What a story. Thanks very much -- Sean Callebs on the scene for us in Jena, Louisiana.

Meanwhile, overseas a deadly crackdown by a brutal government and its forces on peaceful protesters, international pressure is building tonight against a military rule, rulers of Myanmar as they try to crush anti-government protests with increasingly deadly force. Soldiers there fired at the crowds of thousands of people, they beat Buddhist monks. And at least nine people reported killed, unfortunately probably a lot more than that.

Our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee has the latest -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the world is demanding that Myanmar's military rulers end their crackdown, but they're getting more defiant and more determined.



VERJEE (voice-over): Soldiers reportedly firing at peaceful protesters, killing and wounding, beating up and arresting Buddhist monks who are leading a huge charge against repressive military rule. From one eye witness in a hotel...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The military guys went upstairs -- and started beating one, or like five or ten people and then killed one of them and left them on the floor.

VERJEE: From another eye witness on the streets...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In one corner they got around maybe five or seven people and started beating them so bad for almost five minutes. And then I think they took them and put them back in trucks; and there was this one guy lying on the floor and he was dead.

VERJEE: Monasteries have been raided. Monks locked down, unable to move. International media banned from the country, limiting pictures of the carnage but dramatic images keep pouring out, shot on cell phones and smuggled out on the Internet.

Triggering protests around the world, from Thailand, Sydney, Tokyo, the Philippines. The military rulers are unable to control the information revolution.

VINCENT BROSSEL, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: They are using very old-style propaganda things, counter to the Burmese journalists and activists who are using Internet and blogs, and Youtube and all the sort of technological ways to put their videos and images, and the information is going out very quickly.

VERJEE: The international community has condemned the violence. The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on the military government, freezing the assets of 14 senior officials, and banning them from doing business in the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, continues to speak out.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: I can just assure you that the United States is determined to keep an international focus on the travesty that is taking place in Rangon.

VERJEE: It's unclear how much bloodier this may get or what the outcome will be as both sides face off.

BROSSEL: The government has no intention to stop this crackdown, and the bloodshed and the government -- and the demonstrators at the same time have a lot of courage and they have been waiting for many years to demonstrate and to be able to say what they think about this government.


VERJEE: Myanmar's military leaders agreed to let a U.N. convoy into the country. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today sat face to face with officials from Myanmar as a meeting with Asian leaders. State Department officials were overheard saying that the meeting ran a little bit late because she was giving them hell -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain Verjee reporting for us -- thank you, Zain, for that.

A new wave of violence, meanwhile, is sweeping across Iraq right now with at least 50 people killed since yesterday. The attacks include this car bombing in the southwestern part of Baghdad. At least six people died in that attack. Dozens were injured. It comes less than two weeks after a group tied to al Qaeda in Iraq vowed a new offensive in memory of the founder Abu Musab Zarqawi who died last year in a U.S. air strike.

There are also new details emerging tonight of a failed last- minute deal that possibly could have averted the war in Iraq. Negotiations to have Saddam Hussein simply go into exile. Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd.

He is watching this story for us. What are you learning about this deal, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well it's not exactly clear how the deal fell through eventually, Wolf, but according to accounts we're getting there was knowledge of these discussions at the very highest levels.


TODD (voice-over): A dramatic ultimatum on the eve of war.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict.

TODD: But just weeks earlier, President Bush may have known Saddam Hussein was looking for a way out. February 22, 2003, meeting with then Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, according to the Spanish newspaper, "El Pais", Mr. Bush says, "The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein. He seems to have indicated that he would be willing to go into exile if they would let him take $1 billion and all the information that he would want regarding weapons of mass destruction."

Contacted by CNN, a senior Spanish official with knowledge of the meeting said there's very high probability this account is accurate. No comment from the Egyptians. As for the White House...

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you think back to that time, there were a lot of rumors. There were a lot of people floating ideas around about what may or may not happen. All diplomatic measures ran their course.

TODD: CNN previously reported that Saddam Hussein agreed to an offer of exile from the United Arab Emirates just three weeks before the invasion but that the deal fell through. On the Iraqi president's reported talks with Egypt analysts say he may not have had much technical knowledge of WMD to escape with and they say this deal shouldn't be viewed with too much hindsight.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Certainly in retrospect a reasonable one to contemplate, but compared to what we were hoping for at the time far worse of an outcome than Mr. Bush envisioned and thought likely after the U.S. invasion.


TODD: At the time State Department officials said they knew about that deal with the UAE and thought that was a good idea, but on any talks between Saddam Hussein and the Egyptians for exile in exchange for $1 billion and his WMD knowledge we could not get State Department officials to comment on that one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, what if kind of story -- Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you.

Jack Cafferty has got the day off.

Coming up, a new airline horror story that's coming out tonight, passengers trapped on the tarmac for hours, finally revolting against the crew. We're going to show you what they did and what happened.

Also, Cuba opening up the debate, Fidel Castro's brother asking the people what they think is wrong with the country.

And John Edwards, surprising enough on board CNN's Election Express. It's a decision that could surprise his chief rivals. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could surprise you as well.

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


BLITZER: Right now the U.S. Senate is nearing a vote that pushes a lot of emotional hot buttons involving kids, health care, government spending and presidential priorities. It's the latest attempt by Democrats to try to stick a thumb in the eye of Mr. Bush and a lot of Republicans. Let's go right to our congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin. She is watching the story. But this isn't one of those typical battles involving Democrats and Republicans because a lot of Republicans disagree with other Republicans.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. This is not your typical Washington fight because the debate over children's health insurance is pitting not just Republican against Republican, but Republicans against the White House.


YELLIN (voice-over): President Bush is vowing to veto the new children's health insurance bill and Democrats are pleading with him to change his mind.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: This is wrong, Mr. President, this is an issue of priorities. I believe we ought to invest in the children.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He will be vetoing health care for almost four million children. And he will be putting ideology, not children first.

YELLIN: They're not alone. A handful of Republicans are breaking with the White House and Republican leadership to support this measure.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: It's very difficult for me to be against a man I care so much for, my own personal president on such an important bill.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), KANSAS: The administration is unfortunately claiming this bill does things that the bill simply does not do. It's sort of a SCHIP in Wonderland.

YELLIN: The bill would continue coverage to more than six million children who are currently enrolled and pay for another four million children to join the program. It would be funded through a 61-cent per pack cigarette tax. Opponents say it will give coverage to too many kids who can afford private insurance. In other words, they say it is socialized medicine.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: They're using SCHIP as a Trojan horse to sneak government-run health care into the states.

YELLIN: But one of the Senate's leading fiscal conservatives supports this bill. He says this is the wrong issue for a spending fight.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: This may be an opportunity for President Bush to learn a lesson that President Clinton learned on welfare reform. After we sent him three bills he eventually signed one, but eventually right wins out.

YELLIN: Meantime Democrats are gearing up for the president's veto and trying to gather enough votes to override it.

(END VIDEOTAPE) YELLIN: Now the Senate is expected to get enough votes to override a veto but not the House. So what we should expect next is for Congress to pass a temporary extension of the current program, wait for that veto and then bring the same bill up again and dare Republicans to vote against children's health insurance for a second time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much -- Jessica Yellin on the Hill.

The trouble with air travelers now front and center in Washington as well. President Bush met today with transportation and aviation officials and directed them to find ways to ease congestion and improve treatment of air passengers. The flight delay nightmares are coming all the time and they seem to be getting worse. Last Valentine's Day at New York's Kennedy Airport, for example, 21 Jet Blue flights spent hours on the tarmac, one of them for more than nine hours.

Let's go to the senior correspondent Allan Chernoff. He is joining us now from New York. These delays, they are so extreme. Give us a little sense of what happened.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's no question that these delays are most definitely continuing. That Valentine's Day massacre that you referred to happened on a very icy cold day. But you don't need cold weather to get stuck on an airplane. Indeed, just a few weeks ago in the middle of the summer, Continental Flight number 1669 was headed to Newark from Venezuela when it took a detour to Baltimore where it sat and sat and sat some more on the tarmac.


CHERNOFF (voice-over): Diverted because of bad weather the plane had been on the Baltimore tarmac for more than four hours following a five-hour flight. Passengers say the stench from a toilet backing up was beginning to fill the cabin.

CARLOS CIRINO, STRANDED PASSENGER: We had no food, no water, nobody is telling us anything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right. Babies were crying.

C. CIRINO: Yeah.

CAROLINE MURRAY, STRANDED PASSENGER: There was no toilet paper. There were people who were ill on the plane. There was a diabetic woman who needed food. There was a pregnant woman who needed food.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why can't we just go to Newark?

CHERNOFF: Passengers had had enough, enough of being trapped onboard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We said it's time for us to stand up and demand to be let off this plane, so we stood up. We started clapping in unison, demanding to speak to the pilot who refused to speak to us, refused to even come on the intercom.

CHERNOFF: They were banging on the overhead luggage compartments. Flight attendants threatened to call the police to make arrests.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We said please do, call the police. Have them come rescue us because you're holding us hostage.

CHERNOFF: Armed airport police and customs' officers came onboard and marched passengers single file into a secure room in the terminal where they were treated to pretzels and potato chips.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were kept in that room for another two hours before we were put back on the plane and held for another hour, so we were held against our will for a total of eight hours after a five-hour flight.


CHERNOFF: Continental told CNN that passengers were kept on the flight because it was an international flight that had to be processed by federal agents and they were in short supply at the airport. The airline also said, quote, "We have written apologies for the delay to the customers for whom we have contact information including travel vouchers as a goodwill gesture." Wolf, those vouchers are worth $200. Some of the passengers say that's not enough compensation.

BLITZER: A lot of angry passengers out there. Allan, thank you very much.

They seem to be in sync about everything, but there's one area where Hillary and Bill Clinton might not necessarily agree and it was exposed on national television. The surprise and why the audience was laughing. That's coming up next.

Plus echoes of the Elian Gonzalez case, a ruling in the custody battle over a little girl in Florida whose Cuban father wants her back.

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


BLITZER: Presidential campaigns can be tough on any candidate's marriage, but right now, some are wondering if Hillary and Bill Clinton are at odds over a concern many Americans have. It comes after Hillary Clinton gave a curious answer at the Democratic debate last night in New Hampshire.

Let's go right to Carol Costello. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. It's a serious subject. It concerns torture.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: It's a very serious subject, but it drew a lot of laughs from the audience. You know her answer might have been curious, but Hillary Clinton certainly scored last night with her answer to a question about the use of torture. Let me explain. Tim Russert, the moderator, asked Senator Clinton a "what if" kind of question written by one of his powerful Democratic guests. Listen.


TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: Senator Clinton, This is the number three man in al Qaeda. We know there is a bomb about to go off and we have three days and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?

H. CLINTON: These hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it's dangerous to go down this path.

RUSSERT: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year, so he disagrees with you.

H. CLINTON: Well, he's not standing here right now.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So there is a disagreement?

H. CLINTON: Well, I'll talk to him later.



COSTELLO: Seemed unscripted. She seemed very comfortable with her answer. The audience at Dartmouth ate it up clapping and laughing. It was a great moment. It certainly seemed unscripted, as I said. And perhaps it went a long way to answer questions about who would be deciding policy if Hillary Clinton does make it to the White House.

And perhaps it obscured the fact that Senator Clinton now seems not only to disagree with her husband on whether it is ever necessary to use torture, but with herself. Last year she was quoted in the "Daily News" that under certain conditions the president could OK torture, but her camp told us today she's altered her opinion. After talking with the experts she says she determined torture should not be part of American policy. And I'll bet most watching that debate will remember that witty part of the exchange.

BLITZER: She's very smooth and very fast on her feet. You got to give her credit for that.


BLITZER: Thanks very much Carol. You're very witty and very fast on your feet as well.


BLITZER: The U.S. is counting on Pakistan to help fight al Qaeda but at what cost?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I certainly think that the United States has supported the dictatorships for its short-term strategic reason arising out of the war against terrorism.


BLITZER: The former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and she is returning, she's at least trying, hoping to return to her country from exile, hoping to replace the man she calls a dictator, Pervez Musharraf. My exclusive interview with Benazir Bhutto, that's coming up.

Also, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards making a major announcement about his campaign.

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


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

Happening now, tropical storm warnings go up as Lorenzo forms in the Gulf of Mexico, and forecasters say it could reach hurricane strength by the time it hits land. That's expected to happen tomorrow in the Mexican state of Veracruz, which is bracing for dangerous wind and up to 15 inches of rain.

Also something we don't see much of anymore, President Bush and Congress actually reaching agreement on something. Mr. Bush signed a compromise bill boosting college grants for struggling students by more than $1,000.

And the last of six African American teenagers jailed in the beating of a white student in Jena, Louisiana is free tonight. Mychal Bell was released on $45,000 bail after the D.A. said he would not appeal the decision, sending this case to juvenile court.

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

The Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has formalized his candidacy for another term as president. There are dozens of candidates seeking Mr. Musharraf's job, which he seized in a 1999 coup. But the most formidable challenge may come from the country's former prime minister and first female leader about to return from exile. For the United States and hunt for Osama bin Laden, the stakes are enormous.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: And joining us now, the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. Prime minister, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: You're going back to Pakistan, even though you know you're wanted there on corruption charges, among other things. When, first of all, will you go back to Pakistan?

BHUTTO: I'm leaving on the 17th of October and arriving on the 18th of October. It's 21 days to my departure and I can't wait to get back home.

BLITZER: What makes you think you'll be received any differently than another former prime minister who went back and was quickly kicked out, Nawaz Sharif?

BHUTTO: I'm in a different boat than Mr. Nawaz Sharif. He was sentenced for treason and tax evasion. I haven't been sentenced for any crime. And, secondly, Mr. Nawaz Sharif got the Saudis to stand guarantee for his release and said he wouldn't return for 10 years. I was offered the same deal, but I refused. And my husband stayed behind bars without a conviction for eight years. So, we are in two different boats. There are no guarantees.

BLITZER: Do you have assurances from President Musharraf that you will be allowed to stay in Pakistan?

BHUTTO: Well, General Musharraf has not given this assurance, but I know I can't be handed over to any third country. So the choice is either to let me be free or the choice is to try and lock me up.

BLITZER: And so when you get back to Pakistan, what's your game plan? You want to run for office?

BHUTTO: Yes, I want to go back and bring change. People want democracy, and there's a critical path in Pakistan's future, one fork between dictatorship and democracy, another between moderation, the issues of moderation and extremism. People want change. They want democracy and think that we can undermine extremism through Democratic means.

BLITZER: You're a relatively young woman. How scared are you, though, because as you know, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, they've attacked you in the past, and they clearly would like to go after you now.

BHUTTO: Yes, of course, they would like to go against me. There's a lot of threats because under military dictatorship and an anarchy situation has developed which the terrorists and Osama have exploited. They don't want democracy. They don't want me back.

BLITZER: They don't want a woman to be the prime minister of Pakistan either.

BHUTTO: And they don't believe in women governing nations. So, they will try to plot against me, but these are risks that must be taken, I'm prepared to take them.

BLITZER: Yeah, your family has a history unfortunately, a tragic history, of assassinations.

BHUTTO: I know the past has been tragic, but I'm an optimist by nature. I put my faith in the people of Pakistan. I put my faith in God. I see that what I am doing is for a good cause, for a right cause, to save Pakistan from extremists and militants and to build regional security. I know the dangers out there, but I'm prepared to take those risks.

BLITZER: Your father was killed at a political assassination.

BHUTTO: My father was killed. It was a very terrible moment in my life. But I also learned from him that one has to stand up for the principles they believe in. And I'm standing up for the principle of democracy. I'm standing up for moderation. And I'm standing up for hope for all the people in Pakistan who today are poor and miserable and really quite desperate.

BLITZER: Can you forge an alliance, an alliance of convenience, with President Musharraf that will allow the two of you to work together for the benefit of Pakistan?

BHUTTO: I have been trying to reach an understanding with General Musharraf to bring about a transition to democracy, and I was quite hopeful a few weeks ago, but now I'm getting a little worried, because time is running out. And unless General Musharraf can take concrete steps to show that we are moving forward, moving away from dictatorship towards democracy, it might be very difficult for us to reach an understanding.

BLITZER: What can you say about all the reports, widespread reports, that the two of you met secretly?

BHUTTO: Well, there were these widespread reports that we met secretly. And whenever we've had an opportunity to meet, we've had a good rapport, a good exchange of ideas, but there are people around him who don't want this understanding, who don't want him to make the political concessions that are necessary to facilitate the path towards democracy. I had asked him to take some steps for fair elections. Those remain unimplemented. There were certain other commitments. So, now I worry. I worry that time is running out and there's pressure on my party to join the other political parties and resign from parliament unless an accommodation is reached with General Musharraf.

BLITZER: So I just want to be precise. Are you now confirming that you did have these meetings in recent weeks and months with President Musharraf?

BHUTTO: Well, we were supposed to keep it secret, but it's kind of an open secret now.

BLITZER: So you can confirm that for us.

BHUTTO: You're not letting me off the hook. But sort of.

BLITZER: I will take that as a confirmation. Michael Scheuer is a former CIA analyst, he ran the bin Laden unit at the CIA. We spoke with him earlier today. He said you've been targeted in the past, including by Ramzi Yousef, who was the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and you will be targeted again. I just want to get back to this point. You got be very worried. What kind of security will you have when you go back there?

BHUTTO: Well, I have raised the issue of my security with General Musharraf, and I've asked him to provide me the security that I'm entitled to as a former prime minister. I hope that he will provide me the security, because I have been a target of terrorists in the past. And I know I could be a target in the future.

BLITZER: Who are you more afraid of, the al Qaeda, Taliban elements who hate you, or elements in the Pakistani military?

BHUTTO: I'm not afraid of either the al Qaeda or the Taliban elements or the Pakistani military. But I think at the end of the day, the people who try and plot will use al Qaeda, will use Taliban, because Taliban and al Qaeda are the groups that will suffer the most major reverses if my party and I are returned to power. We fought them in the past because we want a stable Pakistan, a prosperous Pakistan and we can't get any stability with militancy and extremists.

BLITZER: President and you've had a strained relationship to put it mildly with President Musharraf. In his book he says that when you ran your party, you were chairperson for life in the tradition of the old African dictators. Strong words coming from him. And all the charges of corruption that your party was rife with corruption, your husband, what do you say to those allegations, which some, including Michael Scheuer, the former CIA analyst, said had a strong element of truth?

BHUTTO: Well, I would say that a person is innocent unless proved otherwise. There's no sentence against me. These are politically motivated charges. When the chief justice of Pakistan proved to be a problem, he was slapped with corruption charges. These are deliberate allegations made to detract attention from the institutionalized corruption of the military, transparency, international, a reputed international group has said that corruption under the military regime is far greater than it was under previous civilian predecessors.

BLITZER: You have called President Musharraf a dictator, and he runs a dictatorship. But as you know, the Bush administration, the U.S. government, has a strong relationship with -- with President Musharraf's government, and relies on the Musharraf government to cooperate in the war on terror, to provide some sense of stability, security, in that part of the world. What's your basic complaint with what the U.S. is doing right now? In other words, is the U.S. supporting a dictatorship?

BHUTTO: I certainly think that the United States has supported a dictatorship for its own short-term strategic reasons arising out of the war against terrorism. When Musharraf has been seen as a reliable ally. But last year President Bush went to Pakistan and made a pledge, to support democracy and free elections. And Condoleezza Rice yesterday gave a statement expressing her disappointment about the arrests of political activists. So, I think that the United States is gently trying to prod General Musharraf on to the path of greater democratization, which I welcome.

BLITZER: But do you have any doubt that President Musharraf is committed to destroying al Qaeda, which has gone after him on several occasions as well?

BHUTTO: Well, he says he's committed to destroying them.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BHUTTO: I don't think he's been very effective. I think the longer -- many people think the military is the solution. I don't. I think the situation has become anarchic and will continue to be anarchy because as long as there is a military dominated regime in Pakistan.

BLITZER: Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, you're a courageous woman, good luck when you go back.

BHUTTO: Thank you.


BLITZER: An all-American type of forum in of all places, Cuba -- is a town hall meeting a sign of change for the Castro regime, or is it just a smoke screen?

Also coming up, our first candidate interview aboard the CNN Election Express. Democrat John Edwards announcing he'll do something his top presidential rivals won't. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: In Cuba, town hall meetings and presumably an open forum, they're pretty rare. But the acting president Raul Castro has invited Cubans to share their thoughts about what's wrong with the country. Is this the first whiff of the winds of change in Cuba, or is it just a chance to let angry Cubans vent? CNN Havana bureau chief Morgan Neill has details. Morgan?

MORGAN NEILL, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF: Wolf, after more than a year of Raul Castro officially at the helm, Cubans still face a daily struggle to make ends meet. Now, the acting president is looking to the people for direction.


NEILL (voice-over): When Cuban television broadcast this interview with Fidel Castro last Friday, it grabbed the world's attention. But within Cuba, the real buzz surrounds what his brother is doing. Acting President Raul Castro is calling on Cubans to tell their government what is wrong with the country. For the first time in a speech marking Cuba's biggest national holiday on July 26th, Castro said salaries were too low to meet people's needs and said the country's economy needed changes in its very structure.

Now in workplaces and schools around the island, the government is inviting Cubans to air their criticisms.

"Everyone's been told they can talk not just about the speech," Castro told reporters, "but about anything they want to talk about. He urged people to answer honestly but realistically, with courage, with sincerity," he said, "but without a lot of illusions that we're magicians and going to fix everything."

Some Cubans said they have seen this before. "It's always been bla, bla, bla," says Ricardo, a sound man. "Or if they do fix the problem, it only lasts a little while and then things go back to how they were before."

Jorge, who's retired, says getting people to speak freely is the main issue. "People have to say what they feel and talk honestly about what is wrong, he says, otherwise the problems won't be fixed."

Law student Alba says she thinks the meetings are sincere. "They took our suggestions on transportation seriously," she says, "and now there's a group that comes from very far away and there's transportation for them."


NEILL: So far, the government has found it's not hard to get people to voice their complaints. What remains to be seen is what, if anything, they're going to do about it -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Morgan -- Morgan Neill, our man in Havana. Thank you very much.

Also regarding Cuba, you may remember the case of Elian Gonzales, the Cuban boy snatched from the arms of the people caring for him in Miami and then returned to Cuba back in the year 2000. Right now there's another case in Florida, very familiar, very similar to that one in fact. This time, it involves a 5-year-old girl and a judge's ruling in the matter if she should go back to Cuba. Our national correspondent Susan Candiotti is in Miami -- Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, unlike the Elian Gonzales case, this U.S./Cuban custody battle didn't create much of a stir in Miami. But just like Elian, a Cuban father has won a legal battle in a U.S. court.


CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Cuban father Rafael Esquierdo came a long way to hear an American judge tell him he is not an unfit dad.

JERI B. COHEN, MIAMI-DADE CIRCUIT JUDGE: The court cannot deny Esquierdo custody of his child.

CANDIOTTI: Esquierdo say justice is served. After a month long custody battle, a judge ruled the quote, "Unsophisticated father did not abandon his 5-year-old child by failing to stop the girl's mother from bringing her to the U.S."

Judge Jeri Cohen also dismissed claims Esquierdo was promised favorable treatment by Fidel Castro. A reference to the Elian Gonzalez controversy, that consumed Miami. An attempted suicide by the mother prompted the state of Florida to put the child in foster care. She has given up her parental rights but sides with Esquierdo. But the child's foster parents, a wealthy Cuban American Joe Cubas and his family, who adopted her half brother don't want to give her up.

JOE CUBAS, FOSTER PARENT: These two children have been together their entire lives. Again, through the best and worst moments of their lives. And it is our beliefs, as is the wishes of the children, that they remain together.

CANDIOTTI: He plans to appeal. Esquierdo's attorney argues the little girl belongs with her father.

IRA KURZBAN, FATHER'S ATTORNEY: And he deserves to have his child back. And we call upon the Cubas family to give it up, to stop keeping a child that's not theirs. They are not family.

CANDIOTTI: They chose to take her in temporarily, says Esquierdo. They should know I want her back.


CANDIOTTI: The ruling doesn't mean the Cuban dad will automatically get her back. There's another hearing next month to argue whether separating half brother and sister will cause irreparable psychological damage to the little girl -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Susan Candiotti in Miami, thanks. Is John Edwards' wife Elizabeth becoming his so-called political attack dog? The Democratic presidential candidate responds to that question onboard our campaign bus and he makes a big announcement along the way as well. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: A $600,000 makeover for a military building. The reason is most unusual. CNN's Jeanne Moos explains.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sometimes a bird's eye view flies in the face of reality. How is it possible that A U.S. Navy barracks IN San Diego could look like --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Looks like a swastika.

MOOS: But it's not just the site that's shocking, it's how much taxpayer money is going to be spent to hide that swastika.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a waste of $600,000 because how many people are looking at it from the air?

MOOS: If it weren't for Google Earth, very few. This image has been floating around the Internet for years, gradually attracting more and more attention. The architect who designed the barracks back in the 1960s calls it --


MOOS: To architect John Mauk (ph), it's no swastika.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's four L-shaped buildings. When you look at the ground -- when you from the air, it still is.

MOOS: From the ground they look like nothing. But the Jewish- based Anti-Defamation League kept nudging the Navy about the swastika image. And now "Naval Base Coronado recognizes the need to disassociate themselves from such an offensive symbol, like that of a swastika." But it's going to cost up to $600,000 to make landscaping changes and perhaps add solar panels to camouflage the barracks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's ridiculous, totally ridiculous. The era of political correctness is going crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many people flying above will look down and say, oh, look, the Nazi sign, the swastika.

MOOS: $600,000 is a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Haven't they spent that toilets?

MOOS: Sure, the government overpays.

Should they spend $600,000 to hide the swastika?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely not. They should tear it down.

MOOS: Would have reminded us of what they did in Germany. North of Berlin back in the 1930s, Germans showed their loyalty to Hitler by planting trees in the form of a swastika, trees that would change their leaf color in the fall so they'd show up in the middle of an evergreen forest. In the year 2000, they were finally chopped down. The barrack swastika has led to conspiracy theories on the Internet. For instance, the suggestion that these buildings look like bombers attacking the swastika. But most folks rolled their eyes at that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know the shape of this building from above?

MOOS: Can't say that we do. His point is you can find any shape, anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there any phallic buildings in the area?

MOOS: Nope. That's in Washington, D.C. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


SANCHEZ: Let's go right to CNN's Rick Sanchez, to tell us what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Rick?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: You've got to wonder why, Wolf, as a nation we give just a pittance to children's programs and politicians are always saying we're going to help the children's programs, but when they get into office, they do just the opposite. And then Bill O'Reilly still not apologizing to those who say they were offended by his comments, even if his comments were just stupid and not malicious. We're going to be looking into both of those things and a whole lot more as we bring it "OUT IN THE OPEN" for you -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Coming up in a few moments, Rick, thanks very much.

Coming up here, John Edwards's surprising announcement onboard CNN's Election Express. It's a decision that may shock some of his chief rivals, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- could surprise you in the process as well. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Tonight, John Edwards said he'll do something his top Democratic presidential rivals won't. He'll accept public financing for his campaign. Candy Crowley has more -- Candy?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, politics goes something like this. If you need to shake up the political landscape, kick up some dust.


CROWLEY (voice-over): Stepping up his game, John Edwards says he'll accept public funding in the private season and if nominated in the general elections. It means he agrees to spending limits in a campaign season destined to be the most expensive in history.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not about a money calculation. This is about taking a stand, a principle stand for what's right.

CROWLEY: Rival campaigns suggests Edwards is show boating, that what it's really about is Edwards needing federal money because he hasn't raised as much as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

EDWARDS: First of all, I have the money I need to run a serious campaign. I hope the other two will join me. As I said, Senator Clinton has said she's for public financing. So she can step forward and show that she actually means it in doing in this campaign.

CROWLEY: In a broad-ranging interview while traveling through New Hampshire, Edwards repeatedly returned to what is clearly his fall imperative, trying to show Democratic voters the differences between himself and front runner Hillary Clinton. He is trying to knock her off-stride, put her on defense on lobbying reform, on campaign financing, on social security, on the war. EDWARDS: She has indicated there would still be combat missions going on in Iraq. That to me, is a form of war. I think this war needs to come to an end. So I disagree with her on that. There's a difference between the two of us on that issue.

CROWLEY: Asked whether a Clinton issue would hurt other Democrats on the ballot or whether Obama has enough experience to be president, Edwards said he didn't know. The answers he said, will come from voters. Closer to home, Edwards gave a full-throated defense of his wife, who has been direct and often biting criticizing Clinton.

(on camera): I have talked to some supporters of her who think that her pretty forceful criticism of Hillary Clinton at times has kind of crossed that line into sort of a vice presidential attack dog mode. Have you been uncomfortable at all with some of the things that she has said? Do you think that she's crossed the line?

EDWARDS: No, no. First of all, I embrace my wife speaking her mind. She's a strong woman, she's got her own opinions. She doesn't and should not ask me whether she can express her opinion. I mean, I embrace her ability to do that and I applaud her for it.

CROWLEY (voice-over): On a more personal note, Edwards said his wife, who is battling cancer, feels good and is symptom-free. Knock on wood, Edwards says, it's going well. Wolf?

BLITZER: Candy Crowley with the CNN Election Express, thank you. Let's go to Rick Sanchez, he's in New York -- Rick?