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Replays of Week's Noteworthy Interviews

Aired January 31, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: President Obama's fight for the moral high ground in the war on terror. Will his break with the Bush administration policies put America at risk? I'll ask the new chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein. Plus, Jimmy Carter on his private talks with Mr. Obama about Middle East peace. And something they do not agree on. Stand by for my one-on-one interview with former president Jimmy Carter. And politics and race in the age of Obama. Journalist and author Gwen Ifill shares her insight into the Obama victory and the tightrope Michelle Obama is walking on right now.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT, OF THE UNITED STATES: We can have legitimate disagreements, but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians. And we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world, what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.


BLITZER: President Obama working to heal U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world, while standing firm in his commitment to fight terrorists. Mr. Obama is moving quickly to put his own stamp on the war on terror and break with the Bush administration's tactics with the support of key Democratic alleys in Congress.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, the new chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California.

Senator, first of all, congratulations on getting this important post. I know you've been a member for a long time. After 9/11, there really hasn't been a major terror attack on the U.S. homeland all these years but President Obama is getting ready to change, as they say, the rules of the game in dealing with suspected terrorists. Will America and Americans become more vulnerable?

SEN. DIANE FEINSTEIN, (D) CA: Well, let me say this. There is a reason there hasn't been another attack and one of the reasons, we've doubled the intelligence budget. Secondly, intelligence is now on the alert. Threats are taken seriously. Things are evaluated carefully and people move quickly. So there is a real active effort to protect American and the apex of that protection is intelligence, good, factual, strong intelligence.

And that is what actually protects us.

BLITZER: Are you comfortable, though, that suspected terrorists would only be interrogated according to the rules included in the U.S. Army Field Manual, which is very different than what the CIA used to use, as you well know, very enhanced interrogation techniques as they were called?

FEINSTEIN: Yes, I am. The Intelligence Committee has asked repeatedly for information as to whether any terrorist efforts had been prevented because of intelligence. Because of coercive interrogation. And we have received no information and we ask again and again and again.

So until there is some documentation that coercive interrogation actually will stop a terrorist attack, the answer is no.

Let me make another point.

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt you for a second because the vice president, former Vice President Dick Cheney told me recently in an exit interviewed, he believes American lives have been saved because of some of those techniques, including waterboarding on some of the suspected terrorists.

FEINSTEIN: Well, then I would say respectfully to the vice president he should send us the specifics of that information. We have asked for it and we have not received it. More importantly ...

BLITZER: I think he was referring to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the so- called mastermind of 9/11 who by now is widely reported to have been waterboarded.

FEINSTEIN: They may well have gotten some information from KSM but the point is, did it stop an actual attack and to the best of my knowledge it did not. Now we ask for that information and on behalf of the committee I asked for that information again.

But more importantly, we have had actual testimony where interrogation that does not use coercive mechanisms works better. The FBI did that with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. You had a number of people currently serving time who were convicted based on interrogation that was able to produce evidence to convict them.

Secondly, the interrogation of Saddam Hussein was not coercive and the interrogator, again an FBI agent, was able to get enough material to convict him and get a death sentence. So we believe that this can work and as you know President Obama has asked for a special effort to look through the Army Field Manual. The Army Field Manual was recently revised. It can be revised again if it is shown that there are protocols or approaches that might work better.

But this business that we have to drop to the lowest common denominator, hire contractors because our government agents don't want to do this kind of work and waterboard certain people or use coercive techniques in a combination and over a length of time where they are debilitated for the rest of their lives, this is not the United States of America and it certainly is not going to be in the administration of Barack Obama.

BLITZER: Are you confident, senator, that you're going to get all the information you need from all the intelligence community agencies, including the NSA, the National Security Agency, that will allow you to do the kind of oversight that you're required to do.

FEINSTEIN: Well, am I confident was your question? I do know that we want to do everything we can whether it's budget or policy or leadership to see that we have the finest intelligence services in the world. And if we do, and if we are able to use that intelligence wisely and well, unlike the Iraq national intelligence estimate, I believe the answer to your question will be yes.

Now there are some ifs and I spelled those out but the intelligence of the United States is very much better today than it was pre-9/11.

BLITZER: There is an incident now that's been reported, the former CIA station chief in Algeria is accused of having raped two Algerian women. This comes at a time when the new president is reaching out to the Arab world, the Muslim world, how concerned are you about these allegations. I assume you've been briefed on that.

FEINSTEIN: Oh, I am very concerned about them and I have indicated my concern and at 2:30 today the CIA will be briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee on what they know about this. From what I know about it, it is absolutely intolerable and unacceptable and I know the Department of Justice is investigating. They have asked the CIA to say very little but I can sure say something and that is that this man does not belong in the intelligence service of the United States.

And if you cannot be a disciplined professional, you do not belong in the intelligence service of the United States. This is not what that service is about.

BLITZER: Senator Feinstein, good luck as chair of the Intelligence Committee. You've got your work cut out for you. Appreciate it very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: From one president to another, inside private talks over at the White House.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT: The night before we had the five presidents luncheon, I spent a long time with President Obama -- president-elect...

BLITZER: Just the two of you?

CARTER: Just the two of us.


BLITZER: Stand by for my interview with former President Jimmy Carter. Does he have hope for Middle East peace under a new commander in chief?

Plus, the unique challenges of being the first African-American First Lady. The journalist Gwen Ifill on Michelle Obama's role. And new revelations about why President Bush didn't land in the hurricane zone right after Katrina. My exclusive interview with the former pilot of Air Force One. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BARACK OBAMA: Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is right for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people and that instead it's time to return to the negotiating table. It's going to be difficult. It's going to take time.


BLITZER: President Barack Obama giving his first post-inauguration interview to the Arabic language television channel al Arabiya. That was a deliberate move.

As president, he brokered the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt back in 1979. As a former president, he's taken some pretty controversial positions on the Middle East conflict. Just before the inauguration, he offered advice on the region to President Barack Obama. We're talking about Jimmy Carter. He has a brand new book. It's called "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land." We spoke in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Has President Obama asked you to do anything, at least at this point? Because the Middle East is obviously for him a huge priority.

CARTER: It is. Not yet, but the night before we had the five presidents' luncheon, I spent a long time with President Obama.

BLITZER: Just the two of you.

CARTER: Just the two of us. Well, Rosen (ph) took notes and David Axelrod took notes. Just the four of us in the room. And we talked about the projects of the Carter Center. Health projects and others I need not name to you. And then I would say he was most interested in the Middle East because I had been to that region twice in the previous year and had met with some people that others don't meet with as you probably ...

BLITZER: Like Hamas.

CARTER: Like Hamas. And he wanted to know about those events. And I gave him the first copy of this book. And he asked for it. And I gave it to him. And then I gave him a little summary of things I thought were crucial for the Middle East. And I thanked him for promising during his campaign that he would not wait until the last year he was in office before he started working on the Middle East, but would start immediately. And certainly he's done that.

BLITZER: Because that was the criticism you leveled against President Bush, that he waited too long, the last year of his administration, to really push hard on the Israeli-Palestinian ...

CARTER: Bill Clinton did too but he - Bill, I would say that President Clinton did a heroic effort the last year he was in office ...

BLITZER: But remember, the first year of his administration, in fairness to Bill Clinton, he did bring Arafat and Rabin together in September 1993 at the White House for that huge signing ceremony.

CARTER: For the signing ceremony.


CARTER: But he didn't even know about the negotiation. The negotiation was done by the Norwegians. And the signing ceremony was at the White House.

BLITZER: And then he followed up with the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement in 1994. He's really sensitive, by the way, I've heard from some of his associates, when you criticize him for not doing enough in his first -- early on in his administration. They point out to the Israeli-PLO agreement and to the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement which has been in force ever since '94.

CARTER: I give Bill full credit for everything he claims.

BLITZER: Sorry, well, I just want to - historically...


BLITZER: But now here you say you spoke with President Obama about Hamas. Here is what President Obama, then candidate Obama told me last May 8th about Hamas and then we'll discuss. Listen to this.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: They are a terrorist organization that we should not negotiate with them unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence and unless they are willing to abide by previous accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

BLITZER: All right. Those are the three conditions that not only he, but the Bush administration, the Europeans, others have put forward in order to justify talking with Hamas.

CARTER: Right. BLITZER: You don't except that?

CARTER: Well, I explained this very well in my book.

BLITZER: I read that chapter.

CARTER: Sure, well...

BLITZER: You have a separate chapter just on Hamas.

CARTER: Hamas says they acknowledge Israel's right to exist, they accept Israel's right to exist and to live in peace.

BLITZER: Because in their public statements they don't say that.

CARTER: They do. They said it publicly. They don't use the word "recognize." Recognize implies diplomatic recognition. And Hamas said they will not be prepared to recognize Israel's right to exist unless Israel is prepared to recognize Hamas and Fatah's right to exist.

BLITZER: Here's what you write in, "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land." You say this. "Except for some infrequent public statements and assurances given to me based on the prospect of an Israeli-PLO peace agreement, Hamas has not acknowledged Israel's right to exist and will not forego violence as a means of ending the occupation of Palestinian territory."


BLITZER: So they have not acknowledged - you're saying they have not acknowledges Israel's right to exist.

CARTER: They've done it publicly. Yes, they have.

BLITZER: But why did you write that they didn't in the book?

CARTER: I don't remember that particular...

BLITZER: I'll show you right here. This is the -- I highlighted that section over there.

CARTER: Well, but I explained the difference between "acknowledge" and "recognize" in the book, too. And Hamas also said as I quote in the book, that they will accept any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that is negotiated by Hamas if it's subsequently submitted to the Palestinians for a referendum. And if a referendum is approved by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, that they will accept it even though they disagree with the terms.

BLITZER: Because the argument is, and you've heard it many times, not only from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, is that Hamas doesn't, unlike the PLO, Fatah, doesn't accept a two-state solution. They want a one-state solution which is simply Palestine with no Jewish...

CARTER: No they don't.

BLITZER: ... state in Israel.

CARTER: No way. That's not what they want. No, they don't want a one-state solution. I don't know of any Palestinian that wants a one state solution as a first preference.

BLITZER: Are they willing to live, do you believe, Hamas, forget about Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. Are they willing to live in a new state of Palestine with Israel having an independent state.

CARTER: Yes, they are. They are. And they've made a public statement the same day that I made the statement in Jerusalem, they announced it on al-Jazeera and other news...

BLITZER: Because other spokesmen for Hamas, as you know, disavowed the statement that was made to you.

CARTER: I'm quoting Meshal, who is the top leader and all of his top ...

BLITZER: Khaled Meshal, he's based in Damascus...

CARTER: That's right.

BLITZER: ...the leader of Hamas.

CARTER: And that's where the politburo is. And all five of its top people were with me.

BLITZER: So you're saying that Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, told you flatly that if there were a Palestinian state, right, in the West Bank and Gaza, that they would accept Israel's right to exist and that there would be a recognition of a two-state solution.

CARTER: Well, what he said accurately, to be accurate in quoting...

BLITZER: Be precise.

CARTER: ...he said that he would accept any agreement that was negotiated on a two-state solution between Palestinians and Israelis if it was subsequently submitted to the Palestinians in a referendum in the West Bank and Gaza, or if it was approved by a unity government that had been elected. Either one of those.


BLITZER: Iran's president is demanding an apology from the United States for supposed crimes.


CARTER: It's no question that the president of Iran is the most irresponsible blabber mouth in the world.


BLITZER: Jimmy Carter was president when Iran held Americans hostage for 445 days. He talks about Iran and about President Obama's efforts to engage the Muslim world. More of my one-on-one interview with Jimmy Carter, coming up.

Plus, why did Barack Obama succeed when other African-American presidential candidates before him failed to break through? I'll ask the journalist, Gwenn Ifill, author of a brand new book on the new president. Stay with us.



BARACK OBAMA: The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It's important to me personally. And it is important to Arabs and Jews. It is important to Christians and Muslims and Jews all around the world. And the charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress.


BLITZER: President Obama speaking over at the White House this week during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his new special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. Let's get to more of my interview now with the former president, Jimmy Carter. His new book is entitled "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land." And despite all the latest bloodshed, he says he's optimistic.

BLITZER: Here's what you write in the book. And I know you finished writing before the most recent violence...


BLITZER: ... in Gaza. "Despite the recent lack of progress, I see this as a unique time for hope, not despair."

CARTER: That's correct.

BLITZER: Now, given what's happened in Gaza over the past month, six weeks, whatever, do you still see hope, not despair?

CARTER: I do. I do. And the basic change is -- the biggest change is the inauguration of a new president.

BLITZER: Of the United States?

CARTER: Of the United States. Who has taken a strong role already in pursuing peace in the Middle East. And he's -- and he's chosen George Mitchell, the best American alive to undertake this responsibility, to be his representative in -- his envoy to the Mideast. That's a major change.

BLITZER: You have confidence in George Mitchell? CARTER: I have total confidence in him.

BLITZER: And what about Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state?

CARTER: I think she'll comply with the policies established by the president as will George Mitchell.

BLITZER: And the decision he made, dramatic decision to give his first formal interview to Al Arabiya, the Arabic language television station, in which he had a direct message to the Muslim world and the Arab world, I assume you think that was a good idea?

CARTER: I do. I think it was a good idea. And I appreciate the way he said in his inauguration, too, that he wanted to reach out to the -- to the Muslim world. And that anybody that would unclench their fist, he would shake their hand. I think that was a very symbolic...

BLITZER: And there was a lot of discussion that maybe there could be some sort of breakthrough with Iran. But only -- even as we're speaking, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says this. He says, "Change means that they" -- meaning the United States -- "should apologize to the Iranian nation and try to make up for their dark background and the crimes they have committed against the Iranian nation."

He reaches out to Iran, says there should be a dialogue. And Ahmadinejad responds, "You have to apologize," he says, for the 60 years of crimes committed against Iran by the United States.

CARTER: There's no question that the president of Iran is the most irresponsible blabbermouth in the world. You know, you can't put any credence in what he says.

But I'm sure they don't consider that I attacked Iran when they captured American hostages and held them for more than a year. I mean, that wasn't an attack by Americans.

BLITZER: I assume you'd like to see them apologize to you for what they did to the United States?

CARTER: I'm not asking for that. But you know, after the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) government took over in Iran, that I immediately established diplomatic relations with them to keep open avenues of conversation and communication. In fact, the -- my hostages that were taken were diplomats that I sent to the revolutionary government.

So I think this -- that Obama's made the right decision, to make every effort to open up avenues, if not to an irresponsible president, to the more responsible people in Iran.

BLITZER: And he says in his first 100 days he wants to visit a Muslim country and deliver a major speech. You have any idea -- which country would you like him to go to, to deliver that speech?

CARTER: Well, I would really like -- well, I don't have any preference which one he goes to. Jordan would be a good one. I would hope that we could renew diplomatic relations with Syria. Because in order to have peace in the Middle East, we've got to have a peace between Israel and Syria concerning the Golan Heights. And those peace talks have been going on now. In fact, they were going on when I was there in April.

BLITZER: There's some encouraging word on the Israel-Syrian front.

CARTER: A little bit. You know, the peace talks were disavowed and condemned by President Bush when he found out about it. These were done by Turkey. I knew about it, and a few other people knew about it. But these talks have been so-called indirect talks, where Israelis and Syrians go to the same hotel in Turkey, and the Turks go back and forth between them. They don't meet in the same room.

BLITZER: Sort of shuttle diplomacy?

CARTER: Shuttle diplomacy. But the terms of a solution for the Golan Heights issue have been known ever since the 1980s very clearly.

BLITZER: The book is entitled "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: The Plan That Will Work." All of us, who have covered this story for so long, would love to see peace in the Middle East. And we're praying for it.

CARTER: I think we'll see some news. Just wait till September when George Mitchell gives -- has given his report back to President Obama, and President Obama says, "I know there are still differences. You don't agree with each other, but this is what I think is a fair approach. And let's all do it." That would be very difficult for either side to turn down.

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much.

CARTER: Thank you, Wolf. It's good to see you.


BLITZER: This week, Michelle Obama's first public appearance as the First Lady, celebrating a new law to help guarantee equal pay for women.


MICHELLE OBAMA: This legislation is an important step forward, particularly at a time when so many families are facing economic insecurity and instability.


BLITZER: As Mrs. Obama settles into her new role, I'll ask the journalist and author Gwen Ifill about the tightrope this new First Fady is walking and how she'll be able to keep her balance. Stand by for that.

And what's it really like to fly as sitting commander in chief into a war zone? My exclusive interview with the former pilot of Air Force One. That's coming up as well.



OBAMA: I sign this bill for my daughters, and all those who will come after us, because I want them to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams, and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined.


BLITZER: President Obama says it's fitting that the first bill he signed into law opposed one of the nation's first principles, equality. The legislation is designed to make it easier for women to seek equal pay with men. This new president clearly aware of his place in history and the ongoing fight against discrimination of all kinds.


BLITZER: And joining us now is Gwen Ifill. She's the author of the new bestseller, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." Gwen, thanks very much. Congratulations on the new book.

GWEN IFILL, PBS ANCHOR: Delighted to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little about Barack Obama first and foremost, "The Breakthrough". Why did he break through when other black politicians before him running for the presidency didn't? And you know the names? Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others.

IFILL: And Carol Moseley Braun and Shirley Chisolm, even. The truth is that Barack Obama is a creature of timing, in much the same way that this book is a creature of timing. People were willing to hear. It didn't hurt that the economy was in a tough space and the message of change helped him a lot more.

But it also mattered that you had a candidate who for the first time - a black candidate who for the first time was running in a broader, more coalition-based kind of campaign. Appealing to whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and telling them that his election would make him less different from them than they thought. That he could solve all their problems. And people heard that and that and connected to that.

And more importantly, a whole new generational cohort of people his age and younger really connected with that in a way that none of the previous breakthrough candidates, at least for the presidency, have been able to pull off.

BLITZER: I know you interviewed General Colin Powell for the book. Could he have done it had he decided to run in '96 when he was thinking about it?

IFILL: He was thinking about it, true. But you know what? I did talk to him about it and he didn't think he could have done it. He thought there were still some racial barriers. His wife thought there were some security barriers. And in fact he described it - he didn't have the fire in the belly to run for president in 1996 and if you know anything about presidential candidates, you and I, Wolf, have covered our share, is you've got to really want to do it. You've got to have the audacity in order to break through and if he didn't have it, it wasn't going to be the success he had hoped.

BLITZER: Barack Obama certainly has that audacity of hope as all of us know.

Let me read to you from the book, "The Breakthrough." "Once he won in Iowa, Obama began regularly collecting 80 and 90 percent of the black vote. Black voters decided Obama could win once white people did, only then did his candidacy catch fire."

Because before Iowa, he was - and Hillary Clinton was basically splitting the African American vote.

IFILL: That's true. And you know, in that he had a lot in common with the other breakthrough candidates I talked to in the book. You look at Duval Patrick, who shared campaign ...

BLITZER: The governor of Massachusetts.

IFILL: ... advisers with Obama. The governor of Massachusetts. Only seven percent of Massachusetts was black. So he wasn't relying only on black voters to get him elected. He found a way to appeal to white voters as well. As did Barack Obama.

You look at someone like Artur Davis, the congressman from Alabama who wants to run next year for governor of Alabama, which when you think about that is a pretty audacious idea. But he also has to find a way to appeal to voters in Huntsville as well as Birmingham. Statewide.

The earlier generation of elected black officials more often relied on coming from congressionally - from small districts which were majority black which had been carved out in a way to enhance their chances of getting elected. This new breakthrough generation, not so much.

BLITZER: And including some of the mayors who were elected in predominantly African American cities.

Let me read another line because this jumped out at me when I read it in "The Breakthrough." "When given the chance to talk about race in the ways most expected to hear, he," referring to Obama, "resisted. Race was worth talking about, he thought, but only in the context of broader issues. You would never catch this black man with his fist in the air."

All right. I want you to elaborate.

IFILL: Yeah.

That's so true. When you think about - think back to Invesco Field when he accepted the nomination in Denver. It was the 45th anniversary of the march on Washington. No one would have held it against him if he had made great connections to how far we had come, how Martin Luther King had stood and spoke on behalf of the dream.

In fact, his only reference to King that night was to talk about the Georgia preacher. He didn't bring any attention to that. I was struck the other night with his interview with al Arabiya where he talked about his Muslim - not his upbringing but his background. The fact that his father had been born a Muslim, that he had family members who were Muslim. He didn't talk about that during the campaign, either. And he didn't talk that much about his childhood - not his childhood but his heritage in Kenya.

And part of the reason he didn't do it is because as all politicians, he was trying to narrow the differences between him and the people he was asking to for him. So as far as he was concerned, it was obvious that he was African American. He had written about it in his books with far more conscientiousness than most of us ever apply to thinking about our own race. And so he didn't feel the need to talk about it anymore than that because that would only expand the gulf between him and the people he was hoping to vote for him.

BLITZER: What about the first lady, Michelle Obama. Is she similar in that respect as part of this breakthrough generation you describe in the book?

IFILL: She is similar in a different way. Michelle Obama like Barack Obama went to law school, Ivy League, very accomplished, had her own career. In that respect she is a lot more like Hillary Clinton than she is like her own husband. Because women breaking through is a little slightly different thing. Especially in such kind of a hidebound and well-defined institution as first lady.

So people will be watching very carefully to see what kind of tightrope she manages to walk, mostly because the first lady's job has always been defined as visiting schools and reading to children and picking the china. And one can suspect that Michelle Obama has different ways of putting that together.

But that said, she is a breakthrough in that like these other - like these breakthrough candidates in politics, she took advantage of doors that were open for her by an older generation, her parents, people who marched in civil rights marches, what the Obama's call the Moses Generation. And they see themselves as the Joshua Generation, the people whose job it is to take the risks because their parents made the sacrifices.

BLITZER: Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt but never reached the Promise Land. That was for Joshua and his generation to do that.

Gwen Ifill is the author of "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." Congratulations once again, Gwen, on this new bestseller.

IFILL: Thank you, Wolf.


BLITZER: A very secret and very dangerous flight to a combat zone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The element of surprise was gone. So we basically had -- we gave them about 2 1/2 hours on the ground, going with the concept that once he was in the airport area, that way the terrorists or such could get information that he was there.


BLITZER: Getting a president into Baghdad was one thing, getting him out safely was another.

Plus, why did President Bush fly over the Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast without landing? All of this. Our special series on Air Force One continues. My exclusive look right after this.



OBAMA: We're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital. We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking, to the Muslim world. And you're going to see me following through with dealing with a drawdown of troops in Iraq, so that Iraqis can start taking more responsibility.


BLITZER: President Obama giving his first post-inauguration interview to the Arabic language television station, al Arabiya. That was no accident. He was trying to send a signal, a message. And he certainly did.

Let's get back now to my special series, an exclusive look inside Air Force One with a man who flew three presidents before retiring from the U.S. Air Force. The Colonel Mark Tillman invited us on board the world's most famous plane. He talked about those desperate hours on 9/11. Now, a top-secret and very risky trip into the Iraq war zone.


BLITZER: There was another flight you took. And that was that first secret trip that President Bush took to Baghdad back on November 26th, 2003.


BLITZER: Still a very, very hot zone, as they say, flying into Baghdad, especially without a whole lot of advance notice, was pretty dangerous. TILLMAN: It was -- it was dangerous in the fact that we were bringing the president of the United States into the combat zone. At the time, there were quite a few military aircraft that are going in and out of the region. My challenge was to come up with a plan that no one in the world would know that the president had left Washington, D.C., or in this case, had left the ranch and had gone into the combat zone.

The challenge wasn't so much to get him in there, because we usually fooled everybody and got him in there. The challenge was once he was on the ground and everybody knew he was there, to get him back out again.

So we worked very hard to make sure he had minimum time on the ground. He accomplished his mission, which as he explained to me early on was the goal was to meet with the United States servicemen and women and thank them for everything they'd done and actually serve them Thanksgiving dinner. And he accomplished his mission. It was amazing what he did, taking care of the military.

BLITZER: But landing a huge 747 like this one and everybody knows Air Force One in a war zone like that, that must have been an enormous challenge. Because we heard all these stories about - you know, these corkscrew landings. You've got to have a small area and get down really quickly. You didn't do it on that day, did you?

TILLMAN: On that day basically, there was a cloud deck over the top of the airport. So as we were flying in there, we knew we could gradually descend, because no one on the ground -- that was the fear, someone on the ground seeing us. So because of the cloud deck, no one could see us.

We stayed above the clouds until just prior to the airport. The challenge was, as we were flying into the airport, my man on the ground was calling to the plane saying, you've got to get here fast. The cloud deck is actually moving off the airport. They're going to be able to see you.

So we accelerated and came on in. And it was basically one descending turn, completely blacked out in the darkness, to come in and land. And it worked out perfect. The president was behind me in the jump seat, was talking to me the whole time, and looking around the area, very interested in how we were doing it and constantly with us. I mean, it was very nice to have the commander in chief right behind me when I'm going in, taking him into a combat zone.

BLITZER: But you say the return, the departure potentially could have been even more dangerous than the surprise landing?

TILLMAN: Absolutely. The element of surprise was gone. So we basically had -- we gave him about 2.5 hours on the ground, going with the concept that once he was in the airport area, that way the terrorists or such could get information that he was there and they could set up for our departure.

So we spent minimum time on the ground. And then we got full of gas. And then we basically climbed out very steep, climbing out. The president was up here in the cockpit with us for the majority of that and then went downstairs. But the problem was that a lot of the folks on the ground, at that point we were afraid, knew that he was -- had actually served the troops and was in the region at the time.

BLITZER: How worried were you that day?

TILLMAN: I was worried in the sense that I had the president of the United States with me. And I had really no military support, because I'd fooled the military as well. So I had to rely totally on the defenses on the aircraft and basically the defenses of the commanders on the ground, who were given very short notice to set up a perimeter to protect the president.

The amazing part of the military is you give them notice, they're trained for it. They push the perimeter out immediately, gave me whatever kind of distance I needed to basically climb out steep. And they made it happen on Thanksgiving Day with no knowledge that they were supporting the president of the United States. They were the - you know, we're the military. So you tell us what to do, we make it happen and we protect it.

BLITZER: I remember when I was on Air Force One as a reporter covering President Clinton. I was the White House correspondent, flew with him on Air Force One very often. Whenever there was any serious turbulence, I would always say to somebody sitting next to me, hey, nothing can go wrong, we're in Air Force One. The president of the United States is on this plane and I felt reassured. Did you always feel like that?

TILLMAN: Absolutely. I mean, it was -- one of the president's pilots years ago said the -- he knows he's got the president home safely because he's got a wife and kids back home that he's going home safely to. So the same mentality. I don't think about the president being downstairs. I know I've got, similar to an airline pilot, I got a lot of cherished people in the back. So I go out of my way to make sure I do everything perfectly to make sure that everyone gets home safely.


BLITZER: When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, President Bush did a flyby. Why didn't he land? I'll ask his Air Force One pilot about that very controversial flight after the hurricane struck. More of my exclusive behind the scenes look at the president's plane. That's coming up.

Plus, his hometown team won't be playing in the big game, but President Obama certainly does have a Super bowl favorite. You'll hear him make his pick right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I felt responsible also. I was the highest ranking black official. And it was hard to see, but what really did make me angry was the implications that some people made that somehow President Bush allowed this to happen because these people were black. And for somebody to say that about the president of the United States, a president of the United States who I know well and a president of the United States who is my friend, I was appalled.


BLITZER: The former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the TV program, "The View", talking about the fallout after President Bush took charge on Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

Let's get back to my special series, an exclusive inside look at Air Force One. Shortly before retiring as Air Force One pilot, Colonel Mark Tillman told us about the desperate hours following the 9/11 attacks and a secret flight into Baghdad. Now, one flight that drew criticism.


BLITZER: Let's talk about Katrina and that flyover. We saw the picture of the president looking out the window, caused some controversy, as you know. But what was it like on that day, flying over the devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?

TILLMAN: For me, it was special, because I went to Tulane University in New Orleans. So I spent four years in college in New Orleans. So I was very familiar with the area, very familiar with the lake. And so I was very interested when I flew -- we brought the president out of the ranch, brought him into the area. As we were descending into New Orleans, going by the airport, heading into the city, the president was sitting in the jump seat. We started picking up on some of the flooding that was occurring at the time. And we started picking up on some of the flooding that was occurring at the time.

Then we went around the Superdome. And totally my fault to get -- I needed to bring him down below the clouds so he could see the area. And that was the president's intent that day was to see exactly what was going on in the area, to go -- basically see the Superdome area, the low-lying areas. And that's what we did.

We showed him it. We brought a navigator went downstairs and started pointing out all the different areas in the New Orleans region. And it was - from us in the cockpit, it was amazing. Just for me, growing up there in college, I mean, I had spent a lot of time out at the lake and all the homes were underwater. To me, the amazing thing was the lakefront basically, the carnival area out there, a roller coaster came out of the water. You could see the top of the roller coaster and then went back into the water. So it gave you a sense of just how much water was there and how much devastation.

The president saw all that. You know, I'm not a political man, I'm an Air Force officer. So -- but what I saw was the president was actually concerned about the whole area. So you know, a lot of the media had concerns the way we flew around the area, but the goal was to show him the area on the way home.

BLITZER: There was never any intent to land right then. The president himself said he was afraid it would have disrupted the recovery operations, law enforcement having, for example, to come and protect him.

TILLMAN: There was no way I could have landed that day.

BLITZER: Even in Baton Rouge?

TILLMAN: No, because for the president to go to an event site, we can't just take the president into an area and go to an event without all the capability around him. It's -- that day, going into New Orleans, I had to stay well above the helicopters providing relief efforts. So I stayed above them. I stayed out of their way. So I mean, that's the goal in a disaster zone is to stay out of the way of the relief. The president coming in there, it dedicates too many resources to protection of the president. And it takes away from the people. And the staff and the president were very sensitive to that. And they always are. Every time I fly, that is a major concern to get him there. We got him there as quick as we could after that.

BLITZER: The Katrina flight, the secret Thanksgiving flight to Baghdad in 2003, and 9/11 were Colonel Tillman's most memorable flights as the pilot of Air Force One.

TILLMAN: September 11th to me, what a lot of the folks in America didn't get to see was a man making a lot of key decisions based on the information he had at the time, in protecting not only my crew, myself, but the American public.

And a lot of folks didn't see that. And it's unfortunate they didn't see that. Same with Katrina. I mean, the president was concerned about coming in to the area. And then shortly after that, when we could get him there, we took him into the New Orleans airport. And that, to me, was -- I sat on the plane here. And we had Mayor Nagin. We had the Governor Blanco. We had all of the folks from the region waiting on the aircraft for us after the president did his tour. And we had a chance to talk with those folks.

But the amazing part was, in front of the aerircraft, it was a line of helicopters coming in with many of the injured, many of the folks that they'd saved, which is a tribute to the Coast Guard, the Army. They sprang into action. So I mean, there was not -- there wasn't a concern about who was running the show. The military came into action and the local responders all came into action saving lives, as they do every time. And you could see it firsthand right there.


BLITZER: There's a new sports fan in chief over at the White House.


OBAMA: I have to say, you know, I wish the Cardinals the best. You know, Kurt Warner is a great story. And he's closer to my age than anybody else on the field.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: We're going to hear more from President Obama as he gets ready for Super bowl Sunday. Stick around for my prediction as well.

And from China to North Carolina, some of the most memorable pictures of the week.


BLITZER: Here's a look at the week's best hot shots, coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press. In Beijing, people burned incense while celebrating the Chinese new year.

In North Carolina, Wake Forest celebrated after pulling off a college basketball upset by beating Duke.

In Washington, enough snow fell for this high school class to have a snowball fight. And in England, Camilla, the dutchess of Cornwall, met a future police dog at the police dog training school. This week's hot shots, pictures worth a thousand words.

President Obama is picking sides. He was asked his favorite between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Super bowl this Sunday. Listen to this.


OBAMA: I have to say, you know, I wish the Cardinals the best. You know, Kurt Warner is a great story. And he's closer to my age than anybody else on the field, but I am a longtime Steelers fan. So you know, I wish the best to the Cardinals. They've been long suffering. It's a great Cinderella story, but other than the Bears, the Steelers are probably the team that's closest to my heart.


BLITZER: My own personal prediction, Pittsburgh, 42, Arizona, 10. Good luck to both teams. I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us weekdays in THE SITUATION ROOM from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern and every Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN and 9:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN International.

The news continues next on CNN.