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THE SITUATION ROOM

Obama Extends Hand to Iran; Bush Terror Hit List

Aired April 4, 2009 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Obama administration extends a hand to Iran, but can decades of U.S. hatred be set aside? This hour, "New York Times" columnist and best-selling author, Thomas Friedman, on the one question that must be asked of Iran's leaders.

Plus, a startling allegation about the Bush administration's war on terror. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, explains his claim about Dick Cheney and an alleged terror hit list. And Cheney's former national security adviser joins us to respond. And why Europeans are enamored with the Obamas. Editor and pop culture expert Tina Brown gives us the inside buzz on the First couple's debut overseas.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The challenges of the 21st century can't be met without collective action. Agreement will almost never be easy and results won't always come quickly. But I am committed to respecting different points of view and to forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As the newest member of the world's leader's club, President Obama was able to bridge differences at this week's London Economic Summit. He's using the same philosophy as dealing with some of America's foes. After decades of hostility between the U.S. and Iran, the Obama administration is reaching out, but is Iran ready for a new relationship?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Tom Friedman. He's "The New York Times" columnist and the author of the bestseller "Hot, Flat and Crowded," still a "New York Times" bestseller.

I assume it will be for a long time to come, Tom.

FRIEDMAN: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be here.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for coming in.

Let's talk a little bit about what's happening in the world right now. Iran, this week, Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative, shakes hands with the Iranian deputy foreign minister. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at this conference in the Hague says it was a positive development.

Are expectations being raised falsely?

FRIEDMAN: It's hard to tell.

I think both sides are in kind of still a feeling-out phase here, what's real, what's Memorex, Wolf. But I still think it comes down to one big question, which is, what are the intentions of the Iranian regime, from my point of view?

And the way I phrased it is this way, Wolf. These guys have built their power base by opposing the United States, by maintaining a hostile relationship.

BLITZER: For 30 years.

FRIEDMAN: For a long time.

And the question is, after 30 years of kind of ruling through that mechanism, that we're protecting you from the American hegemon, are they really ready to give that up and to move to a different kind of relationship with the United States that would still work for them domestically, at home?

BLITZER: But are they really ready to walk away from a potential nuclear bomb? I think that is the key issue.

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: Yes. Well, the bomb is a symbol of this, because the bomb is all about regime survival. It was Bush insurance. You know, and now you could call it America or Israel insurance from the Iranian point of view.

Are they ready to trade that insurance for a new relationship with the United States? I don't know. I think it's too early to tell. But I think that is the key question.

BLITZER: But this reaching out by the Obama administration to the regime in Tehran, is that a good idea to try to probe to see if there's an opportunity, or a waste of time?

FRIEDMAN: No, I think it's absolutely a good idea. You have got to see what's there, because I think the Iranian intentions are not in a vacuum. They're in the context of what the United States is offering.

BLITZER: And there's more than one voice in Iran...

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. And that's the key thing. You're trying to -- you know, these regimes, like Iran's or like the Soviet Union, they tend to break from the top, not the bottom. They tend to break when there's a split in the very top leadership. And I think that's a little bit what we're trying to foster, not a breakdown of the Iranian government, but a kind of split between less radical and more radical.

BLITZER: There's a new prime minister in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, a man you know. You have covered him for many years, just as I have.

He says that this potential of an Iranian nuclear bomb, potentially aimed at Israel, is an existential threat to the very state of Israel. And there's a lot of suspicion out there the Israelis might preemptively launch a strike to destroy the nuclear facilities in Iran.

How worried should the world be about that?

FRIEDMAN: I think it's a 50/50 bet, Wolf, that Israel will do that.

I think if the Israelis perceive that the Iranians have passed the tipping point in their development of a nuclear weapon, they have already got some long-range missiles that can hit Israel, there is a chance they will go. I don't know.

What they have to weigh, Wolf, is that striking Iran now, what it might do to the global economy, at a time when it's just getting recovered, does Israel want to take that on its head? Does it want to really abandon the idea of containing Iran? I don't know. I think this is going to be a really, really hard decision for Israel. That's why I would call it a 50/50 right now.

BLITZER: Because some have said that, within a matter of months, they're going to have to make a decision.

FRIEDMAN: Well, part of I think what Israel is trying to do is to step up the pressure on the United States. It's sort of stop me before I kill again. I'm crazy.

And so I think they're trying to step up the pressure on the United States to deliver something very tangible from the Iranians.

BLITZER: The peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with Netanyahu now as the prime minister of Israel, what do you think?

FRIEDMAN: I think it's really broken, Wolf, more broken than at any time in our lifetimes.

Wolf, go back to when we started as reporters in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger doing the shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 war. Think about Kissinger's challenge. He had to just get agreements from three leaders, one Egyptian pharaoh, Anwar Sadat, one Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad, and one overwhelmingly popular Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir.

And each of those three could deliver their -- their whole countries. Flash-forward to today. There are two Palestinian governments, Hamas and Fatah. One is in the West Bank. One is in Gaza. Even the Hamas government is split between a military wing and a political wing. And no Israeli political party today has, what, like a quarter of the Knesset?

So, the ability of either side to deliver a deal is so much weaker today than ever before. It's not a hospitable environment for diplomacy.

BLITZER: And so we shouldn't hold our breath? On the Israeli- Palestinian front, it seems very, very problematic.

What about this Israeli-Syrian dialogue through Turkey that has been going on?

FRIEDMAN: Well, again, it goes back to the point about Iran.

The Syrian government has really made a good living by basically justifying their leadership and the militarization of Syrian society as necessary to oppose Israel.

Are they ready to give that up and move to a different base of legitimacy, like the Iranian government? I don't know. I don't know. I think it's good to explore. It's not like the old policy was producing anything.

BLITZER: What about in Afghanistan right now? The Obama administration announced another 17,000 combat troops, another 4,000 trainers going in, billions of dollars. Is this a mission that you see having a successful outcome?

FRIEDMAN: I'm very wary about Afghanistan. I think we should be reducing our footprint there, not increasing it.

I really don't see the happy ending there. And I'm worried that this is going to be throwing good money after bad. I don't see, Wolf, who is our partner? Who is the leadership there -- where's the leadership there that truly shares our values?

I know there are a lot of Afghani people do. But I'm not sure we have a government there that's really our partner.

BLITZER: Is there a partner in Pakistan right now?

FRIEDMAN: I think you have got a similar problem. I think the Pakistani government is very weak. It's predisposed, I think, to be a partner, but it's so weak that its ability to deliver I think is really constrictive.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: President Obama makes it clear no more going it alone for the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: In a world that's more and more interconnected, we all have responsibilities to work together, to solve common challenges. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The G-20 Summit is done, but some are talking about the G-2, the U.S. and China as the biggest economies. How can the U.S. maintain its edge? We'll have more from "New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman.

And startling claims about former Vice President Dick Cheney and a supposed terror assassination squad. The award winning journalist Seymour Hersh is here to explain.

And Cheney's former National Security advisor John Hannah responds. Hersh and Hannah in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: If it's Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, you know, that's an easier negotiation. But that's not the world we live in. And it shouldn't be the world that we live in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The message after this week's G-20 Summit, it's a big complicated world, but in fixing the world economy, do some countries matter more than others? Let's have more now from my interview with the bestselling author and journalist Thomas Friedman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's talk about the economic situation in the United States and indeed around the world.

These leaders have been meeting all week in London, trying to forge some sort of common ground to deal with this economic global recession. Are we seeing some light at the end of the tunnel right now?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I would be really loathe to say that, Wolf.

I think what we're seeing is this. It's really more about the G- 2 more than the G-20, China and the United States.

BLITZER: Really?

FRIEDMAN: I think that they're really the center of gravity of this whole thing.

BLITZER: Because?

FRIEDMAN: Because they're the world's two biggest economies now. Japan obviously is there as well and very important and the E.U.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: The E.U.

FRIEDMAN: But, ultimately, it's, I think -- we're the key drivers of growth.

Now, what President Obama has done is what I would call -- he's done with phase one. If you look at everything they have done since they came to power, stimulus, the huge Fed injection of money into the market to lower interest rates and increase credit, you know, the TARP, the TALF, all these programs basically to try to deal with the toxic assets from the bank, I think if you wrapped them all up in a bow, if you say, this is phase one, OK, this is Obama's best...

BLITZER: Is that working?

FRIEDMAN: And the question is, we're going to know, I think, in the next, you know, six to eight weeks whether it's working.

Now, I look at it almost like radiation therapy. I think Obama knows, I think Secretary Geithner knows that they're going to have to go back to Congress. They're going to have to go back to Congress to get more money.

But they're trying to take this cancer that's been affecting our credit system in this country and irradiate it basically to shrink it. So, they're hoping, if phase one can shrink this thing down, then they can tiptoe back to Congress and say, we just need a few more billion.

If they can't, they are going to have to go back to Congress for something that starts with a T.

BLITZER: Because they want to -- people want to see results.

FRIEDMAN: Yes.

BLITZER: And the most tangible result will be jobs.

FRIEDMAN: Right.

BLITZER: And, right now, the job situation is not good.

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: The numbers -- we have gone through the first phase, which was defaults in home mortgages from people who shouldn't have been getting mortgages.

Now we're getting defaults from people who lost their jobs, who had legitimate reason to take out a mortgage. So, this isn't done. But I think we're in that phase now where we have laid down the bet. You know, that's what Obama has done and the United States has done. We have laid down this bet. This whole package, will it work?

BLITZER: A lot of people have confidence in the president of the United States. Less have confidence in the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Do you? FRIEDMAN: Well, yes, I think that's a totally false distinction. It's not like Geithner is off doing his own policies. This is Obama's bet.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Does Geithner know what he's doing?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, I have no doubt about that.

The question, Wolf, is, the problem is so big and so complex. If it were easy, Hank Paulson and George Bush would have figured it out. It's really complicated.

BLITZER: The cap and trade, trying to reduce carbon emissions, this is one of your big passions, and you write about it extensively in your book.

The Republicans say if the president of the United States gets his way, and they reduce these carbon emissions by imposing some sort of what they call a tax that would be on electricity, on gasoline, it would in effect be a huge middle-class tax increase.

FRIEDMAN: Right.

BLITZER: And that's the language they're using to say don't even go near those initiatives.

What do you say?

FRIEDMAN: What I say is, you're right. It's a tax. It's a tax that will stimulate enormous innovation, enormous job creation, enormous competitiveness, I think an enormous economic advantage for this country, enormous energy security over the long term.

So, have we not imposed taxes in the past that would make America stronger? Yes.

BLITZER: Would this be a regressive, though, tax, in terms of the middle class would share -- would have a much greater burden than the wealthy?

FRIEDMAN: That I don't know. It depends on what the numbers are.

All I know is this, Wolf, OK? I think the next great global industry is going to be something called energy technology. This week "The New York Times" had an off-lead in the paper how China is investing in electric cars, hoping to lead the world in that.

OK? Gasoline is not going to stay cheap for long. And energy technology, clean power, clean water, clean energy sources are going to be the next great global industry. The question -- I know that for sure, Wolf. The question is, who's going to lead it? And it's not clear that we are. And, if we don't, our standard of living will not be what it is.

BLITZER: In my edition of "The New York Times," it was the lead. It was on the right-hand column going down. It wasn't the off-lead.

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: OK. Maybe they moved it over.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Right on the right-hand side.

FRIEDMAN: And that tells you something.

BLITZER: You read that article about China and what they're doing. What does it tell you?

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: What it tells me is that China understands something, that E.T., energy technology, is the new I.T. It's going to be the next great global industry. And they want to own it, because they know...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What's the most important thing the president of the United States needs to do right now?

FRIEDMAN: Frame the issue right.

This is not about a -- you come to the American people and you're going to play right into the Republicans' hands if you say, oh, this is a cap on carbon and we need you to give up your job or your tax. People say, cap on carbon? What does that do to me? Yes, what does that -- I hate that.

BLITZER: So, frame it for me.

FRIEDMAN: Frame it as national security.

BLITZER: Let me hear you frame it.

FRIEDMAN: That the country that owns energy technology, which will be driven by having a fixed durable price on carbon, will have the most energy security, national security, economic security, healthy population, and global respect.

And, by the way, it will be the most innovative country, Wolf, because you can't make a product greener without making it smarter. Impossible. Smarter design, smarter software, smarter metallurgy, that's the only way you can make a product greener. That is going to be next frontier.

We have to own it. And that to me is why, you know, don't let people frame this as just, they want to tax your money to save some polar bears. You know, that's not what it's about. This is about nation- building in America, to make sure we own the next great global industry. Wolf, if we don't, the chance of your kids and mine having the standard of living we had is zero, because E.T., that's going to be the next big thing. And Jeff Immelt of GE says, I like the way he puts it. He says, if you want to be big, Wolf, you have got to be big in big things. E.T. is going to be the next big thing.

BLITZER: You just framed it. You framed it well.

Tom Friedman.

FRIEDMAN: Appreciate it.

BLITZER: Tom's book is called "Hot, Flat and Crowded."

Thanks for coming in.

FRIEDMAN: My pleasure. Thanks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Something you don't hear every day from U.S. officials, praise for Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think the fact that they came today, that they intervened today, is a promising sign that there will be future cooperation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Could Iran's president be a partner with the U.S. in the war against terror? The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh has some provocative thoughts on that.

He's also making startling allegations that the Bush administration had an assassination hit list. And Dick Cheney was in charge. A former top Cheney aide joins us to respond.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize that the world is a complicated place, and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility, and recognize that we may not always have the best answer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Obama telling the G-20 Summit that under his administration, the United States will listen, not lecture. Mr. Obama's seeking input as he moves forward with his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. And one journalist has a rather provocative idea, that the U.S. could use the help of two adversaries. Syria and Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now, Sy Hersh. He's the writer for "The New Yorker Magazine," has a new article just has come out involving Syria and Iran. A lot of hot spots. Take a look behind you at that map. Sy, you Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan. And here is what you write. You almost conclude in your article in "The New Yorker."

"Syria also can help the United States engage with Iran. And the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country and to maintain its long- standing commitment to the well-being of Israel."

Wow. Syria and Iran, all of a sudden, they're going to be allies to the U.S.?

SEYMOUR HERSH, "THE NEW YORKER": Well, don't forget after 9/11, the Iranians in particular never liked the Taliban. Iran's Shi'ia the Taliban are Sunni. And so, they supported for years the Karzai government, the Iranians...

BLITZER: So but you're saying, correct me if I'm wrong, is that there's a scenario out there in which the U.S. can find itself on the same page as both Syria and Iran?

HERSH: When it comes to stability in Afghanistan, which is very tricky, as you know. We're just beginning to step into it again, this administration into Afghanistan all over. But more importantly, I think, Bashar (ph) side of Syria has been saying for years we can help you guys telling this to the Americans who weren't listening in the Bush administration. We can help you stabilize Iraq. Then we have a lot of influence in Iraq with fellow members of the Ba'ath Party. We can help calm things down.

BLITZER: And what you're writing about is the secret negotiations that have been going on indirectly between Israel and Syria for more than a year with Turkey's direct involvement.

HERSH: Yes, they're not secret very much anymore, but what I did learn before the Gaza War, I learned that there was amazing progress had been made internally between the Israelis and the Syrians. A lot had already been made in earlier discussions, but they really resolved a lot of issues. Just a question of political will.

And it looked -- I was preparing a piece for "The New Yorker" before the Gaza War that was going to say things look good. Comes Gaza. Afterwards, I spent...

BLITZER: But you spent some time with President Bashar al Assad in Damascus?

HERSH: And a lot of other people. I...

BLITZER: Do you think he's ready for a deal with Israel? HERSH: I think he really wants the Obama administration to be on his side. I think he's, like a lot of people in the Middle East, very relieved to be rid of the Bush administration. They're looking forward to more amicable relations. You don't forget Obama's talking about mutual respect with Iran. He said that phrase two or three times.

BLITZER: But do you think he's ready for a deal with Israel, a peace treaty?

HERSH: I think he thinks that the terms since Gaza, the Syrian view is that the Israelis did not get what they wanted out of the Gaza War. Hamas is still there. Hamas wins by surviving. They spent 22 days bombing. They lost a lot of favor to - look, they're not nearly as popular. Even in America, there's a lot of disquiet among American Jews about what happened.

BLITZER: But am I hearing you say that you think Bashar al Assad, the president of Syria, is ready to negotiate a peace treaty arrangement with Israel?

HERSH: It's much more than what I think. He has said so to me. He is ready to sit down seriously and discuss it with Israel. He wants - he's got conditions. He wants America to play the middle role. He wants us to be in the middle.

He also believes, and I think this is part of his longstanding theory about the Middle East, that if he can get us going, we can get into a regional piece of discussion. And he would love to see the United States bring - be willing to let Iran get involved in these talks, too. That's...

BLITZER: Here's another quote from the article in "The New Yorker" entitled "Syria Calling." "Cheney", the former vice president, "who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as 'pro-Palestinian,' who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would 'never make it in the major leagues.')"

Question is is this the vice president, former vice president of the United States saying these things about the current president of the United States?

HERSH: Well, are you surprised that a Republican vice president would be unhappy to see a Democratic vice president come in who he doesn't think is terribly experienced in foreign policy? No, I don't think these are - this is not surprising to anybody. Cheney was...

BLITZER: But the fact that you say that he says to the Israelis that Obama is pro-Palestinian?

HERSH: Here's what happened. Before the inauguration, January 20th, the Obama transition team sent messages to the Israelis saying we don't you bombing Gaza during inauguration. We want that over before the inauguration. The Israelis, as I understand it, passed word. They complained to Cheney. Cheney who knows General Jones, who was then the national security advisor in waiting, he wasn't in the job yet.

BLITZER: General James Jones.

HERSH: Yeah, the Marine. And he has very good relationship...

BLITZER: He's now the National Security advisor at the White House.

HERSH: Yes, Jones is a listener. He's got very good relationships with all sides. So Cheney talked to Jones and expressed what happened. Jones went to Obama and said you can get what you want, but you have to give the Israelis something. And one of the things that was going on was resupply of smart bombs and other ordinance, bunker busters to the Israelis. And that continued for I don't know how many days, but certainly beyond the 20th. Obama, that was sort of a quid pro quo. Obama said to the Israelis, it's to Israeli basically, look, we're - I'm totally committed to you. It may not be blank check as much as you want, but we're committed to Israel.

And so, here comes Bashar saying on the other end, hey, guys, I am also committed to doing something with Israel. And the Golan Heights, we want to regional conference. We want to bring in Iran, which he argues this could be very useful for the United States and its problems with Afghanistan and Iran. Why not bring in more people? Tough - very tough diplomatic issue.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right, stand by. We're going to be hearing more from Seymour Hersh. He claims the former Vice President Dick Cheney had a leading role in an alleged plan to assassinate top targets in the war on terror. We'll hear from him. We'll also get a response from Cheney's former national Security advisor John Hannah.

And did the Obamas play by the queen's rules? "The Daily Beast" editor Tina Brown on the First couple's fascinating meeting with Her Majesty.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Sharp new denials of a journalist claim that the Bush administration had what amounted to an assassination hit list and that Vice President Dick Cheney was in charge. Listen to what the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said to ignite this new controversy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HERSH: "It's an executive assassination wing, essentially. It's a joint special operations command -- JSOC, it's called. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office...Under President Bush's authority, they've been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving."

BLITZER (voice-over): A special operations command spokesman rejects the report. Says their forces operate under established rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict. He adds that the vice president has no command and control authorities over the U.S. military. Two former Cheney aides also reject the claim, as does the former Bush Homeland Security adviser, now a CNN national security analyst.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: There is no such squad wandering the earth. They don't do this. There's no such thing.

BLITZER: Assassinating political leaders has been banned since 1976, but suspected terrorists are a different story. When it comes to top al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, American policy remains unambiguous.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wanted, dead or alive.

OBAMA: We must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

BLITZER: Abu Musad al Zarqawi is the highest profile commander killed by American forces so far. Former bush Homeland Security adviser Townsend says the list of authorized terror targets is less than 100, people who can be killed without a trial.

TOWNSEND: These are individuals who either have blood of Americans on their hands or are plotting the death and destruction of Americans or American interests around the world. And those individuals, the U.S. military and the intelligence services, are given authority to capture or kill them, wherever they're found.

BLITZER: And who makes the list of targets for the president to sign off on?

TOWNSEND: It's military, it's intelligence, it's law enforcement, the Justice Department. It's a very rigorous interagency across the government process.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: In my interview with Seymour Hersh, I asked him if he stands by his allegations.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right, those were fascinating comments you made, caused quite a stir when you said it...

HERSH: Yes.

BLITZER: ...at a lecture out there. I wonder if you want to revise or amend or explain? HERSH: Well, of course, I used the word assassination wing, what was loaded. And you know, I must drive my editors crazy when I say things that are loaded, but let me say this that everything I wrote about, everything I said in that article has written - has been written over the years in "The New Yorker." The basic premise that I was saying is there's a unit known as the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC. It's a separately independent unit that does not report to Congress at least in the years I know about. And I spent - people read the story I wrote last summer in "The New Yorker," the Congress people are very upset with the senior leadership. It has been given executive authority by the president in as many as 12 countries to go in and kill, we're talking about high-value targets. That's absolutely correct.

BLITZER: Anything wrong with that?

HERSH: Oh, sure. Because what's the intelligence basis? What's the legal basis?

BLITZER: Well, if Osama bin Laden, for example, or Ayman al Zawahiri, the number two al Qaeda leader, the former president and the current president basically have said that if they were available to be taken out, they'd be taken out.

HERSH: The idea that you're telling a group of American soldiers, who by the way I have no bone to pick with, as I said even at the University of Minnesota in that speech these guys are doing their - they're admirable people doing their job. The idea that we have a unit set up who goes after high-value targets, who up to a certain point, I know for sure, until very recently, were clearing lists -- that doesn't mean Cheney has an assassination unit that he says, I want to go get somebody. That's how it sort of played out in the press. The idea that we have a unit that goes around and without reporting to Congress, Congress knows very little about this group, can't get clearings, can't get hearings, can't get even classified hearings on it. Congresspeople have told me this. Goes around and has authority from the president to go into a country without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador and whack somebody. And I'm sorry, Wolf, yes, I have a lot problems with that because...

BLITZER: Well, what about when they send these unmanned drones over Pakistan. There's a house. And they say, you know, shoot that missile into that house and kill someone. And then they cross off a name. Is that an assassination?

HERSH: If it's done by JSOC, and they have reason to think that there's a high-value target in there...

BLITZER: What if it's done by the CIA?

HERSH: Well, the CIA - when the CIA's learned a lesson. The reason that I can write a story last summer in "The New Yorker" about it is there was a joint operation inside Iran involving JSOC and the CIA. And the CIA wanted to go to Congress. They wanted to get authority. They wanted to get something known as a presidential finding. That's how Congress got a smell of how much is going on. There's a lot going on that I wrote about and I've written about before. It's not - the phrase -- I said, in fact...

BLITZER: So when you said executive assassination ring...

HERSH: No, I said wing, actually.

BLITZER: Well, is it ring or wing?

HERSH: Wing. I said.

BLITZER: All right.

HERSH: But that's all right, it's the same point.

BLITZER: Yeah.

HERSH: It was -- I wish I - dum dum, I wish I'd said something different, something more careful, because it's a loaded phrase. It comes down to the same thing, that you can - you have -- you've delegated authority to troops in the field to hit people on the basis of whatever intelligence they think is good. And I can tell you it's always not good. And sometimes things get very bloody.

Yes, what -- JSOC is not a new phenomenon. It's been written about it. In fact I his latest book, Bob Woodard has a page about it, basically more praiseful than I would be in terms of how effective they were against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The bottom line is, it's -- if it were the way your little presentation set up, that everything was checked and cleared -- in fact, there's been an awful lot of delegation to this group, which is not briefed to Congress. And this does raise profound questions of constitutional authority. It's the same questions that have come up repeatedly in the Bush administration, that is a unitarian presidency. It's the notion that the president can do things without telling Congress unilaterally. This is an extension of that issue.

BLITZER: Sy Hersh, thanks for coming in.

HERSH: Sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Startling allegations indeed by the journalist Seymour Hersh. Dick Cheney's former National Security advisor John Hannah, he's here. He'll be responding next. And we'll also ask Hannah about the former Vice President's recent criticism of President Obama's anti-terror strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Now he's making some choices that in my mind will in fact raise the risk to the American people of another attack.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: And testing the First Lady of the United States. What some of the toughest critics are saying about Michelle Obama's debut on the world stage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now we continue to look into the startling claim linking the former Vice President Dick Cheney to an alleged assassination hit list in the war on terror.

BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now is John Hannah. He's the former national security adviser to the former vice president, Dick Cheney.

You spent quite a lot of time working for Dick Cheney. You're now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

You heard what Sy Hersh had to say about your former boss, Dick Cheney, and what he calls this "assassination wing," an executive assassination wing. Is it true?

JOHN HANNAH, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO DICK CHENEY: It's not true.

And I think you heard in that interview that there was a little walking back from the original claim that was made in the speech that Mr. Hersh made in...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Explain exactly what's going on in terms of a list. Is there a list of terrorists, suspected terrorists, out there who can be assassinated?

HANNAH: There is -- there's clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process -- interagency process, as I think was explained in your piece, that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States, or is suspected of planning operations of war against the United States, who authority is given, to our troops in the field in certain war theaters to capture or kill those individuals.

That is certainly true.

BLITZER: And it starts with Osama bin Laden?

HANNAH: Osama bin Laden and his number two are right at the top of the list.

BLITZER: And there is about 100 of these suspects out there?

HANNAH: I don't want to get into any exact numbers. It is a small group and the point is that it is very, very heavily vetted throughout the interagency process...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And when he says this JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, has this authority, that they don't even tell Congress about that.

HANNAH: It is extremely hard for me to believe. I don't know exactly what the consultations are with the Congress, but it's hard for me to believe that those committee chairman and the leadership on the Hill involved in intelligence and armed services, if they want to know about these operations, cannot get that information through the Defense Department.

BLITZER: And so this would be -- from your perspective, and you worked in the Bush administration for many years, it would be totally constitutional, totally legal to go out and find these guys and to whack them?

HANNAH: There is no question. And in a theater of war, when we are at war, and there's no doubt, we are still at war against al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and on that Pakistani border, that our troops have the authority to go out after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about the other explosive suggestion that Sy Hersh writes about in "The New Yorker" magazine, that Dick Cheney, when he was vice president, told the Israelis privately that President Obama, then- candidate Obama -- or president-elect Obama -- was pro- Palestinian.

HANNAH: Yes.

With all due respect to Mr. Hersh, it -- and it's a very good article, but that claim, putting words into the vice president's mouth, is just absolutely contrary to any reality that I live with. In fact, the entire lead-up to the transition to Inauguration, the vice president was extremely complimentary about some of the national security picks President Obama had put into place.

BLITZER: "In private," Sy Hersh writes, "Cheney disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point to the Israelis as someone who would never make it in the major leagues. "

HANNAH: Again, completely contrary to my own experience with the vice president, either at that time or in the previous eight years that he would make any such kind of comment.

BLITZER: Because in the interview with John King here on CNN a few weeks ago, he did say he believed that the position was that President Obama has taken since office has made the United States less secure.

HANNAH: There's a difference, Wolf, between disagreements about policy that the vice president may or may not have with the current administration's efforts in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world, and putting into his mouth words that he has never spoken that attempt to personalize this, to an issue between the president and the vice president -- the former vice president.

They are just two completely different things. We can talk about policy differences, but to claim that the vice president is accusing President Obama of being pro-Palestinian or not up to the job of commander-in-chief, I just think is contrary to the facts.

BLITZER: John Hannah, thanks for coming in.

HANNAH: Sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The First Lady telling her story. Michelle Obama hits the world stage with a message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Nothing in my life's path would have predicted that I'd be standing here as the first African-American First Lady of the United States of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Michelle Obama has her unique style. And that could be a huge asset to the White House during this European trip.

And a paint job that could take a while. Pictures worth a thousand words.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

M. OBAMA: It doesn't matter whether you come from a council estate or a country estate. Your success will be determined by your own fortitude, your own confidence, your own individual hard work. That is true. That is the reality of the world that we live in. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Michelle Obama speaking to students at a London girl school. The reviews are now in on the First Lady's debut on the world stage as her husband attended the G-20 summit in London. She shared -- some would argue stole the spotlight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Tina Brown. She's the cofounder and the editor of "The Daily Beast", which is a fabulous new website. Congratulations, Tina, on what you've done.

TINA BROWN, "THE DAILY BEAST": Thank you.

BLITZER: It's only been a few months, but it's really taken off.

BROWN: Thank you so much, Wolf. BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the First Lady in Europe now, this first trip abroad for the First Lady of the United States. Is this really a test for Michelle Obama?

It's always a test when you go to the U.K., because that's a very tough audience. You know, there's 1,001 newspapers. And they all have pretty strident opinions about everything under the sun. Michelle is passing with flying colors. People are just in love with her. The people I speak to on the phone, my friends in London, they just say this woman is so dynamic and so real and authentic and so glamorous in a very sort of real and 21st century way.

BLITZER: Do they say that about all American First Ladies who come over to London, or is this something special?

BROWN: It's really something special. You know, there's a great desire right now for something optimistic, something good to happen in the world. And you know, in the U.K., where quite honestly there aren't that many powerful black figures in public life, not enough, not nearly enough, and they know there's not nearly enough, to meet the sophisticated, brainy, glamorous Americans in the seat of power is to them very, sort of -- it's a huge novelty. They keep saying this is just like something we've never seen.

And I was told by the queen's - one of her intimates that the queen was really very excited about meeting the Obamas. And nothing really very much excites the queen at this point after 57 years on the throne.

BLITZER: Well, you saw the images, the video, the stills of the First Lady, the president meeting with Queen Elizabeth. Did they do everything they were supposed to do? Because I know there's some dispute over whether or not the protocol is appropriate - you know, what is the protocol?

BROWN: Well, the protocol is actually that you don't touch the queen, usually. But you know, the thing about the Obamas is they're allowed to break the rules because the fact is that they are new and they are modern. And the queen likes new, modern people. And she also likes people who are real. She doesn't like being disrespected, but there was nothing about disrespectful about the way the Obamas behaved.

You know, I loved the fact that they just towered over her. The queen is very small anyway. But she's getting tinier and tinier. She's turning into Queen Victoria, you know. And so they towered over her.

And but you could see the way that Michelle just strode forth. Her body language was so confident. You know, and the queen likes confident working women who don't whine and don't sort of make a fuss. You know, the Queen likes women who can cope. And Michelle's a coper.

BLITZER: And this notion that the gift they gave the queen, this i- Pod with show tunes and pictures of all of the queen's various visits to Washington, appropriate or not so appropriate? BROWN: I think it was inspired, quite frankly. Because you know, one of the things the queen dreads is just hideous kind of, you know, elaborate chatzky that's going to go right behind a dusty glass case and eventually just retire to the basement.

She actually would have at least appreciated this kind of burst of 21st century sort of technology. She's got an i-Pod actually of her own anyway. And I thought it was rather masterful the way the Obamas gave them the actual sort of original Rogers manuscript book and then also gave her, you know, the i-Pod that went with it. I thought that was quite imaginative and a good present.

BLITZER: What can the First Lady, Michelle Obama, do on this trip abroad that the president of the United States can't do in terms of trying to improve America's image around the world?

BROWN: Well, I think Michelle is proving that she's a real force multiplied, you know, when she arrived, because she is so warm and she is such a kind of all-embracing, wide demographic. You know, she appeals -- she's not elitist person in any way. And yet she's also so kind of, such a motherly woman, actually. I mean, when she hugged the child at the cancer center, I thought that really had some reminiscence of Lady Di, actually, that she was willing to be so immediately spontaneous.

In a sense that she loves the children, that she's a real mother, a real wife, and a smart woman too. And all of it's coming across. It's a very good image right now for America, which has pretty much taken a bashing. You know, first with the Iraq War and now with the economy, we really do need an awful lot of personal PR to get over that. And the Obamas are doing it. You know, there's a real sense of the cavalry has arrived. One of my friends said. We feel the Americans, they're so dynamic that they've arrived and maybe they can find a way to just lift the economy just by being there. There's a real feeling that they've got this pizzazz that's going to win.

BLITZER: So you've made the comparison with Princess Di. What about the comparisons with Jackie O, with Jacqueline Kennedy when she was the First Lady?

BROWN: Well, there's a little bit of that. I mean, in a sense that Michelle certainly is as much of a style icon I think with her marvelously kind of unerring eye for the kind of clean-cut dress and the pearls and a great look that she's established very early in her whole, you know, tenure as First Lady.

But there's a great difference, too, because Jackie was still a kind of very well-bred, French finishing school kind of girl who, she was young and hot which felt very cutting edge at the time, but she was still the breathless debutante in many ways too. And so there's a bit of a difference because Michelle really comes across as a power player, as a powerful woman who can hold her own. And although she's a supportive wife, you also feel she could do the job too if she really felt like it.

BLITZER: So you liked the J. Crew sweater, for example, as opposed to some fancy designer creating an outfit for her?

BROWN: I loved the J. Crew. It was a brilliant thing because you know again, the Brits don't like showy stuff anyway. I mean, they're not -- they're very unchic, really, as a sort of public look. You know, the women in the parliament and women in the cabinet, they are not a particularly snazzy group anyway at the best of times.

But also the Brits don't like flashy labels and talking about money. It's part of the whole kind of English diffidence. So Michelle has played it absolutely right, not just for the British psyche, but for this economic moment when nobody has any money. And it turned up in a lot of high priced outfits that everybody's costing out would have been a very, very bad message. As it is, J. Crew thinks, look, you can look great at a price point we can afford. And that gets a lot of plus points there.

BLITZER: Tina Brown is the cofounder and the editor of "The Daily Beast" and she's written a lot about this entire visit, what's going on on "The Daily Beast. Tina, thanks very much for coming in.

BROWN: Thank you. Thanks, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Queen Elizabeth, by the way, met with ten U.S. presidents since taking the throne in 1952. That was before Barack Obama was even born. Her first, Dwight Eisenhower, seen here with the queen back in 1959. Elizabeth previously had met Harry Truman while she was still a princess. The queen danced with Gerald Ford over at the White House at a dinner in 1976. There were some embarrassment though, at one point, the U.S. Marine band played "The Lady is a Tramp."

Elizabeth had a warm relationship with Ronald Reagan. The horse loving - horse lover that is bonded on a ride over at Windsor castle in 1982. Most recently, the queen met with George W. Bush here in Washington during her visit to the United States in 2007.

Greek farmers saw protesting by pouring milk on to the streets. One of our hot shots, pictures of the week. That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of this week's hot shots, coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press.

In Paris, a worker started painting the Eiffel tower, a job that will require tons of paint. In London, a steel cross beam was placed on the aquatic center for the 2012 summer Olympics. In Greece, farmers poured milk on the streets to protest low meat and dairy prices. And in Thailand, a Malayan sun bear took a rest over at the zoo. Some of this week's hot shots, pictures often worth a thousand words.

We want to alert all of our viewers in the United States and around the world that CNN has now been awarded a Peabody for our coverage of the 2008 presidential primaries and debates. The citation says, "With state of the art technology and a small army of reporters, producers, and analysts, CNN gave viewers unparalleled coverage of an historic presidential election process."

We're very, very happy about that. Very proud of this accomplishment.

I'm Wolf Blitzer here in THE SITUATION ROOM. 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 at this time every weekend on CNN International. The news continues next on CNN.