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President Obama's Surprise Trip in Iraq; Fidel Castro Meets With Three U.S. Officials

Aired April 7, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a CNN exclusive. The vice president, Joe Biden, is here talking bluntly. He talks about global challenges and says brace yourself for job losses every month of this year. He also says the Obama administration is fixing what George Bush and Dick Cheney did.

Also, a surprise. The first Iraq visit by the president, Barack Obama. Wait until you hear what he told the troops and his message for Iraqis.

And a man allegedly steals an airplane, possibly for a suicide mission. When might U.S. fighter jets shoot down a threatening plane?

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world.


The vice president of the United States is known for saying exactly what's on his mind. Today he did just that.

Joe Biden sat down with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, and me for an exclusive interview. He was at times very candid, at times unflinching. He used some of his harshest language when asked about the last administration.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Let's talk about your predecessor for a moment, if I might. Former Vice President Cheney took a big swipe at your foreign policies, this administration's foreign policies, and he told John King of CNN recently that President Obama's actions all over the world have made us less safe.

Was Dick Cheney out of line?

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think he's out of line, but he's dead wrong. This administration -- the last administration left us in a weaker posture than we've been any time since World War II, less regarded in the world, stretched more thinly than we ever had been in the past, two wars under way, virtually no respect in entire parts of the world. And so we've been about the business of repairing and strengthening us.

I guarantee you we are safer today. Our interests are more secure today than they were any time...

BORGER: So we're more safe?

BIDEN: We are more safe. We're more secure. Our interests are more secure, not just at home, but around the world. We're rebuilding about America's ability to lead.


BLITZER: The vice president has more blunt talk, a lot of it. Coming up, he talks about possible tests for President Obama and more on safety in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stand by. The interview will be played throughout THE SITUATION ROOM.

Speaking of Iraq, by the way, there are dangers. That was a prime concern today as that nation received a very important visitor there to deliver some very important messages to U.S. troops and to Iraqis.

Our Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry is traveling with President Obama -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president is following in the footsteps of his predecessor by sneaking into Iraq, but also by trying to rally the troops. He's not an anti-war candidate anymore. Now he's the commander in chief.


HENRY (voice-over): A secret trip to Baghdad, President Obama's first to a war zone since taking office. A chance to hand out 10 medals of valor and fire up several hundred U.S. troops at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The main point I want to make is, we have not forgotten what you have already done. We are grateful for what you will do. And as long as I am in the White House, you are going to get the support that you need and the thanks that you deserve from a grateful nation.

So thank you very much, everybody.


HENRY: The president told the troops the next 18 months will be critical, and they can't let their guard down, but said they are close to handing the mission off.

OBAMA: It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.

HENRY: The idea of an unscheduled stop was not a total surprise, though speculation here in Turkey focused on it being Afghanistan since much of Mr. Obama's European tour focused on rallying support for his new strategy there. Aides said the president chose Iraq because the flight from Istanbul to Baghdad was just over two hours aboard Air Force One, and he wanted to express his gratitude in person.

Mr. Obama huddled with General Ray Odierno, the commander charged with implementing the president's plan to remove all combat troops by August, 2010. And he pushed Iraqi leaders to settle lingering political differences such as how to distribute oil revenues.

OBAMA: We strongly support political steps to be taken to resolve differences between the various factions within Iraq and to ensure a more peaceful and prosperous future.


HENRY: Throughout his eight-day tour of Europe, the president said even though he opposed the war, he now believes it's his duty to end it responsibly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry, thanks very much.

President Obama flew straight into a zone that's still rife with lots of danger.

Let's get a reality check on the situation in Iraq right now. We asked our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, to take a closer look.

All right. What did you find, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you saw President Obama got a huge round of applause when he talked about handing Iraq back over to the Iraqis, but the question is still out there, exactly what kind of country would they be taking control of?


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Cameras flash. Soldiers cheer. That's the Baghdad President Obama saw.

But just 24 hours earlier, Baghdad's residents saw this: at least six attacks in one day. Car bombs, roadside bombs, more than 30 people killed.

Tension has been rising between the Shiite-led government in Sunni paramilitary units, groups the U.S. helped organize to secure their own neighborhoods. Iraq's president ordered Iraqi forces to take rapid steps to stop the violence from spinning out of control, but as violence ticks up, some American combat troops are already pulling back from Baghdad as part of the agreement to leave the city by June.

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY (RET.): There are some Iraqi units that this may be the first time that they've ever been independently responsible for terrain, for battle space, for that area of responsibility. LAWRENCE: Kurds and Arabs are also battling over autonomy in northern Iraq and which groups will control the oil money that comes out of there.

FAWAS GERGES, SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE: The challenge is not just for the Iraqi security forces to take steps to bring about stability, the greater challenge lies on the Iraqi political leadership to create a more inclusive and representative nationalist government.


LAWRENCE: President Obama will be counting on the current plan to work. It calls for combat troops to pull back to major bases by June. Then those combat troops to leave Iraq by the end of August next year. And then the rest of the American troops to follow by the end of 2011 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you'd be interested, Chris, when I asked Vice President Biden when it would be possible for an American president to simply announce he was going to visit Baghdad without having to do it secretly for security reasons, the vice president said it would take several years before that were possible. Obviously, a lot still to be done in Iraq.

We're going to have that interview coming up.

Chris Lawrence is over at the Pentagon.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: During his first visit to a Muslim nation as president, Barack Obama declared, "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam." The president spoke to the Turkish parliament, called for a greater partnership with the Islamic world. He also focused on building a stronger bond between Americans and Muslims, and portraying terrorist groups like al Qaeda as extremists who don't represent the majority of Muslims. President Obama talked about listening to each other, respecting each other and showing our "deep appreciation for the Islamic faith."

No doubt Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him when it comes to mending fences with the Muslim world. A lot of Muslims grew to disrespect, if not downright hate, this country after President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. Many also felt the entire Muslim world was unfairly blamed by the U.S. for the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by Muslims.

President Obama may also have a lot of convincing to do here at home. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 51 percent of America Americans say the U.S. should trust Muslim allies like Turkey the same as any other ally. But 48 percent say the U.S. should trust Muslim allies less.

Mr. Obama called Turkey a critical ally. And strategically, that's true. But when it comes to the issue of trusting Muslim allies, most Americans almost half of us, remain wary.

So here's the question. Should the U.S. trust Muslim allies less than other allies?

Go to You can post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thank you.

During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden said President Obama would be tested. This is what he says now.


BIDEN: Every president gets tested. What I probably should have said was like every other president.


BLITZER: So what might those tests look like? We'll have much more of our exclusive interview with the vice president. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And in Italy, fears of another wave of death and destruction. The ground still shakes after the earthquake that killed more than 200. Our reporter felt it herself.

And a man allegedly steals a plane and flies off, possibly on a suicide mission. When should U.S. fighter jets shoot down a plane?


BLITZER: The vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, in our exclusive interview earlier today, said the U.S. is not going to see any job increases throughout the course of this year. Continued job losses.

Listen to this exchange.


BLITZER: So far, as you know, the first three months, two million jobs. Five million-plus jobs lost over the past -- since January of last year. So what you're saying is that throughout 2009, every single month, it might not be 600,000 jobs lost, but there's going to be a loss of jobs every month?

BIDEN: There will continue to be job losses the remainder of this year. The question is, will they continually go down before they begin to rebound and employment -- we go back to zero job loss and back to employment?


BLITZER: A lot more of that interview coming up. You're going to hear the whole interview here in THE SITUATION ROOM today. There's other news we're following, including something we're hearing right now, something not done in almost three years. Cuba's Fidel Castro sitting down with Americans, U.S. officials. In this case, three members of Congress. Three members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

CNN's Morgan Neill has more in Canada.


MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Six members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with the Cuban leader for some four- and-a-half hours Monday. Congresswoman Barbara Lee said they were not on a mission for President Obama, but they were convinced it is time to talk to Cuba.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: We discussed many issues as it relates to what I just talked about in terms of trade, cultural, educational exchanges, exchanges between our scientists, and why both countries and the people of both countries would tremendously benefit from these exchanges.

NEILL: But the leader of the delegation refused to be pinned down on the details of the talks themselves.

LEE: We did not talk in our conversations with President Castro and other Cuban officials -- we did not talk about specifics.

NEILL: Congressman Bobby Rush said talking to President Castro was like talking to an old family member, and that he was nothing like he's been portrayed in the media.

REP. BOBBY RUSH (D), ILLINOIS: I think that really what really surprised me, but also endears me to him, was his keen sense of humor.

NEILL: Also present at the meeting, Cuban National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon and new foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez.

The meeting comes even as a White House adviser says President Obama will soon eliminate restrictions for Cuban-Americans visiting family on the island.

Now, over the weekend, ailing former Cuban president Fidel Castro wrote in an essay that unlike what his critics say, he doesn't need confrontation to exist and that he welcomes dialogue with the United States -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right, Morgan. Thanks very much.

And Fidel Castro did meet with three members of the Congressional Black Caucus. All six of them met with the president -- the current president, Raul Castro, the younger brother of Fidel.

By the way, those members of the Congressional Black Caucus, they're coming back to Washington shortly. We're told in the next hour they're going to be meeting with reporters up on Capitol Hill. We're going to want to hear what they had to say. Their impressions of Fidel Castro -- the first time in three years the ailing Cuban leader has met with Americans.

That's coming up. Stand by. Important news.

Danger lurks everywhere. Still, rescuers are digging desperately right now. They are hoping to find more survivors after yesterday's devastating earthquake in central Italy. More than 200 people are now known dead. Tens of thousands are homeless. Thousands have been injured.

CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney is there and she's joining us now live.

Fionnuala, you had a pretty scary moment when there was an aftershock just a little while ago.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think what myself and everyone else in this part of Italy, Wolf, did about two-and-a- half hours ago, we were just finishing an interview we were taping with the head of the Italian Red Cross when, suddenly, we heard what we thought was a large train coming towards us, only to realize that there was rumbling underneath our feet. And for about seven seconds, the earth really shook, and we discovered subsequently that it had a magnitude of 5.6 and was felt as far away as Rome. And we're about 120 kilometers from Rome. One person is reported dead, but that hasn't been confirmed.

Aftershocks continue to be a fact of life since Monday morning's 6.4 magnitude quake. And we're coming to you now, Wolf, from what is one of the many tent cities that have been established in and around the town that I'm in right now, L'Aquila, for people who have been made homeless. There's also a field hospital here.

And some good news amid all the gloom and the uncertainty over the aftershocks. Three survivors have been pulled from the rubble this evening. One has been taken to the field hospital here, another has been taken to a hospital outside this part of the region because there really aren't any well established buildings anymore that can take care of patients. And another, we understand, is being brought as we speak on his way to this field hospital.

So some good news amid the gloom. But people are very worried about the aftershocks. And they are living in these tents now, and they don't know when they're going to be able to return home.

BLITZER: Fionnuala, is it your information, in addition to more than 200 killed, thousands injured, 50,000 people have been made homeless? That was the last number I heard, although I suspect that number is going up.

SWEENEY: Well, we understand about 228 people have died now. This has not been confirmed by the government yet.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, was here earlier in the day. And as he promised to find the money to rebuild this beautiful medieval town, he also said that what he wanted to see happen was that the search and rescue operation continue for another 48 hours, though he did say he didn't believe anybody could be pulled alive from the rubble after that.

It's a very, very fluid situation, and people are really very scared. And the tension is really quite high because there has been a number of aftershocks. The one a couple of hours ago really being the largest yet. And there's very much a feeling here, Wolf, that even with the death toll being in the early 200s and 1,000 people injured, 100 very seriously, that that toll could rise should these aftershocks continue.

BLITZER: And not very far from Rome. As you say, 120 kilometers. About 80 miles or so.

All right. Fionnuala, stand by. We're going to be coming back to you.

A man allegedly steals a plane, leads officials on a chase. All possibly -- possibly on a suicide mission. When can U.S. fighter jets shoot down a plane?

And Governor Sarah Palin says what North Korea is now doing could put Alaska in great danger. So she's blasting the Obama administration for what she calls a big mistake in defense cuts.



BLITZER: The former vice president, Dick Cheney, as you know, blasted the Obama administration. Now the current vice president is striking back.


BIDEN: I don't know that he's out of line, but he's dead wrong.


BLITZER: In our exclusive interview, the vice president is very candid. Wait until you hear him talk about the debate inside the administration over Afghanistan.

And a shocker involving former senator Ted Stevens. He had been accused and disgraced. That's certainly all changed now. We have the latest.

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


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

Happening now, shoes fly again. This time in India. Why a journalist there lost his cool and his footwear. And an Iraqi journalist learns more about his sentence for tossing his shoe at then-President Bush.

A letter foretells last week's shooting spree in Binghamton, New York. It arrived after the bloody rampage claimed 13 lives.

And with Alaska considered within range, Governor Sarah Palin says the White House is making a huge mistake. She's making it her mission right now to press for missile defense.

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

While President Obama travels, Vice President Joe Biden talks to us. Let's get some of our exclusive interview right now.

You just hear Biden say -- you heard the vice president say Dick Cheney is dead wrong in suggesting the administration's policies have made the United States less safe. In our interview, the vice president also talks about North Korea's nuclear threat, the debate over what to do in Afghanistan, and the timeline for pulling troops out of Iraq.


BLITZER: Mr. Vice President, thanks very much for doing this.

BIDEN: Great to be back with you.

BLITZER: The president of the United States wrapped up his trip to Europe with a surprise visit to Baghdad. There's been an uptick in violence lately -- suicide bombings.

How worried are you that the timeline that you've put forward for a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces is not going to be able to be materialized?

BIDEN: I'm not worried about that at all. We will draw down along the timeline we suggested.

The president went for two reasons. One, to demonstrate to the troops -- and it shouldn't surprise anybody since he was in Turkey that he would take the time to go there. But secondly, also to meet with Maliki.

And one of the things the president has said from the beginning is, in addition to us drawing down troops, Wolf, it was necessary for there to be further political accommodation between the Sunni, Shia and the Kurds. And I'm sure that's going to be one of the messages he's going to be delivering and discussing with Prime Minister Maliki.

BLITZER: We'll know the situation in Iraq is really working when a president of the United States won't have to go secretly to Baghdad. We'll be able to announce he's going on an official visit to Baghdad as if he's going to Istanbul or Paris or London.

When is that going to happen? BIDEN: Well, that's not going to happen for, I suspect, several years. The process is sort of a two-step here.

We're standing over responsibility to the Iraqis in a timely fashion, and drawing down our troops, handing over those responsibilities to the Iraqis. But it's not ultimately going to happen until there's a political accommodation. And that's still -- and that's up to the Iraqis. But I hope that happens within several years.

BORGER: Mr. Vice President, during the campaign you said this: "Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy."

Was North Korea that test?

BIDEN: Well, look, there's been a number of tests, just like there was for George Bush and -- every president gets tested.

What I probably should have said was, "like every other president."

And -- and, you know, the test is not so much -- first of all, the good news is, the test failed. The test that the North Koreans, launching their missile, the third stage failed. So, they are not going to be a very reliable seller to anybody who wanted to buy their missiles.

But I think that you're going to see more -- quote -- "tests," in the sense that the world has changed. They are not testing Barack Obama, per se. The world is just presenting every new president with new circumstances they never anticipated would be on the plate.

And -- and, look, for example, during the Bush administration, there were tests. You know, the North Koreans detonated a nuclear weapon. They -- they -- they had a nuclear test. So, you know, it occurs in every administration.


BLITZER: So, is it just talk, the reaction, the response, condemnation...

BIDEN: No. No, no.

BLITZER: ... or is there going to be something practical?

BIDEN: No, I think it's got to be much more than that, Wolf.

Look, the big difference now is, the world knows that we have gone out of our way to set up a circumstance where there could be a real negotiation in the six-party talks with North Korea.

Unlike before, where the policy was regime change, every time the North Koreans acted erratically, which is their behavior pattern, the United States -- not only were they condemned, but the United States was condemned, because we indirectly got blowback.

We would say, if it wasn't for our policy of regime change, this wouldn't have happened, et cetera.

This exposes -- the fact we have been so rational and responsible in this regard, this puts pressure on the Chinese, on the Russians, and the Japanese and the rest of the world to be more forceful. North Korea is not only a threat to the United States of America. It's a greater threat to the region.

BORGER: So, what do you want to see?

BIDEN: What I would like to see is a strong condemnation and a united effort on the part of the Chinese, Russians in the six-party talks to say: Enough is enough. There will be greater sanctions. We will squeeze down even harder on North Korea.

BLITZER: What else is there to do? They're so isolated already.


BIDEN: Well, China could do a great deal more.

BLITZER: You think China will?


BIDEN: Well, that's a different question. That's a different question.

I think this puts the onus on China and Russia and South Korea and Japan, et cetera, along with us, to -- to be bolder in our condemnation.

BORGER: There was a report in "The New York Times" last week about some disagreements within this administration.

And let me -- let me just quote you what "The Times" wrote, which is that "President Obama's plan to widen the United States' involvement in Afghanistan came after an internal debate in which Vice President Joe Biden warned against getting into a political and military quagmire, while military advisers argued that the Afghanistan war effort could be imperiled without even more troops."

BIDEN: Well, look, without commenting specifically on who took what position, there was a healthy debate. There is a healthy debate within our administration.

But you may remember -- I remember you asking me, Wolf, before -- when I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while I was still senator, prior to being sworn in as vice president, why -- I mean, wasn't that an unusual thing to do?

The reason I went is because I suggested to the president-elect at the time that I should go and come back with a baseline, tell him exactly where I thought we were relative to our position in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Iraq, and that we needed a clear, precise strategy.

What came out of that debate that took place -- and there was a debate inside. There always is.

BORGER: Well, where you, I mean, with transparency...


BIDEN: I'm not -- I'm not -- I'm not going to comment on where...


BLITZER: But were you concerned, as "The New York Times" said, that there could be a quagmire?

BIDEN: No. No.

No, here -- here's what I was concerned about. And we have settled it. And that is that we have a clear, coherent objective. The president, for the first time, stated that our objective is to root out al Qaeda and to prevent the growth of radical extremist organizations using either Afghanistan or Pakistan as a base from which to attack the United States of America.

That is our objective. Now we put in place a policy that backed that up with troops and/or civilians as to how to accomplish that purpose. And, so, there is total agreement on the present policy.

BLITZER: Is Afghanistan now President Obama's war?

BIDEN: President Obama and I inherited a war in Afghanistan that was very badly handled.

And, so, in the sense that we're trying to, in a sense, repair it and -- and be able to leave by leaving behind a country that is not controlled and/or occupied by al Qaeda, it is our responsibility we inherited. So, in that sense, we inherited a responsibility we have to deal with.


BLITZER: All right, that's part one of the interview with the vice president, Joe Biden -- much more coming up throughout the course of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's bring in Gloria Borger.

Gloria, we went over to the Eisenhower Executive Building, sat in that beautiful, ornate office with the vice president of the United States.

And you specifically asked him about some comments that the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made last week, saying the Obama administration no longer uses that phrase "global war on terror." We're going to play that excerpt coming up in the next hour. But go ahead and give our viewers a little preview.

BORGER: Well, it was -- it was kind of interesting, because, at first, he wasn't sure about what the change in semantics meant.

He wasn't, "Oh, I" -- he wasn't quite familiar with it. But then he said, look, under that rubric, global war on terror, he told us, we ended up with a series of policies that made no sense and made us weaker as a country.

So, he said they used that essentially as an excuse to do things they should not have done.

BLITZER: I was surprised -- and we're going to play this chunk of the interview in our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour -- the very strong statement he sends to the new prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

BORGER: Yes. He -- he basically said, I'm not worried about Israel taking any action against Iran, because they would be ill- advised to do it -- meaning, if you're listening, don't do it.

BLITZER: Don't do it. And he was very firm on that.


BLITZER: If the Israelis are thinking about taking out Iran's nuclear facilities...

BORGER: Right, don't it.

BLITZER: ... the vice president of the United States is telling the Israeli government, bad idea.

All right. We're going to have a lot more of the interview coming up -- Gloria, don't go far away -- including the very, very hard-hitting comments he made about the former vice president, Dick Cheney. I think you are going to want to see this.

Seven hours of tension in American skies -- a small plane wanders from Canada to Missouri under the watchful eye of U.S. Air Force fighter jets. What was the pilot up to?

And she's been first lady only three months, but Michelle Obama is already immortalized in wax.

And the former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens off the hook -- now those who prosecuted him for corruption charges are themselves under scrutiny.


BLITZER: An unsettling, even frightening airborne encounter in the skies stretching from Ontario, Canada, to Missouri.

A stolen plane meandered for hours, with no clear destination, it triggering alerts wherever it went.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into this story.

It's a fascinating story. Tell our viewers step by step, Brian, what happened.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there was a lot of tension in the skies, mainly because this pilot, Adam Leon, never communicated verbally while in flight with the fighter pilots or ground controllers tracking him.

And he had plenty of opportunity. He took off from Thunder Bay, Ontario, at about 3:00 p.m. Eastern time. Authorities were notified. Fighter jets scrambled. He flies over Lake Superior. They intercept him at 4:38 p.m. Eastern time seemingly right over Lake Superior, around that area.

Now, despite the fact that they repeatedly tried to get his attention, get him to land, he stayed up more than five hours longer, finally landing on a road in Missouri at 9:43 p.m. Eastern time.

Now we are learning new details about Adam Leon's disposition and how close he might have come to getting shot down.


TODD (voice-over): Approaching the United States, a stolen plane from Canada. American fighter jets were scrambled to engage it after it crossed into U.S. airspace, but the pilot did not respond.

MAJOR BRIAN MARTIN, NORTH AMERICAN AEROSPACE DEFENSE COMMAND: I mean, when you have an F-16 sitting beside you as you are flying in a Cessna, you can't help but notice the aircraft is there. After the pilot decided not to listen to our nonverbal signals, we -- we decided to tail it.

TODD: As the pilot headed over Wisconsin, the capitol building in Madison was evacuated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Literally told get -- get as far away from the capitol as you can.

TODD: But the pilot was allowed to continue until he finally ditched on a highway in Missouri after more than six hours and was arrested at a convenience store.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was just sitting there drinking a Gatorade.

TODD: A Missouri State Trooper tells CNN, the suspect told them he was depressed and -- quote -- "He hoped to get shot down by our Air Force."

How close did he come?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: You would never take yourself into a situation to ask for shoot-down authority unless you felt pretty certain that this was a dramatic threat.

TODD: A North American Aerospace Defense Command official tells us the pilot, Adam Leon, was deemed not a threat while he was in the air. The threat level is gauged by a number of factors, says former homeland security adviser Fran Townsend, including communication with the pilot, a background check, looking for erratic flying, the size of the plane -- a smaller plane is a smaller threat -- and whether the plane is heading near any possible targets on the ground.

The Pentagon tells us, in this case, the question never reached the level of asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates to decide.


TODD: How quickly did the military respond to a possible terrorist threat? Officials say the jets took off less than 20 minutes after getting the order, and they intercepted him 35 minutes after they took off, Wolf, a fairly quick response.

BLITZER: And you are getting some new details, additional details, on this pilot.

TODD: That's right. Adam Leon, he was enrolled in that flight school where the plane went missing from. He took it from the flight school. And the school describes him as personable and polite. They say he passed his cross-country flying solo test just last week, but he was not authorized to take that plane.

Records show he was convicted last year in Ontario of what they called stunt driving. That's exceeding the speed limit in Canada by, in the metric system, 30 -- 50 kilometers an hour, probably close to 30 miles an hour over the speed limit. So, he -- he had a driving issue as well.

BLITZER: All right. And I'm sure we're going to be learning a lot more about him in the coming hours and days. Thanks very much for that, Brian.

A huge about-face in the case of former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska -- a federal judge today threw out his conviction on corruption charges. And that's not the half of it.

Let's go to CNN's Elaine Quijano. She's joining us here.

Elaine, it seems that federal prosecutors themselves are right now in the crosshairs.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's absolutely right, Wolf.

It was a dramatic day in the courtroom. Ted Stevens' legal battle may have ended, but, for the prosecutors who allegedly mishandled his case, another chapter is just beginning.


QUIJANO (voice-over): A smiling Ted Stevens walked out of federal court without commenting on the high drama at his hearing moments earlier. Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan tossed out the former Alaska senator's corruption conviction from last fall, when a jury unanimously concluded Stevens lied on Senate disclosure forms about thousands of dollars in home renovations and gifts.

In blistering language, the judge slammed the Justice Department's original prosecution team for failing to disclose critical information: "In nearly 25 years on the bench, I have never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I have seen in this case."

RICHARD SMITH, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: The judge has called into question the conduct of the very people whose job it would have been to make sure that justice was done in the court. And they are supposed to do that every day. Here, the conduct was such that it probably deprived Mr. Stevens of a fair trial.

QUIJANO: In a rare move, Judge Sullivan announced the start of a criminal investigation into six of the trial prosecutors.

Stevens' defense attorney, Brendan Sullivan, blasted the government's handling of the case and recounted seeing the new evidence, such as interview notes from a prosecution witness, for the first time: "I was sick to my stomach. My revulsion turned to rage, silent rage for a number of days."

And an unemotional Stevens himself told the court: "What some members of this prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. But, today, my faith has been restored."


QUIJANO: Now, there was an extraordinary moment. When Ted Stevens first walked into the courtroom today, Wolf, he headed straight for the prosecution table and then he proceeded to shake hands with all three of the government's new lawyers.

Now, later in court, the lead prosecutor, the new lead prosecutor, Paul O'Brien, said: "We deeply regret this occurred. We apologize to the court" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story.

All right, Elaine, thank you very much.

President Obama right now homeward bound from his first overseas trip -- when he gets back, his plate will be more than full. Can he persuade Congress and the country to join some of his big-ticket vision in these tough economic times?

And the first lady Michelle Obama's popularity soaring. How do we know? She's already in wax.


BLITZER: Let's get to our "Strategy Session" right now.

Joining us, the Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen, and Republican strategist Danny Diaz, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Mike Allen wrote this on the Politico Web site today: "Reality hits Obama express. Obama aides admit they don't yet know the answer to one of the biggest -- one of the big questions of his first year: Can Capitol Hill swallow an agenda of this cost and heft at a time when the country is suffering a catastrophic economic slowdown?"

Can he do it in Congress, which already has significant Democratic majorities?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You know, one of the things that -- reasons that Barack Obama was elected president and the Democrats were given such a large majority is because the American people want health care reform. They want energy independence. They want more investment in education.

BLITZER: So, the answer is, yes, he can do it?

ROSEN: No, but -- but those things take time.

There has been years and years and years of work on these issues. And I think it's unrealistic to think it's all going to happen in the first year. I don't think the president expected it would all happen in the first year. Those members of Congress all have a lot of their own ideas...


BLITZER: Because we're talking about education -- education, health care...

ROSEN: But that...


BLITZER: ... energy. These are enormous issues. Even one of them could dominate an entire term, if you will.


I mean, this is a very ambitious agenda, particularly considering some of the difficulties this administration has run into over the course of the last week, Afghanistan, North Korea, global stimulus. So, at the end of the day, the real question is, how many members of his own party can he keep on board? How much political, you know, capital does he need to exert to keep them on board? As much as he did on the budget?


BLITZER: Let me ask Hilary.


BLITZER: Can he keep some of those moderate Democrats, the Evan Bayhs, if you will, and the Ben Nelsons? Can he keep them inside his tent, without alienating them?

ROSEN: Those -- those people have the same goals. And -- and we still have an enormously popular president and still a popular Democratic leadership in Congress who -- to get this stuff done.

As a -- as a practical matter, it's not a failing of the president if Congress works its will to pass things slowly. It -- it may take a little more time, but I do think these things are going to happen.


ROSEN: I think they expect it as well.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" in that poll, which I'm sure you saw today, had this question: Who is more likely to make the right decisions about the economy, which is issue number one? Sixty-three percent said President Obama. Twenty percent said Republicans in Congress.


DIAZ: Well, yes, he's certainly enjoying quite a honeymoon.

But there are some issues to look at in this poll. When a president's policies are viewed in much less popular fashion than he himself is, that's a troubling sign. And, at the end of the day, people have concerns about the amount of money that is being spent, about the bailouts, about the role of government.

So, he's a much more popular person than his policies. At some point, they're going to catch up with each other.

ROSEN: I think, though, that people still view the economic troubles we're facing as Republican-created, created from the last administration.

BLITZER: When does that stop, do you think?

ROSEN: And President Obama...


ROSEN: ... people see know that he's working every day to make it better.

BLITZER: But when does that stop? When do they forget about Bush and the eight years, and say, you know what? He's had a few months, a year, or whatever?

ROSEN: It's a good question. And -- and I think that -- that, as -- as the economic adviser to this White House has said, we're going to see some uptick in the fourth quarter, maybe a little some -- a little job creation from the stimulus.


BLITZER: Although you heard the vice president, Joe Biden, tell me in his interview, net, there will continue to be job losses every single month for the rest of this year.

ROSEN: Unemployment may continue to go down as a -- as a lagging indicator.

But, to the extent that places of investment, where the stimulus is investing, in health care, in education, in energy, in infrastructure, when you begin to see jobs in those areas created, even as some other jobs are being lost, then I think that's when it becomes the president's economy.

BLITZER: All right, we will see what -- we will see what happens, guys. Thanks very much.

DIAZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: Afghanistan's president signs into law an edict that essentially allows men to rape their wives.

Listen to how the vice president, Joe Biden, feels about that.


BIDEN: It is an outrageous, an outrageous, outrageous law.


BLITZER: Is a controversial law -- is a controversial like -- law, I should say, like -- like this one, what should it do as far as U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan are concerned, if anything? The vice president answers that question in more of our exclusive interview. That's coming up.

Plus, police now believe the person who gunned down 13 people in Upstate New York did, in fact, write a letter of explanation.

And will President Obama's boyhood home become a national landmark?


BLITZER: It's an unassuming high-rise apartment building in Honolulu, Hawaii, but as the boyhood home of President Obama Barack Obama, it might soon become -- get this -- a national landmark.

Let's bring back Abbi Tatton.

Abbi, all right, the president of the United States, he lived there when he was very young.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Lived there on the 10th floor of this apartment building, the Punahou Circle Apartments in Honolulu.

President Obama lived there from age 10. His grandmother Madelyn Dunham, who died last year, lived there 41 years. And now Hawaii lawmakers want to get this 1960s apartment block added to the National Register of Historic Places.

That register is not exactly teeming with high-rise rental buildings. On the list, it does include Virginia's Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. The Kentucky cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born is on the list. Ronald Reagan's boyhood home is also on there, 80,000 properties in all.

The Hawaii resolution does acknowledge the unusual nature of adding a condo building to that registry. But the resolution says that this is a proud part of Hawaii's history, and they want to get the process started.

The building manager, Wolf, says that they have already gotten used to tourists snapping photos in the lobby most days.

BLITZER: It's a sign of the times.

TATTON: Absolutely.


BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

Let's go back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is, should the United States trust Muslim allies less than other allies?

Melody writes from Michigan: "Of course Muslims can be trusted as much as any ally. Who can't be trusted are individuals who are extremists and completely intolerant of other people's beliefs. And that includes people and religions right here in the United States. Good for President Obama for assuring the Muslim community that we want to be an ally."

Michael in New Mexico: "Not less, but differently. Muslim nations are mostly undemocratic, religiously bigoted and hostile towards our values. We can't expect to have the sort of relationship with them that we might expect from European nations. They are different. And no amount of politically correct language will alter that."

Rob writes: "The worldwide reputation of the United States is currently under repair. President Obama is the chief surgeon. He must extend an open hand to Muslim allies, while maintaining a tight grip with the other hand on all other allied relationships. Rhetoric starts the process, but increased trust will be earned with deeds." J. in Georgia says: "I just hearken back to the source of the chant 'Death to America.' Anyone chanting death to my country will not get my trust, ever. I don't care if they are Muslim or Baptist or vegetarian. You tell me you want death to my country, you get my scorn. You want my trust? Earn it."

And Tim in Texas writes: "Our allies should be trusted based on their track record of trustworthiness. Obama is correct in saying terrorist groups do not represent the majority of Muslims. Think about it this way: Men commit 99 percent of violent crimes, but it would be kind of stupid, based on this, to think that all men are violent. You and Wolf don't strike me as being violent."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog,, and look for yours there, among hundreds of others.

And, if you don't -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, I'm not a violent man. Neither is Jack Cafferty. We're very, very...


BLITZER: ... peace-loving guys.


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

And, to our viewers. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.