Return to Transcripts main page


Pirates Hijack U.S. Ship; U.S. Lawmakers Meet With Fidel Castro

Aired April 8, 2009 - 18:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: And amid death and destruction from that earthquake in Italy, some wonder if you can avoid earthquake deaths by predicting them -- all that, plus the best political team on television.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer's off. I'm Don Lemon. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following breaking news of the pirate hijacking of an American ship off Somalia. Here's what we know right now and we want to tell you. U.S. Navy warships are on the way to the scene to help. A crew member tells CNN pirates are holding the captain hostage, and the American crew battled the pirates to take the ship back.

Well, here's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We're deeply concerned, and we're following it very closely. You know, specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of a ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy.


LEMON: Well, meantime, a crew member was able to talk to CNN on the phone.

And we talked about the -- battling the pirates and what he had to do and the captain being kidnapped. Take a listen.


KEN QUINN, SECOND MATE: He's on the ship's lifeboat.

When they boarded our ship, they sank their boat. So, the captain talked them into getting off the ship with our lifeboat. But we took one of their pirates hostage and did an exchange.

We had one of their hostages. We had a pirate we took and we kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up and he was our prisoner.

We returned him, but they didn't return the captain, so now we are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food. It's not working too good.


LEMON: Let's get the very latest now.

And, for that, we go straight to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr with the U.S. military in Bahrain.

Barbara is standing by.

Barbara, what's the latest? What are we hearing about this military rescue?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Don, we're here in Bahrain tonight. Of course, Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet now monitoring this situation around the clock.

Within the next several hours, it is expected that at least one Navy warship will arrive within the vicinity of the hijacking incident. Now, that is not to say that some military action is even remotely expected at this point. Frankly, we simply do not know.

But in previous hijackings, military ships have appeared nearby. They monitor what is going on. They try and keep an eye on any hostages, on the pirates. They stand by, ready to render immediate medical assistance if it is needed.

We also expect to see aircraft flying overhead. That is another technique that the military uses to maintain surveillance of these very unstable situations. And, frankly, sometimes, it's a visual sign that the military likes to put out there.

Somali pirates in their little dinghies when they come across a big U.S. Navy warship, sometimes perhaps they might think again about their actions. But nobody is exactly saying that. That's what's expected in the coming hours.

At this point it does appear to be a hostage situation, with at least the captain still being held. Everyone is holding their breath to see what happens next -- Don.

LEMON: Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr in Bahrain -- thank you very much for that, Barbara.

Worried family members are reacting to this bold and daring pirate hijacking.

CNN's Jason Carroll talked exclusively with the father of Shane Murphy, the second in command of the ship.


JOE MURPHY, SHANE MURPHY'S FATHER: At 6:30 in the morning -- how the world has changed -- I got a call from my son who was on a Navy ship in the Philippines, that he had seen that his brother's ship had been taken off the African coast. JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Shane's ship?

MURPHY: Shane's ship had been taken, yes.

So he asked me to call and verify it, which I did. I called the company, got in touch with the company down in Norfolk, Virginia. They were very receptive, very helpful. They confirmed that the ship had in fact been taken, that pirates were on board. And it just proceeded from there.

CARROLL: Now, then at 10:30, Shane called, spoke to his wife, Serena (ph), explaining exactly what had happened, saying that he was alive, he was OK, and that they were able to talk one of these pirates down.

Tell us about that, that conversation.

MURPHY: Well, of course she was very upset this morning when I called to inform her. She said that she called me and told me that Shane called, that he said that, first, of course, that he loved her, and that he was alive, the crew was safe.

And he said that they had managed to take down one of the terrorists. And it was by sheer force. They have no weapons. So it must have been -- obviously just overpowered them. We got a secondary report that three others had gone into the water.

CARROLL: Three other pirates?

MURPHY: Three other pirates had gone into the water. We're not really sure how they got into the water or what happened. But they had regained at that point control of the ship. Shane called her again. He said he was OK, the crew was OK, and he didn't want to go any further with the discussion because he didn't want to upset his wife.


LEMON: That was CNN's Jason Carroll.

Hijackings like these often involve daring raids, kidnappings and multimillion-dollar demands for money. One head of the shipping company knows exactly what that feels like and he takes us inside a pirate hijacking.

For that, we turn to CNN's Brian Todd -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Don, this man describes the experience as surreal, like living out a movie. Part of it has to do with how disproportionate the initial encounter is.

Here's the Maersk Alabama, 780 feet long. Now, we put an image of a typical pirates' boat up here. If we put it down here, you wouldn't be able to quite see the measurement of it. This is only about 16.5 feet long. You see the comparison there. Unbelievable. And it only takes one or two of these to capture one of these. Then the shipping company's nightmare begins.


TODD (voice-over): A tanker crew taking on their captors. High drama on the high seas, but not how it usually plays out when a cargo ship has been captured.


TODD: For 56 days, the crew of the Biscaglia, owned by James Christodoulou's Industrial Shipping Enterprises, was held hostage. Christodoulou was in what he calls a turkey coma last Thanksgiving night, when he got an overnight call that the Biscaglia had been hijacked by pirates about 50 miles off the coast of Somalia.

Experts say before they strike, hijackers' skiffs often blend in with fishing boats.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Hundreds of boats. It's hard to tell that one of them is going to break away and attack.

TODD: Christodoulou says his tanker had non-lethal security on board.

CHRISTODOULOU: Barbed-wire, flares, and very loud loudspeakers to deter the pirates.

TODD: Still, about 10 pirates with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades overtook the nearly 600-foot Biscaglia while it was moving. Tankers like this do evasive maneuvers, but the hijackers are agile.

CHRISTODOULOU: They come alongside the boat in rowboats with outboard motors or, you know, little zodiac boats. They throw either grappling hooks or aluminum ladders up on the railings of the ships, and they scale the ships.

TODD: Christodoulou says he negotiated directly with the pirates with only a translator as go-between. He says the final transaction is often primitive.

CHRISTODOULOU: The cash is dropped out of a plane, in a plastic tube, with a parachute on the end of it. And it's picked up by the pirate skiffs. They count the cash on board the vessel, they get off the vessel, and the ship steams away back to a safe port.

TODD: In the end, all 28 crew members were returned safely to their families.


TODD: Now, Christodoulou won't say how much he paid in ransom money, but he says the case of a vessel called the Sirius Star, a hijacked Saudi supertanker that was released in January, set the high watermark for ransoms at about $3 million.

Don, they can really extort these companies.

LEMON: So, Christodoulou has been. So, he's been watching, paying attention to this.

TODD: Yes.

LEMON: What does he think about the way the crew handled the pirates?

TODD: Very hard to second-guess the crew right now. The situation as you have been reporting is very fluid right now.


TODD: None of us was there also. So, Christodoulou does say, though, it's got to always be about getting that crew off that ship safely or getting them out of that situation safely.

He does not believe that there should be armed mercenary teams that ride around with these tankers, as there are on some vessels. He says that escalates the situation. There's a kind of implication there he believes that this was kind of a dangerous undertaking by the American crew.

LEMON: And we know what they say about hindsight, right, 20/20, right?

TODD: Absolutely, right.

LEMON: We weren't there.

Thank you, CNN's Brian Todd.

Meantime, the Obama administration makes good on a campaign promise, direct talks with Iran. We have details of a controversial new policy and when and where that meeting might take place.

Also, back from his first overseas tour as president, what did it teach us about President Obama? I will ask CNN political analyst David Gergen.

And as U.S. lawmakers meet with Cuba's Fidel Castro, our I- Reporters weigh in. Is it time for Washington to end its embargo? We will tell you.


LEMON: We are monitoring the tense situation off Somalia of the pirate hijacking of an American-flagged ship off Somalia.

But we're also following another major story. The Obama administration announces a huge shift in American policy when it comes to dealing with Iran.

Let's go straight to CNN White House correspondent Dan Lothian.

Dan, what do you have?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Don, the White House has said that it's been reviewing its Iran policy, and this is yet another effort to try to deal with the concerns they have over Iran's nuclear program.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): Seeking a diplomatic answer to Iran's suspect nuclear program, the Obama administration says from now on it will sit down at the table for direct group talks with Iran, a clear departure from the Bush administration policy.

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe that, you know, pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense.

LOTHIAN: The U.S. has accused Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapon, but those claims have been repeatedly denied. Now the State Department says Iran will be invited to attend the next meeting of the so-called P-Five Plus One talks. That's when senior diplomats from the U. S. , Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany will discuss Iran's nuclear program.

ROBERT WOOD, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Any breakthrough will be the result of the collective efforts of all the parties, including Iran.

LOTHIAN: Last month, President Obama used a video to speak directly to the Iranian people about improving what he called a strained relationship.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

LOTHIAN: Iran's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says he's encouraged by these positive overtures.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): If a hand is extended to Iran with honesty and justice, the Iranian nation will welcome it.


LOTHIAN: Now, in addition to the president's video, Secretary of State Clinton also sat down with an Iranian official last month at a conference overseas.

And the president at a town hall meeting just a few days ago in Turkey talked about how these situations may be challenging, but he thinks it's important to deal with Iran because some progress can be made -- Don.

LEMON: All right, Dan Lothian, thank you. President Obama is back here in Washington after a jampacked trip that had him visit six countries in eight days. How did he do on his first overseas trip?

Well, we turn now to senior political analyst Gloria Borger -- she's here with me -- and our senior political analyst David Gergen as well.

David Gergen and Gloria, we want to play you guys what the president had to say in Turkey, and then we will talk about it.


OBAMA: One of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned, you know, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.


LEMON: So, David, he got in a little bit of trouble for that statement. Most people understood what he meant by that.

But what do you think we learned from the president's world view from this trip and from the speeches he made?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that he has a very different world view from that of George W. Bush.

He laid that out in the campaign, and now he's shown through this long, extensive trip -- and, by the way, some are saying he shouldn't have gone this long and is taking time away from the recession and he's going to pay a political price. I do not agree with that. I think that's wrong-headed. I think he had to -- this was a very important maiden voyage for him.

But I think that he's going to have -- he's going to have an emphasis upon diplomacy more than upon saber-rattling. He's going to have an emphasis upon collaboration more than on the United States going it alone. He's going to have an emphasis about listening more, instead of talking more, rather than the United States trying to tell others, here's what's got to be done; follow us.

Now, whether this is going to work or not, we don't know. He was clearly extraordinarily popular in Europe. I think he's emerged from this as probably the most popular political leader in the world. But, at the end of the day, the question also becomes one of results. Does it work?

LEMON: Right, right.

GERGEN: Does this overture to Iran really work? And that's what I think we don't know yet, but he's clearly changing directions.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But, David, what about the argument that some conservatives are making that this is naive?

Newt Gingrich says this is a fantasy foreign policy and that this president is not so much pragmatic, as he is green around the ears and new at this, and he doesn't know what he's doing.

GERGEN: Well, Gloria, you know, the fact is, he is still green. But I think he's got a good ear for things.

But he's also surrounded by people with a lot of experience, not only with Jim Jones, but, you know, with the Dick Holbrookes of the world and Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates. This is a pretty experienced team. And I must say I think, from the world's view, there were not a lot of missteps, that the world would say that the -- that the Bush administration showed us that the other approach, the much more aggressive, sometimes belligerent and often relying upon Defense Department, as opposed to State Department, didn't work terribly well. It left us with two wars.

So, I think the world would say, why don't you give this guy a chance and see if this works?

Now, I think we haven't yet learned, Gloria, how tough he is, whether he has an inner toughness when it comes -- he -- he got along in a lot of these situations because he essentially agreed to the other guy's point of view. You know, he put their priorities very high on the American agenda.

But when it comes to the hard nut-cutting, can he get that -- can he get that done? Can he push people to do some things that have got to be done. He didn't get it on stimulus. He didn't get it on sending troops to Afghanistan.

BORGER: On Afghanistan.

GERGEN: And he didn't push it.

So, the question is, there are going to become moments here in the future when some tough decisions have got to be made. And I think then that's going to be an interesting test, too. We do not have a full picture of President Obama yet.


LEMON: David, I want to get back to what Gloria was talking about earlier. She was talking about what Newt Gingrich says.

And we found exactly what he said.

GERGEN: Right.

LEMON: This is from Sunday.

He said: "The president is in a world where Hamas is firing missiles every day into Israel, Iran is building nuclear weapons. And the North Koreans today fired a missile. And he has a some wonderful, fantasy idea that we're going to have a great meeting next year." Here's the interesting thing, and I think that you sort of alluded to this, is that maybe the previous administration could not relate to the people in that end, but maybe this president, because of who he is, how popular he was, in some ways, may be able to talk to, bring other people to the table.

GERGEN: Well, listen, isn't one of the best test cases we're going to have is Iran?

You know, we know they're trying to build a nuclear weapon. We know time is running out. He said, let's try to talk. Let's see if we can get this through to negotiations.

Now, the skeptics and the conservatives are going to say, it's never going to work. These guys are just playing for time. They just want to build it.

Hugely important test case. It is a very different approach from what President Bush tried. He's trying a different way. This is what he ran on. I think we have to give it a little time to see whether it really works or not.

We do know he's eloquent. We do know he's popular. But whether he can deliver or not, we just don't know yet.


BORGER: But, you know, David on the question of toughness, there was a question regarding that on domestic policy.

GERGEN: Right.

BORGER: We saw him working with this Congress. He got his stimulus package through and he told folks in a congressional meeting who didn't agree with him, "I won."

And then he got what he wanted.

LEMON: And, David, we only have a very short time here.

GERGEN: Well, I mean, listen, he farmed out a lot of that stimulus package to Democrats. He wound up with a lot of junk in it, as we know. He got a lot of what he wanted. He also got some junk.

On the earmarks, he took a pass on that, about going back on a bill on the earmarks. So, I think this question of toughness is still out there. I think that, for stylistically and just in terms of general impact on the world, this first trip overseas was a great success. I think there are still questions about, can it deliver and is he going to be tough enough in the crunch?


LEMON: David Gergen, Gloria Borger, thank you very much.

GERGEN: Thank you. LEMON: We want to hear from our viewers on this as well. What do you think the U.S. policy -- should we engage in direct talks with Iran?

Submit your video, your comments to, and then watch tomorrow to see if your video makes it on the air.

Hostage drama on the high seas. We're following the breaking news here. And we will give you the latest on that American-flagged freighter captain being held by pirates.

Also, members of Congress trading sharp jabs over Cuba -- we will tell you why one lawmaker is calling some of her colleagues -- quote -- "shameful."

And an Italian scientist says he predicted this week's earthquake weeks ago. Local authorities dismiss his claim, but could it be true?




LEMON: Americans battle pirates off Somalia. And the U.S. Navy is rushing to the scene. We have the latest, after pirates hijacked an American-flagged ship. You will hear just what happened when this drama began.

African-American lawmakers meet with Fidel Castro. Now Cuban- American lawmakers are telling just how they feel about that.

And something the attorney general said has some people really wondering, will the Obama administration make changes to existing gun laws?



Happening now, breaking news: Americans fight pirates who hijacked their ship off the coast of Somalia. The U.S. Navy is rushing to the scene now.

Another deadly bombing in Iraq, this one near one of the country's most sacred Shiite shrines.

And British police arrest 10 people in a series of counterterrorism raids -- all of this, plus the best political team on television.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Don Lemon. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following breaking news. The crew of a U.S.-flagged ship seized off Africa says it has recaptured its freighter from Somali pirates. But the American captain is being held hostage there.

When the call for help came in, well, this help was hundreds of miles away.

We turn now to CNN's Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Don, we have learned that the military has been using a P-3 surveillance plane to monitor the situation. It's been flying over the area to keep an eye on the Alabama.

We have also learned that the USS Bainbridge, a Navy destroyer, is on its way to that area as well.

Now, from what we know, the civilian crew of the Alabama was unarmed. Keep that in mind as you hear how we got to this point.

(voice-over): The Maersk Alabama was cruising nearly 300 miles off the eastern coast of Somalia. It's bound for Moumbassa, carrying 5,000 tons of food for humanitarian aid. When pirates moved in on the Alabama's 20 man crew, which includes second in command, Shane Murphy, they sent a global distress message..

J. MURPHY: Which was received by the United States Navy. And the U.S. Navy responded immediately. The problem is that the Navy was almost 200 miles away. They used evasive maneuvers to keep the pirates off.

LAWRENCE: For hours, it works. But Wednesday morning, the ship called again. They had been boarded by four pirates.

MURPHY: They held the crew in a secure area. They shut down all communication. No further communications.

LAWRENCE: But hours later, Crewman Murphy calls his wife to say, "Honey, I'm alive. I can't speak for very long. I just wanted you to know that we've taken down one of the pirates.

By phone from the Alabama, a crewman describes how it happened.

QUINN (VIA TELEPHONE): When they boarded our ship, they sank their boats. So the captain talked them into getting off the ship with our lifeboat. But we -- we took one of their pirates hostage and we did an exchange.


LAWRENCE: So the three pirates took the captain with them on this lifeboat. The crew says it was supposed to be an even swap -- the crew gives back the pirate that they had in custody, the pirates hand over their captain. But it didn't work. The crew says they kept their end of the bargain, but the pirates kept the captain.

They have been offering food and other things to try to get his release. It hasn't worked. But really, what they're trying to do is hold out until that Navy destroyer gets there -- Don.

LEMON: All right. Chris, thank you very much for that.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus just back from Cuba -- well, they say Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, are ready for a major shift in relations with the U.S.

But not everyone is buying it.

CNN Congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, joins me now -- Brianna, we're hearing now from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And they have totally different ideas about Cuba.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in fact, Don. And these in particular are Cuban-American members of that Caucus. They are responding to what Black Caucus members said last night after returning from their trip to Cuba.

Here's Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who's the head of that group


REP. BARBARA LEE (D-CA), CHAIRWOMAN, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS: The message to us was very clear. And that is they are communicating their willingness and their desire to sit down and have dialogue and discussions, leading to, hopefully, a normal diplomatic relations.


KEILAR: These members of the Congressional Black Caucus say that -- and they're part of a growing chorus of lawmakers here on Capitol Hill who say that the travel restrictions, the trade embargo against Cuba, they're outdated, ineffective modes of foreign policy.

But when you listen to Hispanic Caucus members who represent Cuban exiles here in the U.S. they say these CBC members are being very naive.

Here is Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.


REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: What is this foolishness about, looking someone in the eye and -- and calling him good or compassionate?

Let's judge people by their actions. These are thugs. These are despotic leaders who deny people their basic human rights.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KEILAR: And stinging criticism from Florida Senator Mel Martinez, as well. He said regardless of one's position on U.S./Cuba policy, one would expect that any U.S. official or member of Congress visiting Cuba would have the courage to meet with members of Cuba's struggling independent civil society and raise concerns about the regime's systematic violation of human rights with Cuban officials. So really blasting the Black Caucus members, Don, who did say that, no, they didn't meet with dissident members on this trip, but they have met with them in the past -- Don.

LEMON: All right. Congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Thank you for that, Brianna.

And for more on the U.S. policy toward Cuba, we're joined by our CNN political analyst, Gloria Borgia -- she's here in the studio with me; CNN political contributor, Steve Hayes, of "The Weekly Standard;" and CNN's senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley; and, of course, Roland Martin, our new host of "NO BIAS, NO BULL." They're all part of the best political team on television.

Before we get to the best political team, I want you guys to hear from iReporters first, because Fidel Castro is back in the spotlight today, guys. And some people say that maybe we should -- we should think that -- you know, rethink our policy toward Cuba.

I want you to listen to what the first one has to say.

His name is Egberto Willies.

Listen to their -- their response.


EGBERTO WILLIES, HOUSTON, TEXAS: Given our 90 mile proximity, our national security will be enhanced by having a friendly government with a vested interest in our well being.



JOSE COLON, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: From the economic point of view, I think that it would be great if we had a hemisphere coming from Canada all the way down to Argentina with a good flow of commerce.


LEMON: Steven, is it -- do you think it will ever be possible for us to have good relations with Cuba?

STEPHEN HAYES, SENIOR WRITER "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, sure. And, I mean, I think the iReporters have probably laid out a vision that I think nobody would disagree with. Of course, we'd like to have a friendly government in Cuba. The question is how best to do that and what are the policies that will achieve that outcome.

I think having these members of the Congressional Black Caucus go down and heap praise on Fidel Castro -- you had Bobby Rush saying it was like talking to an old friend -- it's an embarrassment for the country. And I think it's an embarrassment for those members of Congress.

And, you know, whatever policy Barack Obama decides to pursue, praising a despotic dictator is not likely to -- to further these relations.

LEMON: And you see Roland smiling broadly there, Gloria.


LEMON: Roland, what's rolling through your head?

ROLAND S. MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I'm smiling because this is not the first time the Congressional Black Caucus has actually gone to meet in Cuba. In fact, several years ago, Fidel Castro offered to train low income Americans to work in areas where the infant mortality rate in Mississippi, where Congressman Vinnie Thompson was, exceeds that in Cuba.

Let's just be honest, our policy toward Cuba is stupid and ridiculous. Cuba -- we talk about communism. The last I checked, China is also a communist country.

And what happens?

We -- you know, we love China.

Because why?

They own $500 billion worth of our debt.

If Cuba owned our debt, I can guarantee you, you would have a different policy toward them...

BORGER: But...

MARTIN: ...than we have with China.

BORGER: But let me go to Candy here, because, Candy, this is a political problem for the president. What -- you know, I mean, talking about easing, you know, certain restrictions on Cuba is something he talked about during the campaign.

But going any further, wouldn't that be really difficult for him, given what we heard from the Hispanic Caucus?


And guess where it's the biggest problem?

The biggest problem is in Florida. I mean the idea of moving toward a normalization of relationships with Cuba has been kicking around for some time. Politically, it remains very difficult.

Now, there is a new generation of Cuban-Americans coming along who don't see things in quite the same way. But I would suspect that President Obama will be sort of gradual with this, because there is no argument that, obviously, the trade barriers and the travel ban have not worked to change any behavior in Cuba and he wants to try something different.

But I don't think he's going to go the full boat here. There are still big questions...


LEMON: Hang on Roland.

MARTIN: Right. Let's also keep in mind something here.

LEMON: Roland, we've got to -- yes. We've got to move on to another subject. We're running out of time.

BORGER: OK, but it...

LEMON: So we want to get this one in.

BORGER: And it's another -- and it's another tough subject, Don, which is gun control and guns.

And I want -- I want to play for you folks something that the attorney general said on February 25th about guns.


ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make. And among them, would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons.


BORGER: Now, we also have a CNN poll which shows that right now, only 39 percent of the public believes that gun control laws should be stricter, compared to 2007, when 50 percent of the public thought that it should be stricter.

Let me -- let me go to you, Steve.

Sixty-five pro-gun Democrats have written to the administration and said hold off.

So are they going to be able to do anything on guns?

HAYES: I don't think so. I mean, I think the most important thing you just cited there was this letter last month from these 65 pro-gun House Democrats, who basically said look, we will fight you, and we will fight you hard on this issue of the assault weapons ban. We are not going to back you. We are not going to support you, no matter how popular you are. This is something we believe in.

And I think there's political peril here for Barack Obama, because he was elected, I think, in large measure, because he had the sort of crossover appeal to Independent voters. Some people would call them Reagan Democrats, what have you. And he brought them back into the Democratic fold. And these are exactly the kind of people that we're talking about who responded to the poll that way.


MARTIN: Hey, Steve, I'll tell you what...

LEMON: Candy, I want to give you the last word. But I want to go to Roland, because, Roland, I cut you off.

But the attorney general seems to be adamant about what he's saying and considering the possibility of bringing the assault weapons ban back.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, again, I believe in the Second Amendment, but what is the problem with having a ban on assault rifles?

But Steve also mentioned those pro-gun Democrats. I also hope they would have the guts to remove the gun amendment from the D.C. Bill to allow them to have a voting member of Congress. Putting those two together makes no sense.

I don't think they're going to touch it because, you're right, they have too much power. The president needs them. But look, having some sensible gun control still makes sense, even though you love the Second Amendment.

LEMON: And, Candy, we have less than five seconds left here so you're really wrapping us here.

CROWLEY: Let me just give you about six words on why there will not be a major change in gun control -- Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia.


LEMON: All right.


LEMON: Thank you.

Candy Crowley, Stephen and Roland Martin.

Make sure you catch Roland, 8:00 tonight on CNN, "NO BIAS, NO BULL". We appreciate all of you.

LEMON: Hundreds of millions of stimulus...


LEMON: And Gloria.

We don't forget Gloria.

CROWLEY: Of course.

BORGER: Thank you.

LEMON: Hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars flowing to agencies with a history of mismanagement. Now some are warning about the waste on a massive scale.

And some call her the world's second most powerful woman -- who is she and what you probably don't know about her. You want to find out.


LEMON: President Obama's stimulus package is funneling huge sums of money to agencies across the country. But there's concern about whether some of them are able to handle the funds appropriately.

CNN's Mary Snow joins us now live -- Mary, what is going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Don, the issue here is this -- how do you track stimulus money going to housing agencies with a troubled record but also have thousands of people waiting to get public housing?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, totally gutted out.

SNOW (voice-over): Gutted and slated to be renovated with federal stimulus money. The head of Newark, New Jersey's housing authority hopes to turn about 1,000 public housing units into livable ones -- like this.

But the good intentions come with heavy scrutiny. The agency is on a trouble list, having mishandled federal money in the past.

Keith Kinard was brought in to clean things up.

KEITH KINARD, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NEWARK HOUSING AUTHORITY: This agency was not only placed on the troubled list, it also had several years worth of terrible audits and bad audit findings.

SNOW: Newark is just one of 61 housing agencies cited in a "USA Today" survey slated to receive $300 million in stimulus money -- even though the agencies have been faulted in recent audits. And some watchdog groups are raising red flags about potential waste.

LESLIE PAIGE, CITIZENS AGAINST GOVERNMENT WASTE: The spending cart came before the oversight horse. And so we've got a real problem there with, you know, shoving hundreds of millions of dollars -- hundreds of billions of dollars -- through programs that are already compromised and mismanaged.

SNOW: Not true, says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. He tells CNN special processes have been put in place to monitor the money.

SHAUN DONOVAN, HOUSING SECRETARY: Not a dollar of this money has gone out to a single troubled housing authority and not a dollar will go out until we've gotten their plans in, we've reviewed their plans and we are we're absolutely confident this money will be spent well.


SNOW: Now, Don, in Newark, New Jersey, the housing authority there has already hired workers. But its director says the agency won't get reimbursed with stimulus money until it goes through a review process on the work that's already been done -- Don.

LEMON: Mary Snow.

Thank you, Mary.

SNOW: Sure.

LEMON: She might be the most powerful woman you've never heard of -- Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC and the person responsible for protecting your bank account.

CNN national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, joining us now -- Jessica, this is a woman who really has huge influence when it comes to the financial . And most of us have never even heard of her.


She is in the middle of the administration's scramble to save the financial industry. Her supporters say she could be a future Treasury secretary. She would be the first woman. But critics say she is putting taxpayer dollars and even the nation's banks at risk.


YELLIN (voice-over): Sheila Bair protects your savings. "Forbes" magazine calls her the second most powerful woman in the world, behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But she's well ahead of Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.

These days, Bair's power is growing as she plays a key role in fixing the housing and financial crises.

Would you believe that, on the side, she writes children's books, teaching saving and investing.

SHEILA BAIR, FDIC CHAIRMAN: Each buck you save, I'll match it quick. Spend it, there's no extra dough. So save your cash and watch it grow.

YELLIN: So how would she explain the current crisis to kids?

BAIR: People weren't stashing their bucks.

YELLIN: As head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Bair's main job is to make sure that people who do save their bucks are protected if their bank shuts down.

First appointed by President Bush, Bair has been an outspoken advocate for more aggressive oversight. In 2007, she warned about the dangers of subprime mortgages and was ignored.

Last year, she urged the Bush administration to refinance bad mortgages. They didn't listen. President Obama did.

BAIR: I do think you need to have compassion for some of these borrowers.

YELLIN: Now, she's making headlines, calling on Congress to break up big banks.

BAIR: We need to simply end too big to fail.

YELLIN: Some traditionalists snipe that she's getting away from the core role of the FDIC -- protecting savings. But Bair says growing up in a rural Kansas town made her a populist. And in the future...

BAIR: I think institutions will be smaller better managed from a risk perspective and back into the bread and butter of lending and extending credit.

YELLIN: As for the children's books?

(on camera): Are you going to be able to do one on the toxic asset plan?


BAIR: That would be a challenge.


YELLIN: Now, Bair's agency is going to help auction off some of those so-called toxic assets that the Treasury Department has been focused on. And this week she's actually meeting with the members of the financial industry -- big players -- explaining how all that is supposed to work and encouraging them to buy in -- Don.

LEMON: Quiet power with a sense of humor, it looks like.

YELLIN: Yes. LEMON: All right. Thank you very much for that, Jessica.

The death toll, the number of homeless are all climbing dramatically in the earthquake in Italy. And now questions about whether a scientist predicted that disaster -- can it be done?


LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up at the top of the hour, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT."

American sailors showing the rest of the world how to fight back against pirates. The crew of a U.S. flagged cargo ship retaking that ship after it was seized by Somali pirates. But the ship's captain still held hostage. We're going to have the latest.

Also, Communist China sharply escalating its cyber warfare attacks against the United States -- even planting malicious software in our electrical power grid. Some say Communist China now has the ability to sabotage or even destroy key elements of our national electrical power infrastructure.

And bad news for those in the Obama administration trying to strip American citizens of Second Amendment rights. A new Gallup poll showing support for bans on handguns and restrictions on firearms has fallen to an all-time low.

Join us for all of that and more at the top of the hour.

THE SITUATION ROOM continues in a moment.


LEMON: We're following developments tonight in Central Italy, devastated by a powerful earthquake. Among the latest developments, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the scene today and pledged immediate government help rebuilding.

The death toll has been revised upward again, standing at 260 this hour. And the number of people left homeless now estimated to top 28,000.

But there are huge triumphs as we approach 72 hours since the quake. Three survivors pulled from the rubble today. And Pope Benedict says he'd like to visit the region, although not in the next couple of weeks.

Meantime, there are growing questions about a scientist who claims he predicted this disaster.

Can that be done?

CNN's Dan Simon joins us now live from San Francisco -- Dan, what did you find out about this?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Don. An Italian scientist claims that he was able to predict the earthquake there weeks before it happened. Local authorities, they are dismissing those claims. It's become quite a controversy there.

But we want to look at the science -- is it possible to predict earthquakes?

Take a look.


SIMON (voice-over): Any time there's a major earthquake like the one this week in Italy, there is renewed speculation whether these kind of catastrophes can be predicted. The U.S. Geological Survey said there's a 99 percent chance a earthquake will again strike California within the next 30 years -- 6.7 magnitude or greater.

The quake in Italy was a 6.3.

Thirty years -- not much help in helping communities prepare for a disaster.

Seismologist Kate Hutton says the best hope may be a warning system that would alert communities the moment an earthquake is struck.

KATE HUTTON, CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: And we would have plenty of time to, say, stop elevators or slow down high speed trains and, you know, that kind of thing that could -- could save lives.

SIMON: Still, researchers have looked at several ideas over the years to predict quakes, including the activity of cockroaches along fault lines, the movement of air masses and ground warping. But most have been discredited.

Some experts say satellite imagery could be one area of promise. Although earthquakes seem to strike randomly, the energy released from a quake builds up for months or years. The theory behind advanced imaging would be to sense that buildup and provide data on the likelihood of a quake.

The academic community has also been trying to come up with better building materials to withstand earthquakes, including stronger shock absorbers that could be retrofitted on aging buildings or used in new construction.

The bottom line, while technology is continually evolving, a powerful earthquake is bound to cause significant damage no matter where it happens.


SIMON: As for how California would fare during a major earthquake, there are still concerns about the state's infrastructure, particularly the water system. A recent report found that if a major earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area, for example -- and that is a 7.0 -- it could throw out the water system -- disrupt the water system here in California for more than a year -- Don.

LEMON: Dan Simon in San Francisco.

Thank you, Dan.

Fast food 911 calls -- you'll want to hear how these dispatchers respond. You won't believe it, next.


LEMON: Here's Jeanne Moos with the story of some "Moost Unusual" fast food emergencies.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fast -- dial 911 for fast food -- a burger, McNuggets, now shrimp are leaving police dispatchers fried.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I always get the shrimp fried rice so I said I'm going to get extra meat this time.


MOOS: A woman who ordered takeout shrimp fried rice at this Texas restaurant was the latest to enter the fast food 911 hall of shame.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But he didn't even put extra shrimp in there. And I asked him can he give me extra shrimp or can you give me my money back. And he sort of hollered.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Well, I'll get somebody out there.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know how long. As soon as I can.


MOOS: And she wasn't the only one acting shellfishily.

Remember the Unhappy Meal drama, when this woman called 911 three times from a Florida McDonald's?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The manager just took my money and won't give me my money back. They're trying to make me get something off the menu that I don't want. I ordered Chicken Nuggets and they don't have Chicken Nuggets.


MOOS: But why are 911 operators so cooperative when these people call?

We asked the senior dispatcher in Haltom City, Texas, where the shrimp fried rice emergency occurred.

(on camera): So if I went to, say, McDonald's and ordered a Quarter Pounder and came out and it only had an eighth of a pound, if I called 911, you would still be nice to me and send a police officer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would have to, yes.

MOOS (voice-over): Police worry a minor food fight could escalate into a food rage incident.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our policy is not to have the sarcasm.

MOOS: But an Orange County, California dispatcher didn't get the memo when she answered a call from a Burger King.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I asked them four different times to make me a western barbecue burger.

LYNETTE CARROLL, FORMER 911 DISPATCHER: Ma'am, we're not going to go down there and enforce your western bacon cheeseburger.


MOOS: Six years later, former dispatcher, Lynnette Carroll is still laughing.


L. CARROLL: Oh, dear lord, I don't understand people.

Why are they calling the police for this?

MOOS: Lynette didn't get in trouble for how she handled the call.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're supposed to be here to protect me.

L. CARROLL: Well, what are we protecting you from, a wrong cheeseburger?


L. CARROLL: Is this like -- is this a harmful cheeseburger or something? I don't understand what you want us to do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, just come down here. I'm not -- I'm not leaving.

L. CARROLL: No, ma'am. I'm not sending the deputies down there over a cheeseburger.


MOOS: Now that's a nugget of wisdom even with someone with a mind of a shrimp would get.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


LEMON: Wolf Blitzer returns tomorrow. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now -- Lou.