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North Korea Pardons U.S. Journalists; September Summit to Combat Accidents Planned; How Well Did Obama Weather Gates-Gate?

Aired August 4, 2009 - 15:59   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: Thanks, Rick. Happening now, breaking news. North Korea pardons two imprisoned American journalists after extraordinary intervention by former president Bill Clinton, taking his case directly to Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The two women convicted of hostile acts and serving a 12-year sentence of hard labor. Now we are learning new details of what the former president had to do and say to win their freedom and when they'll be coming home.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

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


We are following breaking news this hour. It is a stunning turn of events in North Korea, where former President Bill Clinton made a surprise trip to win the freedom of two U.S. reporters. It was less than an hour ago word came out his mission is a success.

Now, after direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, the two women have been pardoned and we expect will be home soon. We are working all of these angles to the story right now.

We're going to begin with our CNN White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

Dan, obviously a lot of discussion at the White House. Before, it was about this private mission that they were not connected to the White House.

What do we know about the former president's mission?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, truly extraordinary developments here today. The White House though, so far on these latest developments, really having no comment.

They have been very cautious all day, not willing to give a lot of details, not even willing to talk about what the president's involvement has been in this issue, because spokesman Robert Gibbs saying that this really is a very sensitive matter.

Take a listen to what he had to say today at his briefing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This obviously is a very sensitive topic. We will hope to provide some more detail at a later point. Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety of two journalists that are in North Korea right now.


LOTHIAN: Robert Gibbs, Suzanne, was not even following talk about how the president might be getting information from North Korea, any communication that might be going back and forth about the success or failure of the mission there.

In terms of timing and when we could get additional information, Robert Gibbs keeps pointing us back to a statement that he released earlier this morning when he pointed out that, as long as the mission was still on the ground in North Korea, that the White House would not be making any additional comment. We can take from that that perhaps when their wheel's up from North Korea, then the White House will be speaking out -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Dan, perhaps it's too soon to even know this, but we're assuming that obviously former President Bill Clinton very instrumental in the release of these two women, of these two journalists, that there wouldn't want to be a sense from this White House, this president, that in any way he was being overshadowed.

Do we expect that we might actually see the president today or soon, if we see these two journalists on a plane with President Clinton?

LOTHIAN: Well, it's unclear whether or not the president will come out and get in front of the cameras, formally say anything on this issue. Clearly, it would be sort of -- it would be a big deal for this White House, clearly, if they can showcase that this mission was, indeed, successful.

What I can tell you though in terms of the involvement of this president, Robert Gibbs was asked this morning whether or not president -- former President Clinton did hand deliver a letter to the leader of North Korea from President Obama. Robert Gibbs was asked again at the briefing about that. He referred us back to what he said earlier this morning, and he said it's simply not true.

MALVEAUX: Do we have a sense, Dan, of why the White House is being so cautious about this story? Is it about the timing, they're making sure that these two journalists are safe, that we see them, that they are well taken care of? Or, is it something else, that this is just such a sensitive issue and a delicate time, that perhaps they are not coming out just quite yet?

LOTHIAN: Sensitive issue at a delicate time. And again, the White House keeps saying that it's about the safety concerns. They want to make sure that whatever is going on over there in these negotiations, that the safety of these two young women is paramount, and they don't want to get in the way of that -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Dan, we will have you stand by, obviously, as new developments unfold.

I want to bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, who is here, is joining me now. We are also joined as well by someone -- few Westerners have more insight into North Korea than New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He has visited the country, he's helped negotiate the release of other Americans that were held there in the past, and he is now joining us from Santa Fe.

Governor, I want to thank you very much for being here. Obviously, a lot of news that has developed.

You have been in former President Clinton's shoes before in negotiating the release of former Americans. Take us behind the scenes, if you will.

We've seen a couple of stills. We've gotten some news here. But what do you suppose Mr. Clinton was dealing with today with Kim Jong- il?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, first, the fact that President Clinton went to North Korea is huge. It's huge for Kim Jong-il, who is right now ailing and he is looking for ways to shore up his domestic base. It's a succession issue. So, it gives Kim Jong-il a pretext to release the journalists.

This is very important that this happened, the humanitarian release. But having President Clinton there -- and the early signs -- when I was there to negotiating prisoners, you see the little protocol issues, like President Clinton was met by a very high level delegation of North Koreans at the airport. They gave him a state dinner.

The fact that he saw Kim Jong-Il is huge. I never saw him. He only sees big shots, heads of state. And those were the signals.

And then the fact that the two journalists have been officially pardoned by a request from the U.S. government to give them amnesty shows that the two journalists most likely will be released. That's the main objective.

But what the president's trip does, it improves the atmospherics between the two countries. The relationship is really in bad shape right now. There's enormous tension. There's literally no dialogue.

So, maybe what the bonus would be is President Clinton's visit could get both sides just to start talking. But I bet you there are no negotiations on nuclear issues going on.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is Gloria Borger here. How are you, Governor?

North Korea has clearly been angling for direct contact with the United States out of the six-party talks.

Do you think that they're going to get that out of this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We might have lost that feed. MALVEAUX: Oh, I think Governor Richardson has actually lost the audio. He's not able to hear us at this time. But obviously, someone who has the expertise in this -- in hostage negotiations, as well as dealing with North Korea with his own trips.

BORGER: Absolutely.

MALVEAUX: I want to go quickly back, if we can, to Dan, who is at the White House, Dan Lothian.

And Dan, you and I were talking about the fact that the Obama administration has been quite tight-lipped about how all of this has unfolded, how it's taking place. Give us a sense of President Obama himself.

His message and his approach with Kim Jong-il has been very different than President Bush, former President Bush. He has really tried to reach out and create a dialogue with this leader, but he has been faced with a nuclear test with these kinds of missiles, these kinds of things that have happened in the first month of his -- six months of his presidency.

Is there a sense of frustration there at the White House in terms of making steps with North Korea?

LOTHIAN: Well, that's true. Not just North Korea, but Iran.

You have seen what this White House believes is a different tone towards those two countries in terms of their nuclear ambitions, trying to use a more conciliatory tone instead of hitting them over the head. But time and time again, as you point out, both of those countries -- North Korea, in fact, firing off these test missiles and nuclear missiles as well. And so, yes, even though the White House continues to reach out, North Korea keeps reacting the way that people pretty much expect North Korea to act.

What I should point out is that this White House is trying to separate the two matters here, the nuclear negotiations -- or the nuclear issue -- and these two women. And they're saying one has to do with humanitarian, and they don't think that both of them overlap -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Dan.

I want to bring back Governor Richardson.

I believe, Governor Richardson, do you have our audio back?

RICHARDSON: Yes. I think I'm back. Yes.


Gloria Borger was asking you a question. We'll get back to her.

BORGER: Yes. I was asking you essentially what else the North Koreans would be getting out of this, aside from the photo-ops with Bill Clinton? I mean, clearly, they want direct contact with the U.S. outside the six-party talks.

Does this qualify for that? Would Bill Clinton have come with a message on that?

RICHARDSON: Well, this is what the North Koreans get. One, they get international press over the visit of a former president. North Koreans have always wanted President Clinton to come, other American presidents. We have not done that appropriately.

I think that's been the right decision, but they get -- also, Kim Jong-Il shores up his domestic base. He shows his people that he can deliver a former president to come to North Korea.

He helps them also with a succession issue. It's obvious he is not well. He's thinking about leaving power to one of his three sons. So, domestically it gives him that strength.

Now, what else does North Korea get? They get the fact that the United States sent a very high-level emissary to talk to them. The North Koreans have always wanted to talk to us directly. They don't like the six-party talks of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia. They want to go directly.

They think they're a nuclear power, they're major players. They're very unpredictable. So they get -- that's what they get.

Now, what they will probably ask for is direct talks. But who knows? They right now are acting very, very unpredictably because of the succession issue.

I have never seen the tension and the differences between our two countries so vast and the hostility of the North Koreans so strong. This is why I think Clinton's visit is good. It cools down the atmospherics.

BORGER: Now, the White House has said that former President Clinton did not come with any written statement from President Obama. The official news agency there said that Bill Clinton apologized verbally.

What do you assume Bill Clinton was armed with from this administration when he went there?

RICHARDSON: Well, I do believe the White House. I don't believe that a message was delivered from President Obama.

They already got, the North Koreans, what they wanted, a former president. So, increasing what they are going to get doesn't make sense. They have already got major prestige by Clinton going.

What I do believe President Clinton -- the apology was already done by the women at the trial. The Obama administration has asked for amnesty. So, the proper words were used, respecting their judicial system of the North Koreans. So now the girls can be released. And I think that is the ultimate objective of this trip. It's a very good objective, because obviously what the North Koreans have tried to do is use the two women journalists as bargaining chips, and in a way, they have gotten a little bit of a chip by getting a former president to visit them.

After years of them wanting high-level visits, they got Secretary Albright, but they've always wanted Clinton to come. He almost came a few days before he ended his presidency some 10 years ago.

So, both sides get something. We get the two girls out. That is really important.

I just talked to the families, to Lisa Ling. They are very excited.

And maybe what we also get is a framework for talks. We want to talk to the North Koreans. You don't want a country with four or five nuclear weapons shooting missiles out there without some kind of international dialogue. You don't want to isolate them.

MALVEAUX: Governor?


MALVEAUX: Sure. You said you just talked to the families of the two journalists. Can you tell us what they said?

RICHARDSON: Well, I talked to Lisa Ling, who I've been working with on this issue for some time, along with the administration, although I don't speak for the administration. They asked for my advice.

And she is very excited, the fact that the girls have been pardoned. I think Lisa is -- her sister has had some physical ailments, but the fact that it looks like everything is moving towards a return back home, she is very excited.

She's been -- Lisa has suffered a lot. You know, it has been five months.

This has been one of the longest detainments of Americans that we have had in a long time, and I have been able to get a couple of different ones out, but this one has lasted five months. There was a sentence of hard labor. The girls were, you know, getting obviously -- having some physical ailments, but the great news is that they are coming home.

MALVEAUX: And being in touch with the family, have you had a sense of the accommodations, the way that they have been living?

Oh, Governor Richardson has just lost us again. I apologize.

I want to go to Jack Cafferty, who's in New York with "The Cafferty File." I know that Jack is also focusing on this question and this issue -- Jack. JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Indeed, Suzanne.

Go figure. Bill Clinton waltzes into North Korea, wins the release of two journalists accused of entering that country illegally and engaging in hostile acts. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, which in all likelihood they would never have survived. The U.S. has been trying to win their release for weeks, months.

From President Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all efforts have been rejected up to this point. And then "Bubba" comes along and, bingo, the two women are free to go.

It makes you wonder what gives, doesn't it?

The old expression is, beware of a stranger bearing gifts. Well, no one is any stranger than Kim Jong-il. That weird little dictator who runs North Korea goes around threatening to blow up the rest of the world -- nuclear tests, missile firings. He's a real day at the beach, and he refuses to even listen to the international community when they suggest that he give up his nuclear weapons program in exchange for membership in the community of nations, and things like food. North Korea has no food, but Kim could care less.

Recently, this absurd regime had taken to calling our secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, names. Things like, "She looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping." Or they called her a funny lad lady unaware of the elementary etiquette of the international community. Talk about the pot calling the kettle.

Now Hillary's husband waltzes in and waltzes out with these two prisoner. It's very, very strange. But the women, their families and the rest will take it, we will take it absolutely.

And way to go, President Clinton. Nice job.

The question though is this: What does it say that Bill Clinton succeeded in North Korea where the U.S. government had failed up to this point?

Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Good question, Jack. I'm sure a lot of people will be calling and e-mailing in.

We want to go back to Governor Richardson. I believe that he is back with us.

And you were just making a point about the families and you were talking with the families. Do we have a sense of the conditions of the two journalists who have been held?

RICHARDSON: Well, the reports that we have are that they were not at a prison, they were staying mainly at a guesthouse. I have seen those guesthouses, they're in good condition. They were well fed. The good news is that the North Koreans let them make phone calls to their families on a periodic basis, let the Swedish ambassador come in who represents us in North Korea to check on their medical condition, not as much they should. But here you have prisoners that have enormous mental strain. You know, the fact that two girls knew they had been sentenced to eight to 10 years of hard labor, not being in contact with their families, not knowing when this nightmare was going to end, which has been close to five months.

So, the families have suffered a lot, and they have been magnificent in their efforts to bring public attention to this issue. So, the biggest winners, obviously, are the American people and these families and the two girls, and Al Gore. They work for Al Gore. He worked very hard to try to get them out, too. And President Clinton obviously deserves credit for being the one that made the deal.

MALVEAUX: OK. Governor Richardson, thank you very much.

Obviously, you'll be standing by for information as this breaking news story develops. We are covering it from all angles, essentially, the two American journalists who have been pardoned for the alleged crimes in North Korea and soon expected to be released. A trip, a surprise trip from former President Bill Clinton, initiating this.

And so we are actually going to Dan Simon of Current TV. He is one of the people who actually employs these two journalists.

We're also going to be going to White House Correspondent Dan Lothian after this very quick break.

Stay with us.


MALVEAUX: Want to bring you back to the breaking news story, an extraordinary development.

The two American journalists who were held in North Korea since March, who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, have been pardoned by North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il. This facilitated by former President Bill Clinton. All of this news developing just within the last couple of hours.

You see the picture there with President Clinton with Kim Jong- il, other officials. A very short, relatively short visit there, posing for pictures. And we expect -- what is expected is that those two American journalists will be released soon after their pardon.

I want to go to CNN's Dan Simon. He is actually at the home base of Current TV.

This is the television network that employed the two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were there in North Korea, who had crossed the border from China into North Korea.

And obviously, Dan, there must be quite a bit of excitement and a sense of relief there that -- of this good news.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Suzanne. I'm told by a Current employee who is not authorized to speak to the media at this point, but I'm told it's a very joyous atmosphere inside. I can tell you, I was just in the front lobby there, and they had CNN on, and they were obviously watching the broadcast and trying to follow the developments with us, because they were very much kept in the dark as well.

But at this point, we are waiting for an official statement from Current. I'm told all the senior managers are currently in a meeting and apparently drafting some sort of a press release.

The one person I spoke to I asked if anybody had seen Al Gore, who, you know, founded Current TV and makes frequent trips to the office here. He has not been seen today, but obviously we are waiting to hear from him as well, to get his feelings on what's happened -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Dan.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

MALVEAUX: I now want to bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, who actually now has statements from the families of the two journalists.

Abbi, what are we learning?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Suzanne, this is posted to the campaign site, essentially, from the two families that launched last month trying to lobby for the freeing of Laura and Euna. This has just been posted onto the Web site, a statement from the families. And we're getting this in, we'll read it together.

"The families of Laura Ling and Euna Lee are overjoyed by this news." They say they are so grateful to the government, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and the U.S. State Department. The statement goes on to especially thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission, and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts.

The campaign site was set up so people could help this effort through Facebook, through letter-writing campaigns, through online petitions. And the families go on to thank all the people online who had been trying, working so hard for the release of these two journalists.

MALVEAUX: OK, Abbi. Thank you very much. We'll be getting back to you, obviously, with more information from the families of those two journalists.

We want to bring back Governor Richardson, who's been standing by.

And obviously, you have had your own experience in hostage negotiations and releasing Americans who were held there before in North Korea. We were talking before about the role of the former president, Clinton, there, Bill Clinton.

What do we anticipate going forward now, that you have him doing such a -- facilitating such an extraordinary move here in the Obama administration. What -- how is this divvied up in a way, and how do we make sense of what he has done, the role of his wife, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the current president, President Obama?

RICHARDSON: Well, I believe the Obama administration was very skillful, and obviously since we don't have direct contact with the North Koreans, somebody else has to do it, an unofficial envoy. President Clinton is not a member of the government, but he's obviously a former president, and his enormous stature. So, the fact that he has gone and interceded has been -- is very important.

The fact is, the North Koreans, I believe, have wanted somebody like Clinton to come for a long time. They wanted him to come when he was president, they are getting an ex-president.

What this means, I believe, is Clinton's visit not just releases the two American journalists, but also sets up a more positive tempo for us and the North Koreans to start talking, period, because we haven't been talking. There's been enormous hostility.

They've had underground tests. They are very -- they abandoned the six-party talks. So maybe this will provide a channel for some direct talks with the North Koreans or some kind of contact to negotiate some of these nuclear and other issues that divide us.

BORGER: When you say some direct talks, what do you mean? I mean, do you think that a message is going to come back via Bill Clinton than they want direct talks? I mean, what kind of message are they going to send back to this White House?

RICHARDSON: Well, obviously, they are not just going to talk about the journalists.

BORGER: Right.

RICHARDSON: They had a state dinner. He talked to Kim Jong-il.

Some kind of direction or statement President Clinton may be able to come back with, like they want to talk directly to us and not go through the six-party talks, or they would accept a visit by a special envoy -- we have one, Stephen Bosworth -- coming to North Korea. It can be any kind of messages like that.

I don't believe they will negotiate reductions in the nuclear arsenal of North Korea, the Yongbyon reactor. That's for our negotiators. But since we haven't been talking at all, since the relationship has been frozen and hostile, any kind of future movement that Bill Clinton can bring back and say that we're ready to talk from the North Koreans is a good step. And so, that's the added benefit besides the release of the two journalists, which is a great benefit to the country and to their families. BORGER: Do you have any sense why they didn't want the former vice president, Al Gore, to go? There was a lot of talk about a month ago that Al Gore was going to be going over there and having these negotiations.

RICHARDSON: Well, look, these decisions about who goes are not just made by one side, they're made by both sides. And it could that the North Koreans wanted former President Clinton.

BORGER: Because he was higher stature? Higher stature than...

RICHARDSON: Well, yes. Yes, because's former president, because Kim Jong-il had wanted him to visit when Bill Clinton was president, because Bill Clinton negotiated the agreed framework with North Korea in 1994, because of the stature.

Obviously, the North Koreans have gotten Kim Jong-il a great political internal benefit, having a former president there. And just the worldwide press that he gets shows that Kim Jong-il, by getting Bill Clinton, is a major player. That's what Kim Jong-il was trying to do, and this is why Clinton is able to bring this, but in return we get the journalists and maybe a thawing of the relationship, which is good for both sides.

MALVEAUX: Governor Richardson, you talk about stature, and we know that when President Clinton was president, it was former President Jimmy Carter who went to North Korea and managed eventually to get an accord, some sort of nuclear accord in '94. It was something that President Clinton at the time, he wasn't particularly thrilled with, that you had a former president that was making such a big trip and such a big splash.

What does this do for President Obama now? Does this help him? Does it hurt him? Does it give him greater gravitas and stature in dealing with the North Korean regime because of what President Clinton has done?

RICHARDSON: Well, it shows that President Obama has been skillful in dealing with North Korea since the relationship is so frozen. The fact that I'm sure he concurred that President Clinton go, he was on an Air Force plane.

President Clinton is doing a good thing by getting the journalists back. So, it shows that sometimes you can't engage in direct diplomacy between the governments, you use a third party envoy. And it could be that the North Koreans said we only will take Bill Clinton and that's it.

And the fact that we agreed to do this, and the fact that I'm sure they are talking about other issues -- not negotiating, but simply talking about getting together next, that would be a very important step forward. But I don't want to diminish the fact that our government has stood up for two Americans, that we're not going to leave them behind, that we care about their humanitarian release, we care about free journalism, and we care about bringing them home. I think that's another humanitarian aspect of the release of the two women that we shouldn't forget about -- the status of the families, Lisa Ling, the parents, the two girls that now will be able to go home.

And Al Gore I think deserves a lot of credit, because I know he was working hard to secure their release. He has a lot of contacts. He was talking to the State Department just like many others like myself were doing.

MALVEAUX: And I understand that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also played an active role. Is that correct?

RICHARDSON: Yes, she did. I mean, she called me to get advice. She talked to foreign diplomats. She talked to the Swedes that are our intermediaries.

She pressed this internationally. She was the one that talked about amnesty, which I think was key in getting the North Koreans to be able to justify, even though they went through their legal process, that they can now move ahead with a pardon, as just happened.

Yes, she was very active. I think this is a plus for everybody -- for us, for the North Koreans, and for the idea of peace of bringing people together and talking.

We have got to talk to these people. We don't want them running around with four nuclear weapons and hostility and a million troops, men and women in uniform, in North Korea, missiles around. We have 23,000 -- 27,000 American troops in South Korea. You want to lessen tensions. That is the purpose of diplomacy.

And I think this trip, besides getting the journalists, has done that.


RICHARDSON: It lessened tensions.

MALVEAUX: I want to bring in our CNN foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, who also covers the State Department, to -- to ask a question of you, Governor, if I may.



You know, Governor Richardson, you know, you were talking about whether -- other subjects they might get into. And I'm just reading the statement by KCNA.

And they say they had a candid, in-depth discussion on pending issues between the DPRK and the U.S., and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them.


DOUGHERTY: What do you think that means? How far do you think that President -- that former President Clinton went? because he was supposed to be talking merely about the journalists.

RICHARDSON: No. Well, Jill, you know that that is diplomatic language.

You know, whenever two leaders sit together, you always say you had discussions on a wide variety of subjects. President Clinton was there to negotiate the release of the journalists, and he probably made that appeal to Kim Jong Il. And Kim Jong Il responded. And then they go and talk about other issues, basically.

I would say Kim Jong Il was talking to President Clinton saying, you know, this is -- this is the view of my country, and this is our position on this.

And it was a simple, polite dialogue, but there was -- I'm sure there is no negotiating going on. But, obviously, since we have differences over nuclear weapons, over whether we reengage into the six-party talks or bilaterally or human rights issues, they could have covered a number of subjects...

MALVEAUX: All right.

RICHARDSON: ... but not negotiating. It's just ordinary diplomacy.

The same -- it happened to me when I was there. You -- they raise a lot of issues. They care about U.S. politics.


RICHARDSON: They could have talked about the election. You know, it is just a lot of things.

MALVEAUX: Governor Richardson, we would really like to thank you for being here. Obviously, we are going to keep checking in with you as this story unfolds. There are a lot of different moving parts to this breaking news story, extraordinary developments just within the last hour or so.

And I want our viewers to take a look. We are taking a look at these bars. If you see these bars, this is North Korean television. We are keeping an eye out for any new pictures that we may see coming out of the region, out of the country.

If, in fact, the two journalists are released some time soon or if the former president emerges, we will bring those pictures to you live as soon as they emerge. It is about 5:31 a.m. in North Korea in the morning. And, so, we expect that there will be a lot of fast- moving developments throughout THE SITUATION ROOM.

So, please stay with us after this quick break.


MALVEAUX: We are watching this extraordinary development, the two American journalists held in North Korea pardoned for 12 years of hard labor, their sentencing there, obviously, with the help of former President Bill Clinton.

We are keeping an eye on this breaking news story. Those are the bars. Those bars that you see, that is North Korean television. We are keeping our eye on what they are watching, what they are seeing, whatever unfolds, just how soon these journalists will be released. And we will bring that to you as soon as it happens.

In the meantime, we are also -- we following some other stories as well.

Brianna Keilar monitoring all that Congress into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Brianna, what do you have?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says texting while driving is dangerous and the Obama administration is going to do something about it.

LaHood today announced plans for a September summit to combat accidents caused by distracted drivers. He says it will bring together transportation experts, safety advocates, law enforcement officers, and also members of Congress.

A recent Virginia Tech study found that motorists who texted while driving were 23 times more likely to crash than those who are not distracted.

Last stop, the Senate floor for the Supreme Court nomination of federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Senate deliberations began today, and six Republican senators so far have said they will support Sotomayor to become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

Now, their support basically confirms -- or makes confirmation for her a virtual certainty. A final confirmation vote expected by Thursday, and legal source says she could be sworn in as early as Friday.

We keep hearing evidence that the economy may have bottomed out, but maybe not consumer bankruptcies. The American Bankruptcy Institute says, consumer bankruptcy filings surged 34 percent in July to their highest level since October of 2005.

The institute says the numbers reflect growing financial stress on U.S. households saddled with rising unemployment and preexisting debt.

This year's Atlantic hurricane season, it's not quite living up to expectations, so forecasters are lowering their storm predictions a bit. A team with Colorado University now says it expects 10 named storms in the Atlantic Ocean. They say four will be hurricanes and two of them will be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher. The team had originally predicted 11 storms.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. So, we got a little ways here, Suzanne.


MALVEAUX: Good. All right. Thanks, Brianna.

Well, The Drudge -- Drudge Report linked readers to video of President Obama making remarks that suggest he is targeting private health insurance. Hundreds of thousands of hits later, the White House is pushing back, and Twitter is the battleground.

And President Obama after the controversy of the professor and the police officer -- we look how well he weathered the incident. It's in the latest polls.

And you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: We are following this breaking news story, extraordinary developments over the last hour or so. The two American journalists who were held in North Korea, they have been pardoned after their sentence for 12 years of hard labor in Pyongyang, this facilitated by former President Bill Clinton, who is there, who met with North Korean officials, including their leader, Kim Jong Il.

We are watching right now North Korean television. You're taking a look at these are bars here. This is North Korean television. We are waiting to see the fresh pictures, new pictures of what is coming out of the region, out of the country there, just how quickly, how soon these journalists will be -- be released, how soon we will see the former president, as well as Kim Jong Il. Obviously, a very important and fast-developing story, and we will bring any news that we have as soon as it comes to us.

There is another story that stole the headlines, put the White House on the defensive that we are also watching. Now we are getting a first look at the fallout from the controversy President Obama ignited when he said that police acted stupidly in arresting an African-American Harvard professor.

Our senior CNN political analyst, Bill Schneider, he is joining us live.

And, Bill, did President Obama -- did he suffer any kind of political damage from the controversy that unfolded and how he handled this?



SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Gates-gate was pretty much a local story until President Obama weighed in with his assessment.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

SCHNEIDER: Do Americans think the police officer acted stupidly?

We asked in a CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation. Fewer than a third of whites believe he acted stupidly. Most African-Americans think he did. Do people think Professor Gates acted stupidly? Most whites do. African-Americans are divided. President Obama later expressed regret.

OBAMA: And I could have calibrated those words differently.

SCHNEIDER: Do people think President Obama acted stupidly when he made his original comments? More than 60 percent of whites think he did. African-Americans don't think so.

So, overall, was there any political damage to President Obama? Nearly 60 percent of the public say it did not affect their view of the president at all, but four times as many people say it had made them feel less favorable, rather than more favorable, to Mr. Obama.

And most of the people who say it made them less favorable are not Republicans. Still, most whites and blacks approve of the way the president is handling race relations. And most Americans, white and black, think the so-called beer summit at the White House was a good idea.

OBAMA: My hope is, is that, as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what is called a teachable moment.

SCHNEIDER: But a teachable moment? Not quite. Whites and blacks agree, the Gates' incident has not taught Americans a lesson that will lead to better race relations.


SCHNEIDER: Most African-Americans, including President Obama, view the Gates' incident as a racial conflict. Most whites don't -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Bill -- Bill Schneider.

We are counting down to the second 100 days of the Obama administration. And, this Thursday night, we will issue a new national report card on the president. What kind of grades is he earning? You can cast your vote right now. You go to Then get the results Thursday night at 8:00 Eastern.

And coming up after this quick break, we will have the "Strategy Session." And that is when we are going to pose the question whether or not two for one is a good deal for this administration and for the American people, that is, the Clintons.


MALVEAUX: It's the White House vs. The Drudge Report. The White House is fighting back against the Web site for what it calls a campaign of misstatements and outright falsehoods on health care.

Let's bring back our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

And, Abbi, what is the White House doing about this?

TATTON: Suzanne, this is like a counteroffensive against the Web site The Drudge Report that yesterday linked to this video. It's a series of clips, some of them going back to 2003, where the president appears to be saying that your private health insurance could disappear.

Well, not so fast, says the White House. At and also sent to out to their followers on Twitter, this video.


LINDA DOUGLASS, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF HEALTH REFORM: Well, nothing could be farther from the truth. You know, the people who try to scare people whenever you try to bring them health insurance reform are at it again. And they are taking sentences and phrases out of context and cobbling them together to leave a very false impression.

The true is...


TATTON: That is the White House's Linda Douglass, and they're fighting back with videos of their own. They have got clips that they are now circulating showing the president saying that, if you like your doctor, if you like your health insurance plan, you are going to be able to keep it.

At this point now, it is a battle for the clicks. That YouTube video that The Drudge Report linked to yesterday had about 400,000 views last time we looked. The White House sending their video out to their 800,000 followers on Twitter, hoping that they are going to be watching this one -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Abbi.

Well, he is a former president who today secured the release of two U.S. journalists detained in North Korea. She is a former senator and current secretary of state. Hillary and Bill Clinton remain a formidable political package. Well, is this two-for-one idea a good idea or a bad idea?

Joining me for today's "Strategy Session" are former Democratic Representative Max Sandlin of Texas and his Republican counterpart, Tom Davis, a former representative from Virginia.

Thanks for joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Lots going on, obviously, but this whole idea -- this was something that in the campaign that I covered. It was always you get Hillary, you get Bill, you get a two-for-one. A good thing or a bad thing?

TOM DAVIS (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, today, it was a good thing. You have got two reporters released from North Korea, the former president going in. So, at least today, it worked out, but it's going to, I think, a mixed bag as we work our way through this.


I would say it is a good thing. And it allowed North Korea to get the attention they so desperately crave. They want attention, respect. And they were able to engage the United States and pave the way for succession.

So, from -- from our standpoint, we got the journalists released. That's the -- that is the news story.

MALVEAUX: Do either one of you see the irony in this, in that, under an Obama administration, you get both Clintons?

DAVIS: You get -- you get them both.


DAVIS: As I said, it's a good thing today, but it may not be another day. Once the former president goes off-message or off-script on something, people will link that together. But it certainly worked today.

MALVEAUX: But, big picture here, obviously, this story is so much more than just about these two journalists who we expect will be released and have been pardoned...


MALVEAUX: ... but the future of U.S. relations with North Korea. Does this help President Obama open up to the possibility of direct talks? That's something that the North Koreans want, but Obama administration has been sticking with the line six-party talks so far?

SANDLIN: I think it does.

Obviously, the Obama administration has wanted to engage the North Koreans, and has not had a good and effective way to do this. By sending President Clinton there -- President Clinton is well- respected over there, nearly went to North Korea at the end of his last administration, hosted military leaders from North Korea.

So, I think it's -- it's a good thing. It opens some doors. And, always, when we can open doors and -- and talk with each other, I think, under that situation, it's -- it's a positive thing for the United States.

DAVIS: This helps Kim -- Kim Jong-Il, because they are in a fight for succession. He is ailing at this point. That picture next to former President Clinton gives him respect. I think it helps him within the regime, as well as externally.

MALVEAUX: He has notoriously been an unreliable negotiator, obviously, in all of this. Can we expect to see, with these pictures, with the release of these two young women, that there is some goodwill, that perhaps we should look at this leader differently in talking with him and negotiating with him, or do we take it that far?

DAVIS: I don't know that you can count on any of that, but this helps him internally, within the regime. This helps him externally.

I think this is all about -- he had two pawns. I think he played his card here. I don't think it predicts anything for the future. It doesn't hurt, but I don't know that it predicts anything.

SANDLIN: I think we have to hope for the best. Obviously, we have to hope that this opens some doors. We have to hope that they are dealing in good faith. We have to hope that they are making positive overtures to the United States.

But, again, as Tom is saying, I don't think that we can anticipate that there will be a -- a cessation of the antics that they have exhibited in the past.

This was more, from their standpoint, about helping them, helping the leader, helping with succession, than it was doing anything for the United States.

MALVEAUX: OK, Congressman, Congressman...


MALVEAUX: ... thank you very much for joining us here on THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: Appreciate it.

DAVIS: Thanks.

SANDLIN: Good to be here.

MALVEAUX: On our "Political Ticker": Today is President Obama's 48th birthday. Happy birthday. But he let age take precedent in the White House Briefing Room, bringing in cupcakes to veteran reporter Helen Thomas, who turns 89 today.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Happy birthday...


OBAMA: Well, you have got to blow it out to make it come true.

There you -- hey!


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And happy birthday to you.


MALVEAUX: And Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Washington is marking the president's birthday with its own party, assembling wax likenesses of him, the first lady, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush, all wearing party hats in the museum's replica of the Oval Office.

Happy birthday to President Obama and journalist Helen Thomas.

And coming up after this quick break, we will obviously follow the breaking news of those two American journalists who have been pardoned after being sentenced for 12 years of hard labor in North Korea, thanks in part -- in large part -- to former President Bill Clinton -- coming up after this break.


MALVEAUX: Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Suzanne, the question this hour is, what does it say about Bill Clinton than he succeeded in North Korea, where the U.S. government failed, in gaining the release of those two journalists held there since March?

Dolores writes: "The North Korean government has just proven what has been said by a few qualified experts over the years. They are hungry for recognition and respect from the West. Sending the ex- president of the U.S. was the exact right thing to do. It was an uncanny choice. He is a step or two away from the harsh rhetoric needed by the administration, and, yet, he is important enough to greatly impress North Korea. Kudos to Bill Clinton and to the Obama administration for choosing him."

Linda writes: "The U.S. government hardly failed. Let's remember, President Clinton's wife is our secretary of state. The North Koreans are like small destructive toddlers. They just wanted a senior-level mommy or daddy official to come over, visit their hell hole, and diplomatically beg."

Cameron San Francisco: "Yes, but what did we have to give back in return for this so-called trade? Nobody trades something for nothing."

Carol writes: "Call me crazy. I'm guessing Bill Clinton, the secretary of state, and President all collaborated on this. What it says about this administration is, they make a priority of getting things done, and don't worry so much about who gets the credit. Bravo."

Rufus in California: "It says Bill Clinton is the ultimate negotiator and deal-maker. If I were rotting away in a Korean jail cell, I would want Hillary's husband to negotiate my release. Bubba could literally sell you your own shirt off your back, Jack. So, let's give props to President 42. He just earned himself the Nobel Peace Prize."

And Linda in Connecticut says: "The little Elvis-loving egomaniac that runs North Korea thinks Bill Clinton is important enough to be worthy of a little good press. Clinton is a charmer. And we needed charms, not arms, to win this battle."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at Got a lot of e-mail. Yours might be lurking there -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Jack.

Well, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Bill Clinton's surprise meeting with North Korea's reclusive dictator pays off. The former president wins a pardon for two American journalists sentenced to hard labor.

Also, he is accused of letting millions of his own people starve, while keeping world leaders in a constant state of concern. North Korea's leader may be cruel and eccentric, but is he crazy? We will take a look at Kim Jong Il.

Plus, can North Korea now be talked into giving up its nuclear program again? I will ask former Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.