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Major Hurricane Brewing; President: Afghan War Will Be Tough; Senator's Mission to Myanmar; College Student Vs. the President; Blue Dog on the Defensive

Aired August 17, 2009 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'll speak with the college student who made waves and actually got the president to make some headlines.

And beneath the waves off the coast of Israel could there really be a mermaid?

We're on the scene for you.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM -- a new forecast. While the remnants of tropical storm of a tropical storm soak the South, a major hurricane may be brewing out in the Atlantic right now. The latest forecast has just come in.

And we want to go right to our severe weather expert, our meteorologist, Chad Myers.

He's at the CNN Hurricane Headquarters in Atlanta -- what does that forecast, Chad, say?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It says that the storm may miss Bermuda, but on the way toward the U.S. -- a little bit closer to the U.S. before it turns, exactly what we talked about at 4:00. As you mentioned, Ana is no more. We won't have to worry about that. It is now just a tropical wave. It is just a little bit of a low -- no name anymore.

Here's Hurricane Bill -- 90 miles per hour, gusting to 115.

So how did the forecast change just in the past few minutes?

The 5:00 advisory still has the storm at the same intensity. But instead of hitting very close to Bermuda, it has moved the path a little bit farther to the west, closer to the US, splitting the difference between the U.S. and North Carolina, but not missing Bermuda still by much.

I'm going to take you to the computer models, because I think we want to see these here. This is from one of our -- our Web sites that we use all the time called You can go online to see this, as well. What happened all day long is that Bill was coming up and moving very close to Bermuda. And all of the models were on one side or the other.

Now, Wolf, all of the models are on the west side of Bermuda, saying that as the storm gets closer, as the computers get more refined, we will see that we think everything is a little bit more accurate. And so the accuracy has now shifted a little bit to the left. And if that's the case, that left could still take us possibly all the way up even into the New York and New England area. That's not out of the question, because that turn still has to happen. Remember, it's still driving itself that way. We're waiting for this turn. Sometimes those turns are slow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, slow and the water is pretty warm, is that right, suggesting it still could build up speed?

MYERS: This is the warmest the water is going to get. I know it's August. It seems late. It seems like a late start. But this is as good -- this is as warm as it's going to be. These could be the biggest storms of the year.

BLITZER: Chad, thanks very much for that.

We'll stay in close touch with you.

President Obama took time out from his health care battle today to meet with America's war veterans. He pledged to boost spending for vets, but also vowed to veto a defense bill if it's loaded with what he called "a bunch of pork."

And it was this president's turn to be shadowed by some anti-war protesters out in Phoenix as he promised to stay the course in Afghanistan.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, has the story from Phoenix.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president did not start the war in Afghanistan, but today he took another big step toward owning it.


HENRY: (voice-over): President Obama urged more patience for the war in Afghanistan, which is which has now been going on for nearly eight years.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There will be more difficult days ahead. The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick nor easy.

HENRY: Outside the Phoenix Convention Center, liberal groups that used to stalk then President Bush over Iraq are now hammering Mr. Obama for escalating the war in Afghanistan with over 21,000 more troops.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Obama, yes, we can! Troops out of Afghanistan!

HENRY: Interestingly, Mr. Obama defends that escalation with a line that echoes the Bush playbook.

OBAMA: This is not a war of choice, this is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.

HENRY: That language came even as the president pledged a clean break from the Bush administration's use of the military.

OBAMA: I will only send you into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary. And when I do, it will be based on good intelligence and guided by a sound strategy. I will give you a clear mission.

HENRY: But several vets here expressed concern the president is not defining a clear mission in Afghanistan himself. And some were still expressing skepticism after the speech.

DAN VIVEIROS, WAR VETERAN: I hope he's not sugarcoating things and -- and -- and saying what he thinks we need to hear, because, as an organization, we don't want to hear it, we want to see it. And -- and if he believes that and -- and does what he says he's going to do, then I'm very happy with it. I'll be very happy with it.


HENRY: Other vets told us they like what the president had to say on Afghanistan, even some McCain voters saying they respect the commander-in-chief and will give him more time to get the strategy right. The president is going to need that patience. One hundred and fifty-two U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of the year, bringing the total to nearly 800 since the start of the war -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Ed, thanks very much.

Ed's traveling with the president in Phoenix.

Senator Jim Web's mission to Myanmar paid off this weekend when the Virginia Democrat gained freedom for an American who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in the country formally known as Burma. John Yettaw was seized in May after breaking into the house of detained activist Aung San Su Kyi.

Webb spoke to CNN after the two men arrived in Thailand.


SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: I have not seen him since we got off the plane. He -- he a delicate medical condition. I'd like to emphasize, you know, I didn't go specifically to obtain his release. This was a part of a -- a series of issues that we raised with the people in the -- in the government there. And I really regret what Mr. Yettaw did. I think that he may have been well-intentioned, but he hurt a lot of people, including the very woman he was thinking he was going to help.


BLITZER: The White House statement says the president appreciates this decision by the Burmese government. And it goes on to say: "We urge the Burmese leadership, in this spirit, to release all the political prisoners it is holding in detention or in house arrest, including Aung San Su Kyi.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now.

He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as you've been reporting, there are growing signs now that President Obama may be willing to drop one of the key parts of his health care reform plan. If it happens, chalk up a big victory for both the Republicans and the insurance companies.

After weeks of criticism against a proposed government run- insurance plan and the increasingly rowdy town hall meetings, President Obama now says the public option for coverage is "just a sliver of the overall proposal."

But, politically speaking, it is a big and potentially painful sliver.

His Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has gone further. She says a direct government role in the reform health care system is "not the essential element." Sebelius says that what's important is choice and competition.

One option that could replace the idea of the government running health care is non-profit health cooperatives that would compete with the private sector.

If the president decides to drop the public option, it has the potential to do both good and bad, as far as he's concerned, in the ongoing debate. Mr. Obama would take away some of the steam from the Republicans' cries of a government takeover of health care. It also would leave some room, potentially, for compromise and getting some Republicans on board.

But the president risks alienating the liberals in his party -- already has, actually. Some top Democrats, like former party Chairman Howard Dean, are saying that any health care reform plan must include the public option. One Democratic Congressman insists leaving private insurance companies in charge of controlling health care costs is "like making a pyromaniac the fire chief."

So here's the question: What does it mean that President Obama is willing to retreat on health care?

Go to, where you can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It means he doesn't have the votes from the Senate.

CAFFERTY: That's exactly what it means.


All right. Jack.

Thanks very much.

The president gets challenged to a throwdown by a college student.


OBAMA: I think this is good, you know. The -- this is good. You know, I like that. You've got to have a little chutzpah, you know? This is a legitimate debate to have.


BLITZER: I'll speak with that college student who got the president, by the way, to also make some health care headlines.

Plus, a Bush administration Justice Department official who wrote those controversial memos justifying waterboarding finds himself in some hot water back on campus right now.

And if you can't beat them, join them -- a blue dog Democrats find it may help to side with health care reform critics rather than confront them.


BLITZER: It's not every day that the president of the United States gets challenged to a debate by a college student, but a student in Colorado made some waves over the weekend, got the president to make some health care headlines in the process.

Watch this exchange.


ZACH LAHN, COLLEGE STUDENT: How are you doing, Mr. President?


What's your name?

LAHN: My name is Zach Lahn.

I'm a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

OBAMA: Good to talk to you, Zach.

What are you studying?

LAHN: Political science and business marketing.

OBAMA: Fantastic.

All right, what's your question?

LAHN: My question is this -- and, also, I -- I'd love to have a debate just all out, anytime, Oxford style, if you'd like. I -- I understand how...


LAHN: ...I'm willing to do that.

But my question is this. We all know the best way to reduce prices in this economy is to increase competition.

How in the world can a private corporation providing insurance compete with an entity that does not have to worry about making a profit, does not have to pay local property taxes, they...


ZAHN: ...they do not have to -- they're not subject to local regulations.

How can a company compete with that?

And I'm not looking for anything -- I don't want generalities. I don't want philosophical arguments. I just -- I'm just asking a question.

OBAMA: That's a great question. No, we thank you for the question.


OBAMA: I think there are ways that we can address those competitive issues. And you're absolutely right, if they're not entirely addressed, then that raises a set of legitimate problems.

But I -- the only point I wanted to make was the notion that somehow just by having a public option you have the entire private marketplace destroyed is just not borne out by the facts. And, in fact, right now, you've got a lot of private companies who do very well competing against the government. UPS and FedEx are doing a lot better than the post office. No, they are.

And so -- so I -- but -- but the larger point I want to make -- and I'm -- it's good to see a young person who is very engaged and confident challenging the president to an Oxford-style debate.


OBAMA: I think this is good, you know. I like that. You've got to have a little chutzpah, you know. This is a legitimate debate to have.

All I -- all I'm saying is, though, the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it. And, by the way, it's both the right and the left that have become so fixated on this that they forget everything else -- the fact that we can help Nathan make sure that he doesn't suddenly find himself completely broke in trying to treat his son.

So we are working on a series of proposals to address the questions that you're raising. I believe that we can work them out. But those are specific questions, as opposed to broad philosophical questions about whether government ever has a role to play or not.

Keep in mind, finally -- and this is the last point that I'll make -- that you have a bunch of countries that have systems in which government is involved, but you still have a thriving private insurance market, the Netherlands being a good example. Everybody's covered. Everybody has care. The government has regulations in there, but it does not somehow take over the entire private insurance part.

So I just want people to understand, nobody is talking about a government take over of health care.


BLITZER: All right, so there -- there's the president responding to Zach Lahn.

And Zach Lahn is joining us now from Colorado.

Zach, thanks very much for coming in.

LAHN: Thanks a lot for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Did the president satisfy you?

LAHN: What I took as his answer was, toward the end there, when you heard him say that we're looking into it, I know toward -- toward the -- even farther toward the end, he started getting into exactly what I asked, not generalities and philosophical arguments about other countries and things like that.

But that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for what's going to work for the United States. And -- and we're a whole different animal than anybody else.

BLITZER: So -- so you're saying he didn't satisfy you?

LAHN: No, sir.

BLITZER: What about the example he gave you, that there are FedEx and UPS?

Those are private companies that compete with the U.S. Government-run post office and they seem to be doing just fine.

LAHN: Well, first off, you have to understand that the government and the post office has a monopoly on first and third class mail. And there -- there's no competing with that. And I think it's comparing apples to oranges because UPS and FedEx don't attempt -- they can't send mail. And we're subsidizing that mail at a loss. I mean it's -- 42 cents for a stamp, UPS and FedEx can't -- can't handle that because it's so -- we're subsidizing the loss of the government.

BLITZER: But they do compete with FedEx -- the post office competes with FedEx and UPS to ship boxes, overnight letters, priority mail, that there's direct competition there and that UPS and FedEx are doing just fine.

LAHN: Oh, I -- I agree they're doing fine. But how -- how can this compare to health care?

I mean how -- how does this -- how does this relate to health care?

These are two totally different things. I mean health care is subject to tons (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: It only relates because you...

LAHN: ...regulations...

BLITZER: made the point, Zach, that there's no way that private companies can compete with the government. The president of the United States came back and gave you a specific example where private companies do fine competing with the government.

LAHN: I didn't say there's no way. And, actually, if you want to get technical about this, in 2004, the Supreme Court said that the U.S. Post Office is not a government corporation and they're not subject to the Sermon -- Sherman U.S. Anti-trust laws.

So if you want to get technical about this, they are not actually competing with the government. Now, I'm not saying in no cases can they -- can it not happen. I'm just saying that very rarely does it work and why try and experiment with something this big?

BLITZER: Tell us something about yourself.

Did you vote for the president?

Are you a Democrat, a Republican?

What's your -- your personal political background?

LAHN: I'm -- I'm a conservative and I've -- I've been quoted as working as a McCain volunteer. Actually, I didn't start -- do anything for McCain until Palin jumped on and then I just made phone calls.

So that -- that part wasn't really true, about the -- being a McCain volunteer.

But, you know, I'm a student...

BLITZER: But you're a conservative...

LAHN: ...a...

BLITZER: I know you're a student at the University of Colorado/Boulder. You're 23 years old. There's a blog out there saying you work for a conservative state senator in Colorado.

Is that true?

LAHN: I interned for him and that -- that's all part of my schooling. There's plenty of people who do that. I was down there a couple of days a week. I don't -- I don't see how that is even any concern of this. I don't -- why is my personal life being brought into this?

The media doesn't do anything to research the president's personal life, why do they have to research mine?

BLITZER: So -- but you're still ready to debate the president in an Oxford-style debate?

LAHN: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: And you're ready to debate others in an Oxford-style debate as well, I assume?

LAHN: I haven't thought about it but, you know, if there are people that are making decisions for this country, I -- I'd be willing to do that, if they're legislators, things like that. I'd be willing to do that.

BLITZER: You asked the president a fair question and you know what, you got real news out of him, as well, when he mentioned that sliver -- that he said the public option was only a sliver. That was the first time he seemed to be backing away from it and your question elicited that from him. So you should be pretty proud that you got him -- you got him to say that in terms of your Q&A.

Zach Lahn, good luck.

LAHN: Thank you.

I appreciate it, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want you to work hard at the University of Colorado/Boulder. Do a good job and come back.

LAHN: I'm trying to right now.

BLITZER: All right.

Zach Lahn asked the president a good question, got a good answer. Anger in India as one of its biggest film stars is held up by immigration officials at Newark Airport.

So what happened and what is the star himself saying?

Stand by.

Plus, jets and homes ablaze after a deadly air show collision.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: T.J. Holmes is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- T.J. What's going on?

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there, Wolf.

At least 19 people dead and dozens are wounded after a suicide bombing outside police headquarters. This is in Ingushetia. That's a Russian republic that borders Chechnya. Now, Russia's president fired the region's police chief, saying police failed even to protect themselves. It is the latest in a series of attacks blamed on Islamic militants. And in a statement, President Obama offered his condolences to the victims, saying: "This latest attack highlights the concerning increase of violence in the region affecting officials and civilians alike."

Let's stay in Russia now. Another tragedy here to tell you about. And take a look at this -- two Russian Air Force jets rehearsing for an air show collided near Moscow. The pilots all ejected, but one was killed. And one of the jet crashed into a row of houses, reportedly seriously wounding at least one person.

Also, a standing ovation for Sergeant James Crowley. You remember that name. He's the Massachusetts police officer who sparked a race debate over his arrest of an African-American Harvard professor, Louis Gates. Now, Sergeant Crowley received the ovation after he spoke briefly at the Fraternal Order of Police -- their convention, held in Long Beach, California.

Also, Chicago a bit quieter today than usual. That's because many non-official city services are shut down for the day -- why else -- to save money. Public libraries, which are usually quiet anyway, but they were pretty quiet; city hall; other government offices, were all closed. Also, garbage service was suspended today, as one of three reduced service days planned this year, which should -- should save the city more than $8 million -- Wolf, a lot of cities having to do what they've got to do.

BLITZER: Yes. Eight million here, $8 million there eventually, as they say, becomes real money.

HOLMES: It adds up. Yes. BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, T.J.

President Obama says there's one thing that won't change when it comes to health care reform -- what he's promising war veterans.

Plus, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat finds it may pay to embrace health reform protesters rather than confront them.

Plus, should President Obama campaign for a Republican turned Democrat who's facing, potentially, a rather tough primary challenge?


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

Happening now, a hidden danger on board airplanes -- new warnings about the air you breathe when you fly commercial. This is a report you'll see only here on CNN.

A mayor trying to be a Good Samaritan ends up in the hospital badly beaten.

What happened when he tried to help a woman screaming for help?

And he has plenty of experience going toe to toe on the issues, but can Tom DeLay handle "Dancing With The Stars?"

He's one of the 16 new contestants picked for the hit television show.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


In this make or break month of the health care reform battle and the trench warfare is taking place at town hall meetings held by lawmakers across the country, one conservative Blue Dog Democrat finds it may pay to embrace protesters rather than confront them.

Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is looking into this story for us -- Jessica, what are you finding out?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Representative Alan Boyd is a Blue Dog Democrat in a Northern Florida district. Today, he held three town halls filled with some pretty angry constituents. And to quote one of them, he said, when it comes to Congress, we are, "disillusioned and disgusted."



How are you all?

YELLIN (voice-over): Here's one way to defuse town hall rage -- side with the critics on something. BOYD: I cannot support this bill in the -- you know, in the version it's in now. We can do better. We can make it better.

YELLIN: So Blue Dog Alan Boyd is opposed to the health care bills moving through the House. He says as they stand right now, the bills don't do enough to control costs. So much for Democratic unity.

Perhaps sensing weakness, the Republican Party is now up with this ad.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The dangerous experiment President Obama and the Democrats in Congress want just can't be the right answer. The question is what Congressman Alan Boyd will do.


YELLIN: And some of his constituents are wondering the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we let Pelosi and people like that direct us, we are doomed. We are doomed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Congress that we've got today reminds me of a jackass running in the Kentucky Derby.

YELLIN: And many are convinced illegal immigrants will be covered.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They have not stripped illegal aliens from some of the health care bills.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why are we inviting 50 million illegal invaders into our health care system?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not going to do that. We're not going to do that.

YELLIN: Despite resistance, Boyd says he's committed to passing something.

BOYD: You have to reform the current system.

YELLIN: He prefers a co-op or exchange to a public option.

BOYD: Exchange is something that would that will work and allow them to keep their own health care coverage if they like it.

YELLIN: Otherwise, he's holding his cards close to his vest.

BOYD: Until we see what the Senate does and what might come to the House floor.


YELLIN: Now, Wolf, Boyd didn't want to give lot of specifics, but I will say he took heat from both sides. Some of the quotes you didn't hear playing in that story were folks who insisted that the only way to bring down health care cost is with a government option. Lots of folks want that still on the table. Boyd says he's holding nine more of these town halls before the end of recess -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks. Jessica will be back in the next hour.

President Obama today trying to reassure war veterans about his health care reform plans. Let's talk about that with our CNN political contributor, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Kevin Madden with the Glover Park Group in Washington which advises clients on health care. Do you advise them pro or con to the president's plan?

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think a lot of them are folks who want to be at the table. That's where a lot of this debate is being driven right now.

BLITZER: Here's what the president said at the convention of veterans out in Arizona.


OBAMA: Since there's been so much misinformation out there about health insurance reform, let me say this. One thing that reform won't change is veterans' health care. No one is going to take aware your benefits. That is the plain and simple truth.


BLITZER: A lot of people point out his supporters, especially on the left, that veterans' benefits, that's a single-payer government option, if you will, that the veterans have. Why isn't that good for the rest of the country?

MADDEN: If you look at Medicare and Tricare and Medicaid, those are three plans that are designed to help specific populations. I think this debate right now is being driven largely by folks who have Medicare and Medicaid as well as those who have private insurance. The big anxiety that many of these Americans have, and that's why we're having such a very important and robust debate across the country, is that this is also a debate driven by cost, and they feel that right now what they've seen out of Washington is a trillion-plus price tag on a health care bill but there's very little reform in it. And that's why you're seeing this debate back and forth. And it's been a departure from what we've seen up on Capitol Hill, which has been a very partisan debate over the minutia of the specifics.

BLITZER: Most of the people that I've seen are older Americans. They're really concerned right now, especially seniors who rely on Medicare, that their Medicare benefits are going to go down if they start cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare over the next ten years.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: First of all, it's a trillion dollars over ten years, and by some estimates including the CBO we could achieve some savings, or if we do nothing, we know the present path is unsustainable. Wolf, seniors are very concerned, I know for a fact, because they know exactly that what they're receiving. They know what coverage they would like to keep. And they're worried. Again, that's why it's so important to get all the information out there. The president I thought today did a great job in dispelling all the misinformation that applies to VA care. My dad was listening to him.

BLITZER: A lot of vets were listening, and he promised them flatly, as you heard, no one is going to take aware your benefits, that's the truth. You believe him?

MADDEN: Look, I think both Republicans and Democrats on chill care about health care reform for veterans. I think the difference is that we have very different opinions on the specifics, about how we get care. There are a lot of veterans out there that may not have been in that crowd, but there are a lot of older Americans that worry that some of the proposals, whether including a public plan or some of the cuts from Medicare, would hurt their options and would hurt their costs. Those were legitimate concerns they have. And so far, the president has lost the debate when it comes to arguing those concerns.

BRAZILE: I don't think the president's lost the debate. I think the president is rebuilding the case for health care reform because so much was lost and all the sausage grinding that folks are familiar with from the hill. But it's important that the American people learn the facts and get their information so they can help their --

BLITZER: Let me switch to raw politics, as we like to say. The bite getting ready in the next few weeks to go out and campaign for Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. He's got a potentially tough primary challenge from Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak. Should the president get involved in internal politics in Pennsylvania?

BRAZILE: Well, I think part of the commit at the time president has is to make sure Democrats like Arlen Specter are re-elected. This will be a very contested primary. Joe has raised a lot of money, $4.5 million. Mr. Specter has $7.5 million. But it will be a contentious primary, like the Lieberman/Lamont fight, like a family fight. But I think overall the president has to go out there and support Democrats.

BLITZER: A new member of the Democratic Party. Is it appropriate for the president and vice president to support Arlen Specter?

MADDEN: They have to. He's a Democrat because he cut a deal with the Senate leadership and probably with the White House. I don't have the proof on it but --

BLITZER: Become a Democrat if they promised him that they would support him.

MADDEN: Correct, and raise money for him and they would --

BLITZER: Is there a deal like that, though?

BRAZILE: I wasn't in the room so, I don't like to --

MADDEN: You know.

BRAZILE: Wolf, sometimes you have to keep your mouth shut.

MADDEN: I'll say that there was a deal. That way you don't have to, Donna. So, they have to. And so they have to go out there and put the full force of the Pennsylvania Democrat apparatus and Governor Rendell's operation behind him.

BLITZER: It's interesting that they couldn't convince Joe Sestak not to challenge Arlen Specter. But in New York State, they've convinced several Democrats to not challenge Kirsten Gillibrand who took Hillary Clinton.

BRAZILE: He's a great candidate, but Arlen Specter, 30 years, he's tough also. I'm neutral.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Outrage and claims of racial profiling in India after a Bollywood superstar is stopped at Newark Airport. What the actor is saying and more.

And protests at the University of California, Berkeley, as a controversial official in the Bush administration is back on campus.

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


BLITZER: The Bush administration Justice Department official wrote memos justifying waterboarding, stirring up controversy again, this time back on campus at California's Berkeley Law School. CNN's Dan Simon has the story for us. He's joining us live. What's going on, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, Wolf. Well, today is the first day of classes here at Berkeley's Law School. And it has not been a very warm welcome for Professor John Yoo, who has been a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration. Take a look.


SIMON (voice-over): As an attorney for the justice department in the George W. Bush administration, he wrote memos that justified the use of waterboarding terrorism suspects and the wiretapping of U.S. citizens. Now a law professor at Cal, Berkeley, Yoo's presence is drawing scorn and protesters to the school. With some critics saying he has no business in the classroom, and the university should sever the relationship. Stephanie Tang is an organizer with World Can't Wait, a group that advocates reversal of what it calls the fascist direction initiated by the Bush regime. What are you calling for? STEPHANIE TANG, WORLD CAN'T WAIT: We're calling for him to be fired from his position at the University of California, to be disbarred from the practice of law, and to be prosecuted for war crimes.

SIMON: Yoo, like former vice president Dick Cheney, has been outspoken in the defense of harsh interrogation.

JOHN YOO, FORMER BUSH ADMIN. LAWYER: This wasn't worth it? Well, we haven't had an attack in more than seven years.

SIMON: In a recent opinion piece for "The Wall Street Journal," Yoo writes, "To limit the president's constitutional power to protect the nation from foreign threats is simply foolhardy."

Protesters, including some Australian comedians, meanwhile, have tried to make Yoo look like a fool. This video, which has gone viral on the internet, has a comic infiltrating one of Yoo's lectures. The guy dons a costume reminiscent of the photos from Abu Ghraib. And that's just what he did.


SIMON: Yoo has been teaching here at Berkley's Law School on and off for about the last 15 years. He has a firm backing from the law school not for his views but for his rights to due process and academic freedom. We should also note that Professor Yoo's class this semester on civil procedure has a substantial waiting list -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, Dan. Thank you.

He's a household name in India, the star of dozens of films, but his name elected problems in the United States. And now fans and many others back home are furious at American authorities. Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She is working the story for us.

Mary, tell our viewers what happened.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we'll start with description of the star, some describe him as India's Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in one. That's how big he is. But Shah Rukh Khan says it's his Muslim last name that caught attention of U.S. immigration officials. It's kicked off a firestorm that he's now trying to quell.


SNOW (voice-over): He's an icon in India. Shah Rukh Khan, known for his energetic dance moves, has starred in more than 70 Bollywood movies. But despite Khan's star status, when he arrived at Newark, New Jersey's airport Friday, immigration officials questioned him for nearly an hour.

SHAH RUKH KHAN, ACTOR: They kept telling me it's because your name is common. And I was too polite to ask common to what? You know? So, it's a bit of an issue. SNOW: As Kahn posed for pictures with fans Sunday in Houston, fans in India were outraged at U.S. officials after Kahn said he was detained. Protesters took to the streets. Some even burnt an American flag. When government officials suggested subjecting Americans to the same kind of treatment when they visit India. Aseem Chhabra, a columnist with the Mumbai Mirror says the anger isn't so much about racial profiling.

ASEEM CHHABRA, MUMBAI MIRROR COLUMNIST: It is more about how dare you, America, stop a very well-known -- our most famous actor and insult him?

SNOW: The U.S. ambassador to India even weighed in over the weekend, noting Kahn is a global icon and a very welcome guest in the United States. U.S. customs and border protection denies Kahn was detained. A CBP spokesman said Kahn was selected for a secondary inspection, which he calls routine. He would not say why Kahn was singled out, citing privacy issues. He said because Kahn's luggage on the British Airways flight got lost, the interview lasted longer than usual. As for the anger over the incident, the CBP said in a statement, "U.S. Customs and Border Protection strives to treat all travelers with respect and in a professional manner while maintaining the focus of our mission to protect all citizens and visitors in the United States." Kahn says he understands the needs for security but adds...

KHAN: The attitude obviously is it's better to be safe than sorry. But in that maybe you do tend to elongate the process for regular people who want to be if not welcome, at least feel not unwelcome when they come to your country.


SNOW: Kahn just finished filming a movie dealing with issues of racial profiling in the U.S. after 9/11. It's called "My Name Is Kahn." While he's getting a lot of support, some skeptics are wondering if he's seeking publicity.

BLITZER: Causing a stir in India. But the U.S. ambassador to India, Tim Roamer, said he wants to get to the bottom of what happened. Is there a formal postmortem, an investigation under way?

SNOW: You know, we talked to his spokesman today who referred us to customs and border protection, which says there is no review at this point, no investigation. Kahn himself is saying he wants to move on. He says he understands people's anger but he says he doesn't want this to become any bigger than it already is.

BLITZER: Did get a lot of publicity, no doubt about that, Mary. Thank you.

A shocking study. Are magazine photos putting babies' lives at risk simply by showing them sleeping in unsafe positions? What you need to know. We have that information for you.

And beneath the waves off the coast of Israel, there are some who say, get this, there could be a mermaid. We're going to go to the scene of what's becoming a little bit of a mystery.


BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: Big story today: What does it mean if President Obama is willing to retreat on health care? More specifically, on the so- called public option.

Ramon writes from California: "It means President Obama is willing to sell out millions of his supports so he can placate a handful of senators who are in bed with the insurance industry. For goodness sakes, can the Democrats ever win? I thought we did last November. This is not the change we voted for. It's pathetic."

Chris says: "It's a victory for the Republicans and the insurance companies only if you're operating under the assumption that American's cannot hear an argument and make an intelligent choice as to which side of the debate makes the most sense to them. Obama's willingness to drop a public option has nothing to do with the Republicans or the insurance companies. In theory, he needs neither to get his agenda passed. It has everything to do with the average American's trepidation over the size and overreaching nature of this reform."

Joseph writes: "It means the Democratic Party has no backbone. They have a full majority in the House and the Senate and can't even pass a piece of mainstream Democratic health care legislation, which is why we gave them control of both houses in the first place. If they don't pass a public option in this health care reform bill, I give up on anything important ever getting done in this country that will bring about real change."

Albert in Los Angeles: "If Obama ducks from the Republican lies about health care, it will leave an enduring image similar to when Bush ducked from that shoe that was thrown at him, a target. Obama should force Republicans to a filibuster. The Congressional record will then set the record straight about the identity of the 'death panel' who unplugged grandma when her Medicare coverage and our nation soon go broke: the Republican Party!"

And R.J. writes: "What does it mean if Obama backtracks on the public option? That's simple. It means he's a one term president."

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

BLITZER: Pretty strong feelings out there.

CAFFERTY: Yes, very strong feelings.

BLITZER: All right. Jack, thank you.

A study out today finds that women's magazines often show photos of babies sleeping in unsafe positions and surrounded by soft bedding. The pictures may send some subliminal messages that could be putting babies' lives at actual risk. Let's bring in our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, to explain what's going on.

What did the study find out?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what these researchers did is they looked at 400 different photographs in magazines. Some were ads, some just photos, and they found out of the 400, only 36 showed a baby being put to bed in the right way. This obviously is problematic. People know or should know they're supposed to put their babies to bed on their back with no soft bedding but when they see magazine pictures that show something different, there is concern that people may look at those photos and get the wrong message.

BLITZER: What are some examples?

COHEN: Let me show you some examples that were used in the actual study. First, take a look at this. This is a celebrity. I know it's a little hard to see but a celebrity putting her twins to sleep, first of all, together in a crib. They're both there. That is bad, according to the American academy of pediatrics. Also, they're surrounded by soft bedding which is hard to see in this picture, but twins together with lots of soft bedding, that is not a good thing. Then if you take a look at this, this is an ad for pampers. The baby is on her side. She should not be on her side. And also, she is also surrounded by soft bedding. So we asked the folks who make pampers what's up, why did you show the baby in that position, and pampers said we're striving for 100 percent record in this area and encourage other advertisers to do the same. While we may have had a miss, this is the exception and not the rule. They said now they're working with the American academy of pediatrics to make it better.

BLITZER: How can parents, Elizabeth, prevent SIDS?

COHEN: What they can do is you put your baby on her back to sleep. You can remember it by thinking back to sleep. No soft bedding, no fluffy bumpers and also, don't make your baby too warm. Cooler is better than warmer.

BLITZER: A pacifier is OK?


BLITZER: Good to know. Thanks very much, Elizabeth Cohen reporting.

How safe is the air on board airplanes? We will tell you what a team of scientists is saying after a nearly three-year study. A report you will see only here on CNN.

Get this, there's a $1 million reward for capturing a mermaid and it's happening in northern Israel. We will go there. What is going on?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Lots of people suggest it's simply a tourist ploy. Dozens of so-called mermaid sightings have been reported as an Israeli beach town. Now there's a $1 million reward being offered to anyone who can prove that she exists. Paula Hancocks reports.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Beneath the waves of the Mediterranean Sea is a world teeming with life. What you may not have realized is among that life lives a mermaid. That's according to some residents of this Israeli seaside town of Kiryat Yam who claim they've seen it.

NATY ZILBERMAN, SPOKESMAN, KIRYAT YAM: They told us they have seen something of a girl with tail of a fish and she was smiling at them, and then jump and disappeared after a few seconds. They were very sure. These are very reasonable people.

HANCOCKS: Sounds like a fishy tale to me and I'm not the only one who thinks so. This local tells me the only thing in this part of the sea is rubbish from the steady stream of ships sailing to the nearby port. This man printed a pretty grotesque version of what he thinks the mermaid looks like. But it took a 15-year-old to keep my cynicism in check.

IGOR KIRNUS, LOCAL RESIDENT: 2,000 years ago, nobody believed the earth is like circle. Today, everybody knows that. Maybe it will be there, I don't know.

HANCOCKS: According to eyewitness accounts, the mermaid only comes out at sunset and she's apparently a little camera-shy as well, as no one has photographic evidence. But if you do, there is a $1 million reward in it for you. Those who claim to have seen her are also a little camera-shy. We didn't find a single eyewitness. But the mayor of Kiryat Yam assures me it's not a tourist ploy, although tourism is being boosted. The local children ask him if the mermaid is real and so do I.

Do you believe there's a mermaid out there?

MAYOR SHMUEL SISSO, KIRYAT YAM: My wife asked me the same thing. I told her she is the last mermaid I have seen.

HANCOCKS: Not to be denied an opportunity, the municipality started a cinema for the local children. Playing now, what else, "The Little Mermaid."

Paula Hancock, CNN.


BLITZER: Happening now, new anger at the president over health care. This time, it's coming from his left. This hour, some liberals fear he's abandoning them along with the idea of a government-run health insurance option. Plus, a CNN investigation. The air you breathe inside a plane may, may be poisonous. This woman says toxic fumes gave her tremors, blind spots and headaches. She's not alone. Allan Chernoff on the flying hazard you may not know about.

A mayor to the rescue. He responds to the screams of a grandmother with a child and he gets beaten on the head with a pipe. We're just getting in the dramatic 911 phone calls.

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