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THE SITUATION ROOM
Convicted Terrorist Set Free
Aired August 20, 2009 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This man was found guilty of killing 270 people in cold blood, 189 of them Americans. And now he's free. He's back home in Libya, greeted by hundreds of people waving flags and celebrating.
Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. His release today from a Scottish prison is causing shock and outrage around the world, especially here in the United States.
And one man is taking personal responsibility for this decision. That would be the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill. He tells me it was an act of compassion for a man who's dying of prostate cancer.
We're joined now by two people who lost loved ones in the Lockerbie bombing, Brian Flynn and Stephanie Bernstein.
I want both of them to stand by and listen first to the man who freed the killer of their brother and their husband.
Here now, my exclusive interview with the Scottish minister.
BLITZER: And joining us now from Scotland, the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
Mr. MacAskill, did al-Megrahi kill 270 people?
KENNY MACASKILL, SCOTTISH JUSTICE: Yes. He was convicted by a Scottish court.
BLITZER: Is it normal procedure in Scotland that someone, a convicted mass murderer who gets cancer, is free to go home to his wife and family?
MACASKILL: Well, thankfully, in Scotland, we don't have many convicted mass murderers. And this tragedy devastated our country as it did the lives of people in the United States and elsewhere.
BLITZER: Is there any precedent in Scotland where a mass murderer, someone who killed 270 people in cold blood, has been freed to go home to his wife and family because he is suffering from cancer?
MACASKILL: This crime is unprecedented in our small country. It's actually the worst atrocity -- terrorist atrocity ever perpetrated anywhere within the United Kingdom. So it's a circumstance that has never happened before. And I hope that it's a circumstance that will never reoccur.
BLITZER: Are there precedents where murderers, just regular murderers, someone who killed someone in cold blood and served only a very small portion of his or her sentence, has been free to go home and spend the rest of his life with his wife and kids because he or she is suffering from cancer?
MACASKILL: Well, each and every compassionate release that has been granted, and there have been 30 granted since the year 2000, is done under individual circumstances.
And as we were seeing, in Scotland, justice is equally tempered with mercy. Those who commit an offense must be punished and have to pay a price.
Equally, we have values that we seek to live by, even if those who perpetrate crimes against have not respected us or shown any compassion. Here is a dying man. He didn't show compassion to the victims, American or Scottish. That does not mean that we should lower ourselves, debase ourselves, or abandon our values.
He was justly convicted, but we're allowing him some mercy to return home to die.
BLITZER: Do you have one example, one precedent of a convicted murderer in Scotland who served only a small portion of his sentence who was allowed to go home because he was suffering from cancer?
MACASKILL: These matters are dealt with on each and every application of the individual. As I've said, since the year 2000 there have 30 such applications. I've had some two applications. I've not had to deal with the question of a mass murderer because, as I've said, these matters are few in Scotland.
And certainly this atrocity was a barbarity that we had never experienced before in our small country. And it's a barbarity we hope will never be replicated here, nor would we wish it anywhere else.
But equally, the Scottish justice system is predicated upon justice being enforced, but mercy and compassion being capable of being shown.
BLITZER: So just to be precise, because I want to move on, Mr. MacAskill, you don't know of one murderer in Scotland who has ever been released for compassionate reasons after serving only a small portion of his sentence?
MACASKILL: Well, I don't know the nature of the applications for compassionate release ever dealt with by my predecessors responsible for justice in Scotland. I can confirm two that clearly those who I have granted compassionate release so far were not murderers. But that's because, in Scotland, we do not have terrorist atrocities as a norm. This incident back in 1998 remains the worst ever terrorist atrocity anywhere within the United Kingdom. We have faced potential barbarities of the sort, Glasgow Airport just a few years ago, when I was just a few months into the job.
But as I say, these matters are unique, that's how we hope it stays, not only in our land, but in any other land.
BLITZER: All right. Here's what Susan Cohen, whose daughter was aboard the Pan Am flight, what she told us today. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUSAN COHEN, MOTHER OF LOCKERBIE BOMBING VICTIM: It is absolutely sickening when you say compassion. I feel ill. I feel physically ill. That is the most misplaced compassion I can imagine. I mean, we could weep, couldn't we, for poor old Adolf Hitler there, gee, and maybe Mussolini, and we should feel sorry for these people, I guess.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Mr. MacAskill, what do you say to someone like Mrs. Cohen, who lost her daughter and thinks about her every single day?
MACASKILL: Well, I've said all along, and I said in my statement, I'm very, very sorry for the grief. It started in the 24th of December, 1998, when a heinous atrocity was perpetrated above one small town in Scotland, taking the lives, not just of Americans, but 11 people from our small land.
Nothing can assuage their grief. There is nothing that I could say to Mrs. Cohen or to anyone else that will ease the pain that they have on a day and daily basis.
But in Scotland, our justice system is not predicated on vengeance, but on bringing people to account. And equally, our value system is predicated on seeking to treat people in a matter that is merciful and compassionate, even if they do not show to us as we would wish to show to them.
BLITZER: Do you...
MACASKILL: So I'm so heartfelt sorry for Mrs. Cohen and every other victim for the Scottish, U.K., American, or wherever else. But equally, we are adhering to the values that we have and are following the due process of law that we possess.
BLITZER: Do you realize that you've made their grief so much more powerful right now because they see the picture of this guy walking on a plane and flying back home to Libya where he is about to be received with a hero's welcome?
MACASKILL: I've released a sick man. The medical evidence given to me in a report dated 10th August by the Scottish Prison Service says that he's terminally ill. That is a sentence that I cannot impose in Scotland, no court could. We do not have the death penalty. It's final, terminal, and irrevocable.
That sentence that he now faces cannot be revoked by any court or overruled by any jurisdiction. I have decided to allow him to go home to die. I am showing his family some compassion. I accept there was a compassion not shown to families in the United States, or in Scotland.
But we have values, we will not debase them, and we will seek to live up to those values of humanity that we pride ourselves on. He was brought to justice after tremendous work, not simply by Scottish police and prosecution authorities, but by the United States.
Equally, as I say, in Scotland, justice is tempered with compassion. And that, as I say, is why he has been allowed to go home to die.
BLITZER: All right, that's just part one of the exclusive interview. Stand by. We're going to be playing part two of this interview in a few moments.
I want Jack Cafferty, though, to join us right now. He wants to weigh in. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I was just watching that and thinking back to how extremely time-consuming and difficult it was. It was like pulling teeth, remember, and then some to get Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi convicted and sent to prison.
The families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing were relentless in their pressure on our government to pursue justice in this case. And in the end, justice was done, only to be undone today, the man responsible for slaughtering 270 innocent people now being allowed to return to his native country, Libya, as a hero, to his family, his loved ones, his friends, where he can die in peace from terminal cancer.
It's outrageous. Al-Megrahi is a cold-blooded killer. Libya, his home country, was a state sponsor of the terrorism that killed these people. Compassion was shown this man when he was given a life sentence, and not the death penalty. And now this fellow Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, who probably didn't have any family members or friends aboard Pan Am Flight 103, decides to turn this animal loose. He ought to be ashamed of himself.
What is the message here, that if you commit murderous acts of terrorism and kill hundreds of innocent people, it's OK? All you have to do is get sick and all is forgiven. And what about the United States standing by and watching all this happen? Where's the condemnation?
Oh, we issued a statement. We deeply regret the decision. It's not enough. I find it hard to believe that if Washington felt strongly enough about this man's release, they couldn't have done something to prevent it. After all, didn't we just extract two journalists from the grasp of that madman Kim Jong Il in North Korea?
Here's the question: How do you feel about Scotland releasing the Pan Am 103 bomber? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And we're getting a lot of comments, Jack. And people are, in fact, outraged. We're going to have a lot more of this coming up. Stand by.
There's much more of my exclusive interview with the Scottish justice secretary on this controversial decision.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Mr. MacAskill, you know, you realize that for the rest of your life, this was your decision. You're going to have to live with this decision for the rest of your life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: His response and the rest of my exclusive interview, as the Pan Am 103 bomber receives a hero's welcome in Libya.
Also, heartbreak and outrage among the families of the victims. Tonight, two of them are here in THE SITUATION ROOM. They're watching this interview. We will get their reaction right after the interview is completed.
Plus, the former Homeland Secretary Security Tom Ridge, he's now suggesting he may have been pressured by the Bush White House to influence the 2004 election.
Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: All right. Take a look at this picture once again and listen to this. This is the Pan Am Flight 103 bomber. He's getting a hero's welcome, complete with hundreds of fans and a lot of music in his home state of Libya.
That's him being helped down the stairs of the plane, by the way. This is the last thing so many of the families of the victims wanted to see or President Obama.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We thought it was a mistake. We're now in contact with the Libyan government and want to make sure that if, in fact, this transfer has taken place, that he is not welcomed back in some way, but instead should be under house arrest. We have also, obviously, been in contact with the families of the Pan Am victims and indicated to them that we don't think this was appropriate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Stephanie Bernstein lost her husband in the Lockerbie bombing. Brian Flynn lost his brother.
I want both of you, please, to stand by.
We have more now of my exclusive interview with the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill. I kept pressing him about his so- called compassionate release of the man who killed your loved ones and how soon this convicted terrorist might die of prostate cancer.
BLITZER: I read the medical report that you received, you put it online.
And it says now that in the last few weeks, he's been complaining of backaches, his sleep pattern is disturbed, he appears tired and drawn. The specialists appear to have conflicting assessments on whether he has three months to live or many months to live. It just seems to a lot of people, especially in the United States right now, that you're letting a guy go back who could potentially live for a long time.
MACASKILL: The report I have, dated 10th August, I think the one you to online, is quite clear. It says now that the prognosis is three months or less.
BLITZER: It says that from what...
MACASKILL: He may live longer. He may die sooner.
BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment, Minister.
BLITZER: It says that from one specialist, but the others say that -- and I'll read it to you -- "Reviewing the total picture, the concluding specialist's view is that in the absence of a good response to treatment, survival could be in the order of months and no longer than many months. Whether or not prognosis is more or less than three months, no specialist would be willing to say."
MACASKILL: Well, the evidence I have from the director of health and social care for the Scottish Prison Service, and it's his advice, along with that of the primary governor, and indeed of other relevant bodies of Scotland, it's the prognosis that he's since deteriorated. It is that he now has less than three months to live. I'm obliged to accept that. I'm not medically qualified. I do not challenge it. And what I accept is that he is a dying man. I can't change that verdict that has been brought upon to him by a higher power.
But I am prepared to stand up for the values we hold as a people of Scotland not to lower them, not to debase them, not to live in a manner that others would seek to do. We've brought him to judgment, but we allow him to go home to die.
BLITZER: How much pressure, Mr. MacAskill, were you under by higher-ups to let him go?
This is my decision based on my responsibilities as a cabinet secretary for justice in Scotland. As you will be aware, I have refused the prisoner transfer application. I recognize and accept that the American families and indeed the American government were led to believe or were given clear understandings at the time of pretrial negotiations that he would serve his sentence in Scotland.
I accordingly rejected an application by the Libyan government for him to be transferred back to an institution back in Libya. However, he also made an application for compassionate release.
I'm not -- I was prepared to decide. I looked at the evidence and, as I say, I was persuaded that he is a dying man. And it was my decision and my decision alone, based upon following the rules and regulations and laws that we have in Scotland.
And I believe, standing by the values of humanity that we possess as a people, that I believe he's been brought to account for the heinous atrocity.
BLITZER: All right.
MACASKILL: And, yet, we are prepared to show some leniency and mercy to his family, even although he did not show that to ours or, indeed, to any family American, Spanish, or English.
BLITZER: Was there -- so -- and I'll just ask this question, because a lot of people are asking. If your son or daughter or brother or sister were on that plane, would you feel the same way?
MACASKILL: In Scotland, we deal with these matters through the court system.
We do not possess a system of vengeance or vigilantism. If my son or daughter were taken in a manner like that, I would expect to be replicated what happened, the Scottish police to investigate, the Scottish prosecution system to bring him to account, and the Scottish court system to act.
That is what was done. As I say, judgment was done. He has been punished. But he now faces a sentence that we don't possess in Scotland. We do not have the death sentence. Had he not been...
BLITZER: All right.
MACASKILL: ... terminally ill, he would have remained in a Scottish prison. He now faces, as I say, a sentence that I can't vary, but we're prepared to show clemency in his final days to his family, despite the fact that he didn't show that to ours.
BLITZER: All right.
Mr. MacAskill, you know, you realize that, for the rest of your life, this was your decision. You're going to have to live with this decision for the rest of your life. This was a major decision, probably one of the most important, if not the most important, political decision you have ever made.
Are you comfortable knowing that from now on, the name Kenny MacAskill, Scottish justice secretary, will be linked to the release of this mass murderer?
MACASKILL: I'm proud to serve as a cabinet secretary for justice in the government of Scotland.
This is a decision I did not seek to make. It's a decision that I would not have wanted to make. But it's a decision that had to be made. An application was made by him, and an application for prisoner transfer was put in by the Libyan government.
The buck, as you would say in America, stops with me. I have made that decision following due process, following the laws and guidance that we have in Scotland, and, I believe, living up to the values and the humanity that we possess in Scotland.
Many would disagree. Many do agree. I know that it divides opinion in the world, as it divides opinion in the family. But my responsibility was to make that decision, and I did so on the basis that, in Scotland, we want justice done, but we want compassion possessed and capable of being shown. Two wrongs never make a right.
BLITZER: Kenny MacAskill is the Scottish justice secretary.
Thanks very much for joining us.
MACASKILL: Thank you.
BLITZER: U.S. anger at the Lockerbie bomber -- at the Lockerbie bomber as he walks free is clearly palpable across the country right now.
The brother and the widow of two victims watched this interview with the justice secretary. They are getting ready to speak out. Stand by for that.
What he has to say about a convicted mass murderer going home to Libya. We will ask Brian Flynn. He lost his brother. We will also ask Stephanie Bernstein. She lost her husband.
And former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's stunning claims -- what he suggests he was pressured to do and by whom.
BLITZER: We have been listening to the interview with the man who let this convicted terrorist go free today. You heard my exclusive interview with the Scottish justice secretary.
Now let's hear from two people who lost loved ones on the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing. Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein's husband was killed, Michael Bernstein. Brian Flynn lost his brother, J.P. Flynn.
Brian, I will start with you.
What did you think of what the Scottish minister had to say?
BRIAN FLYNN, LOST BROTHER IN LOCKERBIE BOMBING: Well, after watching that, my first reaction was to think back to an expression my Irish grandmother had was, who do you think you are?
Because how dare he speak with such self-righteousness? I thought when I first heard his speech today that I thought it was driven by cowardice and political expediency. But then when I saw this interview, it actually was driven a lot by vanity as well. He's just relishing in this moment. And it's an atrocity in and of itself, but that interview just made it worse.
BLITZER: What about for you, Stephanie?
RABBI STEPHANIE BERNSTEIN, LOST HUSBAND IN LOCKERBIE BOMBING: Well, to me, it represents naivete, naivete that somehow releasing this man is the right thing to do.
We saw that he was greeted with a hero's welcome in Tripoli this evening. And I'm sad to say I think that our president is naive as well. That was almost more shocking to me than the interview with MacAskill.
BLITZER: Why was what President Obama said naive?
FLYNN: To say that this man should be under house arrest? The White House has not been in touch with us, contrary to what he said, unless something happened today that I'm unaware of.
And the White House and this administration could have made a difference. We will never know because they did not weigh in early, they did not weigh in publicly. And for the president to say that this man should be under house arrest shows grave naivete, in my point of view.
BLITZER: Brian, do you agree?
FLYNN: Yes. And I think one of the things that has been not mentioned at all is, you're sending this guy -- and you mentioned it, Wolf, briefly -- but you're sending this guy back to the people who ordered him to commit the murder. This is not a new country. There's not new leadership.
Megrahi was behind it. And I think that there's this lack of understanding that, oh, we want him to go home to his family and die. Well, let's send him back to the people that ordered the hit. We fought for -- and Stephanie has been with us the entire time. We fought for 20 years to get some morsel of justice. There's only man in prison. He didn't do it alone.
He was working for Libyan intelligence. And now we have a situation, but even that one guy was taken away from us.
BLITZER: You're a rabbi, Stephanie.
BLITZER: And we heard the minister, the Scottish justice secretary, repeatedly say two wrongs don't make a right in defending his decision.
Well, I think one thing to think about is that this man could have been and was treated compassionately in prison for his illness. That does not mean that he should be released in order to go back, as Brian said, to the regime that caused the bombing to begin with and killed my husband and Brian's brother and so many other people.
BLITZER: Tell me something about Michael Bernstein, your husband.
BERNSTEIN: My husband was a Nazi hunter. He worked for the Office of Special Investigations at the Department of Justice. He was the assistant deputy director.
So, one of the ironies here is that he was committed and in effect gave his life to bring to justice what we would call the foot soldiers of the Holocaust.
BLITZER: And those are your children, the picture we're showing right behind you?
BLITZER: ... turn around.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. Those are -- I can see them on the -- yes, those are my children. They're now 28 and 24. And they did not get the benefit of growing up with their father.
So, the idea of justice is very important here. Justice, to me, means that we care just as much about justice for the foot soldiers as we do for the people who masterminded the bombing.
BLITZER: Brian, tell me something about J.P. Flynn, your brother.
FLYNN: He was a great older brother. When he died, I was only 20 years old. He was a year-and-a-half older than me.
And it was the typical case of the older brother who took care of his younger brother. And we played sports together all the time. And it was interesting. There was a quote soon after he died that someone said: It's a real shame that we no longer have J.P., because he's the type of man who would have made a difference.
And that's something I try to imbue in my kids, that they have a responsibility now that they have survived.
BLITZER: The Scottish minister, he may be watching this program right now. We're seen around the world and in Scotland. I wonder if you have anything you want to say to him.
BERNSTEIN: No, I said -- I was one of the people who participated in the videoconference in July. And I gave a victim impact statement.
I'm beyond sickened. And I don't -- I truly don't understand how he could have made this decision and how he can sleep at night, quite frankly.
BLITZER: Brian, what about you? You have something to say to him?
FLYNN: I would have a lot to say to him if he was here in person. Some of it's not quite appropriate for the program.
But I think what -- one thing I would say is that he didn't just betray America and dishonor the victims. I also think the Scottish government has betrayed its people.
This was not an attack just on the United States because it was a U.S. airliner. This was an attack on Scotland. And this image keeps coming to my mind of a little boy, four days before Christmas, running home and the plane landing on him, and he gets burned up in jet fuel, and how that image didn't stop him from releasing him.
The other thing that was fascinating to me -- I did some research today -- do you know that 60 to 100 people die every year in Scottish prisons of natural causes? He doesn't release any of them. And none of them are mass murderers. Why did he release this one?
BLITZER: And I asked him repeatedly if there was one precedent of any murderer ever in Scotland who has been released because he or she was suffering from a terminal disease? And he didn't have one precedent.
BERNSTEIN: He couldn't answer that.
BLITZER: And he's the justice secretary. He should have those legal precedents, if there are some.
FLYNN: Did you know that -- I think it was he said 30 have been granted -- 30 compassionate releases have been granted. Six were rejected. What did those people do, that he rejected them, and he let this guy go?
BLITZER: Fair point.
All right, we're going to have to leave it right there. But I -- I suspect this story is not going away.
Let me express to you and to all the families of the victims of Pan Am flight 103, 270 people died on that day, 189 Americans. Our deepest, deepest condolences. I know it doesn't get any easier all these years later.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks to both of you for coming in.
A new bombshell from America's first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge suggests now that the Bush administration may have encouraged him to raise the terror alert level for partisan, political reasons to help President Bush get re-elected. What's going on?
Plus, it could turn out to be Senator Ted Kennedy's final wish. The ailing lawmaker takes some dramatic action to try to make sure one of his long-time goals is accomplished.
BLITZER: A new bombshell about the politics of terror in the Bush administration. Let's go right to our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin, she's got the details. Jessica?
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you remember those days when we were constantly reporting that the threat levels had gone up or down. Are we orange today? Yellow? How much were those driven by politics and how much by hard intelligence? A new book by the former chief, the first chief of the homeland security department, suggests that politics may have, indeed, played a role. Now, according to former secretary Tom Ridge, just days before the 2004 election, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged that the threat level be raised.
Wolf, you remember that Bin Laden had just -- a tape from Bin Laden had just been released, and at the same time Senator John Kerry and President Bush were running neck and neck. Well, Ridge says there was no intelligence to justify raising the threat level, and he writes in his book, I wondered, is this about security or politics? He says there was a tense debate. He won. The issue never even reached the president. But it did reinforce Ridge's decision to leave the administration. So the question is, why is Ridge sharing this information now? -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Good question, but before we get to some answers on that I want to bring in the former Bush homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend. She's now a CNN national security contributor. You were working in the White House during those tense days before the election, and that's a pretty amazing, startling allegation that Tom Ridge makes. He's a serious guy.
FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, nobody's more surprised than I am because, of course, Tom Ridge never expressed those concerns when he was in the administration, nor when I spoke to him after he left. There were -- let's be clear on what the process was. The secretary and I would speak, and then we would call homeland security council. You want to encourage real debate in those councils so that the president and the country get the best advice.
BLITZER: Was there a debate that went under way?
TOWNSEND: Absolutely there was a debate. And by the way, Tom Ridge wasn't the only person in that meeting who suggested that the terror alert shouldn't be raised. At no time was there any discussion of politics at that meeting. And the president was made a recommendation, a consensus recommendation from the council that he accepted not to raise the terror alert.
BLITZER: In the book, he specifically refers to the attorney general and the defense secretary, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld.
TOWNSEND: There were more than just Don Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft in that meeting. Bob Muller was there, CIA was represented, state department --
BLITZER: Was there any intelligence to back up that the threat level should be increased?
TOWNSEND: You'll remember it was not just a bin Laden tape. Adam Ghadan, the American member of al Qaeda had said that the streets were going to run with blood. And there was great concern that given that, coupled with the bin Laden tape, that we were seeing --
BLITZER: But was there any hard intelligence beyond that kind of assumption?
TOWNSEND: Well there was also the -- earlier that summer there had been the threat against the financial districts in New York, Washington and New Jersey. And they were very specific. So all these things came together on the eve of the election, there was real concern.
BLITZER: So you say Ridge is wrong?
TOWNSEND: I don't understand why he -- why he's concerned about politics when there was intelligence that caused us to have the discussion in the first place. BLITZER: David Frum is here. You were a speechwriter in the Bush White House. I don't know if you were working at that time in the Bush White House. What do you make of this? Why would Tom Ridge be making this very explosive allegation right now?
DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: I don't think we should call it an allegation or information. I think it comes from having a surmise, musing, self-questioning. He doesn't allege anything. What he does is he raises this possibility.
BLITZER: He says it convinced him he should quit the administration.
FRUM: That's a different thing from saying that he believed politics were at play. It was just weeks ago that everybody was congratulating John Ashcroft for his total independence from the administration on the issue of the treatment of prisoners. So, I think that John Ashcroft's independence and integrity deserves a little bit of respect. If he thought that there was a reason to do so, he probably had some pretty good reasons. He may not have been right, but he believed so. Don Rumsfeld, I mean, it is hard to imagine a less politically sensitive person than Donald Rumsfeld.
BLITZER: Nia-Malika Henderson is here from the Politico, the White House correspondent. We all know Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania. He was on the short list to be John McCain's running mate the last year. He's a pretty serious guy.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, POLITICO WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he's a serious guy. As you said he was on the short list and very much seen as a moderate in the party. I think one of the things this does is show that there's a lot of discontent, obviously, with George Bush, not only among liberals but also among republicans who are disappointed in his legacy, and in some ways they're still carrying that burden. I think in the years to come, there are a lot more shoes to drop on this administration. Bush shamelessly said that he didn't know how history would judge his presidency because we'd all be dead. But, of course, that's not true. People are going to rehash the legacy of his administration. I think we're going to see a lot more of these kinds of allegations.
BLITZER: Joe Johns is here as well. Joe, you and I have been in Washington for a long time. You know that his critics, Tom Ridge's critics, supporters of President Bush, supporters of Rumsfeld and Ashcroft simply say he's trying to sell a book.
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. There's a lot of that that goes on in Washington. But on the other hand, I mean, the view in the ground, during the 2004 election and the run-up to it, I covered that election. A lot of people were very concerned about the possibility of some type of a terrorist act. I personally remember in the capitol asking members of Congress and senators, what do you think we would do if something like this would happen? So, as that sort of the context, there was a certain amount of concern because this was the first election since -- for a president since 9/11. People -- you have to put it sort of in context and who knows, a little bit skeptical about it. I'd like to hear more about the intelligence that was out there.
BLITZER: Are you among those, David Frum, who believes that that bin Laden tape that emerged only days before the election contributed significantly to helping President Bush get re-elected?
FRUM: No, I don't. I think what -- President Bush won re- election very narrowly. And he -- his position was undermined by the economic problems that were already beginning to manifest themselves. But you would expect an incumbent president at a time when the economy was growing, as it was, at a time when the country had just conducted two very successful military operations, or so it seemed, you would expect him to be re-elected. It was narrow because of the economic situation for a lot of people still was not very good. But I think you would expect that president to win. And I think we also have to remember, we are talking here about something that did not happen. Not something that did happen. This is a decision that was not made. The answer was negative.
BLITZER: I want to bring back Fran Townsend for a moment and get your reaction to the decision today by Scotland to release the convicted killer of 270 people aboard Pan Am 103. You worked in the White House, you dealt with this issue for a long time.
TOWNSEND: I think the release is a tragedy, and I think it's absolutely outrageous. I think it ought to be widely condemned, not just for the families but for what the message is it sends. This guy goes home to a hero's welcome, having murdered 270 people. I saw your interview of the Scottish justice minister. I think he ought to be ashamed of this decision. This is a terrorist who showed no compassion to the people that he blew up on that plane, and he did get compassion when he didn't get the death penalty.
BLITZER: Joe, you know, these words are very, very carefully considered when the White House, State Department, the Justice Department issues statements. I read them very carefully. The White House press secretary said today when Scotland made this decision, "The United States deeply regrets the decision." The secretary of state said, "The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision." The Justice Department said, "We are extremely disappointed by the decision." I was extremely disappointed that the Washington Nationals lost a baseball game last night, a close one. I don't see the words condemn or deplore or the outrage that so many people feel.
JOHNS: That's very true. And it looks like the White House is being very measured when, to a lot of people in this country, an issue like this is very emotional. So this administration knows that the American public will look at something like this and be very disturbed by it because we have our own experience with terrorism here in the United States. It's one of those things that you do expect to hear a question to the president about.
BLITZER: All right. I'm sure they will be questioned on this story. I don't think it's going to go away and we'll see what happens. Guys, thanks very much. An extraordinary letter from the ailing Senator Ted Kennedy revealing he's now concerned he may not be around to vote on health care reform.
Plus, cash for clunkers almost out of gas right now. We're going to tell you when the popular program will officially end and why.
BLITZER: Poppy Harlow is monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Poppy, what's going on?
POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, an extraordinary letter from ailing Senator Ted Kennedy, the democrat who's made health care reform a lifelong cause now looking past his own death as he battles brain cancer. He is urging Massachusetts officials to change state law to allow for a speedy replacement if he has to vacate his Senate seat. Senator Kennedy's vote could be crucial on President Obama's plan to reform health care in this country.
Meantime, the cash for clunkers program winding down. The government says the popular program will end Monday night. Dealers must submit any pending paperwork from clunkers deals by 8:00 P.M. Eastern on Monday. To date, that program has racked up more than 457,000 dealer transactions, worth almost $2 billion in rebates. The program offers car buyers rebates of $3,500 to $4,500 for trading in their gas guzzlers for newer, more fuel-efficient models. More on that at cnnmoney.com.
Now also, Wolf, Afghan officials are calling today's presidential election a success. That despite 26 Afghans and a U.S. service member being killed across the country in violence today. The counting of the ballots under way right now. Results, though, are not expected for another day or two.
And finally we are learning today that the CIA hired the private security firm Blackwater USA back in 2004 to work on a covert program aimed at killing top al Qaeda leaders. This according to a source familiar with the program and reported today by "The New York Times." Its existence came to light earlier this year Wolf, when CIA Director Leon Panetta canceled it. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, thanks Poppy very much. On a very, very different note, in New York as a lot of people know, almost anything goes, but what about public nudity? Jeanne Moos finds something most unusual even for the big apple.
BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story. Scotland's decision to release a terrorist. Jack Cafferty is joining us with "The Cafferty File." Simply put, he's a convicted terrorist.
CAFFERTY: That's correct. The question this hour is: How do you feel about Scotland releasing the Pan Am 103 bomber. Stacy writes: "He should've stayed in jail where he belongs. To see him get on a plane and go home to his country where they treated him like a hero when his plane landed is a joke. I live in Scotland and he has made a total joke of us. Life means life no matter what is wrong with you."
Holly writes: "This is a decision obnoxious to all who have fought to eradicate terrorism at home and abroad. Shame on Scotland."
Donato writes from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: "Congratulations Scotland. In a world bloated with hate and vengeance, there's still plenty of room for rare acts of compassion and forgiveness."
Bill in Missouri: "What if he gets chemo or radiation treatments, lives for another 30 years. My dad's 84 and has had prostate cancer for 20 years. He finally had his prostate removed five years ago and he's doing just fine."
Jay writes: "MacAskill, the Scottish guy who released this man claims he's adhering to a set of values by releasing this guy. These values are twisted and a deep insult not only to the victims' families but to the civilized world."
Tom in Delaware: "He ought to be allowed to die with dignity and comfortably in his Scottish bunk next to a stainless steel toilet. He received enough humane treatment by escaping the death penalty. Convicts die all the time in prison of illnesses."
And Kyle writes from Oregon: "The man took away his victims' rights to die surrounded by those they love. Why should he be shown this kind of compassion? Life in prison means life in prison regardless of how the person eventually dies. My heart goes out to the victims' families who now have to see this man receive a hero's welcome home." It's offensive.
If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at cnn.com/caffertyfile and look for yours there among hundreds of others -- Wolf?
BLITZER: All right Jack, thank you. Thanks very much. Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up at the top of the hour. Lou?
LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: We have a lot Wolf, thank you. Tonight the president appealing to his most loyal supporters, liberal progressive leaders who helped him win the White House to help him win the fight over Obama care. The president looking for divine intervention telling religious groups that we're God's partners. He also fired back at his critics for spreading lies, bearing false witnesses he put it. But is the president himself misrepresenting the issues on health care? We'll have that special report. And jobless claims rising unexpectedly today but times aren't that hard if you're a foreign worker in this country. We'll be reporting on all that and our new series of special reports, "Jobs Now." Join us for that and more. All of the day's news at the top of the hour. Wolf, back to you. BLITZER: Lou, thank you. We'll see you in a few moments.
A pole dance on the subway as the saying goes only in New York. Wait until you see what Jeanne Moos has uncovered now and it's most unusual.
A second grader gets a surprise visit from her dad in the military on the first day of school. One of today's hotshots coming in from around the world.
BLITZER: Here's a look at today's "Hot Shots."
In Greece a firefighting helicopter drops water over burning olive trees as strong winds spread the flames.
In Germany the Chancellor Angela Merkel greets young workers in a grocery store. Also in Germany, American Tray Hardy celebrates after poll vaulting in the world athletic championships.
And in Oklahoma, a second grader gets an unexpected visit from her dad in the military on this the first day of school.
Take a look at this photo taken by our CNN team on the ground in Afghanistan covering the elections. Women showing up at a campaign rally in Kabul pushing for women's rights and freedoms.
"Hot Shots." Pictures worth a thousand words.
Believe it or not, Jeanne Moos finds naked New Yorkers most unusual. What's going on in the big apple? Let's find out.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In New York subway riders are called strap hangers but some insist on removing their straps, dangling from the poles. And now comes the opening of decent exposures at Chair and the Maiden Gallery.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have been shooting nudes in publics in New York.
MOOS: From a nude female posing in the subway to a nude male posing in Times Square. Zack Hyman says the trick is to get a few shots before the police get you.
(On camera): How long did this one take to shoot?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 15 seconds. This one was about 30 seconds. This was less than 10 seconds. It's about 2 1/2 minutes.
MOOS (voice-over): That's how long it took to go one subway stop from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Only one lady complained.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's nasty. Put your clothes back on. MOOS: Men tend to have the opposite reaction. For instance, when the voyeur bus carrying half naked women pressed up against the picture windows, toured Manhattan about nine years ago they ended up getting arrested.
RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: Stupid. Absolutely stupid. Of course you're going to get arrested if you take your clothes off.
MOOS: But only if they catch you. This woman disrobed for a total of 30 seconds on the subway and then passed a KFC bucket for some finger looking good donations. And this comedian hung a disco ball and danced.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't be scared ladies.
MOOS: He gave new meaning to the subway security slogan --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you see a suspicious package call someone.
MOOS: And then there were the polette girls who won a $10,000 dare from a website swinging and hanging upside down and giving fellow riders the boot. But the most innovative pole dancers are the ones who come to you. Complete with neon dance floor towed by a modified bike. A part time pedicab driver named Andrew Cabsander dreamed up pole riders. He says people throw money at them out of car windows and come running out of bars. No nudity. No arrest. No accidents. Just roll with the pole.
Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: What can I say? We want you to check out our political podcast. To get the best political team to go, subscribe at cnn.com/situationroom. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Up next, "Lou Dobbs Tonight" -- Lou?