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Plane Hijacked in Mexico; Preview of President Obama's Speech Before a Joint Session of Congress

Aired September 9, 2009 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following the breaking news out of Mexico right now. A plane has been hijacked -- Aeromexico Flight 576.

Details are still emerging. Passengers are exiting after the hijackers reportedly said if they didn't get their way, they'd blow the plane up.

It looks now like all the passengers have been released from this aircraft, the Boeing 737, en route from Cancun to Mexico City. The crew was supposedly still being held, but now Mexican television is saying the crew has been released as well, and it looks like several suspects have been detained.

You're looking at these pictures coming in from TV Azteca, as well as Televizia in Mexico, Mexico City.

We're watching all of this unfold. We're hoping this dangerous situation has ended by now, but it's not yet 100 percent clear.

Rick Sanchez has been covering this for us over the past half- hour or so.

Rick, since the news broke. Go ahead and update our viewers on the latest, because I know you were listening in Spanish to Mexican television, getting the latest information.

What is the information that we're getting? Is it all over with, or are there still details yet to be resolved?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: It sounds like they have actually got all the suspects in custody now. I'm listening on my left. While I listen to you on my right ear, I'm listening to Mexican television reports coming in on my left ear.

It sounds like they have taken the suspects, in fact, away. You saw them taking them on to that military vehicle that they had brought on the airport.

Wolf, I've got to tell you, as long as I've been covering news, I'm not quite sure I've ever seen an emergency of this magnitude handled with so much brevity. We literally got the information just a little bit after 3:00 that a plane had been hijacked, and in the course of the last hour or so we have learned that the plane was forced down, that the plane did have 104 passengers on board, that there were as many as three suspects on the plane, and that apparently after they still got to the ground they were making threats. But somehow, they were able to break the impasse.

We saw security forces. We don't know how much resistance they got, but they were able to make their way on to the plane and started to pull the passengers off the plane.

We know that just a few of them were hurt. The rest looked no worse for the wear, but then they also immediately began apprehending. And there you see some of the pictures now of some of these suspects, some of these alleged hijackers who were then removed from the plane, walked across the field, and put on to this armored carrier.

What's still very curious is why it is we started with a number of three hijackers, and they ended up taking as many as five or seven people away. I was talking to our law enforcement analyst, Mike Brooks, moments ago, who was telling me there's a very good chance that somebody else may have been involved. That doesn't mean they were, but nonetheless they suspect them, so they're going to be taking some of these folks in for questioning.

That's the first suspect we saw right there. You're seeing that man right there in the yellow shirt. He was alleged to have been one of the suspects, one of the alleged hijackers in this case who may have had something to do with it.

In the meantime, I've been listening to the latest reports that have been coming in from these folks there in Mexico. We've been relying on TV Azteca as I take you through this, and it sounds -- let me listen in one more time just to see if I can hear what they are saying now.

BLITZER: Earlier, we were reporting these suspected hijackers, Rick, were either from Bolivia or Colombia, but it was unclear where they were from. Do we have any more information? Are they saying yet where these suspected hijackers were from?

SANCHEZ: It sounds like they have nailed it down unofficially to Bolivia. That's at least according to several sources I've heard in the reporting, that they came -- that the suspects are Bolivians.

Now, as you well know from doing many interviews on this area in the past, Wolf, that could mean that there is some kind of cartel connections, that there have been in the past in Bolivia and in Colombia as well. At least that has been the recognized foreign of resistance in that area. Obviously, not anything that we can confirm at this point, but it certainly is something that I'm sure the State Department is going to be checking on right quickly.

BLITZER: I want you to hold on for a minute, Rick, if you can listen in the Spanish to what they are reporting on Mexican television. We're going to come back to you in a moment, but Tom Fuentes is joining us. He's a contributor formerly of the FBI who is watching all of this unfold.

Tom, when you see this, what goes through your mind, especially, what, two days before the anniversary of 9/11? TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Well, Wolf, I didn't look at it in the context of 9/11, because it looks like it's probably more of a Mexican domestic issue. What went through my mind watching the broadcast of the hijacking is that the hijackers probably, for some reason, surrendered, because we don't have the Mexican authorities doing what would be referred to as a dynamic assault, trying to swarm that plane from every entrance all at once.

So, somehow either through negotiation or another reason, it appears that the situation came to an end peacefully by the choice of the hijackers, and that they decided to give up. And the fact that they did so also is an indicator, because the people around that plane don't seem to be too concerned about it possibly exploding.

So, you have hundreds of soldiers, law enforcement authorities, other people that are around that plane and stayed very close to the plane. And as the passengers left, you didn't see them coming down the ramps running for their lives. You saw them at a deliberate pace, but not at an urgent pace, coming down the ladders, and people being taken into custody, the suspects at this point, the pilots coming off the plane.

So, it appeared to me that the situation resolved -- was resolved nonviolently prior to the authorities boarding that plane.

BLITZER: Because we've been reporting, Tom, that the suspected hijackers aboard the Boeing 737, this Aeromexico jet, they said they had a cardboard box containing a bomb, and they threatened to blow up the plane if their demand to speak to the president, Felipe Calderon, was not met. That threat in and of itself, whether or not they had a bomb or not -- and clearly, given the heightened state of security in Cancun, where this plane originated, it's unclear whether there was in fact some sort of bomb -- but what does that say to you as a trained FBI agent, at least former FBI agent?

FUENTES: Well, my experience in many of those situations, people threaten that they have a bomb when they actually don't. And it appears that they must have determined very quickly that there was in fact no bomb because, as I mentioned, when you look at the videos of people exiting that aircraft, there's not any great urgency about it. And you would think that even after they have exited, and they are down on the tarmac talking to the authorities, if there was any possibility that there was a live bomb or explosive device still on that plane, they would have been moving the people as far away, as fast as possible, from that aircraft.

BLITZER: I want you to hold on for a moment. Rick Sanchez is still with us.

Rick, have you been picking up more information from Mexico television?

SANCHEZ: Yes. I'm listening now.

They have just asked one of the correspondents there on the ground -- they have asked him if in fact, ,did he see any shots fired? Were any shots fired on the ground? Was there any kind of threat?

He said no, it was a peaceful rescue in that the folks were asked to walk off the plane, and they were. They did so, again, without shooting a single shot.

Then he was asked if any explosives experts or if that box that was referred to earlier as a square brown box was seen, or if any of these detonation officials have been asked to go on the plane and deal with that. And he said no, absolutely not, that no one went on the plane at any time to deal with any explosives, and that no explosives experts were seen on the ground or seen anywhere near the scene.

That's what I just heard this reporter explain, as curious as it may sound -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Rick. Hold on for a moment.

Tom Fuentes, hold on as well.

Byron Sage is also joining us right now, spent many years working at the FBI, knows quite a bit about this kind of a situation.

It's been a while since we've actually seen or reported on a hijacking, especially here in North America, Byron. This is extraordinary.

Byron, can you hear me?

BYRON SAGE, FORMER FBI HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR. Yes, sir. Can you hear me?

BLITZER: Yes. I was going to say, this is pretty extraordinary, that there's actually been a hijacking, albeit short lived, apparently.

That's absolutely true. And I think the reason for there not having been hijackings is the fact that the security procedures have been so greatly heightened, which lends to the fact, like Tom was saying, that this was probably a hoax from the beginning. But you have to take it very seriously.

BLITZER: When you say a hoax, that there was really no bomb inside the so-called cardboard box that they threatened to blow up if they didn't get their opportunity to speak with the president of Mexico?

SAGE: Exactly. And it would be speculation at this point that we would all hope that that, in fact, is the case and people's lives were not truly at risk.

BLITZER: Because if it was a hoax, if they really didn't have a bomb, it would seem that they had some sort of political agenda that they wanted to try to advance, at least at this point. Is that right?

SAGE: Clearly, yes.

BLITZER: And instead of an actual hijacking.

Tom Fuentes, go ahead and finish your thought on this specific area, because I interrupted you are before.

FUENTES: OK. I'd like to say one other thing, Wolf.

Last year, I flew 240,000 miles, most of it international, and I can tell you there's a big difference in the screening that goes on for an international flight, especially if it's bound for the United States, as opposed to a domestic flight within a country. Not within our country, of course, but within other countries.

So, in this case you have a domestic Cancun-to-Mexico City flight, and so, number one, you might not have the same diligence of security preparing for the passengers on that flight that you might on an international U.S.-bound flight.

And secondly, domestic flights don't require the display of a passport. So, the reporting at this point that the three suspects or the three main suspects are Bolivian could be speculation based on an address provided when they bought the tickets, or some other factor, and not production of an actual Bolivian passport as they boarded the plane, which would have been the case if it was, again, an international flights.

Normally, domestic, you just need some government I.D. It can be your driver's license or something else to board the flight.

BLITZER: All right. Hold on for a moment, Tom, because Jeanne Meserve is joining us as well, our homeland security correspondent.

Jeanne, you've been checking with your sources. What are you hearing?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Transportation Security administration says it is monitoring the situation, but because this is not a U.S. carrier, and it's an international incident, they don't have the lead in this instance. It's the State Department that has the lead for the U.S. government, and as we've heard from Jill Dougherty, they are trying to establish whether or not there were any U.S. citizens on this flight.

One of the remarkable things here is there has not been a hijacking in the United States since 9/11. That was the end of it for a number of reasons.

They've reinforced the cockpit doors. Some of the pilots have been trained to carry weapons. And passengers have been empowered, and we've seen a number of incidents, including with shoe bomber Richard Reid, where passengers have jumped up and they have taken control of that situation.

Now, there are additional steps that pilots and others have advocated that haven't been taken. For instance, they would like to see a secondary cockpit door that would provide even more protection. But the U.S. airlines have opposed that because of expense and because of weight.

So, the situation here very different than it would be in Mexico, as Tom Fuentes has noted. That was a domestic internal Mexican flight. The security standards for that would have been significantly different than for standards of a flight coming to the U.S.

But here in the U.S., it's been quite a remarkable history since 9/11 -- not one successful hijacking.

BLITZER: Yes. That's a good point. Jeanne, stand by.

Jill Dougherty is our State Department foreign affairs correspondent.

Jill, have you got any more information? A hundred and four passengers, we're told, at least Mexican television network TV Azteca says 104 passengers on board from this flight from Cancun to Mexico City. We know a lot of Americans visit Cancun and Mexico City, for that matter.

Do we know if any Americans were on board?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: At this point we don't, Wolf. The State Department is checking precisely that, but they have to have the manifest, then they have to go through that to find out whether there are Americans. So, that's what we're told, they are checking that right now. If there were Americans, they would certainly want to know how many there were.

They are also talking here at the State Department about possible reasons. It's unclear at this point.

This is a different looking hijacking, as we've been reporting. So, the reason why it happened.

And then, finally, they want to know what U.S. agencies, if any, might be able to help out and aid in this. You, of course, have to think about the FBI, perhaps, but at this point they are just ascertaining. And because it happened so quickly, luckily, and it appears that people are out safely, there's not that -- certainly the sense of urgency that people's lives might be at risk -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Aeromexico has some sort of cooperative arrangement with U.S. law enforcement.

Explain that, Jill.

DOUGHERTY: That, Wolf, I am not sure exactly. The State Department hasn't been explaining precisely how that works, so I can't really give you any specifics on that.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to check into that. I think they have a cooperative arrangement in terms of security matters with other U.S. airlines, so we're going to get more information on Aeromexico. Specifically, this flight from Cancun to Mexico City.

Rick Sanchez is still with us.

Rick, what else are you picking up?

SANCHEZ: The spokesman for the president has just briefed reporters.

BLITZER: The president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon.

SANCHEZ: That's correct.

The spokesman -- I'm listening now -- just came out and gave a -- what amounted to, like, a two-minute briefing with reporters. He says he's coming out soon to give more information, but he seemed to confirm, Wolf, what had been reported so far.

He said that the police and the Mexican officials, security officials, are to be commended for a swift maneuver. He doesn't seem to dissway what we have been reporting, Wolf, and what was reported early on, that this was in fact a hijacking of some form, and he says he's going to be making some more comments briefly.

He says that it's true and the government can now confirm that everyone has been taken off the plane safely. That is to say, all the passengers and the crew have been taken off the plane safely.

That's the latest information. We're getting that from one of the spokespersons, the communications spokespersons for President Calderon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And it's in line with what we're getting now from The Associated Press, Rick. The transportation and communications secretary in Mexico, Juan Molinar, says that all the passengers and crews are now safe. He said that there was no bomb on the airplane, even though that threat had been made.

At least five of the suspected hijackers were seen arrested with their hands handcuffed. It looks, at least according to the transportation and communications secretary, Juan Molinar, quoted in this AP story, as if this has been resolved, this hijacking, rather quickly, but obviously we're getting all the details of what exactly happened, why apparently these five suspects -- and they are believed, Rick, to be Bolivian citizens. I don't know what, if anything, that says.

Colombia would suggest drugs perhaps being some sort of involvement, but Bolivia is a different sort of issue, isn't it?

SANCHEZ: Yes. You know, it's interesting. I'm listening to Juan Molinar right now. He's doing his very first interview with reporters.

I'm monitoring what he's saying. He seems to be saying that they knew immediately that there was a problem, and that's why there was an exigency, if you will, to bring this plane down, and that they were able to do so, and that's what made it work. BLITZER: Yes. It looks like whatever strategy they had clearly worked, because the passengers, more than 100, are freed. The crew members are freed. At least five, maybe more suspects have been arrested.

Hold on for a minute, Rick. Tom Fuentes is with us as well.

Tom, there's a dramatic picture of the pilot sticking his head out of the window in the cockpit trying to communicate. There it is right there.

Tell us what might be going on here.

FUENTES: OK. I'm sorry. Is that a current picture or is that from earlier?

BLITZER: No, this is from earlier. This was taped earlier, but you see that pilot. He's really sticking his head out, and he's saying something to ground personnel there. Unclear if he's saying "Get away" or whatever, but he's obviously in communication with them, and he's gesturing rather dramatically.

FUENTES: Well, he could be telling them that the hijackers have already said they are going to surrender and, you know, telling with them that it's going to be peacefully resolved to reduce the possibility of the authorities swarming the plane and possibly firing shots. So, that's a possibility.

If this has already been resolved through negotiation, he may want to make sure that the people on the ground around that plane are aware of it. That's just speculation on my part, but that's a possibility. And again, you don't see -- even then, you don't see the urgency on the part of the authorities running toward the plane or away from the plane at all.

BLITZER: Aeromexico...

FUENTES: So, this could have already been resolved at this point, and they are just trying to figure out how to get peacefully get everyone off the plane.

BLITZER: Right. Aeromexico does fly into the United States, and it does have cooperative agreements with U.S. airliners as well.

I assume the security surrounding the cockpit, the crew members, other aspects of this Aeromexico flight, are very similar to U.S. commercial airliners. Is that right, Tom?

FUENTES: Yes, but the cooperative relationship with the U.S. is in fact -- and also with TSA -- is the fact that they're going to use more stringent methods to screen passengers before a flight bound for the United States. And so the airlines, regardless of what carrier it is or what the nationality of the carrier is, if it's coming to the United States, they follow United States standards for security screening of passengers and cargo. So, that's generally the cooperative agreement, as well as the sharing of passenger manifest information and all of that.

As Jeanne Meserve mentioned, and I mentioned earlier, this was a domestic Mexican flight. And it's an Aeromexico carrier. So, you don't have the same requirements of them sending the information to the U.S. or sharing it with TSA or other U.S. authorities that you would have if it was an international U.S.-bound flight.

BLITZER: Well, in terms of U.S. airliners, Tom, wouldn't domestic U.S. flights have a little bit less security than international U.S. commercial flights?

FUENTES: No. Within the United States, any flight originating or destined for the United States is going to have the same stringent security. So, if it was a domestic United States flight, it's going to be under the same security requirements as an international flight from the United States.

But I'm saying in this case, this was a flight originating in Cancun, bound for Mexico City. So, the fact that it was not an intended U.S. flight means that the Mexican rules and their normal screening procedures would be in play, as opposed to U.S. requirements.

BLITZER: Understood. All right.

Let me bring in Abbi Tatton, our Internet reporter.

Abbi, show us where this flight was taking off from, where it was heading.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the flight trackers online show that this plane, this flight had been operating quite normally up until this extraordinary event, leaving from the resort city of Cancun on the Caribbean there at 11:40 a.m. this morning local time. A hundred and four passengers on board.

Then, starting this routine flight -- Aeromexico operates about a half dozen of them each day, domestically to Mexico City -- starting this routine flight of just about two hours there to the capital of Mexico, arriving there at the airport. The airport about eight miles east from the center of Mexico City in the outer suburbs.

When the hijacking was under way, this plane then moved to a remote area in the airport away from the runways where planes were still landing. TV Azteca had been reporting that President Felipe Calderon was at the airport at this time in a presidential hangar.

The plane moved to a remote area of the airport for the 45 minutes or so that the passengers say that they were being held before they were allowed to leave this aircraft. But until then, this is a very standard flight. Aeromexico operating many each day between these two domestic airports -- Wolf

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Abbi.

Let me go back to Rick Sanchez, who is continuing to monitor what Mexican television is reporting.

What else are you picking up, Rick?

SANCHEZ: A few people were injured when they got them off the plane, but most of them were dealt with there. Juan Molinar, the spokesperson for the government, the communications director, as he's described, is now saying that it was not a bomb. That it was not a bomb, that it was a theat.

He did not amplify that word "threat" after he used it. I was hoping he would. He just said that there was a threat on the plane that was felt by the personnel of the plane.

We don't know if he was referring to either flight attendants or the pilot at any given time, but he said that it was a result of that threat that they decided that the plane had to be brought down. They certainly -- he seemed to be saying that they felt they needed to treat this as a hostage -- as a hijacking situation, and that's why they did it as they did.

Now, obviously the element that's missing in all of that is, exactly what was this threat, and was the security of the cockpit itself ever breached? I tried to listen carefully, Wolf, to see if he had -- if he would amplify on that, but he didn't.

I'm not sure at this point after listening to the explanation from both the airport officials there and the president, the president's office, or the spokesperson, the communications director, whether indeed the cockpit door had been breached at any time. And obviously that's something we're all very interested in, because all of us who fly know that the security measures have been reinforced to make sure that that doesn't happen. If it did, there would certainly be a lot of questions as to how something like that could happen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we have now independently confirmed, according to Mexican authorities here at CNN, Rick, that the hijacking has ended peacefully. All the passengers and crew members are accounted for.

And we believe at least five, maybe six suspects -- suspected hijackers have been arrested by Mexican authorities. And as you've been reporting, it looks like that bomb threat was just that, a hoax. There really wasn't a bomb in some sort of cardboard box.

They wanted to speak with the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon. They said they would blow up the plane if they didn't get that phone conversation.

Clearly, that threat was simply that, a threat, and it didn't materialize, fortunately, for everyone concerned. But you're right, you and I have been covering this kind of stuff for a long time. This is a pretty unusual event.

SANCHEZ: It's unusual in that it's been so fast in its development. I mean, I don't know exactly what provisions the Mexican security forces have made for this type of situation. I'm certainly -- while I've been a cop beat reporter most of my life in this business, I know how these guys work, it seemed to me from everything that I saw here that there was a very tactical and a very organized approach that was taken by these security forces.

And it certainly seems -- I know it's obvious -- it's easy to say they did a good job, when in the end result no one is hurt and everyone is captured who is considered a suspect, but it certainly looks as we look at this that they were able to be hands off until they needed to go in. They went in, and they got everybody out. And it seems like they were very, very reactive to what was going on in the beginning.

So, you know, you look at something like this, and all the times that we do stories about police officials and security forces and what they need to do or don't need to do, it looks like in this case these guys had been trained appropriately and did what they needed to do -- get on the plane and get them out. And do so quick.

BLITZER: And the end result is good.

We're going to stay on top of this story.

Rick Sanchez, thanks very much for your excellent reporting.

Rick Sanchez, obviously fluent in Spanish, ,which was really, really useful for all of us here at CNN on this day.

Once again, a Mexican airliner, the Aeromexico Flight 576 from Cancun to Mexico City, was briefly hijacked by five or six suspects. Everyone is now safe -- the crew members, more than 100 passengers.

We'll stay on top of this story, get more information for you as it comes up.

When we come back though, we're going to make the turn. The most dramatic potential speech of the president coming up in only a few hours. David Axelrod is there at the White House. He's a senior adviser to the president. We'll get a preview of what we can expect later tonight.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here in the United States, there's arguably no bigger issue, no bigger stakes, no bigger pressure cooker than what President Obama will confront head on later tonight. About three and a half hours from now, he will give perhaps the most important speech of his very young presidency.

The issue, health insurance for millions and millions of Americans. The audience, the very people who will decide whether or not he gets it. It's a rare speech before a joint session of the United States Congress.

Let's talk more about the president's speech. Joining us in our "Strategy Session" is the senior presidential adviser, David Axelrod.

David, thanks very much for coming in.

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Hey, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Is the president -- because we're getting a lot of conflicting information -- going to say absolutely that the so-called public health insurance option, a government-run health insurance company that would compete with the private health insurance companies, is he going to say that that's absolutely essential?

AXELROD: Look, Wolf, what he's going to do is deliver a plan that will bring security and stability to people who have insurance, that will help people who don't have insurance get it at a price they can afford, and bring down the costs to the whole system. He believes the public choice, within that pool that we're going to create for uninsured Americans and small businesses, would be helpful in terms of bringing competition and choice. He thinks that would be good for consumers, and he's going to make the case for that.

But he's also going to make the point that this is not -- this is an ends to a means. It's not the essence of this debate. It's a part of -- it's one of the tools, and there are other ideas out there to bring competition and choice that are worthy as well.

BLITZER: Including what they call the cooperative option, a series of health insurance cooperatives that wouldn't be the public option but would be something in between? Is that -- is he going to get into detail like that, and say he likes that idea?

AXELROD: He will acknowledge the fact that there is that idea. There's the idea of putting a trigger on the public option, so it goes into effect at some date when it's clear that there -- that a market is uncompetitive. There are a number of ideas.

But what is very important is that we have the kind of competition and choice that will help consumers. In many states in this country, there's one insurer that dominates the entire market. In Alabama, one insurer dominates 87 percent. In -- in North Dakota, there's one insurer that dominates the market almost completely.

BLITZER: So, why not break down -- why not break down the state barriers and let all of these insurance companies compete nationally, without having to simply focus in on a state-by-state basis?

AXELROD: Because we are trying to do this in a way that advances the -- the interests of consumers, without creating such disruption that it makes it difficult to -- to move forward.

BLITZER: Why would that be disruptive, if Blue Cross & Blue Shield or UnitedHealthcare and all of these big insurance companies, they don't have to worry just working in a state, and they can just have the opportunity to compete in all 50 states? AXELROD: But insurance is regulated at the -- at this time, Wolf, state -- state -- state by state.

BLITZER: But you could change that. The president could propose -- the president could propose a law changing that.

AXELROD: That is not -- that is not endemic to the kind of reforms that we're proposing or that...

BLITZER: Why not? Why not?

AXELROD: ... we think -- we're -- we're proposing a package that we believe will bring that stability and security to people, will help people get insurance, will be -- will lower the costs, and that can pass the Congress.

And that has to be the test. We're not into a symbolic expedition here. We're trying to bring real relief to hardworking middle-class people in this country. We believe the plan that we have outlined will do that.

BLITZER: Because -- I want to move on -- but, if the president wanted great competition, greater competition, he could say, let's change the lawyer and let these health insurance companies compete nationally.

AXELROD: I'm not sure, Wolf, that that would -- that that would end the debate that you asked me about in the first place.

And, you know -- but I think that the idea that he's proposed will promote that. Others have other ideas. But they are not central. What's central is that we get fundamental insurance reforms that will protect people, put a cap on their out-of-pocket expenses, if they have preexisting conditions, make sure they get insurance, if they get sick, make sure they don't get dropped off insurance, and creates a pool where people who can't get insurance today -- you know, if you don't have insurance through your employer, it costs you three times as much to get insurance today.

Most people can't afford it. Most small businesses can't afford to insure their employees. A lot of people won't start a small business because they can't leave their insurance. Our plan would help cope with that.

BLITZER: What will the president say tonight about what's called tort reform, or caps on medical malpractice lawsuits? The Democrats, as you know, they get a lot of money from trial lawyers. The Republicans say the Democrats, including the president, they don't have the guts to impose a cap on medical malpractice lawsuits.

What specifically will the president say about that tonight?

AXELROD: Well, this isn't a matter of guts or not guts. This is a matter of trying to deal with the problems facing our health care system. The president has acknowledged many times that there is some validity to the medical malpractice issue, and that he has heard a concern from doctors about having to practice defensively. And, so, tonight, he's going to address that issue, and he will have some proposals that relate to it.

BLITZER: Will the trial lawyers be upset?

AXELROD: I don't know. We will see.

But the point is, though, that everyone is going to have to give a little here to -- to -- to deal with what ails our system, to bring the costs down, to help people get security and stability if they have insurance and to help people get affordable insurance if they don't.

BLITZER: There are, what, 40 to 50 million people in the United States who have no health insurance right now. If the president gets his way, all of them will have access to health insurance.

Are there going to be enough doctors and nurses around to deal with that influx of additional people who need health insurance, who need -- who need care? Where are all these doctors and nurses going to be coming from?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, Wolf, understand that a lot of these people are getting health care today. They are getting them in emergency rooms around the country. It's -- it's created a real emergency, health care emergency, in a lot of these communities. And all of us pay a premium, an extra premium for that in our health insurance today.

But let me just correct one thing you said. There are -- among the uninsured, there are some 35 million Americans or so who don't have health insurance today, American citizens. There are another 10 million people who are in this country illegally who don't have insurance.

Our focus is on those 35 million. Five million of them are people who qualify today for -- for Medicaid and other public programs, and simply haven't taken advantage of it, and then there's the other 30 million. And that's where our focus is.

BLITZER: Does the president believe it's -- it should be essential for all Americans to buy health insurance if they can afford it, and, if they don't, they should pay a fine or potentially go to jail, just as everybody who drives a car has to have car insurance?

AXELROD: Well, I think that the president believes that we all have a responsibility in this health care system. Large employers have a responsibility to provide insurance or help kick in to -- to -- to give their employees the ability to get insurance.

And, yes, every American has a responsibility to -- to get covered, because if they don't, then we end up paying for their -- for their health care. And that's certainly...

BLITZER: And, so, should they be penalized?

AXELROD: That's certainly a part of the..

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Should they be penalized if they don't buy the health insurance?

AXELROD: Well, there has to be some remedy for that. And we will we will -- we will address that.

But we believe that most Americans want insurance, and they will get it. Now there -- there has to be a hardship exemption, so, if people -- if people have to pay beyond a certain percentage of their income into the plan, they ought to have the ability to opt out of it.

BLITZER: But if a young person in his or her 20s can afford to buy health insurance, but decides, you know what, I don't want to spend a couple hundred or $400 a month, you're going to force that person to buy health insurance; am I hearing you right?

AXELROD: Well, understand, if that young person walks out in the street and gets hit by a bus, and you and I end up paying for their care, because they will go to an emergency room, they will be put in a hospital, and that's one of the reasons why we each pay an extra $1,000 a year.

So, even young people have responsibilities, too. I have young kids in their 20s. And I know they feel invulnerable, but they are not. And so we all have a responsibility in this.

BLITZER: Over the next 10 years -- correct me if I'm wrong -- you think you can save, what, $500 billion from Medicare, is that right?

Well, it's not just from Medicare, but from public health programs. We believe there's a great deal of waste and fraud in these programs. We believe there are unwarranted subsidies to insurance companies, all of which can be removed without affecting care, and certainly not benefits, and will strengthen these programs for the long run.

Our reforms will extend the life of Medicare and the solvency of Medicare, something that we all -- we all have an investment in that.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, a lot of seniors are nervous. If you take $500 billion out of Medicare, $50 billion a year over the next 10 years, they are going to have less opportunity to use that money, and it's going to in the end turn out to be rationing for the elderly.

How worried should they be about that?

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: They should not be worried. And the president will address that tonight.

The fact is that this program -- every senior who has experienced the Medicare system understands that there's a great deal of money wasted within the system that we can save that has nothing to do with their patient care. The president is not going to divert money from the Medicare trust fund to pay for this. And, ultimately, it will extend the life of Medicare.

The only people who are talking about changing Medicare in a radical way are some of our opponents on the other side who have suggested that we voucherize the whole process and give seniors vouchers, and let them go out and fend for themselves. That would be a -- a dereliction of our responsibility to our seniors, and it would break faith with them. They have worked for this. We ought to make sure that they get it.

BLITZER: We're out -- we're out of time, but one final question on Van Jones, the former energy or green jobs czar that just quit, resigned over the weekend.

A lot of people now are reviewing statements that he's made over the years and asking, how could the White House have allowed him to come in, given some of those statements, including -- including signing a petition suggesting that President Bush himself might have been complicit in the 9/11 attacks?

AXELROD: Well, look, first of all, understand, Van Jones has an international reputation in this area of green jobs, and that's the basis on which he was retained.

I didn't know about these statements. And perhaps I should have. And I -- I will take some responsibility for that. But I think that he's to be commended. I think he is -- he's so fundamentally committed to the success of this program.

He understands green jobs and energy are so much part of our economic future that he wanted to remove himself as an issue, and -- and I commend him for that.

BLITZER: And, so, the most important lesson that you and your colleagues at the White House have learned from the whole Van Jones experience is what?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think that, as I acknowledged, I -- I wish I had known. I would have talked to him about it. We would have made a judgment. I think he wanted to do what was best for the president and, more importantly, for the country. And that was reflected in the decision that he made.

BLITZER: We will leave it at that, on that note.

David Axelrod, thanks very much for coming in.

AXELROD: It's good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will, of course, be watching the president's speech tonight here on CNN.

Health care reform with or without Republican support, that's the vow from a powerful senator who says he will unveil his own bill next week. Is bipartisanship dead?

Also, a movie about Hillary Clinton leads to a Supreme Court case that could radically impact next year's election.

Plus, former President Bill Clinton emotional as he recalls an act of kindness by Walter Cronkite at one of the lowest points of his presidency and his life.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The leader of the so-called gang of six senators is out with a major statement.

Let's go straight to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, what's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What's going on is that the bipartisan negotiations are going on as we speak behind me, Wolf, but, today, the chairman of the Finance Committee made a dramatic move that could jeopardize any chance at a bipartisan deal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): After hundreds of hours of negotiations with Republicans, this key Democrat says it's time to move on, with or without them.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT), FINANCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Irrespective of whether or not any Republicans -- and I do think that will be -- I'm going to move forward anyway.

BASH: Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus announced he will formally introduce health care legislation next week and begin committee votes the following week. He went out of his way to emphasize the bill will incorporate GOP ideas and bipartisan compromises the so-called gang of six have worked on for months.

BAUCUS: We have all invested so much time and effort in this. I know that -- that several of my Republican colleagues very much want to be part of this. They want to be. And they know, and I know, there's still time.

BASH: Baucus has been under intense pressure from the White House and Democratic leaders, frustrated that he has repeatedly missed deadlines. This Democratic colleague was stunningly candid about his frustration, especially with Baucus' efforts towards bipartisanship.

Are you saying that that's been a fool's errand?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D), WEST VIRGINIA: No. It's -- it certainly is not the way I would have gone at it.

BASH: Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller complained, Baucus is giving up too many Democratic principles, especially a government-run health care option, replacing it with nonprofit cooperatives.

ROCKEFELLER: It works for farms. It works for electricity. It works for, you know, whatever else, but it doesn't work for health care. And nobody is focused on that.

BASH: Baucus insists his plan reflects reality.

BAUCUS: I think, frankly, with increasing conviction, that a public option cannot pass the Senate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, despite the Democratic chairman's announcement that he's willing to go forward without Republicans, two of the three Republicans in that room said that they still think it is possible to get a bipartisan deal.

One of those Republicans, Olympia Snowe, is, as you know, Wolf, the White House -- they -- what -- they consider her the best chance at any bipartisan deal, ultimately. I caught up with her today, and she said something very interesting.

She said that she urged the president to make very clear tonight a public option, a government-run health care option, is off the table. Here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: People are rightly skeptical of a government-run health care system and government interfering in medical decisions.

And, so, I would hope that we could take it off the table, understanding it's very important on his side, but it is another way of achieving that consensus sooner.

It might accelerate the process and build momentum and refine the debate, and moving it in a different direction than reinventing the wheel on the public option, where there's no support among Republicans, and even, you know, there's not support for it among Democrats in the House and in the Senate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: And Senator Snowe confirmed for the first time what CNN reported last week. And that is that the White House has stepped up their conversations with her, an idea that she's had out there for six months. And that is to have a so-called trigger mechanism, a backup for a public option, but only if the insurance companies don't police themselves and if they don't reform their ways and make things more competitive and make costs lower. She said that that is a way that the White House thinks that they can ultimately bridge the gap. And she says, ultimately, it might be her idea that the White House takes on.

BLITZER: Yes. And we just heard David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, say, in the speech tonight, the president will express his preference for a public option, but also say he likes that idea of maybe a trigger, also likes the idea of cooperatives, another compromise proposals out there.

So, he's going to be open to all of those ideas. I don't think he's going to necessarily give a hard-and-fast preference or at least a sine qua non as far as -- as far as he's concerned.

Dana, thank you very much.

We're a little bit more than three hours away from the president's pivotal speech before that joint session of Congress. Many expected a day of rather raucous rallies in Washington leading up to it. Not exactly happening, at least not yet.

CNN's Brian Todd is watching what's going on.

What are you seeing on the Hill, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, with health care reform such a heated issue throughout the United States this summer, some groups, you would have thought, would have wanted to take that debate right here to the nation's capital.

But, on the biggest day of the national health care reform debate so far, it looks like some of the passion that was on the streets might have gotten lost somewhere on the way to Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The very public political theater of health care reform.

(SHOUTING)

TODD: Rallies, protests, town halls got downright rowdy over the summer.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Now, wait a minute.

TODD: But on the day President Obama makes his sales pitch to Congress and the nation, the fuse didn't light at the foot of the Capitol. A staged event by opponents of the president's plan included a petition delivery in an ambulance, stacks rolled up to congressional offices on stretchers.

But, at the rally itself, the largest groups were members of the media and Republican congressional staffers dutifully listening to their bosses. SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: We don't want our health care hijacked. Eighty-five percent of the people in this country like their health care.

TODD: Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, a street theater protest drew only media and a few police.

I spoke with Randall Terry, leader of an anti-abortion group staging this. They are also lobbying against health care reform.

RANDALL TERRY, FOUNDER, OPERATION RESCUE: Even if we swing 5 percent or 7 percent, then we prevail, because the numbers on this bill have been steadily dropping.

TODD: Support for the president's plan has decreased over the summer. Approval of his handling of health care has slipped, according to the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation polls.

But the same polls also show public events like these, even the boisterous ones, are not tilting opinions -- 62 percent of respondents in a recent poll saying town hall meetings have had no effect on their views of the president's health care plan.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: Essentially, there is kind of a silent center, and they haven't been swayed by this, because, on the one hand, there's a lot of missing information on this and a lot of misinformation. And one of the things that obviously needs to happen in this -- in this debate is more information, more details.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And, of course, that's what all of us are going to be watching for tonight, more detail from the president.

But conservative groups are not waiting around for that. They are planning on holding a big rally this weekend in Washington, hoping to pick up the debate where it left off, hoping, probably, to have a little bit more juice than what we saw today on the streets of Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Many Americans very worried over the cost of extending health insurance to an estimated 46 million people in the United States, U.S. citizens and non-citizens. But the president says people should also worry about the cost of not reforming the health care system.

Let's bring in our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, for more on this part of the story -- Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, talk about running through money. Get this. In 2007, the U.S. spent $2.2 trillion on health care costs. Now, we broke that down.

It comes out to $7,421 per person in the United States. Or put that in other perspective. It's four times the amount of money the U.S. spends on education every year. And guess what? That number is only getting worse with costs skyrocketing.

Our spending as a nation on health care as a portion of our total economy, it's doubled since 1970. And the dollars that we're spending, they will double again in the next 10 years. We have got all the figures here. So, you know, President Obama has made the case that reforming the health care system will actually help bring down costs. He says it will be financially wise in the long run.

This was how the president kicked off the push for reform in March, you will remember.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Health care reform is no longer just a moral imperative; it's a fiscal imperative. If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy and get our federal budget under control, then we have to address the crushing costs of health care this year in this administration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: But it's been a tough sell, for two reasons.

One, it is impossible to prove how much any of these reforms could save the U.S. And, in any case, the government has to spend money up front to reform the system down the line.

So, you have got up-front costs with the promise of eventual savings, a very hard case to make to Americans who are struggling with financial problems of their own today. We will see how he takes on this issue tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we will see what kind of specifics he gets into tonight.

Jessica, thank you.

What the president will say tonight will impact every American, so Americans will be watching. And you will see that presidential address live right here at -- on CNN. Our coverage begins at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, the speech set to begin moments thereafter.

All the passengers appear to be safe, but only after their plane was hijacked and their hijackers threatened to blow the plane up. We have new details on this nightmare. We now know there were -- yes, there were Americans on board.

And Bill Clinton like you're rarely ever seen him -- he uses a sad occasion to open up about a rather dark affair that's personal to him and historic to the country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There was a full house today at New York's Lincoln Center for the memorial service for the longtime "CBS Evening News" anchor Walter Cronkite.

President Obama paid tribute to him, calling Cronkite -- and I'm quoting now -- "a voice of certainty in a world that was growing more uncertain."

And former President Bill Clinton remembered a gesture of kindness from Cronkite right at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I thought he was an astonishing man. And I liked his inquiring mind and caring heart.

And he did something for my family that was so simple. And, even now, it's hard for me to talk about. But, in a very tumultuous summer in our personal lives, 1998, we were up on Martha's Vineyard. And Walter Cronkite picked up the phone, and he said: "Betsy and I want you to go sailing with us, you and Hillary and Chelsea. We will just go out and sail around." He said, "Somebody might take a picture of it, but so what."

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: I will never forget that.

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: At the time, I could have done with a picture with Walter Cronkite.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: I...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: I say this because that wasn't something he had to do.

He was 81 years old. He was a good man. Yes, he was a great journalist, and he lived a fascinating life, which made him long to know and to understand and to share his knowledge and understanding.

He was almost painfully honest. One of the most interesting things to me about his autobiography and some personal conversations we had later about his role in trying to advance public discourse was what he thought about the limitations of television news, what he spent his whole life doing.

He said, "I did the best I could, but, really, I think people should read more newspapers."

(LAUGHTER) CLINTON: Can you imagine anybody else fessing up to that?

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: So, I'm here to say thanks to his family and to his wonderful late wife for a man who was important in all our lives, a great citizen, and a profoundly good human being.

That's just the way it was.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Walter Cronkite anchored "The CBS Evening News" from 1962 until 1981. He died in July at the age of 93.

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