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Afghanistan's President Responds to Allegations of Voter Fraud; ACORN Group in Trouble; RNC Chairman on Jimmy Carter's Racial Remarks

Aired September 19, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: The Afghan president responds to allegations of massive vote fraud. This hour, my exclusive interview with Hamid Karzai. I'll press him about the political turmoil and the military threat in his country right now, and what it all means for the United States.

Plus, a liberal activist group fires back, accusing conservative film makers of a setup. The ACORN worker caught offering help to a prostitution business says it was all just a joke.

And Jimmy Carter's explosive charge that many of President Obama's critics are driven by racism. The first black chairman of the Republican Party tells me Carter is flat out wrong.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, Afghanistan is reeling with violence and needs American and other troops to help stop the bloodshed. So it's not a good time to debate who should really be president of Afghanistan. But that is the question being asked around the world as the recent presidential election is marred by claims it was not fairs. Results of the completed count give President Hamid Karzid 54 percent of the vote. But the numbers won't be certified until authorities investigate allegations of widespread irregularities.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Kabul, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

Mr. President, thanks very much for joining us.

KARZAI: Thank you, Mr. President.

Good to talk to you.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about this election -- widespread allegations of massive fraud in Afghanistan. The European Union -- the observers suggest that perhaps one third of the ballots cast for you were, in their word, suspicious.

How can you lead Afghanistan if your own people suspect that you stole the election?

KARZAI: It's not our own people that suspect that. It's unfortunately, mainly in the international community that these allegations are coming and unfortunately, also mainly through the part of the international media.

In spite of that, my friend, the Afghan people turned out and voted. And I can assure you that the vote was true and fair. Of course, as in all other elections, more so in Afghanistan, because of the -- the new experiment, there's bound to be difficulties. There's bound to be irregularities. There's bound to be, also, cases of fraud.

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment and get to some specific examples, because it's not simply the news media that's making this up. These are allegations coming in from respected U.S. and European international observers, as well as people -- Afghan citizens themselves.

I'll give you a few examples. For example, we -- we have a photo and we're going to show it to our viewers of a 13-year-old walking in to a -- and voting. You're supposed to be 18 years old to vote. He admitted to being only 13. He doesn't look 18. We showed the picture. This is just one example. But there are a lot of example of this kind of stuff going on.

Who do you blame for this?

KARZAI: Well, if a 13-year-old Afghan boy came to cast his vote, that's neither his fault nor the fault of the Afghan people nor the fault of the Election Commission. It is the fault of circumstances. It is the fault of our collective inability to implement the age limit for election as we have described. And it is not fraud.

Fraud is when someone in authority or a candidate plans it ahead of time and implements it during the election on the election day. Now, if we, the international community, are talking about that, that is fraud, that has to be investigated.

BLITZER: I have in my hand a press release released from the Afghan Electoral Complaint -- Complaints Commission which says in the Kandahar Province, they have invalidated ballots in 51 polling stations -- stations right there -- because of irregularities. You're familiar with this allegation. That's -- this is from your own people.

KARZAI: That is -- that is possible. That is possible in parts of the country where there was no security, where there were rockets coming the whole day long.

Now, you mentioned Kandahar. Kandahar, from early morning until 1:30 in the afternoon, received 21 rockets. An 8-year-old girl was killed just next to my brother's house in Kandahar. And people were intimidated the whole day long.

But, even then, women turned out for the election early in the morning. People turned out for the election. They tried to vote to the best of their ability. I would speak of that.

Irregularities, in circumstances like that in Kandahar, or in other parts of the country where there was insecurity and attacks, it's very much likely and possible. That is, again, neither the fault of the Afghan people, nor the fault of the election process.

If we could not provide security to the Afghan people to vote the way the law describes, then we cannot blame them or the election itself, but the circumstances and our lack of ability to provide security, that is, the international community and the Afghan government.

BLITZER: Maybe I'm missing something, Mr. President, but what does security have to do with the possibility of ballot stuffing or voter fraud?

KARZAI: It has a lot to do with that. This means you don't have observers. This means you don't have international observers. This means you don't have observers from the candidates. This means the site is not secure. This means things like that can be done. BLITZER: Your chief political opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, was interviewed by me last week. And he -- he suggested that this alleged fraud had been in the works for a long time.

I want to play for you what Dr. Abdullah, your former foreign minister, said.


DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He has already tried to steal the elections. And it has been a state (INAUDIBLE) massive fraud prepared. In the past two years, preparations were made for this. I have absolutely no doubt about this.


BLITZER: He charges you personally with planning this fraud, in his words, for the past two years.

KARZAI: Well, he's a fellow Afghan and a candidate. I'm not going to go into a quarrel with a fellow Afghan over the election.

Once the election is over, once the independent election commission and the -- the complaints commission have given the results, investigating all the -- the -- the allegations of irregularities, of fraud, Afghanistan will go back to its normal life, like you did in the United States after the election.

And we will be fellow Afghans and -- and will live together. He, as an Afghan, will have a future in this country, will continue to be active in this country. So, I see that more as an election-time complaint, rather than something lasting. And -- and I'm not going to get into a dialogue or complaint exchange between two Afghans.

BLITZER: You could end this controversy right now on this program, Mr. President -- our viewers are watching in the United States and around the world -- if you agree to a runoff against Dr. Abdullah.

Are you prepared to accept that there should be another election, a runoff election between the top two candidates?

KARZAI: That has not -- that has not been my authority to do. That's no individual's authority to do. That's no foreign government's authority to do.

That has to be decided by the vote of the Afghan people. If the vote of the Afghan people is -- is inconclusive and in the direction of -- of a runoff, then, legitimately, that's what the Afghan constitution is asking for.

But, if that is not the case, taking it to a second round or a runoff by engineering it in that direction, that's in itself fraud, and not the right thing to do. And it's against the Afghan constitution. So, we -- we're -- we cannot -- we cannot claim a wrong and then commit another wrong in order to make a right.

BLITZER: Because if -- because if a third of the three million or so ballots that were cast for you are suspicious, in the words of the European Union observers, that would put you well below the 50 percent mark, which would require a runoff.

KARZAI: Well, we -- we -- we are investigating this by the European commission. The European commission itself, the configuration of that commission, the people in that commission are also being -- being studied as to who they are, where they come from.

This is something very serious. On both sides, we have to investigate as to what they have said.

BLITZER: Are you prepared, when all the dust settles, to form a national unity government, bringing in your political rivals, including Dr. Abdullah Abdullah?

KARZAI: As a compromise -- if the premise is that the election was wrong, so let's have a compromise to correct it, that in itself is a great atrocity against the Afghan people. No.

If the election is wrong, then it has to be redone all over again. But, as a national decision based on a legitimate election to take the country forward in harmony and to a better future of peace and stability, I have done that in the past. I will continue to do that.

I was accused, as a matter of fact, in the past seven years of being too much of a compromiser. And now I'm being asked to be more of a compromiser. That's a good thing, and I will continue to be.


BLITZER: Fields of gold. These poppy crops offer a fortune to drug dealers selling heroin. So what is Afghanistan's president doing to stop opium production in Afghanistan? His answer in part 2 of my exclusive interview, the interview with President Hamid Karzai. Stand by for that.

And assumed temp prostitute and politics. You've heard tales of illicit behavior at the liberal activist ACORN. Now ACORN's CEO is here to explain what's been caught on tape.

And Jimmy Carter says some people oppose President Barack Obama because he's not white. Now Republicans attack Jimmy Carter. Wait until you hear the party chairman, Michael Steele. He's here.


You just heard the Afghan President Hamid Karzai defend himself against accusations he stole the recent presidential election. In part 2 of my exclusive interview, the president talks about a major question many of you are concerned about and an issue confronting President Obama right now.


BLITZER: Let's talk about the military situation in Afghanistan right now.

There's increasing doubt here in the United States about the -- the war that's going on, less and less support for keeping U.S. troops there. And a lot of top administration and congressional leaders are saying, where is the Afghan army? Why isn't the Afghan army taking the lead in crushing the Taliban and al Qaeda? Why, eight years into this war, are you still so dependent on U.S. and NATO troops?

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: Well -- well, the Afghan army is growing well. It has been given the right support in the past some years.

But it's still not ready to the extent that it could take on the whole responsibility. That's why the international community is here, to engage in the struggle against terrorism and also to build the Afghan forces to be eventually able to stand on its own feet.

BLITZER: The United States now has committed six -- some 68,000 troops to Afghanistan.

How many more American troops do you think are necessary in order to get the job done?

KARZAI: Well, I don't have an answer for that. That's for the -- for the military experts to give an answer to. But my -- my view is that the increase in troops and all is not going to address our problems with regard to the war on terror, that it's -- it's working through the Afghan people, it's having the right developmental environment, it's building the capacity of the Afghan government, it's bringing trust from the countries in the region into what the United States and its allies in Afghanistan are doing and the consequences that it will have for the region.

So we have to basically start from a platform where we're not only having a direction that we know leads us to success, but also where we have the support and trust of the countries in the region and the powers in the world.

BLITZER: You had an excellent relationship with the former U.S. President, George W. Bush. But there are now reports it's not necessarily that excellent with President Obama, that there are serious strains, in part, because of some of the steps that you, yourself, have taken.

How would you describe your relationship with President Obama? KARZAI: I had an excellent relationship with -- with President Bush, of which I'm very happy, which -- which I value. I have a lot of respect for President Obama, who's -- who's began somehow to come to -- to -- to a resolution in the United States in terms of new thinking because ideologically, he has my full backing and support. And I'm sure we will have a very productive relationship in the interests of both countries and in the interests of the common interests of us freeing the world from terror and violence.

BLITZER: What's the big difference between President Bush and President Obama in dealing with you?

KARZAI: Well, one knew me personally and engaged with me as such. The other president is just into office for a short time now and we were, through a process of correction and there was this tension between us -- Afghanistan and the United States of the issue of civilian casualties and the issue the conducting of operations, that strained relations exactly at the time of the transition of power from the Republican administration to the Democratic administration.

Now, that is I hope, as far as we -- Afghanistan is concerned, behind us. We're looking forward to and when I'm confirmed as the president to the next five years of a constructive relationship, of a relationship in which there is agreements reached through mutual dialogue and -- and consensus in which the -- the measured progress is achieved by adopting policies that we have agreed upon through a common compact among us.

BLITZER: Every time you and I speak -- and we've been speaking now for about seven or eight years, Mr. President, I always ask you about the problem of opium -- the -- the poppy crop in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the world's largest supplier of opium. Lots of money at stake right now in Afghanistan; indeed, around the world.

You always tell me you need more time, you're working on the problem. But it seems to be getting worse and worse and worse. And some have suggested, either you can't deal with it or you don't want to deal with it.

What's the answer?

KARZAI: Well, if you read the latest U.N. report on the poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, 22 provinces have now been declared almost entirely poppy free or are a significant reduction in them, that even the province of Helmand has seen a 33 percent decrease, that the Afghan government's campaign against poppy cultivation has been successful.

That, as we move forward, there is proper resources and implementation of a common plan between us and the international community there will be better success. So as far as Afghanistan is concerned and the Afghan government is concerned, we are successful. Where the international community is concerned, we have -- we have issues there, we've views there and we think money has been wasted. BLITZER: Mr. President, when I interviewed Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, your chief political rival, last week, he made a specific allegation on this whole drug war issue involving your brother in Kandahar.

I'm going to play for you what Dr. Abdullah said.


ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think there are a lot of allegations about his brother, Wali Karzai, in Kandahar. There are a lot of evidences provided, international media. International organizations have been talking about it.

So even if that's the rumor, this has to be stopped. In this, he has to come clean about it.


BLITZER: Mr. President, is your brother a drug trafficker?

KARZAI: Well, of course not. But I'm not going to engage, as I told you earlier, with a fellow Afghan on an international media. So I will just not respond to that.

BLITZER: Mr. President, a lot is at stake right now for the Afghan people, for the U.S. its friends around the world.

Good luck in Afghanistan.

A lot of people are watching right now to make sure it works out, because the stakes are so enormous.

Thanks so much for joining us.

KARZAI: It will be all right. And thanks for the help from the United States.

And thank you, Mr. Blitzer, for your always good interviews.


BLITZER: We have a programming note. Christiane Amanpour reveals the struggle for hearts and minds of the next generation of Muslims and what happens in Gaza and Afghanistan, how that could impact all of us. Christiane Amanpour reports "Generation Islam", CNN special event coming up later tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

A liberal activist group caught in a video sting. It says it was a setup by filmmakers with a political agenda. This hour, ACORN responds in the controversy involving a bogus pimp and prostitute.

Also ahead, Jimmy Carter sets off a firestorm. And President Obama tries to calm things down. Is racism a factor in the political attacks on the President of the United States?


BLITZER: The embattled advocacy group ACORN is ordering an independent investigation after two employees were caught on tape appearing to give illegal advice to a couple posing as a prostitute and a pimp. Now another undercover video has surfaced . This one shows a worker talking about prostitution and murder, but the worker on the tape says it's not what it seems. The claim that's backed up in part by police reports.

Let's go to CNN's Abbie Boudreau of our special investigations unit. '

Abbie, what's on this new tape?

ABBIE BOUDREAU, SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT: Well, this new tape is very similar to many of the other ones. This couple spend the summer going around the country posing as a pump and a prostitute, dropping in on ACORN housing offices in various cities, asking for help, and setting up a fictitious brothel. Now we have tape number four, some calling it the strangest of the bunch.


BOUDREAU: This undercover sting was shot in San Bernardino, California. Same story line as the other three videos. The filmmakers pose as a pimp and a prostitute, asking for ACORN's help to set up a brothel to fund a future political campaign.

The ACORN responds by claiming that she too once ran a prostitution service, though now she says, she was just playing games with the filmmakers.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well Heidi Fleiss is my hero.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I understand, and believe me, I do know, because I used to employ girls that would do this, because they didn't care. I had people would take care of every little wish. You know, every fantasy.

BOUDREAU: And ACORN worker doesn't stop there. She also tells the pair she killed her ex-husband in self-defense.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I shot him. I shot him and I just picked up the gun and said (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you. And I shot him. And he died right there.

BOUDREAU: However, the San Bernardino police department looked into the woman's claim to be a killer and issued this statement. "The claims do not appear to be factual. Investigators have been in contact with the involved party's known former husbands, who are alive and well. The pair, who shot this and the other videos, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles are both conservative activists and don't try to hide the fact that they're on a mission to take down ACORN, group that's been the subject of serious allegations of corruption and election fraud. ACORN is fighting back just as hard.

It provided CNN with a sworn statement from the woman in the most recent video where she tries to explain herself. She says, "I told them several times that ACORN would not support what they were doing in any way. The woman also denies ever having run a call girl service saying "I felt like they were playing games with me, so I proceed to play games with them.


BOUDREAU: The woman in the video that you just saw says she has no idea that he was being taped. We have reached out to her. At this point, we're hoping to speak with her very soon. Wolf?

BLITZER: Have you been able, Abbie, to speak with these two film makers?

BOUDREAU: Yeah, we have been trying to talk to them from the very beginning but they have not returned repeated calls from CNN. Also we want to reiterate, that these videos were edited together. We have not seen the unedited versions. And Wolf, it's also important to note at least four of the workers from the previous tapes have been fired from their jobs. ACORN announced just today, Wolf, that it's putting a hold on new hires and retraining its workers so they don't make the same kinds of mistakes we've seen over the past few days. Wolf?

BLITZER: Abbie Boudreau, thanks very much. ACORN is community organizing group. Let's get some more background on exactly what is does. Drew Griffin of CNN's Special Investigations Unit is joining us.

You've spent a lot of time looking at this group, Drew. What exactly does ACORN do?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT CORRESPONDENT: You know, you can't think of ACORN as one entity, Wolf. And that is decidedly part of the problem that ACORN is having with itself. And I'll get to that in a minute. But it's really like hundreds of various agencies, corporations, non profits and even partisan political groups that all work under this umbrella of ACORN.

Yes, they do help people with low-income housing. Yes, they do help modify mortgages. Yes, they do some good things. But there's also a lot of political things that they do and a lot of other things that they do. Voter registration drives that have come into question. And internally, ACORN has been having a lot of problems as of late.

BLITZER: And as we just heard, ACORN does have a lot of problems. There's been a lot of controversy over the past year or so. What is else is part of the controversy beyond these current videotapes?

GRIFFIN: It all has to do with the organization of ACORN. We reported on an internal 14-page memo that ACORN had done of itself last summer, Wolf. It looked at how this organization was put together. And quite frankly, the summation of that memo was we've got sloppy accountability. We've got sloppy accounting problems. ACORN is still suffering from an embezzlement eight years ago, that was just found out last year by one of its leaders. It has multiple investigations going on of its voter registration drives. And we've seen various prosecutions taking place all across the country.

And when I interviewed the CEO of ACORN last December, I think it was, Bertha Lewis, along with the executive committee, she acknowledged that her organization is in deep organizational trouble. They hired anti-trust attorneys. They hired accountants. They hired a full management review. They basically were saying, they were going to clean up their act, Wolf, much the way they say they're going to clean up their act again today, a full top to bottom review. I'd like to find out what exactly happened with that review.

BLITZER: All right, Drew, thank you.

And under fire in the wake of the scandalous hidden camera videos. Now the head of ACORN is here to talk about the tape that shows some of her workers giving advice on how to run a prostitution ring.

Plus, former President Jimmy Carter alleging that there's widespread racism against President Obama. We're going to hear from him and from Republican party chairman Michael Steele, who says the former president is simply wrong.


BLITZER: And welcome back. We just heard about all those widespread allegations against the liberal activist group acorn. Now let's get the other side from ACORN's CEO Bertha Lewis.


BLITZER: Ms. Lewis, thanks very much for coming in.

BERTHA LEWIS, CEO, ACORN: thanks for having me.

BLITZER: what about that top to bottom review you promised drew?

It -- it looks like there's still some problems there -- very serious problems.

LEWIS: well, drew is absolutely right. I took over last year as the CEO and totally revamping the management structure, our financial control. And he's right. We have been implementing this now and we've been a full year into it, getting down into the weeds on this, absolutely.

You'll -- as drew can tell you, when we saw these videos -- reprehensible, indefensible.

BLITZER: how could that happen?

LEWIS: well, I think...

BLITZER: I mean these are acorn employees.

LEWIS: I think what -- what the full story is -- and, hopefully, you guys will get the unedited tapes. You will see that this sort of notorious crew went around to dozens of our offices. What you don't see is the offices that threw them out, offices that filed complete -- police complaints...

BLITZER: but there are some rotten...

LEWIS: ...and so what you had...

BLITZER: ...rotten apples out there.

LEWIS: I have over 700 employees. And I would be the first to say, under my watch, this is unacceptable, these are not our standards and our practices. And let me make -- add, because of our quality control, not one application, not one document, not one shred of paper was ever filed or put in for these people. As soon as we found out in our board they were terminated and I began to institute a review of this, because we were concerned about putting other things together.

But you know what?

I have to thank -- I have to thank the undercover folks, because they sort of did us a good service. This is what we are all -- also adding to our -- our overhaul.

BLITZER: do you believe that some of those videotapes were doctored or edited?

LEWIS: oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

BLITZER: because I'm going to play a little clip for you.

LEWIS: absolutely.

BLITZER: show me where this could have been doctored.

LEWIS: well...

BLITZER: but let's watch it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: your business is as a performing artist?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: a performing artist?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ok, so you're not lying. It's a little play on words.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: that's kind of boosting my ego.





So stop saying busted (ph).

Unidentified male: go it.



BLITZER: All right, that was in the Baltimore office of...

LEWIS: right.

BLITZER: ...of acorn.

What -- where -- where was that doctored or edited, if you will?

LEWIS: well, first of all, you didn't see the entire unedited version. You saw a very small clip. Also, you see...

BLITZER: but was that little unedited clip accurate?

LEWIS: and that little -- that little piece that we saw, this was...

BLITZER: did that woman cooperate with this sting operation?

LEWIS: that -- well, first of all, she never filed out anything. But that woman was terminated immediately. This is just not with our values. And whether or not they were duped or stupid doesn't matter. That kind of thing cannot go on. This is why people were terminated quite quickly. And this is why we are instituting...

BLITZER: so...

LEWIS: ...a top to bottom review. BLITZER: so you say they actually did you a favor, these -- these filmmakers -- by going out there and finding these bad apples. But you want...


BLITZER: in the past, your people have suggested you want to sue these guys. LEWIS: well, here's the thing. In certain states, you can only tape people with their permission. You have to have both parties.

BLITZER: on telephone calls.

LEWIS: and telephone calls, too.

BLITZER: on telephone calls.

But could you...

LEWIS: but not in video. And...

BLITZER: you can't go in?

LEWIS: and in Maryland, you can't do this audio at all. So our lawyers are looking to go after Mr. O'Keefe, who has done this before and admits he is a right-wing conservative videographer who does things like this.

And, you know, we are going to make sure that all of the tapes get out and have -- and seek to stop this kind of thing.

BLITZER: are you open to an external review right now, because there's talk not only of federal, but state and local authorities -- they want to investigate acorn and find what else is going on given all this commotion.

LEWIS: well, ever since last year these kinds of things have come up, you know...

BLITZER: but now the FBI director says he's -- Robert Mueller, he's open -- he -- he's thinking about an investigation.

LEWIS: well, maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But here's...

BLITZER: Mayor Bloomberg of New York says this Brooklyn operation...

LEWIS: and we will -- well...

BLITZER: ...he wants -- he wants an investigation.

LEWIS: and here's what we think. If they investigate this incident, I think it would be good. Again, when you tell the truth, tell the whole truth. Show everything. Show the tapes where people were thrown out. Show the tapes where this doesn't work. And also show the tapes where, at the end of this conversation, people were -- said we really can't assist you.

BLITZER: the senate has now voted this week 83-7 to suspend all federal funding for acorn. And it's going to go to the house. And I assume it's going to be a lopsided vote there. You're going to be cut off from federal money. That's going to hurt acorn.

LEWIS: well, let me just say this. It's going to hurt the people that we were giving services to...

BLITZER: how much do you get...

LEWIS: here's...

BLITZER: ...from the federal government?

LEWIS: here's what we do. We've been...

BLITZER: how much do you get a year?

LEWIS: on average, probably around $2 million across the entire organization...

BLITZER: so if you get zero from the federal government...

LEWIS: it's not going to stop our core work of fighting foreclosures, for affordable health care, making sure that people get paid sick days, making sure that our neighborhoods are safe -- the core work that we have been doing for 40 years.

Now, would we like for this not to happen?

Of course. But given our budget and given our core work, we're going to continue.

LEWIS: the census bureau says they don't want to cooperate with you anymore, looking ahead to the 2010 census. A lot of us remember the controversy over the voter registration -- you know, people signing up as Mickey Mouse or King Kong, all of that. It was pretty outrageous last year...

LEWIS: well, with all due respect...

BLITZER: ...some of that voter registration.

LEWIS: well, some of that voter registration was outrageous.

But guess what?

The same thing happened then that just happened now. When some employee of ours does something outrageous, they are terminated. The same instance for voter registration. Right now in Florida, all 11 of those folks, we turned them in, as we did across the country. And in time and time again, we've been vindicated.

BLITZER: what's the next shoe...

LEWIS: let me just...

BLITZER: what's the next shoe that's going to drop...

LEWIS: well...

BLITZER: far as acorn?

I mean, you're the boss, right?

The bucks stops with...

LEWIS: I absolutely am.

BLITZER: the buck stops with you.

LEWIS: right here.

BLITZER: and you've been there for, what, a year?

LEWIS: I've been the CEO for almost a year.

BLITZER: all right. So you've got to clean up this acorn house...

LEWIS: that's right.

BLITZER: and you've got a major responsibility...

LEWIS: and I'm doing it. That's right.

BLITZER: there's a lot of problems out there.

LEWIS: well, here you go. Any corporation that has 700 employees are -- are bound to have some problems. However, we are committed to re-establishing the public trust. As we've said before, we will do whatever is necessary, just as we've implemented other changes. We're not done yet.

But it is rather peculiar that, with all of the allegations that have made -- been made against us, someone would have to fabricate a scenario like this.

But you know something, wolf, this is not going to stop our core work. We are still going to organize low and moderate income folks despite what our critics say.

BLITZER: since taking office...

LEWIS: yes?

BLITZER: the CEO of acorn, how many people have you fired?

LEWIS: well, given this past round...

BLITZER: with the...

LEWIS: ...(INAUDIBLE) got fired...

BLITZER: in terms of voter fraud...

LEWIS: probably...

BLITZER: and in terms of the videotapes right now?

LEWIS: well, with all of the voter folks, we had 18,000 workers. Maybe about 100 of those were let go, which we (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: those were part-time workers who went out and did (INAUDIBLE)?

LEWIS: so those folks...

BLITZER: of the...

LEWIS: ...and maybe about 20 other people.

BLITZER: of the 700 full-time employees?

LEWIS: about 20 other people since I took over.

BLITZER: and they've been fired because of?

LEWIS: either incompetence, they weren't doing their job. You know, I didn't feel as though they would be able to come into the new acorn and do things in a professional manner. They did not meet our standards.

BLITZER: because even the white house today -- Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, he described acorn's activities on these tapes as completely unacceptable.

LEWIS: and we agree. And that's why they were terminated. And anyone else that we find to do such a thing...

BLITZER: if the house...

LEWIS: ...done.

BLITZER: ...isn't cleaned, at what point do you decide you know what, I have to resign?

LEWIS: no. Here's the thing. I've been with acorn almost 20 some years. I am always going to make sure that we serve low and moderate income people of color. I will clean this house. It is being done now. And I -- and here's what I would like. I'll come back in three months and you can look at what we've done.

BLITZER: and you -- and you think in the next three months, we're not going to see more of this controversy?

LEWIS: I hope we don't see any other undercover tapes. I don't know any corporation that can...

BLITZER: and if...

LEWIS: ...guard against any...

BLITZER: and if we do see more of this?

LEWIS: then bring it to light and you will see what action we take.

BLITZER: but the buck will stop with you (INAUDIBLE)?

LEWIS: the buck always stops here.

BLITZER: you've got a major mission out there.

LEWIS: I really do. Yes, I do. But we're not going to stop organizing.

BLITZER: all right. Bertha Lewis.

We're going to watch acorn and see what you do, because...

LEWIS: yes.

BLITZER: ...I think the whole country is watching right now.

LEWIS: and that's a good thing. And we want the country to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

BLITZER: Bertha Lewis is the CEO of ACORN.

Thanks for coming in.

LEWIS: thank you.


BLITZER: President Obama has been the target of angry protests and bitter words. Are his critics driven by politics or racism? Former President Jimmy Carter unleashes a red hot debate.

And on the question of race, the republican party chairman and president Obama actually see eye to eye. Stand by to hear Michael stele's response to Jimmy Carter's bombshell.

And we're serving up pie and noodles. Yes, it's coming up in our hot shots.


BLITZER: Former President Jimmy Carter says he's very disturbed by the tone of some of the most heated criticism aimed at President Obama. He says much of it comes from racism. Listen to what he told anchor Brian Williams on the "NBC Nightly News."


Carter: an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity towards President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that's he's African-American. I live in the south and I've seen the south come a long way. And I've seen the rest of the country that share the south's attitude towards minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans. That racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface, because of a belief among many white people, not just in the south, but around the country that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.


BLITZER: A very serious charge by the former U.S. president. And now Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele is here with his reaction. Does he think Jimmy Carter is right about a racist attitude against President Obama?

And please be sure to watch "state of the union with john king tomorrow. President Obama will be his guest. State of the union airs at 9:00 a.m. Eastern right here on CNN.


BLITZER: you just heard from former president Jimmy Carter, saying there's a racist tone in some of the criticism of President Obama. But some Obama critics sharply disagree, including the chairman of the republican party.


Michael Steele, is joining us now.

Mr. Chairman, thanks for coming in.


Good to be with you, buddy.

BLITZER: what do you want to say to the former president?

STEELE: well, I'll make it as short and sweet and simple as possible -- you're just dead wrong. I think the president's interpretation of what racism is is not a reflection of what this is about. And the reality of it is, this is about policy -- differences in how we approach solving some of these issues that we're confronting on health care and the economy.

And the fact that there are citizens around the country -- I don't care what color they are -- that are outraged or -- or confused or concerned or whatever, however they come to this debate, you know, that has nothing to do with the color of the president's skin.

I am, like a lot of Americans, concerned and disagree with the president's policies and approaches, from the stimulus spending to this health care strategy.

BLITZER: but -- but...

STEELE: am I racist because I disagree with that?

BLITZER: but there is...

STEELE: I don't think so.

BLITZER: there is an element -- a tiny element, I should say, a small fringe element out there -- and you're sensitive to this, I think -- that -- that does have racist views of the president.

STEELE: well, look, hey, they have the racist views about me. I mean they're -- they're racist, if that's the case. But that has not been the nature of this policy debate. And that's where I have the problem with the president's comments, because he's elevated it to the point that is it now, you know, a reaction to everything. Everybody who has this negative approach or view on this subject is a racist. And that's not where we are. That's not where the country is. And I just thought that the president was out of line. And I think that he takes this to a point and to a level that is not reflective of what's been transpiring in this debate.

BLITZER: the...

STEELE: my second concern, wolf, is that when you go down that road, when you just look behind every corner and see race and racism -- now, that's not to say it doesn't exist. Lord knows it still does. And I've had a problem with this post-racial attitude that some in the Obama campaign, now in the administration, have tried to -- to hoist out there. But when you go down this road and you start just willy- nilly, as I believe president carter has, throwing race out there, you diminish real instances of race...

BLITZER: all right...

STEELE: ...racism that needs to be addressed.

BLITZER: let -- let me point out what Maureen dowdy, "The New York Times" columnist, she wrote a very powerful column last sunday. She had another one out today. And today she suggests that -- and she has an interview with James Clyburn, the congressman from South Carolina, the highest ranking African-American in the U.S. Congress, Democrat. He's the whip.

And she writes this: "over the years, Clyburn tried to look past things that bothered him" -- referring to Joe Wilson, the congressman who screamed "you lie" to the president. "Wilson's membership in some groups that call into question his feelings about this whole notion of white supremacy and his defense of the confederate flag flying above the Columbia, South Carolina statehouse."

It's not just Jimmy Carter, it's Maureen Dowdy and others who are suggesting this racial...

STEELE: yes, it is...

BLITZER: ...overtone is out there.

STEELE: it is (INAUDIBLE). Oh, yes, it is this wonderful ivory tower liberal elite who think they know racism better than I do, who think they understand what it's like better than I do...

BLITZER: but...

STEELE: ...that they know...

BLITZER: but James Clyburn...

STEELE: better than I see it.

BLITZER: ...understands what racism...

STEELE: and the reality of it is...

BLITZER: James Clyburn understands racism, right?

STEELE: well, yes. But James Clyburn's -- James Clyburn's experience is different from mine. I don't hear someone call an individual a liar and immediately jump to racism. And so that's the problem.

This generation of Americans don't do that. Dr. King laid a foundation that we have progressed from, where we are better at distinguishing vestiges of racism that exist in this country. And so when you step back and you try to wrap around the way Clyburn, Carter and Maureen are trying to do, I think it is disingenuous and it -- it negates...

BLITZER: you know...

STEELE: ...real effective approaches to solving racism where it is.

BLITZER: this was the statement that congressman -- Democratic Congressman Henry Johnson of South Carolina made. And it -- it's causing a lot of consternation out there, as well.

Listen to this.


REP. HENRY "HANK" JOHNSON (D), GEORGIA: it instigated more racist sentiment, feeling that it's ok, you don't have to -- you don't have to bury it now, you can bring it out and talk about it fully. And so I guess we'll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside intimidating people.


BLITZER: wow! That's a -- that's a pretty powerful statement he's making.

STEELE: I think...

BLITZER: what do...

STEELE:'s an ignorant statement. I think it's an ignorant statement, I'm sorry. That is just so -- it is just beyond my comprehension that you jump from a -- a member of congress who blurted out in an emotional response to something the president said to all of a sudden people are going to be running through the neighborhoods wearing white sheets and hoods. I'm sorry. It just, to me, it's beyond anyone's comprehension that you can make that leap. But that again makes my point.

And so, you know, I'm where the president is on this. Now, the president of the united states said, on many occasions, that matters of race, whether we are having a discussion or we're trying to solve a problem, is a teachable moment. I think that teachable moment -- that classroom right now should have carter and Clyburn and others in it, so they understand what the president and I understand. And that is there's a very fine distinction between what we heard...

BLITZER: all right...

STEELE: that hall last week and what we're hearing right now.

BLITZER: congressman...

STEELE: and this, to me...

BLITZER: congressman...

STEELE: the problem.

BLITZER: congressman Johnson, I should correct, is from Georgia, not from South Carolina. But you have to admit, if you take a look at some of those rallies, there were some really racist pictures out there. And we'll put a few of them up there on the screen -- a video showing -- or pictures of -- of the president of the united states as an African witch doctor, if you will. There -- there it is right there. There were -- there were these kinds of racist images that were projected at some of those rallies.

STEELE: you know, look, that's inappropriate and misplaced. That's what that -- how that person may have interpreted it. But that, for every one of those, wolf, there were 70, 80, 100, 1,000 other signs that weren't that. And so this is -- this is the distinction I think we need to understand. Don't hold up one person as an example of behavior by everyone, because that's not what we're talking about here.

BLITZER: Michael stele is the chairman of the republican national committee.


BLITZER: coming up, when lightning strikes, stand by for our "hot shots."


BLITZER: here's a look at some of this week's hot shots, pictures often worth 1,000 words. In New York, a woman smiles as she earns a spot in the Guinness world records for participating in the world's largest pie fight. In Mexico, lightning darts across the sky during a storm. In Pakistan, workers prepare noodles for the upcoming celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan. Also in Pakistan, girls display their colorful hands decorated with henna. "hot shots," as I say, pictures worth 1,000 words.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us weekdays in "THE SITUATION ROOM" from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern and every Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN and at this time every weekend on CNN International.

Don't forget John King interviews President Obama. Tune in tomorrow morning, 9:00 a.m. Eastern for "STATE OF THE UNION."

The news continues next right here on CNN.