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War Strategy in Afghanistan; Deadly Earthquake and Tsunamis; Iran's Nuclear Confrontation

Aired September 30, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the commander-in-chief in his Situation Room with his top guns on national security. And the future of the war in Afghanistan right now on the line.

This hour, the president's options and the conflicting advice he may be getting right now.

Plus, Michelle Obama takes no prisoners. She's in Denmark ahead of her husband promoting Chicago to host the Olympic games, but opponents are speaking out and acting up.

And a new health care shocker on the House floor. A freshman Democrat says Republicans want you to "die quickly if you get sick." Will he respond to demands for an apology?

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


In the White House right now, President Obama and his national security team, they have been meeting for about an hour. They are on the ground floor behind closed doors in the White House Situation Room. It's a who's who of political and military power players, and they are advising the president on one of his biggest decisions yet -- should he change his war strategy in Afghanistan? The answer could have a huge impact on the Obama administration and on the lives of tens of thousands of American troops.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

All right, Dan. Set the scene.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, the White House really sees this as a critical meeting for the president as he determines the way forward in Afghanistan. This is the second of five such meetings, and we're told by aides that it's expected to last about three hours.

A closed-door high-stakes effort with one big question -- should the U.S. send in more troops?


LOTHIAN (voice-over): It's a heavyweight meeting in the secure Situation Room, President Obama and 18 others on his national security team focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, divided on how to proceed. Vice President Biden, Secretaries of State and Defense Clinton and Gates, Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, U.S. Central Command General Petraeus, and the top commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, beamed in via teleconference.

In weighing the options, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, says three critical elements should not be ignored.


ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN: Pakistan cannot be our friend, on the one hand, receive our (ph) sense, as they do, but also allow groups that are attacking the coalition forces to operate from their territory.

LOTHIAN: More troops to weed out terrorists and extremists and protect the Afghan people. And once the contested Afghan election results are settled, a new agreement on expectations.

KHALILZAD: To make sure the Afghan government does its part, because we cannot succeed if we don't have a good Afghan partner.

LOTHIAN: President Obama outlined his plan for Afghanistan in March. Now his reassessment is fueling criticism that he's second-guessing his own strategy, having doubts.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), MINORITY LEADER: And all of this waiting and doubting does nothing more than arm the enemy with more information and more time in order to further destabilize the country of Afghanistan.

LOTHIAN: But the White House says it's not about doing this quickly, but doing it right, and that a decision on how to proceed will not be based on politics.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is going to make the decision that he feels is in the best interest of the United States' national security.

LOTHIAN: But ignoring a growing public sentiment against deeper involvement in Afghanistan may not be easy, especially in light of a recent CNN poll that shows 58 percent of Americans oppose the war. Just 39 percent support it.


LOTHIAN: The former ambassador to Afghanistan says that fewer troops on the ground would only help the insurgency to thrive and hurt national security in the long run, but clearly there is that thinking that -- supported by the vice president that more targeted troops such as Special Ops and unmanned attacks from the air would be more effective. So, this and other issues are being discussed privately here at the White House, Wolf, and the White House saying that a decision could come within weeks.

BLITZER: We'll watch it very, very closely and see what's happening.

All right, Dan. Thanks very much.

Also this hour, we're following two huge natural disasters.

In Indonesia, at least 75 people are dead from a major earthquake, but thousands more may be trapped in collapsed buildings and houses. The 7.6 quake struck outside of the capital of West Sumatra earlier today. The tremors were felt as far away as Singapore and Malaysia.

In the Samoan islands, at least 111 people are confirmed dead after a powerful earthquake unleashed a tsunami yesterday. Villages were flattened and cars and people were swept out to sea by waves up to 20 feet high. It's being described as one of the worst disasters ever in the U.S. territory of American Samoa, part of the island chain in the South Pacific.

President Obama has ordered emergency aid.


BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My deepest sympathies are with families who have lost loved ones and the many people whose lives who have been affected by the earthquake and the tsunami. To aid in the response, I've declared this a major disaster to speed the deployment of resources. And FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is working closely with emergency responders on the ground, and the Coast Guard is helping to provide immediate help to those in need.

We also stand ready to help our friends in neighboring Samoa and throughout the region, and we'll continue to monitor this situation closely as we keep the many people who have been touched by this tragedy in our thoughts and in our prayers.


BLITZER: We have iReports coming this from American Samoa showing areas simply turned upside down by the tsunami.

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

Abbi, show our viewers what we're seeing.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: We're talking about American Samoa here. Twenty-two killed is the latest number, and the search -- the recovery efforts are still going on here.

A lot of the devastation is in the capital. It's the town of Pago Pago, which is all around a harbor right here, as can you see. Sailboats moored in the harbor, buildings alongside, right along the coastline, very flat.

Now let's show you some of the pictures of what happens when this repeated walls of water came in. Sailboats that were moored in the harbor, they were picked up, carried onto land. We've heard today that divers are looking for another sailboat that's believed to have sunk. Cars picked up and carried, tossed around as if they were toys.

Take a look at this. You can imagine the force of the water that carried this vehicle and wedged it into the window of a building. And the buildings, some of them utterly devastated.

I want to show you Pago Plaza here. This is the back of this plaza. Stores, offices, it's where people work. People were going to work early in the morning yesterday, absolutely devastated.

And take a look at inside what people are trying to clean up now. It looks like a bomb went off, is what Melanie Brown (ph) said, who took this photo here. Absolute utter devastation in this capital area, which is just really a small town around the bay.

BLITZER: It is. I know you've been speaking to people in other parts of the islands out there. What do they say?

TATTON: Well, they are saying they are just in disbelief because the destruction is so isolated. If you take a look at the island here, Pago Pago is in the center there. There's another village that was really wiped out, Corleone (ph), which is in the southwest. But other people I've talked to who are elsewhere and higher ground on the islands say that they still have running water, they still have electricity. So, it's just so amazing that they go a couple of miles down the road, and there is just utter devastation.

BLITZER: Yes. Our heart goes out to all those folks. We're going to have much more on this coming up.

Abbi, thank you.

Take a look at the images of devastation in American Samoa. Just ahead, I'll speak with the iReporter who took these pictures about what he's seen and what he's going through right now.

Stand by for that.

By the way, about 65,000 people live in American Samoa. The United States took control of the territory in the late 19th century as part of a treaty with Germany.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: When it comes to the case of film director Roman Polanski, a lot of our so-called Hollywood celebrities seem to be out of touch. Again.

Polanski was arrested on his way to a film festival in Switzerland on a U.S. warrant that dates to 1977 and a child sex charge. He pled guilty to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. She was 13 years old. He served 42 days in prison here, then he fled the United States for France before he could be sentenced. The award-winning director of movies like "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby" now sits in a prison cell in Switzerland, which is where he belongs, but Polanski's lawyers are fighting his extradition back to the U.S., as are more than 100 Hollywood types who have signed a petition against Polanski's arrest, people like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

Actress Debra Winger says it's a "three-decades-old case that is dead but for minor technicalities." Yes. One technicality is he fled the country to avoid sentencing after officials claimed that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl.

Whoopi Goldberg, who is a friend of mine, says that Polanski didn't commit "rape" rape, whatever the hell that means. And Harvey Weinstein says Polanski was the victim of "a miscarriage of justice."

Hey, Harvey. He pled guilty.

California officials have kept the pressure on for all this time and insist that they will not bow to pressure from Hollywood.

How would you feel if it had been your 13-year-old daughter? I've got four daughters. I know how I would have felt.

Here's the question then. What message does it send when some people in Hollywood don't think director Roman Polanski should be punished for a 1977 child sex charge that he pled guilty to?

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

BLITZER: A lot of outrage over this, and especially over some of the Hollywood reaction, as you've been discussing, Jack.

CAFFERTY: It's like, what are they smoking out there? They really don't get it, do they?

BLITZER: No. A lot of them don't. You're absolutely right.

All right, Jack. Thank you.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets a taste of the ultimate power.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I kind of like being a president, so this may go on a little longer than anticipated.


BLITZER: All right. Just ahead, Secretary Clinton's light moment in the midst of a very sobering discussion affecting women and girls all over the world.

And a former U.S. negotiator admits sanctions against Iran have as many holes as Swiss cheese. Will a confrontation with Iran tomorrow change that? And Michelle Obama's strategy for trying to bring the Olympic games to Chicago. We're going to tell you how she's lobbying Olympic officials and setting the stage for her husband.


BLITZER: Iran's hard-line regime is just hours away from a new confrontation over its nuclear ambitions. The country's nuclear negotiators meet tomorrow with representatives of the United States and five other U.N. Security Council nations. The talks in Switzerland could set the stage for new international sanctions against Iran. This, just days after the disclosure that Iran had been hiding a second uranium enrichment site.

Let's bring in our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty.

Jill, this is a huge challenge for the Obama administration.


You know, this meeting is just a first step, and depending on how it turns out, we could be looking at the international community making life very difficult for Iran.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): How does President Barack Obama convince Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give up what the U.S. says are its nuclear weapons ambitions? As Iran's negotiators depart Tehran for high-stakes talks in Geneva, a skeptical U.S. and its allies demand Iran answer questions on its nuclear program. If it doesn't, Washington is threatening drastic international sanctions.

CLINTON: We obviously are doing everything we can with others in the international community to make the choices to Iran very clear.

DOUGHERTY: But Iran has been under economic sanctions for 30 years, measures targeting things like banking, trade and investment in Iran. So, why hasn't it worked?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FMR. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: They are Swiss cheese sanctions.

DOUGHERTY: The former lead negotiator for the U.S. on Iran tells CNN countries like Russia have been dragging their feet.

BURNS: They have continued to sell arms. They didn't apply the same kind of tough-minded attitude that Britain and France and the United States did. And so I think there's an open question, and I'm rather skeptical that Russia is going to be likeminded, ultimately, ,with the United States and Britain and France on this issue.

DOUGHERTY: Now administration officials say they are preparing an arsenal of beefed-up sanctions, including stopping foreign investment in Iran's aging oil and gas pipelines and its oil tankers; freezing assets of individual Iranians active in weapons proliferation or terrorist activity; stopping illegal movements of sensitive dual-use technology to Iran, things like aircraft and computers; cracking down on exports of gasoline to Iran.

But some experts caution economic self-interests could torpedo even these tougher sanctions.

STEVEN WEISMAN, PETERSON INST. FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: China is the fastest-growing economy in the world. They desperately need these natural resources to sustain their growth, to sustain their employment, and keep China a stable place. That is the absolute priority of the Chinese leadership.


DOUGHERTY: And there are two small but significant gestures -- Iran letting Swiss representatives visit those American hikers that they are holding, and the U.S. allowing Iran's foreign minister to make a rare visit to Washington.

But Wolf, no one here in Washington seems very optimistic about this first meeting.

BLITZER: Yes. It's going to be really, really tough. And we'll see what happens after that.

We're going to be speaking, by the way, in our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour about this and more with the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

Jill Dougherty, thank you.

Hillary Clinton getting a taste of more power at the United Nations today while addressing a problem for women and girls around the world.

Let's go to CNN's Richard Roth. He's at the U.N. watching this story.

Richard, what happened?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SR. U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the United Nations now has a new envoy to investigate sexual crimes against women, and the woman who presided over the vote to accomplish all of this was Hillary Clinton.


ROTH (voice-over): Hillary Clinton has long admired the goals of the United Nations. A meeting on violence against women brought the U.S. secretary of state to the Security Council, and the fortunate timing of the United States serving as the leader of the meeting gave Clinton a chance to achieve one of her personal goals.

CLINTON: I resume now my function as president of the council. I kind of like being a president, so I...

(LAUGHTER) CLINTON: ... this may go on a little longer than anticipated.

ROTH: The humor broke the tension after a sobering discussion on sexual violence against women in conflict zones. Two resolutions by the same Security Council over the last 10 years have done little to stop attacks on women.

CLINTON: It is time for all of us to assume our responsibility, to go beyond condemning this behavior, to taking concrete steps to end it, to make it socially unacceptable, to recognize it is not cultural, it is criminal.

ROTH: This time, the Security Council voted for a new resolution which deploys a special coordinator to lead the fight against women caught in war. Other experts will work with countries to pursue justice.

Secretary Clinton has personally comforted women and girls brutalized in hostile areas. She was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August, a country she said where over 1,100 rapes are reported each month.

CLINTON: The dehumanizing nature of sexual violence doesn't just harm a single individual or a single family, or even a single village or a single group. It shreds the fabric that weaves us together as human beings.

ROTH: Clinton spoke to a Security Council table packed with all male ambassadors.

CLINTON: Even though women and children are rarely responsible for initiating armed conflict, they are often wars' most vulnerable and violated victims.


ROTH: Human rights groups and aid agencies have long criticized the Security Council for not doing enough to protect women despite previous resolutions. Now they are praising this new measure, but they want to see governments live up to the promises -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's hope they do.

Richard, thank you.

President Obama gets ready to do what he hasn't done so far as president, visit New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Will he use his bully pulpit to advocate for New Orleans the same way he's pushing for Chicago to win the Olympic games?

And Bob Dylan will do something he's never done, but only a select few of you will be the first to benefit, say thanks to a bailed-out bank.



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

Happening now, attention Toyota or Lexus owners. Your floor mats could cause death amid a looming vehicle recall, Toyota's largest ever. You're going to hear one family's cries while stuck in their car that's out of control at about 120 miles an hour.

Could whatever caused their death happen to someone else?

Stand by.

And a new twist in a custody case getting international attention -- a father from Tennessee arrested in Japan for snatching his children from his ex-wife. Now, new details caused his lawyer to say -- and I'm effectively quoting -- "There's a slim chance the father will bring his children back to the United States." That lawyer is here.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Will he, won't he, and when will he decide? Those are among the questions many of you are asking about President Obama and his decision on Afghanistan.

As we mentioned, he's huddling right now with his national security team to discuss next steps for Afghanistan. He's weighing one of the most solemn responsibilities a commander-in-chief can make.

Our Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley has more.


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Afghanistan is the talk of the town, a cacophony of voices and a willing ear.

GIBBS: The president is going to have a top-to-bottom assessment to ensure that we have a strategy that meets our goal.

CROWLEY: The White House says a decision on Afghanistan will take "a number of weeks." Republican Congressman Eric Cantor thinks that's too long, arguing to "The Washington Times" that delay puts U.S. troops in jeopardy.

Counterpunch from the White House.

GIBBS: And I would say this to Congressman Cantor and everybody else -- the American people deserve an assessment that's beyond game- playing.

CROWLEY: No timetable on this, partly because the president's style is to take in a lot of advice inside and outside his administration, and partly because the questions are complex and broad. If the goal is to destroy al Qaeda, what's the strategy? And does that strategy require substantially more troops? Aides describe intense White House discussions with starkly different opinions. Beyond that, there are critical logistical issues: Where will U.S. troops come from? Pentagon officials say many will need to come out of Iraq. And will any U.S. allies, in particular NATO, send more combat troops?

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: This alliance will stand united, and we will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job.

CROWLEY: Which is nowhere near a promise to send more troops of any kind.

The White House says politics are not at play and the president will not make a decision based on the fact that U.S. support for the war has fallen through the floor.


BLITZER: Candy Crowley reporting for us.

Let's talk a little bit more about what's going on, as the president meets with his national security team over at the White House.

Joining us now, a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Senator Graham, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is the president right to have these strategy sessions, beginning today, continuing over the next several weeks, even as General McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, effectively has already told Washington, I need tens of thousands of more troops now?

GRAHAM: Well, if the president is looking for a way forward that doesn't include tens of thousands of more troops, I guess he's right to pause.

But the one thing I would urge the president to consider is the 68,000 that are already there. This counterinsurgency strategy is labor- intensive. The goal is not just to dismantle al Qaeda. It's to make sure that Taliban does not take over all or part of Afghanistan, creating a future safe haven.

So, I think you need more troops to achieve the goal of the Taliban not reemerging to control part of Afghanistan.

BLITZER: You understand the debate that's going on within the Situation Room over at the White House apparently right now that those who say the counterinsurgency program which is what you want, what General General McChrystal wants...

GRAHAM: Yes. BLITZER: ... as opposed to those who support a counterterrorism program, which would require way few troops...

GRAHAM: Right.

BLITZER: ... fewer troops.

GRAHAM: Right. Yes, I understand the difference.

The counterterrorism strategy would basically be, you would have a very small military footprint. You would attack targets by drones and special operations. But I think that would result in ceding most of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and you would eventually be driven out.

The training camps that we attacked in the '90s by aerial bombardment was not very successful. The best way to deny al Qaeda a training camp in Afghanistan is to support an Afghan army and police force that can deny them that opportunity, have the Afghan people stand up for themselves with our help.

A counterterrorism strategy, I don't think, will achieve that goal. Afghanistan will fall if that's the way we go.

BLITZER: Because some who support the counterterrorism strategy, a very modest number of troops, as you say, using these...


BLITZER: ... drones and other high technology to try...

GRAHAM: Right.

BLITZER: ... to kill al Qaeda, Taliban...

GRAHAM: Right.

BLITZER: ... an enemy of the United States, the -- the argument is that Afghanistan is not Iraq, whereas a surge may have worked in bringing in the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, it's not going to work in Afghanistan; it's a very different country.

What do you say to those who make that argument?

GRAHAM: Well, I think the reason the Taliban have reemerged, in spite of -- of the Afghan people's dislike for the Taliban, is that the failure of governance and not enough troops have combined to create a vacuum.

So, what we have going for us in Afghanistan is desire by the Afghan people, with sufficient security, to reject the Taliban. I think General McChrystal and Petraeus and Admiral Mullen understand the difference between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

And they have made the informed decision the best way to protect our nation and bring about stability in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency strategy, similar to Iraq, with differences unique to Afghanistan. And I concur in that.

BLITZER: The president is meeting today with all of these top military commanders, and -- and his civilian commanders -- advisers as well. General McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, I believe this is only the second time they have discussed what's going on. He's had many discussions with General Petraeus, the overall commander of the Central Command.

Is -- is he talking enough to his commanders, though, on the ground?

GRAHAM: Well, you know, that surprised me a bit, but I don't want to overly politicize this or second-guess the president.

We're not playing a game here. General McChrystal came up with a game plan to move forward that he thinks will lead to success. I know he's not playing a game. And I know the president is deadly serious about this. He's very concerned about what happens with the government of Afghanistan.

We had some poor elections. And I understand that, Mr. President, that there is no guarantee that this government will ever step up to the plate, but, without better -- better security, there is no hope to turn things around.

So, I don't question the president's intensity. I don't question his desire to get this right. I know he's concerned about our troops and how to move forward.

The only thing I would recommend to him to do is listen to these commanders, who know what they are doing, and I will stand by you, as a Republican, if you ask for more troops.

This is not President Obama's war. This is America's war.

BLITZER: One final question on Iran right now.

There was an intriguing article in "The Financial Times" entitled "Iran Has Seek Nuclear Arms Plan," in which the lead of the article said this: "Britain's intelligence services say that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead since late 2004 or early 2005, an assessment that suggests Tehran has embarked on the final steps towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability."

Is that consistent with what you have heard?

GRAHAM: I think I would assume the worst, rather than hope for the best, when it comes to Iran.

I don't know the state of their nuclear program, but I think they are trying to develop a nuclear weapon, not peaceful nuclear power. And I don't think anyone has a good handle exactly on where Iran is at.

But, given the evidence that we have before us and this report you just mentioned, I think it would be smart for the international community to assume the worst about their nuclear program, and impose sanctions quickly that will change behavior. And be decisive. Don't be timid.

And what we do in Afghanistan about how we handle that situation sends a signal to Iran, one way or the other. So, I think bold action, not half-measures, is needed, both in Afghanistan and Iran.

BLITZER: Lindsey Graham is the senator from South Carolina.

Senator Graham, thanks for coming in.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: In a column today, our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, writes that President Obama's the one that vote -- the one vote that matters on Afghanistan.

Gloria is joining us now.

An intriguing column you wrote at


BLITZER: But he's the -- he's the one that -- he's the commander in chief. It's going to be his decision.

BORGER: It is obviously going to be his decision.

I mean, I -- I was very interested in what Senator Lindsey Graham said, because he basically came out and said that we would cede Afghanistan to the Taliban if we adopt the strategy that essentially the vice president is recommending to the president of the United States...

BLITZER: The counterterrorism strategy.

BORGER: ... the counterterrorism strategy, which is fewer troops, and instead depending more on special forces.

So, you know, that's -- that's an interesting fight that we're setting up, if the president -- and, again, he is the decider, as George Bush used to say -- if the president decides to go with -- with fewer troops.

BLITZER: It's -- it's a pretty tough decision for someone like President Obama...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ... who doesn't have a whole lot of national security experience in his past, to say to the generals on the ground, you know what, I'm going to disagree with you.

BORGER: That's -- that's right.

But it doesn't -- remember, Wolf, it doesn't have to be an either/or decision. This is a president who is known in many ways for splitting the difference. Now, there are some people who say, if he recommends a little of this, you know, say, 10,000 to 15,000 more troops, and adopts part of the strategy that the vice president would want, that he might decide to do that.

But there are some experts who say that that would just keep the status quo going, which is also unacceptable -- so, a very tough decision for this president, but that's what he got elected for.

BLITZER: I guess, when you're president, you have got to make those tough decisions.


BLITZER: All right, Gloria, thank you.

Republicans are demanding an apology, after a House Democrat said this.


REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: Die quickly. That's right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.


BLITZER: All right, what's going on here? What about the state of the angry rhetoric in Washington? Stand by.

Also ahead: Has President Obama shown a lack of leadership in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Mary Matalin and Jamal Simmons, they standing by for our "Strategy Session."

And the first lady's opening appeal to bring the Summer Olympic Games to Chicago -- the latest on her trip to Denmark and the backlash.


BLITZER: Sort of like deja vu all over again -- Michelle Obama stepping off a plane, walking into the final days of an intense campaign.

She and her husband are desperately trying to woo some voters. Even Oprah Winfrey is involved. The prize? Hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The first lady is in Copenhagen right now, part of an intense lobbying effort to land those Games in Chicago.

Let's go straight to our Mary Snow. She has more got for us on this story -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, in Copenhagen, the first lady told team Chicago the lobbying effort is similar to the Iowa caucuses. Nobody makes the decision until they are sitting there, and the time leading up to Friday's vote will be critical.

Mrs. Obama's pulling out all the stops in trying to persuade members of the International Olympic Committee to choose her hometown of Chicago as host of the 2016 Olympic Games. Her message? That the Olympics have the potential to inspire children and transform their lives, perhaps even inspiring them to become the next Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey.

And Friday comes the one-two punch, when President Obama joins Mrs. Obama in Denmark. Both will make a formal presentation to the IOC. And, Wolf, that marks a first for a U.S. president.

BLITZER: How is it looking for Chicago, Mary?

SNOW: Well, among competitors, Madrid, Tokyo and Rio, Rio is clearly seen as the stiffest competition.

We took a look at an independent Web site that covers the Olympics. Take a look at this. It has a so-called power index. Right now, it gives Rio a slight edge of being chosen at 84 points, Chicago right behind it at 83. Madrid -- Madrid and Tokyo are tied at 80.

And what it comes down to is Rio's emotional appeal and the chance to make history, since South America has never hosted an Olympics.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thanks very much. We will be watching this they. We're going to know in the next few days.

A city still recovering from a storm will finally get a visit from the president -- President Obama set for his first trip to New Orleans since taking office. Will he use his bully pulpit to advocate for New Orleans, the same way he's pushing right now for Chicago, for example, to win the Olympic Games?

And more than 100 people dead, a staggering toll of devastation after a tsunami affecting American Samoa -- one of our iReporters will give you a firsthand sense of the disturbing scene there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Talking to some police officers, and seeing if we can -- if we can get anything, any information as to what...



BLITZER: And let's get to our "Strategy Session" right now.

Joining us, the Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons and our CNN political contributor the Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

A big setback for those who support the so-called public option yesterday -- the Senate Finance Committee twice defeating amendments that would have allowed it to go forward. Five Democrats voted against one amendment. Three voted against another amendment.

But Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York says, if the president of the United States were to simply take charge and get involved and push for this so-called public option, it would be a different ball game.

Listen to Weiner.


REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D), NEW YORK: The question is, is when -- when and if he wades into this debate that we're having in Congress now and starts to make the phone calls, and starts to lean on people, and say that we really need this, if he does that, it's going to pass. That's always the way these things happen, with big presidential leadership.


BLITZER: Is he right, Mary?


This is -- the support for public option is at an all-time low. And while it appears not to matter much to Barack Obama, to the candidates that will be up, incumbents that will be up in 2010, this will be the -- the mother of all midterms if they jam this through, if they change their rules by jamming it through in reconciliation, or sneak it through by some House maneuvers, which is what's in the vapors out there.

And I -- and, if he wanted to be forcefully for it, then he should be forcefully for it. To govern is to choose. Congressman Weiner is just waking up to all of us who didn't drink the Kool-Aid during the election cycle know about Barack Obama.

He does try to have it all ways. And he tries to make everybody think that he's always on their side. And, in this case, he -- we -- who knows what the president is really for. And that is not leadership.


BLITZER: Jamal, you know -- and I'm sure they have had conversations with you -- how many liberal Democrats are really disappointed that the White House hasn't been much more assertive in pushing for this public option.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: There are a lot of people who have been much -- who have been a little upset about the public option. And the president has said he supports the public option.

The president said but what he really supports is having mechanisms in place that are going to lower insurance costs. The real issue here is about the Republicans. It's -- but it's also about a bunch of moderate Democrats who live in states where the president can't do very much good for them politically, whether they are in Louisiana, where Mary is, or they are in Nebraska or Arkansas, or a bunch of states that did not vote for Barack Obama, but they have got Democratic senators.

He's got to be worried about keeping them on board, so he can get a bill passed.

BLITZER: Is that why he didn't call up the Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln yesterday and -- and say to her, you know what, you have got to support me on this public option?

She voted against it.

SIMMONS: Blanche Lincoln has got to run her own race. And -- you know, and, so, the president's got to respect that.

I think he -- he's pushing people as far as he can to get them over the line. But liberal Democrats have to realize not every state is California or New York. Some states in the South and the Midwest, the Democrats have different kind of politics to maneuver.

BLITZER: I think you agree with that, Mary, right?

MATALIN: Well, yes. They have mainstream, commonsense constituents...


MATALIN: ... who don't want government takeover.

If the president wanted to lower the cost of insurance, he could do so by infusing it -- the system with real competition. The public option, or the government running it, which has no way to be -- make the insurance company more competitive -- he should let insurance companies trade across state lines. He should have -- be for tort reform, not just talk about it in a speech, blah, blah, blah, talk, talk, talk.

BLITZER: All right, Mary...

MATALIN: There are real ways...

BLITZER: ... let me...

MATALIN: ... to infuse competition in the system, none of which he's offered up.

BLITZER: Let me cut you off, because I want to get to a subject close to your heart, New Orleans, where you and James Carville and your family now live.

The president's finally going to be going there in about two weeks. It's -- it's taken a while, but he's going to come to New Orleans to personally show his support for -- for this city.

What do you think? Is it -- is it too late? Should he have come earlier?

MATALIN: Well, everybody knew his political posturing wasn't -- was just that. It was political posturing. I'm not one of those that said he should have come here right away. Never expected him to. He has good people working on this issue. He hasn't prioritized it. He doesn't give them access.

He's not focused on the fact that 40 percent of our energy and our agriculture and our fisheries come up through the Mississippi River here. This has enormous economic consequences for all Americans, not the narrow economic consequences potentially of Chicago, where he's dashing off to Copenhagen to...


MATALIN: ... to trumpet his own city.

SIMMONS: Wolf, that's...



BLITZER: Should he have come earlier, Jamal?

SIMMONS: You -- could he have come earlier? He certainly could have...


BLITZER: Should he have?

SIMMONS: Should he have come? He certainly -- sure. He should have gone whenever the schedule made sense for it.

But here's the thing, Wolf. The president doesn't have to use his bullet pulpit -- bully pulpit when it comes to New Orleans, because that would be like, I own a house and the grass needs to get cut. I don't have to talk about cutting the grass. I have just got to hire somebody with a lawn mower to go cut it or cut it myself.

What the president has done is move the $1 billion in projects that have been stuck in the federal pipeline, but getting the $1 billion of projects out of the federal pipeline and in New Orleans. They have opened the first new school in New Orleans, the Langston Hughes Academy.

They have transitioned thousands of families...

BLITZER: All right.

SIMMONS: ... from temporary housing into permanent housing.

The administration is working on this project. He doesn't have to talk about it. He's got to do something about it. And that's what they're doing.

BLITZER: And he will be doing some more about it when he visits in about two weeks.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, a story just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Let's go back to Fred.

What are we learning, Fred?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right, Wolf, this is likely not good news, particularly if you happen to own a Saturn vehicle.

Penske Auto said today discussions with General Motors about acquiring the Saturn brand is now over. The GM CEO said that Saturn and its dealerships network will be phased out. And you will recall that it was just this past June when Penske began its negotiations or announced its negotiations with GM to take over the Saturn brand.

And, so, now we're just a few months out, and, already, that agreement has now been terminated -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, even while you were speaking, we were getting confirmation that GM has decided to shut down Saturn, that a sad day for Saturn, obviously. And we're going to continue to watch this story.

Fred, thanks very much.

A freshman House Democrat drops a bombshell, suggesting Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick. We're going to tell you what he's just said for an encore. Stand by. He just spoke moments ago.

And the latest on an American dad jailed in Japan in a bitter international custody dispute. We're learning this is not an isolated incident.

And fresh reports on the devastation in American Samoa from a killer tsunami -- CNN iReporters are sending us new pictures and new information.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... if we can -- if we can get anything, any information.



BLITZER: Here's a look at some "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspapers tomorrow.

In India, a train is engulfed in flames after protests spiral out of control.

In South Africa, the finishing touches are placed on a soccer stadium designed for the 2010 World Cup.

In New York, the Knicks use exercise balls during training camp for the upcoming season.

And, in Argentina, a crown -- a crowned solitary eagle flies to its trainer at the Buenos Aires Zoo -- "Hot Shots," pictures worth 1,000 words.

On our "Political Ticker" right now: a House Democrat's stunning attack on Republicans. He has just offered somewhat of an apology, but not the one that the Republicans have been asking for.

First, listen to freshman Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida talking about the Republicans' vision of health care reform.


GRAYSON: If you get sick in America, this is what the Republicans want you to do.

If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly. That's right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.


BLITZER: All right. Just a few moments ago, Grayson went back to the House floor to say he wanted to apologize. He went on to blast the health care system and all the people who have died because of it. And he closed his remarks by saying this.


GRAYSON: I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this holocaust in America.


BLITZER: We are going to have a lot more on this controversy coming you. The best political team on television will weigh in.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out And don't forget the new CNN iPhone app is available right now for breaking news alerts, live coverage, much more. It's already the number-one paid app for the iPhone. You can get one now for $1.99.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: How -- how do morons like that guy you just had on get elected to Congress?

BLITZER: No comment.


CAFFERTY: It was -- it was not a trick question.

Here's the question we have got this hour: What message does it send when some in Hollywood don't think that film director Roman Polanski ought to be punished for a 1977 child sex charge?

And writes: "Jack, I'm with you on this. Supporters of Polanski are supporters of rape, period. Regardless of how long ago the crime took place, regardless of his contribution to cinema, Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. She was 13 years old. Perhaps the likes of Martin Scorsese and Weinstein ought to spend a week in the general population at San Quentin Prison. They would have a clearer understanding then of what it was that Polanski did to that 13-year-old girl."

Q. rights: "Finally. Thank you, Jack. Someone finally asked the most appropriate question. What if it was your daughter? Debra Winger and Whoopi Goldberg would not have the same comment if it had been their daughter assaulted by their good friend Roman Polanski."

Jenna in California: "The victim has asked that this all go away, that she is not interested any longer, and that dragging this up all the time has done not -- more harm to her than what Polanski did to her as a child. Polanski hasn't returned to the U.S. for over 30 years. He's not committed any crimes since. Was he wrong? You bet. Should he have done his time in 1977? Yes. But the mistake was made then, and we need to listen to the victim now."

Bob writes: "You would have thought Woody Allen ought to have sense enough to keep his mouth shut when it came to issues regarding vulnerable young girls and older men in positions of authority. Apparently, irony is not part of Allen's directorial repertoire."

Ken writes: "It was a child sex crime in 1977. And since he pled guilty, it is still a child sex crime. I don't have any daughters, but bring the bastard back and put him in jail."

Kara writes, "Add this to the list of reasons not to listen to anything Hollywood has to say."

And Joe writes: "Roman Polanski should go to jail. He's already going to hell."

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

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.