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Taliban Fight to the Finish; President Obama's Afghan War Test; Senator Bayh Retires; Military Dictatorship

Aired February 15, 2010 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And happening now, the Taliban refusing to go down without a fight. CNN is in the trenches right now with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, this hour the how the troops and President Obama are being tested right now.

More reason to expect the unexpected in campaign 2010, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh calling it quits, Republican Senator John McCain facing a stiff new Republican challenge. What's driving the turmoil out there on the campaign trail?

And the disturbing links to the campus shooting in Alabama, the professor accused of killing three colleagues, reportedly was a criminal suspect before.

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

This hour, CNN is on the battlefield for the largest offensive in the history of the Afghanistan war. We're told U.S. and NATO forces are making progress against the Taliban in the insurgents' strong hold of Marjah. But they still have a long way to go just a few days into this operation. CNN's Atia Abawi is embedded with U.S. Marines.


ATIA ABAWI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The importance is going to be both for the NATO side as well as the Taliban side (INAUDIBLE). This is the last Taliban strong hold in the Helmand Province. It's a money maker for the Taliban. It's said that they make around $200,000 a month by taxing the narcotics industry alone. And they're not going down without a fight.

We've been here for the past three days and it has been three days of sporadic fighting, gun fighting, rockets, mortars, helicopters flying overhead, the Taliban popping up in various parts of the city. Not knowing exactly where they are, sometimes they can be just a few hundred meters away from the U.S. position. I've been out with the Marines a few times and we have been shot at alongside the Marines, because really, you can't really find out where they're hiding.

This is an urban area. It's an area where there's a bazaar. It's called the (INAUDIBLE) Bazaar (ph) and they can be anywhere. It's practically a ghost town right now, when you look inside some of these store fronts. You notice that the store owners, the villagers, they left on short notice. And you barely see any civilians come out until they come out with an injured family member coming to the Marines, asking them for help. And they're saying that the Taliban are even leaving their compound to charge at the Marines.


BLITZER: Atia Abawi is embedded with the U.S. Marines. CNN is uniquely positioned to cover this major assault in Afghanistan and its impact on what's going on in the country. CNN's Frederick Pleitgen is following the operation from the Afghan capital of Kabul. Where, Fred does the operation stand right now?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we're hearing, both from the Afghan government as well as from NATO is that they say that right now this operation is going well. They say that they now control most of the territory there in and around Marjah. However, they do believe, and we just saw that from Atia's reporting, they do believe that there are still hundreds, perhaps up to 1,000 Taliban fighters in that area and that those Taliban are in fact still mounting attacks against NATO forces.

We just also heard from Atia that there are sporadic attacks. They're also saying that some of these fighters are actually apparently taking up defensive positions in the houses of civilians. Also, another major problem on the ground, Wolf, is improvised explosive devices. Apparently the whole area has been riddled with them. And one thing that NATO is saying is that the amount of improvised explosive devices out there are much more than they thought before this operation started -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There was a horrible incident involving civilian Afghan casualties killed by allied forces. What's the fallout from that?

PLEITGEN: Well, one thing you know, Wolf, that NATO said from the outset of this operation, it said it was key to them to minimize civilian casualties. Now, on Sunday there was a very unfortunate incident where a rocket from a NATO rocket launcher hit a compound and that killed 12 civilians. Now NATO has been very public in its apology, it's apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

And one of the things that Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander here in Afghanistan said, he said that in the future NATO would make sure that something like this, if possible, would not happen again. Now, we just heard a couple of hours ago that in fact today three more civilians were killed in separate shooting incidents, also as part of operation (INAUDIBLE) and again, one of the things that NATO is saying also, that Afghans are saying that we're speaking to, is that civilian casualties are very detrimental to this mission -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the next phase of this operation, Fred?

PLEITGEN: Well, that's another thing. I mean they're saying that this operation is really just at the beginning. They believe that the major combat operations that are going on should be over within the next couple of days. That's when they hope to have defeated at least initially the Taliban. But they do say that that is really when this operation will really kick off.

They say in the end, what they have to do, is they have to get the Afghan government in there and have to get Afghan government institutions up and running. And therefore, NATO is telling us they will have to leave behind a considerable force to secure that area, make sure the Taliban doesn't come back, and at the same time try and build civil institutions to provide services to the civilians down there, to make them realize that it's better to stick with their government than go back to the Taliban -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Fred, thank you. Fred's in Kabul for us. The offensive against the Taliban is seen as an important first test of President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan. Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry. Ed, you're learning about a new effort by the administration to reach out to some weary allies who don't necessarily want to help.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The European allies that this president is counting on to help him with this offensive, and in the days ahead, I'm picking up from sources outside the administration that the NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen is expected to be here in Washington and is expected to meet with the president. Now, administration officials say they haven't made final decisions on the president's schedule yet.

But this could be very significant, because this first test, as you say, as commander in chief in terms of in Afghanistan, is not just about pushing back the Taliban, but is trying to create the space so that they can train the Afghan Army, so eventually the U.S. military can get out. You'll remember that as commander in chief, the president has now increased the U.S. footprint to about 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground. The only way he's going to be able to bring back -- bring home a large number of those troops in the months ahead is to try to train that Afghan Army as fast as possible. And he's going to need the allies' help to do that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How is that working out so far, the training of the Afghan Army?

HENRY: Been very mixed. I mean there are some signs that it's going well. There are other signs that some of these allies are not coming onboard. Last week the defense secretary, Robert Gates for example went to Europe, talked about getting more trainers. The Italians stepped up and said they're going to increase their force in Afghanistan by 1,000. That was something the administration was cheered by.

But then on the other hand, the French said they're only going to send 80 more trainers to Afghanistan. That was a big disappointment for the White House. And it's coming at a time when a lot of these European allies are weary, because this war in Afghanistan has gone on so long. One top White House official leveled with me and said look, it's not as much as we wanted. There's still more work to be done but they're confident, especially with the NATO secretary general coming next week that they can get these allies on board, to get this training done, Wolf, which is so pivotal.

BLITZER: Pivotal indeed -- Ed Henry is at the White House. Staying on the issue of terror, we've learned that an operative of al Qaeda has been busted with a portfolio of terror information. Our homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has been digging into that -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a U.S. counterterrorism official confirms that an al Qaeda member by the name of Abdullah Saladdan (ph) was captured carrying information intended to go from al Qaeda central, in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region, to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. This man is described as having a background in explosives and he goes by the name Bahoud (ph), which I'm told is Arabic for a kind of explosive powder. The U.S. counterterrorism official says he is not a senior member of al Qaeda, but he is definitely more than a foot soldier -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What was the information, Jeanne that he was supposedly carrying?

MESERVE: Well Wolf, U.S. officials aren't talking about it, but Web sites that we monitor for messages and statements from al Qaeda describe this man as being a field commander, and they claim that when he was picked up in Oman, he was carrying more than 300 names and numbers, important documents and codes. The Web sites urge operatives in Yemen and Afghanistan to change their locations and cell phone numbers, but Wolf, we cannot vouch for the authenticity of the postings.

BLITZER: Some are skeptical, as you know.

MESERVE: Yes, some experts question whether al Qaeda would have one individual carry that much important information, because he might be picked up. But if it's true, it would represent a gold mine for the intelligence agencies. It also may indicate, Wolf, a much tighter connection between al Qaeda central and its affiliate in Yemen than had been previously understood.

BLITZER: Jeanne Meserve with that. It's a shocking good-bye that's not spelled b-y-e. It's spelled B-a-y-h. Senator Bayh who spent so many years in Congress says he has little love for Congress right now. How might this retirement hurt his party?

And justice on hold in Haiti, those 10 American missionaries charged with kidnapping awaiting their fate, but you might not believe what's now holding up the ruling.

And if you see the vice president's motorcade, you might want to be careful. There have been not one or two accidents, but four crashes in recent months.


BLITZER: A major setback today for the Democrats' fight to keep their power in Congress. And a lot of party members didn't see it coming at all. We're talking about Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana announcing today he won't run for reelection in November. When a popular moderate calls it quits, a lot of people are asking why and who might be next. Let's bring in our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin. She has all the answers. JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All the answers, Wolf, I don't know. But I'll tell you, it was a bombshell day for the Democrats, for a party already reeling from a set of retirements. Senator Evan Bayh did not hold his fire when he said he's leaving because he's had it with the partisan bickering in Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that this has a major --

YELLIN (voice-over): A two-term senator, son of a political dynasty, now Evan Bayh says he's exiting the U.S. Senate because he can't take the gridlock.

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: For some time I've had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is much too much bipartisanship and not enough progress.

YELLIN: With $13 million in the bank, and a recent poll indicating healthy double-digit leads over his top two Republican challengers, Bayh was well positioned to win reelection. But the senator is, in a phrase, fed up.

BAYH: I have not detected a level of anger and cynicism about the federal government in my lifetime as high as it is today.

YELLIN: Here, asking President Obama about spending.

BAYH: Why should the Democratic Party be trusted?

YELLIN: In late January, he told "The Wall Street Journal" Democrats had "overreached rather than looking for consensus", and observed to ABC News that he sees "the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country."

Those close to Bayh say he's considered this move for a year, even sharing his ruminations with President Obama, but his latest frustrations? One, the Senate hasn't passed a bill to deal with its top priority, jobs. And two, he was outraged that seven senators voted against a measure they originally sponsored which would have reined in federal spending. Bayh says it was all about politics.

BAYH: I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress.

YELLIN: But Bayh's political future may still be bright, he was once Indiana governor and the seat is open in 2012 -- listen closely -- does it sound like he's running for something?

BAYH: I'm an executive at heart. I value my independence. I'm not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology. These traits may be useful in many walks of life, but unfortunately they're not highly valued in Congress.


YELLIN: Now, I should note that Bayh says he currently has no plans to run for another office. He's not thinking that far ahead, so really, Wolf, too soon to say if the governor's mansion might be in his future.

BLITZER: But by announcing he's leaving at this date, it puts the Democrats in a pretty unusual, awkward position.

YELLIN: It really puts the Democrats in a bind, yes. That's because the timing is bad for whoever wants to run in his place. The deadline to file paperwork is this week, so it's just not enough time to get a new candidate in time for the deadline. That means that the state party, Wolf, and not voters will choose which Democrat will be on the ballot in November. Not ideal for Indiana's Democrats.

BLITZER: Did she say what he's going to do with the $13 million he had in his political war chest for his reelection campaign?

YELLIN: He's not saying. But as you know, he can use that to support other candidates. He can use it to organize a nonprofit organization. It gives him a lot of flexibility when he decides his next move.

BLITZER: He could use it to support the Democratic candidate --

YELLIN: Who should run for his office, that's true.

BLITZER: Can he give unlimited amounts to that Democratic candidate?

YELLIN: There are certain limits on what he can give just like all --

BLITZER: All right, we'll watch it very closely to see what happens. Thanks Jessica.

How's this for political irony? By the way, today is Presidents' Day and on this day we'll ask a Republican who ran for president but lost, received a fresh threat to his job. We're talking about Senator John McCain. Today former Arizona congressman and radio talk show host J.D. Hayworth announced he wants to force McCain into retirement. Hayworth says that McCain isn't conservative enough for Arizona. Earlier I asked Hayworth why he thinks he can beat McCain when he couldn't beat a Democrat back in 2006.


J.D. HAYWORTH (R), ARIZONA SENATE CANDIDATE: Well, you know, it's interesting, Wolf, if we played that kind of game, we could say, why on earth is John McCain running again because he suffered a massive defeat nationally. No, the fact is that elections come; there are decisions at fixed points in time. Certainly my name was on the ballot in 2006.

And I did finish second in the Fifth Congressional District. But we all learned in civics classes, and I think as evidenced by the news that Senator Bayh is going to step down in Indiana, quite often midterm elections are a referendum on the performance of the chief executive.


BLITZER: Hayworth, by the way, is no stranger to the political arena. He served six terms in the House of Representatives before being unseated by a Democrat back in 2006. Following the loss, he began hosting his own conservative radio talk show program in Phoenix. Hayworth is also a former college football player and sportscaster, by the way.

This race will match up a former football player with a war hero. Senator John McCain is responding to this challenge by describing himself as being under political attack.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I know for nearly a year on his radio show, Mr. Hayworth used to attack me in the most disrespectful fashion. So I would imagine over time that we might see a repetition of that. But the fact is I'm confident of victory. Our polls show us with 20-point leads. But I'm going to go out and earn every single vote. That's the only way I know how to campaign.


BLITZER: To survive what he calls those attacks, McCain is lining up a list of prominent conservative supporters, including the new Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and of course, his former running mate from 2008, Sarah Palin. She says she'll support him and campaign for him.

Four accidents within a matter of months, what's going on with Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade? We have details of all the run- ins, including the latest at the Winter Olympics.

Plus, Hillary Clinton's tough talk about Iran, what she's saying about the country's military.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is so much need and there are so many people --



BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, 10 Americans held in a Haitian jail on kidnapping charges were supposed to learn today whether they would be released. They didn't and the prosecutor says it's because a power outage kept him from printing his recommendations for the judge. Tomorrow is a national holiday so now the Americans are looking at a Wednesday decision. They're accused of trying to take 33 children into the Dominican Republic.

An Irish bishop is kissing the hand of the Pope at the Vatican today. One called it a first step towards repentance in the wake of a damning report on widespread child abuse within Ireland's Catholic Church between 1975 and 2004, but sex abuse victims are calling on the Vatican to hold its own investigation and punish those responsible.

And more people are coming forward claiming that the sudden acceleration of Toyotas led to the deaths of their loved ones. The government has now received 34 death complaints against Toyota dating back to 2000. The company has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide in the past four months because of problems with gas pedals, floor mats and brakes.

And Vice President Joe Biden, he's heading to the Middle East early next month. The White House announced the trip today and it looks like the vice president's calendar is going to be jam packed. He's scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan. The administration has been encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks.

And President Obama has been immortalized, well, sort of. It's not in stone or bronze, but in wax. His statue was unveiled today at Madam Tussaud's on the Las Vegas strip (INAUDIBLE). Now the museum says the entire Oval Office scene cost about $300,000. And you know it is ready to go, just in case the real President Obama wants to swing by during his planned trip to Las Vegas later this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, maybe he'll go over there and take a picture with the picture (INAUDIBLE) whatever.

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's seeing double here now.

BLITZER: Yes, all right, thanks very much, Lisa.

Three American hikers still being held in Iran, no lawyer, no contact, their mothers are now making travel plans after an impassioned appeal to Iran's president. They want a meeting. They want his help. We have the latest.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney throws down the gauntlet to the Obama administration. Here's a question. Could he -- we're talking about Dick Cheney -- could he be a presidential contender in 2012?


BLITZER: Iran's Revolutionary Guard is feared and very powerful, but is it seizing control of the country? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is warning that the answer may be yes. She's raising a red flag today that Iran is heading toward what she calls a military dictatorship. Our foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty is with us. Jill, what's behind these words from the secretary? JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: OK, Wolf. Well, what she's saying is that the Revolutionary Guard is actually supplanting the control of the government. In other words, you look at the control of the government as it exists today. You have the religious leader and then you have Ayatollah Khamenei. What Clinton is saying they are giving up power. They're giving up power to the Revolutionary Guard.

That is a paramilitary organization that controls big swaths of the economy. It controls the nuclear program. And it also controls the repression that we've seen on the streets in Iran during those demonstrations. Now why is it happening? She has a couple of theories. One could be that there is simply -- the civilians are actually preoccupied with the chaos and the political problems that are going on or they could be deliberately seeding power to them. But the down -- the bottom line of this, Wolf, is that the Revolutionary Guard is the group that the West, the United States want to target with these new sanctions.

BLITZER: You know, the deadline was supposed to be at the end of last year, that the Obama administration put forward for the Iranians to cooperate and respond to the international community. That deadline has now come and gone. Is there some sort of new initiative out there on the table that the Iranians will have yet one more chance?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, that's what they were saying. But Russia, France and the United States are all saying there's no new deal. There are two offers out to them right now. One has been out there since October. And that is give up 75 percent of -- in other words, most all of your low enriched uranium, ship it out of the country, we'll reprocess it and ship it back.

Or if you need these as they're calling them the isotopes that -- for treating cancer patients, you can get those, too. We can help you to find them on the open market. But there are two deals the West is saying right now that are available and are realistic offers, but Iran isn't doing anything. So there's no new deal. What's out there is out there.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty with us -- meanwhile, an emotional new appeal by the mothers of those three American hikers being held in Iran. They've sent a letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad applying for visas and asking to meet with him in Tehran. The women say they want to explain why their children don't deserve to be in custody as they've been for 200 days. And they remind President Ahmadinejad and I'm quoting now, "you, too, are a parent." The hikers are being held on espionage charges. The families say they strayed across the border into Iran by accident.

Right now, we want to take a close hard look at the safety of Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade after it was involved in yet another accident, the fourth within a matter of months. The latest incident happened over at the Olympics in Vancouver over the weekend and it left two gold medallists from previous Winter Games slightly injured. Figure skating great Peggy Fleming and bobsledder Vanetta Flowers were riding in a van when there was a chain reaction collision near the back of the motorcade. Lisa Sylvester is back with more on this story for us. You've been taking a closer look. Do we know who was driving in these vehicles, in this motorcade?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting that depending on the type of motorcade that the vice president rides in, it really depends on where he's going and number of vehicles. It will vary with these motorcades. There's generally more than just the president and vice president and staff and security. There are also a number of dignitaries. For example you might have the local mayor or the governor and in this case it was the U.S. Olympic delegation. They were bringing up the rear of the motorcade and as oftentimes, it's actually local volunteers, let's say the Democratic Party who are driving these vans. So they are not professional drivers. And they may not be used to sort of the driving, the formation of staying in close, which is one of the reasons why you sometimes see these accidents like this.

BLITZER: This is the fourth time this has happened in his motorcade in a year.

SYLVESTER: In fact, in recent months, although there doesn't seem to be any direct connection, but we'll take you through them. November 11th, in Temple Hills, Maryland, there were two secret service vehicles, they struck and they hit a pedestrian and killed the pedestrian. The vice president was not in the motorcade at the time of the accident. Now that same month, the vice president in New York City, he was in the city to appear on the Daily Show, and a cab driver tried to get around to go through the intersection when he was hit by one of the police cars that had stopped traffic. There was a similar incident that same week in New Mexico. A sheriff's deputy working security for the vice president's visit was hit and injured by a woman trying to get around the blocked road. In the latest one, the Vancouver accident, they're looking into the possibility that an oil spill on the road might have played a part in that accident.

BLITZER: Based on what we know, was the vice president himself ever in any real danger?

SYLVESTER: No. And he does have secret service officers obviously driving him around of the one thing I found absolutely fascinating with this, though, is the vice president and president will actually put these on these big military cargo planes and actually travels with them out of the country. Also on many of the domestic trips as well. They actually have their state of the art transportation with them and they have the secret service drivers basically wherever they go, whether in the country or outside of the country.

BLITZER: These are armored cars for the safety and security of the president and the vice president.

SYLVESTER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: I've been in those motorcades as a reporter when I covered the Clinton white house. Sometimes they go so fast, and you have a relatively inexperienced volunteer just driving one of the vehicles, whether the press vehicle in that motorcade or whatever. I got nervous on several occasions.

SYLVESTER: And they want to keep them in tight, so you don't have other cars cutting into the motorcade.

BLITZER: Let's go back 30 or 40 years, there have been significant numbers of accidents involving presidential and vice presidential motorcades. Maybe what they should think about is think about slowing down a little bit. They really do go fast. They have 30 or 40 cop cars leading the way.

SYLVESTER: And they want to get there as quickly as they can and get back.

BLITZER: Slow down a little bit, maybe it will be better for everybody concerned.

SYLVESTER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: She's suspected of shooting three fellow professors over at the University of Alabama. Now we're learning she was once also suspected in a mail bomb attempt on a Harvard professor.

First he was stripped of his tour de France title. New trouble, there's new trouble for the American cyclist Floyd Landis. We'll take you inside what's called an extreme igloo. You've never seen an ice house like this.


BLITZER: A very sad update from Haiti right now. You remember -- you may remember American college student Britney Gangel of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. She was among a small group of Lynn University students and others trapped inside the collapsed Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. Her father made some very emotional pleas right here in THE SITUATION ROOM for search and rescue teams to be deployed to the hotel, to the rubble there. We've received an e-mail from Lynn Gangel telling us that Britney's body was recovered yesterday. Our deepest, deepest condolences to the Gengel family, to all of the faculty, students, community at Lynn University in Boca Raton as well.

Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what else is going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a tiny village in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia is mourning the loss of its Olympic luger killed in Friday's training crash. A steady stream of visitors dressed in black made their way through the family home today, paying their tribute to Nodar Kumaritashvili. The athlete's father says his son -- he spoke to his son just before the fatal run saying he was worried about the track's speed.

Top Somali defense official has reportedly survived a suicide bomber's attack. Police say the defense minister safely escaped from the path of this bomb-laden vehicle. One bystander was reportedly killed. Two bodyguards were injured. The attack comes as Somalia's U.N.-backed government prepares to launch an offensive against insurgents with al Qaeda ties.

A French judge has issued an arrest warrant for U.S. cyclist Floyd Landis. This is the same cyclist who was stripped of his tour de France title in 2006 after testing positive for performance- enhancing drugs. Now prosecutors want to talk to Landis in connection with a case of data hacking at the doping lap that tested his samples four years ago. The warrant only applies on French soil.

And there's one unemployed Ohio man who just really digs winter. 25-year-old Jimmy Gray built himself an igloo in his family's yard, about 30 miles from Cleveland. You know, this just isn't any igloo. This is an icy version of the American dream. There are four rooms, television, and surround-sound stereo. But you know what his favorite part is? It's his beer never goes warm. Not bad at all.

BLITZER: Got an igloo to keep it cold. Thanks very much. Cold in there.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, is he becoming the de facto leader of the Republican Party right now? Could he be a Republican presidential candidate in 2012? Paul Begala and John Feehery are here for the strategy session.

And the troubled past of that university professor accused of gunning down three colleagues. It turns out she was also a suspect in some other mysterious cases.


BLITZER: In today's "strategy session," a question on many people's minds, who is really in charge of the GOP right now. Yesterday the former vice president and the current vice president sparred over how to handle the battle against terror.

FMR. VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I think we have to treat it as a war. This is a strategic threat to the United States. I think that's why we were successful for 7 1/2 years in avoiding a further major attack against the United States. And I do get very nervous and very upset when that's the dominant approach.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: I don't think the former Vice President Dick Cheney listens. The president of the United States said in the state of the union, we're at war with al Qaeda. And by the way, we're pursuing the war with vigor like it's never been seen before.

BLITZER: And joining us now, our CNN political contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist and Republican strategist John Feehery. Saw a lot of the former Vice President Dick Cheney over the weekend. Is he emerging, for all practical purposes, as the real leader of the Republican Party right now?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He's right now the best counterpuncher against the Obama administration. I think he's the counter puncher that the Obama administration takes the most seriously because he actually moves policy, the Obama administration. I do think that is he the only voice or is he going to be a presidential contender? I don't think he's going to be a presidential contender.

BLITZER: There are some people as you know, Paul, who are throwing out the name Dick Cheney as the Republican nominee in 2012.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I will pay his filing fee. He's got the $30 million from Halliburton, which I guess they made when they were trading with the Iranian regime. He's got plenty of money of his own. Dick Cheney needs to run for president. We need Dick Cheney in there. He is the embodiment of the complete failure, particularly on national security. I'm not a psychiatrist, but I think what drives him is this profound sense of guilt from the incompetence and weakness before 9/11. He helped to threaten a veto of increased funding for counterterrorism measures when he was the vice president. This is all before 9/11. And so then the attack came. Dick Clark, who was the president's adviser on counterterrorism, said that the reason Dick Cheney was surprised was he wasn't listening before 9/11. So this is the guilt he bears is for the weakness and incompetence of his own administration on terrorism.

FEEHERY: Paul, you worked for the Clinton administration, they deserve a bunch of blame for what happened in the intelligence services. Let me tell you something. Dick Cheney is one of the most respected voices on national security. I think he's been that way. That's why the Obama administration always decides that they have to listen to him and try to counter him because they're worried he has more credibility than they do on national security. The fact of the matter is, Dick Cheney, secretary of defense, throughout his vice presidential career, he was a real voice of national security, and someone that right now has more credibility than the Vice President Biden.

BLITZER: We see and hear a lot of Dick Cheney over these past -- the past year. But not from the former president, George W. Bush himself. It's Dick Cheney really going on the offensive.

BEGALA: He got almost as much air time this weekend as you did. We were watching the boys and we saw Mr. Blitzer on the air all the time.

BLITZER: I love the new stadium in Dallas. An amazing stadium. That screen. If you haven't seen it, you have to go see it.

BEGALA: And all the NBA players sucking up to you. You're a celebrity with the NBA guys.

BLITZER: Guys, we'll talk about this later.

On the political ticker right now, the lawyer whose work lead to President Bill Clinton's impeachment has landed a new job. We're talking about Ken Starr. He'll become the next president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He's been the dean over at Pepperdine University Law School since 2004. You may remember Ken Starr investigated President Clinton during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals. Clinton was impeached but not convicted back then.

A group of African American farmers left their fields for the picket lines today. They rallied outside the department of agriculture right here in Washington demanding payment for long- standing claims of racial bias and federal farm programs. President Barack Obama has proposed including more than $1 billion to cover the compensation claims in this year's farm bill. Congress has yet to approve the money.

Remember, for the latest political news anytime, you can always check out CNN

We're digging deeper into the case of that university professor charged with killing three colleagues. Turns out she's been a suspect in other mysterious cases.

A famous filmmaker pulled off an airliner because of his size. He takes his outrage to twitter, sparking a public relations nightmare for southwest airlines.


BLITZER: Some bizarre new twists in the case of that University of Alabama professor accused of shooting three colleagues to death. We're now learning of a link to an attempted mail bombing against another professor on top of her brother's shooting death more than two decades ago. CNN's Brooke Baldwin is digging deeper for us in Boston.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I just spoke with Huntsville police. New charges here. Amy Bishop is now facing one count of capital murder, and three attempted murder charges. Add to that, a mother, here in Boston, who is incredibly distraught. You have a Boston suburb police department who can't find some of their police records and a husband who simply wants to know, why.


BALDWIN: In the days since the fatal shooting at the University of Alabama Huntsville, new revelations into Amy Bishop Anderson's past. Her husband confirmed to CNN that in 1993 the couple was questioned in a case involving a pipe bomb targeting one of Dr. Bishop's colleagues, Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a professor at Harvard Medical School. A former lab partner at the time remembers her being questioned.

SYLVIA FLUCKIGER, FORMER LAB PARTNER: Police interviewed her. She told me about it. I really wondered if she may have had, you know, some more knowledge, although I'm not accusing her of anything.

BALDWIN: Jim Anderson told me, "The ATF gathered a dozen subjects. There were never suspects, never anyone charged, never anyone arrested. Five years later we got a letter from the ATF, you're in the clear."

That's not the only part of Amy Bishop's past that's come to light since the Alabama shootings. Police also revealed she shot and killed her younger brother when she was 19 in an incident in which a shotgun was fired twice. This is the Braintree home where the 1986 shooting happened. You see the bay window up there? That was Amy's bedroom and according to this Massachusetts state police report that's where she was first unloading the family shotgun when it first went off. According to police she ran down the stairs into the kitchen where she accidentally shot her brother. She then took off out the home's back door and the last two words she told police she heard her brother say, oh god.

Now 23 years later the current Braintree police chief is raising questions.

CHIEF PAUL FRAZIER, BRAINTREE, MASS. POLICE DEPT.: I don't want to use the word cover-up. I don't know what the thought process was of the police chief at the time. I believe it reflects poorly on the department at that time.

BALDWIN: Chief Frazier says Amy Bishop was arrested but released in the midst of the booking process. The man who was police chief at the time denies making the call.

JOHN POLO, FORMER BRAINTREE, MASS. POLICE CHIEF: Reports were made, reports were submitted. Where they are, I don't know. Cover- up? That is really a new word for me.

BALDWIN: Adding to the questions the 23-year-old Braintree police report is now missing and at the time, Amy Bishop's mother served on the Braintree police personnel board. We tried talking to Judy Baker in her suburban Boston home. She didn't come to the door but she picked up the phone. The 69-year-old mother told me, through tears, we're very distraught. Please leave us alone.


BALDWIN: Bishop's husband told me today on the phone that his wife did not own a gun, but he did tell a reporter with the chronicle for higher education that she had borrowed a gun and was thinking of buying the gun and has been to a shooting range in the Huntsville area. I have tried to call Jim Anderson back to confirm that report, and honestly, Wolf, he is not picking up his phone.

BLITZER: Brooke Baldwin digging for us. She'll continue to dig. Thank you, Brooke.

Let's check in with Campbell Brown to see what's coming up at the top of the hour. What are you working on?

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there Wolf. Tonight a Texas town that has become an absolute cash cow for doctors. They have run up the biggest bill in the country using your tax dollars. We have a special investigation tonight, Wolf, that follows the money. We'll also have more on the two big political bombshells of today, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh dropping out of the race for re-election and Republican Senator John McCain getting a challenger who says he campaigns like a conservative but legislates like a liberal. We'll talk about that. Wolf. BLITZER: Two great political stories that we'll have fun watching you report on. We're going to report on t. It's an exciting political stone for all of us, Campbell. Thank you.

BROWN: It will, Wolf. See you soon.

BLITZER: See you at the top of the hour.

He was kicked off a plane for being too big for his seat. The airline has now apologized, so is why the director Kevin Smith still blasting the airline online?


BLITZER: Kevin Smith has kicked up a firestorm with his feud of Southwest Airlines. They made him get off a recent flight, and twitter has been buzzing about it ever since. Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She has all the information for us.

What exactly happened here, Mary? It's causing quite a he bit of buzz out there.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot of buzz. In fact, Wolf, tonight southwest has just posted a message on its twitter page saying that a representative from the company spoke with Kevin Smith today and apologized. It says the airline will be reviewing how to carry out its sensitive policy. Many agree it's sensitive for all airlines, but it's something that needs to be addressed, and Kevin Smith isn't shying away from it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Jay. This is my hetero lifemate, Silent Bob.

SNOW: A quiet character in the movies, yes, but director Kevin Smith isn't holding back about being kicked off a Southwest flight because of his size. He took to a twitter page with this picture and messages like, I know I'm fat but was the pilot justified for throwing me off the flight for which I was already seated? Southwest admits it erred by asking him to leave a flight after he was seated First and foremost to Mr. Smith, it said in a statement, "We would like to again offer our heartfelt apologies. We're very sorry for how his night played out." But Southwest points to its customers of size guidelines, saying passengers need to lower both armrests to fit in one seat. "Our employees are responsible for the safety and comfort of all customers on their aircraft and therefore made the determination that Mr. Smith need more than one seat to complete the flight comfortably." The airline said Smith had bought two seats for his original flight but when he decided to catch an earlier flight, there was only one seat available. Smith says in a podcast on his Twitter page, when he bought the two seats it wasn't because he needed them.

KEVIN SMITH: If I have to, I could fly one seat in Southwest.


SMITH: I opt not to because it's way more comfortable and I have enough money to do it.

SNOW: Who decides when someone is too big for a seat? Basically the airlines. The FAA requires passengers to sit with seat belts and both armrests down, but airlines make the judgment call.

RICK SEANEY, CEO, FARECOMPARE.COM: I think they needed to look at the policies really close and hopefully maybe get an agency to define it so they are more transparent and somebody above the airlines who really don't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole can make the policy.

SNOW: One group that wants to talk about it is the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. With more than one-third of Americans considered obese, Brandon MacSata advocates bigger seats in one row of the plane.

BRANDON MACSATA, ASSOCIATION FOR AIRLINE PASSENGER RIGHTS: We don't think it should be the size of a person's rear end but the size of the seat that's the issue.


SNOW: Southwest isn't alone whether it com when it comes to requiring larger passenger to purchase a second seat. Southwest says it'll refund the passenger for the second seat if the airline isn't fully booked, Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you.

Let's wrap up this hour with a closer look at some of the hotshots from our friends over at the Associates Press.

In Kabul, Afghanistan, children play soccer in front of a destroyed palace.

In Oman, cyclists competing in the tour of Oman ride past a group of young girls.

In southern Germany, two people flaunt their costumes during the carnival rose parade.

In China, check it out, Siberian tigers greet visitors at a zoo. Millions of Chinese are celebrating the lunar new year of the tiger that began on Sunday. Happy New Year.

Hot shots, pictures worth a thousands words.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, Campbell Brown.