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U.S. Influence Declining in Iraq; Major Blow for Taliban

Aired February 16, 2010 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Rick, thank you.

Happening now, the worst political climate for incumbents in at least two decades -- we have brand new evidence of the public's anger and dissatisfaction with Congress and the president right now. His popularity is going down.

Mr. Obama is going nuclear in hopes of generating a more -- and creating more energy and generating more jobs and bipartisanship. But something important is missing from his plan. We'll tell you.

And imagine if a cyber attack crippled the Internet, the power grids here in the United States and the cell phones. It happened today, but not for real. Stand by for the results of this high tech war game.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


A year after President Obama's inauguration, our brand new poll shows Americans' sky high expectations for his administration have plummeted. The public's hopes replaced by a record level of discontent with members of Congress here in Washington.

Look at our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey. Only 34 percent of Americans say most members of Congress deserve to be reelected. That's the lowest number ever recorded in a CNN poll going back to 1991. As for President Obama, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, now say he does not deserve to be reelected.

Is it time for him to sound the alarm?


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I need this lever to press (INAUDIBLE). We heard that.


BLITZER: All right. We just had a little fun with that photo- op. He clearly sounded the alarm.

The implications, though, of our new poll are very serious for the president and for incumbents of both parties. Let's bring in our senior political analysts, Gloria Borger and David Gergen -- Gloria, give us some historical perspective now on these numbers.

Is it as bad for the Democrats as some think?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, you know, some might even say it's actually worse. It's an all-time low, as you were saying. And we took a look back at those numbers in 1994. That was before Bill Clinton lost control of both houses of Congress. And you see when we asked, "Do most members of Congress deserve to be reelected?" -- this, again, is back in 1994. Thirty-seven percent said yes, 48 percent said no.

Now, that 48 percent number now is 63 percent. So it's 15 points worse for the Democrats now than it was back when they lost control of the Congress in 1994.

Now, one cautionary note, in our poll, the numbers are bad for both parties, but, of course there are more Democrats than Republicans right now in Washington.

BLITZER: What about, David, the president's number?

It's not very re -- encouraging for him right now to see a majority of Americans don't think he should be reelected, even though he still has three years until November of 2012.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: These are pretty bleak poll numbers overall, Wolf. They -- they underscore the fact that this president seems to be descending into a crisis in his presidency. And what we see, with the majority opposed to his reelection, if you go back into history, as Gloria just did, go back to George W. Bush, he was over 70 percent at his time in his presidency for reelection. And he had a tailwind coming in through the 9/11 and through Afghanistan. And he went on to win reelection.

But go back to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton's numbers at this period in his presidency were virtually the same as Obama's on the reelect. He's 45, Obama is 44. The good news for Bill Clinton, of course, was he personally bounced back and went on to win reelection.

But to pick up on Gloria's point, his party, in November, just after this poll, just a few months later, lost 52 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate. That's exactly the kind of wave election that Democrats are so worried about right now.

BLITZER: I guess there is some silver lining for the Democrats as far as Congress is concerned, Gloria, that the public isn't necessarily choosing one party over the other.

BORGER: Well, maybe. At first glance, it kind of looks that way, but the question you always have to ask is compared to what?

So take a look at this poll. In November 2008, before the election, Democrats were up 8 points when voters were asked whom they would prefer for Congress -- what party they would prefer. Now, you see there, they're just down two points. But a year ago, they were up. So that is not a good sign for the Democrats because, Wolf, they've lost significant ground here with the American public.

BLITZER: Yes. There's no doubt about that -- David, the president seems to have a problem with two key voting groups in this latest poll, is that right?

GERGEN: I think that's right, Wolf. The Independents and, also, if you look at white respondents in this poll, this is his deserved reelection. And among Independents, these are people who oppose his reelection. Among Independents, it's up to 56 percent now. Overall, he suffered on the approval side about an 11 point slippage from what he got in the election.

But look at the white overall response here, 61 percent oppose his reelection. He's had slippage. He didn't win the white vote. He got 43 percent of the white vote against John McCain. But now he's down, for reelection purposes, among whites, down to 36 percent. That is -- those are numbers that have to worry the White House. And they do suggest a white versus minority split in the country, which I think most of us would -- and the White House included -- would find to be unhealthy.

So he's got a lot of repair work to do here.

Can he come back?

It's way too early to say he's down and out, but I think he's in trouble and, clearly, his party is in trouble.

BLITZER: Yes, the--

BORGER: And those Independent voters--

BLITZER: Go ahead, Gloria.

BORGER: -- those Independent voters are so key, not only to Barack Obama's success, but to the Democrats' success in Congress in 2010.

BLITZER: Yes, that -- that first challenge will be in November of this year and then November two years after that. We'll see what happens. There's still a lot of time for the Democrats to try to regroup. Certainly, the president will try.

Here's another way of looking at the pressure on incumbents -- all incumbents this year. Right now, there are 11 open U.S. Senate seats -- five Democratic seats, six Republican seats. In every case but one, the incumbent has decided not to run against.

CNN's Fact Check just found only two election years since 1980 had a higher number of open Senate seats. Thirteen seats were open back in 1996. Twelve were open in 1992.

There's still more time for more open seats to develop.

Well, let's take a closer look now at President Obama trying to solve several problems at once. Today, he unveiled plans to guarantee more than $8 billion in funding to build the first nuclear plant in the United States in nearly three decades. The White House says it will help America meet its growing energy needs and create thousands of jobs at the same time. The president also touted his plan as new fuel for bipartisanship. He urged Republicans who support nuclear energy to support him on this, as well.


OBAMA: Now there will be those that welcome this announcement, those who think it's been long overdue. But there are also going to be those who strongly disagree with this announcement. And the same has been true in other areas of our energy debate, from offshore drilling to putting a price on carbon pollution.

But what I want to emphasize is this. Even when we have differences, we cannot allow those differences to prevent us from making progress.


BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.

There's a key sensitive issue he seems to be glossing over today, isn't there?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, it's what are you going to do with the nuclear waste?

I mean he's trying to sell this to Repub -- to Republicans by saying, look, I'm reaching across the aisle. To Democrats, he's saying it's going to create thousands of jobs, and, also, it's going to reduce carbon emissions, so it might be more environmentally friendly.

But a lot of his fellow Democrats are wondering, what are you going to do, long-term, with the nuclear waste?

And one of the only options that's been out there is Yucca Mountain in Nevada. And the president, in part because Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is so opposed to sending the waste there, said back in the 2008 campaign that he didn't want to send it there. He wanted to shut that down. In fact, the president's budget would do just that.

So I pressed Robert Gibbs, what are you going to do with the waste?

Are you going to reverse yourself and send it to Yucca Mountain?

Take a listen.


HENRY: Or are you saying Yucca Mountain is off the table?

The president is obviously going to--

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, look, I think what has -- what has -- what has taken Yucca Mountain off the table in terms of a long-term solution for a repository for our nuclear waste is the science. The science ought to make these decisions.


HENRY: So they're saying Yucca Mountain is off the table. That's good news for Senator Reid. You know, the president is going to be going to Nevada in a couple of days. And Senator Reid, as you know, is in deep reelection trouble, facing a major, major political problem. And so having the president support him on that issue can be good for Senator Reid.

But the bottom line is there is still no long-term solution for where you're going to put this nuclear waste if Yucca Mountain is off the table -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, what is the solution, then?

HENRY: Well--

BLITZER: Because you need to do something with the nuclear waste if you're going to build new power plants.

HENRY: Right. And it's interesting, because the president today basically said, well, look, I'm going to come up with a blue ribbon panel -- yet another Washington blue ribbon panel, this one, you know, a bipartisan commission that's going to take a look at this and try to find a solution.

Well, if you've been following along lately the debate in Washington, what David and Gloria were just talking about, the White House has been grumbling for a long time now that there's no -- not very much bipartisanship, that the system is broken. They've been reaching out to Republicans. Republicans aren't responding. Republicans say the same thing. And we've got this sort of broken record.

So now the president comes out and says we have a bipartisan panel to fix it, this -- this solution has eluded many bipartisan panels before. And so how the White House thinks that it's going to change now, that's an uphill battle, obviously -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

All right, Ed.

Thank you.

The nation's capital at a standstill. There's something familiar about all the gridlock in the snowy streets of Washington, DC.

And the feds making some new demands on Toyota right now, trying to figure out if the massive recall happened fast enough.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with The Cafferty File.

Welcome back -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thank you, Wolf.

Sarah Palin is talking, but now she doesn't want the news media to hear her. The "Orlando Sentinel" reports that Palin is banning all video and sound recordings at two high profile, big ticket speeches in Florida in the next month. Sponsors of these speeches say that the rules for the events are set by Palin. Members of the media can buy a ticket like anyone else, for a couple hundred bucks -- but no pictures, audio or video reporting allowed. You can take notes. That's it.

Also, Palin has banned media, in most cases, at her book signings, except for brief photo-ops.

Now, you'd think that someone who was considering a run for the White House in 2012 would want as much media as possible, wouldn't you?

Which is what happens whenever the former vice presidential candidate opens her mouth -- the media just eat it up, to wit what we're doing right here at 5:13 this Tuesday.

But that may be part of the problem, as well. Take Palin's widely covered Tea Party speech, for example, a couple weeks ago, media coverage was allowed. And while the base loves what she's selling, Palin has come under a lot of criticism, for want of a better phrase, for all the notes she had scribbled in the palm of her hand.

Meanwhile, new poll numbers suggest that Palin may want to reconsider that White House run. A "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows that only 37 percent of Americans have a favorable view of her, 55 percent unfavorable. And a whopping 71 percent say that Palin is not qualified to be president. That includes more than half of all Republicans.

Only a fourth of the people in this poll think she's qualified to sit in the Oval Office.

I wonder who those people are?

Here's the question -- why does Sarah Palin not want the news media to cover some of her speeches?

Go to and amuse yourselves.

BLITZER: And get ready, because, as you say, whenever you raise the issue of Sarah Palin, a lot of viewers like to respond.

CAFFERTY: We get thousands of e-mails and -- and a lot of them are pretty funny, actually.

BLITZER: Yes, I actually go and read some of them after the show.


BLITZER: All right, Jack.

Thank you.

Here in Washington, we're still digging out from that blizzard of 2010. Like all of us, Jessica Yellin has been staring at snow for days on end -- all right, Jessica, does it remind you of anything?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it sure does. You know, the pace of progress is glacial, public anger is mounting -- and I'm not talking about the impasse in Congress, I'm talking about folks right here in Washington fed up about all this. These are traffic cams from around the region -- traffic everywhere, backed up beyond words. This is just the beginning of rush hour on folks' way out of town. And it's all because the city has not cleared the roads of the snow.

It seems the frustration in Congress, Wolf, is spilling out into the streets.


YELLIN (voice-over): You've heard the gridlock in Washington is bad?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got a lot of good people in Congress, but they are trapped in a dysfunctional system.


YELLIN: Now the standstill on Capitol Hill has spread to the streets. More than a week after the big storm, Washington is stuck -- literally. Mountains of ice are narrowing roads, grinding traffic to a crawl. That's for folks lucky enough to get their cars out. Even the president got out of town.

Is it embarrassing that the capital is so gridlocked?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think so. I think -- I'm not even American, but it is embarrassing. And I feel embarrassment for that. It's sad.

YELLIN: Civility is in short supply. Ask Gregory Sherrill (ph), who says road rage is on the rise.

GREGORY SHERRILL: Very angry. You know, they're cursing words at us and this and that, you know. But, you know, it's been very rough on us. It's -- it's hard.

YELLIN: Angry residents want to know why the city hasn't cleared the snow impasse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Annoying. That's what I would say, very annoying. I -- I'm disappointed because they had lots of time to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, I'm from New Jersey. I don't -- honestly, I didn't think it was very good. I've definitely seen better when I was in New York.

YELLIN: The mayor blames the elements.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Forty inches of snow in five days, 60 plus inches in one winter is more than the people of the District of Columbia have seen.

YELLIN: Part of the problem, budgets are tight -- and so are the streets.

Did he just swipe that car?

(on camera): Think that's bad, check out this side of town, where you could say the working folks live. This is Main Street America. And folks here are still waiting for their snow bailout.

Does it surprise you they cleared up the other side of town first?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. I -- I've seen -- I seen it. I know the whole thing.

YELLIN (voice-over): I couldn't help but ask--

(on camera): Ask are we talking about the snow or are we talking about politics in Congress?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wow! They've got so much on their plates.

YELLIN (voice-over): Her suggestion?

Congress should start a snow commission.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A snow commission?

YELLIN: From Congress.


Why not?

YELLIN: Would they get anything done?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, they're as stuck as we are, so they should. (END VIDEO TAPE)

YELLIN: They're as stuck as we are, Wolf.

In the mayor's defense, this was an historic snowfall and it's getting better out there. But people in this town are angry. You can feel it on the streets. And they are asking -- they stop me on the streets, saying, please we just hope this clears up before Congress comes back from recess next week or we don't know what's going to happen.

BLITZER: You're right. I get the same reaction when I'm walking around.

Thanks, Jessica, very much.

A climber is stuck in an active volcano. Right now, there's a desperate rush to save him after he fell into the mouth of the volcano, down 1,500 feet. Stand by.

And something's happened in Iraq. For the first time since the US-led war began, it's being hailed as a positive development for U.S. troops serving there.

But might the looming Iraqi elections spell some serious trouble?

I'll speak live this hour with the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Chris Hill.


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

SYLVESTER: Hey there, Wolf,

Well, did Toyota act quickly enough on its recalls?

The Transportation Department is demanding documents showing how Toyota dealt with safety issues in millions of its vehicles. Automakers are required to declare a recall and notify the government within five days after discovering that a safety defect exists.

Meanwhile, the company will stop production at assembly plants in Texas and Kentucky while it deals with the recalls to prevent inventory from building up on dealers.

And the Navy is joining in the effort to save a climber who fell 1,500 feet into the Mount St. Helens volcano. Officials hope a Navy helicopter will reach the 52-year-old man. He fell yesterday when the rim gave way underneath him. Bad weather prevented an air rescue attempt this morning and avalanche danger is holding up teams on the ground.

And finally, it's Fat Tuesday. Yes it is. New Orleans celebrating the last day of Mardi Gras with block parades and homemade parties. The temperatures, though, in The Big Easy, they've only been around 50 degrees. Still, that's not stopping thousands of revelers who are in the spirit. You see them there -- many still riding high from the St. Saints' Super Bowl win.

Well, that looks like a ton of fun -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. There's probably some of our own friends, like James Carville. They had a good time; Donna Brazile. We're going to check in with them and talk to them about that, as well.

Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.

A new milestone in the war in Iraq -- is the end in sight?

I'll speak live with U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill. He's standing by. I'll ask him whether Iran is rushing to fill the void.

And what the capture of a top Taliban leader could mean for the U.S. and its allies -- could he reveal where Osama bin Laden is hiding?


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

Happening now, one of the most wanted terror suspects now in custody -- you'll hear about the Taliban leader whose arrest a senior White House official says represents the most significant Taliban capture since 9/11.

The United States under extreme cyber attack, not real but simulated to see if the country is really ready. I watched it and I can tell you, I left scared.

And what's being called the best home movie known to exist of president and Mrs. Kennedy's arrival in Dallas on that fateful day back in 1963. It was filmed by a 15-year-old and we're seeing this never before seen piece of history right now.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


The war in Iraq has reached a milestone. Right now, there are less than 100,000 American troops in Iraq. That's the first time the U.S. troop presence has been that low in Iraq since the US-led invasion back in 2003.

But could fewer troops spell trouble if violence flares when Iraq votes in a critical upcoming election?

And joining us now is the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Chris Hill.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to Washington.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Thank you very much. BLITZER: You're just here for a few days then you're going back to Baghdad?

HILL: Just for a few days and back to Baghdad.

BLITZER: All right. Under 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now. All of the combat troops are supposed to be out by the end of August and then all the other troops -- almost all the other troops, with a few trainers and -- and security guards for the U.S. Embassy, are supposed to be out by the summer of -- of next year, 2011.

Is that schedule working out?

HILL: Well, first of all, we reached an agreement with the Iraqi government in December of '08. And, indeed, we -- we reached a schedule that we would be down to 50,000 by the end of August and we would be down by -- to zero by the end of 2012.

BLITZER: So it's working?

HILL: So we -- we are on schedule for that. Yes, we are.

BLITZER: And General Odierno, the U.S. Military commander, he's on board?

He says that the U.S. can do this?

HILL: Absolutely. I mean we work on this every day. There's a lot of transition involved and a lot of things going from military to civilians, military to Iraqis. But we are on schedule.

BLITZER: The Iraqis are supposed to have their elections in the next few weeks, in early March.

Does the election outcome impact the U.S. troop withdrawal?

HILL: Well, certainly, we are there now for the elections. We will assist the Iraqis in maintaining a safe and secure environment. And so we work very hard on that day to day to make sure these elections come off. It's very important for Iraq's future.

BLITZER: So no matter what happens after the election, if there's violence or whatever, the U.S. is getting out?

HILL: Well, I -- you know, I don't want to say we're getting out. You know, we're looking for a long-term relationship with Iraq. I mean we have the world's largest biggest embassy there. We're going to be very involved in Iraq for generations to come.

So I wouldn't say we're getting out. What we're doing is trying to get combat missions out of there -- you know, end combat missions and get on with the task of having a normal relationship with a normal country.

BLITZER: The U.S. will have a diplomatic presence, an economic presence, a lot of civilians. But I'm talking about the military will be out of there, for all practical purposes.

HILL: Yes, exactly. The military has worked very hard to make sure the Iraqi military can handle things. They are handling things. And, yes, we -- it looks like things are on schedule.

BLITZER: Are you confident this election will be free and fair?

HILL: You know, they have prepared very hard for this. We've worked very hard with them. We went through the election law, which was tough going. And, you know, you have to kind of fasten your seat belts in the next few weeks. But we are convinced that it will be a good election.

BLITZER: Because you've seen all these reports that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, they -- they're using the Iraqi military for political purposes, to try to score political gains.

Is that accurate?

Are they doing that?

HILL: You know, I -- I wouldn't go that far on this. I mean, obviously, the institutions in the country are not what they should be and they need to be worked on. That's going to take years. But I think overall, this system is going in the right direction. And I think they're going to have a positive election.

BLITZER: The government is Shiite led.

Will the Sunnis get a fair shake in these elections?

HILL: Well, the Sunnis will certainly be a part of any future government. In fact, they're a part of the government now.

So one of the big questions is which Sunnis are going to be a part of it?

Is it going to be a more secular led Sunni or is it going to be more sectarian led?

So we -- we'll see how it works out. That's going to be up to the Iraqi voters to decide.

BLITZER: I -- I spoke back in October with Tom Ricks. You know, Tom Ricks. He's a journalist--

HILL: Sure.

BLITZER: -- an author, the author of "The Gamble" and "Fiasco." He knows this subject quite well and he was very skeptical about what's happening in Iraq. He told me, he says, "It's coming apart slowly at the seams. The only thing in Iraq that's changing is American influence is declining. So all of the basic problems that were there for years before the surge are still there, all of them have led to violence." HILL: There is a lot of problems in this country, these are problems that have taken 1,000 years to build. We won't get rid of them in a couple years, but this country is increasingly Democratic. If you look how they did the election law a couple weeks ago, they worked through that, made pen and ink changes on the sides of the bills. You can Sunni and Shia politicians working. There's a lot to take hope from. Is it going to be easy? It is not going to be easy. We're at it every single day.

BLITZER: But you're convinced that the end result somewhere down the road in the years to come there will be a stable Democratic Iraq when all the dust settles?

HILL: As Iraqis would say -- [ speaking foreign language ] we certainly hope.

BLITZER: But do you think it will?

HILL: I think there's reason to be hopeful. They have done a lot of oil contracts in recent months. In ten years Iraq could be rivaling Saudi Arabia, so they'll have the means to deal with these things, they'll have to figure out how to use some of these resources, but they have the ability to be as you describe.

BLITZER: Are you upset they didn't invite American oil companies to participate in making some money giving the blood and treasure the U.S. put into Iraq?

HILL: First of all, they did invite American companies to participate.

BLITZER: But they didn't give them any contracts.

HILL: Yes, they did. Exxon Mobil got a contract.

BLITZER: But all the big ones went to the Europeans.

HILL: Not true. Exxon Mobil is probably number two behind British petroleum. They have contracts from all over the world.

BLITZER: Should they have given the U.S. companies preferential treatment?

HILL: I would prefer a transparent process to determine who gives the best offer. They did have a transparent process, and a couple big American companies won in that process.

BLITZER: Tom Ricks' argument is also depressing when he sees who the big winner is. I said, if U.S. Influence is declining, if that's the case, is Iranian influence increasing? He said, "I don't know if it can increase any more than it is already. I think the Iranians are the biggest single winners in this war."

HILL: I hate to think of Iranians as winners. Frankly the Iranians made a lot of mistakes and have become one of the most isolated countries in the world, but the question is what countries will be interested in Iraq if there's a perception we're not interested. Certainly the United States should remain interested, because we don't want a situation where the Iranians are able to exert more influence.

BLITZER: Could you see an alliance emerging between the Iraqi Shiites and Iranian Shiites?

HILL: You have to remember during the time of Saddam Hussein he fought an eight-year war that was Shia, so I wouldn't go too far on the notion that --

BLITZER: How much influence does Iran have in Iraq right now?

HILL: Iran is there, they are there economically, but they are also there in rather malevolent terms, helping some of the Shia militia groups, so we have to be very vigilant on this. I can assure you General Odierno and I are.

BLITZER: And the Kurds where do they fit into this whole picture?

HILL: They've had a rough history, too. They will be a part of Iraq, they're very interested in remaining in Iraq, but it has to be a Democratic Iraq, so they're looking very carefully to see if it's an Iraq that will live up to this Democratic constitution.

BLITZER: Listen to what President Bush said in 2003 about Iraq.


PRES. GEORGE BUSH, UNITED STATES: Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that's success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global Democratic revolution.


BLITZER: Is that going to happen?

HILL: I'm sorry. I can't hear it.

BLITZER: You should have told me. I would have played it a bit louder. Basically he was saying the Iraqi democracy will succeed. That freedom can be the future of any nation. It will be a watershed event in the global Democratic revolution. That's what President Bush said.

HILL: Look, there's a lot to be hopeful about in Iraq, but there are many problems we confront every day. Just putting out a problem today doesn't mean you know what tomorrow's problem is. I keep very focused on what we have to deal with every day. We see problems, we work with Iraqis on solving them. We're hopeful, but very realistic about it.

BLITZER: Good luck to you and good luck to General Odierno, and all the men and women doing the best they can under such circumstances. Appreciate what you're doing.

HILL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Chris Hill, United States ambassador in Iraq.

A top terror leader is captured. He's credited with developing one of the Taliban's deadliest weapons. Is this as big a success for the U.S. forces as it seems? Our pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence will put it all into perspective for us. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The capture of a terror leader is being called a major success for the CIA and a major blow for the Taliban. His name is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He was seized in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi, according to a senior Pakistani intelligence official and he's seen as the number two Taliban leader in Afghanistan and according to one expert, co-founded the Taliban. He reportedly developed the Taliban tactic of planting roadside bombs, a close ally of Osama Bin Laden, and one expert says if anyone might know where Bin Laden and other terrorists are, this man likely would. Let's go to our CNN pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence for some perspective. How big of a setback for the Taliban is this?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, a U.S. counterterrorism officials says that Baradar has been at the core of the Taliban planning in Afghanistan for years, and thinks that having him off the battlefield will disrupt the plotting against coalition troops in the short term. He also thinks it's going to deal a severe psychological blow to some of the senior leadership of the Taliban and make some of those mid level folks reevaluate their commitment to the cause.

On the other hand, we spoke with a U.S. military commander on the ground in Afghanistan, who says he does not think this is going to have a direct impact on the current U.S. marine offensive down there in Marjah that we've been talking so much about.

One thing, almost everyone we talk to says the Taliban has shown an incredible ability to regenerate. I spoke with a former CIA officer who spend years in that region. He says one potential replacement is a man named Mullah Zakir. That name probably doesn't ring a bell to most folks at home but the thing to know about him is he's known as charismatic man, he's been planning Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan for years, and the thing that makes him stand out is the U.S. had him in prison in Guantanamo Bay and then he was released two years ago under the Bush administration, and he went right back to the fight.

BLITZER: What's important to note Chris also is that the U.S., the CIA could not have done this without the active cooperation of Pakistan, of the government in Pakistan. So what does this arrest say about that level of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan? LAWRENCE: You know, this comes as the U.S. has been drastically increasing the amount of unmanned drone strikes on the Pakistani side of the border. In fact last year one of those drones probably killed the Pakistani Taliban leader. I spoke with the former national security adviser who says the key to this is the fact it happened in Karachi on the Pakistani side and it looks like Pakistan's intel service, the ISI was cooperating with the U.S. intel folks, and she said when she served under the Bush administration that was one of the frustrations of getting those two to work together.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Traditionally, when an individual is taken into custody by the Pakistani ISI, they did the question directly. They would get input, they would speak to the CIA but they wouldn't let them in the room. If it's true, the initial reports that the interrogation is being done jointly by ISI and CIA, that too would be tremendous progress. That's a good thing.

LAWRENCE: Former homeland security adviser Francis Townsend. She says the key going forward on this looking down the road is just how talkative Baradar is in terms of pinpointing other key figures.

BLITZER: Very important stuff. Chris Lawrence, thanks very much.

The head of the Republican National Committees is meeting with tea party activists is Michael Steele on board with what they're pushing? A conservative manifesto that claims the government is outright ignoring the U.S. constitution.

And in his tome lies a body of speculation and intrigue, how did King Tut actually die and live? Researchers now have some fascinating new theories.


BLITZER: Joining us for our "strategy session" two CNN political contributors. Hilary Rosen is a democratic strategist and Ed Rollins is a republican strategist. Thanks for joining us. I'm going to play a clip from the U.S. senator from Indiana Evan Bayh who announced yesterday he's not seeking reelection. This is what he said on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" earlier today.


SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: Ultimately the American people ourselves need to decide we care more about practical solutions and progress rather than brain-dead ideology and partisan wrangling. I just simply reached the conclusion that for me at this time, I could do more to help people and make a better contribution to our society, because Congress is just not working real well right now.


BLITZER: Hilary, is this a wake-up call for everyone in Washington or just the Democrats? HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, you know, there is gridlock in a whole lot of areas. We've seen not a lot being able to get passed in the Senate. We understand why Senator Bayh is frustrated, but I don't think that makes him a hero. He's kind of running away from it. I wish he would stay and fight to change the filibuster rule, but, look, this has been a very tough Congress and Democrats have the responsibility to show that we can govern, and so far that, you know, people are still feeling like that test is out there.

BLITZER: The way things are going for the Democrats, maybe somewhere down the road, Hilary, they may like that rule if the Republicans take charge, right?

ROSEN: Well, you know, you might like it. On the other hand, I think the American people are sick of us not getting anything done. As a practical matter, I was talking to a smart legislative strategist today. Here's the problem. It used to be that when legislation was being considered there was lots of compromising and both sides who are making those compromises would have a day or two to figure out how to sell it to people. Now there's overwhelming transparency now in the legislative process, so people get attacked the moment compromise comes to the table. It's just a very difficult environment in which to do what is inherently kind of a messy process called legislating.

BLITZER: Is Bayh's decision going to change anything?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Sure it is. I mean it's all adding on to the pile for democrats. Obviously here's a guy sitting with $13 million in the bank, a very tough incumbent to defeat, we had a good candidate there, and I think we have to be favored in that seat. We now have ten democrat seats that clearly are competitive and I think to a certainly extent anytime you have that many and other 50 seats in the house that are competitive, you have a lot of chaos, and looking back toward their district as opposed to what's going on in Washington.

BLITZER: What does he do with that $13 million, Hilary?

ROSEN: He's got a lot of options. I guess he can distribute it to charity or he can save it for a future political run or he can distribute it in pieces to other political candidates. We don't know what he's going to do yet, but Republicans have a lot of shots to take this year, but they also have to have a message, and I think that right now their message is, you know, don't do anything. That's not going to be satisfying to the American people, either. So unless they come to the table and try to act more productively, I don't think that message will succeed.

BLITZER: I'll speak with Evan Bayh tomorrow. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM and I will ask him what he's going to do with that $13 million, among other stuff. Ed, let's talk about the Republicans briefly. Michael Steele meeting with members of the tea party movement. They have a manifesto, I don't know what you want to call it, called the Mt. Vernon statement. Among other things these tea partiers say this, "The federal government today ignores the limits of the constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant. The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles." How much influence will the tea party have on the GOP this year?

ROLLINS: Well, it certainly depends on the districts, depends on the state. Certainly I think it's admirable for Michael Steele to sit down with them, but at the end of the day, two major political parties and he runs one of them. He can't give it over. You want those people to support your candidate. You have a lot of common ground on fiscal responsibility. We're in no way, shape or form about to abolish the constitution. We think it's worked well for a long period of time, so I think the reality is we welcome you into our game, we hope you support our capital. What we have to be fearful is if they start running third-party candidates like in states like Nevada. It may be SUV enough to draw support away from our candidate that Harry Reid squeaks through, and that works to our detriment.

BLITZER: Ed speaks with authority when it comes to third party candidates, he knows something about that whole history. Guys, thanks very much. Ed Rollins and Hillary Rosen.

The United States under extreme cyberattack. It's not real, but a real test of how the U.S. would respond. I watched this simulation here in Washington today, and I can tell you, I left scared.


BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for the Cafferty file. Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good stuff. We have a lot of e-mail. The question is why does Sarah Palin not want the news media to cover some of her speeches?

Steve writes, "Because they ain't paying. It is becoming apparent that hopey changey and other Palinisms play well to a narrow crowd with cash to spend. These little Palinisms do nothing to suggest an IQ getting to triple digits. So the less exposure the better. She takes tea party cash and endorses her great grandpa McCain. It is about the Benjamin's, Jack."

David in Cedar Rapids, Iowa writes, "Because she is a fraud. I know it, you know it and 71% of America knows it, and she knows it. The only ones who don't know are the fools who are willing to pay money to have the sirens song drift harmlessly through their heads while she serenades them with her folksy mish mash of canned patriotism and twisted Christianity."

Chris says, "Every time she opens her mouth, she makes a fool of herself."

Dave says, "Sarah Palin closes the speeches so that those who have not paid to hear her speak don't have the opportunity to experience buyer's remorse." Dan says, "Because she is an idiot, and she believes that if there are no recordings or pictures of her being an idiot, then the 71% may forget she is an idiot."

George says, "Nobody has to cover her speeches, because we have enough to prove her incompetence already. Now, no more Sarah, bad, Jack, bad."

And Eric says, "Please, please stop covering, promoting, giving any validity to this simpleton trailer dweller. America doesn't need this. If she doesn't want media coverage by all means honor her request."

And Markel suggests, "Damage control."

And if you want to read more about this and you are looking to spice up a winter evening check out my blog Amazing e-mails.

BLITZER: Yes, Jack. People will go there and read it.

People have been fascinated by King Tut ever since his tomb was opened more than 80 years ago and now scientists have dug up new information on how King Tut lived and died.


BLITZER: When you think of mummies, chances are you think of King Tut. People all over the world have flocked to see artifacts from the boy pharaoh's tomb, and now scientists have learned more about him over 3300 years since his death. Let's go back to Lisa. She's working the mummy beat for us. Interesting stuff here Lisa.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well no, doubt. Researchers using modern science and DNA testing are finding out fascinating stuff about King Tutankhamun, better known as King Tut. Since his tomb was discovered in Egypt in 1922 there have been so many questions including what killed him. He was died when he was 19 years old. Earlier speculation was that he was murdered or hit in the back of the head or other theories that he fell from a chariot or was kicked by a horse, but now scientists believe they have figured it out. They have ruled out murder, and get this, now they say that malaria along with complications from a leg fracture led to his death. They are excited at having solved the mystery.


ZAHI HAWASS, SUPREME COUNCIL OF ANTIQUITIES: What we are announcing really is to make King Tut alive. He was silent for more than 3,000 years. Now, for the first time of the discovery of King Tut in November 4, 1922, we brought you King Tut live. This is so exciting.


SYLVESTER: King Tut came from a line of warrior pharaohs, but DNA shows he was on the frail side with a curvature of the spine, and foot malformation that made it difficult for him to walk. And in the tomb, they found 100 or so walking sticks. Researchers thought it was a sign of power, but now they are saying that these were canes that he needed to use.

BLITZER: They originally thought that he was murdered buzz of a hole in the back of the skull, so how they were able to disprove that theory?

SYLVESTER: Well, earlier x-rays they found there was a hole in the skull in the back, and that gave rise of the theories of murder or fatal flaw, but new DNA testing that the hole was made in the mummification process.

BLITZER: And the follow-up question is, how is DNA testing on a mummy able to determine this?

SYLVESTER: Well, it was a two-year project and they looked at ten other mummies, close relatives of King Tut, and took bone tissue from these and extract the DNA and this is tough work. The DNA is present in small amounts and thin and frequently damaged. It can be hard to purify. DNA also helped to trace the relatives and one of the more interesting findings is that he was married to his own sister, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, King Tut, we know more about him today than we did yesterday.

And to the viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, an assassination in a luxury hotel that reads like something out of a spy novel.