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Toyota President Deeply Sorry; Toyota President in the Hot Seat; Killer Whale Kills Trainer; Squiggles, Zigzags and Gridlock; Agency in Disrepair

Aired February 24, 2010 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, Toyota's top executive, Mr. Toyoda himself, goes before Congress and apologizes to American customers for deadly safety flaws.

Did federal safety authorities drop the ball? I'll ask transportation secretary, Ray LaHood.

New clues in the mysterious assassination of a Hamas commander. Suddenly the number of suspects more than doubles and the conspiracy seems to stretch around the world with one trail leading to the United States.

And the breaking news we've been following. A shocking death at Orlando's SeaWorld, where a killer whale mauls a trainer as a horrified audience looks on.

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

A rare display of bipartisanship has both Democrats and Republicans laid into the president of Toyota in the first of three congressional hearings of the company's recall of more than eight million vehicles.

Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the founder but president since only last summer, appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He apologized repeatedly for the accidents involving Toyotas and for all the confusion surrounding the massive recall.

Listen to this testimony.


AKIO TOYODA, TOYOTA PRESIDENT: I'm Akio Toyoda of Toyota Motor Corporation. I'd first like to state that I love cars as much as anyone. And I love Toyota as much as anyone. I am here with my Toyota family of dealers, front team members and friends.

I take the most pleasure in offering a vehicle that our customers love, and I know that Toyota's 200,000 team members, dealers and suppliers across America feel the same way.

However, in the past few months, our customers have started to feel uncertain about the safety of Toyota's vehicle, and I take full responsibility for that. We will devise a system in which customers around the world will reach our management in a timely manner and also assist them in which each region will be able to make a decision as necessary.

Further, we will form a quality advisory group composed of respected outside experts from North America and around the world to ensure that we do not make misguided issues.

We pursue growth over the speed at which we are able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that.

I regret that this has resulted in the safety issue described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced. Especially I would like to extend my condolences to the members of Saylor family for the accident in San Diego.

I would like to send my prayers again, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.


BLITZER: Toyota is Japan's largest company, so there's certainly a tremendous interest in this hearing in Japan. And the spectacle Japanese viewers are seeing is a world away not only in distance but also in culture.

Let's go to CNN's Kyung Lah. She's joining us from Tokyo right now.

What are people there saying, Kyung?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they were waking up and hearing this conversation happening in that hearing room. All of this happening just as morning news was going to air here.

So we got some early reaction from some of the commentators on the morning news. Early on, it was that Akio Toyoda appeared to be doing well. They were expecting worse behavior from U.S. lawmakers, because in the run-up to this, we saw a number of clips of other people -- financial institution leaders -- being skewered by members of the Congress.

So this was not that. But they were saying that the questions were tough, and that Akio Toyoda is trying to do his best to answer as directly as possible in an American way, but having some trouble early on.

What is interesting is that as the hearing went on and on and toward the end, we saw the tone shift just slightly here in Japan. And people at that point were starting to say that, is this politically motivated? Where are these legislators coming from? What districts do they represent? So there is some talk that this is midterm election time in the United States, and perhaps that is why there are these tough questions. But the early reaction here, Wolf, is that Toyoda was able to stand his ground and tried to be as American as possible and try to win over those lawmakers. Wolf?

BLITZER: They have to call him "the prince," Mr. Toyoda. And he's been in charge, as I said, only since last June. The grandson of the founder, but he did study here in the United States, went to the Bapson School of Business in Boston. So he's familiar with the United States. You heard him in his opening statement speaking in English and then going through a translator during the question and answer session before the hearing.

But this could not never happen, I'm told, in Japan, this kind of spectacle, could it?

LAH: Absolutely not. There is simply no equivalent -- not even close here in Japan. You will never see a head of a Japanese corporation being hauled in front of lawmakers here in Japan to answer questions like this.

This is just a totally different culture. Even being asked direct questions in Japanese, that's something that doesn't really happen here. This is not also a consumer-oriented culture. This is a company-driven culture.

So it's a very different situation, something that is completely foreign to people here in Japan, but also, remember this, Akio Toyoda, a very different situation for him, even though he was U.S.-educated, still a very foreign place.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Thanks very much, Kyung Lah. We'll check back with you.

There is a breaking news story here in the United States. It's coming to us from Orlando, Florida where a killer whale at Orlando's SeaWorld -- very popular with parents and kids -- attacked and drowned a trainer, an experienced trainer, in front of a shocked audience.

Let's get all the latest from Brian Todd who's been looking into the story for us.

People not only here in the United States, they're familiar with SeaWorld all over the world. They're going to be shocked by this story. What do we know? What happened?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here's what we know right now. At SeaWorld in Orlando, as Wolf mentioned, a female trainer killed this afternoon by a massive killer whale. The incident happened in a whale holding area at SeaWorld in front of an audience.

Orange County Sheriff spokesman Jim Solomon talked with reporters a short time ago and gave this account of the incident.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JIM SOLOMON, ORANGE COUNTRY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: At about 2:00 today, Orange County Sheriff's Office and Orange County Fire Rescue responded to a report of an injury at the Shamu Stadium. Units got on scene and realized that the victim in this case was deceased.

What apparently happened is we have a female trainer back in the whale holding area. She apparently slipped or fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales.

We're on scene along with the forensics and homicide investigators and we're conducting a death investigation.


TODD: Jim Solomon said there that the trainer slipped and fell into the tank, then was fatally injured by the whale, but an eyewitness told CNN affiliate WKMG that the whale jumped up and grabbed the trainer.

Here is that witness' account.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We walked down. There were a lot of people there. There was a trainer standing there by the window just talking about the whale, and people were asking questions, how much does he weigh, things like that. And then the whale -- like floated upside down and the trainer up there said, oh, yes, he's -- you know, they're giving him a belly rub, he really likes that.

And I could tell it was (INAUDIBLE) because you could tell by the huge, huge fins. And the trainer downstairs then called out to the trainer upstairs, OK, so and so, we're ready, and (INAUDIBLE) just took off like a bat out of you know where -- just took off really fast and then he came back around to the glass, jumped up and grabbed the trainer by the waist, and started shaking her violently.

And her shoe -- left without her shoe floating and then sirens immediately started and then everybody down. It's like -- not the trainer, but the other people that kind of standing around the glass area started telling us that we needed to get out, get out.

The sirens were going off, people were running out. It's like, I've never seen so many SeaWorld employees come out of the woodworks. The people in suits, people on dress clothes, and they were just yelling at us that we needed to get out.


TODD: The trainer who was killed is described as a 40-year-old woman. Dan Brown, the president of Orlando Parks, said that she drowned. And you heard that eyewitness account saying that the whale jumped up and grabbed her and shook her violently.

And those two accounts may not necessarily conflict with each other. She could have been injured by the grabbing and could have possibly been killed by the grabbing. Also could have been killed by being drowned, obviously, if the whale then brought her in the water.

The president of Orlando Parks, Dan Brown, describes this trainer as one of the most experienced animal trainers they have, Wolf. We did talk to some of the Orange County Fire and Rescue Department a short time ago. He said when they got there they did not even perform life-saving procedures for this victim. She was already deceased.

BLITZER: And there are reports that this particular whale, this killer whale -- the name Tilikum, is that --

TODD: Tilikum. That's right.

BLITZER: Tilikum was involved in the deaths of two others over the years? What do we know about that?

TODD: That's right. We've gone back and then research this a little bit. And CNN's own accounts from 1999 described one incident in which a male somehow, after hours or something, climbed into the pool and was -- his body was found the next morning kind of draped over the whale. Again, he had apparently drowned, not clear exactly the circumstances around that.

There was another incident in 1991 where someone was drowned in the same pool that Tilikum was in.

This is a massive whale. It's 11,000 pounds, 22 feet long. And, you know, what we're also -- what's interesting is shortly after this incident, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals came out with a really blistering statement against SeaWorld. We're not going to read all of it now. We may get into it a little bit later.

But essentially they're saying, we've been telling SeaWorld for years, don't use these animals in interaction with human beings. It's too dangerous and here's what you have today.

BLITZER: You take a killer whale, you put it in a pool like this, it's -- stuff happens potentially, and we just saw it happened today. All right, you'll stay on top of the investigation for us. We'll check back. We're going to speak with an authority on this subject coming up as well.

We'll stay on top of the breaking news. Later this hour, we'll speak with an expert on killer whales, try to get some insight into what happened at SeaWorld in Orlando today. Stay tuned for that.

Also, stunning new developments into the assassination of a Hamas leader as investigators reveal multiple new suspects and a possible U.S. connection.

Plus, more on the Toyota recall and the role of U.S. safety regulators. Were they asleep? Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joins us in THE SITUATION ROOM this hour to respond.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is joining us now with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Our government is broken. It's going to spend $1 billion of taxpayers' money to build a high security American embassy in London. $1 billion.

Twelve stories, 500,000 square foot fortress that will be built in the shape of a light-filled cube and be surrounded by natural defenses of a meadow, woodland and 100-foot-wide moat.

Yes, a moat.

The Philadelphia architect who designed the embassy says they were able to use the landscape as a security device. It's meant to protect the embassy from potential bombers and remove the need for blast barriers.

Just put some crocodiles in the moat.

Construction is set to start in 2013 and should be finished in 2017. This new London embassy being built is one of the greenest, most eco-friendly in the world. It has solar panels on the roof. Energy-absorbing materials lining the building's exterior, the embassy will be able to collect and store London's rainfall, so when it comes to water the building will be self-sufficient.

Which is all good, all fine, well. $1 billion price tag makes it one of the costliest U.S. embassies ever built, which leads us to the question of -- can you say tone deaf?

These grandiose plans are announced at a time of record deficits, 10 percent unemployment, millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet to pay for food and health care and our government is planning for a castle-like embassy with a moat. A billion dollars' worth.

Here's the question: Is now the time for the government to announce plans for a $1 billion embassy in London? Go to, post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thank you. Jack is going to have a special on "Broken Government," remember, Friday night, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right after THE SITUATION ROOM. You're going to want to see that.

CNN has been looking at "Broken Government" all week. One reason given for the partisan gridlock in Washington is very imaginative mapping of congressional districts.

Our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin has some more on our "Broken Government" series.

Jessica, tell us about this because a lot of people remain confused, but they don't understand fully the implications.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: These are very important districts, Wolf. When you look at dysfunctional government, you really can trace a lot of these problems back to the very way our congressional districts are drawn.

So, tonight, I'm looking at what's called Gerrymandering. That is the practice of drawing these districts to change the rules of the game so that political parties stay in power and get what they want often at the expense of voters.


YELLIN (voice-over): Take a look at Iowa. See how rational those lines look? Compact, side-by-side communities. It makes sense, right?

OK, compare that to this. Pennsylvania's 12th. Creative, right? Up, down, thin, long, it skips communities. Now this was understood to be an incumbent protection district, and in fact, it was Congressman John Murtha's district from 1974 until he died this month.

OK. Then there's New York's 28th, affectionately known as the ear muff district. And you can see why. See those upside down earmuffs, sort of?

Maryland's 2nd district -- take a look at this one. One end is jagged to be fair because that's the coastline, but inside? That's pretty daring.

I spoke with the man who mapped out these districts, Robert Cheetham. His specialty is high-tech mapping but he also runs the blog redistricting the He says districts like this one, Florida's 22nd, just proved that the system needs to change.

(On camera): This one is in some instances no more than a few miles wide.


YELLIN: Most of it.

CHEETHAM: Yes. And it cuts across many different communities.

YELLIN: Who don't have shared interest.

CHEETHAM: It will be tough to make our case that it's a shared constituency.

YELLIN: Why is this an example of the kind of thing that wouldn't exist -- that shouldn't exist?

CHEETHAM: Ideally, we wouldn't have legislators drawing districts.

YELLIN (voice-over): He says the U.S. is nearly alone in still allowing this practice. Well, it is common in the undeveloped world where you have lots of corruption. The preferred solution in his view?

CHEETHAM: Ideally, we would have nonpartisan commissions that draw the districts and make them available for approval by the legislature.


YELLIN: Wolf, there's a big push for reform. There are four states that do have nonpartisan commissions which draw the lines for congressional districts. There are reforms under way in 14 other states, but of course, redistricting is going to come up again because of the census this year, so this issue is far from dead.

BLITZER: But some of these districts are redrawn and redrawn all the time for what is seen as a good reason and the courts have upheld this.

YELLIN: Yes, that's true. Sometimes they're drawn in a certain way to give underrepresented groups a voice that they might not otherwise have. Listen.


YELLIN (voice-over): For example, North Carolina's 12th, the most litigated district in the country. The Supreme Court actually weighed in on this one and said, yes, it should look like this. That's basically to give African-Americans a representative.

Here's Cheetham.

CHEETHAM: This is a community of interest of African-Americans who can then elect a representative for themselves.

YELLIN (on camera): So it zigs and zags and goes south and north and back and forth because it's capturing various groups of African- American voters so that together they are sure to have an African- American representative?

YELLIN: That the general idea.

YELLIN (voice-over): That district put Congressman Mel Watt in office. He's been there since 1993. Racial Gerrymandering is in fact illegal but the court decided that this district is something different.


YELLIN: So, Wolf, this idea of Gerrymandering and how to draw districts, it's not always simple. But one of the reasons the nation's politics are so polarized is because of the way these districts are drawn. So if they are designed to keep partisans in office, well, then it follows that they encourage partisanship. People who represent the moderate center also get drowned out just because of the way these districts are drawn.

BLITZER: Gerrymandering explained well by Jessica Yellin. Thanks very much, Jessica, for that.

Questions are swirling around the death of a SeaWorld trainer, an experienced trainer, killed by a killer whale in front of a horrified audience today. We're following the breaking news. We'll talk to an expert on these animals.


BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Lisa, what is going on?


Well, the battle between Turkey's secular military and its Islamic government is intensifying. A court jails 12 senior officers, including admirals and his army general, on charges of plotting a coup against the prime minister several years ago. More officers could be charged later this week. Many in Turkey's military accuse the government of fostering fundamentalism.

Vermont's Senate is moving to close the state's only nuclear power plant after 2012. Lawmakers voted against the 20-year extension of the plant's license. Backers say the plant is getting old and less reliability, but opponents of the move say Vermont needs the energy from plant as well as the good-paying jobs.

And while it seemed like a simple enough plan -- slip down the brick of a chimney of a Brazilian bar, rob the place, and escape. Well, what the 19-year-old suspect didn't count on was getting stuck. Not very bright, huh?

Firefighters were called in to help free him and they had to destroy the oven to do it. This man is expected to be charged with attempted robbery.

I don't even know what you say after something like that. You know it's the old cliche, you try to go down the chimney, what was he thinking was going to happen?

BLITZER: Something's going to happen. Look at that. Those pictures are dramatic. All right, thanks very much, Lisa.

A killer whale attacks killing a trainer at Orlando's SeaWorld. It all happened in front of a shocked audience, parents and kids. How could it happen? We'll speak with a marine biologist.

Plus more suspects and now more clues in the killing of a Hamas commander. Why one of the trails may actually lead to the United States. What's going on here?

And were federal safety authorities asleep at the switch when it came to Toyota's acceleration problems? I'll speak with the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.


BLITZER: To our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, the breaking news we're following. A killer whale kills one of its own veteran trainers at SeaWorld in Orlando in front of horrified onlookers. How did it happen? We have a biologist, an expert, standing by.

Also, new twist in a killing that seems to be something out of a spy novel. The assassination of a Hamas leader in a luxury hotel. Suddenly the number of suspects exploding. Is there actually also some sort of U.S. connection?

And fallout from the Toyota recalls is pummeling U.S. auto safety regulators. Their boss is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to answers critics, your questions. You'll want to see my interview with the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get some more now on today's historic hearings on the Toyota recall. It's not just the carmaker coming under fire, critics says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, should have acted much more quickly and much more vigorously.

The Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is strongly defending the agency. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He'll be joining us shortly. But first, some background.

CNN's Mary Snow has a lot more on the criticism of NHTSA, both old and new, and the criticism has been going on for a long time.

What are you finding out, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, the people we're talking to say this is an agency that's been under strain for quite some time. Now NHTSA's problems with Toyota front and center now, but critics say the regulatory cop over automakers has a history of trouble.


SNOW (voice-over): Mention the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to attorney Raymond Paul Johnson and he sums it up in one word -- broken. Johnson is suing Chrysler for an accident that left Carolyn Carlson a quadriplegic.

Her husband Richard was driving their PT Cruiser when they hit block ice and then an embankment. The couple says Carolyn's passenger seat and gave way and thrust her toward the roof.

Chrysler says while it sympathizes with the family, "Mrs. Carlson's injuries were not caused by any defect in the 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser."

But Johnson also points a finger at the agency that's supposed to be the watchdog over carmakers.

RAYMOND PAUL JOHNSON, CARLSON FAMILY LAWYER: Well, what should have been done to prevent this is to have federal safety standards that means something when it comes to seatbelt strength.

SNOW: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA had considered changing requirements for strong seats in 1994, but no action was taken and it's still looking at the issue. NHTSA says that safety of seats has to balance strength and performance of the head restraint and that it's conducting research and testing to determine the best approach. The seat issue, say some critics, shows a pattern of inaction on the agency's part.

With the Toyota recall bringing intense scrutiny to NHTSA, one of its former administrators says, there's an underlying theme.

JOAN CLAYBROOK, FORMER NHTSA ADMINISTRATOR: This is a very important and talented agency, but it is in disrepair. It needs a huge infusion of cash, and more staff. It does not have some of the expertise that it needs for example electronic engineers and so on.

SNOW: NHTSA has a staff of 635 employees with 57 working for the Office of Defects Investigation, and it says it reviews more than 30,000 consumer complaints a year. Its budget is $856 million, with roughly 70 percent given to states for highway traffic safety grants. Compare that to the FAA, which has a budget of $17 billion.

The agency only got authority by Congress in 2000 to hire more staff after Ford ordered a massive recall of Firestone tires.

(on camera): Some of the same issues being raised by NHTSA today were actually raised eight years ago after the Ford Firestone recall. In 2002, the Office of Inspector General here at the Department of Transportation had issued this report, and it was critical of NHTSA's ability to identify potential safety defects. It also offered suggestions for improvements.

So why eight years later is the same agency being audited?

ALLAN KAM, FORMER NHTSA ENFORCEMENT ATTORNEY: Well, as Yogi Berra would say, it is deja vu all over again.

SNOW: Is it?

KAM: To some extent, sure.

SNOW (voice-over): Allan Kam worked as a senior enforcement attorney for NHTSA for 25 years. He says, one big issue is that the agency lacks teeth when it comes to slapping fines on the automakers. The maximum is $16.4 billion.

KAM: If it was just a cold business decision, the manufacturers would say, well, we're not going to do the recall and see if NHTSA pressures us further, that sum of the penalty was a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the recall.

SNOW: And it's left the transportation secretary on the defense, answering criticism his agency has been too lenient on automakers.

RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: On my watch, we've been a lap dog for nobody. We've been a lap dog for the people who drive cars and wanted to safely. That's been a lap dog for. Safety is our number one priority. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified at today's hearing and not NHTSA administrator David Strickland, because Strickland has only been on the job for six weeks. And, Wolf, critics also point out that from more than a year, there's only been an acting director.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll ask Ray LaHood about that. That interview is coming up. A lot more -- a lot more questions, serious questions have to be asked and we're going to try to do that with the transportation secretary.

Mary, thanks very much.

My interview with the transportation secretary when we come back.


BLITZER: More now on Toyota's House hearing -- more now on the House hearings involving Toyota's massive recall.

Company president, Akio Toyoda, wasn't alone on the hot seat. The Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also testified for hours. He bluntly stated that Toyota's recalled cars are not necessarily all that safe right now. They need to be inspected. You need to go back to the factory. You need to go back to these dealers to make sure that they are safe.

And he was forced to defend his department's own safety regulators.


BLITZER: And joining us now, the secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.

First, we were told it were the floor mats or the carpeting, then the sticky pedals. Now, there's word maybe the electronics. Do we know why these sudden accelerations with Toyotas are going on? Do you know for sure the reason for this problem?

LAHOOD: We know that the sticky pedal is a problem. We know that the floor mats are a problem, and we're saying there's been enough complaints about the electronics that we're going to do a complete review of that.

But people -- what people should do is go on our Web site and look at the cars that have been recalled, and if they have one of those, take it to their Toyota dealer or if they're experiencing problems, go to their Toyota dealer.

BLITZER: What's taking so long to find out the cause of these sudden accelerations? LAHOOD: Well, we believe that the floor mat is part of the problem. We believe the sticky pedal is part of the problem. Toyota believes that, too.

But we have had enough complaints about the electronics that we really need to do a review of that, and look at the information that Toyota has, look at the information that the professor at SIU put together in Carbondale, Illinois. He did a study of Toyotas. And really try and find the very best information we can to make sure we have 100 percent certainty about what's causing this problem.

BLITZER: Pending this review, and you're still in the middle of the electronics part of it, would you let one of your loved ones, your kids or your wife drive a Toyota?

LAHOOD: Wolf, what I have said in answer to that kind of a question is: we will not rest until every Toyota is safe. We're going to work 24/7 to make that happen. That is our obligations to the driving public. And it's just something that we just have to insist on and we will not rest until every Toyota is safe.

BLITZER: But in the meantime, is it safe to drive a Toyota?

LAHOOD: If your car is on the Web site, if it's listed for recall, take it to the Toyota dealer. If you're experiencing problems, take it to the dealer and have them fix it.

BLITZER: But if there's no -- there's is no remedy yet on the electronics issue, that's still up in the air and Toyota now admits it, and you are saying it, what are they going the fix if they don't know what the electronics problem is?

LAHOOD: Well, we need to find out what the problem is and how the fix it, if it's a serious problem. For now, we know that we've fixed some of the issues that have caused the acceleration.

BLITZER: But in the meantime, until you know the problem, I guess -- I'll try one more time -- is it safe to drive a Toyota pending the resolution of the electronics matter?

LAHOOD: If you're experiencing problems with your Toyota, you should take it to the dealer. If your car is on the recall, you should definitely take it to the dealer and get it fixed. That's the best advice I can give, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let me play for you this clip of what Rhonda Smith, she testified this week before Congress, the experience she had with her Toyota built Lexus. Listen to this.


RHONDA SMITH, LEXUS OWNER: This failure is surely shared by Toyota and NHTSA today. In our view, they've demonstrated an uncaring attitude and disregard for life. The results have been tragic, and today, I must say: shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy. And shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: NHTSA is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of your Department of Transportation. Is NHTSA underfunded?

LAHOOD: The president has included 66 new positions in our 2011 budget. We have the people and the expertise to really find these problems and get the car manufacturers to fix them. One of the reasons that -- I listened to that testimony yesterday from Mrs. Smith and I know the horrific anxiety that was caused by the acceleration of her vehicle. And we just encourage people -- if you're having a problem, take it to your Toyota dealer. If you're on the recall, definitely take it back and get it fixed.

BLITZER: So, I guess the answer is: yes, it is underfund and understaffed at least right now?

LAHOOD: Well, we're going to get some additional people in the 2011 budget. We have sufficient number of people and using outside folks to help us when we need them to correct these problems.

BLITZER: Even if you get these additional staff people that the president sought, will that be enough?

LAHOOD: It will be enough, Wolf. And if we don't have the right expertise, we can always go outside and contract for that. But we do have a lot of expert, career people, in NHTSA that are addressing these safety issues.

BLITZER: There's been a lot of complaints that NHTSA, which is supposed to, you know, oversee all of these safety issues, is simply too close to the automobile industry. Do you buy that?

LAHOOD: Not at all, Wolf. Our number one priority is safety. That's what people wake up and really do every day at NHTSA. They care about these safety issues. They address them.

And our priority is to make sure that when people buy a car, it's the safest car, and we are not going to rest until every Toyota is safe for people to drive.

BLITZER: A lot of our reporters who've covered these issues, including NHTSA, over the years, they've always complained that this is an organization that refuses to cooperate with the press. They don't have transparency inside. You can't get interviews with their top leaders.

Are you going to try to open up NHTSA so it's more transparent to the American public?

LAHOOD: Of course. And if there are opportunities for us to do that with our friends in the media, we will always take those opportunities.

BLITZER: It's the -- the new head of NHTSA, David Strickland, he's only been on the job for about six weeks. Why has it taken the Obama administration so long to get someone in charge over there?

LAHOOD: Well, we had a very good acting administrator prior to David coming on. And David has the experience to run the organization, and -- you know, Wolf, we have career people. We had a good acting administrator. We have our full-time administrator on board.

I've been paying attention to these issues for 13 months since I've been the secretary. Nobody has been asleep at the switch here. I have committed to safety as our number one priority. And as secretary, I'll carry out these safety opportunities whenever we can.

BLITZER: The governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, who has a Prius plant in Mississippi, he wrote an article in "The Washington Post" raising questions about your credibility, among other things saying, "I know Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to be an honorable man, but can these hearings be seen as impartial, focused on enforcing the rules and policing corporate behavior when the federal government has stakes in two major car companies?"

In other words, he's saying, what you're maybe trying to do is to help American car manufacturers at the expense of Toyota.

LAHOOD: In the last three years, Wolf, there have been 23 million recalls. And the majority of them have not been Toyota. They've been American cars also -- cars that were made in America by American car manufacturers.

What Haley said in that article about the idea that we may be too close to G.M. or Chrysler because of the government owns -- is absolute baloney. And I told him that personally when I saw him this weekend when he was at the governors' conference and I was there, too.

I don't believe it. He shouldn't believe it. And the American people shouldn't believe it. We recall cars when they are not safe no matter who the manufacturer is.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, good luck. We're counting on you. There's a lot of concern, as you know, and we're hoping that you and NHTSA get on this job and fix it as best as you can together obviously with Toyota.

LAHOOD: Thank you, Wolf.


BLITZER: A killer whale kills an experienced trainer as a horrified crowd looks on. We'll speak with a marine biologist.


BLITZER: Back to the breaking news we're following.

A killer whale attacks and kills a trainer in Orlando's SeaWorld. How dangerous are these giants?

Let's get some perspective from Billy Hurley of the Georgia Aquarium.

Billy, when you heard about this, how shocked were you?

BILL HURLEY, GEORGIA AQUARIUM: Well, I was not as much shocked as I was saddened certainly for the SeaWorld family and our heart goes out to them. These types of things happen when you fly jets or you play with big cats and big whales. These things do occur.

BLITZER: This -- but this big whale apparently has killed two others in the past, still out there at SeaWorld. How dangerous is that?

HURLEY: Well, certainly, physics is not working for us as humans when you're playing with a 12,000-pound animal. And that he decides that he wants to play with you in sort of a frisky fashion. Unlike your dog at home, he's not just going to scratch you in the leg, he's going to grab you and pull you around.

BLITZER: So that raises the question, is this safe? Is it really safe to take these killer whales, bring them in from the oceans, put them in a pool like this and play with them, if you will?

HURLEY: You know, Wolf, I'm not so certain that those things are related. When you look at the killer whales in the wild, they do all sorts of horrific looking things to humans, whether they're kicking sea otters or grabbing sea lions or killing other whales. So, the behavior that you see these animals in our care is often quite mellow and certainly relationship oriented. So, it's unusual to see this type of thing to express.

BLITZER: Well, I guess the question is: should they rethink their procedures at SeaWorld in Orlando?

HURLEY: You know, I certainly can't speak to SeaWorld's practices other than say that they're the best in the world working with killer whales. And they have great, great procedures. So I'm sure they're analyzing it carefully and looking forward to working on the relationship with Tilikum.

BLITZER: I guess, you know, one of the things that people who go to SeaWorld and other aquariums and other places that do this kind of stuff, they want to see people to get close to these killer whales, that's exciting and young kids like to see it, maybe everyone should rethink that.

HURLEY: You know, I think that as a human, we all appreciate the relationships we have with animals and when we go to a place like SeaWorld or other aquariums like the Georgia Aquarium, it gives us a chance to watch that relationship with nature and it's an impressive thing. And so, I got to say that it's certainly something that SeaWorld does well and we continue to look forward to seeing good things out of them.

BLITZER: If in fact, this particular killer whale has now killed three human beings, what should they do with this whale? HURLEY: I think they love it more. I think they need to spend more time with the relationship. They already do a great job with that and I think they'll exercise that relationship and exercise that love further.

BLITZER: You heard the statement, I don't know if you did, from PETA, saying that this is really inhumane to take these animals and bring them from their natural environment and get them into this kind of small environment. What do you expect when you do that?

HURLEY: Well, you know, I appreciate PETA's opinion on that. They certainly got their own extreme view of it. My view would be completely different and that is that we have an opportunity with these animals in our care to learn from them and a lot of the protection and conservation efforts come from the things we learn while we interact with them. So, I have to wholeheartedly disagree.

BLITZER: Billy Hurley from the Georgia Aquarium -- thanks for coming in.

HURLEY: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is next with your email. Then CNN's Jeanne Moos takes us a most unusual look at Toyoda the man and Toyota the car.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour: is now the time for the government to announce plans for a $1 billion embassy in London complete with moat?

Sean in Cleveland: "Is there ever a good time to announce the government wants to spend $1 billion on an embassy? There's got to be a cheaper, foreclosed-on castle, complete with moat that can be negotiated for."

Greg in Virginia: "Solar panels in London. Good luck with that."

Karl in San Francisco: "You didn't mention the security condition of the existing embassy. With London, a hot bed of terrorist activity over the years, perhaps we don't have a choice but to build something that will keep our diplomats safe. Security seemed to be a point in your lead-in, I take it the queen isn't renting out part of Buckingham Palace for us for this purpose. So, we're on our own, right?

Brian writes: "Well, Jack, whenever a nation establishes diplomatic relations with another nation, it's customary to construct an embassy in the nation that they are attempting to normalize relations with. When they did discover this England that you speak of?"

Joseph writes: "Lighten up, Jack, projects like this represent long term planning. During the construction period, the economy will go up, it will go down. If we let the possibility of a short term down cycle derail long term projects, that would only lead to more waste. Something like this should stand or fall on its merits, not on irrational passions inflamed by short term rabble rousing."

Brian in Washington: "If the U.S. government plans to spend $1 billion, they ought to at least be more imaginative than a simple cube structure. Why not make the entire building look like a colossal bust of Margaret Thatcher with glowing eyes that can change color based on U.S.-U.K. relations?"

And Don writes: "Who's going to attack our embassy in London? The British are coming! The British are coming!"

If you want to read more on this stuff, you can go to my blog at

BLITZER: It's an expensive embassy indeed. Thanks very much, Jack.

Toyoda the man grilled about Toyota the car. CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look at the testimony.


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

(INAUDIBLE) to Greece, a man fishes in front of an idle ferry during 24-hour union strike that's crippled daily life.

In Damascus, Syria, people walk through a market decorated for the Prophet Mohammad's upcoming birthday this Friday.

In Albany, New York, a man clears snow in front of his business.

And in London, check it out an 8-year-old black Labrador receives a military award for his work sniffing out explosives in Afghanistan.

"Hot Shot" -- pictures worth a thousand words.

A giant of the automotive industry is in the hot seat. CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With cameras whirring like insects, the press preyed upon Toyota's CEO -


MOOS: -- as they pushed and shoved to get a shot.

And congressmen took their shots, taking turns, holding up gas pedals. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this one here had some sticking problems --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- which means that when you get to take your foot off --

MOOS: And though Toyota was on everybody's lips, they didn't all pronounce it the same --

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm a great fan of Toyoda (ph).








MOOS: The car as opposed to grandson, the company's founder --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's got Mr. Toyoda's name on it. You don't want to claim it anymore?

TOYODA: My name is on every car.

MOOS: Well, not exactly his name.



BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX NEWS: Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda. It spelled differently but sounds the same.

MOOS (on camera): What a difference a "D" makes, it's mostly a matter of strokes.

(voice-over): The family changed the name of the car company from Toyoda with a "D" to Toyota with a "T," because in Japanese, Toyoda with a "D" has more brush strokes --


MOOS: Ten instead of eight -- and eight is considered a lucky number.

Despite Mr. Toyoda's many apologies --

TOYODA: I am deeply sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- from the deepest part of my heart. I sincerely regret --

MOOS: -- there were no bows of contrition as he had bowed a press conference in Japan. And the going got rough at this congressional hearing, especially for the head of Toyota North American over a company memo.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm embarrassed for you, sir. This is one of the most embarrassing documents I've ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems like we're having hanging before the trial. No, I'm not saying that you're not guilty.

MOOS: The poor translator getting shoved up to the mike. Of course, all of this is nothing compared to the jobs from comedians.

ANNOUNCER: Toyotathon or death.

MOOS: Reporters previewing the testimony of Mr. Toyoda ran into their own defects --

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The special treatment that's going to get -- if it unlocks, oh, that's horrible. That's just we don't want in television. Can we unlock it?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bri, you did it so gracefully. That's all right.

KEILAR: OK. Here we go, all right.

MOOS: -- reminds us of that most famous encounter with a locked door. Mr. Toyoda wished he'd been locked out of this hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that a yes or no?

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN --


MOOS: -- New York.



BLITZER: Happening now: a company associated with shocking controversy sees another. The business formally known as Black water -- why did an employee for its subsidiary take weapons intended for the Afghan national police using a name from the animated show, "South Park"?

The apology heard around the world.