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THE SITUATION ROOM
New Nuke Agreement Reached Between United States and Russia; Iraq's Election Results
Aired March 26, 2010 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: The U.S. and Russia agree to slash their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, setting the stage for a high-profile signing ceremony and setting an example for countries that may be trying to build up nuclear arsenals.
Iraq's election results are now in, and a former prime minister gets the chance to return to the top job. Will that clear the way for U.S. troops to return home or not?
And a bill to legalize marijuana will be on California's ballots this fall. Could that cash crop help plug the state's budget shortfall?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The results are now in from a crucial election that will decide Iraq's future and may decide whether U.S. troops can stick to their pullout schedule. A former prime minister edges the current prime minister in the contest to become Iraq's next prime minister. That would be Ayad Allawi. His bloc won by a slim margin of just two parliamentary seats.
That gives Allawi the chance to try to build a ruling coalition and become the prime minister. The results, though, are already being disputed.
Let's go back to CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom. He's in Baghdad watching this story for us.
There's lots at stake here, who the next prime minister of Iraq is, Mohammed. Tell our viewers what's going on.
JAMJOOM: Well, Wolf, it's significant that Ayad Allawi has won the parliamentary election, for several reasons, the most important being that he's a Shiite and he was supported not only by Shiites, but also by Sunnis.
And this is showing that Iraqi people by and large are trying to get beyond the sectarian politics of the past and move on to get a government that's functional and that's inclusive. Now, the U.S. government has already come out. The embassy here issued a statement congratulating the Independent High Electoral Commission for carrying out successful elections, and this means that as of now they expect the troop withdrawal to keep going as scheduled.
But there are still complications. This is now really where the show starts. These elections have been difficult. It's been nearly three weeks since the elections took place. Only today were the final results announced. In the past couple of weeks, you have seen more and more people, more and more top candidates, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, asking for manual recounts alleging voter fraud and manipulation.
Now is when you're going to see the real hard work being done. You are going to see all these coalitions trying to form so they get the number of seats, 163 seats, that will be needed in order to form a government here. While Allawi has won, has edged out Maliki in the election, he only has 91 seats. He needs 163 seats before he can be tasked with forming a government -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And it's interesting that General Odierno, the U.S. military commander, and Ambassador Chris Hill, the U.S. ambassador, they both said these elections pretty much very free and fair, responding to Nouri al-Maliki, who is already raising objections about fraud.
This does seem to be a sign, given Allawi's support that he has, not just from Shiites, but from Sunnis, that maybe this democratic process in Iraq is beginning to work -- work its way through.
JAMJOOM: Well, in a sense, Wolf, the story of the day wasn't so much the winners. It was the losers. I mean, the parties that didn't do nearly as well as expected were the parties that were dominated by religious sectarian leaders, that were really trying to point out the divide here in Iraq, rather than unifying the people.
And what you're seeing now are people asking their government to form these coalitions that are inclusive, so that they can have the services and security that they need.
Now, we spoke to U.S. officials here in the past week, and they said the key for these elections to really be successful is that, whatever coalitions form, they be inclusive. One of the biggest fears that was going on here in the past few weeks was perhaps Nouri al- Maliki might win. Maybe his coalition would align themselves with the other Shiite coalition. Perhaps those two coalitions would sideline a Sunni coalition.
That would mean that they would feel disenfranchised, that Sunni voters would feel disenfranchised, and there was a fear that if any group felt disenfranchised, that that might lead to violence, violence of a political nature, violence because voters felt like they weren't being taken seriously -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Mohammed Jamjoom working the story in Baghdad for us. We will stay on top of it. Thank you.
More than anything, Ayad Allawi is a survivor. He was part of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back in the 1960s and '70s, before breaking with Saddam Hussein and opposing him in exile. Allawi narrowly survived an assassination attempt back in 1978. One of Saddam Hussein's aides broke into his home near London in the middle of the night and attacked him with an axe.
It took him a year to recover in the 1990s. With what many believe may be the CIA's backing, Ayad Allawi's political party attempted a coup, but failed. In June 2004, Allawi became Iraq's first post-Saddam leader. He lost power as the interim prime minister when his secular political party was trounced in Iraq's 2005 national elections, but he appears to have won this time.
They will still have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, but, in a landmark agreement, the United States and Russia have agreed to slash their arsenals, and that sets the stage for a high-profile ceremony and sets an example for other nations that may be seeking nuclear weapons.
Let's go live to our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty.
Jill's covered U.S./Russia relations for many years.
This is significant today, Jill.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf.
For the past decade, at least, when American leaders talked about threats to the United States, they talked about terrorism, but just as dangerous, even if it seemed to be on the back burner, was nuclear weapons, those huge arsenals held by the United States and Russia. Today, arms control is back.
DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Fresh from a phone call with the leader of Russia, President Obama and key members of his Cabinet announced a deal on the most comprehensive arms control agreement in almost two decades.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, we have taken another step forward by -- in leaving behind the legacy of the 20th century, while building a more secure future for our children.
DOUGHERTY: The new START agreement cuts the numbers of nuclear weapons the U.S. and Russia will deploy by one-third, a limit of no more than 1,550. It also cuts roughly in half the number of missiles and launchers that carry or can carry those warheads within minutes to their final destination.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Long after the Cold War's end, the United States and Russia still possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. We do not need such large arsenals to protect our nation and our allies against the two greatest dangers we face today, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
DOUGHERTY: The deal resonates on multiple levels. (on camera): Right now, Russia and the United States, even though they're no longer enemies, have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other on hair-trigger alert. This agreement not only limits the numbers of those deadly weapons. It also helps to restart the U.S./Russia relationship, with more potential cooperation on tough issues like Iran sanctions, Afghanistan, and the world economy.
And, in a more dangerous world, where nuclear weapons are spreading, it sends a message to Iran and North Korea, as well as to other countries that might be tempted to arm themselves with nukes, that the U.S. and Russia are ready to lead by cutting their own arsenals.
(voice-over): Negotiations almost came unglued by Moscow's anger over the Obama administration's plans for a missile defense system in Europe. This agreement does briefly mention defensive weapons, but uses language that may help placate members of Congress who are nervous over any limits on missile defense that might leave America and its allies exposed.
ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nor does this treaty limit plans to protect the United States and our allies by improving and deploying missile defense systems.
DOUGHERTY: President Obama and President Medvedev agree on another thing, and that is that nuclear weapons should be phased out, a world without nuclear weapons. That's very far down the road, but the new START agreement is a step in that direction -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Our senior political analyst, David Gergen, told us that it does show that there's been a dramatic improvement in U.S./Russia relations, Jill, since President Obama took office. You have covered this story for many years. Have you sensed this dramatic improvement?
DOUGHERTY: Well, I think it is a major improvement in the relationship. And, you know, the nuclear issue was very important to Russia, for their own reasons, domestically, because it reminds them that they are, at least in this one area, an equal of the United States. That's very important for them emotionally. And it also gives them clout internationally, so it's a big deal for both sides.
BLITZER: It's a source of great pride for the Russians.
All right, Jill, thanks very much.
Jill's a former Moscow bureau chief for CNN.
Both leaders need to run the treaty by lawmakers, and after all the wrangling here in Washington over health care reform, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, joked that there might be a role for the president's chief of staff and chief arm-twister, Rahm Emanuel. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: Just as we have to go to our Congress, President Medvedev has to go to the Duma. And I think President Obama has said that he would send Rahm Emanuel to Moscow.
CLINTON: And -- and we all immediately endorsed that offer.
CLINTON: So, if -- you know, if President Medvedev wants to take us up on it, we're ready.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: My interview, by the way, with Rahm Emanuel will air tomorrow night, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, on THE SITUATION ROOM, our Saturday edition, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, Saturday night, the interview, the entire interview with Rahm Emanuel.
In a huff over housing construction, first Israel embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden. Then Israel's prime minister got a White House cold shoulder. But is there more behind the sudden unraveling of relations between the U.S. and Israel?
And could the legalization of marijuana help California make up its budget shortfall, something voters are about to consider?
Plus, they snuck into the president's first state dinner. Now those White House party crashers are about to become TV reality stars.
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty's here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: All right.
Here in THE SITUATION ROOM, it is never too soon to begin thinking about the next big election, so here goes. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll taken before the vote on health care reform shows America split right down the middle on whether President Obama should be reelected in 2012 -- 47 percent of voters say they would vote for him -- 47 percent say they would vote for an unnamed Republican.
It's worth pointing out that at the same point in Bill Clinton's first term, he was trailing that unnamed Republican by 15 points, and yet he went on, of course, to win a second term two years later. The poll also shows a majority, 54 percent, believe that Mr. Obama will be a one-term president.
What's interesting is a lot of the same gender and generation gaps that we saw in the polls in 2008 are still holding. President Obama continues to enjoy a significant advantage among younger voters and women. He loses among men and older voters.
And in what might be keeping the Democrats up at night, independents currently favor that Republican by 11 points. Among Democrats, more than three in four say they want the president renominated in 2012. Of course, there are some who are still holding out hope that Hillary Clinton will make another run at it, which, of course, would be something to watch.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, no clear front-runner in this poll, three potential candidates, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, all within a few points of each other at the top of the pack.
So, here's the question. Have you even started thinking about who you might vote for, for president in 2012? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog.
BLITZER: I have been thinking, Jack, it's less than two years until the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. That's just barely around the corner, right?
CAFFERTY: It's never too soon for you to start getting worked up about this stuff, either, is it?
BLITZER: I'm all excited about Iowa and New Hampshire already. Let's get crazy about that.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you.
Fallout between the United States and Israel over Israel's plans to build some housing units in a disputed part of Jerusalem. First, Israel embarrassed the visiting vice president, Joe Biden. Then the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, got the cold shoulder this week at the White House.
Let's discuss this with our CNN national security contributor, Fran Townsend. She was the homeland security adviser to President Bush. She also worked in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration.
Fran, I know you have been checking your sources, and you have got some good sources here in Washington. We know about the dispute, but you see some bigger issues here.
FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's right, Wolf.
I mean, the dispute broke out in public of course when the vice president was over with Israel with the prime minister, Netanyahu. But this really goes back further than that if you talk to Israeli sources. Let's remember there's concern in Israel about U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iran, this is a new administration, and Israel was looking for signs, very clear signs, about the administration not tolerating Iran getting a nuclear weapon, not tolerating Iran's continuing support to Hamas and Hezbollah, and there were not seeing those signs.
And then what happens is, remember, there's the assassination in Dubai, which is, by all public accounts...
BLITZER: Of a Hamas official.
TOWNSEND: Of a Hamas official -- by all public accounts, that gets tied back to Israel.
In prior times -- and there are classified examples of this, Wolf -- the United States would have played a quiet role behind the scenes working both with the Emirates, with Great Britain and others, to this go away, to make sure that the Israelis understood the problems that this had caused and to make sure there wasn't public criticism.
The U.S. didn't do that in this case. And, remember, Prime Minister Gordon Brown came out. The police chief in Dubai released all sorts of evidence showing ties to Israel. And these -- all these things happened before Vice President Biden's visit.
BLITZER: But are you hearing any evidence that the U.S. actually encouraged the government there in the United Arab Emirates in Dubai to go ahead and make those videotapes public and to release all that information, or was that a strictly UAE decision?
TOWNSEND: I think that was a strictly UAE decision.
But, frankly, Wolf, in the past, the United States would have played a role to try and downplay and encourage the Emirates and Great Britain not to make a big public deal about it and to make sure that this sort of a situation was handled by quiet diplomacy.
And I think what I am hearing from Israeli sources, a retired Mossad agent, is that Israel was disappointed that America stood by and let this thing unravel publicly and didn't play sort of a quiet role behind the scenes.
BLITZER: Because if you read the Israeli press today, the Israeli media is full of stories about the president of the United States humiliating the prime minister of Israel when he was over at the White House this week. He made him wait. He said, I'm going to go have dinner, and I will come back later.
I mean, it was a pretty -- pretty -- if you believe these stories in the Israeli press, pretty ugly mood.
TOWNSEND: Well, I will tell you, when you talk to sources here in Washington, they describe it in similarly ugly terms, as a meltdown.
I will tell you, Wolf, you know, initially, American officials were quiet after the snub of the vice president. And then they came out and they were very publicly critical. This trip was billed as an invitation to try and restore relations and rebuild relations, and not the way to go about it, to snub him, no picture, no statement.
I think the Israelis understandably felt that the prime minister had been humiliated. You know, often, the United States is looked to, to establish trust-building measures between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And, right now, what someone said to me was, we need trust-building measures between the U.S. and Israel.
And that's very dangerous, Wolf, if that's where we're at.
BLITZER: It's a tense moment in U.S./Israeli relations right now.
BLITZER: All right, thanks very much for that. Good work.
He led the Democratic charge for health care reform, but at what cost? The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, gears up for the fight of his political life.
And, later, he's a conservative activist known for his video exposes. He's been facing federal charges for most -- for his most recent stunt. Now there's a break in the case.
BLITZER: He has the most powerful job in the United States Senate, but the majority leader, Harry Reid, may be in deep trouble back home. Can Republicans take advantage?
Plus, you would think they had their 15 minutes of fame when they snuck into the president's state dinner, but now those White House party crashers are heading to prime time.
BLITZER: He has the most powerful position in the United States Senate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: One of the best majority leaders the Senate has ever had, Mr. Harry Reid.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But Democrat Harry Reid has some political problems back in his home state of Nevada. Republicans may be smelling blood.
Let's go to our CNN national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, who is working the story.
You had a chance to even catch up with him. What's going on here, Jessica?
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. I did.
The Senate majority leader is facing a bruising reelection battle. The numbers just don't look good for him. And to complicate matters, Wolf, right now, the Tea Party is planning a huge rally in his hometown of Searchlight, Nevada, tomorrow, with keynote speaker Sarah Palin, who will call for Reid's defeat in November.
YELLIN (voice-over): In Nevada politics, the stakes couldn't be higher for Senator Harry Reid. His big bet on health care reform turned into a win in Washington, but it's not playing as well with voters back at home.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the health care thing, he's -- he's screwing up big time, so he's out.
YELLIN: After four terms in the U.S. Senate, the majority leader could lose his job this November. Polls show a majority of Nevadans don't like him, and only a third would vote for him.
(on camera): Why do so many voters in Nevada dislike you?
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Oh, I don't think many voters in Nevada dislike me. I think that we have an economic situation in Nevada that is very difficult.
YELLIN (voice-over): Nevada is number one in the nation in home foreclosures, number two in unemployment.
(on camera): The casino business has been battered. The number of conventions here has plummeted. Gambling revenue was down more than $1 billion last year. Folks who work here don't just blame it on the recession. They're mad at President Obama, because twice he has told cash-strapped Americans not to go blowing their money in Vegas. Plenty of folks who work here say Senator Reid should have convinced the president not to say that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NARRATOR: Harry Reid, determination that makes a difference.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN: Reid's message? Thanks to his powerful post as majority leader, he can deliver in a way no freshman senator could.
REID: Just so many different things that wouldn't happen but for the position that I have.
YELLIN: But because of that role, he's become a lightning rod for Republican criticism, and he's taking fire from all sides.
Republican challenger, Sue Lowden.
SUE LOWDEN (R), NEVADA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: He's lost touch with what's going on here in Nevada. It's all about the jobs. His -- his solution is to put this country more in debt, to tax the country more.
YELLIN: And from a Tea Party contender, Scott Ashjian.
SCOTT ASHJIAN, TEA PARTY CANDIDATE: Reid is definitely not doing the job. Reid needs to -- Reid's 70 years old, and he should be playing golf in Florida, probably.
YELLIN: Even the dean of Nevada's political press corps says Reid has a difficult hand to play.
JON RALSTON, NEVADA POLITICAL ANALYST: He says things that are intemperate. He's not very charismatic. He can't come back to the state and wow people.
YELLIN: Senator Reid has survived tough campaigns before, but Republicans are betting this year his luck will run out.
YELLIN: Now, Wolf, playing in Senator Reid's favor, a couple of factors. One, he can raise as much money as he will need. Two, hundreds of thousands of new voters have moved to Nevada since he last ran for election, so the campaign feels they can still persuade them.
And then here's an unexpected one. There is a Tea Party candidate who has recently entered the race. If you factor him into the most recent polls, it looks like he siphons off some conservative voters and could actually give Reid a narrow victory -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. We'll watch it with you.
Jessica Yellin reporting.
Let's assess with our CNN senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; and CNN's John King, whose new show, "JOHN KING USA," airs right at the top of the hour.
Health care reform -- he took the lead on this, John.
Will it help him or hurt him in Nevada?
JOHN KING, HOST: It's a great question, because the West is anti-Washington, anti-power. And you get a libertarian streak the furtherer West you go. So in the one sense, it hurts him.
There's also a very strong labor movements and he very much needs the labor movement to help him inside Vegas. They're upset because of jobs. They're -- they've been upset at President Obama a couple of times. And they didn't get everything they wanted in the health care bill. So the question is, especially between now and November, can he heal the rift with the labor movement and get them not only to work for him, but to really, really work for him, turning out the foot soldiers?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, and...
BORGER: -- as Jessica was pointing out, you know, this is a -- this is a state that's hurting -- 13 percent unemployment.
BORGER: And there are lots of people who believe, in that state, that, in fact, Harry Reid, as the leader of the party, should have been forcing the president to focus more on jobs than on health care reform, no -- no matter what they think about it.
BORGER: They're -- they're upset about what's going on in their state. And that -- that's not going to help.
BLITZER: It's interesting. When I interviewed Karl Rove a couple of weeks ago, I asked him -- the Tea Party movement, does that help or hurt Republican candidates?
And he said yes.
BLITZER: You know, he said it both helps and hurts.
KING: And I think that's the right answer. And Sarah Palin has said you have to choose, that you're helping us by bringing new people to the party, you're helping us by stirring up interest, you're helping us by bringing new energy. But if your guy doesn't win the primary, vote Republican in November or you will harm us.
That -- that is a great point to make. And it will be fascinating to watch. And again, there's more of those -- again, as you -- when you get further West. You see more of these candidates, again, because of the anti-government. And there's a strong anti- incumbent sentiment. There's a strong anti-Democratic sentiment right now in the country. Those both hurt Harry Reid. And, Wolf, that state has a horrible housing crisis -- more than any other state in the country, probably. Maybe California closer. There are so many negative vibes in the state right now, it's tough.
BLITZER: Yes, go ahead. BORGER: The other point is that the Tea Party movement could actually activate a lot of the Democratic base to get out and vote. You know, there's not a lot of enthusiasm on the Democratic side. There may be more now because of health care reform. We just don't know. But they could react to the Tea Party movement and say no, we're not going to let that happen...
BLITZER: Because the Democrats would love to split that conservative vote in Utah, for example.
KING: Oh, yes, that's right.
BLITZER: There's an incumbent senator who's got some problems...
BORGER: A conservative.
BLITZER: A very conservative Republican senator...
BORGER: Very conservative.
BLITZER: -- Bob Bennett. Some other conservatives...
BLITZER: -- think he isn't conservative enough.
BORGER: Well, he voted -- he voted for TARP. He voted for the bank bailout. He signed onto a bipartisan version of health care reform.
BLITZER: But there's a third party conservative candidate that could -- maybe not in Utah, but in another state...
BLITZER: -- that could hurt the Republicans.
KING: And that will be something to watch in all of these states, that the Tea Party people, if they run in primaries, is that good enough?
Or do -- do they then, if they lose, try to run as third parties?
And, Wolf, that part of the country as been so volatile. Utah is going to have a Republican senator. It's going to have a Republican senator. But if you go to Nevada, Colorado, the West, you know, those were states that narrowly went for Bush, that narrowly went for Obama. There's a lot of volatility and change out in the West. It's a fascinating place to watch politics.
BLITZER: Remember, they used to say that about Massachusetts, your home state. KING: It's changed a bit...
BLITZER: We'll always have a Democrat, too.
KING: -- lately, too.
BORGER: Blue, blue, blue...
BLITZER: Stuff happens.
BORGER: Wasn't it blue?
KING: Point well taken, Mr. Blitzer.
BLITZER: What about Sarah Palin?
How much help will she give John McCain in Arizona to get himself that Republican nomination?
KING: From a message standpoint, she helps him a lot because she said John McCain essentially is the original Tea Party candidate today. McCain has a problem on the right. There's no question about that. They view him, again -- immigration. They don't like what he did. They view him sometimes as someone who compromises too much.
McCain has been so tough on the president, he's trying to prove to his base...
KING: -- back home, look, I'm getting in this guy's face on just about every issue there is.
She was very interesting today. You know, J.D. Hayworth, when he left Congress, did a lot of talk radio. Sarah Palin send the maverick back to the Senate, not some blah, blah, blah, blah. She didn't mention...
KING: She didn't mention him by name, but it was unmistakable what she was doing there.
BORGER: You know, it's so -- it's so interesting that now John McCain needs Sarah Palin.
BORGER: This was probably the largest rally he's had since he ran for the presidency. So he needs her now...
BLITZER: And both of them were on fire today.
You're going to have a lot more on this story coming up at the top of the hour?
KING: Safe to say that she owes him. He sort of made her famous. And so, yes...
BORGER: You think?
KING: -- we'll have -- we'll cover that a little bit at the top of the hour.
BLITZER: She is a multimillionaire now, too, as a result of all of that fame.
KING: He wishes she could...
BORGER: And a reality (INAUDIBLE)...
KING: He wishes she could vote in Arizona.
BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks.
BORGER: Many times, yes.
BLITZER: "JOHN KING USA" airs at the top of the hour.
We'll stand by for that.
Suicide rates are soaring among veterans, but there is a way for active and retired military members and their families to get help. We're going to take you behind-the-scenes of a hot line operation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're definitely not doing (INAUDIBLE)...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: This just coming in to CNN.
A Chicago taxi driver was charged today with aiding Al Qaeda and trying to send money to the terrorist group. Federal authorities say he also allegedly discussed attacking a stadium in the United States this summer, although they say at this time there's no imminent danger. The suspect, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, was arrested by FBI officials this morning. We're working this story. We'll get more information for you.
Deep despair triggered by the brutal realities of the battlefield and economic pressures back home -- it's a life and death struggle thousands and thousands of U.S. military veterans are losing, as suicide rates among vets soar. Now the military is taking action to save lives.
Let's bring back Lisa Sylvester, who's working this story for us.
This is a critically important development.
SYLVESTER: It really is. You know, Wolf, what you have to keep in mind is that there are roughly 30,000 suicides every year. And one in five of them is a U.S. veteran.
But there is a place where they or their families can seek help and where lives are saved every day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, Corey, check this out.
Have you ever seen this before?
Look at that caller I.D. It came in in a code.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And there was like stars.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Veterans Crisis Hotline.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At this point, he's told us he has a -- a bayonet and he has had plans to cut himself.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You put a -- do you have wall in your house?
SYLVESTER (voice-over): 10:30 p.m. -- crisis responder Angela Price (ph) takes this call. A veteran is driving around. He owns a gun and is threatening to kill himself.
ANGELA PRICE, SUICIDE COUNSELOR: Can I ask you to pull to the side of the road and talk to me, please, so that we -- so that we can talk?
I'm a little concerned that you're driving a car right now and you sound very upset.
SYLVESTER: Angela convinces him to pull over, gets his wife on the phone and talks him into driving to the nearest hospital for immediate help. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week the phone lines are manned. The need is growing every year. Eighteen veterans nationwide commit suicide every day. The number of suicides in the Army and Army Guard and Reserve has increased from 67 in 2004 to 128 in 2008.
(on camera): Many of the veterans are dealing with very personal and painful issues and they may not want to pick up the telephone. In that case, there's another option. They can go online with a one-on- one chat service. In fact, there's a chat going on right now.
A veteran writes: "The thoughts are always there. I'm trapped by the hope of the end of this sadness."
Social media is the new tool to connect particularly with younger veterans and service members. One soldier's life in Iraq was saved via Skype.
JANET KEMP, SUICIDE PREVENTION COORDINATOR: But one night we got a call from a mother, who was talking with -- to her son using Skype and her computer messaging service. She saw that he had a gun -- a weapon. And he had told her he was going to kill himself.
Then we talked to the American Red Cross, who was able to find him and notify his unit that he was in trouble.
SYLVESTER: For crisis responder Chris McGinn, the hardest calls are from those who have recently returned from war. Chris just got out of the Army, where he served in Afghanistan, dealing with life and death issues. He's doing the same here.
CHRIS MCGINN: Our veterans go through a lot, you know, and especially the ones that are coming back today, dealing with the economy the way it is and the unemployment the way it is. And there's a lot of -- there's a lot of mental health issues there.
There is definitely value here. And we're saving lives here every day. And -- and it really makes you feel like you're doing something important.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SYLVESTER: And the veteran suicide hotline number -- we want to give it to you. It's 1-800-273-TALK. There are 20 staff members on duty at all times. And they average about 330 calls every single day from all around the country. This service, we should emphasize, is completely free to the veterans and service members. And everything, Wolf, remains anonymous.
BLITZER: That's very important.
Six thousand deaths a year -- kill themselves?
SYLVESTER: Yes. It was so frightening. You know, it works out to 18 veterans a day. And this is a growing problem. But the key thing is that they want to get the message out that there is help, that they can pick up the phone, that they can get on their new chat service and have these private conversations where they can talk to people and get help.
And it works. I mean, when we were at the center, there were several calls where people were threatening violence -- I mean, where violence was imminent against themselves. And they were able to talk the person into getting help.
So it is making a difference every single day. They're doing a remarkable job there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks you for doing this report for us.
Lisa Sylvester reporting. In California, an economy in crisis, badly in need of fresh sources of revenue. Proponents of legalized marijuana say the new cash crop could be pot if the voters simply say yes. It's on the ballot in November. We'll have a full report.
And hear what Sarah Palin said today as she reunited with John McCain to help him win reelection. That story coming up at the top of the hour on CNN's new show, "JOHN KING USA".
BLITZER: This November, Californians will vote on more than just some key political races in the House and Senate. A bill to legalize marijuana will also be on the ballot. Proponents say that at a time when the state suffers a $20 billion shortfall, pot could be the cash crop to plug the gap.
CNN's Dan Simon talked to some activists leading the charge.
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are in a section of Oakland called Oaksterdam. This is the so-called cannabis friendly district. There is a medical marijuana dispensary here. It is also where you can find the campaign headquarters for those wanting full legalization.
SIMON (voice-over): Our camera was rolling as Richard Lee (ph) got the news. For him, there was never any doubt that marijuana would get on the ballot.
RICHARD LEE, OAKSTERDAM UNIVERSITY: We needed 433,971 valid signatures to qualify for the California ballot.
SIMON (on camera): How many did you get?
LEE: We got 690,000 total.
SIMON: They used paid petition gatherers, but Lee says he's confident of a win in the fall that would make marijuana legal for Californians 21 and older to possess an ounce for personal use.
LEE: We're going to get our message out there. And I think people are more receptive to it than they've ever been.
SIMON: For Lee, a victory would mean public validation to a life's calling. Three years ago, he founded an Oakland school that teaches students how best to grow, sell and even consume cannabis. It's called Oaksterdam University.
Get it -- a combination of Oakland and Amsterdam.
Lee started the school after a trip to that city and seeing how marijuana was openly sold there.
LEE: To some people, cannabis is like a religion. SIMON: Until now, full legalization had never really been taken seriously by voters. But Lee sees an opening with the state budget crisis and the tax revenue it would bring -- possibly hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
According to a California field poll taken last year, more than half -- 56 percent of Californians -- support legalization. Opponents realize they have some work to do and concede they'll be outspent, but think their arguments are too powerful to ignore.
JOHN LOVELL, CALIFORNIA NARCOTICS OFFICERS' ASSOCIATION:. Why on Earth would we want to add yet another mind-altering substance to the array of legal substances that compromise a person's five senses, where we know they're going to make bad decisions, some criminal?
SIMON: Richard Lee said it's about adults making their own decisions. Twenty years ago, a spinal cord injury put him in a wheelchair. He says he smokes cannabis medically and for recreation.
LEE: Well, I really see this as -- as following the history of alcohol, the way it was -- Prohibition was repealed there.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SIMON: Just like any heated campaign, expect the airwaves to be filled with commercials from both sides. Those on the pro-cannabis side hope to raise as much as $20 million for advertising -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Dan Simon reporting for us. Thanks.
We'll stay on top of that story.
They worked their way into a White House state dinner, even though they weren't on the guest list. Now the couple known as the White House gate crashers are parlaying their incident into TV stardom again.
BLITZER: It's time to check back with Jack for The Cafferty File -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: The question this is hour is, have you started thinking about who you might vote for for president in 2012?
Rob says: "Yes I have. And the first candidate who wants to end the imbalance of trade and bring jobs back to the U.S. has my vote."
Ben in Boston: "It's too early to pick a specific person, but I don't like back room deals, lack of transparency, big spending, financial burdens for our progeny as far as the mind can fathom, mandates and government control that we have now. So I'll be voting against the kind of change that we've seen recently."
David in Oregon writes: "I'd like to see Hillary Clinton stay in politics. If you look at the political scenery nowadays, she's the most seasoned and wisest politician in the country."
Mark in Boston writes: "No, not at all, but it sure won't be the Palin/Beck ticket."
Jose in Miami: "No. This guy is just getting started. Everybody is going to be surprised."
Sam in Dallas, simply, "No." However, with the passage of the health care bill, President Obama has somewhat changed the face of the presidency. From my perspective as an Independent, the Democrats and the president have accomplished one great thing."
Megan in Massachusetts: "I'm with Newt all the way. He will put Obama under the table intellectually."
And Brian in Idaho writes: "I'm voting for Obama no matter what from what I can see, the only people running for the GOP nod are total idiots. Huckabee denies evolution. Romney flip-flopped on health care reform and his face looks like a cereal box. Gingrich is a corrupt beltway insider. And Palin, I'm pretty sure, is the product of a conjugal visit between Charles Manson and Ann Coulter. These are not ideal options."
If you want to read more on this, you'll find it on my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile.
BLITZER: Very funny stuff, Jack.
CAFFERTY: Not bad.
BLITZER: Have a great weekend.
CAFFERTY: You, too.
I'll see you Monday.
BLITZER: See you Monday.
She was -- she came face-to-face with the president at his first state dinner, even though she wasn't on the guest list. But it's what she'll be doing next that has our attention.
BLITZER: The Washington area couple who caused a major stir for crashing a White House state dinner are cashing in on their 15 minutes of fame.
CNN's Brian Todd is working this story -- Brian.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it looks like they've got their roles on an upcoming show on the Bravo Network, despite leaving a trail in this town that's damaged careers and reputations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. and Mrs. (ph) Salahi.
TODD: (voice-over): Their adventure gave the Secret Service a huge black eye. And within a few months, the White House social secretary lost her job. They refused to testify to Congress about their actions. And a source close to the couple tells CNN, Michaele Salahi's own mother got drawn into grand jury hearings.
But it now looks like Michaele and Tariq Salahi are getting rewarded for crashing President Obama's first state dinner back in November.
The political news Web site, TheDailyBeast, reports the Salahis have landed roles on the Bravo Network's upcoming reality TV series, "The Real Housewives of DC."
Howard Kurtz of "The Washington Post" and CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" says so much for accountability.
HOWARD KURTZ, CNN'S "RELIABLE SOURCES": Undoubtedly, some people will not want to watch this Bravo series, because they don't think the Salahis should be rewarded for their behavior. But there probably will be enough other people who are just kind of interested or curious about these people who have become celebrities thanks to us in the media. They will tune in. That will probably help the box office for Bravo.
TODD: A TV crew from Bravo was videotaping the couple as they pulled up to the White House that night. But contacted by CNN, a spokeswoman for the network said there'd be no comment on the show's cast until a schedule is announced. She offered no timetable for that, saying they're still in the middle of production.
The Salahis' attorneys would not comment.
Our efforts to reach the couple through media representatives they'd hired were unsuccessful. The Salahis have denied crashing state dinner, but they've never produced a written invitation.
A grand jury has convened in the case, calling, among others, the owner of the Washington salon where Michaele Salahi spent hours before the White House event.
IRWIN GOMEZ, SALON OWNER: I value their privacy. And that is the most important thing for me.
TODD: Since those proceedings, there's been no indication that the Salahis face charges.
CNN legal analyst Lisa Bloom.
LISA BLOOM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think they will be prosecuted. Four months has passed. I would have expected an arrest to have been made by now, if it was going to happen.
(END VIDEO TAPE) TODD: And since we went to edit with that piece, we have received confirmation on our own from the Salahis' media representative that they do, indeed, have a role on that reality TV show -- Wolf.
BLITZER: They could be cashing in another way, as well, right?
TODD: That's right. There could be a book deal in the works. I spoke with literary agent Charlene Martin (ph). She says she represents the Salahis on a book proposal, no hard and fast deal yet. The proposal will go out, she says, after Bravo makes their announcement.
When I asked what this book would entail, she would only say it's Michaele's story, that a lot of that -- that a lot of people will be surprised when their real story comes out. She says there's been a lot of inaccurate reporting on this.
BLITZER: All right. A fascinating story, indeed. And we'll stay on top of it with you, Brian, and for all of our viewers.
Don't forget, tomorrow night, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, our Saturday edition of THE SITUATION ROOM -- the full interview with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. That will air, as well as our exclusive interview with Pakistan's foreign minister. All that tomorrow night, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Remember, you can always follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm on Twitter. You can get my Tweets @wolfblitzercnn. @Wolfblitzercnn all one word.
Thanks very much for joining us.
Have a great weekend.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.