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Suicide Bombing Investigation in Russia; President Gets a Health Care Boost; Surprise Trip

Aired March 29, 2010 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Rick, thanks very much.

Happening now, rail commuters in the United States on alert right now after a deadly pair of subway bombings. Russian authorities are calling it a terrorist act and promise the attackers "will be destroyed."

Also, federal investigators raid a militia group in Michigan and arrest nine self-proclaimed Christian Warriors. We're getting new information about the suspects and what the attorney general of the United States is calling "their insidious plan."

And the president returns from the Afghan war zone to confront America's anxiety about health care reform. This hour, the message he's getting from Tea Party protesters and from our brand new poll.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Deadly blasts in Russia lead to new precautions right here in the States. Right now, Amtrak is stepping up its security, along with subway systems here in New York, in Washington and Los Angeles and Atlanta. Transit officials are promising to stay vigilant after today's bloodshed at two Moscow subway stations at the height of the morning rush hour. Authorities say at least 38 people were killed by female suicide bombers.

Our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, is in Moscow -- Matthew, what's the latest on the investigation?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the investigation, Wolf, is focusing on who was behind -- who supported those two female suicide bombers, which the Russian authorities say they believe came from the very volatile North Caucasus region of Southern Russia, around Chechnya and places like that, where there's been a whole lot of -- of conflict and insurgency over the past several years.

The authorities say they have CCTV footage of suspects they believe gave support and assistance to those female suicide bombers in the days and in the hours and in the minutes before they carried out their dual attacks on the Moscow metro system. Now, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has come out, as you mentioned. He has vowed not just to bring up security and increase security in towns and cities across the country, but also, Wolf, to make sure those responsible for this and for those who ordered this attack are brought to justice.

I think the term he used was to make sure they were liquidated -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Matthew, some security analysts think these attacks bear the hallmarks of those so-called Chechen Black Widows.

Explain to our viewers what this means.

CHANCE: Well, a Black Widow is a term that was given to this phenomenon of female suicide bombers that first appeared in this part of the world in about 2003, I think, with a -- a theater siege that was very infamous here in Moscow. It's the idea that these are women from Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general who have lost sons or husbands or fathers in conflict with the Russian authorities and have then been taken by terrorist groups -- by militant groups and turned into suicide bombers.

There's some debate about whether they do that willingly or whether they're forced to do it through pressures in their various sort of clans and in that region.

But nevertheless, they've become a pretty scary, pretty unique phenomenon and a trademark these days of Chechen separatists. It's why the finger of blame has pointed so readily toward Chechen separatists in these particular attacks, this occasion, because of the use of these female suicide bombers -- as I say, something of a trademark for them.

BLITZER: Matthew Chance working the story in Moscow.

Matthew, thank you.

While Russian investigators are focusing on whether the Chechen rebels are behind the subway bombings, there are serious questions about whether there could possibly be -- possibly be a link to Al Qaeda, as well. I asked the chief of staff of President Obama's National Security Council, Denis McDonough, about that.


DENIS MCDONOUGH, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, I'm not going to jump to any conclusions here, Wolf. We learned about it last night as we were coming home. And, obviously, as the president said in his statement overnight, our hearts go out to the families of those who have suffered here. The president condemns, in the strongest terms, this kind of action. And the president shortly will be talking with President Medvedev to communicate those feelings directly.

But I'm not going to jump to conclusions about who's tied into this. But we are committed to working with our Russian friends, as with many other of our partners, against the scourge of -- of terrorism and extremism.


BLITZER: The president did, indeed, call President Medvedev a little bit later after we taped that interview. Both Mr. Obama and Denis McDonough, by the way, are back in the United States after a weekend trip to Afghanistan. Stand by for more of my interview with Denis McDonough.

And ahead, also, the latest on how long U.S. troops are likely to stay in that Afghan war zone. We'll have much more on this story coming up.

Ray Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, he'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM, as well, to talk about subway security right here in New York.

Meanwhile, President Obama is set to sign the final piece of health care reform legislation tomorrow -- the Democrats' package of fixes, as they're called, to the law he signed last week. Passage of that landmark reform bill seems to have boosted Mr. Obama's approval rating.

Take a look at this. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 51 percent of Americans now say they approve of the way Mr. Obama is doing his job. That's up from 46 percent last week.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, David Gergen -- should we be surprised, David, about this boost -- this bump in his job approval, presumably as a result of the health care legislation now being the law of the land?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I don't think we should be surprised, Wolf. We anticipated it the night that he was -- that he won in the House of Representatives -- he would get a bump out of this. Some other polls, Gallup, for example, has not shown a bump.

But I think the CNN poll captures the reality. And that is, certainly with his own base, he -- that base has been -- is much more enthusiastic, more energized and the approval numbers have gone up. He's got a five point lift.

He's back up now, Wolf, around 51 percent. He's back up about where he was in January of this year. That's good news for the president, just as he -- he and his team sense this momentum on their side.

BLITZER: Yes, but there's also some bad news in this brand new CNN/ Opinion Research Corporation poll. I'll put these numbers up.

How is President Obama handling the economy?, which, to so many Americans, is priority number one. Only 44 percent approve of the job he's doing. Fifty-five percent disapprove -- David, if you take a look at that number, that's not very good -- not very encouraging for the White House?

GERGEN: No. And it's -- it's interesting that his success on health care did not rub off on -- on the economic side. This 44 percent approval rate is almost exactly where he's been now since January. It has held stubbornly low. And that is not good news for him. And frankly, Wolf, the -- the news on health care itself is somewhat mixed in this survey, as you know. When -- CNN was in the poll -- in the field about 10 days ago for a weekend. It came out just as -- as the bill was being voted on in the House. That poll showed that disapproval rate for health care was about 20 percent higher than the approval rate. This new poll does not show that turning around. It does shows that the gap has gone down from 20 to 14. That's progress, but it also means the president has work to do in persuading the public not only on health care, but he's got to show some progress on economics.

We'll be watching the unemployment number this Friday to see if he actually gets a boost out of that.

BLITZER: And that's...

GERGEN: Can I say one more thing, Wolf?

BLITZER: I want you to say one more thing.

But I want you to take a look at this, too, David.


BLITZER: How is Obama handling foreign affairs? Fifty-one percent say he -- they approve of the job he's doing. Forty-four percent disapprove. So on foreign affairs, he's doing better than he is when it comes to the economy, at least in our new poll.

GERGEN: You know, it -- and he's been -- he's been doing better steadily on foreign affairs and that's one of the surprises. You know, when people got -- elected him, they thought he would -- his strength would be on domestic side and he would be, you know, naive and uncertain on the foreign policy side.

But I think for a number of months now, particularly the Afghanistan decision, which was so bipartisan, joined by a lot of Republicans who came in to support him, his numbers have been up on -- on foreign policy and things are looking -- you know, they're -- they're mixed, but there are -- there are areas where you can certainly see brightness.

But there's one other area, Wolf, where I think that some concern is -- should be focused. And that is to what extent we're dividing it out by -- by race and ethnicity in -- in the country. And in the approval rating of the president, what one sees is among non-whites, his approval rating is 33 points higher among non-whites than it is among whites. He's at 75 percent among non-whites. He's at 42 percent approval among whites. And it does raise questions -- are there larger issues here about how the country is changing, the direction the administration is moving in? Is -- is -- you know, so I think it's something to keep an eye on as we go here.

BLITZER: I agree with you, David. Good point. And we'll continue to discuss this and take a closer look at these -- these numbers.

David Gergen with some excellent analysis, as usual.

Roadside bombs and danger around every corner -- the deadly threat in Afghanistan that the president didn't see on his weekend trip. Our own Chris Lawrence is now embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He's seen the risks they face up close. Stand by for his report.

And did the president leave Afghanistan with confidence in Hamid Karzai?

We'll get an inside take on their talks from the White House chief of staff of the National Security Council, Denis McDonough. He was with the president in Kabul.

And some states in such dire straits that they're selling off treasured landmarks.

But will they profit or lose out in the long run?


BLITZER: Let's bring in Jack Cafferty.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Nice to have you in the big city, Mr. Blitzer.

President Obama has a big to-do list for Congress this spring. He's got a little momentum now that he got that health care thing done. Now he wants to do financial reform, he wants to overhaul No Child Left Behind, he wants to close some of those campaign finance loopholes. He might even try to do a clean energy bill.

But illegal immigration -- nada, nothing.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said that, despite promising an immigration bill in his first year in office, President Obama has done, quote, "almost nothing" on immigration.

Meanwhile, our border states, in particular, continue to be overrun with illegal aliens. Washington apparently could care less. Eight-and-a-half years after 9/11 and we won't even bother to secure this country's borders.

In Arizona, police say soon be allowed to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges for simply being in the state. There are 460,000 illegal aliens in Arizona alone. In addition, it would become a felony to employ them, even as day laborers. And transporting them anywhere in the State of Arizona -- even family members -- would also be a crime. The bill's cleared the Senate. Governor Jan Brewer has indicated she's going to sign it. It will be the toughest law of its kind in the country.

But don't ask Arizona Senator John McCain about it. McCain, who was home campaigning over the weekend, once backed a bipartisan effort to grand illegal aliens amnesty. But he refuses to answer any questions on where he stands on this tough state bill in his home state of Arizona.

Here's the question -- when it comes to illegal immigration, should the states be allowed to do what the federal government refuses to do?

Go to and you can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect the federal government this year is not going to do much on illegal immigration.



CAFFERTY: It will be just like the last eight-and-a-half years.


CAFFERTY: They'll do nothing.


CAFFERTY: And probably the next eight-and-a-half.

BLITZER: A lot -- Bush had a chance. He had Kennedy. He had McCain.


BLITZER: He had Lindsey Graham. He had a lot of Democrats.

He couldn't do it then and it's much more div -- divisive now.

CAFFERTY: Well and now there's no cooperation or agreement on virtually anything.

BLITZER: Yes. So it's probably not going to happen.

CAFFERTY: Probably not.

BLITZER: Maybe the states will do something.

CAFFERTY: Well, this is a tough way -- I mean Arizona gets away with it, I'm sure the federal government will challenge this in court...


CAFFERTY: -- if the governor signs it and it becomes law, they'll say, no, this is federal jurisdiction, you're not allowed. But if they can do this, a lot of them will be going home.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by.


BLITZER: You'll be flooded with e-mails.

President Obama's just concluded surprise visit to Afghanistan was short and did not include outposts to the south, no doubt because it's simply way too dangerous.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is embedded with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, is an everyday fact of life.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I was in a room full of Marines when we all got the word that President Obama was here in the country. And, honestly, for the most part, they shrugged and said, well, he's probably not going to come to a base like this one. And they're right.

Up north it's safer, more secure; down south, a lot more dangerous.

Case in point -- this MRAP, hit by an IED just today, blew off completely the entire side of the MRAP. That about 6,000 pounds down there.

In fact, every day that we've been on this embed, the Marines have been hit by an IED. Now, fortunately, none of them have been seriously wounded. But a lot of the local Afghans haven't been as fortunate. In this part of Helmand Province, there really could be a bomb on any corner -- a mine around every curve.

CAPT. JASON BREZLER, U.S. MARINE CORPS: By all accounts, we think this Now Zad is probably one of the most heavily IEDed city in -- in the world.

LAWRENCE: Twenty thousand residents abandoned this area four years ago, when the Taliban came back to confront British soldiers. The Taliban and British forces went at each other here for four long years, but neither side was strong enough to kick the other one out.

(voice-over): The Taliban used IEDs to protect their line of defense -- dozens, hundreds. And by the time U.S. Marines took over last year, thousands.

(on camera): In fact, four of the villages in this area are so heavily mined with explosives, they're completely uninhabitable. (voice-over): Some Afghan families have been killed trying to return home. Now the U.S. State Department is spending nearly $2 million to de-mine the area. Seventy-five professional Afghan de- miners have relocated here. And they're training another 70 locals from Now Zad to help clear their valleys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What can we do as a team to identify who's planting IEDs in the road?

LAWRENCE: Every week, the Marines meet with a new district governor and local mullahs. It's hours of small talk and tea before one of them asks us to turn off lour camera. And then he tells the Marines, look, the Taliban are coming between 6:00 and 8:00 at night, hiding among the sheep herders to plant new bombs.

BREZLER: It takes several hours, a grit deal of patience and, you know, sev -- several kinds of chai (ph), too.

LAWRENCE: But that patience is paying off, as a once bustling bazaar shows its first signs of life -- merchants who believe the mines may soon be gone.

(on camera): Those 70 local Afghans will finish their de-mining training in about a month and start to help clear out this area. But with more than 2,000 IEDs out there, it's going to be slow, long, work and it's going to take years before Now Zad is really safe again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, embedded with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan.

And as Chris just mentioned, U.S. troops have managed to avoid serious injury from IEDs during the time he's been embedded with them. Still to come, a closer look at the special training that prepares those Marines for this very real danger.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Brian Todd in Fort Eustis, Virginia, where we're going to show you what a roadside bomb feels like and how this Humvee simulator is helping to defend against the number one killer of U.S. and Allied troops in Afghanistan.


BLITZER: Brian's inside look at IED training. That's coming up in the next hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But first, a mystery on the other side of the world. We're taking a closer look at what happened to a South Korean Warship. Dozens of sailors are missing, as the search for survivors intensifies.


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

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, authorities have arrested a Pennsylvania man for threatening to kill a U.S. Congressman and his family. The threat against Congressman Eric Cantor over Virginia was made this month through an Internet video on YouTube. Cantor is the second highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. Last week, Cantor told reporters someone fired a bullet through a window at his campaign office in Richmond, Virginia. Authorities say that incident was the result of random gunfire.

Nine suspected members of an anti-government Christian militia in Michigan are charged in connection with an alleged plot to kill a law enforcement officer and then attack officers who would gather at the funeral. The suspects include six Michigan residents, two from Ohio and one from Indiana. Charges include seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

And so far, there are no remaining signs of life on a sunken South Korean warship. Divers have been hammering the hulls of the ship, but nothing has been detected. One hundred four sailors were on board when an apparent explosion caused the vessel to capsize Friday. About half of the crew was rescued alive. Korean authorities are now saying that it's possible that flash was from an old mine near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lisa.

Stand by.

The president makes his first trip to Afghanistan since taking office.

Up next, my interview with the chief of the National Security Council -- the chief of staff, I should say -- who was right by the president's side in Kabul.

We'll talk about Hamid Karzai, what's going on and will U.S. troops be able to leave on schedule?

Plus, looking for a real estate deal?

How about the state de -- state capital complex in California?

The newest way some states are trying to make some money.

But is it really a good idea?



Happening now, roadside bombs in Afghanistan -- their blasts are often deadly. We get an inside look at training that could mean the difference between life and death for U.S. troops. And California's budget crisis -- it's so bad right now, the state is selling off some prime real estate.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


President Obama says his quick and surprise trip to Afghanistan was meant to show support for U.S. troops and for America's continued partnership with that country. Mr. Obama slipped into the Bagram Air Base near Kabul under the cover of darkness Sunday, along with some key members of his national security team.

And joining us now from the White House, the national security council chief of staff, Denis McDonough.

Denis, thanks very much for joining us.

I know you're just back in Washington. You went on this presidential trip to Afghanistan.

Did the president get a real solid commitment from Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, that he would crack down on corruption?

MCDONOUGH: Wolf, thanks a lot for the chance to be with you.

In the first instance, obviously, the trip was an opportunity to thank our troops, particularly in this holiday season, when, with Passover and Easter, a lot of our troops would normally be spending that time with their families. So the president wanted to take time to -- to honor their sacrifice, to thank them for their work.

So we obviously accomplished that and had a great, very exciting trip in that regard.

As it relates to the issues you raised, obviously, the president wanted to underscore our commitment to the partnership with the Afghan people and with President Karzai. And we think that we made good progress on that one, too.

BLITZER: Did he get a commitment, though, that he's going to crack down on corruption, the drug trade -- all the stuff that is -- is causing a lot of concern, not only in the U.S., but around the world?

MCDONOUGH: Well, you know, we talked through a range of issues. And the fact is that the president feels like having just talked to him about two weeks ago -- in fact, two weeks ago today in -- in a teleconference, the president realized that we're making good progress with the Afghan government as it relates to issues at the national level, like corruption; but also issues at the local level, like local governance.

Having felt that we're making that kind of progress, the president wanted to continue the conversation here in May with President Karzai. So we're -- we don't think that any one visit or, frankly, any one interaction, will resolve these issues, which have really dogged Afghanistan for a long time. But we'll continue to meet these and we'll set targets, set benchmarks. We'll continue to press through them. And I think that's one of the benchmarks you saw yesterday. And, hopefully, in the visit in May, May 12th, you'll see additional progress toward those goals.

BLITZER: So, clearly, work needs to be done.

As far as U.S. troop withdrawal, there's a surge that's going on. Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops were announced back in December. And then there's supposed to be a pullout over -- starting in about 18 months.

Is that -- is all of that still on schedule or based on what you saw or heard in recent days or weeks, there's been a change?

MCDONOUGH: Well, Wolf, I -- I have to tell you, boy, coming back from there last night, we're just so excited and so proud of all that's happening there. The surge is, in fact, on target. There is about 10,000 of our guys there. We're going to -- they're obviously -- the president ordered an additional 30,000 there. And that surge, then, will continue through the course of this year into the -- the summer of 2011.

We believe that's the right amount of time to give the space for the Afghans to take steps to step up in terms of training their forces and to begin to take over. Let's be clear about what July 2011 is, Wolf. It's a transition point. But this is not going to be the end of our effort there. We've set that target as a time to draw those troops down, but the pace of that withdrawal will be determined by the situation on the ground. I'll tell you, if the situation then looks as well as it does now, given all the good work of our guys, I think we feel pretty good about it.

BLITZER: How worried should we be about this cozying up between President Hamid Karzai and the Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad? Hours before president Obama came back from a warm meeting with Ahmadinejad in Tehran?

MCDONOUGH: It's interesting, Wolf. Part of the discussion with the president was about President Karzai's concerns several neighbors are creating problems in Afghanistan. One of the things he wants to see happen is make sure the sovereignty and independence is protected over the long haul. I don't know I'd call it a cozying up. There's a long tradition of interactions with its neighbors there, and what we want to see is an Afghanistan that's able to obviously protect its own independence. That's able to ensure that it does not become a launching pad for terrorists against us as it was on 9/11 and we're well on the way towards meeting that goal.

BLITZER: Are the Iranians training al Qaeda and/or Taliban insurgents or terrorists inside Iran?

MCDONOUGH: You know, I don't -- I'm not going to get into any of that kind of information, even if I had it, Wolf, but that was not the kind of issue we were discussing with President Karzai. I think in fact the president went to underscore our commitment to that partnership and asked that Afghans continue to press on a range of issues to include the upcoming parliamentary elections and obviously the Afghans continued to underscore their interests in our partnership with them, and seeing the work that our troops are doing there, Wolf, you can understand why they want that partnership. Not just the troops, but the civilians. They're going great work.

BLITZER: We're going to have more with Denis McDonough in the next hour. We talk about Iran and Israel, the U.S. Israeli relationship. Stand by for that. I think you might be surprised what he has to say.

It's a common practice to sell off assets to get quick cash, and it's no secret that the state of California is strapped and in a very, very tight fiscal bind right now. Let's go back to Lisa. She's working the story for us. Lisa, how far is California going right now to make up its shortfall?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is interesting, because it's actually not just California, but some states are so desperate for cash, they are now resorting to selling state landmarks.


SYLVESTER: It's a beautiful state of the art energy efficient building, marble floors, 1.5 million square feet and the capital area east end complex in Sacramento can be yours at a bargain price. California is selling more than 20 state office building. Also on the auction block, the civic center in San Francisco, the Ronald Reagan building in L.A. the state's attorneys general office among others. State official Thomas Sheehy says the sale is necessary to help narrow a $20 billion budget deficit.

THOMAS SHEEHY, ACTING SECY., STATE & CONSUMER SERVICES AGENCY: It's been a real challenge for the legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger to come up with strategies to close a budget hole that's that big. One of the things they have been able to agree upon is that it makes sense for the state to tap some of the equity it has in our most valuable assets.

SYLVESTER: California hopes to raise $2 billion profit in the sale. The state will then lease back the office space from the new owners in a 20-year agreement and California is not the only one selling public assets. The Arizona state capitol building was put up as collateral to raise money, but these deals are being criticized by some as short sighted selling public assets in a down real estate market at fire sale prices. The U.S. public interests research group says it's great for the investor. Not so much for the taxpayer.

PHINEAS BAXADALL, U.S. PUBLIC INTEREST RESEARCH GROUP: It's much like somebody who owns their house free and clear, sells it to someone else to rent back to them. For the next 20 years they're going to be paying rent. Their budget situation is going to be worse rather than better for the next 20 years. SYLVESTER: Arizona, for example, is getting $709 million up front from investors in the sale lease back agreement but it will have to pay them back $1.2 billion over the 20-year period. But the alternative for states is either raise taxes or further cut services. Both are politically difficult to do. Mark Muro with the Brookings Institution says expect to see more of these deals as states struggle make budget.

MARK MURO, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think it's really points to the gravity of the situation. Things that were not really thinkable or routinely thought are going to be looked at starting now. And the crisis is beginning. We're actually at the shallow end the pool. It can certainly get worse before they get better at the local levels.


SYLVESTER: Here's the big picture, Wolf. Most states by law cannot exceed their annual budget. According to the national conference of state legislators, 32 states are required by their constitution to have balanced budget. 11 other states have similar statutory requirements. That means with state property and income taxes going down, money has to be made up somewhere else, either cutting expenses or now this, trying to sell something. Wolf?

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester with a good report. Thank you.

It's payback time for a political consultant who had a pretty good time at a racy nightclub and billed it to the Republican Party. We have new information.

Plus, their checks won't be in the mail. Why tens of thousands of U.S. postal workers are bracing right now to start losing their jobs.

And subway security in the United States after the deadly suicide bombings in Moscow. I'll ask the New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly if commuters here in New York are at risk right now.


BLITZER: Checked back with Lisa who is monitoring other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What else is going on?

SYLVESTER: Hi, Wolf. Good news for the start of the workweek. Stocks advanced today pushing the Dow to its highest point in a year and a half. This follows a report showing a rise in consumer spending. This quarter the Dow is up 4%. The S&P up 4.5% and NASDAQ up 5.5%. Analysts say investors may be trying to get ahead of the long holiday weekend.

And a political consultant reimbursed almost $2,000 by the Republican National Committee for an evening at a racy Los Angeles area nightclub is paying that money back. The expense listed as meals in a federal election commission filing was spent at a club with exotic dancers. Now, it's unclear why the consultant was reimbursed and who was at the club with him. We'll talk more about this in our strategy session coming right up.

And authorities now say four people in Brooklyn were injured in a construction accident. The New York fire department says one man in his 40s was seriously injured after the building collapsed. You see the pictures there. Two others were taken to the hospital for minor injuries and a fourth person refused treatment. No word yet on what caused that accident. Wolf?

BLITZER: Lisa, thank you.

The American people seem to be having second thoughts about plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. How might that effect the president's handling of terror suspects? Paul Begala and Kevin Madden are both standing by for our strategy session.


BLITZER: Right to our strategy session. Joining us now, our CNN political contributor the democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Kevin Madden, executive vice president for Jim Dike and Associates. Thanks for coming in. Paul, the RNC reimbursed someone about $2,000 for expenses at a sort of racy club, a strip club I guess you could call it out in California. What do you make of that? What's going on here based on what you see and hear?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: First off, why are you always coming to me with the sex scandals Wolf? I don't know. Maybe it's our long history together back when you were covering the Clinton white house. You know that club well. You're a regular there. They have a drink named after you. The blitzed Wolf. No. The truth is, it's a legal establishment, apparently. Tawdry, nasty, icky for Republican National Committee, but they're going to have to explain why it's a scandal for some consultant to go to some club with, you know, naked women and S & M which I think is shimmer and Mikulski here in Washington, but why is that a scandal but David Vitter is not? Seriously. Senator Vitter, senator from Louisiana on the D.C. madam's list, apparently consorting with prostitutes. That's illegal yet nobody thinks that's a scandal. It's a bit of hypocrisy for them.


KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Wow. Where do I start on that? It is an inexcusable mistake by the person who submitted that for reimbursement and it is an inexcusable mistake by the RNC for not catching it and actually reimbursing the money. Money that goes to the Republican National Committee, it doesn't belong to the national committee. It's other people's money. And the money is given to them to spend on helping elect Republicans. Clearly, this does not rise to the left of a, the type of disbursement that is designed to achieve that. So I think the RNC have very quickly and clearly come out and said this was a mistake. Should not have happened and I think that was the right thing to do.

BLITZER: Does it, Kevin, though, portend some other problems? Because there has some been some controversy over private limousine expenses, private jet expenses at the RNC has had. Is there a bigger issue as far as you can see it?

MADDEN: I think that many Republican dons have problems with the way the RNC has spent money in the past. The way some of the expenditure are being used right now. So that is something that the RNC is going to have to continue to answer for. They're going to have to be very forthright. They're going to have to be very up front in their explanations for how they spend their money. If this is going to stop being a problem for them they're going to have to continue to make sure they have the safeguards in place, make sure that this doesn't happen again.

BEGALA: Kevin's right, but I think they do need to figure out, who is this guy? Why was he there? Who did he bring? Kudos by the way to the "Daily Caller" the website started by former colleague, Wolf, Tucker Carlson. It's a conservative news website, "The Daily Caller" is the ones who uncovered this. We're not getting answers from the RNC. When dealing with strippers, you don't want a cover-up.

BLITZER: All right Paul. Let me move on from strippers to Gitmo. Smooth transition we'll make it. A new CNN poll has these numbers. We'll put them on the screen. Should the United States close Guantanamo, the prison facility there and transfer prisoners to other facilities? Last year 51% said yes. 47% said no. Take a look now. 39% say, yes, close Guantanamo. 60%, Paul, say no. The president did not meet that end of year deadline, January 20th, 21st, to be precise. More Americans now say, you know what? Keep those prisoners at Gitmo and don't move them to the United States?

BEGALA: Yeah. That's a huge shift. I'm glad you showed last year, a big shift in public. I wonder if some is because of the upcoming trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. New Yorkers do not want that trial in their hometown. Mayor Bloomberg said at first he wanted it there and then said no. I think that means he will not be tried in New York. This one I'm not a big fan of bipartisanship. This is one where there's an opening for bipartisanship. Lindsey Graham, conservative Republican senator suggested we can close Guantanamo, he'll support that, if the Obama administration does not try KSM, as they call him in a public civilian court but in a military court. That may be the deal that President Obama needs to get out of the situation and close Guantanamo.

BLITZER: Is there bipartisan cooperation in the horizon on this issue, Kevin?

MADDEN: It's likely the Democrats will try and seek some sort of bipartisan compromise I think as, partly because of political cover. Look, I think Paul will agree with me that national security is much different from the economy. National security is driven by events. The whole debate that we had over the KSM trial possibly be in New York has opened up a debate amongst the American public, and they believe that Guantanamo Bay as part of that ought to be closed. So I think what we'll see is that Democrats and Republicans will try to come together on some parts, but I think in a political context, they'll try to come together in the legislation. But in a political context, we're in an election year. And election years are always, always about the contrast and where we differ. So I think unless there's something that happens in the next few months, we're going to see this, the Gitmo issue, the KSM trial play out, and in a political context in campaigns in 2010.

BLITZER: Paul, you're very well plugged into this administration. Based on what you know, and what you're hearing, is there a serious split within the administration on the one hand, Eric Holder, the attorney general, who wants to close Guantanamo and try these guys in civilian courts in the United States, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, versus the more tracking pragmatic visors like Rahm Emanuel. Is there a split there?

BEGALA: I think there is Wolf. I think you're right. Attorney General Holder had said very publicly that it's very important to him. One of the defining issues he says of his tenure as attorney general, to not only close Guantanamo, which is not really his job, it's the president's and the defense department's job, but also to try these terrorists in a public civilian court, as happened 300 times under President Bush. But the politics of this has shifted and those closer to Capitol Hill on both parties say no, we ought to cut the deal, close Guantanamo, but try in the military tribunal. That's why I think Lindsay Graham could be the key here.

BLITZER: And we'll leave it on that note. Guys, thanks very much. The tea party express is covering new ground right now. We'll check in on the group's travels, the turn out, the message, stand by.


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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is when it comes to illegal immigration, should the states be allowed to do what the federal government just refuses to do?

Paulette writes from Pennsylvania, "Yes, the states are the only ones addressing the problem. They alone have to put up with all the troubles. Let each state handle the situation as they see fit."

Lauren writes, "I understand how the Democrats are looking for ways to legalize illegal immigrants. They view them as supporters, but I find that level of cynicism disheartening. Giving legitimacy to something illegal does nothing to encourage respect for the other laws and ultimately for our country."

Joe writes, "Not just the Border States. Look around. Maryland, Chicago, Milwaukee, in Virginia, even in Georgia. Of course, the states should be able to enforce the law. The federal government should crack down on sanctuary cities and other jurisdictions that openly advertise they don't enforce federal law."

Andy writes from Georgia, "It's a tough one. These people contribute to the local economies while the expense of deporting them would be costly in comparison. And giving states that kind of authority will ultimately result in racial profiling." Larry in Texas writes, "This entire issue is stupid. Yes, the states ought to be allowed to take the necessary action to eliminate these people from U.S. soil and the sooner the better. I hope Arizona goes for it to set an example for the other states that we must be proactive."

And Gary says, "You're damn right. Places like El Paso, Douglas and Nogales, Arizona are like war zones. An Arizona rancher was shot and killed on his ranch near the border over this past weekend, an example of just how blatant things have gotten. The feds refuse to address the issue, so yes, states should be allowed to enforce their borders."

If you want to read more about this, you can go to my blog at You suggested earlier there is little or no chance anything will be done on this subject this year. Got those midterm elections coming up. Hispanic vote is an important constituency for one of the major political parties, I believe.

BLITZER: I believe you're right. But I still suspect they're not going to be comprehensive. There's not going to be comprehensive --

CAFFERTY: No, there will be nothing. Nothing.

BLITZER: We'll see. Thank you.

They call themselves Christian warriors. And they say they are preparing for the end of time. We're taking a closer look at the militia group targeted in a new FBI raid.


BLITZER: Some of the president's most vocal critics are on the road right now on board the tea party express. The group has launched the new 20-day, 44-city bus tour to support its grass roots anti big government message. And for the first time, the tea partiers are stopping in Utah, as well. Ed Lavendera is tagging along our bus, the CNN express. What's going on, Ed?

ED LAVENDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're going to be following the tea party express. We started with them over the weekend in Searchlight, Nevada, Harry Reid's hometown. And we will continue with the group for the next several days as they're making their way through Utah. We're in St. George, the southwest corner of the state. And the event here is just about to get underway. And the theme, of course, of this particular tea party express rally which will end on April 15th in Washington is vote them out. And that's the sentiment we're hearing from the people who are attending this rally this afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole thing that I wanted to really look at was the fact that, you know, I think these people are coming together to say that, you know, what is the role of government? Is the government becoming too big? Are they having just rampant spending without any accountability for what's going on? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been watching what's happening in the country, and I just see our rights disappearing. I see everything that I've ever believed in just slowly dying. And actually quickly dying. Rights where being taken away very quickly. And, you know, our government doesn't listen to us anymore. It's becoming more progressive. Which to me is just code word for, you know, socialism, Marxism, all those things.

LAVENDERA: And so, Wolf, we're hearing a lot of similar themes we've heard a lot from the members of the tea party group. And those things will continue. They will make their way through -- up to Salt Lake City tomorrow and into Colorado. And as we mentioned, ending in Washington on April 15th. Wolf?

BLITZER: We'll check in with you on a daily basis, Ed, thank you.