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Christian Militia Members Arrested; Suicide Bombings Target Russian Subway

Aired March 29, 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: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Christian warriors or homegrown terrorists? Members of a Michigan militia appear in court, accused of plotting to kill law enforcement officers with weapons of mass destruction.

Also, carnage in the subway. Twin suicide attacks during rush hour in Moscow raising new fears about transit safety in our own cities here in the United States. I will talk about it with the New York police commissioner, Ray Kelly. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM this hour.

Plus, the shock and chaos of a roadside bomb attack. We will take you inside the simulator that shows you what it's like to be hit by an IED.

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

They're self-proclaimed Christian warriors, preparing for the end of times, well-armed and well-trained. Seven members of a militia now accused of plotting attacks on law enforcement officers, they appeared in federal court today, where details of their alleged effort to spark a national uprising were revealed.

The group calls itself the Hutaree. The attorney general calls them anti-government extremists.

CNN's Mary Snow is digging deeper for us.

Mary, what are you finding out about this militia?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we know now from an indictment that was unsealed today is that authorities believe that this group planned to kill a law enforcement official, and then when colleagues showed up for the funeral, attack the funeral procession as part of a bigger uprising against the government.

That is according to federal officials. Now, the indictment also charges that this group had conducted military-style training in Michigan since 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Armed and dressed in camouflage, members of the Hutaree militia wear a shoulder patch, say law enforcement agents, with the initials CCR, Colonial Christian Republic.

The group's Web site sums up its existence, preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive. Along with references to the Bible are scenes of battle set to heavy metal music -- 17 people are pictured on the Hutaree Web site. The FBI arrested eight militia members, identifying 45-year-old David Stone as captain Hutaree, with his wife and two sons as members.

Another member has been indicted, but is a fugitive. While small, in 2008, the Hutaree caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors hate groups.

MARK POTOK, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: Look, it was a group that was very thick on paramilitarism and rather thin on ideology.

SNOW: Mark Potok warns of a growing number of militia and hate groups, counting 363 formed just last year alone, and sees race as a big factor for these groups.

POTOK: Continuing non-white immigration over a number of years, the election of a black president and what that represents, which is the loss of white majority in this country in the year 2050, according to the Census Bureau. There is a lot of angst and anger connected to the economy and unemployment.

SNOW: It's the biggest resurgence of militias since the 1990s when we saw the Oklahoma City bombing and Waco.

Looking at the Hutaree militia videos, former Assistant Director and CNN contributor Tom Fuentes says their training stands out.

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: They are firing a lot of weapons, a lot of rounds from those weapons, and they could kill a lot of people just by themselves.

SNOW: And while these groups can be small, former FBI officials say they need to be taken seriously.

DON CLARK, FORMER FBI INVESTIGATOR: Oftentimes, we think that, well, it's just a bunch of crazies, if you will, excuse my expression, but just a lunch of crazies out there that are doing this; we don't need to worry about them.

We do need to worry about them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, as for the timing of these arrests, authorities allege that the group had planned a covert reconnaissance operation for April and that an unsuspecting member of the public might be placed at risk -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing stuff. Mary, thank you.

Meanwhile, a Philadelphia man has been arrested and charged with making death threats against the number-two Republican in the House of Representatives, the minority whip, Eric Cantor.

CNN's Brian Todd is working that story for us.

So, what's the latest, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, federal authorities have a 38-year-old man in custody, and are charging him in a two-count complaint with, as you mentioned, threatening to kill the number-two Republican in the House, Congressman Eric Cantor, and Eric Cantor's family.

The Justice Department says neither Congressman Cantor, nor any member of his family were actually harmed as a result of this. We're told by an aide to Cantor that he was notified over the weekend about the threat. The man charged, Norman Leboon of Philadelphia. Federal authorities say he made the threat in a YouTube Internet video earlier this month.

That video has since been removed from the YouTube site. But CNN has obtained the complaint against Leboon, and according to the complaint, he made the following statement on the video.

"My congressman, Eric Cantor, and you and your cupcake evil wife remember, Eric, our judgment time, the final Yom Kippur has been given. You are a liar. You're a Lucifer. You're a pig, a greedy 'blanking' pig. You are an abomination. You receive my bullets in your office. Remember, they will be placed in your hands" -- end quote.

Wolf, pretty disturbing stuff.

BLITZER: Has this man made threats in the past, based on what you know, Brian?

TODD: According to the complaint, Wolf, he has told authorities that he has made over 2,000 videos in which he has made threats. And in looking through his postings, we found one threat against CNN for not accepting his iReport offerings. We're also told that, in other postings, he threatened all federal judges and YouTube itself.

BLITZER: Any indication this guy is part of any group?

TODD: Well, a Justice Department official told us there is no indication he is part of any political group or that he made this threat against Cantor to advance any particular political cause. This official called him a lone and possibly disturbed individual.

BLITZER: Does it have any connection, Brian, to threat reports of a bullet being fired that hit Cantor's campaign office in Virginia last week?

TODD: That's a very good question, Wolf, and it's kind of curious on the timing. It does not appear to be connected at the moment.

Now, even though the complaint says that Leboon made a reference to Cantor -- quote -- "receiving his bullets in his office," it all depends on the timing. Cantor told reporters, you will recall, about the gunfire near his office last Thursday, is when Cantor reported that.

It was on Friday, according to the complaint, when federal authorities received a copy of the video that had been removed from YouTube. It's not quite clear when Leboon might have made the video. And we have to say that Richmond police concluded that the incident at Cantor's office was the result of random gunfire. But, right now, we just don't know if there is any connection to Leboon or not.

BLITZER: He made this reference to Yom Kippur. And Eric Cantor, as you know, is Jewish.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: Is there an indication that this is part of some bigger anti-Semitic element out there?

TODD: I think it's safe to say that there are indications to that effect, Wolf. We saw some of his other postings, and there are hints at that, very clearly.

BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Let's talk about the threats against Congressman Eric Cantor and this militia movement, the arrests today, with CNN contributor Tom Fuentes. He's a former FBI assistant director.

Let me pick up on the Eric Cantor business first. Any time a federal official, a member of Congress is threatened, as far as the FBI is concerned, Tom, this is a big deal.

FUENTES: Well, these issues have become a big deal lately, because there has been so much rhetoric in the last few weeks especially making threats and encouraging people to take the law in their own hands and repeal policies that they disagree with.

And there are a lot of people sitting out there in their living rooms, watching television, and when they hear that kind of rhetoric, it might be just enough to put a disturbed individual over the edge and cause them to want to take action or find other people with like minds to take action with them.

BLITZER: How do you know when it's just a crackpot, a disturbed individual, a crazy person, who really is not going to do anything, as opposed to someone who might cause some harm?

FUENTES: Well, first of all, a crackpot, disturbed individual, is someone who can do something. So, the question is, you're trying to distinguish among crackpots and wackos, and no one is a mind- reader, and certainly not law enforcement.

And so that's the difficult time, to see when they're crossing the line between freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and right to bear arms, and suddenly become criminals that are posing a threat, either to an individual congressman or the public at large.

BLITZER: How worried should we all be about these militia, this so-called Christian militia, these arrests that we saw today?

FUENTES: I think we need to be more worried about what kind of rhetoric inspires them.

These people have been out there for decades in many different forms, white supremacist groups, and the Aryan Nation and every number of groups. The FBI has taken them on since the '80s that I'm aware of.

And -- but the resurgence of them is also attributable to a resurgence in very hateful type rhetoric that's on the air constantly. You have a radio talk show and television people, personalities, that are very popular who are saying just very dangerous things that are enough to inspire these kind of people.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, thanks very much for that perspective.

Tom knows a lot about this subject.

FUENTES: You're welcome, Wolf.

BLITZER: Amid concern, by the way, about homegrown terror, those twin suicide bombings in Moscow's subway system, they are also raising new fears about security in some of America's largest cities. We're going to be talking about that later this hour with the New York City police commissioner, Ray Kelly. He will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama's poll numbers apparently getting a boost from health care reform. We're taking a closer look at what Americans are saying about the new law and about the president. We have some new poll numbers for you.

Plus, it's the Taliban's weapon of choice against U.S. troops. Now a new simulator shows us what it's like to get hit by a roadside bomb.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Big government costs big money, and during this recession, all levels of government are looking for ways to save a buck by making budget cuts.

On the national level, one of the big ones is the U.S. Postal Service, which is looking to move to a five-day delivery week. Tomorrow, the Postal Service will submit a proposal to its regulatory board that would limit mail delivery and collection to Monday through Friday beginning early next year. Post offices that are now open on Saturdays would remain open, and express mail delivery would still be available seven days a week. The Postal Service estimates delivery change would save about $3 billion a year, which is a step in the right direction, considering they're on track to lose $7 billion this year.

Then there are the states. They're facing huge deficits. They are also under pressure to make significant cuts. In Illinois, lawmakers want to cut the school week back to four days from five. Supporters say students would still have to complete the same number of hours in the classroom. They suggest a lot of money could be saved by not using heat, lights, or cleaning the school buildings that fifth day, along with using school bus service for fewer days.

Critics say that students who get free lunch would miss a day every week. And a longer school day means those after-school activities would start even later. Plus, the biggest question is what happens when kids are home on that fifth day and their parents are still at work.

Anyway, here's the question. You can figure it out. Help the government along. What government services could you get by with less of?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog.

I don't know about you, but I would start with the IRS. We could all get by with a little less IRS.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Yes, but they need the money. They collect the money from you, you and me, and millions of others.

CAFFERTY: That's why could do with less of them.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Jack, all right, thank you.

CAFFERTY: See you later.

BLITZER: While Americans are almost evenly divided on health care reform, passage of the landmark bill appears to be boosting President Obama's job approval rating, that according to some new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation polls.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Take a look at this and this question, Gloria. Should Congress repeal the health care bill and replace it with new proposals? Forty- seven percent say yes -- 50 percent say no. That's pretty evenly divided.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it is.

And, you know, there are some folks in that 50 percent, Wolf, who say, look, you passed health care reform. Let's see how we like it. Let it -- you know, let it play itself out a little bit. And the folks who want to repeal it in that 47 percent, you know, there are some of those people who are liberal and think that health care reform doesn't go far enough.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I'm going to put those numbers on. I'm going to show those numbers to our numbers.

BORGER: OK.

BLITZER: Watch this. What should Congress do with health care, Gloria? Repeal and replace, which is what Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate wants, 47 percent. Leave the bill as it is, that's 23 percent.

But look at this. Among the liberals, increase government involvement, either meaning a public option or a single-payer system, that's 27 percent right there. That breaks down that number that you were describing.

BORGER: Yes. Those would be the liberals, Wolf.

But if you look at that repeal and replace number, which is very high, 47 percent, when I looked further into what we called the internals of our poll, 52 percent of independents believe you should repeal and replace. So, that's a very important number for this White House and for Democrats to look at, because independent voters, the ones that everybody tries to court in every election, feel uncomfortable with health care reform, or at least a small majority of them does. And that's not a good number for the Democrats.

BLITZER: Yes.

Well, now that it's the law of the land, people are going to see over the next few months how it impacts them. And I suspect they're going to make some decisions in November based on the practical impact of all of this.

BORGER: Yes, they will.

And Democrats are out there now talking about the immediate impact that will affect people's lives that they think people are going to like, that you're net going to have any lifetime caps on your health insurance immediately or within the next three to six months, no caps on preexisting -- no preexisting conditions for children, for example, fixing Medicare prescription drug benefits.

So, you know, they fully believe that when they go out there and they actually talk about what they can deliver on this bill, that people are going to like it, they're going to like them, and they're going to like President Obama for doing it.

BLITZER: Well, take a look at these numbers, too, because he has got a little bump as a result of signing this bill into law.

BORGER: He does.

BLITZER: How is President Obama handling his job as president? A week ago, 46 percent approved. That's now gone up to 51 percent. So, he got five -- he got five points.

BORGER: Yes, he did. And that's -- those are very good numbers for him. And they're happy about it over at the White House.

We also did a question -- and I know you're going to say, Wolf, this is really too early to do -- and maybe it is -- we asked the question about reelecting Barack Obama against an unknown Republican. And that remained absolutely flat, 48 percent for the president, 47 percent for an unknown Republican.

So, that's not really great news for them. The interesting thing to me, though, in looking internally again at the polls is that only 40 percent of independent voters said they would go for Barack Obama as opposed to an unknown Republican -- 49 percent of them said they would go for the Republican.

So, again, it's those independent voters that are still kind of out there, and tending against health care reform, and so the White House really has to do a big convincing job when the president goes out there to sell it.

BLITZER: Yes, they need those independent voters.

BORGER: They sure do.

BLITZER: They had them when he got himself elected.

BORGER: They got him elected.

BLITZER: But if he is going to get himself reelected, they have got to win back those independent voters.

BORGER: Yes, exactly. And health care may not be the issue to do it. A lot of these voters, most voters right now, are very concerned about the economy and concerned about jobs, and that's why you see this president is going to make a pivot to that.

And the folks I talk to at the White House, Wolf, are all very interested in seeing how these jobs numbers come out on Friday, because that really could affect the rest of their agenda. It really is going to help them make decisions about how big they can go or how narrowly they have to focus on jobs.

BLITZER: Yes, because it comes down to that old question, are you better off than you were four years ago? And I suspect jobs and the economy will be critical in that area.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Gloria. BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: She's an unexpected voice daring to challenge Islamic hard-liners. Now her outspoken poems could earn her a fortune and cost her, her life.

Plus, Apple fans are eagerly, eagerly awaiting the new iPad. Now the company has some news they're not going to like.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: By the way, there's another way for you to follow what's going on behind the scenes here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm on Twitter. You can get my tweets at WolfBlitzerCNN. That's all one word.

The Russia subway massacre in Moscow sends ripples of fresh concern and vigilance around the world. I will talk to the New York City police commissioner, Ray Kelly. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I will ask him what is going on. What are the lessons his city is learning?

And, later, the ever-present danger of roadside bombs in Afghanistan. We will get a rare look at the all-too-real training regimen that prepares U.S. troops to be ready to for anything.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's no claim of responsibility yet for suicide bombings in two Moscow subway stations that killed at least 38 people. But Russian officials suspect rebels seeking independence from the Republic of Chechnya.

The attacks were carried out by two women 40 about minutes apart during the morning rush hour. And security in some U.S. transit systems have now been increased in response.

Let's talk about it with the New York City police commissioner, Ray Kelly.

Commissioner, thanks very much for coming in.

RAYMOND KELLY, NEW YORK CITY POLICE COMMISSIONER: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We heard about it this morning. You heard about it this morning. What did you do as a result?

KELLY: Well, we increased our coverage, certainly our uniform coverage, in the transit system. They're eight hours ahead of us, so we were able to increase uniform presence during our rush hour.

BLITZER: Is that simply as a precaution or based on any information that New York City subways could be targeted? KELLY: No, we don't -- obviously, we learned it 1:00 in the morning, so we have to react quickly.

There's no indication that there's any nexus, any connection to New York. There's no threat to New York. But this is the city where Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty last month to a plot to blow himself and two other people up on the subway system last September.

So, we have to be particularly sensitive to these issues, and we understand also that there's going to some concern with the riding public. So, what we attempt to do is to give them the certain comfort level by increasing uniformed police officers.

BLITZER: So, in other words, the visibility element.

KELLY: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You see a lot more uniformed police officers at the entrances or on the trains itself?

KELLY: Well, both. On the stations, on the trains, we have dogs. We have just a much more robust presence in the system.

BLITZER: If this were simply Chechen rebels wanting independence for Chechnya from Russia, that's one thing. But if it's part of a broader international terrorist conspiracy, if you will, then -- then there would be reason for concern.

KELLY: Well, yes. And -- and we just don't know. Even now, we don't know. The -- the Russians don't know, obviously. No group has claimed credit for it. And we have to err on the side of caution. You know, we -- we don't know if it's part of a worldwide plot or not when these things happen. And we know that the guarding public is going to be concerned.

BLITZER: And before this incident, and the Najibullah Zazi incident, was there anything else out there that raised alarm bells for you in your intelligence authorities? I know you have a whole little intelligence counterterrorism department that worries about this kind of stuff.

KELLY: We had ten plots against the city since September 11, 2001. People tend to forget that. So we're --

BLITZER: Plots? Did any of them materialize or they were simply in the planning stage?

KELLY: No, they did not. Thank God. Najibullah Zazi is one --

BLITZER: Yes.

KELLY: But we had plots to blow up the subway station, the so- called love talk of plot in 2002 on the transit system, a plan to blow up the path tunnels under the Hudson River. So, we are constantly vigilant, constantly on guard people. We feel we have to be, of course.

BLITZER: What is the bigger problem right now, based on what you know and you know a lot about this? Another al Qaeda kind of inspired attack or home-grown terrorists along the lines of Oklahoma City and the federal building there?

KELLY: You know, we can't discount either one. Obviously, a homegrown terrorism is a cause for concern, but Najibullah Zazi was trained by al-Qaeda in Pakistan, even though he lives here in Queen. So, you sort of see a mixture of the two. You can't say one is a greater threat than the other. Home-grown terrorism, obviously, is a big concern, because it's very difficult to get your arms around. You don't know the sizes whatever the problem.

BLITZER: Because we saw what happened in Oklahoma City, and thank God that really hasn't happened, but you see what's going on out there, and people get nervous.

KELLY: Precisely. And what we try to do is lessen that nervousness that people have.

BLITZER: Are you getting the cooperation from the federal government, the FBI, the federal law enforcement that you need and want?

KELLY: Absolutely. We're closer now than we've ever been, and it really is a very strong working relationship we have here in New York.

BLITZER: And you're happy that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not going to be tried in Manhattan, for all practical purposes.

KELLY: We could handled it, but I think all things considered, it's best that it not be here.

BLITZER: Because?

KELLY: It was a lot of public concern about it. It would have taken perhaps as long as five years, we were told. It would have, I think, sucked a lot of oxygen out of the room in terms of what the police department can do. We would have been focused totally on that issue for up to five years.

BLITZER: And the whole area around where the trial would be, that would have been a disaster for local businesses or whatever. Is that one of your concerns?

KELLY: That was certainly the concerns of the public. We thought we that we had, you know, a plan, a concise plan to limit that as much as possible, but that was clearly a concern of people who live and work in that area.

BLITZER: It looks like it's not going to be in New York, so that's one less headache that you're going to have to -- you've got enough, as we all know. Commissioner, always good to see you.

KELLY: Good to see you, too.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Thanks for the good work you're doing.

KELLY: Thank you.

BLITZER: A ride inside a roadside bomb simulator. Can it give U.S. forces an edge when it comes to the Taliban's weapon of choice? We're going to show you the drill more than 1,000 troops have already gone through.

Plus, the postal service possibly cutting -- get this, 40,000 jobs, and it will have an immediate impact on your mail delivery.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our last hour, CNN's Chris Lawrence showed us the dangers U.S. troops now face in Afghanistan every single day from roadside bombs. Now, CNN's Brian Todd gets an inside look at the very rigorous training the troops receive to prepare them to face that danger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, roadside bombs, also called IEDs, are the Taliban's most lethal weapons in Afghanistan, the number one killer of U.S. and ally troops there. Those attacks are on the rise, and commanders are determined to better train their troops in how to defend against them. This humvee upon hydraulics might seem an unlikely place to do that, until you take a ride inside.

UNKNOWN MALE: Contact, front, contact to the front.

TODD (voice-over): You're in the lead humvee in a convoy moving through Kandahar province. The danger could come from that goat herder. A chaotic accident scene is too risky to stick around. But as you're backing away, the devastating jolt of a roadside bomb. It doesn't hurt anyone, and the people buzzing around your vehicle are actors. But for Army Sergeant Maria Caulford, who's been injured in a real IED attack that killed two fellow soldiers, this simulation brings back haunting memories.

SGT. MARIA CAULFORD, U.S. ARMY: It's kind of sad to relive it again, because I really don't want to go through it again, but the impact was pretty close.

TODD: Caulford is one of more than 1,000 troops who've gone through the IED battle drill. A simulator report use as Virginia designed to recreate the warning signs and often lethal concussions of IED attacks. This is the only device of its kind, and it's only been operational for a few months. But U.S. commanders say with IED attacks more than doubling in Afghanistan over the past year, there is an urgent need.

BRIG. GEN. BRIAN LAYER, COMMANDER, FORT EUSTIS: It's the number- one threat against our soldiers. A very adaptive enemy. A changing threat. IED is continue to look different.

TODD: This device is designed to prevent soldiers from getting into those kill zones. Everything in these scenes is recreated from real incidents on the battlefield, some filmed by insurgents themselves. Intelligence is gathered every day at a military op center not far from Ft. Eustis. Terrain, roads, villages reassembled to the smallest detail on gaming software.

MARK COVEY, SIMULATIONS DEVELOPER: We'll sit out here and we'll sit in a video teleconference with the men and women downrange in Afghanistan and Iraq. We'll gather the data needed to replicate the event and then we'll take all the data and put it into the game, put it in the simulation and make a training product.

TODD: Some of it's tested in 3D in a room called the cave. Hollywood film experts then convert that high-tech wizardry into film for the simulation. On my turn inside the humvee, the adrenaline spikes, knowing a blast could come at any moment. I soon realize, this isn't designed to teach you how to drive through danger zones.

TODD (on-camera): One feature we've noticed in the simulator, in the driver position where I am, the driver actually does not have control of the vehicle, and I want to ask Major Michael Dolge who's been through real IED attacks before, why not have a feature in this where the driver is actually driving the vehicle?

MAJ. MICHAEL DOLGE, TRAINER, IED BATTLE DRILL: Because when we use this trainer, we're looking at tactics, technique and procedures, crew drills, and we're looking for signatures and observable observables, not so much about how to drive the vehicle.

TODD (voice-over): Signatures and observables. Meaning signs of IEDs like disruptive soil and objects moving in your field of vision. Like the snipers I don't see until we're being hit.

UNKNOWN MALE: Keep up there -- taking fire, taking fire! On the left.

TODD: Only when we slow-mode the video can you see those tiny bright specs moving in the rocks, insurgents who've ambushed us. Just as we're processing that that --

UNKNOWN MALE: Sniper, 10:00.

TODD: We're told the snipers were a distraction on our left. The IED was planted on the right.

TODD (on-camera): Humvees are actually being faced out of combat. The military is switching to mind-resisted ambush protective vehicles and MRAPs that are much more heavily armored, but commanders here say that doesn't change the usefulness of this simulator. They say this is all about situational awareness, spotting anomalies that could signal an attack, and they're even giving this kind of training to law enforcement agencies -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Brian Todd, thank you. Currently, there are some 80,000 U.S. troops committed to the conflict in Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the American involvement, there are more than 1,000 U.S. troops and civilians have been killed. Public sentiment abut U.S. involvement in Afghanistan seems to be shifting somewhat. The CNN opinion research corporation poll taken periodically since October of last year shows that the percentage of Americans opposed to the U.S. war in Afghanistan has fallen from 58 percent to 49 percent.

Differences of opinion and frank discussion. The U.S. finds itself at odds with a long-time ally. Are U.S./Israeli relations on the rocks? I'll ask one of President Obama's top national security advisers.

And a gang of masked men, a sledgehammer, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have details of a daring and violent casino heist. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right back to Lisa. She is monitoring some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM. What else is going on, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. The U.S. postal service is moving closer to dropping Saturday delivery. The agency says it will make the proposal to the Postal Regulatory Commission. Deputy postmaster, Patrick Donahue, says a service cut would result in the loss of about 40,000 full-time positions. The postal service expects to lose about $238 billion over ten years without restructuring. The agency wants to drop Saturday delivery by October 1st, but because of the regulatory process, it could take much longer.

Still no word on what's ailing former first lady Barbara Bush. The Chief of Staff of former President George H.W. Bush says she is undergoing medical tests after checking into a Houston hospital on Saturday. She had not been feeling well for about a week. Now, the tests are described as not serious, and Mrs. bush is expected to be discharged within a few days.

It was like something out of a movie. Early Sunday morning, a gang of 10 armed in mask suspects pulled up to a Swiss casino driving two Silver Audis. They smashed the front door with a sledgehammer, ordered everyone to hit the floor and then they emptied the registers. Police say the gun has fired at the safe, but could not open the lock. Still, they made off with what authorities are describing as several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the global financial crisis calls for an aggressive expansion of global financial regulation. Mr. Sarkozy spoke today at Columbia University in New York City. He will take his message tomorrow to Washington where he will meet with congressional members and President Obama. Mr. Obama is expected to seek more help in Afghanistan from France, which currently has 4,000 troops in the region. The president and first lady have invited friends and aides to mark the Jewish holiday of Passover with a Seder meal at the White House on Monday. Obama aides began observing the holiday together on the campaign thrill. During a stop in Pennsylvania, the (inaudible) candidate, he surprised staffers by sharing an impromptu Seder with them in a hotel basement. The gathering continued last year at the White House with a small group of aides and advisers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, thanks very much. And to all our Jewish viewers out there, happy Passover to you.

While the Obama administration is grappling with the recent strains in U.S./Israeli relations, there is one worrisome scenario that could complicate matters throughout the Middle East and beyond. I spoke about that with the Chief of Staff of President Obama's National Security Council, Denis McDonough.

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BLITZER: Concern in Israel that the sanctions seem to be going nowhere right now. How worried are you that the Israelis might take unilateral action to deal with Iran's nuclear program?

DENIS MCDONOUGH, NATL. SECURITY COUNCIL CHIEF OF STAFF: You know, Wolf, we've been determined, setting out a determined course of action since early last year. We feel like we're hitting our marks on that. We're working very closely with our Israeli friends and with others. I think they see that this determined course of action is paying dividends, and so we're not going to jump to any conclusions about what else may or may the not happen. But I think we are seeing an effort that over the course of the last year has seen the Iranian government become more isolated.

Frankly, at home, they're much more divided than they have been, and I think they're seeing trends in the region, including Iraq moving away from them. So, I think that the Iranians today don't feel very good about as certainly as good about their future as they did a year- and-a-half ago or so ago. So, we think we're moving in the right direction.

BLITZER: How strained is your relationship right now, the Obama administration, with the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu?

MCDONOUGH: Boy, it's hard for me to imagine a more important or more special alliance or relationship for the United States than with Israel. And so, I wanted advice into this idea that it's strained. I think among friends, you have frank and candid discussions, Wolf. That's exactly what we have last week and really are remarkable and very productive private discussion, one-on-one for almost two hours between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. So, those are the kind of frank and candid discussions I think that the President values, and frankly, after four of those with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the course of the last year. Plus, he feels like we're heading in the right direction there, too.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Pretty upbeat assessment about U.S./Israeli relations right now from Denis McDonough the time when there is some serious, serious strain. We're going to continue to pursue this story this week. Jack Cafferty is up next with your e-mail.

Plus, tea party activist working to defeat vulnerable Democrats over their votes for health care reform. John King USA rides along with the tea party experience.

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BLITZER: We're right back to Jack for the Cafferty File -- Jack

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour -- I'm getting a little feedback. Take it out. The question this hour is what government services could you get by with less of.

From Dave, cut the postal service five days a week. Ten years from now, we won't need the postal service at all with the internet and electronic delivery in most documents. If you need to send something 'real', then use Fedex or UPS. Medicare and Social Security need to become means tested, the age of eligibility moved out. Cut military spending which I think is the largest discretionary part of the federal budget.

Jim in Michigan, right to eliminate internal revenue. Go with a value added tax. That way, there are no loop holes, everybody contributes to the tax base, and there's no cheating because you pay as you go. Reduce entitlement programs to a level that helps the less fortunate and provides assistance but does not destroy the incentive to work. We can't penalize people for working, and we need to encourage those adverse to it to start.

Steve in Virginia writes, I can certainly get by without many aspects of the so-called Patriot Act where snooping and secret telecom messages are recorded and spying on U.S. citizen occurs. A tad less of the military budgeting and spending on outdated military weapons that every branch of service has a variation of.

Harold in Alaska writes, the military. I don't see the point of thousands of troops stationed all over the world or being used in nation building. Our nation needs building, too.

Rahn writes the national endowment for the arts, the national endowment for the humanities, the corporation for public broadcasting, the funding of all those census 2010 commercials. I could go on. The bottom line, this country has to distinguish between what it needs and what it wants. If we can't do that, we'll never get government spending under control.

And Ray in Tennessee says Congress, Jack, a lot less of Congress. If you want to read more on this, you can go on my blog at cnn.com/caffertyfile and read more on this.

BLITZER: People don't love Congress right now, do they?

CAFFERTY: What's to love? They're terrible.

BLITZER: Very low job approval.

CAFFERTY: They're horrible people.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you. >

This note for our North American viewers. The start of "John King, USA" only a few moments away. It starts right at the top of the hour. But next, we'll meet a Saudi woman whose poetry could win her a million dollar and whose ideas, though, could get her killed. That's just ahead. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

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BLITZER: Here's a look at today's hot shots. In Iraq, soldiers from the first Air Cavalry Brigade take part in land and air training in a camp near Baghdad.

At an exhibition in Monaco, tourists take pictures of called the temple. It was created by a British artist.

In Taiwan, a man and child with field of lilies which began their month-long peak bloom season this week.

And at a zoo in Tokyo, check it out. A monkey eats a cherry blossom. The zoo incorporated a cherry tree into the monkeys' habitat, because cherry tree sprouts and flowers are their favorite foods.

Hot shots. Pictures were a thousand words. In the Middle East, a Saudi woman is breaking with tradition in more ways than one. She's a front-runner in a high stakes poetry contest that's bringing her fame a following and a form for ideas. But it's also bringing her death threats. Here is CNN's Schams Elwazer.

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SCHAMS ELWAZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's American idol for traditional Arabic poetry. And for one Saudi housewife, there's much more at stake than the $1.3 million prize money. Black clad with only her eyes showing, contestant Hissa Hilal launched a scathing attack during this live primetime platform. The millions poet show, against extremist Muslim clerics and their religious decrees known as fatwas.

HISSA HILAL, SAUDI POET: "I have seen evil sparking from the eyes of Fatwas."

ELWAZER: To give you an idea of what's behind her passionate poetry, one recent fatwa issued by a Saudi Arabian cleric says those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, their acts punishable by death. Hillal is angered by such fatwas and she's angry at the way they seem to be accepted by default because of a lack of public will to speak out against them.

HILAL: "Vicious and savage, that's how they think. Angry, barbaric and blind."

ELWAZER (on-camera): Hillal's gesture is an extremely rare show of defiance, especially by a Saudi woman. And while her passionate message is winning her supporters, it's also attracting the attention of some dangerous enemies.

ELWAZER (voice-over): Some radical websites have issued death threats against her. Something not entirely unexpected.

"I wrote a strong poem and I expected a strong reaction" she says. "But I didn't expect it to be this strong, to this extent." The response has outraged the show's judges, who applaud Hillal's courage saying female poets have played an important role throughout Arab history.

Schams Elwazer, CNN, Abu Dhabi.

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BLITZER: Interesting story. Remember, you can follow what's going on behind the scenes here in the SITUATION ROOM. I'm on twitter. You can get my tweets at wolfblitzer@cnn all one word. I'm Wolf Blitzer in the SITUATION ROOM. "John King, USA" starts right now.