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Search Continues for West Virginia Miners; Shift in U.S. Nuclear Policy

Aired April 6, 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 you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: hoping and praying for the missing, while grieving for the dead. A West Virginia mining community agonizes as the effort to find four missing men slowly, slowly moves over. We're live at the scene of the worst U.S. mine disaster in decades.

Also, a major shift in America's nuclear strategy, new plans for when the U.S. would launch a nuclear strike and what countries it would target. We're taking a closer look at what President Obama's plan means for U.S. security.

And the man who helped the GOP chairman win his job now joins the chorus saying it's time for a change in leadership. Alex Castellanos was just here in THE SITUATION ROOM. What's next for his embattled friend, Michael Steele?

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

The equipment is in place. The process is under way, but it could be another full day before rescuers can enter that West Virginia mine where four men are missing after a massive explosion that killed at least 25 people.

Right now, holes are being drilled to release poisonous gases that have filled the mine. The massive rigs have to dig about 1,000 feet into the mountainside. There is emergency breathing equipment inside the mine, and the governor says there's what he calls a shred -- a shred of hope the missing men will survive.

CNN's Brian Todd is in West Virginia, near the mine.

Brian, tell our viewers what's happening right now.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they just kind of got more into the numbers of casualties that we're talking about here. The numbers actually have not changed, but the classification of them is being updated as we speak, still 25 confirmed dead, four people missing and unaccounted for.

But of the 25 dead, 14 of them are still in the mine, and have not been identified. The bodies have not been identified. Why? Because of what you just mentioned. The process for trying to get to these men, trying to get through every inch of this mine to find out where they are and then try to pull them out is arduous and very, very dangerous.

You talked a second ago, Wolf, about drilling holes. That process we have just found out in the past few minutes has begun at the top of this mountain, but it's a very slow, dangerous, arduous process.

The chief operating officer of Massey Energy, which owns this mine, spoke about that just a moment ago. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS ADKINS, COO, MASSEY ENERGY: You have to get 1,100 feet down. It isn't as simple as setting up on top of a mountain and penetrating 1,100 feet and hitting where you want to hit. You have to hit within a 20-foot area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And, Brian, you have spoken to some of the miners who escaped, who got out alive. What did they say to you?

TODD: Well, one miner in particular -- his name is Brian Collins -- he was near the entrance, one of the entrances to the mine. He was not inside it. But he felt the blast. He rushed around, trying to help people and trying to get the rescuers help to get inside.

We do have a clip of my interview with him. We can take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: You knew all the guys who apparently were lost. What are you going through right now?

BRIAN COLLINS, MINER: It's heartbreaking. That's all I have got to say.

TODD: You going to go back there and work?

COLLINS: Yes.

TODD: Why?

COLLINS: It's a way of life. It's West Virginia's way of life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: Now, Brian Collins says he is very upset about all the reports that we have been giving throughout the last 24 hours on the safety record of Massey Energy.

We know those are well documented, 458 violations in the last year, millions of dollars in fines. But he says, at his mine, the operations that he saw being operated this year were very, very safe. And one of the officials of Massey who we heard from in that news conference did say that up until this incident they had not had any kind of an injury or accident at the mine this year up until yesterday.

BLITZER: Until yesterday. All right, that's the key word. But those are the key words.

Brian, don't go far away.

President Obama's offering condolences to the families and the friends of the victims. He spoke about the disaster at an Easter prayer breakfast this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I spoke with Governor Manchin of West Virginia last night and told him that the federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort.

So I would ask that the faithful who've gathered here this morning pray for the safe return of the missing, the men and women who've put their lives on the line to save them, and the souls of those who have been lost in this tragic accident. May they rest in peace and may their families find comfort in -- in the hard days ahead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Despite the risk, coal mining runs deep in the blood of many West Virginia families.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My grandfathers both worked in the mines, uncles. I have been in the mines myself. I work in the industry, not underground, but I do go underground on occasion. It's just -- coal mining gets in your blood. And the camaraderie, it's -- it's like a sports team. I mean, it's just -- it's just -- there's no love like the love among -- among workers in coal mines.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: More than 46,000 people work in West Virginia's coal industry, with an average wage of more than $62,000 a year. The state leads the nation in underground coal production, with 540 mines, and coal found in all but two of West Virginia's 55 counties.

The explosion at this mine follows literally hundreds of safety violations, some of them very serious indeed.

Lisa Sylvester is working that part of the story for us.

Lisa, very disturbing. What are you finding out?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is. Massey Energy touts 2009 as a record-setting year for safety, and while the company's safety record has been steadily improving, the specific mine where the explosion occurred has a troubling history of serious violations.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): The Upper Big Branch mine was cited 458 times for safety violations last year, according to records from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The federal agency says 48 of those violations posed significant safety or health hazards.

ELLEN SMITH, MANAGING EDITOR, "MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH NEWS": This mine troubles me. It's very, very serious. And, quite honestly, I have not seen one single mine with so many unwarrantable failure violations in one year.

SYLVESTER: Ten percent of the mine's violations were classified as unwarrantable failures, the most serious citation investigators can issue.

Smith and other sources say the national average is 2 percent. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, within the last 15 months, two types of violations came up again and again, coal dust accumulation and inadequate ventilation, conditions that could lead to a massive explosion.

The Massey Company declined to respond to CNN's questions about its safety violations, instead directing us to a statement it issued after the explosion -- quote -- "Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families."

With its questionable safety record, you may wonder why this mine was still in operation. Federal authorities say, it's not that simple.

KEVIN STRICKLIN, ADMINISTRATOR FOR COAL MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH, U.S. MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION: You're asking if -- if I had the ability to shut a mine down based on what I find, and the answer to that is no. Once a mine operator corrects the condition and makes it safe again, I can't allow -- or I can't allow my inspector to say, you keep that mine shut down. When the condition is corrected, they're allowed to go back to mining.

SYLVESTER: The focus now is on what went horribly wrong, a look back that could take weeks to answer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: The Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars for violations at the Upper Big Branch mine. Last year alone, the company was fined nearly $900,000, much higher than in any other year, but so far it's paid less than $200,000 in fines from that year, and it is challenging even some of those penalties, Wolf.

BLITZER: We are going to speak with the West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller to get some answers to some of these troubling questions you have just raised in your report. Lisa, thanks very much. Also, other news we're following -- the Obama administration deeply troubled right now, very frustrated by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Does the U.S. still consider him an ally? Details of a possible dis-invitation to the White House.

Plus, who would target the U.S. -- who would the U.S. target, I should say, with nuclear weapons, and under what extraordinary circumstances? We're looking at some major changes in U.S. nuclear strategy. Will they make America more or less safe?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, shockingly and unacceptably high, those are the words that a top Obama economic aide uses to describe the unemployment rate for minorities in this country.

He's got a point. The jobless rate for whites in the United States in March was 8.8 percent. For blacks, it was almost double that, 16.5 percent, and, for Hispanics, 12.6 percent. These unemployment rates increased for both of the minority groups over the previous month, while it stayed the same for whites.

Officials say minority unemployment is so high because of a drop in certain sectors of the economy during the recession, things like construction and manufacturing. That's part of the problem. The "State of Black America" report from the National Urban League is calling on the president to push for a jobs surge for hard-hit minority communities.

The report expects to see continuing high unemployment in the short term. It says these high jobless rates are unacceptable when the government just spent tons and tons of money bailing out the banks and the auto companies and various other folks. The National Urban League recommends spending another $150 billion for direct job creation in the hardest-hit communities in this country, with a goal of creating three million jobs.

And they're also pushing for spending several billion more to hire as many as five million teenagers in the inner-city areas of this country as part of a summer jobs program.

Here's the question for this hour: Why is unemployment among blacks and Hispanics disproportionately higher than among whites? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

The differences are staggering, Wolf.

BLITZER: Indeed, Jack. Thank you. Good report, though, from you.

Troubling and untruthful, that's how the White House is characterizing remarks by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Karzai last week blamed the West for fraud in his country's recent elections. Later, he told tribal leaders that an operation by the U.S.-led coalition would not go forward without their approval.

His remarks aren't sitting well and could mean cancellation of Karzai's White House visit next month.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There are times in which the actions that he takes are constructive to governance. I would say that the remarks he's made, I can't imagine that anybody in this country found them anything other than troubling.

We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes as to whether that's constructive to have such a meeting, sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about that with our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

He's supposed to come. The president invited him May 12 to come to the White House when the president was in Kabul for that surprise meeting. Is it realistic to think that they're going to dis-invite him now?

(CROSSTALK)

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly sounds here at the White House like it is more than just a threat.

I was talking to a top White House aide, who told me that he does believe that this is a possibility if Karzai continues to make these critical comments against the U.S. Now, as you pointed out, this is an important meeting, because it was really seen by this administration as the next step in building this relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.

When the president went there on that surprise visit, what the takeaway from that was that he wanted to sort of do the next step, and the next step was coming here on May 12 and continuing that conversation, so, putting that conversation now -- or, rather, that meeting in jeopardy because of his criticism.

You know, another thing that's quite interesting is that there's no lost love here at the White House for Mr. Karzai. You're not hearing any glowing endorsements of him. And they're not even referring to him as an ally. So, that's quite troubling, as the White House will use that word, because this is an important leader that they need on the ground as they build up resources there, Wolf.

BLITZER: I have known him now, President Karzai, for almost nine years, since right after 9/11. I have interviewed him on many occasions.

It doesn't sound like the Hamid Karzai that I have known over the years. Here's the question. What does the White House think? Why is this happening? Why do they think this is going on, this apparent change in his attitude?

LOTHIAN: Well, one word. You know, Robert Gibbs was asked that question today, and he said it's confusing.

They simply don't know if this is, you know, Hamid Karzai trying to do some sort of internal political showing of strength, that he's independent from the United States, while at the same time getting help from the United States militarily.

But the bottom line is -- bottom line is that the United States really needs him, and they will continue to work with him for now, because he's the leader that they have.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian's at the White House, watching this important story. We will check back with you.

Let's turn now to President Obama's dramatic new shift in nuclear strategy. The defense secretary, Robert Gates, today announced the administration would break with past presidents and swear off development of new nuclear weapons and reduce reliance on existing warheads. That means responding to aggression with conventional weaponry.

Let's talk about that with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And I guess the question everyone is asking right now, does this make the United States more or less safe?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to the White House and the administration, it does, some conservatives already objecting. What there is no question about is, this is one of the most significant changes in U.S. nuclear policy in more than half- a-century.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): For the first time since the Cold War, the United States will fundamentally reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons. The change in the nuclear posture review, the NPR, is a reflection that the biggest threat is no longer a face-off with Russia. It's the danger of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear material.

Still, the administration is not ready to go all the way to zero weapons.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The NPR is very explicit in referring to the fundamental role of nuclear weapons being for deterrence.

STARR: Gates insists nuclear weapons can be cut because there's a growing U.S. conventional capability in case of attack. In fact, the U.S. now openly says it will no longer threaten the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries which keep their treaty obligations. Some conservatives don't buy it.

JAMES CARAFANO, SENIOR FELLOW, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: As our nuclear deterrent becomes less reliable, less credible, less safe, other countries are going to value nuclear weapons more.

STARR: Supporters disagree.

BARRY BLECHMAN, STIMSON CENTER: There's no one that could attack us that would not be obliterated in exchange. And the small nations with a handful of weapons, we could respond with conventional means and totally decimate their leadership and their military.

STARR: But Gates had a stern warning for Iran and North Korea, who continue to flout international conventions.

GATES: If you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, you know, Wolf, there's still a lot of wiggle room in all of this for the administration.

You know, for example, they still reserve the right to use nuclear weapons, perhaps, in the event of a massive biological attack. And even though this whole study today says no new nuclear warheads, they reserve the right for that just in case the president and Congress decides they want them.

BLITZER: In other words, they reserve the right to change their mind if they want to.

STARR: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: This is not necessarily all set in concrete. They can change their mind tomorrow, as they changed their mind today.

STARR: Precisely.

BLITZER: Barbara, thanks very much.

We're standing by to speak with West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller on that mine disaster that's going on right now. Stand by. We will go to him as soon as he arrives at our location there.

Also, the anatomy of a rescue. We're taking you inside a detailed look at what has to be done to find those four men still missing in the West Virginia mine.

And one U.S. military leader says -- and I'm quoting now -- "This is a war zone, not an amusement park." There are now some major changes in store for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story, that mine disaster in West Virginia.

Joining us now, the longtime West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, who's on the scene for us.

Senator Rockefeller, first of all, our deepest condolences to the families, the loved ones, all of the folks in West Virginia who are suffering as a result of this explosion.

Realistically, what are the chances of finding those four missing miners?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D), WEST VIRGINIA: One of the things you learn very quickly in West Virginia is you never give up hope. Hope is a very precious commodity. It's not available to a lot of people.

And so, if there's any chance at all, you say, it will -- we hope it will work out. We hope there will be a miracle.

BLITZER: And walk us through what they're trying to do now. They're trying to drill in to get some of the poisonous gases out so they can go inside. Is that's what they're trying to do?

ROCKEFELLER: Yes, that's exactly what they're trying to do. It's exactly what they should be doing.

That mine is so full of methane gas and all kinds of toxins that, if somebody went in there now, they would take one breath and they would die. So, it's completely sealed off from anybody going in. And now they have drilled down 1,000 to 1,500 feet. They have to drill down in a hole, then put a pipe down, probably go through a couple of coal mine seams on the way down, and hope it then goes into the chamber where they think the four unaccounted-for miners might still be.

And the hope, obviously, is that one of them will be alive.

BLITZER: Was this mine safe, based on its track record, because apparently there were a lot of violations of the codes that were documented in recent years?

ROCKEFELLER: There were a lot of violations. And mining is not a safe business, but it can be made safer, you know, by people who want to make it safer.

And that either comes down to the company trying to do the right thing or it comes down to the federal government toughening up our laws. In this case, there's a very odd situation where, if you're fined -- and this company's been fined 548 times or something in the last month or so -- or the last couple months -- if you're fined, what you can do is refuse to pay the fine and appeal the violation.

As long as you're appealing the violation and it's in court, then you don't have to either pay the fine or you don't have to stop what you're doing. Just go ahead and do what you're doing. That's a terrible, terrible law. That's not -- that's not what we should be doing in America.

BLITZER: Is that a state law or is that a federal law?

ROCKEFELLER: No, that's a federal law. That's a federal law, and it needs to be changed.

BLITZER: You say it's a terrible law. Why hasn't it been changed?

ROCKEFELLER: Because it took -- look, we did the last federal bill four years ago -- three years ago. And it had been the first one in 30 years. It made some improvements. It turns out it didn't make enough improvements.

Sometimes -- it's horrible to say this, but sometimes it takes a mine disaster to galvanize the Congress, most of which knows nothing about coal and produces no coal whatsoever. So, they're kind of sort of indolent on the subject.

But there are clear violations of principles of fairness here. And miners are getting hurt and killed because of it. And companies -- not naming any names -- are getting away with what they should not be getting away with, so it's my job to go in and try to change the law.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Are you going to take the leadership now, Senator Rockefeller, and get this law changed, working with the president and the Congress?

ROCKEFELLER: I'm going to try, Wolf. I'm going to try. I'm going to try.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Why would it be so hard to do that?

ROCKEFELLER: Well, one is I'm not on the committee that writes the law.

And you know the way Congress is, but I'm just going to insert myself in this process. And Nick Joe Rahall is very, very strong on this on the House side of things. So, we will just -- we will just work at it.

And, you know, in West Virginia, you're always fighting uphill. You're always climbing a mountain uphill. You never give up. You never quit. You never say, I can't do it. You say, I'm going to do it. So, that's my attitude.

BLITZER: Because we thought -- and maybe it was naive -- that after the Sago Mine disaster, what, it was about four years ago, there were commissions and studies, and everything was going to be fixed up. But, clearly, you're telling us now, you know what, we were naive, and there's still many, many problems out there.

ROCKEFELLER: A little bit I'm saying that, yes. And I read over that whole law, which I was a part of, of writing. And there were so many study commissions and, you know, scientific advisory groups to be formed that, when you really got down to it, you really weren't sure what -- as I was reading it, what have we really done?

We have made some things better. We have made it possible to have oxygen in chambers. We have made it possible for miners to hold on to a rope, a steel rope, if they couldn't see, and just follow that rope, and it would take them right to the shaft that would get them out of the mine.

There were a number of things that we did do, but, clearly, after this horror, there were some things that we did not do. And, unfortunately, that's the way making law sometimes has to work.

BLITZER: The last time, there were a lot of complaints...

ROCKEFELLER: I'm not complacent about this.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of complaints the last time, four years ago, that the families weren't given real-time information, they weren't kept up to speed on what's going on.

We're hearing some complaints this time as well that they don't know about their loved ones, they haven't been told the information. Are you hearing that as well, Senator?

ROCKEFELLER: There was more of that yesterday than there is today.

The governor and the company every two hours are coming in and briefing the people who are grieving and hoping and praying. And they're going to do it every two hours. We advise people -- they have been up for 36 hours, whatever -- go back to sleep. Get some sleep.

I doubt they can do that, so some of them will try. Others will just stay right where they are, feeling that's the way they can show their loyalty and their love for people who may be underground, dead or alive.

BLITZER: We're praying for those four men.

ROCKEFELLER: It's...

(CROSSTALK)

ROCKEFELLER: ... country.

BLITZER: We're praying for those four men, together with you, and not only everyone in West Virginia, but all over the country, indeed, all over the world. Senator Rockefeller, our deepest condolences once again. Good luck. Clearly, lots of work needs to be done, but the immediate issue right now is making sure, if there's any hope at all, you find those four coal miners and you bring them out alive.

ROCKEFELLER: You have got it spot on.

BLITZER: Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, thank you.

CNN's Tom Foreman is here with details of exactly how this rescue operation is now proceeding.

Tom, show our viewers what we what we -- what we know.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know, Wolf, is that it has been, as Senator Rockefeller just pointed out, pulled to a stop because of the accumulations of gases there. And to understand that, it's good to understand the working environment inside of the mountain in question.

I'm going to take a little drawing thing. And if we could take a sample of this Earth right here and just pull it aside like this, you might get something that looks a bit like this. And using this, we can explain what the long wall mining is all about. This is the process that was underway in there.

You'll notice how, first of all, a large area was carved out here. This is huge. This may be about 800 feet across. I believe on this actual space we're talking about, this may be closer to 1,000 or 1,200 feet across. It may be as much as a mile long. They carve paths in. And then they start eating across the face of that with large tools that sort of cut back and forth here. And as they do that, they allow the actual remainder of the wall to collapse in behind them. So this area up here is actually shielded by a bit of a box made out of these protective covers and the cutting edge of these machines up.

Now this is important. And I want to move this box aside a minute so you can look at this. If we move this over here, this is what that machine looks like, Wolf. The men are standing over here. They're underneath those shields, which can support many hundreds of tons of weight. And these giant augers chew away at that coal face. It's about six to eight feet tall. You see them chewing along there.

While this happens, this long face mining like that -- or long wall mining like this, Wolf, one other thing that's important to know about this is that this procedure releases a tremendous amount of methane gas, because methane is formed by the same process that forms coal. So to get at the coal, you have to release the methane that's captured inside of it.

And one of the things that can be done to ease this problem is to have different devices that blow air and water across that cutting surface while the people are inside there and it keeps the methane from building up. However, I want to go back over to this picture over here. One of the concerns is, as you cut back and forth, in certain areas, particularly when you get like to the end of one of these, the methane will tend to pool up a little bit and it will gather around this cutting edge here if you don't have enough of that airflow going across the surface. That's one of the concerns. There was a report from the Department of Energy just a few years ago talking about how serious the danger is of methane building up around here.

What we don't know, Wolf, is exactly where this explosion occurred, whether it was along the face here; at one of these ends, where we know there are problems of pooling methane in many different mines; or if it was somewhere else. But we do know this, Wolf. With this type of mining, much more methane is released than in other types of mining. And that's certainly going to be something that investigators look at -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And let's hope and pray they find these four men alive.

Tom, thanks very much.

A new wave of deadly violence sweeping over Iraq right now -- is the country on the brink of a new and more dangerous post-war insurgency than we've seen in the past?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Baghdad is reeling right now from a series of more deadly bombings. At least seven explosions ripping through apartment buildings and a market today in a mostly Shiite area of the Iraqi capital. At least 50 people were killed. They're the latest casualties in a wave of attacks on civilians that are raising serious fears of renewed sectarian warfare similar to the violence that nearly tore the country apart back in 2006.

In the last five days alone -- get this -- at least 120 people have been killed and hundreds more -- hundreds more have been injured.

Is the new wave of violence in Iraq a prelude to a more serious insurgency than we saw several years ago?

Let's talk about that and more with our national security contributor, Fran Townsend.

She was Homeland Security adviser to President Bush and worked in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration.

What's the answer to that?

Are we on the verge of a major escalation in -- in deadly violence in Iraq?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: It -- it certainly looks that way, Wolf. I think some of the things we're going to watch for now are what is -- what -- how many of these attacks are we going to see? How prolonged and protracted is this?

The numbers are really concerning. Remember, General Odierno now has got a mandate to begin the drawdown. And that -- that's already, frankly, started.

How will this affect that?

How will this affect the seating of the new government?

These are all things -- what -- what the administration will be most focused on is making sure they don't lose the long-term gains that they've seen since 2006 and that there's sufficient basis to see the transfer -- the peaceful transfer of power to the new government.

BLITZER: You attended an intelligence conference today. And I guess a lot of folks are wondering, is the intelligence community -- the U.S. intelligence community -- really up to the job right now, fully appreciating what's going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, for that matter?

Have the improvements that were supposedly made since 9/11 really resulted in better intelligence gathering?

TOWNSEND: You know, we've heard again and again, whether it was from the director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair; Greg Schulte, who is our ambassador to the Atomic Energy Agency; all of them are saying the intelligence is better -- it's of greater depth, it's of getter breadth. And so everybody seemed satisfied.

But I tell you, Wolf, people were humbled after, as you remember, the attempted Christmas Day bombing. That pointed out that this is an issue that's got to be worked every single day, whether it's terrorism, foreign policy, proliferation. These are issues -- this is not easy. And it's not natural to the agency to share.

BLITZER: Because they created that new bureaucracy -- that bureaucratic layer, the director of National Intelligence -- to make sure that the left arm of the U.S. government was talking to the right arm of the U.S. government and that there wouldn't be the stovepipes or whatever, that there would be full cooperation.

Is there?

Have they reached that level?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, Wolf, I think some days the answer to that is, yes, but not always.

And what you want is a system that is predictable and assures you that that happens every single day.

It's better. It's better down to the state and local level, but it's not perfect. And we've seen an absence of information sharing in things like the Fort Hood shooting, between DOD and the FBI; and we saw the problem on the Christmas Day attempt. There was not adequate sharing even within the intelligence community elements.

And so I think that's a big takeaway for Admiral Blair, as the director of National Intelligence. We hear a lot about the friction between the director of National Intelligence and the director of CIA. What you want -- what you hope they're -- they're focused on are not turf battles, but just the kind of information sharing you're talking about.

BLITZER: And let's hope that they get their act together and they get their job done, because people's lives are on the line right now.

Fran Townsend, thanks very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Yet another huge earthquake. We're just getting word of another earthquake.

Lisa Sylvester is getting all the information -- where, how big, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Wolf, this information is coming from the U.S. Geological Survey. They're saying that it was a 7.8 earthquake that hit Sumatra in Indonesia. And at this -- it happened around 5:15 in the morning local time. We are also hearing that there is a tsunami watch right now in effect for the Indian Ocean, but specifically around the area of Indonesia.

We will continue to monitor this, Wolf, and bring you the latest update.

BLITZER: A 7.5 is huge. That's obviously bigger than the Haiti earthquake, which was a 7.0. We -- we -- we this -- and this is an area where we remember the tsunami of a few years ago and all the problems that developed then; the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people killed.

This was pretty deep, though, I take it?

SYLVESTER: Yes, you know and this is one of the big concerns that they have, is that it's not just the earthquake itself, but also the tsunami. And that's why they're on top of this with getting that warning out as soon as possible.

As far as the depth, we can try to see if I can pull that up for you. I know that this is -- they're saying that its magnitude -- we've heard 7.5, 7.8. And we're going to continue to monitor this.

There again, we're still getting information. It's coming in slowly. But the fact that -- 28.6 deep is what we're hearing is the depth of it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: In terms, that's 28.6 in terms of miles or feet -- or that's when you feet, right?

SYLVESTER: Miles. It's in terms of miles, yes.

BLITZER: Oh, it's miles. That's what I thought.

SYLVESTER: Yes.

BLITZER: Yes. So it's -- it's a -- it's a significant earthquake -- Northern Sumatra in Indonesia. And we're told that the tsunami watch is really a tsunami watch, in effect, for Indonesia, not necessarily for all of the Indian Ocean.

SYLVESTER: Correct, specifically in the area of -- of Indonesia.

BLITZER: Yes.

SYLVESTER: And, so, you know, obviously this is something that people in the area have to take very -- have to take into consideration because you're right, absolutely, because of the history that we have seen with this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, there's more than 200 million people who live in Indonesia. So this could be very, very significant.

And we're showing the area. It looks like a small island off of Sumatra right there, not far from the coast.

Is that your understanding, as well?

SYLVESTER: Yes. That's exactly right. I mean we're talking about the northern part of Indonesia. And you can see it on our map right there, Sumatra. Again, this is 7.8 -- a 7.8 magnitude. We'll have to see sort of what the damage is on the ground. But at this point, these are preliminary reports coming in to the U.S...

BLITZER: Is it 7.8 or 7.5?

Because on this one document that I'm getting right now, it says 7.5. And it might not sound like to viewers out there that like there's not a huge difference between a 7.5 and a 7.8. But it's very -- it's very significant given the way they increase in disaster as a result.

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's a very good point. The information that we're getting from the U.S. Geological Survey is that it's a 7.8 earthquake.

BLITZER: Because the information we're getting from the tsunami information from UNESCO, it was a 7.5.

All right. We'll check that out. It's a very, very significant -- it's a very significant earthquake, 7.8 magnitude.

All right, we'll -- we'll get some more information. This is breaking news that we're following. Once again, in Indonesia, in Sumatra, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. A local tsunami watch for the Indonesia coast in effect right now.

We'll get more information and share it with you, when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We want to update you on the breaking news we're following out of Indonesia. A 7.8 earthquake, a 7.8 earthquake in Northern Sumatra, in Indonesia, has just been reported by the U.S. Geological Survey.

We're going to get more information and check with what's going on. A local tsunami alert for the Indonesia coast is now in effect.

We'll have more information in just a moment.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty, though, right now.

He's got The Cafferty File -- these earthquakes, Jack, that are coming up in Chile, in Haiti, in Mexico, in Southern California, in Indonesia -- you know, people are saying these are just coincidental. I'm not necessarily buying that.

CAFFERTY: Do you think somebody's trying to tell us something?

BLITZER: Maybe.

CAFFERTY: Yes?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is, why is unemployment among blacks and Hispanics significantly higher -- dramatically higher, even, than among whites.

Dan writes: "The unemployment rate is directly related to high school graduation rates. Minorities have lower graduation rates and are therefore less able to compete. That's the issue that needs to be fixed.

J. writes: "It's because of lack of basic education, unwillingness to move and poor presentation skills in both language and appearance. Since I'm retiring, I had reason recently to visit the local Social Security and unemployment offices and I got a firsthand look at this."

Manuel in Phoenix writes: "Higher unemployment for minorities is the result of trickle-down economics affecting those of us perpetually at the bottom of the trickle-down stream, after the economic spigot has been shut off. No mystery there and no need to wonder if economic inequality is rooted in racism exists, either. It's real, alive and growing in our damaged economy."

Sue writes: "This is a joke, right? Did you ever hear of employment discrimination? What about last hired, first fired?

Discrimination is more sophisticated, but it exists. If you don't believe me, contact EEOC and inquire about the insurmountable backlog of employment discrimination cases." Gary in Arizona writes: "It's because, despite a lot of progress, the majority remain at the bottom of the food chain. Lack of education leads the reasons, with criminal or illegal activity or backgrounds often following closely. In a recession, it is strictly survival of the fittest and many of these poor people don't qualify. It sounds harsh and it is, but it's true."

And Annie writes: "Yesterday, you pointed out the Tea Party's increase in favorable ratings. Today, It's more blacks and Hispanics are unemployed than whites. I see a correlation. It's ugly and it tells us how far we haven't come in 200 plus years."

If you want to read more on the subject, go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile.

Let's go back to Wolf now and get some more on this breaking news about the earthquake -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And very worrisome, Jack. 7.8 magnitude in Indonesia, in Northern Sumatra, that we're just getting word from the U.S. Geological Survey. There you see Indonesia. Remember, it was only a few years ago the tsunami that occurred in Indonesia. Sumatra very much not far away from this epicenter.

We're going to watch this story and get you all the information.

Remember, Indonesia is a huge country -- 240 million people.

We'll take a quick break.

Our coverage will continue after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A 7.8 earthquake in Indonesia right now, Northern Sumatra. There you see the map.

Chad Myers is joining us right now -- Chad, I know you're checking with the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.

Give us your assessment.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, it was a fairly deep earthquake compared to the December 2004 mega thrust tsunami Banda Aceh earthquake that we all know about. It was about two times as deep -- almost 30 miles deep into the crust. That means that there won't be as much thrust.

Now, this earthquake was under the ocean, not under land. So there could be a tsunami generated, but more of a localized tsunami, not the 30 to 50 footer that that 9.1 earthquake caused back in 2004.

A 7.8 is a very large quake. I mean, we've talked about the 7.0 in Haiti, the 7.2 just a couple of days ago and now this 7.8.

And I heard you talk to Jack about it, are these related? You know, it can't be coincidence that we're seeing so many earthquakes at the same time in a row. I just don't believe that it's coincidence. The Earth is moving. Parts are moving and it's like if you -- if you crack one part of your back, another part is going to crack. It releases stress or moves other plates. And we're seeing a volcano in Iceland and now we're seeing Mount Redoubt in -- in Alaska. Those are both now firing off.

The Earth is not angry, but it is certainly an active time for tectonics.

BLITZER: So the -- so we're talking about Haiti, then Chile and now what we saw over the weekend in Northern Cali -- in Northern Mexico and Southern California, along that border and now in Indonesia. What -- something is going on and it's not just a coincidence?

MYERS: I don't believe it is. I think that plates do move. And when one plate moves, it puts stress on another part of a plate. Now they're not directly related, because the shock wave -- if this wave -- if this earthquake would have been directly after it, it would have been 15 minutes of the Mexican quake that we just had, then I would say yes, directly related.

But, still, I would say not coincidental that these are all coming together at one point in time.

Now, there -- there may be something that we -- since the Banda Aceh quake back in 2000, we have been more attuned to them. We look at USGS more often. We all get pages when earthquakes go off. And so maybe we all -- we're just more attuned to it now. But there is something going on here. And everybody that is on a fault line, make sure that you have your earthquake procedures down to it, especially if you just moved there. You'd better know what to do I case an earthquake comes to you.

I'm not predicting any earthquakes, because there's no such things. But, you know, it -- it's almost like that time when it's time to buy your severe weather radio. It's time to go over your earthquake procedures.

BLITZER: Excellent advice from our meteorologist and severe weather expert, Chad Myers, to our viewers here in the United States; indeed, around the world.

We'll take a quick break and continue our coverage of the breaking news -- a 7.8 earthquake in Indonesia, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. A 7.8 earthquake in Northern Sumatra in Indonesia has been reported.

Victor Tsai is joining us on the phone right now.

He's a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey in golden, Colorado.

Victor, tell us what we know.

VICTOR TSAI, USGS GEOPHYSICIST: Well, so we know that this earthquake is -- it happened around Sumatra, which is close to where that large earthquake happened in 2004.

However, it's -- it's quite a big smaller, so a 7.8, maybe a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. And it was probably farther from the coast, so meaning that it probably won't affect people as -- as heavily.

BLITZER: But there is a local tsunami warning, in effect.

What does that mean?

TSAI: Yes. That means there is -- there's some likelihood that there's going to be some local tsunami generated. But we don't quite know exactly how large it's going to be yet.

BLITZER: All these earthquakes over the past few months, in Haiti, in Chile, over the weekend in Mexico, Southern California and now in Indonesia...

TSAI: Yes.

BLITZER: Is there a connection?

TSAI: It's really hard to say. Earthquakes do tend to happen sort of together, in that once you have like a large earthquake, then there tend to be aftershocks after that. When you talk about earthquakes happening very far away from each other, it's really hard to say whether there's any relationship at all.

BLITZER: So I -- I guess the folks in Indonesia now -- and we're just beginning to get reports -- what they have to worry about, Victor, is another aftershock or a tsunami and the waves starting to approach the coast?

This is a huge country with 240 million people.

TSAI: Right, right. Yes. So I mean usually aftershocks are smaller than the make shock, but occasionally, you do get aftershocks that are larger. And, yes, we still don't really know how large this tsunami is going to be. It should an lot smaller than the 2004 one.

BLITZER: And that was a 9 -- that was a 9 point something, right?

TSAI: Yes, that was a 9.1.

BLITZER: Yes. So this is a 7.8. But a 7.8 is huge, also. It's certainly not a 9.1...

TSAI: Right. Right.

BLITZER: But we'll stay on top of this story. TSAI: We also...

BLITZER: Victor Tsai...

TSAI: We also don't know how deep exactly it was. And if it's not very shallow, then there might not be a tsunami at all.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to stay on top of this story with our viewers.

Victor, thanks very much.

TSAI: Sure.

BLITZER: Victor Tsai with the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado.

That's it for me.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "JOHN KING USA".

JOHN KING, HOST: Thank you, Wolf.

And we begin with breaking news. A tsunami watch in effect for Indonesia after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake offshore. The quake hit at about 5:15 Wednesday morning local time. That's about 45 minutes ago.