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THE SITUATION ROOM
The New bin Laden?; Oil Spill's Environmental Impact
Aired August 2, 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: All right, Lisa, thank you.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, a CNN exclusive: As American casualties grow in Afghanistan, we're about to take you inside an Air Force evacuation mission, flying into the war zone, picking up the wounded and flying them home. Stand by.
Is this man the new bin Laden? He's a radical cleric whose calls for a holy war against the United States has made him an Internet sensation. Plus, he's an American.
And we're awaiting a critical effort to plug the ruptured Gulf well forever. But, even if it succeeds, will the Gulf Coast face lasting effects from the chemicals used to break up the oil slicks?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Obama today delivered a major speech giving the nation a progress report on two bloody wars. The president says America is winding down its combat role in Iraq, noting that the mission should end on schedule this month, the combat mission. But he's defending his decision to step up the military commitment in Afghanistan, where he says U.S. forces are now taking the fight to the insurgents.
The president spoke to the Disabled American Veterans Convention in Atlanta. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to remind everyone, it was Afghanistan where al Qaeda plotted and trained to murder 3,000 innocent people on 9/11. It is Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan where terrorists have launched other attacks against us and our allies.
And if Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack. And as president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen.
It's important that the American people know that we are making progress and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable. On the military front, nearly all the additional forces that I ordered to Afghanistan are now in place. Along with our Afghan and international partners, we are going on the offensive against the Taliban, targeting their leaders, challenging them in regions where they had free rein, and training Afghan national security forces.
Because in this region and beyond, we will tolerate no safe haven for al Qaeda and their extremist allies. We will disrupt, we will dismantle, and we will ultimately defeat al Qaeda.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Sixty-six American troops died in Afghanistan last month, a new record for the war. And the growing U.S. commitment has meant a growing toll of wounded. CNN was given an exclusive opportunity to join a U.S. evacuation mission as it flew into Afghanistan, picked up the wounded and took them out of harm's way.
Here's CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's before dawn in the trauma bay at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, another shoulder wounded in the fighting down south, surgeons, nurses doing everything they can.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One, two, three.
STARR: The journey home starts here. In Vietnam, it could take weeks, but now wounded can be home in days.
CNN was granted exclusive access to see the medical care that makes it possible and, to injured troops, some hours off the front line. In the hospital hallway, Army Specialist James Dennis is being shipped home after being in three attacks in three weeks. He had already been here before. He survived two roadside bomb attacks in the same day, and then, a couple of days ago...
SPC. JAMES DENNIS, U.S. ARMY: It was indirect fire. I was hit by a mortar.
STARR: But still smiling.
DENNIS: I'm good right now. They gave me some medicine.
STARR: In the latest attack, Dennis ordered junior troops under fire to run for safety. He couldn't get away in time.
DENNIS: I didn't even get to start running. And I guess it knocked me out, because I remember pushing myself up off the ground and had all this blood all over me. And then they medevaced me.
STARR: Dennis praises the doctors and nurses.
DENNIS: These people here are awesome. I mean, they do their job. I respect these guys a lot.
STARR: Before Dennis is moved tot plane, a last emotional hug from the trauma doc, Captain Joshua Miller (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You take care of yourself.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw him over there in that wheelchair, and I just took another look at him and I said, man, what are you doing here again? I'm not supposed to see you again. And, sure enough, he had suffered enough explosion injury.
STARR (on camera): The doors have just shut on this air medical evacuation flight here in Bagram, Afghanistan. The wounded have already been loaded. You can see that medical staff is already taking care of them, even before we take off. We are about to go on an eight-hour flight back to Germany. These troops are going to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for further treatment.
STARR (voice-over): Matthew Came, a medic, was on patrol helping other wounded when he was hit.
(on camera): And your Kevlar didn't protect you, your vest?
SPC. MATTHEW CAME, U.S. ARMY: It was about one inch right under it. It was right in the bladder.
STARR (voice-over): Badly wounded, he told his buddies what to do.
CAME: Right away, I just went on to, just, you know, talk them through what we needed to do. And it all went really, really smoothly. And then a medic from the copper we were going to go help out came and he helped out in the end too.
STARR: Now others are tending to him. He gets relief for his pain, Specialist Came finally under the watchful eye of his nurse.
For air evacuation teams, easing the pain and devastation can be tough.
CAPT. KATHERINE GARTNER, U.S. AIR FORCE: I have had a couple patients who were sleeping and just woke up in a fright, just couldn't remember what was going on, where they were. And, for me, that was the best moment to be there for that patient, to hold their hand and calm them down and let them know, I'm here. You're OK. You're going home -- and just seeing them relax and say, OK, I'm good. It's all good.
STARR: For three-time Purple Heart specialist Dennis, now on the plane to Germany, it is all good.
(on camera): You're going from bleeding to hugging your wife and daughters. There's a smile.
DENNIS: It's going to be awesome, you know? When you're near death that close, I mean, I thought -- I literally thought I was dead when that impact happened. I thought I was dead. But you really don't know what you have got until it's almost gone.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Lift. Lift.
STARR (voice-over): Tomorrow, the next stop, Germany.
BLITZER: And Barbara is joining us now.
Barbara, amazing, amazing reporting. What struck you most about this journey?
STARR: Well, Wolf, you know, you can see the pain, the exhaustion on these young troops' faces. And they are all very young. The toll of wounded is growing. In the month of July, there were 570 troops wounded in Afghanistan.
Of course, that number is potentially good news because there's medical care that keeps them from dying of their wounds, but still over 500 a month now wounded, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. That's a big number. Give us a little preview of part two tomorrow.
STARR: Well, we're going to take you on the rest of this flight. We will go to Germany to Landstuhl Medical Center and see what happens there, see the type of wounds that they're being treated for. Part three will take you all the way home, back to the United States. You will continue to meet some amazing young troops and the medical teams that take care of them.
BLITZER: Barbara, thanks for doing this report, and part two tomorrow, part three on Wednesday. We will be watching.
While a federal judge has barred controversial parts of Arizona's immigration law, Virginia's attorney general has now ruled that police in his state can, in fact, check the immigration status of people they stop.
Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM looking into this.
Explain what is going on, Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in the aftermath of the Arizona immigration ruling, a member of the Virginia state legislature asked the state's attorney general about the impact in the Old Dominion.
The state's A.G., Kenneth Cuccinelli, responded that -- quote -- "Virginia law enforcements may, like Arizona police officers, inquire into the immigration status of persons stopped or arrested."
Now, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association says: "I don't think his opinion changes anything, because it does not require law enforcement to check immigration status" -- the key word there, require. The Arizona law did that.
But some say the opinion could expand current Virginia law to allow immigration status checks of people stopped for minor traffic violations. Illegal immigration has been as hot an issue in Virginia as it has been just about anywhere. It has one of the fastest growing populations of illegal immigrants.
One county, Prince William, passed a law in 2007 that requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone arrested. Like the Arizona law, it has been the subject of tremendous controversy -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Are we likely to see other states -- I suspect we are -- do their own version of the immigration law in Arizona?
MESERVE: Well, Virginia is already talking about doing that. And undoubtedly others are going to be asking their attorney generals for advice, because the federal judge in Arizona did not completely shut the door on states passing immigration reform law. Other states are likely to inquire about their current regulations and how they apply as they contemplate further steps, Wolf.
BLITZER: We will see how this is implemented in Virginia the coming days and weeks. Thanks very much.
Jack Cafferty coming up with "The Cafferty File" in just a moment.
We will also take a closer look at the controversy over chemicals used to treat the Gulf oil spill. Will their impact be felt long into the future?
Plus, we're waiting for a critical effort pumping heavy mud and possibly concrete into the well in the coming hours. Can that kill this well for good?
And is he, this guy right here, is he the new bin Laden, an American cleric who's gained a worldwide following and notoriety for inciting holy war against the United States?
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, remember when Nancy Pelosi promised she as going to drain the swamp after the Democrats took control of the House a few years ago? It turns out some of her high- profile Democratic colleagues may be swimming in that very swamp.
Two senior Democrats in the House of Representatives are now facing possible ethics trials, which is about the last thing Democrats need headed into what's already shaping up to be a brutal midterm election come November.
Longtime -- and I mean longtime -- New York Congressman Charlie Rangel has been formally charged with 13 counts of violating House ethics rules, including not paying taxes on rental income from the Dominican Republic.
Several House Democrats have already called on Rangel, a 20-term veteran -- that's 40 years -- to resign. And President Obama says that he hopes Rangel can -- quote -- "end his career with dignity."
Then there's California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Today, the ethics panel charged her with breaking House rules by using her position to get federal bailout money for a bank that had ties to her husband.
While Rangel has admitting to making mistakes, Waters insists she's done nothing wrong.
For their part, top Democrats insist that these potential trials show that the ethics process is working. Really? They're both still there.
Meanwhile, this could create a situation similar to elections past, where ethics scandals dominated the news and control of the House passed from one party to the other.
In 2006, the Republicans ran into a series of scandals, including then-Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Congressman Duke Cunningham, who I think is still in jail.
They lost the House to the Democrats.
In 1994 it was the Democrats who lost the House amid allegations that top Democrats, including, I think, a guy named Rostenkowski from Illinois, were misusing funds from the House Post Office.
Anyway, here's the question: Will ethics issues haunt the Democrats come November? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog.
Am I right about that? Rostenkowski was the guy who was charged with pilfering money from the House Post Office, wasn't he?
BLITZER: Well, I don't know if -- I don't remember specifically about the bank, the House Post Office bank, and Rostenkowski. I remember he got into deep trouble for doing a whole bunch of things, but I'm not exactly -- we will check that, Jack, and get back to you. You got a few moments?
CAFFERTY: Yes, go ahead. Put your investigative unit right on it.
BLITZER: We have got a research department that is going to be all over this legal nugget. But it's fair to say this is an issue that has plagued both Democrats and Republicans, not just one side.
CAFFERTY: Oh, absolutely. They all screw their socks on. They're crooked as they come, both of them, both sides.
BLITZER: I think that's a fair statement.
BLITZER: All right, Jack, stand by. We will check into Rostenkowski and the House Post Office bank scandal. I remember a whole bunch of other House members who got caught up in that.
Hours from now, BP should make a critical attempt to seal its blown-out Gulf well for good. While it still hinges on the results of some last-minute testing, the static kill effort, as it's called, will involve pumping heavy drilling mud, possibly cement, into the well.
But even if the well is permanently sealed, will the Gulf of Mexico face lasting effects from the chemicals used to break up or disperse the oil?
We asked Brian Todd to take a closer look at this part of the story, which is causing a lot of nervousness out there.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. And actually we have got some news on this tonight.
We learned today that actually for the last two weeks no dispersants have been used in the Gulf, no dispersants since that last cap was placed over the leaking wellhead more than two weeks ago. Still, the amount of chemical dispersant used between April and July is eye-opening.
Look at these figures, more than a million gallons of surface dispersants, more than 770,000 gallons of subsea dispersant, total, more than 1.8 million gallons of chemicals poured into the Gulf to combat this spill.
And there are new questions tonight about how safe this was and whether the government kept a close enough eye on how BP was using these chemicals.
TODD (voice-over): For roughly three months, it was poured into the Gulf, chemical dispersant that BP and Coast Guard officials call an effective tool in fighting the oil spill. Congressman Ed Markey calls it carpet-bombing of the Gulf and says BP abused its permission to use the dispersant.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: BP for all intents and purposes sprayed just about every single day. And, on some days, they did so in quantities which were far in excess of anything that reports that they were given to the Coast Guard indicated that they were using.
TODD: But Markey also says the Coast Guard was rubber-stamping BP's actions, often letting the company use what he calls excessive amounts of dispersant. From the end of May, if BP wanted to use the chemicals, it had to ask the Coast Guard for a waiver, a waiver which Markey says was granted almost indiscriminately, averaging more than one a day.
And according to a letter from Markey to incident commander Thad Allen, on many of these days, BP still used more than double its new 6,000-gallon limit. Asked by CNN about Markey's charges, Allen said he always consulted with the EPA on giving BP permission to use dispersants, but his frustrations were clear.
ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), NATIONAL INCIDENT COMMANDER: Folks are managing these conditions on-scene, tactically, and have to make decisions without complete information, sometimes under conditions of uncertainty, because we have never used dispersants at this level before. That was done and to the extent that there's an issue about it, I'm the national incident commander and I'm accountable. Next question?
TODD: BP says it worked closely with Allen's command and the EPA. The company says it didn't hide anything and dispersants prevented a bigger disaster.
DOUG SUTTLES, COO, GLOBAL EXPLORATION, BP: These are all tradeoffs., And one of the thins we didn't want to see happen is the oil reach the shoreline. And dispersants were effective in that.
TODD: But what about damage below the surface? The EPA now says the dispersants mixed with oil were no more toxic than the oil itself and says there's no indication of wildlife sickened or killed by dispersants.
But Jackie Savitz of the environmental group Oceana, who is set to testify before Congress about dispersants, says that doesn't give the full picture.
(on camera): Do you think it is being incorporated into the food chain? Do you think it's getting to the larvae and other things like this?
JACKIE SAVITZ, OCEANA: Well, we're starting to see signs that it is getting into things like crab larvae. And that's really important, because those are important food for other fish. But there's also the stage that has to happen before we get crab adults.
TODD: Now, we contacted an EPA official about that. He completely disputed Ms. Savitz's contention that it's crept into the food supply. He says the agency has found no evidence of that, Wolf. But experts say we may not know really for several months, maybe even a year.
BLITZER: I know you spoke with the CEO of the company that makes some of these dispersants. What is he saying?
TODD: Well, that's Erik Fyrwald. He's the head of Nalco. And that's the company that makes this dispersant called Corexit. That's been at the center of this controversy.
Mr. Fyrwald says, you know, this is really a safe project, according to him. Of course, he has an agenda. But he cities other studies as saying that this is less toxic than dish soap. And he says that it has helped biodegrade this oil in the Gulf by half. And he, like other government officials, is saying this has really done a lot to prevent massive amounts of oil from getting to the wetlands, getting to the coast.
So, he says overall it's been a net win for the environment. But this is really going to be in dispute for months, maybe years to come.
BLITZER: We will watch it together with you, Brian. Thank you.
Let's get back to the effort to permanently plug the ruptured well. We may be only a few hours away from the mud-pumping operation known as static kill.
Chad Myers is watching it for us as well with an explanation, what we are about to see -- Chad.
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: We're about to see exactly what was tried months ago called top kill. But how is it different?
Well, when we were doing top kill the first time, all the oil was pouring out. So the mud couldn't go down the well like they wanted it to. It just kept getting blown out the top. Top kill, let's go. Top kill means we start from the top and we try to drive mud down the well.
Bottom kill, which is still to come, will be taking these new wells that they have drilled, these relief well, taking it down here and pumping stuff down here, concrete and mud, basically to kill it from the bottom. In fact, they're going to try to do it both ways.
Well, so what is in the word? What is all the names, all of this, top kill, static, dynamic? OK, let's -- we're going to go all the way back to May. Oil was pouring out of the top of this well.
So, when they tried to pump the mud down and up and through and then into the blowout preventer and down the well, there was too much force, too much force from the oil and the natural gas that was blowing out the top of this well. There was too much force for the mud to sink to the bottom and kill the oil.
It just kept getting blown out. Then they tried something called junk shot -- junk shot means they not only put mud. They just put a bunch of junk, literally, like rubber things, like golf balls and things, to try to plug up some of these holes, so that all the oil just wasn't going up with the mud.
That didn't work either. So, they finally stopped all of that nonsense and they said, OK, this just isn't working. They cut the top of this off, where it was leaking, and then they put the big cap on, the cap that was sucking oil up. Well, that didn't get all the oil either because it was coming out the sides. So, they took that off and now they finally have this good cap that has stopped the oil from going up. So, if there's no oil going up, there's no way this mud is going to blow out. It's going to go down. It has no other choice. It's much heavier than oil, much heavier than water.
It will stop the oil in its tracks by pushing down on the oil with the same force that the oil is trying to push up. When they're done with static kill, theoretically, you could take this top off and no oil would come out. I don't think they're going to do that. They're going to do the bottom kill and have this thing finally done for good -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, we can only hope. And then we can deal with the cleanup over the coming months and years. All right, Chad, thanks very much.
BLITZER: There's a new member, by the way, of the BP team. He's a similar face. He's no stranger to disaster. We're talking about Clinton FEMA Chief James Lee Witt. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stand by.
BLITZER: He has vowed to bring America to its knees one terrorist at a time. But he's an American-born terrorist, born in the United States, even went to college in Colorado. Could he be, though, the next bin Laden?
And the oil well could be sealed for good, if everything goes according to plan. That's a big if. What happens next? You're going to find out. My interview coming up with the man in charge of BP's oil recovery, that's coming up.
BLITZER: Even as it's trying right now to permanently seal the blown out well at the bottom of the gulf, BP faces a much longer term job at helping gulf coast communities recover from this disaster. For that, it's calling in a former chief of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Joining us now is James Lee Witt. He was the FEMA director under President Clinton. Thanks very much, James Lee, for coming in.
JAMES LEE WITT, CEO, WITT ASSOCIATES: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: Explain specifically what your job is for BP right now.
WITT: Well, I was down in Alabama -- I'm sorry, Biloxi, Mississippi, last week with Bob Dudley and also New Orleans. What they've tasked us to do is work with the states and local government, work with the chamber of commerce and the business communities and to develop a long-term recovery plan from the local up to the state all the way along the gulf. And our hope is that we can get this plan right. It's got to be right. And we will be there listening and working with them economically as well as environmentally.
BLITZER: So you've been hired -- your company, and you yourself have been hired by BP to do this, is that right?
BLITZER: When you say long-term, define long-term. How long of a term are we talking about, your involvement and the involvement of BP in helping these communities?
WITT: Well, as Mr. Dudley said last week in Biloxi, we will be here until we have this finished. And we, of course, will be there as long as they need us to get this done and hopefully that we will make a difference and help them to -- people in these communities that's been impacted to understand that BP is not going anywhere. And we will be there as long as the need is there to help them in this long- term recovery.
BLITZER: Help them with money? Is that the most important thing they're trying to do?
WITT: I think they're trying to let people know they're not going anywhere. They are there, and I know Bob Dudley has committed to be there as long as it took. And asked us to develop this long- term recovery plan, and it's really important to get this done to focus in the areas of impact, not only financially, but environmentally, and help them to put together a plan that will address each of these issues for the long-term.
BLITZER: All right, let me read to you what Congressman Ed Markey, a man you know, a Democrat of Massachusetts said on Saturday. "BP carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals." We're talking about the dispersants, "And the coast guard allowed them to do it. Either BP was lying to Congress or to the coast guard about how much dispersants they were shooting on to the ocean." Is it going to be your job to deal with the long-term potential negative consequences of all these poisonous chemicals seeping into the Gulf of Mexico?
WITT: I'm not sure about that, but we will be dealing with the environmental impact as mart of this long-term recovery. You know, it's -- my understanding is that Mr. Allen and EPA work very closely together and with BP. But we will be looking at all of the recovery efforts.
BLITZER: We know that Kenneth Feinberg is in charge of distributing the claims and there could be $20 billion as BP is setting aside in this escrow account. The money you're going to be giving communities is that separate from that $20 billion? Does that come elsewhere from BP's financial status?
WITT: Well first, we're not giving money. We're developing a plan that would be associated with where money would be spent. And also, we may be helping some local governments with some claims that have been outstanding that need to be looked at and see what the documentation is as well.
BLITZER: What's your biggest concern right now about the clean- up process for communities along the Gulf of Mexico?
WITT: Well, I think everybody is concerned. You know, the Gulf of Mexico is very important to our nation as a whole. And the food sources there. And we just want to make sure with BP that we get this right. And that we have a plan in place that will help them to know that they can recover, and, you know, you and I have seen this many times in disasters across the country. A lot of communities go through some really serious pain and anguish and suffering. And hopefully, the long-term recovery plan will help them minimize that. It is our hope.
BLITZER: James Lee Witt, good luck. A lot of folks are going to be counting on your help. Thanks for coming in.
WITT: Thank you Wolf.
BLITZER: Is he the new Bin Laden? He's a radical cleric, notorious for internet sermons that encourage holy war, and he just happens to be, get this, a United States citizen.
BLITZER: Pakistan's government says up to 1500 people may have been killed in floods that devastated the northwest. One official estimates that 100,000 people have already been hit with diseases due to a lack of clean water. In some areas, entire villages were swept away. A massive rescue and relief operation has been hampered as washed out bridges have left highways severed. Helicopters are dropping desperately needed food and fresh water. The U.S. has delivered tens of thousands of meals, and will bring in rescue boats, prefabricated bridges and water filtration units. Before and after satellite images show much higher water levels. Patches of blue indicate flooding. More rain fell on Pakistan today and enhanced monsoon activity is forecast over the next two weeks. We wish only good luck to all those folks in Pakistan suffering right now.
He's been called the new Bin Laden, a radical cleric whose sermons calling for holy war have won him a fervent following around the world. And the chief target of his venom is the country where he was born and educated. We're talking about the United States of America. CNN's Deborah Feyerick takes a look at a man viewed by U.S. authorities as very dangerous.
ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: That's what they're doing today. They're plotting to kill this religion.
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: From the safety of his hide out in Yemen, American Anwar al-Awlaki poses a threat to the United States, unlike any other.
LT. COL. ANTHONY SHAFFER, CENTER FOR ADVANCED DEFENSE STUDIES: I believe Anwar al-Awlaki represents the heir apparent to the overall al Qaeda global effort.
FEYERICK: Al-Awlaki, not yet 40, has vowed to bring America to its knees one terrorist at a time, an army of lone wolf insurgents.
SAJJAN GOHEL, ASIA PACIFIC FOUNDATION: He's an individual that's continuing the doctrine that people like Osama Bin Laden started.
FEYERICK: His credentials as an American citizen fluent in English and Arabic give him a unique authority among social media savvy wannabe jihadis.
AL-AWLAKI: And I eventually came to the conclusion of jihad is binding upon myself just as it is upon every other able Muslim.
FEYERICK: Counterterrorism expert Sajjan Gohel.
GOHEL: Al-Awlaki through his internet sermons are preying on these young people, encouraging them to go off to far away lands which they have no real relationship with, to link up with terrorist outfits.
AL-AWLAKI: The simple answer is America can not and will not win.
FEYERICK: As a spiritual guide ideologically condoning violent acts, this YouTube jihadist has inspired dozens of young men. In the last few years alleged plotters include the Times Square bomber, the young Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a U.S. jetliner over Detroit. The alleged Ft. Hood American, young American Somalis bent on jihad and others all following a man born 39 years ago in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Awlaki spent his teen years in Yemen before returning to study in the United States. He was 19 years old when he came here to Colorado State University to study engineering. He had received a $20,000 federal grant, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. Applying for his student visa to come here, he lied and told authorities he was born in Yemen, not here in the United States. Years later, that lie almost got him arrested. He was investigated for passport fraud following 9/11, but the arrest warrant was rescinded and al-Awlaki left America in 2002, never to return.
Yusuf Siddqui and Awlaki were good friends, taking the same classes and sharing a love of Islam.
YUSUF SIDDQUI, FORMER AWLAKI CLASSMATE: We were both passionate about being of the association and you know just combating stereotypes and misunderstanding and ignorance.
FEYERICK: But there was another side to the young al-Awlaki, rooted in the years he is spent in Yemen, Osama Bin Laden's ancestral homeland.
SIDDQUI: I think he was proud of the fact that he had been to Afghanistan and learned something about, you know, the mujahidin and maybe trained a little bit.
FEYERICK: Trained to fight soviets in a guerrilla war bank rolled by the United States. It's unclear whether that training spark al-Awlaki's radical path. However, his studies in leadership and human nature are giving him tools to develop a very powerful weapon. The message of global jihad online where he's even had a Facebook page.
Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: We're going to talk more about this with our national security contributor Fran Townsend. She's standing by.
And later, Republican darling Sarah Palin takes a swipe at President Obama. Critics are already calling her comments vulgar.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: An American cleric who calls for holy war against the United States, is he the next Bin Laden? Let's go to a closer look. Joining us is Fran Townsend. She's our national security analyst who was President George W. Bush's homeland security adviser. She also served in the Clinton justice department. She's currently an external board adviser to both the CIA and the homeland security department. Simple question, al-Awlaki, is he the next Bin Laden?
FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't think so. I mean I think that gives him way more prestige than he has inside the movement. Al-Awlaki is really think of him in sort of the western marketer. This is the guy because he speaks such fluent English, because he's from the United States, can speak to westerners whether they're in the U.K. or here in the United States with a great deal of authority. Some of that comes from his time here and his nationality and the rest of it comes from the fact that he's studied and preached both in Yemen and in Afghanistan.
BLITZER: The last three terrorist attempts here in the United States, the Ft. Hood massacre, if you will, and we just saw in Deborah Feyerick's piece, the Christmas day bomber, the airline bomber in Detroit, the Times Square bomber, they all had this connection with al-Awlaki.
TOWNSEND: That's right. And all three of them spoke fluent English. All of them had either time in the west or were from the west. All of these guys have that in common. And that's really Awlaki's appeal. That's the audience he preaches to and that he recruits and that he inspires. Make no mistake. He is dangerous for that reason. But I don't think he's - he doesn't set the ideological agenda of all of al Qaeda. He's not clearing all operations.
BLITZER: He's somewhere we believe in Yemen. Here's the question. He's a United States citizen. Is he a target for assassination by the United States?
TOWNSEND: This is a topic and an issue which has been hotly debated inside the United States national security community. No one will confirm whether or not he's on a predator drone target list, but we know for sure that someone with his statute that is accused and connected to all of these various plots is a prime target for such a list, and there are many of those inside the national security community that suggest that he is but won't confirm it.
BLITZER: But there have been other terrorist suspects, let's call them, in Yemen who have been targeted for assassination by U.S. drones in Yemen. Is that right?
TOWNSEND: That's right. Immediately after the 9/11 attack, there was a predator drone shot taken inside Yemen with the approval of the Yemeni government. And it killed an al Qaeda member. And so yes, that has happened before. We know there's precedent for it. And one suspects that Awlaki based on his own conduct and his own statements would be a prime candidate for such a list.
BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick's going to have more on this Awlaki tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much Fran.
Will ethics issues haunt the Democrats in November? Jack Cafferty is asking what you think. He's about to read your email. Stand by for that.
And the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin hits a sour note with her choice of words about President Obama. We'll explain right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's get back to Jack for the Cafferty file. Jack?
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rostenkowski was involved in the post office scandal there in the House of Representatives way back once upon a time. We checked it out.
The question this hour is will ethics issues haunt the Democrats come November's mid terms?
Ben in Boston writes, "Ethics of individual members of Congress will be small ball come November. Jobs and the economy will be the big issues for most voters. Subtext will be competence and the federal debt. Focus like a laser on jobs and the economy was right then for the Democrats to do and it'll be right in November for the Republicans to remember."
Steve in Philadelphia writes, "Ethics issues will certainly play a role in the Democrat's defeat in the upcoming elections but that role is minor compared to the pent-up anger and disgust toward Obama and the Democrats. What they have been shoving down the throats of the American people is nothing short of socialism and their radical agenda will be soundly rejected in November."
Anthony in New Jersey, "If the population has any memory left, they might remember that scandal effects both parties. I never pulled an opposite lever at the poll booth because some legislatures hands were caught in the cookie jar. When I vote I ask, what have you done for me and the country lately?"
Harry writes, "The ethics questions are simply the icing on the cake for those who were already going to vote for the Republicans. Isn't it always the case that those in power simply become useless and misinformed while those not in power begin to look good by default. It wasn't long ago that the shoe was on the other foot."
Tony writes, "I think both parties take turns with regard to ethics violations, extramarital affairs and just plain arrogance. It looks like it's the Democrat's turn this cycle."
And Jason in Hawaii, "The problems that we face now overshadow a couple of trials about corruption. Even as dumb as the American voting public is collectively, they are not going to be moved on a national level by this. Incumbent is a far dirtier word than the Democrat or Republican."
If you want to read more on this, find it on the blog at CNN.com/Caffertyfile. Wolf?
BLITZER: Good to have you back in THE SITUATION ROOM Jack.
CAFFERTY: Pleasure to be here my friend.
BLITZER: See you tomorrow.
It's a most unusual phrase to use when speaking about the president of the United States. Sarah Palin used it and now some critics think that she should wash her mouth with some soap.
BLITZER: All right. Let's take a look at some Hot Shots. In Moscow, two Russian paratroopers wave flags in celebration of paratroopers' day. In Beijing, a worker cleans the windows at a future fashion boutique. In New Zealand, dancers perform at a concert for the youth Olympic torch. And over at the white house, check it out, the Obama family dog, Bo, walks on the south lawn. Hot Shots, pictures worth a thousand words.
The former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin has stirred the pot again. This time it was a most unusual comment used in reference to the nation's commander in chief. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It takes cojones to do what Sarah Palin did. No, not write yet another note to herself on her palm on Fox News Sunday.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you have written on your hand?
SARAH PALIN: $3.8 trillion next ten years.
MOOS: What took nerve was using that certain word against the president. PALIN: January Brewer has the cojones that our president does not have.
MOOS: The next thing, it's on everyone's lips. Linguists say it's not a dirty word, just a vulgar word. To me when I say cojones, it sounds nice. Sarah Palin isn't the first to use it.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: This is not cojones, this is cowardice.
MOOS: Then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright was mocking Cuban air force pilots who shot down a civilian plane.
ALBRIGHT: It's the only Spanish word I know.
MOOS: Not even amigo? Author Robert Dallek says JFK used the word cojones in a taped conversation about Foreign Service staff.
ROBERT DALLEK, JFK AUTHOR: They have no cojones, no cojones. Now these guys in the military they have cojones. They don't have any brains.
MOOS: And Bob Woodward writes that President George Bush used it to praise British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And so does PITA. Mickey Rourke is on a PITA poster saying have the cojones to fix your dog. In no time, what Sarah Palin uses to haul her cojones was on a t-shirt. A blogger suggested Palin can't even spell the word. Print that on your t-shirt. Actually, the word is commonly misspelled c-a instead of c-o. This means drawers in Spanish as in chest of drawers. Linguist and author Geoffrey Nunberg says it's a brilliant word for Sarah Palin to use.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG, LINGUIST, U.C. BERKELEY: It reinforces all the conservative stereotypes if not wimpy, wussy effeminate liberals. They take enormous delight imagining how this sort of thing drives liberals up a wall.
MOOS: Unless it's a supporter praising Hillary Clinton. And then there was James Carville's earthy analysis of who is tougher, Hillary or Barack Obama? She gave him one of her cojones. They both have two.
Let me get this straight. She has three. She gives him one so he has two, right? Talk about getting all balled up.
Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: Remember you can always follow what's going on behind the scenes in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm on Twitter. You can get my tweets at twitter.com/wolfblitzercnn, wolfblitzercnn all one word.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
JOHN KING USA starts right now.