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President Obama Meets With Republicans; Interview With New York Congressman Peter King

Aired November 30, 2010 - 18:00   ET



Happening now: Hillary Clinton hits the road for meetings with world leaders, she will have some explaining to do about the embarrassing leaks of secret U.S. documents. I will speak with Congressman Peter King, who says those leaks are more than just embarrassing. He calls them -- and I'm quoting him now -- "an invitation to murder."

President Obama tells Republicans he should have reached out to them, but now he will have to share power with them -- what both sides are saying after a political summit over at the White House.

And after surveying the troops, the Pentagon makes a striking decision about its own policy on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world, breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.

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

We begin this hour once again with WikiLeaks. The damage, U.S. officials say, is enormous and the headaches only just beginning.

Let's go to CNN's diplomatic correspondent, Jill Dougherty. She's over at the State Department working the story for us.

Jill, what a lot of officials are worried about is that foreign governments are about to find out who some very sensitive U.S. sources are, and who those sources who cooperated with the United States could be in deep trouble. What are you hearing?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, that is -- they are bracing this week to get more reaction from international governments literally around the world, because a lot of those documents had to be digested by those governments.

I personally spoke with some embassies who said precisely that, that they were looking through those, trying to figure out whether it matched what they had, and then also what are the implications.

And Wolf, one of the things is, it is almost like three- dimensional chess. You have the United States and you also have other countries. And they are all in this together at this point.

But, Wolf, the most important thing right now, the leaked cable that hits closest to home for Secretary Clinton is one that allegedly shows that her office directed U.S. diplomats to collect personal information on foreign diplomats at the United Nations, including things like credit card numbers, frequent flyer numbers, et cetera.

Now, some critics claim that that is tantamount to spying. The State Department says that it was simply a post-9/11, as they put it, wish list that some -- from intelligence agencies -- that some diplomats actually ignored. That means diplomats -- the State Department insists it was not spying.

All of that leads to the latest development in the WikiLeaks saga.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange takes aim directly at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, telling "TIME" magazine, it could be time for her to resign.

JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: She should resign, if it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage at the United Nations, in violation of the international covenants to which the U.S. has signed up.

DOUGHERTY: The State Department vehemently denies its diplomats are spying on anyone.

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Nothing in any document that is allegedly in the tranche of WikiLeaks or in the possession of WikiLeaks changed the role of any diplomat anywhere in the world.

DOUGHERTY: Crowley calls Assange an anarchist. A former senior State Department official and Clinton supporters tells CNN, calls for Clinton to resign are "part of an organized campaign to wreak havoc on American diplomacy, on Secretary Clinton and first and foremost on President Obama."

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I of course have been reaching out to governments and leaders around the world over the last week.

DOUGHERTY: It will be awkward, arriving in Kazakstan to meet with the country's president, the subject of one leaked cable describing his lavish lifestyle and saying his defense minister seems to enjoy -- quote -- "drinking himself into a stupor."

And there could be more challenges for Clinton trying to smooth over some salty descriptions of world leaders, like Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his voluptuous blonde Ukrainian nurse, German Chancellor Angela Merkel described as risk-averse and rarely creative, or questions from one cable, how is Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner managing her nerves and anxiety? (END VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY: But Clinton supporters say that actually she is the perfect person to deal with this perfect storm of WikiLeaks.

In fact, Wolf, they say that she knows a lot of these leaders. She's known them for years, and if anyone can smooth ruffled feathers and assure them of a relationship, it is Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty at the State Department for us -- thanks, Jill.

WikiLeaks says it's come under electronic attack aimed at making the Web site unavailable to users. The site also experienced a denial of service attack on Sunday, just as it was publishing the first of some 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

Such attacks involve flooding a Web site with requests for data. WikiLeaks recovered from Sunday's disruption and resume publishing U.S. documents. The effects of today's disruption at this point are not clear.


BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, Congressman Peter King, Republican of New York. He is expected to become the next chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Can you assure the American people right now that what Private 1st Class Manning allegedly did could no longer happen right now?

KING: No, Wolf, I can't. And that is really up to the administration to demonstrate what they have done, the steps they have taken, the procedures they have implemented to ensure us that this cannot happen again.

We will be getting briefings, top-secret briefings, over the next several days, laying out what happened and what has been done to prevent it. But based on what I have seen so far, I am not convinced that everything has been done, nor am I convinced that the administration is sufficiently serious about going after WikiLeaks.

BLITZER: Because someone was asleep at the switch. When a private 1st class allegedly downloads hundreds of thousands of documents into a thumb drive, if you will, from a computer at a military base outside of Baghdad, who is supposed to be protecting those security -- who is supposed to be in charge of that?

KING: Wolf, I would say, at this point, it would have to be someone in the Pentagon. It would have to be the Defense Department which has ultimate responsibility for this.

And it is not just Private 1st Class Manning that had access. My understanding is, it's hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. government had access to this and could have done the same thing.


BLITZER: You suspect he is the individual who downloaded these documents and provided them to WikiLeaks.

KING: Right.

BLITZER: Is there any evidence someone else did it?

KING: Oh, no. All the evidence that I'm aware points toward him.

I'm just saying how much worse this even could have been, and that, besides Manning, there were hundreds of thousands of others who could have done it, which, to me, makes the negligence that much worse.

No, I am virtually certain that Manning was the prime mover here and he's the one who is responsible.

BLITZER: I guess what I am trying to ask, Congressman, who is to blame for this security blunder?

KING: Yes, I would say, right now, from what we know, it has to be the Pentagon. The Defense Department has ultimate responsibility, because my understanding is that these were all put in the Pentagon. That's where all the files were. That's where they were, and that's where they were taken down from.

So, obviously, there should have been -- as I see it, there should have been much more precautions taken. There should have been some flags there. There should have been some failsafe procedure in place, which apparently was not.

BLITZER: And what I hear you saying is, you are not sure it is even in place right now.

KING: I'm not certain.

Again, I will be getting a briefing tomorrow, and we will learn more then, but I am not certain, again, how this administration is reacting, either stopping this from happening ever again in the future, or even as far as prosecutions and going after the people responsible.

BLITZER: You have suggested -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- that Private 1st Class Manning and Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, have blood on their hands. Do you have any evidence as of right now that someone has actually died as a result of all these leaks?

KING: No, but I have no doubt that someone can or will die because of these leaks.

I mean, the information that is out there is just devastating, without going into all the details. But it has exposed sources that we have, people that we have. It has compromised our military. It's also put people at risk in foreign countries, both our people and other people that are working with us.

And when I say blood on their hands, it is because they have put our people in a situation where their lives are at risk because of the actions that both Manning and WikiLeaks have taken.

BLITZER: But, based on the postmortem that you have been privy to, the briefings you've received so far as the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, there is not one example that you've been given of someone actually dying as a result of this?

KING: Wolf, I will be getting the first real briefing tomorrow.

But I'm saying, even if there is no one who was actually killed or attacked or put in danger yet, the fact is the information that is out there, it is an invitation to murder. It is an invitation to killing. It is an invitation to really expose and hurt good people who are working both as Americans and also people, sources and resources that we have in other countries who put their lives on the line for but. And they are now at risk.

BLITZER: You have suggested that WikiLeaks be designated a foreign terrorist organization, like al Qaeda. Does that mean the U.S. should take out, assassinate, kill Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks?

KING: Well, my own belief is that he is an enemy combatant. But I think I would right now be satisfied if the government prosecuted him under the Espionage Act and also declare WikiLeaks to be a foreign terrorist organization, which give us the opportunity to seize their assets and also prosecute anyone who helps them in any way.

BLITZER: Do you have any evidence, any reason to believe the administration will do that?

KING: Wolf, I have no evidence that the administration is doing anything. They have known for months and months and months what WikiLeaks is up to.

And, yesterday, Eric Holder certainly didn't -- I didn't sense any note of anxiety, any intensity. He's saying, they're looking into it, they are exploring, but no real evidence that they are doing anything serious, as far as going after WikiLeaks.

And, so, again, they may be, but I'm not aware of it, and certainly, from watching Eric Holder and the president, for that matter, I did not see any sense of emergency of what a catastrophic event this is.

Today, I met with a very prominent official, a cabinet official from one of our closest allies, and they are shocked by this -- not by the personal remarks that are made. That, diplomats and politicians, we're used to that kind of stuff. The media says bad things about us all the time.

But, seriously, what they're talking about is compromising assets, compromising people that are working with us, disclosing strategies and policies, which to the naked eye or to the average person, even to the average follower of politics, of government, may not realize how significant a particular fact is.

This person I was talking to said he thought it was the worst diplomatic catastrophe that anyone has ever suffered. And this is a very close ally.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman, we will leave it at that.

Thanks so much for joining us. Good luck in your next responsibility as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

KING: Thank you, Wolf. Wolf, thank you very much. It's always a pleasure. Thank you.


BLITZER: Let's get a closer look now at Private 1st Class Bradley Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents.

He had a small-town childhood in Oklahoma. His father served in the U.S. military. His parents separated when he was a teenager. The slightly-built Manning was taunted first for being something of a computer nerd and later for being gay. A friend Manning met at a gay bar says the abuse continued when Manning joined the U.S. Army and had a significant impact.


"TIM," FRIEND OF BRADLEY Manning: In my opinion, I feel that sexuality, his own sexuality, and what had happened to him in the military, coupled with the policy of the military, played a significant role in the reason as to why he did what he did.


BLITZER: So far, Manning has only been officially accused of leaking a classified military video. We can't be sure of any motivations, but's Ashley Fantz has spent months digging into Manning's background.


ASHLEY FANTZ, CNN.COM CORRESPONDENT: He was affiliated with a lot of left-leaning political organizations, everything that sort of supported equal rights for gays. And he was certainly for repealing the don't ask, don't tell policy, according to his Facebook page.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: There is major news, by the way, today on the military's don't ask, don't tell policy.

Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is standing by just ahead with that.

The future of Social Security, Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: As we await the final recommendations of President Obama's deficit commission, one Democratic-led policy group is out with a rather bold idea.

Bloomberg News reports a think tank titled Third Way wants to trim or eliminate Social Security benefits for what they consider high-income retirees.

The plan is to boost benefits, monthly benefits, for poorer retirees, while reducing them on a scale starting with individuals who have $150,000 in outside income or couples with $250,000.

Social Security benefits would be eliminated altogether for people making more than $200,000 or couples making more than $400,000 in income. The group says people who don't need Social Security shouldn't get it.

That is despite the fact that these people have paid into or may have paid into Social Security throughout their working lives.

Third Way also wants to raise the retirement age, limit cost-of- living increases -- there haven't been any of those in the last couple of years -- and help young workers create private retirement accounts.

Third Way says its proposal will come out after the deficit panel's report and is meant as a kind of cover for Congressional Democrats to support unpopular deficit-cutting measures.

Republicans have argued for raising the retirement age, as well as limiting benefits for wealthier retirees. But most Democrats don't want to touch Social Security at all when it comes to addressing the $13 trillion-plus national debt.

However, some Democrats do support cutting benefits. Senator Kent Conrad put it -- quote -- "Those who say they don't want to touch it aren't dealing with reality" -- unquote.

As for that deficit commission, like we said yesterday here in "The Cafferty File," don't bet on them. The panel now says it's going to delay the vote that was set for tomorrow until Friday, although they still plan to release the report tomorrow -- whatever that means.

Here's the question: Should people earning more than $150,000 be denied Social Security benefits?

Go to Post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

Don't ask, don't tell, the Pentagon asked the troops what they think about gays serving openly in the military. And does it turn around on its own policy?

Plus, rude behavior from the royals. You won't believe what those leaked WikiLeaks documents may reveal about Britain's Prince Andrew.

And leaders of President Obama's bipartisan debt commission are deeply worried.


ERSKINE BOWLES, CO-CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL COMMISSION ON FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY AND REFORM: This deficit and this debt is like a cancer, and it's going to destroy our country.



BLITZER: The Pentagon is now concluding that its don't ask, don't tell for gays serving openly in the military could be repealed right now with little negative impact. That is based on a survey among thousands and thousands of troops.

Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He's got more details -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, after months of Pentagon officials saying, hold on, slow down, wait for this report, they are now saying, hurry up, Congress, and vote on this, because a federal court may beat you to it.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): After a year of study, the Pentagon's bottom line: The military won't suffer if gay troops serve openly.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It would not harm military readiness.

LAWRENCE: And Defense Secretary Robert Gates says overturning don't ask, don't tell...

GATES: Would not be the wrenching, traumatic change that many have feared and predicted.

LAWRENCE: More than 100,000 troops took the survey. Nearly 70 percent say they have already served with homosexual troops. And when asked, what was your experience with gay or lesbian troops, over 90 percent said their unit's ability to work together was very good, good or not bad.

The Marines and combat units opposed the repeal in much higher numbers, as many as 40 to 60 percent. If the policy was overturned, legally, the military could give same-sex partners some, but not all of the benefits other spouses receive.

But there would be no segregation when it comes to barracks.

JEH JOHNSON, CO-CHAIRMAN, DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL STUDY: Any berthing or billeting assignments or the designation of separate bathroom facilities based on sexual orientation should be prohibited.

LAWRENCE: But those who support keeping the policy say there is no reason to repeal it in the middle of two wars.

ELAINE DONNELLY, CENTER FOR MILITARY READINESS: This is a political promise made by the president to LGBT activist groups. He is determined to deliver on that promise, at the expense of the armed services.

LAWRENCE: Elaine Donnelly of the Center For Military Readiness says the study shows that significant numbers of troops have moral and religious concerns about homosexuality. And she wonders, where is the part about making the military better?

DONNELLY: If you take a microscope to that report, you will not find one word about how repealing the law would benefit the military, not one word, because there is no benefit to the armed forces.


LAWRENCE: Well, Gates says the benefit to Congress lifting the ban is it gives the military time to work the new policy into units all over the world.

He argues that if the Senate does not vote soon, a federal court may might a final ruling that it's unconstitutional and force the Pentagon to change everything on the spot.

Now, opponents in Congress will say this issue is too important to rush and they need time to look at it, same way the Pentagon took a year to put its study together -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Chris, thanks very much.

More on this story coming up.

President Obama and Republican leaders come together over at the White House, but can they find common ground on extending Bush era tax cuts? We will tell you what the president says he wishes he had done much sooner.

And, first, it was the body scans and the pat-downs, but now there's something else you will have to clear before you get on your next plane. Stay with us. We will explain right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: President Obama makes a rare admission to Republican leaders. After a long-awaited House summit, can they learn to work together?

And rude remarks by a British royal -- what those leaked U.S. documents reveal about Prince Andrew.

Plus, atheists put up a holiday billboard, and the Catholic League answers with one of its own. Jeanne Moos finds it "Moost Unusual."


BLITZER: At a long-awaited political summit over at the White House today, President Obama told Republicans he should have reached out to them, but now he will have to share power with them. For starters, both sides will try to find an agreement on extending the Bush era tax cuts.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, who is working the story for us.

Lots of positive comments by both sides emerging from the meeting, but what's the reality? What are you finding out, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the reality is to be determined, but the president did promise this would be the first of many meetings, even at Camp David, and though both he and the GOP leaders made a point of noting the genuine philosophical differences between the two parties, they also bent over backwards to at least talk bipartisanship.


BASH (voice-over): After all the partisan rancor, it was striking to hear this.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I thought it was a productive meeting. I thought that people came to it with a spirit of trying to work together.

BASH: This nearly two-hour White House meeting was the first time the president sat down with Republican leaders since the Democrat's election day drubbing. And although these players have been in place for two years, the president and GOP leaders don't really know each other well at all. Republicans said the president told them he'd request that.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), INCOMING MAJORITY LEADER: I was encouraged by the president's remarks regarding his perhaps not having reached out enough to us in the last session, and that this meeting was the beginning of a series in which he hoped that we could work together in a different fashion.

BASH: But for all the bipartisan promises to cooperate, the reality is this much-anticipated meeting produced no agreement on any pressing issues that divide them, from tax cuts to unemployment benefits to eradication of the START treaty.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER-ELECT: We had a very nice meeting today. Of course, we've had a lot of very nice meetings. The question is can we find the common ground the American people expect us to find?

BASH: They did agree to set up a negotiating team on expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The president assigned his treasury secretary and budget director. Republicans and Democrats each tapped a senator and a congressman for the tax-cut talks. Yet, despite the stated desire to compromise, getting there won't be easy.

BOEHNER: Stopping all the looming tax hikes and cutting spending would, in fact, create jobs and get the economy moving again.

OBAMA: Republican leaders want to permanently extend tax cuts, not only to middle-class families, but also to some of the wealthiest Americans at the same time. And here we disagree.


BASH: Now at one point in the session, President Obama pulled the bipartisan group of lawmakers into a private meeting without any staff, where one lawmaker said, let's not duplicate the old Washington spin cycle, racing out to the microphones to suggest the other side isn't cooperating. Well, Wolf, today, they all abided by that. Whether or not that will translate into compromise on major policy issues and problems facing the American -- the American people, that's another question, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people aren't holding their breath on that one, Dana. Thank you very much.

Let's discuss with CNN's John King. He's the host of "JOHN KING USA" that airs right at the top of the hour, and our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

I know you're talking to your sources, Gloria. What are you hearing about what really went on behind closed doors?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's kind of like the first day of school, Wolf. Everybody was on really good behavior, and when you talked to Democrats, they said, you know, the Republicans seem more reasonable than they used to be when they didn't control one house of Congress. You talk to Republicans. They said, "You know what? The Democrats seemed a little less arrogant, and they understand that they have to deal with us."

And the Republicans I spoke to today said that they believe they're headed on the right track for what they want on the tax cuts, which would be a temporary extension and so -- on all levels.

But, you know, generally, Wolf, any time they pull the staff out for 35 minutes and talk together alone, I think it's a -- it's a good sign of goodwill, at least.

BLITZER: Usually in the past, John, we've covered a lot of these meetings. In the weeks leading up, they negotiate at least some announcement of a breakthrough on something that they can tell the world, "Well, we reached a deal on the START treaty" or "We reached a deal on extending unemployment benefits," "We reached a deal on the budget for the -- the spending for the current level" -- the tax. They didn't reach a deal on anything.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: They reached a deal to be nice to each other today.

BORGER: Right.

KING: That's the only deal they have reached, and that is a very important point to make, that on the big substance, this tax cut negotiation, extending unemployment benefits. Can they vote to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" before the end of the year? What about immigration policy? What about the big recommendations, the harder issues of deficit spending. There are huge philosophical differences.

But to Gloria's point, you have a new Republican speaker in John Boehner in just a couple of weeks, and a Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell in the Senate, the two most powerful Republicans in the country. They barely know and do not trust the Democratic president of the United States. And the feeling is mutual.

So if they can spend a little quality time together -- this might sound corny to somebody out there -- that's a good thing. They can at least start the process so when they get close to cutting a deal on the deficit, they can have that private phone call. Now, that is months down the road, the big-picture things, but if they can start to erase the trust -- trust deficit in Washington, that will be progress.

BLITZER: The president did hint he's going to invite them all to come up to Camp David and spend some quality time with some recreation.

BORGER: I wouldn't send out the save-the-date card yet on that. But...

KING: No "Kumbaya"?

BORGER: And they're talking about doing it in the new year, and Harry Reid apparently has never been up to Camp David, so maybe the president will do that. I asked one Republican today specifically about that: would you go or would you feel that this is kind of a set- up? And the answer was, "No, I'd be happy to go."

BLITZER: And spending on salaries for government civilian employees that the president announced yesterday, that's a Republican idea. Why did he announce it in advance? Why didn't he hold that as a negotiating ploy?

KING: A lot of Democrats are making that complaint: "Mr. President, why are you conceding things, making concessions, and not getting anything in return?"

But on this one, the White House decided to be the locomotive, not the caboose, in a sense that the Republicans were going to do this. And they could have come out of the meeting today saying, "This is what we want, Mr. President." They definitely, the House Republicans, when they control the House will put it in their budget anyway. The White House made a tactical decision to get out in front and say, "Hey, we're going to make a down payment. A modest down payment, a small down payment, but we'll make a down payment on trying to bring some fiscal sanity to Washington. Let's go from there."

BLITZER: John is going to have a lot more coming up at the top of the hour on this. Guys, thanks very much.

Britain's Prince Andrew apparently had some harsh words about Americans' geography skills. Stand by. Leaked diplomatic documents reveal a raw look at a royal. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: This is just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. At the request of the Swedish court, Interpol has just issued an international warrant, known as a red notice, for the arrest of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in connection with alleged sex crimes.

The Stockholm criminal court last week issued an international arrest warrant for Assange on probable cause, saying he's suspected of rape, sexual molestation, and illegal use of force. The red notice goes out to all 188 member countries of Interpol. It seeks the provisional arrest of a fugitive with an eye towards extradition to the nation that issued the underlying arrest warrant. We're on top of this story for you.

Meanwhile, Britain's Prince Andrew may have some explaining to do. The royals are certainly famous for being silent, stoic, very private, but WikiLeaks' release of diplomatic documents is revealing some rather undiplomatic remarks. Let's bring in Brian Todd, who's got some access to what's going on.

What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these cables give us one of those rare inside views into how people like the royals speak when they're completely unguarded. It's Prince Andrew who raises the most eyebrows in one set of these cables for remarks he made in the presence of a U.S. ambassador.


TODD (voice-over): Those tightly-fastened windows at Buckingham Palace wedged opened up by WikiLeaks, shedding light on some apparently boorish behavior. Newly-leaked diplomatic cables reveals that Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, made comments that a U.S. ambassador said verged on the rude. During a lunch in Kyrgyzstan in 2008, the ambassador observed, one businessman complained that only those willing to engage in corruption could make money there. The ambassador wrote that Prince Andrew laughed uproariously, saying, "All of this sounds exactly like France." We got no comment from the French embassy in Washington.

At one point in the lunch, the ambassador cabled, Prince Andrew railed against, quote, "these (expletive) journalists, who poke their noses everywhere." When told that American investment in Kyrgyzstan was similar in size to Britain's investment there, the duke said, "No surprise there. The Americans don't understand geography. Never have."

Prince Andrew was there as a special trade representative for his country.

HUGO VICKERS, AUTHOR AND ROYAL HISTORIAN: Well, it's always a problem, because the prince, who is going out representing Britain, obviously, he has many advantages, because people will come to meet him and he can highlight all sorts of things.

The disadvantage of these sort of communications when he is overheard, quoted or seemed to perhaps be a bit petulant or a bit of a loose cannon and say things which, perhaps, on reflection he would prefer were not made public.

TODD: Hugo Vicker, author and historian on the royals, said Prince Andrew does a good job as a trade rep for Britain, but he says Andrew's words generally don't carry as much weight as those of his older brother.

Prince Charles, meanwhile, has his own perception problem. Questions about whether he's got the gravitas to succeed his mother. One cable last year from a senior commonwealth official said, "Prince Charles does not command the same respect as the Queen."

I asked former State Department official Heather Connolly about that.

(on camera) Does this carry significant weight, given that the person who said this is the head of the agency dealing with all the commonwealth territories?

HEATHER CONNOLLY, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It carries weight because he's a senior official, but please, put this in greater context. This was a conversation between diplomats and officials. It provided an anecdotal piece of information, but it's certainly not something that would cause a change in policy or a change in movement or action.


TODD: And in other diplomatic cables posted on WikiLeaks, Prince Charles comes out looking like a very key player on the world stage. He and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, are commended for repairing Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia. That was after five British citizens were imprisoned and tortured there and after a fraud investigation into British business dealings with the Saudis, Wolf.

BLITZER: Has the royal family said anything about all of this involving Prince Charles and Prince Andrew?

TODD: CNN has reached out to a British royal family spokesman for comment. We were told the family will not comment on any of this for the record, but Britain's Sky News did pick up some response from what it said were sources close to Prince Andrew, who defended him at least on the remark of France.

And one of them said, quote, "This is a role he feels passionately about, as a trade representative, and unfortunately, occasionally, this results in the use of colorful language, just because he cares about it, and it's the truth."

I'm not sure how caring about your role as a trade rep plays into an insult on France, but there you have it.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks, Brian. Thanks very much.

Tensions are simmering right now in the Korean Peninsula. An island is in ruin. The U.S. has a message for China. Will Beijing listen?

Plus, a billboard stoking lots of controversy.


BLITZER: Kate Bolduan is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Kate, Washington will soon host a high-level meeting on the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. What's going on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. U.S. officials will meet with South Korean and Japanese ministers in Washington next month to try to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They've been at a boiling point since North Korea shelled a South Korean island last week, killing four people. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says Pyongyang's ally and chief trading partner, China, has, quote, "a duty to press upon the North Koreans that their belligerent behavior must come to an end."

Also, the trial of the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart will resume tomorrow after defendant Brian David Mitchell apparently suffered a seizure in court. CNN affiliate KSTU reports Mitchell suddenly dropped to the floor and began to wail. An ambulance was called, and paramedics examined him. His stepdaughter says Mitchell has had seizures before, and she doesn't think there's any reason for him to fake one now.

Other stories we're watching. Take -- gosh, you've got to take a look at this one. This is a remarkable rescue out of China. A little boy somehow managed to get himself trapped inside a -- yes, a washing machine. He couldn't even move. A team of rescuers carefully examined him and slowly took the machine apart. Then they used a chain -- a chainsaw to free the boy. And good news, he is fine.

But, how did he get himself in there, Wolf? And why?

BLITZER: Little boys can do a lot. You'd be amazed. Thanks very much. Fortunately, he's just fine.

Taking on Christmas. Atheists say they get blamed for ruining the holiday season. Now they're battling it out with a billboard.


DAVID SILVERMAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ATHEISTS INC.: We know God is fake, and we know Christianity has -- Christianity stole Christmas. We know this.



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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: "Should people earning more than $150,000 in income be denied Social Security benefits?"

Roger in South Carolina writes: "A lot of us who have paid into Social Security at the top rates over the years made concrete retirement plans based, in part, on our return of these enforced savings in our later years. If there's going to be Social Security means testing, its onset ought to be delayed sufficiently to allow future retirees to acquire enough of a nest egg so that Social Security becomes irrelevant."

Annie writes: "No, but the cap ought to be lifted on contributions to Social Security. As it currently stands, average people have Social Security taken out of 100 percent of their income. Wealthy people do not. Eliminate the cap, collect Social Security payments on 100 percent of everybody's income. Not only would the fund become more viable; it would probably mean payments to recipients would go up, and the standard of living of elderly citizens would improve."

Sean in Michigan says: "Well, it seems according to Obama, these people are too well off and therefore, should be paying for everybody else's retirement, unemployment, health care, et cetera. So I guess the answer currently would be no. But that might change in January."

Carol writes: "Most Social Security beneficiaries earn less than $25,000 a year. My income is in that range. My Social Security after taxes, $800 a month. It pays my house and car insurance, property taxes, and buys a few groceries. Many people I know have only Social Security. At $150,000, Social Security would not mean a whole lot and would not cause homelessness or hunger or lack of medical care as it would with those making less than $25,000. The Republicans want to cut Social Security, let them cut the wealthy who don't need it."

Eric in Houston writes: "Absolutely not. If they paid Social Security taxes for years, probably the maximum under the promise they'd receive the benefits, then changing the deal now would be unconscionable. They could be phased out using a sliding reduction percentage based on age, however."

And Rick writes: "By the time my kids begin drawing Social Security, it'll probably take $150,000 a year to get by."

If you want to read more about this, you'll find it on my blog:

BLITZER: Rick may be right on that, Jack. Thank you. Thanks very much.

Is a battle shaping up between President Obama and Congress over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Stay tuned for "JOHN KING USA" right at the top of the hour. There's much more on this coming up.

And the Catholic League strikes back at a billboard calling the birth of Jesus a myth with its own sign of the times.


BLITZER: Drivers in New York are doing a double take. It's the most unusual battle of the billboards this holiday season. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's not just light at the end of this tunnel. There's a battle of the billboards on the Jersey side, the atheist holiday billboard: "You know it's a myth. This season celebrate reason."

SILVERMAN: Well, we do know it's a myth. We do know that the invisible magic man in the sky is a myth. We do know this.

(MUSIC: "Joy to the World")

BILL DONOHUE, PRESIDENT, CATHOLIC LEAGUE: They must be reading too much Wikipedia or something. I don't know where they get these ideas.

MOOS: When the Catholic League saw the atheists' billboard...

DONOHUE: Is there anybody going to respond? Are we just pinatas? Are we just going to accept this kind of thing as a doormat?

MOOS: The Catholic League put up its own billboard on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel: "You know it's real. This season, celebrate Jesus."

SILVERMAN: We know God is fake, and we know Christianity is -- Christianity stole Christmas. We know this.

DONAHUE: So they believe that we came from nothing, a big bang theory or is it the King Kong theory, that we're all a bunch of apes? We fell down, kerplunk one day. I don't know. If he wants to believe in that fairy tale, he has every right to do so.

(MUSIC: "Let it Snow")

MOOS (on camera): The roads into and out of the Lincoln Tunnel are considered prime billboard space. The atheists say they spent over $20,000 to put up their billboard for a month.

(voice-over) Polls show 15 percent of Americans claim no religion, and the atheists think a lot more of the folks driving by are what they call closet atheists.

SILVERMAN: We need those people to come out of the closet.

MOOS (on camera): Forget atheists coming out of the closet; they'll be coming out of the tunnel.

(MUSIC: "Let It Snow")

SILVERMAN: Because God and Santa Claus are the same thing. They're -- you know, he sees you when you're sleeping; he knows when you're awake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

DONAHUE: They believe in nothing. They stand for nothing. They think they came from nothing.


MOOS: As for an atheist's view of the nativity on the Catholic billboard...

(on camera) Who are these people?

SILVERMAN: I don't know. This guy looks a little like me, actually.

MOOS (voice-over): This season, instead of just ads for watches and electronics, they're selling religion, or the lack thereof.

SILVERMAN: Happy holidays, Bill.

DONAHUE: Merry Christmas to the American Atheists.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos...

(MUSIC: "We Wish You a Merry Christmas")


BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jeanne.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.