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Deadly Fire Blazes in Israel; President Obama Visits Afghanistan; Jobless Rate Rises

Aired December 3, 2010 - 17:58   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: President Obama has offered condolences and help to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel is fighting a deadly wildfire. The president says the United States is sending experts and supplies to aid to international effort to battle the blaze.

CNN got a firsthand look at the flames from someone who barely managed to escape.


KEVIN FLOWER, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): As firefighters on the ground struggled for a second day to contain Israel's worst ever fire, planes from nearby countries dropped thousands of gallons of water from the skies above. And as emergency responders struggled to gain control of the situation, investigators say they have not ruled out arson as a possible cause of the fire.

The scale and size of the blaze was something that Israel's emergency responders were not ready for. I think that there is a problem here. Israel did not prepare itself in any intensive manner for this type of forest fire says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One of the reasons this fire has gotten so out of control is because of the weather. High and unpredictable winds coupled with the worst drought in recent memory has created perfect conditions for the rapid spread of this blaze.

Photographer Roni Sofar saw the frightening and deadly speed of the fire up close. Driving with a convoy of cars, including a bus carrying prison cadets on their way to assist in the evacuation efforts, they rounded a corner and came upon this, a wall of fire.

RONI SOFAR, PHOTOGRAPHER: In less than 30 seconds later, the bus was on fire. I mean, people died one minute after that.

FLOWER: Ronnie managed to turn the car around in the process picking up three passengers from the bus.

SOFAR: In my back window, my rear window, I saw that the flames were getting through bus. I was like four or five meters away from the bus. Suddenly, I saw that in front of us, because we were heading up, there was another wall of fire.

That is my first time in my 22 years as a photographer that I felt I am going to die now, not in a minute, but it was now. Death is now. I guess that the death was only thing that could or can cause a person to decide to drive through fire.

FLOWER: Sofar and his passengers made it through the fire, and the rest of those on the bus and the two other cars did not. Some 40 people perished in the flames.

SOFAR: I was actually for a split of a second there debating whether I should stay with the other two police cars that were there and a bus and wait for rescue, or drive through the fire. And I made that decision. And they stayed. And they are dead.

FLOWER: A chance decision that saved four lives.

Kevin Flower, CNN, Atlit, Israel.



Happening now: President Obama catches the world by surprise, flying unannounced into the Afghanistan war zone. He says things are improving. We will get a reality check and explain why his meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, turned into a mere phone call.

Also, a surprise of a different kind, unwelcome new jobless members. They're worse than anyone feared, just as millions of Americans are in danger right now of losing their unemployment checks.

And conspiracy theories are swirling around WikiLeaks. Who is really behind the release of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents?

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

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

An unexpected visit by the U.S. commander in chief to a war zone, President Obama catching U.S. troops in Afghanistan by surprise. He spoke to almost 4,000 of them over at the Bagram Airfield, thanking them for their service.

But not everything on this trip went as planned. Bad weather kept Mr. Obama from traveling to Kabul for a planned meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. The two leaders tried to talk by videoconference, but couldn't because of technical problems. Instead, they simply spoke on the phone.

But American troops were the focus of the president's visit. He praised them and their mission.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum. And that's what you're doing. You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today, we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans, have a chance to build a more hopeful future.

We said a year ago, that we're going to build the capacity of the Afghan people, and that's what you're doing, meeting our recruitment targets, training Afghan forces, partnering with those Afghans who want to build a stronger and more stable and more prosperous Afghanistan.


BLITZER: We are covering all angles of the president's surprise visit.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is in Kabul. We also have our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, stand by, our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, over at the State Department, our national security contributor Fran Townsend. She was the homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. She's a member of the Homeland Security External Advisory Board. And our White House correspondent Dan Lothian.

Let's go to Afghanistan first and get Nic Robertson to do a little reality check for us.

Nic, we heard the president say things are improving. You have been there for a long time. You were even there on day one of 9/11. Are things improving based on your eyewitness account?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If you take what the president said, reversing the momentum of the Taliban where the surge has been strongest, in Kandahar, which is a key test of the surge, yes, security has improved in that city.

The Taliban have been pushed out to a larger degree. But force commander there, Colonel (INAUDIBLE) would like to thin his troops out in the city now, move them to other areas to face off against the Taliban in their expected offensive in spring.

Can he do that? Well, that depends on the Afghan government. And he is not getting the support he wants there. So, a lot of questions remain. warlords getting top jobs even now in Kandahar, so a lot of concern about building those security forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, you just came back from Afghanistan. You had a chance to speak to General Petraeus. Is he really confident that things are going to work out there?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, he believes that right now he is making progress, as Nic said, especially in Southern Afghanistan, believes he has broken some of the Taliban momentum, has gone after key leaders, their IED factories, their safe havens. The question, Wolf, is the progress enduring? Will it last? Is it only as good as it gets when the U.S. troops are there? In Eastern Afghanistan, troops on the ground told us they see no break in the Taliban's ability to keep generating fighters, weapons, and attacks, that the Taliban in many places just keep coming -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me bring in Jill in to this conversation.

Jill, you have gone through a lot of these diplomatic cables showing an enormous strain between the U.S. and the Karzai regime in Afghanistan, a lot of corruption, a lot of fear that things are not going in the right direction. Give us a few examples.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, probably one of the most disturbing ones is about President Karzai and his attorney general letting prisoners go.

And, essentially, what they are saying is, they authorized presidential pardons for narco-traffickers. And here is what the cable says specifically. They authorized a release of detainees pre- trial and allowed dangerous individuals to go free or reenter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.

So, that is looks like one of the most serious ones, Wolf.

BLITZER: It is possible, Fran, to really get things going over there when you have a government that the U.S. accuses of being totally corrupt?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, that is the single greatest impediment to American success there, this pervasive corruption.

Now, we have made some progress. And I will say the president thanked the U.S. troops for meeting recruiting and training goals for Afghan forces. They actually exceeded the objectives set by the president. They got those folks recruited and trained ahead of schedule, months -- six weeks ahead of schedule.

And so we are seeing progress. But we have to accept getting corruption under control is not going to look like a U.S. model. It's going to be reducing the amount of corruption and the impact of that corruption on the transparency and efficacy of the Afghan government.

BLITZER: Let me go to the White House, Dan Lothian.

Dan, was this trip political? What was the major reason why the president decided to go right now? He could pick up the phone and speak with Karzai whenever he wants. And he can do a secure videoconference from the White House Situation Room. He doesn't have to go all the way over there to try to speak with Hamid Karzai.


Well, I should point out that he really wanted to go over there and speak with him face to face, but because of the weather conditions and that they had technical problems with that videoconferencing, that's the reason that he picked up the phone and spoke with him.

The White House says no politics here at all. Despite the fact that the president has those tough economic numbers out today, 9.8 unemployment rate, the reason that the president went there now and the timing behind it is because he wanted to visit the troops during the holiday season, some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

So, it was more about timing, the president trying to salute the men and women who are serving, some of them for the fourth term between Afghanistan and Iraq. And that was the reason behind it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Here is what gets me upset, Fran. And I want you to respond, because it is so frustrating. Nine years into this war, a trillion dollars, whatever the U.S. has spent, thousands of lives lost, the president of the United States cannot even go to Afghanistan and make an announcement a few days or weeks in advance that he is going.

It has got to be done in top secret, because it is so dangerous for Air Force One to fly into Afghanistan and for the president -- for people to know that the president of the United States is even going. It's not like going to Europe or Asia or South America. He has got to do this in such secrecy nine years into this situation. That is so frustrating.

TOWNSEND: Wolf, it is frustrating, but, in fairness, I can't fault them for that.


BLITZER: I am not faulting them for that. It is a bad situation. What I am simply saying, it is such a bad situation, he cannot even go there and let the people know he is going there.

TOWNSEND: No, that is right, Wolf. And that is true in Afghanistan. It's also true in Iraq.

And wherever you're in a war zone -- it's typical. Republican or Democrat, it's true of presidents that they don't pre-announce going to a war zone for security reasons.

What I would add to Dan Lothian's point, Wolf, is let's remember the president announced that he was going to do an Afghan policy review in December. And senior officials tell me the first meeting was on Thursday. That policy review is ongoing.

And I suspect, in addition to thanking the troops, from what I am hearing, the president was also going there to make sure he spoke to General Petraeus face-to-face and got his assessment of how the war is being prosecuted and how successful they're being.

BLITZER: Let's go to Afghanistan. Nic Robertson is on the scene for us.

Nic, do the people of Afghanistan appreciate what the United States is trying to do to help them, or do they simply want the U.S. and the NATO troops, the other coalition partners, to get out? I'm talking about average rank-and-file Afghans.

ROBERTSON: You know, Wolf, I was out in the west of the country about 30 miles from the Iranian border in a school that was built six years ago with U.S. funding, and a big sign on the outside of the school says funded by USAID.

I talked to the teachers in that school. They didn't even realize that the school was funded by the United States. The village didn't have a school before. They look to their central government. They say that they feel safe, but their central government is not giving them the support they want.

So people are not necessarily sort of thinking about what the United States is doing here. They are really focusing on the Afghan government. Part of that is because all efforts are to have an Afghan lead and show people that their own government is doing good for them and therefore they should support the government.

But there is -- mostly, when you talk to Afghans here, they feel that the government, particularly in the areas where the Taliban is strongest, the government is still letting them down, even so in Kandahar today where the surge is doing well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, I spoke recently with a man you know well, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, the former head of Saudi intelligence. He said, flatly, the U.S. has got to get its military personnel out of Afghanistan.

The longer they stay there, the more it seems like a U.S. occupation, the worse the U.S. will be in that part of the world. That's his assessment. He knows that part of the world quite well.

STARR: Well, he does. Prince Turki is expert in this area, Wolf.

And perhaps what Prince Turki also knows and is not saying is the real devil in the details is across the border, of course, in Pakistan, another area the Saudis are concerned about. Everybody is concerned about the al Qaeda and Taliban still having their safe havens across the border in Pakistan, still generating fighters, weapons, money, training those fighters, sending them across the border into Afghanistan, still sheltering Osama bin Laden, by all accounts.

Today, President Obama mentioned he met with a man very few people know, Admiral William McRaven, the head of special forces covert operations, a man who has forces operating on the Pakistan side of the border. That is what really many people now believe the key may be to ending the war in Afghanistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jill, in my conversations with State Department officials, as opposed to military brass and Defense Department officials, I get the sense that analysts and experts at the State Department are much less optimistic about the long-term situation in Afghanistan than the military is.

I wonder if that is what you are hearing.

DOUGHERTY: And, Wolf, one of the reasons is the battles can take place, they can win the battles, they can kick out the Taliban, et cetera, but if Afghanistan is really to survive as a country and be able to fight the Taliban and make sure that the people don't revert to the Taliban, they have to stand up a credible government.

And when you look at these cables, and you see the extent of the corruption that really is endemic, that is one of the major problems. They have don't simply enough non-corrupt people in the government and people who are technically able to carry out the functions of government.

BLITZER: And just to be clear, the president says he wants to start some sort of withdrawal next year, but he wants U.S. troops to remain basically through the end of 2014. We will see if that changes during this reassessment, during this review right now.

Guys, thanks very much. Excellent reporting.

There were also some somber moments to the president's trip. They happened off-camera, but the president spoke about them afterwards.


OBAMA: I just came from the medical unit and saw our wounded warrior, pinned some purple hearts. I just talked to the platoon that lost six of their buddies in a senseless act of violence. It's a tough business. Progress comes slow. And there are going to be difficult days ahead. Progress comes at a high price.

So many of you stood before the solemn battle cross, display of boots, a rifle, a helmet and said goodbye to a fallen comrade.


BLITZER: The president getting emotional, understandably so, in Afghanistan. He is now on his way back to the United States.

Blunt talk on lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the United States military. Some leaders are more hesitant than others, and they are telling lawmakers why.

And there is a larger power, perhaps a superpower, behind WikiLeaks and the release of thousands of classified documents -- that is what the conspiracy theories are spreading right now. Brian Todd is standing by.

And the U.S. jobs crisis is getting even worse. Does the White House have any new plans to turn things around?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Revelations of secret documents are still rocking the U.S. government and the diplomatic world, but now the conspiracy theories are out there about WikiLeaks, who is really behind all of this.

Let's go to Brian Todd. He is looking into these conspiracy theories.

Some of them are pretty, pretty far out there. What are you picking up?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're out there, Wolf, but they are coming from the top levels of some governments. This is reverberating around the Middle East and beyond, theories that despite the damage done to American diplomacy by these leaks, it is the U.S. and one of its chief allies who are driving all of it.


TODD (voice-over): To some, he is not a maverick loner intent on exposing dirty secrets, but a James Bond-like agent for a higher power, or, should we say, superpower.

There is a new round of conspiracy theories gathering steam that the U.S., Israel, or both, are the forces behind Julian Assange and the posting of diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks. Iran's president says Western governments and the -- quote -- "Zionist regime" are involved.

Turkey's president hinted at it, saying of the aftereffects of the leaks: "I think it has a system. It seems it that has an aim."

In some of the WikiLeaks cables, references are made to alleged corruption on the part of Turkey's leaders, to the naivete of their foreign policy and the failure of their initiatives.

(on camera): Do Turkish leaders really believe in a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy with the WikiLeaks documents? Despite repeated attempts, we got no comment from officials here at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, but the Turkish president later did back off those comments, telling Turkish television -- quote -- "I don't believe much in these conspiracy theories."

(voice-over): But a spokesman for Turkey's ruling party said -- quote -- "Israel is very pleased with the WikiLeaks release and the main goal of these leaks was to weaken the Turkish government."

That is echoed in opinion columns in Turkish newspapers. I asked Aaron David Miller, who advised six U.S. secretaries of state on the Middle East, what is fueling this.

(on camera): Why do you think there is this perception in the Middle East, even among some members maybe of the leadership in Turkey and elsewhere, that this is a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy?

AARON DAVID MILLER, PUBLIC POLICY SCHOLAR, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: Yes, I think there's a backstory here. If money is the milk of the American politics, then conspiracy is what drives and fuels much of the way Middle Easterners view their own societies and the great powers.

TODD (voice-over): But conspiracy theories go beyond the Middle East. Listen to what Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told CNN's Larry King.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Some experts believe that somebody is deceiving WikiLeaks, their reputation being undermined to use them for their own political purposes later on.


TODD: U.S. and Israeli officials have vehemently denied any role in the WikiLeaks postings. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also pushed back.

Asked today on a Webchat by a reader of "The Guardian" newspaper why some names on the cables are redacted and -- quote -- this is the question from the reader -- "Who can make such critical decisions but the U.S. government?" Assange replied those names have been redacted by journalists working on the stories. Then the redactions are reviewed by editors," Wolf.

So, he is pushing back.

BLITZER: Some of those conspiracy theories also have been fueled by some of these cables that suggest that the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, that they ordered U.S. diplomats at the United Nations to spy on U.N. officials.

TODD: That's right. And Aaron David Miller says that plays right into the conspiracy theorists, because a lot of them are from the Middle East. And they believe completely that their own governments spy on them, because they have done it a lot.

So they totally believe that Hillary Clinton or any secretary of state would order their diplomats to spy on fellow diplomats, especially at the U.N. They think that could easily happen, despite the State Department's denials that they ever did that.

BLITZER: And some of these conspiracy theories in the Middle East go back to 9/11.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: They believe it was either a U.S. plot or an Israeli plot, or they don't believe al Qaeda actually was responsible, even though al Qaeda takes responsibility.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: It still lingers out there. Those conspiracy theories are wild. Aaron David Miller is right when it comes to the Middle East. TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

The government releases its latest jobless report, and it's not good. Unemployment lines are not getting any shorter. Can the U.S. afford to extend benefits again?

And later, more fighting words between the two Koreas -- South Korea issuing its sternest warning yet, while the North shows no signs of blinking.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: The U.S. jobless rate is now closing in on 10 percent. Should Congress extend unemployment benefits again? We are going to discuss that and more.

And verbal fireworks, as U.S. military leaders testify about the impact of lifting the don't ask, don't tell policy -- why some now say there is a strong potential for disruption.

And it's been almost 30 years since the murder of former Beatle John Lennon. We retrace his final hours with people who were there.


BLITZER: Deeply discouraging jobless numbers out today from the U.S. Labor Department.

The unemployment rate rose in November to 9.8 percent, after holding at 9.6 percent for the previous three months. And that number doesn't include the millions of Americans who have simply given up on finding work or who are underemployed. Millions of folks have been forced to accept lesser jobs than they once had.

Let's talk about that with Arianna Huffington. She is the co- founder, editor in chief of, and Peter Morici. He's professor of international business at the University of Maryland.

But, first, let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King. He is the host of "JOHN KING, USA," which begins right at the top of the hour.

I think it's fair to say, John, everyone, including officials at the White House, were stunned by these numbers today.

JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING, USA": Even the "best" economists on Wall Street -- use the term best in quotations -- thought we would have somewhere in triple digits, somewhere over 100,000, maybe in the ballpark of 155,000. This is another -- it is a slap in the face, really, very sobering numbers that essentially tell you the economy is in a rut. It is producing jobs, but at a very anemic pace, not enough to put unemployment down. And, in fact, because some more people came into the job market, unemployment goes up.

And, Wolf, this immediately becomes center stage in the debate about tax cuts. The president would like some more stimulus spending. He calls it infrastructure spending. They don't use the stimulus word anymore.

But, most importantly, this tells millions of Americans this holiday season, wow.

BLITZER: And are you hearing, though, they have something new on the agenda, something new to go to turn things around?

KING: No. We are having a big debate now about tax cuts.

And the Republicans immediately seized on this and said, this is proof you can't raise taxes on anybody. The Democrats want to draw that line at 250,000 or $1 million and let the Bush tax cuts expire for everybody else.

The Republicans say, "Aha! More proof you can't do that, and the Democrats say, "Wait a minute. We need to do more: A, extend emergency unemployment benefits, extended unemployment benefits; and most Republicans say yes, but only if we find a way to pay for it.

And then there are a whole bunch of other small things, modest things the administration is trying to get included in this tax-cut deal, but anything big, some economists, especially liberal economists say you need another stimulus package. No way in this political environment.

BLITZER: Peter, is it smart right now to extend the unemployment benefits for those who have been unemployed now for 99 weeks?

MORICI: Well, there are really two groups. Those folks that can find a job and those people that won't look for one, because they have the benefits. And there are some of those.

Whatever we do, we need to pay for it. There's a lot of stimulus money that isn't going to much good use. For example, summer money for professors doesn't create any jobs. So I think the Republicans are right to say, "Mr. President, if you want it, cut it someplace else to pay for it."

BLITZER: You have some strong views, Arianna, on what the president needs to do right now. What's the most important thing you think he needs to do?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Well, the most important thing is really to change the national conversation to jobs away from the deficit and tax cuts. And you know, Wolf, he has a lot of responsibility for what happened, why the conversation is centered on deficits and tax cuts. He was the one who created a deficit commission, instead of a jobs commission.

His White House economic advisers have for months now been predicting a recovery, job growth. You had Larry Summers going around the shows for months saying there will be job growth in the spring. That was last spring.

So they need to come to terms with just how serious the jobs crisis is. And really, they have the power to convince the public that we need to throw everything against the wall to create jobs, including a payroll tax holiday, including infrastructure spending, leaving aside the jobs crisis; our infrastructure is crumbling. None of that is happening.

All the energy is going around deficit reduction. And most serious economists can tell you, there cannot be serious, long-term deficit reduction without growing the economy.

BLITZER: You agree with that, Peter? You're a serious economy.

MORICI: Well, my feeling is you have to focus on jobs creation first. Once you do that and you get the economy growing. Then you can shrink the deficit, but you can't get the economy going by raising taxes to shrink the deficit. You're going to have to do it by cutting spending.

You know, the size of government since Nancy Pelosi took over in '97 has gone from less than 20 percent of GDP to structurally more than 25 percent. But you know, the thing that was left off the list was the trade deficit, the huge gaping trade deficit. Americans are spending again, but so much of the money leaves the country to buy imports. But we don't pay for it with exports. So there's not enough demand for what we make. We need to reevaluate our trade policy; it's simply not working for America.

BLITZER: John, based on what you're hearing, are they getting closer to a deal on the Bush-era tax cuts?

KING: They have the broad outlines of the deal, Wolf. That would be an extension of all of the Bush tax cuts for probably two years through 2012. Essentially, you would fight...

BLITZER: Including for millionaires and billionaires?

KING: For everybody. And you would fight that fight in the 2012 presidential election would be whether they should then go back and change the tax code.

The question is, what about unemployment insurance benefits? And to Peter's question, how do you pay for it? Because the Republicans have said, "We'll give it to you, Mr. President. We want to see the offsetting cuts somewhere, some college tuition credits in there, some other pro-business." White House believes the middle class and small business incentives. They're still haggling over there. They're not ready to do it. It's going to take at least another week of negotiations.

And in this climate, Wolf, Arianna Huffington just made her point there, and a lot of Democrats would support that completely. And a lot of centrists would support that completely. However, the political moment for that is gone. The president cannot sell that package, even if he would embrace that package. And right now he won't in this political environment. So the question is, do we have gridlock and stagnation.

On the infrastructure question, the president's best chance might be to convince some of those newly-elected Republican governors, look, you need these projects in your state.

BLITZER: Why, Arianna, did the president lose that momentum that he may have had?

HUFFINGTON: Well, Wolf, unfortunately, he listened to his White House advisers, including and especially Larry Summers and, of course, Tim Geithner at the treasury who have a very Wall Street sense of view of the world.

When Wall Street started doing well again, they assumed that those advantages, that profitability would extend to Main Street, and we've seen now that the financial sector has been so decoupled from the real economy that the two were not connected. And as a result, the president brought the record into a deficit reduction. That is one of the first things he thought about after the defeat in November.

BLITZER: You know, he's thinking of bringing in Roger Altman, who's a Wall Street insider, into the administration. He worked in the Clinton administration at the Treasury Department early on, as you remember. Do you have a problem with that?

HUFFINGTON: You know, my problem is with bringing anybody who does not put jobs and the fate of the middle-class first. And this is increasingly important, Wolf, not just because of our economic prosperity but because of our political stability.

There are millions of people out there who are getting increasingly angrier, more frustrated and more afraid about the future. For me, the most stunning statistic is -- I have two daughters in college -- is the number of kids graduating from college and not being able to find a job. That is right against the whole essence of upward mobility that is such a big part of the American DNA.

BLITZER: Arianna Huffington, thanks very much. Peter Morici, thanks to you, as well. John's going to have a lot more on this, coming up at the top of the hour. John, thanks very much.

Problems over at the nation's most famous military cemetery have gone from bad to worse. A grim discovery leads to a criminal investigation under way right now at Arlington National Cemetery right outside Washington. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The discovery of multiple remains in a single grave at the most revered U.S. military burial ground has now touched off a full-blown criminal investigation.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now with more on the problems over at Arlington National Cemetery. This latest discovery is so disturbing.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. And what happened, what led up to it is that cemetery officials were tipped off earlier this fall. Someone told, "Take a look at one particular gravesite that was marked unknown." The person who tipped them off said a few years ago, a contractor had found two urns. Those are vases holding remains of cremated people. Two urns in a pile of dirt around that grave site.

Then Kathryn Condon, who runs the cemetery, called the Army's criminal investigations command to check it out. They did, and then they found eight urns containing human remains inside the one grave that was marked unknown. Only one set of remains should have been in there.

Of those eight sets of remains, three have been positively identified. Cemetery officials are working with the families of the deceased to get them properly placed. One of those three urns has been reinterred. Only three have been positively identified.

BLITZER: What about the other five?

TODD: Well, one of them they believe belonged in the grave where it was found. The other four they have not been able to identify them, because they didn't have crematory tags on them, and also, because experts say the DNA was likely wiped out in the cremation process. They're probably not going to be able to get that DNA back. They may be able to scrape a few bone fragments and try to get something. It's unlikely.

BLITZER: How does this differ from the previous problems that were so widely reported at Arlington National Cemetery of the mismarked graves?

TODD: The mismarked graves. Officials at the cemetery said in those cases, the mismarked graves, it was probably human error, honest mistakes that led to those problems.

This one, they say, could be a little more sinister. They say that the fact that eight urns were found in one place, that suspect, pretty ominous words from one of the cemetery spokeswomen who said -- she said it doesn't seem to be a mistake. They believe this was done purposely. We may see some of this in the future. Now, you know, cemetery officials, to their credit, are being very vigilant about this. It's just so disturbing to the families.

BLITZER: And this is -- hits home personally to you. TODD: Right.

BLITZER: You're the son of a U.S. military -- a general, right, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

TODD: I saw my father go into the ground. After that, you're confident he's there. So many of these families never saw their loved ones go into the ground. The families of the unknowns never -- obviously don't know. A lot of people couldn't make it to the cemetery to see their loved ones buried. You really feel for them.

But again, cemetery officials, they're on top of it now. Previous administration at the cemetery had problems.

BLITZER: They better get to the bottom of this, because it does hit home for so many people.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much.

Halliburton finding itself right now under scrutiny once again, this time in Nigeria. Why attorneys are circling the wagons around the former vice president, Dick Cheney. And the latest chapter in the debate over repealing Washington's longstanding "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays serving openly in the military. This time the top brass give their input on whether or not it would weaken America's armed forces.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Charges could soon be coming against Halliburton. Fredricka is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on, Fred?


Hello, everyone.

Well, Nigerian officials say there could be charges in a probe of Halliburton, but they're not saying whether former Vice President Dick Cheney is being investigated. The Nigerians are looking into whether the American energy services company paid bribes to get a $6 billion natural gas project in the 1990s. A lawyer for Cheney, who ran Halliburton during that time, says there's no reason to believe that he is guilty.

And residents of upstate New York are digging out from one big, colossal super storm. In all, it dumped up to three feet of snow over Buffalo and the surrounding areas and stranded hundreds of motorists on one highway for 20 hours. In some places the snowdrifts were as high as six feet.

And the FBI is worried a new Barbie doll could be used to make pornography. The doll has a digital video camera in the middle of Barbie's chest. It can record up to 30 minutes of video, which can be streamed onto computer.

The FBI tells CNN, quote, "There have been no reported incidents of this doll being used as anything other than as intended. For clarification purposes, the alert's intent was to ensure law enforcement agencies were aware that the doll, like any other video- capable equipment, could contain evidence and to not disregard such an item during a search," end quote.

CNN has reached out to toy maker Mattel but have not gotten a response. However, Mattel gave the following statement to CNN affiliate KING, saying, quote, "Mattel products are designed with children and their best interests in mind. Many of Mattel's employees are parents themselves, and we understand the importance of child safety. It is our No. 1 priority," end quote -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred, thanks very much. See you tomorrow on CNN.

WHITFIELD: Yes, the whole day.

BLITZER: The thorny issue of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy gets kicked up to the top. A Senate committee takes more testimony and finds that top military brass are not exactly in sync.

And remembering John Lennon, almost 30 years after his murder. CNN's John Roberts traces the iconic musician's final hours before coming face-to-face with his killer.


BLITZER: Can the U.S. military remain an effective fighting force if the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military is repealed? Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, who's joining us on day two of these hearings today. How did it go, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we learned one thing very, very clearly today. While the defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff may be telling Congress hurry up and repeal this law, the officers, the military officers just under them are saying the complete opposite. They're telling Congress, slow down.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): The senators asked...

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: What is your personal opinion about repeal at this time?

LAWRENCE: And the service chiefs told.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: I would not recommend going forward at this time. ADMIRAL GARY ROUGHEAD, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS: I recommend repeal.

GEN. JAMES AMOS, MARINE CORPS COMMANDANT: My recommendation would be this is a bad time, Senator.

GEN. NORTON SCHWARTZ, AIR FORCE CHIEF OF STAFF: I do not think it prudent to seek full implementation in the near term.

LAWRENCE: Their concern: changing the law while fighting a war. But senators pushing for repeal pushed back.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: As one Special Operations Force war fighter told us, "We have a gay guy in the unit. He's big; he's mean; and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay."

LAWRENCE: Democrat Carl Levin challenged the Marine commandant.

AMOS: I can't comment on that, but I can say that 80 percent of our combat arms Marines say they've never served with Marine -- with gays or lesbians.

LEVIN: And the ones who have?

AMOS: And the ones who have, I suspect, probably are more tolerant of it. I think that probably is where you're going through it at this point.

LEVIN: Not where I'm going. It's where the report's going.

LAWRENCE: But the first Marine discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" says gay troops are tired of waiting.

JUSTIN ELZIE, FORMER U.S. MARINE: Ask yourself if you had to go into work every day and be worried about being fired. How would that affect your performance?

LAWRENCE: Justin Elzie says he was openly gay the minute his unit knew it.

ELZIE: I went on a ship in tight spaces and I went out in the field as a platoon sergeant in the foxholes with my marines. And at the end of the day -- at some points it would almost became a laughable issue between all of us.


LAWRENCE: Bottom line, the service chiefs' opposition helps those who do not want to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Senator John McCain says he will not allow the bill to go forward, and he says he's got the votes to block it.

BLITZER: All right. Well, debate obviously not going away. Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon for us, thank you.

A stubborn spike in the jobless rate triggering new speculation about extending benefits. John King, the host of "JOHN KING USA," at the top of the hour will have much more on this story.

But up next, his murder rocked the world 30 years ago. For the first time now, people who were there are speaking about John Lennon's last days. John Roberts is standing by to join us live.


BLITZER: Thirty years ago December 8, John Lennon was fatally shot outside his Manhattan home. In our upcoming documentary, "Losing Lennon," we hear from people who were present when the former Beatle came face to face with his killer, Mark David Chapman.

Here's CNN's John Roberts.


MARK DAVID CHAPMAN, LENNON'S MURDERER: That morning I left the hotel room, I knew what was going to happen that day. I just knew it.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Chapman spent much of the day outside the Dakota. At one point he even met Sean Lennon and his nanny, who were talking with Jerry Mull's (ph) friend, June.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Chapman came from behind her, reached around to shake Sean's hand. And then he commented to her, "He's a beautiful little boy, isn't he?"

ROBERTS: Meanwhile, inside the Dakota, Lennon was beginning the last day of his life. It was a busy one, starting with the now-famous Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for "Rolling Stone" magazine. As the shoot was wrapping up, Dave Sholin from RKO Radio arrived at the Dakota. He would be the last person to interview John Lennon.

(on camera) What kind of mood was he in?

DAVE SHOLIN, LAST TO INTERVIEW JOHN LENNON: I would say his mood through this entire interview was very upbeat, very optimistic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At the time, I was so young that I couldn't really process it.

ROBERTS (voice-over): Laurie Kaye, Ron Hummel, and Bert Keane were with Sholin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was engaging. He was polite. He wanted to hear what we had to say. He was just one of the guys. It was so comfortable all day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's the most down-to-earth guy you could ever meet, and we didn't want to leave.

ROBERTS (on camera): And he said, "I wish we had more time." Right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He did. Yes, he just wanted it to go on and on. ROBERTS (voice-over): They all left the Dakota at about 4. Lennon was headed to the studio. Mark David Chapman was outside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So this one particular fellow came up to us, wanted an autograph. And so I grabbed an album, asked John to -- I said, "Will you sign this?"

ROBERTS: Ever the obliging rock star, Lennon stopped. The moment, killer and victim face-to-face, was preserved forever by another Lennon fan with a camera. Then Lennon jumped into a limo with Yoko, Sholin, and two members of his team. Laurie Kaye stayed behind to meet a friend.

On the sidewalk, Chapman came up to her and literally assaulted Laurie with questions.

LAURIE KAYE, PRESENT AT LAST JOHN LENNON INTERVIEW: "Did you talk to him? Did you get his autograph? What did he say? What was he like?" And he kept, it was like badgering me.

ROBERTS (on camera): How did he strike you?

KAYE: Certainly, it never entered my mind that he had any kind of agenda, any harm, plans to harm John or Yoko. I just thought he was just kind of some obsessive weirdo. I kind of got the sense that he was just going to stand there until they got back.


BLITZER: And John Roberts is joining us now live. John, really amazing reporting. How long had Chapman actually been stalking Lennon?

ROBERTS: It was for at least a couple of months, Wolf. We've got something that you've probably never seen before, and that is Mark David Chapman's calendar from the year 1980. And these frenzied scribbles and things crossed out and other dates put back in and goals and plans.

He came to New York City in the middle of October of 1980 with the plan to kill John Lennon. But decided, after seeing the movie "Ordinary People," which is a film about a troubled family, that he had changed his mind, and he called his wife and said, "I want to go back to Hawaii."

She didn't say anything to the authorities after he confessed to her that he came here to kill John Lennon, because he promised that he was going to seek treatment, swore that he had thrown the gun in the ocean. Little did she know at that time, his wife Gloria to whom he is still married to this day and sees at least once a year, that he was planning all the while to come back to New York City.

BLITZER: Yes. When I saw your report, it's amazing she has stuck by him all these years, and she even goes to the prison to see him. ROBERTS: Yes, can you imagine? Yearly conjugal visits to Attica Prison. And we asked people who know her and have talked to her in the past why she would continue the marriage? And they said that she's an old-fashioned type of person. She wants to swear fidelity to the marriage. She just thought that it was the right thing to do. Can you imagine? Staying married to a killer like that for 30 years?

BLITZER: I can't imagine, but I know this is only part of an amazing documentary. Good work, John. Thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's called "Losing Lennon." It includes a lot of exclusive recordings, rare interviews. It airs this weekend, Saturday and Sunday nights, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN. I recommend it very, very highly.

That's all the time we have right now. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.