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THE SITUATION ROOM

Will Sarah Palin Run?; Heartbreak and Relief in Joplin

Aired May 26, 2011 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Joplin residents begin to learn the fate of loved ones who vanished when the killer tornado struck. There's heartbreak for some, relief for others. But there's also outrage at the very slow release of information.

A new lawsuit claims Iran and Hezbollah collided and worked together with al Qaeda to facilitate the 9/11 attacks. We are taking a closer look behind these stunning allegations. Is there any truth to them?

And Sarah Palin's star has faded since the last presidential election. But this weekend, she kicks off a national tour. Is that the start of a run for the White House in 2012? We are trying to sift through all the clues.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Slowly, too slowly for many residents of Joplin, Missouri, they are learning more, though, about the loved ones who vanished during this week's devastating tornado. State officials released a list of 232 missing people. That's far below earlier estimates of 1,500. Officials concede some on the list are dead. The current toll is 125. They say that number will rise. But the process of identifying the deceased can be very, very difficult, relying on medical records and DNA.

Some families are very angry that they can't even visit the morgue to search for relatives.

Let's go straight to CNN's Casey Wian in Joplin.

Casey, what is the holdup right now?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is bureaucratic mess, according to these families.

And we spoke with one family that's in pain after losing a husband and a father in, and a pain that's made even worse because they can't even bury their loved one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) WIAN (voice-over): Hours after the tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, we met a distraught 17-year-old Aundrea Osborn outside a demolished Home Depot.

AUNDREA OSBORN, TORNADO SURVIVOR: Because my dad and my uncle are in there. And I just -- I'm hoping and praying to God they are OK.

WIAN (on camera): When was the last time you heard from them?

OSBORN: Before the tornado hit.

WIAN (voice-over): Her dad, Iraq war veteran Dennis Osborn, was shopping with a close family friend and apparently took refuge in the Home Depot when the tornado approached. Osborn and his wife, Steffanie, had just celebrated their 11th anniversary.

She waited outside Home Depot all day.

(on camera): I can't imagine what that wait must have been like.

STEFFANIE OSBORN, WIDOW OF TORNADO VICTIM: Torturous. And then leaving with nothing was really disappointing, really devastating.

WIAN (voice-over): Dennis and his friend's bodies were found inside the store rubble Tuesday.

S. OSBORN: I had people telling me that he was helping people to the back to the storm shelter, that, when he was found, he was found covering a body to protect him from debris. He was being a soldier. That's what he does. I just want him back.

WIAN: Dennis was preparing to leave for Germany for Army Reserve training next month.

S. OSBORN: God didn't take him in Iraq. So, why did he take him now?

WIAN: Adding to her trauma, Steffanie's home in the town of Seneca was flooded by a storm Monday night, her car destroyed. And now she can't even plan a funeral for her husband.

S. OSBORN: They are not releasing any bodies. They are telling us that they are having to do some investigation and possibly autopsies. I mean, please let us have our spouses, our children. We need closure. And they need to be laid to peace. This needs to be over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN: Far from over for these families.

Now, according to officials and according to people in the funeral industry who have dealt with tornado victims before, part of the problem is the condition of these bodies. This tornado was so devastating, many of these bodies are in such bad condition, it is difficult to make 100 percent sure of the identities. Also, officials are said to be trying to determine the causes of death. And that, in many cases, takes some time, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly does. What a heartbreaking situation it is for so many, so many families.

Casey, thank you.

As anger and frustration mount among these families, they are looking for answers, for closure on the fate of loved ones.

Let's bring in our own John King.

John, you spent the last few days out in Joplin. You specifically got an opportunity to spend time with one family looking for confirmation.

JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING, USA": Wolf, that was Tammy and Tony Niederhelman. And literally as I was walking up the stairs here, they called to say they had brought -- been finally brought to the morgue, and the morgue has identified the body of their 12-year-old son, Zach.

They have been incredibly frustrated. And that's incredibly sad to say that, that these parents now have confirmation their 12-year- old son is dead. For them, it is a step toward closure, because they were told in the hours after the tornado that a neighbor saw their son, saw the body put in an ambulance, and told them, sadly, that their son was dead then.

So, they have spent the last five days trying to get to this moment. It is a sad moment. It is a horrible moment no parent should ever have to go through. But their frustration has been that for five days they got in line, for five days, they were asked the questions, for five days, they filled out more paperwork, and they kept being told come back tomorrow. It could be a week. It could be two weeks.

We tried to go into this meeting that you are showing right now on the screen with them. Tammy wanted us to come in to see if somehow the attention of CNN could help this family crack through the bureaucratic process.

BLITZER: Did it help?

KING: We don't know that quite yet. We do know that the attention, the attention that CNN and some other news organizations have given to this issue convinced the governor last night to add 20 state troopers to the process of identifying, to change the -- re- juggle the responsibilities a little bit, the chain of command, so that the state government and the federal government now have a greater role, as opposed to the local officials, who everybody on the scene concedes, and in some cases justifiably so, were overwhelmed.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you go to that tornado zone and walk those streets, the destruction, the level of destruction is stunning. But the families say they understand that, but they still don't understand why 72, now 96, 100 hours later, they can't go to the morgue and look.

So, for this one family tonight, the first steps toward closure. And what Tammy told us was, she said, finally they are doing something and maybe the same thing will happen for everyone. There are hundreds of frustrated families.

BLITZER: And I have known you a long time, John.

KING: Yes.

BLITZER: We have worked together. I can sense the frustration and the anger in your voice.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: As a parent, as a parent, you see these parents, and it is the most horrible thought you could ever think of as a parent, of having to bury your own child.

To be told your child is dead, and then to have to spend five days just trying to find your child to say goodbye, to prepare for a burial, to begin to try to -- I can't comprehend it -- but to try to move on and rebuild your life, and to be told and sometimes treated rudely. That was the hard part, sometimes treated rudely by people essentially saying get in line, be quiet. We are in charge of this process. We will tell you when you can go to the morgue.

The families found that quite offensive. Now, their emotions are raw and I'm sure that people on the other end are trying to do the best. When we were at that brief encounter the other day at the makeshift office where you have to go fill out the paperwork, sometimes, the people were compassionate. Other times, they were frustrated.

Maybe it is because they are working 14, 16 hours a day, maybe because a lot of the families are coming with raw emotions. But there was not a coherent, consistent, compassionate process for these families, and on top of the grief they are suffering, with missing relatives or relatives they believe are presumed to be dead, on top of the fact that many of them have lost everything, many of them lost everything.

It is remarkable to walk by these homes and see the level of destruction. You see plywood and you see the carpet tack. The carpet is gone, Wolf, that this storm not only just took the roof off and took the walls out. It ripped the floors and the carpets and everything and their possessions are in pieces.

So, that's stuff. To try to find their children, especially the parents with young children, it is incredibly hard.

BLITZER: You will have much more on this coming up at the top of the hour.

KING: Yes, absolutely.

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much. And our deepest, deepest condolences to that wonderful family.

KING: Yes.

BLITZER: Let's get some other news right now.

President Obama's in France for the next leg of his European tour meeting with leaders of the world's eight top economic powers, the so- called G8. This meeting comes at a time of upheaval in the Arab world, with Libya looming very large over the talks.

Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is traveling with the president -- Brianna.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are not far from the beaches of Normandy at this G8 summit, but now the world is focused on a struggle for freedom in a different place, in the Middle East and North Africa.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nice to see you.

KEILAR (voice-over): The G8 summit in the French seaside resort town of Deauville, it's President Obama's first time meeting with world leaders since the so-called Arab spring uprisings and the impasse in Libya. The U.S. is stuck in the middle -- on one side, allies like France that have hinted they would like to see more U.S. involvement in the NATO-led mission, on the other, Russia, which has a relationship with Libya and abstained from a U.N. vote on sanctions.

Obama met one on one with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He's concerned attacks on Libya will continue. The White House said the U.S. will keep Russia in the loop. And Obama did not mention the disagreement.

OBAMA: Shared our ideas about how we can manage the transition process that's taking place throughout the region.

KEILAR: Obama meets with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday, as France looks for assurances that it won't ultimately be carrying the burden of the military operation largely on its own.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): But had we not stepped in, Benghazi would have been literally erased or wiped off the map.

KEILAR: President Obama's message to the rebels in Libya and allies who want a stronger intervention, as he said in London Wednesday, the U.S. is committed to seeing Moammar Gadhafi ousted from power.

OBAMA: I absolutely agree that, given the progress that's been made over the last several weeks, that Gadhafi and his regime need to understand that there will not be a letup in the pressure that we are applying.

KEILAR (on camera): The president is also looking for economic support in his plan to help democracy take hold where there have been uprisings, in Tunisia and Egypt for starters. And, tomorrow, leaders from Tunisia, Egypt, and the Arab League will join G8 members for discussions -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And this just coming in.

We have learned that a CIA team of forensic specialists has received permission from the Pakistani government to visit the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in order to search for documents which may be hidden there. A U.S. official tells CNN the team will gather up any additional information that can be found.

During the raid, the Navy SEAL team was able to gather a great deal of intelligence from the compound. The official says the CIA team wants to see what else it can learn about bin Laden's stay there. The agreement was reached several days ago. The official won't say when the visit will happen. We will have more on this story coming up.

We know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has just arrived in Pakistan today for talks with the Pakistani leadership.

Hundreds of people are still missing in the tornado disaster zone. But now there's one person left, thanks to a phone call by one of our CNN crews. We have details of an emotional reunion you will want to see.

And is there a way to control tornadoes or even keep them from happening? We are going to show you why some meteorologists say it's possible.

And years of investigation lead one attorney to connect the dots between a longtime U.S. foe and 9/11.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is looking inward a bit. He's with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, I got to wondering what those who gave their life for this country would think if they could see us now.

We don't remember those folks like we probably should. Oh, there will be parades here and there, but many of us will head for the malls, and the beaches, and the backyard barbecues. Little more than a passing thought will be given to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can continue to do those things. As we head into another summer, the nation is broke and fighting three wars. The federal government is broken, maybe beyond repair.

We went by the debt ceiling a couple of weeks back. Nothing has been done about that. And I wonder now, when we approach default in August, if anything will be done then.

Another election campaign is starting, more empty promises and mudslinging, all designed to suck us in one more time to the belief that this time, somehow, it's going to be better.

Well, it isn't and it probably won't be, but when you look around, this is still the last, best chance on Earth, at least for awhile longer.

Here's the question: As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, how do you feel about your country?

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

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. I always feel good about my country.

A stunning new federal lawsuit claims that Iran helped plan and facilitate the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Our own Mary Snow has been looking into this claim for us, digging deeper.

Mary, what are you finding out about this so many years later?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this lawsuit cites sealed testimony from defectors of Iran's intelligence agency, who claim that Iran had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks.

And lawyers who filed the case are asking a federal judge in New York to now hold Iran liable.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Inside the 9/11 Commission report, there are two pages that put attorney Thomas Mellon Jr. on a seven-year path, a path that resulted in a federal lawsuit alleging Iran is linked to the September 11 attacks.

THOMAS MELLON JR., ATTORNEY: Two hundred and forty, 241.

SNOW: Under the title "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda," the report concludes, "We believe that this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."

And that's what prompted Mellon to dig further.

MELLON: And we took one interview to the next, one tip, one lead, one bit of evidence to the next step. And it's now taken us since July of '04 to firmly establish the truth that indeed it was Iran who assisted al Qaeda.

SNOW: The 9/11 Commission report found several of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran into or out of Afghanistan, without ever getting their passports stamped. But the commission found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah, the State Department-sanctioned terror group that is supported by Iran, were ever aware of the planning for the attacks.

In the lawsuit filed in New York, Mellon and other attorneys allege Iran and Hezbollah were involved in the planning.

(on camera): What's your strongest evidence?

MELLON: My strongest evidence is the fact that the people who wrote the two pages on the 9/11 Commission report calling for further investigation have now given us very long and detailed affidavits.

SNOW (voice-over): Mellon says three defectors from Iran also provided evidence in 25 hours of sworn videotaped testimony. But that testimony is currently sealed to protect their identities.

One person who is interested in monitoring the case is Thomas Kean, the former co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. He says he's unaware of anyone in the U.S. government following up on the commission's recommendation to investigate Iran further.

THOMAS KEAN, FORMER CO-CHAIRMAN, 9/11 COMMISSION: There were a couple of examples of that. This wasn't the only example, a couple of examples where we pointed to leads that we didn't have the staff or the time to investigate. And nobody followed through, yes. That's annoying. It's serious. People should have followed through.

SNOW: At this point, Ellen Saracini says all she wants is an answer. Her husband, Victor, was a pilot for United Flight 175 that was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. She and other families named in the suit are seeking damages. But she says she knows no damages will be paid.

ELLEN SARACINI, SEPTEMBER 11 WIDOW: It will fulfill a lot of feelings of mine that need to have the perpetrators of such evil found accountable. But it still doesn't bring my girls' daddy back home at the end of the night.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, our calls to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations were not returned. And Iran has not responded to the lawsuit. But its state-run media quotes a senior Iranian lawmaker refuting the allegations, saying, in his words, Washington is playing a blame game in the Middle East -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What about these three Iranian defectors? What do we know about them?

SNOW: The lawyer we talked to said that they were high enough that they had access to sensitive information, saying they were with Iran's Ministry of Information and Security. Again, their testimony is sealed, but the attorney says that he does expect at some point that that testimony will be public.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thanks very much. You will stay on top of the story for us.

A check of the day's other top stories coming up next.

Then, amid the tragedy of the tornado disaster, a happy ending and an emotional reunion.

Plus: Will she or won't she? We are deciphering new clues about Sarah Palin's possible -- yes, possible -- presidential ambitions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: The desperate hunt for missing loved ones.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, I'm looking for a possible patient. Ellen (ph) Freeman.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We are going to show you the dramatic ending to one search in Joplin, Missouri.

And is Sarah Palin getting ready to throw her hat in the ring? There are a number of clues, including this weekend's start of a national tour.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Two hundred and thirty-two people are still missing in Joplin, Missouri, four days after a monster tornado leveled entire sections of the town.

For some, the search for loved ones has ended in heartbreak, but, for others, there are emotional reunions.

Our meteorologist Jacqui Jeras is in Joplin, Missouri, with one very, very happy emotional reunion.

Tell the story, Jacqui.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, not knowing, Wolf, has been the hardest part for so many people here, they say, wondering whether or not their loved one is alive and well or if they didn't make it through the storm.

And it has been four days now without answers. Well, today, I was very privileged to help find an answer for one family.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TABITHA FREEMAN, SEARCHING FOR GRANDMOTHER: Before, I was told there was no body found in the rubble and that they had seen an elderly woman digging through the rubble, but they don't know where she went. You know, I can't locate her anywhere.

JERAS (voice-over): Tabitha Freeman has been trying for days to locate her 67-year-old grandmother, Ellen. She lived here on Pitcher (ph) Street, where the homes are so demolished, they have to be identified with spray paint on the sidewalk.

FREEMAN: That's the bathroom. And that's -- they always say the safest place to be is in the bathroom. And, look, it is just -- even if she would have been in there, she wouldn't have made it, because it has collapsed on itself.

JERAS: Tabitha drove to Joplin from Oklahoma, hoping to get answers after not being able to contact nearby relatives and trying online services.

FREEMAN: I still have a lot of friends and family in Joplin. Just the not knowing, you know. I mean, I know a lot of people are missing loved ones.

JERAS: Earlier I met neighbor Aaron Cole, who said he knows almost everyone on the block.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she is -- she is alive. Miss Cook, she got stuck in her basement door, the entryway there. She's all right, too. And I didn't know that Miss Freeman, you know, she did make it, too. She's in the hospital somewhere.

FREEMAN: OK. Well, that will make it's easier.

JERAS: We called Freeman Hospital in Joplin to see if he was there. She wasn't. In the confusion immediately following the tornado, the records shows that she was transferred to three different hospitals. We were ready to try them all.

(on camera) Yes, I'm looking for a possible patient. Ellen Freeman. I do. Thank you very much. She's in room 612 in Arkansas.

(voice-over) Grandma Ellen Freeman was found OK and resting in an Arkansas hospital.

FREEMAN: Is Ellen Freeman in this room? OK. Well, this is her granddaughter. And I just now figured out where she's at. OK. No. That's fine. As long as I know where she's at now.

JERAS: Tabitha said she plans to get to know her grandmother better now.

FREEMAN: Kind of sad to say it takes this to, you know, make you realize, you know, you don't really have all that long. You never know when it's going to end, you know. I mean, for all I know -- you know, she could have been crushed or, you know, died or something.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JERAS: A happy ending here on Pitcher (ph) Street. But that story really kind of tells us, Wolf, how confusing things have been for so many people trying to communicate with each other and trying to find their missing loved ones. And Tabitha tells us that she's going to take a drive to Arkansas and go visit her grandmother right now.

BLITZER: I see it put a nice smile on your face, Jacqui. You must feel pretty good about this.

JERAS: It did. Yes. It's good to hear positive stories out of so much devastation, Wolf. And unfortunately, not every story ends this way.

BLITZER: Unfortunately, you're right. Thanks for bringing us this very, very good story, Jacqui Jeras. Thank -- thank you.

But as we say, for every happy ending in Joplin, Missouri, there are others that are filled with grief and tears and desperate searches yielding the crushing news that a loved one did not survive. They are so, so many sad stories out there.

As of this afternoon, at least 125 people in Joplin are confirmed dead. That number likely to go up. This dates this tornado, Joplin, Missouri, alone, the single deadliest tornado to touchdown in any U.S. city since the modern wrecking -- record-keeping system began back in 1950. Two-hundred-thirty-two people are still missing.

CNN's Brian Todd is following what's going on for us and he has been since -- since the early days since this tornado struck. He's been one of the first reporters to get there.

Brian, we're looking at a lot of positive stories. But there's some sad stories, as well.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are, Wolf. Too many sad stories, really. And we have one to report about a family that we've been featuring here on THE SITUATION ROOM for the last four days. We've been reporting on a lady from here named Michelle Hare (ph) who was looking for her 16-year-old son, Lance Hare (ph), since the tornado struck.

We did learn this afternoon from Michelle Hare (ph) that she got a positive identification from a law-enforcement official this afternoon and that she has been told that Lance is deceased. Of course, our -- our thoughts and prayers go out to her and her family. She has handled this with great dignity. And she's really kind of led the charge as -- for a lot of the families around here to try to get more information about their missing loved ones. She's really been taking the point for that. And, of course, we really feel the frustration and the devastation of their loss right now.

Lance Hare (ph) and his situation have really played into this in several ways. And this is one of them. This is the list that was released today that officials gave us of 232 people now who they say are confirmed missing. These are people reported missing formally of -- a form has been filed, and they've got a formal report of them missing. And he was on this list.

And no sooner did we get this list this afternoon then we found a problem with it. Lance Hare (ph) is on the list twice. And our photographer, Bob Crowley, may be able to zoom in here. You see him here. His full name is Haley Lance Hare (ph). OK, here's where you see it, Haley Hare (ph), 1601 Jefferson, age 16. You flip the page. And here it is again. Haley Lance (ph), same address, same age.

We have not been able to get any kind of response from state and local officials as to why he is on the list twice. But again, it illustrates the problem of this list that no sooner was it issued in an effort to streamline this process, than it was a problem with it. And then later on we found, of course, that Lance had been deceased. So the list in and of itself has some issues, and they're trying to work to streamline the process. It's not easy.

Another big part of the problem is that families are being denied access to a temporary morgue that's been set up outside of town where federal forensics experts are going through and, you know, confirming the identities and working to confirm the identities of the bodies. Family members cannot go in there and identify the bodies.

And I asked a lady named Andrea Spillars from the Missouri Department of Public Safety earlier about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: What do you say to the families who are so frustrated, complaining they're just not getting there fast enough to be able to identify their loved ones?

ANDREA SPILLARS, MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: We are expediting this process as of yesterday when the governor placed us in charge. We are spending all of our time, 24 hours a day. Resources dedicated to this to make sure that we expedite this process, because we definitely want to connect family members with their loved ones. It is a top priority.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: One of the officials from the federal mortuary response team who's here, one of the forensic officials told me a short time ago that there's another reason why they don't let the families go into the morgue. He says that often relatives in these cases go in, and a visual accurate I.D. is very difficult to get. Sometimes they go in there, and they make an incorrect identification that causes a lot more problems, Wolf. So that's another reason why they just don't feel like they can let family members in there to identify bodies.

BLITZER: There's another case you've been following specifically, as well. Right, Brian?

TODD: That's right. There was another man who was on this morning that we got, James Williamson. We spoke to his daughter, Jennifer Perez, yesterday. She was looking for him. She thought he was deceased. We got this list this morning. I talked to her a short time later. He's alive.

She said that he was out volunteering with some local relief groups to try to help people. They didn't know where he was. He may have lost his cell phone. But he is alive. And that's another person on this list where the information is not accurate.

So we -- I think, you know, that when they release the list, they may have to go back and revisit, and it maybe they're doing that right now.

BLITZER: It looks like the whole accounting system is really confused. As of yesterday, 1,500 people were officially listed as missing. The local authorities now 232. So of that -- what, 1,200 or so, what happened to them?

TODD: Well, what they're saying is that that 1,500 figure was based a lot on maybe anecdotal information and kind of loose information that people would call in and report.

For example, one of the officials said today, "We got a lot of calls from people saying, 'Well, my uncle always calls me on Sunday. And he didn't call on Sunday.'" They would take that information, try to cross reference it, and with all of those kinds of reports coming in, somebody at some point floated a figure out of 1,500. And since that was floated out, they've been trying to dial us back on that. So that was a very loose figure to begin with, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd on the scene for us in Joplin. Thank you.

One meteorologist called it a taboo subject, but he says with the right technology the government could easily change the weather and possibly prevent tornadoes disaster. Stand by.

And Sarah Palin is reportedly buying a new house in Arizona. Could it be the base of a possible presidential campaign? It's just one of several new clues about her plans for 2012.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Her star has faded in the two-and-a-half years since last presidential election, and she's basically been written off by some Republicans insiders. But Sarah Palin is showing signs of gearing up for a run for the White House in 2012. She's quietly laying the groundwork for a cross-country tour beginning this weekend right here in Washington, D.C.

CNN's Joe Johns has been piecing together the clues.

Joe, do they all add up? If they do, to what?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Don't know quite yet, Wolf. This has been an obsession ever since the last presidential race. Will Palin make a run for the White House? Now there's actually some news. A documentary about Palin being released in Iowa, of all places. She's also planning to travel to historic sites on the East Coast. So the question is whether she's putting on her running shoes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): What's up with Sarah Palin? Getting ready to start a nationwide tour, launching a movie that gives her positive light, reportedly buying a place in sunny Arizona that could serve as a base for a national campaign or maybe just home away from home in the lower 48. Just enough stuff to stir up some buzz? Or is she actually getting ready to jump into the race for president?

On FOX News, where she gets paid big bucks to be a contributor, her comments have only added to the speculation.

SARAH PALIN, FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: I think my problem is that I do have the fire in my belly. I am so adamantly supportive of the good traditional things about America and our free enterprise system. And I want to make sure that America is put back on the right track. And we only do that by defeating Obama in 2012. I have that fire in my belly.

JOHNS: If you look at the latest poll, were she to run she's not in bad shape, tied with Mitt Romney. Money-wise, her political action committee was busy through the end of December, raising $5.5 million. Though we do know that just this month, she sent out an e-mail solicitation to 400,000 people nationwide.

Her people say all she was doing is raising money for SarahPAC. Though a former staffer with the McCain-Palin campaign last time around says, if she gets in, she'll have no problem finding the donors.

FORD O'CONNELL, FORMER MCCAIN-PALIN CAMPAIGN STAFFER: Sarah Palin can do it like a holy roller on a Sunday morning.

JOHNS: Palin would be competing for social conservative votes, but she's not exactly a shoo-in. For one thing, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is also likely to get into the race, and social conservatives like her a lot.

Direct mail master Richard Viguerie, who's been called one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, says Palin has not surrounded herself with the kind of crowd that tells him what she stands for.

RICHARD VIGUERIE, CONSERVATIVE ACTIVIST: What are her views on judges, you know? Who does she look to for guidance and leadership and advice and counsel? So -- she's kind of a blank slate to most all conservatives.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: A Palin supporter told me she has plenty of time to define herself, if she decides to get in the race. We will be watching that bus tour to see what kind of reception she gets. It's supposed to start this weekend when the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally comes to D.C. for Memorial Day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know she'll get a huge reception. She always does when she's on the campaign trail, if in fact, this is part of the campaign trail.

Joe, thank you.

Could it be possible to stop deadly tornadoes like those we saw this week in Missouri and Oklahoma? We're taking a closer look at what some scientists are saying.

Plus, if you want to gain fame on the Internet and gain contempt from members of Congress, just try putting a shrimp on a treadmill. Jeanne Moos will explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some meteorologists are suggesting there could be a way to stop killer twisters like the one we saw in Joplin, Missouri, potentially, before they happen. CNN's Barbara Starr is joining us with the story -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, technically, it's called weather modification. But can you really modify Mother Nature?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Amid the tragedy of recent tornadoes, the timeless question: is there anything that can be done about the weather?

JOE GOLDEN, WEATHER MODIFICATION ASSOCIATION: What we're talking about in terms of tornado modification is taboo in meteorology. A lot of my -- a lot of my scientific colleagues are very reluctant to even talk about it.

STARR: Joe Golden worked for 40 years as a government meteorologist. Taboo maybe. But Golden says it's feasible.

GOLDEN: If you can shorten the lifespan of a tornado before it hits the city, you can save hundreds, hundreds of lives.

STARR: Meteorologist Steve Tracton has more than 30 years of government experience.

(on camera) Now, you have heard in your profession some pretty wacky ideas.

STEVE TRACTON, METEOROLOGIST: Oh, there are some real crackpot schemes out there, to say the least.

STARR (voice-over): Tracton has heard about beaming microwaves at storms, even blowing jet engine air. But Golden says stopping tornadoes is serious business.

GOLDEN: In order to do that, you have to be able to produce a very strong downdraft close to the tornado earlier than it normally would occur.

STARR: Tracton says think again.

TRACTON: And that's one of the key hang-ups in hitting the modification program. Being able to demonstrate convincingly, both statistically and scientifically, that what you intend would not have occurred naturally.

STARR (on camera): What would have to be done to dissipate this?

TRACTON: There is so much energy here it was thought that the only approach would be to effectively drop a nuclear bomb inside it. That was actually given serious consideration in the early '50s.

STARR (voice-over): That never happened, but there was Project Storm Cherry, a government effort to divert hurricanes. On one occasion it appeared to have worked.

TRACTON: But they later learned that that change in track occurred well before they ever did the cloud seeding.

STARR: There have been other attempts. At the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese claimed to have shot rockets into the sky to divert rain. And the Russians tried to make the winter snow stay outside of central Moscow.

So can the government change the weather?

GOLDEN: I'd say five years at a minimum, we can come up with good technology.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now Golden is an advocate for weather modification. In fact, he did some research for the federal government for the Department of Homeland Security. But others say beware, that once you start modifying the weather, you know, you could send bad weather in a different direction, to another city. It's the law of unintended consequences. You get started, and you may not be able to control the outcome -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, thank you. Fascinating stuff.

Let's go back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: The question this hour is: "As Memorial Day weekend approaches, how do you feel about your country?"

Carl writes from Flint, Michigan, "I remember growing up in a small town near here. We had a Memorial Day parade every year. There was a marching band, which I did in high school, and VFW and American Legion groups. There were Blue Star mothers and sheriff's deputies on horseback. We started on the train station on one end of town and marched to the cemetery at the other end with packed crowds all along the way. There, we remembered our fallen. Now there isn't money for that any more, and the meaning of Memorial Day is lost."

David writes, "It's like my house has been burgled by bankers. The cops won't respond, and the insurance company says nothing is covered."

Valerie in Raleigh, North Carolina: "The speech given in England by President Obama summed up my feelings for this country. He said that we are a good and decent people who always try to do the right thing. That's the perfect definition of America."

S.P. in Kansas City, Missouri: "I look at America as I would look at a relative in a hospital bed suffering from what is probably a terminal disease. The illness is disturbing, the doctors appear to be incompetent, and yet the patient keeps chugging along. I'm pessimistic. I don't hold out a lot of hope. But this is a relative I know and love. And as long as he's breathing, he has my love and support."

Richard in Pennsylvania says, "Memorial Day has become the 'come over to my place for a barbecue and let's get drunk' day. How sad is that? This is a great country, made so by those who defended it. The politicians have done their best to suck the American spirit out of all of us. They are the problem. I'm proud to be an American, I salute the flag. I served this country in the military. My only desire is that America take care of Americans first and then worry about others. Doing that will instill pride in all of us once again."

Tom in DeSoto, Texas: "Bin Laden's dead and Palin won't be president. Yes, I feel good."

You want to read more on the subject, you'll find it on my blog. We got some great e-mail on this, CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: You and all of our viewers have a great Memorial Day weekend. Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf. You, too.

BLITZER: "JOHN KING USA" begins right at the top of the hour. But up next, shrimp like you've probably never seen them before, on a treadmill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's take a look at this hour's "Hot Shots."

In India, a young coconut seller chops fruit at a roadside stand.

In France, staff members sweep the clay courts before the French Open.

In Monte Carlo, race care drivers speed around the track in preparation for the Monaco Grand Prix. And in London, white flowers, they're on display for the annual Chelsea Flower Show.

"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.

A tiny crustacean is causing a big controversy. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you think a shrimp on a treadmill doesn't get very far, well, this shrimp became world famous, his footwork so admired that YouTube fans put it to music. All kinds of music. And the shrimp on a treadmill became trendy. Shrimp scampering along, song after song.

(MUSIC: "Eye of the Tiger")

MOOS: But now just a few years later, he's become a poster boy...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at him go.

MOOS: A poster crustacean for wasteful government spending. Senator Tom Podrom (ph) put out a report mocking the National Science Foundation for funding research projects such as shrimp on a treadmill with a half-million-dollar grant. The media began cracking jokes about obese shrimp.

BRIAN KILMEADE, CO-HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "FOX & FRIENDS": You know what you call a shrimp that's overweight?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What?

KILMEADE: Jumbo. Jumbo shrimp.

MOOS (on camera): Now this -- this is my idea of shrimp on a treadmill.

(voice-over) But you won't find this guy working out at Equinox. The real shrimp treadmill is at the Grice Marine Lab, College of Charleston, South Carolina, where they're using that $500,000 grant to do what doctors do to people.

(on camera) This is like a stress test for shrimp?

LOUIS BURNETT, DIRECTOR OF THE GRICE MARINE LABORATORY: Yes, it is. Exactly.

MOOS: How long would they run on it?

BURNETT: They would run for hours, at least for five hours in some cases.

MOOS: Lab director Lou Burnett say they subject the shrimp to, say, environmental stresses like low oxygen or pollution and then measure their response using blood tests and checking respiration.

(on camera) What's next, shrimp on a Stairmaster?

(voice-over) Actually treadmills for crabs and even lobsters were the next step. Not to create studly crustaceans but to do basic science that might help seafood to survive.

Professor Burnett sounded a little fried, accusing critics of...

BURNETT: Picking on the National Science Foundation. It's serious science, and it's good science.

MOOS: Even if the media don't take it too seriously.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Yes. Look at this shrimp on a treadmill. I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the worst intro I've ever had. "Take a look at this shrimp on a treadmill." Really? Really. Really, George. George, is this it?

MOOS: After a workout like this, even a shrimp needs a cocktail.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.