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Congressman Weiner Under Fire; Brutal Killing Rallies Syrians

Aired May 31, 2011 - 17:58   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, allegations of a new level of brutality in an already brutal crackdown, a 13-year-old boy allegedly tortured and killed by the Syrian regime in Damascus.

Also, Sarah Palin getting -- playing cat and mouse, I should say, with the news media on her bus tour. If it's not a campaign swing, what exactly is it?

And we catch up with Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, pressing him for answers about the growing scandal over a lewd Twitter picture.

Breaking news, political headlines, and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.

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

But we begin with a very heated exchange this afternoon between Congressman Anthony Weiner and a CNN crew asking him about that lewd photo that was tweeted from his account.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She has been working this story.

Dana, you told us what was going on yesterday, but there have been dramatic developments since then.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And really, the developments have just been us trying to get some answers from Congressman Weiner.

The back-story very quickly here, of course, is that over the weekend, there was allegedly a lewd picture that went out on his Twitter account which he quickly said was something that was resulting from a hack, that somebody had hacked his Twitter account. He put out a couple of statements over the last few days saying it was a distraction, saying it was a prank, saying that he had gotten a lawyer to figure out whether there should be any criminal or civil action taken. But there were a lot of questions about this. For example, whether or not or why he apparently was in contact or following a woman, a 21-year-old college student in Seattle, who was the alleged recipient of this tweet. So I want to you look at this exchange. Congressman Weiner, for the second time today, Wolf, came out and was very open, he said, about wanting to stand before the cameras and talk to reporters. The problem is he didn't answer questions.

Watch this.


REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D), NEW YORK: Well, I'm sorry to keep you waiting, guys.

Where do you want it, up here?

Down here?

QUESTION: Over here.

WEINER: Any preference?


How can I help you?

BASH: Congressman, could you just ask -- answer point blank, you say that you were hacked, which is potentially a crime.

So why haven't you asked the Capitol Police for any law enforcement to investigate?

WEINER: Look, this was a prank that I've now been talking about for a couple of days. I am not going to allow it to decide what I talk about for the next week or the next two weeks. And so I'm not going to be giving you anything more about that today. I think I've been pretty responsive to you in the past.

BASH: But -- but with respect, you're here, which we -- which we appreciate, but you're not answering the questions.

Can you just say why you haven't asked law enforcement to investigate what you are alleging is a crime?

WEINER: You -- you know, Dana, if I was giving a speech to 45,000 people and someone in the back of the room threw a pie or yelled out an insult, would I spent the next two hours responding to that?


QUESTION: This is --

WEINER: I would get back --


WEINER: I would get back -- QUESTION: This is not that situation.

WEINER: I would get back --

QUESTION: This is not that situation, though. You --

WEINER: I would --

QUESTION: -- you were --

WEINER: I would get back -- well, why don't you do it?

Do you want to do the briefing?

QUESTION: You were had your -- you said --

WEINER: Do you want to do the briefing, sir?

QUESTION: -- from your Twitter account --

WEINER: Sir --

QUESTION: -- that a lewd picture was sent to a --

WEINER: Sir --

QUESTION: -- a college student.

WEINER: Sir --

QUESTION: Answer the question.

Was it from you or not?

WEINER: Sir -- permit me -- permit me -- do you guys want me to finish my answer?

QUESTION: Yes, this ques -- this anywhere.


QUESTION: did you send it or not?

WEINER: If I were giving a speech to 45,000 people and someone in the back threw a pie or yelled out an insult, I would not spend the next two hours of my speech responding to that pie or that insult. I would return to the things that I want to talk about to the audience that I wanted to talk to --

QUESTION: all you have to do is say no with respect --

WEINER: -- and that is what I intend to do at this point.

QUESTION: all you have to do --

BASH: Can I -- let me -- QUESTION: -- is say no to the question.

BASH: -- let me try -- let me try this question.

The woman who allegedly got this Tweet or it was directed to, this 21-year-old college student in Seattle, she released a statement to the New York "Daily News" yesterday saying that you follow her on Twitter.

Is that true?

Did you follow her on Tweet?

And, if so, how did you find her and what was the reason?

WEINER: You know, I have, I think, said this a couple of ways and I'll say it again. I am not going to permit myself to be distracted by this issue any longer. You are free --

QUESTION: All you have to do is say no to that question --

WEINER: You are free -- you're very good at --

QUESTION: If you're not following her on Twitter --

WEINER: Well --

QUESTION: -- say no to the question.

WEINER: -- why don't you -- why don't you let me do the answers and you do the questions.

QUESTION: As soon as you answer the question asked you --

WEINER: I tried, sir.

QUESTION: -- sir, we will.

QUESTION: I'm with you, buddy.


QUESTION: You follow an awful lot of young women on Twitter.

Is there a reason that you have so many ladies that you're following on (INAUDIBLE)?

WEINER: By the way, in related news, I have, in the famous hash tag scrappy chasing crazy, I passed Michele Bachmann's standard number of Twitter followers. I will give you that additional fact.

QUESTION: Then the result of this --

WEINER: And unfortunate it probably is.

(CROSSTALK) BASH: Congressman --


BASH: Congressman, you understand -- you understand that the -- what's going on here, the frustration. We appreciate you coming out here talking to us. You're smiling. You're -- you're cooperating. And that gives, you know, good optics. But you're not answering the question.

So can you answer --

WEINER: This is now --

BASH: -- even the most basic question.

WEINER: This is now day --

BASH: But you're saying the same thing over and over again --

WEINER: This is now day --

BASH: -- but you're not answering the question.

WEINER: -- this is now day three. You have statements that my office has put out --

BASH: But they don't answer the question.

WEINER: There are statements that I've had my offices put out. And there are going to be people who are going to want -- look, this is the tactic. The guy in the back of the room who's throwing the pie or yelling out the insult wants that to be the conversation. I am --

BASH: But you were the one who --

WEINER: Dana, let --

BASH: -- (INAUDIBLE) you were hacked.

WEINER: -- let me --

BASH: That you were hacked.

WEINER: Dana --

BASH: And that's -- and that's a criminal -- a potential crime.

WEINER: Dana -- Dana, let me -- I'm going to have to ask that we follow some rules here. And one of those is going to be you want some (INAUDIBLE) answer that's reasonable --

BASH: I'd love to get an answer.

WEINER: That -- that --


QUESTION: A direct answer.

WEINER: That would be reasonable, you do the questions, I do the answers and this jackass interrupts me, how about that as a -- as the new -- the new rule of the game?

QUESTION: Congressman --


WEINER: Let -- let me --


WEINER: Let me just --


WEINER: Let me just --

BASH: Go ahead.

WEINER: Let me -- let me just -- just give you the answer. The objective of the person who is doing the mischief is to try to distract me from what I'm doing. So for the last couple of days that has happened, I've made a decision I'm not going to let it happen today. I'm not going to let it happen tomorrow. You're free. You're doing your job. I understand it. Just go ahead and -- and do it, but you're going to have to do it without me every day answering more questions about this.

Today, I want to talk about the debt limit vote. This debt limit vote tonight is a --

QUESTION: Congressman --

WEINER: -- very important --

QUESTION: -- why haven't you asked the police to investigate --

WEINER: -- let me -- let me just make the point --

QUESTION: Why have you not asked --

WEINER: Let me make a point about --

QUESTION: -- the police to investigate this?

WEINER: -- about the debt limit.

QUESTION: It is because you don't want them --

WEINER: Let --

QUESTION: -- to find out -- WEINER: Let me --

QUESTION: -- what the answer is --

WEINER: -- let me make a point about the debt limit. You know, we are, tonight, at 6:30, 6:45, going to be casting a vote on something that has monumental importance to our economy, whether or not we have a stump (ph) vote on something of the importance of the debt limit. I want to focus what I talk about on that. I want to focus what I'm working on on that. I want to focus on that because, frankly, I think my constituents want me to and I think that, frankly, the country would want me to.

So that's what I'm going to do. You don't have to. You can continue doing whatever you want to do. But I am not going to allow this thing to dominate what I talk about anymore.


BASH: -- we're covering that --


BASH: -- we're covering that story --


BASH: But you understand that in the statement that you put out, you said that you were hacked. And so we just -- it's -- it's sort of a logical question that we really wish that you would answer -- why, if you think that --


BASH: -- you were --

WEINER: -- I have you --

BASH: -- the victim of a crime --

WEINER: -- you've got to refer to my statement --

BASH: -- you did not ask --

WEINER: You've got to refer to my statement.

BASH: But the statement doesn't answer the question. If they did, we would be happy to.

WEINER: I don't think I --

BASH: The statement doesn't answer the question.

WEINER: Look, all I can tell you is I put out statements the last couple of days responding to everyone saying this is the last question we're going to ask. And, in fact, it's pretty clear that, by your presence here, some people have been successful in making the conversation about something I simply choose not to participate in anymore.

You can -- you can feel free to still cover it. You can --

QUESTION: Congressman, if you would --


QUESTION: -- if you would deny this --

WEINER: -- and you can --

QUESTION: -- and you would answer --

WEINER: -- feel free --

QUESTION: -- directly --

WEINER: -- if you can feel free to -- to -- to stay here and ask me again. But, you know, we have a situation where across the way is the Supreme Court, that the -- that Justice Clarence Thomas, his household received over $800,000 of remuneration from people that are trying to overturn the health care law, trying to stop it. And yet he has refused to recuse himself. I think that's pretty important. That's a pretty important thing that I'm going to devote my energies to and those are the things I'm going to talk about.

BASH: At least 24 --


QUESTION: Do you have any proof that you had --

BASH: We just want to get --


BASH: -- an answer to the question.

QUESTION: Do you have any evidence?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- that you did retain a lawyer.

So what are you directing your attorney to do on your behalf, ask for a (INAUDIBLE)?

WEINER: We -- we aren't going to -- I think the -- the statement speaks to that. It says they are going to advise us on appropriate next steps.


WEINER: They are going to -- no, it -- (CROSSTALK)

WEINER: No, that's not right. It doesn't say that. So I would refer you back to the statement and read it in its entirety.


WEINER: I -- I appreciate -- are there any other questions?


QUESTION: Why are you calling somebody --




WEINER: -- we -- that's -- that is (INAUDIBLE).

Another question?

Look, there are people who are going to want to try to distract from the work that I have to do. There are. There are going to be people who are going to want to have this debate. And to some degree, the people that are engaging it are zealous to do it.


But I don't want to. I choose to fight for the things that I care about and the things that I -- that I'm -- that I'm working on.

Look, can I tell you something?

I don't -- I don't -- I know this is how the game is played. Some people decide they want to talk about this thing for days and days. I choose not to. That's my prerogative. I'm sorry.

BASH: Can I just --

WEINER: Sorry.

BASH: -- can I just throw this out there, though?

If this is the non-story that you -- that you say this is and a distraction --

WEINER: I didn't charac --

BASH: Then you --

WEINER: I characterized it as a distraction.


WEINER: You -- I will --

BASH: Do you think that this --

WEINER: -- I'll leave it to you to make the decision whether --

BASH: If you think this is just a distraction, you're a sophisticated guy.

Why not just answer the questions and then you'll be done with it?

WEINER: I've been doing that for several days. Now, I choose --

BASH: (INAUDIBLE) didn't ask --

WEINER: -- now I choose --

BASH: (INAUDIBLE) so many questions that you didn't answer.

WEINER: -- now I choose -- I've been -- there are people here who apparently haven't read the statements. I assume that you have. So all I can tell you is this, that this is --

BASH: (INAUDIBLE) statements --

WEINER: -- this is akin, this is akin to someone deciding on day three or day four they want to continue talking about something that I consider a distraction and they make the decision on how I'm going to deal with this. And the decision that I've made is I'm not going to permit it to distract me. I'm not going to permit it to -- to -- to continue on for three, four, five or six more days.

If that's not satisfactory to you, I apologize. But I think that what people really want to talk about are things like the debt limit vote tonight or things like -- like the -- the oppressive disparity between the very well-to-do in this country and people that don't have as much or the fact that it's more and more difficult being in the middle class in this country.

That's what I'm here to work on.

Thank you, guys.



BLITZER: Wow. What an exchange that was.

Dana still with us up on Capitol Hill.

Dana, I don't think the story is going to go away.

Just to recap, has the congressman asked Capitol Hill police or New York City police or any local law enforcement authority or the FBI, for that matter, to investigate who may have gone into his Twitter account and sent out this lewd photo?

BASH: Well, as you saw there, I tried to ask that question probably more than a handful of times. He wouldn't answer.

But I can tell you, from talking to the spokesperson for both the Capitol Police -- and we also talked to the FBI -- the answer is, no, that they are not investigating. In the case of the FBI, they explicitly said that they were not asked by Congressman Weiner to do that. Otherwise, they would.

And I can just tell you that, in talking to law enforcement officials familiar with the process and protocol here on Capitol Hill, if the Capitol Police is not investigating, I'm told, it is because he has not asked to do that.

But you saw, that was the first question that I had for him, because he has said that he was hacked, which, of course, is -- especially when talking about a member of Congress, is potentially criminal. So, why not have law enforcement investigate?

I should also say that the tall guy next to me was Ted Barrett, of course our congressional producer, who the congressman referred to as a jackass. But we disagree.

BLITZER: Of course. And, you know, because the fact of the matter is, as Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, said in the last hour, a crime may -- may have been committed if someone did, in fact, hack into his Twitter account and falsely send out under his name that lewd photo. We don't know.

It is new law, this whole social media issue.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: But it may have been a violation of the law worthy of investigation. Go ahead.


BASH: Exactly.

And, you know, we should also point out, Wolf, that obviously you just saw there that the congressman did come out -- and this is the second time he did this today. And he -- you know, put a tie on. He came out. He knew the cameras were there. His staff knew that we were there all day long. And he talked to us, didn't ask the questions, but at least talked to us twice.

We have lots of questions that he wouldn't answer for the congressman, but there are also other questions out there on -- for other aspects of this story, namely, if -- if it is true that he was hacked, you know, who is it? Why is it that a conservative blog, a conservative site got this so quickly?

Why is it that, in fact, it was a -- clearly a right-wing Twitterer, if you will, who put this out there right away. How did that person get it? So, there are lots of questions for people and entities other than Congressman Weiner, but obviously he is the one who this centers around.

It was allegedly his Twitter account. And he's the one who first came out and said that he was hacked, which is what led to the other questions. Well, if you were hacked, you know, why aren't -- why isn't there an investigation and why are you communicating allegedly -- allegedly -- with the woman who apparently got this tweet -- who -- who the lewd tweet was directed to? Let's put it that way.

BLITZER: Absolutely.

All right, Dana, I know you are going stay on top of this story for us. Thanks very, very much.

Other important news we are following, there have been many horrific accounts of brutality coming out of Syria, as we all know, certainly as the regime is cracking down on dissent. But now the apparent torture, killing, and mutilation of a young boy, it has become a rallying cry for Syria's revolution. And it prompted some very strong reaction from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

She said the case symbolizes the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work -- to work with the Syrian government, to work -- to let the Syrian government listen to its people.

CNN's Arwa Damon put together this report.

We must warn you, though, a cautionary note, some viewers may be upset by graphic images of injuries sustained by children.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On April 29, anti- government protesters tried to break the Syrian army's siege on the city of Daraa. Eyewitnesses at the time described how security forces indiscriminately opened fire on them.

Dozens were killed and wounded, countless others detained. Among them, say his family, was 13-year-old Hamza, separated from his father in the chaos. A month later, the family received their son's body, Hamza's face bloated, purple.

This video posted to YouTube catalogues each of his wounds, much of it too graphic to broadcast. The narrator points out multiple gunshots before moving to his head. And even more shocking, his genitals were mutilated.

CNN cannot independently verify what happened to Hamza or the authenticity of this video. After it was initially broadcast, Hamza's family was threatened. Now they are too petrified to talk, even to close friends.

Razan Zaitouneh, a prominent Syrian activist who we reached via Skype, says she has no doubt it is real and that the regime had a message in releasing the boy's body. RAZAN ZAITOUNEH, SYRIAN ACTIVIST: They want the people to see this. They want the people to get scared. They want the people to know that there is no red lines. Everything, no matter how awful is it, could happen to their family members if they continue to participate in this revolution.

DAMON: But far from cowing people, the video has only made them bolder. Demonstrations to protest Hamza's death erupted. Even children took to the streets, risking a similar fate, vowing that his blood was not spilled in vain.

Activists say they are not surprised that the regime could have committed such cruelty and claim it is not the first time a child has been targeted.

This 11-year-old boy was allegedly shot in his home. This video shows the body of a child lying in the street amid intense gunfire as others tried to recover his body.

And here children lie wounded in hospital after security forces allegedly fired at their school bus. Hamza's death has prompted international outrage. A Facebook calling itself "We are all the martyr the child, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb," had 60,000 followers by Tuesday.

The face of this 13-year-old from a village in southern Syria now the symbol of an uprising.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Beirut.


BLITZER: CNN made repeated attempts to reach out to the Syrian authorities in Damascus for comment on the death of Hamza al-Khateeb, without success. But a medical examiner told Syrian TV there was no evidence the boy had been tortured and that the body's condition was consistent with decomposition.

Syrian TV, which is the official TV network of the Damascus regime, also said President Assad had met with members of the boy's family. The interior minister has said there will be an investigation into Hamza al-Khateeb's death.

This 13-year-old boy's terrible death, though, could be a turning point in Syria's revolution.

Let's discuss with Professor Fouad Ajami. He's director of the Middle East studies program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington.

Fouad, will the death of this boy, this 13-year-old boy, become the symbol and turn this revolution around, eventually resulting in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad's regime?

FOUAD AJAMI, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, you know, Wolf, we really don't know the answer about the overthrow of the regime.

That's for the future. But what we have seen now, this is the great stain of shame on the city and regime. And I think the mask has fallen in Damascus. We now see what Bashar al-Assad is about. And our own secretary of state, who a while ago when asked would you like -- would you be sad if the regime of Bashar al-Assad were to fall, she said, well, it depends on what replaces it.

And President Obama in his speech of May 19, a while ago, he ended up saying about Bashar al-Assad, Bashar could either lead the reform or he could step out of the way. So, the door was left open. People were not really sure about the barbarism of Bashar al-Assad.

And now we know. Now we know that Hamza al-Khateeb has become the emblem of this revolution, the emblem of a war between the regime and the Syrian people.

BLITZER: When Moammar Gadhafi in Libya started committing atrocities against his own people, the U.S. quickly not only recalled its ambassador, but shut down the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. But the U.S. Embassy is still operating at full speed in Damascus. There has been no decision to recall the U.S. ambassador even from Damascus as a sign of protest.

Is this the right step?

AJAMI: Well, and this is exactly -- this is the issue with the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime has been given enormous amount of running room. They are given running room by the -- by the Obama administration. They are given running room by the League of the Arab States.

Now, you were talking about Libya, Wolf. And here is the difference. In the case of Moammar Gadhafi, the League of Arab States, the Arab League, came down against Moammar Gadhafi and broke with him and gave a warrant, gave a license, if you will, for intervention against Moammar Gadhafi.

No such thing in the case of Bashar al-Assad. Syria still enjoys enormous clout in the region. And this is the mystery. People have kept the hope alive that somehow or another that Bashar al-Assad will see the light of day, that he's not the monster that his people are saying that he is.

Now we see the truth of the Syrian regime, Hamza al-Khateeb, his genitals cut off, mutilated, brought back to his family. And this is an -- this is an incredibly cruel regime and really obtuse. They keep thinking that one more deed of barbarism will frighten the Syrian people. And it is not working.

BLITZER: Because it seems to me, Fouad -- and I don't know if you agree or disagree -- that they deliberately wanted to send this 13-year-old boy's body, mutilated as it was, back to the family to send a message to other families: You mess with Bashar al-Assad, this is what is going to happen to your children as well.

Is that why they returned the body, instead of just getting rid of it?

AJAMI: Absolutely.

They didn't want to hide this crime. This crime was meant to be displayed. This crime was meant to be a message to all parents: If your children go out, this what we will do to them.

And if indeed you can mutilate and kill a 13-year-old, what's the limit? And, so, I think that Bashar al-Assad has sent a message that this is not Libya. This is not even -- this is not Tunisia. This is not Egypt. This is -- these are very cruel lines.

And there may be an argument that -- in fact that the Syrian regime is much more cruel than the Libyan regime, that the war the Syrian regime is conducting against the Syrian people exceeds in barbarism what Gadhafi is doing in Libya. But, still, still people keep cutting slack for this regime. Still, people keep hoping that this regime isn't what we know to be -- what we know it to be.

BLITZER: Fouad Ajami, thanks, as usual. Appreciate it very much.

AJAMI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Homeownership is on Jack Cafferty's mind. Jack is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: More than two-thirds of Americans say that they have achieved the American dream or will do so at some point in their lifetime, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project.

But a new report out today, a troubling one, says that a crucial part of the American dream is no longer a reality for many Americans, that of owning a home. The rate of homeownership in this country is actually declining. It is now back to the level it was in 1998. Forget the housing boom. It's like it never happened.

And some economists and industry experts say that the homeownership rate could decline even farther, perhaps to the level of the 1980s or even earlier. Last year, 66.4 percent of Americans owned a home, down from a peak of about 69 percent in 2004.

Housing prices fell in March to their lowest levels since the so- called great recession began. This is all according to the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller home price index, considered one of the best indicators of the housing situation in the country.

According to a survey from real estate Web sites Trulia and RealtyTrac, 54 percent of Americans say they think the real estate market will recover in 2014 or later. That's up from a third who gave the same answer to the same question last November.

The outlook is pretty bleak. Unemployment and bad credit are preventing a lot of Americans from buying a home. Others are struggling to hold on to what they already own, either underwater in their homes, meaning the home is worth less than what they owe on the mortgage, or facing foreclosure.

And then there are those who have the money to buy a home, but they are choosing not to, out of fear that the worst is still ahead.

Here's the question then. Homeownership levels are on the decline. What does that tell us about the American dream?

Go to and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.



AS you know, we have had a power outage in D.C. And our Wolf Blitzer will be back momentarily as we resolve some of our technical issues in Washington, D.C.

But we're going to pick up the program with a senior Egyptian general now admitting that virginity checks were performed on women arrested at a demonstration in March. The allegations arose in an Amnesty International report claiming that female demonstrators were beaten, given electric shocks, strip-searched, threatened with prostitution charges, and forced to submit to virginity checks.

More now from CNN's Ivan Watson.


RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a month after the fall of the Mubarak regime. Egypt's new military rulers attempted to clear Cairo's Tahrir Square of protesters.

One of them, Salwa Hosseini, says she was among several women sexually assaulted while in military detention. The 20-year-old hairdresser was submitted to a forced virginity test under threat of electrocution.

SALWA HOSSEINI, VICTIM (through translator): During the test, no one was standing except for a woman and a male doctor. Six soldiers were standing behind us and watching the backside of the bed. I think they were there to be witnesses.

VASSILEVA: She says that was after soldiers had tied her, forced her to the ground and shocked her with a stun gun, calling her a prostitute.

Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy says the fact that such assaults continue shows that little has changed for women since the revolution.

MONA ELTAHAWY, JOURNALIST & COMMENTATOR: It's basically a way to determine whether a woman is a virgin or not. And it usually depends on whether a hymen is in place or not. That's forgetting, of course, that not all virgins have hymens in place and that some women are born without hymens. But I think what goes to the heart of what happened there in Egypt, and that we have final confirmation of, is that the state is once more sexually assaulting women in Egypt, but, this time, it is under the council of -- the Supreme Military Council.

VASSILEVA: At first, the army denied the allegations made in an Amnesty International report. But last Friday, a senior Egyptian general admitted to journalists Shahira Amin that the army had indeed conducted so-called virginity tests.

SHAHIRA AMIN, JOURNALIST: These tests were carried out, he said, because the military authority didn't want to be accused of sexually assaulting the girls.

VASSILEVA: And the Egyptian general defends the practice, telling Amin that these women were not decent girls because they had camped out with male protesters.

Ralitsa Vassileva, CNN, Atlanta.


SNOW: And our apologies. That obviously was not Ivan Watson, but Ralitsa Vassileva.

Turning now to D.C., are the media obsessing over Sarah Palin and ignoring a Republican front-runner?

In today's "Strategy Session," CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and contributor David Frum. He's also the editor of

Guys, take it away.



BRAZILE: Let me say, David wrote a very great column today about Mitt Romney, who is expected to announce some time later this week.

In his column, David, of course, talked about Sarah Palin, who is, of course, on a bus tour.

So, David, why are you worried about Sarah Palin and this bus tour? And will it happen to Mitt Romney?

FRUM: Well, it just seems perverse.

I mean, here's Mitt Romney, who has been in -- almost every week since the last presidential election either number one or number two in the polls. When he was number two, he was behind Mike Huckabee, who is now out. So, he is now number one all the time.

He has raised more money than anybody else. But what's a guy have to do to get a little respect in this town that in the week that he is going to announce, the media are chasing Sarah Palin's bus?

BRAZILE: Well, as you well know, Michele Bachmann earlier today talked about running herself. Is there room for two -- two Tea Party candidates?

FRUM: I think Sarah Palin is the real thing and Michele Bachmann is the knockoff. On the other hand, the number two is trying harder.

And Michele Bachmann is Sarah Palin with a work ethic. And that may matter. But, meanwhile, we are scaring half the world, we -- Republicans -- in the way we cover this, because what Republicans have a number of very credible candidates who actually could do the job of being an effective person, people like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, people like Jon Huntsman.

These are people who could be president. And then there are other people who obviously can't be president, and they get the press attention. When you talk to our friends -- it was talking to friends in government in another allied country, and they cannot -- when you assure them, look, it is not going to happen that Michele Bachmann is going to be the Republican nominee, much less the president, they know it. And yet what do they see on their televisions?

BRAZILE: Well, look, there is another potential candidate who will toss his hat in the ring this week, Rick Santorum. Is he a spoiler? Will he attract social conservatives?

FRUM: I think I'm going to say Rick Perry, OK? Let me say, Rick Perry is the governor of Texas, the second biggest state in the country, can raise a lot. Rick Perry could be a real candidate. Rick Santorum, you don't get to run for president if you didn't win your last race.

BRAZILE: Well, let me just say this.

On behalf of many Democrats out there, we are very excited about Michele Bachmann and of course Sarah Palin and all of the other contenders who might be jumping into the presidential field.

Look, right now, is there a front-runner? We know Mitt Romney has strong name recognition, but is there really a front-runner?

FRUM: Well, this is the thing that Romney runs up -- people say, yes, yes, he's run -- he has been one or two in every poll since 2009. It is just name I.D.

But Newt Gingrich had name I.D., and Republicans were able to examine and discard his candidacy very quickly. Donald Trump had a lot of name I.D. How long did he last? Five days?

If you are ahead in polls week after week, if you're raising money week after week, if you are raising more than anybody else, if you are not making mistakes, if you are building a national organization, that does not mean you are going to win, but it means you get to be called the front-runner. BRAZILE: Well, Donald Trump is hosting Sarah Palin tonight for dinner. What do you expect them two to talk about? And what might be on the menu?


FRUM: Something with maybe a little gold flake on top, something elegant -- something elegant and classy, the world's best food.

I think they are, both of them, sort of circling the other. Both of them like the notoriety of running. Both of them obviously like the money that you can raise from running. But both of them are averse to accepting the attention, scrutiny and criticism that you get from running. And that's the thing that the real candidates do accept.

BRAZILE: So, you think Sarah Palin is a spoiler for Romney or one of other conservatives that might be in the race?

FRUM: Look, if you are a Republican who really wants to beat Barack Obama, and who then wants to have successful administration afterwards, you want to look at people who have done a good job at the essentials of being president. In that column, I outline some of the things presidents do.

Presidents are not -- presidents are negotiators. Mitt Romney -- that is a skill Mitt Romney has. Presidents have to have goals and priorities and be good at discarding things that are very desirable and are not quite No. 1 and 2. How many things does a president get done over four years or eight? Maybe three or four big things, if he's really successful in four years. Maybe one, two more if he's really successful in the second four years. So that -- and how many things would he like to do? Thousands.

BRAZILE: Well, judging from President Obama, a lot in two years. But President Obama, of course, wants another two years. But Sarah Palin, my money is she will run. And I think if Sarah Palin runs she will win the nomination, because she has a lot of supporters out there. She can raise the money. And she has high name I.D. So what's wrong with Sarah Palin being the nominee of the Republican Party?

FRUM: What is wrong with Sarah Palin being the nominee of the Republican Party is it's a Goldwater situation. Republicans have a real chance -- defeating an incumbent is always a heavy lift. Barack Obama, however, unlike most incumbents, has a very bad economic situation. The economy is growing sluggishly. He is vulnerable. If the economy grows at the same 2 percent or whatever it is in 2012 it has been growing until now, he is vulnerable.

BRAZILE: Well, Mary, David and I have more to say, but perhaps you might have some news for us.

Are the lights back on?

SNOW: Donna and David... BRAZILE: It's hot out here.

SNOW: ... for the impromptu strategy session. Yes, I can imagine. Thank you very much.

Well, coming up, military conflicts sparked by a cyber attack. Would the U.S. retaliate against hackers with weapons of war?

Plus, alarming news about cell phones. A warning from the World Health Organization everyone needs to hear.


SNOW: You're watching THE SITUATION ROOM. Wolf Blitzer will be joining us shortly. As you might have known, if you've been watching, we've had a power outage in Washington, D.C., at our bureau. And we've had some technical difficulties. So Mary Snow. We're waiting, as I said, for Wolf Blitzer to join us again.

The Pentagon has reportedly decided that cyber attacks originating abroad can qualify as acts of war, and that could merit a military response. Let's bring in CNN's national security contributor, Fran Townsend. She's a member of the CIA and homeland security external advisory boards.

Fran, good to see you. If other countries hack our computer systems, can you really picture the United States using military force in retaliation?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: You know, Mary, there was an exercise called Cyber Shockwave. And CNN covered it; Wolf Blitzer covered it. I was part of this exercise. And it was this very sort of fact pattern, where a foreign country, an unknown foreign country, attacks our power grid.

And you begin to see during the course of this exercise, this -- this gain, if you will, the lights cascading out along the northeast corridor. And -- immediately it becomes clear how pervasive this is going to be. The damage, hospitals -- lights are going out in hospitals. Generators are failing. People's cell phones no longer work. Nine-one-one systems are cascading.

And so we begin to look at who is responsible. It became very difficult. And you can imagine that the Department of Homeland Security was quickly overwhelmed and looked to the United States military. And there, what you found the most difficult problem in such a cyber attack, cyber crisis, is attribution. How can you be certain that this is coming from a foreign country? That's a tremendous challenge, and it's not very well tackled, we understand, in the Pentagon's new cyber strategy.

What they do find is that there are circumstances in which a cyber attack could be considered an act of war. And it goes on at some length, our understanding from sources, that it's really a question of equivalence. If the cyber attack causes the kind of damage and death or economic damage that would be the equivalent to a physical attack, they may, in fact, treat it as an act of war under the law of armed conflict.

And so it's clear that a lot more thinking has got to go into this. But this is the kind of strategy document you would expect now that the Pentagon has created a cyber command. They want to create their rules of engagement so they know when it will be their responsibility to act.

SNOW: And just to be clear, this is the first really foremost cyber strategy, right?

TOWNSEND: That's right, Mary. Going back to the Bush administration, there was a cyber strategy developed while I was at the White House working with others in the national security community. But that was really -- the first wave was really a defensive document. How do we close vulnerabilities? How do we make sure something like -- you'll recall in the last year and a half, there was this thing, the Stuxnet virus. This was a computer virus that was launched against the Iranian nuclear program.

And the first thing you want to do is protect your -- close your vulnerabilities, and that was the first piece of the U.S. strategy. After that you want -- then want to get on to you do we use offensive capability. The United States military actually has got quite sophisticated offensive capability, but you want to make sure the rules of engagement are clear. And after the stand-up of the cyber command by the secretary of defense, Secretary Gates, that was what they turned their attention to, working through the initial strategy so that they could clearly define the rules of engagement.

SNOW: All right. Fran Townsend, we're going to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.

Coming up, a disturbing new development that impacts anyone who use as cell phone. World scientists make a new link to cancer.

Plus, a showdown on raising the debt ceiling.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We're here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Mary Snow is monitoring some of the other top stories happening right now. Mary, what else is going on?

SNOW: Well, Wolf, we'll start off with a disturbing medical story. What do lead, engine exhaust and chloroform have in common with your cell phone? The World Health Organization says all of them may cause cancer.

Scientists with the group have added cell phones as a carcinogen hazard after finding evidence of increased brain cancer among cell- phone users. While they say more studies are needed, doctors urge people to take precautions like using headsets in case there are long- term effects. They also particularly discourage excessive use by children.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a Kansas man who was held without charges for 16 days cannot sue former attorney general, John Ashcroft. Abdullah al-Kidd was held as a material witness in a terror investigation. He was never charged or called as a witness and wanted to sue Ashcroft for wrongful arrest and detention, but the high court ruled unanimously against it.

And military prosecutors are refiling capital charges against accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged co-conspirators. That will allow them to be tried before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Obama administration shelved controversial plans to prosecute them in federal court here in New York City.

The five are accused of planning and executing the September 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. They could face the death penalty if convicted -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you. Thanks very much.

A showdown in the House of Representatives on raising the nation's debt ceiling. Let's go straight to CNN's congressional correspondent, Kate Bolduan. She's standing by. We'll have her report right after this.


BLITZER: A showdown in the House on raising the debt ceiling. Let's go straight to our congressional correspondent, Kate Bolduan.

Kate, this is a major issue, raising the debt ceiling. Lots at stake right now. What is this vote today all about?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a hugely important issue, raising the federal debt limit. We've been talking about it for weeks now, Wolf. This showdown that's happening today, though, is very interesting.

This is an issue, this is a vote that's going to be happening in the next few minutes that the president supports -- has supported this proposal. Democrats have supported the proposal. Republicans are bringing the vote to the floor. But still no agreement, and still this vote is expected to fail.

This is what's going on. House Republicans have brought a bill to the floor that would raise the federal debt limit by $2.4 trillion. That's estimated to let -- allow the treasury to continue paying its bills, if you will, through December of 2012. This does not have spending cuts attached to it.

But because of that, no Republicans are going to be voting for this. And the point of this whole vote today is to demonstrate that -- House Republicans want to demonstrate that there is not enough support to let a so-called clean extension pass through the House without some steep spending cuts, which is something that House Speaker John Boehner has called for over and over again.

Interestingly also today, though, Wolf, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer, he's now telling his colleagues to vote against this, as well, because he says -- he has told reporter -- as he told reporters today, to not play this political charade. A bit of political theater today on a very important issue. The debate, the battle, the negotiations continue. But today a little bit of a symbolic vote, little political theater, if you will -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We've been seeing a lot of that political theater up on Capitol Hill over the last few weeks.


BLITZER: I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more especially as we head into an election year. Kate, thanks very much.

Homeownership levels are on the decline. What does that say about the American dream? Jack has your e-mail when we come back.


BLITZER: Right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour, Wolf, "As homeownership levels are on the decline in this country. What does that tell us about the state of the American dream?"

Patrick in the Bronx writes, "It obviously means people have less to buy a home, but there is some good news to this. People maybe are living more within their means than they used to. That's what really led to the mortgage crisis: people not living within their means."

Carol in Florida writes, "It means we need to bring our jobs home and put our people back to work. It's time to question any politician's patriotism who allows one more job to leave this country. It's time to do what's best for the country or we're not going to have a country. Bring the jobs home, put our people to work so they can build or buy a house. Then, and only then, will we get back to where the American dream is within everyone's reach."

Rush in Pennsylvania: "Poof, like a white rabbit in a magician's hat, unless, of course, you were smart enough to realize that homeownership is often not true ownership at all. After all, how many of us are forced to pay exorbitant property taxes in order to keep our property? Renting seems smarter and smarter sometimes."

R.B. in California: "For many the classic American dream has turned into a nightmare. The new American dream is simply to find a job with which you can support your family. Talk about lowered expectations."

Gerry in Arizona writes, 'The American dream is on hold, but it still exists. This generation will have to invest in a home, as it may be their only source of retirement income. Where people used to rely on IRAs and Social Security, which are threatened, home investment may be their only hope for the future. Real estate will stabilize if we can eliminate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and let the market qualify loans without government pressure to cram substandard loans."

And Larry in Texas writes, "It means our economy is not recovering the way some people want us to believe, and we better just get used to the reality that we are headed in the wrong direction."

If you want to read more on this, go to my blog: -- Wolf.

All right, Jack, see you tomorrow. Thank you.

The second-to-last space shuttle mission is nearing an end. And our own John King speaks to the crew in the next hour. You'll want to see it. And Jeanne Moos is horsing around with a surprising twist at a rodeo.


BLITZER: Some rodeo queens are showing their mettle and proving they won't be unseated, even if their horses cannot compete. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What do you do when horse herpes turning real horses into no-shows? Forget your saddle. Just straddle a stick horse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A stick horse is a lot different because you have to do all the work. And I think it's going to be a lot more tiring.

MOOS: In Davis County, Utah, the mounted posse junior queen contest had to pony up with sticks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, it's kind of weird but, you know, you can't really help that the disease is going around.

MOOS: Seventy-five or more cases of horse herpes in nine states. Just those two words, "horse herpes," left one morning host in stitches.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR: Do you have to have sex with the horse to get the herpes?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why would you -- what is wrong with you?

MOOS: Nope. Horses don't give people herpes. Just other horses, and it's often fatal. But a stick horse sticks around forever.

(on camera) Giddy-up. Come on. Giddy-up. Giddy-up.

(voice-over) Actually long before horse herpes at ranch rodeos like the Western Heritage Classic in Texas, kids were riding bucking stick broncos. Instead of shaking a stick they pretended a stick was shaking them. At the Western Heritage Classic, up to a hundred kids do their best to simulate getting thrown.

(on camera) You know what those kids needed with their stick horses? Sound effects.

(voice-over) Those Monty Python guys didn't even need the stick.

MICHAEL PALIN, COMEDIAN/ACTOR: You're using coconuts.


PALIN: You've got two empty halves of coconuts, and you're banging them together.


MOOS: Stick horses have been used in contests to cut cows from a herd. They've been used to imitate famous dressage routines.

OK. You may never see a stick horse commemorated by a statue, but at least with a stick pony you get to pick out a horse that matches your outfit.

(MUSIC: "Happy trails to you...")

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN.

(MUSIC: "... till we meet again.")

MOOS: ... New York.


BLITZER: Very cute. Love those stick ponies. Thanks very much, Jeanne.

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

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.