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Obama Keeps Pledge To Begin Troop Drawdown In Afghanistan; U.S. Will Release 30 M Barrels Of Oil To Strategic Reserves; Taliban Moves in as NATO Leaves; Risks of Talking with the Taliban; CNN Inside Syria's Capital; Man Robs Bank of $1, Waits for Cops; Bill Puts Pot Laws in State Hands; Creepy Family Photos

Aired June 25, 2011 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: (AUDIO GAP) America's longest war. This hour, tough questions about his Afghanistan exit plan and the balance between national security and election year politics.

Plus, the man behind the suspicious package scare at the Pentagon. He is now charged with a series of shootings at military sites. Did federal authorities miss warning signs that this U.S. Marine Reservist was on the attack?

And CNN reports from inside the Syrian capital for the first time since the bloody crackdown on protesters. Stand by for the images the regime's leaders want you to see, and the ones they don't want you to see.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

More aggressive than the Pentagon wanted but not aggressive enough for some Americans weary of the Afghan war. President Obama this week announced his plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops by the end of next summer. Hours after he unveiled the strategy before the nation he took it to the troops themselves, visiting Fort Drum, New York. Our White House Correspondent Dan Lothian has been traveling with the president.

Dan, the president certainly got a huge challenge ahead of him selling this controversial plan to the public.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. As you pointed out, he started out at Fort Drum. These are troops who have played a critical role in missions not only in Iraq but also Afghanistan, so the president saluting them for their service, their sacrifice. And thanking them for among other things helping to reverse the momentum against the Taliban.


LOTHIAN (voice over): Somewhere between caution and full speed ahead President Obama drove his troop drawdown timetable right down the middle.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At ease, everybody. LOTHIAN: At Fort Drum home to the 10th Mountain Division the president explained his math to soldiers, some just back from Afghanistan.

OBAMA: We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops. We're not doing it precipitously. We're going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained.

LOTHIAN: The president also met privately with Gold Star families whose loved ones have died in combat or combat related duty. While Washington may debate troop numbers, here they know them by name like Army Private First Class Ryan Bachus who was killed in Kandahar Province less than a week ago.

OBAMA: You guys have sacrificed mightily. I know that you've got 11 fallen soldiers just out of this group right here. And I think about 270 all told since 9/11. We will never forget their sacrifice.

LOTHIAN: Back in Washington the president's decision, ordering 33,000 service members home by next summer, drew bipartisan support and bipartisan criticism. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said while she respects the president's timetable ending the war will help reduce the deficit and sharpen the focus on domestic priorities like jobs and the economy.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA) MINORITY LEADER: The good news on that is the president is bringing the war to, in Afghanistan, to an end. Many of us would like to see this go faster than the path that was laid out.

LOTHIAN: House Majority Leader John Boehner said the troop surge was a big success but he warned that the withdrawal should not be done on a political deadline.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH) MAJORITY LEADER: We've gained a lot of success but I would describe it as tenuous. And I don't think anyone wants to jeopardize the gains that we've made in Afghanistan.


LOTHIAN: Again, the president said that his decision was based on conditions on the ground there in Afghanistan. That progress indeed is being made. And he thanked these troops for their service saying that they helped to create that platform to go after Osama bin Laden, to go after Al Qaeda, and in the strongest words that he's used yet said, quote, "We have decimated their ranks", Wolf.

BLITZER: Is he going to be spending a lot of time trying to sell this plan now or is he basically going to try to move on and deal with domestic economic issues?

LOTHIAN: I think what you're seeing now is the president really trying to refocus his attention now on the economic situation, on job creation. The president after making those remarks in New York went to Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to talk about a new technology and the role that it's playing in manufacturing, creating jobs in the future. This is something the administration has been trying to do and focus on since January. And now after being sort of having to focus on some foreign policy issues really trying to bring it home to some of the bread and butter issues that a lot of Americans care about, and certainly will be thinking about in the 2012 elections.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian traveling with the president. Thanks very much.

Let's dig deeper now on the Afghan drawdown. Joining us our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger and CNN's Joe Johns, as well.

He made a lot of people unhappy on the right and on the left.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah, he did. I mean, I think there was no way to avoid that. This is a president who says, when you talk to people at the White House, that he promised he would do this. When he called for the surge in December of 2009 in a speech to West Point. He said within 18 months we're going to begin drawing down troops.

When you talk to the White House they'll say he promised it. This is exactly what he delivered. Liberals aren't going to like it because it's not fast enough. Conservatives don't like it because they wanted him to listen more to the generals.

I think the person that he listened to this time was his vice president, Joe Biden. The generals really did not want this to happen this quickly but Biden, who was against the surge, actually got what he wanted this time.

BLITZER: This is a big win for Biden.


BLITZER: Winning this debate. Although there are plenty of suspicions out there that Biden would have even liked a more accelerated withdrawal.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I mean, it's very volatile, too, when you think about it up on Capitol Hill. You've got people who were concerned about the economics, how much the United States is spending in all of these different fronts. You have other issues including, well, you know, we eliminated Osama bin Laden. Isn't that really the end of the Afghanistan war? And when you look at the House of Representatives a lot of people saying, all right. Obama doesn't get -- we don't like this too much. A lot of people in the Senate saying we have to stay the course.


BLITZER: What's interesting now is it's not just the liberals and the Democrats.


BLITZER: Who are concerned. Because there's sort of the odd coalition that has emerged with some very conservative voices on Capitol Hill like Ron Paul, Rand Paul, among others, saying you know what? Get out of there and do what the president said, nation building at home.

BORGER: And you look at the Republican presidential field and they're really all over the lot. I remember four years ago Ron Paul was kind of off in a corner, on his own.

BLITZER: He's almost mainstream now.

BORGER: Right, exactly. They've mainstreamed him. You talk about Mitt Romney in his response to this, he talked about withdrawing troops. But he has a problem now, he says, with the president's timetable. So they all wanted to kind of figure out a way to disagree with the president. And so they said, OK, you should have listened to the generals. But Jon Huntsman who just got into the race this week actually said we should be withdrawing quicker.


BORGER: So for the Republican Party the question is, for me, is this a seismic change in the Republican Party?

BLITZER: Some are calling them neo isolationists.

JOHNS: Yeah, yeah. You think about it. The Republican Party, the party of national security for so long, now people are all over the place. It's fascinating. But again, a bunch of different factors including differentiating yourself with the president of the United States.

BORGER: It would-it might be good for the Democrats and for Barack Obama if the Democrats weren't all over the place, too.

JOHNS: Right.


BORGER: By the way. Because here Barack Obama does not have an anchor in his own party for this war and that makes it -- made it very difficult for him to prosecute.

BLITZER: But the fact of the matter, Democrats are always all over the place.

BORGER: Now Republicans are acting like Democrats.

BLITZER: That goes without saying.

BORGER: There you go.

BLITZER: The collapse of Biden's negotiations with Eric Canter, the Republican leadership, to try to come up with a compromise on raising the debt ceiling, now the president has to personally get involved and deal with the leaders.

BORGER: Right. Everybody knew that at some point it was going to have to go up the food chain. And this is the point when it goes up to the president of the United States and the leaders of the Congress. Because they came to the impasse that we all knew they were going to come to, taxes.

JOHNS: It's about taxes.

BORGER: Right. Absolutely.

BLITZER: Taxes, taxes, taxes.

JOHNS: But the thing that's interesting, too, is the way Eric Canter did this sort of walking out in dramatic fashion, whether or not it was planned or not. It still leaves the bag in the hand of the speaker of the House, which is a problem.

BLITZER: It's a story we're going to be covering all this coming week. And I suspect the weeks to come. Guys, thanks very much.

Possible fallout from the withdrawal of 33,000 American troops over the next year or so. What happens to Afghanistan after they're gone? Our National Security Analyst Peter Bergen is standing by. Also, the Obama administration taking drastic action to try to help bring down gas prices. Here's the question. Will it work?

And a near disaster at New York's Kennedy Airport. Two jumbo passenger jets on a collision course. Stay with us you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Details emerging about a frightening incident at New York's Kennedy Airport, a near collision between two jumbo jets. And you're about to hear the dramatic communications from the control tower that narrowly averted a disaster. CNN's Mary Snow is joining us. She has been working the story.

Mary, what happened here?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a close call on the runway at JFK earlier this week forced a Lufthansa flight 411 to abort a takeoff and the FAA is now investigating this incident.


SNOW (voice over): Just moments after being cleared for takeoff at New York's JFK Airport Monday Night, a Lufthansa jet carrying 286 passengers, speeding down the runway, was forced to come to an abrupt halt to avoid colliding with another plane approaching the runway.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: Cancel takeoff. Cancel takeoff plans.

PILOT: Lufthansa 411 heavy is rejecting takeoff.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: All traffic is stopped right now.

SNOW: The Lufthansa flight, by some estimates, would have been going about 140 miles per hour when the pilot had to slam on the brakes. Egypt Air flight 986 was taxiing and the FAA says the Egypt Air plane failed to turn as instructed. Instead of turning onto another taxiway it went straight but the FAA says it didn't enter runway 22-R. At one point the Lufthansa pilot even mentions the heat the brakes generated.

PILOT: Those two are coming together.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: Roger. Advise if you need any assistance Lufthansa.

PILOT: Um, maybe we have hot brakes now so maybe we can take a minute. We can tell you in five minutes.

SNOW: From a pilot who witnessed it --

PILOT: Yes, that was quite a show. Thought it was going to be a short career.

SNOW: Dangerously close, yes, says Barrett Byrnes, a former air traffic controller at JFK, but he has seen closer.

BARRETT BYRNES, FMR. AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: Definitely seen closer calls. Any time you have these situations it's a bad situation.

SNOW: In this situation, the Egypt Air plane was said to have crossed what is known as the hold short line.

BYRNES: It's marked with red paint and also has lights and they blink, to indicate that runway is in use. It doesn't tell a pilot if somebody else is rolling down the runway.

SNOW: And among pilots who rolled down runways at JFK is Mark Weiss, a former pilot.

MARK WEISS, SPECTRUM GROUP: The amount of force on your body when you step on the brakes at maximum braking, when you hit your full reverse, and when the speed brakes come up on the top of the wing to kill the lift over the wing, I mean, you are sitting there like this really feeling that deceleration force.


SNOW: Wolf, as for that Egypt Air plane a spokesman for the airlines said its plane did not move until it got clearance from the tower. It also said it couldn't release details until the investigation is complete, Wolf.

BLITZER: Near collision indeed. All right. Mary, thank you.

Americans have gotten a little bit of relief at the gas pumps in recent weeks. The national average for a gallon of gas has dropped around 35 cents since hitting a high of nearly $4 in mid-May. Now the Obama administration is moving to try to keep prices from jumping back up. Lisa Sylvester is here. She is working the story for us.

Lisa, the world oil market, as we all know, is enormous right now. Can the administration, by doing what it's done, really affect that market?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN FINANCIAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, they certainly are trying, Wolf. And the focus is not just on where prices are at the moment but where prices are headed. Predictions were gas and oil prices were going to climb during the summer months and the administration, to try to spare some pain at the pump, has decided to tap into the country's oil reserves.


SYLVESTER (voice over): To offset the loss of Libyan oil the Energy Department will release 30 million barrels of oil from what is known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a U.S. emergency oil stockpile.

DANIEL PONEMAN, DEPUTY ENERGY SECRETARY: This is not a U.S. only decision. This is something in which both on the consumer side, the producer side, everyone seems to be in agreement. That this is a time we need to make sure that the market is adequately supplied so the demand can be met.

SYLVESTER: The U.S. has 727 million barrels in the Strategic Reserve, 30 million barrels is really only a drop in the bucket. That's about the amount of oil the United States consumes in a couple of days. But other member countries of the International Energy Agency will add an additional 30 million barrels to help ease prices.

(On camera): Take a look at the trend of the price of oil and gasoline. We have a graphic we can show you. $3.60 a gallon, that is the price of gas right now. It started to go up in December. It peaked in May. Then it started to go back down. So why now? Why now is the Energy Department suddenly tapping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?

(voice over): The Obama administration says about 130 million barrels have been taken offline, at the same time demand is increasing. The administration had hoped that OPEC countries would boost supply, but that hasn't happened yet. Analysts say another driver is politics. Federal Chairman Ben Bernanke this week offered a gloomy economic forecast -- high gas prices could keep a damper on the economy.

(On camera): How much does politics have to do with this going into an election year?

BOB MCNALLY, ENERGY CONSULTANT: I think it's fair to say politics enters into any kind of decision like this. Clearly, the president sees the potential for high oil prices as a threat not only to the economic growth but to his re-election next year. However, any president would view oil prices that way.

SYLVESTER: Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz calls it a Band-Aid.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, (R-UT): While releasing 30 million barrels may make the price of gas go down for a few days or maybe a few weeks, it is not going to solve the problem. The House Republicans have been adamant in saying we got to solve the problem so we don't run into this.

SYLVESTER: Chaffetz says the answer is more drilling and pursuing alternative energy sources.


SYLVESTER: Another energy analyst said tapping into the reserve also sends a message to speculators who have been driving up oil prices. And that message from the U.S. government? We're the ones driving here. The administration can and will take action if it appears prices are going to shoot through the roof, Wolf.

BLITZER: I still don't understand why they've done this as prices are going down, as opposed to when prices were going up?

SYLVESTER: They say now it's an emergency because it is the cumulative total, you know it is over the course of these months that we have had with the conflict in Libya. We now have about 130 million barrels of oil that have been taken offline. And now they're saying that is having the impact, and also you have an increase in summer demand.

BLITZER: We'll see you in the next few weeks and months how this impacts on the price of oil, of gasoline. Thanks very much.

The man behind a suspicious package scare at the Pentagon now linked to a string of military shootings. Did federal authorities miss key warning signs along the way?

Plus a sharp contrast to the bloodshed that has already displaced thousands. Up next, CNN goes inside Damascus, Syria for the first time since the brutal government crackdown began.


BLITZER: Federal authorities now believe they've nabbed the man responsible for a series of military shootings here in the Washington, D.C. area last year. And there are serious security concerns about the suspect's motives. Our Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve is working the story for us.

What do we know about this individual?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a military reservist charged with shooting at military facilities. The case unfolded unexpectedly.


MESERVE (voice over): Before he was arrested last Friday in Arlington National Cemetery Yonathan Melaku was not on the FBI radar, but now is charged with a string of shootings at military facilities in Virginia in October and November. A key piece of evidence, a video recovered from his bedroom apparently shot by Melaku himself. It allegedly shows him firing a gun from inside a vehicle at what looks like the Marine Corps Museum. According to an affidavit he says, "That's my target. That's the military building. It's going to be attacked." When the shooting is done he yells, "Allahu Akbar".

NEIL MACBRIDE, U.S. ATTORNEY, EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA: Anybody who would shoot a semiautomatic weapon at four different military installations over the course of five separate instances is very serious. These were not, you know, junior highers shooting B-B guns at a local school.

MESERVE: Last fall ballistics testing linked the shootings at the Marine Corps Museum, Pentagon, and Marine and Coast Guard recruiting facilities. Shell casings found in Melaku's knapsack when arrested are allegedly the same make. The FBI says it has recovered a weapon and is doing forensic testing.

Melaku was also purportedly interested in making bombs; 20 pounds of ammonium nitrate, the material used in the Oklahoma City bombing was allegedly in his backpack. And a list of other IED components was at his home. Since U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan was charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood the military has been on the lookout for radicalized troops. A Marine spokesman says Melaku showed no signs.

LT. COL. CHRIS HUGHES, U.S. MARINE CORPS: There were no indications. This was a young enlisted Marine serving as a reservist that was attending drills and other functions.

MESERVE: But a military official says one month before the first shooting Melaku failed a combat fitness test. He later did poorly on a personal fitness test, and at some point was listed as non- deployable. The reason is not clear. When he enlisted in 2007, Melaku would have been screened for terror ties. None were found. U.S. officials say they believe he was self-radicalized, that there are no overseas connections. Now the Marines are kicking him out of the reserves, Wolf.

BLITZER: When you say self-radicalized, he was going to jihadi websites? Is that what he was doing?

MESERVE: That's our understanding, yes. Another one of those cases where he's watched, he's learned.

Thanks very much, Jeanne Meserve.

So what happens to Afghanistan in the wake of President Obama's troop drawdown orders? We'll have much more on the possible fallout.

Plus, a man robs a bank to get health care. This is a dramatic story you will see right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: One of the biggest fears is that as U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan the Taliban will fill the void. In fact, it's already happening to a certain degree. CNN's Nick Payton Walsh has this exclusive report.


NICK PAYTON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): When President Obama talks of handing Afghanistan back to the Afghans, the city of Lashkaga (ph), a bustling enclave in violent Helmand Province, is the model that NATO points to.

This is what peace here looks like, hundreds of NATO troops have died fighting for Helmand, but Afghans are in charge of security from July for better or worse. Fewer NATO troops, some hope, means less violence from insurgents.

"People don't like foreigners here," he says, adding that without them he hopes security will be better. NATO promotes Afghan solutions to Afghan problems. But here, the Afghan solution, the police, are to some, the problem. One man told us anonymously how this month he was badly beaten for speeding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I was driving fast on a motor bike to move my sick friend to the doctor. Police stopped me for speeding and when I talked back they beat me, kicked me, and punched me for a few minutes. As civilians here, we are afraid of both the police and the Taliban and I can't say which one I fear more.

WALSH: It's this rough arm of the law, its corruption and abuse that is often used to explain how the Taliban's swift, blunt justice became popular. In this city the handover doesn't mean they've fled. In fact, the Taliban is still very much part of life here.

(on camera): While the handover means the Afghan police taking responsibility for security, many people here off camera tell us the Taliban retain a strong presence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Many people buy from me. I don't know who is Taliban.

WALSH (voice-over): But others like this pharmacist, part of a local Sikh minority, admit their customers too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Yes, definitely the Taliban are coming here for their shopping. They buy headache pills from me.

WALSH: The luxury of meat selling fast as aid money pours into the town. Easy cash that means all sides want to keep this city an enclave from the war swirling around them.

But this compromise, the allegedly sluggish police, the Taliban waiting in the wings, is far from NATO's original game plan.

Is this the life America really wanted to hand back to the Afghans? We asked a senior American here.

(on camera): You're happy to give Afghans that kind of justice?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that is a bit of a --

WALSH: Inside you must know, do you feel happy about where the police are?

ANDREW ERICKSON, USAID REPRESENTATIVE: What I want to say here is I want to say that I feel that that's imposing our values upon the Afghans.

What matters to the Afghans is do they have an adequate security force to meet their own needs? And the Afghans made the decision that they wanted to transition this city.

Now I think it would be presumptuous of me as a foreigner right now to judge the security forces that they have in place. These guys are pretty effective at the level they need to be effective in this environment today.

WALSH: Today money has bought a pause in this city's violence, a brief chance for hope after 30 years of war, but yesterday's fears are still nearby leaving tomorrow so uncertain. Nick Paton Walsh, CNN.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's dig deeper now with our National Security contributor, our analyst, Peter Bergen. Peter, the president and the secretary of state both made it clear this past week they would like to negotiate some sort of peace settlement with the Taliban. Let me play this clip of what the president said in his address to the nation.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Our position on these talks is clear. They must be led by the Afghan government and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution. But in part because of our military effort we have reason to believe that progress can be made.


BLITZER: I hope he's right. I know you hope he's right that progress could be made, but is it realistic to think that the Taliban leadership will accept the Afghan constitution?

I wrote about this on my blog this week, Article 22 gives equal rights to women.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: They wouldn't be the Taliban if they accepted that. And, you know, the Taliban kind of almost one of the main, as you know, points of their rule is the exclusion of women from the work place and girls from schools.

They haven't said anything about what their plans are on this front. If we're going to do some peace deal with the United States and the Afghan government, what is their position on these issues? They've never really explained it.

BLITZER: Because it sounds a little naive to me, but you know a lot more about this than I do. To think you can convert the Taliban and get them to accept these three conditions that the president laid out based on their at least previous history.

BERGEN: I think naive is a good word. Certainly wishful thinking might also be another word you could use. You know, some Taliban have come over.

There have been some quote-unquote "moderate Taliban" who have laid down their arms or even members of the Taliban and their parliament.

So it is not impossible but I think the moderate ones have had plenty of time to moderate and the ones still out there, the Omar led Taliban, you know, their views don't seem to have changed.

BLITZER: In Iraq, they bought off some of the al Qaeda guys with cash. They gave them a lot of money and said here is the money. You're no longer al Qaeda. Will that work with the Taliban?

BERGEN: There is a reintegration program for Taliban fighters. Part of it is cash driven.

BLITZER: U.S. taxpayers basically giving them money to stop being the Taliban.

BERGEN: Right.

BLITZER: Is it working?

BERGEN: The numbers are I think 2,000 if you're going to be generous.

BLITZER: Two thousand dollars?

BERGEN: Two thousand Taliban fighters who are in the process of maybe taking part of this in an insurgency that probably consists of 35,000 so it is not to be sniffed at, but it's not like there is a huge shift of people willing to leave the Taliban because of cash payments.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say that this week the president of the United States sided with Vice President Joe Biden in terms of the troop withdrawal pace and rejected the advice of General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, and the other military commanders?

BERGEN: That's what they seem to have testified to. However, I think that it's maybe a little bit too reductive to say Biden versus Petraeus. The politics around this have changed completely.

The death of Bin Laden, the budget crisis -- it just became, you know, and the president has to make political decisions not just military decisions. And, you know, both Petraeus and Admiral Mullen acknowledge that fact. It's not just a military decision.

BLITZER: It is not as you point out not just a military or economic or political decision. It's an economic decision as well because keeping in 2013, 2014, 70,000 or so U.S. troops, that's still tens and tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars.

BERGEN: Sure. I mean, for every a thousand American soldiers over there. It's a million dollars for the deployment so like a billion dollars for each increment of 1,000 --

BLITZER: You know the mood on Capitol Hill right now is moving quickly saying, you know what? If it's going to be another 300 billion, 400 billion, 500 billion between now and the end of 2014, that's money better spent for nation building as the president said here in the United States.

BERGEN: Sure. I think that was true even before the death of Bin Laden. You know, that is another sort of evidence point that people can point to and say, well, we need to move back here.

BLITZER: The president says he'd like U.S. troops out of Afghanistan completely by the end of 2014. That's three and a half years from now.

There was a story in "The Wall Street Journal" this week saying military commanders would like to keep 25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

BERGEN: Well, the United States and the Afghan government are in the middle of negotiating some kind of agreement. Might even be a status of forces agreement, long-term partnership.

It would involve U.S. forces in training and advising, you know, kind of intelligence support, counterterrorism missions into 2015 and beyond. Is that number going to be 25,000? I don't know, but it wouldn't be nothing.

BLITZER: It wouldn't be a huge surprise. We'll see what the appetite and mood of the American public is around that time if they last even that long. Thanks very much, Peter. Thanks for coming in.

CNN gets into Damascus, Syria now for the first time since the brutal crackdown began. Just ahead a sign in the country the Syrian government wants you to see.

Plus a bold new plan to surrender a major battle in the war on drugs. Should the federal government stop enforcing marijuana laws?


BLITZER: Months into a brutal government crackdown in Syria. CNN makes it inside Damascus now for the first time. The scene there quite a contrast to the one we've seen along the border between Syria and Turkey.

Let's go to Damascus right now. CNN's Hala Gorani is standing by. All right, I know you've just been there a little while. Hala, I know there are restrictions, but set the scene for us. What are you seeing in the Syrian capital?

HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT, CNNI: Yes, as you mentioned, restrictions, Wolf. We need to preface this by saying the government minders do accompany us on shoots. That is when we film outside of the hotel we're staying in.

So today they took us to a small, pro-government rally that happened outside of the mosque in old Damascus. There you had men who just had come out of the mosque streaming out after prayer, praising Bashar al- Assad.

And also accusing the international community including the west, including news channels of orchestrating the crisis in their country. Now, why are we being led in at this point in time, Wolf is interesting.

It could be because several months into this crisis most of the images that we're seeing on television screens across the world are amateur YouTube videos of protests that are happening in rather isolated pockets across the country.

And the government here might be wanting to take control of the message especially by not letting us go report on protests that we are hearing of outside of the very small perimeter we're able to go.

It's also interesting to note that foreign officials are going to make themselves available we understand over the next few days to talk to CNN. So it's going to be interesting to see what they tell us especially after the foreign minister was so annoyed with Europe for slapping more sanctions on his country that he decided he was going to consider the world existed without Europe all together, Wolf.

BLITZER: So the bottom line is you're seeing basically the Damascus area relatively normal, the demonstrations the violence and the brutality, those are in smaller cities and towns and villages outside of the Syrian capital? The ones we've seen ongoing for these past several months is that right?

GORANI: That is correct. The two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo have seen smaller pockets of protest but the city center where the merchant class lives, where some of those were some way or another have benefited from the regime has not erupted in protest.

It's very much a two speed Syria, it's the one we see on amateur videos with the protests, activists telling us they're being fired upon. They're being fired upon by security forces.

And then the other Syria, Damascus, for instance, where things are functioning pretty much as normal. It's a bit quieter. There are no tourists. It's a bit more tense in some places, but otherwise life is going on as normal in the capital as far as we've been able to see, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to stay in close touch with you, Hala. Thanks very much. Hala Gorani is now inside Damascus for CNN. Glad she finally got there. Hala Gorani, thank you.

A bank robber goes to jail for a $1 heist, but he gets something he thinks is more valuable -- health care. And a new plan to surrender a major battle in the war on drugs. Should the federal government stop enforcing marijuana laws?


BLITZER: An incredible story. A North Carolina man walked into a bank and handed the teller a note. You might think that's a standard robbery. But it's what happened next that has a lot of people stunned. Here's CNN's Martin Savage.


MARTIN SAVAGE, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It wasn't your typical bank heist.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (via telephone): We're being robbed, please, RBC.

SAVAGE: James Verone, unarmed and unemployed says he wasn't looking to get rich, merely to get help. So he walked into this RBC Bank and demanded a single dollar.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First time I've ever been in trouble with the law.

SAVAGE: Verone says he is suffering from a number of health issues including two ruptured disks and a problem with his left foot. He wanted health care and a roof over his head neither of which he says he could afford, but which he thought prison would provide.

JAMES VERON, BANK ROBBERY SUSPECT: Sort of a logical person and that was my logic and what I came up with.

SAVAGE: That is why instead of fleeing the scene he simply sat down.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (via telephone): He's sitting on the sofa. He can hear everything I'm saying. So I'm in a back room, but there's four of us here in the bank. Please hurry.

SAVAGE: Police arrested Verone and for nearly two weeks he has been in jail getting medical treatment. He says the jail house doctor has accused him of manipulation.

VERONE: If it's called manipulation then out of necessity because I need medical care then I guess, I am manipulating the courts to get medical care.


SAVAGE: Verone has said he hoped to get at least three years in prison for bank robbery. That would carry him through until he was eligible for social security.

But authorities say he is not going to be charged with bank robbery instead he's going to be charged only with larceny, which means he would serve, if convicted, far less time in prison.

It would appear his plan didn't work out quite the way he wanted it to. Martin Savage, CNN, Atlanta.

BLITZER: The controversy over legalizing marijuana is heating up with a bill that would end the federal prohibition on pot and let states decide how or if they want to continue enforcing marijuana laws.

It's an unusual effort by a political odd couple, Democrat Barney Frank and Republican Ron Paul. CNN's Brian Todd has been working this story for us. Brian, what do we know specifically about this entire initiative?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know it's going to be tough for Barney Frank and Ron Paul to push this bill all the way through.

But Barney Frank told it's worth it to at least begin this process and to attack a prohibition on marijuana that he says has done more harm than good.


TODD (voice-over): A bold new plan to end a major battle in the war on drugs. Two prominent congressmen say it's time for the feds to stop regulating marijuana. Democrat Barney Frank and Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul are pushing a bill that would let the states make their own laws on marijuana.

The states could legalize, tax, and regulate the use of pot, and the federal government would only crack down on smuggling across the national border or into states that don't legalize marijuana.

(on camera): Is this a legalization bill?

REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK (D), MASSACHUSETTS: We should not have federal laws that make the personal use of marijuana criminal, or even the growing of it. It should be criminal if a state wants to maintain its restrictions and the federal government should honor that state's laws.

TODD: Frank says there are two principal reasons he's behind this, to make sure the government doesn't intrude on freedom of choice and stop wasting federal resources on enforcing anti-marijuana laws that he says hasn't been effective.

(on camera): During the slow recovery, the economics of legalization also come into the debate. According to a study published six years ago by a pro-legalization professor at Harvard, cash-strapped California could bring in more than $105 million a year in revenue if marijuana sales were taxed there.

Look at what New York, Florida, Texas and Ohio could make. That same study found that if marijuana was legalized, states would save more than $5 billion a year in law enforcement costs and the federal government could save more than $2 billion a year on police, courts and prisons.

(voice-over): But Sue Thau, an opponent of legalization shoots right through those numbers. She cites a federal study that shows illegal drug use, all drugs, costs society $200 billion a year in lost productivity, health care, criminal justice and child welfare.

SUE THAU, COMMUNITY ANTI-DRUG COALITIONS OF AMERICA: The issue is do we want more harmful substances more available to our youth. And I think the answer is no. I think we have enough societal problems dealing with alcohol, and we're doing a pretty poor job of dealing with that as it is.


TODD: Now, even if the marijuana bill makes it through Congress, that's a long shot, it would still have to get past President Obama. The White House tells CNN it won't comment specifically on this new bill.

But says legalization is a non-starter with them, because research shows that marijuana is too commonly associated with treatment admissions, fatal accidents and emergency room admissions, Wolf.

BLITZER: What do the polls show as far as American public opinion concerns?

TODD: Well, in April a CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll showed that 56 percent of respondents were opposed to legalization of marijuana, 41 percent were in favor of it.

But that gap is narrower than it was a decade ago, much narrower than it was 25 years ago. So the trend is toward people favoring legalization. But the gap is still probably too much, you know, opposed to really make it politically feasible.

BLITZER: Still a long shot for Barney Frank and Ron Paul to get this passed.

TODD: It's a long.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much.

So who needs a facelift when you can do a face swap with your child no less. Jeanne Moos has the story in the so-called man babies raised through an art.>

That and the ultimate big fish story, a fishing record in fact. That's ahead on our "Hot Shots."


BLITZER: Here's a look at some of this week's "Hot Shots."

In Spain, a horse rears in a crowd during the San Juan festival on the island of Menorca.

In France, a crowd looks at a fighter jet displayed at the International Paris Air Show.

In London, children test their spelling skills at the first National Spelling Bee Championship.

In Mississippi, a new state saltwater fishing record was broken when this 92-pound big-eyed tuna was caught.

"Hot Shots" coming in from around the world. A new twist of a family photo. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There are family photos, and there are awkward family photos. And then there are these creepy family photos, guaranteed to turn heads by switching heads, while keeping it all in the family. But it is creepy, you agree?

PAUL RIPKE, PHOTOGRAPHER: Yes, it is and the main part about it is that it's real parents, you know?

MOOS: German photographer, Paul Ripke is known for fashion and advertising photos, but his man baby series was for fun. What do you do with these?

RIPKE: Nothing.

MOOS: Ripke basically shoots a portrait then switches the heads, making the dad's head smaller and the child's head bigger.

RIPKE: That's the owner of our Italian restaurant actually. He's a pretty big German deejay.

MOOS: And he's the coach of a famous German soccer team. And though the genre is called man babies, there are plenty of woman babies as well.

RIPKE: My favorite is probably my wife.

MOOS: His daughter's pacifier is a nice touch. The trick is to catch the child with an expression that isn't child-like.

(on camera): You looked for a moment your daughter was looking very adult.

RIPKE: Yes, totally. That's what we try to find.

MOOS (voice-over): If all this sounds vaguely familiar, there's a website called man babies that's been around for over three years. Same concept, though a lot less glossy.

The German photographer says he never heard of the man babies web site until after he did his series. Now there's even an I-Swap faces iPhone app. Reminiscent of the little man movie, a little person criminal, possess as a baby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You drop me and I'm going to drop you.

MOOS: Posses to gain entrance and steal back a diamond.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That ain't no baby. That's a porn star.

MOOS: In the age of Photoshop, why merely retouch when you can replace. You're no man baby, you're a cry baby. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Thanks very much. That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us week days in THE SITUATION ROOM from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Eastern, every Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. And at this time every weekend on CNN International. The news continues next on CNN.