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Hotel Attacked in Afghanistan; Iowa Moves Into Spotlight

Aired June 28, 2011 - 18:00   ET



Happening now, breaking news: a deadly unfolding attack on a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital, suicide bombs, grenades and more -- new details just coming in. Stand by.

Also, a U.S. nuclear power plant in crisis, threatened by floodwaters. We will go there live inside.

Plus, Iowa in the political spotlight right now, with both President Obama and Sarah Palin visiting the crucial first caucus state.

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

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news this hour, a brazen coordinated attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in the Afghan capital involving suicide bombers, snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

There have been multiple explosions, sources telling CNN at least 10 have been killed, the Taliban now publicly claiming responsibility.

CNN's Reza Sayah is monitoring developments from neighboring Pakistan for us.

What's the latest you are hearing about the situation in Kabul? We understand, Reza, it's still ongoing.


According to Afghan police, at least two of these attackers are resisting, but all indications are that this was an extremely well- coordinated and well-organized attack. At one point, witnesses say some of these heavily armed militants were on top of this hotel locked in a fierce firefight with security forces down below, tracer fire, rocket-propelled grenades lighting up the nighttime sky in Kabul, making for a dramatic scene in the capital of Afghanistan.

The latest information from Afghan police is that six suicide bombers attacked this hotel. One of the suicide attackers detonated his suicide vest, according to Afghan police. Three of these attackers were killed, two, as we mentioned before, still resisting. According to police, they could be in the roof area of this hotel.

The target, the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the biggest and most popular hotels in Kabul, a hotel frequented by diplomats, Westerners and journalists. Indeed, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for this attack.

U.S. officials say there is no indication that any U.S. citizens were in this hotel, but one U.S. citizen who was in Kabul today was Marc Grossman, the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Grossman in Kabul on Tuesday for talks with Afghan officials and Pakistani officials. The subject, of course, the transition of power from international forces to Afghan forces.

And, indeed, the Taliban spokesperson telling CNN that the Taliban was aware that these talks were taking place in Kabul, and that is why they launched these attacks today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We are told, by the way, that Marc Grossman, who succeeded the late Richard Holbrooke as the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has now left Kabul and he is on his way elsewhere, we assume back here to the United States, although we don't know for sure.

This is a pretty extraordinary development. But in the scheme of things, there have been numerous suicide attacks in Afghanistan over the past several years, but it's -- it comes at a time when the Taliban supposedly, supposedly were being accorded by the U.S., the NATO allies, the Afghan regime of President Hamid Karzai to bring them into negotiations.

This would be a pretty bold statement on the part of Taliban -- the Taliban that it had no desire for these reconciliation talks.

SAYAH: Yes, there's a couple of things you have to talk about here.

This was certainly a suicide mission, but it was a commando-style attack. And I think that's important to note. This is a type of attack we have seen a lot recently in this region. It's different from a suicide attack, in that it's designed to last long. It's designed to get a lot of attention and create the impression that the Taliban is in power and in control.

And it certainly raises a lot of questions. There has been a lot of talk in the wake of the announcement by the Obama administration that the drawdown of the U.S. troops is going to begin next month. There is a lot of positive talk that there will be a successful transition eventually from international forces to Afghan forces by 2014.

But this is certainly a reminder that Afghanistan is still a huge dilemma, and things perhaps not going to be as easy as possible. And this is a clear indication that at least some elements within the Taliban don't want reconciliation and they want to take the fight to Afghan forces and international forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It's interesting. Only last week, in his speech in the East Room, President Obama, he reached out to the Taliban. He hoped they would participate in what he called these reconciliation talks. If this is their response to President Obama, doesn't sound very encouraging at all.

Reza Sayah on the scene for us, as he always is.

Let's dig deeper right now with CNN's Tom Foreman. He has more on the area in Kabul where all of this is unfolding.

Set the scene for us, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let's fly in, Wolf, and take a look at the general territory we're talking about here.

If you move into Afghanistan, here's Kabul, big city in the middle of everything here. The hotel in question is a bit off to the side here. It's not in the middle of the government -- or over here. This is where it is. What do we know about this hotel? Three-star hotel, 200 rooms, opened in 1989.

This was the nation's first international luxury hotel. What do we know about the attack? Well, we were just being told there by Reza some things that are worth bearing in mind. They have talked about this being a multiple-story hotel sort of isolated out here.

We know that if you look at some of the shots we have had so far, there are indications of gunfire being exchanged. We think it was the top floor or the roof area. You can see, though, this tracer shot in here.

Beyond that, the big question is, who was in this hotel at this time of the night? You are talking about it being in the evening. A lot of people would have been hunkered down for the night. So the hotel could very well have been largely full. That's Kabul University not terribly far away.

We know also that in terms it of getting to it, there are strategic issues to some degree. Only one major road comes right next to it. Any other attacks on the hotel to begin with or counterattacks now would have to come a bit over open land here, over smaller sort of roads, open territory.

And one last thing I want to point out, Wolf, that is always worth bearing in mind in all of this. Look how far away this is from the major government centers, about two miles away. So this is indeed a very bold attack on what would be seen by many as a very ripe target if you wanted to make a statement. We will just have to see what the final analysis is here when they finally get this thing calmed down -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It's still ongoing as we speak. Tom, thank you.

We are also told that President Obama has been briefed on the situation in Kabul right now.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar.

What are they saying over there, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president was briefed aboard Air Force One as he returned from Iowa, his national security staff briefing him. We don't have an official reaction to this attack from the White House, I should tell you, but of course this attack coming less than a week after the president announced his plan for bringing home U.S. troops, from starting to bring home U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

And when he made that announcement last Wednesday that he would bring 33,000 U.S. troops home by September of next year, September of 2012, he pointed to progress in three different areas. And two of them are of import when you are talking about this attack in Afghanistan.

One pointed to progress in terms of stopping the momentum that the Taliban had experienced in recent years. And the other one was progress in starting to train Afghan security forces so that they could be in charge of security in Afghanistan.

So, an attack like this is certainly a jolt of reality. And it calls into question just how much progress has really been made on those fronts. Some people say the president, specifically talking about Congress, there are critics who say the president is not bringing home troops fast enough with his announcement.

But, Wolf, as we know, there is also others who say this announcement of the beginning of the drawdown also could hurt some of the progress that has been made. Certainly, they will point to an attack like this as evidence of that, Wolf.

BLITZER: As we take a look at the situation, Brianna, are they saying anything about the president's reaching out to the Taliban in his speech last week, when he expressed hope that the reconciliation talks that he described between President Hamid Karzai's government, U.S., other NATO troops, and various groups inside Afghanistan, including the Taliban?

Some of his critics from the minute he said that suggested he was naive in thinking he could work out some sort of peace deal with the Taliban.

KEILAR: No, and the White House has said, had indicated certainly that that was sort of an unsavory part of the process, but an important one.

And I think, right now, they are trying to get a handle on the details of this evolving situation, Wolf. And that really is a question that we will be pressing the White House on here in the coming day.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brianna. I want to just let our viewers know we are just getting in a statement from the State Department on what's going on right now, the breaking news we are following at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.

According to the State Department, "The United States strongly condemns the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, which once again demonstrates the terrorists' complete disregard for human life."

The statements says: "We extend our condolences to the families and friends of the victims of this attack. We express our support for the Afghan security forces who are working to secure the site." You are looking at the latest images we're getting in, the tracer fire from around the hotel.

"All Chief of Mission personnel" -- that means the U.S. Embassy personnel in Kabul -- and it's a huge embassy, the second largest in the world -- "are accounted for. We do not have any information," the State Department says, about private American citizens at this time, but continue to follow up on the situation."

The State Department also saying that Ambassador Grossman, the special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and all members of his delegation departed Kabul earlier" in the day today. They're presently en route back to Washington.

We are going to continue to follow the breaking news this hour. Stand by. We will also hear from some eyewitnesses who say -- at least one of them -- she says she was almost knocked to the ground by the force of one of the explosions at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Also, we will have the latest on a Nebraska nuclear power plant threatened by floodwaters. Our own Brian Todd is there. He's on the scene. He managed to get inside. We will have a live report from him.

And a big night for Sarah Palin in Iowa, as her daughter says the former Alaska governor has in fact now made her decision about whether to run for president of the United States.


BLITZER: A raging wildfire is inching closer and closer to the Los Alamos National Laboratory here in the United States -- officials stressing the fire is not burning yet on the grounds of the secretive lab, but local authorities say they can't promise it will stay that way.

Los Alamos is one of the nation's top national security research facilities. The lab's director says any hazardous materials at the facility are safe and secure.

It was closed, though, for a second day -- day today as a precaution.

Meanwhile, in Nebraska, authorities are keeping a very close watch on a nuclear power plant. It's now surrounded by two feet of water. The plant's manager says there's no chance of a disaster like the one we witnessed in Japan, but many people are still deeply concerned.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now from the Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor facility with the very latest.

What's going on as of today, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, officials here say no radioactivity has been released and they're confident there won't be any.

But the flooding from this temperamental river behind me has brought an unprecedented threat to this facility.


TODD (voice-over): You are looking at the plant manager in crisis mode. Tim Nellenbach is scouring every inch of this place, looking for where the next breach might occur.

TIM NELLENBACH, MANAGER, FORT CALHOUN NUCLEAR POWER PLANT: We monitor on an hourly base to ensure that the conditions don't get worse.

TODD: At the flooded Fort Calhoun plant, that's a big job. For weeks, floodwaters from the Missouri River have engulfed this facility. When we get inside access at Fort Calhoun, we see where they had a recent emergency.

(on camera): This is the aqua berm that got punctured on Sunday, leading to some more of the problems here, letting some more of these floodwaters in, crucially close to the reactor.

(voice-over): We are told the key buildings are secure, that there is no threat to public safety. But confidence can turn with one shift of the current. The biggest worry at the moment? Maintaining electrical power.

(on camera): This is a key area right here. This is a transformer that actually helps to power the pumps that cool the reactor, that cool the spent fuel rods. They are pumping floodwaters out of that area right now to try to maintain it. But look how close the floodwaters are getting.

(voice-over): Officials here say they have backups if the floods knock out these transformers. But if the backup systems don't work, this is what could be affected. Through closed-circuit cameras, we see the reactor core and the area where the spent fuel rods are kept. Officials say they're safe now.

But if they overheat, could a catastrophic event half-a-world away be repeated?

(on camera): People see floodwater all around. They think, oh, no, it's another Fukushima. Is it another Fukushima? GARY GATES, CEO, FORT CALHOUN NUCLEAR POWER PLANT: No, it is not another Fukushima. The main differences is the flooding that occurred at Fukushima. This was a predicted event to a degree from the Corps of Engineers. The floodwaters at Fort Calhoun are outside the plant. There is no water inside the plant.


TODD: But there is no question the flooding has brought huge setbacks here. This plant was supposed to be back up and running by mid-June after going offline in April for refueling. But officials here now say the floodwaters are not expected to completely recede until late August. So this plant may not be completely operational until about then -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will stay on top of the situation.

Brian is on the scene for us, as he always is.

Thank you.

An eyewitness to the Taliban attack on a luxury Kabul hotel -- we are following the breaking news. We are going to hear firsthand her description of the carnage and the chaos. She is standing by to join us live.

Plus, a CNN crew caught up in violence in street protests in Greece -- the latest on the riots rocking Athens right now.


BLITZER: All right, we're getting some video now coming in from Kabul, the Intercontinental Hotel, where Taliban terrorists have stormed the facility housing hundreds, hundreds of people. You can take a look. These are Afghan security forces moving in.

We're told at least four of the six terrorists are dead. We're told at least 10 people have been killed in this suicide bomb attack, the Taliban claiming credit for what's going on. It's still ongoing. Two of the militants, the terrorists who went in, the Taliban fighters, are still at large -- Afghan security personnel, now in the middle of the night, working this.

We will stay on top of the story. We will go back there live. We are standing by to speak with an eyewitness who is on the scene -- much more on the breaking news coming up.


BLITZER: All right, I have got an important programming note for all of our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

Tomorrow, I will be anchoring THE SITUATION ROOM from Chicago, in fact, tomorrow and Thursday. We have important interviews to tell you about. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be joining me tomorrow, as will the new mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. I will interview him at City Hall. On Thursday, my special interview with former President Bill Clinton -- he is hosting the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago on the U.S. economy.

All that coming up tomorrow and Thursday, special guests here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


Just ahead, you're going to hear from a journalist at the scene of the devastating attack in the Afghan capital. She's going to tell us what she saw live in Kabul.

And passions flare in Greece over the government's plans to slash the budge. CNN got caught up in the fight on the streets of Athens. It was ugly.

And when a politician visits Iowa, we often say, those of us who cover politics, it's no mistake, it's no accident. So, there was plenty of buzz today when the president and one of his old adversaries found themselves in the Hawkeye State on the very same day.


BLITZER: We are following breaking news in Kabul, Afghanistan -- a U.S. official telling CNN at least 10 people are now confirmed dead in a massive coordinated attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.

It included suicide bombings, small arms. Witnesses also report rocket-propelled grenades, even snipers -- the Taliban publicly claiming responsibility. The hotel is frequented by international travelers. We are told, though, that there no Americans among the casualties, at least as far as we know right now.

In addition to the explosions, witnesses reported gunfire. NATO forces confirm they are providing what they call limited assistance. U.S. soldiers are on the scene, we are told. Although the hotel still carries the Intercontinental name, by the way, it has not been part of the worldwide hotel group since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Listen -- listen to this eyewitness account from a Western journalist, Erin Cunningham, who was there.


ERIN CUNNINGHAM, JOURNALIST: There are several snipers on the roof who are firing at Afghan security forces. Backup has been -- has been coming pretty steadily since I got here, about a half-an-hour ago.

Just about five minutes ago, there were RPGs launched from the roof of the hotel towards the area of the vice president's house, the first vice president.

And everyone is pretty nervous, a lot of people fleeing the scene. I'm about 500 meters from -- from the door of the hotel. But Afghan security forces won't allow us to go any further. But we are continuing to hear small-arms fire right now

There were three very large explosions in the last 10 minutes. There were two that were successive. Then there was a third one that was the biggest. We're unsure what exactly it was. The security forces that we're in contact with right now also don't know. The blast was so large, that it almost knocked myself and my colleague off of our feet.


BLITZER: And Erin Cunningham is joining us now live via Skype from Kabul.

As far as you know, right now, are we still hearing gunfire, explosions, Erin? Erin, what do we know?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, absolutely.

When I left the scene about 20 minutes ago, things had calmed down significantly. It was right after the international troops had arrived and the Afghan national army had arrived as well. There was just a small round of gunfire, and that was it.

Now I am hearing a number of explosions, one that was very loud. I'm quite far from the hotel now, but I'm back home. I'm hearing helicopters. We're getting reports that there are helicopters who are now firing on insurgents who are on the roof.

BLITZER: What time, Erin, is it now in Kabul? Because it's getting ready for daybreak, is that right?


It's 3:00 a.m., and just heard the call to prayer. So, this has been going on for quite some time, five to six hours now.

BLITZER: And when you were there, you saw NATO -- NATO troops joining the Afghan security forces. And I -- when we spoke about an hour or so ago, you told me you saw some American soldiers on the scene as well helping.

Set the scene for us. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I did see an American -- what I was told were American Special Force, who arrived on the scene in sport utility vehicles. They were coordinating with Afghan security forces. There were three of them, and they got into the car and went up towards the hotel.

After that I saw a number of NATO cars arrive at the scene and go up, as well. But I only distinctly saw three U.S. troops. BLITZER: What does it say? And Erin, you've been there a while. What does it say that the Taliban is now publicly claiming responsibility for this coordinated attack on this hotel?

CUNNINGHAM: Right. I think the Taliban is sending a serious message to not only the Afghan government and the United States, but also to the people of Kabul that they are here to stay, that they have not been weakened by the surge, that they can carry out spectacular and coordinated attacks in the Afghan capital, and especially since there will be a conference tomorrow on the security transition. They know exactly where to attack and when to attack it.

And I think that -- that this is really going to make a lot of people pause and think about how they should move forward fighting the insurgency and negotiating with the Taliban.

BLITZER: Even as we're speaking, Erin, we're getting this bulletin in from Reuters, Reuters reporting that NATO helicopters have now fired on and killed three of these Taliban attackers at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul atop the -- on the roof top, according to a coalition spokesman.

So those loud explosions you may have just heard may have been these attack helicopters, these NATO helicopters going in and attacking the roof top where these Taliban fighters may have been holding out. We don't know that for sure, but that's what Reuters seems to be reporting right now.

Anything else you can tell us? Was there any hint whatsoever, Erin, that such an attack was sort of on the way? Were there any warnings or any warning signs?

CUNNINGHAM: I'm not sure about this attack specifically or if there were any warning signs that the Taliban was going to target the Intercontinental Hotel. However, the Taliban has made clear that it has launched its spring and summer offensive against NATO troops and the Afghan government here.

It has, in the past couple of weeks, as well as since the beginning of the year, coordinated -- carried out coordinated attacks against ministries and other hotels and malls in Kabul. So I think it was only a matter of time before something like this really unfolded the way it has and that they carried out such a sophisticated attack.

BLITZER: And as far as we know, right now the latest information, Erin, that we're getting, at least 10 people are confirmed dead. Is that the information you have, as well, or are you getting any updated information over there?

CUNNINGHAM: That's the information I have right now, is that 10 are dead. I don't know, however, if they are internationals or Afghans or both. But right now it's 10 dead is the number that I'm assuming.

BLITZER: We're going to stay in close touch with Erin Cunningham. She's on the scene for us in Kabul, reporting via Skype. Let's bring in our national security analyst, Peter Bergen. And you've been there many times to Kabul. Have you been to the Intercontinental Hotel?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, I've stayed there for a long period of time under the Taliban, you know, visited fairly frequently. One of the reasons this is quite surprising is this hotel, as you've seen from the pictures, is very high up on a hill.

BLITZER: It's isolated.

BERGEN: Very isolated. It isn't the hotel that attracts most of the westerners. That's downtown. It's the Serena Hotel, which is a five-star hotel. You may recall that that was the subject of quite a complex Taliban operation where they went room to room, looking for westerners, killed I think six or seven people a few years back. This Serena Hotel downtown now is heavily fortified.

BLITZER: Barricades all over.

BERGEN: Barricades.

BLITZER: But this Intercontinental Hotel, as well, major barricades.

BERGEN: Well, you know, good security, but not, you know -- I mean, the Taliban went for this because the Serena at this point is a very, very tough nut to crack.

So this one, you know, the Intercontinental had a tendency to attract more Afghans. It's sort of a mix of internationals and Afghans. The hotel downtown, mostly westerners are staying there. You know, this is part of a pattern, of course, of the Taliban attacking western targets in Kabul. I think it's a very big signal as, you know, President Karzai has talked about transitioning the number of areas...

BLITZER: He's been reaching out to the Taliban, hoping to start negotiations. We heard President Obama last week in a statement saying he wants reconciliation talks including with the Taliban, somewhere criticizing him, thinking he was naive for even saying that. But -- but this -- if this is the response from the Taliban, it's a pretty -- pretty dramatic response.

BERGEN: Indeed. And I think it's very much located in the desire to respond to the idea that the Afghan government is increasingly going to take control of seven areas in Afghanistan. Kabul is an area where the Afghan police and security services have most -- most of the control. And it's their way of signaling that they don't have control and that they won't get control.

And, you know, they've obviously learned a lesson from the Mumbai attacks, these kinds of so-called Fedayeen attacks, where they send in people who know they're going on a suicide operation but prolong the operation for as long as possible to attract maximum media coverage. This is one of the lessons of the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and I think that they studied that.

BLITZER: Stand by for a minute, because Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent, is getting new information on what's going on.

What are you hearing from your sources, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, an ISAF spokesman in Kabul, Major Tim James, just now confirming to CNN that two ISAF -- that is, two NATO helicopters essentially did move in in the last minutes and fired on the roof of the hotel, killing perhaps as many as three of the insurgent government that had gone to the roof of the hotel. So that is two coalition helicopters firing on the roof of the hotel.

We are also told by this ISAF military spokesman that at least 20 Afghan forces moved in from street level and worked -- have been working their way up the hotel to go after the insurgents that may still be inside.

You know, this is quite extraordinary for these ISAF helicopters to be called in to launch, essentially, an air strike in the middle of downtown Kabul. It's -- it's a populated area. This just shows how much you want to get this situation resolved.

As we have been saying, Kabul is an area that is supposed to be under Afghan security control. They provide the so-called ring of steel security around the city. The fact that this security was penetrated is not unprecedented. But it is quite serious, and that is why the ISAF troops have now moved in -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Barbara. Peter Bergen is with us, as well.

This is a powerful statement that the Taliban is making. I want to reiterate right now, coming on the heels of President Obama's announcement about the surge withdrawal over the next year or so. This is -- if this is the response from the Taliban, it suggests that this war is about to heat up.

BERGEN: That's what the Taliban wants. And they're finding it hard to, you know, seize control of large chunks of territory in the south. And so, you know, ISAF has been anticipating that they would move more into assassinations, these kinds of spectacular attacks on, you know, landmarks in Kabul. And unfortunately, that has happened.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen, thanks very much.

Let me take this moment to remind our viewers, the paperback edition of "The Longest War," your bestseller about what's going on. It's been almost 10 years, this war in Afghanistan, the longest U.S. war. That is just out and recommended highly.

Thanks very much.

We will stay on top of the breaking news. As soon as more comes in, we'll go back to Kabul. Stay with us for that. Other news that we're following, including some politics. Republican candidates flocking to Iowa right now. They're trying to win over voters. A visit by Sarah Palin stoking some speculation about her potential presidential ambitions.


BLITZER: Sarah Palin and her entourage, they are now back in Iowa. She's still playing coy about her presidential ambitions but won't be able to do so for much longer. Let's go there. Let's go to Pella, Iowa. That's where CNN's Joe Johns is standing by.

What's going on there? A lot of excitement in little Pella.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly is a lot of excitement in little Pella. As a matter of fact, Wolf, Sarah Palin is here. She arrived a half hour, 45 minutes ago, maybe a little bit longer. Came to see a screening of this film, "The Undefeated." She's already seen a rough cut of the film but this is the first time you see the completed version. About 300 people inside the theater. She answered no questions, and she came in and she made no statements before the crowd. There was speculation about whether or not she might run for president but nothing said about that so far.

A very patriotic scene inside. Organ music, a number of patriotic songs. "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Pledge of Allegiance and so on.

And then they sat down and started watching this movie, which is basically a recitation of Sarah Palin's life in Alaska. We can show you a clip from it right now, Wolf.


SARAH PALIN, FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: ... were insane, but we were like dogs. Seven days a week, 15-hour days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unlike many states, the governor of the state of Alaska is a CEO for the state. The way the constitution was written, the founders decided that we needed a CEO. One person that would be responsible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All decisions must go through this CEO.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) They wanted the ability for the people to know where that blame lays.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was the CEO of 25,000 employees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of all the 50 governors in the United States, she was sitting at the desk as one of the most powerful, and she wasn't afraid to use those powers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The first few 90 days of Governor Palin's administration were insane. We worked like dogs, seven days a week, 15-hour days. (END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: So the thing on everybody's mind, of course, why make a movie about Sarah Palin if she's not running for president? Or is this some way to clear the way for her to run?

I talked to the producer of that movie today. He essentially told me that he wanted to tell the story of Sarah Palin that has not been told, through all the hype and the bluster about who she is. That's what he's trying to do, Wolf. And he also admits freely that he is, as he calls himself, a right-wing, conservative film producer. So this is a very complimentary story about Sarah Palin.

BLITZER: One quick question. I haven't seen the film yet, but it's called "Undefeated," yet she was defeated as a vice-presidential candidate. So, "Undefeated," what does that mean?

JOHNS: Right. Well, I asked Stephen Bannon, the producer of the movie, about that. And he said that what it has to do with is about her spirit. Her spirit is undefeated. Let's listen to the sound byte that he gave me on that very issue.


STEPHEN BANNON, PRODUCER, "THE UNDEFEATED": We're not going to have $25 million on prints and ad money. We have to get what's called earned media. We have -- and the place to do that is in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where, you know, all this media is focused, and there's really no story to tell. We're going to give them a story. And so we'll get -- and I think you see in those things, that's where we're going in New Hampshire. That's where we're going in South Carolina. Really to build awareness that's -- that's not on my nickel.


JOHNS: Well, I don't know that that was necessarily the right sound byte there, Wolf, but the point of the interview with Steve Bannon was, look, she has certainly been defeated in an election, as everybody knows, when she ran against Barack Obama and Joe Biden with Senator McCain. But his point is that her spirit is undefeated, and that's what she stands for, regardless of whether she gets into the upcoming presidential race -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Johns, reporting for us live from Pella, Iowa. Thanks, Joe, very much.

Let's dig deeper right now in Iowa, the candidates. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here. And just give us some perspective, Gloria. How important are these Iowa caucuses that are going to be held in early February of next year, of course. How important are they in the race for the Republican presidential nomination?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, as you know, they're important in theory, because this is the place where the first votes are cast. But as a predictor of what's going to happen in the Republican presidential campaign, not so much.

In 2000, George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses and went on to win the nomination and, of course, the presidency. But in 2008, it was, remember, Mike Huckabee who won in Iowa. John McCain, who was a lot more moderate than Huckabee, decided he wasn't going to compete in Iowa. As a result he came in fourth and, of course, he went on to win the nomination.

Fast forward that now to the situation, for example, the front- runner, Mitt Romney, finds himself in. I was talking to a senior advisor for Mitt Romney today who said they're kind of hanging back, because the situation in Iowa is changing so rapidly. Clearly, they're the frontrunner and the frontrunner in New Hampshire. Do they want to have a loss in Iowa like they did last time around?

Last time, Romney spent a lot of money, won the straw poll, which comes even before the caucuses, and then didn't win in the caucuses, placed second to Huckabee. So they're -- they're kind of hanging back. So it's not a real predictor of who's going to get the nomination.

BLITZER: But for -- for Michele Bachmann, Iowa was sort -- Iowa was sort of tailor-made for her.

BORGER: Tailor-made, perfect. First of all, hometown. Right?

BLITZER: She was born in Waterloo, Iowa.

BORGER: Born in Waterloo, Iowa; talks about it a lot. And when you look at the constituency of the Iowa caucuses, which as we know are very conservative, it's really made for her. The "Des Moines Register" did a poll. Let me give you some issues.

These voters who are going to participate in the caucuses, the caucus goers, are opposed to civil unions, opposed raising the debt ceiling, are not interested in mandates as part of health care, and they want spending cuts and tax cuts. So that sounds an awful lot like Michele Bachmann, Tea Party candidate; not so much Jon Huntsman, moderate Republican.

BLITZER: I know what Sarah Palin is saying publicly, but why is she, on all of these days, she's showing up in New Hampshire when Romney is making his announcement.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: She shows up in Iowa the day after Michele Bachmann makes her announcement. Is she just trying to ride publicity to make money, sell books, promote her movie? What's going on?

BORGER: I was thinking about this today, and I kind of in these two events you mentioned, she's kind of the political equivalent of a wedding crasher. You know, somebody else is having a party, and she's got to go there, because she wants some of the limelight back.

You know, in talking to these other campaigns, they're very careful publicly to say, "We love Sarah Palin; we respect Sarah Palin." Even Michele Bachmann is doing it. Mitt Romney said, you know, New Hampshire is a big state. But it's very clear that she doesn't want to leave the limelight. And as much as she complains about the chess [SIC] -- the press chasing her, she's still very happy to have that happen and it happens to be at an event.

BLITZER: Yes. Bristol is selling a new book now. So I think it's...

BORGER: And Bristol say she knows...


BORGER: ... if her mom's going to run. Right?

BLITZER: They're trying to keep it open. I think they're trying to make some money out of all of this.

BORGER: We'll learn about it.

BLITZER: They've made millions since giving up the job as Alaska's governor and, I guess, millions more they want. That's just my guess right now. Nothing wrong with that.

BORGER: Yes. I think you're a smart guy.

BLITZER: Austerity is a dirty word in Greece. Fury over budget cuts fueling angry protests. CNN got a taste of that frustration when we took to the streets of Athens.


BLITZER: We're following a dire situation in Greece, violence on the streets of Athens, with protests against harsh measures being debated in parliament. CNN's Diana Magnay is there.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It wasn't long before the stones started flying. A barrage of missiles against riot police; stun grenades and tear gas in return.

(on camera) As you can see, there's quite a lot of fighting now going on between protestors -- we're being forced out of the way because it's really kicking off around that corner. A fire burning in the building.

(voice-over) Then a demonstrator kicked our cameraman to the floor, the camera kicked also. Both survived, bandaged to the knee. The camera rolling as tear gas pushed crowds back and demonstrators sought shelter in neighboring streets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The country's about to collapse. I don't know. If they say yes, I promise that all the Greeks will go out on the streets and, I don't know, it will be chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unnecessary use of violence from the police. And that keeps us like a chain here. We won't leave.

MAGNAY (on camera): On the mega phones they are asking the police to clear the square so that they have the chance to demonstrate, their right to demonstrate these austerity measures debated in the parliament right now.

(voice-over) "Traitors, is this democracy?" this woman asks, spitting in disgust on a behalf of a people who feel their politicians have failed them.

Diana Magnay, CNN, Athens.


BLITZER: We'll stay on top of that story.

For our North American viewers, "JOHN KING USA" is coming up at the top of the hour with the latest on the Afghan hotel attack. Stand by for that.

First, making a splash in Times Square. Jeanne Moos will explain.


BLITZER: Being discovered in New York isn't easy. One aspiring rapper took a shortcut. As Jeanne Moos tells us, it didn't lead to fame but to Bellevue.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It doesn't take much these days to shut down the crossroads of the world. A guy on a pole?

(on camera) What was he doing up there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sitting there, eating (ph) the top of the pole, acting like an idiot.

MOOS (voice-over): His little pole dance caused police to close Seventh Avenue in the heart of Times Square.

(on camera) What did you see him doing up there, anything?


MOOS (voice-over): Rapping after being ejected from Viacom's MTV for trying to hand out CDs.

Police surrounded the light pole, pulled their truck up against it, and inflated an air bag in case 34-year-old Raymond Velasquez of Brooklyn fell or jumped. Some in the crowd jokingly yelled...


MOOS: For almost two hours, police tried to talk him down, even as he talked on his cell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's on the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's on the phone?

MOOS: Witnesses downloaded videos of the Times Square pole guy to YouTube. When he lifted his shirt.

And while his Times Square pole performance was inaudible, you can hear him on his MySpace page rapping under the name C.I. Joe, Coney Island Joe.

RAYMOND VELASQUEZ, WOULD-BE RAPPER (rapping): Coney Island off the sea (ph) like the polar bears.

MOOS: His pole performance wasn't his first public disruption. He posted grainy video of himself crashing the CBS "Early Show" as they were tossing to some snowstorm footage.

VELASQUEZ: C.I. Joe, Coney Island's in the house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And there you go.

MOOS: Not as naughty as refusing to come down from a pole.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he was a moron. He went -- he went up there to make a show. He just cost New York City so much money. It's ridiculous.

MOOS: This hearkens back to the 1920s when pole sitting was a fad.

The last time something like this happened in New York city, it was two nearly naked people, one a transsexual, the other a gay guy, refusing to climb down from a tree in Central Park. They even threatened police with broken branches to keep them at bay.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In all your years in the force, what do you make of this, Inspector?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's Earth Day.

MOOS: By nightfall, they came down from their perch, and so did the rapper. He was transported to Bellevue for evaluation.

(on camera) All clear. All clear. The show's over. Do you know what the show was?



MOOS: Some guy on a pole.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, this is New York.

MOOS: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you've got a pole, somebody is going to climb it.

MOOS (voice-over): Yes, well, tell it to the cops.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...


MOOS: ... New York.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. For our international viewers, "WORLD REPORT" is next. In north America, "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.