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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; Governor Perry Dogged By Execution
Aired September 14, 2011 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: A solar panel manufacturer goes bankrupt after getting more than $500 million in U.S. government loans, and now the U.S. Congress is demanding answers.
Also, the execution dogging Rick Perry's presidential campaign, allegations that Texas killed an innocent man and that Governor Perry tried to kill the investigation.
And the former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson joins us live this hour. We will talk about his failed mission to Cuba to free an American man, a mission Governor Richardson says left him disappointed and perplexed.
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're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
A major political upset in New York could also be an ominous sign for President Obama and the Democrats. A Republican has now won the House seat in this heavily Democratic district that was represented by Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned in a scandal over some lewd photos.
CNN's Mary Snow joining us from New York with more on what's going on.
Mary, what is the latest?
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Democrats certainly had the advantage here, but Republicans made the Obama administration the main theme of this race. And from Capitol Hill to Queens today, Democrats are trying to make sense of what this upset means.
SNOW (voice-over): He's the Ninth District surprise and has forced Democrats around the country to sit up and take notice.
BOB TURNER (R), NEW YORK CONGRESSMAN-ELECT: We have been told this is a referendum and we're ready to say, Mr. President, we are on the wrong track.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
SNOW: Bob Turner, a former cable TV executive, becomes the first Republican congressman in New York's Ninth District since the 1920s. Anthony Weiner held that seat for seven terms before a personal scandal forced him to resign in June. Early on it was expected that Democrat David Weprin would win in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-1.
Democrats who voted with their party are stunned.
MILLIE SUCOV, DEMOCRAT: The Republicans are saying this is a message to President Obama, and I think indeed it is that he's got to get off his passive, conciliatory mood and -- they would say the opposite, but I'm saying and go out there and hustle and be -- use his bully pulpit and make the better change.
MARY RAMOS, DEMOCRAT: Maybe they're just tired of the Democrats. I don't know. Maybe they're just tired of the ruling. Maybe they're just tired of the promises.
SNOW: On Capitol Hill, some Democrats played down the significance of the Ninth District race.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: It's a local election between two people who are known to the district.
SNOW: But Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committeeman, says his party needs to cut through the spin. He sees this as an opportunity for Democrats to come up with a more focussed and disciplined agenda.
ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE MEMBER: This administration really seemed to lose a very clear and specific agenda of how they were putting the country back to work. So I think you saw a great deal of frustration in this election about where the Democrats and the Obama administration stand.
SNOW: Another issue in this race, Israel, raised by Republican Bob Turner. He criticized the president's policies on Israel. Turner won support from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who crossed party lines.
ED KOCH, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: President Obama's a nice guy, and I like him, and I helped elect him and all of those things. He threw Israel under the bus.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
SNOW: About a third of the district is Jewish. A recent poll showed about 16 percent of Jewish voters in the district considered Israel an issue.
SNOW: And, Wolf, the Democrat in this race, David Weprin, stressed preserving Social Security and Medicare in his campaign. Those issues, though, failed to gain him a victory, and they were issues that helped the Democrat win a special election in a largely Republican district just this spring in Upstate New York -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. All right, thanks very much. What a difference a few months makes. Thank you.
President Obama took his push for his jobs bill to North Carolina today, a state he carried in 2008, but which is considered very much up for grabs in next year's presidential election. He carried North Carolina, though, by a tiny margin.
He spoke at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and put pressure squarely on congressional Republicans.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are folks in Congress who have been fighting pretty hard to keep tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. You need to tell them they need to fight just as hard to help middle-class families. Tell them to pass this jobs bill.
OBAMA: Some of them were even quoted as saying even if they agreed with some of the things in this bill, that they don't want to pass it because it would give me a win.
OBAMA: Give me a win? Give me a break!
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: That's exactly why folks are fed up with Washington.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's here with some new CNN poll numbers that we're taking a close look at to get a sense of the mood of the country, a snapshot, at least right now.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, the mood in this country is not good, according to our CNN/ORC poll.
We asked the people the basic question, do you feel that you're better off than you were three years ago? Look at this answer. Yes, only 32 percent. No, 58 percent. Then we asked, are you angry about the way things are going in this country today? Yes, 72 percent. No, 27 percent.
And, by the way, Wolf, independent voters mirror those numbers. So independent voters are quite angry. So I think this means a few things. First of all, we're going to end up with a very negative campaign. When you have angry people, you tend to have a negative campaign. Also, if 2008 was about hope, this election's going to be about hopelessness and it's going to be about fear.
And it's one thing when people feel that their hopes have been thwarted, which they do feel, but they also now believe that they are in danger of actually losing what they have. And that is making them very angry. So I think we have to get ready for quite a negative, nasty campaign out there.
BLITZER: It's going to get ugly, that's what you're saying.
BORGER: It is.
BLITZER: But there is a sliver in this CNN/ORC poll, a sliver of some good news, if you can call it that, for the White House.
BORGER: A sliver. There is a sliver because we asked, who do you trust more to handle the economy? And you will see Barack Obama gets 46 percent, Republicans in Congress only 37 percent, neither 15 percent.
So the good news here, Wolf, is that I think voters still like Barack Obama, so they give him a little bit of a benefit of the doubt. But here's the problem. Barack Obama's not running against Congress, although he's going to try. He's going to run against a candidate, a Republican candidate, and we don't know what that poll would show with a Republican candidate.
But it's interesting. Whenever you hear Mitt Romney talk about Barack Obama, as he did in your debate the other night, he talks about him more in sorrow than in anger, and that is exactly right tone to take with independent voters, because they're upset about the economy, they're angry about the economy, but they're not angry at Obama. They're just -- they're just worried.
So a candidate, a Republican who can sort of walk that fine line will do well against Barack Obama.
BLITZER: We don't know who that candidate is going to be.
BORGER: We don't, right.
BLITZER: But we will see how he or she does walking that fine line, as you say.
Cutting the deficit is clearly an important issue.
BLITZER: But creating jobs is also an important issue. And we have got new numbers in our new poll.
BORGER: Right. And we asked the question, what should Obama, the Congress pay more attention to? Obviously, 65 percent say creating jobs, 29 percent reducing the deficit.
Look, people believe that Barack Obama's ideas for creating jobs were good. The problem that the president has is that voters don't have confidence anymore that government spending is actually going to create jobs. What the president is telling them is that we need more stimulus, that will create jobs.
And you know what, Wolf, they're just not convinced. So he's got a problem there too.
BLITZER: Got a huge issue. But there's still plenty of time between now and November 2012. And a lot could change between now and then. Thank you very much.
BORGER: You bet.
BLITZER: A giant check with fanfare to match when the government decided to back a loan of more than half-a-billion taxpayer dollars to a California company that makes solar energy panels.
The energy secretary was there. The vice president, Joe Biden, appeared by satellite. Later, President Obama himself toured the plant touting its more than 1,000 green jobs. But now that company is bankrupt. Its officers -- offices, I should say, have been raided by the FBI and congressional Republicans are demanding answers about the loan from the Obama administration.
Lisa Sylvester's working this story for us and it's a significant story.
What is going on here?
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a really embarrassing story for the Obama administration. The Government Accountability Office has found fault with how the Solyndra loan was handled.
Republican lawmakers have been having a field day with it. And administration officials are having to justify why $535 million of taxpayer money were used to fund a company that has now gone belly-up.
SYLVESTER (voice-over): President Obama toured Solyndra last May, holding up the solar panel company as an example of innovation and success, a company that was at the vanguard of a new green jobs movement.
OBAMA: For generations, this part of the country has embodied the entrepreneurial spirit that has always defined America's success.
SYLVESTER: But fast-forward to this month. The company declared bankruptcy, leaving 1,000 employees without jobs. And the FBI last week searched the company headquarters, but wouldn't say what they were looking for.
At issue is a half-a-billion-dollar federal government loan to the company. E-mails released at a congressional hearing show that some White House budget analysts questioned early on how financially sound Solyndra was, but felt under pressure by the White House to move quickly -- quote -- "We would prefer to have sufficient time to do our due diligence reviews," said one e-mail. Another, "This deal is not ready for prime time," an Office of Management and Budget staffer wrote.
Ten days later, the Obama administration announced approval of the $535 million loan. Taxpayers are now on the hook, and may never see that money again.
In a hearing, Republicans lawmakers grilled Jonathan Silver, the head of the Department of Energy's Loans Program Office.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have handled loans of this size and now you're saying it's everybody else's fault but you, except you're in charge. You tell me what you, as a person in charge, did with half-a- billion dollars of taxpayers' money, now saying it's all my staff's fault, I didn't know, I can't do anything about. You tell me what you're going to tell the taxpayers.
SYLVESTER: The Energy Department defended its decisions.
JONATHAN SILVER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LOANS PROGRAMS OFFICE, DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY: There is risk, almost by definition, in the identification of the innovation itself in building out that innovation at scale.
SYLVESTER: One question, how involved was the White House in the decision to grant the loan? Records show the main private investor in Solyndra is a man named George Kaiser, a key fund-raiser for Mr. Obama, who raised $50,000 to $100,000 for his 2008 election.
White House visitor logs show that between March 2009 and April 2011, when the administration was considering giving the loan, Kaiser visited the White House 16 times, including having meetings with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
RONNIE GREENE, CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: The company Solyndra said that there was no political influence and White House officials say that as well, but critics will use this connection to raise a question, was there favorable treatment given?
SYLVESTER: The White House denies trying to speed up the loan approval process, saying staffers were trying to figure out whether to proceed with a groundbreaking event if the loan were approved. White House spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters: "What the e-mails make clear is there was an urgency to make a decision on a scheduling matter. It's a big proposition to move the president or to put on an event."
SYLVESTER: Congressional Democrats want to shift some of the blame to the Bush administration, noting that the Solyndra loan approval process started when President Bush was in the White House, but that loan certainly got fast-tracked when the Obama administration took over. It was two months after the inauguration that the announcement was made for that $535 million loan -- Wolf. BLITZER: What a huge, huge embarrassment, because the president goes out there, makes that presentation. The vice president was involved, the energy secretary. Somebody screwed up big time.
SYLVESTER: And you know what? You're talking half-a-billion dollars of taxpayer money. And that's where the real outrage is, is, why wasn't the due diligence done ahead of time, especially when by all indications there were some red flags raised?
BLITZER: Yes. All right, good report. Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.
An execution controversy dogging Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEVE SALOOM, INNOCENCE PROJECT: If this case went to trial today, I can't see any way that Willingham would be convicted. I can't see any way that a prosecutor would bring this case forward today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Did the state of Texas execute an innocent man? And did Governor Rick Perry try to block an investigation? CNN goes in- depth.
Also, the effort to free an American man being held by Cuba. The former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is joining us live to talk about the mission he says left him disappointed and perplexed and could clearly affect U.S.-Cuban relations. Richardson just back from Havana.
Plus, the evacuation of a plane with a U.S. Supreme Court justice on board, we're learning new details.
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty's here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, if Rick Perry wants to be president, perhaps he should start thinking more about what he says before he says it.
The Texas governor's come under criticism already for saying that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's actions are potentially treasonous and for comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme. At Monday's debate he stepped in it again and this time it might be a lot harder to scrape off the bottom of his shoe.
When Michele Bachmann suggested Perry pushed for the HPV vaccine at the bidding of pharmaceutical giant Merck, Perry responded -- quote -- "If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended" -- unquote.
Here's the problem. He didn't finish that sentence. He didn't go on to say that he couldn't be bought at all. And with voters so skeptical these days of the ties between politicians and big business, this is a comment that could follow Perry around for months to come.
Meanwhile, Perry claimed he got $5,000 from Merck. But that only represented their 2006 contributions. In all, Perry has pocketed about $30,000 from Merck, the maker of the HPV vaccine. Merck has also reportedly given more than $380,000 to the Republican Governors Association, or RGA, since 2006. That's the year that Perry stepped up his role in that group.
One watchdog group estimates the RGA has given Perry's campaign more than $4 million over the last five years. A Perry spokesman insists the governors' vaccine decision was based only on women's health concerns -- quote -- "What drove the governor on this issue was protecting life and nothing else" -- unquote.
Oh, and it's also worth noting that Perry's ties to Merck don't end with that $5,000. His former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Merck before and after he worked for Governor Perry.
Open your windows. You can smell this.
Here's the question. Rick Perry says he can't be bought for $5,000. How much will this comment haunt him?
Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.
Governor Perry drew applause in a debate last week at mention of the record number of executions under his governorship. The 235th was carried out last night. Three more executions are scheduled over the next two weeks. But one in particular continues to stir lots of controversy with doubts about the condemned man's guilt and allegations that Governor Perry tried to stifle an investigation.
CNN's Ed Lavandera takes us in-depth.
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Cameron Todd Willingham was executed seven years ago, convicted of setting his house on fire to kill his three children. His appeals, including to the Supreme Court, repeatedly denied. Texas Governor Rick Perry signed off on the execution.
PERRY: Willingham was a monster.
LAVANDERA: Just before Willingham's death, a nationally known fire expert studying the arson investigation found it horribly flawed, that the original investigators had relied on outdated arson science. Willingham's supporters asked the governor to halt the execution. Perry refused.
PERRY: We have a system in this state that has followed the procedures and they found this man guilty every step of the way.
LAVANDERA (on camera): Cameron Todd Willingham's execution still haunts Rick Perry. The question is not only did Texas execute an innocent man, but did Perry use his power to try and shut down a potentially embarrassing investigation into how Willingham was convicted? If there was no arson, Willingham would not have been executed.
SALOOM: If this case went to trial today, I can't see any way that Willingham would be convicted. I can't see any way that a prosecutor would bring this case forward today.
LAVANDERA: The Innocence Project brought Willingham's case to an obscure state agency called the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which started looking into whether bad arson investigative techniques were used to convict Willingham.
SAM BASSETT, FORMER DIRECTOR, TEXAS FORENSIC SCIENCE COMMISSION: The science was indeed junk science.
LAVANDERA: Sam Bassett was head of the commission. He said he was called into a heated meeting with two governor's aides and told the investigation was a waste of state money.
BASSETT: I couldn't believe that they were injecting themselves into the commission business so directly and so confrontationally.
LAVANDERA (on camera): You got sense clearly they wanted to influence the outcome, I guess?
BASSETT: Yes, that was my sense, that they wanted us to stop the investigation.
LAVANDERA (voice-over): The commission kept working. More fire experts agreed the investigation relied on junk science. Seven months later, Bassett says he was suddenly told he was not being reappointed because the governor wanted to take the commission in a different direction.
BASSETT: I have seen just kind of an endless drumbeat of strategies and actions to stop this investigation. It's been terribly disappointing.
LAVANDERA (on camera): And why do you think you were taken off of this commission?
BASSETT: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this was a situation that the governor's office clearly did not want us to conclude.
LAVANDERA: Perry has denied Sam Bassett's removal was politically motivated and the governor remains as unwavering today as he was two years ago in his opinion that Willingham deserved to be executed.
PERRY: Go look at the facts and you will find this is an incredibly bad man who murdered his kids and the record will stand the scrutiny.
LAVANDERA: More than two years later the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation is still stalled and nobody can say for sure if Texas executed an innocent man.
Ed Lavandera, CNN, Austin, Texas.
BLITZER: The former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is now back in the United States after wrapping up a rather tense trip to Cuba, his mission, to win the release of a jailed American. I will ask him what happened. We will speak live right after the break.
BLITZER: He's carried out many sensitive diplomatic missions over the years, both official and unofficial, but the former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson says his latest mission, this one to Cuba, has left him disappointed and perplexed.
Governor Richardson is joining us now from Philadelphia. He's just back from six days in Havana.
Governor, thanks very much for joining us.
BILL RICHARDSON (D), FORMER NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: When I first heard you were going to Havana to try to get the release of Alan Gross, an American citizen who is being held prisoner in Cuba, I assumed it was going to happen. You have succeed on almost every other occasion.
What happened this time? Why did you come home empty-handed?
RICHARDSON: Well, I'm still scratching my head because I was invited by the Cubans. I received a note from the Cubans in July. They said, come. They said, come after September 1. I arrived September 7. I was told that I would meet the foreign minister, who is the main decision-maker on this.
I had a delightful lunch with the foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, the first -- the second day I was there. After the lunch, he said three things. One, you will not take Alan Gross back. Two, you will not see President Raul Castro, and, three, we're not even going to let you see him.
So I was stunned. I was flabbergasted. And what I think happened was there are some hard-line elements in the Cuban government that basically don't want to improve the relationship with the United States. Now, we have to continue this effort to free Alan Gross because he's a man who is depressed right now. He's been there two years.
His wife, a wonderful woman, his family has been very concerned. His daughter is sick. He's depressed. He's got lesions on his body. He was already sentenced. And this was a perfect time for a humanitarian gesture.
And my message to the Cubans was, look, I'm a private citizen. I'm not representing the administration. But if you free Alan Gross, a whole host of issues that you disagree with the United States can be discussed, human rights, environmental, commercial. And they shut the door.
BLITZER: Do they realize that until they free Alan Gross, there's going to be no improvement in U.S./Cuban relations? Because things were beginning to improve during the Obama administration. President Obama made it clear he wanted to improve U.S./Cuban relations.
But now everything, according at least to State Department officials I speak to, including the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, there's going to be no improvement. That relationship is in deep trouble until they let him go.
RICHARDSON: That's correct.
And I tried to stress to the Cubans that that was the case. President Obama has loosened travel restrictions. And on my trip there, Wolf, I saw a lot of increasing travel. That's good for the Cuban economy. It's good for the United States. Remittances of Cuban-Americans increased. The human rights situation has improved for both sides, and then this dramatic snub of me.
You know, but it's not really about me, although I was really stunned. It's about how we can get Alan Gross out. And the Cubans have to realize that if they don't release him soon, that there's going to be a deep freeze.
And I don't blame the Obama administration for being cautious, because it seems that every time that an improvement can happen, the Cubans shut the door. And it could be that some hard-line elements in that government basically are pushing Raul Castro, the president, and saying: "This is not the time to do it. Let's not do it. They're not going to help us."
And so I came back empty-handed. But these efforts to free Alan Gross should continue.
BLITZER: But I don't understand if they knew they were, A, not even going to let you meet with Alan Gross, let alone meet with Raul Castro or for you to bring him out of there, they weren't going to let you do anything, why did they tell you to come?
RICHARDSON: Well, I believe that there was a struggle right before I came, a policy debate, and they didn't decide until the last minute when I was there. And somehow the hard line elements -- and I think foreign secretary Bruno Rodriguez is, you know, very skeptical of improving ties with the U.S. -- maybe was given the decision. And after a wonderful three-hour lunch where we discussed ways that we could improve the relationship, he slammed me three ways: one, no seeing Alan Gross; no getting him out' and no seeing Raul Castro.
And so I tried through other means in Cuba, through the religious leaders, through other diplomats, through the cardinal to try to change the decision, but all I got was silence. Complete silence.
So I'm perplexed. But I think these efforts to get Gross out have to be maintained, because this is a very important issue. And unless he is out, the U.S. relationship with Cuba is going to deteriorate.
BLITZER: I know you speak Spanish, obviously fluently. I assume you spoke with the foreign minister in Spanish so there's no -- there's no room for any miscommunication here through translators or anything along those lines.
But I think it does say something about Cuba right now if there is this struggle under way between what you call hard-liners and those who are more amenable to improving relations with the United States. Where does Fidel Castro, for example -- I take it you didn't get a chance to meet with him either. Where does he stand in all of this?
RICHARDSON: My sense from a lot of conversation is that he's not participating in decisions, that he's kind of very low key, taking his medical care.
What I pick up is that Raul Castro is a moderate. He is trying to modernize their economy. He's trying to privatize a bit. But he's got hard-liners within his council. He was not like Fidel Castro, who could make a decision on his own. He has to kind of get a consensus of about 100 people that are part of what is called the council of state, and he may not have that flexibility.
And in the foreign ministry, which a lot of the people there I know and have been friends, they're basically hard-liners. Every time we try to say, OK, the Obama administration moved ahead and relaxed travel; they relaxed remittances; they're taking positive steps, the Cubans kind of say, "Well, maybe we don't want to do this," for their own ideological reasons.
But again, I wasn't representing the administration. But I have dealt with U.S./Cuban relations for a long time. I've gotten political prisoners out before with Fidel Castro. So I thought that there was a chance. I never thought it was a slam dunk, but I thought there was a chance I could get him out.
But unfortunately, maybe they were sending a message to the administration that this is not the time to get Alan Gross out. And if that's the case, the relationship is going to deteriorate, and there won't be any improvement. But that doesn't mean we stop and punish. This means that we should renew our efforts to get this man out, because it's an important human rights case.
And I'm very proud of the State Department that has basically said unless we get this guy out, unless we stand for human rights, we're not going to improve the relationship. And they've back me up all the way.
So I'm very pleased with my government that stood behind principle and said that, unless you take a human rights action, Cuba, we're not going to improve our relationship, and one man that is important.
BLITZER: It certainly is. One man is very important. Governor Richardson, thanks very much for trying. I know you're going to continue to work on this situation. You haven't failed on these other missions overseas over the years, but you know what? At least you tried, and hopefully, in the end they'll release Alan Gross.
Appreciate it, Governor Richardson. Thanks again.
RICHARDSON: Thank you.
BLITZER: A large-scale assault on the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. The attack failed, but what message did the Taliban manage to get across?
And NASA unveils a rocket unlike any other. We have details of what sets this giant apart.
BLITZER: American officials are downplaying the day-long attack Taliban forces carried out on the United States embassy in Afghanistan yesterday. While damage to the U.S. -- to U.S. interests was minimal, the Taliban did get a message across in a very, very big way.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is working the story for us.
Chris, lots at stake here. What's the latest?
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there seems to be mixed signals among some of the top American officials in Afghanistan. Look, this was the third spectacular attack in Kabul in the last three months. Even the U.S. military commander there in Afghanistan says in some ways it was a propaganda victory for the Taliban, but the U.S. ambassador says no big deal.
LAWRENCE (voice-over): Taliban fighters held out for 20 hours, firing machine guns and RPGs at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. But the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan doesn't sound impressed. RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN: If that's the best they can do, you know, I think it is actually a statement of their -- their weakness.
LAWRENCE: That's probably not how it looked to the Afghan kids screaming inside a school bus. Or the five Afghan police officers the militants killed. Eleven civilians died too, half of them children.
CROCKER: If these were five guys that rumbled into town, with RPGs under their car seats, you know, this really is not a very big deal.
JEFF DRESSLER, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: Tactically, the operation certainly was a success. I mean, it garnered international headlines. It was just days after 9/11.
LAWRENCE: Analyst Jeff Dressler has made numerous trips to Afghanistan. He says the Taliban has been trying to expand its presence around Kabul for years. They use historical connections with nearby tribes: intimidate some and pay off others to get a foothold which allows them to launch attacks into the capital.
It's true that no Americans were killed. Firing RPGs from 800 meters away is not going to do major damage to the embassy. And there's a danger in making too much of one day.
DRESSLER: It's relatively difficult to execute attacks like that on a regular basis inside Kabul. The Afghan security forces do a pretty job of keeping things locked down there.
LAWRENCE: But in a country where most people are illiterate, that nuance gets lost.
DRESSLER: It does certainly represent their ability to create the perception that they're overrunning Kabul, and it really forced Afghans to question whether or not Afghan security forces can protect them.
LAWRENCE: Yes. And perception is everything there in Afghanistan. U.S. officials do agree that they think the Haqqani network was behind this operation. And this attack clearly shows that, A, they're not interested in any sort of reconciliation with the Afghan government, and they're still able to launch attacks from their safe haven over in Pakistan -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Chris. Thanks very much. We'll watch this story.
Meanwhile, a string of deadly attacks in Iraq. Lisa Sylvester's here. She's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM.
What's happening in Iraq?
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Wolf.
Well, at least nine people are dead, after Iraqi militants staged three attacks today. One happened inside a military base west of Baghdad. Officials say a bomb attached to a military bus exploded, killing two Iraqi soldiers. Another deadly blast happened south of the capital outside a restaurant that is frequented by security forces. And in Baghdad, gunmen opened fire at a police checkpoint, killing two officers.
An unexpected and unnerving moment for passengers on board a United Airlines flight. The Boeing 757 was preparing to take off from Dulles Airport outside of Washington today when it experienced an engine problem. Passengers say smoke was seen coming out of the right engine, prompting flight attendants to order everyone off the plane. Shaken passengers evacuated on emergency chutes, and among them was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
The federal government is blaming three companies for BP's massive oil spill last year: BP, Transocean, and Halliburton. A final federal report on the disaster says a key cause of the deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig was a faulty cement job at the well site. Halliburton performed that job, but the report also says Transocean and BP failed to enforce critical safety regulations at the site.
And an exciting discovery in space. Scientists say they have found more than 50 -- 50 -- new planets outside our solar system. They include 16 super earths. Those are planets that have a mass of up to ten times greater than Earth's. Scientists say that even one could have water and could potentially sustain life, but they are stressing that the more research needs to be done to determine if life forms actually exist.
So that's pretty exciting. They're saying one of the 16 may potentially have water. So who knows, Wolf?
BLITZER: Maybe. Thank you.
NASA unveils plans to build the most powerful rocket ever. We're going to tell you about the extraordinary manned missions it's expected to make. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: NASA's ushering in a new era in space exploration. Today, it unveiled plans for an extremely powerful deep-space rocket that will carry astronauts farther than anyone has ever traveled before, potentially even to Mars, maybe even further.
CNN's John Zarrella is joining us live from Miami.
I know, John, you're very excited about this. But tell us what's going on.
JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, for months, NASA said they couldn't build it. Congress insisted, "You will build it." Well, finally today both Congress and NASA got on the same page, and the space agency announced a rocket they're going to build, more powerful than the Apollo moon rockets.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): NASA maintained there just wasn't enough money to do both: build a new, big rocket and at the same time fly the space shuttle.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.
ZARRELLA: With the shuttle now in retirement, the space agency unveiled its next generation rocket. It's longer than a football field, big enough to take astronauts to an asteroid and eventually on to Mars.
CHARLES BOLDEN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: President Obama has challenged us at NASA to be bold and to dream big, and that's exactly what we do. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will dream of one day walking on Mars.
ZARRELLA: To keep it affordable-- $18 billion over the next 6 years -- the rocket, called the SLS, for Space Launch System, will use considerable existing technology. Just like the shuttle, it will have boosters on the sides of a giant center fuel tank. Just like the shuttle, the boosters would be reusable.
But the spacecraft carrying the astronauts will be on top, not on the side. Studies show that increases survivability in an accident. Called Orion, it is already under development.
JEFF GREASON, AUGUSTINE COMMITTEE MEMBER: Let's just say it's a rocket that I have difficulty finding the mission for.
ZARRELLA: Jeff Greason was a member of the Augustine Committee that presented the Obama administration with options for the future. Greason is skeptical. Because NASA is the only customer for such a behemoth rocket, there's no way to defer any of cost.
GREASON: It's a very expensive thing for NASA to maintain, and the result of that, as I see it is that, if NASA does successfully develop this launch vehicle, there will be no budget to do anything with it.
ZARRELLA: Norm Augustine, the committee chairman, says, as costly as it may be, human exploration is just part of who we are.
NORM AUGUSTINE, AUGUSTINE COMMITTEE: I often say, does anybody remember the name of the first person who landed on the moon? And everyone does. And I say does anyone remember the name of first robot that landed on the moon, and no one does.
ZARRELLA: Building this new rocket, NASA and supporters in Congress will say they will ensure the United States does not become a second rate spacefaring nation.
ZARRELLA: First test flight in 2017, one flight a year after that. Human exploration of an asteroid, Wolf, 2025 is the target date.
BLITZER: You'll be reporting on that live for us, I am sure.
ZARRELLA: I hope so.
BLITZER: John Zarrella, thanks very much.
Jack Cafferty is coming up next with "The Cafferty File."
Then Jeanne Moos and the case of handcuffed Houdini.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Jack's back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour: "Governor Rick Perry of Texas says he cannot be bought for $5,000. How much will this comment go on to haunt him?"
Mark in Oklahoma City: "Jack, every man or woman has their price. At least with Governor Perry we now know where to start the bidding."
James in Denver: "It was striking and telling to hear how he put it. In these days, where politicians' cooperation is so readily purchased by interest groups, in this new land the Supreme Court has declared to be of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation, how easily it rolls off the tongue of a slick rascal that he has a price. Mind you, though, it's a high price."
Rusty writes, "Definitely serves to show how out of touch he is with those of us who are not rich. Not for $5,000, huh? I suppose the going bribery quid pro quo rate for a sitting GOP governor is quite a bit more than that."
Brenda writes on Facebook from Maryland, "I'm a Tea Party member, and it's in the Tea Party supporting Perry. It's the media putting him in the spotlight. I've seen numerous polls, and believe me, he's not the leader. As for his comment, just another dumb comment by another dumb politician."
Peter in New York writes, "It should hurt him a lot. Bachmann should have asked, if he couldn't be bought for $5,000, how much does it take?"
And Susan in Denver: "I'll pay him $5,001 to drop out of the race."
If you want to read more on this go to my blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page, which is growing by leaps and bounds, I might add, Wolf.
BLITZER: I know it is. A lot of people like that page and our SITUATION ROOM page, as well, where I do my daily blog. I just wrote about Governor Perry myself. Thanks, Jack.
BLITZER: American taxpayers on the hook for half a billion dollars loan for a company that's now belly up. Republican lawmakers are blaming the White House. You're going to find out what's going on, on "JOHN KING USA." That's coming up at the top of the hour for our North American viewers.
But, first, a handcuffed Houdini leaves Michigan police in disbelief. The escape artist in action when we return.
BLITZER: Here's a look at this hour's "Hot Shots."
In Nepal, a crowd watches a traditional masked dance.
In India, customers haggle over vegetables to buy in the street.
In the United Arab Emirates, a man inspects a falcon at an exhibition.
And in New Zealand, check it out: a man leaps from a bungee.
"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.
A criminal suspect handcuffed and placed in a locked patrol car suddenly vanishes. CNN's Jeanne Moos has details.
JEAN MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sometimes suspects are guilty of being deviously ingenious. Take the bank robber who, when captured, ate the alleged holdup note. Bon appetit.
But why is this guy licking his handcuffs?
QUINCY ALEXANDER, ARRESTED BY POLICE: Am I going to jail for something?
MOOS: After allegedly brandishing a knife, Quincy Alexander was handcuffed in the back of a West Bloomfield, Michigan, police cruiser.
The first thing he managed to do was to move his cuffed hands from behind him to in front. He also emptied his pockets, which police say contained heroin, and then he used his mouth to lubricate and apparently loose handcuffs.
(on camera) Let's time him. See how long it takes him to take off the cuffs.
(voice-over) Left alone in the cruiser with the radio on, Alexander gnawed and salivated and tugged for a mere 17 seconds before the cuffs came off, a veritable handcuffed Houdini.
He kept looking around for the officers. You could almost see him think.
(on camera) And while we're at it, shouldn't the suspect be wearing his seat belt?
And then there's the minor detail of how he managed to open a window to get out.
(voice-over) The barrier between front and back had been left open, so Alexander just crawled into the front seat.
Watch the light change as he presses the button opening a rear window. Out the window he went. At least this cruiser was parked. A handcuffed burglary suspect in Utah threw himself out the window of a moving police car. The window was open because he'd been throwing up. When he threw himself out, he was not seriously injured, though he was recaptured.
And so was Alexander, just three hours later, his Freddie Mercury moment short-lived.
FREDDIE MERCURY, SINGER (singing): I've got to break free
MOOS: But if you're going to break free, at least turn off the radio.
Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: Jeanne, thank you.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. Tomorrow this programming note. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, they'll both be here live in THE SITUATION ROOM, one at 5 in the 5 p.m. Eastern hour, one in the 6 p.m. Eastern hour. Tomorrow, two Republican presidential candidates.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching. For our international viewers, "WORLD REPORT" is next. For those of you in North America, "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.