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Mitt Romney's Counterattack; Atty. Gen. Not Blamed In Gun- Trafficking Scandal; French Cartoons Fuel Muslim Anger; Fallout from Protests over Anti-Muslim Film; Fighting Intensifies in Syrian Capital; Major American Airlines Cuts

Aired September 19, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, Mitt Romney strikes back after his own remarks landed him in hot water. Can he turn some old comments by President Obama into new campaign ammunition?

Also, after a week of violent protests over an anti-Islamic film, a French magazine is publishing cartoons which Muslims say ridicule the Prophet Muhammad. France takes urgent steps right now to boost security.

And thousands of American airlines employees could soon face layoffs, but passengers are already feeling a huge impact.

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

Mitt Romney launches a counteroffensive after being slammed for a secretly recorded remarks that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government. The Romney camp is now pushing a 14-year-old tape of President Obama talking about redistribution.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. Jessica, it's a familiar refrain, but what is all the new buzz all about?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: HI, Wolf. It is a narrative that has followed the president for years. That really what he wants to do is use the government to take from the rich and give to the poor. Well, now, that the Romney campaign is facing a controversy of its own, it is seized on an old audiotape to argue that that's exactly what the president still wants to do, Wolf.


YELLIN (voice-over): The GOP is out with a new attack on the president playing up old audio and a familiar story line.

VOICE OF BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because I actually believe in redistribution.

Which suggest redistribution.

If you got a business, you didn't build that.

YELLIN: The tape is from 1998. Then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama urging renewed faith in government's ability to help people out of poverty.

OBAMA: What we're going to have to do is somehow resuscitate the notion that government action can be effective at all.

YELLIN: The line getting all the attention.

OBAMA: I actually believe in redistribution, at least, at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot.

YELLIN: The tape posted on the right leaning drudge report in the wake of Mitt Romney's hidden camera controversy, and it popped on the campaign trail.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This idea of redistribution follows from the idea that if you have a business, you didn't build it, someone else did that. It's the same concept.

YELLIN: Flashback to campaign 2008. Remember "Joe the Plumber?"

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your new tax plans going to tax me more.

OBAMA: It's not that I want to punish your success. I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.

YELLIN: Senator John McCain tried to make headway with the theme back then.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: He believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs.

YELLIN: Team Obama says --

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It was tried and failed in 2008.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, MCCAIN 2008 CAMPAIGN ADVISER: History has shown that, in fact, Senator McCain did not win the election, but on the economic issues of the day, I think that the vast majority of Americans agree that the route for America is to rely on the private sector and should have a small government.

YELLIN: Reality check, if the president is a secret socialist, he's failing at it. According to census bureau data, last year, the gap between rich and poor was the biggest it's been in 40 years. Incomes grew for only the top 20 percent of Americans.


YELLIN (on-camera): Now, Wolf, the Obama campaign did put out a statement saying that this is a desperate ploy by the Romney camp. You might not be surprised by that. They say what the president was trying to say back in the day in those audiotapes was that he was arguing for a more efficient, more effective government that can help people and promote opportunity.

You'll notice, Wolf, that the president only commented on this once last night when he was on the "David Letterman Show" when he made an appearance there, basically, following the old political adage, if your opponent is stumbling, step aside and let him fall on his own -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Have they confirmed over at the White House, Jessica, that that audiotape from way back in 1998 or whatever it was was authentic, wasn't doctored, that it was the real thing of then- Illinois senator speaking to this group at Loyola University?

YELLIN: They've not confirmed that it was at Loyola, but no one here or at the campaign is denying that it is the president when he was state senator nor are they denying the attribution that it's believed that it was Loyola. He was speaking at a poverty conference. They're just insisting that we should read it within the context.

That he was talking about government understanding -- these are government programs. We should renew faith. We should be able to understand some of them can work more effectively to help some people get out of poverty, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks very much.

So, if we've heard this tune before, why are Republicans still playing the redistribution theme song? Can it really work? Let's discuss with two guests, Democratic strategist, Bill Burton, the co- founder of the Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, and Republican congressman, Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Jason Chaffetz supports Romney. Bill Burton, obviously, supports the president, a former deputy press secretary over at the White House.

Let me ask you, Congressman Chaffetz. First of all, we've heard these arguments four years ago. Didn't work out so well for John McCain. Why is it coming up now?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, (R) UTAH: Well, it's one of the central themes of this economy. I mean, the fact is, we got 23 million Americans who are out of work or continue to look for work. We have unemployment been north of eight percent. We have a $16 trillion debt. We're paying more than $600 million a day in interest on the debt.

The president doesn't have a plan. And so, Mitt Romney is running this campaign to get the country back to work.

BLITZER: Well, I'm talking about the redistribution. The redistribution uproar. What is the issue now? Why is it different than the arguments you made four years ago that this president was, what, a closet socialist, wanted to redistribute wealth?

CHAFFETZ: But then the president denies that this is the type of direction he's heading. Those of us on the Republican side of the aisle have been concerned that what President Obama wants is big government and more government. And it's exemplified the fact that there are now 143,000 additional federal workers on the federal payroll since the president took office.

And it's not helping the economy. So, the person who's sitting there in Iowa or Florida or wherever it might be and is concerned about paying for school and their mortgage and everything else, they got to be asking themselves, do we want more of the same or do we need to go a different direction?

And that's the core of what Mitt Romney is trying to do in this election is saying, no, we got to get people back to work. Not more government.

BLITZER: Let's let Bill Burton respond to that -- Bill.

BILL BURTON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, for starters, you know, this attack was tried back in 2008, and obviously, it didn't work for Senator McCain. People have a sense of who President Obama is, where he wants to take this country, and they know that he's not the caricature that the Romney campaign has tried to make him to be.

He's for growing the economy. And indeed, over the last 30 months, there's been 30 consecutive months of job growth, brought the financial sector back from the brink, saved the auto industry, has created good jobs in this country.

and the question that Americans have right now is whether they want to keep moving in the direction that has shown growth that President Obama's led this country in or if they want to go back to the ways of George W. Bush and what Mitt Romney wants, which was revealed in a videotape this week which is help out the very rich at the expense of the middle class.

BLITZER: Let me go back to Jason Chaffetz on this redistribution of wealth, congressman. There's almost a four-year record that President Obama has now in terms of redistribution of wealth, if you take a look at the redistribution that has occurred over the past four years, the wealthy have become richer, the poorer have become poorer.

There's been a redistribution, but it's gone to the top income. That's reflected in the Dow Jones Industrial which at a lower of around 6,500 is now 13,500. So, wealthy people have done really well under this president. How do you explain that?

CHAFFETZ: Hey, well, don't get any argument from me. The president's failed on all fronts. Look, the American dream --

BLITZER: Wait a minute. Let me just -- what do you mean he's failed on all fronts if wealthy people are doing better today than they were doing four years ago?

CHAFFETZ: Here's the fundamental challenge. When you have bigger government, more regulation, more regulators out there, you know what, the big guys take care of it. The big companies and the big corporations, they're able to handle it. They hire more attorneys, they hire more accountants and they get around it.

What we're fighting for are these young people who are graduating from college, these young people who are starting their own businesses. What the president fails to understand is that big government, more government impedes the ability for Americans to have that economic growth and opportunity. The person who has 15 employees, how do they get to 20?

It's big government that gets in their way. Now, there's a proper role of government. But this American dream was not built on cash for clunkers and bailouts and massive debts on a government credit card. That's not how we build this country.

BLITZER: Well, Bill, I think the point he's trying to make is that poorer people, middle class families are not doing as well as they were doing four years ago. The argument being there are more people on food stamps right now, more people dependent on the government to just get through the day than they were four years ago. How do you answer that?

BURTON: By any measure, the economy is growing. It's not shrinking like it was when the president took over --

BLITZER: But why are there more people on food stamps now than four years ago?

BURTON: Obviously, the president started in a very deep hole. When he took over the reigns from George W. Bush, the economy was in very tough shape, and he's been helping the country clots (ph) way back. But, the people that Congressman Chaffetz are talking about are the same folks that Mitt Romney says are just mooches on the system, students.

People who are dependent on student loans and Pell Grants in order to make their way through college, seniors who worked all their lives on Social Security and Medicare. Mitt Romney appears to think that those people are just takers, people who are veterans who have completed their service in our veteran benefits.

BLITZER: All right.

BURTON: That's not a government-centered focus. That's the way --

BLITZER: Priorities USA Action, Bill's Super PAC, has an ad, congressman. I want to play a little clip for you, because I want to discuss this with you. They make a serious charge against Mitt Romney. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Behind these doors, Mitt Romney calls half the American people.

ROMNEY: -- dependent upon government who believe that they are victims.



BLITZER: We did some checking in your home state of Utah, and 38 percent of Utah tax returns in 2010 were from non-payers, if you will. Meaning, they did not file any federal income tax, 38 percent of the tax returns in Utah. Utah's in the top ten of what they call non- payers.

We're only talking about federal income tax, not Social Security withholding or anything like that, federal income tax. So, are these people moochers? Are they parasites? What are they?

CHAFFETZ: No. We want to do what Mitt Romney wants to do, what I want to do, what I think is right for this country is to allow people economic mobility so that they can improve, they can improve their own lives, that they can pay that mortgage. They can pay for college. They can get a better job, have that upward mobility. That's the essence of why Mitt Romney is running for election.

BLITZER: When Mitt Romney says that these are victims, are they victims, these 38 percent of Utah residents -- or Utah filers who didn't pay any federal income tax?

CHAFFETZ: No. Look, Governor Romney was the first one to say he didn't word that very eloquently. But the point that he's trying to make, which I think is a valid one, is how do we create more economic opportunity for people to succeed in this country? President Obama's taking us down a path of more government, more government spending, and it's not working.

And I disagree with my friend there, Bill. There is no economic indicator that indicates that, boy, this is right on the trajectory that we want to be. I think the country recognizes that they're off track. That's why we got to move in a different direction. And that's -- giving entrepreneurs more opportunity.

BLITZER: Hold on for now. I just want to play this clip to you. This is Mitt Romney speaking today defending himself. Listen to this.


ROMNEY: The question in this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class. I do. He does. The question is, who can help the poor and middle class? I can. He can't. He's proven it in four years.


BLITZER: All right. Bill, go ahead and respond to Mitt Romney.

BURTON: Well, for starters, the partially hilarious thing here is that on your own air, on CNN, he was the one who said I'm not concerned about the very poor. And the truth is, if you listen to his comments in that fundraiser, what it does is it shows that this is the same guy that we all thought he was.

He's someone who's very concerned about getting tax cuts to the wealthiest and he denigrates people who do depend on student loans, who do depend on Medicare, who do depend on veterans benefits. And you can't be the president of all the United States if part of your campaign is to tear down a good chunk of it.

BLITZER: Bill Burton and Jason Chaffetz, to be continued down the road. Appreciate both of you joining us here in the SITUATION ROOM.

CHAFFETZ: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We all witnessed the worldwide violent protests first sparked by a video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Now, a cartoon is doing the same. Why is it so sensitive for Muslims?

Plus, remember the botched oath of office between President Obama and the chief justice, John Roberts? We have new insight into why it happened. Our own Jeffrey Toobin is out with a new book entitled, "The Oath."


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty's also following Mitt Romney's controversial comments at that private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida back in May. Jack's here with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Mitt Romney's latest unforced error, Wolf, has a lot of Republicans worry that his, and my extension, their chances of winning this election are quickly slipping away. As Politico puts it, quote, "If political campaigns have nine lives, nervous Republicans feel Romney has used up at least eight," "unquote.

The latest gaffe comes courtesy of Romney's comments to a group of wealthy Republican donors in May where he said the 47 percent of Americans who support President Obama no matter what depend on the government for handouts and, quote, "believe they are victims," unquote.

This leaked video could damage Romney's support among some Republican voters like seniors or the military, not to mention independents, which is why some Republicans, including Massachusetts senator, Scott Brown and South Carolina's, Lindsey Graham are distancing themselves from Romney's remarks.

All of this follows Romney's badly bungled and highly political response to the Middle East riots last week. In "The Wall Street Journal" column, former Reagan speech writer, Peggy Noonan says the Romney campaign is incompetent, quote, "it's not big, it's not brave, it's not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It's always been too small for the moment. An intervention is in order. Mitt, this is not working."

Noonan writes Romney who's not good at news conferences ought to stick to speeches and they, quote, "have to be big." She says he ought to surround himself with a posse of top Republicans every day. People like Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, just to show that he's not in this alone. Here's the question, what does Mitt Romney have to do to right the ship? Go to, post a comment, or go to our post on the SITUATION ROOM's Facebook Page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

Some vindication today for President Obama's attorney general. The inspector general finds in a new report that Eric Holder was not informed of the botched gun trafficking operation known as "Fast and Furious" until after the death of a U.S. border patrol agent. Fourteen ATF employees are now facing possible disciplinary action. Two others faulted in the report are leaving the justice department.

Joining us now is CNN's senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. He's the author of a brand-new book entitled "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court," and it is an excellent book, indeed. I want to talk about it in a moment, but let me get your quick reaction to this inspector general report. What do you make of this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it summarizes what a lot of us knew and suspected that this was a very ill conceived operation. It was botched at the local level, but it is not a national scandal. There was not a cover-up. There was not any sort of wrongdoing in Washington at the justice department. So, it's bad, but it's not as bad as it could be.

BLITZER: Let's get to "The Oath," because you got some good new information in there. I'm not surprised. You track history writing these books. You write this about the Chief Justice John Roberts, because in the end, he supported Obamacare, said it was constitutional, gave his reasons. A lot of folks were surprised by that, including you.

TOOBIN: Starting right here, yes.

BLITZER: As a lot of us remember, I was surprised myself. But here's what you write, "For Roberts personally and the conservative cause, generally, his vote and opinion in the health care case were acts of strategic genius." What does that mean?

TOOBIN: Well, in part, it has to do with how he wrote the opinion. It was definitely a shot across the bow of Congress in terms of limiting big government. The commerce clause is not what it was. Congress does not have a blank check to write any law on any subject. But, as for the Supreme Court, itself, Roberts has now established himself as a figure above politics.

So, as next year, he comes to deal with the issue of affirmative action, very likely ending the practice of racial considerations in admissions at the University of Texas, he will be able to issue opinions and people won't say, oh, he's just a Republican hack. He has a moral and political authority now that is really well beyond what any chief justices had in a long time.

BLITZER: So, what you're saying is this decision on Obamacare as it's called was a strategic decision looking down the road when he makes some other controversial decisions if he's that 5-4 swing vote, let's say.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. It was a decision where he undoubtedly believed what he wrote, that this was a legitimate proof use of the taxing power. But it was also a decision about his role as chief justice and how he sees the court. He didn't want another Bush v. Gore, another Citizens United, another case where Republicans advanced the Republican agenda. He kept the court, at least, somewhat apart from the politics of the day.

BLITZER: Now, the title of the book, "The Oath," comes from when President Obama was sworn in on January 20th, 2009 as president of the United States and the chief justice sort of seemed to screw up that oath, that ceremony. I'll play a little clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I, Barack Hussein Obama --

OBAMA: I, Barack --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- do solemnly swear.

OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear.


BLITZER: We remember there was a little tension there.

TOOBIN: And it was downhill from there.

BLITZER: Yes. That was a good part of that oath of that ceremony. But you go behind the scenes and tell us what happened.

TOOBIN: A lot of people at the time said, God, John Roberts, he didn't prepare.

BLITZER: He could have brought a little three-by-five card.

TOOBIN: Well, look --

BLITZER: Only a certain a number of words. It's not that hard.

TOOBIN: It's 35 words, but this is what happened. Not only did he prepare, he prepared obsessively. At one point, his wife said to him, at this point, the dog thinks it's the president. That's many times he rehearsed.

But, he had prepared a card, a PDF, which his assistant e-mailed to the Congressional Inaugural Committee which explained precisely how the words would be divided up in the oath, and I have the card in the book. But the problem was the secretary who got the oath card at the Congressional Committee never forwarded it to the Obama transition office. So, Obama never knew how Roberts was going to divide the oath. And in that clip we saw that he kind of interrupted the chief justice, because he didn't know how the oath was going to be broken up and that flustered John Roberts. And at that point, he got confused for a while. That's the root of the problem. So, it shows you should always open the attachments on e-mails.

BLITZER: You know what it also shows? Do a little rehearsal. You're all standing backstage. You're behind the scenes. You know what, this is history unfolding. You say to the president, it's only 35 words. Here's what we're going to do, and here's how we're going to do it. I will say these words, you will repeat. Blah-blah-blah.

TOOBIN: I'm not sure who's going to be inaugurated next January 20th, but I am sure it will go a lot more smoothly.


BLITZER: And they'll do a little rehearsal.

TOOBIN: I think so.

BLITZER: The book is entitled "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court." And remember, the last book you wrote, a great best seller. I'm sure this one will be as well.

TOOBIN: I hope so. Thanks.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, we'll continue to talk about it. Thank you.

We may soon be talking also about a new politician, the New York Jets quarterback, Tim Tebow. We'll explain what's going on.


BLITZER: A car carrying the United States ambassador to china surrounded by a mob of protesters in Beijing, and it was all caught on tape. Lisa Sylvester's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM" right now. What happened, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some pretty surprising video here. Outraged demonstrators are protesting a simmering territorial dispute marking the 81st anniversary of Japan's invasion of China. The ambassador's car became a target amid the chaos but sustained only minor damage.

Some of Japan's biggest manufacturers halted production in the area due to the protests. China normally clamps down on public demonstrations, but it is allowing these to proceed.

And one day after French magazine was fined for publishing topless photos of the duchess of Cambridge, magazines in Denmark and Sweden, they now say that they have bought and are printing the controversial images.

A magazine editor says they won't be deterred by the criminal and civil, legal battle over the pictures. A spokesman for the royal family is declining g to comment on these decisions.

And Tebowing may one day come right here to Washington. Football star, Tim Tebow, who's known for wearing his religion on his sleeve, he is telling ESPN New York that he has not ruled out running for office after he retires.

The New York Jets quarterback says whatever angle he feels like he can make a difference in, then he would love to do it. So, imagine that. Congressman Tebow, how does that sound to you?

BLITZER: My quarterback from the Buffalo Bills is Jack Kemp, the late Jack Kemp. He went from being a quarterback to being the vice presidential nominee, as you remember. So, there is a precedent. Your good quarterback may be a good politician as well.

SYLVESTER: Yes. So, we'll have to watch and see. I think -- I know Tim Tebow has a ton of fans out there. So, we'll see what happens as far as political career.

BLITZER: Let's see how he does in football.



BLITZER: Concerns over a cartoon. Up next, the magazine's decision could spark even more deadly protest in the Middle East.


BLITZER: After a week of often violent worldwide protest over an Islamic -- anti-Islamic film, a French magazine has now published cartoons which Muslims say ridicule the prophet Mohammed. France is boosting security in some places and as a precaution will close embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday. That's the Muslim holy day. Brian Todd is taking a closer at this story for us. What else is going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the French are concerned about potential violence here. These cartoons are very derogatory toward the prophet Mohammed. And of course the timing is critical.


TODD (voice-over): It couldn't come at a more combustible time and that seems to be the whole point. Cartoons just published in the French magazine "Charlie Hebdo" (ph) lampoon the prophet Mohammed showing him in suggestive poses. CNN is not airing those images. The magazine also mocks a Jewish rabbi. But it's the cartoons of Mohammed coming in the wake of deadly protests in more than a dozen countries over an anti-Islamic film that led police to take up positions outside the magazine's Paris offices. Leaders of France's Muslim community, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, are furious.

MOHAMMED MOUSSAOUI, PRESIDENT, FRENCH MUSLIM COUNCIL (through translator): Our reaction is indignation against this new Islam phobic act.

TODD: Members of the magazine staff say they're not fueling any fire. They're merely using freedom of expression to poke fun at the news and criticize extremists.

STEPHANE CHARBONNIER, DIRECTOR, CHARLIE HEBDO MAGAZINE (through translator): One has the impression that everybody's driven by fear. That's what the small handful of fundamentalists that doesn't represent anyone wants to do, govern through fear.

TODD (on camera): But these cartoons have the potential to provoke more than just a handful of fundamentalists. Any depiction at all of the prophet Mohammed in a cartoon, a film, even a positive depiction is considered blasphemy by Muslims.

(voice-over): I spoke with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a prominent Islamic scholar who has advised top American generals and diplomats.

(on camera): Why is it so sensitive for the prophet to be depicted in any way? What is the root of it?

PROF. AKBAR AHMED, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: The argument is if you begin to depict the prophet graphically in a picture or in a statue as in Christianity depicting Jesus, Muslims will very often, particularly in tribal areas, rural areas begin to worship that statue. In Islam the worship of God is completely indivisible from anything. It is just God. Even the prophet is mortal; he's not divine or semi-divine. Therefore to attribute any kind of divine postrum (ph) as would happen if he was depicted graphically or in a statue, Muslims would invariably begin to look at that and see it on their behalf to God would divert from the worship of God.


TODD: Meanwhile, the French, as we mentioned, are bracing for backlash from these cartoons. The Foreign Ministry says France will close embassies and schools in about 20 countries on Friday. That is the main Muslim day of prayer as a precaution. It is already boosting security in some locations namely in Cairo, Lebanon and Tunisia. Wolf, they are extremely worried about --

BLITZER: This magazine does have a history of doing this kind of stuff.

TODD: It does. Last November the magazine's offices were attacked when it was about to publish an issue making fun of Islamic law. One of its cartoonists have been placed under police protection since last November because one of his illustrations on the cover was so controversial. The French foreign minister has said -- he's basically voiced a lot of frustration with this. He said look, we understand free speech and we have to protect it, but he says we don't see anything useful about a provocation like this. The government is a little bit frustrated with these people as well.

BLITZER: Yes, all right, Brian, thanks very, very much. Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with Fouad Ajami. He's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the author of "The Syrian Rebellion". Fouad, thanks for coming in. You had an excellent column in "The Washington Post" over the weekend, "Why is the Arab world so easily offended".

Among other things you write this. "There is an Arab pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by outsiders that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation. A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness." Explain what you mean by that.

FOUAD AJAMI, SENIOR FELLOW, HOOVER INSTITUTION: You know Wolf, thank you for citing this piece. We have been here before, haven't we? When we look back on what happened with (INAUDIBLE) 23 years ago, when we look back on the murder in Amsterdam in broad daylight of Phil Van Gogh (ph) because he had made a film with (INAUDIBLE), a Somali politician and there was (INAUDIBLE) Van Gogh (ph). He was killed in broad daylight, as a witness said his throat was slit as though it was a tire.

Then came the cartoon crisis where a friend of mine actually, Fleming Rose (ph), innocently commissioned these cartoons and 100 people were killed. Then this issue came up on us now with this film that was made in California. We've seen this before. It's a clash really, a clash of cultures and beliefs. The freedom of expression in the West and the insistence of Muslims that their own ways will have to be given due regard in the West and by the West.

BLITZER: I don't know if you saw Tom Friedman's (ph) excellent column in "The New York Times" today and he points out that these same -- a lot of these same people are protesting so vehemently against this film depicting the prophet Mohammed, they themselves have said really nasty ugly things about other religions whether Christianity or Judaism. Tom writes among other things "The Web site -- referring to the Muslim Brotherhood Web site -- praises jihad against America and the Jews, the descendants of apes and pigs." So why do they see things so differently when people criticize their religion but they then go ahead and do the same thing about other religions?

AJAMI: Well you know you've asked the right question, but when you have young people under employed, unemployed, angry with the feeling of disinheritance and when you have a culture that winks at these kinds of things, when you have the rule of the unreason, if you will, I think these things are perfectly predictable. I mean that is where the Muslim world finds itself today. And I think there is something very sad in my opinion that someone (INAUDIBLE) in Beirut, the leader of Hezbollah, is so offended by this 14-minute video trailer made in California, but across the border from his country, across the border from where he lives, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed and they have been brutalized, mosques have been shelled, sanctities have been violated, women and children have been brutalized, and yet they have nothing to say about this. It's kind of shameful that people go out as far away as Jakarta and protest against this film, but you don't really see much protest about what's happening in a place like Syria.

BLITZER: Yes, I saw those pictures of those thousands gathering in Beirut yesterday protesting this film, death to America and all of that. But I haven't seen similar demonstrations as you point out complaining about the slaughter of so many people right next door. Only a few miles away in Syria by the Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. Bottom line, is this ever going to get better?

AJAMI: No. That really is the honest answer. I mean I think when you have these kinds -- when you have these positions are so sharply drawn. We believe in the West. We believe in the Western tradition and (INAUDIBLE) of free speech. Now, I think free speech always have some limit. We can't -- you know there are lots of things. I watch your programs for a very long time since its launching, I've never seen you being rude towards someone and using the cover of free speech. But you have that value that we have of free speech and then you have this wide civilization of Islam insisting on its way and you have the organization of the Islamic Conference, something like 57 countries, and they want to criminalize attacks on the prophet.

They want to declare it if you will in our language, hate speech. So this will not be resolved. It's the essential contradiction. This is what Sam Huntington (ph), the late great professor at Harvard really put it well when he talked about the clash of civilization. And when he talked about what he called the youth bulge, the young people in the Islamic world who has nothing except this kind of culture of protest and this culture of violence.

BLITZER: Very depressing thought indeed. Fouad, thanks as usual for coming in.

AJAMI: Thank you.

BLITZER: A new move by the United States to control Syria's ties to Iran just as the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, flaunts that relationship.


BLITZER: Smoke rose over Syria's capital today as dozens of people were reported killed in Damascus and its suburbs. The United States announced sanctions on entities supporting the Syrian crackdown including Iranian air carriers accused of transporting weapons. But the regime got a show of support as Iran's foreign minister visited Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is in Damascus right now. I want to get to that meeting, Nic, in a moment. But first, CNN rarely gets access, a visa to get into Syria to Damascus, what are you seeing on the ground?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Wolf, it's not easy access here on the ground. The government gives us very, very limited dispensation to film here and if we bump into the edges of that, as we did today, we can find ourselves very quickly taken in for questioning, transported back to the center of Damascus even to an intelligence headquarters today for questioning. But what we're seeing on the ground here is a city that is an island in this city of about a couple of square miles that are untouched by war. But go just a few miles away from where we are here and it's like a war zone, a battleground. There are areas where it's a scorched earth policy.

Whole (INAUDIBLE) whole and blocks of houses have been demolished. Areas you -- other areas you go into, some buildings are pockmarked by shelling, by bombs, you see people on the move getting out of neighborhoods. The neighborhoods we saw from where I'm standing right now just a few hours ago smoke billowing out of them. And this is in the capital, but it's still the core of the capital here. Perhaps the sort of better-off neighborhoods, if you will, that have yet to be touched by the fighting. And people here right in this part of the city living in fear that that war is just, just right around the corner from them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So how solid does Bashar Al-Assad and his regime look? I know you have limited access. There's limits to what you can see, but from your vantage point in Damascus?

ROBERTSON: You know, we still get around. We can still get out to talk to people. We can and every situation even those situations where you're taken in for questioning, you see a lot, you learn a lot. In that police station today three soldiers we've been told have just been wounded by two IEDs placed near a school. And we were in the office watching that police official working his phones, getting the information, writing reports. Then we were transferred to another headquarters. Again, there is a very strong, solid bureaucracy and military structure, Shabia (ph), these sort of military forces, paramilitary forces, the Army is still strong. There's a lot of checkpoints around this city.

What they cannot do is break the will of the free Syrian Army. However, in and around this city and the communities not so touched by Assad's forces there's still support for him. They may not like what he's doing, but they worry about what happens if the opposition takes control, Wolf. And for that reason they're throwing their lot albeit sometimes silently at the moment, throwing their (ph) lot in behind the president because they're fearful that what else, what may be come may be worse for them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic, be careful over there in Damascus. We'll check back with you for sure tomorrow. Thanks very much, Nic Robertson on the scene for us in the Syrian capital. We're also digging into the Iran issue with our own Fareed Zakaria. That's coming up in our next hour. Also, deep cuts by American airlines could cost you money, even your travel plans.


BLITZER: President Obama went one-on-one with David Letterman, and there were plenty of laughs. The president even revealed a secret about his first anniversary.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is close to 20 years --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that what we're --



OBAMA: I'm just trying to figure out what date today is. My anniversary is on October 3rd and we will -- it will be 20 years, although I want to point out that our first anniversary, she is the one who forgot.


OBAMA: It was like Wednesday night and I said so honey, what do you want to do this weekend, you know what do you want to do on Friday? And she said what's on Friday? I said honey we have been married a year. She -- it had just completely --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One year in and it slips her mind.

OBAMA: It slipped her mind.




BLITZER: Very funny -- let's go to Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Better she forgot than him.

BLITZER: Correct.

CAFFERTY: The price would have been much higher. The question this hour is what does Mitt Romney have to do to right the ship.

Gene in Florida says "the man is a flip-flopping gaffe-aholic, steering his ship right onto the rocks. His one last chance is the upcoming presidential debates, but right now it looks like it might be too late."

Carla writes from Alabama, "the SS Romney sailed and sank long ago for most intelligent voters. If not then surely it hit the briney depths yesterday. This is not a bell that can be unrung. It's an alarm sounding loud and clear broadcasting this man's true feelings about those he would govern."

James in North Carolina writes "Jack, I just grossed the Tar River down here in Greenville, North Carolina. The water is still flowing and much more water will pass under this bridge before voting day. Mitt's ship ain't nowhere near sinking." Ron writes "I'm sorry, we don't have time for an exorcism and reeducation. This man adds a new definition to out-of-touch. He doesn't understand what middle income is, what poor is, but he's going to get a good look at them because they are the majority and they will vote for Obama."

Dale writes from Massachusetts, "Get an Italian cruise ship captain. The metaphor is really freaky the way things are turning out."

Loren in Chicago writes "Your question assumes Romney's ship is in some trouble, but that's the same message being delivered by most of the press who tend to favor the president. If our press was unbiased, it's quite possible President Obama would never have gotten the Democratic nomination. I think the only ship that needs righting at this time is our press. They have failed this nation."

And Selena writes "In all honesty all Mitt Romney needs to do is two things. One, hold a news conference, apologize to the American public, clearly stating that he was wrong to make that statement. Two, dip himself in whale blood and jump over the side."

If you want to read more on this go to the blog, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thanks. Not going to do two I'm sure. Major cuts by American Airlines, up next, how he could cost you big time.


BLITZER: Major cuts and money woes at American Airlines are not just costing employees, it might also cost you. CNN Sandra Endo is joining us with details -- Sandra.

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. After declaring bankruptcy last year, this week American Airlines told 11,000 employees their jobs could be changing and as many as 4,400 could be laid off. But this is not just about jobs. It's having an impact on people who fly.


ENDO (voice-over): Cancellations and delays are plaguing American Airlines.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know how much it is delayed or why.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It definitely puts a kink in what I'm trying to get done and where I'm trying to go.

ENDO: And passengers are not happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously it's an inconvenience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the last time I'll fly American.

ENDO: In the past month, more than 1,000 American flights were canceled and 12,000 flights delayed, putting the airline at the top of's list of cancellations at major airlines. American says its pilots are calling out sick and more orders for maintenance are being filed. The pilots union says it's not organizing a job action despite being upset over recent contract issues. Airline officials admit to its sagging performance.

BRUCE HICKS, AMERICAN AIRLINES: Clearly operation is nowhere near what we want it to be, what it historically has been. We're not proud of it. We're not happy about it.

ENDO: And it's unclear how 4,400 potential layoffs will further affect the airlines performance. This week the airline started preemptively canceling one to two percent of its daily 1,700 flights through October, and they're calling passengers to give as much advanced notice about any cancellation and are rebooking tickets for free.

HICKS: We're working as hard as we can to try to mitigate this and do all we can to resolve it. And we certainly understand. We very much apologize for any delay or cancellation they've seen.

ENDO: Passenger advocates say travelers can demand a refund if their flight is cancelled.

GEORGE HOBICA, AIRFAREWATCHDOG.COM: Well I think passengers are really fed up with the U.S. airline industry. Perhaps until they get this settled, it might be a good idea to avoid American Airlines.


ENDO: Now the bit of silver lining to all this right now is a slower travel season since summer is over, but if this continues into the holidays, it could impact travelers and passengers even more -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sandy, thank you.