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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Richard Myers; Interview With Ralph Nader

Aired April 18, 2004 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington, 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, 7 p.m. in Jerusalem and 8 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "LATE EDITION."
I'll speak with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, in just a few minutes. First, though, let's go to CNN headquarters in Atlanta for a quick check of the hour's top stories.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: We begin in Gaza where the assassinated leader of Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, was buried today amid thousands of Palestinian demonstrators. CNN's John Vause is joining us now live from Gaza with more.

John, what's the latest?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas leader, was buried at a cemetery near his home here in Gaza. His body was carried through the streets, surrounded by tens of thousands of mourners, many of them calling for revenge. Hamas has vowed 100 retaliations for Rantisi's death.

He was leader of Hamas for less than a month. He took over from the spiritual leader, Sheik Yassin. He, too, was killed by an Israeli missile strike.

Rantisi's death brought out tens of thousands of angry Palestinians across the West Bank. In Nablus, they burned an effigy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush, a sign that many in this region believe that the United States is somehow involved, especially after the U.S.'s unprecedented support for Israel at the White House on Wednesday.

Israel, meantime, is on a high alert. Security sources there say there have been 50 terrorist alerts there in the last 24 hours. But at his morning cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised Israeli security forces for, quote, "a successful operation."

Meantime, Hamas says it has appointed a new leader but not saying who it is -- a job now, which comes with a very real threat of an Israeli death sentence.

Wolf? BLITZER: CNN's John Vause reporting for us in Gaza.

Thanks, John, very much.

And while the White House is expressing concern about the Rantisi assassination, it's stopping short of condemning the action. Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is joining us now with reaction from there.

Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Bush administration has a very difficult situation, a task in front of it. At the same time publicly, the White House saying Israel has a right to defend herself, Hamas is a terrorist organization, Rantisi, a terrorist leader.

Quietly behind the scenes, privately, senior administration officials say they are concerned, even dismayed, at the timing of this attack, the second Hamas leader killed in four weeks. They're also concerned about the possible violence that would ensue.

Early this morning, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The president doesn't discuss with the prime minister Israeli operations.

We've said repeatedly to the Israelis that, while we understand and support Israel's right to defend itself, that it's extremely important that Israel take into consideration the consequences of anything that it does.

And this is a time in the Middle East, if, in fact, Prime Minister Sharon will carry through with his disengagement plan from the Gaza, when we could have a new dynamic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Now, Rice saying ephatically that the administration was not warned prior to this attack, that they still believe the U.S. policy being against those targeted assassinations.

But, Wolf, as you know, what complicates the matter is what happened three days prior to that attack. That was Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon standing side by side at the White House, President Bush endorsing Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza but keep some of those West Bank settlements in place. This has given the perception here that the administration was somehow involved in this attack that gave the green light. But the administration emphatically saying no.

I should also let you know, as well, there are going to be some urgent talks that will go on this week. President Bush on Wednesday will be meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is traveling to the region.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House.

Thanks, Suzanne, very much.

And later on "LATE EDITION," we'll speak with Palestinian Authority Minister Ghassan Khatib, as well as Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Much more on this story coming up.

But let's turn to Iraq right now, where at least 10 U.S. troops have been killed this weekend, and there are no new developments in negotiations to try to resolve the very tense situation in Fallujah.

Our Karl Penhaul is following all of these developments. He's joining us live from Baghdad.

Karl, what's the latest?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Those deaths you mentioned coming since late Saturday. The most serious clash appears to have taken place near the Iraqi border town of Husaba. That's on the border with Syria.

Now, five Marines have died in a firefight there. We understand that firefight lasted at least 14 hours. It's not clear whether that has come to an end yet.

The role of the Marines in that area was to interdict what the coaltion calls the rat lines. These are the supply routes that we understand foreign fighters are using to travel from neighboring countries into Iraq.

Now, in other developments, there were three other soldiers killed in the southern town of Diwaniyah.

And in the town of Fallujah, as you mentioned, some dramatic video also coming out there today. The shaky cease-fire is in place. There were no further talks today, but sporadic clashes, as we can see from some of the pictures, do continue. And the Marines are telling us that one Marine was killed there during a clash Saturday.

Also in Baghdad, two soldiers died here. One died when a roadside bomb went off against the patrol that he was traveling in, and we understand another soldier died when his tank rolled over in Baghdad.

Wolf?

BLITZER: CNN's Karl Penhaul in Baghdad.

Karl, thanks very much.

This week's decision by the Pentagon to extend the deployment of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq comes as soldiers and Marines there are facing a new and very dangerous tactic by Iraqi insurgents, the taking of hostages, both military as well as civilian. Joining us now, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.

General Myers, welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Welcome back to the United States.

RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Thank you.

BLITZER: You're just back from the region. You were just in Iraq, Afghanistan.

MYERS: That's right, Wolf.

BLITZER: Had a very thorough inspection of what's going on. Let's ask you, what is going on now that, by our estimate, by our count, 700 U.S. troops have now died in Iraq since the start of the war, 10 this weekend, almost a hundred this month alone, and the month is barely halfway through. What's going on?

MYERS: I think what's going on, Wolf, is what we've said for some time: that, as we get closer and closer to handing over sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June, that the adversary is going to try to interrupt that process.

We saw in the Zarqawi letter that goes back now several weeks, four or five weeks, that he was frustrated that he couldn't make the coalition go away through roadside bombs and those sorts of other attacks.

BLITZER: But you can't assume that Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, who is the al Qaeda-associated leader in Iraq, is coordinating all of these attacks?

MYERS: No, he is not coordinating, but I think that's the philosophy being followed by the former regime elements, by Zarqawi followers, by Sadr's followers too. They want to interrupt the progress that we've achieved in Iraq and that we hope to achieve in the future. They're clearly -- and they'll go to any lengths to do this.

And the Zarqawi letter said, hey, we're going to have to start a Shia-on-Sunni civil war to stop this.

And so, I think what you -- the extremists are trying every means possible, to include, as you mentioned in your header here, the hostage-taking.

BLITZER: Well, how coordinated are these attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, based on what you know?

MYERS: Well, certainly in Fallujah, we think there's pretty good coordination, locally there in Fallujah.

BLITZER: Between whom?

MYERS: Former regime elements, Zarqawi followers, perhaps Zarqawi himself is in Fallujah. We don't know for sure, but that's an area that he has been in in the past. But that's a lot different from Sadr and his militia, or thugs.

BLITZER: Is there a coordination between the Sunni elements and the Shia elements...

MYERS: We don't see that.

BLITZER: ... that are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr?

MYERS: No. No. We don't see that. In fact, those elements that are loyal to Sadr -- we think he's been marginalized through this process even by other Shia clerics who do not approve of what he's doing.

BLITZER: Where is he right now?

MYERS: He's in An Najaf.

BLITZER: And what's stopping you from going in there and getting him?

MYERS: Right now he has been so marginalized, there is not a city under control of his militia, as there were about a week ago -- Al Kut, Nasiriyah -- there were some issues in those cities -- Sadr City in (ph) Baghdad. Those situations have been resolved. His militia has either melted away or been killed or captured. He is a marginalized individual, and right now he's in one of the most holy sites of the Shia world, and...

BLITZER: Well, you've surrounded Najaf. You could go in there with troops if you wanted to, but that potentially could create a whole new explosion.

MYERS: Right. And why do it if you don't have to? If he's marginalized, if there are negotiations going on with him, with several different factions trying to get him, A, to come to justice -- we can't forget that he was indicted by the Iraqi government for his alleged involvement in the Hoi (ph) murder some time ago.

BLITZER: A pro-Western, a pro-American cleric who had come back to Iraq immediately after the war started.

MYERS: Right. Yes. I think Sadr has shown by his statements, by his preaching on Friday and so forth, that he is not only anti- coalition, he's anti-Iraqi. He does not want progress in Iraq. He is marginalized. He'll be further marginalized...

BLITZER: So are you reassured by the position of the grand ayatollah, the leader, by all accounts, of the Shia, Ali Al-Sistani, are you reassured that he's still with you?

MYERS: Well, I don't think he's -- I don't think that's the way to characterize it. I think he's his own thinker. He looks at the situation. He has supported the transitional administrative law. He has supported the role of the U.N. People talk to him, or actually to some of his people, on the way forward.

But I don't know that I would characterize it as "for the coalition." I think he's for progress in Iraq. He certainly doesn't want a theocracy in Iraq. In that regard, he's with us.

BLITZER: What about the situation in Fallujah right now? There is apparently a cease-fire. Although is there a cease-fire?

MYERS: Well, we're trying to maintain a cease-fire. That's what was put on the table. The Marines are trying their best to maintain the cease-fire, but they're getting fired upon by these extremists in Fallujah.

They are the worst of the worst. They have used women and children as shields, as has Sadr's forces in other parts of the country.

I was talking to the Italian leader of Italian forces near An Nasiriyah. He said 5 o'clock in the morning, when they're trying to take the city back from Sadr's thugs, out come lots of women and children in front of the fighters -- at 5 in the morning. This is not a time when a lot of women and children are on the street. The same tactic is being used in Fallujah.

BLITZER: The Iranians -- has the U.S. government brought elements of Iran into the negotiations to try to ease this situation?

MYERS: Certainly not to my knowledge. We see different reports about the role that the Iranians are playing.

Let me just say this. It's challenging enough to get Iraq to be a democratic and a peaceful nation. This is going to be a real challenge. It's going to take some time to do that.

Interference by Syrians, Iranians, any other country, especially close neighbors, is absolutely not going to help that process and should be rejected.

BLITZER: Are Iranians playing a negative role in fomenting trouble in Iraq right now?

MYERS: I think they are watching the situation very closely. They have a lot of self-interest in Iraq, and I think they're going to watch, see what happens. I don't think we should be fooled, though, that if they see the need for action they will take action.

BLITZER: What about Syria? There's been some significant military action, not all of it very pleasant from the U.S. military perspective, near the Syrian border today.

MYERS: Right. We know that the pathway into Iraq for many foreign fighters is through Syria. It's a fact. We know it. The Syrians know it. The Syrians could do more to stop that. We know that there are the headquarters of various terrorist organizations -- PIJ, Hamas -- in Damascus. The Syrians need to take this situation very seriously. They need to help us stop that infiltration of foreign fighters. It doesn't do their government any good. It certainly doesn't do the work we're trying to accomplish in Iraq any good.

BLITZER: Basically you're saying the Syrians could be doing much more than they are right now?

MYERS: Certainly.

BLITZER: What else do you want them to do?

MYERS: I want them to cut off this flow of foreign fighters. I want them to go after the facilitators in Damascus to help these people get the right papers, get the financing or whatever it is they need to get, and the transportation to the border.

BLITZER: What happens if they don't, the Syrians?

MYERS: Well, they're going to have -- they're going to live with an unstable situation on their border, that is, Iraq, longer than would be good. I think what's good for them is what's good for the whole region. That is a stable, secure Iraq on the path to democracy. If you think about the economic benefits of stability alone, I think that would be a huge benefit to the Syrians.

BLITZER: We heard this week from Donald Rumsfeld acknowledge, the secretary of defense, that what's happening now in Iraq is not what he anticipated. Listen precisely to what your boss, the secretary of defense, said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I certainly would not have estimated that we would have had the number of individuals lost in -- that we have had lost in the last week.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He doesn't like to acknowledge, as you well know, that there's been some sort of miscalculation. How bad is the situation?

MYERS: First of all, Wolf, this is combat. This is war. This is much more art than it is science. There is no way to do a proper calculation.

John Abizaid, I've said it, Secretary Rumsfeld has said it, that as we lead up to the transfer of sovereignty, as success starts building on itself in Iraq, that we're going to have more situations like we're seeing right now. I don't think it's unexpected. It is war, and war you just can't predict. Secretary Rumsfeld knows that. I know that. General John Abizaid knows it.

BLITZER: All right, stand by, General. We're going to take a quick break. We have many more questions to ask you. What's happening in Iraq right now? What's happening in Afghanistan? You were just there, as well.

More of my conversation with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. That's coming up.

And later, I'll speak with two leading United States senators about the fight for Iraq and what it means for the planned June 30th handover of power.

And later on "LATE EDITION," Ralph Nader and the Ralph Nader factor. I'll speak with the maverick presidential candidate about his run for the White House.

"LATE EDITION" will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just ahead, more of my interview with General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Is there light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel?

And our Web question of the week: Does the Bush administration have a clear plan for the war in Iraq? You can cast your vote, cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results later in this program.

You're watching "LATE EDITION," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If additional forces are needed, I will send them. If additional resources are needed, we will provide them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush promising he'll do whatever is necessary to bolster security in Iraq.

Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We're talking with the U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers.

General Myers, General Barry McCaffrey, retired four-star U.S. Army general, is quoted in the new issue of Time magazine as saying this: "There are no more U.S. troops to send to Iraq. That's why we need 80,000 or more troops added to the U.S. Army. Congress is allowing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to dig in his heels and try to maintain a foreign policy based on a grossly undermanned U.S. military."

Is he right -- General McCaffrey?

MYERS: General McCaffrey is a friend of mine. We talk a lot. We haven't talked recently on this issue, but I have talked to him on this issue. The papers, the magazines, their ways are full of pundits and others that say we need more forces.

Now, the ones I listen to on that issue, and I just did that in Iraq, were General Sanchez, the division commanders that are there, and General Abizaid. And that's where -- and then we take their advice. We talk about it with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, make our recommendations to Secretary Rumsfeld.

Secretary Rumsfeld does not put any cap limit in any way on our force strength in Iraq. We have the forces there that General Abizaid and General Sanchez, the tactical commander, believe are necessary for the job.

In terms of overall strength, as General McCaffrey was talking there, what General Schoomaker, the chief of staff of the United States Army, is doing is reorganizing his army to get more forces that are deployable. And he's done it through some very creative mechanisms which bring the Army into the 21st century and do it with a force increase of 30,000 people.

If the Congress had authorized 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people, it would take several years to bring them online. We're getting more combat capability through the General's Schoomaker's plan much earlier. In fact, we're going to have new brigades formed here within months.

BLITZER: So the 20,000 troops who are being extended for another 90 days, three months beyond the year that they already are there, will that be enough, or will you have to come up with more troops even beyond that?

MYERS: Well, we're going to have to see. We're going to have to let General Abizaid, General Sanchez and his division commanders decide that, and that will be based on events on the ground. We're not going to predict that. And it's up to 90 days. I mean, it could be, it could be earlier. We've told them to steal themselves for 90 days. We're asking a lot.

BLITZER: This is a major decision to extend these troops for another 90 days. Listen to what Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said last summer, last August, once he decided that they would go for a year. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Is it likely that we would end up extending people past what was announced, namely, a target of not more than a year? No, I don't think that is likely. If we were to do that -- and I don't anticipate it, so -- but we'd have to recognize that the effect of it could be adverse. And we don't want that effect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: When he says the effect could be adverse, what does he mean? Because obviously he's had to do what he never anticipated doing. MYERS: It is a big deal when we try to give predictability to not only our active duty forces, but our Guard and Reserve, whom have employers that are counting on them coming back at a certain time.

This is not a decision that was taken lightly. This was a decision that was discussed over a considerable amount of time.

And what it means is that the events on the ground are so important to this country, which I believe they are, that we've had to extend some people to deal with them.

Fortunately, by the way, we designed our handover with the forces that were coming in and those that were leaving during this rotation, we have that kind of combat capability left in Iraq. And we're going to have to work the consequences very hard.

We do not want this to become an issue of recruiting and retention. So far it hasn't done that, but we've got to take care of our families. We've got to help the employers. And we've got to put predictability into this. That's what we've always said.

But, again, this is a very serious situation. It's a challenge to our way of life, and if we have to extend people for up to 90 days, that's exactly what we're going to do.

BLITZER: Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, was on "Meet the Press" earlier today, and he made a very, very serious charge against the Pentagon. I want you to listen precisely to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This administration that's talking to us about $87 billion sent these troops into war without adequate parts, without adequate ammo, without adequate water. They weren't ready, in some respects. And they didn't have the kind of latest, state-of-the-art equipment that they ought to have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And he said that families had to go raise private funds to make sure that troops would have the adequate body armor that they needed to go into battle.

MYERS: Wolf, there's lots of details that go into each of those issues. I can guarantee you that all the troops, active or guard reserve, had what we had available for them to go into combat.

Let's just take the body armor. There was new technology that just came out. We had just started production of so-called Sappy plates that go front and back that can withstand some fairly high- caliber ammunition.

Clearly, when something is just starting to be produced, you don't have enough to go around. That was something that had just -- we had just gotten. It was also something that's in high demand. It's a particular kind of technology and material that is shared with many other agencies in this government and around the world, so now everybody has that, of course.

We need more armor on our Humvees. That's acknowledged, and we're working very hard toward that end.

But I don't know of any major shortages that impacted our combat capability or put our forces in harm's way.

BLITZER: U.S. troops are now being held hostage by elements in Iraq. They've been taken captive. Should you negotiate some sort of prisoner exchange to free these Americans?

MYERS: I think, as the president has said and this administration has said, we're not going to negotiate with terrorists about hostages. That's been true forever.

I can also tell you, though, from Matt Maupin and Elmer Krause, that we're going to do everything in our power to get them back and get them back alive and in good condition. That's a basic ethic for the United States military, and we'll do all in our power to do that.

BLITZER: One final question on this new book that has just come out by Bob Woodward, in which he describes a section in the buildup to the war where you and the defense secretary, the president, basically told the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, before you even told the secretary of state Colin Powell, who was once chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about the actual war plan, including showing him maps that had "no foreign distribution" on it in order to get Saudi support.

Is that account, which we see in The Washington Post today, accurate of what happened in the buildup to the war?

MYERS: I haven't read the book. Obviously I haven't had access to the book.

I haven't read the account in The Washington Post, although I'm aware of that account. It sounds basically correct. And, at that time, we were looking for support of our allies and partners in the region. Saudi Arabia's been a strategic partner in the region for a very long time, and we were looking for their support. And so, part of the way we do that is to ask them and show them how and why we need their support in certain areas.

BLITZER: Do you feel comfortable showing a Saudi ambassador the war plan before you even share it with the secretary of state?

MYERS: I don't know about that part of it. I don't know about not sharing it with the secretary of state. I think he was fully aware of the war plan. I don't know that that was the issue. But I felt comfortable, at the time, doing what we were doing with the Saudi ambassador.

BLITZER: And this whole other issue that Woodward raises in the book, $700 million that apparently was reprogrammed, money that Congress had appropriated for use in Afghanistan -- and you were just in Afghanistan -- all of a sudden being used to prepare for a war against Saddam Hussein.

Was that legal to do that?

MYERS: I'm not aware of that. I have none of the details on that. I'd have to do my research on that. I just haven't seen the allegations, don't know what they're talking about.

BLITZER: That's another allegation in the book.

We'll have to leave it right there. General, welcome back. Good to have you back safe and sound.

MYERS: If I have 30 seconds...

BLITZER: Sure.

MYERS: ... as I was just in Afghanistan, I was just in Iraq. The American people can be so proud of all our forces doing their job over there. They are so dedicated to this task. They understand the mission very well.

It would be better to actually interview them. If you could have one of them sitting here telling their story about their dedication -- I met a doctor in Mosul who gave up being a brigadier general, put on colonel's rank, so he could go and be a doctor in Mosul. In fact, the night I was in Mosul, three troops were injured, not severely, thank goodness, and he was on duty to help treat them.

That kind of dedication is throughout that region in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Any closer to finding Osama bin Laden?

MYERS: We're on the hunt. Stand by.

BLITZER: Does that mean you're closer?

MYERS: Stand by.

BLITZER: I take it...

MYERS: No, it's...

BLITZER: I just don't want to mislead our viewers.

MYERS: We're not going to mislead them. We are actively going against all terrorists. Osama bin Laden and Zahwedhuri (ph) are certainly a couple of the big leaders.

It won't be over, by the way, when we capture them. That's just -- it's going to be one more step. And we're working it very hard.

BLITZER: But you're confident you're getting closer.

MYERS: We're working it very, very hard.

BLITZER: General Myers, thanks very much.

MYERS: Thank you. Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll get a check of what's making news this hour, including the latest on the situation in Gaza following the assassination of the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Then, more on Iraq and the 9/11 commission's investigation. We'll speak live with two key U.S. senators and ask whether it's turning into a conflict between truth and politics.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We're just getting this in. The new Spanish prime minister, Zapatero, has just announced he's pulling out all Spanish forces from Iraq as soon as possible. More than a thousand Spanish troops will be leaving immediately from Iraq. This, according to the new Spanish prime minister, Zapatero.

Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." We're continuing our assessment of what's happening in Iraq and elsewhere.

Joining us now two key U.S. senators. Here in Washington, Republican Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He's also a member of the Select Intelligence Committee. And in Hartford, Connecticut, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. He, too, serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Let's start with the breaking news, Senator Warner, the decision by this new Spanish government to pull out of Iraq. What's your reaction?

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: Well, if you go back and follow that campaign, this new prime minister more or less campaigned on taking the troops out.

It had been my expectation, I think, that of others, that he would have awaited the likelihood of another U.N. resolution to be coupled with this transition of power that is to take place on June 30th.

The military situation can accept this, but it will put pressure on the other coalition nations that have joined in this, I'm sure. So it's troublesome.

BLITZER: What about that, Senator Lieberman? 1,300 Spanish troops about to pull out. SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: A very regrettable decision, particularly coming after the clear rejection this week by European leaders of Osama bin Laden's deal that if they pull out of Iraq, that al Qaeda will not bother them.

I hope, as John Warner has said, that this is a temporary keeping of a campaign promise, because there's a lot of work going on now to do exactly what Prime Minister Zapatero said he wanted to have happen, which is a U.N. resolution.

And, in fact, NATO is thinking actively of beginning to assume some role in keeping the peace in Iraq, including a meeting that's happening tomorrow in Qatar with some high-ranking NATO officials to explore that.

So I hope al Qaeda does not misinterpret this, and I hope it's temporary and the Spaniards will be back.

I'd just say one final word. If they are not willing to stay in Iraq, they could prove that they're still with us in the war on terrorism by sending those 1,300 Spanish troops to Afghanistan. We need their help there.

BLITZER: All right. Senator Warner, a year after the war, 100 U.S. troops killed in action this month alone, and it's only a little bit more than halfway done. This is not the way it was supposed to be a year later.

WARNER: You know, I think Secretary Rumsfeld very forthrightly addressed that issue. I visited with him this week on that and other issues. And he said we couldn't have anticipated it. And had one asked him, he's not likely to have described the scenario as it is today.

I don't think anyone could have predicted the fact that so many insurgents would come to the forefront, being suicide bombers, bringing about the problems we've got today in Iraq. And, in addition, so many people infiltrated into this country, just coming to, you know, cause more and more trouble.

But our troops are standing the line. We're showing force when force is needed, and I remain steadfastly optimistic. The president was right. We'll see our way through this. We'll turn over that power on June 30th.

And I'm hopeful that, after the Iraqis have the power of their own government, that you'll see some beginning this dropping off of the insurgency.

BLITZER: Are you as hopeful, Senator Lieberman?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I am hopeful in the long run, but what I certainly agree with John and so many others are is that this is critically important. America's security and the future of freedom, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, is on the line here. We simply cannot lose. We can't cut and run. But I do believe that we have to remain ever open to the possibility that we need more of the American military on the ground there. Of course, it would be great if NATO came in and other countries came in, but in the short run, I think it's hard to be overly optimistic about that.

And, as you look back, we've got the best, most brilliant, most brave military in the history of the world. It took a remarkably small number of them to overwhelm the Iraqi military and overthrow Saddam Hussein, but we needed more people on the ground after the war. In fairness, General Shinseki, former chief of the Army, said that before the war.

I think, as we look back, we wish we had done that, but there's still plenty of time. And we're beginning to move in that direction.

BLITZER: Was that one of the biggest mistakes that was made, the United States simply didn't send enough troops to Iraq over the past year to get the job done?

LIEBERMAN: I would say...

WARNER: You know, my...

BLITZER: I'm going to ask Senator Warner.

LIEBERMAN: I'm sorry. Go ahead, John.

WARNER: That's all right, Joe.

You know, Joe is one of the great statesmen in the Senate. We've worked on the committee together, and I value his views.

But, in my judgment, all along, this troop level has been left to the on-scene commander. And he has been responsive. The president has been responsive. Immediately when the first request for addition came through this week, the president, Secretary Rumsfeld, put it into action.

Now, it's going to cause a hardship on a lot of families, a lot of troops, but we're going to maintain that force that we think -- and, that is, most importantly, we, the military on-scene commanders, think -- are adequate.

BLITZER: Senator Lieberman, can this June 30th deadline be met, and should it be met? Are the Iraqis ready to take charge?

Because, as you well know, when the going got rough in Fallujah and elsewhere, the Iraqi law enforcement, police officers, military, part of the new Iraqi -- many of them simply ran away.

LIEBERMAN: Right. Wolf, the June 30th deadline for transfer of sovereignty to Iraq can and must be met. Let's be clear about what's going to happen there. Essentially we're turning title, if you will, and authority back to an Iraqi entity, which Mr. Brahimi of the United Nations is making great progress in negotiating the shape of that. That is a first step toward the elections later this year in which the Iraqis will choose their own government. Let's also be clear that the United States and the coalition are not going to withdraw on June 30th. We're going to stay there to work with that new Iraqi government to maintain stability.

Now, why is it important? It's important to encourage stability because it's the most graphic step we can take to say to doubting Iraqis today, "We don't want to be occupiers. We want to be liberators. And as proof of that, we're taking the first historic step to turn this government over to you." So I think it's critically important that we make that happen.

BLITZER: A new element in the past few days, Senator Warner, involves hostages, American soldiers being taken captive by elements in Iraq. Some suggesting, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, maybe there's an opportunity to negotiate their release. Is that a good idea, to negotiate with those who are holding these Americans?

WARNER: Historically, this country, and I think quite properly, does not negotiate with terrorists regarding hostages.

I watched Condoleezza Rice this morning on earlier public appearances, and I think she was right on, with the message that the many efforts going to try to release our Private First Class Maupen and contractors and others, but direct negotiation with the hostages is something our government should not do.

Now, taking hostages in that part of the world goes back thousands and thousands of years. And we will work our way through this situation, I'm confident. But let's not at this time try and get rigid, other than we shouldn't, the United States government formally, or its sensible representatives over there, negotiate with those hostages.

BLITZER: All right. Well, unfortunately we've run out of time. We'll have to leave it right there.

Senator Warner, as usual, thanks very much.

Senator Lieberman, thanks to you as well.

LIEBERMAN: Thank to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead in the Middle East, an assassination and a vow of retaliation. Is there any hope left for the peace process? An interview with Palestinian Authority Minister Ghassan Khatib when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

The killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi in an Israeli airstrike is exacerbating the anger sparked by Israel's announcement of a unilateral disengagement policy from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Just a short while ago, I spoke with Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Minister Khatib, thanks very much for joining us.

What is the reaction of the Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat, to Israel's assassination of Rantisi?

GHASSAN KHATIB, PALESTINIAN LABOR MINISTER: Well, the reaction in Palestine, in general, is to condemn the assassination as part of our condemnation to the whole Israeli ongoing approach of resulting to violence and force and killing as a method to achieve objectives.

And we believe that, unfortunately, this ongoing killing and assassination has been responsible for all the reactions and actions that has been going on.

And we think that the only way to get out of this vicious circle of violence is if the Israeli government will accept to go back to the negotiating table on the basis of the international legality through which they can understand and recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people of ending the occupation, and, in return, they will find a shortcut to achieving their legitimate objectives of achieving peace and security.

BLITZER: The Israelis say that Rantisi and other Hamas leaders in the past and in the future, that they were planning huge terrorist operations against Israel, more suicide bombings. As a result, they were entitled to kill him. Do they have a point?

KHATIB: Actually, this is mixing between the cause and effect. These Palestinian activities against Israel is happening within the context of the illegal Israeli occupation, which has been responsible for the last 35 years of killing Palestinians, uprooting their trees, demolishing their homes, uprooting them from their land, making them refugees, et cetera.

So you cannot separate these actions, which we don't believe useful, because we don't feel that violence is the way out, but we feel that the only way to end this is if the two sides will go back to the negotiations.

But Israel can continue to claim that they are reacting to violence, and the Palestinians will continue to claim that they are also reacting to violence, and both are correct because of this vicious circle of violence.

BLITZER: Minister, how worried are you that Yasser Arafat might be next on the Israeli assassination hit list?

KHATIB: We are worried because this right-wing Israeli government believe only in violence and killing as a way to deal with the Palestinian people. That's why we are worried about our leaders, including legitimate elected leaders, like Yasser Arafat, and we are worried about our land, and we are worried about our children, and we are worried about the future of us as people.

BLITZER: The Israeli government says it gave no advance information to Washington. Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor to President Bush, says they did not know in advance that the Israelis were about to kill Rantisi. Do you believe them?

KHATIB: Whether this is correct or not, I think that the nature of the unjustified, irrational kind of support that President Bush has given to Prime Minister Sharon, especially this support on issues that contradicts with the international law, is responsible for encouraging Sharon to proceed with the kind of illegal activities and to proceed with the use of force and with ignoring the international law and the basic stipulations of the international legality, including the use of force and all the kind of assassinations that we have been witnessing.

So the United States, with its support to Israel, especially after President Bush's support to the settlements and the continuity of the settlements which strengthened this right-wing government in Israel, this makes George Bush also partially responsible for all the kind of continuity of violence and other aspects of violating the human rights of the Palestinians that this the Israeli government is proceeding with.

BLITZER: So if you're putting some of the blame on President Bush, what does that say about the future role of the U.S. government in trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations?

KHATIB: Well, I think when this president of the United States said particularly things that contradicts with the basics of the peace process, including predetermining the end of certain final status issues, such as borders, settlements and refugees, then he jeopardizes the ability of the United States to play the role of mediator between the two sides in this peace process.

And this is very much unfortunate, and this is irresponsible, from my point of view, of the American president to legitimize a clearly illegal act like the settlement expansion, because this encourages currently this Israeli government to proceed with the settlement expansion, because these settlements are still being built, are still being expanded.

And when the president of the United States will accept this fact, which was created illegally, this is equal to encouraging the current Israeli government to continue proceeding with the settlement expansion, which is going to be responsible for preventing the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state and, consequently, preventing the possibility of the two-state solution, which means that this is like killing the opportunity of peace.

BLITZER: Minister Khatib, thanks for joining us.

KHATIB: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: And still ahead, the Israeli view. We'll have my interview with Israel's vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

We'll get to Jerusalem and Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in just a few minutes. First, though, let's go to Atlanta, CNN headquarters, for a quick check of the hour's top stories.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Hamas is vowing retaliation for yesterday's killing of its leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in an Israeli airstrike. Rantisi was buried today in Gaza.

CNN's John Vause is in Gaza City. He's joining us now with more.

John?

VAUSE: Wolf, the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi has been met with widespread grief and anger, not just here in Gaza, but across the West Bank and beyond. In Jenin, Ramallah and Bethlehem, tens of thousands of Palestinians turned out to protest.

In Nablus, they burned effigies of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as U.S. President George W. Bush, a sign that many in this region believe that the U.S. was somehow involved in the targeted killing of Rantisi. But both Israel and Washington deny that U.S. officials were given any advance knowledge or had any part in the killing of Rantisi.

Protests, too, in Jordan and Lebanon, amid widespread condemnation in many parts of the Arab world.

Rantisi was buried today at a cemetery near his home in Gaza surrounded by tens of thousands of mourners, many of them calling for revenge. Hamas has vowed 100 retaliations for Rantisi's death. And right now, Israel remains on high alert. Most Israelis expect some kind of retaliation.

But this morning, at his cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, the prime minister, Ariel Sharon praised Israeli security forces for, quote, "a successful operation." Meantime, Hamas has appointed a new leader, but Hamas is not saying who that is.

Wolf?

BLITZER: CNN's John Vause in Gaza.

Thanks, John, very much.

Let's go to the White House now, where there has been reaction on this Israeli assassination. Also word Spain is preparing to pull its troops from Iraq.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, joins us.

Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Well, Wolf, that news that Spain is threatening to pull its troops, initially the White House was not concerned about this, because Zapatero had always said if he didn't get a new U.N. Security Council resolution, he would not pull those troops.

The thinking had been, they really didn't have to worry about that because they thought that U.N. Security Council resolution would be forthcoming.

Well, now the administration is learning that Zapatero says he wants those troops pulled as soon as possible. We got an indication of that from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as recently as early this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We have 34 countries with forces on the ground. I think there are going to be some changes. We know that the Spanish have been talking about perhaps pulling their forces out. I would not be at all surprised if they do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, it sounds that that is exactly what Zapatero is intent on doing at this time.

The administration, also seeing the fallout here, the assassination of the Hamas leader. The administration in a very difficult position, publicly saying that Israel has a right to defend herself, that Hamas is a terrorist organization, that Rantisi is a terrorist leader, but privately, senior administration officials say that they are concerned, even dismayed at the timing of this. This is the second Hamas leader to be killed in four weeks. Also very concerned about the potential of violence.

Earlier today, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICE: The president has said repeatedly to the Israelis that they need to take account of the consequences of what they're doing. And certainly, given that we had just talked about trying to get the road map under way in the Middle East, trying to get the Gaza disengagement plan under way, then the timing is not helpful. But we understand that the Israelis have to defend themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And she is referring to, of course, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in agreement, that endorsement, just days ago, for that plan to pull out of Gaza but leave some of those West Bank settlements in place.

There going to be urgent talks this week, Wolf. We're going to see Bush meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah here at the White House on Wednesday, and also Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is heading to the Middle East region.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House.

Thanks, Suzanne, very much.

Israel insists the killing of Rantisi was an act of legitimate self-defense. Just a short while ago, I spoke with Israel's Vice Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Vice Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining us.

Let's get right to the issue at hand. Why did your government decide to assassinate the Hamas leader, Abdul Aziz Rantisi?

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI VICE PRIME MINISTER: Well, to be very honest with you, we don't distinguish Rantisi from others. He's part -- he was a part of a group of terrorist leaders, those who take the decisions, who make the financing and the logistics for the suicidal attackers to penetrate into the state of Israel and kill innocent civilians.

And it is entirely inconceivable, Wolf, that those people, those who are making these suicidal attacks possible, those who really make the difference in terms of the brutal terror against innocent civilians, that they will be able to plan, to execute, to finance, to coordinate, to provide all the support needed for the brutal killings and they will be safe, no one will touch them, they will be free to do whatever they want.

BLITZER: Will you go now after the new Hamas leaders, whose identity has not yet been revealed?

OLMERT: Well, you know, I think it will not be wise to make such statement, you know, we're after this guy or after that guy. I say in general, no one who is personally, individually and directly involved in perpetrating terror, in financing terror, in providing the necessary support for the suicidal attackers can feel immuned. No one of them, because there is no way that you can stop terror if you don't also try to stop those who send the terrorists.

BLITZER: So is this the message that you're sending to the leaders of the Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, other Palestinian militant groups?

OLMERT: Everyone. Everyone. We, I think, Wolf, I think the state of Israel and the United States perhaps are the leading -- the two leading countries in the world today. The two most important leaders in this respect are obviously first and foremost President Bush and then Ariel Sharon.

These two leaders are determined to carry on this fight against terror, not by making statements, not by words, not by empty gestures, but by actual fighting against those who are creating the terror as such a fundamental threat to the ways of life of our countries. And therefore, everyone who is involved is not immuned, and he should feel that we're after him.

BLITZER: What about the Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat?

OLMERT: I know it's a popular question. Everyone wants to know about Yasser Arafat. I don't want to distinguish any particular person. Everyone who is involved in terror will not be immuned. That includes everyone.

BLITZER: Well, what does that mean specifically about Yasser Arafat? Is he involved, from your perspective, in organizing terror attacks against Israel?

OLMERT: Look, Wolf, I know that, in this most popular television show of yours, sometimes it's wonderful to hear the title, "The vice prime minister of Israel today said so and so about Yasser Arafat." I don't want this program to end up, or to start by a quote that I say that Yasser Arafat is next in line. I say, in general, no one who is involved in terror should feel immune, and that includes everyone.

BLITZER: Because, as you well remember, a few months back, you caused quite an international stir when you gave an interview to Israel radio in which you suggested that Israel should leave open the option of killing Arafat.

OLMERT: OK.

BLITZER: You don't want to elaborate -- you don't want to elaborate on that?

OLMERT: For obvious reasons.

BLITZER: All right, let's move on and talk about the timing of this latest assassination, coming only a few days after the prime minister was in Washington for talks with President Bush. Did you notify the U.S. government in advance?

OLMERT: Not at all. Americans, of course, know what is the strategy of the state of Israel. They're fully aware of the policy of the state of Israel, but we never asked for any specific permission, nor do we give any specific information in advance of operation, to anyone, including the United States government.

We do what needs to be done. This is the policy of Israel. We made no secret about it, but we don't think that this is wise or responsible to involve the U.S. government in the actual operations that we are making. And no one in America, to the best of my knowledge, and I think I know everything, was aware that anything of that nature was going to happen. Not at all. BLITZER: How worried are you right now? The Hamas leadership threatening 100 retaliations in response to the assassination of Rantisi. How worried is your government about Palestinian retaliation?

OLMERT: We are very concerned that the Palestinians will try, whenever they can, suicidal attacks against innocent Israelis. But to be honest with you, Wolf, I don't think that the killing of Rantisi or the killing of Sheikh Yassin is of any meaningful trigger for these what they call retaliations. They don't need retaliations.

They started this terror, they have made the use of human bombs, those suicidal attackers, as frequent as possible. They have not been waiting until we will kill Sheikh Yassin or Rantisi in order to do it. They've been doing it 300 times already.

And therefore, there is a threat. It is a continuous threat. We are fully aware of it. We expect it to happen every day, before the killing of Sheikh Yassin, before the killing of Rantisi and afterwards.

BLITZER: Ehud Olmert, the vice prime minister of Israel, thanks very much for joining us.

OLMERT: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And earlier we spoke with the Palestinian cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib.

Up next, an interview with 9/11 commission member Richard Ben- Veniste about where the panel's investigation stands right now.

Then, I'll speak live with Ralph Nader about his presidential campaign and the accusations from former political allies that he's a spoiler more than a serious candidate.

And home from Iraq for some U.S. troops; a longer-than-expected hitch for others. We'll ask our panel of generals about the impact of stretching out the Iraq mission as deadly attacks on coalition forces continues.

Stay with "LATE EDITION."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

President Bush is considering a major overhaul of the U.S. intelligence services. But he's expected to wait until recommendations are made from the 9/11 commission before making that final decision. Meanwhile, two leading Republicans in the U.S. Congress this week expressed serious concerns about the entire 9/11 panel.

We're joined now by 9/11 commission member Richard Ben-Veniste.

Thanks very much, Mr. Ben-Veniste, for joining us.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, 9/11 COMMISSION: Glad to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk about one of the revelations. George Tenet, the CIA director, had what many people considered to be a pretty alarming statement in his statement to you. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE TENET, CIA DIRECTOR: It will take us another five years to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs. There is a creative, innovative strategy to get us there that requires sustained commitment, leadership and funding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: A lot of people were alarmed when he said another five years to get the clandestine service, the human intelligence, to where it's supposed to be. How surprised were you by that?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, we weren't surprised, because we'd spent a lot of time working with George Tenet. He had explained what the problems were and what he's trying to do to fix them.

But it's clear we don't have enough human intelligence, we don't have sources, we don't have language speakers available. And we have not been able in the past to infiltrate groups, most particularly like al Qaeda.

BLITZER: Is it getting better, though, during this period? Have you seen improvements since 9/11?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, there's certainly much more focus and attention on doing the job.

BLITZER: Where's the biggest problem?

BEN-VENISTE: The biggest problem at CIA, I suppose, is in getting away from the gadgetry and into human intelligence.

BLITZER: You're talking about the intelligence, the intercepts, the high-tech reconnaissance, the satellite photography.

BEN-VENISTE: Right.

BLITZER: There's too much reliance on that, not enough reliance on the old-fashioned espionage, the human intelligence?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, a lot of what we had was the residue of the Cold War. That's what we used to fight the Soviet Union. Now we need to be smarter, we need to be quicker, and we need to have better sources of information on the ground.

BLITZER: There was another bombshell that came up during the testimony this week, this time from the attorney general, John Ashcroft, when he said this in his opening statement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We did not know an attack was coming, because, for nearly a decade, our government had blinded itself to its enemies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, what did he mean by that? Because you listened very carefully to what he said.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, he then proceeded to attack one of our members, Jaime Gorelick, for responsibility for writing a memorandum in the 1995. And that, it seems, has backfired, as it should have.

BLITZER: Why do you say that? Because in that memorandum -- she was then the deputy attorney general under Janet Reno -- she said there have to be these walls, these strict barriers separating law enforcement from intelligence gathering. And Ashcroft said that was the problem that helped create the failures leading up to 9/11, these so-called walls.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, actually, anybody who has paid attention to the subject knows that this process started in the 1980s, in the Reagan administration, carried through Bush I and Clinton, and, in fact, was readopted just before 9/11 by the Bush administration, by Mr. Ashcroft's deputy.

Now, I think it will backfire because Jaime Gorelick is a very important member of this commission. She's well capable of defending herself, as you saw in today's editorial in The Washington Post. But she's also got nine brothers on this commission who are 100 percent behind her, five Republicans and four Democrats.

BLITZER: But she's also got some criticism, not only from John Ashcroft, who blamed her for that memorandum she wrote in 1995, but now this chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, he said this.

He said, "Ms. Gorelick has an inherent conflict of interest as the author of this memo and as a government official at the center of the events in question. Thus, I believe the commission's work and independence will be fatally damaged by the continued participation of Ms. Gorelick as a commissioner."

He says he wants her to testify as a witness, but to recuse herself, to basically withdraw from the panel.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, first of all, she's not going to do that. What she has done, as was quite appropriate from the very beginning, is recuse herself from any part of the investigation in which she participated, any issues relating to her service as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, just as others have recused themselves in areas. Our executive director, for example, had worked in the transition with Condoleezza Rice. And, of course, he has recused himself from that area of our inquiry.

We don't have individuals who are totally uninvolved in government. To the contrary, we have several who have areas of responsibility prior to their service on the 9/11 commission, but that doesn't disqualify them overall from participation.

Jaime Gorelick will not be disqualified from her continuation. She's an important member of this commission, one of the most intelligent and vigorous members.

BLITZER: In the op-ed piece that you cited earlier in The Washington Post, among other things, she wrote, she said, "I did not invent the wall. The guidelines did set forth procedures, but those procedures implemented court decisions and, as noted, were reaffirmed by the Ashcroft Justice Department."

So you're basically saying she's going to stay, she should stay, and she shouldn't withdraw from the commission.

BEN-VENISTE: And, in fact, the wall should not have prevented the use of information which we had collected with respect to Moussaoui, with respect to Alhamzi and Midhar, who were in the United States, al Qaeda individuals who we knew about but did not pursue in an effective way, in order to prevent their participation in the 9/11 catastrophe.

BLITZER: When will the president and the vice president appear jointly before your panel?

BEN-VENISTE: Soon.

BLITZER: What does that mean?

BEN-VENISTE: We have not revealed the details of that. The White House has asked us not to, and we have abided by that.

BLITZER: And they will appear jointly in private, but all 10 members, plus the executive director or someone from the staff, will be allowed to participate in that session?

BEN-VENISTE: That's correct, Wolf. The White House initially refused to make the president and vice president, in separate sessions as we had initially contemplated, available to us as 10 members of the commission, limiting the access to only two and excluding eight, and then for only an hour.

But that has changed, and now the time limitations have apparently eased, and all 10 members will in fact participate. The president has requested that the interview be a joint one, and we have acceded to that request.

BLITZER: There's a story in the new issue of Time magazine that's just coming out today saying that when President Clinton was leaving office and he briefed President Bush, who was about to take office, he warned him that Osama bin Laden would be his number-one problem and that he told you, when President Clinton testified privately before your panel, that's one of the points that he made. Is that true?

BEN-VENISTE: I'm not going to comment on what President Clinton said to us in that private meeting. The ground rules for that, as with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, are that we will not simply make comments on that publicly.

BLITZER: And your final report will come out the end of July, is that right?

BEN-VENISTE: It will.

BLITZER: We'll be anxiously awaiting that, Mr. Ben-Veniste. Good luck to you. Good luck to all your nine colleagues on this commission. Thanks very much for joining us.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, a quick check of what's making news at this hour, including a major announcement from Spain's new prime minister about his country's troops in Iraq.

Then the independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader talks about his campaign for the White House and the Democratic Party critics of his candidacy. He'll join us live here on "LATE EDITION."

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RALPH NADER (I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Relax, rejoice that you have another front carrying the ancient but unfulfilled pretensions and aspirations of the Democratic Party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Ralph Nader, after formally announcing his presidential run as an independent. He manages to rile up both political friends and foes, and with some Democrats still clearly blaming him for Al Gore's defeat in 2000.

Ralph Nader is joining us now live. Welcome back to "LATE EDITION," Mr. Nader. Thanks very much for joining us.

Are you in this race until the election on November 2nd?

NADER: Yes. We're going coast to coast. We're going to be on the ballot in 50 states, we hope. And we're going to galvanize new voters, young voters.

And we're going to put before the American people a whole subject matter and agenda that the two parties have been ignoring in their corrupt selling of our government and elections to big business.

BLITZER: Is there anything that could happen, any statements that could be made, let's say, by John Kerry, between now and November 2nd that would convince you, you know what, you're better off not running?

NADER: No, you can never turn your back on your volunteers and supporters who've sweated day and night to get you on the ballot, as they're doing now in Texas and North Carolina and elsewhere, and then say, "Well, you know, it's just politics as usual, see you later."

Our Web site defines our platform...

BLITZER: So you're in this until the very bitter end of this campaign?

NADER: Well, I hope it isn't a bitter end. I hope that there will be enough collaborative effort between John Kerry and myself, in addition to competing, to go and dislodge the corporation in the White House known as George W. Bush.

BLITZER: So you hope John Kerry will be the next president of the United States?

NADER: Well, I hope I'll be the next president. But knowing the winner-take-all Electoral College system, I would like very much for Bush to be removed, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

But that's up to the voters and the media, obviously, and the debates. If we can get on the presidential debates, there will be a different story.

BLITZER: Because four years ago, you suggested, when you were running with Gore and Bush the last time around, that there wasn't a whole lot of difference between Gore and Bush. You do believe there's a lot of difference between John Kerry and President Bush?

NADER: Not as much as I would like, but yes, of course, there's a difference. I mean, Bush is just such a messianic militarist. He's a big business toadie. He has cut taxes for the wealthy and created a massive deficit that's infuriating conservatives in his own ranks, along with big brother Patriot Act, and subsidies to big business, and the sovereignty-shredding effect of WTO and NAFTA.

All of this is breeding a fury among conservative voters. And if the Democrats were smart, they would try to appeal.

BLITZER: Well, looking back at some of the statements you made four years ago, saying there wasn't much difference between Gore and Bush, do you regret any of that? Because do you believe there would be a different United States right now had Al Gore become president?

NADER: The question is, how much different? The similarities between the two parties in 2000 towered over the dwindling real differences that they're willing to fight over. And the basic similarities is the increasing domination of our country by global corporations who have no allegiance or support for our country other than to control it or abandon it as they see fit.

So you have to balance, make a list of all the similarities, as I did in my book, "Crashing the Party." You would see a remarkable convergence in part due to their dialing for the same dollars, the two parties.

BLITZER: Let's talk about John Kerry. He was on "Meet the Press" earlier today, and he was asked about you and your running for the White House. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: My hope is that throughout this campaign I'm going to be talking to people who've supported Ralph Nader. And I hope that, by the end of this campaign, those people will decide John Kerry is going to change the direction of our country. John Kerry can beat George Bush. We need to beat George Bush. And I will make it unnecessary for them to support Ralph Nader.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Are you planning on meeting with John Kerry? There's been talk that the two of you might meet.

NADER: Yes. Not only meet, but as people are going to see on our Web site, votenader.org, we're going to take the 35-page agenda inquiry that we gave to the Democratic and Republican National Committees in late October, break them down, and send them to both Kerry and Bush, to broaden the debate in this country on things like taxes, living wage, environment, renewable energy, foreign policy, military policy. Neither party are interested in cutting the bloated military budget, for example.

BLITZER: Is there a meeting with Kerry scheduled yet?

NADER: It's going to be scheduled. It's just that when we tried to schedule it, he was out of town or I was out of town. But we will get together.

I've known him for 30 years. I think he'll be a better candidate if he's jogged, nudged, challenged. And in being a better candidate, he would attract more votes. But if he doesn't, we'll be happy to pick up those votes.

BLITZER: But no date right now for that meeting?

NADER: Not yet.

BLITZER: Listen to what Howard Dean told me on this program just a few weeks ago when I asked him about your candidacy. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, FORMER DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's very clear that a vote for Ralph Nader is, essentially, a vote to reelect George Bush, and this country can't afford that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's blunt talk from Howard Dean. He says a vote for you is a vote for Bush.

NADER: I just sent him a letter, saying, "Dear Dr. Dean, you know, that's what they said about you in the primary." The Democrats would say, some of them, that if Howard Dean got the nomination, it would be equivalent to giving Bush the election.

Hey, let's compete for the votes. Nobody's entitled to votes. We all have to earn them. We've got to have more diversity, more voices, more choices.

When you see the variety of subject matter that spell solutions for this country, for its problems, for cleaning up its spoiled political system on our Web site, votenader.org, you will see the value of this campaign just from a free-speech, a freedom-of-assembly, a freedom-of-petition point of view.

The dullness of presidential campaigns is unbelievable. I think the last major innovation, Wolf, other than the use of the Internet, the last major innovation in presidential campaigns is television makeup, when Kennedy used it and Nixon didn't.

BLITZER: Let's talk about history for just a moment, because every Democrat I've ever spoken to believed you prevented Al Gore from being president.

Gore lost by one electoral vote in the Electoral College in New Hampshire. And we'll put these numbers up on the screen. Bush won by 7,211 votes. You had 22,198 votes.

But look at Florida alone. Bush won by 537 votes. You almost got 100,000 votes in Florida. And almost everyone I've spoken to believes that most of those people either wouldn't have voted or would have voted Democratic, and that by your being on the ballot in Florida you prevented Gore from winning.

NADER: You must be talking to only Democrats, Wolf.

BLITZER: I said most Democrats.

NADER: Because why don't they talk about the votes taken from Bush by Buchanan in Florida, the votes taken from Bush by the Libertarian in Florida, other third parties which got more than 1,000, 2,000 votes, who were progressive candidates.

It's very sterile to talk about these things. I mean, Gore won in Florida, in my judgment, the retrospective survey. He could have asked for a statewide recount, which would have given him the state. He chose to ask for the bottom, southern three counties.

He didn't get his home state of Tennessee. He didn't get Arkansas. He slipped on 18 banana peels. Maybe the Green Party was one. But it's unfair to single out just one third party, unless your real agenda is to say that America belongs only to two parties, and everyone else shut up and get in line. And that's not acceptable.

BLITZER: In the most recent Gallup poll -- and I'll put these numbers also up on the screen -- Bush comes up with 47 percent nationally, 43 percent for Kerry, 4 percent for Ralph Nader.

And if you take a look at many of the 18 battleground states where this election will be determined, you're showing 2, 3, 4, 5 percent in a lot of these states.

Doesn't that cause you concern that Bush could be reelected if you take those votes away from John Kerry?

NADER: It causes me concern that the percentages aren't higher. And the AP percentage nationwide was 6 percent.

First of all, in New Hampshire, the best, latest poll in New Hampshire had twice as many Republicans voting for me as Democrats. This assumption that my votes only come from the Democrats is simply not true. Even in the year 2000, it wasn't true. A majority of the votes for me in the year 2000 were either people who didn't -- who wouldn't have voted otherwise, or who would have voted for Bush.

BLITZER: A couple of technical questions very quickly. How many ballots are you -- state ballots are you on right now?

NADER: We're just starting. So none yet.

BLITZER: And what about the possibility of joining the Reform Party, the party of Ross Perot and becoming their nominee?

NADER: We'll welcome the endorsement. We're going for an independent nomination. One third of the American people describe themselves as independent. We'll welcome the endorsement of the Green Party or the Reform Party. But not the nomination. We're an independent candidacy.

BLITZER: We'll leave it there. Ralph Nader, presidential candidate, thanks for joining us.

NADER: Thank you.

BLITZER: And just ahead, a strategy session with military experts about the challenges and the risks ahead in Iraq. And there are many.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

President Bush this week said America's armed forces are performing brilliantly, with all the skill and honor expected of them, and he promised the forces and the resources they need will be available.

Helping us sort through all of this, two guests, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Robert Johnston. He's joining us from Tucson, Arizona. And in Madison, Wisconsin, retired U.S. Army Brigadier General David Grange. He's our CNN military analyst. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

General Johnston, let me begin with you. Ten more troops killed this weekend. About 100 so far this month alone. Seven hundred have died since the start of the war. What is your assessment? Is the situation getting worse?

LT. GEN. ROBERT JOHNSTON, U.S. MARINE CORPS (RET.): No, I don't think so. You know, you always worry about, Wolf, about casualties. But clearly, what it means is that we are engaging with the enemy. Unfortunately, they're coming at us in large numbers. It simply means that we can peel back these layers of terrorism, I think, more quickly and more effectively.

So militarily, it sounds like it's on the downside of the casualties, but the positive side is that there are a lot of dead terrorists. And that's really our objective. If we're going to stabilize Iraq, we have to peel back those layers.

BLITZER: What's the biggest challenge, General Grange, right now to the Marines and soldiers on the ground?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think there's really two things that are very tough. One is the pressure on time. Numbers are always an issue, and time. Why is this not done yet? Are we going to be ready by this certain date? Time always drives things.

And the other is they're fighting in an urban environment, and when you're in an urban environment, building to building, a force that is not as sophisticated as the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army as an example, they can neutralize some of your advantages with the fighting in buildings, using civilians for cover and camouflage, and they have different rules of engagement than the coalition force, which has a little more restraint. So those are two tough issues.

BLITZER: Is this an assignment for the Marines, General Johnston, that they're well prepared for? I remember -- and many of our viewers of course remember -- what happened in Beirut in 1983, when Marines were sent in there. Is this a different operation from your perspective?

JOHNSTON: It's quite different. I mean, the Marines right now have some 25,000 troops, and they're all maneuvered battalions, 8 Infantry, 1 Light Armored Reconnaissance, and helicopter support. And this is really right down their alley. Urban warfare, taking on terrorists, capturing them, killing them if we can. It's certainly an absolutely totally appropriate mission for Marines, as it is for the Army Special Forces and some of their straight leg infantry.

BLITZER: General Johnston, you served in Somalia as well. You remember what happened in Mogadishu. Is this different than what happened then?

JOHNSTON: You know, it is quite different, Wolf. Of course, I was in Somalia under a U.S.-led operation, and we turned it over to the U.N., and it began to unravel, I think, politically more than militarily.

Typical ambushes in urban terrain makes it difficult to extricate, particularly with the Rangers that were hit, and their ethic of making sure they don't leave a wounded or dead body behind. And that helped to feed them back into the firefight. I think the fact that we have some armor, we have a lot of improved technology, we own the night, we can operate, I think, much more effectively now than we even could in Somalia.

BLITZER: General Grange, the fact that 20,000 U.S. troops will be extended now for another three-month stay in Iraq, does that end the issue of whether or not the U.S. has enough forces on the ground?

GRANGE: I think that they had to extend those 20,000 in order to take care of some of the pressing issues at hand, obviously, with people that are wedded in-country, that have a feel, a taste for what's going on, instead of bringing in another 20 newer people. So they can use those to surge. Now, it's a morale issue to some extent, but mission comes first. And I think most of the soldiers understand that, and their leaders will explain it to them.

But it doesn't -- for the long term, it's hard to say. There are some issues on the borders. I think there are still people coming in across the borders. And you want to be able to have the flexibility of a force that can go different places within Iraq to reinforce those in certain areas and not uncover from static positions in the country.

So it may or may not solve it. It just depends on the situation.

BLITZER: What's your opinion, General Johnston, of this so- called cease-fire that has been called for in Fallujah, where there are a lot of Marines that are getting ready to move in but they've been told, hold off? I've heard some grumbling that they sense, at least some military experts sense, a cease-fire gives the Iraqi insurgents an opportunity to regroup and potentially cause more problems for the Marines there.

JOHNSTON: Well, that's certainly one of their advantages. But clearly we have to support the Iraqi Council, who had asked for this cease-fire. It's not going to stop the Marines' mission. It gives them additional time to train, confirm targets, and perhaps even be better prepared when the -- if the assault continues, to go after the terrorists in Fallujah. So I don't see that. It might be -- make the Marines a little anxious to get going. But they're prepared.

BLITZER: General Grange, Spain, the new government, the new prime minister announcing today the 1,300 Spanish troops will pull out as soon as possible from Iraq. What does that mean militarily?

GRANGE: Well, you know, someone else will pull up the slack. There will be another country that takes those positions, or U.S. forces.

The thing that bothers the coalition, to include Spanish troops, is that here they're sent over to do a mission and then their government's pulling them out before they can actually finish and show their mettle. I mean, they're good soldiers. And so, I think it's going to be very disappointing to the Spanish troops that this happened to them.

BLITZER: General Johnston, what do you think?

JOHNSTON: I couldn't agree more with Dave. You know, they are good troops. I think that Senator Lieberman made a good recommendation. If you're going to take them out, at least put them in Afghanistan, to demonstrate that the Spanish are in this global war against terrorism.

They are good troops. And I'm sure that it is negative morale to the Spanish who are being pulled out, because they're accomplishing a very important mission. But we will pick up the slack, as Dave said.

BLITZER: General Grange, we're hearing that the two main highways into Baghdad from the south, from Kuwait, and from Jordan, that those highways, the convoys basically are stopping right now because of the dangers to U.S. military personnel. If that's true, there could be logistical huge problems in terms of resupplying the U.S. troops who are in theater right now.

GRANGE: Well, the amount of supplies that's moved on a daily basis from Kuwait up to Baghdad and other locations is humongous. It's an amazing amount of stuff and quite an effort going on.

Part of the -- opening up a line of communication, a highway in this case, is not only a security task, but it's also an engineer task, and there's a lot of different specialties involved in keeping a highway operational, to thwart attacks, for security, obviously, and fixing things that are destroyed through demolitions or just overuse. But the military use alternate routes, though they may not be the best route, and they also have, again, the possibility of always using air.

BLITZER: Do you support, General Johnston, this doctrine of no negotiations with terrorists in the case of U.S. military personnel, who are now being held hostage by various groups in Iraq? Should there be no prisoner exchange, for example?

JOHNSTON: Absolutely not. No negotiation with the terrorists. I mean, it would be wonderful for us to get our troops back and our civilian contractors. And I'm sure there are other actions going on to try to make that happen. I mean, people like the pope. Perhaps Sistani could be involved. Some of the policy makers and the political leadership, I think, can play a role in getting our men back.

BLITZER: General Grange, what do you think?

GRANGE: I agree. Absolutely no negotiations. Once you negotiate, it continues forever. You just -- you have to draw a hard line, accept the consequences, and just do everything in your means. And there's a lot of means over there with the coalition forces to find these people and rescue them.

BLITZER: General Grange, General Johnston, thanks very much to both of you for sharing some thoughts with our viewers in the United States and around the world.

JOHNSTON: Thank you, Wolf.

GRANGE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll tell you the results of our Web poll question of the week: Does the Bush administration have a clear plan for the war in Iraq? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: "LATE EDITION"'s Web question of the week asked, does the Bush administration have a clear plan for the war in Iraq? Here's how you voted, at least so far. Twelve percent of you said yes; 88 percent of you said no. Remember, this is not a scientific poll.

And that's your "LATE EDITION" for Sunday, April 18. Please be sure to join us again next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

I'm here Monday through Friday, twice a day, noon and 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

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