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Will U.S. Give Hussein Over to Iraqis?; Interview With Wesley Clark

Aired June 15, 2004 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Handover. The U.S. will transfer power in Iraq. But will it transfer Saddam Hussein?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want to make sure that as -- once the sovereignty is transferred, Saddam Hussein is -- stays in jail.

BLITZER: I'll ask former presidential candidate General Wesley Clark.

Hunt for bin Laden. An ally with his own scores to settle.

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: Osama and Mullah Omar have committed crimes against the Afghan people, against the people in the United States and against the international community. They are international criminals. They are wanted by the international community. They are wanted by the world conscience. They have to be arrested and tried.

BLITZER: Soft targets. Malls, movie theaters and supermarkets. Can they become tougher targets for terrorists? I'll ask Asa Hutchinson of the Homeland Security Department.

Ron Reagan. What does the late president's son really think about the current president?

ANNOUNCER: This is WOLF BLITZER REPORTS for Tuesday, June 154, 2004.


BLITZER: We begin today with breaking news. Pictures and a threat involving an American abducted in Saudi Arabia. An Islamist Web site is showing pictures of a man identified as Paul Johnson. And it's accompanied by a death threat and demands. Joining us, CNN senior editor for Arab affairs, Octavia Nasr. Tell us what you know.

OCTAVIA NASR, CNN SENIOR EDITOR FOR ARAB AFFAIRS: Yes, Wolf, the video that you mentioned appeared on the Internet about an hour ago. It appears to show American hostage Paul Johnson as he answers questions from his kidnappers, including a reference on working on Apache helicopters. There is a short clip of him which is heavily edited including a bit of sound. Now the rest of the tape carries a statement from the kidnappers, a group that calls itself the Fallujah Squadron. The statement is read by a masked man as you see in this video here. He's identified as Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, who claims to be the military leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.

The list of demands includes releasing all the prisoners in Saudi Arabia and the by now usual request for all Westerners to leave the Arabian Peninsula. The group says that if their demands are not met in 72 hours, they will kill Johnson -- Wolf.

Let's take a minute here to listen to Johnson as he speaks in that video -- Wolf.


PAUL JOHNSON JR., HOSTAGE: Paul Marshall Johnson Jr., American (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

I'm American, from the United States.

In the front end of the Apache helicopter. Is -- I work on Apache helicopters...


NASR: Now, Wolf, very important to note here that CNN cannot independently say that for sure this is the group that kidnapped Johnson or who they are or that the man in the video is al-Muqrin indeed. But obviously this is a big story to report right now.

BLITZER: But what is clear, Octavia, the American in that videotape is Paul Johnson. Can we say that?

NASR: Yes. We can say that. The video is very heavily edited, which leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What was he answering to how he's treated? The reference to the Apache helicopter is obvious in there.

You know, this has been a big story. When this group released their statement claiming responsibility for taking Johnson hostage, they referred to the Apache helicopter saying the U.S. uses it to kill Arabs and Muslims. So that's an important piece of information there.

But what else he said and was he reading, was he really answering questions, a lot of questions unanswered here.

BLITZER: Ominous videotape, indeed. Octavia Nasr, stand by. We'll get back to you.

Let's go to Deborah Feyerick. She's been monitoring what's going on with the Johnson family. Deborah, I don't know if they've seen this videotape yet. It must be oh so chilling for them, though.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well that's exactly what we're trying to confirm right now. The family has been sequestered in a home in New Jersey. They spoke yesterday, the son saying that they were distraught by this. That they continue to pray for their father's speedy return.

The video with Paul Johnson runs about four and a half minutes long. Johnson is in 20 seconds of that video. At the top of the video, you see his name, Paul Marshall Johnson, nationality, USA, New Jersey. And his job which is working with Apache helicopters.

The captive, as you see there, is blindfolded with some sort of white cloth which is held in place by some tape. The sleeve of the shirt is cut off. I don't know whether you noticed that. And clearly the captors trying to show a tattoo, which is a big identifying mark. That would be sort of the way that family might be able to say, yes this is, in fact Paul Johnson.

Again, he was abducted Saturday from his car in Riyadh. And this is the first that we've heard the captives did promise that they would be providing a videotape and they would giving their reasons. And, as Octavia said, that they would make their demands and the demands have to be met in the next 72 hours -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick, I know you'll be getting in touch with the family in New Jersey. We'll stand by to get back to you. Deborah Feyerick on this chilling story.

And this note to our viewers, later this hour I'll speak live with Adel Al Jubeir. He's the foreign policy adviser to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. He'll join me here in the studio. And I'll ask him for reaction from the Saudi government. Will the Saudis comply with the 72-hour demand in connection with Paul Johnson? Adel Al Jubeir, he's coming up live this hour right here.

Let's move to Iraq now. The United States and Iraq are both counting down the days. At the end of this month, there will be an end to the occupation and a handover of sovereignty. But when it comes to Saddam Hussein, the clock isn't necessarily ticking.


BLITZER (voice-over): It's an extremely sensitive subject, one that dominated President Bush's Rose Garden conference with Afghanistan's President Karzai.

It's also an issue that potentially could upend the emerging relationship between the Bush administration and the new interim Iraqi government.

At issue, when does the U.S. hand over Saddam Hussein to the Iraqis?

BUSH: We're working with the Iraqi government on a couple of issues. One is the appropriate time for the transfer of Saddam Hussein. And secondly, we're going to make sure there's appropriate security. BLITZER: The new Iraqi leadership is making clear they want custody of Saddam Hussein right around the time the U.S. hands over sovereignty on June 30.

IYAD ALLAWI, INTERIM IRAQI PRIME MINISTER: While definitely we'll be trying our best to get custody of Saddam and the other criminals.

GHAZI AL-YAWAR, INTERIM IRAQI PRESIDENT: I think that would be happening after June 30. He should be transferred to Iraqi sovereignty given that we can make sure we can protect him until we have the trial.

BLITZER: While Bush administration officials insist Saddam eventually will be handed over to the Iraqis, the president says it is not as simple as it might appear.

BUSH: Look, nobody wants Saddam Hussein to leave. If there's a transfer of responsibility, we want to make sure that he's secure. He's a killer. He's a thug. He needs to be brought to trial. We want to make sure that the transfer to a sovereign government is done in a timely way and secure way. That's what we're discussing with the government.

BLITZER: Legal experts say there may be a compromise that would satisfy the Bush administration and the new Iraqi government.

NEIL KRITZ, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: It would be legal for a sovereign Iraqi government to take custody, however that's defined. And to make a request of coalition forces to continue to provide security for that custody.


BLITZER: Clearly discussions between the U.S. government and the Iraqi government continuing. U.S. troops have been battling his private army, though, for weeks. And U.S. commanders once vowed to take him dead or alive.

But the Bush administration apparently changing its tune when it comes to the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Let's go live to our senior White House correspondent John King -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, like the custody issue surrounding Saddam Hussein, just what should happen to the Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr is another one of the issues now caught up in the negotiations and the impending transfer of power now just two weeks away.

It was just two months ago -- and I believe we have this document to show our viewers -- the Pentagon released this daily talking point. It said the objective of coalition forces was to capture or kill the Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That because of the violence he was causing against U.S. troops in Najaf, in Fallujah and other Iraqi cities.

But in the Rose Garden today, Mr. Bush taking a much softer tone.


BUSH: The interim Iraqi government will deal with al-Sadr in the way they see fit. That's -- they're sovereign. When we say we transfer full sovereignty, we mean we transfer full sovereignty. And they will deal with him appropriately.


KING: U.S. officials say this is yet another example of how the new Iraqi government will have to deal with an issue that up until June 30 will be in the hands of coalition and in the case of al-Sadr militias, in the case of coalition forces in Iraq.

And, Wolf, U.S. officials say simply since the new Iraqi government will be taking charge, it can decide whether to try to go after al-Sadr, whether to try to capture him and prosecute him or whether to try to negotiate a peaceful solution. And if perhaps even some Iraqi officials say bring him somehow into the new government, at least in a consultative way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. A lot of unanswered questions there. Very sensitive issues. CNN's John King at the White House. Thanks very much.

The battle for Iraq's future is raging on. Insurgents ambushed yet another convoy of civilian contractors today and sabotaged a major oil pipeline. Let's go live to our Baghdad bureau chief Jane Arraf. She's joining us in the Iraqi capital -- Jane.

JANE ARRAF, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Wolf, that sabotage on the southern oil pipeline is a major blow, an apparent improvised explosive device. A homemade bomb exploded on one of the main pipelines that actually leads to the terminals, those offshore terminals in the Gulf. Both those terminals have been shut down.

Officials have shut down a second oil pipeline for security checks after the explosion on the first. And Wolf, another explosion, another attack on a northern oil pipeline near Kirkuk, a pipeline leading to the Kirkuk oil fields. Now essentially, what this means is that Iraq will potentially lose tens of millions of dollars a day in lost oil revenue as those exports through the southern oil fields, through the Gulf are halted.

And in what some officials say is also an attack aimed at the infrastructure, another attack on a civilian contracting convoy near an airport road today. Officials say people were believed killed. They have no confirmation. No official confirmation yet of the numbers. But that follows an ambush of another convoy of contractors, of course, in which a suicide bomb exploded as it was passing in central Baghdad on Monday killing five foreign nationals, killing 16 people all together and wounding dozens more -- Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Jane Arraf in Baghdad for us. Thank you very much. We, of course, continue to follow our lead story. It's a breaking story. New, very disturbing, chilling images of an American held hostage in Saudi Arabia. These pictures received within the past hour. I'll speak live with the adviser to the Crown Prince Abdullah, Adel Al Jubeir. He'll join me here in the studios.

Also ahead, drawing a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The White House makes its case. But where's the burden of proof? That story is ahead.

Also, securing ties against terrorism. Afghanistan's president stands side by side with the White House in the war on terror.

And Ron Reagan, religious symbols, and President Bush. The White House responds to critical comments from the former president's son. That story also this hour.


BLITZER: As we reported at the top of this program, an Islamist Web site has posted a chilling videotape of a man identified as Paul Johnson, the 49-year-old American who disappeared in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. A message on the Web site says Johnson's captors will kill him in 72 hours unless their demands are met. Joining us here in Washington is the foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Adel Al Jubeir. Thanks very much for joining us.

You've seen a little bit of this videotape. One of the things that they're demanding is that your government, the government of Saudi Arabia hand over prisoners, al Qaeda, I assume, related prisoners they want freed. What do you say?

ADEL AL JUBEIR, ADVISER TO PRINCE ABDULLAH: We're looking at the tape. We're looking at the situation. Our people on the ground are assessing it. It would not be appropriate for me to comment about what steps we would or would not take in response to this, but we're determined to ensure the safety of the hostage and, hopefully, and God willing, we'll be able to free him and restore him to his family.

BLITZER: What do you make of this videotape? Does it look authentic? Certainly the pictures of Paul Johnson unfortunately look very authentic.

AL JUBEIR: It shows the cruel and inhumane face of the enemy that we're dealing with. It shows the fact that they have total disregard for human life and for respect for human life, for dignity. It shows the barbarism of this entity that we're dealing with and what we're up against.

BLITZER: Do you know who's holding him? Which group is holding him?

AL JUBEIR: The people who have been holding him have claimed responsibility for holding him. They claim to be the al Qaeda group in Saudi Arabia. I'm not so sure that has been verified yet. We can't just simply go by what appears on Web sites because in theory, anyone could put anything on Web sites.

BLITZER: The declared position of the U.S. government is always that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. What is the declared position of the Saudi government?

AL JUBEIR: Our position over the past 30 years has been the same. We don't negotiate with terrorists. We don't negotiate with hostage takers because then you open the door up to more hostage taking and more terrorism.

BLITZER: I assume that means you're not going to release any of these prisoners they want you to release in exchange for Paul Johnson?

AL JUBEIR: I believe that assumption would be correct but it is something that we have to assess. We have to see what it is that they want. And we have to see what the best means is of freeing Mr. Johnson and restoring him to his family in good health.

BLITZER: I assume also there's very close coordination between your government and the Bush administration.

AL JUBEIR: Absolutely. America has people on the ground. We're working this issue very closely together. We have been, for the past year, we have a joint task force that's working on the ground in terms of counterterrorism.

BLITZER: What can you tell us in terms of how Saudi Arabia will make a decision on how to respond to this very, very disturbing set of demands? How does your government go ahead? Do they have a cabinet meeting, does the crown prince make that decision? Who makes that decision?

AL JUBEIR: I believe as with every government decisions are made based on the facts, decisions are made based on the input of experts on the ground. One has to verify, authenticate the message of the tapes, individuals. Do the people who have made this demand, in fact, hold the person hostage. Then we go from there. A political decision is made. I'm sure the decisions will be made in consultation with the United States because, after all this is an American individual that we're dealing with.

BLITZER: I want you to respond to the Council on Foreign Relations report that came out today. Among other things, they concluded that Saudi Arabia has not fully implemented its new laws and regulations and because of that opportunities for the witting or unwitting financing of terrorism persists and they also say there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has taken public punitive actions against any individual for financing terror. Those are strong statements from this Council on Foreign Relations report.

AL JUBEIR: Which is not correct. The Council on Foreign Relations did not visit Saudi Arabia. We had a team from the financial action task force at the G8, which is the world's premiere body tasked with dealing with issues of money laundering and terror financing. Come to Saudi Arabia, do an evaluation of our systems. They have issued a draft report which will be presented in two weeks. In this report they give Saudi Arabia very high marks. With regards to laws not being implemented, that's frankly not correct. With regards to individuals not being prosecuted because of terror financing, that is also not correct. The financial action task force of the G8 in their reports say that Saudi Arabia has five people who have been prosecuted for terror financing as well as a number of other individuals whose assets have been frozen.

I am very disappointed in the Council on Foreign Relations for putting out a report without ascertaining the facts.

BLITZER: What about the State Department's advisory to Americans living in Saudi Arabia, working in Saudi Arabia to get out?

AL JUBEIR: This is really a decision that the U.S. government will have to make based on assessments it makes. Ultimately, the individuals or the families living in Saudi Arabia will have to make the decision themselves. We believe that the situation in Saudi Arabia is under control. We believe that we are doing our best to go after the terrorists and kill them or capture them. We still have a ways to go, without a doubt, as we can see from the random killings that have taken place over the last two weeks. But we don't believe it is a cause for panic.

BLITZER: Adel Al Jubeir, thanks for joining us. Good luck.

The shopping malls of America. Are they safe from terrorist attacks? I'll ask Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security about what's being done to protect all of us at these so- called soft targets.

Why the 9/11 terrorists failed to carry out their attacks before September.

Ron Reagan takes aim. But were his comments at his father's funeral directed at President Bush? Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Vice President Dick Cheney is once again making allegations of ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The Bush administration has been increasingly emphasizing the alleged link but offering little proof as weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found in any significant quantity in Iraq. Vice President Cheney made the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda again Monday night. Speaking to a conservative think tank in Florida he listed it among the reasons justifying the war in Iraq.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was a patron of terrorism, paying $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers in Israel and providing safe haven and support for such terrorist groups as Abu Nidal and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He had long established ties with al Qaeda.

BLITZER (voice-over): Cheney didn't offer evidence of the alleged link, but at a news conference today, his boss defended the vice president's assertion.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Zarqawi. Zarqawi is the best evidence of a connection to al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda. He's the person who's still killing. Remember the e- mail exchange between al Qaeda leadership and he, himself, about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom?

BLITZER: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian Islamist militant suspected of orchestrating terrorism inside Iraq including the beheading of Nicholas Berg and Monday's Baghdad car bombing that killed 13 people. Clearly a feared and wanted man, but experts say his ties to al Qaeda are indirect at best.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It is quite clear from U.S. intelligence officials he runs a totally separate organization called Taoheed (ph) which is in Arabic means unity. An organization that may even be competitive to al Qaeda.


BLITZER: Despite that and the lack of decisive evidence tying Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, polls have shown that a large number of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was, in some way, connected to 9/11.

As the countdown continues to the June 30 handover in Iraq, the violence continuing as well. The Bush administration finding itself grappling with a growing terror threat also now in Saudi Arabia. Joining us now with his take on all these developments, the retired NATO supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark. He is a former Democratic presidential candidate. He's joining us from Little Rock. General Clark, thanks very much for joining us.

First of all, if you were president of the United States right now, what would you do if a videotape shows up showing this American being held, Paul Johnson, in Saudi Arabia and this demand from these terrorists saying you have 72 hours to start releasing prisoners in Saudi Arabia, otherwise, he's dead. What do you do?

WESLEY CLARK (D), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We've been working for the last three years for Saudi Arabia to get a better grip on its own internal security. And I'm sure that there are people over there now from the FBI and from the Central Intelligence Agency trying to help the Saudis find the group. That's the key. Find the group. No negotiations.

BLITZER: But you got 72 hours now. And clearly, finding that group in the next 72 hours or start to comply with the demands. That's a very, very difficult conundrum.

CLARK: Well, I can't imagine any American administration releasing terrorists in response to this kind of hostage taking.

BLITZER: So your policy would be you don't negotiate with terrorists?

CLARK: Absolutely not.

BLITZER: That's been the consistent U.S. policy. You would stick by it. What do you make of this other issue now before the president, handing over Saddam Hussein to the Iraqis after the June 30 of sovereignty?

CLARK: Well, frankly, I'm not sure I understand that issue. Saddam Hussein is going to be tried. He's not going to be released. The government there has said they expect to bring him under trial. I'm not quite sure what we have here is a problem of physical security. In other words, how to keep Saddam Hussein from being assisted to escape, or whether it's a problem that we don't trust the interim Iraqi government to have the legal knowledge or the will to actually bring Saddam Hussein to trial. It's not clear. This is a problem that suddenly has appeared that one would have thought it would have been discussed and covered long ago.

BLITZER: I think one of the problems is that, if you hand him over to the Iraqis, can you guarantee, let's say, his safety? Maybe somebody will simply want to kill him before there is any trial.

CLARK: Well, you know, we're handing the country back to the Iraqis. They're supposed to have complete sovereignty. The securing of Saddam Hussein is far less difficult than trying to secure the country. Surely, in this vast country with all the people we've trained they can put together a team and find a location for Saddam Hussein, even if it involves asking a neighboring country to help secure Saddam Hussein.

BLITZER: The president and the vice president continue to insist there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. You heard that in the piece we just had on the air. What do you say?

CLARK: Well, we know from the evidence that's been released that there were communications back 10, 12 years ago. We know, as far as we can tell, those communications never went anywhere. They never established a linkage to 9/11. And they never established a linkage in which Saddam Hussein was giving orders or taking orders or providing material support to al Qaeda. It wouldn't surprise me if lots of intelligence agencies from lots of countries around the Middle East have talked to people especially in the early '90s who were associated with al Qaeda.

That's what intelligence agencies do. They locate people sometimes on the other side of the issue and figure out who they are and what they stand for and they maintain relationships with them as a way of protecting themselves. So I don't think that I could make too much and I could not agree with the position that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have taken.

And I particularly couldn't use it as a pretext to justify the invasion of Iraq. I think the record shows that the invasion of Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror.

BLITZER: General Clark, one final question before I let you go.

Your name is now often being mentioned on the short list as a possible vice presidential running mate for John Kerry. A, do you want to be vice president? Have you thought about it? Have you been interviewed? Have you agreed to do it if he asks you?

CLARK: Well, I wouldn't discuss the process. John Kerry has a process. It's totally confidential.

I'm not going to say anything about it, other than to say what I've said in the past, that I haven't had any interest in this job. I'm in the private sector. I'm going back and resuming my career in investment banking and technology and the development of small companies. And I'm really having a great time out there.

BLITZER: Is there a one-on-one meeting scheduled in the coming days between you and John Kerry?

CLARK: Well, I just wouldn't be able to comment on anything like that, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Wesley Clark not commenting on whether or not he's going to be the next vice president, perhaps -- the next vice presidential running mate, that is.

Thanks very much, General, for joining us.

CLARK: Thank you.

BLITZER: Jammed shopping malls, crowded movie theaters, they're so-called soft targets. And officials fear they could become increasingly tempting to terrorists here in the United States. Up next, how all of us can avoid becoming that kind of a target.

Also, John Kerry on the economy. The presidential candidate says it's time to end the middle-class squeeze and that he can do it better.

Plus, this:


RON REAGAN, SON OF PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians, wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.


BLITZER: Presidential politics. Is Ron Reagan, Ronald Reagan's son, now joining in?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could have occurred three or four months before September 11 if the attackers had been ready in time. That's according to U.S. officials based on information from al Qaeda detainees.

Our national security correspondent David Ensor has been covering this, following up with more details -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, the CIA is holding a number of senior al Qaeda personnel as prisoners. And they're under interrogation. And this is one of those examples of where that's paying off.


ENSOR (voice-over): The 9/11 hijackers originally planned to attack in May or June of 2001, U.S. officials say, but the plan was postponed because the ringleader, Mohamed Atta, and his team were not ready. That revelation came, officials say, from al Qaeda prisoners like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is considered the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: But this was a flexible plot. And they obviously felt that they could take their time. They felt sufficiently comfortable that the plot hadn't been penetrated in any way, that they could take their time to get really it right, by their lights. I think it's actually quite ballsy, at that.

ENSOR: At past congressional hearings on 9/11, some witnesses appeared behind a screen. At Wednesday's hearings of the 9/11 Commission, several CIA analysts will appear openly, but, officials say, they will not give their names.

There are many remaining questions for CIA and FBI witnesses. Why did Mohamed Atta fly to Portland, Maine, before flying to Boston to hijack a plane? Why did they all the hijackers travel through Las Vegas? Is al Qaeda still looking for ways to attack nuclear facilities in the U.S.?

BERGEN: Is that on the table for al Qaeda's leaders is an interesting question.

ENSOR: The hijackers concentrated in San Diego, New Jersey, Florida, and Northern Virginia. Was there a support network in place in those areas and is it still there?


ENSOR: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the commissioners are going to want to know who is to blame for the clues that were missed and how can the next 9/11 plot be stopped? -- Wolf.

BLITZER: David Ensor, thanks very much. We'll be watching those hearings tomorrow and Thursday.

In Washington today, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said that, with U.S. help, his country has come far, but he warned of a long road ahead with more violence along the way. Back home, events, unfortunately, are bearing him out.

Let's go live to CNN's Ryan Chilcote. He's is on the scene in Kabul -- Ryan.

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the situation may be better in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq, but it's far from perfect.


CHILCOTE (voice-over): Outside the sterility of firing ranges on American bases, where U.S. soldiers can clearly define their targets, briefing rooms where missions are planned using PowerPoint, nearly 20,000 U.S. service men and women, the largest American force ever in Afghanistan, are fighting insurgents who stay mostly out of sight carrying out hit-and-run tactics with land mines and ambushes.

Radio reports like this one are common.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gunfire was coming one (UNINTELLIGIBLE) south of my current location and to the east on a hilltop. Over.

CHILCOTE: U.S. military support in the war against the Taliban has brought some of the things so basic, we forget to acknowledge, like music to a people who were forbidden to listen to it just three years ago.

These soldiers are preventing the Taliban and al Qaeda from regrouping in large numbers, but they are still a presence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here, there's really no clear end in sight. We have an organization that's difficult to find, difficult to see. And we're trying to dismantle it piece by piece.

CHILCOTE: The soldiers from the 27th Infantry Regiment are providing security in some of Afghanistan's most dangerous regions, so the United Nations can set up election sites for Afghanistan's first- ever presidential election this fall.

But in regions that have been relatively stable since the fall of the Taliban, violence against civilians and aid workers is on the rise. Just two hours after the presidents of Afghanistan and the United States painted a rosy picture of Afghanistan's progress from the Rose Garden, the headquarters of the international peacekeepers in the Afghan capital came under rocket attack.


CHILCOTE: Afghanistan is not a good news story yet, Wolf, only when you compare it to the often chaotic situation in Iraq.

BLITZER: Ryan Chilcote on the scene for us in Kabul -- Ryan, thank you very much.

We're continuing to follow a breaking news story, our top story, new pictures and an ominous threat against an abducted American in Saudi Arabia. We'll have the very latest for you. That's coming up.

Also, a war of words, at least potentially. Were Ron Reagan's criticisms during his father's funeral targeted at President Bush? We'll get to that.

Also, Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security standing by to talk to us live about security in the United States. All that coming up.

First, though, a quick look at some other news making headlines around the world.


BLITZER (voice-over): Israel's attorney general has dropped the bribery investigation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, saying there is insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution. The attorney general also ended his investigation of Sharon's son.

Attack foiled. Israeli forces opened fire on a suspicious car heading toward a Jewish settlement in Gaza and the car blew up. Israel says the vehicle was packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives.

Iranian denial. Iran's foreign minister denies that his country has any plans to produce nuclear weapons. He was responding to charges his country has been stalling investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Movie critics. A new film about a love affair between two women is sparking religious protests in India. Hindu activists have invaded theaters to stop them from showing the movie "Girlfriend." And they've ripped up posters and billboards.

And that's our look around the world.



BLITZER: The arrest of a Somali man in Ohio charged with plotting to blow up a mall is fueling fresh concern about so-called soft targets in the United States, which include not only malls, but theaters, hotels, supermarkets, public transportation.

Joining us now from the White House to talk about that, Asa Hutchinson. He's the undersecretary for border and transportation security over at the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for joining us.

How concerned should we be about these so-called soft targets?

ASA HUTCHINSON, UNDERSECRETARY FOR HOMELAND SECURITY: Well, a steady state of concern. I don't think we should overreact. Clearly, we are still a target in the United States. That includes our secure buildings that are more symbolic targets. But, also, any place that people gather is something that al Qaeda could target and pose a risk to. But I think that, here in the United States, people go about their business. They understand there's risk in a free society. People need to be alert.

It drives that point home. And the law enforcement presence is important. The private sector has to invest in security. It is a partnership in homeland security. We look to the private mall owners. We also share intelligence with the private sector. That's part of today's new reality.

BLITZER: Is today's new reality what we've seen at malls in Israel, even parts of Europe, Western Europe, for example, where you go through a metal detector in order to get into a mall?

HUTCHINSON: No, that's not part of the United States's culture. And we hope that we do not get to that point. I think that's what happened yesterday with the indictment of Mr. Abdi certainly indicated that there are soft targets out there that we have to protect.

But it's the law enforcement presence. We don't intend to start doing metal detectors. These are owned by the private sector. They will make decisions on that. The best defense we have is an alert public going about their business, but also paying attention to things that might be unusual, that might sound an alarm that we ought to know about.

BLITZER: When you say that owners of these malls should beef up their own private security, what does that mean exactly?

HUTCHINSON: Well, right now, you have a law enforcement presence that is based upon general crime threats to give people a level of confidence as they shop in the malls. And, as we continue to evaluate other risks, terrorist risks, that law enforcement presence is important.

But I don't think we overreact by starting, doing metal detectors. I think they have to make decisions. But, clearly, it is not just a threat in the larger metropolitan areas. But whether you're looking at mid-America such as Ohio or other states, there can be a risk in those arenas as well.

It's important not to overreact to one incidence, one report, one arrest, have a balanced approach to it. But, in every sector, we're trying to enhance security and get the private sector to invest more, based upon their own judgments, evaluations, security assessments for that venue.

BLITZER: Based on what I have heard and what I've read, this plot against a mall in the Columbus, Ohio, area was very preliminary. It doesn't seem to have gone very far. How far down the road did they go?

HUTCHINSON: Well, that's when you want to get a plot, when it is still preliminary. But, clearly, to be a conspiracy under the law, you have to have an overt act that is in furtherance of that conspiracy.

The Department of Justice presented that case. The grand jury approved it. Presumably, they will be able to make that case in court. But this was foiled. And it was a very cooperative effort between the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, ICE agents. The immigration enforcement aspect of this case is very important. We welcome immigrants. But when you see the system abused, asylum requests, then that's certainly a wakeup call that we certainly need to continue to enforce our immigration laws.

BLITZER: Does the Department of Homeland Security have anything to do with this very, very chilling development in Saudi Arabia, an American citizen taken hostage, and now this videotape making demands that, unless certain things happen in 72 hours, he's going to be killed? Is your department involved in this at all?

HUTCHINSON: No, that's certainly the responsibility of the Defense Department, State Department. They take the lead in all of that.

From Homeland Security perspective, we do have our officers there in Saudi Arabia as well carrying out their responsibilities. So, certainly, it is a concern to all of our personnel overseas, particularly in Saudi Arabia during this time.

BLITZER: I wasn't aware that the Department of Homeland Security has officials or security personnel working in Saudi Arabia. What exactly do they do?

HUTCHINSON: Well, I wouldn't want to go into detail. But, under the Homeland Security Act, we have responsibility for visa security, oversight, working with the Department of State.

And so we do have personnel that's carrying on that responsibility, statutorily mandated there in Riyadh, in other places, we're working across the globe in other areas.

BLITZER: Finally, what can you tell us, if anything, about this report that David Ensor just had on the air that al Qaeda originally wanted to go after these targets in May or June before 9/11, but, in the end, they decided to postpone? Any additional information you can share with us on that?

HUTCHINSON: Other than that, it is really consistent with our intelligence and observation as to how the terrorists operate. They're very patient, waiting. Postponing an operation is not that significant to them. It was eight years between the first World Trade Center attack and the second one. So they're patient. They make sure everything is operationally sound.

And they do surveillance. So all of these things is consistent with what we're learning about what has happened during 9/11. We await their report.

BLITZER: Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security, thanks for spending a few moments with us.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: A cryptic comment by Ronald Reagan's son, what he said at his father's funeral and why some now think it was perhaps an attack aimed at President Bush.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Is President Bush heir to the Reagan legacy? It is a matter of some debate in political circles, but apparently not for Ron Reagan. The eulogy he gave for his father last week included a comment some say was clearly aimed at the current president.

CNN's Brian Todd is here with details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is an open debate, Wolf.

Among several analysts we spoke to today, it's split right down the middle on whether Ron Reagan's comment about religion and politics was a slap at President Bush.


TODD (voice-over): The comment during a eulogy for his father was softly worded.

R. REAGAN: Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man. But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians, wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.

TODD: A number of Democratic and Republican analysts we spoke to, who did not want to be named, interpreted this as a criticism of President Bush. Others say that's a leap. Ron Reagan isn't saying. We called his office for clarification and were told he wouldn't comment. However Reagan meant it, the president was pinned for a response.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I -- whether or not a politician should wear their -- I think -- I've always said I think it's very important for someone not to try to take the speck out of somebody's else's eye when they may have a log in their own. In other words, I'm very mindful about saying, you know, oh, vote for me, I'm more religious than my neighbor.

And I think it's -- I think it's perfectly -- I think it's important for people of religion to serve. I think it is very important for people who are serving to make sure there's a separation of church and state.

TODD: While we don't know for sure if the Reagan comment was a salvo at Bush, we do know there is animosity. During the Republican National Convention four years ago, Ron Reagan was quoted in "The Washington Post." "The elephant sitting in the corner is that George W. Bush is simply unqualified for the job. What's his accomplishment, that he's no longer an obnoxious drunk?"

But the criticisms have also come over policy, and they're not just coming from Ron Reagan. Nancy Reagan is now leading a campaign against President Bush's restrictions on stem cell research.

NANCY REAGAN, FIRST LADY: Science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers they have had for so long been beyond our grasp. I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this. There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped. We have lost so much time already, and I just really can't bear to lose any more.


TODD: In the end, those may be the comments that weigh most heavily. Many Republicans dismiss Ron Reagan's politics as liberal. They cannot dismiss Nancy Reagan, Wolf.

BLITZER: Any indication that Mrs. Reagan shares her son's attitude towards the president?

TODD: It's hard to read and it's inconsistent. Ron Reagan did say to last year that his mother shares his distrust of some of the Bush people, that she doesn't like their religious fervor and their aggression. That's a quote from him to

But it is hard to read. It is not always consistent to read between the two.

BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd with that -- thanks, Brian, very much.

John Kerry is focusing his presidential campaign on the economy this week. In the first of a series of speeches, he told a union conference in New Jersey that, while the economy is adding jobs, they're paying less, while health, education and child care costs are rising.

A one-of-a-kind military marriage, that's our picture of the day and that's next.


BLITZER: You've heard of a long-distance romance. How about our picture of the day? A long-distance wedding.

Two members of the National Guard, one in Iraq, the other stateside, got married via video. Staff Sergeant Shadow Evans is from California. Sergeant Rick Everton is from Rhode Island. But the U.S. portion of the wedding actually took place in Colorado, which doesn't require the physical presence of both bride and groom. Congratulations to them. A reminder, you can always catch us on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS weekdays, 5:00 p.m. Eastern. I'm also around during the week at noon Eastern. Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now.


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