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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Dan Bartlett; Interview With Adel Al-Jubeir

Aired March 6, 2005 - 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 Beirut, 8 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for LATE EDITION.
We'll get to my interview with Dan Bartlett in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: More details now on our top story.

The presidents of Lebanon and Syria scheduled to hold talks tomorrow to discuss a pullback of Syrian forces. Meanwhile, the leader of Hezbollah calling for a pro-Syrian demonstration in Lebanon on Tuesday.

Our Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, standing by live in Beirut with details.

Brent?

BRENT SADLER, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Wolf. This is going to be a crucial meeting in the Syrian capital, Damascus, between President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahud.

It's expected they'll be discussing the mechanics and a timetable, which we may get to hear about on Monday, regarding the withdrawal of Syrian forces that President Assad referred to in a pivotal speech that he made to Syria's parliament on Saturday.

He said there would be a two-phase withdrawal, firstly to the Bekaa Valley, closer to the Syrian border, and then to what he described as the area of the Syrian and Lebanese border. That was later clarified in Syria by a minister who said it would be a pullout over the border.

But critically, Wolf, there's been no timetable set for this troop withdrawal or redeployment, as some political opposition leaders here are still calling it.

Now, at the same time as that has been going on this day, we continue to see a rally taking place here in Martyrs' Square, which for the past three weeks has really been the nucleus of anti-Syrian protests that have been taking place in the Lebanese capital.

Now, there's a new challenge for these streets that will appear, we expect, on Tuesday of next week, with a call by the chief of a Hezbollah organization, which the United States calls a terrorist organization -- Israel also calls it a terrorist organization -- calling for a mass street protest of what's described as patriotic forces, those who sympathize with Syria. Because Hezbollah says that the international pressure and interference on both Syria and Lebanon is aimed at weakening Syria and to strengthen Israel.

Syria, remember, Wolf, still wants a return of the Golan Heights as a price to have peace with Israel. The Golan Heights crucial to Syria's strategic assets, to its future.

So this is by no means over. The protests will continue against the Syrian presence here and continued strong support between Hezbollah, its supporters, and Syria.

Interesting developments, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting, Brent.

This support that Hezbollah's going to show for Syria, does that mean that Lebanon's Shiite community is opposed now to the opposition, in effect, that the Lebanese Shiite community is emerging as pro- Syrian? Because if it is, that raises the possibility once again of civil strife within Lebanon.

SADLER: I think it was quite clear from Hezbollah's statement that civil strife simply is something that all parties here will strive to avoid at whatever cost.

It's true that the Shia that represent a large number of people in Lebanon -- disputed figures -- but certainly a large, large group of supporters in Lebanon, that they want to show that although the Syrians have pledged to withdraw, Syria and Lebanon are still technically in a state of war with Israel. Hezbollah still has sporadic clashes with Israeli forces at the foot of the Golan Heights. They're concerned that the next step will be to disarm the Islamic resistance, weaken Syria to the advantage of Israel, and that would be against Arab interests.

That's what Hezbollah wants to draw from all this, and that's why it's calling for a mass support. It will be very interesting to see how many people come on the streets of the Lebanese capital next Tuesday in support of that call.

Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Brent Sadler, we'll be watching together with you.

Brent Sadler reporting from Beirut.

President Bush is keeping the pressure up on Syria, sticking to demands for a full Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon right away. Just a short while ago I spoke with the counselor to the president, Dan Bartlett, about the administration's push to democratize the Middle East and much more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, thanks very much for joining us.

DAN BARTLETT, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT BUSH: Always a pleasure.

BLITZER: All right, let's listen to what President Bashar al- Assad of Syria said only yesterday. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): We will withdraw our forces that are placed in Lebanon completely to the Bekaa area and then to the borders between Lebanon and Syria.

And I've agreed with the president of Lebanon, Mr. Lahud, that the Supreme Council of Lebanon and Syria should meet this week to approve the plan for withdrawal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: A step in the right direction on the part of the Syrians?

BARTLETT: Well, unfortunately, if you listen to the Lebanese people and other people who have seen his behavior in the past, it seems to be more generalities and half-measures as opposed to living up to the international community's demands.

They're quite clear, Wolf. In 1559, the U.N. Security Council resolution, it calls for an immediate withdrawal, not only of troops, but it's also important that something that he didn't mention is Syrian secret services and intelligence officials that really keep the clamp of fear in the Lebanese people, to fully withdraw as well.

So it's important that he live up to the international demands. It's something that President Bush has spoken in a unified voice with not only his European colleagues, but also, as we saw in the past couple of days, Saudi Arabia has spoken about this, the Russians have spoken about this. It's important for President Assad to live up to the international community.

BLITZER: When you say immediate withdrawal, how immediate? What kind of a time frame are you looking at?

BARTLETT: Well, if he was clear on living up to those demands, those things could be worked out when we say immediate.

But one thing is very clear. If we're going to have a free and fair election this spring, it's hard to believe that that could take place with the presence of Syrian troops and secret services officials. So it's critically important... BLITZER: The elections are scheduled for May. You want them out by May, basically?

BARTLETT: Well, again, I don't think there could be a scenario in which there could be a real, truly free and fair election with the Syrian presence continuing to have an intimidation factor in Lebanon.

BLITZER: What if they just go to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon but don't pull out? Is that good enough?

BARTLETT: Well, the Security Council made it very clear that it's not, that it's important that there be a complete withdrawal. That's what the international community has come forward and demanded, and that's what should take place.

BLITZER: Hezbollah is now suggesting they're going to go for a big demonstration, a pro-Syrian demonstration on Tuesday in Lebanon, to express their support for Syria. That potentially could set the stage for a split between Hezbollah on the one hand, Shiites, Lebanese Shiites, by and large, as opposed to the rest of Lebanon.

How concerned are you of civil strife emerging in Lebanon?

BARTLETT: Well, Wolf, it's important that the international community is going to stand with the Lebanese people. As they move forward, once there is a Syrian withdrawal, and start to build the type of state that's economically viable, able to secure itself, the entire country, those type of questions will come forward.

But first things first. Let's keep the international focus on removing Syrian troops and secret services from the region, from Lebanon itself. That is what the call is of the international community. And then we will be there to work with the Lebanese people for the future.

BLITZER: Let's talk about that tragic incident Friday in Iraq, involving the Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena.

She writes in her newspaper, Il Manifesto, today, she writes this: "It wasn't a checkpoint, but a patrol that shot as soon as they lit us up with a spotlight. We didn't know where the bullets were coming from. We had not met other checkpoints before. Our car was absolutely not traveling at high speed."

The Italians are pretty upset about this.

BARTLETT: Well, first and foremost, President Bush, on behalf of the American people, expresses our condolences. This is a horrific accident, one in which President Bush personally called Prime Minister Berlusconi to offer his condolences, as well as to make sure that there is a full investigation so we're able to understand the very facts that are now being discussed.

As you know, in a situation where there is a live combat zone -- particularly this road to the airport has been a notorious area for car bombs -- that people are making split-second decisions. And it's critically important that we get the facts before we make judgments.

BLITZER: So Prime Minister Berlusconi wants President Bush to give him a complete report, is that what he said?

BARTLETT: Well, the president himself wants -- President Bush himself wants a full report and accounting of what happened, and he obviously wants to make sure that he can share that with his colleague.

BLITZER: A quick question on this New York Times story today on the front page, suggesting that the CIA has basically been given carte blanche to go ahead with this policy of what's called "rendition" -- critics say outsourcing torture, if you will -- sending terrorist suspects to other countries, to third countries, for interrogation, where they potentially could be tortured.

You want to comment on this story in the New York Times?

BARTLETT: Well, as you know, Wolf, in the days and weeks and months after 9/11, it was important that we take a hard look at our entire apparatus -- militarily, intelligence, diplomatic -- to see how we were going to fight and win the war on terror.

Part of this is to make sure that we can deal with known terrorists, who may have information about live operations. And it's critical that we're able to them and have information.

Having said that, at every step of the way, President Bush and his administration has made very clear that we'll abide by the laws of our land and the treaty obligations we have. We will not torture here in America, and we will not export torture. That is unacceptable to this president and something that we will not tolerate.

BLITZER: The CIA director, Porter Goss, was quoted by the AP Thursday as saying about his job, his own job as the CIA director, and the relationship that he has with the incoming national intelligence director, John Negroponte, "It's got a huge amount of ambiguity in it. I don't know by law what my direct relationship is with John Negroponte."

Negroponte will be briefing the president. That will be his responsibility every day, is that right?

BARTLETT: Well, as the president said when he traveled out to Langley to talk to the CIA employees himself, to express to them the critical role that they're going to play in winning this war and protecting our country, he also made it clear that the CIA will have a seat at the table, make sure that the president has a direct relationship with the chief operations agency when it comes to intelligence collection.

But I don't think it's surprising that anytime you go from print of a legislative -- a piece of legislation into actual action, that there is going to be some ambiguity until the people get on the ground and we start to be able to work out methods of operation and relationship-building. And that's going to happen as soon as Ambassador Negroponte is confirmed, if he is confirmed, by the United States Senate. But this is natural, I think, that you would see during a time of transition.

But President Bush has made it very clear the CIA is playing a critical role. They will continue to play a critical role, even with the new national intelligence director.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And just ahead, more of my interview with the counselor to the president, Dan Bartlett. I'll ask him about President Bush's stepped-up campaign to reform Social Security. Is it convincing Americans that the program needs an overhaul?

And later, what about the Democrats' claim that the president's plan is risky business? We'll talk with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.

Plus, fighting for a free Iraq under the constant threat of death -- a special conversation with an Iraqi dissident, Mithal al-Alusi.

LATE EDITION continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Web question of the week asks this: Should Syrian troops fully withdraw from Lebanon? You can cast your vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll tell you the results at the end of our program.

And we welcome your questions for our guests. E-mail us right now. Go to lateedition@cnn.com. We'll try to read some of your questions on the air.

Up next, more of my interview with the counselor to President Bush, Dan Bartlett.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. Part two of my interview now with Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's talk about Social Security, the centerpiece of the president's domestic agenda during this second term.

A couple poll numbers -- I'll put them up on the screen.

CBS News-New York Times poll: Bush's ability to make right decisions about Social Security. Thirty-one percent of those who responded said they were confident about that; 63 percent said they were uneasy. Another question: Do you think Republicans or Democrats are more likely to make the right decisions about Social Security? Thirty-one percent said Republicans; 48 percent said Democrats.

The president has a huge uphill struggle on his hands right now.

BARTLETT: Well, if you look at -- if you dive into the details of some of those pollings that we've seen over the past week, the major opposition to personal retirement accounts and what President Bush is talking about is coming from seniors.

Because they've been conditioned over many, many years that if there's a discussion in Washington about Social Security, it must mean something bad for them, when, in fact, President Bush has made it emphatically clear that if you were born before 1950, nothing changes in the Social Security system.

This is a debate about the future, not about the current or near retirees. And it's critical that President Bush continues to communicate that messages, and we'll be spending a lot of time to do just that.

BLITZER: A lot of Republicans are even concerned right now. They're groping, they're trying to figure out where to go. Senator Hagel has got some ideas. Senator Lindsey Graham has got some ideas.

Senator Grassley, Charles Grassley, a key Republican -- he's the chairman of the Finance Committee -- he said, "I don't want all the attention then on personal accounts because they don't really solve this problem. They're good in and of themselves, but they don't solve the solvency problem, which the president says is the crisis, is the real problem facing Social Security down the road. Where is the money going to be available to pay out recipients of Social Security benefits?"

How much of a problem do you have with the Republicans?

BARTLETT: Oh, in fact, I don't see that as a problem. We see that as part of what President Bush has said, is inviting people to the table.

The fact that Senator Chuck Hagel is putting forward his own idea when it comes to allowing people to personally invest in retirement accounts, as well as trying to solve the overall issue of Social Security, is an advance in the debate. And he invited us, President Bush did, when he asked members of Congress to come forth with their own ideas.

What we're seeing, Wolf, and what we should see during this phase of the debate -- and I would say in football parlance, we're still in the first quarter of this debate -- is that instead of people ruling things out -- and we're seeing that, particularly from some members of the Democratic Party, that they're spending more of their time ruling things out as opposed to coming forward with their own solutions -- that's not what the American people need. This is too important of an issue for us to be trying to score political points. And that's why President Bush, at various points in this debate, has refused to comment on certain proposals, to try to invite people to come forward.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the proposals Democrats and others are floating.

For example, take the private accounts that you want, the private retirement accounts, but take it outside of the Social Security system, as what they call an add-on, and make a new entitlement, if you will, giving people the opportunity to have these private retirement accounts, but not use Social Security money to create it.

Is that something you're open to?

BARTLETT: Well, Wolf, this is the very type of thing we want. We want people to put solutions on the table, different ideas.

And what President Bush has instructed all of us to do is not to take judgments, not say what is a good idea or a bad idea, but to applaud the process.

When people start talking about different ideas, that means we're starting to accept the premise, which some people didn't do at the beginning of this debate, and that is there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

BLITZER: But are you open to that idea?

BARTLETT: Again, I am not here to qualify one way or the other way it's a good idea or a bad idea.

But the process is moving forward, and that's what we're going to do. Every time an idea is put on the table, we're not going to start ruling things in or out. That would be destructive to the process, because that would start walling things in and out.

So what President Bush is going to do is continue talking about what he believes is the important way to approach this issue. He's going to continue to educate the American people about why we need to act.

As you know, Wolf, this issue is on our door step. Baby-boomer generation starts to retire in 2008. The system goes from black to red in 2018. We need to act now or the problem is only going to get worse year after year after year.

BLITZER: Democrats dispute that 2018 number, but let's talk about some of the other options out there.

What about raising the cap from about $90,000 right now, just raising it to get more revenue in, to, in effect, tax the richer people a little bit more so that there will be more money coming into the Social Security system? Is that something the president has left open? BARTLETT: The president has spoken about the issue of taxes, and what he has explicitly said is we're not going to run up the payroll tax rate. He doesn't believe that's the answer to it.

We've seen in the past that attempts to fix Social Security that kind of use the old way of doing things has only gotten ourselves in the situation we are today.

BLITZER: But there is a difference between running up the payroll tax rate and raising the cap.

BARTLETT: And President Bush wants this debate to continue. And that's what we want to continue...

BLITZER: So raising the cap is on the table?

BARTLETT: He said the only thing that's off the table is raising the rate.

BLITZER: What about reducing...

BARTLETT: That doesn't necessarily...

BLITZER: What about reducing benefits?

BARTLETT: Again, Wolf, what we have is a system right now is that the status quo means benefit cuts. We can't provide the money available to give people what they've been promised in the out-years. That is a simple fact of math.

What it's going to require is either massive benefit cuts or massive tax increases, two things that are probably unacceptable to not only politicians in Washington but to the American people. So we have to start thinking differently.

What President Bush has made very clear, again, stated as clearly as possible, because this is really the crux of the debate, current seniors, those that are born before 1950, have nothing to worry about. But we have to think differently if we're going to even come close to fulfilling the promise that we have made to future generations.

BLITZER: One final question: How much is the transition cost estimated at? Democrats say maybe $2 trillion, if not more. How much do you...

BARTLETT: Well, you're throwing numbers around. We've made very clear that President Bush has listened to the concerns of not only members of Congress but to the markets, that we be cognizant of our budget situation as we phase in accounts. And that's why we've planned just that. Over the next 10 years, it would be about $750 billion, far from what critics claim to be $2 trillion.

But again, I think that's a little misleading as well, because we already owe this money. We already have a debt. It's pushed off into later years. What we say is move that up today, let's take that on now, let's be realistic about the type of debt we have, let's allow people to start investing so they can get a better rate of return, and in doing so we can make sure that individuals have a better shot of being able to realize what they've been promised by the government.

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, thanks very much for joining us.

BARTLETT: Always a pleasure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And coming up, the Democrats' counterattack to President Bush's Social Security reform campaign, we'll talk about that and much more with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. He's standing by to join us next.

Also, we'll have a quick check of what's in the news right now. A key meeting between Jordan and Israel on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- we'll tell you what's happening on that front.

Stay with LATE EDITION.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm really interested in working with members of both parties to be able to say we've done our duty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush Friday in New Jersey on the first leg of what will be a 60-city tour over the next 60 days to promote Social Security reform.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Democrats are on their own tour, hoping to convince Americans not to buy into the president's proposals.

Joining us now, one of the Senate's leading Democrats, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Senator Lieberman, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Wolf, good to be with you.

BLITZER: Let's talk Social Security in a moment. But the New York Times has a lead story on its front page, saying they're going to continue, the CIA, to, in effect, expel or send terrorist suspects to third countries for interrogation, a process called rendition. Critics call it outsourcing torture.

Are you concerned at all about this?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I'm concerned, but I'm not jumping to conclusions.

The question is not about rendition, sending some of the terrorist suspects abroad or, when they're captured abroad, sending them to a third country, an ally of ours. The question is what happens to them when they're there. And...

BLITZER: If they send someone to Saudi Arabia or to Syria, presumably that person is going to be questioned in a brutal way.

LIEBERMAN: Well, look, if some of these people apprehended have information that could lead us to stop a terrorist attack on us, then we've got to be as tough as we can be with them within the law.

The president has said we do not condone torture. Mr. Bartlett just said it on your show a while ago. I don't start disbelieving the president on this. I think -- I have concern, and we ought to look at it.

The inspector general of the CIA is conducting an investigation right now. I'm going wait to hear the results of what he has to say before I reach a conclusion on it.

But we're dealing with some tough suspects who want to kill Americans, and we've got to treat them appropriately within the law. And as far as I know now, that's what is being done with these people.

BLITZER: The CIA director, Porter Goss, made news this week. He was quoted by the A.P. as saying, "The jobs I'm being asked to do, the five hats that I wear, are too much for this mortal. I'm a little amazed at the workload."

That was pretty surprising to hear him say that.

LIEBERMAN: Well, I wasn't surprised, in this sense: I mean, that's exactly why Congress created the director of national intelligence position. Because we were asking the CIA director to be the head of the CIA, to be the head of the intelligence agency -- also had the title of DCI, director of central intelligence -- and to be the principal intelligence adviser to the president. It's a lot to do.

We're now telling him, under the new law: Head the CIA. It's our premier intelligence agency. Work under the director of national intelligence who will oversee the entire community, and connect the dots so we can see the attacks coming before they happen.

BLITZER: So you have no second thoughts about this proposal to create this intelligence czar? You were instrumental in getting this off the ground.

LIEBERMAN: No, I have no second thoughts about it. I mean, it was recommended -- number-one recommendation by the 9/11 Commission. I think it's absolutely right.

Our intelligence community for too long was like a football team with a lot of great players and no quarterback. And now the DNI, Ambassador Negroponte, will be the quarterback, and we're going to be a lot safer as a result of it.

BLITZER: Let's talk Social Security. The CBS-New York Times poll asked this question: Do you think the problems with Social Security are so serious they must be fixed now, in another 10 to 15 years, or not serious at all? Fifty-five percent said now, 35 percent said 10 to 15 years, 7 percent said not serious.

Is this a crisis that should be addressed right now?

LIEBERMAN: Yes, it is. It's a -- the public gets it. And in all the political and partisan discussion here in Washington, it's not clear that everybody in Washington gets it.

But Social Security is a great program, maybe the best the federal government has ever created. It's kept tens of millions of seniors, survivors, disabled out of poverty. It's the floor below which we won't let Americans fall.

It's got a problem now. If it goes on the course it's on now, it will simply not be able to keep the benefit, keep the promises...

BLITZER: What about the president's proposal to use Social Security taxes to create these private retirement accounts? Are you open to that?

LIEBERMAN: No, I'm not. And here's my point: I think the president is right in focusing on the problem that Social Security has, insolvency coming.

I don't agree with the solution that he's proposed, because I don't see how you make the problem better by diverting payroll tax revenue that otherwise goes into the Social Security trust fund.

In other words, if the fund's going to run out of money and it can't pay the benefits in the foreseeable future, then it doesn't make any sense to me to take more money out of it.

I think we've got to make some tough decisions together, though, to fix it soon.

BLITZER: The White House is complaining that the Democrats are just griping and complaining. They're not coming up with any proposals, any solutions of their own.

The Washington Post in an editorial on Friday said, "The administration is dangling the prospect of personal accounts without advancing a proposal to achieve solvency. The Democrats are closing their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears. Neither approach will get us very far."

And Republican Senator Chuck Hagel was on "Face the Nation" earlier today, a moderate Republican. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: We've got a problem. We've got a realistic, actuarial, fact-of-life problem.

Now, what I'd like to see is the Democrats start putting something on the table. I'd like to see the Democrats lay it down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Would you like to see the Democrats put something on the table?

LIEBERMAN: Absolutely. It's not enough to just say President Bush's solution is the wrong one, taking money out of the trust fund, payroll tax diversion.

We believe in Social Security. It was started by a great Democratic president. We....

BLITZER: All right, so let's get to some specifics. Give us some of your specifics. How would you fix Social Security?

LIEBERMAN: Here's where I am -- and I'm involved in a lot of discussions, bipartisan discussions. Olympia Snowe and I head the centrist Bipartisan Coalition. Lindsey Graham and I have been working. I've talked to Bob Bennett. I got some very interesting ideas, fellow senator from Utah. Clay Shaw is a congressman from Florida.

And I want to pull from all of these the possibility of common ground to fix the Social Security problem, and in that we can't take any of these ideas off the table.

We do have to think about Lindsey Graham's idea of raising the cap on Social Security taxes...

BLITZER: From $90,000...

LIEBERMAN: Right.

BLITZER: ... to tax unlimited income?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I don't think you have to raise it unlimited. I think you can raise it enough to begin to deal with the problem.

BLITZER: How high?

LIEBERMAN: I don't know yet.

And I think this is what lawmaking is about. I think we've got to look at the benefits and decide, are there some changes we can make?

Bob Bennett, Senator Bennett has a very interesting idea. Make the benefits progressive: for low-income, lower-middle-income, full benefits; highest income, almost no benefits.

BLITZER: Raise the retirement age? LIEBERMAN: Look, what's the main reason that we have a problem with Social Security paying benefits? It's a good reason. Thank God, we're all living longer.

And therefore, it just makes common sense to me that one of the ways we may want to fix this problem is by raising the age of eligibility over the long term.

BLITZER: The president says the only thing he's eliminated is increasing the tax rate for Social Security. Do you want to increase the tax rate for Social Security?

LIEBERMAN: No. I agree with him on that. And I think probably most Democrats agree with the president. We shouldn't raise the tax rate on Social Security -- that is, the payroll taxes -- because they really hit middle- and lower-income people hard in the withdrawals from the paycheck.

We can put this together, but it's only going to be done on a bipartisan basis. So at some point we've got to stop criticizing each other and sit at the table and work out this problem.

Let me say a final word. Why is it important to do it now though it's only a problem and not a crisis? Because by one credible estimate I saw, present value accounting, every year we wait to come up with a solution to the Social Security problem costs our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren $600 billion more.

BLITZER: So you think there's a deal out there, but you've just got to work on it.

LIEBERMAN: Yes.

BLITZER: There's another major initiative the president has this year, simplify the tax code.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve this week suggested maybe there should be a consumption tax, so-called value-added tax, a national sales tax, as opposed to income tax as a way of simplifying the tax code.

Harry Reid, your leader in the Senate, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said this, and I want to play it for our viewers. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I'm not a big Greenspan fan, Alan Greenspan fan. I voted against him the last two times. I think he's one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know Alan Greenspan. Is he a political hack?

LIEBERMAN: No, I don't think so. I mean, I voted for him the last two times, including when President Clinton renominated him. I mean, Alan Greenspan is extraordinarily able, often very wise, and sometimes very mistaken. He's human. He's above-average human, but he's not perfect. He makes mistakes.

BLITZER: So is he mistaken on this national sales tax?

LIEBERMAN: I think he is. I don't favor the national sales tax.

I think, looking back at the long, distinguished career of Alan Greenspan, to me, the biggest mistake he made was in giving blessing to the tax cuts that were adopted at the beginning of the Bush administration, which are part of the reason why we're so deeply in debt today.

So, his field is monetary policy. He's had a good effect a lot of times when he's gone into fiscal policy, which is our field and the president's, but sometimes he makes mistakes. And those can be really harmful.

I heard him say this week -- of course, one of the great things about Alan Greenspan is many people take different messages from his words. I heard him say that we've got a real deficit, long-term debt problem in America, and we'd better start dealing with it soon. I agree.

BLITZER: You agree with him on that, but you disagree on the other stuff.

LIEBERMAN: Right.

BLITZER: Joe Lieberman, thanks very much for joining us.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Senator.

When we come back, reforming Iraq. We'll talk with an Iraqi Democratic Party founder, Mithal al-Alusi, about his country's political future and why he believes Iraq should establish ties with Israel right now.

And later, what's behind Saudi Arabia's words of warning to Syria? We'll ask Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel Al-Jubeir.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

While the Shia-backed United Iraqi Alliance Party will have the majority of seats in Iraq's new parliament, there are Iraqis still pushing for a secular government.

Joining us now is the founder of the Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation, Mithal al-Alusi. He's in favor of a secular government in Iraq -- not only in Iraq, in fact, but across the Middle East. He also wants his country to establish relations with Israel.

Mr. al-Alusi, welcome to Washington. Thanks very much for joining us.

MITHAL AL-ALUSI, DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF IRAQI NATION: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You have an incredible personal story. You were an exile leader before Saddam Hussein's overthrow. After he was thrown out, you came back to Iraq, you got involved in the Iraqi government. And then you made a decision to go to Israel. What happened?

AL-ALUSI: Well, I have made this decision because it's necessary for us. I believe we cannot build a new Iraq off the basis of taboos and old form of thinking.

BLITZER: You went to an anti-terrorism conference in Israel.

AL-ALUSI: Exactly, because it's important. We've got the same problems. There is terrorism in the area, not only in Iraq. And no country can deal with it alone. So that's why I was there, to talk to the people, to understand, and...

BLITZER: Were you authorized by the Iraqi leadership to go to Israel?

AL-ALUSI: No, but I don't need to be authorized. I am a political man and a free man, and asking for a relationship with Israel because I believe in it. And I am a part of the Iraqi politics.

This is the way of the new Iraq.

BLITZER: You were working in the government's, in the then- Provisional Authority's de-Baathification program. What happened when you came back from that conference in Israel?

AL-ALUSI: Well, really before I came back, because I was in Israel, they have made a decision, and the INC and the de- Baathification...

BLITZER: The Iraqi National Congress, which was led by Ahmed Chalabi.

AL-ALUSI: Yes, that's right, my friend Mr. Chalabi, and Dr. Chalabi, and the de-Baathification, they have made a decision to throw me out. I mean, they talk all of the security (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and OK. I mean, they believe in one way, I believe in another way.

BLITZER: So you got back to Baghdad. What happened? They arrested you?

AL-ALUSI: That's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the government. I mean, the intelligence agency and the prime minister at that time office Dr. Allawi, they have make -- you know, they were trying to arrest me and to put me in jail of the basis of the Baath Party, or Saddam law, which is impossible to me.

BLITZER: They referred to an old law that it was illegal for Iraqi citizens to meet with Israelis, a law that was passed during the Baath regime, Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

So what happened? Did you go to jail?

AL-ALUSI: No, no. They have believed that I will leave the country, and so they can close the file.

I will never leave the country. I believe in what I have done. There is many Iraqi who are support me.

And I was tell them, OK, you want to arrest me, come. I will not leave the country. It's my way, I believe in it, Iraq has no reason to have war with Israel. I mean, we go to war with Iran many years, and now everybody trying to be in Iran and very close to Iran in political...

BLITZER: Were they opposed to having this dialogue with Israel secretly? Because there are some moderate Iraqis who say, yes, eventually there should be diplomatic relations between Israel and Iraq.

AL-ALUSI: You know, the point is not only diplomatic relationship. First of all, there is no reason to have war. You know, the Palestine people, they are dealing and they are trying to have a dialogue with them -- Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, many Arab countries. I can't understand why we should be a part of the Iranian or Palestine or Syrian or Egypt interest. We have our own interests we have to look for.

BLITZER: All right. So then you stay in Iraq, you don't leave the country.

AL-ALUSI: No.

BLITZER: You run for the parliament. You don't do very well in the elections. You don't get any seats. You're not a member of the new parliament, right?

AL-ALUSI: Well, that's right. I mean, we just start two months. We didn't get any possibility to run a media campaign.

What I just say, I am for a relationship with Israel, I am for a strategical relationship with Israel because there is a need. Our both interest going parallel.

BLITZER: All right. But you're under a death threat.

AL-ALUSI: That's right.

BLITZER: People want to kill you. And shortly after the January 30th elections, your two sons are killed. Who killed them?

AL-ALUSI: The Baath Party has published that in the media. And I do believe that the Iraqi government, they are watching and they are hoping that Alusi file can be very quick close. They are very nervous from a free way of thinking.

And there is many interests. You know, we got the Iranian there, we got Syria there, very involved in the Baath Party and al Qaeda, they are active, and they would like to stop that.

BLITZER: And so you believe they killed your sons, Ayman and Jamal. They were what, just simply gunned down? How were they killed?

AL-ALUSI: Well, Jamal and Ayman, they were very, very active in the Iraqi politics, you know. There is two young Iraqi, they have belief in democracy. They were my best advisers. And on the 8th of February they shot them, nearly from my house, yes.

BLITZER: Our deepest condolences to you. It must be so awful to have to endure that.

But you have not been intimidated. You're going to go back to Iraq and fight for a new democratic, secular Iraq, is that your goal?

AL-ALUSI: Of course. I mean, we don't have another way. Thank you, America. You have make the change. We don't have Saddam and the Baath Party again, I mean, this Nazi party again.

The election, it is the best proof that what we have done, what has been done, it is the right way. The Iraqi election is the Iraqi happy day in the Iraqi history.

I will go back because I believe in this way. And there is many they believe in this way, and we have to continue. We cannot let Iraq be a part of the Iranian strategy. We have to go our own way, our own interest, the Iraqi nation interest.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence in the new leadership, the new leaders who are emerging, those elected in these January 30th elections, that the new prime minister, the new president of Iraq, the new vice presidents, whoever they may be, will move Iraq in the right direction, towards a secular, free, democratic Iraq?

AL-ALUSI: Thank you, you have asked me these questions.

I do believe that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, he is a good man. He is a good Iraqi...

BLITZER: Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaafari is the leader of the party that got the most votes.

AL-ALUSI: Yes, right.

BLITZER: And he's widely expected to be the prime minister.

AL-ALUSI: But the questions -- the Islamic parties in Iraq, I mean, Shia or Sunni, they are part of Iranian interests or Syrian interests. So I'm asking what will happen in these 10 months. I do believe that the Iranian intelligence agency, they will get the chance, the great chance to do what they want. I am really very worried about the security service and defense service.

BLITZER: Why are you worried? Explain that to me.

AL-ALUSI: Because, you know, Dr. Allawi, the prime minister, Dr. Allawi...

BLITZER: Dr. Iyad Allawi.

AL-ALUSI: Exactly. He has opened the door for the Baathists, the criminals. I mean, they are very famous. Everybody knows that.

BLITZER: What do you mean? He's letting Baathists who are loyal to Saddam Hussein come into the government? Is that what you're saying?

AL-ALUSI: Of course.

BLITZER: But there are Baathists, and then there are Baathists. There are some technocrats who simply had to be Baathists in order to work. But there are others who were leaders.

Is he letting leaders who served under Saddam Hussein, in your opinion, come into the government?

AL-ALUSI: Not only leaders, they were criminal people. Everybody knows what they have done. That was a very bad mistake, to give this kind of message in the new Iraq.

I have nothing against somebody who has to be in the party. We told them always, after the 9th of April you are free. You are not hostage by the Baath Party or Saddam. You are Iraqi, you can do what you want.

But the people who they have done criminal jobs, they have terrorized our people, we cannot trust them again in the system.

So I do believe that the new government, the Shia (UNINTELLIGIBLE), they will...

BLITZER: We have to unfortunately leave it right there. Once again, my condolences to you, Mithal al-Alusi. Thank you very much.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We'll talk with Saudi Arabia's foreign policy adviser, Adel al-Jubeir, in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's making news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight here on CNN, "CNN PRESENTS" goes inside Saudi Arabia to report on the growing al Qaeda threat and the stability of that country's ruling family. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, had unprecedented access to the important places and players in Saudi Arabia.

Nic is joining us now live from Baghdad with a little bit of preview of tonight's special report.

Nic, you did have unprecedented access. There are enormous changes under way in Saudi Arabia right now. Share with our viewers a little bit of what you discovered.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the changes, Wolf, first of all, that has taken place since we were there a few months ago, there were the beginnings of a democracy, if you will, municipal elections in some parts of the country.

But what we discovered by going out and talking with people, turning up at a factory one morning, for example, to talk to a young man there we'd never met before, he really took us into his world and showed us some of the frustrations that some young Saudis are experiencing: the fact they can't go out on to the streets and meet openly with women, the fact that they can watch western movies and read the Internet over the satellite and by other means. And they're seeing a world that they don't have available to them, and there are frustrations.

We were able to get into the court of the crown prince and get an idea of how he does business, hear from people behind the scenes how there are divisions in the royal family about how to tackle al Qaeda.

While we were there, we saw the police literally battling on the streets with al Qaeda as they came across some of their hideouts in Saudi Arabia. And that really is one of the big issues the Saudis are grappling with at the moment: tackling this small, hardcore group of al Qaeda who are sending people into Iraq, it seems, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, we're going to be watching your report tonight. Thank you very much.

Nic Robertson reporting for us from Baghdad, doing an excellent job, as he always does.

And a reminder to our viewers: You can see Nic's report, "Kingdom on the Brink: The Battle for Saudi Arabia." That airs tonight here on CNN, 8:00 p.m. eastern.

Yesterday's announcement by the Syrian President, Bashar al- Assad, that Syria would start to pull back its troops in Lebanon came just two days after Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah warned him during a face-to-face meeting that he should begin a full troop withdrawal or risk damaging relations between their two countries.

Joining us now, the foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, Adel al-Jubeir.

Mr. al-Jubeir, thanks very much for joining us. We'll get to what's happening in Saudi Arabia in a moment. Let's talk about Syria right now. How quickly should Syria withdraw all of its forces from Lebanon?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER TO CROWN PRINCE ABDULLAH: We believe that the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 requires a full withdrawal in as expeditious a manner as possible. The technical details will have to be worked out between the Syrians and Lebanese as well as with the United Nations.

The secretary-general is sending his very capable emissary, Terje Larsen, to the region in the next few days to talk to regional players, including the Syrian and Lebanese governments, to talk about the details. Then he will report to the Security Council, per the requirements of the U.N. resolution, what the next steps ought to be.

BLITZER: We heard Dan Bartlett, the president's counselor on this program, just a little while ago say that the U.S., the Bush administration, doesn't see how there can be free and fair elections in Lebanon if there are any Syrian troops there. And they want to have their elections in the spring, perhaps May.

Do you agree with that position?

AL-JUBEIR: I'm not sure about how this may are may not affect the elections in Lebanon. Perhaps international observers could help.

But we have to be careful in terms of the Lebanese security situation -- what a quick pullout from Lebanon would entail in terms of Lebanon security situation domestically.

But I believe, Wolf, that, at the end of the day, it is inevitable that the Syrian government will comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Their president has said so yesterday.

BLITZER: Not only the troops, but the intelligence services, withdrawing them as well?

AL-JUBEIR: He said clearly that he would comply with 1559. And I believe 1559 is very clear in terms of what is required.

BLITZER: You know the situation in Lebanon. What happens inside Lebanon?

Because now, on Tuesday, Hezbollah says they're going to have a big pro-Syrian demonstration to counter the opposition demonstrations, which have continued ever since the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri.

What unfolds in Lebanon, assuming the Syrians do withdraw eventually?

AL-JUBEIR: That's the $60,000 question, Wolf. Lebanon has always had a very delicate ethnic and sectarian balance. It went through a 17-year civil war. Saudi Arabia was very instrumental in bringing that war to an end, with the Taif Accords which restructured the Lebanese government.

The Syrian forces went into Lebanon initially in the 1970s in order to bring peace and stability to that country, which helped end the civil war.

Now the question becomes, how do you maintain stability in Lebanon and hand the country back to the Lebanese?

BLITZER: And so, what's the answer? Do you think that there should be an introduction of foreign forces? There has been some suggestion that NATO should send troops to Lebanon to make sure that it's a peaceful, stable country.

AL-JUBEIR: We have heard that suggestion. We have heard suggestions of increasing the U.N. forces in Lebanon. We have heard suggestions of having multinational forces in Lebanon.

That is why it is important to have experts assess the situation to determine the pace of withdrawal and the speed of withdrawal so that it can't come too quickly. And it shouldn't come too slowly and it shouldn't come too quickly. It has to just be at the right time in order to keep the country stable.

BLITZER: I want to move on. But take us into that meeting between Crown Prince Abdullah and President Assad. Did he lay down the law -- Crown Prince Abdullah -- and threaten President Assad and say, "You have to comply"?

AL-JUBEIR: It would be very presumptuous of me to try to discuss what a head of state says to another head of state, Wolf. I'm sure you can understand.

BLITZER: But he was blunt?

AL-JUBEIR: The crown prince is known to be a very honest and sincere and direct person.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about democracy in the Middle East. We saw elections in Afghanistan. Then we saw elections in Iraq, free and fair elections. The Palestinians had their elections. The Lebanese want their elections.

Let me read to you from the London Times on Thursday: "But the fast pace of change does not necessarily mean that the Arab world is destined for a bright new democratic future. Egypt and Saudi Arabia announced their reforms under intense pressure from Washington. But there are doubts that President Mubarak or the Saudi royal family would allow elections that could sweep them from power."

The elections that you had, municipal elections, in Saudi Arabia were very, very modest. Only a small portion of the country. No women could vote.

Where does Saudi Arabia stand in terms of moving toward what we would call a full democracy? AL-JUBEIR: Well, it depends on the nature of our society. We are a country that is reforming in a comprehensive manner. We are doing so because it is in our best interests and in the interests of our citizens. We're not doing so in response to external pressure. That never works. Reform has to emanate from the inside. It has to be compatible with your customs and traditions.

BLITZER: The Saudis see what's going on in the region.

AL-JUBEIR: Of course they do.

BLITZER: They have satellite television.

AL-JUBEIR: Of course they do.

BLITZER: They see what happened in Iraq. They see what is happening among the Palestinians.

AL-JUBEIR: Of course they do.

BLITZER: It has an impact on them.

AL-JUBEIR: Yes, absolutely. And the government is adjusting to it. We're opening up our economy. We're creating jobs. We're opening up our media. We are opening up the public space for public discussions. We are broadening political participation in a gradual manner that is not disruptive to our society by introducing elections at the municipal level.

BLITZER: But half the population is totally excluded, namely women.

AL-JUBEIR: I believe the head of the election commission has recommended that in the next elections women should vote. And there are a lot of people in Saudi Arabia who believe that women ought to vote in the next elections. So I don't believe that the issue of women voting is going to be an issue for us in the future.

BLITZER: Well, when would that be? How many years would you estimate before women could vote in Saudi Arabia?

AL-JUBEIR: I personally would not be surprised if they vote next time around.

BLITZER: Which would be when?

AL-JUBEIR: Four years from now.

BLITZER: What about driving cars?

AL-JUBEIR: Again, this is an issue that our society has to debate among itself.

BLITZER: Because women in Saudi Arabia can't even get a driver's license. Al-JUBEIR: Correct. There are people in Saudi Arabia who believe women ought to drive. There are some who believe women should not drive. And this is a debate that our society will have to resolve among itself.

One cannot impose one's will on the majority of the people, much as one wants to. We have a full process under way that we intend to see to its proper conclusion.

BLITZER: In recent days, the State Department came out with its annual human rights report on all countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia. They said the record of human rights abuses and violations for Saudi Arabia, however, still far exceeds the advances.

They cited torture and abuse of prisoners, closed trials, arrests of reformers, restrictions of speech and press, violence against women, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.

I assume you read that State Department report on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. What do you make of that?

AL-JUBEIR: We always take issue with the State Department when it releases its annual human rights report, because we believe that many of the items in it are just not correct.

If they consider corporal punishment, for instance, executions of drug dealers and rapists and murderers, as cruel and inhumane punishment, then that's their opinion. It is part of our faith that this is how you punish people.

With regards to the issue of torture and arresting people without proper procedures, we also take exception with this. There are violations that have taken place in Saudi Arabia, like they do in every country, but we investigate those and we punish the officials responsible for them.

BLITZER: The case of Ahmed Abu Ali, an American citizen arrested in Saudi Arabia -- he was studying there, accused of being al Qaeda, a valedictorian of his high school here in suburban Washington, D.C. He claims he was tortured in Saudi Arabia, forced to confess about a plot to kill President Bush. He's now been arrested here in the United States, sent from Saudi Arabia back to the United States.

His lawyers, his family insist the only reason he confessed is he was being tortured by your government.

AL-JUBEIR: Well, look at the facts, Wolf.

While he was detained he was visited on fairly regular basis by American officials who saw absolutely no evidence of him being either mentally or physically abused in Saudi Arabia.

When he was released and before he was handed over to the United States, he was inspected or checked out by four doctors, including an American doctor, who saw no evidence whatsoever of any physical abuse of him while he was in Saudi custody. And while he was flying back to the United States, he was in the company of an American doctor who said that he didn't say anything or discuss anything or see any evidence of any kind of physical abuse that he underwent in Saudi Arabia.

So I think the allegation is preposterous. Perhaps it's his lawyer trying to strengthen his client's case by making him seem innocent.

The U.S. government is fully aware of why he was detained. He was part of what we believed was a dangerous operation that they were trying to do.

We decided that he should be tried in the U.S. because his family also wanted him tried here, and that is the reason that we handed him over to the United States.

But this is not a -- the charges of torture are completely unsubstantiated.

BLITZER: Did he say when he was under arrest in Saudi Arabia that he was part of an al Qaeda-associated group that wanted to kill President Bush?

AL-JUBEIR: I think everything that -- most of the case is laid out in the indictment I think that the U.S. attorney handed out when he arrived in the United States. And I would like to just leave it at that and not add to it

BLITZER: Adel al-Jubeir from Saudi Arabia, thanks very much for joining us.

AL-JUBEIR: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Still ahead, from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's call for more open elections in Egypt, to a new beginning for Israeli- Palestinian peace efforts, to Jordan's special role in forging U.S.- Arab ties, we'll get perspective on everything that is happening in the Middle East from the Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli ambassadors to the United States. They're coming on here together.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The power of the people managed to dissolve the Syrian- backed Lebanese government. And now the international community is calling for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon right away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BUSH: It's time for Syria to get out.

JACQUES CHIRAC, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): We want all the troops and foreign services to withdraw from Lebanon.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BLITZER: A critical call from Saudi Arabia, a long-time supporter of Syria and an Arab ally.

Lebanese opposition leaders say they're modeling their efforts after Ukraine, where massive protests recently forced a new election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALID JUMBLATT, LEBANESE DRUZE LEADER: It took us two weeks without any international support, united, to bring down the government of Lebanon. Not bad!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's the man who quite possibly could be Lebanon's next leader, when and if democratic elections are held, Walid Jumblatt, the tribal leader of Lebanon's Druze community.

Jumblatt went to the American University of Beirut and was planning to go to graduate school in the United States when civil war broke out in the 1970s. When his father, Kamal Jumblatt, was assassinated in 1977, he threw himself into the political system.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUMBLATT: The best scenario could be the president resigns, the parliament meets, we elect a new president, and we have a new Lebanon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: There are about 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon right now.

This weekend, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tried to reassure the world of his intentions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): We should not stay one day if there is a Lebanese consensus asking us to leave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And joining us now with perspective on what's unfolding in Lebanon, indeed across the Middle East, three of the region's top diplomats: Karim Kawar is Jordan's ambassador to the United States. Nabil Fahmy is Egypt's ambassador to the United States. And Daniel Ayalon is Israel's ambassador to the United States.

Gentlemen, welcome to LATE EDITION. Thank you very much for joining us.

Let's talk about Syria, Lebanon. And listen to what the president, President Bush, said on Friday in New Jersey. He was not mincing any words. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: There's no half-measures involved. When the United States and France and others say withdrawal, we mean complete withdrawal, no half-hearted measures.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Ambassador Fahmy, I'll start with Egypt's position. What does Egypt want Syria to do?

NABIL FAHMY, EGYPT'S AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Well, as we have said publicly, we have been in touch with the Syrians even before recent events, before the recent crisis, that it was time to implement the Taif Agreement.

BLITZER: The Taif Agreement from 1989.

FAHMY: 1989, which was late, and which needed to be implemented, withdrawal to the Bekaa, and then ultimately withdrawal into Syria itself.

The point now is, how do we achieve that? I think the statement made yesterday by President Assad is a good opening. We need to work with him to ensure that this happens in the near term.

BLITZER: Dan Bartlett, on this program earlier, said it's got to be done before the Lebanese can have free and fair elections. They can't have elections under a Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

FAHMY: One has to be careful here. What's important is to get it done as soon as we can in a sustained manner. I'm not talking about finding ways out for not doing it. Whether it can be done before May, which is election time, whether the elections will be held there or not, that's ultimately something for the Lebanese to decide.

But we need to have this done in a manner that is useful both to the Lebanese and to the Syrians and that achieves a withdrawal from Syria.

BLITZER: What about Jordan's position?

KARIM KAWAR, JORDAN'S AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Jordan supports the U.N. Security Council resolutions, so we support Resolution 1559, and we support all other resolutions. So this is the international community taking a common stance.

BLITZER: What's a realistic goal for the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon?

KAWAR: In terms of time, this has to be worked out between the Syrians and the Lebanese, but I think one that ensures a stable Lebanon. Certainly we don't want to see any upheaval that happens there, but one that also ensures free and fair elections.

BLITZER: But you want them to get out soon?

KAWAR: Well, we support the U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that's what it calls for.

BLITZER: Israel has a keen interest in watching this scenario unfold, the situation unfold, between Syria and Lebanon. What's your stance?

DANIEL AYALON, ISRAEL'S AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Well, obviously we are following very closely the developments in Lebanon. And we also support the universal, now, demand of the international community for the Syrians to leave Lebanon.

But also it's worth mentioning that for, really, the Lebanese government to regain sovereignty over all its borders, the Hezbollah, which is a major and very dangerous terror organization, has to be dismantled.

And also there are some elements...

BLITZER: Who's going to dismantle the Hezbollah?

AYALON: Well, I think that, if there is a persistent pressure, that can be done.

By the way, in order to implement Taif fully, which means regaining of the sovereignty of the Lebanese government all over the territory of Lebanon, Hezbollah has to also be dismantled. This is the only organization which was not dismantled following the civil war.

And also there is an element of Iranians' presence there, Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa, which also will have to go.

BLITZER: The whole issue of Hezbollah -- Hezbollah now says they're going to have a big demonstration on Tuesday, a pro-Syrian demonstration. The Hezbollah has had a close relationship with Syria and Iran.

How do you see that situation unfolding? Because it's now a part of the political process in Lebanon, as well. There are members of the parliament.

FAHMY: I think what's important is to take into account now, whichever place one may stand vis-a-vis Hezbollah, is it is part of the Lebanese paradigm. The Lebanese themselves have to decide what role Hezbollah will play in the future, what political role, what other role they may or may not play. It's not, frankly, for other Arab countries to decide that, or for other countries to decide.

So, that's an important element which didn't exist when this whole process started. They've become a political force inside Lebanon.

Now, the point is, how do we pursue politics, not violence and leading to insecurity on one side or the other?

It's a complicated procedure. And that's why I said one should continue to work with the parties, including the Syrians, to ensure their withdrawal. But you have to do it in a very subtle and complex manner.

BLITZER: Where do you see the Hezbollah situation unfolding in Lebanon?

KAWAR: Well, I do agree with Nabil that today Hezbollah has very much a political presence in Lebanon that has been key and very much regarded by many Lebanese. And therefore, this is an internal issue that the Lebanese have to work out.

But certainly, we hope that violence would not be what the Lebanese would resort to, to resolve this problem.

BLITZER: Are you concerned there could be a return of sectarian/ethnic/religious conflict within Lebanon in the aftermath of a Syrian pullout?

KAWAR: What we have seen over the past two weeks has been very civilized. And I think this is a breath of fresh air in our region, that we don't have to resort to violence to solve our problems.

And this sustained pressure by the Lebanese people is certainly new in our region. And hopefully it will have the results that the Lebanese are comfortable with.

BLITZER: Israel is known for having a renowned intelligence service. Do you know who killed the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri?

AYALON: No. But I think there are some, I would say, fingerprints which can direct us to Syrian intelligence. There was a former president of Lebanon, Bachir Gemayel in 1983, which was killed almost in the same way (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Syrians than I believe it is also now.

But Syria, by having control over Lebanon directly or indirectly, is responsible for the safety, for the public order there, law and order, and so it's responsible for it.

BLITZER: What is Egypt's suspicion?

FAHMY: No, we're not ready to throw out accusations one way or the other. The situation is complicated enough. This was a tragedy. Ultimately, the Lebanese people will pay a price for the tragedy because it's created a degree of turmoil amongst them.

If, as they can be, they resort to their productiveness, this may turn out to the better. But at the end of the day, it's too early to point fingers. When we find out the truth, whoever it will be, will have been held accountable.

BLITZER: I assume Jordan takes the same position. KAWAR: An investigation is under way, and we wait to see the results from that.

BLITZER: All right. Let's take a quick break.

We have lots more to talk about with our Jordanian, Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors to the United States. Are times really changing for the better in the Middle East? We'll discuss that.

Also ahead, we'll get a quick check of what is in the news now, including violence at a Women's Day demonstration in Turkey.

Stay with LATE EDITION.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're talking about whether the Middle East is poised for sweeping political changes with the Jordanian ambassador to the United States, Karim Kawar; Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy; and Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

Mr. Ayalon, I'll begin with you. Last week on this program, Buthaina Shaaban, the Syrian cabinet minister, was on; flatly denied accusations that Syria had anything to do with that recent terrorist attack on that nightclub in Tel Aviv.

Listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUTHAINA SHAABAN, SYRIAN CABINET MINISTER: Syria has reiterated so many times that it has nothing to do with anything that takes place inside Israel or inside the occupied territory. But as you know, Wolf, nowadays, if a terrorist attack took place in Beirut, they accuse Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you have any hard evidence that the Syrian government specifically coordinated, orchestrated, planned that terror attack?

AYALON: Well, we have very hard evidence that this terror attack came from Damascus.

And there is nothing new with this claims of the Syrians. They've been telling for years that there are no terror organizations, but this is not the truth. We know it. I think the United States knows it. And I think also it was mentioned by high-level American diplomats and officials directing the blame straight to Syria. This was the case, and we lost five Israelis because of Syria.

Syria is a major threat, not just to Israel, but also to any peace process and also to Mahmoud Abbas. And it's a nexus together with the Hezbollah and Iran, which really is the major strategic threat for any moving forward in a political dialogue, which will hopefully reach peace.

BLITZER: The fact that we have, sitting around this table right here, the Israeli ambassador, the Jordanian ambassador, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Arab ambassadors and Israeli ambassador, that would suggest to casual viewers that, Ambassador Fahmy, there's a moment, there's an opportunity right now.

The Israelis have been meeting with the Palestinians directly to get this peace process back on track.

What's your assessment?

FAHMY: Well, I want to make two points on that.

One, we have been trying for the last 25 years. I mean, the Egyptian-Israeli peace is over 25 years now, and Jordan also has an agreement. So, it's not that there hasn't been an effort. It's just simply very, very difficult to bring these issues to closure.

But to your point, I think there is a moment, not simply because we were able to bring Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas to Sharm el-Sheikh, where President Mubarak met them with King Abdullah, but because the politics on both sides, in my reading, in Israel and among Palestinians, are verging in the same direction.

Mahmoud Abbas wants to prove to his people he can succeed as a leader by giving them some hope and some opening toward the future rather than a continuous cycle of violence. And I think Prime Minister Sharon wants to prove that his Gaza first withdrawal can be a success.

So, for the next couple of months, I hope and I think there are some indications that the two sides will continue to try to work together.

There will always be somebody challenging the peace process. That's always the case. The point is not to allow those who challenge it to seize the agenda.

BLITZER: Ambassador Kawar, your foreign minister, the Jordanian foreign minister, is in Jerusalem today meeting with the Israeli leadership, including Prime Minister Sharon.

What's your assessment, right now, about this Israeli-Palestinian peace process getting back on track and a negotiation really get going?

KAWAR: This is an opportunity, Wolf. Anytime that the conflicting sides talk to each other, it's an opportunity.

And we are seizing that as the Jordanian side that's not in conflict but is supporting both the Israelis and the Palestinians to move forward. We believe that we can play a very critical role in supporting this effort and overcoming the differences that both sides see. For example, one of the things we were discussing is sending a brigade, the Badr forces, who are Palestinians that have been trained in Jordan, to help in the security situation in the West Bank. And we think that would hopefully overcome some of the challenges.

But I do agree with Nabil that it's important to maintain the dialogue. The cease-fire that has been reached is very fragile, and we should not allow for anyone to hijack that agenda.

BLITZER: Is that an initiative that Israel would welcome, sending these security forces from Jordan into the West Bank?

AYALON: Well, it remains to be seen. I'm not sure that we need any foreign elements right now to come into the area. I think it is well within the power of Mahmoud Abbas and his security forces to tackle the issues, and certainly with our help. And we are very much willing to help. We have been helping.

In Gaza, I think we see that the deployment of his troops did help. We would like to see the same things happening in the West Bank.

But it is not just a matter of rhetorics, which we welcome very much, his rhetorics, his intentions and his moves. It will have to be also a long-term plan, how to deal with the terror in a root-canal fashion.

And that is not just a cease-fire. This will call for the disbanding, for the dismantlement, taking the arms from the terror organizations and not letting them to have a word or keep us all hostages so they can attack whenever is convenient or strategically suited to their purposes.

BLITZER: Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, a man you admire, a man you believe is a serious partner for peace, he says he's willing to do that. He's going to try to do that. But he also wants gestures, actions from the Israelis, to show that Israel is sincere as well.

You've released some Palestinian prisoners. What else is Israel planning on doing to suggest to the Palestinians that they have a partner in the peace process?

AYALON: Well, we have released some prisoners. We're going to release some more. There is going to be a, fairly soon, high-level meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas.

So we're going work together. And this is the most important, I think, element to project to ourselves, to the region and beyond, that we are working together.

There is now a common interest for the Palestinian Authority and with Israel and, I think, also with the regional partners. And Egypt and Jordan are also very instrumental.

So we see a good trend going. As I mentioned, the only problem we have right now is with those who are against this. And this is Syria, Hezbollah and Iran. But I hope that they can be isolated, once the issue was identified, and that the momentum will keep going.

Israel is willing to move ahead. We are going to meet and we are coordinating with the Palestinians almost on a daily basis. Of course, we had this terror attack last Friday, which hampered our attempts, but we are trying to overcome it.

It will have to come from both sides working together on a sustainable basis, and we are ready to do that.

BLITZER: We're going to take another quick break. But we have more to talk about, including democracy spreading throughout the Middle East. Is it going to happen?

We'll have more with our panel right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're talking with the Jordanian, Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors to the United States. They're all here in our studio.

I'll begin with Ambassador Fahmy of Egypt on this round.

The Washington Post, in an editorial -- you may have read it on Monday -- reacting to President Mubarak's decision to allow opposition candidates to run for president of Egypt, wrote this:

"Mr. Mubarak said nothing about lifting his emergency laws, which curtail freedom of speech and the right of assembly. By his rules, one of Egypt's most important political movements, the Muslim Brotherhood, would be excluded from the election, while the most plausible legal candidate, Ayman Nour, remains in jail."

There were suggestions that Condoleezza Rice canceled the visit to Egypt to protest the arrest of this opposition figure, Ayman Nour.

Is he about to be released? Is he still in prison? What's the status of this opposition figure?

FAHMY: I expect, in the next two or three days, the attorney general will make a determination as a result of this investigation whether there is evidence enough regarding forgery of documents.

This is not about freedom of speech. It's not about his political activity. It's about forgery of documents.

If there is evidence, we will then release him and take him to court. If there isn't evidence, we will release him, and the case will be closed.

BLITZER: Because he's a respected opposition political figure. FAHMY: He's a member of a party that is not part of the majority. That he is the leader of the opposition is a bit of a stretch, but that's not the point.

The point is that it's the attorney general looking at this case about forgery. And in a day or two, whichever way he rules, either the court will be mandated or the case will be dropped.

BLITZER: A lot of people are skeptical about President Mubarak's plan to hold free and fair elections for president of Egypt. Should they be skeptical? What's going to happen? Walk us through this process, how democracy is going to take hold in Egypt.

FAHMY: Well, I think you don't understand what is actually happening here. We have been having a debate about changing our election law and our constitution for over two and a half years, because the election was set for next September six years ago.

So we knew we were going to have an election this time six years ago. Therefore the forces for change and majority party start gathering and debating a number of years before. So we've known this is going to happen.

BLITZER: President Mubarak will run for re-election.

FAHMY: He has not announced yet, but we'll see.

What he's done, which is very interesting, is rather than get into a debate of the less fundamental details of the constitution that still may need change and probably will, he started to prove it by example, by saying, "OK, I'm going to be the example. I will change the way my post is chosen." So he didn't say, "Well, you can start from the bottom and get to the top." He started from the very top. And it's a very important message.

Now, there will be other changes, by the way. He did not say that this is the only change. There is a dialogue...

BLITZER: So this is a real change that you see happening in Egypt?

FAHMY: Oh, of course.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Jordan now. There had been elections for parliament in Jordan. Is what happened in Iraq having a dramatic spillover effect in Jordan and other countries in the Arab world?

KAWAR: Wolf, Jordan reinstated its elected parliament back in '89, so it's not new. But, yes, it has allowed us to be able to take on new initiatives.

His majesty King Abdullah just announced back in January that there would be local parliaments that would be elected. This is yet to be designed. A commission has been tasked to look at that approach of maybe three or four locally elected parliaments to give more power to the people.

But democracy cannot happen overnight, and this is where we believe every country has to evolve into its own model.

BLITZER: But you're encouraged by what you see in the Arab world?

KAWAR: Certainly. It's a positive move forward. The elections in Iraq, the Iraqis are going out to vote despite the threats on their lives, is remarkable. They are saluted for taking...

BLITZER: Does President Bush deserve some credit for that?

KAWAR: Well, certainly his leadership has helped many to move forward. But still, I mean, it's premature. Tom Friedman was talking about the tipping point, whether this would tip this way or the other. We have yet to see.

BLITZER: There's a lot of concern in Israel, Mr. Ambassador, as you well know, that the pullout from Gaza, the pullout from some settlements in the West Bank could cause a situation where Israeli Jews are fighting Israeli Jews.

And a lot of our viewers will remember that the late prime minister Itzhak Rabin was killed, was assassinated by an Israeli Jew.

How concerned are you that there could be this kind of strife developing within Israel?

AYALON: Well, we are concerned. And I think it goes to show really the enormity of the task that Prime Minister Sharon has taken upon himself. And he does something that has never been done before. It's painful for us, for the Israeli society, excruciatingly so. But we are determined to do it, because we believe this is the right thing for Israel, for the region, for the Palestinians. And we will continue to do that.

But, Wolf, we certainly applaud and admire the leadership of President Bush in the changes which he's bringing about and also his determined fight against international terrorism. We view very positively any step which will bring into openness, into more democracy and also into more economic, I would say, opportunities for everybody in the region.

For that issue you have mentioned that the foreign minister, the foreign minister of...

BLITZER: Jordan.

AYALON: ... Jordan, Hani Mulki, was today. He discussed also with the prime minister issues of economic joint venture.

We also have economic joint ventures with Egypt, with the QIZs importing together and buying natural gas from -- so I think by joining Egypt, Jordan, Israel, other countries into a regional economic club, that could also be very beneficial for the region and will support the peace movements that we are trying to engage in.

BLITZER: I think all of you will agree there's a moment right now, there's an opportunity. Let's hope it pans out and develops productively.

I want to thank the ambassadors from Israel, Jordan and Egypt for joining us here on LATE EDITION.

And we'll take a quick break. Up next, the results of our Web question of the week: Should Syrian troops fully withdraw from Lebanon?

Plus, LATE EDITION's Sunday morning talk-show roundup. If you missed the other four Sunday talk shows, we'll give you the highlights.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And now, in case you missed it, let's check some of the highlights from the other four Sunday morning talk shows.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," Social Security reform was the hot topic. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel laid down a challenge to Democrats, while Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer accused conservatives of trying to undermine Social Security for decades.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: If you go back and look at the conservative think tanks that wrote about gutting Social Security 22 years ago, they lay out the map perfectly. And the president is following the script: Pick off the people over 55, tell them they'll be fine, divide and conquer. It is all laid out.

HAGEL: We've talked about some of my colleagues. The House has introduced some things. But these are all Republicans who have come forward. If the Democrats have plans, lay them out. Let's debate it.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BLITZER: Earlier in the week, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid called Alan Greenspan, and I'm quoting now, "a political hack." Today on NBC's "Meet the Press," the Senate majority and minority whips squared off over the Federal Reserve chairman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY WHIP: I think it is outrageous to describe Alan Greenspan as a political hack. He has been an independent player at the Fed for a long time under both parties and made an enormous positive contribution to our country.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: You had Alan Greenspan endorsing tax cuts which have driven us into the worst deficit situation we have ever seen in this country. That is not good and wise advice. (END VIDEO CLIPS)

BLITZER: On "Fox News Sunday," Donald Trump gave his fellow mogul Martha Stewart, just out of prison, a big thumbs-up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, MOGUL: She went in, she served her time, and she comes out hotter than ever before.

I think people admire the way she took it. I know many powerful men, strong men that would not have been able to handle what she went through. They wouldn't have been able to handle it. She didn't break down. She didn't weep. She didn't -- she took it tough. I mean, she's tough.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And on ABC's "This Week," Senator Ted Kennedy said while his colleague Hillary Rodham Clinton may be the early front- runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, he's sticking by someone else.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I'm from Massachusetts, and we have a candidate, I think, probably up there as well. I have enormous respect for Senator Clinton...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: So, Senator Kerry has your support in 2008?

KENNEDY: Oh, yes.

And I have enormous respect for Senator Clinton. I work very closely with her. I admire her, respect her. She's qualified for whatever job she achieves. I'd say that, but...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But your man is John Kerry.

KENNEDY: My man's John Kerry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our highlights from the other four Sunday morning talk shows, only here on the last word in Sunday talk.

Our LATE EDITION Web question asks, should Syrian troops fully withdraw from Lebanon? Eighty-two percent of you said yes; 18 percent said no. Remember, this is not a scientific poll.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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