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CNN WOLF BLITZER REPORTS

Arrest Made in Connection with London Bombings; White House Mum Over Rove as CIA Leaker; GOP Chair Defends Rove

Aired July 12, 2005 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now: a growing political firestorm over the president's top political advisor. Did Karl Rove leak the name of a CIA operative? Democrats are demanding his ouster, and the White House is toughing it out.
Stand by for hard news on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): London terror: a break in the case. Suspects identified and at least one arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have identified CCTV footage showing the four men at King's Cross Station shortly before 8:30 a.m. on that morning.

BLITZER: Focus on the president's top advisor. For a second straight day, reporters grill the White House about an alleged illegal leak by Karl Rove, only to hit a wall of silence. We'll talk about it with Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman.

Driving danger? The link between cell phones and accidents. Surprising results of a new study.

ANNOUNCER: This is WOLF BLITZER REPORTS for Tuesday, July 12, 2005.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks very much for joining us. We'll get to the Karl Rove story shortly.

But there are major developments in the investigation into the terror bombings in London. Just a short while ago, British news reports said explosives were found in a car at a train station in Luton, 30 miles north of London. Police believe they're linked to Thursday's attacks.

And police raids today in the area of the northern city of Leeds indicate the attacks may have been carried out by suicide bombers.

We have two reports, the first from CNN's Alessio Vinci in London.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It could be a significant break in the case: two cars found about 30 miles north of London. One at the Luton train station, which investigators say contained explosives. The other car was found near the Luton airport, one of London's three major commercial airports. Police said a bomb squad had removed the explosives and planned to detonate them safely.

In London, metropolitan police say they are investigating four men they believe met at King's Cross Station shortly before 8:30 the morning of the attacks. Police say the men were seen on closed- circuit security cameras.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have since found personal documents bearing the names of three of those four men, close to the seats of three of the explosions.

VINCI: The fourth suspect was reported missing by his family Thursday night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As regard to the man who was reported missing, some of his property was found on the Route 30 bus, in Tavistock Square.

VINCI: Investigators say three of the suspects came from West Yorkshire, 200 miles north of London.

Tuesday morning, police conducted several raids there and arrested one man in connection with the bombings. He is being questioned in London.

Police officials call these significant but early leads, and the investigation will continue in the days and weeks to come. They say help from the general public has been instrumental.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's been several hundred witness statements taken. Over 1,000 different actions being raised, which have been prompted by some very useful and constructive calls from the public to our anti-terrorist hotline. They've been in excess of 2,000.

VINCI (on camera): Top police officials say they are confident the perpetrators of the attacks will be tracked down. At the same time, they warn that cities like London or even New York remain at risk, and another attack here is likely. They just can't say when.

Alessio Vinci, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: One important area investigators are focusing on is the northern city of Leeds, which has a strong Muslim community. CNN's John Vause is there. He's joining us now.

John, we heard Alessio tell us about four suspects, but the trail really doesn't necessarily end there, does it?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

One arrest made so far in this case. He can be held under 14 days under the prevention of terrorism laws, but police really want to know about what type of explosives were used in these attacks.

All day long here they searched these houses, often wearing chemical suits and going on all day long. They're looking for any clues now. In a house not far from here, they say they found a dangerous substance that could well be the house where the bombs were made. It has been reported that a large amount of explosives were found in that house.

But what type of explosives? Was it military explosives? Was it high precision dynamite, which is used to demolish buildings? Where did it come from? Was it smuggled into this country? Who paid for it? Where did these men get these explosives?

And the bombs themselves, they weighed only 10 pounds but did a lot of damage. Police say they were sophisticated and they were complex. Who helped these men build these bombs?

Yes, today, there has been a major break during this case, but London police say this investigation has only really just begun -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What do you know specifically about the bombers?

VAUSE: Well, we've been speaking with some of the neighbors here in Leeds. Of course, they were shocked to learn that the neighbor was, in fact, quite possibly the bomber on Bus No. 30.

They described this man as a quiet young man who lived with his parents and his younger brother. They said the family is from Pakistan. And they say that this man was, by all appearances, a devout Muslim who would often pray five times a day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John Vause, reporting for us from Leeds. John, thank you very much.

Turning now to Israel, a country that's often the target of suicide bombings. It suffered another deadly attack today, this one at a shopping mall. It happened in the coastal city of Natanya.

CNN's Guy Raz is joining us now from Jerusalem with the latest -- Guy.

GUY RAZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.

A familiar scene in Israel this night, shoppers lining up outside a shopping mall after work, summertime crowds, mainly teenagers, and then chaos.

Wolf, essentially what happened, what we understand what happened was two people were killed in this attack. The bomber exploded it outside the shopping mall at about 6:30 p.m. Now, the shopping mall has metal detectors outside. It's very common inside public places in Israel for these metal detectors to exist. People were lining up outside the detectors, waiting to go inside that mall when the bomb was detonated, killing two people, injuring at least 30 others.

Now, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group, has claimed responsibility for the attack. The attacker was an 18-year-old resident of the West Bank. His name is Ahmed Abu Khalil. Essentially, the group, Islamic Jihad, saying that it violated a ceasefire that it signed up to earlier this year because it says Israel has arrested or attempted to kill several of its members -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the reaction been so far from Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, Guy?

RAZ: His reaction has been quite extraordinary, essentially calling this a terrorist act. Mahmoud Abbas believes that these kind of attacks simply undermine his ability to perform his duty as the Palestinian authority president.

Of course, it comes in the context of ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the upcoming Gaza withdrawal plan, the disengagement plan. Mr. Abbas wants that to be carried out in a smooth manner. And ultimately, he sees these kinds of attacks as undermining his authority and his credibility. And many of these groups, including Islamic Jihad, simply don't recognize his authority, Wolf.

BLITZER: Guy Raz, reporting for us from Jerusalem. Thanks, Guy, very much.

There's a political firestorm brewing here in Washington that's growing, apparently, bigger by the day. The role of top presidential advisor Karl Rove and the leak of a CIA operative's name.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is covering all the latest developments -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here at the White House there is very little that is being said publicly, but quietly, behind the scenes there is a full-scale campaign, really a damage control campaign that is taking place. The Republican National Committee putting out e-mails, as well as talking points, essentially, to White House surrogates and other Republicans. The main message here: stand by your man.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): President Bush was asked directly whether he would carry out his pledge to any caught leaking, including his top political advisor, Karl Rove.

Mr. Bush did not respond. White House secretary Scott McClellan was pummeled for a second day over whether he misled the public with the numerous statements he made over the last two years, insisting Rove wasn't involved in the leaking of the covert CIA agent Valerie Plame.

HELEN THOMAS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Has he apologized for you for telling you he is not involved?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Helen, I'm not going to get into any of these private discussions.

THOMAS: He put you on the spot. He put your credibility on the line.

MCCLELLAN: You all in this room know me very well and you know the type of person that I am.

MALVEAUX: Rove's critics have seized on this issue.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The White House's credibility is at issue here. And I believe very clearly, Karl Rove ought to be fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were nodding. Could you address the camera as well on that (ph)?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I'm nodding.

MALVEAUX: Questions about the Bush administration's credibility about intelligence on Iraq is how this controversy started. In his 2003 State of the Union address, the president uttered a 16-word sentence that had to be taken back.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

MALVEAUX: Former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote that he was sent by the CIA to investigate whether it was true that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. Wilson concluded that the administration had twisted the intelligence to exaggerate the Iraq threat.

According to Rove's lawyer, Rove then spoke to "TIME" magazine's Matt Cooper to downplayed the accusations, making the point Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and she authorized the trip.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And of course, the big question for the White House now is whether or not this is going to be a major distraction, Karl Rove, and of course, this controversy, in pushing for the president's domestic agenda.

Well, to make that point, to illustrate that point today, the president today met with Republican and Democratic leadership regarding a Supreme Court nominee potential, and of course, his energy policy legislation. Neither one of those issues getting very much attention today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How unusual was it, the president meeting in the office with a leader, a foreign leader, and not answering any reporters' questions at the end of that photo opportunity?

MALVEAUX: What was unusual, Wolf, is that usually, he takes two questions from each side, from the foreign press, from the American press. We got one question this time around.

It is not unusual that perhaps if someone shouts a question at the end when they're ushering the journalists out of the room, that he wouldn't respond to that question. But clearly, the White House press corps thought that he would get a second question, to be able to get that to the president today. Of course, they didn't. They missed that opportunity. They missed that moment, certainly eager for later on in the week to get that to the president.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. Thank you, Suzanne, so much.

We'll have much more on the Karl Rove controversy in only a few minutes. Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a former White House political director under Karl Rove, he's standing by. He's my guest here in Washington.

And as Suzanne pointed out, the president did meet with top Senate leaders from both sides of the aisle at the White House this morning. The topic: replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Among those attending, the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter.

Afterward, both struck a bipartisan tone, with Republican Arlen Specter taking a swipe at some groups that have already launched TV campaigns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think that the word ought to go out that the special interest groups vastly overstate their influence, that what they're doing is counterproductive and a lot of the times insulting.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I feel comfortable and good that we're going to be able to have someone that is a consensus candidate. We certainly hope so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: In addition to Specter and Reid, Majority Leader Bill Frist, the ranking judiciary committee Democrat, Patrick Leahy, were also at meeting, along with the vice president, Dick Cheney, and other White House officials.

President Bush has called him the architect of his political career. But could he also be a White House leaker? Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman weighs in on the allegations being leveled against Karl Rove. That's coming up next.

Plus, as the Southeast dries out and assesses the damage from Hurricane Dennis, many are now preoccupied by a new weather system and, believe it or not, another potential hurricane in the works.

And later, do hands-free cell phones really keep you from getting distracted behind the wheel? We have the results of a new study, and it may surprise you. All that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

More now on the controversy involving President Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, and the leak of a CIA operative's name.

Rove and the president go back a long way. And it's not the first time his political dealings have gotten him into a little hot water.

CNN's Kyra Phillips takes a look back at the man and his relationship with his boss.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name.

KYRA PHILLIPS, HOST, "LIVE FROM" (voice-over): Last August, Karl Rove, one of the president's closest advisors, denying any involvement in exposing an undercover CIA agent. But there's no denying Rove is a powerful influence at the White House.

KEN DUBERSTEIN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Somebody who is a keen student of history and somebody who clearly has the president's total confidence.

PHILLIPS: Republicans praise Rove; even Democrats give him high marks.

DONNA BRAZILE, FORMER GORE CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Karl Rove is the master of the game.

PHILLIPS: Rove usually stays in the background, but last month he let loose at a meeting of New York state conservatives.

ROVE: Liberals saw the savagery -- savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding to our attackers.

PHILLIPS: Critics called for an apology, but his boss said there was no need.

BUSH: The "architect," Karl Rove.

PHILLIPS: Rove's relationship with the Bush family goes back to the early 1970s, when Rove worked for the president's father, Bush 41, then chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Rove later planned George W. Bush's winning races for governor in Texas and his two presidential campaigns.

BILL MILLER, GOP CONSULTANT: If you look at the circle of people who sit down and make big decisions in that administration, the seats at that table are few and far between, and Karl has the first seat.

PHILLIPS: Kyra Phillips, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Despite being President Bush's closest advisor, few Republican lawmakers are rushing to defend Karl Rove, at least publicly, right now. At the same time, Democrats, at least some of them, are calling on the president to actually fire Karl Rove.

Joining us now with his take on all of this, the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman.

Ken, thanks very much for joining us.

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Wolf, I appreciate the opportunity.

BLITZER: Now you were the political director at the White House. You worked very closely with Karl Rove at the time of this leak. What did you know about Karl Rove's conversations with Matt Cooper of "TIME" magazine?

MEHLMAN: This wasn't something that Karl and I discussed. What I've always known about Karl -- I've known Karl for a number of years is, first of all, he's a friend. He's a good public servant. He's somebody that has the highest ethical standards, and he's somebody that very clearly, as you pointed out, has stated that he was not the leaker. And I believe that he is -- I know he is fully cooperating with this investigation.

What's so unfortunate, Wolf, and what we're seeing is unprecedented, is the fact that people like John Kerry, someone who ran for president, Hillary Clinton, former first lady, Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democrat Party, would follow the angry left and MoveOn.org.

BLITZER: When you say...

MEHLMAN: ... try to smear someone.

BLITZER: When you say you know he's not the leaker, in the "TIME" magazine -- Matt Cooper in the e-mail he had with his editors before the Bob Novak story appeared in the "Chicago Sun-Times" and other newspapers. He wrote in one of his e-mails, "It was K.R.," referring to Karl Rove. "It was, K.R. [Karl Rove] said, Wilson's wife who apparently works at the agency on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] issues who authorized the trip" -- referring to Joe Wilson's trip -- "to Niger." He's telling Matthew Cooper that Joe Wilson's wife, an operative at the CIA, was involved in getting this trip going.

MEHLMAN: Looking at those e-mails, what I saw is Karl Rove discouraging Matthew Cooper from writing a story that was, in fact, false. Karl was right; Joe Wilson was wrong. The story wag false. It was based on a false premise, and, of course, the conclusion was false. So...

BLITZER: When you say the story was false, is there any evidence Niger was sending uranium, enriched uranium to Iraq?

MEHLMAN: What Joe Wilson alleged was that the vice president, then he said the CIA director sent him to Niger. He then alleged that he wrote a report which positively proved that, in fact, that wasn't occurring and that the vice president sat on the report.

BLITZER: But the upshot of his bottom line report to the CIA was there was no evidence uranium, enriched uranium, yellow cake, as it's called, was being sent to Iraq. So he was right on that.

MEHLMAN: Well, both the Senate Intelligence Committee and others who have studied it have found that, in fact, his report was largely irrelevant to that finding.

BLITZER: It was not conclusive, they concluded, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

MEHLMAN: But...

BLITZER: But let's get back to issue of Karl Rove and his conversations with Matt Cooper, because you were there inside the White House. Were there meetings, when you were the political director, on what to do involving Joe Wilson, how to deal with this problem that erupted after he wrote that op-ed piece in "the New York Times"?

MEHLMAN: I recall -- I don't recall those meetings occurring. What I recall was, at the time, discussing the important issues that we were facing, which is exactly what Karl Rove is doing now.

You heard in your earlier report from Suzanne Malveaux, what Karl Rove was doing '03 is what he's doing in 2005, and that is he's working for an energy policy, working to make sure that we have judges confirmed with unprecedented consultation. He was today, I know -- he and I talked about working to make sure we passed CAFTA in the House next week.

The fact is, this is someone who serves our president, serves our country incredibly well. It's incredibly unfortunate that there are other people out there, while he fully cooperates with the investigation, that try to smear him and thereby smear the investigation.

BLITZER: Karl Rove, we know, has been called before a grand jury. A lot of other White House officials have been called before a grand jury. Were you called before a grand jury?

MEHLMAN: I'm not going to comment on the specifics of this investigation. What I'm here to talk about is, unfortunately, a political smear that's occurred, and the political smear is people, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and others...

BLITZER: Well, why can't you tell us if you've been asked to testify?

MEHLMAN: I don't think it's appropriate for anyone to talk about.

BLITZER: You were working at the White House at that time.

MEHLMAN: I think it is not appropriate for me or any else to talk about where we may or may not have been testifying.

What we know is that there has been full cooperation. We know that Karl Rove more than a year ago came out and said anybody that he's talked to in the press should cooperate with the -- with the prosecutor, cooperate and fully provide their information. And not withstanding that, not withstanding the White House's total cooperation, which is appropriate, you're seeing a partisan smear by the other side.

BLITZER: Do you -- do you believe Judy Miller should be sitting in jail right now, the "New York Times" correspondent?

MEHLMAN: I don't know the specific facts or what she did or what she did not say. I generally believe that -- that a reporter, obviously, has a privilege. At the same time a report who's a witness to something that may be a crime has an obligation to cooperate. And I think each person has to make a decision specifically about what they're going to do.

BLITZER: But you -- have you given a waiver to reporters who may have talked to you about whether or not you authorized them to reveal...

MEHLMAN: I don't recall giving a waiver. I don't recall...

BLITZER: The White House officials had to sign that statement.

MEHLMAN: I don't remember the specifics with respect to that. And as I said, I'm not commenting on who I may or may not have talked to as part of this investigation.

The issue here, Wolf, is that there is full compliance. There is full cooperation by Karl Rove and by the White House. And on the other side, you're seeing an unprecedented part of the smear campaign.

BLITZER: Listen to what the president said at the time, shortly after this leak, a few months later. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BUSH: If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action. And this investigation is a good thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president went on to say, in response to other questions, that he would fire any such official. Do you think at that time the president knew that Karl Rove was talking about Valerie Plame with Matt Cooper of "TIME" magazine?

MEHLMAN: I don't know the answer to that question. But I think what the president's statement the other -- you just showed and what we learned this past weekend doesn't change anything at all. The fact is, Karl Rove did not leak classified information. He did not, according to what we learned this past weekend, reveal the name of anybody. He didn't even know the name, so he couldn't have revealed it.

BLITZER: But he did say that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.

MEHLMAN: Well, what he did is he tried...

BLITZER: He didn't reveal her name specifically. But it wouldn't be difficult to find out her name, because Joe Wilson's biography is published all over the place.

MEHLMAN: He tried to discourage a reporter from writing a story that was false. He said it would be false. He said, "You shouldn't write it." And the reporter wrote it anyway, even though it turned out to be false. I think what Karl Rove was saying was right; what Joe Wilson was saying was wrong.

BLITZER: Here's what Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said on "INSIDE POLITICS" here on CNN just a little while ago. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: The fact that he didn't give her name, but identified the ambassador's wife, it's not -- doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who that is. If that occurred, at a minimum, that was incredibly bad judgment, warranting him being asked to leave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Was it bad judgment on the part of Karl Rove to tell Matt Cooper that Joe Wilson, the former ambassador's wife, came up with this idea and worked at the CIA?

MEHLMAN: Let me say, Wolf, I think what -- according to what we've learned from this past weekend, I think what Karl Rove said turned out to be right. In fact, Joe Wilson's story was not accurate. It was based on a false premise, and he tried to discourage the writing of an inaccurate story based on that false premise.

Unlike Senator Biden, unlike Mrs. Clinton, unlike Chairman Dean, unlike Harry Reid, I'm not going to go out, and I'm not going to prejudge what is an investigation, which is being fully cooperated with by Karl Rove when I was at the White House, at the same time they work on the people's business.

I frankly think that it's unfortunate that all of these Democrat leaders aren't talking about saving Social Security, aren't talking about how we're going to have an energy plan. Instead, they're engaged in a partisan smear campaign.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue this conversation. I'd like you to stand by. We'll take a quick break, and I'll ask you if it was the other side, if it was a Democrat involved in allegations of leaking the name of a CIA clandestine officer, how would the Republicans be acting then?

We'll take a quick break. More with Ken Mehlman right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, former White House political director, worked closely with Karl Rove.

I want you to listen to what Scott McClellan, the press secretary at the White House, said on September 29, when asked about if anyone in the administration leaked the name of Valerie Plame to Bob Novak of the "Chicago Sun-Times," our CNN contributor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCLELLAN: If any in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does that statement still hold?

MEHLMAN: I'm not going to speak for the White House. I'm the RNC chairman, not the White House spokesman.

BLITZER: But you worked closely with the White House. I assume you've been in contact with them over the past few days since this Karl Rove story erupted?

MEHLMAN: As I said, we've been in contact, Wolf. What we've been talking about is how do we move CAFTA, how do we move the energy deal?

BLITZER: You don't talk about the Karl Rove story with officials of the White House?

MEHLMAN: We're focused on these other questions. I -- working as RNC chairman, I work with them to try to develop strategy to accomplish these things on the Hill. That's what I've been focused on talking with them about today.

BLITZER: Have you had any conversations with the White House about Karl Rove?

MEHLMAN: My conversations today have been focused on CAFTA, on judges. What you saw this morning, this unprecedented effort by the White House to meet with the more than -- and discuss with more than 50 percent of the Democrats and more than half the Republicans who they should name to replace O'Connor with.

That's what they're focused on. They're not for one minute diverted in their attention and their energy of solving the American people's problems.

BLITZER: As far as you know, are other White House officials being investigated right now as a potential source for this leak?

MEHLMAN: I don't know the answer to that question. And the fact is, I think, unlike folks that are trying to smear Karl Rove, I'm not going to comment on a pending investigation. I don't think it's appropriate that I do.

BLITZER: You're a lawyer. You're a graduate of Harvard Law School, a very smart guy.

MEHLMAN: Don't hold it against me.

BLITZER: Was it a mistake -- was it a mistake for the administration to seek a special prosecutor in this case? The law -- as you know, the 1982 law, the original law is very murky as to intent and actual release of names. Was it a mistake to go this far and begin this criminal prosecution, this criminal investigation?

MEHLMAN: I'm not going to second-guess the White House on an important question like this. I was political director. I wasn't legal counsel. I didn't have the facts before me. I certainly didn't work in the Department of Justice. And I don't think it's appropriate for me -- and that's what's so outrageous, Wolf, about what you're hearing from them. What you heard about Senator Biden and Mrs. Clinton, Senator Clinton and you heard from John Kerry was folks who are totally prejudging the situation and politically smearing someone.

BLITZER: Well, what if the shoe were on the other foot. What if the president in this particular case were Bill Clinton and the Republicans were in the opposite. Wouldn't you be doing exactly what the Democrats are now doing?

MEHLMAN: I don't think we would. I don't think you'd have people prejudging an investigation. I don't think you'd have people sending e-mails out to the angry left to try to raise money alleging that somebody is a criminal or that someone ought to lose their job. It's entirely inappropriate. It's entirely unprecedented. It's a political smear campaign, and it's wrong. And it ought to stop. BLITZER: You had the guts to come out and speak on these sensitive issues, but at the White House, they seem to be putting up this stonewall. They're not answering any questions. Scott McClellan, you see how he's been battered over these past couple days. From a political perspective, as the former political director at the White House, the chairman of the Republican Party, to a lot of Americans, they're going to look like you're stonewalling.

MEHLMAN: Well, look, at the White House, politics isn't the only important thing to them. There's something more important. It's called justice being done. And what you're seeing from Scott McClellan and then from others at the White House, and what you're seen from Karl Rove for more than a year is total cooperation with this investigation. And obviously, Scott believes, given the investigation, given the sensitivity, given the fact that the Department of the Justice reports to the White House, for him to comment on the record, for him to respond to these questions is wrong.

I give him tremendous credit. It's a tremendous statement of what's really important to this president and to this administration, which is justice being done. And it's a tremendous statement, and it was really important to these Democrat leaders, the kind of political smears you're seeing. It's very unfortunate. And it's a real contrast between the two sides.

BLITZER: Ken Mehlman, thanks for joining us.

MEHLMAN: Thanks, Wolf. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: Appreciate it. We'll have you back.

Let's check some other news we're following. The southeastern United States continuing to clean up after Hurricane Dennis. An oil rigs about 155 miles southeast of New Orleans is listing in the water right now. Many other rigs resumed production today.

Also today, as the remnants of Dennis dropped rain on the Midwest, forecasters were watching yet a new tropical storm named Emily. Jacqui Jeras has details now from the CNN Weather Center in Atlanta. What's going on, Jacqui?

(WEATHER REPORT)

BLITZER: All right, Jacqui Jeras, thanks very much. We'll all be watching this very carefully. No one will be watching it as closely as you though. Thanks very much.

Despite the damage that Hurricane Dennis inflicted on Cuba, the president, Fidel Castro, is rejecting an offer of United States assistance. We have a report now from our Havana bureau chief, Lucia Newman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): For a poor country like Cuba, the economic and human toll inflicted by Hurricane Dennis was staggering. The government's tally, $1.4 billion worth of damage, equivalent to almost a whole year's worth of income from tourism, Cuba's main industry; 120,000 homes totally and partially destroyed; power and communications lines downed, and at least 16 people dead, the highest death toll since Hurricane Flora struck in 1963.

Cuba's communist leader defiantly rejected $50,000 in humanitarian aid offered by his archenemy, the U.S. government.

We would never accept it. Even if they offered us a billion dollars, we'd refuse it, said President Fidel Castro.

Four years ago, when Hurricane Michelle razed the island, Castro asked for and got authorization from Washington to buy food and building materials from the United States at competitive prices. But with U.S.-Cuba relations now in the deep freeze, a proud Castro said he would only accept help from his friends, such as Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez.

Let the American instead lift their miserable blockade, said Castro in his marathon seven-hour TV speech, a speech many Havana residents missed because of electricity blackouts caused by an existing power crisis in the middle of the scorching summer, now aggravated by the hurricane.

No electricity, no water, no gas. This place is a mess, complains Sandra Zamorra (ph).

(On camera.) So, while Castro boasts that his revolution can withstand this and many more hurricanes, lots of ordinary Cubans are at their wit's end in the middle of the scorching summer, crossing their fingers that another major storm forming in the Caribbean will give Cuba a miss.

Lucia Newman, CNN, Havana.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Countdown to launch. As the shuttle prepares to return to space, I'll speak with NASA's shuttle program manager about the first mission to space since the Columbia disaster

Plus, distracted drivers. I new study linking accident and cell phones, information you need to know before you dial and drive.

And in our "Justice Report," a serial killer's house hits the auction block. Where the money from the sale may be going. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: If everything goes as planned, NASA is less than 24 hours away from its first shuttle launch in almost two-and-a-half years. The Shuttle Columbia disintegrated while it was returning to Earth on February 1st, 2003. The Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to take off tomorrow afternoon. A little while ago, I spoke with the manager of NASA's space shuttle program, William Parsons. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. Parsons, thanks very much for joining us. Let's get to the issue at hand, safety, for these shuttle astronauts. Three of the 15 recommendations from the board that reviewed the Columbia disaster, three of those recommendations, at least according to authorities, have not been fully implemented. How confident are you that these seven astronauts who are about to take off will be safe?

WILLIAM PARSONS, SHUTTLE PROGRAM MANAGER: I'm very confident. I think we've done absolutely everything possible to meet the Columbia accident investigation board recommendations. Although the Covey task group said we fell short in a few of those areas, I think we have done everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of this vehicle.

BLITZER: The American public is very, very worried. A recent poll says that only 20 percent -- CNN-"USA Today" Gallup poll -- only 20 percent have a great deal of confidence in NASA and these shuttles. How can you reassure them that we're not going to have another disaster?

PARSONS: Well, I think the only way I can do that is to launch the shuttle tomorrow and show a safe flight and bring those astronauts home. I think that's the only way we're going to be able to show that.

We've worked two-plus years to get prepared for this, and I think tomorrow we will launch, and it will be the safest flight we have ever had.

BLITZER: One of the recommendations, one of the conclusions of the investigation that looked into the Columbia disaster was this, and I'll read it specifically. "NASA's organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as foam did." Has that organizational culture been revised?

PARSONS: One of the first things that I was tasked to do was put together a whole new management team. I brought on Wayne Hale as my deputy, and of course the entire management team was just -- was changed out.

We then took upon ourselves to achieve the goal of making a cultural change within the shuttle program. I think we've made a lot of progress. I think that there's always still more work that we can do. So no matter if we're here, or if we turn this over to other managers in the future, this is something that we will have to work on from now until the end of the life of the shuttle program.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, told the Senate on May 12th of this year. He said: "The shuttle is inherently flawed. It does not have an escape system for its crew, and we all know that since human perfection is unattainable, sooner or later, there will be another shuttle accident. I want to retire it before that flight can occur." It's supposed to retire, what, in 2010?

PARSONS: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: So explain what that means by that. Because I hear those words, I get nervous. Especially since I went down to Houston right after the Columbia disaster.

PARSONS: Well, I think what he means is we designed the shuttle in the '70s. We've been flying it for over 25 years. Technology has improved over that time. Any time you take an already designed vehicle and you try to make modification to improve its safety, it's extremely difficult. And so it's much easier to design safety into a vehicle from the very beginning. And so I think what Mike is saying is that the shuttle has design issues with it that we need to -- we have to be diligent throughout the entire life of the shuttle, until the very end of the program, but that we will design safety into the next vehicle that we fly, to ensure the safety of the astronauts. So it requires a lot more attention in the shuttle program for the -- for the -- from now until 2010.

BLITZER: This new -- the shuttle, how much is at stake for NASA right now?

PARSONS: I think, I think our reputation, our leadership in human space flight within the world is hinging on a successful launch of this shuttle and a successful completion of the shuttle program, and the finishing of the International Space Station, so that we can move on to the expiration provision (ph).

BLITZER: One final question, what's the weather like? Does it look like you're going to have a go for tomorrow?

PARSONS: Well, you always have to be a little bit concerned of the weather in Florida in the afternoon in July, but right now, the last weather briefing I had said we had about a 70 percent probability that we'd be able to launch when the window opens. And that's pretty good. So we'll take that and work with it tomorrow.

BLITZER: I think I speak for all of our viewers, indeed for everyone around the world, good luck tomorrow, Mr. Parsons. Good luck to this crew, good luck to NASA. Let's hope for a very, very successful mission.

PARSONS: Thank you very much, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: CNN will provide live coverage of tomorrow's scheduled shuttle launch. Our Miles O'Brien will anchor a special report beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, noon Pacific. No place better to watch this than here on CNN.

Competing appeals. The latest in the case of that missing Alabama student in Aruba. That's coming up next.

And later, driven to distraction. What you need to know about cell phone headsets before you answer that next call.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our "Justice Report," new charges in connection with an Idaho kidnapping case that provoked outrage across the country. Joseph Edward Duncan III is accused of abducting 8-year-old Shasta Groene and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan. Shasta is alive, but Dylan has been found dead. No charges has been filed yet in connection with Dylan's death, but today, prosecutors announced they'll charge Duncan with murdering the children's older brother, their mother and their mother's boyfriend.

The house in Park City, Kansas where confessed serial killer Dennis Rader lived has been sold at auction for $90,000. The money may be used to help settle wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of Rader's victims. The house was purchased by the owner of an exotic dance club. She says she deliberately overbid, in hopes Rader's wife and children can use the money to rebuild their lives.

There was a closed hearing in Aruba today, involving three possible suspects in the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway. Of the three, only one remains in jail. Prosecutors want the two who were released rearrested. Defense lawyers want the one who remains in jail released. Rulings expected Thursday.

Coming up at the top of the hour, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Lou is standing by in New York with a preview -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Wolf, thank you. Coming up tonight, we'll be exploring the question, why is the White House refusing to answer questions about the role of Karl Rove in the leak of a CIA officer's identity? What are the implications for Rove and the Bush White House? My special guest tonight is John Dean, who served as White House counsel to President Nixon during Watergate.

Also, major developments tonight in the widening hunt for radical Islamist terrorists who carried out the terrorist bombings in London.

And the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disasters, now less than 24 hours from launch. We'll have a report. All of that and more at the top of the hour. Please join us.

Now, back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Lou, good guests. John Dean today coming up on "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Thanks, Lou, very much.

Driving and talking on a cell phone at the same time. A new report backing up the argument that it's a very dangerous practice. Details, that's coming up.

Also, hitting the roads by bike to help American soldiers wounded in the Iraq war. That's coming up later. It's our picture of the day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: There is no safe way to talk on your cell phone while you drive, including hands-free, that according to a new study. CNN's Mary Snow is live in New York with more on the story that impacts everyone who drives and wants to talk at the same time -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it certainly doesn't. The reason New York became the first state to mandate hands-free devices in cars is because it was considered safer. But a new study suggests that's not the case.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Most drivers will agree that talking on the phone can be distracting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see a lot of people, you know, they have the phone and they're not look where they're driving.

SNOW: But some say using a headset or speakerphone while driving is safer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With a hands-free device, you'll have your head's on the phone, and you're not looking at the phone, you're on the road.

SNOW: But a new study for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says there's virtually no safety benefit to using a hands-free device. It also finds that drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to get into a serious car accident than drivers not talking on the phone.

ANNE MCCART, INSURANCE INSTITUTE FOR HIGHWAY SAFETY: There's mounting evidence that a key part of the distraction in using a phone is a mental distraction from the phone conversation. We can only hold so many things in our mind at once.

SNOW: Critics like John Walls of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association says the study only takes into account a small slice of distractions.

JOHN WALLS, CTIA: We think if you're allowed to eat while you drive and you're allowed to drink a soft drink while you drive, you should be allowed to talk while you drive. And that would include passenger conversation, or cell phone conversation.

SNOW: In New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and soon in Connecticut, drivers can only use hands-free devices. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is calling for a complete cell phone ban while driving.

MCCART: Passing a law that limits all cell phone use makes some sense, based on our study.

WALLS: Yeah, we looked at -- at the ban. Is that the answer? Absolutely not. SNOW: The cell phone industry says instead of laws, drivers need to be educated about distractions. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says, education is a waste of time, and says it would make more sense to have a law to ban cell phone use for drivers.

The study was published in the British medical journal. Researchers surveyed about 500 drivers in Australia, in hospital emergency rooms. They say the study was done there because they could gain access to phone records, and couldn't do so in the U.S.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: It's estimated there are about 190 million cell phone users in the United States. And a recent survey done by the Yankee Group showed that the place where people used their cell phones the most was in their cars -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I can testify to that. Thanks very much, Mary Snow, reporting for us.

Up next, inspiration on wheels. We'll catch up with a group of wounded warriors, now on a new mission right here at home.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go to Miles O'Brien. There's been a development in the space shuttle. Miles, what have you learned?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are going to know in about an hour, we're going to get the full implications of this. But let me just give it to you as quickly as I can.

On the pad right now, the Space Shuttle Discovery has covers over all the windows, plastic and foam covers. This is the number seven window. There would have been a cover here. That cover fell off just a little while ago, it was discovered, and hit this bumpy part here. This is called the OMS part, it's an important rocket engine. But that doesn't matter. The point is, these are very important tiles right here on the front, thermal protection tiles. It's one of the hottest parts of the orbiter as it comes in. It damaged some of those tiles. NASA is trying to assess right now how much damage, how much time it will take to repair them, and whether it will impact the launch. We'll keep you posted.

BLITZER: All right, Miles. We'll have much more coming up tonight on "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." That's coming up right after us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Thanks very much for joining us. Lou standing by in New York to pick up our coverage -- Lou.

DOBBS: Wolf, thank you very much.

END

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