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THE SITUATION ROOM

Discovery Astronauts Hold Press Conference; United States Suspicious of Iranian Nuclear Program; Abe Hirschfeld Dies; Cheyenne Mountain Tour; Airlines' Fuel Pinch

Aired August 9, 2005 - 15:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where news and information from around the world arrive at one place simultaneously, on these screens behind me, data feeds coming in right now from CNN.com, "The New York Times," other sources crossing in, in real time.
And happening right now, it's noon at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Discovery took a detour on its way home. The flight was a success, but is the shuttle program in jeopardy? NASA may have an answer this hour. We're standing by.

It's 2:00 p.m. in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush warns, the U.S. is deeply suspicious of Iran's nuclear program. That is now back at full-speed. Can the U.S. and its allies throw a wrench in the works?

And it's 3:00 p.m. here in Washington, where there's word that a secret military unit actually identified Mohamed Atta and some of the other 9/11 hijackers more than a year before they struck.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But, first, the return of the shuttle. The commander, Eileen Collins, has just started speaking at a news conference. Let's go there live.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

EILEEN COLLINS, SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY COMMANDER: ... to share our experience with you.

It was just a fantastic experience, so, before I jump into that -- and we will have questions -- I want to introduce the crew members that could make it today. Two of our crew members aren't here. Andy and Wendy have medical testing that they are doing that went long. So, we decided to come on and do the press conference and do it on time.

But they do send their best wishes. And they are in great shape. Don't worry about them. They will be -- they will be flying back with us today. The crew is going to leave today and head back. It's important for us to get back to our family and get back to our homes. We have been in quarantine for three weeks and then up in space for two weeks. So, we have a lot of things to take care of when we get back. So, we'll head back. So, briefly, I'm going to introduce the crew. I know you all know them. But I would like to introduce them once more. Next to me is our pilot, Jim Kelly, or "Vegas" Kelly. He obviously did the traditional piloting duties, flying the orbiter on orbit and taking care of all of the systems that we have. He also flew both of the robot arms. And he was my right-hand man. He did a fantastic job. I couldn't have done the mission without him.

Next to Vegas is Soichi Noguchi, who was our first-time flyer from Japan. His highlight from the flight was three space walks. And he did fantastic. He's a rookie, but you would have never known it. He was -- from flight day one right to the end of the flight, he was in there taking care of many of the activities, especially the photographic. He was our photo TV specialist. And it was his job to document the mission, so we could share it with you. And he did fantastic on that.

Next to Soichi is...

BLITZER: CNN's Miles O'Brien is watching this with us, with all of us.

Miles, we briefly lost the audio coming in from that news conference. But set the stage for our viewers, as Eileen Collins continues to introduce all the astronauts, what exactly happened, for our viewers who may not be familiar with what -- the drama of what happened today.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly, the landing went better than that transmission, of course, Wolf. That was coming from Edwards Air Force Base, the Dryden Research Center, where Discovery came in about six hours and 50 minutes ago.

We're here in our own situation room, Wolf, and I think they are telling us -- is the signal back from NASA or not?

Let's listen back in, shall we?

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

COLLINS: ... that task. And that was a very tricky task because they took -- they took Steve very close to our precious tiles and they did a great job of flying a procedure that was written I'm going to say almost overnight by our robotic flight controllers back in Houston.

Next to Steve is Charlie Camarda. Charlie is also -- he's our other rookie on the flight. And Charlie was just an absolute joy to have on the mission. He was flying around inside the shuttle, doing his job, just like he was a pro in space. His job was primarily transfer. We transferred, I would say, approximately -- I don't know the final numbers, but I think it was approximately 12,000 pounds of cargo equipment, supplies, to the space station, and we brought back something less than that. But it was a large number.

And he was working away in the multipurpose logistics module hours and hours upon end. And he kept our space station crew members, John Phillips and Sergei Krikalev, involved in the mission. And fine job to Charlie. And I almost forgot to mention that he also flew the shuttle robot arm and did the inspection on flight day two. Him and Andy Thomas were all prime on getting the lasers out there and getting very close to the wing leading edge and checking out for any damage.

And since I mentioned transfer, I should also mention Wendy Lawrence. She was our chief of transfer and did an absolutely fine job. She called us her drones. And she kept us working and taking bags of supplies back and forth.

So, that's our crew. And we're going to open up for questions, but I -- I would like to say something first. This experience that we had was just an absolutely wonderful, breathtaking challenge. It was -- it was a huge achievement. But just being in space, the human side of being in space is something I wish I could share with all of you. I wish I could have taken all of you up there with us.

We saw some of the most beautiful parts of the Earth. During day, we flew over North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Pacific Ocean, Australia. At night, we saw Southern Lights. In fact, we flew through the Aurora and just beautiful moving lights with colors. We saw sunrises and sunsets.

The experience of just being a human in zero gravity is -- it's just a fantastic experience. And we're learning about ourselves medically. We are learning about ourselves and the planet that we live on. And human space flight is so important. And we can see that firsthand, the importance of what we've done -- of what we have done.

And this crew accepted the challenge to do this flight, not knowing what risk was involved, because we know how important that spaceflight is.

A couple words on the launch and entry. The boosters that we flew on, the first-stage boosters, were extremely smooth. This was my fourth flight. And from the other crew members that had flown before, we were commenting on how smooth our ride was to orbit. The entry today was a -- it's my fourth entry, but it was typical, but it was still beautiful. The plasma forms around the shuttle. It's kind of an orange glow.

And there's a little bit of greenish in there. It is a little bumpy coming back. But it is actually quite a smooth ride. We're used to being in zero-G. And we experienced 1.5 G's for an extended period of time. I think it was about Mach 16 down to Mach 10, wondering when the G's were going to let up. You feel almost five times your normal weight.

And, having said that, the space shuttle orbiter performed magnificently. Every system on the orbiter, our auxiliary power units, our hydrologics, our electrical system, environmental, our main engines on ascent, the flight control system, it worked perfectly. We had a few micro-switch problems here and there and a few minor things.

But the folks that built this orbiter and that maintained it did a fantastic job. And we felt very safe.

And let's see. I think that's probably the main message that I want to give. We are probably not prepared to answer programmatic questions. We have been in space doing our mission over the past two weeks. We're happy to answer questions about how we -- the mission that we did, the objectives that we achieved. But feel free to ask anything. I think we can open it now for questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, thank you, Eileen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have 30 minutes, ladies and gentlemen, so we are going to make this as quickly and efficiently as possible. Please wait for the mike. Give your name and affiliation. And I'm going to ask that you have one question, so we can get as many organizations as possible, because we do have a limited time.

OK, again, wait for the mike, name and affiliation.

And let's start with Ted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's with CNN.

Congratulations to all of you.

Commander, what was the most significant accomplishment of the mission, in your opinion?

COLLINS: Well, clearly, I believe the most significant is just getting the shuttle flying again. It's been two-and-a-half years since Columbia. And we have worked very, very hard to do the right things and to make sure that we didn't miss anything.

We did miss some things, and you know about that. But we're learning and we're going to go back and fix those things. But I would say getting the shuttle flying again and -- and the two major accomplishments were to -- the test objectives that the shuttle program had and resupplying the International Space Station. And it was just absolutely successful.

BOB KEEFE, COX NEWSPAPERS: I'm Bob Keefe with Cox Newspapers.

Talk a little bit more, if you would, about Columbia. How often did that come in your thoughts, or did it? And how significant is this return to flight, in your opinion?

COLLINS: Well, I'm going to ask that -- the crew can certainly chime in on this. But I thought about the Columbia crew every single day, frankly, every day for the past two-and-a-half years. We brought a picture of the crew, which we hung on the commander's side of the flight deck, not that we really needed a picture to remember them, but we wanted that.

I thought about them throughout the whole mission, that -- what their experiences were, that we were having the same experience they had of just living in space. The Columbia crew believed in what they did. They believed in the space mission. And I know, if they are listening to me right now, they would most certainly want us to continue this mission.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the back there.

ADAM HOUSLEY, FOX NEWS REPORTER: Adam Housley with FOX News Channel.

Commander, first of all, congratulations on the safe return home. People around the world and here in the states were watching you. Even the media here clapped as you guys came back safely.

I know we're going to hear more about the tension that you guys may have felt or may not have felt with this mission. But I want to ask you specifically, because one of the things you talked about in prior missions was your concern about the ozone layer and what you have seen with the Earth. What did you see? Once you got up there and got past the point where you are back into space and you're thinking about your time ahead of you, the next 12 days, which turned out to be 14, what did you see and any concerns you might have?

COLLINS: Anybody want to take that? Anybody want to take that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was directed to you.

COLLINS: OK.

I think your question revolved around the environmental condition of the Earth's atmosphere. OK, I may be wrong. I don't think we can actually see the ozone layer, but we can see the upper layers of the atmosphere. I know it's there, but I just don't think it's all that easy to identify. The Earth's atmosphere is very, very thin. You can see that from space, the lower layer of the atmosphere.

But, at night, you can see the upper layers of the atmosphere in -- in kind of a glow. And you can see, as the stars set, they set through this glow and -- and down over the horizon of the planet. One of the things I saw was, in Africa, massive burning taking place in the central part of Africa.

I'm not sure why they do that, but we do know that deforestation takes place. We flew over Madagascar, also. Deforestation takes place. You can see that in the rivers, in the streams that normally would be a clear, maybe a bluish-gray color. They're brown. And because of the deforestation, you see the -- the soil. You see the erosion taking place and even going out into the ocean. And we saw many examples of that.

In general, the planet is -- it's blue and white and it's very beautiful. But you can see signs of inhabitation. You can see large crop fields. You can see borders between countries, where there's a very significant difference in -- in agriculture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ben Gold (ph) from Press-Enterprise.

Have you had a chance to -- to appraise the damage to the thermal blanket as of yet and other damages that were caused during the flight? COLLINS: OK, the question was on the thermal blanket.

It was just below my -- my left window, which we call window number one. I could not see it from orbit, but Jim Kelly and Charlie Camarda and Andy Thomas flew the robot arm over there and took some pictures of it. And we saw those pictures real-time. And after we landed today, we went and looked at the window. It was hard to see because the cart with the stairway was kind of covering it up.

But the part I saw, it didn't look to me like there was a significant change on entry. But it is hard for me to answer that question totally. I do want to say I was not concerned about that blanket damage at all. And I know that there was a consideration of a fourth EVA, but the ground determined we didn't have to do that. And I think that was a good decision. In hindsight, it was a good decision.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Back (INAUDIBLE)

PRIYA DAVID, KTVU REPORTER: Priya David, KTVU.

My question is actually for Mr. Robinson.

Hi. Welcome back.

You performed an unprecedented repair. Could you tell us a little bit how you think that will change the future of space travel and work that can be done. And, secondly, welcome back to California. I know there are many in the Bay Area who are happy to have you back here. How do you feel about landing in your home state?

STEPHEN ROBINSON, NASA ASTRONAUT: I will -- I will answer in reverse order. It's great to be back in California. Maybe we could turn that microphone on. Com check with the press control room.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: It's great to be back in California. I was born here. Everybody I know and love is in Florida.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: So, I'm the lone representative of the Robinson clan here. But thanks.

You know, repairing a spacecraft in orbit is something, as we -- as we talk about long-duration missions and missions to far reaches of the solar system, or at least our nearest neighbor, say the moon, things are going to fail. Things are going to fail during the violence of launch or maybe on the way there. And they need to be repaired. We're pretty good at repairing things on the inside.

We've been fairly successful at repairing sort of packaged things on the outside, replacing a box. And we did some of that on this mission. What we haven't done much of is replacing, repairing sort of the analog skin of a vehicle or some of the things that aren't really designed to be repaired.

We made the first baby step of that I think on this mission, where we got right up close to the vehicle. It's a -- we -- the operation itself was very simple. But you have to be very careful, two delicate things in very close contact, the underside of the orbiter and in this case, me.

And you have to realize that Wendy Lawrence was flying this arm. Jim Kelly was helping out with camera views. She has no windows. She is inside of the space station. And it's like, you know, flying a jet by watching TV. And so, this was a very, very delicate operation that she performed. What she showed was that you can get a spacewalking crew member right next to the underside of this particular vehicle, and as you could others.

And I felt like I could have performed various types of repair. I felt very well stabilized. The lighting was very good, whether dark or light with my helmet lights or the sunlight. Excuse me.

And I felt like this was the first step to show we could get access. And access was everything. So, there may be a long road ahead, but we're very encouraged by this first step.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CBS. Congratulations on the mission.

Commander and maybe Jim Kelly or anyone else who wants to answer this, I know you had great faith in this mission, in this vehicle. At the same time, you are human. You are great astronauts. Some of you are scientists, but you are also humans. And I'm wondering, when you reentered the Earth's atmosphere today, when you reached that moment where the Columbia tragedy took place, did the human part of you have any emotions? Were you honestly a bit frightened?

Was there a moment of some fear, even though you have confidence in this mission?

COLLINS: Well, I think maybe we can both say a few words about it.

You know, if I was on the ground watching the entry, I probably would have felt that way. In fact, I'm sure I would have. When I watch a launch, I'm -- you know, I'm concerned because launches are -- and we know entries are basically a hazardous thing we do, with very controlled risks on them.

When we're flying, we are busy. We have tasks that we need to perform. So, I try to stay focused on the mission. But, yes, I do -- I did think about the Columbia mission coming home. But I don't -- I wouldn't say that was a distraction. But I would say it was more of a, we're going to get through this and we're going to press on.

JIM KELLY, NASA ASTRONAUT: I guess, for me, the moment probably came a little bit earlier than that. Like Eileen said, when you are going through the entry, you are really concentrating on what your job is and what is going on. For me, there was a moment of trepidation right before Eileen hit the execute on the deorbit burn, because, once you do that, you are coming home. I mean, there's -- you can't stay up after that point. So -- and also probably a moment of reflection, thinking about the Columbia crew and obviously hoping we would make it further than they did and wishing that they had made it all the way home. So, there was a little bit of trepidation there.

I think, for me, I wouldn't be human otherwise. But once you get through there, you are just concentrating on what's going on. I will tell you, I was watching through the period where Columbia broke apart. I was looking at the same things that happened to them. I was looking to make sure that we weren't yawing off-axis, that our jets weren't firing, to make sure our prop usage wasn't higher than it normally would be. I had that display up to watch it longer than I normally would.

Normally, I cycle through displays, because it's part of my job to check all the systems. But, through that region, I was specifically watching that to see if there were any warning signs coming, whether or not you could do anything about it. So, certainly, it did affect, at least in a small way, what I was doing coming home.

But, you know, in this job, we're -- Steve says this a lot. You know, we're the tip of the pyramid of thousands and thousands of people. And you can't sit up here without trusting the folks that put the vehicle underneath you. And there's been a huge number of folks from the beginning, when it was built, through this last two-and-a- half-years, of all these folks, you know, just trying their best to make sure that this didn't happen again.

And I think we had a much better idea on this flight of what kind of shape we were in. And we owe that to the Columbia crew and the sacrifice that they made, that we were able to have the sensors and the pictures and all these maneuvers to make sure we were fine, so, not too much trepidation going through, but certainly a moment of reflection and getting ready to go as it began.

BLITZER: Jim Kelly, one of the shuttle astronauts, showing a very human side, what has happened over these past several days, Eileen Collins, the shuttle commander, speaking to reporters on this return.

Let's bring in our Miles O'Brien. He's standing by at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Miles, they landed at Edwards Air Force base in California, not where you are right now. Miles O'Brien, you are with us. We're just going to sort of wrap up what we have heard from these astronauts, Eileen Collins, Jim Kelly and the others.

Update our viewers on a sense that you are getting, what they are telling us at the -- at this initial appearance with the news media.

O'BRIEN: Well, I think we get a sense of the elation of having completed a successful mission, Wolf. You know, the crew did a great job on this. And the problems that NASA has run into is with this external fuel tank. This is going to be the big issue we're going to be tracking. How are they going to fix it, so that foam doesn't fall off? We're going to find out a little bit more today. They have these so-called tiger teams. If you ever saw the movie "Apollo 13," you know what a tiger team is all about.

NASA puts teams together to go after specialized problems like this. They are working on, what is the root cause of that foam falling off? And that will tell NASA a lot about what happens next, how long the shuttle fleet will remain on the ground, until they can be released for flight.

But, as far as the crew went, they did a great job. There are some issues that NASA needs to solve, though, Wolf.

BLITZER: Will we know, Miles, when they are going to make that decision, when the next shuttle might take off?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think we are going to know a lot today.

There's a meeting going on today which involves a report back from this so-called tiger team. And the things to watch out for here, the problem -- I will give you the model here and show you. It's along this stretch here, this little pipe, question -- apparently, what happens is, when they spray the foam on this part of the tank, they actually crawl in a way that might have damaged it.

That's one of the leading theories here. The question is, are all the tanks that are here similarly damaged? That's the big issue. If there's one tank that is damaged, that's not a big problem. If they are all damaged, it's going to take some time to rebuild them.

BLITZER: All right, Miles O'Brien on the scene for us, Miles doing an excellent job as usual.

Thanks to you and your entire crew down there at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Much more ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including a fast- moving story we're watching right now involving Iran and nuclear weapons.

Plus, a CNN exclusive, inside NORAD. We're about to take you 15 miles underground, where the U.S. military monitors airspace around the world. Our Kyra Phillips standing by for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We can bring you lots of information simultaneously. We're watching lots of stories right now that are coming in.

In Florida, Polk County, the central part of Florida, nearly four feet of rain this year. A lake is rising, significant flooding. Some homes are becoming islands, as you can see right there.

We are also watching what is happened in Crawford, Texas. There's a briefing under way over what the White House calls the Western White House, some of the president's economic advisers briefing reporters. We are monitoring that for you. We'll let you know what news, if any, develops.

And, in Toronto, the crews of that Air France wreckage, they are -- they are looking at the situation right now. They are beginning to clear some of the debris from that Air France wreckage. We are watching that story from -- you as well.

Important news involving Iran today, Iran apparently back in -- deeply involved in its nuclear program, as the rest of the world deeply worried that it is working on a weapon. Is there a way out of this nuclear standoff?

Let's go straight to our State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel.

She's monitoring this story for us -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, right now, there's an emergency meeting that has been called in Vienna. It includes the United States and 34 other nations to discuss how to get Iran to freeze and then eventually dismantle this suspected nuclear weapons program.

This is all coming in light of the fact that the new president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, has not only rejected the latest European offer, but he's also just yesterday started up the uranium conversion again at one of Iran's suspected nuclear sites.

Now, President Bush was asked about this today and -- and he chose to see the silver lining in the fact that President Ahmadinejad today is saying he's not going to walk away from the negotiations with the Europeans.

Here's what he had to say, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just as I was walking in here, I received word that the new Iranian president said he was willing to get back to the table. Now, I don't want to put words in his mouth. You are going to have to check that out before you print that in your story.

But, if he did say that, I think that's a positive sign that the Iranians are getting a message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOPPEL: Now, if they don't get that message, eventually, what is the threat? Well, the U.S. has said, Wolf, the Bush administration says that it has assurances from its European partners, Great Britain, France and Germany, that they will agree to refer this to the U.N. Security Council. That is not going to happen in today's meeting in Vienna. But there is the prospect that that could happen sometime in the near future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A significant story. We'll be watching it with you, Andrea. Thank you very much.

The subject of Iranian weapons came up over at the Pentagon today, not necessarily nuclear weapons, but sophisticated explosives. They were found in Iraq ready for possible use against U.S. troops.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what happened?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we first brought you the story yesterday in THE SITUATION ROOM of this news of weapons being smuggled into Iraq from across the Iranian border.

Today, at a Pentagon news briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it was all true, that, indeed, there are now sophisticated weapons coming into Iraq from across the border.

Let's little to a bit of what the secretary had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It is true that weapons, clearly, unambiguously, from Iran have been found in Iraq. I'm not going to comment on the other aspects of your question.

QUESTION: Do you know how many, sir?

RUMSFELD: Oh, no. Goodness. How can you know? You only know what you know. That's a big border and it's notably unhelpful for the Iranians to be allowing weapons of those types to cross the border.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: Weapons of those types.

What the secretary is talking about, according to our sources, is manufactured explosives, not the improvised explosive devices we have seen the insurgents use so far, but something much more sophisticated, manufactured, very lethal, very precise, possibly, intelligence sources, possibly tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The secretary was very strong in his criticism. He said this would be a problem for Iraq, for the coalition, and, ultimately, a problem for Iran -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, a double-pronged problem from Iran, nuclear weapons, potentially, explosive devices, very conventional weapons in Iraq as well.

Thanks very much, Barbara Starr, for that report.

We'd love to hear directly from you, our viewers, what you have to say about these big stories we are covering here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Each hour, we have a question on a hot-button topic -- hot- button topic.

CNN's Jack Cafferty is joining us now live from New York with "The Cafferty File."

Jack, what's the question?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're going to look at this Iran situation. This new hard-line president -- I mean, it didn't take him an hour-and-a-half to get this nuclear program up and going again.

They claim all they want to do is make nuclear power, not nuclear bombs. Well, how come they kept the nuclear program a secret for decades. I mean, they say they want to go back and talk some more. Sure, there going to negotiate some more, that way they can put off the sanctions being imposed, while they continue to work on building nuclear weapons.

I mean, come on. This guy is running a game of three-card monte. The question is this: What should happen to Iran if it restarts it's nuclear reactor? The address is CAFFERTYFILE@CNN.COM.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. What should happen to Iran if it restarts it's nuclear reactor? That's the question. We'll be watching. We'll be anxious to get your -- the e-mails from our viewers. We'll get back to you, Jack. Thanks very much.

Up next: The 9-11 hijackers. Did the U.S. Government know who they were a year before they struck? We'll talk to a United States congressman who says he has proof the answer is yes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. There's word today of a top-secret military intelligence unit that identified four of the future 9-11 hijackers more than a year before they struck.

That intelligence unit reportedly named ringleader Mohammad Atta and three others as likely members of an al Qaeda cell operating in the United States. That intelligence was not shared with the FBI and never showed up in the report by the 9-11 Commission.

The information all included in the "New York Times" today, comes in part from Congressman Curt Weldon, a Republican on the Arms Services Committee, from Pennsylvania. He's joining us now, live from Capitol Hill.

This is pretty shocking material, Congressman. You got it from a former DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, official. Is that right? REP. CURT WELDON (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, More than one. I've got about a dozen that I've been working with and Wolf, this goes back to '99 and 2000, when as the chairman of the Defense Research Subcommittee, I was pushing money in for the increasing use of data collaboration and data mining.

The prototype for that was being used by special forces command in the Army on this project called Able Danger. Now, I wasn't aware of the specifics of what they did until two weeks after 9-11, when they brought me a chart that I took down to the White House and gave to Steve Hadley, that actually showed al Qaeda cells, including...

BLITZER: Steve Hadley was then the president's deputy national security advisor.

WELDON: Exactly.

BLITZER: He's now the national security advisor.

WELDON: I gave the chart to him. He took it. He said, "where did you get this?" I said, "this is the process I tried to push the CIA to move into for the past two years and they refused."

When I published my book this year, which had been very critical of some of the folks of the CIA, I went back to get the copy of that chart and my friends in defense intelligence who are still there, came back and said "we didn't tell you the whole story, Congressman. We actually identified..."

BLITZER: I'm going to interrupt for a second, Congressman Weldon. What's most shocking here is that if in fact elements of the DIA -- officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency were tracking Mohammad Atta and three of the other future hijackers, they decided they couldn't share this information with the FBI because what? They were -- these guys were in the United States legally and it would be inappropriate to let the FBI know to watch what they were doing?

WELDON: What we now know is that lawyers within the administration -- we don't know whether they were DOD lawyers or White House lawyers -- lawyers within the administration told the special forces folks three times, you cannot share this information with the FBI.

They even put stickies over top of the faces of Mohammad Atta, saying they're here legally. They have green cards. You can't give anything to the FBI. The second reason they gave them was, we're concerned about the political fall-out that occurred after Waco. So, we don't want special forces command giving information of that type to the FBI. That stopped it dead in its track.

BLITZER: That's one shocking element of this story. The other shocking element of this story, is that the 9-11 Commission, which was supposedly reviewing every aspect of the build-up to what happened on 9-11, they say they never knew about this.

Al Felzenberg, the former September -- 9-11 Commission spokesman, tells the "New York Times" today, "they [the 9-11 Commission staffers] all say that they were not told anything about a Brooklyn cell. They were told about the Pentagon operation. They were not told about the Brooklyn cell. They said that if the briefers had mentioned anything that startling, it would have gotten their attention." The Brooklyn cell, referring to Mohammad Atta and his cohorts.

WELDON: Wolf, I have a solution for that. Let's put the intelligence folks under oath and let them be cross-examined and let's put the staffers on the 9-11 Commission under oath and let those under oath tell what information they gave.

The intelligence officials I've been talking to and it's well more than one, have told me they identified the cell and they mention Mohammad Atta. That's not one person, that's several people. The question the American people deserve to have answered is: Why did the 9-11 Commission staff decide this wasn't worth pursuing?

I've talked to two commissioners. Democrat Tim Roemer, a good friend of mine; John Lehman, Republican, good friend of mine. Over the past two months, each of them separately told me they were never briefed on Able Danger.

How could the 9/11 commissioners never be briefed on a secret task force that was designed by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Shelton and carried out by General Schumacher (ph). To me, that's just unexplainable.

BLITZER: Well, there's a lot of unexplained questions right now that cry out for answers on all of these fronts. Congressman Curt Weldon, unfortunately we're out of time, but thanks so much for joining us.

WELDON: My pleasure. My pleasure, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania.

Iran restarting a controversial nuclear facility: What should be done? That's our question of the hour. Your answers coming up in the "Cafferty File."

Plus: America's ailing airlines. New troubles revealed today that could impact anyone who flies. Our Ali Velshi in New York, has the bottom line.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A top secret command post deep under a mountain in Colorado. It's original mission, guard America's skies against missile or bomber attacks. That changed, though, on 9/11, when terrorists turned airliners into weapons. Now we've gained exclusive access to that underground nerve center.

CNN's Kyra Phillips is at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ROBOTIC VOICE: Shall we play a game?

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you saw the movie "War Games," you probably felt the fear as you watched the drama unfold.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Estimated impact, 11 minutes. Confirmed target area, western United States.

PHILLIPS: Cryptological devices broken, homeland defense compromised. America became vulnerable to attack.

(on camera): But this is not the movies, and there are no games being played here. When it comes to protecting America's skies, land, and sea, military and civilian forces within NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command say they will not be compromised.

MAJOR DAVID PATTERSON, U.S. ARMY: Pre-9/11, all of our NORAD assets focused outside, outside of North America, looking for potential threats. But after the events of 9/11, we now look inward, as well.

PHILLIPS: Behind these rock walls, rock bolts and blast doors, deep underground within Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain, is a combat operation center that never goes to sleep. From thwarting a nuclear threat to preventing a hijacked aircraft from being used as a terrorist weapon, NORAD is North America's air defense.

PATTERSON: We are literally a city within a city. We have our own power plant, water supply, gymnasium, convenience store. Over 800 personnel can survive in this facility for over 30 days.

PHILLIPS: From air defense to defending America's homeland, 15 miles east of Cheyenne Mountain is the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, created because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, military and civilian forces here at Peterson Air Force Base monitor airspace, ports, borders, chemical and biological threats, even the path of the space shuttle; preserving U.S. security, preparing for any high threat surprise.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: Now we're live within that command center. This is the first time it's ever happened before. I'm amazed with our engineers Harold and Jeff that we were able do this. But it gives a chance to take you behind those blast doors and behind those rock bolts right here into the command center where everything happens.

I'm not going to waste any time. I'm going to get you right to the commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, and that's Admiral Tim Keating. It was a pleasure to talk to you yesterday. Here we are now in NORAD, in the command center.

Just a little history. The fear back in the '50s, manned Soviet bombers. Why the security and why underground? ADMIRAL TIMOTHY KEATING: Different threat back then, different world back then. We'd -- the plan was conceived, designed, engineered in the mid-50s so that we could have a secure or hardened command facility outside the Washington, D.C. area. It wasn't an insignificant piece. And so Cheyenne Mountain was built in the mid- 50s. A different threat then. It was a strategic, symmetric threat, is the term. And, of course, today we're concerned with that and the asymmetric threat, as well.

PHILLIPS: Yes, we should point out, I mean, this is an area that can withstand a nuclear blast. Very important as you monitor specific countries right now.

KEATING: It's important but we're, again, less concerned with that than we are the asymmetric threat, which we saw -- that was the attack tat we suffered on the 11th of September.

PHILLIPS: I want to talk about 11th of September. NORAD learned a tremendous lesson and you had to do -- make a lot of changes within this command center in how you respond to a terrorist that uses an aircraft as a weapon.

That brings us to Leigh Ann, who is the battle management officer right now. Thank you very much. And she is monitoring actually every aircraft in the United States via her map up here. Tell me why you do that and tell me how you are going to respond if, indeed, a hijacked aircraft is heading to, say, the White House or the twin towers.

KEATING: To back up just a little bit, pre-11 September, we at NORAD, we had an outward focus, if you will. All of our radars, all of our sensors, were looking outside the Canadian, United States airspace. Obviously on 11 September, we learned a lesson, very much the hard way. And so today, after having re-engineered NORAD, we do both. We look outside as well as inside, in close coordination with our friends in the Federal Aviation Administration and other non-DOD agencies. We monitor the airspace to provide airspace warning, aerospace warning and aerospace control.

PHILLIPS: And I've got to ask you this question. I mean, when we're in the middle of breaking news because we hear that a plane has entered restricted airspace. So many reporters go to Donald Rumsfeld and say, did you give the shoot down order? Obviously that's the last thing you want to do, Admiral Keating, but it's a decision that you might have to make.

KEATING: The secretary and the president are obviously our bosses and so they retain that ultimate authority. But there are those several of the rest of us who have been given that responsibility and that authority. It's not one we take lightly -- understatement of the day.

But on the -- for example, on the 11th of May, when that light civil aircraft got inside the air defense identification zone, we had -- we moved fighters off the ground. So we were escorting with fighters, we were tracking him with other systems, and we were not close to shooting him down, but we were in the position where if it had become a significant enough risk, we could have.

PHILLIPS: Something you don't want to do.

KEATING: Understatement of the day. We're prepared to, but we have absolutely no desire to.

PHILLIPS: Admiral Timothy Keating, thank so much, sir. And coming up in about an hour-and-a-half, you heard the admiral mention the Canadian side to this mission. We're going to talk with the Canadian general who is working here in the command center and talk more about missile warnings and missile defense, another very important mission that happens here in the command center, another threat that everybody in here keeps a close eye on.

We've been talking about Iran, Wolf. We've been talking about North Korea. Well, there's a lot of decisions that are made in this command center.

BLITZER: Good work, Kyra. Another Kyra Phillips exclusive here on "THE SITUATION ROOM." Kyra, we'll be back to you later on the program.

In the meantime, I want to go to the CNN Center. CNN's Zain Verjee standing by. There's a developing story she's monitoring. What do we know, Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Wolf.

I want to show you now some pictures that have just come in to CNN. This is Bonita, California. You are looking at some aerial shots taken by helicopter. San Diego County sheriff's deputies found the bodies of a mother and her two young sons this morning in a suburban home. The deputies -- you see some officials out there right now from tape received prior -- but they received a call this morning, just before 8:00, to check the welfare of residents.

And the sheriff's lieutenant said this, that a family member had actually been by the house and had noticed that the dogs hadn't been fed and the mail was actually building up. They went to the house and they found that it was locked, so they called in the fire department, which came and broke into the home. Our apologies for that, but the bodies had apparently been there for some time, and an investigation is underway. We'll bring you details -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Zain Verjee, we're going to get back to you. Thank you, Zain, very much for bringing that to us.

CNN's Ali Velshi standing by in New York. He's following another story that's just coming into CNN. What are you learning, Ali?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a sad story. Abe Hirschfeld has passed away. We have confirmation that he has died. Now, a lot of people won't know Abe Hirschfeld, but this is a name that a lot of people will remember, many from a cover on "The New York Post" back in 1993. He bought it out of bankruptcy and had it for 16 days. And the cover of "The New York Post" at the time had a picture of Alexander Hamilton, the founder of "The New York Post," with a tear in his eye. And the headline was, "Who is this nut?"

Well, let me tell who you he is. He is a man who was born in Poland in 1919, moved to Israel 1946. He was a mayor of a small town outside of Tel Aviv. Moved to the United States in 1950, bought "The New York Post." He invented a lot of things. He owned add great deal of real estate in New York. He redeveloped a lot of real estate in New York. He invented -- you know, he was a thinker and inventor, a man who thought about peace in the Middle East.

He's died at the age of 86 in New York, and there are a lot of people around here and in this country who will miss Abe Hirschfeld.

BLITZER: All right, Ali Velshi, thanks for bringing that to us. We'll be getting back to you, as well. Ali Velshi in New York.

Much more coming up here in "THE SITUATION ROOM," including the president and his younger brother Jeb Bush going head-to-head, not in the political arena but on the football field. It's a virtual match- up you don't want to miss.

And you remember her from the 2000 Florida presidential recount, Katherine Harris. We'll tell you how this current United States congresswoman is seeking another claim to fame.

And rising oil prices, once again causing a rise in airline costs. What will that mean to your bottom line? We'll bring back Ali Velshi. He'll tell us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Your e-mail coming into our Jack Cafferty. The question of the hour -- let's bring in Jack right now from New York, with the "Cafferty file." What are our viewers saying, Jack?

CAFFERTY: How are you doing, Wolf? The question is: What ought to happen to Iran if it restarts its nuclear program, which it's announced it intends to do.

Troy in Battle Creek, Michigan, says, "we ought to stop playing babysitter in the Middle East and worry about issues that are actually happening here in the U.S... Poor healthcare for many, no healthcare for 45 million and the taxpayer's money pit in Iraq. Who cares about Iran? They're a grown up country, let them do what they want."

Jorge in Atlanta, Georgia: "Why should anything happen in Iran? Israel has nuclear bombs. They don't have to comply with the IAEA. There are nuclear power plants all over Europe and North America. Why can some countries and not others have access to nuclear power? It's not what should happen, as to why should anything happen?"

Sandy in Chesterfield, South Carolina: "Is the reactor for electrical power or war power? If the former, what business is it of ours? If the latter, maybe we should try the diplomatic route this time, it couldn't hurt. And finally, James in Falmouth, Massachusetts: "We ought to show Iran who's boss and drop a MOAB right down that reactor's cooling tower." MOAB being an acronym for mother of all bombs.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. We'll get back to you in the next hour. We've got another question coming up. Jack Cafferty, with the "Cafferty File."

And when we come back: Troubling changes in the flight plan. How many hits can the airlines take right now? Ali Velshi will have the bottom line for the industry and for the flyers.

And when we go "Inside Politics," President Bush's economic forecast, mostly sunny with some clouds. Will that make the public feel better about their finances or his leadership?

And the Bush brothers drafted? The story behind the virtual football action. That's is coming up.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now it's almost time for the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. So, let's check in with CNN's Ali Velshi. He's taking a look that, also the airlines, the bottom line. What's going on, Ali?

VELSHI: Well, it starts with a gallon of milk. A gallon of milk -- a cow gives you a gallon of milk, you've got to make some decisions as to what you're going to do. Are you going to drink it? Are you going to make skim milk out of it? Are you going to make ice cream, cheese, butter, whatever you like.

Obviously, those things are going to yield different prices. If -- some things are going to be more expensive than other things. Well, the same thing for a barrel of oil. It doesn't just become gasoline. You have to make a decision as to whether it's gasoline or it's something else and the increase in what you sell jet fuel for -- if you take a barrel of oil and make it into jet fuel, has been greater than what you would sell it for if it became gasoline.

That's called the "crack spread." The different between the $63 right now that a barrel of oil costs and the price of the components of that barrel of oil if you made it into the final product.

Now, this is yet again, one of those things that the airlines are complaining about, Wolf and we're now hearing more pressure on the airlines. Apparently from every one cent rise in the cost of jet fuel, it costs the airlines about $30 million more per year.

Now, as you know, we have a bunch of airlines in bankruptcy protection, right now. United Airline, U.S. Air, ATA. U.S. Air is about to come out of bankruptcy. Just today, the judge approved that, but we have a bunch of airlines that are at risk of going back into bankruptcy. Continental is in rough shape. Delta, Northwest, even AMR, the biggest airline in the world right now, is at risk.

Jet Blue and Southwest pretty safe, right now and frankly, for those people who are traveling, not much a worry for travel plans, right now. But, you know, this is an airline -- this an industry that's been running in bankruptcy and without profitability in general for a long time, Wolf.

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