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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Developments in DeLay Case; Interview With Michael Leavitt

Aired December 5, 2005 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the U.S. and around the world to bring you the day's top stories.

Happening now, it's 6:00 p.m. in Austin, Texas, where there are dramatic new developments in the case against Congressman Tom DeLay. A judge throws out one charge but lets more serious allegations stand.

And moments from now, we'll release a brand new CNN poll. The numbers don't look good for the former majority leader.

It's 7:00 p.m. in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast where ice, sleet and snow are giving winter an already early head start. And already giving drivers headaches.

And here in Washington, there are dire warnings from the government's top health official, who says more than 90 million Americans could be stricken within the first weeks of a human flu pandemic, and millions of them could die.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In Texas, new judgments for and against the indicted Congressman Tom DeLay. This hour, the vice president, Dick Cheney, trying to help the still powerful Republican get reelected. He's headlining a DeLay fund-raiser in Texas right now.

But our new poll numbers suggest DeLay's constituents may not want to send him back to the Congress. All this just hours after a judge dashed DeLay's hopes of reclaiming the job of house majority leader any time soon. The judge threw out a conspiracy charge against DeLay but upheld money laundering charges, clearing the way for a trial next year.

Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider is standing by.

Ed Henry, our congressional correspondent, is in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.

First to Bill and these brand new CNN poll numbers that are just coming in--Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: What we did was poll the constituents in DeLay's 22nd Texas Congressional District. They are the ones who will be voting next November on whether to send him back to Congress.

Right now doesn't look good. Would they vote for Tom DeLay to reelect him or for the Democratic candidate? Answer? The Democrat wins, 49-36. Just 36 percent of his constituents say they'd vote for Tom DeLay. These are registered voters in his district. By the way, last year he got reelected with 55 percent of the vote.

Now he's charging that this is a political vendetta by the Austin District Attorney Ronnie Earle. What do the voters in his district think of Ronnie Earle who brought those charges? The answer is they don't know. Twenty-one favorable, 22 unfavorable. Fifty-seven percent of the voters in this district, which is nowhere near Austin, have any ideas about their feelings about Ronnie Earle.

By the way, we asked, do you think that the charges were politically motivated? And the voters in DeLay's district were split.

But when we asked, do you think that the charges that DeLay broke campaign finance charges are definitely or probably true, most of his constituents, 55 percent, said they thought they were probably or definitely true.

BLITZER: Bill, stand by.

I want to bring in our Ed Henry on Capitol Hill. He's getting reaction that's coming in right now.

What are you picking up--Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, not surprisingly, congressional Democrats are jumping all over these developments, the mixed message from the judge in Texas, as well as CNN's new poll numbers.

In fact, Democrats look at these poll numbers, they see, in fact, a disapproval rating of 52 percent for Tom DeLay.

That's why the Democratic Campaign Committee, the House Democratic leadership campaign arm, Sarah Feinberg, giving us some quick reaction, quote, she says "this poll merely confirms what we already know. Texas families are sick and tired of the culture of corruption and pay-to-play politics that have come to define Tom DeLay. Finally, next November Texans will have the opportunity to send someone to Washington who is more concerned with solving the problems and challenges facing Texas than paying his own legal bills."

You can hear there the culture of corruption line we've heard over and over from Democrats, but the reaction from the DeLay camp obviously much different. DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden telling me a short while ago, when you look inside this poll, 61 percent say they don't even know who the Democratic candidate is. That's Nick Lampson, the former Democratic Congressman.

So the DeLay camp feels in the long run, especially feeling good about today, the judge throwing out the conspiracy charges, they feel good. They feel this is just a quick snapshot poll for now, and they fell in the long run Tom DeLay is going to survive, Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the reaction that you're picking up so far out on the hill to this decision by the court?

HENRY: Well, Democrats obviously also buoyed by that. They feel this is going to keep Tom DeLay tied up because, as you mentioned, Wolf, the money laundering charges still stand. He still has to face trial on that.

But DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden giving CNN a statement saying, quote,"the court's decision to dismiss Ronnie Earle's numerous charges against Mr. DeLay underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were. Mr. DeLay is very encouraged by the swift progress of the legal proceedings and looks forward to his eventual and absolute exoneration based on the facts and the law."

And there's no question the DeLay camp can crow about the fact the conspiracy charges are thrown out. But, again, you have to underscore the fact the money laundering charges are still on the table. That keeps Tom DeLay tied up here, dealing with this legal mess.

Republicans back here in Washington want to get this behind them. They can't get that behind them for now. So the longer Tom DeLay has to wait, the harder it will be for him to reclaim that house majority leader post, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Ed, thank you very much.

Let's bring back our Bill Schneider.

A quick question, Bill. Even as we speak right now, a fund- raiser in Houston, Texas, for Tom DeLay and the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, headlining this event. Talk a little about the politics.

SCHNEIDER: I think Cheney's appearance at this fund raiser sends two messages.

One is loud and clear. The White House will not abandon its friends. And Tom DeLay, they consider a friend.

But there's also a second message, which is more subtle. We don't expect our friends to abandon us in the White House when we're in trouble like, for instance, right now.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider reporting for us.

Bill, thank you very much. We're going to stay on top of this story for our viewers.

We'll move on to other news we're following right now. Millions of people along the East Coast right now getting their real first taste of winter. Snow is falling or soon will be from North Carolina all the way up to New England. And it's been snowing off and on for about the last five hours right here in Washington, D.C.

Our severe weather expert, Chad Myers, is standing by at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

But first let's go to Philadelphia, where Jessica Borg from our affiliate WPBI is standing by with what's going on there.

You seem to be smiling. What's going on?

JESSICA BORG, WPBI CORRESPONDENT: I'm at a great tailgating party, Wolf. We're at Lincoln Financial Field in south Philadelphia. You can hear some very excited fans, Eagles fans notorious tailgaters. Many have been out here for hours and hours. This parking lot is packed.

You know, the snow just started falling. And as you mentioned, Philadelphia could get as much as five inches of snow. So not only are fans getting ready for a very exciting game tonight against the Seahawks, which of course the Eagles will win, but they're getting ready for a very cold night ahead.

Right now we have a great group of tailgaters to talk to. You seem very appropriately dressed for this game. How many layers do you have on?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have about three layers on. I have got my Under Armor on. I've got my ski pants, sweat shirt and I have two more layers in the car so I'm set.

BORG: And, you know, honestly, are you a big cold weather game fan?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, not really but it makes it more exciting, I guess, especially with the snow falling.

BORG: All right. Thanks so much. Have a great time, guys.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica. Jessica Borg from our affiliate WPBI in Philadelphia. Have fun at the game tonight despite the snow.

(WEATHER REPORT)

BLITZER: In the meantime, before you hit the road, you want to go online.

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, is here to point travelers in the right direction.

What are you getting, Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Chad mentioned the road conditions. And you can go on to your computer before you leave work tonight or you can check it out before you head out again in the morning. We have got trafficland.com. This is an interesting site. You can see here the road Maryland 117 and 118 tells you what direction the traffic is moving in. You can take a look at the slick road conditions.

The other things you can do on this web site, there are other areas you can take a look at. This one right here, inside the district itself, for example.

If you are not just taking a look at traffic, but you want to take a look at weather, in general, we like this site, weathermatrix.net. It's got an entire map of the United States. What you do is you click on your state. It will bring up a list like this. There's cameras here in Virginia.

Now I have to point out when you check out Webcams online, a lot of times severe weather will bring that camera down. So what you might find at one point in the day may not be working as well later on. But it's kind of fun if you've got some time to keep checking in on them, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Jacki. We'll check back with you as well.

It's already morning in Baghdad, and the trial of Saddam Hussein is due to resume in a few hours. This follows a raucous rollercoaster ride of a session. Saw a walkout by the defense team, then frequent outbursts by the ex-dictator. We'll show you one of them and read the translation. I want you to get the emotion in his voice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SADDAM HUSSEIN, DEFENDANT (translated on screen): Your honor -- may I speak? I'm your brother in the brotherhood of Iraq.

I'm not scared of being executed. Nobody can explain my history from '59 until now.

JUDGE RIZGAR AMIN (translated on screen): Please get to the question -- the time is tight.

HUSSEIN: Oh, now the time is tight?

AMIN: We are addressing a specific issue...

HUSSEIN: It's not for me, it's for the sake of Iraq. Give me time to talk. This is my right. I served you for 30 years, give me a chance. Don't interrupt me!

I'm defending myself. I'm not only defending myself, I'm defending you all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson was in the courtroom. He has more now on the stormy proceedings in Baghdad.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Saddam Hussein became so animated and so angry in the court today that he literally threw his papers down. Before that happened, though, the courtroom had actually switched his microphone off so that he couldn't be heard, so that the pictures that were being recorded couldn't later be broadcast with what he was saying. He was threatening the judge.

Also, he recounted where he had been tortured to by a U.S. general. He said the U.S. general had asked him to sign a document. The general, he said, had told him, if you sign this document, you'll be like Napoleon, perhaps indicating he could live in exile. He said, if you don't sign this document, you'll be like Mussolini, perhaps meaning that he was going to -- that he was going to die.

Saddam Hussein said his response was, I will take the path that Mussolini took. I will resist until the end. He said, I am Saddam Hussein, and that's what I'm going to do.

And that was very much how he was in the court today, very resistant, trying to undermine both the witnesses, the first witness giving very emotional testimony about how he had been rounded up from the town of Dujail with his family, transported to Baghdad, transported to the Abu Ghraib prison, transported out to the desert, and in the four years in captivity, he described witnessing family members being tortured and being killed.

The defense team trying to undermine that testimony as well, but it was Saddam Hussein today who really got up in anger, who was shouting at the judge, eventually having his microphone turned off, throwing his papers down. That's when the judge adjourned it for the day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson reporting for us. Nic, thank you very much.

Jack Cafferty is off this week. He'll be back next week.

Coming up, your security on the line. The former 9/11 commissioners accuse President Bush and the Congress of failing America in a number of ways. Will their outcry change anything?

Plus, the insurgent threat in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accuses the news media of reporting the worst. What's the real situation on the ground?

And later, high level warnings about the bird flu threat that might scare you to death. We'll get a doctor's take on the danger and how worried we should all be. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The former chairman of the 9/11 Commission is calling it scandalous. His panel says President Bush and the Congress still are not doing enough to protect you from another terror attack. The bipartisan commission got back together to issue a dismal report card on the federal government's response to its recommendations. Only one A was handed out, actually it was an A- -- for taking on the issue of financing of terrorism.

But let's take a closer look at some of the other grades that were handed out. There were five F grades, five in total, including for allocating homeland security funds based on risk, and improving airline passenger pre-screening. F's. Twelve D's in total, including for checked bag and cargo screening, maximum effort by the U.S. government to secure weapons of mass destruction. They get a D for that. Nine C's, including for national strategy for transport security, and a comprehensive screening system for borders. Twelve B's, including the creation of the job of director of national intelligence and a National Counterterrorism Center. Balance between security and civil liberties, they get a B for that as well.

Overall, though, it was a serious problem, as underscored by the chairman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS KEAN, FORMER 9/11 COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: We believe that the terrorists will strike again. So does every responsible expert that we have talked to. If they do, and these reforms that might have prevented such an attack have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Bush administration is defending its response to the terror threat. The president's homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, spoke with CNN's David Ensor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Do you think the Bush administration deserves failing grades for its efforts on homeland security?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, BUSH HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: No, I don't think we deserve failing grades. But I don't think the grades are what's important, David. I think what's important is what we have accomplished and what we've done to secure the nation. And that's an enormous, enormous amount.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in David Ensor now for a little questioning. David, why did the administration get a D, almost an F -- a D -- as far as securing nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction around the world?

ENSOR: Well, this is mostly the Nunn-Lugar money that has been spent over many years to try to secure nuclear weapons in Russia and elsewhere. And the point that the commission is making is that there's billions more that could, and in the view of the commission, should be spent to do that more quickly. As we're currently budgeted, it will take 13 years to secure all the loose nukes and other WMD materials in the former Soviet Union. They are saying if you spend some more billions now, you could make the country safer much faster.

BLITZER: How much of an impact is all of this likely to have in the short term?

ENSOR: You know, I think -- I think many in Washington, on the Hill and in the administration, are probably glad to see that this was the last press conference of the former commission. They don't -- they are private citizens now. They don't have votes. Certainly, the bully pulpit they used today through us perhaps got some attention and got some impact. But it's going to take some hard lobbying to change some of the things they want to change. For example, the radio frequencies, the broadcast networks and the television stations want to keep those frequencies for quite some years now as they transfer from analog to digital broadcasting. They don't want to give them up so soon. But the point is, the commission says they should be given up, and quickly, so that first responders can have them. So that's going to be a tough one.

BLITZER: All right, David, thank you very much. David Ensor reporting. To our viewers, please stay tuned to CNN day and night, for the most reliable news about your security.

CNN's Zain Verjee is joining us now from the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at some other stories making news. Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Government lawyers are arguing that there is no legal basis for a lawsuit that demands more federal assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Among the demands, the continuation of an emergency shelter program that pays for hotel rooms for uprooted residents. The suit names FEMA, as well as several top federal officials as defendants. Government lawyers are asking a federal judge to throw out the case.

President Bush is urging lawmakers to pass legislation protecting workers' pensions. Addressing factory workers in North Carolina today, the president said federal pension rules are confusing and full of loopholes allowing companies to avoid following through on their commitments to workers. Addressing corporate America, the president said, and these are his words now, "you need to fulfill your promises."

And what are the safest car? Ford's 500 model is among a group of four cars to win the insurance industry's top prize for safety. The Subaru Legacy, the Saab 9-3 and Honda Civic four door, the others to be honored with the new top safety pick designation. The award is based on overall performance in a series of crash tests and replace the previous practice of considering each test separately. Wolf?

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much. We'll get back with you very soon.

Let's check in with CNN's Anderson Cooper. He's standing by with a preview of what's coming up on his program later tonight. Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Wolf, at 10:00, the outrage in New Orleans just keep on continuing. Imagine losing a friend during Hurricane Katrina, desperately searching them for the last three months. You call the police, they tell you they've checked the house, they've cleared it, the missing aren't there.

Then you go ahead, you go back to your neighborhood in New Orleans, you check the house yourself, you open the door and you find your friends, all of them dead, for more than three months. That's what happened today in New Orleans. Our cameras were there as one family returned home. It is probably going to start happening a lot more. We'll bring you the gut-wrenching story tonight.

Plus, it's called a one-hour face-lift, much less invasive than traditional face-lifts, and thousands of dollars cheaper. But is it really worth the money and is it safe? There are some new concerns that the procedure can have long-term negative effects. Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta is looking into that, not Wolf, that you need any kind of work done.

BLITZER: No, not at all. Thanks, Anderson. We'll be watching, 10 p.m. Eastern, Anderson Cooper will be back.

Still to come, in THE SITUATION ROOM. The Bush administration trying to stay upbeat about the mission in Iraq, but many Americans still have grave doubts. We'll get a progress report from a journalist who's been on the ground, almost from day one seeing the action firsthand.

And later, who's drawing the line on smoking now? A new ban and what it means for business and for you. All that, coming up, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're back in THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's get to the situation in Iraq. Do what you read in your newspapers and see on television really reflect the real situation of what's happening in Iraq? The Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says not really. Secretary Rumsfeld suggests there's a disconnect between the level of success in Iraq and what the media actually show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It's different than what people who go there see, and come back and talk about. It's different with people who are serving there say. And it's -- I can't say every one -- but if you talk to members of Congress and both political parties when they come back, they have a different perception than they did from what they were hearing here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: One seasoned journalist on the front lines suggests the defense secretary is not getting the full picture. Michael Ware, the Baghdad bureau chief for "TIME Magazine" has reported from Iraq since early 2003. He says Secretary Rumsfeld should visit the real places where Iraqis live in constant fear, before suggesting things are better than what they seem.

I spoke with Michael Ware just a short while ago, and I began by asking him about the current state of Iraq's insurgency.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Michael Ware, thanks very much for joining us, once again, from Baghdad. Is this insurgency, based on all your reporting, getting stronger or getting weaker?

MICHAEL WARE, BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, it's certainly continuing to gain momentum in the propaganda sense. I mean, they continue to hold the agenda. They've captured it time and time again, and show no let-up in dictating the public campaign. And American generals will readily admit that to you.

The one significant thing about the fight, though, is that it doesn't matter that American forces kill hundreds of insurgents every week, and they do everything they can to close the borders and disrupt their sanctuaries.

The fact is, for the past two years, the insurgents have been able to put 15,000-to-20,000 fighters in the field, on any given day. And that doesn't go down. Their ability to regenerate is one of the truly remarkable things about the nature of this fight.

BLITZER: We heard today from the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the American public really is getting a distorted picture of what's happening in Iraq, that the mainstream media is really not focusing in on all the positive developments, only focusing in on this insurgency and the death and destruction. Is that a fair criticism?

WARE: Well, I'd like to invite Secretary Rumsfeld to come and join us here on the ground in Iraq, in the Red Zone, as it's so- called, where most of us journalists live and where all the Iraqi people live without the protection of the U.S. forces.

I mean, that is the reality of life here on the ground. If you ask your ordinary Iraqi what is the real story, the first thing they come out and say is security.

Does it matter that we've handed out some soccer balls or that some high schools are being painted? Does it matter that oil production is still below capacity? Does it matter that people still only get a few hours of electricity a day? That you can't guarantee on -- count on water to your home, that you can't feel confident that you can send your children to their elementary school and have them come home without being blown up? That's the story.

And for the American boys and girls here, the soldiers, I mean they're doing what they can. But the story for them is the IED; 40 percent of them are being killed and wounded by these explosives. That's the war for them, driving out that gate and waiting for the next pile of dirt to blow up on them. Where's the positive in that?

BLITZER: You report in the new issue of "TIME Magazine" about a new initiative on the part of U.S. officials, including the ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to reach out to these insurgents, either directly or through intermediaries. What's going on behind the scenes?

WARE: What's really happening here is that essentially U.S. strategists, both the military intelligence and in state, have had to make some very frank assessments.

There's a very, very senior military intelligence officer that told me this has been a long and painful process and there's been an evolution within our framework. But they've made a frank assessment that the way the war is being fought right now cannot be won, certainly within the period of time that the American public can endure.

They realize that, as with any insurgency, the final solution is always political. And given that Iran and its Iranian allies here in Iraq have gathered so much steam -- as ambassador Khalilzad said they control organs of the central government, they control large parts of the territory of Iraq, they're sending in weapons and training men who are killing American boys.

At the same time you have al Qaeda and Zarqawi building steam rather than losing it. So America has stopped and had a look and said, well, where are our real friends here?

Since the beginning of this war, the Baath party, the former Iraqi military, who was allied with America in the '80s against Iran has been saying, we never had al Qaeda here, we don't want them here now. We're still as opposed to Iran as we were in the '80s.

The agendas are combining and we're seeing that very much now from both sides of the fence, both the embassy here is reaching out -- they said it's the centerpiece of their program. And the Baathist insurgency is reaching out to develop a political face.

BLITZER: Michael, in ten days, the Iraqis are scheduled to vote, this time for a new parliament, and the Saddam Hussein trial continues even as we speak. How do these both play into this insurgency?

WARE: Well, let's start from the beginning with the Saddam trial. I mean, the Saddam trial could not be more irrelevant to the real dynamics at play here in Iraq if one tried.

I mean, Saddam's fate, one way or the other, in no way impacts on this insurgency. No one's fighting for him. No one will be destroyed if he's found guilty and executed, which he almost certainly will be.

So who's this trial really for? The Iraqi people are saying, why is this taking so long? Just get on with it. Saddam's half-brother stood up in court today and said it himself, just execute us and hurry up and be done with it.

So who is the trial for? It's for western consumption. It's irrelevant to the real processes here in Iraq.

The December 15 election, the insurgency wants to develop a political face, a Sinn Fein, so to speak. U.S. military intelligence believes the only reason they haven't, after so long in this war, is Zarqawi.

There's been a rebalancing in the insurgency. More and more Zarqawi is taking in Iraqis, some of them from Saddam's military. This had developed a new rapport between al Qaeda and the home grown Iraqi insurgency, so much so that the local fighters are getting much more control back and they want to participate in the political process.

For them, it's a two track war, bullets and ballot. The political campaign feeds the military and vice versa.

BLITZER: Michael Ware. Michael, thank you very much. We're out of time. Good reporting -- very solid reporting as usual in "Time" magazine.

WARE: Thank you very much, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's head back to CNN's Zain Verjee at CNN Center in Atlanta for a closer look at some other stories making news around the world -- Zain.

VERJEE: Iran is unveiling plans for expanding its atomic energy program, despite international concern over the program and the ongoing negotiations with the European Union.

Today Iran's top nuclear negotiator announced that the country would build at least one new nuclear power plant. This one day after the president announced plans to complete construction on an atomic facility in Southwestern Iran that was started in the late 1970s.

Israeli security officials say that they've decided to resume what they call targeted killings of Islamic military leaders in the Palestinian territories. This after a suicide bomber killed five people at a shopping mall in the Northern Israeli town of Netanya today.

The bombing comes as both Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, are in the midst of election campaigns. Both say they favor returning to the so-called road map to peace plan.

Wolf, dozens of buildings have reportedly collapsed and rescue workers combing through debris after a strong earthquake rocked East Africa's Great Lakes region. The 6.8 magnitude quake was centered near the border of Congo and Tanzania.

It was reportedly felt in at least three other countries. In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi people ran into the streets as tremors caused buildings there to sway. At least one death is being reported. BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much. Zain Verjee reporting for us.

Just ahead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Germany tonight. She hopes to put to rest questions about alleged secret CIA run prisons in Europe.

The secretary also talking about a tool the United States uses to fight terrorists. It's called renditions. We'll explain what it means and why it's sparking so much outrage.

And a frightening assessment if a bird flu pandemic were to come to the United States. A top Bush administration health official suggests 90 million Americans could get sick and millions of them could die. We'll hear from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt. That's coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's a snowy night here in Washington. We're going to be heading outside shortly, give you an update on the weather up and down the East Coast of the United States. We'll move to some other news we're watching right now.

It's a word many of you might never have heard. It's called rendition. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls it a vital tool in combating trans-national terrorism, her words.

But what exactly is rendition and why is it so controversial? Brian Todd standing by with details.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a rendition is a tactic that is often inconspicuous, sometimes characterized as shadowy, but is now very publicly defended.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: Renditions take terrorists out of action and saves life.

TODD (voice-over): They also cause a great deal of debate, which is why Condoleezza Rice is clarifying the policy with European allies. Rendition means picking up a suspected terrorist in one country and whisking that person to the country of his or her original for questioning by agents of that country, avoiding formal extradition.

Who does the picking up? Terrorism experts, including a former CIA officer and former U.S. military intelligence officer, say in the case of the U.S., it usually involves American intelligence operatives working with agents from the country where the subject is apprehended and agents from the country where he is being taken.

They say the governments taking part don't always publicly acknowledge their roles. But most often, these are U.S. allies in the war on terror, including the Europeans. REUEL MARC GERECHT, FORMER CIA OFFICER: The notion that the agency engaged in any type of rendition in a Western European country without the coordination, support of its internal security service, and the approval of the prime minister's office, is unthinkable.

TODD: Reuel Gerecht says the practice of rendition started during the Clinton administration.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And the use of rendition encompasses another controversy in the war on terror, the debate over torture. Secretary Rice says the U.S. will not send anyone to a country when U.S. officials believe that person will be tortured. Intelligence experts say the government is treating that like don't ask, don't tell -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What kind of debate does it spark within the intelligence community, the use of this rendition policy?

TODD: Well, Wolf, some former intelligence officials say it's been valuable in gathering information in the post-9/11 climate, but one former CIA officer says when an intelligence agency renders a suspect over to another country, it loses control of that asset, and the information that you get from that interrogation, or whatever you call it, is limited.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you very much.

Up next, it's a frightening figure. If a bird flu pandemic happened here in the United States, 90 million Americans could be infected in just a few weeks, and millions of them could die. We'll have more on that chilling scenario. That's coming up.

And attention all smokers. If you think paying hundreds of dollars per room in a Westin hotel entitles you to smoke, think again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's part of a worst-case scenario, and among many people's worst fears, a nightmare literally. What would happen if human-to-human bird flu showed up in the United States? Earlier, I posed that question to the Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL LEAVITT, HHS SECRETARY: Our doctrine is, if it happens anywhere, there is risk everywhere. There is a certainty that unless we're able to contain it -- and there's a chance we could -- but if we failed to do it, it would simply be a matter of weeks. Once it gets to the United States, with the level of transportation, the level of moving around, the mobility that occurs, it would, the models say, happen relatively quickly.

BLITZER: Talk a little about that. Day one, week three, week 10?

LEAVITT: Well, by week six, we would be into 750,000 people who would be ill. By week 16, we could be as high as 90 million people. We've begun to look at assumptions. About half of those people would likely need to have some form of medical treatment. That obviously would completely overwhelm the medical system.

BLITZER: You're saying at week 16, right, 90 million Americans would come down with this virus? Of them, how many would die?

LEAVITT: In the 16th week, 90 million would have had the disease at some point. The actual fatalities would be somewhere in the 2 to 3 percent range, we believe.

BLITZER: That's still millions of people would be dead.

LEAVITT: Yes, millions of people. This is a very serious, world-changing event if it occurs.

Now, there's no certainty that it will occur as the H5N1 virus, but there is a high degree of probability that some pandemic will occur at some point, and we need to be better prepared than we are today.

BLITZER: How close are we to developing a vaccine that would save lives?

LEAVITT: The good news is, we have a vaccine that has demonstrated a sufficient immune response to prevent it. The bad news is, we lack the capacity to manufacture that vaccine fast enough and in large enough quantities to protect the entire country. For that reason, the president has proposed a dramatic revamping of that industry. He's proposed $7.1 billion. We would have that capacity in three to five years from now. Until that time, we would have basic public health tools, and those are limited tools, but we can make a difference if we're ready.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, speaking with me earlier.

Let's bring in our senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's been looking at this bird flu. Enormous, enormous problem. The numbers that Michael Leavitt just spoke about, Sanjay, 90 million Americans coming down with this disease, God forbid, if a pandemic were to begin, within week 16 of some tiny little village in Thailand maybe one case. By week 16, 90 million Americans are sick and millions of them are going to die. Can we even grasp the enormity of this?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, it's very difficult to grasp for certain, Wolf, but keep in mind, this is not without precedent. This has happened before. In 1918, they talk about the global pandemic. They think anywhere from 50 to 100 million people died at that time. So I mean, again, this is not without precedent.

Right now, Wolf, you're talking about a virus that kills half the people that it infects. So less -- fewer than 200 people have been infected with this; over 60 people have died of this. So it's pretty remarkable numbers.

If it starts to become something that can spread itself more easily from human to human, it probably won't kill in the 50 percent range, but it could still kill in the 5 to 10 percent, Wolf, and the numbers are enormous. They're mind boggling.

Which is why people are starting to think about this more and more. The government has a 70-point plan. Really, Secretary Leavitt talked a little bit about that. But some of the particulars of this plan really create a preparedness plan at the state level. And practice these plans on a regular basis. Really important. So they're actually starting the planning right now.

Also, establish state and community stockpiles of some of these medications and possibly the vaccine as well, Wolf. They talk about 8 million doses being ready by February. And also, designate a spokesperson to communicate in a crisis and have a plan to contain an outbreak.

I'll mention as well, Wolf, states are talking to the legal authorities about the possibility of quarantine and isolation. These aren't words that we've heard in the United States for a long time. They may be words that we hear again as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm shuddering just thinking about all of that, Sanjay. I know you've been doing a lot of reporting. Thank you very much for that.

And to our viewers, important information. Stay with CNN for Sanjay Gupta's prime-time special on the bird flu threat. He's been traveling around the world gathering information. It's called "Killer Flu: A Breath Away." It airs Sunday night 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Pacific, right here on CNN. Must-view TV here on CNN.

Up next, try smoking in a Westin hotel in a few weeks, and you'll be paying for it. The chain is banning smoking in all of its hotels. We'll tell you what's happening.

And the snow is falling in many parts of the Northeast right now. If you can't watch it on TV right now, you can certainly watch it on the Internet. We'll introduce you to CNN's new online tool. It's called CNN Pipeline.

Look at that snow in Washington, D.C. That's where I am.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's find out what's happening right at the top of the hour.

Paula Zahn standing by with that. Hi Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Just about seven minutes from now, if you're counting, we're going to have an insider's unique viewpoint on today's biggest story. I'll ask former 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey about that scathing new report that says this nation still isn't ready for a terrorist attack even though it's been more than four years since the terrorists hit us.

Also, an amazing story about right and wrong. Police wanted some help in finding this bank robber. Three men were absolutely sure it was their father. If you were in their shoes, would you turn him in? See what they did at the top of the hour.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks, Paula. We'll be there.

ZAHN: You're welcome.

BLITZER: A major hotel chain is about to go entirely non-smoking at all of its North American locations.

Let's check in with our Ali Velshi. He's got "The Bottom Line" in New York.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf. Good to see you.

It is a trend we've been seeing over the last few years, and now it's going from bars and restaurants to hotels.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VELSHI (voice over): In hundreds of municipalities across America, you can't smoke in a bar or restaurant. Despite fears that butting out would crush business it didn't, even in New York.

SUE BRUSH, SENIOR VP. WESTIN HOTELS: Who would have thought in New York City that you couldn't smoke in bars and restaurants, the gateway to the world with all of our international guests? And it was barely a ripple in New York City.

VELSHI: But smokers can still go back to their hotel rooms and have a cigarette, as long as they're staying in a smoking room, even in New York. That's all about to change.

In January, Westin will be the first national hotel chain to go smoke free. Bars and restaurants and hotel rooms in every one of their hotels in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.

And while 20 percent of U.S. adults smoke, apparently they're not staying at Westin Hotels. Westin says only six percent of its guests are smokers and only four percent want to smoke in their room. It's a trend across the hotel industry.

KEVIN MAHER, AMERICAN HOTEL & LODGING ASSN.: We've seen about five years ago about 65 percent of hotel rooms were smoke free, and today that's up to about 75 percent.

VELSHI: Westin says smoke-free rooms are part of its new focus on renewal. The company says it's targeting guests who want to leave the hotel feeling better than when they arrived.

BRUSH: We actually believe that we will gain additional business as a result of this new policy.

MAHER: In our industry, which is so competitive, any marketing edge an individual company can throw out there and present to the traveling public is going to make good business sense.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VELSHI: Now, this effort on Westin's part isn't just the non- smoking. They actually have some rooms, I've stayed in one of them, which has a treadmill in the room, right in the hotel room, for those fitness fanatics. Obviously, they had me down on the wrong room, Wolf, because I don't really need a treadmill in my room.

BLITZER: I do.

Thanks, Ali, very much. Good report.

Still ahead, more on the snowy weather right here in the nation's capital and other parts of the Northeast. I'm heading outside into the snow. We'll bring you along, show you what's going on. Right here in Washington. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're here on a snowy night in Washington. We'll get more on that in a moment.

First, though, CNN is making some news today with the launch of its on demand online video surface. It's called CNN Pipeline. And who better to give it a whirl than our own Internet reporter Jacki Schechner--Jacki.

SCHECHNER: They call this work, Wolf.

No actually taking a look at the new CNN Pipeline Broadband service, it is actually very interesting interface. You've got a lot of stuff going on here. You've got your on demand video where you can take a look at something like this news report.

Then there are four live feeds. You get original programming from CNN Center in Atlanta from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. transfers over to international news overnight. Three separate pipelines with ongoing news.

Take a look at some of the interface stuff that you can do. You can change this to mini-mode when you're doing other work and you want to have that video up in the corner. You can do that. You can get rid of those headlines at the bottom. Come back to main mode and I just want to tell you also there are frequently asked questions through this player and you can get all the information you need.

BLITZER: All right, Jacki. Thank you very much.

We are here on the balcony at CNN. Check this out. Take a look at this snowy weather here in Washington. It reminds me of my youth, growing up in Buffalo. It's only a little bit of snow, and it will be fun for a while.

It's going to cause some problems on the road up and down the East Coast. Be careful if you are driving.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Paula Zahn getting ready to pick up our coverage in New York-- Paula.

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