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THE SITUATION ROOM

Republicans Claim Al Qaeda Still Dangerous And Justify NSA Program; After Bin Laden Tape, al-Zawahiri Statement Online; Attempts To Free Jill Carroll As Deadline Looms; Recovery and Race Are Issues for Voters in New Orleans; Political Bounce for President Bush in New Polls

Aired January 20, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.
Happening now, Osama bin Laden's influence here in the nation's capitol. It's 4:00 p.m. in Washington where the al Qaeda leader's latest tape may actually be helping the Bush administration's new defense of domestic spying.

And Karl Rove back in the ring trying to help Republicans take down the Democrats. But the president's top political strategist still is bruised by the CIA leak controversy.

Also this hour, last-ditch appeals to spare the life of an American abducted in Iraq. Journalist Jill Carroll faces a death threat and a deadline. Are Carroll's captors listening to cries for mercy?

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

Up first this hour, the Bush administration's opening a new campaign aimed at countering the critics of the president's domestic spying program. Out front in that effort today, Mr. Bush's embattled political architect, Karl Rove. And the White House may be getting some additional help from a most unlikely source, Osama bin Laden.

Our White House correspondent Dana Bash is standing by.

But first let's begin with our coverage with our congressional correspondent Ed Henry -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, Congressional Republicans believe bin Laden's latest broadside should be a wake-up call that al Qaeda is still dangerous and the NSA program will help keep America safe. But Democrats are not about to back down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): At a mock hearing on Capitol Hill, Democrats stepped up their attacks on the president's domestic spying program.

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), FLORIDA: The administration has groundlessly circumvented judicial review and taken America down a frightening path, which preys on a culture of fear while casually disregarding existing civil liberties.

HENRY: But the new Osama bin Laden audiotape has given Republicans a political opening to make the case for the surveillance program and other anti-terror tools.

Republican Senator Jon Kyl said, "We cannot bind our hands in this fight. If we do, and terrorists launch more takes against us, opponents of security tools such as the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance will have to answer for their opposition."

A point Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman tried to hammer home Friday.

KEN MEHLMAN, RNC CHAIRMAN: Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells inside the United States?

HENRY: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who will give a Tuesday speech on domestic spying, this week issued a new 42-page legal justification of the program to congressional leaders.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Making their argument longer did not make it any better, and I have to say that any first- year law student would, after reading this, quickly conclude that the arguments were specious.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: As part of their stepped-up P.R. campaign on the spying program, the White House today briefed Hill leaders, including Democrat Nancy Pelosi, on the spying program, but Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid have fired off a tough letter to the vice president saying they want more regular briefings and are vowing to keep the heat on when hearings on this program begin next month -- John.

KING: And likely throughout this election year.

Ed Henry, thank you very much.

And with Republicans on the defensive over the spying program and other political clash points, it's no coincidence at all the White House is preparing to fire back.

More now from White House correspondent Dana Bash on just how and who will lead the effort -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you heard Ed talk about the fact that Attorney General Gonzales is going to be out in public next week. He's just one of the players the White House is putting out there.

The number one player is, of course, the president. He is actually going to the National Security Agency as part of a campaign that they've been involved in for a while, but really trying to get on the offense instead of being on the defense on this controversial issue.

But today, John, the campaign got an early start from a key player here at the White House we haven't seen in some time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): What better way to show you're in the game than to take part in the public push back on a major issue, your boss's secret spy program, but with a classic Rove political twist.

KARL ROVE, DEP. WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world, and Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all, but it does make them wrong.

BASH: He's still in legal limbo over a CIA leak, but this rally the troops speech to the RNC was about showing he's still the architect. The man with a plan for the critical midterm elections, which sounded a lot like back to basics.

ROVE: They believe taxes should be raised in times of prosperity and in times of economy slowdown, during war and during peacetime, in even years and odd ones.

BASH: But with the red meat came a warning, as Republicans worry about the political fallout of a lobbying scandal, his party should not fall victim to the mistakes that caused Democrats their grasp on power.

ROVE: When political power becomes an entity of itself rather than a means to achieve the common good.

BASH: Friends admit there is lingering concern beneath Rove's stay focus dial.

MATT SCHLAPP, FMR. WHITE HOUSE POLITICAL DIR.: You're always concerned about the actions you might take or the decisions you might advise and what the consequences are.

BASH: But Matt Schlapp, who works for Rove, scoffs at any talk he's on the outs.

SCHLAPP: Those who have worked for this president and know this president, know that if there was somebody he wanted to put in the doghouse, he'd put them in the dog house.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, in addition to talking about the economy and terrorism, as issues that should be in the campaign this election year, Rove also mentioned the courts. He said that Democratic senators -- he actually took a swipe, John, at Democratic senators during the Alito hearings. He said they looked, quote, "mean-spirited and small-minded in their questions" -- John.

KING: Dana, only though a very indirect oblique reference to the lobbying scandal here in Washington that many of those Republicans in the room from around the country are worried about, was that enough to satisfy them?

BASH: They are very worried about it. Interestingly, the Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman spoke earlier. He was much more direct. He said that public trust is much more important than a party. He even said that Republicans are guilty -- if they're guilty of illegal or inappropriate behavior, they should pay the price and suffer the consequences.

That is something that was important in talking to Republicans there for them to hear. Because that is one key concern they have in this crucial election year.

And another is, I can tell you, spending. Many of them saying that the out-of-control spending they see in Washington is -- has them very concerned and perhaps concerned not only about the direction of the party, but about the fact that perhaps rank and file members of the party could stay home this election year.

KING: Early politics.

Dana Bash, thank you from the White House today.

And now from politics to our security watch. Another audiotape is out from the top al Qaeda leader. A day after Osama bin Laden's newest statement, there's a message online from his number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Our national security correspondent David Ensor has been looking into the new tape and the importance and the timing of its release -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, intelligence officials are not making very much of this tape, to be honest. They have been looking for a tape from Ayman al-Zawahiri to prove that he's alive after the attempt to kill him last week. CIA airstrikes firing on a Pakistani village, everyone's been hearing about that.

But this tape is just a tape of someone purporting to be Zawahiri that's been put on a Web site, in which he's reading poetry that is written about those who died in the Afghan war against the Soviets.

So officials are saying this sounds like an old tape. There are no time references, nothing that would prove that it has been recorded since last Friday, and frankly they're just not making that much of it.

But they are very much staying tuned for another tape they would think might come out soon if al Qaeda wants to prove that its number two man survived that attack -- John.

KING: And, David, with an extra day to review, any new information from your sources about the Osama bin Laden audiotape? ENSOR: You know, there's two schools of thought in the intelligence community. All of them believe that you have to worry when bin Laden threatens to hit the United States. Some of them believe it will still be a large attack, maybe even a weapons of mass destruction attack.

Others are looking to the point that he made that he might be willing to settle for an attack that is similar to those in Europe. The attacks, for example, in London and Madrid against trains. This is obviously horrible attacks, but they only kill dozens, not thousands. So there's a debate over what is Osama talking about here. That's going on right now -- John.

KING: Keeping track of that debate, our David Ensor. Thank you very much, David.

And remember, stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

And time now for "The Cafferty File."

Our Jack Cafferty joining us from New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: What have you done with Wolf Blitzer?

KING: As always, Jack, you know, I cannot tell you the question, but I'll give you a hint, he's closer to you than he is to me.

CAFFERTY: All right.

John, there should be shorter lines at the airport soon, at least for some travelers, if the Transportation Security Administration gets its way with something called a registered traveler program. It's scheduled to start June 20th. The idea is to let frequent fliers go through airport security more quickly.

But officials say the travelers would first have to pass a background check, which could include credit histories, property records and fingerprinting. And the program is expected to cost between $80 and $100 a year.

Critics, like the ACLU, say lines will be longer for those who aren't in the program, and they say terrorists could still enroll just by using fake identification. The TSA wants private companies to run this program, but those private companies would have to show that the applicants are not terrorists.

I don't know exactly how that works except that it sounds like the government is trying to shift the responsibility to the private company administering the program.

The question then is this, is the TSA's "registered traveler" program a good idea? You can email your thoughts to Caffertyfile@cnn.com. And we'll read some of them in about a half hour or so -- John.

KING: I have a feeling you are going to get a lot on that topic. Jack Cafferty, we'll be back to you in just a little bit.

And coming up, hope, heartache, and 11th hour appeals for the safe release of an American held hostage. We'll have a live report from Baghdad on what we know and don't know about Jill Carroll's fate.

Also ahead, another mine accident in West Virginia, less than three weeks after the deadly Sago disaster. Will this rescue operation turn out differently?

And she's no Hillary Clinton, and that's just the way she wants it. But First Lady Laura Bush does have something in common with the New York senator. That story is ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Now a grim and painful waiting game. Family and friends of journalist Jill Carroll are desperately hoping their please for her safe release will be met. They found a new ally today, a top Sunni Arab politician in Iraq. CNN's Michael Holmes has the latest from Baghdad on Carroll's fate -- Michael.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi to you, John. That's right. Adnan al-Dulaimi, he is a senior Sunni politician, a very powerful man. He was, ironically, the man that Jill Carroll was going to interview on January 7 when she was kidnapped leaving his office. He wasn't even there. He said he didn't know there was going to be an interview.

He came out in a new conference saying that Jill Carroll should be released, this was the wrong thing to do, she's the wrong person to have kidnapped, if anyone was, and he just joins really a chorus -- pretty unprecedented -- across the Middle East, and in Iraq, in particular, a chorus or people from Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, all calling for her release.

There is behind the scenes a lot going on, a lot of talking going on, exactly the specifics, nobody is saying, of course. It's a very delicate time -- John.

KING: And Michael, any way at all to get any information? Are her captors releasing new information or have they just said, she's our prisoner, do what we want?

HOLMES: This is the interesting thing. We've not heard anything else from the Brigade of Revenge, as they call themselves. We've never heard of this group. This is the first time they cropped up. And we haven't heard anything since that initial videotape and statement was delivered to Al-Jazeera a couple of days ago, or three days ago now.

So no, very shadowy, very behind the scenes, nobody knows who they are specifically, but we do understand there are some talks going on around the city tonight. It's after midnight here, but the talks continue, John.

KING: Michael Holmes for us live in Baghdad. Thank you, Michael. We'll get back to you if developments warrant that.

And U.S. authorities in Iraq are not talking directly to Jill Carroll's kidnappers, and say they won't deal ever with terrorists. But they do confirm there are some urgent, sensitive talks, as Michael just alluded to, with Iraqi and political community leaders who might be able to help.

Earlier, I spoke with Robert Ford, the counsel for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Robert Ford is the counsel for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Sir, thank you for joining us on a very busy day in Baghdad. I want to get your take on the new Iraqi election results, in just a moment, but I want to begin with the fate of American journalist Jill Carroll.

As you are well aware, her kidnappers have threatened to kill her today. I want the latest information you have on what the United States government know about her condition, her fate, and also on what we are told are conversations by embassy officials with Sunnis and other political factions, trying to see if they can get any lead on where she is and how she might possibly be released.

ROBERT FORD, U.S. EMBASSY IN IRAQ: Well, certainly we would like to see her released and returned safely to her family. We have been working intensively with contacts in the Iraqi government and on the outside. What I would say on that is the Iraqi Sunni Arab leadership has come out and strongly denounced her kidnapping.

One of the most influential Sunni-Arab politicians here, Adnan al-Dulaimi, who's a real fire brand, politically speaking, came out today with a statement urging the captors to release her safely, and highlighting that she has nothing to do with American government policy.

KING: Sir, have any of these contacts indicated that they are in direct contact with the kidnappers? That, of course, would perhaps give you more hope. Is anyone talking directly to the kidnappers?

FORD: Not that I'm aware of, no. The kidnappers, whoever they are, I think are a relatively small group and are really not reaching out to intermediaries or anything like that. I don't want to give that impression.

KING: And the kidnappers, of course, have demanded the release of female Iraqi kidnappers. That's something the United States embassy opposes, correct?

FORD: Terrorism in Iraq and kidnapping of foreigners is evil and bad by itself. And we don't want to do anything that encourages people to do more of that kind of thing. The important thing is that Ms. Carroll be released and that she be allowed to get home to her family. That is going to help maintain the reputation of the Sunni-Arab community here. She was going to interview one of the prominent Sunni-Arab leaders here and they're going to be tarnished if, in the end, she is not released.

KING: As you know, sir, the election results were announced today, and the Sunnis made some gains. They will have a higher representation than they had in the previous government, but already we are hearing many Sunni leaders saying they don't believe it is enough, they want a higher representation in the government.

What happens next, and how confident are you that the political dialogue will continue and this will not disintegrate into civil strife and perhaps even civil war?

FORD: I don't think I've ever seen an election either in the United States or here in Iraq where one of the political factions didn't want to have more seats than they ultimately ended up winning.

My impression is, having talked to a number of them today, that they are very much still in the political process, they are still very much against violence, and that they want to join a unity government. They think participation inside the system and inside the government is the best way to protect their own community's interest.

I don't for a minute want to suggest that this will by itself end violence, and I think, in fact, the negotiations to set up a unity government will take some time. I think there's -- everyone is going to have to be a little bit patient. The Iraqis are nothing if not meticulous negotiators among themselves.

KING: Well, as those negotiations play out, you yourself just noted the president of the United States has noted there's likely to be more violence by the insurgency.

I want your take on what the contribution to that might be from this new audiotape from Osama bin Laden, who spoke in this audiotape that Iraq has become the new focus, the restorer of our energies, he said. Is that getting widespread media coverage in Iraq, and do you worry it could stoke the insurgency?

FORD: Well, I don't think the Osama bin Laden latest tape is going to have a very big bounce here. It will give comfort to a few, but those few are committed to violence anyway, and in the end, there really will be no solution except to confront them by security means.

KING: Robert Ford is the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Sir thank you for your time today in THE SITUATION ROOM.

FORD: My pleasure.

KING: Thank you very much.

Increased violence and the mounting death toll in Iraq could stymie U.S. military enlistment efforts, but despite that slump, the Army and the Army National Guard have announced higher recruiting targets.

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton -- actually, Jacki Schechner was here the last time I looked -- is here with one of the more resourceful tactics. Oh, it's Abbi. I'm sorry. They're both in here.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: We're both here, but it's me right now, John. A $1 iTunes music download -- is that enough to get somebody to enlist in the Army National Guard? Well, that's what the Army National Guard is hoping for a new program right now.

What they're doing is they've got seven and a half million of these cards here. They're handing them out, and they have been for the last month or so, at movie theaters around the country.

What they do is have an advert here for a free iTunes download. When somebody receives one of these cards, they go to a Web site, a National Guard Web site. And they go through certain pages, eight pages in total. It's called National Guard 101. Learn a little bit about it, and then they get a free download at the end.

They have the option of speaking to a military recruiter at that point. Fifty-two thousand of these iTunes downloads have been given out through the scheme. Only 8,500 people actually chose to speak to a recruiter. And only 1,000 people enlisted.

However, the Army National Guard says that they are pleased with the results. Their recruiting figures were down 20 percent from their goal last year, and in the last three months in this new year since fiscal 2005, their recruiting levels have been up -- John.

KING: Abbi Tatton, my apologies, I didn't realize I was outnumbered in here.

And still ahead, another frantic search in a West Virginia mine with two men believed trapped inside. We'll have an update on the rescue operations and how this latest mine accident began.

And with New Orleans still struggling to recover from Katrina, is it too soon to hold an election? Questions of politics and race in the hurricane zone.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Our Zain Verjee joins us now from the CNN global headquarters in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news.

Hey Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, where's Wolf?

KING: I can't tell you. If I can't tell Jack, I can't tell you.

VERJEE: Why not?

KING: But he's closer to Jack than he is to you, definitely.

VERJEE: Is he? I've never heard of such a thing.

KING: I'm going to have to leave it there.

VERJEE: Right. Well, he knew about the deadly Oklahoma City bombing beforehand, but didn't tell anyone. Now, his attorney says Michael Fortier has been released from federal prison.

Fortier served about 85 percent of a 12-year sentence. He got a plea deal in return for testifying in the trials of bombing co- conspirator Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. One hundred and sixty- eight people died when McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

Meanwhile, the man who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II is going back to jail. Turkey's Supreme Court today overturned a lower court's decision to release Mehmet Ali Agca last week.

He had served about half of a 10 year sentence in Turkey for killing a journalist. The lower court had counted the 19 years he spent in prison in Italy for shooting the pope in 1981.

An apparent mistake at a New York meat processing plant could deal a huge blow to the U.S. beef industry. Japan has halted U.S. beef imports after lifting its ban just five weeks ago. This comes after Japanese inspectors found spinal cords in a beef shipment.

Washington had agreed that beef exports to Japan would not include brain or spinal cord material because of Tokyo's concerns about mad cow disease.

And Russians are enduring a bitter winter's tale. The coldest winter in a generation has claimed more than 120 lives since last October. Most of them were homeless people. Today it was minus 22 degrees in Moscow. Many trolley buses weren't working, and drivers can't even start their cars because of the cold.

Most Russians are relying on underground railway just to get around. The heating and power system is so old that people are just afraid it will give in. And families are just trying to cope with many problems like burst heating pipes.

This woman is looking after her paralyzed husband, and she is filling up water in bottles and only trying to warm them by gas. Russia has cut back on its gas and electricity exports in order to accommodate the increased demand. The cold weather has also stopped oil production in Siberia -- John.

KING: Difficult story. Zain Verjee, back to you a bit later.

And now on to a developing story this hour from West Virginia where rescue teams are searching for two miners believed trapped underground after trying to escape a fire. Officials hope this accident ends differently than the deadly Sago Mine disaster less than three weeks ago.

Our national correspondent Bob Franken is on the scene in Melville, West Virginia -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, one of the officials says that time is the enemy. And it's been 23 hours since the two miners disappeared. They were part of a group of 12 that encountered smoke from a fire on a conveyor belt. Ten of them got out. The other two have been missing since then.

There are five rescue teams rotating in the mine, five at any given time. They're encountering difficulties with the smoke. Difficulties they didn't originally anticipate. They had to, in fact, stop to put out the fire.

They now report that the smoke has improved. They've been able to check quite a couple of the chambers in this labyrinth, this massive mine, much bigger than Sago. Thus far, they have not found any evidence that the two miners are there.

But this is so large, that they are hoping that there are pockets of air that the two miners have been able to find, waiting for them to be rescued.

But the culture here sort of suggests a little bit of a pessimism. The families and friends wait at a church up the street and hope, only can hope, that it doesn't turn out as badly as the Sago disaster -- John.

KING: Our thoughts are with them. And we'll check back with you, Bob, later in the program.

Thank you very much.

And let's get a little bit more information on this particular mine.

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton standing by with that -- Abbi.

TATTON: John, information on accidents, inspections at this site, the Mine Safety and Health Administration. This is the agency that inspects the mines here, lots of information on the history, going back to 1995. Inspections, the last safety and health inspection done at this mine, 28 citations, that's amongst the low end having looked at some of the others.

With the accidents and injuries at this mine, a good track record, no fatal accidents listed. Between 2001 and 2004, fewer accidents than the national average. However, in 2005, slightly more than the national average with 16 employees of the mine and one contractor injured -- John.

KING: John, Wolf, it's all the same. Abbi, thank you very much.

Up next, the Bush administration's defense of wiretaps without warrants. Is Karl Rove the man to be making that case? And later, the president working toward his State of the Union address. Should we expect any surprises? Our political analyst Carlos Watson will give his predictions.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Today in "Strategy Session," the political debate over domestic wiretapping continues to grow. Have Democrats made the case that President Bush broke the law? Will Republicans be able to convince the public they're acting within the law to security the country?

Plus, did Democrats go too far in ethics charges against their Republican colleagues? Will that strategy backfire? Joining us today, CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist Ed Rogers, thank you both.

Let's start with Karl Rove, coming out today, giving a big speech to the annual Republican National Committee meeting here in Washington, taking this wiretapping controversy head on. They clearly believe, despite all the Democratic criticism, despite allegations the president might be breaking the law, that they can turn this to their political advantage.

Let's listen to Karl Rove.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me be as clear as I can be. President Bush believes if al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Donna Brazile, the White House and this strategist, Karl Rove used national strategy successfully in the first midterm elections of the Bush term, in the Bush re-election campaign; they clearly think they can turn the tide this year by going back to national security. Why won't it work?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I'm not saying it won't work, but I do believe that although national security remains a threshold issue, the American people are not just concerned about words. They're looking at actions. And Democrats understand the threat of terrorism, but Democrats believe that we can successfully beat the terrorists and secure our country without, you know, breaking the law.

That's why it's important that the Senate hold hearings next month and that we find out if the president broke the law.

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, in the last week you've seen the Democrats -- the president's political opponents by definition, John Kerry and Al Gore -- come out and say the president has broken the law. Now the Democrats have the political burden of saying, well what would they do? If you're not going to intercept phone calls coming into or originating out of terrorist strongholds, what would you do? Why would you not do that?

So the Democrats have overreacted and have jumped on this as an issue, when they're looking -- they're playing to their negative stereotype, they're looking weak on terrorism.

KING: Let me ask you this though. Are the Democrats in part overreacting because they feel this is the latest example of the administration ignoring them? And Republicans in Congress might say this to you privately; Democrats say they could have come to us, they could have briefed us more, they could have asked us to change the law, actually.

ROGERS: That's part of the standard package of their complaints. The president didn't need to come to them, because it was already in the law. The leadership in Congress was already briefed. And they're trying to make this a political issue.

But again they hate Bush so much and they overreact to everything that he does. They haven't thought this through. By definition, they are now looking weak on terror. If they want to position themselves that way with Al Gore and John Kerry as their spokesmen going into the election season, that suits me.

KING: You worked for Al Gore. Did he go too far in that speech? Other Democrats have not come out and flatly said the president broke the law. They said they want to find out about it.

BRAZILE: First of all, I thought Al Gore gave a very well- reasoned, impassioned speech about the excessive behavior that this administration has taken over the last couple years. He talked about torture. He talked about the lack of oversight hearings on Capitol Hill --

ROGERS: He talked about taking it easy on the terrorists. That's what it looked like.

BRAZILE: That's not true. Ed --

ROGERS: I mean, when you condense it down to its narrowest form.

BRAZILE: Ed, the last thing you can accuse Al Gore is being weak on terrorists and terrorism.

ROGERS: I can accuse him of that.

BRAZILE: Or John Kerry, or any other Democrat for that matter.

ROGERS: Both of them.

BRAZILE: That's because Republicans believe that's the only thing in their playbook, while the American people believe that we can have safety and security -- ROGERS: It has the added benefit of being true.

BRAZILE: -- but at the same time we can have our liberties and civil rights protected. And what we need to find out in these hearings, and the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service just pointed out that the president did not have the authority under the law that was passed right after September 11 or in Article II of the Constitution.

ROGERS: The White House --

KING: Let's turn the page back to what, before this speech today by Karl Rove, was the issue on the front page, at least the Democrats would like on the front page of their political playbook, and that is the issue of corruption. There is the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Republicans concede they're a bit nervous about how this is going to play out over the next few months, but a Democrat is the one apologizing at the moment.

The Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid -- his office distributed a memo, essentially tainting a whole bunch of Republicans in the Senate with corruption charges. Senator Reid now told the "Washington Post" this -- "The document went too far and I want to convey to you my personal regrets. No one cares more about the Senate and its tradition of collegiality than I do." Harry Reid says he went too far. Why are Democrats -- if this is an opportunity for them -- why are they mishandling it?

BRAZILE: Well, look, Harry Reid's office put out a statement of apology. I think the Republicans should accept his apology. But also look at the challenge that he's given to the Republicans right now, and that is, Let's make our government honest and clean and transparent. What Reid did was, he signed the pledge, that no one on his staff will go out and have meals and have a nice night out on the street with some K Street lobbyists.

I think Republicans need to put the partisanship aside and focus on cleaning up the corruption here in Washington, D.C.

KING: Ed, you remember very well, your friend Haley Barbour was the chairman of the party twelve years ago, when the Republicans used this as part of their message, saying the Democrats had been in power to long, all they cared about is power. They didn't care about issues anymore. They talked about lobbyists, they talked about money. Are you worried?

ROGERS: Back then it had the added benefit of being the truth. Now it's somewhat contrived. Having said that, the Harry Reid apology -- I wasn't one of the people mentioned in his memo, I'm not a Republican Senator -- but I'm very respectful of his apology. His office did it, he didn't know about it, he stood up, he took it like a man, and unequivocally he apologized. We should respect that and maybe use that as an occasion for everybody to take a breath.

The Democrats have come unhinged. Washington has been pretty hot lately, we've accused everybody of racism and all kinds of personal insults. So I have a lot of respect for that apology and I hope we do accept it and take a breath and move on.

KING: Take a breath, Ed Rogers says in January of the election year. We need to take a break, so we need to stop right here. We have several more months to go with Donna Brazile --

BRAZILE: The Democrats are not going to be intimidated by Republicans. They are going, Give 'em hell, Harry. Harry will fight back.

ROGERS: Bring 'em on.

KING: We'll have a lot more --

BRAZILE: We're ready.

KING: -- many more months of this to come. Donna Brazile, Ed Rogers, thank you very much.

Coming up, returning to New Orleans: I went back to the hurricane recovery zone, to see how race and politics are playing out with the damage still massive, and yet an election looming.

And she may be more politically savvy than you think. The first lady on the road, in the spotlight, not always mincing her words.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Louisiana officials have until Wednesday to set a firm date for elections delayed by Hurricane Katrina. They've assured a federal judge the vote can be held in New Orleans by late April. But there are plenty of potential obstacles, including the city's slow recovery and ongoing concerns about racial politics. I went back to New Orleans to get a firsthand look at the campaigns to get voters back to the polls.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): The voting machines fill the warehouse, waiting to record Hurricane Katrina's political impact on the city it hit hardest.

The elections were on indefinite hold, but now are all but certain to take place April 22, just three months from now. In a changing city, still very much an open wound.

Many of the African American churches and neighborhoods, so vital to New Orleans politics, like Bethel AME in the lower Ninth Ward, are still empty.

(SINGING)

Bishop C. Garnett Henning lives in New Orleans and oversees AME churches across Louisiana and Mississippi. While at a conference in Alabama this week, he said more than 20,000 church members from New Orleans remain scattered across the country. Too soon, he says, to hold an election.

C. GARNETT HENNING, BISHOP, AME CHURCH: We need more time. We just have to have more time.

KING (on camera): Bishop Henning is one of many African American leaders angry at a new election time table they see as a deliberate attempt to redraw their city's character.

HENNING: I think we would move from a -- to quote the mayor, chocolate city, to a vanilla city.

KING (voice-over): Pre-Katrina New Orleans was a city of 480,000. Today, about 190,000 people live here.

GREG RIGAMER, POLITICAL CONSULTANT: We're shading it now based on race.

KING: Greg Rigamer's research for the city suggested new electorate will be more white and more affluent than was the case in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Then, about 63 percent of voters were African American, 30 percent white. And now --

RIGAMER: We have about 51 percent or 52 percent African American. We're going to have about 40 plus percent white.

KING (on camera): State Elections Commissioner Angie LaPlace hopes to ease anxiety in the African American community by launching an unprecedented campaign to reach the tens of thousands of displaced city residents, still eligible to vote.

This explanation of absentee voting is being mailed to displaced New Orleans residents registered with FEMA. And the post office is also sharing its change of address files.

ANGIE LAPLACE, STATE ELECTIONS COMMISSIONER: And we also will a full-blown media campaign on TV, with an 1-800 number, so that the displaced citizens can call us and get information. We're going to put that out all over major states where our displaced citizens reside.

KING: Another big question is just where will people vote. The more than 800 machines kept in this warehouse are normally shipped to some 442 precincts across the city, but more than half of those polling places are still out of commission because of hurricane damage.

The city council on Thursday approved consolidating the voting at two dozen super precincts. This warehouse will be one of them. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the candidates on the test ballot now. The real deal in three months, to decide, among other things, whether the embattled mayor can win a second term.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KING: And for more on the recovery of New Orleans, watch "ANDERSON COOPER 360" tonight. Anderson is live from New Orleans, that's 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Pacific -- much more on the rebuilding efforts in the hurricane zone.

And up next here, when the going gets rough for her husband, Laura Bush has been known to wade into the political waters. We'll catch up with the first lady's latest campaign.

And police officers are up in arms over a new video game called "25 to life." Is it putting them in danger? That story in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: First Lady Laura Bush seemed to be, well, all over the map this week, traveling overseas and speaking out about many hot issues. Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider has been listening closely to Mrs. Bush. Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: John, if she's clever, even a first lady whose husband says she doesn't like politics can win the political play of the week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The first lady does occasionally dabble in politics. She told CNN she would like to see Condoleezza Rice run for president.

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: I'd love to see her run. She's terrific.

SCHNEIDER: Then she went to Africa to celebrate the inauguration of that continent's first female leader.

L. BUSH: I think women around the world are watching and they're proud of her.

SCHNEIDER: The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is a woman. The first lady was asked how she felt about Senator Hillary Clinton's comment that the Republicans run the House of Representatives like a plantation. "I think it's ridiculous," Mrs. Bush said, "it's a ridiculous comment."

The first lady is a teacher and a library. Asked what she's reading right now, she said, "I'm reading a really great book about Gertrude Bell.

Gertrude Bell, a contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, was the most powerful woman in the British empire. She was known as the uncrowned queen of Iraq. On Thursday, President Bush was asked an interesting question about his wife.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was just wondering, when will we see our lovely first lady run for the Senate in the great state of Texas? GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Never.

SCHNEIDER: We think the first lady should speak for herself, Mr. President. After all, she just earned the political play of the week.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: The first lady is the only person in the Bush administration who's popular with both Democrats and Republicans. She's a uniter, not a divider. John?

KING: And, Bill, I think she's smart enough, observing her for many years, to keep that popularity by staying off the ballot.

SCHNEIDER: Well, we'll see.

KING: Bill Schneider, thank you very much. And still to come, President Bush by the numbers: is he likely to get a bounce in the polls in the days and weeks ahead?

And later, one of the worst hostage dramas in U.S. history. Americans held captive in Iran a quarter century ago. We'll look back at the end of that crisis on this day in 1981, with one of the former captives.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Here's a look at some of the hot shots coming in from the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

Protests in Pakistan: hundreds march in response to last week's CIA missile strike targeting al Qaeda members. The protesters chanted "Death to America" and "Jihad is our way."

Chechen police unload a machine gun into a pile of liquor bottles. Illegally-produced alcohol kills thousands in Russia every year.

Gaza City, Hamas, al Aqsa television for kids: an actor known to children as Uncle Hazim poses with animal characters from the Islamic militant group's new TV station.

And in the Phillipines, two tarsiers enjoy an insect for dinner: an endangered species, tarsiers are believed to be the smallest primates.

That's today's "Hot Shots:" pictures worth more than 1,000 words.

President Bush will no doubt be hoping for a political bounce when he delivers his State of the Union address just 11 days from now. Our political analyst, Carlos Watson, is with us from San Francisco today.

Carlos, recent polls shows the president's approval rating beginning to go up a bit. What's your outlook, heading into the State of the Union? CARLOS WATSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: John, it's clearly good news for him now: about 43 percent in terms of favorability, up from 37 percent. There are a couple things, including the State of the Union speech, maybe a final Alito confirmation, maybe even some more good economic news that could help him get towards 50 percent, which would be the highest he's been since last May, I think.

But significantly, I think, to get there, the president not only needs to embrace a new kind of Republican, if you will -- the reform Republicans, given some of the lobbying scandals -- but I think we'll hear more from him on the economy. And most significantly it won't just by job training, but I would look to see this year a real surprise: we might see the president, and frankly, Republicans, embrace an increase in the minimum wage, which would be the first time in almost a decade.

By the way, it's not unusual, a number of Republican presidents, including his father, have increased the minimum wage in the past.

KING: I covered that debate a long time ago in the first Bush administration. You're right, some Republicans went along, but others didn't like it. He already has tensions with conservatives over immigration -- can the president pick that fight in an election year?

WATSON: I think, less than pick that fight, I think he'll embrace it. Certainly we'll see Ted Kennedy push it again. Last year, remember, it failed only narrowly, 51 to 47 in a vote in the Senate. You see a lot of individual states like Maryland going ahead and approving it. And when it gets approved not just by legislatures, but by ballot initiatives, you see voters voting for it 7 out of 10. So I wouldn't be surprised to see the president embrace it. Again it's a tack back to the middle, and it comes at a time when he's given conservatives two very strong, it looks like, Supreme Court justices.

KING: You mentioned those Supreme Court justices -- one is still a nominee of course, but the White House is very confident Samuel Alito will win Senate confirmation. That process takes the next step next week with the vote in the Judiciary Committee. Talk about your outlook for that and especially what you think are perhaps -- if there are any traps for the Democrats.

WATSON: I think certainly Democrats expect that Alito will get confirm, although they hope that the opposing votes will be north of 41. That will be obviously substantially higher -- almost twice the number of people who voted against Chief Justice John Roberts.

But here's the big news for Republicans. This has been a great six months. It had been north of ten years since any Supreme Court nominee had come forward. Republicans, it looks like, will get two successful nominees. But more than that, they'll be able to say we've broadened the kind of conservative nominee who can get approved. In other words, not just someone with a thin record like a David Souter, who obviously isn't considered conservative, but a John Roberts, but someone who's got a long record like Sam Alito.

We also, significantly, they will say, have put together the kind of grass-roots organization that can defeat a Democratic attack, do what we weren't able to do, frankly, in the Bork hearings and some of the others.

But the last significant thing -- it's very interesting. When you talk to movement conservatives, as I did last night and again today, you hear them say that this issue of judges is not over. We're groping to continue to press this issue in 2006 in congressional elections. We think it will take us a long way, particularly for Democrats who are running in red states.

KING: Carlos Watson, appreciate your insights today from San Francisco. Take care, my friend.

WATSON: Good to see you, John, have a good one.

And our Jack Cafferty is back now with "The Cafferty File." Hey, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, John.

The Transportation Security Administration says its Registered Traveler Program will start June 20th. The idea here is to let frequent fliers go through airport security more quickly, but officials say the travelers would first have to pass an extensive background check.

So the question is, do you think this Registered Traveler thing is a good idea?

Kyle in Washington, D.C., writes: "Given the likelihood of al Qaeda to use "clean" operatives with no past record, this program will leave us less safe, not more. Make the screenings more efficient, rather than creating a new security weak link."

Jason in Vancouver, Washington: "I believe it's a great idea. I take more than 100 flights a year, and the time spent in security lines for those of us who travel this frequently is a detriment to our business."

Jimmy writes from Sherman, New York: "I just went through gun powder analysis, was wanded and frisked because I have a couple of metal rods in my back. But I'd rather go through that any day than being a part of another government database."

Monty in Fresno, California: "The registered travel program is a waste of time. I'm a flight attendant, and happen to know that a few of those bad men on 9/11 were in fact what we call "Premium Members," frequent flyers! And these members tend not to be "flagged" for security."

And Jane from Phoenix: "Okay, first there's the government's warrantless spying on Americans' phone calls. Next, there are demands for records of our Google habits. Now they want our credit and property records before they will let us -- not the terrorists, mind you, but us -- get on an airplane. Does anybody see a pattern here?" And a reminder, John -- I know you never miss this program, but this weekend on "IN THE MONEY," we're going to talk about how entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security will soon become too expensive for us to keep our military presence around the world as it is now. We may have to choose between guns and butter.

We'll also talk to Ben Stein, who defends oil company profits, and retired columnist Dave Barry about a new work which is a send-up of all those financial self-help books.

"IN THE MONEY" is on at 1:00 Saturday, 3:00 Sunday -- that's Eastern Time. We invite you to join us -- John?

John?

KING: And we will do that, Jack. Thank you very much.

CAFFERTY: Where'd you go, John?

KING: I disappeared for just a second, Jack.

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