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THE SITUATION ROOM

Controversy Over Dubai Ports Deal Deepens; President Bush Stops Over in Afghanistan; Howard Dean Interview; Supreme Court Looks At Texas Redistricting; Navy Rescues Iranian Fishermen

Aired March 1, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Susan. To our viewers you are now in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.
Happening now, there are new developments in the port controversy. A top republican has just launched a new attack on the White House. Plus, President Bush overseas with an element of surprise. It's 2:30 a.m. Thursday in India, where Mr. Bush is resting up after a detour to Afghanistan and a new warning to Osama bin Laden.

Also this hour, the United States Supreme Court puts a Texas political fight on the map. Will voting districts promoted by Congressman Tom DeLay stand. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where the balance of power in Congress could ultimately be on the line.

And the big race in Tinseltown. Not the Oscars but the early competition for presidential campaign cash. It's 1:00 p.m. in California, where the Hollywood primary is now under way. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

There are brand-new developments this hour in the political battle over port security in the United States. New testimony on Capitol Hill and new warnings from Democrats and from leading Republican. Let's go straight to our congressional correspondent Ed Henry who's watching all of this unfold -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I just did an interview with Republican Congressman Peter King. As you know he's already been a sharp critic of this port deal, he's from the port state of New York, of course. He's also the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House.

He's now alleging to CNN that a couple weeks back when this story first broke, he spoke to the officials at the Departments of Treasury and Homeland Security, who were involved in this CFIUS process, and he asked them did you check out whether or not DP World, the company involved, had ties to al Qaeda, and he is telling CNN hew was told, quote, Congressman, you don't understand, we don't conduct a thorough investigation.

I pressed him on this, because this will obviously seem to contradict various administration claims that not only was there investigation, but that it was thorough, that it got to the heart of the security questions whether or not there were terrorist ties here. I pressed King on this point. Listen to what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R-NY), HOMELAND SECURITY: I'm saying there was no investigation, there was no real investigation conducted during that 30-day period. I'm hoping there will be a real one during this 45 days, but when I hear the administration say they're going to use the 45 days to educate the Congress and let us know exactly what happened, they should be educating themselves.

They should be doing the investigation they should have done during the first 30 days when there should have been an automatic 45- day investigation. I can't emphasize enough, there's been no investigation into terrorism whatsoever on this contract.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: King added that as a result of what he's learned from administration officials involved in the process, it would be, quote, shameful to move forward on this actual deal. The explosive new charges are coming as Democrats today on the third birthday of the Department of Homeland Security really pounded away and charged that this port deal shows that the administration has been negligent on the overall issue of homeland security.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: It's glaringly obvious that the administration is stuck in a pre-9/11 mentality and the most recent element of evidence of this is the Dubai Ports World deal.

HENRY (voice-over): Democrats note al Qaeda wants to detonate a nuclear device in America and the best way to get it into the country is through a port.

REP. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: That's why it's such a critical issue. It's part of a pattern, whether it be chemical plants, nuclear plants, cargo, airlines, the Bush administration has allowed the industries to decide how much security is provided for the American people.

HENRY: While the language may have been less strident, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was hit with a similar charge by Republican Senator Susan Collins, a sharp critic of the port deal.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), HOMELAND SECURITY: Regrettably the administration's budget shortchanges port security. It does not dedicate a separate funding stream for port security grants, whereas our bill would provide $400 million for that purpose.

HENRY: Chertoff pushed back by pointing out there were limitless demands for security, but limited funds in the federal coffers.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The city of New York I think has 30,000, 40,000 police officers. I'm sure if it had 400,000 it would be even safer. We always balance. The way we balance in this department is risk management. (END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Wolf, getting back to the explosive charges from Republican Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, he also tells CNN, in order to try to get to the bottom of this, he's demanded and is now getting a closed-door briefing in a secure room at the Capitol, 5:30 p.m. eastern time tonight.

It will include officials from the Director of National Intelligence Office as well as the Treasury and Homeland Security Departments. It's going to be a joint briefing for the House Homeland Security and House Intelligence Committees. Wolf?

BLITZER: Is Peter King out there by himself? He's the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, among Republicans, or is there a growing or diminishing chorus of Republicans who stand with him.

HENRY: It's very much a mixed bag as you know. In one camp you have Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who last week really led the drum beat demanding that the deal be at least halted in the short term. But now over the course of the last week, Frist is saying he's growing more and more comfortable with this deal.

In another camp, the real split within the Republican party, you see King, Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, who is King's counterpart, not just a random Senator but the Chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, saying she has deep concerns and believes the initial process was flawed. Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for getting that interview. We're going to get back to you shortly.

Also on Capitol Hill, at this moment, the Senate is closer to approving the extension of the USA Patriot Act. Today members voted down a prolonged filibuster of the anti-terror legislation, and they agreed to add curbs on the government's power to pry into private records.

Some Democrats pushed for even stronger privacy protections, but the majority leader, Senator Bill Frist, refused to allow more changes. Long-term renewal of the Patriot Act already is months overdue because of political wrangling. Barring any new Democratic maneuvers, the bill is expected to clear both chambers of Congress and be sent to the president's desk perhaps next week.

President Bush meanwhile, is in New Delhi right now, a long way from his political problems here at home, but not far from a frontline in the war on terror.

On his way to India, the president made a quick trip to Afghanistan, a stop that was announced only at the last minute for obvious security reasons. It's been more than four years since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Bush addressed some unfinished business, including the fact that Osama bin Laden is still on the run. CNN's Elaine Quijano is traveling with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A short time after takeoff from a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One, we were not heading to India, but instead making a stop in Afghanistan, for President Bush's first-ever visit to that country.

It was a 20-minute chopper ride to Kabul and the presidential palace, where Mr. Bush pledged his support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're impressed by the progress your country is making Mr. President, and a lot of it has to do with your leadership.

QUIJANO: Mr. Bush also said he was confident Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar would be brought to justice.

BUSH: It's not a matter of if they are captured and brought to justice, but when they're brought to justice.

QUIJANO: Later the president officially opened the new U.S. Embassy in Kabul. And at Bagram, he told hundreds of cheering U.S. and coalition troops the United States would not cut and run.

BUSH: I assure you this government of yours will not blink, we will not yield, we're on the right course, and the world is going to be a better place because of your service.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Elaine Quijano reporting for us. Elaine will join us live from India during our 7:00 p.m. eastern hour of THE SITUATION ROOM. This also is President Bush's first trip to India. He's getting a mixed reception there.

Before his arrival, thousands of Muslims protested in the streets of New Delhi, some chanted death to bush and waved signs calling the president a bully and terrorist. But many others in India see the U.S. as a very loyal ally.

In fact in a recent poll, residents of nine of India's biggest cities were asked, is George Bush a friend of India? Sixty-six percent agreed, 19 percent disagreed, 15 percent had no opinion. Our Zain Verjee is joining us from the CNN global headquarters in Atlanta with a quick look at some other stories making news.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. We're closely monitoring the situation in Iraq as sectarian violence surges. A pair of bombs in Baghdad killed at least 26 people today. Another 11 people died in a string of attacks right across the country. Dozens more were wounded.

More that 400 people have died since the bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra last week. The U.S. ambassador has said the country was on the brink of civil war, but in the days and hours after that, was able to be pulled back from that brink.

Saddam Hussein said he's not going to quote, duck his responsibility for a wave of violent reprisals and executions that followed a 1982 assassination attempt against him.

In a Baghdad court today, the former Iraqi leader said he alone should be on trial for those events. But he insisted that those who were executed were tried and convicted first. More than 140 Shia men and boys are believed to have died in the crackdown.

And authorities are debriefing an American oil worker and five other former hostages released, released by militants in Nigeria today. Macon Hawkins, who turns 69 today, says he believes that he was released because the militants respect their elders. The group, which opposes foreign oil investment in Nigeria, says low-value captives were released. Three hostages are still being held -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Zain. Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York. He's got "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Here's a hint when it comes to this ports deal. When conservatives start trashing it, the president has a problem, and that's what's happening.

CNN contributor Bill Bennett, along with Seth Leibsohn, wrote in the "National Review" online that President Bush has never been farther from his base on issues like national security than he is on this.

On the Dubai Ports World deal, they said the following: quote, "a back-channel message should be sent to the United Arab Emirates to withdraw this deal, much as China withdrew its UNOCAL bid last year. This deal will not stand public deliberation. By having the UAE withdraw its offer, the issue will be taken off the table. It can be corrected and ended. Otherwise, it will live and bleed for at least another 45 days."

President Bush says he still supports the deal, sees no reason why this review will yield different results than the last one, although it is going to take twice as long, the full 45 days, as required by law, which apparently the law was ignored during the first review.

And according to Congressman Peter King, you heard just a few moments ago here on THE SITUATION ROOM, they said they didn't do much of a review at all concerning things like possible ties to al Qaeda, et cetera. It's disgraceful.

The question is this: Should the administration pressure the UAE through back channels to withdraw its offer to manage these ports? E- mail us at caffertyfile@cnn.com, or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. We'll get back to you soon. Coming up, a Texas showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court. Political battlelines are at stake and possibly much, much more. We're going to tell you what's happening right now.

Also ahead, my interview with Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. Is he fighting mad about the Dubai Port deal and the situation in Iraq?

And is Al Gore thinking of running for president again? We have got some new word from an ultimate insider. That would be his daughter. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Democrats are eager to put their days as a largely powerless party behind them, so party leaders are seizing on the Bush administration's vulnerable points, including the port security controversy and the escalating violence in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now is the chairman of the Democratic Party, the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean.

Governor, thanks very much for joining us.

HOWARD DEAN, CHMN. DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CMTE.: Thanks for having me on, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk several subjects: ports first -- the Dubai port deal, specifically. The president says this represents no threat to U.S. national security. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Let me just make something clear to the American people. If there was any doubt in my mind or people in my administration's mind that our ports would be less secure and the American people endangered, this deal wouldn't go forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you believe him?

DEAN: I think there's probably no doubt in his mind. The problem is, he hasn't gotten the information from his own administration. The Coast Guard raised the issue shortly before this deal was done, and said we can't guarantee the security here.

So once again, the president doesn't seem to be in touch with folks in his own administration, who are telling him something and he's ignoring the -- he's doing the opposite.

BLITZER: He acknowledges that he wasn't informed as the committee -- the interagency committee -- was reviewing it, but since then, he has been briefed on what's going on. In fact, the Coast Guard now -- the admiral who's in charge of port security was here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday -- and despite some earlier misgivings, they say they have been reassured. Listen to this exchange I had with Rear Admiral Craig Bone. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Can you assure the American public that the threat level will not increase as a result of this Dubai firm taking over the British firm's operations?

RADM. CRAIG BONE, U.S. COAST GUARD: Yes. I can tell you that the measures that we've put into place will assure that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. He's a professional, he's not a political operative or anything.

DEAN: Well, yes, we know.

BLITZER: He's the guy in charge of port security for the Coast Guard.

DEAN: Here's my concern about this, Wolf: first of all, I'm not sure that any foreign company-controlled government (sic) ought to be -- government-controlled foreign entity ought to be controlling our ports. The Chinese government controls Long Beach in Los Angeles. I don't think that's a good idea. I don't ...

BLITZER: Eighty percent of the port operations in the United States are controlled by foreign companies.

DEAN: Yes, but you know what? The ports aren't secure. The ports are not secure.

BLITZER: But that's the responsibility of the Coast Guard, the Customs Agency. The U.S. government is supposed to be in charge of security. They just handle the cargo, if you will.

DEAN: Well, there's another issue we're going to come to in a minute. But in terms of the safety, why would we let a foreign government control our access to our ports?

BLITZER: This has been going on for the past 20 or 30 years. The U.S. has basically stopped operating the ports and outsourced it to foreign companies.

DEAN: Yes, but that might not be such a good thing. For example, who is checking on the containers that are coming into this country? We know that 95 percent of them come in uninspected. Who is -- you know, who's checking on ...

BLITZER: The government's supposed to do that.

DEAN: Yes, they are supposed to do that. They're a miserable failure.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the war in Iraq right now. Listen to what the vice president, Dick Cheney, said yesterday, because he seemed to be taking direct aim at you. Listen to this.

DEAN: I doubt it, but ...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some have suggested this war is not winnable, and a few seem almost eager to conclude that the struggle is already lost. They are wrong. The only way to lose this fight is to quit, and quitting is not an option.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I said he seemed to be taking direct aim at you because you had been quoted as saying the war was not winnable.

DEAN: Well, I don't think the war is winnable under this leadership. This is a leadership that has made the biggest mess, not just of this war, but of our security in general.

Here we are, five years into the presidency of George W. Bush. The North Koreans still have nuclear weapons, the Iranians are about to get them. Our troops are sent into battle without adequate body armor. Our ports are not secure, and now we find that they're being run under the jurisdiction of other countries.

What is this administration? Karl Rove thinks that security is going to be the issue? It's going to be the issue, all right. It's going to be the issue that elects Democrats.

These people cannot figure out how to defend America in a reasonable way. And I think the American people are sick of this. And you've seen the polls as well as I have.

BLITZER: The Democratic Party, though, seems to be all over the place, from John Murtha saying a phased withdrawal is important, to Joe Lieberman, who said the other day this: "In my opinion, we are better off with Saddam Hussein gone, and we now have an opportunity to build within Iraq a self-governing, modernizing country that will really provide an alternative in the Arab world to the hatred and suicidal death that al Qaeda offers." So the Democrats don't speak with one voice by any means.

DEAN: Well, you're always going to get some outliers. I think everybody would agree that we're better off that Saddam has gone, but certainly not safer. But Joe is out there, with supporting the president.

I think most Democrats -- and Chuck Hagel sometimes supports us. You're always going to get a few people in each party that are with the other side, and that's fine. The truth is, there is something approaching consensus on the Democratic side. There's not a lot of difference between Joe Biden and Jack Murtha. There may be some difference on timing, but the -- we know we have to leave Iraq. We know we can't stay there. We know this president's idea of staying there forever or whatever it was that Dick Cheney said -- we've heard that in Vietnam. We're not going to make the same mistake twice.

BLITZER: A couple little political questions while I have you. Cash on hand for the Democratic Party as of January 1st, 2006: $5.5 million for the DNC; $34 million for the RNC. What happened to all that Democratic money?

DEAN: We're rebuilding the party. We've raised 20 percent more than we ever have before in an off year. We've got 200 operatives right now in every state in the country. And we've won four special elections in a row in Mississippi, seven out of eight in New Hampshire, first African-American mayor in Mobile, Alabama.

We now have the mayorship in the largest county -- a million people -- in Utah. We're starting to win in states that used to be core Republican states. If you want to build this party, you've got to invest the money to do it, and that's what I'm doing.

BLITZER: Senator Clinton of New York says Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, is obsessed with her. Do you think he is?

DEAN: I have no idea. I try to stay away from Karl Rove's thinking. It's gotten the president in a lot of trouble, and so I don't have any comment on what Karl Rove has to say.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And you can see my entire interview with the DNC chairman Howard Dean in the 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just ahead, a developing story over at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices have just heard a major case on redistricting -- enormous complications and enormous ramifications for all of us.

We're going to tell you what happened in the courtroom and tell you why the court's decision could shake up the balance of power here in Washington.

Also, the president makes a surprise stop in Afghanistan and speaks out on the war on terror, but is this a winning issue for the White House and for Republicans?

Plus, the storm over the ports, and the storm is growing. This hour we just heard what Howard Dean had to say about the controversy. Up next, I'll ask two other experts, Paul Begala and Bay Buchanan what's going on in today's "Strategy Session." Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now, a developing story we're following from the United States Supreme Court. It could have a major impact on future elections and even on the balance of power in the Congress.

At issue, a Republican-friendly map of Congressional districts in Texas, backed by Congressman Tom DeLay. Democratic and minority groups challenge the boundaries which helped the Republicans pick up six seats in Congress in 2004.

DeLay's clout has diminished since then, due in large part to the indictment that forced him to give up his post as the House majority leader. Now all eyes are on the U.S. Supreme Court, including its two newest members.

The justices must consider if the Texas map is unconstitutional and if it infringes on minority voting rights. In the past, the high court has struggled with how much politics is acceptable when states draw new district lines.

Our senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin is watching this for us. He's joining us from New York. The stakes here are pretty enormous for politics for business as usual in Washington. Explain that to our viewers, Jeff.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, we talk about the effect of the war on terror, the economy. What really decides Congressional elections is gerrymandering. Over the past 20 years, the state legislatures have drawn Congressional districts so that there are practically no competitive districts anymore.

There are Democratic seats, and there are and Republican seats, and it's very hard for the parties to change hands. That's the issue, specifically in Texas, that is in front of the court is whether this kind of partisan gerrymandering can continue under the constitution.

BLITZER: So what happened today before the justices at the Supreme Court?

TOOBIN: Well, what happened in Texas in 2001, was that after the census there was one map adopted. In 2003, Congressman DeLay and his allies in Texas pushed through a second map that helped Texas pick up six new Republican seats. That's the map that was challenged, Democratic voters in Texas saying this deprived us of our rights and that was the argument before the justices today.

BLITZER: And they heard the arguments and they're going to deliberate and come up with an opinion down the road?

TOOBIN: They are, in time for the 2006 election. So if they decide to go back to the 2001 map or change part of the map, it could throw a big monkey wrench into both sides' chances of picking up or losing seats in Texas, which, you know, has 32 seats and is one of the most important battlegrounds in the country.

BLITZER: It's always tricky to try to discern how these justices are going to rule, based on their questions, but did we get any hints today?

TOOBIN: Well, I've been canvassing some of the who were people there, including our ace Supreme Court producer, Bill Mears. And it seems to be that the Republicans probably had a pretty good day.

Anthony Kennedy is very much the swing vote in this area, and he seemed sympathetic to the idea that you could redistrict more than once in the course of a decade, but he did seem troubled by the racial issue.

Chief Justice Roberts was very supportive of the Republican position. Justice Alito said almost nothing. So for what it's worth, that seems to be the report on the questions they asked today, but that doesn't always track how they'll vote when the case is decided.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that. Jeff Toobin, with a little analysis.

Let's get a little closer look now at the Texas map, both before and after the redistricting.

Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, to give us a little crash course on redistricting, or gerrymandering, as it's often called as well.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, gerrymandering is not wrong, in the sense that the courts have said. It's OK if you make these long, fancy-looking districts, but just look at what the justices are having to look at.

We're going to look at district 25. We're going to zoom in here and take a look at it first. This is the way it looked in the olden days. District 25 is the southern part of Houston, looked about like this.

It was about 45 miles from side to side. That was a district. A lot of people can look and say well, it looks like a political district. It's a little shaped around the edges, but generally contiguous, generally one area.

Now we're going to look at the new district 25. It's no longer in Houston whatsoever. This is the new district. And look at that, 300 miles from Austin all the way down to Mexico. It's largely a Latino district, but you can be voting for somebody who's 300 miles away from you and living -- doesn't look in many ways like a district as many people would know.

The court has already said you can make districts like this in different parts of the country for different reasons. The real question here is, can you do it just whenever it's politically expedient? Can both parties, when they get control of any state, just rearrange everything quickly and make it work?

And is that fair? Do voters even know what district they're in? Right at this moment we speak, there may be people who are campaigning for election in Texas in districts that may not be there by the time the election comes around. That's what the court has to look at.

BLITZER: Now, this is nothing new. This has been going on for a long time. Republicans point out the Democrats, when they controlled the state houses, they were doing the same kind of gerrymandering. When the Republicans do it, what is new? What is unfolding now that we haven't seen in the past?

FOREMAN: The only question now is how far you can take it. You're right, it goes on everywhere. Now, a great example if you want to look at it is Iowa, a great state where they've really divided the state up into simple districts. Anybody can understand them, simple little blocks. It all makes sense. A lot of people say that's the model that ought to be everywhere.

The question now is, what if you start just doing it every time you want to make a change? Every two years, every 18 months, every six months, every time you want to move people around? The question for the court is that, have we now advanced so far down the road that, yes, we've been doing it many years, but now we've just gone too far into an absurdity that's fundamentally unfair to voters?

BLITZER: And as I said before, the stakes, the political stakes in this country, are really enormous right now. Tom, thank you very much.

A look for new action to reform redistricting in the U.S. Senate tomorrow. Democrat Tim Johnson reportedly will introduce a bill to establish a bipartisan process to redraw congressional districts. The congressional newspaper "The Hill" reports the bill will be identical to one in the House designed to cut down on gerrymandering. But the measure's prospects are questionable because it's backed mostly by Democrats.

BLITZER: There's news just coming into CNN. There's news just coming into CNN right now from the Pentagon. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you picking up?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there's been a really unusual humanitarian rescue operation in the central Arabian Gulf. The U.S. Navy rescuing some stranded Iranian fishermen. As we all know, very little contact between the two countries.

But yesterday, a U.S. Navy warship patrolling in the central Arabian Gulf came across an Iranian fishing vessel that was stranded in the water. Six Iranian fishermen on board. They had been stranded for ten days. They were without food or water. Their boat was dead in the water.

The U.S. Navy, once they were called for assistance, boarded -- and we have some pictures to show you here -- boarded this Iranian fishing vessel, gave the fishermen some food and water, tried to help them restart their engine, but their boat was dead in the water.

So the U.S. Navy called an international naval office in the region for help. The U.S. Navy then left the Iranian shipping vessel. They pulled back just a little bit, but stood by and waited until an Iranian boat, a tug, a larger Iranian vessel, came alongside and finally took those Iranian fishermen off their stranded vessel. This is how things work out on the high seas when there is a stranded fisherman. Nobody's an enemy, according to the U.S. Navy. And so they lent a hand to a country that we have very little contact with, especially with their military.

BLITZER: A couple quick questions, Barbara. How extraordinary is this U.S. humanitarian assistance to Iranian fishermen? And have we had a situation where Iranians have helped Americans?

STARR: I don't know off the top of my head of any situation where Iranians have particularly helped Americans because it is only, of course, American military vessels that are in the region.

But when you travel out in that region, what you do find from the U.S. Navy is -- and because they're constantly on patrol, they do come across this several times a year, where there are stranded fishing vessels. And there have been cases in the past where there have been stranded Iranian fishermen.

It hasn't happened in a while, and it hasn't really happened since this latest ratcheting-up of tensions. But we talked to some U.S. Navy folks out there just a little while ago, and they said by all accounts, these Iranian fishermen who'd been out of food and water for many days were quite happy to see the U.S. Navy come render aid.

Then, of course, the Navy did the diplomatic thing, pulled back a bit, but hung out until the final rescue team came and helped these Iranians back to their side of the gulf, Wolf.

BLITZER: I was there in the northern part of the Persian Gulf last year. And what is really stark -- and you've been there Barbara -- is how relatively small this whole area is. And if you're on a U.S. ship, as I was, you can see a lot of Iranian ships going up and down, not very far away at all, relatively tight quarters up there. Barbara, thanks very much for breaking that story for us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, the war on terror and the fight over ports the hot topics in today's "Strategy Session." Paul Begala and Bay Buchanan, they're standing by.

Plus, he's back in the Golden State after a trip to Washington. But is Arnold Schwarzenegger also back in the hearts of California voters? Find out next in our political radar

Plus, it's a new way to try to reduce the pork in Congress. We'll get the situation online. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Today in our "Strategy Session," the president makes a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Will his trip help build support for the war on terror, or are we any closer to catching Osama bin Laden? Joining us, CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist, Paul Begala; and Bay Buchanan, president of American Cause. We heard Howard Dean say just a few moments ago here in THE SITUATION ROOM that he believes the Democrats are now poised to be stronger on national security than the president and the Republicans. In your recent book that you wrote with James Carville, you were critical of the Democrats for not being forceful, not having a backbone, on this and other issues. What do you make of this?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. I think I was right then; I think Dean is right now. And I criticized Dean when I thought he was wrong. The president's port deal has thrown every thing up in the air, and the Democrats are going for that jump ball.

Nobody believed that the president -- George W. Bush especially -- would turn over control of our ports to a foreign government, least of all a foreign government that had been associated with supporting the Taliban and harboring terrorists. And yet he has.

And his intransigence on this is sinking the Republicans. And Democrats have stepped in. They're effectively angry, particularly Democrats like Bob Menendez, whose state of New Jersey is going to have a port affected, and Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer in New York.

And they're trying to say, "No. This is about security. We're going to be strong." And it's working. I think it's accentuated by the fact the president had to sneak into Afghanistan today because it was a surprise visit. Why? Because Afghanistan is still not secure, even years after the invasion, because the president turned and invaded in Iraq. So he's losing on both fronts.

BAY BUCHANAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CAUSE: Afghanistan was planned two months ago. So it wasn't a sneak, it's just that's for security purposes. You never give advance notice when the president goes there.

But I think the point that Paul does make on the issue of national security being an issue, that maybe now not as beneficial to Republicans as it once was, is a completely accurate one. You know, the president spent years convincing Americans -- and we are convinced -- that the terrorist threat is a huge one.

We're very convinced, we've seen what's happened, and we've understood what the president said, and we've supported the Republicans and the president because we thought he was serious. And now we're saying to ourselves, "Is he serious? Does he believe it's that serious?"

Because he has refused to secure our borders, and that's something Americans are in an uproar over. And now it looks like he doesn't care about the ports either. It's perception. Whether the security at the ports are just the same or not, the perception is he is not as concerned as Americans think he should be. And that will hurt us this November.

BLITZER: The poll numbers that we have are very interesting. The CBS poll that just came out this week on Bush's approval on handling the war on terror, January, a 52 percent approval. It's now down to 43 percent. So certainly, that's not a number that Republicans look at and are very happy about.

BEGALA: They've got to be astonished. There was a time it was at 90. Now, nothing stays a 90. But after 9/11, the country rallied around President Bush. And now it's collapsing. What's interesting is that he's not acting like it. He's still sort of -- yesterday in the Oval Office, he said, "Well, I approved it already. I'm not going to change my position. Trust me." And this is a faith-based port security, and people aren't going to buy it from him anymore.

BLITZER: Bill Bennett -- our contributor, a conservative, a good friend of the Republicans to be sure, former education secretary and drug czar -- he's written a piece suggesting -- we heard Jack report it earlier -- that it would be wise through a back channel for the White House now to tell the United Arab Emirates and Dubai Port World, "You know what? This is not a good idea. Back out of it," and have some sort of face-saving way out of this mess. Is Bill Bennett right?

BUCHANAN: If he can do that, it would be in the best interest because then this issue goes away. If he doesn't do that, this is an issue. Can the Arabs have the ports in November? For September and October, we're going to be hearing about it. You're going to have all the talk show hosts -- there's already talk shows who're not going to back down and be pounding it and pounding it.

He's hitting our base. He's under -- what he will do is undermine the base of the Republican Party. It's going to hurt Republicans. What has to -- if this bill goes through, if they pass it and allow the Arabs to take these ports, he has to increase security at the ports so dramatically -- and also the borders -- to convince the American people he's actually taking real action, and so they consider this to not be such a great concern.

BEGALA: There's no way to stop it. My favorite senator, Hillary Clinton, has a bill that says no company controlled by a foreign government can take over any American port. So we're not discriminating against Arabs.

BLITZER: You know that 80 percent of America's ports are operated by foreign companies. But some of them owned by foreign governments.

BEGALA: That's right. This would apply only to companies owned by a foreign government.

BLITZER: That's been around for 30 years. During the Clinton administration, they ran these ports as well.

BEGALA: It was a terrible idea then, and it's a terrible idea now. It compromises our national security. And simply because we made a mistake in the Clinton administration doesn't mean we should compound with the United Arab Emirates in the Bush administration.

BUCHANAN: Listen, I was against it when they gave the Chinese the port in Long Beach. I mean, we've been fighting this a long time. But the key is, I would be delighted if that happened. But both parties have been, as you said, have been supporting this type of activity. It's the globalism of the world. We should let anybody have any piece of equipment they want or any kind of port or any factory they want.

BEGALA: Hillary's bill is going to pass.

BUCHANAN: If Hillary's bill passes, that would be...

BLITZER: Let's switch gears and talk a little bit -- raw presidential politics, Al Gore specifically, whether he will run, won't run in 2008. Listen to Karenna Gore Schiff, his daughter, what she said here on CNN earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARENNA GORE SCHIFF, AUTHOR, "LIGHTING THE WAY": I really don't think that he will run for office again. It's wonderful that he has so much support and is loved by so many Americans. And that's been great to hear lately. He's really focused on the environment. This is his passion right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You think he's going to run, don't you?

BEGALA: I always think everybody's going to run. Mo Udall, the great former congressman from Arizona who ran for president in 1976, said, "The only cure for presidential fever is formaldehyde." So I always think they're going to run. But I believe Karenna. She's terribly close to her dad, and she's probably his very closest adviser, except for Tipper. And so I take her at her word. But I always think they're all going to run.

BLITZER: Would he be a formidable Democrat?

BUCHANAN: I don't believe so. I think he would make a mistake. You know, he was the vice president, and he came very close to winning. I think to run now and come in third or fourth would not be the proper way to go. I think you quit when you're up at the top.

BLITZER: Bay and Paul, thanks very much.

Up coming next, the political battle for Hollywood. Presidential hopefuls head out west looking for cash and influence. So which president wannabes have the early lead?

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, some very tough talk in the fight over illegal immigration. A top catholic cardinal speaking out in defiance. We'll tell you what he said. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now back to our top story, the storm over the ports. A new bill introduced today is taking direct aim at the Dubai ports deal. Two U.S. congressmen want to ban companies owned by foreign governments from operating American ports. But what does it mean for other foreign companies that already work here? Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton has the answer -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the bill would target foreign government-owned companies, and it would stop them from coming in, in the future. It's been introduced by Republican Clay Shore, Democrat Ben Carter.

Now, we've already heard that the majority of facilities in this country are already operated by foreign companies. The Port of New Orleans, for example companies based in Italy and Denmark operating there. In addition, there are companies around the country which have strong ties to foreign governments. APL is one of them, majority owned by the government of Singapore, operating up and down the west coast.

Another one is Costco at the Port of Long Beach. Strong ties to the Chinese government. These companies like this already operating here would be able to continue, they would be grandfathered in. It's just companies in the future that would not be able to do so -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Abbi for that.

Up next, port security politics. Should the Bush administration essentially make the controversial port deal go away? Jack Cafferty has been going through your email. He'll be joining us.

Plus, a congressman claims that Florida Governor Jeb Bush improperly pushed for Carnival Cruise Lines to win a contract to house Katrina evacuees. We're going to go live to New Orleans for details on this story. That's coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern edition of THE SITUATION ROOM. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back now with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: Wolf, when it comes to the ports deal, CNN contributor Bill Bennett and Seth Leibsohn have written in the "National Review" online that President Bush has never been farther from his base on issues like national security.

They say, quote, "A back channel message should be sent to the United Arab Emirates to withdraw this deal on the ports," unquote. The question is, should the administration pressure the UAE to withdraw their offer to buy these six ports?

Marge in Oregon writes, "Why should we have to pressure anyone to withdraw the ports deal? This administration should never, ever have entered into this kind of a deal. Just stand up and say there will be no deal."

Linda in Austin writes, "It would be nice if we could ask the UAE to withdraw their offer of the port deal. However, our president says this is a done deal that closes tomorrow. So what's the point of this voluntary 45-day review if the deal is done?

Kerry in Boyton Beach, Florida: "The UAE will not offer to withdraw. The Bush administration will ram this deal down our throats. The administration has a perfect track record of doing what it pleases."

Linda in Arkansas: "Trust me. Americans understand that driving 75 miles an hour to the golden arches makes you happy, while the U.S. being sold off piece by piece is just not a cool talking point. Tell me sweet little lies."

And Joe in Sadieville (ph), Kentucky: "Jack, tower to Jack. Listen to your reporters. Court documents will be signed on March 2nd. Review is pablum (ph) for U.S. public. OK, take a snooze." Thank you, Joe.

BLITZER: OK. Are you awake, Jack?

CAFFERTY: I'm wide awake, Wolf. You can't sleep through THE SITUATION ROOM. It's much too compelling.

BLITZER: Thank you. Thank you very much. And you're a part of that, as you well know.

CAFFERTY: Don't be trying to suck up to me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still to come, Arnold Schwarzenegger's ups and downs. Where does the California governor stand with voters right now?

And are your representatives in Congress actually reading the bills they pass? If they don't, you can online. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a return appearance on our political radar. The embattled California governor appears to be gaining a bit of ground with voters as he faces reelection in the fall. A new field poll shows his approval rating now at 40 percent. That's up three points since October.

But nearly half of the California registered voters who were surveyed, 49 percent, still disapprove of the job he's doing.

In Texas, congressional candidate Sid Smith has a unique platform. He says at age 95, "Who needs term limits?" The former newspaper man and first-time political candidate is running for the Democratic nomination. He's one of four candidates in next week's primary. But he's hands-down the oldest. And if he were to win a seat in the U.S. Congress, he'd automatically be the oldest member of either chamber. Sid Smith, 95 years old.

Is your congressman slipping pork into the latest law? You don't have to be a Washington insider to find out. Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner now has some new information, a new Web site, that lets anyone read the bill. Stay with us -- Jacki. JACKI SCHECHNER, INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, it is aptly named Readthebill.org. And the idea is to bring more transparency to government using the Internet. I spoke to the founder today. His name is Raphael DeGennaro. He was a congressional staffer for years. He's now a registered independent.

He says the bottom line is a lot of big bills make it to the floor without enough people actually reading through them. He wants the public to have access to them. He's working closely with Congressman Brian Baird, who has already introduced a resolution.

That resolution is called H. RES. 688, and it basically says that any piece of legislation, including those pesky little amendments that just seem to make it in there under the wire, have to be posted on the Internet for anyone to see for 72 hours before they ever hit the floor.

The infrastructure for this is already in place. The Library of Congress has a search function called Thomas, but a lot of legislation doesn't make it up there in time, and certainly not in enough time for you to actually go through those hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Now, I talked to Baird's office today. They say, truth be told, he is having trouble for a cosponsor for this bill, but when he goes out and talks to people about it, Wolf, he is meeting with a lot of popular support.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jacki.

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