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THE SITUATION ROOM

Mad Cow Disease Shows Up in U.S.; Bush's Approval Rating Dips in New Poll

Aired March 13, 2006 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, 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.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you the day's top stories.

Happening now, it's coming up on 4:00 p.m. in Alabama, where there's a case of mad cow disease. The government confirms the diagnosis. We're going to tell you what it may mean for your health and the health of the U.S. economy.

And it's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington, where President Bush takes a beating in our latest poll. His approval rating at a low ebb as violence in Iraq reaches new heights. Can he persuade a war-weary public to stay the course?

And could a simple Internet search blow the cover of CIA officers and pull the shroud of secrecy away from secret facilities? You bet it could. Can the CIA do anything about it?

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

We begin with a developing story which could have a huge impact on U.S. consumers and the U.S. economy. The Agriculture Department confirms a beef cow in Alabama has tested positive for mad cow disease.

Let's go straight to our medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen. She's watching the story.

Elizabeth, what are we picking up?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're picking up is that now, Wolf, this is the third time that mad cow disease has been found in cows in the United States. And they identified it because the cow was what they call a downer cow.

The cow was unable to walk. And the way the system works is that cows like that get tested for mad cow disease, called in scientific parlance BSE. So a rapid test showed that this cow has BSE, as did two confirmatory tests.

Well, how did this cow get mad cow disease? It's unclear exactly where and when. However, what they do know is that cows get mad cow disease by eating contaminated feed, but it was likely many, many years ago.

This type of feed that's likely to be contaminated has been banned in the United States since 1997. Unfortunately, this cow was born before 1997 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elizabeth, can this disease spread from one cow to another?

COHEN: It can't. And that's certainly one reason why people should feel a little better. This cow was obviously sick. It would not have gotten the other cows in its herd sick.

What they need to figure out is where that cow ate that feed. They want to trace that cow's life backwards, if you will, to find out where the cow ate that contaminated feed. Maybe other cows ate the contaminated feed.

The problem is there's no mandatory tracking and identification system for these animals. It can sometimes be very difficult to get their life history. The USDA has talked about having a mandatory tracking system for cows, but thus far has not done it.

BLITZER: How worried, if at all, Elizabeth, should Americans feel about having a hamburger or a steak, eating beef?

COHEN: Well, certainly the USDA and other authorities, Wolf, say that people should not be worried. They say this is a sign that the system worked. There was a downer cow. They tested the cow. The cow's meat never ended up in the food supply.

BLITZER: Elizabeth, thank you very much.

The U.S. Agriculture Department points out this is the third time the disease has been detected in the United States.

Joining us now by phone is the chief veterinary medical officer, John Clifford, of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Mr. Clifford, thanks very much for joining us.

Give us your bottom-line assessment. How did this happen?

JOHN CLIFFORD, ANIMAL AND PLANT HEALTH INSPECTION SERVICE: Basically, this animal that was diagnosed was, as indicated, was a non-ambulatory animal, what we call a downer. It was tested on the farm by the private practitioner. Those samples were submitted to our laboratory, where we confirmed BSE.

This was -- the animal was estimated to be of about 10-plus years of age. Therefore, this animal would likely have eaten feed contaminated with the BSE agent at its -- from its -- in its first year of life. So that would -- as indicated, we're doing a trace on this animal to trace it back to its herd of origin.

BLITZER: The other two cases of mad cow disease in the United States came and went. Were there all-clears given, nothing to worry about those two previous incidents?

CLIFFORD: One of those cases was in Washington State. That animal was traced back to Canada. And the other case was a 12-year- old-plus animal in the state of Texas.

Both of these animals that were -- the current animal and the animal in Texas were born prior to the feed ban which was put in place in 1997. And our enhanced surveillance program is really to determine the prevalence of the disease in the U.S. and just show that our safeguards are working.

And that's exactly what it's showing, our safeguards are working. The feed ban is working. And food is safe to eat.

BLITZER: So, bottom line, Mr. Clifford, how worried should we be?

CLIFFORD: I don't think you should be worried at all or concerned about this. I think it's -- as we indicated, we've tested over 640,000 samples in our enhanced surveillance program. We've confirmed two cases in that enhanced surveillance program.

The Washington State case was actually found prior to that enhanced surveillance program. And these are indications that the prevalence is extremely low within the U.S.

BLITZER: Dr. John Clifford is the chief veterinary medical officer of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Department of Agriculture.

Thanks very much, Dr. Clifford, for joining us.

CLIFFORD: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's bring in our Ali Velshi, standing by in New York -- in New York with more.

Welcome back, Ali.

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

Dr. Clifford was talking about that enhanced testing program. Part of the problem here is that the meat industry, the industry that deals with proteins, has taken a big hit partially because of those first mad cow reports in 2003, then because of bird flu.

Now, because of bird flu, there's been a lot of poultry that hasn't been consumed. Poultry is now cheaper. And as a result, so is beef. And people don't eat all that -- all that protein. So we are seeing a bit of a problem.

Now, there are a couple of things different from the 2003 and 2005 mad cow scares. One of them is that we don't have the Atkins craze. We don't have people pushing towards protein as much. And secondly, we are jittery because of the bird flu. So people are being a little more careful.

We did see at the end of the day on the stock market Tyson Foods starting to being affected by this. The stock turning a little bit lower, but right now no big decisions by the people who serve us our food or sell us our meat as to what's going to happen.

We will be following this very closely and we'll keep you posted, Wolf, about what's being done with the beef that is for American consumption.

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

Moving on now, as the conflict in Iraq nears its third anniversary this Sunday, and sectarian strife threatens to boil over into civil war, President Bush is certainly feeling the public's pain. That would be in the polls.

Our latest CNN-"USA-Today"-Gallup poll just out in the past hour shows the president at an all-time low. Only 36 percent of the American public approve of the job he's doing, 60 percent disapprove. The poll reveals serious doubts about the president's handling of the war, even as Mr. Bush calls on Americans to bear with him.

Let's turn to our White House correspondent, Dana Bash, for more -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these new numbers show that most Americans actually feel pretty good about the economy. That is the issue that usually drives a president's approval rating. But for this president, it is the war that is now closing in on the three-year mark, and the source, the main source of the country's sour mood.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): In his latest call for patience in Iraq, the president claimed progress in combating the main insurgent weapon against U.S. troops, IEDs, or roadside bombs, and pointedly singled out Iran as the source of many of the deadly devices.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Such actions, along with Iran's support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolating Iran.

BASH: Sectarian violence has escalated since this Shiite mosque was bombed two weeks ago, raising fears of civil war. But the president tried to find a silver lining, painting a picture of Iraqis working together to stop the bloodshed, calling that important progress.

BUSH: It was the Iraqi security forces, not coalition forces, that restored order.

BASH: Mr. Bush can only hope this series of speeches is more effective that the last. Four in December were aimed at convincing Americans he has a plan. But there's new evidence that didn't work. Only about a third of Americans in a new CNN-"USA-Today"-Gallup poll think Mr. Bush has a clear plan for Iraq. An overwhelming two- thirds say he does not.

Six in 10 say things are going poorly in Iraq. Just 38 percent think things are going well, down eight points in just two months.

BUSH: I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth. It will not.

BASH: Mr. Bush has had tough sledding for months on issues ranging from hurricane response to the ports controversy. But aides concede Iraq, by far, is still the biggest factor in his political troubles.

BILL MCINTURFF, GOP POLLSTER: The Bush presidency is wrapped around this issue. And for good or for ill, that's now his presidency. And the outcome on Iraq and how that's determined in the next couple years has enormous bearing on not only his own standing currently, but his standing, I think, in history.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And on that point, our new poll shows a stunning figure, Wolf. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe Iraq will be the president's legacy. No issue, not even terrorism, even comes close -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana at the White House. Thanks very much.

The new poll is certainly a blow for the president, showing a public fed up with the war and his handling of it. Especially worrisome for the president and fellow Republicans, it shows that Democrats could be benefiting.

Let's bring in our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, from New York.

We'll remind our viewers, Jeff, in terms of the overall handling of the way the president's doing his job, only 36 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove. When it comes to sending troops to Iraq, 57 percent think it was a mistake, only 42 percent don't think it was a mistake.

And which party is doing a better job dealing with Iraq? Democrats, 48 percent; Republicans, 40 percent.

Give us a little perspective. Do these bad numbers for the president and Republicans automatically translate into benefits for the Democrats?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Not yet, but -- but if it keeps going this way it might.

We've been hearing for a very long time, including from some Democrats, that it's not enough to be against. We Democrats, they say, have to come up with an affirmative answer to a lot of these difficult questions, Iraq included. But there comes a point every once in a while in which the public simply says, we just want to get rid of the people who brought us to this place.

In 1946, when the Republicans won a historic midterm election, took over the Congress, their slogan was very simple: "Had enough?" And that was a way that the public was able to translate its discontent with in those days prices and various other inflation strikes to just a "no" vote, we're not going to vote for those in power.

And the question here, I think -- remember, this is March. The midterms are in November. But if this continues, two things happen.

One, Republicans, as we've already begun to see, begin to move away from the president. And here, I think the real test is not going to come until the fall, when you see how many Republican candidates in marginal states and districts welcome the president or just as soon he didn't show up. That's a telling point.

And the second one is whether or not this depresses Republican turnout, because -- because even if Democrats don't have a constructive alternative, if the numbers are this down a few months from now, I think what you're going to -- what has happened in the past is that the party, the victim of these numbers, their base gets discouraged and they tend to stay home. And that could be enough to turn one, if not both, houses of Congress toward the Democrats.

BLITZER: On the economic numbers, look at this. It's very interesting, Jeff.

We asked in our CNN- "USA-Today"-Gallup poll whether economic conditions were good or poor. Fifty-nine percent actually thought they were good, only 41 percent thought they were poor.

But then we did this other question: Which party would do a better job dealing with the economy? Fifty-three percent said the Democrats, 38 percent said Republicans.

I suspect a lot of Americans remember the eight years of the Clinton administration when the economy was pretty robust.

GREENFIELD: True. And it's also the case, I think, that if people look at the -- at the big economic numbers and say they look good, but feel that, for instance, too much has gone to the wealthy, or that the average hourly wage, in fact, has not improved, that tends to come to the issue of economic fairness. And if people vote on that or decide on that issue, Democrats generally tend to do better than Republicans.

BLITZER: Jeff Greenfield, thanks very much.

Jeff's going to be here in Washington with us in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

Thanks. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time. CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Jack Cafferty's always in THE SITUATION ROOM, and he's in -- joining us right now.

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Sort of like a prisoner or a hostage, if you will.

BLITZER: I wouldn't go that far, Jack.

CAFFERTY : Oh, OK.

Remember when Duct tape and plastic sheeting were being sold to us as the way to protect us from a terror attack?

BLITZER: I do.

CAFFERTY : Well, the -- huh? You do?

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: Well, the government's back now. They have a new plan to keep us safe. And this time the enemy is the bird flu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says planning for a possible pandemic should be a priority for households and businesses, not just the government. Speaking at a meeting in Wyoming, Leavitt said that people should start putting cans of tuna fish and powdered milk under their beds.

Leavitt said if the bird flu ever mutates into a strain that spreads from human to human, no state or community would be immune. So far, the bird flu has killed mostly birds. Fewer than 100 people have died worldwide from bird flu over the last three years.

But the question we're interested in pursuing is this one: Are tuna and powdered milk the answer to the bird flu?

You can e-mail us your thoughts on that weighty issue to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile.

Have you ever drank powdered milk, Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. It's not very good.

CAFFERTY: It's just awful. And isn't there mercury in tuna?

BLITZER: I don't know about that, but I like a tuna fish sandwich.

CAFFERTY: Well, you have to leave this in the can or you get roaches.

BLITZER: Ooh. OK. Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Goodbye.

BLITZER: A very serious subject.

CAFFERTY: Yes, it is.

BLITZER: Up ahead, he's the only person charged in this country in connection with the 9/11 terror attack. Now his case -- get this -- possibly could end in a mistrial. Details of the mistake that could derail the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

Plus, the author of "The Da Vinci Code" takes the stand in his closely-watched copyright infringement case. We're learning more about his testimony. We're going to have the details of what he said.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As he tries to stir up public support for the war in Iraq, President Bush is claiming some success in confronting the bloodiest weapon facing American troops there, namely the roadside bomb.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us now live with that story -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Wolf.

Well, the president saying today on the subject of IEDs, those roadside bombs, it's such a sensitive subject, the information needs to be kept from the enemy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice over): Three years ago, it was a phrase most Americans never heard of -- IED, improvised explosive device. Now these roadside bombs are the largest single killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. More than 930 troops have died, more than 9,600 wounded.

President Bush says there are signs of progress.

BUSH: Today, nearly half the IEDs in Iraq are found and disabled before they can be detonated. In the past 18 months, we've cut the casualty rate per IED attack in half.

STARR: But Iraqis are suffering as well. In just 11 days at the end of February, there were 40 vehicle-borne IEDs causing 290 casualties. IED attacks are on the rise, officials confirm, but they won't give exact numbers due to security concerns.

The Pentagon is spending more than $3 billion a year developing classified technologies to detect IEDs. Some systems already are in Iraq. The Buffalo armored vehicle uses a front claw to find roadside bombs. Robots are used to detonate devices. And electronic jammers keep IEDs from exploding. But insurgents are constantly changing their tactics, using everything from washing machine timers to garage door openers as detonators.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And Wolf, the president speaking publicly in detail for the first time, saying that the U.S. does now believe Iran is playing a role in all of this, shipping some of the most advanced IED technology into Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, thank you very much.

And coming up, he's confessed to conspiring with al Qaeda, but now Zacarias Moussaoui's case could end up in a mistrial all because of a mistake by one government lawyer.

We'll tell you what's going on.

And this note. In our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, some call her a hero. others say she's a heretic. We'll have details of what this Syrian-American professor says about Islam that's causing so much of a controversy.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The case against confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is on the verge of mistrial. If it's in recess right now -- the trial, that is, is in recess right now after a mistake by a government lawyer that the judge says may have tainted the entire case.

Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is joining us from outside the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

What is happening, Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, defense attorneys for Zacarias Moussaoui are asking that the death penalty that's at the center of this case be thrown out, and the judge appears to be seriously considering their request.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice over): Judge Leonie Brinkema called it a blatant and egregious violation of her court order prohibiting witnesses from following trial proceedings. An attorney for the Transportation Security Administration, Carla Martin, provided seven current and former aviation officials slated to take the stand later in the trial with transcripts of opening statements and witness testimony. She also sent them e-mails saying the prosecution's opening statement has "big gaps that the defense can exploit" and has "created a credibility gap that the defense can drive a truck through."

Tuesday, Judge Brinkema will meet the witnesses to gauge whether their testimony has been tainted as she tries to determine the remedy, which could include throwing out the death penalty, limiting the witnesses' testimony, or excluding it altogether.

ANDREW MCBRIDE, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: If it is coaching and they've really been tainted, she must exclude them. She cannot allow them to testify. I think that may be the end of the government's case.

MESERVE: These witnesses were expected to testify that if Moussaoui had told investigators in August of 2001 about al Qaeda's intention to fly planes into buildings, aviation security would have been tightened, the 9/11 plot potentially foiled. They are key to the government's case for the death penalty in this, the only case connected to the September 11 attacks.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm not going to speculate on what the judge may or may not do. And given where we are in the state of this trial, it would -- it would be inappropriate for me to comment at all.

MESERVE: A 9/11 family member who was in the courtroom was shaken even as the possibility that a technicality might keep Moussaoui from being sentenced to death.

EDDIE BRACKEN, 9/11 FAMILY MEMBER: I was in awe. I was, like, dumbfounded. My jaw dropped.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: If the judge were to throw out the death penalty, Moussaoui would still spend the rest of his life in jail because he has pled guilty to six counts of terrorism and conspiracy. Today in court he smiled during the proceedings. And as he left the courtroom, he said, "The show must go on."

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jeanne Meserve, for that.

Coming up, CNN's brand-new poll numbers on the president's approval rating. Are his fellow Republicans worried? I'll ask a top GOP congressman. David Dreier of California, he's standing by live on Capitol Hill.

Plus, from White House top official to trouble with the law, serious trouble, Claude Allen's story. That's ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A significant blow for President Bush today in the form of a new CNN-"USA-Today"-Gallup poll which shows his job approval rating at a new low. His fellow Republicans may be feeling some of the fallout.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill, Republican Congressman David Dreier of California. He's the chairman of the Rules Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: Glad to see -- glad to see that you've survived the gridiron, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it was a lot of fun Saturday night.

How is President Bush handling his job as president? Only 36 percent approve of the job he's doing, 60 percent disapprove. That's rock bottom as far as our poll is concerned.

What's going on?

DREIER: Well, I will tell you what's going on. Obviously, there is not a high-level support right now for the president. I think that if you look at the policies that he's pursuing of keeping our economy growing, focusing on winning the global war on terror, he should be enjoying broader support.

I think that as we look at the third anniversary of our move against Saddam Hussein, the president made a decision, and he started today. He's going to be focusing on the success that we're enjoying in Iraq, the challenges that we have, and what we need to do to keep things going.

President Bush believes, as I do, and I will tell you, our Republican conference believes, and that is if you focus on good public policy, politics will follow. Obviously, we are not at a high point right now, but I'm convinced that we have a great chance to continue with good public policy and to see those numbers improve, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. I know you like being chairman of an important committee in the House of Representatives, but check this out. Among registered voters, Choice for Congress right now, in a generic question, 55 percent say they would vote for a Democrat, only 39 percent say they would vote for a Republican. If that holds up in November, congressman, you're going to be the ranking minority member as opposed to being the chairman.

DREIER: Wolf, as you know, elections are held district by district across the country and state by state for our friends in the Senate. And I believe that if we look at the way things are going in individual districts, we've got challenges. I'm not in any way being dismissive of those challenges, but I believe that we have terrific members who are running for reelection. We have first-rate candidates in open seats. And our challengers across the country.

And I'm convinced that we will do very, very well. I will acknowledge, we all read those polls that you have and other polls that are out there, and we have a lot of work to do. But again, I'm convinced that we represent the mainstream views of the American people in our pursuit of limited government, a strong national defense, and making sure that we pursue personal freedom.

BLITZER: We've already seen some of your fellow Republicans running away from the president on that issue of the Dubai ports deal, presumably there could be more of this distancing going on. You understand why a lot of Republicans right now don't necessarily want to be associated with the president?

DREIER: Well, there may be some, but I will tell that you by and large, the policies that the president is pursuing are the policies that we as Republicans want to pursue as well. We know that there was mishandling -- and the White House acknowledged mishandling of the Dubai Ports World deal, and we are where we are. I think it's very important for us to recognize that that issue is behind us. We need to make sure that we continue to pursue, as the president wants to, our global leadership role, economically and geopolitically and militarily and we need to do everything we can to continue down the road towards free trade, opening up new markets for U.S. goods and services from around the world so we can't let this challenge of Dubai Ports World create a problem there.

But I'll tell you the silver lining that has come out of the DPW deal is the fact that we need to focus on the importance of enhancing port security so that we do diminish any kind of terrorist threat that we have.

BLITZER: Let me give you two more poll numbers. And we'll talk about them. Which party would do a better job dealing with Iraq? Forty eight percent said Democrats, 40 percent said Republicans.

But check this out. Congressman, which party would do a better job dealing with the economy, which is your bread and butter issue, 53 percent said Democrats, 38 percent said Republicans. This at a time when 59 percent thought the economy was in good shape right now.

DREIER: You know, I'm glad that that 59 percent are indicating -- we have, as you know, Wolf, a 4.8 percent unemployment rate. We've seen actually budget surpluses. Budget surpluses for the months of December and January.

BLITZER: So why do they say the Democrats would do better?

DREIER: The short answer, I'm going to give you something a political person's not going to say. I don't know. It is a total disconnect to me because every indicator is positive. Minority homeownership at an all-time high. We're seeing people who are at the lower and middle end of the economic spectrum see their standard of living improve. And so I think one of the things that people are have often said is when the economy is strong, they focus on other issues.

And I think also if you look out there, there are detractors. As I've listened to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, the Democratic leadership talk about this, you would think we're days away, if we're not already in an economic downturn that makes the Great Depression look like a cakewalk.

The fact is, as much as they want to talk the economy down, we have continued good news, but we are not going to be satisfied until every American who wants a job has a job.

BLITZER: David Dreier is the Republican from California, he's got a tough job right now ahead of him. We'll see how you do, congressman.

DREIER: Thanks very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And Zain Verjee is joining us now from the CNN Center in Atlanta with another closer look at stories making news. Zain?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, fire officials in Phoenix, Arizona, are trying to determine what caused a production chemical to explode blowing the roof off of a large building. The blast and subsequent fire sent employees running from the plant and people from their homes in nearby neighborhoods. There are no reports of injuries. The plant manufactures ejection seats.

Across the Midwest, people are getting the full scope of damage left behind by a weekend of violent storms. Those storms which spawned a string of tornadoes killed at least nine people in Missouri. One person died in Indiana. Seven Illinois counties have been declared state disaster areas. In Lawrence, Kansas, no injuries but officials say that storm damage at the University of Kansas could top $7 million.

Four and a half years after the attacks on New York's World Trade Center, crews are quietly clearing gravel and debris to get ready to build a 9/11 memorial to the site. Some victims' relatives are protesting the project. They're saying that it would essentially destroy a piece of history and dishonor their loved ones.

And award-winning actress Maureen Stapleton has died. Her daughter says the star of stage, screen and television died of chronic pulmonary disease at her home in Massachusetts. Stapleton won a Tony award for her role in 1951's "The Rose Tattoo" on Broadway, an Emmy in 1968, an Oscar in 1982 for the film "Reds." Maureen Stapleton was 80. Wolf?

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much.

Still to come, just last month he was a top adviser to President Bush. Now he's been arrested as an alleged swindler and could face a prison term. What went so horribly wrong?

And in our 7:00 p.m. hour, a Syrian-born American citizen goes on al Jazeera to criticize fellow Muslims who preach and practice violence. Now, get this. She's facing death threats for speaking out. I'll speak with her.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There were more roadside bombings today in Iraq and more bodies were found in Baghdad neighborhoods. As the violence rages on, a politician at the top in Iraq may also be in the middle of the sectarian conflict which could spiral into civil war. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson has the story from Baghdad. Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's been three months since the elections here. Iraqi politicians have yet to form a government.

One of the principal stumbling blocks at this time, the main Shia block here, the United Iraqi Alliance has proposed the current interim prime minister to become the permanent prime minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari. There is a large opposition to that coming from the Sunni politicians, from the Kurdish politicians from the secular politicians. I sat down in an exclusive interview earlier today with Ibrahim al Jaafari. He told me, we have really very little wiggle room at all, that he fully intended to continue with his nomination for permanent prime minister.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IBRAHIM AL JAAFARI, INTERIM IRAQI PRIME MINISTER, (through translator): I stand by my position because it was a position that was popularly elected within the constitutional law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: Mr. Jaafari did say if the people of Iraq didn't want him as prime minister, then he would step down from his nomination. But he went on to say after that that according to polls on the Internet, he was very, very popular. The real meaning of that, he intends to stay, keep his nomination. He said that even if his political opponents decide to go along with his nomination, it could take another month or so before the government is formed.

And in the political vacuum that's been existing since the elections, there has been some of the worst sectarian violence. Mr. Jaafari indicating that although there isn't a civil war the violence is increasing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL JAAFARI: But we are now in a civil war? There is the risk of it. There has been an escalation of violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: I also asked Mr. Jaafari about what American officials have been saying that Iranians are coming into Iraq, spreading terror. He denied that was true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL JAAFARI: We have not seen any Iranian groups from Iran carrying out terrorist attacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROBERTSON: Earlier today President Bush warned Americans they should be patient with Iraq as they go through this political process. From what I saw in my interview with Mr. Jaafari today, that seemed like sound advice, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Baghdad for us. Good work, Nic. Thank you very much.

Up ahead, he was a top aide to President Bush, but he resigned suddenly for so-called personal reasons. Now we know what those reasons are. Is it all just a misunderstanding, or is there something much, much more serious going on?

"The Da Vinci Code" on trial. The man accused of taking someone else's idea and writing a blockbuster best-seller takes the stand in his own defense. We're going to tell you what Dan Brown had to say.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There he is, Lou Dobbs. Let's check in with Lou to see what's going on. Hi, Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN HOST: How you doing, Wolf? Coming up at 6:00 here on CNN, the Mexican government is now claiming that our broadcast is not being fair to them. We'll have a special report on the accusations the Mexican government is making against our broadcast. And then, the actions of Senator John McCain this weekend show there are very different John McCains. We'll have that special report. We'll be joined by Ed Rollins and we'll see how Americans all across this country truly feel about the ports deal, national security, illegal aliens, so-called free trade, jobs. I'll be talking with three top talk radio hosts about what their listeners are saying about the state of this country. All of that and more. We hope you'll join us. Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We always do. Thanks very much, Lou, for that.

Let's check in with Zain now at the CNN Center in Atlanta for a closer look at stories making news. Hi again, Zain.

VERJEE: Hi again, Wolf. Britain says it will withdraw 800 troops from Iraq by the end of May, the pullout constitutes a 10 percent reduction of its force in Iraq.

Britain's defense secretary John Reid says that the draw down is possible because Iraqi forces are becoming more capable of handling security in Iraq's southern region.

Russia is slamming Iran for adopting what it calls an unhelpful attitude on Tehran's nuclear program. But Russian's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, says Moscow has agreed to an Iranian request for more talks. Russia has put forward a proposal saying that it would enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil so they could monitor what's going on but only if Iran stops enrichment activities at home. Tehran has so far rejected the proposal.

And the author of the best selling book, "The Da Vinci Code" says that claims that he stole another book's ideas are completely fanciful. In a rare public appearance, Dan Brown took the stand in courtroom 61 in a London copyright infringement trial to defend his book. Two other writers say that Brown took the framework for his book from their 1982 nonfiction book "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail." Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Zain, for that.

A former top White House adviser could be facing up to 15 years in prison. Claude Allen was arrested last week in Maryland, accused of ripping off two department stores with a refund scam. Authorities also accuse Allen of theft. His attorney tells CNN Allen is completely innocent, that it's all a big misunderstanding. Allen abruptly resigned last month as the top adviser to President Bush who called the situation very disappointing and sad. So why would someone in a position like that allegedly risk everything with this kind of crime? CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now from the newsroom with more. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, experts say the majority of people who shoplift and commit other retail fraud are nonprofessional thieves. Their motivations raise interesting questions. But among that group, the rationale for the wealthy and well-connected can be even more complex.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Winona Ryder made millions for every movie, then was convicted of lifting a few thousand dollars of merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue store.

Former Miss America Bess Meyerson was New York City's cultural commissioner when she was arrested for shoplifting. The fine was more than her $44 take from the store. Jennifer Capriati had already struck a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal when she was still in her teens. But a citation for lifting a cheap ring from a jewelry store was one factor threatening her tennis career.

Why do people with so much to lose put it all on the line for so little?

ALAN LIPMAN, CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGIST: These people are stressed. They're under tremendous conflict. And they're often looking for a way out.

TODD: Criminal psychologist Alan Lipman says that and other factors could explain why well-connected shoplifters with no need to steal do so anyway. Among the reasons, acting out of anger, taking retribution for setbacks in their lives. For some, the thrill of showing rebellious dark sides to otherwise exemplary lives.

For others, acting out because they're humble or deprived backgrounds make them feel they do not deserve success. One other very common trait is more simple.

LIPMAN: The presence of an antisocial personality which leads a person to believe that they can skate by, that they can get by, that they can cut corners, and they won't be caught.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Does Claude Allen fit that category? Well, as we reported earlier, his attorney claims Allen is completely innocent, despite an arrest warrant that says he committed refund fraud at least 25 times. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian, thank you very much. We're going to have much more on this story coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

For more now on the former domestic policy adviser to President Bush, Claude Allen, let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the press releases online for the Montgomery County, Maryland retail theft department where they detail the charges against Allen including the things that he said were taken, items ranging from clothing, a theater system, as well as items valued at just a couple of dollars. His attorney says that this has just been a misunderstanding. This from a former domestic policy adviser at the White House.

Government records that you can find online show how much he was earning in that job, $161,000 made him one of the top earners there. Same salary as chief of staff Andrew Card, for example. Over the weekend at his church in Maryland, a statement was posted online as well as being read in the two services. What they say is that church is continuing to provide pastoral care for Claude Allen, and they've spent an extended amount of time with him over the past few days, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you very much, Abbi for that. Remember, these are charges that have been leveled against Claude Allen. Much more coming up on this story in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour. Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, has been looking into it as well.

Up next, Americans across the country diving into their office basketball pools. But is it legal? Our Internet team is here on the story. We're going to tell what you they found out. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow. In Missouri, this woman starts picking up the pieces of her life after a tornado destroys her home and store.

In Wisconsin, a very different kind of severe weather, snow, that is. The northern part of the state bracing for as much as 10 inches of snow by day's end. In Paris, a student protester sprays paint at riot police. Thousands hit the streets today to voice outrage over a new labor law.

And in Greece, look at this. Dark clouds pass over a sunlit Parthnenon temple. Restoration work is currently ongoing at this world-famous monument. Some of today's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words.

March madness begins this week. But bets about the college basketball tournament are being taken right now in office pools all across the country. If you're part of a pool, are you actually breaking the law? That answer in a moment.

First, though, let's take a closer look at how the Internet is changing the game from our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. Abbi?

TATTON: Wolf, sites and software have been springing up over the past few years to take some of the effort out of organizing one of these office pools. For a small fee, you're allowed to go online, access all these resources and make your picks online, taking some of the work out for the people who are organizing them.

Now, it's pretty hard to get these guys on the phone today. They're having a busy day. But I spoke to one organizer, easypool.com. Tim Walker (ph) tells me he's been running the site for about nine years now. He says it is not involving gambling at all. It doesn't take your money, it just tracks points in the pool.

Although he says he is well aware people are using sites like this for recreational gambling, Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much. Let's get legal answers on office pools now from our senior Internet producer and cyberlaw expert, Alex Wellen who himself is an attorney. Alex, whether money is being taken online or in person, does it make a difference if you're organizing the pool or if you are just playing in the pool?

ALEX WELLEN, CNN PRODUCER: It does make a difference. The participants, people involved in this, are largely been in the clear. We haven't seen cases -- federal law doesn't necessarily apply to those type of people, but I will mention, for those participating, and there are million as cross the country, you want to check out your company deals with that. You could lose your job if you're involved in that sort of pool.

BLITZER: So if you're running a pool, what are the legal risks?

WELLEN: Yeah, those are much bigger. Now, there's two federal laws that deal with this. One is the Wire Act. If you're in this type of business, but that's not really what we're talking about. There's another federal law that deals with amateur betting and lets places like Nevada and Oregon do such. But state laws, that's what we want to think about, some state laws deal with this. There are casual betting laws which usually make it OK so long as you don't collect a lot of money. There are even bets and it's involved in that way. And then as far as stakeholders, there's laws like New Jersey and Missouri which say simply holding the money makes it illegal. So you want to be familiar with the state's laws in your country as well as whether your corporation allows you to do such things.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Alex, for that. Jack Cafferty is in New York. Jack, my gut tells me that law enforcement have better things to do than worry about these basketball pools.

CAFFERTY: Well, let's hope so. Let's hope so.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says planning for a possible bird flu pandemic should be a priority for households and for businesses, not just for the government. Now, here's what Leavitt suggests. He says people should start storing cans of tuna fish and powdered milk under their beds. So that's a question we asked this hour. Do you think tuna fish and powdered milk are the answer to the bird flu?

Doug in Sierra Madre, California, "No, Jack, the answer is duct tape and plastic again. You duct tape government health officials' mouths closed, and then use the plastic to cover yourselves from any remaining B.S. flying around."

Jan in Brunswick, Georgia. "Poll numbers down, Feingold urging censure, good old Karl, we just knew he'd find a way to change the subject."

Betty writes, "I don't like powdered milk or beans. Do you think wine and crackers would be okay?"

Barry in Show Low, Arizona, "Yes, it's a good idea to have food, water, medical supplies, flashlight, et cetera, the whole Boy Scout bit. Because if Katrina taught us anything, it taught us we cannot expect the government to provide help."

Mike writes from Lynbrook, New York, "Quick, I have to call my broker. That duct tape thing put one kid through college four years ago. Charlie the Tuna and powdered milk would pay for the summer vacation and the garage renovation."

And Mark writes from Norfolk, Virginia, "I always heard it was meatballs and lime Jell-O under your bed. And having Michael Ansara come over to your house and chant "gitchee Manitou."

BLITZER: We're laughing, but this is -- I sort of want to make sure our viewers know that this potentially is a pandemic we're talking about.

CAFFERTY: Yeah. Right. You could get hit by lightning, too, Wolf. I just can't get all that worked up about it. I worry about the war in Iraq, I worry about illegal spying on American citizens, I worry about that kind of stuff.

There have been less than 100 people worldwide die from the bird flu over the last three years so you'll forgive me if I'm not pushing the panic button quite yet and if I do get concerned about it, stuffing powdered milk and cans of tuna fish under my bed probably won't be high on the list of things that I'll do to try and protect myself.

But then, hey, I might die from the bird flu if I don't follow the government's advice.

BLITZER: And there's mad cow disease out there now, too, Jack.

CAFFERTY: That's true. And don't forget mumps. You get mumps and if you pass about the age of 14, it's very painful.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thanks very much.

CNN now, we're back in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're here weekday afternoons 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We're back in one hour, once again, 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Lots more coming up.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. LOU DOBBS TONIGHT starts right now.

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