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THE SITUATION ROOM

Operation Swarmer Launched in Iraq; Rumsfeld Works on Iraq P.R. Effort; President Bush Headlines Fundraiser For The National Republican Congressional Committee; U.S. Military Opens Investigations Into Iraqi Civilian Deaths Last Year; Several Journalists And News Media Outlets Issued Subpoenas By Lewis Scooter Libby's Defense Team; Word Of Potential New Cabinet Member

Aired March 16, 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: To your viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, U.S. and Iraqi forces swarm an apparent hotbed for terrorists. It's midnight in Iraq, scene of the largest air assault since the U.S.-led invasion. Three years later, how grim are American's views on Iraq? We have brand new polls numbers out today.

Also this hour, the White House updates its national security strategy. Could Iran and its nuclear defiance be the target of a preemptive strike? It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. We're following the administration's juggling of global threats.

And the president's tricky relationship with his own party. Tonight, Republicans will eagerly accept his fundraising help, but they're also trying to stay detached from his political problems.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First this hour, Operation Swarmer. It's a huge U.S.-led air assault targeting Iraqi insurgents. It's still under way at this instant. It comes nearly three years to the day since the Iraq war began, at a time when Americans are growing even more negative about the overall mission and about the president.

We have reporters standing by. Bill Schneider is with us, Ed Henry on Capitol Hill.

Let's go to the White House first, Suzanne Malveaux, with what's going on there -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, of course, a very important mission. The president has staked his legacy on his success in Iraq, and he's had a really tough time of trying to convince Americans to stay the course here. It was May 1st, 2003, President Bush stood in front of a mission accomplished banner and said that the major combat operations in Iraq were over.

Well, today I asked Scott McClellan, in light of this new offensive, this air strike, whether or not indeed it was true. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There have been a number of operations that have been undertaken over the last several months, over the last year, to go and route out the terrorists and to target the regime loyalists. And so this is another operation that is aimed at the area north of Baghdad and the Samarra area to go after some insurgents in that area, as the military pointed out in their statement. But no one said that combat operations weren't ongoing. Those operations continue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And Wolf, of course, the follow-up question is the timing of all this, of these air strikes that are occurring here. It comes in the midst of a big P.R. campaign by this administration, the president, to win support for the Iraq mission. And, of course, the third year anniversary coming up very shortly, but Scott McClellan saying this is not coordinated with this P.R. campaign. But, clearly, a lot of questions about the timing and whether or not this is being overplayed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It comes on the exact same day of this new U.S. national strategy doctrine that has just been unveiled today. Tell our viewers what that's all about.

MALVEAUX: Well, Wolf, it was released earlier today. It's 49 pages. Essentially, it is required for the president to report back to Congress this revised strategy every year, and this is something we haven't gotten in the last four years, so it's long overdue.

But there are two things that stand out in this report. One, of course, some very harsh words when it comes to Iran, accusing Iran, over a span of 20 years of trying to build up a nuclear weapons program. Part of a broader strategy to get tough with Iran.

And, of course, secondly is the preemptive strike policy that is reaffirmed by this administration. As we all know, as we recall, the justification for the Iraq war with Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was a big threat to the United States. Since learned there were no weapons of mass destruction.

But the U.S. policy, very clear here, remains the same. It's saying, if necessary, however, under long-standing principals of self- defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains, as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. Wolf, the follow-up question there, of course, whether or not this was in any way connected -- politically motivated. They, of course, saying that this is not the case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's go right over to the Pentagon. Barbara Starr is standing by. Barbara, Operation Swarmer. What it's all about?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Operation Swarmer was launched earlier today. It is an air assault operation that the U.S. military is saying is the largest air assault operation since -- since the war began.

They are -- apparently developed this operation due to some original intelligence coming from Iraqi security forces, and then decided to move in. The reason they clearly, from a military standpoint, picked an air assault method of going in -- going in by helicopter -- was to maintain tactical surprise.

This is an area of about ten miles by ten miles that is very widely spread out, rural. They wanted to not come in by road, necessarily, where they could be seen coming from some distance and their targets of potential insurgents might escape. So by coming in by helicopter, they maintained maximum tactical surprise.

They do expect to remain in the area for some days to come. But the key question, Wolf, is going to be of course whether this operation, in itself, changes the security situation on the ground in Iraq.

BLITZER: Barbara, you know, we're showing our viewers some of this dramatic video coming in, U.S. Defense Department video. I got to tell you and our viewers, I was pretty stunned when I heard today that for the first time, the U.S. did not allow any journalists to go in on this operation. There were no embedded reporters.

There was, really, a decision made to keep the media away from this operation, even though the media had been invited as embedded reporters into virtually every operation, as far as I can tell, going back to start of this war. Is there a new policy unfolding at the Pentagon now?

STARR: Well, it's very difficult to say, Wolf. That certainly struck all of us, too. But what is perhaps even more interesting along those lines, to take our viewers just a little bit behind the scenes, no one in the Pentagon on a senior level appeared to be much aware of this operation at all or think it was much of a big deal.

The announcement by the 101st Airborne that they had commenced this air assault operation caught an awful lot of the senior commanders here in the Pentagon by surprise, as well; seeing it first on TV, then getting a press release from the 101st Airborne in their e-mail boxes.

It's hard to know whether it's a new policy, hard to know whether they just aren't quite ready to unveil Iraqi security forces to the news media in this particular instance; though they have in the past, certainly, allowed the media to see the Iraqi security forces at work. It's a bit difficult to tell. Perhaps it's a case of the 101st Airborne not realizing the vast media interest that all of this would spark.

BLITZER: Well, you put a -- one interpretation on it. My interpretation -- and it's perhaps worthy of consideration, we'll discuss this later -- is perhaps they didn't want U.S. media watching Iraqi military forces in operation because this is a potential area where there could be significant what they call collateral damage, and they don't want the free press, if you will, watching the Iraqi military in action, as opposed to the 101st air assault.

STARR: Wolf, let me come back and just clarify one point. There have been many, many instances where the U.S. military has allowed and encouraged, in fact, the U.S. news media to travel with Iraqi security forces. Of course, the one that most immediately comes to mind is the ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff was, indeed, traveling with Iraqi security forces on one of their patrols, a joint patrol with U.S. and Iraqi forces, when he and his cameraman were so very badly injured. Why, in this particular instance, we simply do not know the answer. We are, indeed, though, asking the question.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, I know you are. Thanks very much. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon with that.

We have new evidence today that Americans are growing more anxious about Iraq and the president's decision to go to war.

Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider has been studying some new poll numbers that are just coming out now -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, it's nearly three years since the war in Iraq began. Those three years have seen a dramatic change in public support.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Since the war in Iraq began in March of 2003, there's been significant erosion of public support. Then, just after the major fighting ended in April, 73 percent of Americans believed the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over. Now, there are growing doubts about the cause. Only 37 percent believe it was worth going to war in Iraq.

Then, Americans were confident of victory.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My answer is, bring them on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.

SCHNEIDER: In March 2003, 69 percent of Americans were certain the U.S. would win in Iraq. Now, President Bush urges Americans to stay the course.

BUSH: Our goal in Iraq is victory.

SCHNEIDER: But the public feels growing doubts about the course. Only 22 percent believe the U.S. is certain to win. Another 32 percent say it's likely, but not certain.

Then, just after the war started, just over half of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. Now, only 39 percent believe Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. That belief is powerfully related to education. The better educated you are, the less likely you are to believe it. Last year, Iraqis voted in three elections.

BUSH: In great numbers and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy.

SCHNEIDER: Now there's growing concern about sectarian violence. Americans are pessimistic. Only 40 percent believe Iraq will be able to establish a stable government, 55 percent expect to see Iraq dissolve into chaos and civil war, a demoralizing prospect for Americans, especially those who don't want anything to do with another country's sectarian religious conflicts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Fifty-eight percent of Americans say they have a close friend, a family member or co-worker who has served in Iraq. People who know someone who has served are more supportive of the war, but even they are not sure that Iraq was worth going to war over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

On Capitol Hill today, with congressional elections looming, Democrats are trying to make the most of voters' discontent about the war and Republicans are doing what they can to try to make the problem simply go away. Our congressional correspondent Ed Henry has more on this part of the story. Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, with trouble afoot in the polls, the White House today sent one of their top guns, Donald Rumsfeld, up to Capitol Hill to push back against these Democratic attacks on Iraq. But Democrats have a political problem of their own.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): As the U.S. military launched its largest air assault in Iraq since 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld huddled behind closed doors with House Republicans to ramp up administration public relations efforts. But Rumsfeld was in no mood for a question about whether it would have helped to reach out to lawmakers earlier in the war.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: That question reflects a monumental lack of knowledge. I come up to the Hill and with congressmen and senators every period of weeks.

HENRY: Pressed on the fact members in both parties privately say Rumsfeld meets with them, but doesn't always listen to them, he dismissed the critical lawmakers.

RUMSFELD: It is 535, you can find someone who will say anything.

HENRY: Despite private concerns about the war and the mid-term elections, Republicans are publicly sticking with the president. REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MAJORITY LEADER: Beyond the hot spots, the three or four hot spots in Iraq, the rest of the country is becoming more prosperous. There are more kids in school in Iraq than any time in their history. Their economy is beginning to come back and, so, there's a lot of good news there.

HENRY: But Democrats pounced on news of the new air offensive.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: The fact that it was necessary shows you the failure to date on the part of the policy this administration.

HENRY: But some Democrats fear a backlash from Senator Russ Feingold's move over to censure the president over the NSA domestic surveillance program.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Many in my caucus don't want to talk about this because, rightly, they want to point out the Bush administration's failures with regard to national security and how we do better. But what I think some of my colleagues are missing is that this actually fits in perfectly with this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: But Republicans are painting Feingold's move as an overreach, noting that he also tried to block renewal of the Patriot Act. As John Boehner, the House majority leader noted today, he says he wonders if Feingold is more interested in protecting the safety and security of terrorists than the safety of Americans. Gives you an idea of the kind of political attacks we're going to hear from the Republicans in the next few months, Wolf.

BLITZER: Getting ugly up there. Thanks very much, Ed, for that. Let's go to New York, Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Here's an update on a story we brought you in "The Cafferty File" last week. The Senate voted today to prevent the government from running out of money. They passed a bill that would allow the government to borrow another $781 billion. Treasury Secretary John Snow applauded Congress for doing this, saying that they protected the full faith and credit of the United States.

It's the fourth time Congress has raised the debt ceiling since President Bush took office five years ago. The new bill will raise the ceiling on the national debt to $9 trillion. And once the government reaches this new limit, won't take them long, the debt will represent $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. The question is this, where would each American get the extra 30 grand to pay down the national debt? E-mail us at caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. Coming up, we're following the developing story out of Iraq, the largest air assault since the start of the war. We'll get another live update on the mission, that's coming up.

And we'll discuss the growing political fallout over Iraq.

Plus, Republicans see President Bush two ways, as a fund raiser and chief and as a party leader with troubling political baggage. It's a campaign conundrum.

And there's another round of CIA leak subpoenas. Lewis Scooter Libby's defense team pumping reporters right now for information. We'll examine who's being targeted. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Updating our top story this hour, Operation Swarmer. It's a huge U.S.-led air assault targeting Iraqi insurgents. It's still underway at this very moment. Comes three years to the day since the Iraq war began. Coming up, the politics behind today's military moves. We'll speak with Paul Begala and J.C. Watts in our "Strategy Session." We're also going to go live to Baghdad as well.

First, though, let's bring in our Zain Verjee from the CNN global headquarters in Atlanta with a closer look at some other stories we're watching -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, on the political front in Iraq, an important milestone today as Iraq's new parliament is sworn in. But a standoff between two major factions is at this hour threatening hopes for quick consensus on a national unity government. The 275- member legislative council met briefly amid beefed up security in Baghdad. But the business of parliament's being delayed because of divisions over the selection of a new prime minister.

Just in the last few hours, ABC News announced that anchorman Bob Woodruff has been discharged from the hospital. Woodruff's going to continue to rehab at a private facility in New York. In a statement released this afternoon, the network reports that he's making progress in all respects. Woodruff was seriously injured while reporting in January in Iraq.

In Texas, strong winds that fueled a rash of wildfires have let up in recent hours. Firefighters are scrambling to take advantage of the improving weather to contain and extinguish as many fires as possible. Meanwhile, the state's governor is on an aerial tour of affected areas today. Nearly a million acres have burned since the weekend and more than three million acres have been charred since December.

Right now in San Diego's Cox Arena, March Madness is underway, a albeit a little belatedly. A bomb scare delayed the start of the NCAA's college basketball tournament games at the facility for about an hour this afternoon. The arena was evacuated after bomb-sniffing dogs detected a suspicious package. Just minutes ago, the first game in the tournament's San Diego region featuring Marquette vs. Alabama tipped off -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much. A few hours from now, President Bush headlines a major fundraising event here in Washington for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The event is expected to pull in $7.5 million. Republicans also will be well aware of another set of figures, though, the president's record-low poll numbers.

Four surveys out this week put the approval rating at a high of only 37 percent, a low of 33 percent. Average them all together, and you get an approval rating of what? Thirty-five percent. That's not very encouraging for Republicans now running for re-election.

Our chief national correspondent John King is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM for a closer look at the president's sort of touchy relationship with his fellow Republicans.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a tough moment right now. Many of these Republicans, as you well know, broke with the president quite openly over the ports controversy. Many are brewing for a fight over spending. Many are brewing for a fight with this president over immigration. But, tonight, Wolf, they'll be happy to break bread with the fundraiser-in-chief.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): Even in the middle of a family feud, the president remains the Republican Party's top fundraising attraction.

BUSH: Thanks for joining this great festival that celebrates the Republican Party of the great state of Georgia and God bless.

KING: Six presidential events so far this year have raised $12.6 million for the Republican Party. Add in 20 more events last year, and the president has raked in $88.1 million for the GOP in the 2005/2006 cycle, with nearly eight months still to go.

BILL MCINTURFF, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: George Bush is still the most popular figure in the Republican Party. He is, by far, our best fundraiser.

KING: Popular, yes. But even among Republicans, the president's numbers are down some, leading to GOP worries he won't be as big an asset he was in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles.

His approval rating among Republicans, for example, is still 75 percent, yet that's down 16 points from a year ago. And Iraq, as it is with the overall electorate, is the biggest drag on Mr. Bush's standing. Seventy percent of Republicans now say it was worth going to war in Iraq, still strong, but down 20 points from when the war started three years ago.

MCINTURFF: Yes, there's a little bit of squishiness.

KING: It's a long way from March to November, but if Mr. Bush's struggles continue, he's could find he's not as welcome late in this campaign as in year's past.

CHARLIE BLACK, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Some Republicans who might be running in swing districts in a close race might say, well, gosh maybe I shouldn't have the president come in and campaign this October but, you know what? Most of them want him to come in and do fundraising this part of the year. So, the president is a big help.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: A big help tonight to the tune of more than $8 million now, Wolf, they say he will raise for House Republicans tonight. That beings his total to more than $96 million this year. Again, it's only March. The president will easily eclipse $100 million and go much higher, helping the Republicans with money.

All the strategists, though, will tell you that what they think is most important is bringing peace to party by October and November so that Republican voters at home aren't seeing a civil war that might convince them not to vote.

BLITZER: And Iraq, though, is the biggest stumbling block to that.

KING: It still remains the biggest stumbling block, even among Republicans, especially moderate Republicans, people who lean Republican, Independents. They have backed away from this president when it comes to supporting the war -- voters.

In Congress, they're still mostly staying with the president, but that's the fear. If they get closer to the election, will more Republican lawmakers break from the president on Iraq? Not seeing that now, but that's something to keep an eye on.

BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much. John King reporting.

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

Up next, much more on our top story, the major U.S. military operation underway right now in Iraq. What's the political strategy behind the operation, if there is one? Paul Begala and J.C. Watts standing by.

Plus, the White House updates its national security strategy and puts Iran near the top of its list of what to do next, potentially at least.

Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting some information coming out of the Pentagon right now. Let's bring back Barbara Starr. What are you hearing, Barbara?

STARR: Wolf, some potentially extremely disturbing news to report, unfortunately. Several U.S. military sources are now confirming to CNN that the United States military in Iraq has opened an investigation into how 15 Iraqi civilians died last year, November 19, 2005, in an encounter with U.S. Marines.

Let us be very precise and explain what we do know. On November 19th, U.S. Marines came upon -- were under attack by an improvised explosive device and small arms fire. At that time, it was reported that 15 civilians also died in a roadside bomb blast at that location.

Now, that is what the official announcement was. What we have learned is that the U.S. military got a tip somewhere along the way that perhaps those 15 civilians did not die in that fashion. They conducted an initial fact-finding investigation and now we're told they found enough information to take the matter to the next step and they have launched a full-fledged military investigation.

We're told by multiple sources, Wolf, that there could be criminal implications to this. The level of the investigation is such. What they will look into is precisely how these 15 Iraqi civilians died, and we're told by multiple sources, whether there was any misconduct -- that is the word that is being used -- by U.S. troops in how these civilians died.

What they're looking into, Wolf, is whether or not they died in some fog of war, confusion, collateral damage incident -- whatever you want to call it -- or we're told by our multiple sources whether there were some other circumstances that led to their death and how it is that that press release said that they died in a roadside bomb blast, but now it appears they did not -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, I know you'll watch this story for us, thank you very much. Lots of news coming in from Iraq today in our "Strategy Session."

The U.S. and Iraqi forces right now launching the largest air assault operation since the start of the war. and the president lays out his national security strategy in a lengthy document today. Is it smart to leave the option of a preemptive strike on the table right now?

Joining us are CNN political analysts, Democratic strategist Paul Begala and former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.

Let's start with you, Congressman. A major new military offensive underway right now to deal with the insurgents. A lot of people think, well, this should have happened over the past three years, the big operation like this, but is it a good strategy right now for the administration to be trying to work with Iraqi forces in going after these insurgents in this kind of way?

J.C. WATTS (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: I think it is. They're the bad guys. They're the ones that's wreaking havoc on those two or three hotspots in the country, and I think you have to deal with them.

And I think, Wolf, it shows that I think the government is starting to get footing. I think it shows that...

BLITZER: The new Iraqi government.

WATTS: The new Iraqi government is -- that's right -- starting to get a little footing, a little traction. And I think it shows that the intelligence is a little better.

This is a major offensive. And it had to be some good ground work and some good homework in order to make this type of offensive.

BLITZER: Paul?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: But it's an offensive by the Americans, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But there are a lot of Iraqis involved, too.

BEGALA: Yes. But there are a lot of Americans. And that's who I care about.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Not that I don't care about the Iraqis.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: We were told by the president that the Iraqis were standing up, so we could stand down. It turned out not to be true, right?

We have got 1,500 American troops, 50 warplanes going into combat today, perhaps necessary. I hope and pray that it succeeds, obviously. And I think it's good that they're trying something, at least, but it is proof that they weren't telling us the truth when they said the Iraqis were capable of defending themselves.

Second, we're almost to the three-year anniversary of President Bush telling us -- his words -- major combat operations are over. Three years ago, it will be in May, when he stood under that big banner that said "Mission Accomplished," and he said major combat operations are over.

Three years later, they're not over. And I think it further damages the president's credibility.

WATTS: One ...

BLITZER: This is a major combat operation today.

WATTS: It -- well, it is.

And, you know, the bottom line is, are you getting the bad guys? Are you on the offensive? And just one bit of a modification -- it's 1,500 troops, and that's American, Iraqi soldiers, coalition forces, so, it's not 1,500 Americans. But, nevertheless, I...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Who do you think is doing the job, J.C.? Come on. Let's be honest.

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: Hey. No, any time there's a major offensive...

BEGALA: It's our rear end on the line.

WATTS: ... American intelligence, American involvement is going to have to be there.

But, nevertheless, I think the bottom line is, the bad guys are being -- they're going after the bad guys, which is extremely important, fighting them there, which means we don't have to fight them here -- here in the United States.

BLITZER: I will tell you who is not there right now, any representatives of the U.S. news media. They were not allowed to be embedded in this operation. All the video that we are showing our viewers is video coming in from the Department of Defense, U.S. military photographers, that is screened edited, reviewed.

But I was pretty shocked when I heard today that there were no reporters or camera crews from U.S. news organizations that were allowed to go along.

BEGALA: It's a great point. It's one of the things -- and I -- you know, I have been a vocal critic of this war since long before it began. But one things that the Bush administration did right was this strategy of embedding journalists. I, frankly, give credit to...

BLITZER: It wasn't perfect, by any means.

BEGALA: It wasn't perfect, but it was a whole lot better than war coverage has ever been before, both -- both -- first, because I think it told the story of the real heroism of our soldiers. Second, it gave journalists, like yourself and others, a chance to be on the ground, third, because the American people could then see for themselves what it was.

And this was Torie Clarke, who is now working for our network, we should disclose. But Torie was the Pentagon spokeswoman for Secretary Rumsfeld. And she was the genius behind this.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: And I think the fact that she is gone now is -- is -- it's really a sad thing, because I think it's always good for the American people to see the heroism of their soldiers. Whether you agree or disagree with the war, the way that our troops conduct themselves is -- ought to be seen, because I think it's admirable.

BLITZER: I don't think it's an oversight. The 101st is pretty sophisticated, in terms of their public affairs. I speak as a former Pentagon reporter.

I know how these guys think. For some reason, they decided, this time, J.C., that, you know what, we're not bringing along American crews.

WATTS: Well, and I -- and I think we would have to admit, whether you agree with them being able to go, the press being able to go or not, we have to agree, they have given pretty serious latitude, pretty extensive latitude to the press in this war.

I -- rather than being critical or judgmental of the decision not to allow them to go this time, I think we have to take into consideration that the people on the ground need to make those decisions. And if they think that was an operational hazard, then I think we have to trust that -- trust that decision.

BEGALA: I don't think the hazard is more today than it was when the war began, by any means. It's probably much less. So, why are they doing it?

Here's a theory: because they don't want us to know that the Iraqis aren't doing jack, and the Americans are doing everything.

WATTS: Well, I...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: That's the logical explanation.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It's a theory.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's talk about...

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS: Well, that's a theory, right.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: This national...

WATTS: And I disagree with that theory, but it is a theory.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: If the Iraqis are so all-fire good, why won't they let us cover them.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the national security strategy the president unveiled.

I will read to you one section of it: "When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same."

J.C., good idea to keep that preemptive-strike strategy intact?

WATTS: I think, Wolf, that, again, speaks to this president being committed to this thing, being committed to the preemptive strategy. He has never waffled about that, made any -- you know, second-guess that.

That is the right strategy. That is the right policy. I think what we have seen over the last couple years, we think our intelligence was bad. But just, you know, straighten up the intelligence, and I think this war proves that there is better intelligence under this president.

BLITZER: The logic behind preemptive strike is, if you think someone is going to come and kill you, you have got to go out there and kill them first.

BEGALA: Absolutely.

What the president has done, though, is conflate two very different things, preemption, which is, just as you say, an imminent threat. No country has to wait to be attacked. If there's an imminent threat, you have a right -- a nation has a right to strike first to preempt that imminent threat. That is morally and militarily justified. And it goes back to before the beginning of the United States.

They have conflated that with preventive war, which is a Bush doctrine that says, before the threat becomes imminent, before, we are going to go in there to prevent a threat from materializing in the first place. These are two -- it's -- and that is -- that is unjustified morally and unwise militarily. The president has conflated these two very different things. And I think that's -- it's intellectually sloppy.

BLITZER: All right.

WATTS: Preventive or preemptive, if either would have been executed...

BLITZER: All right.

WATTS: ... pre-9/11, we probably would not have had pre -- 9/11.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there, guys. Thanks very much, Paul and J.C.

Coming up, much more ahead on our top story -- the massive American military operation in Iraq under way right now. We are going to go live to Baghdad, speak with our correspondent Nic Robertson.

Also, there are new developments in the CIA leak case -- lawyers for Lewis Scooter Libby casting a wide net right now, as they wrap up his defense.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Right now, several journalists and news media outlets have been issued subpoenas by Lewis Scooter Libby's defense team. The former Cheney chief of staff is fighting charges he lied to authorities investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

CNN has confirmed, subpoenas were sent to "The New York Times," its former reporter Judith Miller, NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, and "TIME" magazine reporter Matt Cooper. One of Libby's lawyers confirms to CNN they're trying to learn which reporters knew of Valerie Plame's identity and when they knew it. A source with knowledge of the subpoena says Libby's team also is seeking notes and documents regarding Judith Miller from "The New York Times" columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Judith Miller's attorney, Robert Bennett, tells CNN, the subpoenas seek even more information than prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wanted. Bennett calls the move, in his words, a fishing expedition.

Also, there's a new development unfolding for the government -- for a government lawyer accused of improperly contacting witnesses in the trial of al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Carla Martin now is on administrative leave.

Let's go to our justice correspondent Kelli Arena. She's following the story. She has got some new developments for us.

Kelli, what are you learning?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Carla Martin hasn't responded yet to the charges against her, but we were able to speak to her lawyer today.

Exclusively, CNN was able to get an interview with him, former prosecutor Roscoe Howard. I asked him what his reaction was to her being called a miscreant by prosecutors.

Here's what he had to say, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROSCOE HOWARD, ATTORNEY FOR CARLA MARTIN: It was offensive.

I just thought those kind of comments are just irresponsible, absolutely irresponsible. And I think that, after there is a hearing, we will demonstrate why they're irresponsible. But she was called a lot of names.

They have used an awful lot of terms in a lot of their filings that, quite frankly, I just find unprofessional. But we will have a chance to answer to it. And, at a certain point, when that -- you know, when the accusations and the vilification just sort of piles up, there is really a time when -- you know, when, as her attorney, I just felt I needed to step up, ask people to understand that there is another side.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARENA: At this point, Howard is not prepared to present that other side and says that he will only do that in court.

Carla Martin could be facing criminal charges for her conduct. As you said, Wolf, she's currently on administrative leave, with pay.

To remind our viewers, Martin is accused of mishandling witnesses who were supposed to testify in the Moussaoui trial. And she's also accused of lying to the defense by saying that other aviation experts wouldn't talk to them.

Because of her actions, the judge barred all aviation experts from testifying, which gutted roughly half the government's argument for sentencing Moussaoui to death. And prosecutors filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider. Moussaoui's defense team is, right now, Wolf, putting the finishing touches on their response. We will see where we go from here.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Kelli, for that -- Kelli Arena reporting.

Let go right to the White House.

Our Suzanne Malveaux is standing by with word of a new Cabinet member, at least potentially -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that announcement will officially come in about an hour or so in the Oval Office.

President Bush will announce the replacement of his interior secretary. We have learned from two Republican sources it is Governor Dirk Kempthorne from Idaho, a two-term governor. He also served six years in the Senate -- these Republicans sources telling me that this is a logical choice for the president, that they are very comfortable with one another, and he has the kind of background that the president is looking for, some of his pet projects including an immunization registry that he basically established for his state.

He has also worked very closely in dealing with a lot of those wildfires, forest fires that happened back in 2000 -- this, of course, following the resignation of Gale Norton. She made that announcement on Friday. It was a turbulent reign for her, her five years with the Bush administration, including a scandal with the Indian gaming licenses, as well as that Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling controversy with Congress that never really gained much appetite, when it came to members of Congress on the Hill -- but, again, that announcement coming in about an or so. Governor Rick Kemp -- Dirk Kempthorne is the president's pick -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, thanks very much for that.

And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, much more on our top story -- U.S. troops and Iraqi forces, they're on the move in Iraq right now. We are going to go live to Baghdad and to the Pentagon for the latest developments on what's called Operation Swarmer.

Plus, Jessica Simpson on Capitol Hill? We are going to tell you why the pop star was making the rounds with lawmakers today.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're keeping close watch on our lead story, that huge air assault operation against insurgents under way in Iraq right now. U.S. officials say Operation Swarmer will continue as long as necessary. U.S. and Iraqi forces are targeting what they call a hotbed for terrorists in an area Northeast of Samarra. That's joint outside of Baghdad.

We are going to have more on this mission, including a live update from the Pentagon and from Baghdad. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's check our "Political Radar." Today, Senator Russ Feingold is again defending his resolution to censure President Bush for authorizing secret wiretaps without court warrants. A just-released ARG poll shows Americans are divided over the Wisconsin Democrat's idea. Forty-six percent support censure. Forty-four percent oppose it. Most Democrats are disposing themselves from the censure resolution, at least for now.

But a moderate Republican senator -- yes, a Republican senator -- says he won't rule out voting to censure Mr. Bush. That would be Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who has broken with the White House before. He says such a penalty would be drastic, but he's not ruling it out.

In Florida, count Katherine Harris in the U.S. Senate race. The Republican congresswoman announced last night she would rather keep fighting than quit her embattled campaign. Harris says she will spend $10 million of her own money she inherited from her father to revive her bid to challenger the Democratic incumbent, Senator Bill Nelson.

Harris is controversial for her role in the 2000 presidential recount. She has now been tied to a contractor in a bribery scandal as well, but she says she's going to fight.

Jessica Simpson brought some glamour to Capitol Hill today. She lobbied Congress on behalf of Operation Smile. That's a group that provides reconstructive surgery for children with facial deformities. The tabloid cover girl managed to stir up some controversy as well. She turned down an invitation to attend that big Republican fund- raiser tonight starring President Bush.

Her dad says Simpson is a big fan of the president. She just didn't want her cause to be clouded by attending a political event.

As we reported, the censure of President Bush is not entirely off the table, but regardless of which way it goes, Democratic Senator Feingold's choice to propose such a penalty is reverberating online.

Let's get the latest from our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, want to take a look at how this conversation is playing out today. Will this galvanize the right? That's the big question everyone is talking about.

Let's go to James Joyner on the right from Outside the Beltway. Doesn't think is going to resonate, but doesn't think it hurts that the Democrats, he says, continue to overplay their hand.

A little farther right is Captain Ed from Captain's Quarters. He thinks that Feingold single-handedly changed the tone of the midterm elections -- strong words there. Blogs for Bush also on the right saying the Republicans are going to win because they have ideas -- the theme we hear a lot of -- Democrats do not.

Over on the Democratic side, they are saying the poll numbers are not there to support, that people don't want this censure. They're actually keeping an eye on the media -- on the media, which is something they like to do, keeping an eye on those poll numbers, to see how it shakes out. And there's also a lot of people who are in support of Feingold online, Wolf. They are saying this is a strong and resolute move -- back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jacki.

Up next, the situation online for George Clooney. The actor is angry about the way he was quoted on a popular blog. We are going to give you the latest.

And the president is in a pickle. Can Democrats capitalize on his sinking poll numbers? We are going to analyze the Democrats' dilemma. That's coming up in the next hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's a developing story happening in Florida right now.

Zain Verjee is standing by at the CNN Global Headquarters with details.

What is happening, Zain?

VERJEE: Wolf, a story is developing out just north of Miami, from Hialeah in Florida.

A school bus accident has occurred. You're looking at some pictures that we have been receiving. You see the school bus completely on its side, crossing the entirety of the street. Emergency personnel have been on the scene -- the area, also, presumably, been cordoned off here as well.

Local affiliates, Wolf, are reporting that as many as 18 students have been hurt. We don't know how badly they have been hurt, how serious any -- any of their predicaments may be, and -- and, presumably, the ones that have been badly injured.

We see one individual being taken on a stretcher to the nearest medical facility. We don't know what caused this accident either, Wolf. But we will bring you more details when we know.

We will continue to watch it, Zain. Thanks very much, Zain Verjee reporting.

Liberals are ready to award George Clooney an Oscar for his comments on Arianna Huffington's popular political blog. The only problem is, did he write those words?

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, is tracking the story online and is joining us now live -- Jacki.

SCHECHNER: We got to the bottom of this, Wolf.

He did not write it. That's the bottom line. Here's what we know. Arianna Huffington met him at a party. He asked how this whole blogging thing worked. She ended up sending a sample of what this might look like. She sent it to his publicist. It was compiled for interviews that he had given on other shows and in "The Guardian."

And Arianna was waiting for a response from the publicist. She got it, saying go ahead. And this is what showed up. Clooney was angry.

Here's the statement from Clooney: "With my permission, Ms. Huffington compiled it from interviews with Larry King and 'The Guardian." What she most certainly did not get my permission to do is combine only my answers in a blog that misleads the reader into thinking that I wrote this piece. These are not my writings, and they are answers to questions. And there is a huge difference."

Now, this has -- became a big issue here. People are saying it calls into question Arianna's blog in general.

But she addresses that, Wolf. She says that 99 percent of the bloggers on her site absolutely write their own stuff. This was an isolated incident and a misunderstanding.

BLITZER: Jacki, thank you very much. Still to come, Congress votes to jack up America's debt. How would you pay it down? Jack Cafferty will be back with that $30,000 question and your e-mail.

And we will continue to follow the developing story out of Iraq right now, the largest air assault since the war began. We are going to go there live. We will have a live report right at the top of the hour.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's Jack in New York -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf.

The Senate voted to raise the debt ceiling to $9 trillion today, another $781 billion drawdown against our grandchildren, I guess. It represents an obligation now of $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. The question is, where should each American get the $30,000 to pay down the debt?

Margaret in Bensalem, Pennsylvania: "We should get it from all those countries where we have outsourced American jobs. If we can outsource our income, shouldn't we be able to outsource our debt as well?"

Gene in Lake Oswego, Oregon: "From Bush's good buddies in Dubai, where democracy does not flourish."

Libby in Burnsville, Minnesota: "From the war-profiteering companies, pharmaceutical companies, and oil companies who have stolen it from us."

Allan in Burlington, Kansas: "Let's see. Raise the minimum wage, lower health care and insurance costs, lower college tuition, limit the profits allowed by big oil companies, that should make a good start."

Gerry writes from Des Moines, Iowa -- or Gerry, I guess it is -- "I could raise my share of money by having a bake sale or a garage sale. If that didn't work, I could walk the streets at night. But I'm 75 years old, so that probably wouldn't raise a lot of money. So, I will guess I will just have to borrow the money, like the government does."

And George in Arizona writes: "I plan to open a mango stand" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, mango, delicious.

Thanks very much, Jack, for that.

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