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THE SITUATION ROOM

Iranian Leader Was A No-Show For Bush's Address To U.N. General Assembly; White House Attempts To Reach A Deal on Treatment of Terror Suspects; John Bolton Interview; George Allen Being Questioned About His Religious Roots; Bill Frist Interview

Aired September 19, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali.
To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

Happening now. President Bush reaches out to the Iranian people but avoids a face-to-face encounter with their president. It's 4:00 p.m. at the United Nations where Mr. Bush addressed the Iran nuclear showdown, and his broader vision for the volatile Middle East. I'll ask the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton what happens next.

Also this hour, the battle over the treatment of terror suspects. The White House makes rebel Republicans an offer they can refuse. I'll ask the top Senate Republican, the majority leader, Bill Frist, about the desperate search for a compromise with election day looming.

And an already embattled senator now facing questions about his religious roots. Does Republican George Allen have Jewish ancestors, and why did he get so riled up when he was asked about that? I'm Wolf Blitzer in New York. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is getting ready for his turn to address the United Nations General Assembly and possibly to respond to one of his chief adversaries, that would be the president of the United States.

The leaders of Iran and the U.S. are keeping their distance at the U.N. gathering, where the showdown over Iran's nuclear program is being spotlighted today. Mr. Bush told the U.N. delegates and world leaders that Iran's rulers are holding their people back by funding terrorism, fueling extremism and pursuing nuclear weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program.

We're working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis. And as we do, we look to the day when you can live in freedom and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president's words are being weighed right now by the diplomatic community and by policy makers both here as well as around the world. Our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is here in New York where the action is this week. She is joining us here live.

Suzanne, this is a very, very delicate diplomatic dance that the president has to take to avoid a direct encounter, if you will, with the Iranian leader.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. And as you know, it's really something we were all kind of watching for, waiting to see this kind of kabuki dance between these two.

Ultimately you know, this was billed as a showdown between the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil. Never happened, they never got in the same ring. Ahmadinejad was a no-show for the president's address to the U.N. General Assembly.

But what's really important here, not so much these kind of political maneuvers between these two, but as you know, what is happening quietly behind the scenes, the negotiations.

If you take a look at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, where is she going to be this evening? Meeting with her counterparts, the Europeans who have been quietly talking to Iran for weeks now, trying to figure out a way to get them to suspend their enrichment uranium program and then get them back to the table.

BLITZER: I think it's fair to assume that the president of the United States won't be in the audience when the Iranian leader speaks later tonight as well.

MALVEAUX: That's right. He will be a no-show.

BLITZER: He is going to be a no-show there as well. The U.S. wants tough sanctions against Iran unless it suspends its uranium enrichment program. There's problems getting the Russians on board, the Chinese, but apparently now there seems to be a little split developing with the French.

MALVEAUX: Well, you know what was interesting today is that Jacques Chirac, the French president, even before the address to the U.N. General Assembly, really kind of split this division wide open.

But what he did was he acknowledged something that's been happening quietly for some time. And that is, he said, look, why doesn't the United States put off this idea, suspend this idea of imposing economic sanctions while we are talking to the Iranians.

President Bush and Chirac were together, they were both seen together today, they said they're on the same page. But even President Bush today acknowledged, he said that we will go ahead and if they continue to stall, then we'll go ahead with these discussions on the sanctions.

So there does seem to be some wiggle room here, that they will allow the Europeans to continue to talk with Iranians and, at the same time, press for sanctions, perhaps at a later date. So there is wiggle room.

BLITZER: All right, Suzanne, thanks very much. Suzanne Malveaux, our White House correspondent.

A very busy day for everyone here in New York.

Today, far more explosive comments today about Iran's president by a United States senator. During a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Republican George Voinovich of Ohio compared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and then made fun of his name.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH (R), OHIO: Ahmadinejad, I call him Ahmad in the Head. I think he's a Hitler type of person. He has made it clear that he wants to destroy Israel. He's made it clear he doesn't believe in a Holocaust. He's a -- he's a -- well, we all know what he is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I'll ask President Bush about Iran's president and his nuclear ambitions and other red hot global political topics in my rare one-on-one interview with Mr. Bush airs tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Bush White House is trying to get rid of a big headache right now. Its disagreement with maverick Republicans about harsher interrogations of terror suspects. Let's go to Capitol Hill.

Senators there are working to try to craft a compromise after deciding a new administration offer is serious, but still falls short. Our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel is standing by with more -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no one is using the word breakthrough. In fact, one Republican staffer who is close to these negotiations told me that there is only really a 50/50 chance, they believe, of any kind of a break in the impasse between now and the end of the month when Congress goes on recess. Nevertheless it does appear that both sides are taking these talks seriously.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: The three renegade Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee weren't tipping their hand. But after days of deadlock in the opening bid by the White House to compromise on its detainee legislation had given them a new sense of optimism, a deal could be within reach. SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN: All I can say is very constructive and, I think, productive process of consultation going on between the senior White House, myself, Senators McCain and Graham.

KOPPEL: The focus of the White House proposal, how to resolve a key sticking point, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which forbids, among other things, "outrages upon personal dignity". The White House says it's too vague and needs to be clarified, while Senator Warner and his colleagues worry to do so could endanger U.S. troops captured on the battlefield. Texas Republican John Cornyn supports the president's position and has see the White House offer.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: It is another way to try to come up with a clear rule so intelligence officials know what is permitted and what is not permitted.

KOPPEL: Vice President Cheney came to Capitol Hill to meet privately with Senate Republicans. But on a day when others seemed eager to lower the rhetoric, the Senate majority leader, who also supports the president, came out swinging.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: We have several fundamental issues where there's not agreement. And the Warner, McCain, Graham approach does not meet the bottom line criteria, which, I think, is important to the safety and security of the American people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: Now what most Republicans aren't eager to talk about right now, but what is on the minds of many who are up here, Wolf, is the fact that they need to resolve this very public split within the Republican party as soon as possible.

According to a second Republican staffer, who is close to these talks, he said that both McCain, Warner and Graham recognize the White House needs to move this issue off the table as soon as possible with the elections just around the corner -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, thank you.

Other important news happening today as well. Within the past few hours the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis reported seeing a second piece of unidentified debris floating away from the spacecraft. A similar sighting was made early this morning. What does this mean for the safety of the space shuttle and their scheduled return tomorrow?

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is standing by. She's got the latest -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, it was during the noon hour when an astronaut called into Mission Control and said, "Houston, Atlantis, we're not joking about this, but Dan was at window one. He saw an object floating nearby." That's a reference to Dan Burbank, who is there aboard.

Now, we don't know what that object was at this stage, but this does come after an earlier setback. A camera aboard Atlantis spotted a piece of debris floating out there earlier on. Now if you're having trouble making out what is there, don't worry, so is NASA. The source of the object and its size at this point is unknown. At a press conference earlier on, NASA officials said that they're developing a plan of inspections which may take place tomorrow.

The landing, the latest we heard, has been put off from tomorrow. Thursday would be the earliest -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

Very important developing story we're following out Thailand right now. Zain Verjee is standing by with developments unfolding within the past few moments -- Zain, what have we learned?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, we've just learned that the Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has canceled his planned speech to the United Nations General Assembly after a coup attempt. Thailand's military leaders just hours ago tried to seize power while Mr. Shinawatra was out of the country and in New York. The government now insisting that it is in control.

Earlier, we saw tanks and troops surrounding government offices as well as the palace of the king. There were chiefs of Thailand's Navy and Air Force also that met with the king to declare themselves in control of the army. He was scheduled -- Mr. Shinawatra, that is -- to speak at the U.N. General Assembly and we're learning now that he has canceled it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're going to have a lot more, Zain, coming up on this important story. We're going to go to Bangkok live. Our Dan Rivers is on the scene. We're watching it. Very dramatic developments happening in Thailand right now with these tanks moving in to the capital.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He is with me in New York. Good to be with you, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: It's our once a year visit.

BLITZER: You're in the wall usually but there you are, live and in person.

CAFFERTY: That's right. And you're not any taller than you were the last time you were up here. Same height.

BLITZER: Yes, you're very tall.

CAFFERTY: U.S. troops are not coming home from Iraq any time soon. The commander of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, said today troop levels will likely stay at the current level of 140,000 until at least the middle of next year. Remember back awhile ago we were told troop levels would be cut back to about a 100,000 by the end of this year? Remember that? Well, it's not going to happen. If anything, we could probably use more troops in Iraq, not fewer.

The violence continues to get worse. The ability of the Iraqi government to deal with it doesn't get any better, it seems. In addition, the sectarian violence where hundreds of people are killed every week, the insurgents show no signs of letting up.

A car bomb killed two people and wounded 24 others today in Baghdad. Three more U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in the last couple of days. That brings the total number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq since the start of the war to 2,686.

In the meantime, what is the plan? Sit around there while the citizens continue to slaughter each other and our troops continue to get picked off, two, three, four at a time? For how long? And for what purpose?

Here is the question. How long should the U.S. keep its current troop levels in Iraq? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com, or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

It just doesn't seem like things are getting any better at all over there.

BLITZER: You know, I guess if you're an Iraqi right now and you're saying to yourself I remember the bad old days of Saddam Hussein, maybe to -- some of the Kurds in the north certainly have it better. They were being slaughtered by Saddam Hussein. Shiites in the south, they were being slaughtered.

So for a certain degree, for some Iraqis, it's certainly getting better. But I think you're right. The security situation throughout most of the central part of Iraq is awful.

CAFFERTY: Yes. And you know who else it's not any better for? American troops who are over there.

BLITZER: Yes. Thousands of them.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: All right. Jack, thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Good to see you.

BLITZER: I want to go to this developing story we're following out of Thailand. The army commander there declaring martial law after a move to oust the Thai prime minister while he was right here in New York at the United Nations.

Let's go to Bangkok. Our Dan Rivers is standing by. Dan, what is the very latest on the ground? DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm standing right outside the prime minister's governmental offices. There are two M-48 tanks parked outside. There are soldiers that have occupied all of the key government buildings and key roads, highways and sections here.

They have, they say, Bangkok under their control. It is a coup d'etat. They have imposed martial law. They've revoked the constitution and they say they have sacked the Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

BLITZER: Is there a sense that when the prime minister returns to Bangkok how is he going to be received? What is going to happen?

RIVERS: I'd be very surprised if he does return to Bangkok, quite frankly. This has been brewing for some time. He's a controversial figure, Thaksin, a divisive figure, one that has being embroiled in allegations of corruption, of fixing the last election. That had to be declared null and void and another election was going to happen next month.

Whether that will still happen is the big question now that Thailand is a military dictatorship, remains to be seen. The military are saying this is a short-term measure in order to root out corruption and proceed but, you know, Thailand is no stranger to having military coups here. This is the 18th military coup since the second World War.

BLITZER: Is there, Dan, a strong man emerging, organizing this military coup who presumably will assume power?

RIVERS: The figure that seems to be emerging at the moment is General Sonthi. He is commander in chief of the army. We understand he will now assume the role of caretaker prime minister while they presumably rewrite the constitution or draw up a new constitution and then hold fresh elections. That's what people here are hoping for. Whether that happens is unclear.

We know he and other military leaders went in to meet the king, who is the key figure here, at midnight here tonight. We don't know what the result of that meeting was, but you got to think that the king is such an influential figure here that this would not have happened without the king's blessing.

BLITZER: We'll watch this situation unfold together with you, Dan. Thanks very much. Dan Rivers joining us live from Bangkok. An important story happening today.

Coming up, President Bush on the world stage here in New York, reaching out to Iran and defending the mission in Iraq. Did he make his case? Up next, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. He joins us live right here in New York.

Plus, check out this accidental meeting in the halls of the U.N. We'll tell you what happened when 43 and 42 came face-to-face.

And later, much more on the battle between Republicans over terror detainees. I'll ask the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, if a compromise can be reached. How deep is the division within the Republican Party right now?

I'm in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. I'll be interviewing the president tomorrow. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. President Bush urging Iran today to come back to the nuclear negotiating table. Let's talk about his day at the United Nations here in New York and how he is addressing the Middle East conflict. I'm joined here in New York by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: This is the Super Bowl for you guys here this time of the year when the General Assembly convenes. The president's quote, briefly but to the point, let's talk about Iran right now. Are you convinced that Iran will suspend its nuclear enrichment program under any circumstances given their desire, apparent desire to build a bomb?

BOLTON: No, and that's the real test and we have been saying, the Europeans have been saying, the Security Council has said, the international atomic energy agency has said that that is the pre- condition for these negotiations to proceed. So we've given them a lot of latitude, we've got a very generous, a very generous offer on the table. We want to hear from them they they're going to suspend their uranium enrichment operations.

BLITZER: The president said flatly that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb today, even though others have raised questions about that and the Iranians flatly deny it. They say they are enriching uranium for strictly peaceful purposes, how good is the intelligence that you are convinced that Iran definitely is trying to build a bomb?

BOLTON: Well, there's certainly information we had to that effect but let me make it clear. There is simply no explanation for Iran's activities across the entire range of the nuclear fuel cycle unless they're seeking a weapons position. They say, for example, they want nuclear energy for peaceful purposes because they are running out of oil and natural gas.

And in fact, our estimates are that they're going to run out of oil and natural gas in about 300 or 400 years. So the whole explanation of their program is not credible. But there is a whole range of other information, most of which has been made public by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

BLITZER: Because the International Atomic Energy Agency stops short of flatly saying they are building a bomb.

BOLTON: They have stopped short, but they've also refused to say that Iran's program is purely peaceful. It may just take one piece of information that the IAEA published. Iran has documents from AQCON, the great nuclear proliferator from Pakistan about how to fabricate uranium metal into hemispheres. There's only one use of uranium metal formed in the hemisphere, and that's to form a nuclear weapon. But nothing to do with peaceful uses of nuclear power.

BLITZER: But you understand why some people are skeptical of the Bush administration's stance given the failures on the weapons of mass destruction intelligence leading up to the Iraq war?

BOLTON: Quite honestly, I think it's few and far between, people who are skeptical of what direction Iran is taking. Where there have been disagreements with our European friends and even with Russia and China have been over how to handle it. But I will say, it's not -- this is not a dispute over intelligence. Obviously, intelligence can be wrong in several different directions. This is fundamentally a dispute I think within the security council about when to impose sanctions.

BLITZER: Because I raise the question because going into the war with Iraq, all of the intelligence communities in Europe and the Middle East and United States, they seem to be convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We now know he did not, so maybe all of the intelligence communities as far as Iran are wrong right now for whatever reason.

And I say that only because the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, a member of the intelligence committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, they told me recently that U.S. intelligence on Iran -- they don't believe is very good.

BOLTON: Well I think our intelligence could get much better, let's put it that way. But don't forget, intelligence was wrong about Saddam Hussein in 1990, '91 too when they didn't think they were close to developing a nuclear weapon, where the IAEA had no proof, but where after that war, we learned a lot about what Saddam Hussein was up to.

So as they say, intelligence can be wrong in a lot of directions. There is no doubt that the strategic decision that Iran has been following for close to 20 years has been to get not only a nuclear weapons capability, but to enhance the range and accuracy of their ballistic missile forces as well and that combination is extraordinarily dangerous.

BLITZER: How close, based on the information you have, is Iran to building a nuclear bomb?

BOLTON: Well, this is where the intelligence estimates vary and they vary all over the lot. I think precisely because of our uncertainty about the exact state of Iran's nuclear program, we have to treat their clear effort to get a nuclear weapon capability as very serious and not to assume that the intelligence estimates that put it off for many years are necessarily going to be right.

When you see a regime seeking the capability and you see a president like Ahmadinejad denying the existence of the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, sponsoring conferences with names like the World Without the United States, this is something that it's not only capabilities, it's intentions that you have to take seriously.

BLITZER: So you think it's realistic to assume if they had a bomb, they would actually use it?

BOLTON: I think it's realistic in a regime that is the central banker of international terrorism that is seeking a ballistic missile capability far beyond any legitimate defensive needs they might have, but which also puts arms and weapons in the hands of terrorists today. We've got a threat if they had the weapon, they could not make it with a ballistic missile, they could give it to a terrorist group like Hamas or Hezbollah as well.

BLITZER: Well that sounds very ominous, even much more dangerous than what the United States feared going into the war with Iraq. I assume the military option is being dusted off if it's not more advanced?

BOLTON: Well I think we've said repeatedly we never take the military option off the table, but President Bush has been emphatic for several years now our preferred way of dealing with the Iranian program is through peaceful and diplomatic means and he emphasized that again this morning at the U.N.

CAFFERTY: If those peaceful diplomatic means don't work, sanctions don't get off the ground, if there's no change in the Iranian position, what happens then?

BOLTON: Well that's why we say we don't take any option off the table about, but our effort at the moment, our concentration, our focus is on getting it resolved through diplomatic means. Through sanctions, if need be.

BLITZER: Is it credible to think that the U.S. could destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, assuming they have one?

BOLTON: I think they should believe that.

BLITZER: Do you think the U.S. could that with air strikes, with cruise missiles, with -- presumably they spread out their facilities around the country and they're deep underground. They learned the lessons of the Iraqis back in 1981 when the Israelis destroyed their reactor.

BOLTON: Well I'm not sure what the Iranians have really learned and I don't want to get into a hypothetical how it might happen. But I do think that the president has been very clear over a number of months that it's unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons. I think when he says it's unacceptable, I think what he means by that, it's not acceptable.

BLITZER: Is Senator Voinovich of Ohio right when he compares Ahmadinejad to Hitler? BOLTON: I think any man who denies the existence of the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map hasn't learned the lessons of history and I don't know what kind of comparison you can draw other than that.

BLITZER: Would you make a similar comparison?

BOLTON: That's not my function. I mean, what I do is follow the policies set by the president and the secretary. We all have our personal opinions. I think it's unacceptable for the head of a member government of the United Nations that says -- the charter of which says we are to resolve our differences by peaceful means to have somebody like that calling for another U.N. member state to be wiped off the map.

BLITZER: Is that why you don't think the president or other top officials should be meeting with Iranian leaders right now?

BOLTON: Well, we have made an incredibly generous offer to Iran on the nuclear question, even though they are a principal state sponsor of terrorism. We've even been willing to put that aside to say we would be prepared with the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese to sit down with Iran if they do one thing, they suspend their uranium enrichment activity. And that's not the U.S.' condition, that's the European's condition, it's the Security Council's condition, it's the IAEA's condition.

BLITZER: The stakes are enormous right now. John Bolton, thanks very much for coming in.

BOLTON: Glad to be here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And I'll ask President Bush about Iran's president and his nuclear ambitions, other red hot and global political topics. My rare one-on-one interview with Mr. Bush airs tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And what would you ask the president of the United States? You could go to CNN.com right now, give us your questions, we'll check them out.

And check out this photo opportunity at the United Nations today. President Bush and the former president Bill Clinton met this afternoon, chatting with one another and those around them. Mr. Clinton is holding his own global initiative meeting while world leaders are in New York for the U.N. gathering.

Still ahead, President Bush gets something he hasn't had in a year. We'll bring you some interesting new poll numbers and what it means for his battle with Congress.

Plus does Senator George Allen have Jewish roots or not? A new statement from the Virginia Republican fighting to keep his job. I'm in New York covering the United Nations General Assembly meeting. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting today from New York.

Let's check in with Zain Verjee -- she's back in Washington -- for a closer look at some other important stories making news.

Hi, Zain.

VERJEE: Hi, Wolf.

Iraq's government is now calling for the judge in the Saddam Hussein war crimes trial to be replaced. In court last week, the judge said the former Iraqi leader was -- quote -- "not a dictator." A spokesman for Iraq's prime minister says the judge can no longer be considered impartial.

The chorus of calls for a full apology from the pope for remarks he made about Islam is growing louder. Benedict XVI says he is sorry he offended Muslims last week when he cited a medieval passage linking Islam to violence. But many Muslims say that that's just not enough.

The remarks sparked protests and demonstrations around the Islamic world. Some extremist groups are threatening to punish the pope and wage war against Christians. And the Italian media is now reporting increased security around the pope.

Federal inspectors say they warned spinach farmers last year that they needed to increase food safety procedures. An outbreak of E. coli bacteria linked to fresh spinach has killed one person and sickened at least 114 others across 22 states. Inspectors say it could be weeks before they know the exact source of the bacteria. In the meantime, they are telling you not to eat any fresh spinach -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Zain.

New political gains for President Bush, seven weeks before congressional elections -- check it out. The new "USA Today"/Gallup poll shows his approval rating now up to 44 percent. That's his highest rating in a year. When the three latest polls are averaged together, Mr. Bush gets a 41 percent approval rating.

And his party may be gaining some new ground in the battle for Congress. The "USA Today"/Gallup poll shows likely voters are evenly divided between Democratic and Republican candidates. But among the wider sample of registered voters, Democrats hold a nine-point advantage over Republicans.

In the Virginia Senate showdown, the incumbent Republican, George Allen, is caught in yet another dust-up. On the heels of his now famous "macaca" comment, he is being questioned about his religious roots.

Let's bring in our national correspondent, Bob Franken. He is watching this story -- Bob. BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, now we know, Wolf, Virginia Senator George Allen is embracing, as he puts it, a diverse heritage, now acknowledging the Jewish heritage of his mother, but not before some real fireworks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN (voice-over): The question: Was there Jewish blood in Senator George Allen's family? We certainly found out that it was not the horseback-riding, cowboy-boot-wearing, tobacco-chewing senator's favorite topic.

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), VIRGINIA: Why is that relevant, my religion, Jim's religion, or the religious beliefs of anyone out here?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

FRANKEN: Jim is Allen's Democratic opponent, James Webb. They were debating in a Virginia suburb when a local reporter asked about an article saying his mother might have been Jewish.

ALLEN: Let's ask questions about issues that really matter to people here in Virginia, and not making aspersions about...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's move on.

FRANKEN: Allen, who would not be interviewed by CNN, released a statement, calling the questions "especially reprehensible," and any suggestion he was embarrassed about his newly discovered Jewish heritage "equally offensive and also absurd."

Some Jewish leaders agreed the question was inappropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all remember, and I have relatives actually who, you know, killed during the Holocaust. So, I think Jews are particularly sensitive to having that questioned asked.

FRANKEN: Allen has joined a who-knew list that includes former presidential candidate Wesley Clark, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Senator John Kerry. In the case of Allen, his mother, Etty, was the daughter of a man whose family converted from Judaism to Christianity under duress in anti-Semitic Europe.

His father, of course, was the legendary coach in the NFL, and devoted both Saturdays and Sundays to football.

ALLEN: From my father's football teams, where you have people from all different parts of the country and different backgrounds, you don't care about on a football team.

FRANKEN: Allen has repeatedly apologized for calling an Indian- American operative for his opponent a "macaca," which we now know can be a derogatory term.

And he suddenly is fighting a real tough campaign battle. So, Democrats have jumped right in, as one might have expected, suggesting the senator needs anger-management therapy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: Well, now the senator can only hope that the questions about his Jewish heritage and his reactions to them become nothing more, Wolf, than a tempest in a chainik, which is Yiddish for teapot, which is probably something Senator Allen probably did not know.

BLITZER: I think you're probably right.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thank you, Bob Franken, for that.

Bob Franken is part of the best political team on television.

And up next: political fallout, after a man with a gun breached security at the U.S. Capitol -- that's ahead in our "Political Radar."

And my interview with the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist -- will his party solve its differences over interrogating terror suspects? And will there be any repercussions on Election Day?

I'm in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Primaries in two states on our "Political Radar" this Tuesday.

In Massachusetts, three Democratic candidates are facing off for their party's gubernatorial nomination, including a former Clinton administration official hoping to become the first African-American elected to the state's highest office. The primary winner faces an uphill battle. No Democrat has been elected governor of the otherwise very blue state of Massachusetts since Michael Dukakis did so 20 years ago.

In Washington state, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell is expected to easily win today's primary. But some believe she may be vulnerable in the general election in November.

In Rhode Island, Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee pulled off a primary win. But a new poll shows the moderate Chafee is running neck and neck with his Democratic challenger, Sheldon Whitehouse. A new Brown University poll shows Whitehouse with 40 percent support, compared to 39 percent for Chafee.

In Georgia, a judge today struck down the latest version of a state law requiring voters to show I.D. He ruled, the I.D. requirement disenfranchises other -- otherwise qualified voters, making it unconstitutional. The case is expected to go to the Georgia Supreme Court before the November 7 election. Voter I.D. laws are being challenged in court in as many as nine states. The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, says, today, he is embarrassed by the latest security breach on Capitol Hill. A Maryland man appeared in court today, accused of slamming his SUV into a barrier, then running through the Capitol with a handgun. Carlos Greene will undergo days of psychiatric evaluation and treatment, before being arraigned.

Coming up: a stubborn blaze in California. We will tell you who may be in danger right now.

And the president's U.N. speech today -- did he help himself diplomatically and politically? Tough questions about Iran, Iraq, and much more coming up in our next hour in our "Strategy Session."

I'm in New York. We're covering the United Nations General Assembly meeting, getting ready for my interview tomorrow with President Bush.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Only moments ago here in New York, President Bush met with Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani. And, then, they spoke to reporters.

Listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I want to thank the president of Iraq for joining us.

President Talabani, you and your colleagues here have given us time, so we can strategize together, to help you succeed, help you become a democracy, a country that can sustain itself and govern itself and defend itself in the heart of the Middle East.

I want to congratulate the Iraqi people on your courage. These are tough times. There's still violence in your midst, because extremists want to stop the advance of a free society.

We spent time strategizing on how to -- on how we can continue to help the Iraqi government provide security for her people, not only security that comes from troops, but security that comes from economic vitality.

We had a very good meeting yesterday on the Compact for Iraq. The international community came and listened very carefully to the Iraqi government's proposals, and pledged support for this new democracy. And that ought to hearten the Iraqi people.

I made it very clear to the president that it's important for the government of Iraq to continue to make very difficult decisions, so that the people of Iraq see a -- to see progress, to see different political parties capable of working together for the good of the country and for the good of the people. I'm optimistic that this government will succeed. And I told the president of Iraq that America has given her word to help you. And we will keep our word. The people of Iraq must know that.

I spoke today at the United Nations. And, in my speech, I spoke directly to the people of Iraq. I wanted them to know that we're thinking about them during this difficult period of time. I want them to know we appreciate their courage. And I want them to know that the United States of America stands with them, so long as the government continues to make the tough choices necessary for peace to prevail.

So, Mr. President, thank you for coming, again. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your longstanding courage and support for freedom and liberty.

History will judge you kindly, Mr. President, when they look back and realize that, under your leadership, a new democracy began to flourish in the heart of the Middle East, called Iraq.

Welcome.

JALAL TALABANI, IRAQI PRESIDENT: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president of the United States meeting with Iraq's leader, Jalal Talabani, here in New York. They're both here for the United Nations meetings.

We are going to continue to monitor all of the president's activities right now -- tension very, very high between the U.S. and Iran right now.

Up next: the Senate Majority leader, Bill Frist. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I will ask him about the battle on Capitol Hill over legislation governing the treatment of terror detainees, a serious split among Republicans. And we will also find out what he has to say about how the issue could impact the battle for Congress in the upcoming election.

I'm in New York, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Key Republican senators are now trying to craft a compromise on the interrogation of terror suspects. A new White House offer didn't satisfy them, but it did give them some new hope. This issue has highlighted Republican divisions, just weeks before congressional elections.

Joining us now is the top Republican in the United States Senate, the majority leader, Bill Frist.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in. Are you with the president when it comes to these tough interrogation tactics, or are you with the -- the chairman of the Senate Armed Forces -- Armed Services Committee, John Warner, and John McCain and Lindsey Graham?

FRIST: Wolf, I and the overwhelming majority of Republicans are with the president of the United States.

And it's really pretty clear why. And that is because a very important program that has been lifesaving, that had been used to stop terrorist attack, goes away, goes away under the Warner-McCain-Graham approach.

Second issue is on the use of classified information. But, fundamentally, until we meet the criteria of being able to continue that very important program, which is lifesaving, and we don't give classified information to terrorists, I don't think that the Warner- McCain and Graham approach is going to be very much here in the United States Senate, at least among Republicans.

BLITZER: At least they are very, very firm on this point. And they're getting support from a lot of other retired military officers, including the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, who, only in "The Washington Post" today, is quoted as saying, "If you just look at how we are perceived in the world and the kind of criticism we have taken over Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and renditions, whether we believe it or not, people are now starting to question whether we're following our own high standards."

I take it you strongly disagree with Colin Powell as well?

FRIST: Well, I can tell you we don't know what those standards are, unless we spell them out in legislation.

And the failure of the Warner-Graham-McCain approach is that they don't define the standards as the president does in his particular bill. And we have been told repeatedly that that means the end to the program, that nobody is going to interrogate, unless it is spelled out of the rules that they use for interrogation, rather than leaving it ambiguous, as the Warner approach does, without spelling it out, which means we rely on international treaties and such wording as "outrages against personal dignity."

Nobody knows what that means. And we need to define it. That would be the end of the program. And it means that we cannot interrogate as we have in the past, which has been lifesaving.

BLITZER: You didn't have the votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Are you going to bring it up for a vote in the full Senate? The House basically has gone along with the president already.

FRIST: Overwhelmingly.

The House and the majority of Republicans in the United States Senate overwhelmingly support the president of the United States. Why? Because it comes down to the safety and security of the American people.

You are right. Four Republicans voted with all of the Democrats for an Armed Services bill. Now, what is happening -- and I'm very hopeful -- is that we will be able to work out differences between the administration and the Armed Services Committee, such that we meet two criteria.

Number one, we don't give classified information to terrorists, people who have assassinated our -- our soldiers and civilians; and, number two, that we are allowed to continue a program that we know has been useful to the safety and security of the American people, and that has contributed foiling anywhere from five to six to seven to eight terrorist plots against the United States.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this other issue that is before you, the issue of border security. The House has passed legislation that would support the building of, what, a 700-mile fence along the border between the United States and Mexico.

The president wants border security to be part of broader immigration reform, not just one part of it.

What are you going to do in the Senate?

FRIST: And, Wolf, I, too, believe we need comprehensive reform. We have to address what happens at the work site, where people are hiring illegal immigrants. We have to have a strong legal temporary worker program here. And that is what comprehensive reform is.

But I'm faced with the reality that I have about six more legislative days in this Congress before the elections. And, so, I'm taking a bill that has broad bipartisan support and that is securing our borders. Made the decision last night, taking it back to the floor of the Senate tomorrow, so that we can have that debate.

I look at it as a border security first, not border security only. Thus, people who believe in comprehensive reform can agree to that, and say, yes, we can address the other in the future, and those who say, no, the only thing important is border security, again, should be able to vote for that. And I'm very hopeful we will see that on the floor this week and a vote in the affirmative.

BLITZER: The -- a spokesman for the -- your Democratic colleague, Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, quoted as saying, "Senator Frist was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it."

Do you want to respond?

FRIST: Yes. You know, that sort of rhetoric is not in the interests of the American people.

Right now, we have got thousands of people coming across our border every day, every day, streaming across our border. There is something we can do, we must do.

So, I'm not going to talk partisanship or Democrat vs. Republican. I'm going to do what the American people expect, what our constitutional duty is. And that is to secure our borders. And that takes legislation. And that is why I am going to take it to the floor of the Senate.

If the Democrats want to stick their heads in the sand, if they want to obstruct again, they can do it. But it's wrong for the American people.

BLITZER: Senator Frist, thanks very much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

FRIST: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And still to come, Jack Cafferty, he will be back with a life-and-death question: How long should the U.S. keep its current troop levels in Iraq?

Jack -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Hi, Wolf.

The question is: How long should the United States keep its current troop levels in Iraq? General Abizaid said there will be no drawdown of forces, until probably, at the earliest, the middle of next year.

We got a lot of mail.

Mike in Omaha writes: "Jack, yesterday would be fine. Four years ago, it would have been better. We need to get out as soon as physically possible, except for financially helping clean up the 'pottery shop' we have destroyed and continue to degrade. Only a moron can believe anything good can come out of this disaster."

Carol in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: "They should send a lot more troops right away or redeploy immediately. Even the conservatives here in South Carolina are fed up with the way it's going now."

Bill writes: "Like the president has said many times, as long as it takes. When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor and declared war, no timetable was put on our mission. No matter how long it takes, war means killing the enemy and occupying their territory. It should be no different in this war against the terrorists."

Vas writes: "Troop levels should remain high until the bad guys are dead. They should probably add more troops, if needed. Let's have the generals run the war. You, Mr. Cafferty, obviously have an agenda, because, every time you're on CNN, you speak in a very negative way. Try reporting the news and not your opinion. That is your job."

Gerald in Las Vegas: "We train American troops in a few months. I will assume the Iraqis are the problem in this. If they wish to have a working government, give them six months. Then, they are on their own, win, lose, or draw."

And Lynn in Missouri writes: "Jack, what time is it now in Iraq? Do military planes have headlights? Today sounds pretty good to me" -- sir.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack. See you in a few moments.

CAFFERTY: I'll be here.

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