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PAULA ZAHN NOW

President Bush Declassifies Sections of National Intelligence Estimate; Condoleezza Rice Takes on Bill Clinton; Rewriting Rules on Torture

Aired September 26, 2006 - 20:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And thanks to all of you for joining us. Paula has got the night off.
Tonight's "Top Story" is news that is still breaking. Just a short while ago, on President Bush's orders, parts of a secret high- level intelligence report about trends in global terrorism were made public. We're going to deal that in-depth tonight. The report calls the war in Iraq the cause celebre for jihadists, extreme Muslim terrorists.

But it also says that the U.S.-led effort to fight terrorism has seriously damaged al Qaeda's leadership and disrupted its operations. The report goes on to warn that anti-U.S. sentiment is on the rise and will fuel other radical ideologies, and, to grow, jihadist movements depend on a the continuation of Muslim-related conflicts, like the one in Iraq.

Well, word of the report's existence first leaked out on Sunday. The fact that President Bush declassified parts of it today shows just how important and how political the Iraq war has become.

With more on that just-released report and its implications, here's Kelli Arena.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Soledad.

You know, It is rare that a national intelligence estimate is made public. And what was put out was actually a three-page summary of key findings.

But that provided just enough ammunition for both Bush supporters and critics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice-over): The abridged version of the report pretty much mirrors what we have already heard from a variety of administration officials. But there's one point you don't hear much about, that, five years into the war on terror, Muslims who identify themselves as jihadists are increasing, both in number and geographic dispersion.

Robert Hutchings used to head the National Intelligence Council, which prepared the report. ROBERT HUTCHINGS, ASSISTANT DEAN FOR ACADEMIC AFFAIRS, WOODROW WILSON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: To me it, says that we have gotten ourselves off on a fundamentally wrong track by over-militarizing this struggle.

ARENA: Intelligence official says they pushed to keep the report secret. They say it is not something that is meant for public distribution; it's written for top-level policy-makers.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think analysts will be more reluctant to make tough judgment calls if intelligence products are thrown out into the public arena every time there is a political firestorm.

ARENA: The portion of the report that caused such a ruckus in the first place had to do with the war in Iraq. The report says that conflict is shaping a new generation of terrorists leaders and that it has become the cause celebre for jihadists.

On the other hand, if fighters fail there, or think they failed, the report says that will hurt the movement.

MCLAUGHLIN: So, it presents a very dynamic picture on Iraq.

ARENA: The war in Iraq is just one reason cited for the growth of extremism. Other reasons are the slow pace of reform in many Muslim nations and pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment.

But it is not all negative. The analysts who wrote the report say moderate Muslim leaders are stepping forward to denounce the violence.

MCLAUGHLIN: The paper makes the point that that mainstream Muslim movement could be the factor that would tip the scales, the most potent weapon in the anti-terrorist movement.

ARENA: So, what else might tip the balance? Well, the report says, if Osama bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders are caught, that could fracture the movement.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: We're back with Kelli and also CNN senior national correspondent John Roberts and congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel.

Thanks for joining us this evening, guys.

Kelli, let's start with you for a quick question. How unusual is it, in fact, to have a NIE report declassified?

ARENA: Very unusual.

We were talking to intelligence officials today who were trying to remember how many times this had been done before. And they could only come up with about three times. And, Soledad, to put that in perspective, there are 20 of these done every year that we never know about. So, to have three in the history of -- of these reports, you know, made public is remarkable.

O'BRIEN: John Roberts, now that we know a little bit more about this document, does it help the White House?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Does it help the White House?

I don't know. It is really like a piece of molding clay, as Kelli was saying in her piece, that the critics can take a little piece from it. Supporters of the president can take a piece from it.

But it is interesting, Soledad, that they suddenly decided to release this. Just yesterday, Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president, was saying, well, we don't think it rises to the level of -- of having it released.

But they got some cover from Senator Pat Roberts, who is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said: I want this released. I want to be able to take this to the public.

And, as well, Soledad, they were getting beaten up so badly by this whole thing, that they really had to release it. They just cast it in the idea of, it's a political season. People are trying to make political hay out of this. So, we're going to respond. We're going to give the American people the benefit -- benefit of reading this for themselves, so that they can make up their own minds.

So, they had all kinds of political cover to be able to release this.

O'BRIEN: Yes, or -- or at least reading part of it for themselves.

And, as you say, the Democrats, to a large degree were, running with the ball on this.

Let's turn to Andrea, then.

How concerned do you think, Andrea, that Republicans, as they face midterm elections, are that the Democrats can now turn from the greater war on terror and look more specifically at Iraq?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, look at the way that the Democrats have been using the NIE since it was first reported on over the weekend in that -- leaked newspaper reports.

The fact is, Republicans view not just Iraq, but the war on terror, right now as the Achilles' heel of the Republican Party. And they believe that they are getting traction on that when they -- when they go out and -- and talk to Americans, talk to their constituents. The fact is, Democrats are going to be like a dog with a bone. They are not going drop this, Soledad, no matter what the Republicans do. And we saw this already within the last couple of hours. We have gotten -- certainly in my inbox, I have gotten dozens of e-mails from various Democratic offices, saying that their minds have not been changed, even having seen this -- this abridged version of the NIE -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: On Capitol Hill, they would love to see John Negroponte, some people, on the Hill, testifying. Do you that is likely, Andrea?

KOPPEL: Actually, he is going to be up here tomorrow, Soledad. He's going to be meeting over on the House side with members. But that is going to be behind closed doors.

Certainly, Republicans are saying, if Democrats take back the House or Senate in November, that is likely to happen. But, before then, it is not likely.

O'BRIEN: John Roberts, the final question will go to you tonight.

Do you think this is an issue that is going to loom large in the election, or do you think this is yet another blip in this next six- week-long path?

ROBERTS: Well, really, this -- this election is all about Iraq.

You know, it is partly about terror, too, but it's mostly about Iraq, the situation over there. People are looking at it, saying, is this going according to plan? Is it time for a change?

And that's why the White House is so sensitive about not only this, but as well what President Clinton was saying on the Chris Wallace program on Sunday. This is the president's trump card, this idea of terrorism, national security.

And anything that draws that into question is going to hurt Republicans, hurt his party. And the White House just can't afford to let that happen. But it is happening, regardless of their efforts to try to stop it.

O'BRIEN: Final question, Andrea, before I let you go.

Jane Harman has indicated there's another report on Iraq that she would like to see declassified. What do you know about that?

KOPPEL: Well, what -- what Congressman Harman said today is that there is another report that she is aware of that is supposedly on Iraq. It's another national intelligence estimate.

She said that it is in draft form, and that basically accusing the -- the White House and the Republicans of sitting on it until after November.

However, according to a U.S. government official, that is not exactly their interpretation of it. They say that this was only requested by Congress back in July, that the actual information- gathering has only just now begun. They say it is not in draft form, Soledad, and won't be ready for several months.

O'BRIEN: Andrea Koppel, and John Roberts, and Kelli Arena joining us, all part of the best political team on TV.

Thank you, guys, Appreciate it.

Another important part of tonight's "Top Story" about politics and terrorism, it's the aftershock from Bill Clinton's red-face, finger-pointing explosion during a Sunday TV interview. The former president was defending his administration's record on terrorism, and said the Bush administration did not do much to stop al Qaeda before 9/11.

Well, today, President Bush sidestepped a question about just how many meetings about terrorism he had before 9/11.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is labeling the former president's version of the events as -- quote -- "flatly false."

Brian Todd goes in-depth now to find out just who is right.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An extraordinary brushback from a sitting secretary of state to a former president, prompted by Bill Clinton's combative exchange with FOX News on whether he did enough to pursue al Qaeda.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I tried. So, I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted.

TODD: Condoleezza Rice fires back, telling the editorial board of "The New York Post," "We were not left with a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda."

But she stopped short of calling President Clinton a liar.

And, from the other side:

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: And I'm certain that, if my husband and his national security team had been shown a classified report entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States," he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team.

TODD: So, what does the record show? The 9/11 Commission report does mention a plan to roll back al Qaeda launched after the 1998 embassy attacks in Africa.

P.J. CROWLEY, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL DEFENSE AND HOMELAND SECURITY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: There as extensive planning, you know, through the Clinton administration. And Richard Clarke presented that Delenda Plan to Condi Rice in February 2001.

TODD: Delenda, then counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke's initiative to go after al Qaeda's financial network, train and arm its enemies, take out its leaders. Clarke did not return our calls and e- mail. The 9/11 report says, after Clarke presented the plan to Rice -- quote -- "Rice and her then aide Stephen Hadley began to address the issues."

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: They took a look at this plan, decided that they needed -- there were missing components to it.

TODD: Like a detailed plan for dealing with Pakistan.

A Clinton administration official concedes it was difficult to engage with Pakistan then, because it had recently tested nuclear weapons, and Pervez Musharraf had taken over in a military coup.

As for the classified report entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," that was shown to President Bush just one month before the September 11 attacks.

One spectator to this blame game, New York's former mayor.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: The people to blame for September 11 are the terrorists who did it, who are our enemies, who are at war with us, not President Bush, not President Clinton.

TODD (on camera): The 9/11 Commission report is fairly evenhanded on all of this, saying that, while the Bush administration was initially lukewarm to Richard Clarke's Delenda Plan, it did, in the months before 9/11, start to implement parts of it, by exploring ways to work with al Qaeda's enemies, and by starting to pressure Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Senator Clinton says her husband did a great job in his interview, and that it demonstrates how all Democrats need to stand up to Republican attacks that they're soft on terrorism.

And one more thing: The midterm elections are exactly six weeks from today.

Ahead this evening, we have got some other top stories that we're following, including a controversy that is causing some deep divisions in Washington and across the country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Rewriting the rules on torture -- in the life-and-death war on terror, how much pain is acceptable? Freezing cold? Near drowning? Is it OK if it saves lives?

Plus: win with Winfrey -- the growing push to put Oprah in the White House. How realistic is it? Would Oprah have what it takes?

All that and more just ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Our "Top Story" coverage of the war on terror continues with the controversy over torture and the detention of terror suspects.

Tonight, Red Cross officials are at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, checking on the treatment of 14 suspected high-level al Qaeda operatives who were sent there earlier this month. Former prisoners have claimed that they were mistreated, even tortured, at Guantanamo.

Congress and the White House are still wrangling over just what is acceptable treatment of terror suspects and what is torture. A vote could happen this week.

Here is what Senator John McCain said over the weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FACE THE NATION")

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Waterboarding and other extreme measures, such as extreme deprivation, sleep deprivation, hypothermia, and others, would be not allowed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: After hearing that, we decided to take a critical look at what will be permitted and what won't, and the raging debate over torture.

We have put together a "Top Story" panel to tell us exactly what goes on during interrogations of terror suspects. And, later, we're going to debate the merits of torture.

We start, though, tonight with Deborah Feyerick. She's on the fine line between interrogation and torture.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Depriving prisoners of sleep, freezing them, making them feel they're drowning. Are the interrogation techniques torture or useful forms of intelligence gathering?

Senator John McCain, former prisoner of war, tortured by the Vietnamese, calls them extreme, and says they should never be used by U.S. interrogators.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: But it is clear we have to have the moral high ground, and we cannot violate the Geneva Conventions.

FEYERICK: But U.S. interrogators have been using these techniques and others, expecting prisoners will talk and give useful information.

JOSHUA DRATEL, ATTORNEY FOR DETAINEE: It doesn't take very much to get you disoriented and completely helpless, to the point of capitulation.

FEYERICK: Lawyer Joshua Dratel represents one of the detainees at Guantanamo, who says he was abused.

DRATEL: If you are in a cell with a couple of people, and they come back bruised and bloodied, and you are next, you know what's coming.

FEYERICK: McCain's bill, introduced last week, proposes banning interrogation techniques which he says include waterboarding, hypothermia, and sleep deprivation.

Greg Hartley, a former interrogator with the U.S. Army, walked us through how they actually work -- first, waterboarding. A prisoner may be inverted on a board, a soaking towel wrapped around the mouth, while water is poured on the head.

GREG HARTLEY, FORMER ARMY INTERROGATOR: Waterboarding, simply making a person think they are going to drown, so that their brain takes a hiatus, and their body takes over. They get into a panic mode. And most people will panic and suddenly start to confess.

FEYERICK: With hypothermia, prisoners are exposed to near- freezing temperatures, and, in some, cases sprayed with water. They lose control and shake violently.

HARTLEY: Hypothermia will confuse the circadian rhythm of the person. So, it starts to really impact the way your brain works, the hormones released, all of those kinds of things.

FEYERICK: That can be combined with sleep deprivation, in which interrogators shine lights, play loud music, and refuse to let prisoners sleep.

DRATEL: If they took all your clothes, put you in a stress position, meaning that, let's say, they bound your hands, and then bound your hands to your feet, so that you were hunched over in that position for hours at a time, four or five, six hours, in a room with very high air conditioning, how much can a person stand before they say, what do you want to know?

FEYERICK: Military experts say the most reliable intelligence- gathering doesn't come from using torture techniques -- just the opposite. They say best way of getting a prisoner to talk truthfully is to gain their trust.

HARTLEY: I constantly tell people, if it feels like hazing, you have crossed a line, because hazing is intended to cause a participant to quit. A prisoner can't quit.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: Now, the Army's own manual prohibits both waterboarding and hypothermia. The CIA says it does not comment on specific interrogation methods.

But military experts we spoke with point out that, with the exception of waterboarding, many elite forces undergo similar techniques, so they will know what to expect in the event they themselves are captured -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Deb Feyerick -- thanks, Deb.

Let's turn to a "Top Story" panel now, two people who have been in the field in the war on terror, former CIA senior officer Gary Berntsen. He's also the author of "Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al Qaeda." He was a top CIA field commander in Afghanistan after 9/11. And Kayla Williams is a former translator and sergeant in the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, and took part in prisoner interrogations.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Gary, let's begin with you.

Some people might say, when you aggressively interrogate people, the value of the information is lost. They will tell you anything. Was that your experience?

GARY BERNTSEN, AUTHOR, "JAWBREAKER: THE ATTACK ON BIN LADEN AND AL QAEDA": That's not necessarily so.

If someone is doing an aggressive interview, or an interrogation, and they have a very competent intelligence service behind them to check on those details, it can be very effective.

I would like to say also, though, that -- that I agreed with the point made that you get your best intelligence when you win the cooperation of individuals. And I don't think anybody in CIA is looking to torture people. What they are looking for is clarity from the government on what will be done, what will be permitted, and what will not be permitted.

And there are two areas that this breaks down to. There is coercive, which we don't do, inflicting pain, and there's non- coercive. That is sleep deprivation, exposure to cold.

I have had those things done to me in training. I know what it is like. It is very, very unpleasant. And it breaks down a person's willingness to resist.

O'BRIEN: Kayla, you were a translator who took part in the interrogations. Did you feel like it was made clear to you that -- that line that Gary is talking about? KAYLA WILLIAMS, FORMER ARMY TRANSLATOR IN IRAQ: Actually, my job was not as an interrogator. So, I didn't know what their usual rules were.

I was asked to assist. And what I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate. There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes. And, really, I think that that clarity from the highest levels about what is or is not acceptable in the war on terror is crucial in this conflict.

O'BRIEN: What other areas did you think that they crossed the line?

WILLIAMS: They stripped prisoners naked and then removed their blindfolds, so that I was the first thing they saw. And, then, we were supposed to mock them and degrade their manhood.

And it really didn't seem to make a lot of sense to me. I didn't know if this was standard. But it did not seem to work. And it really made me feel like we were losing that crucial moral higher ground, and we weren't behaving in the way that Americans are supposed to behave.

O'BRIEN: Did you feel, though, that there was some good intelligence that was being gained?

WILLIAMS: I didn't see any good intelligence being gained.

And the other problem is that, in situations like that, you have people that are not terrorists being picked up, and being questioned. And, if you treat an innocent person like that, they walk out a terrorist.

O'BRIEN: Gary, there -- there is a guy, as you know, Maher Arar, who is a Canadian, who was accused of plotting terror attacks. Listen to what he said in an interview we did with him on "AMERICAN MORNING" about his...

BERNTSEN: Sure.

O'BRIEN: ... time in captivity. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "AMERICAN MORNING")

MAHER ARAR, TORTURE VICTIM: It was dark. It was filthy. I -- I couldn't even imagine that they would put me in such a place. And I couldn't imagine that human beings would treat other human beings in that way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Isn't the bigger risk here, when the interrogations are done the wrong way, that you -- you only help -- it's -- it is almost the equivalent of a recruiting drive, because..

BERNTSEN: Without a doubt.

O'BRIEN: ... it's an ideology?

BERNTSEN: Without a doubt what you're saying is correct.

What we need to make sure that we -- we -- we achieve in this national debate right now is that we need to remove a lot of these things from the military, which was using it broadly. We need to narrow this down, where we only use those strong non-coercive mechanisms on people that we believe are involved in the planning for catastrophic attacks, or maybe someone that we capture who has, you know, weapons-grade plutonium or a biological weapon.

We need to keep this thing, but it has to be very, very, very tightly held. And -- and, then, it would only be approved by the president, with a signature of the attorney general. And, then, we should have some sort of congressional notification. But it should be tighter. It should not be broad, because you're right. If you do this, if you go over that line, broadly, you are going to create more terrorists than you started with.

O'BRIEN: Gary Berntsen and Kayla Williams joining us tonight, thank you, both. Appreciate it.

Our "Top Story" coverage continues in just a few minutes.

Right now, let's take you to Melissa Long. She's in our Pipeline studio for our countdown of the day's top stories on CNN.com.

Hey, Melissa.

MELISSA LONG, CNN PIPELINE: Hello, Soledad.

Some 20 million people logged on to our site today. And so many watched this footage we're going to share with you now. It is video of a fight that erupted over the weekend between drivers at a stock car race in Toledo, Ohio. It broke out when one driver's car hit the wall after dueling for position with another race car.

Story number nine is about a military recruiter from the state of New York who was convicted of raping a teenage girl enrolled in a high school program run by the Marine Corps.

You can see more about this story by going to CNN.com and clicking on "Watch Video."

And story number eight: the case of the killer teddy bear? How could this bear in the cute little outfit -- look at that yellow hat -- cause such a problem? Well, the toy is now being blamed for the deaths of 2,500 trout in New Hampshire. State officials say the bear was blocking a drain at a fish hatchery. Oxygen to the pool was cut off. And the fish suffocated -- again, 2,500 fish suffocated -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: It is a killer teddy bear.

All right.

LONG: It is.

O'BRIEN: All right, Melissa, thank you. We will continue the countdown...

LONG: OK.

O'BRIEN: ... in just a little bit.

When we come back, we are going to put the debate over torture and terror to a "Top Story" panel.

Just how far should U.S. forces go when they're interrogating terror suspects? We will take a look at that?

Then, later: a new drive by gays to end the military's don't ask/don't tell policy. With American forces stretched so thin, is it time for a change?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Our "Top Story" coverage is focusing on terror suspects and torture. As we have seen tonight, the debate is still raging over just what exactly constitutes torture, and how far American interrogators can or should go in trying to uncover suspected terror plots.

So, we put together a "Top Story" panel to debate that very controversial question.

Writer and political consultant John Aravosis runs AmericaBlog.com. Radio talk show host and NewsMax.com columnist Steve Malzberg joins us, as well.

Nice to see you, guys.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Steve, let's start with you.

Why not have limits on the kind of aggressive torture you can have?

STEVE MALZBERG, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I don't think we should have any torture. And I think these -- this bill will have limits on the aggressive kind of interrogation we could have.

But when people compare us to the rest of the -- the -- the -- the animals who do torture -- Saddam Hussein, who put X's in people's foreheads, cuts off hands and fingers, and took people's tongues out of their mouths -- because we put a hood on somebody, or we have a dog bark at somebody, or we -- we make it cold for somebody, that's outrageous. It's outlandish.

And, you know, we're fighting against a group of people here who play by no rules. And the only way we will -- we will ever lose the moral high ground and become our enemy, which I have heard over and over, ad nauseam, is when they convert us to Islam, and we bow down and pray five times a day at Mecca. That is when we will become our enemy.

We will never be like al Qaeda, unless we chop heads off the second we take somebody.

O'BRIEN: It sounds to me like you're arguing that they're -- that the U.S. has the moral high ground; doesn't have the moral high ground to lose?

MALZBERG: Absolutely we do. Sure we do.

O'BRIEN: So, then, isn't the argument that, in fact, you lose the moral ground...

MALZBERG: By what?

O'BRIEN: ... when you do these aggressive interrogation techniques?

MALZBERG: No, not at all.

We need to save ourselves. Look at -- look at how the -- the 14 that are in custody -- custody at Guantanamo Bay. According to the president -- and this is acknowledged -- we -- we got great results from the techniques we used. We prevented attacks, a plane into Heathrow, anthrax, others. They gave themselves up, these big, brave terrorists, when they were interrogated by us, gave themselves up, one after another.

They -- they squealed like pigs, I guess pardon the expression, you know, pigs, with the -- with the Islamic terrorists.

But, no, how do we lose moral high ground? We have to save ourselves. We're fighting a group we have never seen the likes of before. They don't play by any rules.

O'BRIEN: John, doesn't Steve have a point on that point, which is, when you're talking about the Geneva Conventions, you're...

JOHN ARAVOSIS, WRITER & POLITICAL CONSULTANT: Right.

O'BRIEN: ... and you're talking about groups that really, you know, they -- they don't play by certain rules -- they're not -- certainly not going to follow the Geneva Conventions.

ARAVOSIS: Right. But this argument is not just about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

The Geneva Conventions have been around since 1864. Basically, the U.S. agreed to them because we want to protect our soldiers. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina -- you know, no big liberal, this guy -- he said last week on the Sunday talk shows that he knows of numerous incidents where U.S. pilots were downed in foreign countries, and it was the Geneva Conventions that saved them from being tortured.

I mean, these -- this isn't just like a hypothetical debate we're having here. These are rules that have been around for 150 years. And, even if Osama doesn't want to obey them, there's a lot of countries that do. And I just think it is kind of scary that we are trying to rush all of this in the next couple days.

MALZBERG: OK, here's the deal. Everybody you are talking about, if we capture a soldier in uniform, if we're fighting a country that has uniformed soldiers as Geneva Convention accounts for, you darn right we'll abide by that.

(CROSSTALK)

ARAVOSIS: Whoa, and you're ...

(CROSSTALK)

MALZBERG: Wait a minute. These are people the Geneva Convention specifically writes them out.

ARAVOSIS: Right, but then why is it ...

MALZBERG: They surrender with one hand and pull out the machine gun with the other.

ARAVOSIS: Right, but that's -- no, that's nice, Steve.

(CROSSTALK)

MALZBERG: They don't deserve -- notwithstanding the Supreme Court, they don't deserve Geneva Convention protection.

ARAVOSIS: Steve, calm down.

MALZBERG: I can't calm down. It is our survival. You may not realize it, but it is.

ARAVOSIS: Steve, most of us would like to survive by actually winning the war on terror. What we found out today was that the Bush administration has been following a policy -- that torture isn't the problem. We have been going after war in Iraq trying to go after al Qaeda that isn't there, and now we're talking about torture as the big solution this week when your previous guest told you it doesn't work.

(CROSSTALK)

MALZBERG: No, he didn't say that at all. That was the first question Soledad asked, and he didn't say that. You're wrong sir.

ARAVOSIS: I'm talking about the woman that witnessed people burned with cigarettes, which you claim that doesn't happen.

(CROSSTALK)

MALZBERG: That -- but you said that the guest said it didn't work, and he said quite the contrary. It does unfortunately work.

O'BRIEN: Obviously, this is a good topic to continue to debate, gentlemen, because we're not going solve it tonight.

ARAVOSIS: American is better than this.

O'BRIEN: John Aravosis, Steve Malzberg.

ARAVOSIS: Thank you, Soledad.

MALZBERG: A pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, gentlemen. Appreciate it.

Much more on our top story coverage in just a moment. First, though, back to Melissa Long with the rest of our CNN.com countdown. Hey, Melissa.

LONG: Hello again. The war over words over who did what in the war on terror, that is story number seven. And you heard about this earlier. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice taking on President Clinton over his comments about whether the Bush administration took al Qaeda seriously in the months before 9/11.

Story number six in Miami, two brothers who founded the Cali drug cartel plead guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering. The defendants are in their 60s and will be sentenced to life in prison.

Story number five. Actor Russell Crowe says he's angry about recent published reports that he may play the late Steve Irwin in an upcoming film about Irwin's life. He says he finds the idea of making money while portraying a friend -- and I quote now -- "appalling." He did appear in a video but that was a video that broadcast at Irwin's memorial service -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Melissa, thanks. We'll check back with you in just a little bit.

Much more ahead tonight, including the renewed debate over gays in the military. With the army stretched thin in Iraq, is it time to rethink the don't ask don't tell policy?

Then later, could Oprah be taken seriously as a presidential candidate? We'll see what's behind all of the talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Our "Top Story" in the war on terror continues with the incredible strain on the nation's military and the shortage of troops. But you might be shocked to learn that just today, some physically fit, well-educated Americans tried to enlist but couldn't and they're angry.

They're part of a protest movement called Right to Serve and they say the military's don't ask don't tell policy on homosexuality keeps them from serving at a time when many soldiers are facing a third combat tour. And not only that, military standards have been lowered to allow high school dropouts, even some with drug and alcohol violations, to join but gays cannot. And they want to change that.

Three of them join us this evening for our "Top Story" panel. Alexandra Douglas-Barrera is a sophomore at the University of Maryland. She was turned away when she tried to enlist today. Rhonda Davis served in the Navy for 10 years, was discharged under the don't ask, don't tell policy. And Jake Reitan is a Harvard Divinity School student who was rejected from military service because he's gay.

Nice to see you guys. Thanks for talking with us.

ALEXANDRA: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

O'BRIEN: Alexandra, let's start with you because today you were turned down. Was your plan basically to enlist or was your plan to make a bigger point about gays in the military?

ALEXANDRA DOUGLAS-BARRERA, "RIGHT TO SERVE": I feel like my plan was twofold. I've always had a desire to serve my country and, you know, in my opinion I think the ultimate way to serve one's own country is join the military. And on the other side of it, there is a definite problem going on with the don't ask, don't tell policy. And we felt that this kind of publicity would call attention to this fact, this problem.

O'BRIEN: Jake, at the same time, as we mentioned, you hear about these extended tours of duty, you hear about a shortage -- really a quite severe shortage of troops. When you hear that and you know that you are being rejected from military service, what do you think of that?

JAKE REITAN, "RIGHT TO SERVE": It's outrageous. I am 24 years old. I'm bright. I graduated in top 10 percent of my class from one of the nation's best universities, but I'm turned down because I was born gay. And this is a very serious form of government-sanctioned discrimination that's happening in America.

And it's not just the three of us who would serve if the ban was lifted. You have thousands of others across America. And so the American people have really got to ask themselves a question. Why in the world do we still have this policy in place when there are bright, fit, capable young adults like us who want to answer the call to duty?

O'BRIEN: The people who oppose you serving in the military would say you are a distraction, Rhonda, that when you are there, and you are a lesbian and you're boarding with other women that you could potentially hit on these women or something like that and you would be distraction.

RHONDA DAVIS, DISCHARGED UNDER DON'T ASK DON'T TELL: I'll bringing the flannel shirts in and all of that. Well, these are actually some of the same arguments that we made in the late '50s for integrating African-Americans, and we said that it would destroy unit cohesion and the military would be destroyed and when we decided to integrate women for the first time, we said this is going to ruin the tradition that is the military.

But, you know, our society evolves. And we weren't destroyed by integrating blacks and other minorities and women. And we're not going to be destroyed if we integrate gay people. And there's 26 other countries now that are proof of this because they have already integrated openly gay people and there's openly gay people serving alongside of our own American troops in Iraq right now, some in integrated units.

O'BRIEN: After 10 years in the Navy, you were finally discharged. You got an honorable discharge but on paper I read, they wrote homosexual. What's it like?

DAVIS: It makes me angry. But, you know, I can serve my country in better ways, you know, and I know that it this is the first steps towards opening the American public's eye. And even though it says -- I'm not ashamed of being homosexual. I'm upset that if I had done other things, there are people who were discharged by drug abuse and discharged for criminal activity and those things are coded on their federal discharge papers.

But for me, any hillbilly down south -- I'm from the south -- and anybody can see those words "homosexual" on there. But I don't look at that as a disgrace. I look at that as that was me. That was me speaking out and being honest. And I don't feel not ashamed of being honest.

O'BRIEN: Jake and Alexandra, there are people who would say, listen, if you really wanted to serve your country, you could you do it. You could keep your mouth closed and you could go sign up pretty much anywhere and they would take you.

REITAN: Well, that's a lot easier said than done. Being closeted really is a very difficult thing to be. Everyday questions, seemingly innocuous questions -- what did you do last weekend, who were you on the phone with, who is that letter from -- become a point of great stress for the closeted service member, and so they lived every day in fear that, like Rhonda, their military career could come to an end in an instant.

And nobody who is willing to fight and die for our country should be forced to lie in order to do so.

DAVIS: You have to watch every pronoun, you have to look over your shoulder. When you're on your private time and you're in a restaurant, you have to look and see if there is anybody there that knows you. You have to watch what you say to your own physician, or your mental health professional, because those people do and can turn us in. And for me, I reached a point in my career after 10 years -- and I was a leader now -- and I've reached that point that I've said, there's lot that I'm willing to give up for my country, but I'm not willing to give up my dignity.

O'BRIEN: Rhonda Davis and Jack Reitan and Alexandra Douglas- Barrera, thanks for talking with us this evening. We certainly appreciate it. Our top story coverage will continue in just a moment. First, though, let's get right back to Melissa Long with our CNN.com countdown.

LONG: Soledad, what could be a big medical breakthrough is coming in at story No. 4 tonight. Today, federal researchers started testing a new vaccine that could wipe out childhood ear and sinus infections and may even prevent bronchitis in adults.

Story No. 3, officials investigating a deadly E.coli outbreak linked to spinach are now zeroing in on a specific batch from a processing plant in San Juan Batista, California. They say test results from two bags of tainted Dole brand spinach led them to the plant, and that the vegetables were processed there on or around August 15th, and the FDA saying today at least 175 people have been sickened because of this outbreak.

O'BRIEN: All right. Melissa, thanks for the update. We're going to check in with Melissa in just a little bit again.

When we come back, what is all this talk about Oprah for president? Find out what a top story panel says about the idea of Oprah and a White House run.

Then later, housing prices are falling. Just another sign that the housing bubble could be bursting. We'll take you in depth just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Up next tonight, our top story in politics. The buzz about Oprah as a presidential candidate. It all started with a Web site called oprah08.net. Getting a lot of attention now. And maybe it is a no-brainer, because of course Oprah's popularity is enormous. But here is what Oprah said about it on "LARRY KING LIVE" last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY KING, HOST, LARRY KING LIVE: Any comment on this movement to make you president?

OPRAH WINFREY: Is there a movement?

KING: This guy has got a movement.

WINFREY: I don't know if that's a movement or not.

KING: He's got a Web site.

WINFREY: You know what I would say to him? I would say take your energy and put it in Barack Obama. That's what I would say.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Let's get right to our top story panel. Amy Holmes is a former speechwriter for the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page joins us tonight as well. And the retired teacher who thinks Oprah Winfrey would be such a great president that he started Oprah08.net, Patrick Crowe. Nice to see all of you.

Patrick, let's start with you. Why Oprah?

PATRICK CROWE, OPRAH08.NET: Well, Oprah is one of the most highly respected and well known names in the country. Phenomenal business success. That's what got Perot to run. The woman has a heart of gold. See her Angel Network. She's fiercely determined. Look at what she did to the Texas cattlemen. If she would run, the heart and face of American politics would be forever changed.

O'BRIEN: Well, Patrick thinks she's got it going on on all fronts. Clarence Page, Oprah, as you well, know, has said she's not interested. Do you think, though, she has what it takes not only to run for president of the United States but to win?

CLARENCE PAGE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: I think she has what it takes for a lot of people to want her to run, but Oprah doesn't seem to have a political bone in her body when it comes to partisan politics. And obviously, she can get a lot done and is getting a lot done in her current position.

I think it says a lot more about us as Americans, that so many people want her or Barack Obama or Condoleezza Rice or you name it, Bill Cosby -- there's people who want him to run too -- I think it says something about how disappointed Americans are in the candidates that we know want to run.

O'BRIEN: Wow. Well, Amy, it sounds like Clarence is saying it's not that Oprah is so great -- and she's great -- but it's that everybody else is kind of a dud.

AMY HOLMES, FORMER POLITICAL SPEECHWRITER: Well, I don't know if I would be that pessimistic. I think that we're really excited about someone like Oprah or Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton, for that matter, running. I mean, frankly, if Oprah decided to run for president, I would be willing to work for her campaign just for the goody bags and a free car. I think she'd be an exciting candidate.

O'BRIEN: Imagine one for every voter in America who turned out for her.

She has got 8 million people, Amy, who watch her show. Do you think that -- if there are all voters, that certainly would make her a great candidate.

HOLMES: Sure.

O'BRIEN: But would it make her great president? I mean, what about her ability to actually run the country? Where is she weak? Where is she strong?

HOLMES: It is an interesting question. Patrick brought up all of her amazing credentials as a business woman, entrepreneur, and as an executive. But oftentimes it is those very people who are the least happy in politics, and the slow slugging it out legislative process, where they don't get to make those top-down decisions.

You look at Jon Corzine, for example, in the U.S. Senate. He left to become governor of New Jersey. Zell Miller, who was governor of Georgia. He was very unhappy in the United States Senate with that slow legislative process. So Oprah might find that she can't snap her fingers with her crown and scepter as the queen of daytime talk to get it done.

O'BRIEN: She might be a little bit frustrated.

Clarence, we certainly heard Oprah issue the denial, which is sort of standard for politicians. Of course, I'm not running, don't be ridiculous. But do you think that actually politics could be in Oprah's future?

PAGE: I seriously doubt it. I think, you know, Colin Powell said that he didn't have the fire in the belly to run for president, and of course his wife didn't want him to run and was very public about that. I think it does take a fire in the belly. You have got to go through a lot, as Amy well knows. You're putting yourself in a meat grinder. Just ask George Allen down there in Virginia right now, or various other candidates. Why would Oprah want to go through all that?

O'BRIEN: Some people might call it a self-inflicted meat grinder in that particular case.

Why would she want the job?

HOLMES: Well, that's a good question. But I would say even in 2006 or 2008, president of the United States still does have more power than a talk show host. I mean, the president can command armies. But again, why would she necessarily want to go to the swamp next to the Potomac and have to deal with 535 different personalities? In her favor, I think it would be pretty hard for a legislator to walk into the Oval Office, sit across from Oprah, and tell her no. So I think her charm and charisma would certainly get her far.

O'BRIEN: Let's get our final question to Patrick. Patrick, as you know, Oprah said she was trying to reach you, because she wants you to support Barack Obama. She wants you to get off this Oprah for president thing. Are you going to do that?

CROWE: Well, I heard her say that. And I think the point of enlightenment and the noteworthy thing is Oprah has generally been apolitical. Last night on the King show, she in effect gave an endorsement to Barack Obama. Therefore, she's entering the world of politics, and shows that she's interested.

Moreover, on that same show, she said she's not satisfied with what she has accomplished.

O'BRIEN: So she says loud and clear...

CROWE: She wants to do more.

O'BRIEN: .. and you take that as a yes. Patrick Crowe, we're out of time. Thank you. Clarence Page, as always, nice to see you, Clarence, and Amy Holmes. Appreciate you guys.

LARRY KING LIVE is coming up in just a couple of minutes. Larry, who is with you tonight?

KING: Oh, we're going to have quite a show, Soledad. Howard K. Stern is with us. He is Anna Nicole's close friend and attorney. He was there when all of it happened. He will not only discuss the goings-on dealing with the death of Anna Nicole's son, but we will reveal tonight -- he'll tell us and the world who is the father of the little girl. All that is ahead at the top of the hour, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Wow. All right, Larry. Looking forward to that. Thanks. We'll see you right at 9:00.

Let's get right back to Melissa Long for a wrap-up of our cnn.com countdown -- Melissa.

LONG: And Soledad, at No. 2 this evening, in Guatemala, troops had raided what's being called a luxury prison. Authorities say inmates controlled it for a decade, and that many sold drugs from behind bars, which allowed them to have huge homes inside the jail, some even outfitted with Jacuzzis.

And story No. 1, Canadian scientists have scanned Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa with special infrared and 3-d technology. They are hoping to learn more details about the artist's technique. But you know what, they're not having a lot of luck, because those brush strokes are virtually impossible to detect, therefore adding to the mystery, Soledad, of this 16th century masterpiece.

O'BRIEN: Interesting, interesting. All right, Melissa, thanks.

Still ahead this evening, do you hear that strange hissing noise? Hmm, maybe it's the air finally coming out of the housing bubble. There are new signs that the boom is finally over.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Tonight's biz break is our top consumer story. The housing bubble so many have feared may have finally popped. For years, the economy rode a wave of soaring home prices, boosting businesses and giving home owners thousands of extra dollars to spend. But real estate has just passed an ominous milestone. Prices are falling. Gerri Willis is the host of CNN's "OPEN HOUSE" and found one couple feeling the uneasy effects.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GERRI WILLIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kate and Hans Koning have been trying to sell their eastern Connecticut house for nearly a year. So far, there are no takers, even though they cut their price not once, but twice. KATE KONING, HOME OWNER: I started at 875. And at the time, I thought that was really a reasonable price for the house, given the size.

WILLIS: The Konings are not alone. Sellers across the country are struggling with a weakening housing market.

Just how weak became apparent yesterday, when the National Association of Realtors released its monthly housing report, showing that median prices for homes fell for the first time in 11 years. Although the tumble was small, just 2 percent, it represents a turning point for a market that's been on fire for the past decade.

DAVID LEREAH, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS: The housing markets just went through a very big boom. We need a correction. Prices got too high, and now we need prices to come down, to bring people back into the buying marketplace.

WILLIS: Back into the buying market so prices can go up again. But some say a rebound won't be that easy this time.

Economist Robert Shiller correctly predicted the dot-com bust of the late '90s. Now he says it's housing's turn.

ROBERT SHILLER, AUTHOR, "IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE": If the U.S. housing market really starts to decline, it will harm confidence, and it will cause a possibility of downward momentum in the U.S.

WILLIS: And that means pain for some homeowners.

SHILLER: The people who bought in at the top and sell at the bottom can get really hurt. And so there will be bankruptcies, foreclosures, and people out of jobs, but we'll recover from it. And -- this is not nuclear war.

WILLIS: Even Lereah, who had previously been optimistic, says prices are headed down for a while. Most at risk are places with big backlogs of homes and already high prices, like Southern Florida, Southern California, Nevada and Washington, D.C.

Some say recovery will be months in the future. Others say it could be years. For the Konings, it can't come soon enough.

KONING: I don't know how long this is going to go, and how, you know, I mean, I may have to just decide not to -- not to go anywhere.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Tough call there. What's the biggest threat, do you think, Gerri, to homeowners right now?

WILLIS: Well, right now, a lot of people are in adjustable rate mortgages, and interest rates have popped higher. Some of those mortgages are resetting now. People are going to see higher monthly bills. Their monthly mortgage is going to go through the roof. A lot of people aren't prepared. You know, Soledad, we're seeing lots of foreclosures. We will probably end up seeing more.

O'BRIEN: Oh, I bet. I bet we will. All right, Gerri Willis, thank you very much.

WILLIS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: We're just minutes away from the top of the hour, and a "LARRY KING LIVE" exclusive. Anna Nicole Smith's attorney, who was in the hospital room when Smith discovered that her son was dead, gives his first television interview about what happened.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: That's it for tonight. Tomorrow, one of this year's top stories in politics: The surprising number of prominent minority candidates bring a change in attitude as well as color to many states' power structures. We'll take it in-depth tomorrow on "AMERICAN MORNING," beginning at 6:00 a.m. Eastern.

I'm Soledad O'Brien, in for Paula. "LARRY KING LIVE" begins right now.

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