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AMERICAN MORNING

Arson Wildfire; Florida Turnpike Killings; Rumsfeld on Iraq; America Votes 2006

Aired October 27, 2006 - 07:59   ET

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


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Friday, October 27th.
I'm Miles O'Brien.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Soledad O'Brien.

Our top story is in southern California, where that deadly wildfire has killed four firefighters. A fifth is critically injured. Fire officials say it is arson. Twenty-four thousand acres have burned there.

M. O'BRIEN: Also on the news wall this morning, some other stories we are following.

A heated session at the Pentagon press room. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sparring with the media.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: So you ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

M. O'BRIEN: Rumsfeld insisting no timetables have been set for progress in Iraq.

S. O'BRIEN: Wild pigs might have been the source of that deadly E. coli outbreak linked to tainted spinach. Health investigators say the pigs could have tracked bacteria into the spinach fields.

And Chad Myers is at the CNN weather center. He's watching the winds in the East and the rains -- no, the winds in the West for the fire. Bad weather for us here in the East.

I feel like I've done your weather report for you. All right.

M. O'BRIEN: I think he's out of time now.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Thanks, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That's right. Back to you.

(LAUGHTER)

S. O'BRIEN: And I -- and I got it backwards. MYERS: That's OK.

(WEATHER REPORT)

S. O'BRIEN: Let's give you a little update on what's happening there.

As we've been telling you, four firefighters are dead. One is in critical condition. We're told his condition did not change overnight.

Officials say the fire is arson. They're searching for the arsonist. If he or she is caught, he could be charged with murder.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Chris Lawrence is at the command center in Beaumont, California, for us.

Hey, Chris. Good morning.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad.

Yes, we spoke with the nursing supervisor at that burn center this morning, and she says that the fifth firefighter remains in critical condition and he's got severe burns over about 95 percent of his body. Now, the four other members of this fire-fighting team have all died from their injuries. They were caught yesterday trying to protect a home when these Santa Ana winds just whipped up, shifted, and literally just pushed the fire right on top of them.

The officials say they had almost no time to get back to any kind of safety, and that is the situation here when you're talking about this kind of fire-fighting out here. These winds are dry, they are fast, and they are making things very, very difficult for the firefighters on the front line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIEF JOHN HAWKINS, CDF RIVERSIDE FIRE DEPT.: You feel the enemy. The enemy blows in our face right now. It's a Santa Ana wind. The Santa Ana wind drives the fire. It not only has a pushing effect and feeds more oxygen and fire, but it also dries out the already critically dry vegetation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE: Those Santa Ana winds are natural for this time of year, but officials say the cause of this fire is not.

They have been interviewing people who live nearby from where they track the fire to its -- to its origin, trying to determine who may have been in the area. They are pursuing those leads, trying to determine exactly who the arsonist was that started this blaze -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Chris, a quick question for you. You know, you hear the fire chief talk about how it was sort of set perfectly, if you can use that word. Just the right direction, with the wind going. It almost sounds like someone would really have to have a knowledge of the area and a knowledge of how fires burn, right?

LAWRENCE: That's true, but you have to remember, in this area, you know, people who live here are very knowledgeable about these fires. I mean, if you live out here in the desert in southern California, it was like Congresswoman Mary Bono said yesterday, every time the Santa Anas kick up, we always wonder who is next.

This is just a way of life out here. So people are fairly knowledgeable about when the winds whip up and what direction they blow.

S. O'BRIEN: Chris Lawrence for us this morning.

Thanks, Chris, for the update -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Some breaking news this morning, an apparent break potentially in that roadside killing of a single family in Florida a couple of weeks ago. Police in Palm Beach County holding four people considered persons of interest in that shooting death.

CNN's Susan Candiotti is on the phone. She's heading to Palm Beach County right now.

Susan, what do we know?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Miles.

We know from authorities, sources familiar with the investigation, that these people are being held only at this time as persons of interest in this case. However, they are being held in custody on unrelated federal charges at this time.

At the same time, authorities are looking for a red van. This they announced late last night, the St. Lucie Sheriff's Office. A spokesman for that office says that this red Dodge 1999 convertible van "is directly involved in the murders." The sheriff told me last night that they are looking for this van and anything that they might find in it.

Now, again, the -- several people that are being held -- I can't get a definite number, not released at this time -- are being held in the Palm Beach County Jail. That's where they were picked up, I'm told. And that, of course, is where the family lived, the Escobedo family.

You'll recall, our viewers will, their bodies were discovered on the side of the Florida turnpike two weeks ago. Each person had been shot several times, the mother, the father and two little boys. And since that time authorities have been looking for their killer or killers from -- all the way from Florida, to Brownsville, Texas, from where the family moved back in June.

Again, the murder scene is about 70 miles north of where the family lived.

And there will be a news conference later this morning to reveal more details -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: So, Susan, just to be as clear as we can about this, the maroon van we've been talking about this morning, that is separate? They're still looking for that maroon van? These people of interest not linked to it, as far as we know?

CANDIOTTI: We don't know precisely yet. They have released the name of the man who is -- to whom the van is registered. They have not said and will not say as yet whether that man is in custody, only that they're looking for this van.

M. O'BRIEN: Susan Candiotti on her way to Palm Beach County. We'll keep you posted on that all throughout the day here on CNN.

Thank you.

The secretary of defense combative in his meeting with reporters yesterday, who pressed him to shed more light on those benchmarks and deadlines the Iraqi government has supposedly agreed to. Donald Rumsfeld told reporters to back off.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon this morning. Barbara seldom backs off from a story.

Barbara, good to have you with us.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, hopefully I never back off, Miles, but it was classic Rumsfeld, the critic, the contrarian. The defense secretary telling and making sure reporters knew that our questions didn't really match his academic standards. But what we in the press core noticed is the secretary simply did not take the opportunity to endorse this concept of timelines, of time frames, of, you know, projection projections, whatever you want to call, any signal that anything had been agreed to about the new Iraqi government making specific progress on security. Something that had just been talked about in Baghdad 48 hours earlier.

The secretary backed away from all of it. Have a listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUMSFELD: You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to come flowing down if some date isn't met. That is not what this is about.

This is complicated stuff. It's difficult. We're looking out in the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty. So you ought to just back off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: But, of course, we stayed. You know, what he's really trying to say in his view is that all of this is a process rather than something that's very specific with deadlines. But that, of course, raises the question, if there isn't some specificity to it, what will give the new Iraqi government the incentive to really crack down on the militias, crack down on the death squads? And that is what everyone believes is essential to making progress on the security situation in Iraq.

So, we've had four major press briefings this week from top officials in Baghdad, top officials here, plus the president, talking about flexibility, talking about change in the tactics. And still, at the end of the week, we're looking to see what exactly is new here -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, each statement was slightly different. And the one that's most interesting here is General Casey, the top general in Baghdad who is directly in the chain of command from the secretary of defense, who said, in fact, that there was kind of a timetable at work. He used a one year to 18-month time frame.

Did the secretary of defense explain that? Did they just get their signals crossed?

STARR: I don't know that it was signals crossed. I don't know that the secretary is ever going to step into the notion of timetables.

He doesn't like to be pinned down on this stuff, because when they have generally set these, of course, conditions on the ground change. The violence has grown worse. And there have been many times -- not all the time, but many times when they don't meet their own goals.

What General Casey is talking about now is in 12 to 18 months, he hopes the Iraqi security forces can basically take control of the security of that country. But these types of projections have been made before. Clearly, to date, they haven't been met.

So, people are probably already making that mark on their calendars, 12 months from now, to see whether General Casey's prediction can possibly come true.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, I know it's on your calendar. And I did misspeak. You never, never back down.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

STARR: Thank you. Thank you, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: I meant it as a compliment, but I blew it -- thank you.

Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: And I hit him in the arm, Barbara, too.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Some of the stories we're watching for you this morning.

Michael J. Fox has a few choice words for Rush Limbaugh and critics of his new political ad. We'll tell you what he's saying.

And in Nicaragua, a man who's reviled by the U.S. is on the verge of becoming the president there. Is Daniel Ortega still someone to worry about?

Those stories ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Some of the top stories we're looking at this morning.

South Korea now says it plans to enforce sanctions against North Korea. The north has previously said that could lead to war.

A hearing to see if Madonna can adopt that little African boy no longer happening today. It's been postponed until next month. We'll keep you posted on that one as well.

Heading out the door? Let's get the traveler's forecast for you. Chad Myers is looking at all things.

We've got a wet, windy situation in the East, snow in the West. What's going on in the middle?

MYERS: Airport delays.

M. O'BRIEN: There you go.

(WEATHER REPORT)

S. O'BRIEN: Only 11 days until the midterm elections. Republicans are turning now to an important issue among conservative voters: immigration.

Chief National Correspondent John King joins us to take a look at the day ahead on the campaign trail.

Nice to see you, as always.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's begin with our political headlines, shall we?

"USA Today," "Once-Safe Bets in GOP Country Pick Up a Bit of a Risk". "The New York Times" says, "GOP Moves Fast to Reignite the Issue of Gay Marriage". And "The Washington Post" says, "Bush Signs a Bill Authorizing a 700-Mile Fence for the Border".

In which races is that last headline going to be critical? KING: Well, it's certainly a key risk in an Arizona House race that is quite important, but probably already gone to the Democrats. I think more broadly, it is an issue of one of the reasons conservatives are saying "eh" about this election is, we elected these Republicans to run the Congress 12 years ago. What have they done for us?

Immigration has been a big issue this year. So conservatives can say, we told you we would give you border security, now we have. We're going to build this fence along the border and then we'll come back next year and do more.

But even as he signed this bill, Soledad, the president put in another plug for his guest worker program, a program that drives most conservatives crazy. And there are Republicans all around the country going, all right, Mr. President, we know you believe in this, but could you just stop talking about it until after the election?

S. O'BRIEN: Eleven days. Give us 11 days and then you could talk about it all you want.

I thought the timing was really interesting. You know, the president's had this bill for a month. I mea, is it just purely politics given a little...

KING: Do you think -- do you think they would hold that and sign it closer to the...

S. O'BRIEN: I don't know.

KING: They also scheduled the big event when initially...

(CROSSTALK)

S. O'BRIEN: Shocking.

KING: The president has the Rose Garden strategy. We have called it that for many, many years. And he is almost a non-factor in this campaign, at least as a positive for the Republicans.

This was one chance for him to do something that they think can help them in some races. Again, saying to conservatives, maybe you're mad at us about a bunch of things, but we did this for you. And the closing Republican theme is, you might be mad at us, but if you elect the Democrats, it will be worse.

S. O'BRIEN: There seems to be one race where the president is a positive. Michael Bouchard in Michigan wanted to see the president. And, you know, we've been doing stories and certainly talking about how a lot of other in the GOP kind of running away from him.

KING: You can sort of look at this two ways. Number one, he is invited. Michigan is a big state, and this was early on considered to be a huge Senate race.

Right now, though, Mr. Bouchard is considered to be losing. And the polls have been breaking toward the Democratic incumbent in that race.

So, on the one hand, yes, the president is going into a big state. On the other hand, this is a race that is probably lost for the Republicans. And while there is a good grassroots conservative movement in the state of Michigan, George W. Bush lost the state twice. It is hard to see how his going in there this late is going to do enough to bring a Republican victory.

S. O'BRIEN: Michael J. Fox, we've been talking about what Rush Limbaugh said about him. And then the follow-up, Michael J. Fox sat down with Katie Couric, and here's what he said back to her.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL J. FOX, ACTOR: I could give a damn about Rush Limbaugh's pity or anyone else's pity. I'm not a victim. I'm someone who's in this situation. I think I'm in this situation along with millions of other Americans.

And we have a right if there's answers out there to pursue those answers with the full support of our politicians. And so, I don't need anyone's permission to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

S. O'BRIEN: Making clear he doesn't think he needs anybody's permission to do that.

What kind of impact does this have on this -- the races where he was specifically doing ads, but also across the country, too?

KING: Well, the Maryland Senate race, the Missouri Senate race, stem cell is a big issue. Many Democrats use it to say -- not so much even about the medical research issues, but some of these conservatives are such ideologues, so beholden to Christian conservatives, so beholden to special interests, they won't open their minds to new ideas and new ways of doing things that might save lives.

So Democrats use it as a tolerance issue and an ideological issue, as much as a medical research issue. There's a handful of races around the country where this could matter. And just by having somebody out by this -- look at all the attention Madonna's adoption is getting. When you have a celebrity like this in the middle of a debate like this, it does bring attention to it.

Democrats think in four or five races it could help them a little bit. It will be very interesting, though. Just like immigration, will it reignite some intensity among conservatives, something that has been lacking? So this could be a two-way here.

S. O'BRIEN: And probably more attention than the original ad did in the first place...

KING: No question. S. O'BRIEN: ... which was probably the goal to get people talking about it.

KING: A fight with Rush Limbaugh gets you a little...

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, always. Almost always, I would say.

Political calendar today. We've got Laura Bush campaigning hard. Vice President Dick Cheney is in Missouri and South Carolina. Karl Rove, also. He's in Wisconsin.

And this Ohio Senate debate. What's the big issue there?

KING: Well, Ohio is another -- it's one of these states where you say, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation. And yet, the -- that has broken in favor of the Democrats.

That's a tougher state to blame on President Bush or to blame on the war in Iraq. Both are factors there, but Ohio is also particularly unique in the sense that you've had corruption probes about the governor. That's where Bob Ney, the congressman, is going to jail for corruption.

So, if you want to go to a state where there is a cesspool of negative political environment, it is Ohio. And it's very tough for Republicans.

S. O'BRIEN: One of a handful, actually, I'm sorry to say.

John King, part of the best political team on TV.

Thanks. Always nice to see you.

KING: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: You'll want to tune in tonight 8:00 p.m. Eastern, "How the Right Went Wrong". CNN's political team continues its investigation of America's "Broken Government," with an in-depth look at where the Republican Party may have taken a wrong turn.

That's tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Does the name Daniel Ortega ring a bell? If you are of a certain age you no doubt recall the leader of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, a man who prompted the Reagan White House to fund a covert war in Central America.

Well, Ortega is now poised to take the reins of power once again. And this time he is backed by a new American nemesis.

We get more from CNN's Aneesh Raman in Nicaragua.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Amid the Cold War, President Reagan called him "the little dictator." And in Nicaragua these days, there's little doubt Daniel Ortega is back. Promising riches to the poor, he is, yet again, campaigning to become president, this time with the financial backing of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

As for his chances, well, so far Ortega is feeling pretty good.

(on camera): It's not just that Ortega is back which has the world watching this election. He's run unsuccessfully twice before. The difference this time is that he might just win.

(voice over): To do that here, you only need a 35 percent vote plurality, a number Ortega is inching towards, according to all the polls. And if you thought age may have tempered the man once called "El Comandante" -- he's now 61 -- listen up.

DANIEL ORTEGA, CANDIDATE (through translator): The poor will not wait. They will bury savage capitalism on November 5th.

EDUARDO MONTEALEGRE, OPPOSITION CANDIDATE: Ortega hasn't changed. He's the same person, the same policies. His friends are the same. He's friends of Castro, he's friends of Chavez, he's friends of the president of Iran. He's friends with Gadhafi.

RAMAN: And so contentious is this race, with Ortega so central to it, that it's bringing back another infamous character from the '80s, Oliver North...

COL. OLIVER NORTH, U.S. MARINES: I do.

RAMAN: ... the U.S. Marine colonel who secretly funded the contra rebels then trying to overthrow Ortega.

Here at this anti-Ortega rally, he is a hero. Here he warned of the stakes.

NORTH: The risks returning to the days of authoritarian and ruthless government...

RAMAN: So add Nicaragua to the list of White House woes, another member, perhaps, in the global anti-Bush club. Daniel Ortega, a man who brought Nicaragua to economic devastation, who presided over a civil war that left nearly 50,000 dead, seems for the moment all but set to lead once again.

Aneesh Raman, CNN, Managua.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

M. O'BRIEN: Up next, we'll continue to follow all the day's top stories.

Plus, "Minding Your Business". An NFL coach sues McDonald's after claiming to find some -- ooh, really something nasty in the salad.

Andy has that ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Finish your breakfast now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

S. O'BRIEN: Some of the top stories we're watching for you.

President Bush meeting with the head of NATO today. They're discussing the spike of violence in Afghanistan.

New government figures show that the prices of new homes fell nearly 10 percent last month. The last time that drop was that big, Richard Nixon was president.

M. O'BRIEN: A ride for the rich. Andy Serwer knows all about that.

Good to see you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "FORTUNE": Yes. I'm going to take you out in my Bentley this afternoon? Is that what you're suspecting?

M. O'BRIEN: Would you? Would you kindly? Or have your driver pick me up, if you don't mind.

SERWER: Yes. Yes, right.

This is -- this is -- I don't know how I kind of come up on this story. This has to do with the aircraft carrier the Intrepid, which is parked over there on the Hudson River here in New York City. It's actually the Intrepid Sea and Air Space Museum, which is going to be undergoing major, major renovations and it's going to be actually sailing down the Hudson River on November 6th to Bayonne, New Jersey for the overhaul.

Now, you can ride down the Hudson on the Intrepid if you bid for that right. And the minimum bid starts at $100,000.

M. O'BRIEN: Wow!

SERWER: Now, this is a museum, and they need the money. Still, it's not the most democratic...

S. O'BRIEN: Is it just one person, or can a lot of people ride for $100,000 a pop?

SERWER: $100,000 minimum bid per person.

M. O'BRIEN: One person.

SERWER: And the group will be limited to six.

M. O'BRIEN: So you could drive the Bentley on to the flat top?

SERWER: Well, that's what we're intending on doing, yes, my family.

S. O'BRIEN: I think that's kind of cool. SERWER: It is kind of cool, but, you know, it's not democracy in action.

M. O'BRIEN: But why not have -- why not have a little contest or something to allow others...

SERWER: Yes, or something like that. And if this is a little bit too rich for your blood -- and it's certainly too rich for mine -- the Intrepid will be back in its spot in 2008.

M. O'BRIEN: How much for me to get my hands on the stick and throttle of the SR-71 Blackbird? I would love that.

SERWER: That starts at a million.

(CROSSTALK)

SERWER: Yes. When he buzzes the tower, look out. OK?

M. O'BRIEN: I was just checking. Just checking.

All right.

SERWER: Now, we want to tell you about this story, a little bit of an update here on this -- did you hear about this? This is horrible. This Dallas Cowboys' assistant coach...

M. O'BRIEN: Oh, jeez.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, it's a horrible story.

SERWER: ... and his family, his wife and his...

(CROSSTALK)

SERWER: ... they say they found a rat in a salad at a McDonald's outside of Dallas.

S. O'BRIEN: I guess they had taken it out. Like, they did takeout. They opened it up. They were eating it.

SERWER: Yes. And they ate some. And they are suing McDonald's for $1.7 million. McDonald's has no comment.

The only thing that I find a little interesting here -- well, the whole thing is interesting -- but questionable is this happened on June 5th. And you always wonder...

S. O'BRIEN: Well, apparently, he says...

SERWER: ... why the gap.

S. O'BRIEN: ... McDonald's said they were going to make it right to him, that they would work it out. And that it just -- you know, nothing's ever happened, so...

SERWER: They said they were going to give him a free salad and he said that's really...

S. O'BRIEN: Maybe not so much.

M. O'BRIEN: Not so Happy Meal, you might say, huh? Wow.

S. O'BRIEN: That's a nasty story.

M. O'BRIEN: OK. Thank you, Andy.

SERWER: You're welcome.

S. O'BRIEN: Betty Nguyen and T.J. Holmes are at the CNN Center. They've got a look at what's coming up this weekend on "CNN SATURDAY" and "CNN SUNDAY MORNING".

Hey, guys. Good morning.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hey. Good morning to you there.

We, as always, got a pretty busy weekend coming up here.

NGUYEN: Oh, yes, we do. We are counting down to the election. And if you're still not sure whether to reelect your congressman or just kick him to the curb, we'll take you online and show you how to find a quick and intelligent answer.

HOLMES: Also, "Spoiled Rotten America". Yes, a new book coming out here with comedian Larry Miller, and he says the country has gone a bit soft. And he's poking fun at the outrages of everyday life.

Plus, this...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think they're doing this because he's black?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're doing this because he's the messiah.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NGUYEN: Check this out. A controversial new film asks the question, Soledad, what color was Jesus? No matter your race or religion, you won't want to miss our "Faces of Faith".

HOLMES: And we've got all that, plus, of course, the latest headlines.

So please, Soledad, Miles, all you guys up there, join us.

NGUYEN: We're counting on you.

S. O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

HOLMES: Saturday and Sunday morning.

S. O'BRIEN: Saturday and Sunday I'm there.

NGUYEN: Great.

HOLMES: Seven o'clock, all right -- 7:00.

NGUYEN: The whole five hours on Saturday, OK, Soledad?

S. O'BRIEN: We get up at 3:00 every morning, man. Seven is late for me.

Excellent, you guys. We'll see you then. Thanks.

HOLMES: Thank you.

NGUYEN: Good to see you.

S. O'BRIEN: A quick look at some of the stories we're following for you this morning.

Live pictures of that raging wildfire in southern California. Authorities say this was arson. We'll update you on the very latest efforts to contain the flames.

And we wrap up our series "Prescription Iraq". Our guests from the past week are back today talking about the timetable. How would they fix the situation in Iraq?

That's ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back. I'm Miles O'Brien.

S. O'BRIEN: And I'm Soledad O'Brien. Let's get right to the "News Wall" for some of the stories we're following for you this morning.

(NEWSBREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Now "Prescription Iraq": All this week we've been searching for solutions for this mess in Iraq. This morning we'd love to tell you we have the answer, but to paraphrase the Defense secretary, yesterday, this is complicated stuff. Let's try to boil it all down, hash it out here.

Sen. Carl Levin is the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee; he joins us from Flint, Michigan. He is pushing to start bringing home U.S. troops by the end of this year. Sarah Smiley is a Navy wife and a syndicated columnist. She simply would like some clarity from the administration. Fred Kagan, with the American Enterprise Institute, says it is time to send in more troops. And Professor Fawaz Gerges, of the American University in Cairo, think it's important for the U.S. troops to reduce the size of their footprint in Iraq, because they in fact are part of the problem, rather than the solution. Good to have you all with us. Let's get right to it.

Senator Levin, I want to begin with you. You obviously saw the Defense secretary. Let's, once again, share with everybody a brief excerpt of that rather heated exchange with reporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to come flowing down if some date isn't met. That is not what this is about. This is complicated stuff. It's difficult. We're looking out in the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty. You ought to just back off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

M. O'BRIEN: Let's try to get this straight. I'm a little bit confused, Senator. Are there timetables? Are there milestones at work? The week sort of began with talk of that. Denials by the Iraqi government, and that statement by the Defense secretary. What's your understanding right now?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D-MI) ARMED SERVICES CMTE.: Well, I think the administration's all over the place. One day they say they want milestones. The next day they say they don't want anything that has any teeth in it. Then the Iraqi prime minister disagrees with the president as to what they've agreed upon. This administration is in total disarray when it comes to Iraq. So, it's kind of hard for me to say where they are, except for the following.

The course that we're on is not working. The administration has said, "stay the course, stay the course, stay the course" until a few days ago when they say they're no longer saying stay the course. But basically they believe the status quo is working. The president, the other day at his press conference, said we are absolutely winning. If he thinks that, it seems to me it's going to be impossible for him to understand that we've got to change the dynamic, change the course in Iraq.

I believe the only way to change it is to put pressure on the Iraqi leaders to come to a political accommodation on sharing resources and sharing power and that without that, you're not going to see an end to the violence. With that, with the political accommodation, we have a chance of succeeding in Iraq.

M. O'BRIEN: Sarah, let's go to you. The president, when he spoke the other day, had some words directly for the likes of you. Let's listen to those.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The parents of our troops must understand that if I didn't believe we could succeed, and didn't believe it was necessary for the security of this country to succeed, I wouldn't have your loved ones there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

M. O'BRIEN: All right. I assume those are good words. You like to hear those words. But having said that -- do you -- you want clarity. Are you clear in your mind where things are now?

SARAH SMILEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST, "SHORE DUTY": Well, as I said on Wednesday, you know, military families are used to not having all of the information, but we understand that our loved ones do, that the troops do. And I wanted to point out that Mr. Kagan's comments on Tuesday about the long deployments for military families, and more frequent deployments, and those being worth the risk for what we're trying to accomplish in Iraq. That really, you know, rung true to me as a military family because we're used to deployments, quite frankly.

And this is what my husband signed up for when he joined the military. And he knew what that entailed. And I knew what it entailed when I married him. So I think that's the incredible thing about service members and military families is that we're ready to do whatever the country asks of us. The leaders that are in charge, whatever they decide they need my husband to do, he's ready, and so am I, to sacrifice at home. And I might also point --

M. O'BRIEN: But given the murkiness about all these -- this talk about timetables and so forth, does that leave you with nagging concerns about if there is any light at the end of the tunnel?

SMILEY: I think, you know, as I said on Wednesday, timetables, this whole idea of a timeline is irrelevant to military families. We're used to not having a schedule. It's never been clear to me when my husband is coming home, when he's leaving, when the next move will be. So military families, war or no war, are used to no having a timetable. And we're used to that we're not always privy information about military strategy and --

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

SMILEY: And sometimes it strikes me as ridiculous that we think the military owes the public an explanation about their strategy.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Fred Kagan, let's talk to you for just a moment. Most of the talk this week is about when the troops might be coming home. But I did see the top general in Baghdad, General Casey, saying he reserves the right to call for more troops if he sees fit. He hasn't seen fit.

There isn't a lot of talk outside of that, about sending more troops, which is what you had proposed. Having heard what you have heard this week, did they persuade you in any other way that it is time now, perhaps, to withdraw troops.

FRED KAGAN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: No, absolutely not. It's very clear to me that at the moment we start withdrawing troops under the current circumstances, the situation in Iraq will begin to collapse very, very quickly. It is important to keep in mind, the U.S. military is still providing the essential logistics base for the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army will fall apart as we start to withdrawal. We're also providing essential security. The Iraqis will not be able to do that without our assistance. So, if you talk about any sort of withdrawal, phased or otherwise, with timelines or not with timelines, right now, what you're talking about imminent defeat, which will lead very likely to imminent beginning, very serious ethnic cleansing, and the development, possibly, of a real regional maelstrom. And I don't think we can contemplate that.

M. O'BRIEN: That's a scary scenario. Let's move it over to Professor Gerges. And we'll talk about this a little bit.

Professor Gerges, you have been pushing for a long time about reducing the American presence, the so-called footprint, especially the cities where they come in contact with people. In many cases you would suggest make matters worse. When Fred Kagan says pulling things out leads to imminent defeat, you would say just the opposite?

FAWAZ GERGES, PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, CAIRO: Absolutely, Miles. The question on the table is not whether we should help the Iraqi government, or not. Of course, we should. The United States owes a great deal of moral responsibility for the Iraqis and any strategic, any shift of policy, any shock tactics might be catastrophic for Iraq and American vital interests in the long term.

We're not saying the United States should pack and leave over night. We're saying the United States should basically realize that the American military presence in Iraq is not contributing to political stability in the country. In fact, on the contrary, the preponderant American military presence in Iraq is pouring gasoline on the fire.

Miles, let me expand the debate a bit here, since I am residing in the Middle East this year and I'm interviewing hundreds of activists and politicians and public opinion.

What American commentators and policy makers don't appreciate are the devastating effects of the American military presence on American vital interests throughout the Middle East. The American military presence is militarizing and radicalizing mainstream public opinion in this part of the world. So even if we are winning in Iraq, which we are not, of course, the implications of the American presence in Iraq are devastating to American vital interests in the long-term.

Miles, the American military presence is creating a new generation of militants or jihadists, some of whom I have interviewed hundreds of young men, in the last few months, who are trying very hard to go to Iraq and join the fight against the American military presence there.

M. O'BRIEN: We'll leave it there for the moment. But we're not done. When we come back, we're going to ask our guests, because we've been talking a lot about victory and winning, how would they define victory in Iraq? Stay with us. That's a key definition in all of this. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) M. O'BRIEN: Back now with more "Prescription Iraq", and back with our panel. How to define victory? In the early days of the war there was talk about bringing democracy to Iraq and how that might have a ripple effect all throughout the Middle East. Listen to the president just the other day as he tried to define victory in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The ultimate victory in Iraq, which is a government that can sustain itself, govern itself and defend itself, depends upon the Iraqi citizens and the Iraqi government doing the hard work necessary to protect their country. And our job is to help them achieve that objective.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

M. O'BRIEN: A government that can sustain itself, govern itself, and defend itself, Senator Levin. By that criteria, the Saddam Hussein government was a success. So the bar is lowered here.

LEVIN: Yeah, he's clearly changed his rhetoric here. He's finally gotten rid of some of the grandiose ideas that he was perpetuating here for many, many years. And that's probably a good sign that the rhetoric has toned down.

But I have to say that the issue is how do you get to a stable government which is not at war with itself? How do you end the violence on the street? For me, the definition of success will be when the political leaders of Iraq finally reach a political accommodation, sharing the oil resources and wealth of Iraq , fairly, and sharing the political power that they have to do in order that there's going to be a stable government. And that's only going to happen, I believe, if they are told that we are not there in an unlimited way, that they cannot assume that we're going to solve their problems for them.

The idea that we would bring more troops into Iraq deepens that problem because they would think even more so that we are there to solve their problems. They've got to do it for themselves and to make that happen. I believe we've got to let them know that three or four or five months down the road we are going to begin, just begin, a redeployment of our troops out of Iraq to focus their minds on what they must do, and to put pressure on them to reach those political accommodations.

That, to me, will be success is when they reach those political accommodations. And that will follow their finally realizing whether or not they make their country is up to them, not up to us.

M. O'BRIEN: Sarah, how would you define success, victory in Iraq?

SMILEY: I think that victory, as with most things, will be determined in hindsight. I agree with Secretary Rumsfeld when he says this is complicated stuff.

Someone like me, who doesn't have access to all the appropriate information, it would be silly of me to look in the future and assume that I know what victory would be.

But I would also say the military isn't designed to frame victory via politics. The troops on the ground over there, I can guarantee you they don't have time to analyze political polls and political debates. They're given a mission for this day, this week, this month, and they're focusing on accomplishing that.

For them, success is going out, doing their job, doing it well and coming home safely to their families. They're measuring success in smaller increments than we are over here. And I think we, as a country, need to be better at recognizing the smaller victories they're having every day.

M. O'BRIEN: Fred Kagan, how would you define victory in Iraq?

KAGAN: I think the president's recent definition is a good one, and I think it is one we need to strive for right now. We've been put -- because of some mistakes in strategy, and the way we've gone about this war, we've been put in a very defensive position here.

We must urgently get the security situation under control in Iraq. The Iraqis are not capable of doing that now. All the people who are calling for the withdrawal of American forces, or timetable, seem to ignore this fundamental fact. That as soon as we start to do that, the security will collapse. The Iraqi government will almost certainly collapse. And we will have chaos that's makes what is going on right now look very tame.

That's totally unacceptable. And it will turn Iraq into a breeding ground for terrorists. The president is quite right about that. It will destroy our image around the world, it will destroy our honor, and it will destroy our reputation as a force that's actually capable of supporting its friends.

Against the danger of the problem that is we're causing in the Middle East by this war, we have to set the danger that we'll encourage enemies throughout the world to act because of our perceived weakness, and inability to carry through on things we've undertaken, even when they're so much in our vital national interest.

M. O'BRIEN: Fawaz Gerges?

GERGES: Well, Miles, I'm delighted our Defense secretary now recognizes and realizes that nation building is very complicated. I wish he and his aides had realized that before they engaged in this major military venture. Of course, we realize it's complicated. Of course, we realize it's complex. Of course, we realize that the United States should not cut and run and that any particular change in policy should be gradual and orderly over the next 15 months.

The question on the table, Miles, is the following: Does the American military presence in Iraq contribute to political stability in Iraq or is it counterproductive and pouring gasoline on the fire? I believe that the United States should work very hard, the Bush administration in order to replace the American major contingent in Iraq with a neutral, international force, preferably a Muslim neutral force in order to help Iraqis rebuild their lives and rebuild their nation.

Of course, it's very difficult, and this is why it should be done over the next 15 months. But the process of sending more troops in Iraq is a very dangerous one and is bound to complicate the situation -- not just in Iraq, but throughout the Muslim world as well.

M. O'BRIEN: We'll leave it at that. Thank you all for your time, all this week, Senator Carl Levin, Sarah Smiley, Fred Kagan and Fawaz Gerges. We appreciate your time and insights.

Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: At this hour we're monitoring that raging wildfire in Southern California. Let's take a look at some live pictures. Authorities say this was arson. We'll update you on the latest efforts to contain the flames. That's ahead, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: A controversial new film, a faux documentary, portrays the fictional assassination of President George Bush. "The Death of a President" opens in U.S. theaters on Friday. Some theater chains are refusing to show the film.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "DEATH OF A PRESIDENT")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not just rounding up people, we have probable cause.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was a major, major security breach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This time it seemed to me there was real hate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He looked at me and he stepped out.

(END VIDEO CLIP, "DEATH OF A PRESIDENT")

M. O'BRIEN: Gabriel Range is the director of the film. He joins us now.

Good to have you with us, Gabriel.

GABRIEL RANGE, DIRECTOR, "THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT": Good to be here.

M. O'BRIEN: Why did you make this movie?

RANGE: I think imagining the assassination of President Bush just struck me as being a very potent and very striking way of posing some questions about the way the war on terror has been handled, about some of the consequences of the last five years, really.

M. O'BRIEN: In this case, for example, there is a suspect who is a Syrian national, who is singled out, arrested and put on death row. As part of this, vice president, in this movie becomes the president, Cheney, tries to focus blame on this person for other reasons. Explain that little plot line there.

RANGE: Well, there's certainly a sense in which, in the last few years, many of the terror suspects have certainly been held up by the current administration as poster boys for terrorism. That, in part, has been out of a desire to create the sense that the war is here in America, that we are fighting this war, that it's a war that is being fought in every American city.

So in a way, the experiences of this particular character in the film, the Syrian character, are in some way inspired by the experiences of some real life terror cases. The film is fictional. But pretty much every twist and turn is inspired in some way by real life events.

M. O'BRIEN: All of it put together, along with the combination of trying to weave this altogether, some voice interpretations makes it all seem very real. Is it fair to do that to people? To take things completely out of context, rework them, pop them into a fictional thing like this?

RANGE: I think I wanted to make a film that absolutely felt like a world that you would recognize, a world that we live in. It was very important, for example, to make the film about the assassination of President Bush, rather than about the assassination of fictional president. Precisely because I wanted the film to feel like a world we recognize.

Although it is set in the near future, and although it is fiction, it is very much a hope about some of the issues that really have come to the fore in the course of the last five years. I think it's telling a story in this particular style, I think, makes the audience react in a very different way to a regular narrative piece of drama.

M. O'BRIEN: Do you think what you're doing is responsible? Does this inspire, perhaps, someone who might wish to do harm to the president?

RANGE: I think anyone who sees the film, there is no way in which this film can be seen as an incitement to commit an act of violence. The assassination is portrayed as a horrific event, with terrible consequences. I really think the film explores more than anything the sort of pernicious effects of violence. I don't think it could inspire anyone to commit this act.

M. O'BRIEN: Some of these theaters that have said no to your film, in the end all the buzz surrounding this, I guess that might be good for business, huh?

RANGE: I think the distributor, New Market, are keen to -- they've got the film out in a lot of theaters. And they're very confident that it will reach a wide audience. I hope the fact you and I are talking about it today will mean that a lot of people will want to see the film. I would say, it's not what you think. Judge it for yourself.

M. O'BRIEN: Gabriel Range, the director of the film. Thank you very much for your time.

RANGE: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: We should tell you CNN has decided not to air commercials for "Death Of A President" because of the extreme nature of the movie's subject matter -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: We're back in a moment with a look at the day's top stories. First, though, here's Valerie Morris with today's edition of "Life After Work".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VALERIE MORRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In 1998 Charlie Stayton retired, from her job as a librarian, to fulfill her life's mission.

CHARLIE STAYTON, EXEC. DIR., THE WITNESS PROJECT: I don't think that I would have been this busy at the age of retirement because now my family is telling me, ma, when you going to come home?

MORRIS: At 63 Stayton is the director of The Witness Project, located on the campus of the University of Arkansas, the non-profit organization educates women, mostly African-American, about breast cancer and cervical cancer.

STAYTON: We want to reach all the women in the State of Arkansas that are not covered with medical insurance. We go out into the communities, and we present educational programs, and through these educational programs, we teach them the benefits of early detection.

MORRIS: Stayton knows the importance of treating cancer early. And even though her battle with cervical cancer was more than 20 years ago, she draws on that life experience to help others today.

STAYTON: The most rewarding part of my work is helping the ladies, because when I went through my ordeal in 1984, no ladies stepped to the plate and said "I've had cancer". So, when you can give the ladies consolation and let you know you'll be there and walk them through regardless, it makes me feel like I have done something worthwhile.

MORRIS: Valerie Morris, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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