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THE SITUATION ROOM

Iran's President Holds Conference on Holocaust; Interview With Gordon Smith

Aired December 11, 2006 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you tonight's top stories.
Happening now, Iran's president invites new outrage by hosting a conference on whether the Holocaust really happened. Among his guests, a former Ku Klux Klan leader turned politician here in the United States. What's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hoping to accomplish with an event Israel is calling a sick, sick phenomenon.

Also this hour, President Bush gets more advice on Iraq. Is he listening to a Republican senator who angrily broke ranks? I'll ask Senator Gordon Smith what he meant by suggesting the war might be criminal, and who should be held accountable.

And Mel Gibson seeks redemption. The actor-director's new film "Apocalypto" is a winner at the box office. Is it doing well despite his drunken anti-Jewish rant or because of it?

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

It's the kind of protest that rarely happens in Iran. Today, some students dared to defy their hard line president. They shouted death to the dictator, set off firecrackers, and booed as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Tehran University. But Ahmadinejad's office says the students chants could have been referring to the United States and Britain, adding that the Iranian president held talks with the students after the speech. Meanwhile, as Iran downplays the defiance, it's playing up a meeting it's hosting that pits hate against history.

Let's turn to CNN's Carol Costello. She's joining us now with details. Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Wolf, the State Department says it's flabbergasted by this. Others feel flat out sick. Another conference in Tehran to cast doubt on the Holocaust and there were a few Americans there, one, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): He's at it again. The in-your-face president of Iran is once again provoking the ire of his arch enemies in the West. Today's eye jab, a conference reviewing the veracity of the Holocaust, its headliner David Duke, a former American Klansman turned politician who spent time in jail for tax evasion.

Duke is there to add his wisdom on how quote, "images of a Holocaust against Jews are used to justify and promote a terrible war against Iran that would constitute new Holocaust."

The Holocaust is not a new thing for the Iranian president who delights in attacking everything Israel. Here he is this fall at the United Nations.

PRES. MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): These Zionists I want to tell you are not Jews. That's the biggest deception we've ever faced. Zionists are Zionists, period. They are not Jews. They are not Christians, and they are not Muslims. They are a power group, a power party.

COSTELLO: Or for Duke, who visited Syria last year and said...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It hurts my heart to tell you that part of my country is occupied by Zionists, just as part of your country, the Golan Heights, is occupied by Zionists.

COSTELLO: The Iranian president also held a contest in Tehran for the best Holocaust cartoon. But this latest conference comes just as the Iraq study group is telling the United States that dialogue with Iran's government is unavoidable.

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP: Syria and Iran have very great influence over events within Iraq, particularly Iran and -- but also Syria. And I just don't think you can avoid that.

COSTELLO: Is this the Iranian president's way of saying no thanks?

HADI SEMATI, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: It is this defiant self- confident empowered notion that if you stand up to the Americans and to the West, they will actually accept you better. They do not realize, again, they don't know, the impact of these characters and how they are perceived in the U.S. public opinion.

COSTELLO: As if there wasn't enough tension already over Iran's nuclear program.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If they would like to engage the United States that they've got to verifiably suspend their enrichment program.

COSTELLO: In Tehran the conference is being sold as an exchange of ideas.

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI, IRAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): The aim of this conference is not to confirm or deny the Holocaust. Its main aim is to create an opportunity for thinkers.

COSTELLO: Ideas like this one, voiced by one of the rare rabbis against Zionism.

RABBI YISROEL DOVID WEISS, JEWS UNITED AGAINST ZIONISM: The Zionists are taking this terrible horrific tragedy that happened by Jews, and they are using it to further their rebellion against God.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: The American State Department calls this meeting yet another disgraceful act, saying, how can you deny the death of six million people? Wolf?

BLITZER: Carol Costello in New York. Thanks very much.

Let's turn to Iran's neighbor. Is Iraq nearing the point of no return? Yes, says Iraq's former prime minister. In an interview, Ayad Allawi says Iraq is quickly moving toward a breakdown and is becoming more lawless by the day under the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The assessment comes as some suggest one way to fix Iraq might be to oust the man at the top.

And joining us now from Baghdad, our correspondent, Nic Robertson. Nic, what's the latest on these rumors out there, that there may be some effort to get rid of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the prime minister's spokesman says this is not the case, that although there are political divisions at the moment, and there is a group within the government that's trying to form a cross sectarian lines, a group of moderates that can accelerate an end to the sectarian divisions, the prime minister's office says, no, that he is still going to be the prime minister. However, we've heard the prime minister himself only recently talking about a cabinet reshuffle, but very clearly the sectarian divisions that are driving this city apart are also cutting across political boundaries here. We are seeing deepening political divisions opening up this week, Wolf.

BLITZER: That political story will be huge. We'll watch it together with you. Also, there was a dramatic bank robbery. Tell our viewers what happened.

ROBERTSON: Well, incredibly, as a bank was transferring money to one of its branches, militia men, or what was described as men wearing uniforms that looked like Iraqi uniforms, stopped the convoy of vehicles, took the money out of the security vehicle, put it in their own vehicles, and drove off with it, some $1 million. The indications are that perhaps this is insurgents or militias trying to fund their arm campaigns by openly and brazenly stealing money. Now the Iraqi police, under incredible pressure here to stop the killings, to stop the death squads, to stop the kidnappings and clearly this is really just an indication of the level of lawlessness that exists within Baghdad at the moment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson on the scene for us in Baghdad, Nic, thanks a lot. And as the Iraq situation clearly gets worse, some lawmakers are doing an about face. In a moment, I will be speaking with a Republican senator who supported the war but is now strongly against it, suggesting America's Iraq policy may actually be criminal. I'll ask Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon why he feels that way, and if someone should be held accountable.

Meanwhile, Republican Senator John McCain has been talking a lot about Iraq, and that was certainly on his agenda this weekend when he ventured into a potential rival's political turf in New York City.

Let's turn to CNN's Mary Snow. She's on the scene for us. Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, while many are calling for U.S. troops to begin leaving Iraq, Senator John McCain told an audience last night that doing so would increase the violence there. And he warned that for the U.S. to wash its hands of the situation in Iraq now is to risk catastrophe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): He took his hard line stand on Iraq into the backyard of Rudy Giuliani, his potential Republican rival. Senator John McCain delivered the convocation speech at Yeshiva University, but political observers say his hawkish words are meant for audiences far beyond New York.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: If U.S. forces begin a pullout, we risk all out civil war in the emergence of a failed state in the heart of the Middle East.

SNOW: McCain has been a rare voice calling for more troops in Iraq, and was critical last week of the Iraq study group's recommendations to start bringing troops home.

MCCAIN: I believe that this is a recipe that will lead to sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq.

SNOW: It's that kind of talk, says one Republican strategist that conservative voters and GOP primaries want to hear, in states like Iowa and South Carolina.

FRANK LUNTZ, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: John McCain has realized what Republican primary voters are talking about, which is that they don't want to cut and run. They don't want to give up. They don't like this Baker report.

SNOW: And some political observers say conservatives are also lukewarm on McCain and he needs to win them over.

LARRY SABATO, UNIV. OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS: McCain is still perceived as a maverick. He is still disliked by many conservative Republicans.

SNOW: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a hard sell to conservatives since he supports abortion and gay rights. In the latest CNN poll by Opinion Research Corporation, though, Giuliani ranks number one among registered Republicans for the 2008 nomination. While analysts say McCain is distinguishing himself with his hawkish stand, it could come back to haunt him in the general election.

SABATO: He's taken a position every bit as hawkish, even more so than George Bush, so, if there is a price to be paid for Iraq in 2008, McCain is setting himself up to pay it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And on the subject of Iran, Senator McCain called its regime possibly deranged and surely dangerous. He said while a military solution to deal with Iran's nuclear threat is a last resort, all options, he said, must remain on the table. Wolf?

BLITZER: Mary Snow in New York for us. Thanks very much.

Let's stay in New York and go to Jack Cafferty. He's joining us with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You know the Republicans best shot in '08 might be to get Barack Obama to switch parties.

How quickly they can dash our hopes that things might in fact start to get better. A reporter from "Congressional Quarterly" asked Democrat Silvestre Reyes for some basic facts about the Middle East and terrorists. Reyes is going to be the new head of the House Intelligence Committee. When he takes over, they may have to change the committee's name.

When asked who makes up al Qaeda, Sunni or Shia, Reyes incorrectly answered the group is mostly Shiite. He also didn't know who Hezbollah are. You know that terrorist organization that just fought that war with Israel? They are now very close to taking over in Lebanon, reportedly training Iraqi Shiites in the civil war there? Just goes to show you one party doesn't corner the market on stupidity.

Here's the question. What does it mean when the incoming Democrat House Intelligence chairman doesn't know the basics about al Qaeda and Hezbollah? E-mail your thoughts on that to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much. We're going to have more on this story also coming up this hour.

Meanwhile, Republican rebel. A conservative hawk who says the war in Iraq may even be criminal. Senator Gordon Smith, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me.

Plus, Senator John McCain pushes for more troops in Iraq. Will his bid to win over conservatives come back to haunt him if he runs for the White House?

Also, "Apocalypto" politics, Mel Gibson, searching for redemption in a box office hit. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, Senator Barack Obama is showing he knows what to do for an encore. After an impressive political debut in New Hampshire, the Illinois Democrat and presidential prospect is making a super high profile TV appearance. We'll get more on that in a moment.

Our chief national correspondent John King is in New Hampshire, following Obama's 2008 pre-game show -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when you have 150 journalists from as far away as Australia tracking your every move, it's hard to engage in that one-on-one, hand-to-hand, face-to- face politics for which New Hampshire is famous, but Senator Barack Obama did get some retail politicking in at a coffee shop here yesterday as he left. He said he loved it, and Democratic activists across New Hampshire are betting he will soon be back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(APPLAUSE)

KING (voice-over): First impressions matter in politics.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I am fired up.

KING: Timing, too.

OBAMA: I am telling you, New Hampshire, America's ready to turn the page. America is ready for a new set of challenges. This is our time. A new generation.

KING: Only 45 years old.

OBAMA: Obviously, it's flattering to get a lot of attention.

KING: Elected to the Senate just two years ago, yet Barack Obama has to wonder if this just might be his moment.

BETSY DEVRIES (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE STATE SENATOR-ELECT: I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like with it Obama, a rock star event.

KING: He is for the most part a few steps left of center. Talks about universal health care, raising the minimum wage, but he also laments record federal deficits and even as he says it's time to start bringing troops home from Iraq, Obama warns Democrats can't appear soft on security.

OBAMA: What we've seen is a lot of tough talk, and poor decision making on the part of the White House, but people do want tough.

KING: His appeal though is rooted more in a soft-spoken optimism. At least for now, more style than substance. OBAMA: It's a spirit that says we are looking for something different.

KING: His star power is undeniable, 1,500 people at a sold-out $25 a ticket state Democratic fundraiser on a Sunday afternoon. Hundreds more at a morning book signing that had to be moved to a big convention hall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Obama buttons.

KING: They call it the Obama effect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

KING: And it's already spurred Senator Hillary Clinton to accelerate her campaign planning including calls to New Hampshire Democrats just this past week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Large, extra large?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Extra large.

KING: And an Obama candidacy might also shake up the Republican race.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.

KING: Independents are allowed to vote in New Hampshire presidential primaries and were a major force back in 2000 when Senator John McCain stunned George W. Bush here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And in fact the Independent voters really propelled them to victory in the Republican primary.

KING: Veteran Republican activist Tom Rath is backing Massachusetts' Governor Mitt Romney and thinks Obama could prove at least a temporary ally.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think right now, the more Independents who vote in the Democratic primary, the more the Republican base controls the Republican primary, and that's a good thing.

KING: That assumes he runs.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: A decision Obama promises in the next few weeks.

OBAMA: I am suspicious of hype. I'm still running things through the traps.

KING: And making a good impression in the meantime.

OBAMA: Sorry, guys, I didn't mean to cause this fuss.

KING: Oh, yes he did. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Whatever his decision in the end, the senator is clearly enjoying the flirtation phase. He said he had great fun here in New Hampshire, and just before "Monday Night Football" tonight, Senator Obama will appear on national television saying that after much soul searching he wants to announce to his home town of Chicago and the nation that he's ready. Ready for some football is my guess, but stay tuned. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much, John, for that. Are you ready? Ready for some football? It's going to get free airtime tonight. Get this, a 30-second commercial spot on "Monday Night Football" costs anywhere between 190,000 and $210,000. He's going to get some national exposure for free tonight.

Another Democrat is ready to take the presidential plunge. Tomorrow Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich will have a mid-day news conference to announce his candidacy. His office says Kucinich will cite his deep concerns about the willingness of his own party's leadership to continue funding the war in Iraq. Kucinich ran unsuccessfully for the White House back in 2004. He's going to be my guest, among my guests tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Dennis Kucinich.

Still to come, a Republican hawk turns on the president. We'll find out why one U.S. senator says the war in Iraq may even be criminal. Senator Gordon Smith, standing by, he's my guest.

Also, killing Castro. Did a Florida congresswoman call for his assassination or did a British documentary put the words in her mouth?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol for a closer look at some other important stories making news. Carol?

COSTELLO: Hi, Wolf. Hello to all of you.

Another popular Colorado pastor has left his church over allegations of engaging in gay sex. In a videotaped message to his 2,000 member Englewood congregation, Paul Barnes confesses to struggling with his homosexuality since childhood. Barnes' confession echoes that of Ted Haggard who preached to a congregation of 14,000 in Colorado Springs. Haggard was fired after charges emerged that he had a past relationship with a male prostitute.

Convicted Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph says his stay in a super max federal prison is driving him insane. In a series of letters to a Colorado newspaper, Rudolph claims of -- complains of isolation and a lack of exercise. He says he spends 23 hours a day inside seven-by-13 foot cell. The anti-government extremist pleaded guilty to a series of bombings in the 1990's that killed two people. Sixty-one confirmed cases of E. coli infection now tied to several Taco Bell restaurants in the northeast in the past couple of weeks. The CDC says that includes the first confirmed case in New York City. The fast food chain says all of its outlets are now completely safe for consumers and it will no longer serve green onions. The onions were suspected of carrying the bacteria.

And a pair of South Carolina fraternity brothers seen swilling booze and making racist and sexist remarks in the docudrama "Borat" have lost a lawsuit against the film's makers. The students sued the movie's distributor and producers last month, saying filmmakers had duped them into appearing in the movie. They say the movie tarnished their reputations. Their suit has failed in two other courts, so Wolf, I think their legal challenge is just about over now.

BLITZER: I think you may be right, Carol. Thanks for that. Carol is in New York.

Just ahead, the fight over the war. A Republican senator fed up and demanding an end to the bloodshed. We'll find out what made him turn against the president. Senator Gordon Smith, our guest.

Also, new questions and embarrassing answers for the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. You might be surprised by what he doesn't know about the war on terror.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

Happening now, as blood runs through the streets in Iraq, there's an urgent search for solutions here in Washington. President Bush today gets advice from the State Department and from some outside experts on Iraq as he tries to look for a new way forward.

Also, Kofi Annan unleashed, the outgoing United Nations secretary-general has some harsh words about the United States. In a farewell speech, Kofi Annan discussed how he thinks the U.S. should behave in the world and at one point saying the United States cannot always do as it simply pleases.

And cosmic hookup. The space shuttle Discovery docks at the international space station today, about 200 miles above the earth. Astronauts will stay there a week with the first of three space walks coming tomorrow.

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

As the Iraq war clearly worsens, some U.S. senators who voted for the war have now come out against it. One of them is now deeply, deeply frustrated about the current course, and is out blasting the Bush administration's strategy. Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon had this to say late last week about Iraq. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. GORDON SMITH (R), OREGON: I for one am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Senator, a powerful, emotional statement I know, coming from your gut, coming from your heart. Why the about face?

SEN. GORDON SMITH (R), OREGON: Wolf, if you have the privilege of representing one of the United States and you have a voice and a vote, now is the time to speak up.

And I felt duty bound to say what was on my heart, and to describe how this war had mutated from one thing to another, from taking out a tyrant and a terrorist and ridding him of weapons of mass destruction and establishing democracy, to now being street cops in a sectarian civil war. That's not what I voted for. That is not what the American people are for.

BLITZER: So you've concluded this is now a civil war in Iraq?

SMITH: I have concluded that. You know, this is a fight, when you get right down to the root of it, between Sunnis and Shias that goes back a millennia of time over who is the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed. That is not our fault. That is not our fight and that's not something we can fix.

BLITZER: Was there one issue, one thing that happened that pushed you over to deliver this remarkable address on the Senate floor?

SMITH: Well, I've read a number of books recently that got me thinking and stirred up, and then I woke up Wednesday, I believe it was, to the news that 10 more of our fighting men and maybe a women -- I don't know -- but they were killed again in another roadside bomb, and I just simply hit the end of the rope, if you will.

And I felt I had to speak out, because if these sacrifices are being made in pursuit of a policy that cannot succeed, then we need to admit it and readjust in a way that the American people and our soldiers find worth the sacrifice. And this is not.

BLITZER: You used the word "criminal" in that statement, a very sharp, pointed word. If, in fact, some of the actions committed by the U.S. were criminal, who should be held accountable?

SMITH: Well, if you'll read my remarks in context, I was clearly speaking rhetorically, not in a legal sense. But I find examples like when the British generals day after day in the first world war would send thousands of their men running into machine guns and not make adjustments, I find that criminal.

And when we send our young folks out in vehicles that cannot take out these -- or rather, accept these kinds of blasts to them without taking their lives, I don't find that smart and I find that very derelict in duty.

Moreover, if you think we should be going out and fighting them, you have to answer the question whether the insurgency that this has become is worth doing. If you say, yes, it is, then you have to adapt your tactics.

What we are doing -- and I have seen this with my own eyes in Iraq. What we're doing is sending them out from the Green Zone, clearing, and then retreating back to the Green Zone. Now, I've got to tell you, that doesn't make any sense if you're fighting an insurgency.

History will tell you, to fight and win insurgencies, you have to clear, hold, and then build, so you build confidence in the people there so that they become the foot soldiers, they root out the terrorists, and they ultimately fight for their freedom. It's not our country. It's theirs.

BLITZER: So let me repeat the question. Who should be held accountable for what you believe has now become -- and I'll just use the word fiasco or disaster or some word along those lines?

SMITH: Well, I think all of us with positions of responsibility are accountable. But, clearly, I can't be quiet anymore. I'm leveling this charge at no one man or woman, but I am clearly saying that the American people will and should hold us accountable.

So if you've got something to say, now is the time to say it. Either let's fight the war intelligently for an objective that is obtainable, or let's admit it and figure out how to preserve the lives of our soldiers.

BLITZER: Because morally speaking, if you do conclude it's futile right now and that a year from now it's not going to make any difference what the U.S. does, that the situation is still going to be a sectarian civil war -- your words -- is it moral to keep U.S. men and women in harm's way, let another thousand or so Americans die over the next year if it's simply going to wind up exactly, if not worse, than it is right now?

SMITH: It is not right to do that. Let me also add, though, that we have an ongoing interest in prosecuting the war on terror, a fight from which we can retreat only at the peril of our own nation.

There are ways to reposition on the borders of Iraq to take on terrorist jihadists from Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia. And these are the people that we want to fight. That is our fight, and ultimately, that is a very important fight for our country for our sake, not just for Iraq's. BLITZER: Knowing what you know now -- and obviously with hindsight we're all a lot smarter -- if you had to do it over again knowing that no WMD in Iraq, no al Qaeda connection, knowing 3,000 Americans were going to be killed, $400 billion spent, $2 billion a week, would you have voted for that resolution...

SMITH: No.

BLITZER: ... to support this war?

SMITH: As I said in my floor statement, had I known there were no WMD there, I would not have voted for it. But I do want to add that I believe it's a good thing that we removed Saddam Hussein. I think there would have been other ways to do that without the cost in life and treasure that our current approach has led us to.

BLITZER: One final question, Senator. Do you think President Bush is, as his critics charge, still in a state of denial?

SMITH: Oh, you know, what I say I say in sorrow, not in anger. President Bush is my friend, and I know he agonizes day and night over this issue. But he has a very determined streak in him, and yet I have to believe he knows, with the Iraq Study Group and what others are saying, that the time is now to rethink this and reposition the American war against terrorism.

BLITZER: Senator Gordon Smith, thanks very much for coming in.

SMITH: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And still ahead tonight, the incoming Democratic House Intelligence Committee chairman making some major mistakes when asked about al Qaeda and Hezbollah. We're going to have details of the answers that have some questioning his future.

Plus, a troubled actor making another hit. Can Mel Gibson find redemption in his new movie? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: New questions tonight for the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee after he gave some embarrassing answers. At issue, an interview with Democratic Congressman Sylvestre Reyes on some basic facts about the war on terror.

Let's turn to our correspondent Brian Todd. He's watching this flap and the fallout -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the reporter who interviewed Congressman Sylvestre Reyes is quick to point out he believes Reyes is a thoughtful man who has a good grasp of the big picture in the war on terror.

But at one point in their interview, the incoming intelligence chairman was thrown off.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): He'll soon head the House committee that overviews U.S. intelligence agencies and authorizes their money. When he got the job as chairman, Congressman Sylvestre Reyes was confident.

REP. SYLVESTRE REYES, (D-TX) INCOMING INTELLIGENCE CHMN.: I felt that I had very strong credentials and credentials that I could stand -- that could stand up to anybody.

TODD: But Reyes' basic knowledge of who's waging this war is now in question. Speaking recently with the "Congressional Quarterly", Reyes was asked, is al Qaeda Sunni or Shia. Quote, "Predominantly, probably Shiite."

Analyst Derek Chollet says Reyes is a smart guy who probably just got tripped up.

But shouldn't the man who in nearly six years on the Intelligence Committee has already gotten several classified briefings know that the world's best-known terrorist group it is mostly Sunni?

DEREK CHOLLET, CTR. FOR STRATEGIC & INTL. STUDIES: We should expect all of our public officials, particularly those in positions that are responsible for overseeing and conducting the war on terror, to know as much as they possibly can about the threat that we face.

TODD: Reyes also couldn't identify Hezbollah, long-considered a terrorist organization by the State Department. The reporter, Jeff Stein, was accused of cheap shots when a previous article by him pointed out that top FBI counter-terror officials didn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. Was he ambushing them or Reyes?

JEFF STEIN, "CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY": No. I don't sneak up on them at all. I'm not there to ask them this question. I go to ask them what their policies are, what they think about certain intelligence issues, counter-terrorism issues.

TODD: Sylvestre Reyes was Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi's safe choice when she had a falling out with long-time ranking member Jane Harman. An aide to Pelosi tells CNN she does not regret choosing Reyes and still has full confidence in him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (on camera): This afternoon, Reyes' office issued us this statement, quote, "The CQ interview covered a wide range of topics other than the selected points covered in the story. As a member of the Intelligence Committee since before 9/11, I'm acutely aware of al Qaeda's desire to harm Americans. The Intelligence Committee will keep its eye on the ball, and focus on the pressing security and intelligence issues facing us."

Wolf? BLITZER: Brian, thank you for that.

Brian Todd reporting.

And Jack Cafferty is taking your e-mail on this very, very hot topic. That's coming up in a few moments, Jack Cafferty and your e- mail.

Should someone assassinate the Cuban leader Fidel Castro? That's what Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen appears to encourage in a documentary film clip circulating online.

Let's turn to our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton. She's been looking into this -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, the clip is at the website of a new British documentary called "638 Ways to Kill Castro" about the multiple plots through the years against the Cuban leader.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, (R) FLORIDA: I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: The filmmakers say that was from an interview earlier this year with a long-time Castro critic, Congresswoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen. It was there for the documentary, though, it didn't make the final cut. Multiple calls to the Congresswoman today were not returned.

But the Congresswoman has told the "Miami Herald" that the clip was not accurate, that it was, quote, "twisted in a way that gives the viewer the totally wrong impression".

Well, I spoke to the documentary filmmaker today, Dollan Cannell, from his office in London. He said he was baffled by that, that there was absolutely no distortion, no doctoring. He made the transcripts available to us. And he said he'd make the original tapes available to anyone that wanted to look at them, including the Congresswoman -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you for that.

Still to come here tonight in the SITUATION ROOM, Mel Gibson, making headlines once again. But for a very different reason. He has a new movie out, but are the audiences forgiving him for his infamous anti-Semitic rant?

Plus, what's in a name? You might ask this rising Democratic star, Barack Obama.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Five months after Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic tirade raised questions about whether he was finished, the actor- director latest film has been a hit on the big screen in a major way.

Let's turn to our entertainment correspondent Sibila Vargas -- Sibila.

SIBILA VARGAS, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The eyes of the industry were definitely on Mel Gibson, wondering how his new movie "Apocalypto" would do.

And it looks like Gibson has done it again, delivering the goods at the box office.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Apocalypto means a new beginning.

VARGAS (voice-over): A new beginning may be just what Mel Gibson got months after his drunken driving arrest that culminated in a verbal attack on Jews. Despite predictions by some that his behavior would turn off moviegoers, Gibson's new film "Apocalypto" opened on top of the box office.

(on camera): There was so much baggage going into this film.

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN, PRES., MEDIA BY NUMBERS: There was a lot of baggage surrounding the release of this film. I mean, the Mel Gibson factor was huge. But I think Mil Gibson is the reason why this film opened so well.

VARGAS (voice-over): The Mayan epic earned $15 million, not exactly blockbuster numbers, but impressive for these reasons. The film is in an obscure Mayan dialect and features unknown actors. Also impressive, "Apocalypto" bested new films this weekend from Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz.

(on camera): There was definitely curiosity factor going into this film.

DERGARABEDIAN: And I think that translated into people going out to the movie theater to see it though they could talk at the water cooler take about it.

VARGAS (voice-over): "Apocalypto's" performance pales in comparison to Gibson's last film, "The Passion of the Christ", which opened to more than $83 million. But box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian says the comparisons may not be fair.

DERGARABEDIAN: "The Passion of the Christ" in a way was more of a mainstream movie than "Apocalypto" because it had a subject matter that many, many people could relate to.

VARGAS: "Apocalypto's" success doesn't mean Gibson's July rant has been forgotten. For Jews especially, the wound is raw. RABBI MARVIN HIER, SIMON WIESENTHAL CTR.: There's been a lot of talk that he's trying to rehabilitate himself. But I haven't seen anything, frankly. And many people would say that he hasn't shown any remorse at all.

VARGAS: The attention paid to Gibson's drunken outburst may in the end have benefited his new movie.

(on camera): What does this opening say about Mel Gibson?

DERGARABEDIAN: Well, it says that Mel Gibson is an artist. He's a controversial artist. And controversy sells.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VARGAS: Dergarabedian also points out that the film, which was highly marketed to males, actually did really well with women across the board. Both sexes turned out to see the action thriller. It proved to be a date movie. "Daily Variety" reports that 82 percent of the audience on Saturday was actually made up of couples. Interesting, considering it's a pretty violent film -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting it did better than Cameron Diaz's new movie. That's supposed to be a date movie.

Thanks very much, Sibila, for that.

VARGAS: Exactly.

BLITZER: Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York for the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You are -- you're up to speed, cutting edge on all the this cinematic stuff going on, aren't you?

BLITZER: I'm -- something like that. I don't know cutting edge, but a little bit.

CAFFERTY: Pop culture whiz, as they say.

BLITZER: Yes, that's my strength.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, getting back to the news, is:

"What does it mean when the oncoming Democratic House Intelligence Chairman, Congressman Sylvestre Reyes, doesn't know the basics about al Qaeda or Hezbollah?"

Rosemary writes: "Reyes is almost as bad as the incoming head of Head Start for Politicians, no, I mean Homeland Security. I can't even bring myself to learn the names of all the "new"/"old" incoming heads of do-nothing, know-nothing committees. Committees, that's what they're all about, talking to one another in some kind of political speak that they seem to understand, but that we in the real world have not learned." Bill writes: "The fact the head of the Intelligence Committee is ignorant about the world is pathetic and scary. People like that working well above their level of competence can cause us lots of problems. But the root cause is that the people in his district have continued to vote this moron into office time and time again."

Jonathan in Florida: "It would be improper to suggest that Reyes (or Pelosi, who appointed him) is a fool or an idiot. Such a suggestion would be an insult to fools and idiots."

Anthony in New York: "I'm a registered Democrat. The fact that the incoming House Intelligence chair doesn't know the basics of the forces that threaten us is a disgrace. That in and of itself is a national security threat. It's without question this position should go to someone else. This is the epitome of partisan politics blocking the workings of an effective government."

J.C. in Virginia: "He may not know much about terrorist groups, but I'll bet you the good chairman will know when the vote to himself a raise is!"

And in Pennsylvania: "It we've means we traded one set of idiots for another."

And Katie in Seattle: "It means he can run for president."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can read some more of this stuff online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you. See you back here tomorrow.

Let's stay in New York and go to Paula to see what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

We've got a special hour for you straight ahead on a story that captured hearts all over the country, James Kim's 11 day struggle in the Oregon wilderness. The Kim family was on the way home from Thanksgiving when they were stranded in a blinding snowstorm. We are going to retrace his steps as he struggled to get help for his wife and two young girls. And we'll show you what to do if you ever face death trapped in a snowy wilderness.

"Stranded: the James Kim Ordeal", coming up at the top of the hour.

And we talked with folks involved in the rescue, and many folks who had the privilege of celebrating Thanksgiving and leading up to this terrible, terrible challenge for the Kim family -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Paula, for what's going to be an important hour. We'll watch it.

Still ahead right here in the SITUATION ROOM, anxious crowds await him as breathless fans clamor to shake his hand. It's a reception benefiting a rock star -- no, make that a "Barack Star". So why might some who love him get his name confused with a man many people hate?

Jeanne Moos, here to explain.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

A pole vaulter from Kazahkstan fails to clear the bar at the Asian Games in Qatar.

In Santiago, Chile, a woman strikes an opponent of the late General Augusto Pinochet with her purse. Thousands of Pinochet's supporters are paying tribute in front of his coffin nearby.

In Dublin, Ireland actor Martin Sheen stands next to a statue of James Joyce outside a screening of Sheen's new film "Bobby".

And in China, a zoo keeper dressed as Santa Claus offers fruit and vegetable to two squirrel monkeys.

Some of today's "Hot Shots", pictures often worth a thousand words.

Senator Barack Obama has been getting a lot of press lately, but there's one hurdle he may have to clear before winning over the nation.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's not just buzz about this guy, it's more like a scream.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Barack Obama!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Barack Obama!

MOOS: He was red hot in New Hampshire.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) ILLINOIS: I am fired up.

MOOS: But not everyone knows him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who exactly is Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know who you're talking about.

MOOS: Maybe that explains how someone could confuse Obama with Osama. Only one little consonant differentiates the two names. And as if that similarity weren't enough, how about sharing the name of a former dictator?

(on camera): You know his middle name? Hussein.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get out of her. You kidding me?

MOOS (voice-over): That's right, Barack Hussein Obama. But that's not what Oprah calls him.

OPRAH WINFREY, HOST, "OPRAH": Please welcome Senator Barack Obama.

MOOS: The Hussein part was his Kenyan grandfather's first name.

OBAMA: I mean, it would be one thing if my name was John Hussein Smith. When you're already starting with Barack Obama...

MOOS: The Obama-Osama similarity led WBAL radio talk show host Chip Franklin to hit the streets, asking...

CHIP FRANLIN, WBAL TALK SHOW HOST: Do you think Barack Obama poses a threat to the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure.

FRANKLIN: How so?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's still out there. He's still plotting.

FRANKLIN: He's still plotting?

Do you think Barack Obama poses a threat to the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Definitely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course.

FRANKLIN: At what country do you think Barack Obama could be president of, Nigeria, Sudan, France or the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nigeria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He could have a problem with that. I'd change my name.

MOOS: Political consultants say it's too late for that, too late to switch to, say, his childhood nickname, "Barry".

FRANKLIN: What's in a name?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so Barack would, were he not Barack-named, retain that dear perfection that he owns without the title.

MOOS (on camera): You're good. (voice-over): When a Republican operative seemed to go out of his way on MSNBC to use Obama's full name...

ED ROGERS: Barack Hussein Obama...

MOOS: ... Obama supporters thought Ed Rogers did it on purpose. But Rogers later denied he was trying to tie to Hussein to Saddam. Add to all of this that Barack rhymes with Iraq.

Still, Obama's not sweating it.

OBAMA: The American people are not concerned about middle names.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Obama what?

MOOS (on camera): Is he a threat to the U.S.?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (LAUGHS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe he's a threat. We need more security.

MOOS: Against Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course.

MOOS (voice-over): Osama's on the run, Obama's considering one.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Leave it to Jeanne Moos.

Thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

A special "CNN PRESENTS", "PAULA ZAHN NOW" with "Stranded: the James Kim Ordeal" starts right now.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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