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LOU DOBBS TONIGHT

President Bush Will Delay Announcement of any Changes in Iraq Strategy Until New Year; Carnage in Iraq; Federal Agents Raid Meat- Packing Plants in Crackdown on Illegal Immigration; Increase in Food Importation Raises Concern on Safety of Food Supply; George Miller Interview

Aired December 12, 2006 - 18:00   ET

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


LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, death and destruction in Baghdad. Five more of our troops have been killed in Iraq, as President Bush delays plans to announce a new strategy in the war in Iraq.
We'll have special reports tonight from the White House, the Pentagon, and Baghdad.

And federal agents have arrested illegal aliens with phony IDs in a major bust at meat-packing plants around the country. What is being done to stop illegal aliens from stealing your identity to secure illegal jobs in this country?

That special report and a great deal more straight ahead tonight.

ANNOUNCER: This is LOU DOBBS TONIGHT, news, debate and opinion for Tuesday, December 12th.

Live in New York, Lou Dobbs.

DOBBS: Good evening, everybody.

The White House today said President Bush will delay the announcement of any changes in his Iraq strategy until the new year. The White House announcement had been expected before Christmas.

A top White House official insists the delay is not a sign of trouble, but simply a sign of the president's determination. As the White House announced the delay, insurgents killed at least 70 Iraqis in a coordinated attack on day laborers in Baghdad. And five more of our troops were killed in Iraq.

Ed Henry tonight reports from the White House on the president's decision to take more time in which to revise his Iraq strategy.

Nic Robertson reports from Baghdad on today's bomb attack in one of the Iraqi capital's busiest squares.

And Jamie McIntyre reporting tonight from the Pentagon on the U.S. military's view of future strategy in the war in Iraq.

We turn first to Ed Henry -- Ed ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Lou, six days since the Baker-Hamilton commission told the president the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating, that the clock is ticking. But today Mr. Bush said he needs more time before unveiling a course correction.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): Under increasing pressure to reshape his war policy, the president consulted with Iraq's vice president, a key Sunni leader who's seen his own brother and sister killed by sectarian violence.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In spite of his grief and in spite of pain in his heart, he is willing to work for a united Iraq and a peaceful Iraq.

HENRY: But the president refused to discuss about why he's decided to scrap initial plans to reveal a new Iraq policy by Christmas, a reversal that adds to the picture of a beleaguered White House groping for answers.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That is not going to happen until the new year. We do not know when, so I can't give you a date. I can't give you a time, I can't give you a place, I can't give you the way in which it will happen. So all those questions are yet to be answered.

HENRY: But it was the White House staff that had the set the expectations of a December announcement. So the delay only sparked more questions.

During a secure video conference with the president Tuesday, did military commanders urge a change?

SNOW: No. No. No. The president is the commander in chief. He issues orders. It is -- he decided that, frankly, it's not ready yet.

HENRY: Snow denied one theory that the president is just waiting until after the holidays to announce he's sending even more troops to Iraq. But the press secretary seemed to give credence to another possibility...

BUSH: But I'm the decider...

HENRY: ... that perhaps the president is taking his time so any momentum for the Baker-Hamilton report fades and he can chart his own course.

SNOW: The touchstone is not the Baker-Hamilton commission, it's the situation in Iraq, and it's the situation in the region. That is the touchstone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: The president has all but rejected the key Baker-Hamilton recommendation, getting combat troops out of Iraq by early 2008. In fact, some people familiar with the deliberations tell CNN the president is actively considering sending more troops to Iraq now. A controversial move that White House aides publicly will not confirm or deny -- Lou.

DOBBS: Ed, thank you.

Ed Henry from the White House.

Democrats today strongly criticized the president's decision to delay that announcement. Incoming Senate majority leader Senator Harry Reid declared Iraq is falling into all-out civil war, and he said all the president has done is fired Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Senator Reid said, "Waiting and delaying" on Iraq serves no one's interests.

A top U.S. general today said additional military force will not end the war on Iraq. General Peter Chiarelli said the United States and Iraq must do more to create jobs and the country's political divisions be ended. The general's comments come one day before President Bush goes to the Pentagon to hear the top military view on the future direction of this war.

Jamie McIntyre reports from the Pentagon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Following a secure video conference with top commanders, outgoing defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld leaves the White House with Robert Gates, the man who next week officially inherits the Iraq problem. That Gates needs more time to consider the options is one reason given by the White House for putting off a decision on a course direction until January.

President Bush is getting a lot of conflicting advice. One of the military commanders on the conference hook-up from Iraq was Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli who, just before joining the call, told reporters in Baghdad more military force is not the answer.

LT. GEN. PETER CHIARELLI, MULTINATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: And I know everybody wants us to -- to charge on out there and make everything OK, but you cannot if you don't get these other things moving. And I don't know why it's so hard to get people to understand that.

MCINTYRE: But some of the experts who met with the president just a day before suggested one last major show of U.S. force could possibly stop the violence long enough for a political settlement to take hold. Even as they conceded that was a long shot.

When Mr. Bush comes to the Pentagon, he'll likely get another list of pros and cons, not a clear-cut recommendation. At least that's the sense of CNN's Don Sheppard, who is among a small group of military analysts who met privately with Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs chairman General Peter Pace in advance of the powwow with the president. MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPARD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think he's going to hear a whole bunch of solutions, no solutions. No big plan by the military to say this is what we need to do.

MCINTYRE: As for the much-discussed option of surging more troops into Baghdad as a stopgap measure, few experts think that will work.

JAMES CARAFANO, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Even if you throw 20,000 troops in there and they temporarily put the violence down, what's going to happen is those guys are going to go to ground, and as soon as those 20,000 troops leave, they'll just pop back up.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: U.S. military commanders are fond of saying that failure is not an option in Iraq. But at least some of the independent experts who are advising President Bush say failure is the most likely outcome no matter what the president decides to do -- Lou.

DOBBS: Jamie, when we listen to General Chiarelli and others suggesting that the solution in Iraq rests with just about everything and every entity other than the U.S. military, is there a sense there in the Pentagon at all that there is an absence of bold and innovative thinking on the part of the general staff that the military, in point of fact, has not executed well and that that responsibility rests with the general staff?

MCINTYRE: Well, the short answer to that is no. They believe the military has done everything possible given the hand it was dealt, and that for Iraq to turn out to be a success, there has to be much more movement on the political front.

The question is, how do you achieve that? Can military force set the conditions for that to happen? And so far, it hasn't.

DOBBS: Jamie McIntyre, thank you.

Jamie McIntyre, from the Pentagon.

The number of our troops being killed in Iraq continues to rise. Another five of our troops were killed over the past 24 hours. Three in combat yesterday, two others from non-hostile causes.

Forty-seven of our troops have been killed in Iraq so far this month. December is now on track to being one of the deadliest months of this entire war.

2,937 of our troops killed since it began. Another 22,229 troops wounded, 9,972 of them seriously.

Insurgents in Baghdad also killed more than 70 Iraqis today in what was a coordinated bomb attack against day laborers. More than 200 people were wounded. The attack took place as laborers gathered in one of the city's main squares hoping to find work.

Nic Robertson reports from Baghdad -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That massive explosion targeting day workers as they gathered in the morning to try and find work. The blast could be felt more than a mile away.

According to police, the suicide bomber drove a vehicle packed with 200 kilograms, about 450 pounds of explosives, into the group of men, called them over saying he had work for them. As they got close, detonated the explosive. Seventy-one people dead, over 220 injured. Of those, 155 remain being treated in five different Baghdad hospitals.

Political tensions as well within the parliament at the moment. A group describing itself as moderate politicians across sectarian lines grouping together to try and ease the sectarian tensions at the moment. But at the same time, a lot of talk about the ousting possibly of the current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.

Nuri al-Maliki's office denies that he is about to be -- about to be removed, but there is a lot of tension, a lot of deliberation within the government at the moment. Talk, also, of a cabinet reshuffle. But at the moment, a lot of pressure on the prime minister here to deal with the -- to deal with the militias, to disarm the militias.

A lot of groupings within the -- within the government and within the parliament that will perhaps -- perhaps potentially remove this current prime minister, replace him with somebody who can -- who it is hoped can accelerate this process of disarming the militias and ending some of this sectarian violence -- Lou.

DOBBS: Nic Robertson, thank you, reporting from Baghdad.

Still ahead here tonight, federal agents raiding meat-packing plants in a crackdown on illegal immigration. We'll have that special report here.

And identity theft in the country's fastest-growing -- is the country's fastest-growing crime. Many people don't even know they are victims. We'll have the story.

And the Kremlin's new geopolitical maneuvers. Russian president Vladimir Putin encouraging Russian corporations to invest in the United States as he tries to limit Western investment in Russia.

That special report and a great deal more straight ahead here tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Federal agents raided meat-packing plants around the country in a new crackdown on illegal immigration. The focus of today's operation, illegal aliens who were using fake IDs and stolen Social Security numbers.

Casey Wian tonight reports on those raids and why the company involved is now blaming the federal government for allowing it to hire those illegal aliens in the first place.

And Christine Romans reports on the lucrative trade of identity theft.

And we begin with Casey Wian in Los Angeles -- Casey.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, it's perhaps the most creative euphemism for a law enforcement raid we've ever heard. Swift & Company says immigration officials are conducting employee interviews at six of its meat processing plants.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN (voice-over): Swift & Company facilities in six states were targeted by Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents seeking illegal aliens and identity thieves. Agents set up outside a Swift meat- packing plant in Colorado where workers were frisked, photographed, handcuffed, and taken away in buses for interrogation. The face charges ranging from administration immigration violations to felony- aggravated identity theft.

TIM COUNTS, ICE SPOKESMAN: We believe that there may be hundreds of people, U.S. citizens and legal immigrants, whose identities have been stolen by people who then use those identities to work in Swift plants across the country.

HECTOR ANGEL, RELATIVE OF SWIFT EMPLOYEE: Everybody has to do what they have to do to make a living. I agree with that, that it's wrong. But at the same time, it's not, because, you know, we are human beings.

WIAN: Swift is the world's second-largest meat processor. ICE says the company is not being charged, but its 10-month investigation continues. Swift says it has "... never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor have we ever knowingly hired such individuals." Incredibly, Swift also says the ICE raids "... raise serious questions as to the government's possible violation of individual workers' civil rights."

DAN STEIN, FED. FOR AMER. IMMIG. REFORM: These businesses are the last ones to be complaining about "civil rights." I mean, it's like a plantation owner arguing that the abolitionists are somehow violating the civil rights of slaves. I mean, the use of illegal aliens is creating the exploitative conditions that many Americans are working under today.

WIAN: Swift says all its employees since 1997 have been cleared by the federal government's basic pilot work authorization program. It verifies Social Security numbers but not identity.

VICTOR CERDA, FMR. ICE OFFICIAL: You really have here an ideal picture of how broken the system is on employee verification. It's not working for the employer here and it's not working for the government.

WIAN: One federal law enforcement source says basic pilot may be flawed, but it doesn't give amnesty to any company's employees who break the law.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN: Federal officials say agents are still in the process of apprehending illegal alien workers. So they don't have an arrest total. They promise to answer more questions at a news conference tomorrow -- Lou.

DOBBS: Did ICE explain why they were conducting these raids now?

WIAN: They didn't explain the timing of it right now. They did say though that this investigation has been ongoing since February of this year. So about 10 months. And it involved several other federal agencies. Apparently, it was a pretty sophisticated identity theft and document counterfeiting ring.

DOBBS: And Swift actually had the temerity to say it's not their fault?

WIAN: They did. They pretty much placed the blame at the steps of the federal government, because Swift says, "We participated in this basic pilot program. We verified all of these Social Security numbers."

The problem is, as we reported, that problem only verifies the numbers. It doesn't match the numbers with a specific person.

DOBBS: And I think we should point out here tonight -- this is a pretty good time -- that all that would be required is an executive order by the president of the United States saying that the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service can authorize a test to match the taxpayer numbers and Social Security numbers for employees, and that would eliminate 99 percent of the illegal alien employment in this country in very swift order.

No pun intended.

WIAN: Right.

DOBBS: By the way, we should invite Swift company, because a company of that size and scope and scale and sophistication of management, for them to say they didn't know they weren't hiring illegal aliens, I want to invite the CEO, the chief executive officer of Swift, or any of his or her designees to come on this broadcast to explain how intelligent business people, top executives, would not have a reason to suspect that a sizable of number of their employees were illegal.

Casey Wian, thank you, as always. Appreciate it.

Stolen Social Security numbers and stolen identities are critical for illegal aliens who seek to be employed in this country unlawfully. And those documents are easy to obtain. Many Americans don't even know that their identities have been stolen.

Christine Romans reports. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The number on this card is the ticket for someone looking to work illegally in the United States.

JAY FOLEY, IDENTITY THEFT RESOURCE CENTER: It's gold, it's the key, because in this country you can't work unless you have a Social Security number.

ROMANS: For a few hundred dollars, your vital information, your valid Social Security number, is for sale. The government last year alerted employers that some $7.7 million W-2 forms had names and Social Security numbers that did not match. Some simply clerical mistakes, the rest fraud.

ID theft experts say the fastest growing group of victims, legal permanent residents and children whose name and Social Security number together allow someone to work unchallenged for years and may not raise any red flags at all. Using a Stolen Social security number is a felony, but selling one is not a crime.

Congressman Clay Shaw wants Congress to change that.

REP. CLAY SHAW (R), FLORIDA: Now the estimates are between 12 and 13 million illegals working in this country. And probably my guess would be that well over half of them are working on somebody else's Social Security number. And it can be actually your newborn daughter or son that could be the victim.

ROMANS: In these meat-packing raids, the government says the identities of hundred of legal residents and American citizens were stolen. Some workers even had genuine birth certificates.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: The government has begun cracking down on the rings that provide the numbers and the documents necessary to work illegally, but whenever a mill is dismantled another one springs up. Worse, ID theft expert Jay Foley says in some cases he thinks employers may be themselves handing out the numbers to workers, using old numbers from personnel files, because it's not a crime to give someone another Social Security number, it's just a crime...

DOBBS: Employers would do that?

ROMANS: He suspects so.

DOBBS: I'm shocked. I'm absolutely shocked that these...

ROMANS: Lou, there's gambling in Casablanca.

DOBBS: Oh, my gosh. You know, I would like to be able to give ICE a great cheer, and I guess give them a limited cheer in this operation, but the fact is, we can turn off the illegal employment of illegal aliens in the country within a week and simply aren't doing it. And stealing -- as you point out, stealing a Social Security number is a felony, and you've got people walking around saying that crossing our borders is a misdemeanor, it's not a major issue.

This is a very major issue

Thank you, Christine Romans.

Coming up next, the cause of the E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants still unknown. Just how good is our investigative operations when it comes to the nation's food supply? How safe is our nation's food?

We'll have that special report.

Congress taking care of its own, even when they're convicted felons. Pensions being paid to those who have been convicted of crimes. Oh, yes, and they get their national healthcare, too.

We'll have that report.

And Russian investors trying to buy America assets, but there's a different set of rules when it comes to Russia investing in the United States. And guess what? You're not going to believe this, but the United States government isn't really, really very crafty about all of this. We will kind of try to guide them along in just a moment.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Well, here we go. And this time, it's a Russian company that wants to buy U.S. assets. A Russian company with close ties to the Kremlin, in fact.

It's Russia's biggest effort to take control of a U.S. company. The target of the $2 billion deal? Oregon Steel. The deal has provoked outage because the Kremlin is at the same time trying to block U.S. and European firms in taking large stakes in Russian corporations.

Kitty Pilgrim reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KITTY PILGRIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Oregon Steel makes two percent of U.S. steel products and is a major supplier of train rails. And Russian's richest man, Roman Abramovich, and his company, Evraz, want to buy it.

DENIS MASLOV, EURASIA GROUP: They are flushed (ph) with money. They are very status conscious. And they would like prized western assets.

PILGRIM: At the same time, the Russian government is strong- arming U.S. and European companies to lower their stakes in Russian natural resources. For example, passing laws to limit foreign investment. And just this week, muscling Royal Dutch Shell to give up part of its stake in Sakhalin Island.

ARIEL COHEN, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: I'm very concerned that Russia is creating a chilly climate for American investment, for foreign direct investment from all over the world. We have seen it again and again, especially in natural resources area. And the question is, why they are keeping our business out and we should let their business in?

PILGRIM: For example, the United States has let Russia's Lukoil purchase more than 2,000 gas stations in the United States over the last six years.

KEITH SMITH, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: We've had a policy of letting Russian companies invest in the United States, and yet we have not been able to invest in the same way in Russia. And this kind of lack of reciprocity, the lack of a transparency, the lack of rule of law is something we should have demanded reciprocity on in order to allow the Russians to invest here.

PILGRIM: The board of Oregon Steel has endorsed the sale to the Russians. So has the CO (ph) Union, saying the Russian investment in the United states would be good for U.S. workers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PILGRIM: Now, Evraz, the Russian company trying to buy Oregon Steel, has stated that the purchase is a platform for further expansion in the United States.

Meanwhile, the deal is up for CFIUS review to see if there are strategic reasons why a Russian company or why a company -- a steel company should be bought by the Russians. I wonder why.

DOBBS: CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, it has a track record that it would be worthy of, I don't know, a gaggle of idiots taking up government pay.

The idea that this country is behaving and its bureaucracy and its political leadership is behaving so stupidly, and then condemning Russia because it doesn't want Exxon to hold over 50 percent of its natural gas assets at Sakhalin Island, I mean, Russia is acting in its national interest. What is wrong with the idiots in this country that they can't understand what is in this nation's interests?

PILGRIM: Russia is acting in its nationalist interest at this point. It's almost...

DOBBS: Well, I don't know. I would not be too thrilled, would you, to see a Russian company come in and buy 51 percent of a natural gas field in this country?

PILGRIM: Yes.

DOBBS: I mean, why in the world would that be irrational on their part?

PILGRIM: Right. That's what's going on. DOBBS: OK.

Kitty Pilgrim, thank you.

Time now for some of your thoughts.

Melanie in Wyoming, "With all this job outsourcing, how long before we start outsourcing our military? And better yet, how long before we can start outsourcing our politicians?"

Rocky in Michigan, "If Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico wants the Secure Fence Act scrapped, he better scrap his plans for the presidency in '08."

Tony in Vermont, "Send a congressman to work day?" And I should explain that's our little idea here. And 90-some-odd percent of you approved it. We're suggesting that you take a congressman to work to sort of acquaint our representatives in Washington what it means to work productively in this country.

But "Send a congressman to work day? Great idea, Lou. How about having a send a congressman to war day? That should do it."

And I think that's an interesting idea as well.

Send us your thoughts at LouDobbs.com. More of your thoughts coming up here later.

Each of you whose e-mail is read here receives a copy of my book, "War on the Middle Class."

Up next, more than 100 people sickened by the latest E. coli outbreak. Are you playing Russian roulette at the dinner table? Some members of Congress say that's exactly what you're doing. And by the way, they're in charge of our food safety oversight.

We'll have the report.

And ahead, making rise in college costs, putting quality education out of reach for this country's middle class. The Democrats say they have a plan. What is it? Will it work?

I'll be talking with the man who knows.

And disgraced congressman, convicted of crimes, thrown out of office, so why are you still paying for their pension and health benefits? Oh, yes.

We'll have that report, too.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: The top stories tonight, President Bush delaying his announcement about changing his strategy in Iraq until after the new year. The announcement had been expected to come later this month. The White House says the president needs more time. Democrats say waiting and delaying does nothing for anyone.

Also, a top U.S. general today said additional military force is not the answer. General Peter Chiarelli is saying that the United States and Iraq must also focus on creating jobs and helping end political divisions.

Federal agents today raided meat packing agents in six states. They're searching for illegal aliens using stolen identities of American citizens. Many illegal aliens have bought phony IDs so they can claim they're eligible to work legally. By the way, this operation was referred to in the apprehension of the illegal aliens at work. They were called simply interviews of employees.

Federal health officials tonight still unable to identify the source or sources of the deadly e. Coli bacteria that had made more than 100 people sick in six states. Many of them ate at Taco Bell restaurant. The recent e. Coli outbreaks raises critical questions about the safety of our national food supply. One reason for rising concern, a surge in the amount of food that we're importing from abroad. Bill Tucker reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL TUCKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The nation's food supply is at risk. There is surprisingly little dispute about that fact. The Department of Homeland Security announced in August that it's establishing the national bio and agro defense facility to focus on food safety to minimize that risk.

It will be run jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. But it will be about two years before that facility is actually up and working to protect our food chain.

TONY CORBO, FOOD & WATER WATCH: The food safety in this country right now is in great peril because of the fact that both the USDA and FDA do not have the adequate resources to make sure that our food is safe.

TUCKER: The Food and Drug Administration has only about 2,000 inspectors for roughly 80 percent of the food supply. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has oversight of meat and dairy products, has about 7,000 inspectors for the remaining roughly 20 percent. It is a big task and not just solely the responsibility of regulators.

DOUG POWELL, KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY: What the Food and Drug Administration has been saying, and they've been saying it very clearly throughout these outbreaks is it is industry's responsibility to provide a safe product. And I agree with that.

TUCKER: Increasing our vulnerability is the fact that America doesn't feed itself. Last year, we imported $2.7 billion vegetables than we exported and $2.5 billion more fruit. Over the past five years, our vegetable imports have doubled as did our fruit imports.

TOM BUIS, NATIONAL FARMERS UNION: We're importing a sizable amount of the food consumed in the United States. And while it's supposed to be produced under the same standards that we have, I don't think anyone watches.

TUCKER: There is nothing new about the idea of agroterrorism.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TUCKER: Two years ago, when Tommy Thompson stepped down as secretary of Health and Human Services, he called agroterrorism a grave concern for this country. And Lou, he candidly admitted that he was surprised that the food chain had not been targeted by terrorist groups.

DOBBS: Well, let's be clear. We have no indication whatsoever that that is any way involved in this. But the vulnerability obviously is there. And the inability of our federal agencies to guarantee our safety of our food supply now primarily because of it so much of being imported is certainly real. Bill Tucker, thank you.

There's one group of Americans tonight who aren't worried about their pensions, the United States Congress. You still pay lawmaker pensions and health benefits even if they are convicted of crimes and thrown out of office and thrown into jail. So what are they doing to protect your interest? Lisa Sylvester has the report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Congressional lawmakers receive generous taxpayer-funded benefits. A congressional members who retires at 60 after 12 years in office collects more than $800,000 in pension benefits paid out over the rest of his or her life. And that pension is virtually guaranteed.

PETE SEPP, NATIONAL TAXPAYERS UNION: Only a conviction for treason or espionage is grounds to be deprived of a pension. You can commit murder, bribery, extortion, embezzlement and any of those crimes and you still get the benefits.

DUKE CUNNINGHAM, DISGRACED CONGRESSMAN: I can't undo what I've done.

SYLVESTER: Congressman Duke Cunningham, who sits in jail after admitting to taking bribes, he's receiving a payout of $64,000 a year. Democratic Congressman James Traficant booted out of office in 2002, $40,000 a year.

Lawmakers pensions are pegged to inflation and grow over time. The longer a member is in Congress, the bigger the golden parachute. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay gets $56,000 a year or more than $2 million over his lifetime.

Lawmakers also have generous health and retirement plans. Federal employees health benefits program offers plenty of coverage choices at a low cost. Lawmakers can remain in the program even after retiring. The taxpayers continue to pay for 72 percent of the premiums.

At the same time, lawmakers future are secure, workers are feeling more insecure. Employees are scaling back, shifting more of the health cost on workers and doing away with company pension plans, a trend seen recently in the auto and airline industries.

CAPT. PAUL RICE, AIRLINE PILOTS ASSOCIATION INT'L: The workers in our industry, hundreds of thousands of workers have had their pensions stripped away from them, time and again over three years. The Airline Pilots Association has gone to Capitol Hill with viable plans on how to save the pensions and time and again Congress has done nothing.

SYLVESTER: Critics say lawmakers have a double standard. They're good about ensuring their futures, less so protecting others. Perhaps one reason Congress' approval rating is only 26 percent.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: A coalition of watchdog groups sent a letter to House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi urging her to support legislation that would deny convicted lawmakers their pension benefits. They're hoping Democrats follow through on a pledge to clean up the swamp of corruption and along the way do more to protect American workers. Lou?

DOBBS: Amazing. Lisa, the question is, how in the world did Congress get an approval rating as high as 26 percent? Lisa, thank you very much.

That brings us to the subject of our poll. Do you believe lawmakers who have been convicted of any crime should receive their taxpayer funded pension benefits? We'll leave health care for another evening. Cast your vote at LouDobbs.com. Results coming up here shortly.

Up next, a leading House Democrat reveals his plans tonight to help Americans deal with soaring college costs and to begin righting our failing education system in this country.

Israel's prime minister acknowledging his country's nuclear weapons program. We'll ask a leading authority on the world's nuclear powers of Israel's admission, efforts to keep Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.

All of that and more, straight ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: We report here almost nightly the millions of Americans struggling to pay for an education, to find good-paying jobs, to make ends meet, and to retire with any financial security at all. The Democrats in the new Congress say that they're going to address the crises that face the middle class in particular. Among those Democrats, Congressman George Miller. He's the incoming chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Congressman Miller joins us tonight from Washington, D.C.

Good to have you.

REP. GEORGE MILLER, (D-CA) HOUSE EDUCATION AND WORKFORCE CHMN.: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: You've got a plan to help out middle class when it comes to education and certainly, we need to see this public school system get a lot of help. What are your priorities?

MILLER: Well, our priorities are to have a high-quality public schools for our children to make sure that they have access to an affordable college education, that they can then go on to a competitive workplace in this globalized world and they can fully participate in that workplace with fairness in the work place, and then, at the end of the day, they can secure their pensions and their retirements and their dreams.

It really is about the American middle class's ability to secure the American dream. It's very important. It's not -- it's not exorbitant. And we've got to make sure that we do this because this is really the cornerstone of our democracy.

DOBBS: But let's talk about public schools first and foremost. We have half of our black students dropping out of high school. We've got half of our Hispanic students dropping out of high school, a third of our white students dropping out of high school.

The idea that this is anything approaching a reasonable public education system right now, comparing it back to 40 years ago is absurd. What can be done to deal with that issue? On the emergency -- that situation with is an emergency and deal it with urgently?

MILLER: Well, we've got to -- for too long people ignored the dropouts, whether they were Hispanic, African-American or young people. They just weren't connecting with the school. We now see how expensive it is to our society, how costly it is to those individuals that drop out.

We have a national effort led by the governors, led by the Gates Foundation, led by the Committee on Education Excellence that really is starting to show us a way that we can go to retain these students in education, to have them connect and engage with their education so that they do finish in the normal period of time. And that's a huge positive economic event for local communities.

DOBBS: Right. Affordable college, the idea that you can -- can lower the cost of student loans for higher education. How are you going to do that?

MILLER: We're going to cut the interest rate in half for those students who are in need of financial assistance based upon their need. We're going to do that. We will pay for that under our pay as you go system.

The important point is here that we now have 200,000 students who choose not to go to college because they don't believe they can afford it or they're afraid of paying back the loans. And we cannot have a young person make a decision about whether or not to go to college because of the cost of that college, the fear of that loan. And then there's much more to do after we do that.

DOBBS: Sure. And Pell Grants, you're going to increase the number and the amount?

MILLER: We have to increase the amount of Pell Grants for those students in the most need who have to have access to that education. And it's an absolute goal of Democrats in the Congress.

DOBBS: And of course part of that is slowing down these absolutely absurd runaway costs in high education, state universities, tax-payer funded universities with tuition rising 30 and 40 percent a year in some states.

Is there anything you can do about that quickly?

MILLER: Well, we think that we have to engage in a conversation eventually, an understanding here. We're not going to have federal taxpayers just continue to pour money in at the top of this system and not have some system of cost containment, cost reviews, you know, delivering an efficient, first-class education and having universities get away with that. We're just not going to be able to do that.

DOBBS: And let's deal with No Child Left Behind. Are you committed to its reauthorization?

MILLER: Absolutely, I'm committed to it. This is essential if we're going to close this achieving gap. We have to have high expectations for all of our children. We have to have high standards and we have to have good assessments. And they have to have a highly- qualified teacher in every classroom.

Without that, we won't close the achievement gap. But worse than that, there are just simply too many children that will not get the education they need to survive in our economic system and in our society.

DOBBS: George Miller, the soon-to-be chairman of the House Education Committee taking on what I think, at least, Mr. Chairman, some of the toughest and certainly most important issues facing this country right now.

We thank you for being here tonight. And congratulations on your appointment.

MILLER: Thank you, very much, Lou.

DOBBS: A reminder to vote in our poll: Do you believe lawmakers who have been convicted of any crime should receive their taxpayer- funded pension benefits? Yes or. Please send us your vote to LouDobbs.com. The results will be upcoming here shortly.

The Christmas trees are back at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The trees came down when a rabid rabbi threatened to sue unless a Menorah was added to it. He backed down when the trees came down, thanks a very timid SEA-TAC Airport management team. Workers put those trees back up overnight. All is well.

I'll have a column on the Christmas season, the war on Christmas and what it means to say Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah in this joyous system. Please look at that, if you will, that column on CNN.com tomorrow morning.

We appreciate it.

Up next here, remarks by Israel's prime minister about his country's nuclear weapon capability creating an uproar. We'll be talking about the threat of regional nuclear conflicts with one of this country's leading authorities on nuclear proliferation. That's next here.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: Coming up shortly here on CNN, the "SITUATION ROOM" with Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou.

Delayed reaction. We'll have more on the White House thinking about a new strategy in Iraq. Is the White House stalling? We'll take a closer look and we'll talk with Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

Inflaming world outage at a Holocaust conference, Iran's president saying Israel's days are now numbered, provoking harsh reaction from Washington to the Vatican.

And, finding his religion. The son of Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker goes back to his Christian roots. See why he wants to take religion out of politics and appeals for sinners for redemption.

All that, Lou, coming up in a few minutes in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

DOBBS: Wolf, thank you.

Israel's prime minister making a remark that confirms Israel has nuclear weapons. While it's been widely assumed that Israel had such nuclear weapons for years, Israel has never publicly confirmed it. Was the Israeli prime minister trying to send a message, perhaps, to Iran?

Joining me now to assess the growing number of nations apparently ready to join the nuclear club or already members of it and the threat that they pose, Joseph Cirincione. He is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

Joe, good to have you with us.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: My pleasure, Lou.

DOBBS: When Olmert made this comment he set off a firestorm in Israel. Do you think it was a straightforward, intentional remark to confirm that Israel does have a nuclear weapons arsenal?

CIRINCIONE: The Israeli press has had stories all year about a possible change in government position. But I don't think this was it. It's unlikely that he would do -- he would indicate such a change with a side comment to a German press interview. I think it was probably an honest slip of a tongue.

DOBBS: A slip of a tongue, but a slip of the tongue like that for prime minister is almost unthinkable, particularly when it comes just days after Bob Gates' confirmation hearings in which he acknowledged that Israel has nuclear weapons.

CIRINCIONE: Yes, whether intentional or not, the nuclear cats are definitely coming out of the Israeli bag. And that might not be such a bad thing. It may be time for Israel to acknowledge an arsenal of some 100 to 200 weapons that it's had for several decades, and to see if it could use that leverage in the current crisis in with Iran and to deter some of the other states in the region who are now talking about starting their own nuclear power program.

DOBBS: That may be the intention, but how does it play against an Iran that wants to have nuclear weapons, obviously, and is insisting that it shall and a timid international community that seems to be bent on permitting just exactly that, irrespective of the concerns of the United States and some European nations. How does that play against that backdrop?

CIRINCIONE: We have to have a much more aggressive policy against Iran not militarily, but diplomatically. The good news is that Iran is a good five to 10 years away from the capability to enrich uranium either for fuel or for bombs.

The bad news is that our policy to deter them from continuing that program has completely failed. Part of the solution has got to be -- just as the Baker-Hamilton Commission pointed out about Iraq, has to be engaging Iran and engaging in a new Middle East peace process. Then and only then can you convince Iran and other countries to not match Israel's capability.

DOBBS: Joe, what if I told you that I don't have much faith in that engagement approach with Iran, that in point in fact, nonproliferation efforts on the part of United Nations and the world community has been a disaster because as we survey here as 2006 concludes, Israel with nuclear weapons, Pakistan and India, Iran embarking on a path toward nuclear weapons that sponsored by both -- in point in fact, North Korea which has its own program, China and Russia.

CIRINCIONE: I would argue that you should take a longer view. It's absolutely true the last five years have had a series of major setbacks and this year in particular has been a disaster with North Korea officially joining the nuclear club with a nuclear test.

But over the last 40 years, the nonproliferation regime has worked pretty well. More countries have given up nuclear weapons in the last 15 years than have tried to get them. We have cut the nuclear weapons in half over the last 15 years.

And since the Cold War, no new country has actually started a nuclear program. Iran and North Korea's program began during the Cold War. A lot of the problem has been our anemic diplomacy, our abandonment of the tools that have worked so well for Republicans and Democrats over the years.

DOBBS: And North Korea, talks are to continue within a matter of days on that program. It's obviously beyond the purview of anyone, or the capacity to predict what will happen. But in the case of Iran, is that simply a direction in which the Iranians are going to head unimpeded?

CIRINCIONE: I don't think so. They have their own technological barriers here. They're not perceiving gang busters on here. Remember, they have been diddling around with this technology now for almost 20, 25 years. They have actually made very slow progress. It's accelerated in the past five years, but still, they're not getting their centrifuges to work as well as they want.

They have enriched only minute quantities of uranium. We still have time to use a lot of the international leverage we have to at least slow down the program and maybe, just maybe, put together a comprehensive deal that can convince them that they're more secure and better off economically without nuclear weapons than with weapons.

DOBBS: Joe Cirincione, thank you very much for being with us.

CIRINCIONE: My pleasure, Lou.

DOBBS: Senior vice president over national security at the Center for American Progress.

Still ahead here we'll have the results of tonight's poll and some more of your thoughts. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DOBBS: The results of our poll tonight -- 94 percent of you say lawmakers who have been convicted of any crime should not receive their taxpayer funded pension benefits. Well, as we reported earlier, they certainly do receive those benefits.

Time now for more of your thoughts. Ben in North Carolina: "Perhaps someone should tell President Bush to pardon those two courageous Border Patrol agents before the Mexican government takes his power to pardon away."

Chris is Illinois writing in about the removal of Christmas Trees at Seattle-Tacoma airport: "I think they did the right thing. I think the rabbi in question should also threaten to sue all our major retail stores that sell Christmas trees and Christmas ornament unless they sell menorahs. That might remind the American people we're supposed to be a secular society that respects all religions and a nation founded on the concept of separation of church and state." That sounds like fun in this joyous season of ours.

And Fritz in New Hampshire: "If a person demanded that a Menorah be taken down because of any reason, wouldn't that person be seen as an anti-Semite? What happened to a warm holiday season? This country is going to hell faster than Bush can get us out of Iraq."

And Wes in Illinois: "The segment on Bush and Blair doing the catch phrase going forward reminds me of an old saying. Always forward, never straight. Everybody may be going forward, but not necessarily straight. I appreciate your journalism. It's refreshing and realistic. Keep up the good work.

Steve in New Jersey: "Lou, I'm begging you to use the power of your show not to encourage congressman to go to work. That is when they do their most damage."

We thank you for your thoughts. Send them to us at LouDobbs.com. And we thank you for being with us tonight. Please join us here tomorrow. For all of us, thanks for watching. Good night from New York. "THE SITUATION ROOM" begins right now with Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

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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