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THE SITUATION ROOM

Gonzales Under Fire; Scramble to Save Nuclear Submarine

Aired March 14, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, can Alberto Gonzales survive?

The attorney general of the United States fighting for his political life after a controversial purge of federal prosecutors.

Will an angry President Bush bail him out? Did the president's right-hand man, Karl Rove, have a hand in this scandal?

From red alert to red faces -- a desperate scramble to save a nuclear submarine. Families notified that sailors are lost on the ocean floor. Then the all clear.

What happened?

And Evangelicals divided over global warming and condemnations of torture -- is the Christian right moving toward the middle?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He's stood by George W. Bush since their days in Texas. Now, the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is in trouble over the firing of federal prosecutors.

How long will the president stand by him?

Gonzales will head to Capitol Hill this week in an effort to try to save his own job.

CNN's Tom Foreman is standing by.

But let's begin our coverage this hour with our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Gonzales has a series of private meetings set up on Capitol Hill to try to smooth things over and those follow this morning's effort to win over the public.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to be looking to see what changes...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARENA (voice-over): Suddenly, he was everywhere -- an attorney general not known for granting many interviews couldn't get enough of them.

GONZALES: But, ultimately, I work for the American people and I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. And he'll decide whether or not I continue to serve as the attorney general.

ARENA: Gonzales is an old friend of the president's, their professional relationship going back nearly 15 years. From Mexico, the president said he has confidence in his attorney general, but he also said he's not happy with the way the U.S. attorney firings were handled.

And he's not alone.

BOB BARR (R), FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: I'm hearing that the Republicans, particularly those from the states affected by the U.S. attorney firings, are very, very hot under the collar about this -- dissatisfaction, deep dissatisfaction and mistrust by leaders in the Senate in your own party.

ARENA: Current and former administration officials say the whole mess has led to serious discussions as to whether Gonzales can be an effective advocate for the president.

BARR: There is clearly blood in the water. Folks on the Hill can sense it and they are going to make life even more miserable for the administration than they have thus far.

ARENA: As for Democrats, they've been gunning for Gonzales for years, over everything from the administration's policy on torture...

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: And you were warned by Secretary Powell, Secretary Powell and other top military leaders, that ignoring our longstanding traditions and rules would lead to abuse and undermine a military culture, and that is what has happened.

ARENA: ... to detainee rights.

GONZALES: Contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ARENA: And, of course, to civil liberties, Wolf. Gonzales has described this latest controversy over the U.S. attorneys as an overblown personnel matter.

Now, that, according to strategists, was a serious miscalculation. At this point, we don't know just how serious -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, this story continuing.

Thanks, Kelli, for that.

When he fights for his job on Capitol Hill, Alberto Gonzales may have a tough time explaining some contradictions in his public statements.

CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us with this part of the story -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Kelli said he's going to try to smooth things over back here. He's going to need a huge trowel or maybe even a fire extinguisher, because is in the center of a firestorm now and every word is under close scrutiny.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

FOREMAN (voice-over): Attorney General Gonzales trying to navigate a minefield of questions about politics, justice and responsibility. Some of his comments reflect competing obligations.

GONZALES: One, I believe in the independence of our U.S. attorneys.

FOREMAN: But he also says this...

GONZALES: All political appointees can be removed by the president of the United States for any reason.

FOREMAN: On the question of who mishandled the attorney firings, first this...

GONZALES: My chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers, where -- where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district.

FOREMAN: But then he says...

GONZALES: I believe in accountability. Like every CEO of a major organization, I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice.

FOREMAN: The attorney general was also asked to clarify the status of his chief of staff.

GONZALES: Kyle Sampson has resigned. I accepted his resignation yesterday as chief of staff. He's transitioning -- yes, as a technical matter, he is still at the Department.

FOREMAN: One former Republican Justice official finds Gonzales contradictory.

BRUCE FEIN, CONSTITUTIONAL SCHOLAR: He says we just reviewed these seven U.S. attorneys that were removed to determine whether their records showed that they were not either, one, following the policies he announced; or, number two, were not competent. But that is not what the e-mail traffic suggests. It suggests that was not the origination for these reviews.

FOREMAN: Another former Republican says Gonzales may have acted clumsily, but not wrongly.

NOEL FRANCISCO, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ASSOCIATE COUNSEL: There is no evidence there is anything even remotely like a politically motivated or politically targeted prosecution.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

FOREMAN: Just amazing stuff. Enough material there to certainly keep the story in the news for at least a few more days, if not a lot longer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you for that.

Thanks very much, Tom Foreman.

A good report.

How far will the president go to defend his attorney general?

For that, our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is standing by -- Suzanne, what's the White House saying about this whole flap?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, Fred Fielding, the counsel to the president, met with a group of bipartisan lawmakers on the Hill earlier today. They want some answers. They presented a list -- who's going to testify, the documents that they want.

A senior administration official I spoke with said about that meeting that he said he was committed to getting answers to their questions. He did not commit either way to testimony and that he would work as quickly as possible to get those answers. The deadline, of course, being Friday.

But the people that I talked to here at the White House, Wolf, there is no indication that the president would allow his deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, the former counsel to the president, Harriet Miers, or Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president to go before and testify, that it is very, very likely the president would cite executive privilege.

So they don't think this is going to happen.

At the same time, of course, White House insiders say they know that Alberto Gonzales is in a lot of trouble here. He's going to take a serious pounding. But what their hope is, is that the feeding frenzy will die down by next week. But this is clearly a White House that is in a damage control mode. But as one person put it, imagine what it would be like if they had had to go through another Senate confirmation hearing of the attorney general.

One person saying that it would be like Tiddly Winks compared to the Supreme Court nomination process.

So they believe that attorney general will keep his position and he'll survive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Suzanne.

You'll stay on top of this story for us. And we have a lot more on this story coming up this hour.

Other news, though, we're following -- sub sunk. The urgent message went around the world, as the U.S. Navy feared the worst for one of its nuclear submarine and crew believed, for a time, to be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Let's go to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it turned out to be a false alarm. But for a few tense hours, the Navy really thought the worst. In fact, the message went all the way to the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): The USS San Juan is a nuclear powered fast attack submarine.

It's mission?

To run silent, run deep. But that silence became a source of deep concern at the highest levels when a series of events seemed to indicate the submarine was in trouble in seas as deep as 1,000 feet, just a few hundred miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

The submarine, along with two others, was part of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise strike group, which was conducting pre- deployment exercises. About 3:30 in the afternoon, a surface ship spotted what appeared to be a red submarine distress flare floating in the water.

By 7:00 p.m. the two other submarines had been contacted, either because they were near the surface or had checked in. But there's no way to contact a submerged submarine. And at 9:00, the San Juan missed a scheduled check-in.

An immediate search began. By 3:00 a.m. fearing the worst, a sub sunk message was sent, alerting the Pentagon and the White House, a submarine was possibly lost at sea.

The Navy began the process of notifying families of the 110 sailors on board. But at 5:30 a.m. the submarine checked in at what it thought was its scheduled check-in time.

By then, the Navy had already put out a worldwide alert to call for international rescue teams in case there had been an accident.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MCINTYRE: So the USS San Juan was never in trouble. It was just out of touch. The Navy is now investigating why it didn't know it was supposed to check in earlier.

And as for that distress flare, well, a Navy official said it might have been one of the yellow flares that's used as practice during those exercises -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Could the crew have been rescued, though, Jamie?

MCINTYRE: If the submarine had sunk and it was still intact, the U.S. has a lot of capability to go down and actually get people out of submarines, even at extreme depths, using a submersible. And the submarine itself has a lot of emergency equipment that would allow itself to do one of those emergency blows and just go all the way to the surface if it's having a problem.

But in this case, it turned out it wasn't having a problem. It didn't even know that everybody else was so concerned.

BLITZER: Jamie, thanks very much.

Jamie McIntyre reporting from the Pentagon.

And there's potentially a very major development happening in the Alberto Gonzales attorney general flap, the controversy.

Now, the Associated Press reporting that Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire has become the first Republican senator to break ranks and is now formally calling for the attorney general to resign. Yes, John Sununu saying that Alberto Gonzales should resign.

There have been several Republicans who have privately been making these kinds of statements. But now, for the first time, someone is going public on the Republican side.

Dana Bash reported earlier the disconnect not only with the Democrats who are saying that Alberto Gonzales should go, but now one Republican senator, John Sununu of New Hampshire, saying that President Bush should actually fire the attorney general.

We'll check in with Dana shortly.

This coming in from the Associated Press, which says they interviewed Senator Sununu.

Jack Cafferty is joining us with The Cafferty File -- you know, first one senator -- Republican senator. It sort of opens, potentially, the door for others to go public and say Gonzales should go.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's no way he survives this, do you think? BLITZER: Who knows?

You know, it depends on the president of the United States. He said today in Mexico he has confidence in Alberto Gonzales.

CAFFERTY: He used to say that about Rumsfeld, too, remember?

BLITZER: I remember.

CAFFERTY: I'll bet you a tuna fish sandwich he doesn't survive.

You want to bet?

BLITZER: Well, I'm not -- I'm not sure I disagree with you. But I'll -- I'll buy you a tuna fish sandwich, in any case.

CAFFERTY: Hey, I just won the bet.

Deal.

You're coming to New York Friday...

BLITZER: I'll be in New York...

CAFFERTY: Lunch is on you.

BLITZER: I'll be in New York on Friday. We'll have tuna fish.

CAFFERTY: All right.

Other things. Well, actually, kind of related. What you have here is a White House that has become an accountability-free zone that is now facing the reality of checks and balances from Congress.

Guess who said that?

Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen, and he has a point.

For six years, President Bush got pretty much whatever he wanted from a Republican controlled, rubber stamp Congress that refused to exercise any oversight of the executive branch of government.

Well, mercifully, that party appears to be over. The uproar over the federal prosecutor purge only the latest in a series of blows to the Bush White House.

The House and Senate Judiciary Committees are looking to drag Karl Rove before their committees to testify about his role in the firing of federal prosecutors. This is a political adviser. I can't wait.

There's the scandal over the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, with its investigations and resignations and firings; the perjury trial of "Scooter" Libby, resulting in the conviction of the highest ranking White House official in two decades; the investigation into how the FBI abused power in getting information on citizens.

And don't forget about Congressman Henry Waxman. I like this guy -- chairman of the House Oversight Government Reform Committee. He's already held hearings on billions of dollars wasted or disappeared in Iraq. He's asked Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and Valerie Plame to testify in upcoming hearings about how the White House dealt with Plame's identity.

It could be a very long couple of years left for the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Here's the question -- have checks and balances made a comeback in Washington?

E-mail us at caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And with the subpoena power that the Democrats got by becoming the majority in the House and the Senate...

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: ... they can do things now, as you point out, Jack, they couldn't do before. And you heard Senator Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the last hour saying they're going to subpoena these officials, including Karl Rove, to come and testify under oath.

CAFFERTY: And what happens when they do?

And the White House says well, executive privilege. We're not going to let old Karl go over there and testify.

Karl Rove wasn't elected to anything. He's a political adviser. If he had a role in this stuff -- and apparently, according to these e-mails, he's certainly involved, along with Harriet Miers and some other folks, how is the White House going to say this is none of the public's business and not let him go over there and testify?

There is going to be great stuff. I can't wait for it to start.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Jack, for that.

You'll be back shortly.

Up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, is global warming an offense against god?

Some Evangelical Christians get tough on the environment.

Is there a split within the religious right?

Hillary Rodham Clinton adds to the controversy over gays in the military.

Is she afraid to say what she believes? And as more U.S. troops deploy, is the security situation in Baghdad finally getting better, at least a little bit?

I'll ask U.S. Army Major General William Caldwell.

He's in Baghdad.

All that is coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here is the question -- are things getting any better in Baghdad?

The Iraqi military says there's been a big drop in the number of attacks in the capital over the past four weeks, with civilian deaths down about 80 percent in that period.

And joining us now from Baghdad, U.S. Army Major General William Caldwell.

He's the chief spokesman for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq.

General, thanks very much for coming in.

It looks like there's been a somewhat improvement in the situation, the security situation in the Baghdad area right now.

Is that a result of what the U.S. military and the Iraqi military are doing? Or are the bad guys simply laying low right now, waiting to pounce at another time?

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Wolf, I -- it's obviously probably a combination of many factors. But it's definitely because of the increased troop presence. You know, we've got about 80,000 security forces, between the Iraqi and the coalition forces, operating in the city now. We've established 25 of these joint security stations and we're going to grow to about 70 when you count in the combat outposts. And we're now operating throughout the entire city of Baghdad simultaneous instead of select areas and then moving on to other areas.

BLITZER: Including in Sadr City, which has been the hot bed of a lot of these Shiite militias?

CALDWELL: Yes, I'll tell you, that's such a great story, what's occurring there, the cooperation with the mayor down there in the city, the people. We have cleared about 20 percent of Sadr City at this point. I mean literally gone house-to-house, have done the searches. So about one fifth of that city has now been cleared and there has not been one single incident during that time period.

BLITZER: What, if any, is the connection to the improvement in the situation in Sadr City and the disappearance, if you will, of Muqtada al-Sadr, this young anti-American Shiite cleric?

You say you've been tracking his whereabouts, that you don't think he's in Iraq, you suspect he's in Iran.

CALDWELL: That's correct. All indications are he still is in Iran, as of yesterday. He has not moved yet -- has moved within Iran, but not outside of Iran. And we do think there is some connection. Unquestionably, the Sadrist movement has been working in close cooperation with us. A lot of discussions -- just like we're doing in all 10 districts in Baghdad -- we're also doing in Bagh -- in the Sadr City area.

And there's just a good dialogue and good cooperation ongoing down there.

BLITZER: So if that -- if there is a connection, why not just make sure he never comes back?

CALDWELL: Well, obviously that's not for us to decide what -- that's a, you know, a government of Iraq decision and their political process to sort all that out. But we're encouraged by what we're seeing right now inside of Sadr City, and, really, all of Baghdad itself.

BLITZER: When will all the U.S. troops, the additional build-up, when will all -- and it's now getting closer to almost 30,000 additional troops -- when will they fully be in place?

CALDWELL: Wolf, not until the end of May. We've got the third of five brigades starting to close on Kuwait right now and then eventually make their movement up to Baghdad.

But it will be the end of May before all these additional forces have located themselves into Iraq.

BLITZER: And do you have a clearly defined mission, General?

Define victory. In other words, when will you know that you are in a position that you can start drawing down the U.S. troops presence in Iraq?

CALDWELL: Wolf, we're going to be watching real carefully the levels of violence. We want to bring them down to a level that the Iraqi security forces will be capable of handling it themselves, with just minimal -- minimal assistance from the coalition forces. And when the political process continues to take hold and the economic development is able to start.

And we really anticipate this fall time frame, we should see a lot of those indicators present at that time.

BLITZER: And so how do you define victory?

CALDWELL: Victory will be when the Iraqi security forces truly are able to handle the levels of violence that currently exist -- and the violence needs to come down for them to do that. And, of course, we need to make them more capable, too, at the same time. And we're doing that through our transition teams. As you know, we've established a lot more of them and made them bigger. And we should start seeing a difference in next six to eight months through that continued professionalism we're doing with their troops on a daily basis.

BLITZER: General Caldwell, good luck to you and all the troops over there.

Thanks very much for joining us.

CALDWELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Almost four years after their deaths, the sons of should have been have been reburied near their late father. An Iraqi tribal leader tells CNN the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein have been moved to a garden outside Saddam Hussein's burial place near Tikrit. The two sons were killed by U.S. troops back in July, 2003.

Should have been was executed last December.

Coming up, the scandal over fired federal prosecutors -- should the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, resign?

I'll ask conservative critic Bill Bennett. He's standing by live.

And an Evangelical leader takes heat for warning about global warming.

Is a glacial chill setting in among some conservative Christians?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Carol Costello.

She's following some other important stories making news right now -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A couple of things to tell you about -- Wolf.

Checking the bottom line -- a deal was announced today between the state of California and former Hewlett Packard executives accused of spying on members of the company's board.

Former ethics chief Kevin Hunsaker and two others will avoid jail time by pleading guilty to a single count each of fraudulent wire communications. The case against former H.P. Chairwoman Patricia Dunn was dismissed because she has cancer. The deal does not apply to potential federal charges.

And stocks closed higher after a volatile trading day. Down early on -- the Dow, rather -- down early on more than 130 points. The Dow Jones Industrials finally closing up 57 points, amid some positive indications from the financial and home building sectors. The Nasdaq and S&P were also up.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Carol.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, charges against the maker of Chiquita bananas. Federal authorities have just charged Chiquita Brands International with doing business with a terrorist organization. We're following the story and we're going to bring you the latest developments. Stick with us for that.

An opposition leader in Zimbabwe sees the case against him delayed. This after he was freed from police custody yesterday. A lawyer for the man says prosecutors did not come to court. The opposition leader remains hospitalized after being beaten over the weekend during a prayer meeting. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called on Zimbabwe's government to allow its people to express their views without the threat of violence.

And new worries over drugs that help millions of people sleep. The FDA is asking manufacturers of those drugs to strengthen their labels with more information about potential risks. Those risks include severe allergic reactions and sleep-related behaviors.

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

Let's begin with breaking news we're following.

We have now confirmed that Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire is calling on President Bush to fire -- fire the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.

Let's turn to Dana Bash.

She's got this story. She's watching it on Capitol Hill.

This is a dramatic development -- Dana.

He's the first Republican senator to go public with this specific call.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.

We've been talking to Republican lawmakers for the past 48 hours or so. People have said they're concerned, but they very much stopped short of saying that Alberto Gonzales should be fired -- until now.

I just got off the phone with Senator John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, who said point blank that he simply does not think that Alberto Gonzales has the credibility to stay in his job anymore.

He said that the president needs an attorney general that the American people and Congress can rely on. He said the attorney general, over the past 18 months time, has slowly lost that. Essentially, what he thinks is that it's not just this latest incident with the firing of the federal prosecutors. As far as Senator Sununu is concerned, it's this combined with the problems that Senator Sununu has had for a long time with the Justice Department over the Patriot Act and more recently the inspector general report that the Patriot Act has not been handled correctly and so forth.

So the headline here is that we do have the first Republican explicitly calling for the attorney general to step down, and that is Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And stay with me, because we just got a formal statement from Senator Sununu. Among other things, he says this, Dana.

Let me read it to our viewers: "The president should fire the attorney general and replace him as soon as possible with someone who can provide strong, aggressive leadership prosecuting the war on terrorism, running the Department of Justice and working with the president and Congress on important homeland security matters."

Now, some of his critics will say this guy is up for reelection next year in New Hampshire, in New England, and that he's taking a very strong position on this basically in order to try to help himself politically.

I don't know if you got into that part of the conversation with Senator Sununu.

BASH: Well, I have talked to Senator Sununu extensively about that issue and a whole host of issues. He is up for reelection in New Hampshire, a state that just ousted several Republicans who thought they were in safe seats. So, certainly, he is a number one target for Democrats next year.

On this particular issue, he says that this is something he has long talked about, before he was up for reelection. He's -- if you remember, going back to the whole fight about the Patriot Act, Senator Sununu was a Republican who actually bucked his party and was very concerned about the whole issue of whether or not Americans would have all of their rights in terms of surveillance and so forth.

So he argues that this is something he has long been upset about. This has culminated with this latest issue of federal prosecutors, with him calling for the attorney general to resign. But certainly it is impossible to talk about anything that goes on up here without talking about politics and the next election. You're absolutely right -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And a lot of our viewers will remember his father. He was the White House chief of staff during the first President Bush. John Sununu the son.

All right, Dana. Thanks very much for that.

Let's get some more now on our top story. The attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, may be fighting for his own job over the firing of those federal prosecutor, but meantime, there are serious questions being asked about the role played by White House political adviser Karl Rove.

For that, let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. I know you're looking into Karl Rove's part of this story, what role he may have had in the firing of these eight federal prosecutors.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's important to point out, first of all, that the Justice Department and the White House deny that Karl Rove had any role in fire anything of these attorneys, and the questions surrounding one of these attorneys removed center around the man who actually replaced him.

Now, Timothy Griffin is the interim U.S. attorney now in Little Rock, Arkansas. He took over for Henry Bud Cummins, who was removed last year. The Karl Rove factor plays into this because Griffin was an aid in the office of Mr. Rove.

In a Justice Department e-mail from last December, Alberto Gonzales' then chief of staff says of Timothy Griffin, "Getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, et cetera." That is a reference to Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

But Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told us that no one at the White House, including Karl Rove, added or subtracted any names for U.S. attorney from the nomination process. She said when people at Justice asked Rove if he thought Griffin would make a good U.S. attorney, Rove said yes, and Perino said that is all permissible. But there's another angle here.

The Justice Department e-mails also show concerns about possible resistance to Griffin's confirmation on Capitol Hill. One of those e- mails says, "We have a senator problem." Attached to another e-mail are newspaper clips saying that Griffin could face questions about his possible role in the challenging of absentee votes in African-American precincts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Have you spoken to Timothy Griffin, Brian?

TODD: I did. I spoke with him. I got off the phone with him a short time ago. We had a fairly long conversation.

He says he was never involved in any inappropriate or illegal effort to challenge legitimate voters. He says he was among those in the White House political office who, during the 2004 election, helped election officials look up addressee of absentee voters to determine if those addresses were real.

He says all of that was above-board, legal. He says he's proud of his work. He says he sent those newspaper clippings to people at the Justice Department knowing that the concerns would be raised, and he says, incidentally, that the source for some of that information those newspaper reports is not reputable -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much for that. Brian's going to have a lot more on this story, the Karl Rove factor, coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

E-mail messages released by the House Judiciary Committee are revealing the extent of the communications between the Justice Department and top White House officials over those fired U.S. attorneys.

Abbi Tatton is standing by with a closer look at that -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, March 2, 2005, in an e-mail from Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to Harriet Miers, then White House counsel, laid this out simply. If a U.S. attorney's name was listed in bold, that's someone who should stay based in part of the fact that they exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general. If the name had a strikeout through it, this is someone that should go. In part, because they "chafed against administration initiatives."

A dozen more e-mails released online show two years of communications between Justice and White House officials about the firings.

In January 2006, again from Sampson, recommending the replacement of a limited number of U.S. attorneys. And then later on in the year, when it was all agreed upon, a replacement plan was compiled, a how-to guide, how to prepare to withstand political upheaval, complete with some talking points -- what to say if there were questions or if there was fallout that would arise from this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you for that.

Abbi Tatton watching the situation on online.

Coming up, are conservatives desperately seeking more options in the presidential race? Our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett, standing by to tell us who's generating buzz, who's causing a case of the blahs on the right.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I want to go to Carol Costello. She's got a story that's just coming in.

Carol, what are you picking up?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we've been waiting for the decision to come down, Wolf, and it has in a court in Florida. We have live pictures of the proceedings right now.

That man, John Couey, he was convicted of killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. The jury has just voted for the death penalty. A 10-2 vote. Of course, the final decision on that is up to the judge, but the jury has declared it will be death for John Couey.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Let's get back to the news of the hour, the New Hampshire Republican senator, John Sununu, becoming the first Republican senator to call for the dismissal of the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. But will the president give in to the mounting pressure?

Joining us now, our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett. He's the host of the radio program "Morning in America."

What do you make of Senator Sununu's decision to say, Mr. Bush, fire the attorney general?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I was a little surprised to see him step out. I heard John Warner's comment which was very critical, but he didn't call for dismissal.

I don't interpret it politically. I think John Sununu is a pretty level-headed guy. One more mistake, I think, cannot be afforded. One more and he's gone.

The interesting thing about this one is, you know, they say in Washington that the crime's a cover-up. This president could have gotten rid of all these U.S. attorneys. This is a political appointment. He could have -- as Bill Clinton did.

The problem is the explanation they gave for doing it and then this trail of e-mails which suggests that there were different things going on. That, plus I regard as the more serious thing this inspector general's report this last weekend.

BLITZER: On these national security letters.

BENNETT: On these national security letters. Let me say why.

The war on terror, the Patriot Act, the controversies at home about surveillance -- I'm a conservative, I'm defending the policies of this administration, defending the war, defending these surveillance activities. But when these guys mess these things up, it makes it very hard to persuade the American people, it makes it very hard to defend.

BLITZER: You've been around this town for a long time.

BENNETT: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: What does your gut tell you about the longevity of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general?

BENNETT: I think, again, it will depend on the president's degree of confidence in him, his friendship, what other soundings they're getting out of the department. But I held two cabinet level positions. There's one rule -- do not hurt the president, do not embarrass the president. He doesn't have any more shots.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about presidential politics. A lot of Republican candidates out there.

BENNETT: Yes.

BLITZER: But as you know, a lot of -- especially conservative Republicans, they're still looking for Mr. Right.

BENNETT: Mr. Right, yes.

BLITZER: Is there a Mr. Right from what you're seeing out there?

BENNETT: Well, remember, to cite a line of Mitt Romney's, even Reagan wasn't Mr. Right, you know, when -- back when. He became Mr. Right.

There is this question about the leading candidates. I think Giuliani still has momentum. McCain seems to have faltered and slowed down a lot and seems not to be interested in courting conservatives, which you need to do to get this nomination. And Romney, so many of these changes of mind I think are a problem.

BLITZER: The so-called flip-flops?

BENNETT: That's right.

Fred Thompson is attracting a lot of attention, a lot of interest. He's got these Reaganite qualities, in addition to being a movie star. He's a good guy, a charming guy, a sweet guy, and there's a fair amount of interest. A lot of...

BLITZER: That's what a lot of people have said to me on the right, that they like him because, like Ronald Reagan, he has these socially conservative views, politically conservative views, economically, but he's a likable kind of guy.

BENNETT: That's right. And now a southerner.

You know, I've been saying on the show two or three times in a row, isn't it interesting we don't have a southerner as a major player? We'll see what Fred does.

A lot of my listeners would still like Newt to come in. A lot of the conservatives are hoping Newt will. I don't know what will happen there.

I'll tell you who is getting a lot of praise as a sober and serious candidate, and that's Duncan Hunter. He's a second-tier or regarded as such. Just back from Iraq, he's done a very credible job.

So this thing is still open.

BLITZER: Why do you think McCain's numbers in all of the polls have gone down so dramatically?

BENNETT: I don't know. You know, he is -- he is one of the most willful candidate. I mean, this is a guy who runs on his own personality.

He goes -- what did one of his advisers say about the appearance on "Letterman"? He said this was inaudible. We didn't know what was going to happen. He's always making audibles.

I don't know why he stiffed CPAC. This was the Conservative...

BLITZER: This is the Conservative Political Action Conference.

BENNETT: The last time he was at CPAC was 1974, when he had just got out of Vietnam and he was introduced by Ronald Reagan. What a return that could have been to have mentioned that. But he seems -- he seems uninterested. He's calling attention to his age, which is not a good selling point.

BLITZER: He's 70 years old.

BENNETT: And it's hard to find conservative groups and a lot of conservatives who really support John McCain. This, despite the fact that he suffered for his country like few have. He is a genuine, bona fide hero, but people are wondering, where's the spark, where's the energy, and where's the concern to get that base?

BLITZER: Bill Bennett, thanks for coming in.

BENNETT: Yes, you bet. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

All right.

Still ahead here, is God's agenda the same as the Republicans' agenda? A debate in the ranks of the religious right. A debate that might surprise you.

Also, Hillary Clinton being drawn into the debate over whether homosexuality is immoral. Her answer may not win any points with gays, whose votes she certainly covets.

Stick around. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Controversy coming up involving evangelical Christians.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: A feud has broken out within the religious right, and it's sparking some interest over the whole issue of global warming.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching the story for us -- Mary. MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that divide stems from a meeting of a major national evangelical group last week. And what's at stake, who is really speaking for evangelicals in America?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice over): Is a dispute over global warming just a sign of a broader split between evangelicals and the Christian right? At the heart of the dispute, Reverend Richard Cizik. He's policy director of the National Association of Evangelicals, or NAE. He's outspoken on global warming, evident in this recent documentary.

REV. RICHARD CIZIK, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EVANGELICALS: To harm this world by environmental degradation is an offense against God.

SNOW: The Christian right wrote to the evangelical group NAE trying to silence and possibly dismiss Cizik. The NAE took no action.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was among the Christian right leaders telling the NAE that global warming is being used to shift the emphasis away from issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. He says global warming is part of the leftist agenda.

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: We're not going to allow third parties, those that have ulterior motives, to divide evangelicals. And I think that in part is what is happening with the global warming issue.

SNOW: NAE board member, Reverend Paul De Vries, disagrees.

REV. PAUL DE VRIES, NEW YORK DIVINITY SCHOOL: It ought to be God's agenda, not the Republican Party's agenda that drives us.

SNOW: That agenda was laid out in a meeting of the NAE, the first since Ted Haggard stepped down as president following a gay sex scandal. During the meeting, members drafted a declaration denouncing human rights abuses and criticizing the U.S. government in its fight against terrorism.

JEFFERY SHELER, AUTHOR, "BELIEVERS": It's certainly going to raise some hackles probably among the same people who don't like them talking about global warming.

SNOW: Evangelicals say they are sending a message to the religious right.

DE VRIES: We're actually tired of being represented by people with a very narrow focus, and we want to have a focus as big as God's focus.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And some members say their message is also extended to the Republican Party, which is also often associated with conservative Christian groups -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you for that.

This note -- coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM, "Mistakes were made." Alberto Gonzalez says it a lot, but what does that really mean? Jeanne Moos parses the so-called m- word.

But up next, is Hillary Clinton so scripted she's not spontaneous? Some observers think so.

Stick around. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is being drawn into the recent furor over homosexuality.

Let's go back to CNN's Carol Costello -- Carol.

COSTELLO: You know, Wolf, gay groups have strong denounced General Peter Pace's comments about homosexuality. They're angry, and they expected Senator Clinton to show her anger, too. She didn't.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): It has become the controversy that just won't go away.

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral.

COSTELLO: And it has tripped up gay-friendly candidate Senator Hillary Clinton. In an article on ABC's Web site, Senator Clinton was asked if she thought homosexuality was immoral.

Her response? "Well, I'm going to leave that to others to conclude."

Not exactly what gay rights groups want to hear from a candidate who is actively courting their vote.

EVAN WOLFSON, FREEDOM TO MARRY: I assume that Senator Clinton, who has spoken out strongly against military discrimination, who stands for civil unions and respect for same-sex couples, understands that gay Americans are not immoral and she ought to say so clearly.

COSTELLO: To make matters worse for Senator Clinton, others have been much more forceful, like Republican senator John Warner, a powerful voice on the Armed Services Committee. He told me, "I respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the chairman's view that homosexuality is immoral."

Clinton's Democratic presidential rival John Edwards minced no words either.

BLITZER: First of all, in your opinion, is homosexuality immoral?

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't share that view.

COSTELLO: That's not to say Senator Clinton doesn't share Edwards' view. By the time Senator Clinton's words hit the Internet, her campaign was already telling us, "Obviously Senator Clinton disagrees. She believes that everyone, including Peter Pace, has the right to be wrong -- but should not inject their personal beliefs into public policy."

As for why she didn't say that to ABC News, some analysts say her campaign is so controlled and so scripted it's difficult for her to be spontaneous.

STUART ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: Senator Clinton's style is one of caution. She doesn't like to shoot from the hip. She's just not that kind of politician. I don't think she's comfortable doing that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: And, you know, that's not necessarily a bad strategy. Senator Clinton is looking ahead, beyond the primary, to the presidential race, a place past words can really hurt you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol. Good report.

Carol Costello reporting.

Is Congress' oversight over the White House finally making a comeback? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right to Jack in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Checks and balances, have they made a comeback in Washington?

Courtland writes, "A few months back, when Senator Warner broke ranks with President Bush, I sent you an e-mail declaring the republic was safe, the constitution still functional. I was right. It feels good to live in a republic instead of a neocon dictatorship."

Patricia, Cambridge, Mass., "The present administration has trampled the idea of checks and balances. Hopefully, the present Congress will remind the president how the country works, three distinct branches of government. I learned that in civics class in high school. Mr. Bush apparently skipped that class."

Peter in Casselberry, Florida, "Checks and balances damn well better be making a comeback. If they don't, there baby boomers will soon be taking their disgust and frustration with the present administration to the streets." Ted in Sacramento, "Checks and balances have not made a comeback in Washington. Anyone who watches our congressmen on C-SPAN each day can tell you they're out for blood. The Democrats are just bitter now. Watch the veins in Ted Kennedy's neck stand up each day when he pontificates. You'll see it's all an elaborate smoke screen that's designed to get vengeance. Checks and balances have little to do with what's going on these days."

J.C., Watauga, Texas, "Checks and balances only make a comeback when the president and vice president have been impeached. The longer this president stays in office, the more we'll be closer to a constitutional crisis."

And Al writes, "As for checks and balances, with what Bush has done with our balance of trust in the world, all our checks are bouncing. It's doubtful at this point we'll ever be solvent again."

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

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jack. See you back here in an hour.

We're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

Let's go to Lou Dobbs in New York.

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