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THE SITUATION ROOM
Justice Department Official to Plead the Fifth; Secret Talks With Iraqi Insurgents
Aired March 26, 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, secret talks with Iraqi insurgents -- why would top U.S. officials speak with the enemy?
Should they have spoken sooner?
It started with whispers in quiet corners. Now, as Jack just pointed out, the "I" word being spoken out a little bit louder. Even some Republicans talking about impeachment.
Where is Senator Chuck Hagel going with this?
And did the White House seek political favors from the head of the huge federal -- of a huge federal agency?
Congress asking serious questions about the government's landlord.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We begin with a quickly developing, potentially hugely significant story out of the Justice Department, where a top official involved in the firing of federal attorneys won't -- won't be talking to Congress.
Let's go straight to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.
She's standing by -- Dana, update our viewers on this significant development.
DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is significant because this is the first time anybody in the administration, Wolf, has said that they are going to plead the fifth. And that means that they are going to invoke their right not -- against self-incrimination, meaning that they will not come before Congress and answer questions about this issue, about why federal prosecutors were fired.
Now, the Senate Judiciary Committee had asked Monica Goodling, who was one of the top officials at the Justice Department involved in these discussions and decisions, about who would be fired, in terms of the U.S. attorneys. Now she -- through her attorney -- just released a statement and explained.
She said: "The potential for legal jeopardy for Miss. Goodling, from even her most truthful and accurate testimony, under these circumstances, is very real." And she also went on to say, Wolf, that one need not look beyond what happened to "Scooter" Lewis Libby to explain why she's deciding not to testify.
BLITZER: Did she offer some other reasons for her decision in this letter her attorney submitted to Congress?
BASH: She did.
First of all, she made clear that she believes that at least the Democrats on the committee have already decided the end result of this, have already decided why these prosecutors were fired.
But there's something else that she put in here which is a little bit cryptic, but very interesting. She said that she's also become aware that a senior Justice Department official privately told Senator Charles Schumer of New York that the -- that official was not entirely candid with Congress when he came and talked to Congress because he said that others, including Monica Goodling, did not inform him of pertinent facts prior to coming up here.
Essentially, she thinks that somebody at a very senior level of the Justice Department was planning on making her one of the fall guys or gals, if you will.
BLITZER: There will be another former Justice Department official testifying Thursday, Kyle Sampson, Alberto Gonzales's former chief of staff.
Dana, we'll stand by for that.
We're going to watch this rapidly unfolding story throughout this week, presumably, weeks to come, as well.
Let's move on to another story that's just developing here in Washington.
The military brass accused this hour of bungling the initial friendly fire inquiry into the death of former football star Pat Tillman. Three years after the U.S. Army Ranger was killed in Afghanistan, a number of officials, up to the rank of general, are now taking some heat.
Jamie McIntyre is our senior Pentagon correspondent.
You've just emerged from a briefing there -- Jamie, what did we learn?
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Boy, Wolf, they didn't just bungle one investigation, they bungled three previous investigations, all found deficient by the Pentagon's inspector- general, who said that they failed to interview the witnesses, in some cases failed to visit the crime scene, failed to really do a thorough job investigating.
But the main headline out of here is that it was clear to everyone within a day that Pat Tillman was the victim of friendly fire on that hillside in Afghanistan. The Army's criminal investigation division found that it was an honest mistake, no criminality involved in the soldiers involved.
But afterward, the portrayal of what happened was a series of errors in judgment, failure to follow Army regulations. And, in the case of one general, apparent deliberate deception in trying to explain why he never informed the family that there was suspicion of fratricide or friendly fire in the Tillman death.
That general is Lieutenant General Philip Kensinger, retired commander of the Army Special Operations Command. He could face some serious charges.
BLITZER: All right, Jamie, thank you.
We'll stay on top of this story together with you.
A very sad story, indeed.
Other news we're following, new threats from Tehran today and new questions about the fate of those British sailors and Marines seized at sea by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
CNN's Aneesh Raman is in the Iranian capital -- Aneesh.
ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, hard-liners in Iran are calling on the government to charge the 15 British Marines and sailors in Iranian custody with espionage and to see them put on trial.
Iran's government has yet to officially say if it will or will not put the British military personnel on trial.
Meantime, over the weekend, we understand they were transported to the capital, Teheran. A top Iranian military official says in the course of interrogations, all the British military personnel confessed to illegally trespassing into Iranian waters.
The British government, of course, maintains they were in Iraqi, not Iranian, waters, when they were seized on Friday.
Iran has rejected that explanation and called this an act of "blatant aggression."
Now, the last time Iran had British military personnel in its custody was in June, 2004. They were released after three days. All indications on the ground are that the atmosphere has changed in the past three years. Iran just slapped with another round of sanctions. Also, five Iranians remain in coalition custody inside Iraq.
Because of that, expectations are this ordeal could last longer -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Aneesh Raman in Teheran for us.
The showdown began at the mouth of the Shaat al-Arab (ph), the disputed waterway on the Iraqi-Iranian border.
Here's how it played out.
Britain says its sailors and Marines were in Iraqi waters when they set out on rubber boats to inspect a ship suspend of smuggling automobiles. The anti-smuggling missions are authorized by the United Nations.
But look at this -- patrol boats from Iran's Revolutionary Guard quickly moved in, surrounded the targeted ship, seized the British sailors and Marines.
Iran say the British forces were in its territorial waters. That's where the standoff stands right now.
Why was this British ship there in the first place?
Abbi Tatton has been looking into the HMS Cornwall's mission in the northern Persian Gulf -- Abbi.
ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's there to protect Iraq's oil, and, therefore, Iraq's economy. HMS Cornwall is home to a task force with a U.N.-backed mission to safeguard Iraq's oil platforms -- tankers, crucial exports -- from attack. In carrying out 24-hour patrols of these waters, the task force is also on the lookout for smugglers, carrying out routine inspections of merchant vessels, operating in these inflatable boats.
The area of operation, it's listed here at the Royal Navy's Web site for the HMS Cornwall's task force -- Iraq territorial waters, Iraqi waters the British insist their sailors and Marines were operating within at the time of the seizure -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.
Let's go to New York and Jack Cafferty for The Cafferty File -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Bush standing by his man, at least for now, despite growing opposition on Capitol Hill to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
New documents suggest Gonzales was more involved with the firings of those federal prosecutors than he previously indicated. Three key Republican senators -- Arlen Specter, Lindsey Graham and Chuck Hagel -- all came out over the weekend with tough statements about Gonzales' truthfulness over the firings.
And two more Democrats, Senators Diane Feinstein and Bill Nelson, also called for Gonzales to go. We could get more answers on April 17th, when the attorney general is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I hope that happens. It will be great theater.
But my guess is it won't. In fact, I'll bet you a dozen donuts that Gonzales is gone before then -- before he has to stand up and swear to tell the truth to Congress. It's just not his style.
For now, the White House doesn't appear to be budging. They say Gonzales has not been inconsistent with statements about his involvement in the dismissal of the prosecutors. But you've got a woman in the Justice Department who's taking the fifth amendment now and refusing to answer questions about all this on the grounds that her answers might tend to incriminate her.
This gets better and better.
Here's the question -- Alberto Gonzales, scheduled to testify before Congress April 17th.
Will he last that long as the attorney general of the United States?
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.
Leahy-Gonzales -- I mean this is like McEnroe-Sampras, you know, if it happens?
BLITZER: Pay-Per-View TV.
BLITZER: But it'll be for all of our basic cable subscribers here on CNN.
You know, Jack, my experience with officials who plead the fifth, refuse to testify...
BLITZER: ... because of self-incrimination, it starts with one, but then there usually are more that come up and do the same thing.
CAFFERTY: Well, and the fact that this is a person in the Justice Department. Note the label of the department she works for -- the "Justice" Department. It speaks volumes.
BLITZER: Jack, stick around.
We'll be back to you soon.
Up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, secret talks with Iraqi insurgents.
Did the U.S. miss a key opportunity to calm the chaos in Iraq?
We'll talk about that with our Michael Ware. He's in Baghdad.
Also, new concerns about communism. We're going to show you why some fear Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is riding a red wave across South America.
And talk of impeaching President Bush coming from a very unlikely source. We're going to have more on why a leading Republican lawmaker and possible presidential candidate even raised the so-called "I" word.
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're getting some new information just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now on that loaded gun found on Capitol Hill.
Let's go to our -- let's go straight to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.
What are you picking up -- Dana.
BASH: Well, Wolf, we reported in the last hour that this was a gun found in this building, a loaded pistol. It was on -- in the possession of an aide to Senator Jim Web of Virginia.
We just learned from a Congressional official briefed on the situation that that gun is actually Jim Webb's gun.
And what happened, we were told, is that Senator Webb was going on a trip. He was at the airport and he remembered that he had the gun. He's -- Senator Webb is a proud supporter of a concealed weapon law in Virginia. But he remembered he had the gun at the airport and he handed it to his aide. And apparently the aide came here to this building, the Russell Building, where Senator Webb has his office. And according to a source, he said that he completely spaced on having this gun in his possession, came through the x-ray machine.
And it was at that time the Capitol police saw it. It was a loaded pistol, apparently, with two loaded magazines, as well. So this aide was arrested and is now apparently going to spend the night in jail.
Now, he is being charged with an unregistered firearm and unregistered ammunition.
So that is the status of this. But apparently this was a gun -- this was Senator Jim Webb's gun, that he gave to an aide before he went on a trip.
BLITZER: So it looks like it's just a huge, huge misunderstanding?
BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks for that. Dana clarifying that story for us.
Moving on to some other news.
Secret talks with Iraq's insurgents -- there are new details emerging on contacts with the enemy from America's outgoing ambassador. Zalmay Khalilzad says the aim was to try to persuade those insurgents not to side with al Qaeda.
But is it too little too late?
Joining us now in Baghdad, our correspondent Michael Ware -- Michael, did the U.S. miss any opportunities in trying to deal with these Sunni insurgents?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. Almost from day one. And that's been repeatedly admitted, certainly privately, by U.S. military intelligence officials, by officials from U.S. intelligence agencies and by certain diplomats.
I mean, I personally sat with Baathist, Sunni, nationalist insurgents -- Iraq's version of former West Pointers, Iraq's version of ex-members of the CIA. From the very beginning, from the fall of Saddam, they had no love lost for that dictator.
But they loved their country. They saw themselves defending it.
What they couldn't understand is why America was attacking it, why America was occupying it. From the beginning they said we have more in common than we have in difference. They prepared to host U.S. bases. They prepared to deny sanctuary to al Qaeda. They prepared to oppose Iran.
Their big problem has been this government, that they see that the U.S. has brought to power, a group of exiles who left the country during Saddam and took sanctuary amongst neighboring Iran, principally.
So that's where the difference lies. It all comes back to the old Iran-Iraq, Iran-U.S. differences and rivalries -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, there are moderate Sunnis, there are moderate Shia, certainly plenty of moderate Kurds.
But the question is this, Michael, among the more militant Sunnis, the Sunni insurgents, the more militant Shiites, the militias, can their divisions ever be brought together? Can they ever make peace given the hatred between the militants on both sides?
WARE: Well, this is the question -- has the civil war gone so far already that the scarring on the national psyche is so deep that no one can ever recover?
Certainly there are extremists on both sides for whom there is now and never shall be room for negotiation. What's at stake is the middle ground, middle Iraq. And I have to tell you, be they former Baathists who believe that they fought for their country; be they Shia militia who they believe have opposed a foreign occupier, not in the name of Islam, not in the name of Teheran, but in the name of their country; among these people, I believe there is still one last chance to bring them in under a nationalist umbrella.
And it's up to America now whether it can harness this kind of Iraqi pride.
BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad.
Michael, thanks, as usual.
WARE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And coming up, a top Republican lawmaker hinting -- hinting, merely -- at the possible impeachment of President Bush.
But does he have a legal leg to stand on?
Plus, the White House facing new allegations of playing politics with government employees.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION
BLITZER: He's a thorn in the side of the Bush administration now making sweeping changes in his country's economy.
But is the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, fomenting a new wave of communism in the region?
Our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee, is joining us now live.
What is Chavez up to -- Zain.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Venezuela's leader, as you know, likes to grab the megaphone whenever he can. This time, here's what he's up to. He's making a land grab. His opponents are saying it's another sign that Hugo Chavez may be steering his country toward communism.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
VERJEE (voice-over): He fancies himself a modern day Robin Hood. Hugo Chavez is taking land from the rich to share with the poor.
(VIDEOTAPE OF HUGO CHAVEZ)
VERJEE: On his weekly TV show, the Venezuelan leader insists the state has the right to turn the land into collective property to benefit all Venezuelans. DANIEL ERIKSON, SENIOR ASSOCIATE, INTER-AMERICAN DIALOGUE: That will be owned by the state, but actually managed by workers, who will share in the proceeds.
VERJEE: The U.S. says Venezuela's in charge of running its economy, but thinks the free market is the way to help people.
TOM CASEY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We would hold that nationalization and state-run enterprises have a pretty poor track record in the region in terms of providing for the interests of the people.
VERJEE: Since he was reelected, Chavez has been pushing his socialist vision. He's made headlines, nationalizing the telecommunications and electric industries and Chavez controls a lot of oil and gas.
This latest land move doesn't hurt him, either. He gets to keep a firmer grip on power.
ERIKSON: Chavez is really trying to take advantage of the widespread anti-American sentiment that exists in Latin America and he's trying to do it both for domestic political consumption within Venezuela, as well as to build a broader following throughout the region.
VERJEE: But experts say any worries communism is spreading close to home are overblown.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
VERJEE: That's because Chavez is a socialist and not a cist like his friend, the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.
Also, Wolf, there is little chance that other Latin American leaders will go the Chavez way. Most of them don't really agree with him. And even if they do, they don't really have the kind of political base or the support that Hugo Chavez does -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So he's got enough oil, is that the case, oil exports, that's going to pay for all of this?
VERJEE: Exactly. That's right. Venezuela has huge oil reserves and it gives Hugo Chavez a massive little piggy bank that he can dip into for social programs like this.
The State Department, though, Wolf, says that it expects that private owners, landowners that will lose their land, should be compensated fairly by Chavez and by this program.
BLITZER: Zain, thank you.
Chavez, by the way, is using his country's considerable oil wealth to not only gain influence throughout Central and South America, but to expand his own political reputation. He's promised electricity plants to Nicaragua, sending diesel fuel to Ecuador, building roads and schools in Bolivia and purchased billions of dollars in bonds and risky debt in Argentina. A very busy guy.
Coming up, the actor Sean Penn -- he's outraged over the war in Iraq and he's demanding action.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN PENN, ACTOR: Let's unite not only in stopping this war, but holding this administration accountable, as well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And he has a lot more to say. We're going to find out what his message is, the message he's sending directly to President Bush.
Plus, can the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, survive the growing chorus calling for his resignation?
I'll speak about that and more with our world affairs analyst, the former defense secretary, William Cohen.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, an Australian man on trial for terror at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. David Hicks becoming the first detainee to face prosecution under revised military tribunals. He's accused of training with al Qaeda and fighting for the Taliban. He says he needs more lawyers to defend him.
Also, guilty pleas to charges stemming from a deadly boating accident. Twenty elderly passengers died when a tour boat capsized on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains in October, 2005. Now, the boat's captain and the company that owned it are pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of violating state navigation laws.
And the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution resigning amid questions about his expenses. An internal audit revealed some $90,000 in questionable spending by Lawrence Small, including private jets, expensive gifts. That, along with Small's $900,000 salary promoted the Senate to freeze a proposed funding increase for the Smithsonian.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
They used to be just quiet conversations about impeaching the president. Now they're getting a little bit louder and you won't believe who's been doing some of the talking.
CNN's Carol Costello is joining us now live with more on this story -- Carol.
COSTELLO: Well, Wolf, he's not calling for it or suggesting it, but he did drop the "I" word and he is a Republican. (BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
COSTELLO (voice-over): More calls to impeach Bush -- they're coming from lawmakers in more than half a dozen states. The mayor of Salt Lake City, a Democrat in solidly red Utah, was one of the first to jump on board.
And now, although he's not calling for it, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel did say in "Esquire" magazine: "Before this is over, you may see calls for his impeachment."
What Senator Hagel and some other critics see is President Bush's arrogance and disregard for Congress.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THIS WEEK," COURTESY ABC NEWS)
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NB), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Any president who says I don't care or I -- I will not respond what -- to what the people of this country are saying about Iraq or anything else, or I don't care what the Congress does, I am going to proceed, if a president really believes that, then there are -- what I was pointing out -- there are ways to deal with that.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: And you think that would be appropriate in this case?
HAGEL: This is not a monarchy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COSTELLO: Though there are times when Mr. Bush's outlook seems downright royal.
GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But I'm the decider.
COSTELLO: But decisions people may disagree with doesn't make a president impeachable.
JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW EXPERT: The framers did not want a president impeached because he simply is a bad president or he does bad things or stupid things. But once the president starts to violate federal law, then he gets into a realm of impeachable offenses.
COSTELLO: Turley says it is not an impeachable offense to, as the president's toughest critics charge, mislead the American people into war with Iraq. Or, as another presidential hopeful claims, to threaten another country, like Iran.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich, in a statement from his Web site on YouTube... REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's illegal to threaten aggressive war against another nation. Iran has no ability to attack us. And they do not have the intention to attack the United States.
COSTELLO: Reality check.
TURLEY: If the president were to truly ignore Congress, if Congress put restrictions, for example, on money, then we would be getting in to dangerous territory.
COSTELLO: To sum it up, the only way President Bush can be impeached is if he violates the law.
COSTELLO: That's right. The Constitution makes it very clear, you can dislike a president all you want, but the only way a president can be impeached, is if he's found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much.
So does this impeachment talk represent a major shift in the political landscape, or what is it?
Joining us now, our world affairs analyst, the former defense secretary, William Cohen. He's chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group here in Washington.
Look, Nancy Pelosi has taken impeachment off the table. The speaker, Harry Reid, says it's not on the agenda.
What do you make of this discussion?
WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think it boils out of the frustration of members of Congress who feel that the administration is not listening to them, or taking their concern into account. I would only take issue with the notion that a president could only be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. We went through this. It doesn't necessarily mean a crime as we define a felonious crime, but rather it could be an abuse of power, as was one of the impeachment...
BLITZER: Because you were involved in the impeachment proceedings regarding Richard Nixon when you were a young member -- there you are right there, right behind you, a little less gray.
COHEN: Exactly. But high crimes and misdemeanors is something that has been developed in terms of the concept of it that requires something very, very serious.
If there was a total abrogation of -- or accumulation of power by the president ignoring Congress, ignoring any limitation placed upon the president by Congress, then you get in to an abuse of power. They you might have a situation. Absent that, the notion that you're talking about impeachment at this point for political differences, I think, is off the base.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little about Iran, because there's escalating tensions right now. Fifteen Britain marines and sailors were seized by the Iranians over the past few days. And it's certainly ratcheting up the temperature right now.
I spoke to John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, yesterday on "LATE EDITION". Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BOLTON, FMR. U.S. AMB. TO U.N.: I think ultimately the only thing that will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is regime change in Tehran.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you think?
COHEN: I think there are several ways to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. It's not necessarily -- as I recall his interview, was regime change from within.
COHEN: Not the United States launching a...
BLITZER: He was -- that outside powers might be able to foment or encourage those dissidents in Iran to stand up and get rid of the regime.
COHEN: But the fact is that you also have countries who are now joining the United States and others on the Security Council, China and Russia, also sending the signal to Iran it should not go forward with a nuclear weapons program. There will be consequences that flow from that. Diplomatic to be sure, intensive -- intensifying economic pressures that might, in fact, forestall Iran from going forward, other than regime change itself, which may be much harder to bring about than having the powers to join together, bring that kind of pressure against Iran.
BLITZER: How should the British government of Tony Blair deal with this? Fifteen of their sailors and marines are now being held by the Iranians. The Iranians insist they've confessed to crimes.
What advice would you give the British in dealing with a crisis like this?
COHEN: I think Tony Blair is handling it just right. I think that you should intensify the level of communication going to the Iranian government. Lower the rhetoric publicly so you don't make it impossible for Iran to come to a reasonable conclusion on this.
So, I think making it very clear not only on the part of Great Britain, but also all of the alliances now involved, saying, don't intensify this potential conflict here. And so I think the signals going forward to Iran ought to come from multiple sources, but we ought to keep the public rhetoric at least limited for the time being so that we can, in fact, see that a -- an acceptable compromise is worked out.
I think if it were an innocent intrusion on their waters it can be handled rather quickly. If this is something that the Iranians are trying to escalate in order to get some kind of bargaining power, getting their five who are now held captive in Iraq back, or as a flaunting of this nuclear power that they're pursuing in the face of the U.N. sanctions, that's another matter.
And I think they are running a very risky course of action if that is their game. But I think if it's innocent, it can be resolved pretty quickly. If it's not, then they're going to intensify the controversy.
It could, in fact, be bad news for them, ultimately. You're going to see a solidification of the international community against Iran. That's something I don't think they want in the short or long term.
BLITZER: And a lot of us remember those 444 days that American diplomats were held hostage in Tehran back in the late '70s.
Thanks, Secretary Cohen, for coming in.
COHEN: Great to be with you.
BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, she's supposed to stay out of politics, but did she engage in it to help Republicans win? It involves a key government official and claims she even asked some workers to dis Democrats.
And were there any crimes committed regarding the firings of those eight U.S. attorneys? Will Congress ever get to the truth? I'll ask Democratic senator and presidential candidate Chris Dodd. He's standing by live to join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We'll be right back.
BLITZER: The White House is facing some new questions today about a presidential appointee using her position allegedly to play politics. Congress already looking at the firing of federal prosecutors. It's now focusing in on the head of the General Services Administration.
CNN's Brian Todd is watching this story for us.
Brian, what is this all about?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's about allegations that the woman who heads that very powerful agency crossed a very fine line. Now, she denies it, but she has drawn the attention of the man who's investigated Halliburton and the CIA leak scandal. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
TODD (voice over): Did this key government official overstep her bound to try to help the president's political allies? Lurita Doan, she heads the General Services Administration, the so-called government's landlord which buys and manages billions of dollars worth of buildings, computers, other equipment.
Democratic congressman Henry Waxman says several sources tell him about a meeting in January. A White House political aide briefed Doan and other GSA employees about the 2006 and 2008 elections. Then, Waxman says...
REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D), OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Ms. Doan asked the GSA representatives all around the country who worked under her auspices to make sure that they could do all they could to help Republicans, even to exclude Democrats from participating in some ceremonies where they were announcing a government project of one sort or another.
TODD: And, says Waxman, it appears that the White House put Doan up to it. A White House official denies that. Doan wouldn't speak to us, but Waxman released a letter from Doan saying "... there were no improper political actions that occurred..." as a result of that January meeting.
LURITA DOAN, GSA: I'm working hard to elect George Bush as president of the United States.
TODD: After supporting the president's re-election, Doan was appointed to the job a year ago. By law, she's not allowed to engage in politic on the job or use her agency to do it. But one analyst says political appointees aren't much different from one party to the next.
LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: I think it's just intrinsic in the political beast. You cannot take the politics out of politics. And these are political animals.
TODD: Still, Doan has other questions to answer. Waxman's digging into allegations that she improperly got involved in a difficult technology contract that might have overcharged the government, and charges that she tried to give a no-bid contract to a friend. In that letter to Waxman, Doan denies all of that -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Are we going to be hearing from Doan any time soon?
TODD: She is scheduled to go before Henry Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this Wednesday. She wrote to Senator -- excuse me -- Representative Henry Waxman saying she is looking forward to that opportunity.
BLITZER: Brian Todd, thank you for that. The law in question here is the so-called Hatch Act, which bars government employees from engaging in politics on the job. Back in 2004, there were allegations that John Kerry's presidential campaign appearance at this NASA event violated the Hatch Act, but a government investigation determined it did not.
In 1997, there were some questions about whether then vice president Al Gore violated the Hatch Act by soliciting campaign contributions from a White House phone. Gore maintained it was not illegal but agreed to end the practice. Actual violations of the Hatch Act are rare. The Office of Special Counsel says only three complaints were filed last year.
Up ahead, the actor Sean Penn let's loose in an anti-war rally blasting President Bush over the situation in Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN PENN, ACTOR: We do support our troops in our stand.
PENN: While you exploit them and their families.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: A very angry actor. You're going to want to the hear what else Sean Penn has to say.
That's coming up.
And just how much trouble is the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, in politically over those federal prosecutor firings? I'll ask Democratic presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd.
That's coming up next, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: ... now a top Justice Department official, Monica Goodling, is refusing to testify in the firing of those eight federal prosecutors. She's drawing fire from Democrats already. In fact, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, is saying this -- and let me quote the chairman.
"The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling's concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath?"
Let's turn to Democratic presidential candidate, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.
Thanks, Senator, for coming in.
SEN. CHRIS DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you, Wolf. BLITZER: This is a fast-moving story involving Alberto Gonzales, and this latest development is raising a lot of concern.
What's your reaction to this senior Justice Department official now pleading the fifth?
DODD: Well, it's deeply troubling to me. Of all the departments sitting around that cabinet table, the one you traditionally think of as being outside of politics, even though these jobs are political in nature, in the beginning appointed through a political process, it's the one agency you'd like to believe is as far removed from the day- to-day politics of Washington as any agency.
This is the Justice Department, the power to prosecute individuals. One tries to imagine that job and the people in those positions being as far removed from the politics of Washington as any agency can possibly be.
So this is very, very troubling. I think the time has come based on the information over the weekend and this kind of information that the attorney general really needs to step aside. The president ought to be asking for his resignation.
This story is only going to get worse. It seems to me the quicker they can clean this up and restore the American people's confidence in the Justice Department and the jobs these U.S. attorneys are doing, the better off everyone is going to be.
BLITZER: The White House counsel, Fred Fielding, has written a letter to the House and Senate laying out conditions for interviewing -- interviewing, his words -- some senior White House officials, including Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, only in private, limited people involved, no transcripts, promises that any subsequent testimony would not include any subpoenas. Very strict conditions.
Is there a compromise here in the works from your perspective that will allow Karl Rove and other White House officials to testify?
DODD: Well, I would hope so. The administration needs to get better advice here.
This is a story that gets worse by the hour. It seems to me in the White House interest, not to mention in the interests of all of us here, I'd be telling Karl Rove and others, go up there. If you have nothing to fear about this, if you think you've done the right thing, and these accusations don't have any merit, then there's nothing to lose by standing before a committee and answering the questions very candidly and very honestly. It begins to look as though there's something to hide here.
The Goodling story today, the effort to try to narrow the kinds of questions that can be asked and who can be in the room, all seem to imply to people here there's something far deeper going on here than what the administration wants to admit. So I would strongly recommend that the administration get in front of this story. This is not the only story. You mentioned the GSA story, the problems with the FBI, and, of course, these national security letters, those wiretapping stories. There's the VA, the Walter Reed hospital.
There's just one case of either malfeasance or misfeasance after another. The accumulation of this I think is hurting the administration very badly, and they'd be well-advised to step forward more candidly.
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about the showdown. There's another showdown involving the White House and the Congress, mostly Democrats, some Republicans, involving funding for the war in Iraq.
What the president is saying -- he said last week after the House vote, this is simply Democratic political theater. And some are saying that was a preemptive strike against you and your fellow Democrats in the Senate, don't do anything that will stop the funds that the troops need.
DODD: Well, the troops are going get whatever they need. All of us feel that. There's no -- to suggest somehow that people that disagree with this policy and believe the time has come to get our troops out of these densely-populated urban areas like Baghdad, where you have militias, dozens of militias operating here, asking our troops to become referees, in effect, in the middle of a civil war, is something that I think is not just a question of Democrats caring about it.
Anywhere you go in this country, Wolf, you're hearing from people regardless of political party that believe after -- after more than four years now, that we've done about all we can do here, absent the Iraqis themselves deciding they want to be a country, and to come together politically here. That's what Baker-Hamilton recommended, all of our military leaders there have made the same recommendations.
So I don't think you're going to find here about theater, political theater. This is an expression of where the American public believes we ought to be going in Iraq.
BLITZER: All right.
DODD: And so my hope is that we can do what the House did this week and begin to terminate this policy, but not leave our troops. None of us leave our troops in harm's way.
BLITZER: Well, the president and the vice president, Dick Cheney, says that would be accomplished if you had your way.
Listen to what the vice president has just said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If they really support the troops, then we should take them at their word and expect them to meet the needs of our military on time, in full, and with no strings attached.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Do you want to respond to the vice president?
DODD: Well, listen, for four different times over the last four years I had to fight unsuccessfully to get body armor for our troops on the ground. Remember Secretary Rumsfeld being chastised by troops in Baghdad that they're only going to get the Army they have, not the one they ought to have.
This is the same crowd that didn't provide the armoring up for our vehicles there, they refused to provide benefits for our veterans when they come back. Listening to the vice president caring about the troops is a little disingenuous here. And again, the notion that you can disagree with the policy and continue to support our troops is not a hard one for people to understand.
BLITZER: Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, has caused somewhat of a stir in an interview in "Esquire" magazine, raising the "impeachment" word regarding President Bush. I'll read you from the "Esquire" interview.
"The president says, 'I don't care. He's not accountable anymore...which isn't totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over you might see calls for his impeachment. I don't know. It depends how this goes."
Where do you stand on the issue of impeachment and President Bush?
DODD: Well, I listened to Bill Cohen, your previous guest, I think sort of express my views on this. I don't want to see us jump to this right. IT seems to me this is getting ahead of ourselves.
There have been calls already, various people have raised that as a suggestion here. I'd rather see us try and resolve some of these outstanding issue we have here.
We've got an awful lot of issues at home and abroad to try and work our way through. At this point here, I wouldn't go that far. Others have raised those concerns, but I'm not there at all yet -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Well, what I'm hearing is you're not completely ruling it out.
DODD: Well, again, you don't want to rule those things out, but it seems to me we're getting ahead of ourselves here. I thought Bill Cohen explained it pretty well here.
We've got a lot of issues to grapple with here. The American public are wondering when we can get beyond the 51-49 divide in this country. We need to try to work through -- we've got a lot of issues at home and abroad that require much more cooperation. I've been down this road, I spent that foolish effort to impeach Bill Clinton that took so much time and so much effort here. I would be very cautious about jumping to that -- to that procedure here of impeachment having been through it once already.
BLITZER: Senator Chris Dodd is a Democratic presidential candidate.
Senator, thanks for coming in.
DODD: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And still to come, the final autopsy results on Anna Nicole Smith, they're now in. We're going to have the details of what officials say they've found.
We'll be right back.
BLITZER: A lethal mix of a dozen drugs, Florida authorities now saying that's what killed Anna Nicole Smith. Her death now officially labeled an accident.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHIEF CHARLIE TIGER, SEMINOLE POLICE: We are convinced, based on the extensive review of the evidence, that this case is an accidental overdose with no other criminal elements present.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Susan Candiotti is in Fort Lauderdale. She's watching all of this for us.
Any indication any of these drugs were illegal, Susan?
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all. All of them were legal, all of them prescribed to her. That's what the medical examiner says.
He says this amounted to an accidental overdose of a liquid sleep medication called Chloral Hydrate, as well as a combination of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Now, it turned out to be a lethal combination because, in effect, these drugs turned off a switch in her brain that regulated her breathing, and that's what ended her life.
Now, the day she died on February the 8th, the doctor said she hadn't been sleeping well, and that's why she was taking the sleeping medication to begin with. One reason the medical examiner believes that this was an accident and not suicide is because there was still a large amount of that sleeping medication, Chloral Hydrate, left in her bottle. Other contributing factors, an abscess caused by a dirty needle. She was also taking some human growth hormone.
Back to you.
BLITZER: All right, Susan. Thank you.
The actor Sean Penn outraged and angry over the war in Iraq, and blasting President Bush at a weekend anti-war rally in Oakland, California.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PENN: We do support our troops in our stand...
PEN: ... while you exploit them and their families.
Let's unite not only in stopping this war, but holding this administration accountable as well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: About 800 people attended the anti-war rally in Oakland, including local congresswoman Barbara Lee, who's calling for an immediate end to the war.
Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Alberto Gonzales scheduled to testify before Congress April 17th. The question is, is he going to last that long as attorney general?
Sal in San Francisco, "President Bush's legal House boy is already damaged goods. Now that his aide is going to plead the Fifth Amendment, his days are numbered."
J.T. in Phoenix, "Alberto Gonzales could do himself a huge favor if he just lowered his exposure and disappeared for a few days or weeks. Press coverage has been downright hostile towards him, especially lately."
John in Florida writes, "Jack, no way Karl Rove allows Bush's consigliere to sit on CNN and let Pat Leahy chew his behind like a steak. The fire has gotten too hot and even though this administration (and I use that term loosely) never admits to anything, Alberto will step down soon in order to spend more time with his family."
Andrew in Maine, "Gonzales will stay. The only sort of replacement that Bush could get approved by a Democratic Senate is a 'straight shooter'. But Bush can't afford to have a 'straight shooter' poking around the Justice Department for the next two years uncovering stuff."
Joe in California, "Jack, in a perfect world, or at least a corrupt world with hints of sunshine, Gonzales would indeed last long enough to be grilled by Congress. It'd be great to hear what he and 'Team America' come up with. But alas, the world as it pertains to politics is down right corrupt. He's out of here April 1st."
Ralph writes, "I suspect he'll be gone before Kyle Sampson" -- Gonzales' former chief of staff -- "testifies. Or 10 minutes after."
And Tim in Conway, Arkansas, "The attorney general has as much chance of being around for the Senate hearing as you do of getting a big wet one form Ann Coulter."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. We post more of them there, and you can see video clips of "The Cafferty File".
Breaking news, huh? Anna Nicole Smith dies of a drug overdose. Who'd have thunk it?
BLITZER: Well, we just report the news.
Thanks, Jack. See you back here in one hour.
We're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons and 7:00 p.m. Eastern.
Let's go to "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT". Kitty Pilgrim sitting in.
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