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Tightening Homeland Security; Gonzales Perjury Probe; Cheney to Undergo Surgery

Aired July 27, 2007 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Democrats scrambling to do something before Congress goes on a break. Will a vote this hour on homeland security measures help them avoid the "do-nothing" label?
Plus, transformer politics. A Democratic new claim from Barack Obama -- a dramatic new claim, I should say, from Barack Obama about the future of race relations if he becomes president. But are African-Americans buying it?

And Iowa voters march to a different drummer. They're crowning their own presidential front-runners. And they may be tuning out nasty exchanges between some of the top contenders nationwide.

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

Your security on the line in Congress right now. The House is nearing a vote on measures recommended by the 9/11 Commission that weren't approved before.

They include a requirement that all cargo on passenger planes be screened within three years. Democratic leaders are eager to have a list of new legislative successes to brag about when they go home for their August recess.

Let's turn to our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, are the Democrats going to get what they're looking for?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they think it's a start here, Wolf, but they also know that they're up against a big Republican offensive to convince voters that the Democratic majority here isn't getting anything done.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice over): Democrats were quick to trumpet a legislative victory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We promised them that we would implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and today, we are fulfilling that promise.

BASH: It is a much-needed accomplishments, especially in the face of a coordinated Republican strategy to ridicule Democrats by dubbing the Democratic Congress, the "Post Office Congress". SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: Once every 10 days the Senate has approved the naming of a post office, 20 in all so far this year. Not exactly heavy lifting, but it's an accomplishment.

BASH: Republicans constantly point to record-low approval ratings, showing that voters get it.

It's why Democrats are scrambling for legislative wins, like sending the president a package of security measures recommended by the 9/11 Commission in 2004. The so-called 9/11 bill shifts more federal dollars to security for states and cities most at risk for a terror attack. It requires within three years all cargo on passenger planes to be screened, and within five years every cargo container must go through a radiation scanner and x-ray machine.

But there are criticisms. Even some authors of the measure worry new requirements may be too costly and cumbersome.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: This proposal is simply not practical because of the huge volume, some 11 million containers per year, coming into our seaports.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, if you take a look at the House floor, there is actually final debate going on right now on this 9/11 bill. We'll see a vote probably, Wolf, within the next hour to send this to the president.

I think it's also worth noting that the House is in session right now. It's late Friday afternoon. Not something you'd see very often around here, and it certainly is indicative of how hard the Democratic Congress is trying to rack up those accomplishments before they go home for that August recess.

BLITZER: Yes, if you are going to take a month off, you might as well work until the bitter end.

Thanks very much, Dana, for that.

We're going to hear much more about this from Senator Joe Lieberman, the chairman of that Senate committee. The 9/11 Commission recommendations being pushed through Congress right now.

Senator Lieberman will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I want to update you now on the breaking news we're getting out of Phoenix, Arizona. Two helicopters have collided in midair in a crash while covering a police pursuit in central Phoenix earlier today. Both helicopters apparently news choppers from local television stations.

We're getting this information from The Associated Press.

According to KNXV-TV, Channel 15, one of our affiliates reported that one of the choppers belonged to that station. Both helicopters crashed into a park and were on fire.

There were no reports of injuries or survivors. It's all very preliminary.

You're looking at these live pictures. But two -- apparently two traffic helicopters colliding in midair and crashing while covering a police pursuit in central Phoenix.

Always, always a very, very dangerous operation.

We'll stay on top of this story and update you when we get some more specific information.

Another day of damage control for the White House, with the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, under new and intense fire. Gonzales is still feeling the sting of a one-two punch yesterday. The Democrats want him investigated for possible perjury, and the FBI director contradicted his sworn testimony.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is joining us.

So, what is the administration saying today, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we saw was the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, in Indianapolis really trying to seem business as usual, trying to seem like things are normal. He was actually talking about protecting children from crime.

One of the things he said is, "I will not rest even after I'm no longer attorney general, until this nation is better able to shield our children from crimes." And, of course, that is the big question, how long he remains the attorney general.

Now, senior administration officials I've token spoken to say he still has the confidence of the president. But what you saw today was the press secretary, Tony Snow, essentially trying to beat back these front-page stories, stories that say that the attorney general's testimony conflicted with the FBI director, Robert Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I cannot serve as the fact witness of everything that was in their head and try to unpack exactly what they meant. But I'm sure that both men were up there telling the truth and the whole truth as they understood.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Republican strategists, friends of this White House, they say that there is really a very heightened level of concern here, but they say that they believe the president is still backing Gonzales. One of them put it this way -- he said that the good news is, is that this is a huge issue to the Senate, but it hasn't reached that grassroots level, and they will see after Congress goes back from its recess whether or not it's actually really going to catch on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne, thanks very much.

Suzanne is watching the story at the White House.

Also from the White House, we got word that the vice president, Dick Cheney, will undergo minor surgery tomorrow. He'll get a new battery in the defibrillator he had implanted back in 2001 to help regulate his heartbeat.

The 66-year-old vice president has a long history of heart problems. We have the surgery -- he'll have the surgery, that is, at George Washington University Hospital, here in the nation's capital.

Let's bring in our medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen.

Elizabeth, they say this is routine. But surgery is surgery. It's never completely routine.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Exactly.

Surgery always carries some amount of risk, but in this case, Wolf, the risk is teeny tiny. The risk would be a problem with infection, possibly a problem with bleeding, but really, again, I can't emphasize how small those risks are.

Actually, we've been told that they had planned on just changing the battery. That was what they thought they were going to do. And then they decided to change out the device and to give him a new device entirely.

That is not at all unusual. He's had his defibrillator for a number of years now. They often will when they -- if the batteries run out and they're going to go do the surgery anyhow to put in a new battery, they'll just switch out devices. Technology moves so fast, there are better devices that are available now.

The vice president will not have to spend the night at the hospital. It is a very simple incision over the chest. It is a very quick procedure -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're looking at live pictures of the vice president right now.

When you say a quick procedure, how long of a procedure is it?

COHEN: I think it depends, you know, different for different people, but certainly it would probably be less than an hour.

BLITZER: All right. Well, we wish him only the best and we wish him a speedy recovery from that procedure.

COHEN: Right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Elizabeth Cohen watching this story for us.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's joining us from New York.

They always say, you know, it's relatively easy, but you know what? I'm a skeptic when it comes to that kind of stuff. You don't want anybody opening up your chest and dealing with defibrillators.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Or anything else. I mean, I have an aversion to people cutting my nails.

BLITZER: Me, too.

CAFFERTY: But, I mean, sometimes it's necessary and you've got to go through this, and this doesn't sound like it's a big deal. Let's hope it's not.

No secret, Wolf, that NASA has seen better days, a lot better days. Yesterday we learned that on at least two occasions, astronauts were allegedly allowed to fly after drinking heavily. That's despite safety warnings from NASA doctors and fellow astronauts.

Also yesterday, we learned that an employee for a NASA subcontractor had intentionally cut the wires on a computer that was about to be loaded into the shuttle Endeavor for launch.

And then there was, of course, the sad tale of the former astronaut Lisa Nowak, arrested earlier this year wearing diapers, carrying a BB gun, pepper spray, a trench coat and a wig. She was not on a space flight. She was charged with the attempted kidnapping of another astronaut's lover, said she was wearing the diaper because she didn't want to have to stop for bathroom breaks while driving across the country.

What's happened here?

It was arguably America's proudest moment 38 years ago when Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" when he stood on the surface of the moon. As a result of the allegedly drunk astronauts, NASA says it's adopting an interim policy that astronauts cannot fly if they drink alcohol within 12 hours of a launch.

What a novel idea. You can't get wasted before going into space.

Don't the airlines have similar rules for their flight crew? And where has NASA been?

The question then is this: How should NASA go about restoring its image?

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

BLITZER: It's a shocking, shocking story. I don't care how you spin this one, but letting -- letting guys go up in space who they know are drunk, that's not -- that's not a good idea. CAFFERTY: Well, no. And they said they're instituting an interim policy against drinking and then flying. I mean, where have then been?

The space program is arguably, what, over 40 years old?

BLITZER: Right.

CAFFERTY: And they're just now getting around to this?

BLITZER: Yes. All right.

Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: A former Democrat is keeping a very close eye on his ex-party's presidential nominees. Is Senator Joe Lieberman willing to jump into the feud between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

The Democrat-turned-Independent joins us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, Democrat Barack Obama's bold new statement about his potential role in changing race in America. We're going to let you hear for yourself what he's saying.

And she won't call herself a liberal, but is that what Hillary Clinton is anyway?

Left versus right, that's coming up in our "Strategy Session".

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Apparently, there have been fatalities in that breaking news we're following out of Phoenix. Two traffic helicopters from television stations in Phoenix apparently collided in mid air, crashed while covering a police pursuit in the central part of Phoenix. Both helicopters news choppers from local TV stations.

We're going to update you on what's going on. We'll speak with some authorities there, once we establish contact.

You're looking at live pictures. A KTTV (ph) anchor tearfully told viewers that one of the helicopters was theirs and that the pilot and the photographer aboard were killed. KNXV TV said the other helicopter was theirs.

We're going to go back to Phoenix shortly and update you on what we know.

Here in Washington, the House is nearing a final vote right now approving recommendations by the 9/11 Commission that didn't clear Congress before. The Senate OK'd the package of security measures last night.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now, the chairman of the committee, Joe Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut.

Senator, thanks for coming in.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: Thank you, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: We always point out that you're an Independent, but you vote with the Democrats.

LIEBERMAN: Correct.

BLITZER: And I assume that's going to stay like that for the time being?

LIEBERMAN: I expect it will, right.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about this 9/11 Commission and the recommendations. A lopsided vote, 85-8, to implement the various recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

What took so long, Senator?

LIEBERMAN: Well, actually, we had the most significant recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that were adopted in 2004, and two big things. It created the director of National Intelligence, so we reformed the intelligence system of the U.S. And then we created a National Counterterrorism Center where all the dots will be connected, as tragically they were not before 9/11.

This is the second phase. It's what we didn't do before, it's what we didn't do well before. It closes the existing gaps in our security.

BLITZER: But some of the main specifics long overdue, like cargo screening, for example. And it's still going to take a while before all cargo coming into the United States is effectively screened.

LIEBERMAN: That's true, Wolf. It's not easy to do this, because we have a big, open, free society, and now for the first time in our history, we're facing an enemy that will strike us here at home and will strike vulnerable targets, any targets, innocent civilians. So this closes the gap in screening of maritime cargo, cargo put on air passenger planes, and non-aviation transportation, like railroad, buses, and the like.

It's a very important step forward.

BLITZER: So, if there's a radiological device or a nuclear bomb, some crude sort of device out there, at what point will you be 100 percent convinced that it could be detected before it causes any damage?

LIEBERMAN: Yes, we're rapidly moving to a point where we're going to have radiological detection devices in most of the areas that bring in most of the cargo to the United States. What we're not going to have for a while is these devices that will basically do imaging, that you'll put every -- this is an enormous job to do. We bring in an enormous amount of materials every day to our ports, where we'll look inside those boxes with an imaging device to see if there's anything that has to be looked at directly. .

Right now, every container coming in goes through a kind of computer screening to see if there's anything about its history that should lead inspectors to look at it. And if there is, they do.

BLITZER: A lot of the critics will say you don't go far enough, because the borders, especially the border with Mexico, still pretty porous.

What are you doing in this legislation, if anything, that will change that?

LIEBERMAN: Well, of course, we dealt a lot with that, or we tried to in the immigration reform effort.

BLITZER: But that failed.

LIEBERMAN: That failed. In fact, there's generally a strengthening of the Department of Homeland Security border protection activities.

Last night, in the separate homeland security appropriations bill, the Senate actually, on an emergency basis, appropriated $3 billion more for fencing and electronic devices along that border to try to stop illegal traffic from coming in. So, we've got a big job to do. But...

BLITZER: You support that notion of a complete fence along the border between the United States and Mexico?

LIEBERMAN: Yes. I don't know that we're going to have a complete actual fence, but we're going to have a fence, what might be called a virtual fence, with a lot of very high-tech electronic surveillance devices.

And I do -- I do both as a matter of enforcing our law, but also, frankly, to build the confidence with which we can go ahead and deal with the overall problem of the 10 million to 12 million undocumented -- undocumented immigrants that are here.

You know, Wolf, I'd say one more thing about the bill, this 9/11 bill. In a very partisan Congress, I think members of both houses and both parties showed that we could come together across party lines to get something done to protect the security of our country, which is still under threat.

BLITZER: Senator, as you know, it still has to go through a reconciliation arrangement with the House of Representatives. They have some different ideas over there. And one controversial piece of legislation that they rejected to protect, what are called whistleblowers, people who come forward and tell police there's something suspicious going on.

They don't want to necessarily be sued if it was just a false alarm. A lot of Democrats hated that notion in the House of Representatives. Where do you see that part of this legislation eventually winding up?

LIEBERMAN: Two things, Wolf.

One, I strongly supported that. But, two, we've got an agreement with the House now on that, and both -- the bill that we adopted last night and the conference report that will be adopted by the House next week, I believe, have entered a so-called John Doe civil immunity.

In other words, that any citizen who comes forward and says, I've got a reasonable suspicion that something I just saw seems to me to be associated with a potential terrorist act and tells the police, if for some reason that person was wrong, that person cannot be sued, because we need an enlightened, energetic citizenry out there to tell the law enforcement authorities without fear of future legal liability that they see something that they think is dangerous.

BLITZER: One final political question before I let you go, Senator Lieberman.

LIEBERMAN: OK.

BLITZER: Who is right in the debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on whether or not a president should meet, should be willing to meet the first year in office with some of these tyrants, whether North Korea or Iran or Cuba or elsewhere?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I'm happy to be watching the debate, I would say, Wolf. And we'll see how it develops. I think it was an interesting exchange.

Look, from my point of view, I always say that I wouldn't hesitate to meet with anybody, America's strong enough to do that. But I'd only meet if there was something the United States could get out of it. And I wouldn't just give a meeting to a tyrant and a hater, like Ahmadinejad, unless he did something to earn it, such as stopping the Iranian training of Iraqis who are killing American soldiers in Iraq.

BLITZER: If it came down to Hillary Clinton versus John McCain, who would you vote for?

LIEBERMAN: I've said all along that I'm going to wait this one out until both parties choose their nominee or Mike Bloomberg may get in as a third party. Then I'm going to support whichever of the candidates I think is best for the future of our country, regardless of party. So, it's an open question, and I'm glad to be watching all that you're helping to do to inform me about the choice I will ultimately make, Wolf.

BLITZER: Have a great weekend, Senator Lieberman.

LIEBERMAN: You too, my friend.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: They've made a deal, a major nuclear announcement between the United States and India. Will it offend India's nuclear neighbor, though, Pakistan?

And he says race relations in the United States will change if he becomes president. Barack Obama talks to a crowd of African- Americans, speaking about what he's calling transformation, the very day he's inaugurated.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Up next, Barack Obama has a new line in his campaign for African-American votes. Is it a winning pitch or an overstatement?

And Iowa seems to be turning the presidential field upside down. What are the voters in the leadoff caucus state thinking right now?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: Saudi suspicion of what's happening in Iraq. Some in Saudi Arabia don't trust the independence of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki's, government. And there are reports that some Saudis see him as an actual agent of Iran. Michael Ware standing by in Baghdad.

Also, astronauts said to be drunk enough to raise a lot of concern, but apparently not enough to be stopped from flying. Now NASA says it's enacting some new rules. John Zarrella watching this story.

And the diagnosis is not good. In the fight between Michael Moore and Bush administration, the maker of "Sicko" announces the government's issued him a subpoena. But is that exactly what happened?

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

It would surely make history, but will it transform America, Barack Obama possibly becoming the nation's first African-American president? Today, a handful of presidential candidates spoke at the National Urban League conference. Obama told the mostly African- American crowd the U.S. will be different, if -- if -- he's elected president.

CNN's Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This is a major statement by Senator Obama on race relations in our country.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's some spice coming to this election at this point, after these last debates. The YouTube debate seemed to get it going.

Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich all took the stage in Saint Louis today, but it was Obama's words that stood out the most.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The day I'm inaugurated, the country looks at itself differently. And don't underestimate that power.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Don't underestimate that transformation.

FOREMAN: Powerful words from Barack Obama, who is trying to become America's first black president. The senator from Illinois was speaking out about race at the National Urban League convention in Saint Louis.

OBAMA: Race is still an enormous factor in our society. But economics can overcome a lot of racial division.

(APPLAUSE)

FOREMAN: He also said that action, rather than high-minded discussion, is the way to end racial polarization. Two of Obama's main Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, also spoke about racial inequality.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I reject a conversation about 1.4 million young men as a threat, as a headache or as a lost cause.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would ensure that judges that I appointed to the federal bench believed in real equality and believed in the concept of affirmative action.

(APPLAUSE)

FOREMAN: Black voters are crucial to the Democratic Party.

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: Roughly nine in 10 black vote Democratic. That makes them the most reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party in this country.

FOREMAN: And they will play an important role in picking the next Democratic presidential nominee, especially in South Carolina and Florida, two early primary states.

In CNN's most recent polls, Senators Clinton and Obama are running neck and neck among black voters nationally, although Clinton was well ahead in South Carolina. But, it's still very early, and many voters have not made up their minds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not feeling that either candidate would be, at this point, that much of a difference.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: No Republican presidential candidate spoke to the crowd at the National Urban League today, but Mike Huckabee did speak to a smaller group last night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Tom Foreman.

Tom will be hosting "THIS WEEK AT WAR" Saturday night, 7:00 p.m. Eastern. It replays Sunday 1:00 p.m. Eastern, right after "LATE EDITION."

Tom, thanks very much.

The situation involving Senator Barack Obama is certainly one that is evolving in Iowa. That state is politically important to all the presidential campaigns, as Iowa will hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

But a new poll is not necessarily all that encouraging for the two candidates many consider to be the ones to beat.

Let's go to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

Bill, what are the polls showing in Iowa?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, something very different than the national polls.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The front-runners in the national polls are Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, but there isn't any national primary. The race starts in Iowa. And national trends don't mean much in Iowa, where caucus-goers are famous for not being trendy.

Remember what happened in 2004 to national front-runner Howard Dean in Iowa? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: going to take back the White House. Yes!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: A new poll of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers taken this week shows John Edwards in the lead, with Clinton second and Barack Obama third. Both Clinton and Obama have dropped six points since the last Iowa poll in May.

What happened? Here's one theory.

EDWARDS: Two good people, Democratic candidates for president, who have spent their time attacking each other, instead of attacking the problems that this country has faced.

(APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS: And we -- we need to be doing -- we need -- I got your attention with that one, didn't I?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHNEIDER: If Clinton and Obama are down in Iowa, who's up? Undecided is up the most. Plus, Bill Richardson, whose dogged campaign may be beginning to pay off.

In the Republican race, national front-runner Rudy Giuliani is coming in third in Iowa. Giuliani's now slightly behind Fred Thompson, who is not even a declared candidate yet. Mitt Romney is making a strong pitch to conservatives and now leads the Republican field.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The most encouraging experience is going into a room full of people, having that room somewhat skeptical as you walk in, but have a number of folks come up afterwards and say, you know what, I'm on your team now.

SCHNEIDER: If Romney is up in Iowa, who is down? John McCain. McCain was leading the field in May. Now he's coming in fourth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Now, if Hillary Clinton loses Iowa, it will nick her image of inevitability. She will have to rely on New Hampshire to make her the comeback kid, just like it did for her husband. And if Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, where he's also ahead, he will face a big test in South Carolina. Will evangelical Christian voters support a Mormon candidate? -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider watching all this unfold for us, thank you very much.

Bill Schneider and Tom Foreman, as all of you know, are part of the best political team on television.

And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

There's a new deal that could make airline travel safer. It's all about sharing information about passengers. But will it also threaten your privacy?

And a surprising new defender of Barry Bonds, as the slugger chases the home run record and fends off allegations of steroid use.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go back to Carol Costello. She's monitoring a story out of Phoenix, the collision of these two traffic helicopters from television stations.

Update our viewers, Carol, on what we know.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're getting in some new pictures now, Wolf.

What we know right now, two television news helicopters from the Phoenix market crashed in midair. They were shooting a slow-speed police chase on the ground in central Phoenix. Those are new pictures you're looking at. Those helicopters crashed in midair. And, as they hit the ground, they burst into flames. CNN has confirmed that three people have died.

There were eyewitnesses. Here's one of them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... loud gunshot. And then, about two seconds after that, there was this real loud, like, this huge bang, and then just two helicopters coming straight down, falling in about three different areas, bursting into flames, and debris is all over the place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: As far as we can tell, the people inside of those helicopters are the ones who died. We don't know of any injuries on the ground. We have not heard. I will continue to gather more information for you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The pictures are dramatic.

All right, we will watch this story with you, Carol. Thank you.

It could be your personal information passed down to the U.S. government. There's a new agreement requiring airline passenger information be passed on for those flying from Europe.

Our Kathleen Koch is following this story.

Kathleen, a lot of controversy over this agreement.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is indeed, Wolf. And it's a battle that the United States has been fighting with European authorities for some time, because the U.S. basically wanted more detailed information on passengers flying to the U.S., but Europeans wanted limits on how that data was being used. Well, now finally the U.S. and Europe have worked things out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH (voice-over): The new agreement with the European Union requires airlines traveling from Europe to the United States to give the Homeland Security Department a broad array of passenger information. Currently, name, address, phone, e-mail contacts, itineraries, credit card information, and current hotel reservations are shared and analyzed at the National Targeting Center.

Now airlines, if they have the data, will also be required to pass on passengers' racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, and data on health, traveling partners, and sexual orientation.

But, under the agreement, that information is only to be used when lives are at risk, such as in a terrorism investigation.

RUSSELL KNOCKE, SPOKESPERSON, HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT: We're going to be able to connect the dots more quickly and we're going to be able to provide our front-line personnel with a powerful tool that really can help to save lives.

KOCH: Privacy advocates are most worried about the government's plans to keep the information for 15 years, long after the plane has landed and its passengers deemed not to be an immediate security risk.

JIM DEMPSEY, POLICY DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY: This is part of a broader trend of the government building databases on the ordinary, lawful activities of ordinary, law-abiding people, keeping that data, going back to it, mining it, and the risk of abuse, mistake, false accusation.

KOCH: The Homeland Security Department insists passengers will have the right to see the information being collected about them, and the chance to correct it if there's a mistake.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: The United States government will begin collecting this data on inbound passengers August 1. And it hopes to eventually secure similar agreements with Asia and South America for information on passengers traveling here from those countries -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kathleen Koch, watching this story, thank you.

Hillary Clinton, is she trying to change the subject? The Democratic presidential front-runner likes to strike centrist themes, but is she really a liberal at heart? That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

Plus, Barack Obama as a transformer of race in America. Is he making promises he can't keep?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Plotting a comeback. In today's "Strategy Session": Can the now minority party in the Congress become the majority again?

Joining us now to discuss that and more, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons and Republican strategist John Feehery.

The Republicans would need a 17-seat gain in the House to become the majority once again. They need two seats in the Senate. Is that -- realistically, given the landscape out there, the number of Republican seats that are open, is that realistic?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is the "Strategy Session," so here's the strategy.

First, got to get Iraq off the table. Second, the Democrats need to nominate Hillary Clinton. Third, they need a candidate who appeals to the independent voters, someone -- and both of the leaders are appealing to the independent voters, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson. All those guys are going right for the independents.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So, you're saying that Hillary Clinton would -- would galvanize...

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: Yes. And I also think the conservatives -- so, the Republican nominee doesn't have to go to the right. They...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But that's like pulling -- pulling into an inside straight, though, right now?

(LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: Well...

BLITZER: That's not an easy...

FEEHERY: It's possible. And, you know, inside that -- all these centrist Democrats are having a hard time in the House, because they have to vote with Nancy Pelosi. So, there's a real push and pull.

And the Republicans in the House are going after those Democrats on specific...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: So, you're saying it's doable.

FEEHERY: It's doable.

BLITZER: Difficult but doable.

FEEHERY: It's doable.

BLITZER: Difficult but doable.

FEYERICK: Yes. You know, I'm an optimist. So...

(LAUGHTER)

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He's a great optimist.

BLITZER: What do you think? Is it doable for the Republicans?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS: It's doable if they can raise more money, because they are getting killed in fund-raising. It's doable if they can get rid of all the corrupt politicians, because they are getting killed right now with their own members who are getting in trouble and indicted.

And it's doable if they can solve the problem in Iraq and end the deficit. The problem is, you have got a party that is built on moral values, and they have got corruption out there. They are built on solving national defense problems, and they have screwed up the war in Iraq. And then they are built on having a sound fiscal policy, and we have got the biggest deficits...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I think -- I think all of us agree the key issue right now is Iraq. A year from now, let's see what the situation in Iraq is, because that would have an enormous impact on the political landscape here in Washington, right?

FEEHERY: Oh, there's no doubt about it.

Keep in mind that Iraq's going to be different in 12 months. There's no doubt about that. The Congress is going to force it to happen, unless the president makes it happen first. So, it's going to be a different...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: In other words, a lot fewer U.S. troops there?

FEEHERY: A lot fewer U.S. troops.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about...

SIMMONS: That sounds like news for George Bush.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ... about Senator Clinton the other night, when she was asked if she would call herself a liberal.

I want to play a little clip of what she said at the CNN/YouTube debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Why is it so horrible for Democrats to acknowledge that they're liberals? Republicans don't run away from being called conservatives.

SIMMONS: Well, Republicans have launched on a 40-year strategy to define what the word liberal is, which is not what Democrats have considered it to be.

So, Democrats do call themselves progressives now. I don't think she's that far out of the mainstream by saying that. And it's just -- it's a term of art.

BLITZER: What do you think?

FEEHERY: Most Republicans -- all Republicans think she's a liberal, so that -- she can call herself whatever she wants. She's still a liberal in our book.

BLITZER: Her husband is speaking at the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Conference, convention, which is centrist Democrats, Bill Clinton former chairman of that, the more moderate, middle-of-the-road kind of Democrats, not the -- the real liberals, if you will. Some would call them more conservative.

But all the Democratic presidential candidates, Jamal, are not attending that conference, the DLC conference, in Tennessee. They are sort of boycotting it. They were all invited. No one is showing up. Why?

SIMMONS: Well, if you look at the historical pattern around the DLC conference, John Kerry didn't go to the DLC conference in 2003, but he went in 2004. Al Gore didn't go to the DLC conference in 1999, but he went in 2000 when he was the nominee.

Historically, during the primaries, you're concerned about the base. You're trying to rally the troops, and you don't necessarily go to the center until you are in the general election. And I think you will see that. And the DLC is happy right now because are using their ideas.

BLITZER: In the primaries, they run to appease, if you will, the base, and, then, in the general election, they run toward the center.

FEEHERY: Moderate is a dirty word with the Democrats, and it will be next year, too.

The fact is, they are nominating all kinds of liberal candidates, and they are going to be out of step with the American people.

BLITZER: Here's a...

SIMMONS: This from the most extreme party in the country right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Here's the -- here's a clip of what Barack Obama said earlier today. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OBAMA: The day I'm inaugurated, the country looks at itself differently. And don't underestimate that power.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Don't underestimate that transformation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think about that line, that there would be a huge transformation, in and of itself, if he, the first African- American, were elected president?

SIMMONS: Well, what's interesting about this is that Barack Obama has not been talking about race that much, but I think what he has figured out is, with the 42-43 split with Hillary Clinton on African-American voters, if he can bring African-American voters over to his side before the end of the year, you will see a shift in the polls around the country which will show some trajectory for him up and for her down, at which point that changes the whole math around this election.

So, by him talking about these issues more forcefully lately, I think he's really making an appeal to African-Americans: It's time to come home.

BLITZER: John?

FEEHERY: I think Obama is right. I think, if he becomes president, he changes everything. I think he's a very interesting candidate. He's been saying some very interesting things on poverty and other things.

Yes, I think it's a unique time in history. I don't think he is going to get the nomination. I think it's going to go for Hillary.

BLITZER: And, for a different reason, if Hillary Clinton became president, that would be a transformation as well in our political system.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in, Jamal Simmons, John Feehery. Good discussion.

Still to come here: With stories of drunken astronauts and sabotage, how should NASA try to restore its image? Jack Cafferty with your thoughts.

Also, could it happen to you? A TSA -- the TSA suspects a woman of carrying suspicious bags, but guess what? It appears they were very wrong.

And a major Hollywood production about the war in Iraq, and advising it are some of the people who helped the Bush administration plan for the war.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Cleavage for cash tops our "Political Radar."

Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign sent out a catchy fund-raising e-mail today with the word cleavage in the title. The solicitation slams a recent newspaper article that focused on the candidate's chest. The e-mail says -- and I'm quoting now -- "Focusing on women's bodies, instead of their ideas, is insulting."

Meanwhile, John Edwards is firing away at rivals Clinton and Barack Obama. At the National Urban League forum today in Saint Louis, Edwards said this week's feud between Clinton and Obama is an example of what's wrong with Washington. Clinton and Obama are sparring over whether it's appropriate for a president to meet with rogue world leaders.

And, remember, for the latest political news at any time, you can always check out our Political Ticker at CNN.com/ticker.

Check this out, this number, that is. No, it's not some kind of tribute to the year America declared its independence. It's the number of proposed extras, or earmarks, in the defense budget tacked on by House members. Congress has started releasing lists of those earmarks that try to provide more -- and are trying to provide more oversight from some of the lawmakers' pet projects.

Here's what we found. Check it out. Republican Congressman Bill Young of Florida crammed the most earmarks into the defense bill. That would be 59 in all. Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania was next with 46 earmarks. Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis of California, he had 38 earmarks. And Democratic congressman James Moran of Virginia, he had 30 earmarks.

And, as we move on, take a look at who was in the White House briefing room earlier today. That would be Stephen Colbert, the hilarious so-called newsman on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Colbert stopped by to get his cast signed by the White House press secretary, Tony Snow. But Colbert tells our Suzanne Malveaux that Snow isn't the only Washington personality he wants to get an autograph from.

Take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What do you think about Wolf Blitzer?

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": He has a resplendent beard.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Why? What -- do you have -- do you need something I should respond to about Wolf? Did he say something about me?

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: No, he didn't.

COLBERT: No, Wolf is great. He's fantastic. I heard him described as a pit bull recently.

(LAUGHTER)

(PHONE RINGING)

COLBERT: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Is my interview getting in the way of your phone?

MALVEAUX: No, that's probably Wolf Blitzer.

COLBERT: Just say hi. Well, did -- see if Wolf will sign my cast.

MALVEAUX: Yes, I will ask him.

COLBERT: OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Washington, D.C., may have its share of policy wonks, but it also has plenty of beautiful people. The publication "The Hill" has a new list out of 50 -- the 50 most beautiful people in the Capitol. Some members of Congress made it into the top five.

Congressman Brad Ellsworth tops the list. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is number four. And Congressman Connie Mack ranks fifth.

And check out some of the other lawmakers who made it into the top 50, Congresswoman Mary Fallin, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and Senator Sherrod Brown, and Congressman Heath Shuler. He used to be a football player.

Another beautiful man is Jack Cafferty.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He's joining us from New York right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: One of the most beautiful men in New York.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: You know, that stuff is so lame.

BLITZER: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: It's just awful.

BLITZER: I will be happy to sign Stephen Colbert's cast. He -- he broke his arm, or whatever. But, if he wants me to, I would be happy to sign it.

CAFFERTY: Well, I'm sure that would make his day. And -- and maybe you ought to do that.

Speaking of lame, check out these e-mails. The question is: How should NASA go about restoring its image?

Gary writes from Ontario, California: "To regain its prestige, NASA needs to adopt a policy that states, zero gravity means zero tolerance."

Chris in Indiana: "Jack, what a party. No wonder we have had so many mishaps with the space shuttle. It is crazy that they are allowed to get away with no alcohol or drug testing. It's not like they're driving a semi or a car or even a plane. Just think of the damage they could do."

Al in Tampa writes: "Loosen up there, mate. Everybody likes to have a couple of drinks before flying."

Wes in Kentucky: "Astronauts are just human, and even the most secure and prestigious government centers have problematic people. Wait 50 years when we have traveled to Mars and possibly established a space elevator or even a moon base to see a true appreciation of what they do."

Dave in Wisconsin: "Have you ever considered the possibility that one might need a few 'bells' to climb on top of that thing?"

Bill in Missouri: "The first thing NASA needs to do, take the alcohol out of the quarters during quarantine before a flight. We want them to dock with the space station, not crash into it."

Al in Lawrence, Kansas: "Look, Jack, it's not rocket science. Oh, wait. Yes, it is."

And Dave in Massachusetts: "Little did we know that Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Lindsay Lohan all have the 'right stuff' to be NASA astronauts" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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

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