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THE SITUATION ROOM

Round Two of Iraq War Hearings; Bin Laden Taunts United States

Aired September 11, 2007 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Skepticism and even scorn during round two of the Iraq war hearings. The top U.S. military commander and the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq getting an earful in the U.S. Senate, some of the sharpest words coming from Republicans.
Plus -- Osama bin Laden still taunting the United States exactly six years after the 9/11 attacks. Tonight the al Qaeda leader's chilling anniversary message and his emerging media strategy.

And surprising discoveries in the search for adventurer Steve Fossett, his disappearance is now unlocking mysteries about a Bermuda triangle-like area right here in the United States.

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

Tonight -- President Bush is preparing to set a date to the end to the so-called military surge in Iraq but not for the war itself. In a primetime address to the nation Thursday night, he's expected to embrace his top commander's recommendation to withdraw as many as 30,000 U.S. troops by next summer, but at least, at least another 130,000 troops the president will say are expected to remain in Iraq well beyond that.

General David Petraeus has been laying the groundwork for all of that on Capitol Hill this week, facing back-to-back grillings in the Senate yesterday and today. Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by, but let's go to our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee. She's watching the story for us with more -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, senators grilled their witnesses, demanding more detail on their plan for Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I have to ask this question -- where is this going?

VERJEE (voice-over): They were hard questions.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: So you're saying to the Congress that you know that at least 60 soldiers, airmen and Marines are likely to be killed every month.

(SHOTS)

VERJEE: About how much Americans should be asked to sacrifice in Iraq.

HAGEL: Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now for what?

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: I'm not getting an answer that even begins to suggest when we can tell the American people that the number of troop deaths will decline.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, CMDR. MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Senator, we are on the offensive. And when you go on the offensive, you have tough fighting.

VERJEE: General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker again made their appeals that the sacrifice is producing results that they need more time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There have been setbacks as well as successes and tough losses along the way. Overall, our tactical commanders see improvements in the security environment.

VERJEE: How much more time is the question they could not answer.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The question, how do we clean up the mess and make the best out of a situation in which there are no good options?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: You're saying the process will not be quick. Are you talking about not quick meaning a timeframe of a year? Or are you talking about not quick being well beyond the end of next summer?

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: It certainly will be well beyond the end of next summer before Iraq can achieve the end state I've laid out. There's no question.

VERJEE: An open-ended sacrifice which some members of the Senate believe Americans must continue to make.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There are some corners of belief that we can simply turn the page in Iraq, come home and move on to other things. This is dangerously wrong. If we surrender in Iraq, we will be back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: Some of the speeches, Wolf, were so long that it really didn't leave any time for questions directed to the witnesses. One senator put it this way -- our hearings are more about listening to ourselves than listening to our witnesses -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Some of the senators, though, a lot of them, in fact, were deeply concerned, Zain that the war in Iraq was draining the overall U.S. war on terror. I wonder if they got any answers from the two witnesses today. VERJEE: Well, they got an answer from General Petraeus who basically said, look, he's focused on the situation in Iraq and that bringing and achieving security in Iraq is going to mean safety and security here in the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Zain. Thanks very much -- Zain Verjee reporting.

Now to President Bush and his plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq to where they were before the start of the so-called surge that would be in January and February of this year. Our White House correspondent Ed Henry is standing by. Ed, tell us more, what we can expect to hear from the president in his primetime address Thursday night.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, senior officials say the president is expected to embrace a pulling out by next summer up to 30,000 of the so-called surge troops. The point here, the president likely to bill this as a success, get some political credit for bringing these troops home. But it's important to stress, as you know, that military officials have already suggested that they're stretched and these surged troops would have to come home by next spring, next summer anyway.

Also important to note, that this only would bring the U.S. footprint down to where it was about last December, about 130,000 U.S. troops still on the ground in Iraq. You have Democrats like John Kerry already declaring this is too little too late -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well it suggests that from the president's perspective, Ed, this war is going to continue at least through the end of his administration in January 2009.

HENRY: That's right, Wolf. I mean there had been so much hype coming into September that this would be a turning point in the war debate. Instead, what it is looking like is that this will give the president a little more political breathing space, maybe another six months or so, to stall the Congress a bit. They don't have the votes to change his strategy. As you know, in this new book, his conversations with author Robert Draper, the president made clear his goal over the next 18 months or so is to try to stabilize the situation on the ground in Iraq enough so that his successor will be willing to accept a large troop presence in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Henry reporting at the White House. Thanks Ed.

If the United States rolls back its troop strength to pre-surge levels from the current about 168,000 down to about 138,000 almost a year from now, how long would the remaining U.S. forces have to stay in Iraq to maintain even a minimal level of security? I put that question to CNN's Michael Ware in Baghdad.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I would expect whether you like it or not America's military and diplomatic footprint in this country is going to be significant for a sustained period of time. Whenever I speak to military analysts or planners or any of the diplomats, no one is deluding themselves to think that with this country so broken, so torn apart by America's intervention here that they can simply walk away completely. It's just not being entertained.

What is being entertained is how much you can scale back and how you then reset your goals and who do you look to as your new partners? And what we're finding increasingly from the testimony of both the ambassador and the general here in Iraq is that that answer, the cornerstone of America's policy going forward, is engagement with the Sunni tribes and the Sunni insurgency. This seems to be their next building block -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I want you to listen, Michael, to the ambassador, Ryan Crocker. He keeps making this point during these hearings yesterday and today. I'm going to play a little clip. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CROCKER: In my view, a secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is attainable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. You agree that a secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is attainable?

WARE: Well, it is depending on a number of things. One is how many generations are you prepared to wait? Even the outgoing U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, in his last sit-down interview before he left Baghdad, he himself said that, yes, while he still holds a democratic Iraq as the ultimate goal, he conceded it would take generations. And for it to truly take root in this country, that's what it will require.

Also, to bring about this democratic Iraq that the ambassador is pursuing, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's in the current form it is now. You could have a drastic change in the face and the shape of this government either by parliamentary or even non-parliamentary means. All of these things are being canvassed. So, yes, those goals may be attainable, but the path to those goals has not been discussed nor how long America will have to hold out and dig in here in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I think few Americans are thinking in terms of generations for democracy to emerge in Iraq, those goals. Michael Ware thanks very much.

And now to the day that is seared in the hearts and minds and fears of a nation. Exactly six years ago to the minute after the 9/11 attacks, Americans paused today to grieve and to remember. In New York, the names of those lost echoed in dreary skies.

Over at the Pentagon "Amazing Grace" broke through the silence and sorrow. And in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff honored the passengers of United Airlines flight 93. These are live shots, live pictures we're looking at right now. There you can see of ground zero on this, exactly the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the nation is still grieving.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty in New York for "The Cafferty File". I think we're always going to grieve no matter how old we get on this the anniversary of 9/11.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I think you're right, and I think it's entirely appropriate that this has been a rainy, cloudy, dank, humid kind of dark day in the city of New York, all day long since this morning. You can be sure that the crop of 2008 presidential candidates paid close attention to the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. And as the "Politico" puts it quote, "few audiences had more writing on what those two men said", unquote.

Of course, that's because the mess in Iraq is not going to be over for a while, probably a long while, and a lot of it will fall right into the lap of the next president. For their part, the Democratic hopefuls came out in unified opposition to what Petraeus and Crocker had to say. But for Republicans, some of whom had been beginning to inch away from the president on the war in Iraq, the Petraeus testimony was a chance to stand behind Mr. Bush's so-called surge.

And with 63 percent of Americans opposed to the war, in a new CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll, it is no doubt an issue that will be huge the closer the 2008 election gets. In fact, the candidate with the best solution to the war in Iraq might just be the one who winds up being inaugurated.

That's our question -- how important will the Iraq war be do you think in the 2008 presidential election? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. It was just one of those days in New York that was made for mourning, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, appropriate indeed, Jack. Thanks very much.

As Americans remember the victims of 9/11, Osama bin Laden also marks the anniversary. The al Qaeda leader delivering yet another message and we're going to get a tough response from a top White House official.

A former prostitute says she had a relationship with a U.S. congressman before he became a U.S. senator and before he turned up on the client list of the so-called "D.C. madam".

And searchers making a stunning discovery in the Nevada wilderness as they search for missing aviator Steve Fossett.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Al Qaeda marked this 9/11 anniversary with yet another message from Osama bin Laden. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now. Brian, I take it there's no doubt that the voice on this latest audiotape is from bin Laden himself? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No doubt at all, Wolf. The CIA confirms this is bin Laden. Now analysts believe this production is completely separate from Friday's videotape. This one is audio only with a still picture of bin Laden, but the images presented have the same resonance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

TODD (voice-over): Stylishly produced with English subtitles and images of burning towers chromo keyed in the background, Osama bin Laden's anniversary message implores young men to join the cause and praises one who died for it. He eulogizes Waleed al-Shehri, a hijacker on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Waleed al-Shehri is one of these magnificent men whom the verses of the Revelation affected.

TODD: And as promised, al-Shehri speaks. In a last testament he taped while preparing for the attacks, he seems to warn his American enemies how it will play out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We shall come at you from your front and back and right and left and from above and below you.

TODD: This is the seventh testimonial from a September 11th hijacker and analysts say there are likely to be more.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It does go to the fact that they do have a long-time media strategy. You know bin Laden wrote a letter to Mullah Omar just before 9/11 saying 90 percent of the battles in the media they take their information operations pretty seriously.

TODD: Are those operations shaped by an American? Adam Gadahn is a California born convert to Islam, a jihadist who works with al Qaeda's media operations. He is on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorist" list with $1 million bounty on his head, but that didn't keep him from recently sending his own message to America.

ADAM GADAHN, AL QAEDA SPOKESMAN: We shall continue to target you at home and abroad just as you target us at home and abroad.

TODD: U.S. officials say they have no evidence that Gadahn wrote any of bin Laden's latest messages. But officials and analysts say he does have access to al Qaeda's leadership and they can see his possible influence in at least one of the bin Laden's tapes.

BERGEN: It was highly publicized. It was a sort of undergraduate level, you know leftist critique of the American body politic and that sounds a lot like Adam Gadahn to me.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: But U.S. intelligence officials are clear. They say this is not a case of Adam Gadahn sitting at bin Laden's elbow giving him news from the Internet. They believe in fact that Gadahn is not physically with bin Laden or his top lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri but is likely in the same general area, the tribal regions of Pakistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thanks, Brian.

Al Qaeda's spokesman, the 28-year-old Adam Gadahn grew up on a California farm with no television or computer. He's described by friends as a very bright loner. He was home-schooled and became obsessed with death metal music. He converted to Islam as a teenager and first went to Pakistan after an assault arrest back in 1997. His parents last heard from him in 2002. Last year Gadahn was charged with treason.

Let's take a closer look at some other news coming in from around the world involving Osama bin Laden. He has managed to stay a step or two ahead of his pursuers for years. But he could be within a stone's throw of U.S. troops now patrolling some very rugged territory. Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is with those troops in a CNN exclusive -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're right on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over there is Pakistan, the mountains rise up very steeply. This is in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. It's very mountainous, the Hindu Kush Mountains. There are no fences. There are no border controls right there.

There's a path that runs along the mountainside across that border comes to a small bridge. The U.S. troops here found out that Taliban and others were using that bridge to bring supplies, ammunition, people into Afghanistan. They set up a checkpoint here. It controls the main road running alongside the border, controls that point of entry from Pakistan coming into Afghanistan.

What they say they've been able to do here is interrupt the supply and re-supply for anti-government elements, be they Taliban, be they al Qaeda, be they allies of the Taliban and al Qaeda. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) interrupt them here. They've been in firefights here, an intense firefight a month ago, but what the troops say they're doing here, they're not trying to win by running around the mountains and shooting on all their possible enemies.

They say that's not the way to go. What they're doing here is they describe it as nation building, building health clinics, building schools, putting in a hydroelectric power system, micro (ph) hydroelectric power system. It's by winning the support of the local population, denying the area to Taliban, to al Qaeda, in that way that they hope to win the fight here.

This is the front line in the war on terror. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate Report recently said that al Qaeda and Taliban are regrouping across the border there in Pakistan. Here is the front line of what's happening, this particular location, the checkpoint, stopping and interrupting the effort by Taliban to bring in supplies, bring in fighters right into Afghanistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan for us in that exclusive report.

The White House homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, has called Osama bin Laden impotent. Coming up, I'll ask her what she means by that.

The mystery of an airplane gone missing, the search for Steve Fossett coming up empty so far, but other plane wrecks are found in what some are now calling Nevada's Bermuda Triangle.

Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential team has given back hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Why she's putting so much distance right now between herself and this campaign fund-raiser.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Survival experts are growing skeptical Steve Fossett will be found alive nine days into the search for the adventurer. They say he could certainly survive in the search area, but his first act would have been to signal rescuers. That has not happened.

There is no sign of Fossett so far, but the search has uncovered other long-lost aircraft. Let's turn to CNN's Kara Finnstrom. She's on the scene in Minden, Nevada for us, so what have they found, Kara?

KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well they found the wreckage of six old previously undiscovered sites and while there are no signs of Fossett, these discoveries could help families who have had troubling questions now for more than half a century.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FINNSTROM (voice-over): The year was 1964. Charles Ogle, a California businessman and ex-military pilot flew a single engine plane out of Oakland headed for Reno. The wife he was divorcing, two daughters and a son, then just 4 years old never saw him again.

WILLIAM OGLE, SON OF MISSING AVIATOR: Having the doubt put to rest is important and knowing that he didn't run off and that it was an accident and that he would have been there.

(SOUNDS)

FINNSTROM: Now the massive search for Steve Fossett might finally resolve a 40-year-old mystery for Ogle's family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a wreck that they think is from the '60s so we're hoping that that's the one. FINNSTROM: The methodical work of search crews has turned up six previously undiscovered crash sites. Searchers believe there may be as many as 200 such sites around the Sierra Nevada range, a Bermuda Triangle of soaring mountain peaks, deep ravines, sagebrush and trees that provide natural camouflage for downed planes.

MAJ. CYNTHIA RYAN, CIVIL AIR PATROL: We're going to have to wait until this search is concluded so that we can pull resources and go into some of these rather treacherous areas and really comb through that wreckage, find some serial numbers, run it through manufacturers and find out who the buyer was.

FINNSTROM: Fossett's search team have the benefit of today's high-tech tools and about double the normal resources in the air thanks to aircraft belonging to hotel magnate Baron Hilton. Fossett was flying a plane from his ranch. The effort that could also provide answers for the survivors of those other pilots, lost so long ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm hoping that they find the plane and now I'm starting to have the doubts, what if they don't find his plane?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FINNSTROM: And William Ogle says crews did look for his father for about 60 days back in 1964. Now, crews that are working on Fossett's search right now say some specific information about Ogle's plane leads them to believe that possibly this could be one of the planes they're looking at, but they say they just can't be sure until they get out there and actually investigate. So at least for now Ogle will have to wait a little bit longer, Wolf, for those answers.

BLITZER: They have been waiting a long time for that. Kara thanks very much. Kara Finnstrom on the scene -- she'll update us if we get more information.

She calls the world's most wanted terrorist a coward. That would be the White House homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend. She explains just what she meant when she said Osama bin Laden is operationally impotent. That comment caused a bit of an uproar.

And a former prostitute teams up with an adult magazine publisher to put out claims about a U.S. senator. It involves sex, some bizarre details. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, Republican Fred Thompson catches one-time frontrunner Rudy Giuliani in our latest national poll. The one-time New York mayor is only one point ahead of the former senator from Tennessee. With the sampling error, though, it is a dead heat.

China promises to get the lead out. In a new trade deal, the Chinese agree to stop using lead paint on toys exported to the United States. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A major U.S. air base near Baghdad under attack today. It's called Camp Victory. Officials say an indirect fire attack killed one person and injured 11 coalition soldiers.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is at that base. He was there when all this unfolded. Anderson is joining us now live. What do we know about this attack on Camp Victory where you are, Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not many more details than you've already said, Wolf. We know one person was killed. We don't know the nationality of that person. 11 coalition soldiers were injured. Again, we don't know the nationality of those soldiers, whether they were U.S. or not. You know, it's not entirely uncommon for there to be ...

BLITZER: Unfortunately, it looks like that satellite with Anderson Cooper has gone down. We'll try to reconnect with him at Camp Victory. That's a major U.S. base right outside of Baghdad where there was apparently a mortar rocket came in today and killed one and injured several others. We'll check back with Anderson. That's coming up.

Anderson, by the way, tonight at 10:00 p.m. eastern will be live from Camp Victory. He's got a special "ANDERSON COOPER 360." That's coming up later tonight.

I think we've reestablished our connection with Anderson. Anderson, we lost you briefly over there. You were telling us not much more than we already knew where you are, that this mortar attack. But you spent part of the day meeting with some of those Sunni tribesmen who have emerged at one point they were very, very anti- American insurgents and now they're becoming almost allies. Give our viewers a sense of what you saw.

COOPER: Yes, Wolf. On the mortar attack, it's really not that unusual here. This is sprawling base near Baghdad's international airport. It's pretty routine to have shells lobbed in here. One person was killed, 11 soldiers were injured today.

But yes it was a fascinating trip down. I was embedded with a unit from the 10th mountain division, the 2nd brigade and basically what has happened in al Anbar province is now spreading to other parts of Iraq.

The Sunni sheikhs in this area about two or three months ago visibly turned against the al Qaeda fighters, the al Qaeda extremists who had been living in their midst and fighting in their midst. This is an area many often refer to as the triangle of death. And basically the U.S. soldiers in this area, very critically jumped on this trend. They're now in the process of funding these Sunni sheikhs. The Sunni sheikhs have recruited volunteers.

You go in this areas, fly over these areas, and you look down and you can see there are all these checkpoints which are now manned by Sunni tribal fighters. They're not U.S. forces anymore. They're not Iraqi government troops at all.

And the key point is what happens from here on in. I mean, these groups are now armed. They're allowed to carry weapons under Iraqi law. They're not being armed by the United States, but they are, in fact, being paid, contracted by, the U.S. military.

What these Sunni groups really want is some sort of validation from the Iraqi government. They want to become Iraqi police. They want uniforms. They want to link up with the Iraqi government. That at this point is not happening.

As you know, Wolf, the Iraqi government is very skeptical about the intentions of some of these Sunni groups and what may happen with these armed groups once the United States leaves.

All the U.S. soldiers I talked to today said the key is for the Iraqi government to move toward these groups and for these groups to be willing to work toward the Iraqi government. Some form of reconciliation between these two actors.

BLITZER: We're going to see if that's even possible. Anderson will have a lot more coming up 10:00 p.m. eastern tonight. Anderson, be careful and we'll talk to you later. "ANDERSON COOPER 360" tonight live from Camp Victory in Iraq.

As we reported earlier, six years after the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden is still taunting Americans. His latest audiotape praises one of the hijackers. I asked the White House Homeland Security Adviser, Fran Townsend, about Bin Laden's message.

FRAN TOWNSEND, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: Well you know Wolf, this is a day really where as a country we honor and pay tribute to the sacrifice and heroism we saw in response to those horrible attacks. For him to insert himself is really offensive. I think that's people's reaction. This is a day where we want to devote ourselves to the memory of the people that we lost. We really have tried not to focus on the tape. We don't see any direct threat in it. And this is kind of become par usual.

BLITZER: It's more propaganda from al Qaeda. Maybe their media adviser, this ex-American, Adam Gadahn, who is from California went over there and some of the experts are saying his fingerprints are all over not only this but some of the other videotape of Osama Bin Laden that was released over the past few days.

TOWNSEND: That's right. You remember we saw a long Adam Gadahn tape just before the '04 election in October of '04 where he spoke directly to the American people.

BLITZER: That was the Osama Bin Laden tape.

TOWNSEND: There was an Adam Gadahn tape.

BLITZER: Because he's made up several tapes in recent years.

TOWNSEND: That's right. Clearly his knowledge of American media and his knowledge of America and how to communicate in English is one of the things that Bin Laden and al Qaeda have been taking advantage of.

BLITZER: The other day you told me that in your opinion and I'm paraphrasing but you used the word about Osama Bin Laden as being impotent. That's caused controversy because a lot of experts say he's not impotent. Look at the incidents that have occurred maybe not on U.S. soil but whether in Spain or England or potentially in Germany. Explain what you mean when you say Osama Bin Laden is impotent.

TOWNSEND: I'm actually glad to have the opportunity, Wolf. Because I was surprised that it was misunderstood. There's no question that al Qaeda as an organization remains a critical threat to this country and even in that interview I referenced the attacks in Germany and Denmark. Now we have the attacks in Algeria and so al Qaeda as an organization is incredibly powerful. We heard in the National Intelligence Estimate that we have seen a resurgence. They are regaining in for example the federally administrated tribal areas of Pakistan.

What I was responding to when I said virtually impotent is this is what Bin Laden does. He's the spiritual leader. He's the propagandist in chief, if you will, of al Qaeda. This is what he can do. This is his contribution to the fight. He's a bit of a coward. He's the guy who talks big but he sends other people to do his dirty work in this country and around the world.

BLITZER: There has been suggestion that his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is really the man of power within al Qaeda right now. Is that right?

TOWNSEND: Certainly the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, made the point that Zawahiri really is the intellectual, the person who forms the ideology and the hateful and destructive and violent ideology behind al Qaeda. I think that's right.

BLITZER: Is there increased what they call chatter right now around this anniversary of 9/11 that is causing experts counterterrorism experts in the U.S. government a little bit more heightened concerned?

TOWNSEND: Well you know, when National Intelligence Estimate was released, the community made the judgment that we're in a period of heightened threat. I don't know of anyone who does this work that doesn't think that's true.

It's interesting. When you ask about increased chatter, I would say we've seen an increase in the amount of intelligence we are seeing to suggest that we're in a period of heightened threat but I think to term it chatter sort of diminishes it. We have men and women in the intelligence and military communities and law enforcement gathering this vital information and helping us to connect the dots to understand it.

BLITZER: Do you believe there are sleeper cells, individuals in the United States right now, who are prepared to launch a spectacular, as its been described, terror attack once again against the United States?

TOWNSEND: We know that that's al Qaeda's chief goal, a spectacular attack with mass casualties. We know Director Mueller's testimony yesterday before Congress that there are a number of active investigations of sleeper cells in this country. Obviously identifying, investigating and disrupting sleeper sells is the number one priority for the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and we take that responsibility very seriously.

BLITZER: So the answer is there are sleeper cells in the U.S. right now? There are terrorists who are at large just waiting?

TOWNSEND: There are certainly cells that we're aware of and the FBI is investigating. I would stop there because I'm not prepared to say that we know that they're ready to launch spectacular attacks. If we knew that, we would obviously arrest them and disrupt it.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks for coming in.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

BLITZER: A senator accused of sexual hypocrisy. Coming up Senator Vitter's response to new allegations from Larry Flynt and a former prostitute. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, a new effort to pull a United States senator deeper into the throes of scandal. Republican David Vitter of Louisiana was already embarrassed by the link to the so-called D.C. madam. Now there's a controversial publisher and a former prostitute who are teaming up to try to bring Vitter down.

Our Carol Costello is following this story. This isn't the first time that Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt has done this sort of thing.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, it isn't and probably won't be the last. Back in June, Larry Flynt offered $1 million to out sexual hypocrites in Washington who tout a family values theme. Tonight he held a press conference featuring a former New Orleans prostitute who claims U.S. Senator David Vitter bought her services two to three times a week.

It was an unsavory scene. Hustler publisher, Larry Flynt, and Wendy Ellis, a former prostitute, talking about a U.S. senator.

WENDY ELLIS, FORMER PROSTITUTE: Just a pure sexual relationship.

COSTELLO: Ellis claims Vitter had a sexual relationship with her the year he was elected to Congress. CNN has investigated allegations about such a relationship in the past and has found no evidence to back them up. But Ellis insists she's telling the truth. That's why she agreed to take a polygraph test.

ELLIS: I want the truth to be known.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why?

ELLIS: Because I've been called a liar and a liar I'm not.

COSTELLO: While Ellis aired her allegations, Vitter was in a senate hearing defending the U.S. war in Iraq and criticizing a newspaper ad attacking the senior American military leader in Iraq.

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), LOUISIANA: I really hope all of us join together on the senate floor and pass an amendment to crime on the Moveon.org personal attack against you, General Petraeus.

COSTELLO: Some are decrying Larry Flynt's quest as a witch hunt. The pornographer launched a campaign to out sexual hypocrites in Washington. The reward? A million bucks. It was Flynt's detectives who tracked down Ellis, Flynt who flew her from New Orleans to Los Angeles and arranged for that polygraph test.

LARRY FLYNT, PUBLISHER HUSTLER MAGAZINE: We don't even like to mix polygraphs into this stuff because we know they're admissible in court. But you know she's concerned that she'd be believed as much as Vitter is believed.

COSTELLO: Flynt's efforts against Vitter heated up after the senator's name turned up on the D.C. madam's client list this summer. With his wife by his side, Vitter admitted he committed a very serious sin. He also addressed rumors about visiting prostitutes in New Orleans.

VITTER: Unfortunately, my admission has encouraged some long time political enemies and those hoping to profit from the situation to spread falsehoods too like those New Orleans stories and recent reporting. Those stories are not true.

COSTELLO: But that wasn't good enough for Flynt or for the liberal organization known as CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. It has filed a complaint against Vitter with the Senate Ethics committee.

NAOMI SELIGMAN STEINER, CITIZENSFORETHICS.ORG: I think it's absolutely appropriate for Senator Vitter to be censured. He broke the law and he took an oath when he decided to become a senator that he would uphold the law.

COSTELLO: The Ethics Committee does not comment on its investigations or whether it's investigating a complaint.

Now, Wendy Ellis, this former prostitute, says she didn't out senator Vitter because of the money, although she did collect some money from Flynt. She said she did it because he's a liar who should not be serving the American people and because she wants to atone for the sins in her past.

BLITZER: Carol Costello reporting for us. Carol, thanks very much.

Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign is taking a much closer look at its donor rolls after the embarrassing case of the fugitive fund- raiser Norman Hsu. The Clinton camp now returning hundreds of thousands of dollars Hsu raised. Let's get the story from CNN's Mary Snow. She's watching this from New York.

Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning about the political donors run from the law, how it took a very strange turn. He was found on a train alone, described as being disoriented and crouched on the floor.

As armed officers stand guard outside Norman Hsu's Colorado hospital room, bizarre new details are emerging about the fall of the major Democratic fund-raiser turned fugitive and his arrest last week. Hillary Clinton's campaign has announced it's returning $850,000 he raised. One former federal election commission official says ...

LARRY NOBLE, FORMER FEC GENERAL COUNSEL: I cannot remember a time when someone has returned that much money.

SNOW: A Clinton political adviser says the campaign is sending money back to some 260 donors out of an abundance of caution and from now on will "institute vigorous vetting procedures on our bundlers, including criminal background checks." Hsu was a bundler, a legal practice in which a fundraiser gathers donations from other people and presents these checks to candidates at one single time.

NOBLE: They are going back now and giving back the money from everybody that Hsu raised the money from.

SNOW: Questions about Hsu's fund-raising first emerged this summer and it was later learned he spent 15 years as a fugitive following charges linking him to an illegal fraud scheme. In late August, he turned himself in but then skipped a bail hearing and that is where the story turns even more bizarre.

Paramedics removed Hsu from an Amtrak train in Grand Junction, Colorado last week, after responding to a call for someone needing medical attention. The "Wall Street Journal" quotes a fellow passenger looking into Hsu's sleeper department who says she saw a man wedged against the door, bare chested and in a fetal position. The journal reports conductors used a crowbar to open the door and the witness was quoted as saying she spotted "lots and lots of medication" and pills rolling around the floor. Hsu was taken to a local hospital and placed under arrest.

Now, we contacted Hsu's attorney's office who had nothing to add following a statement last week, describing Hsu as being under enormous and unbearable strain. The hospital where Hsu was taken would only say that he's in good condition. Now, he could be turned over to authorities within days.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow watching this story for us. Mary, thanks very much. Courtroom chaos. You're going to find out how a deputy ended up getting tasered. I think you're going to want to see what happens. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We have some new details coming out on the little Madeleine McCann story. That's coming up in a moment but let's go to Carol Costello first. She's monitoring other stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM.

Carol.

COSTELLO: A couple of things, Wolf. Hate crime charges may be filed in a bizarre torture case in West Virginia. Authorities say a black woman was held captive for at least a week at this house where she was allegedly sexually abused, beaten, stabbed and subjected to racial slurs. She's now in a hospital. Six people, all of them white, are under arrest, including a mother and son and a mother and her daughter.

Take a look at this video in the wide screen, Wolf. Dramatic pictures from Columbus, Ohio. This is a robbery suspect. You see he's in a wheelchair. He was brought into the courtroom and he starts kicking his defense attorneys there. Sheriff's deputies used a taser. But of course as you can see, the deputy himself got tasered. Later after all of this debacle was over, the suspect was brought back into the courtroom and wait until you see him. There he is. He was very restrained. They didn't have to use the taser again. And by the way he was in a wheelchair in the first place, Wolf, because he fainted in his cell and hurt his back.

BLITZER: What a story. Thanks, Carol, for that.

The case of missing 4-year-old Madeleine McCann is in the hands of a Portuguese judge today after Kate and Gerry McCann were named as suspects last week. Gerry McCann is now speaking out about these late developments online. Our internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is standing by. What are they saying, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, they're saying that the facts will show that they played no part in Madeleine's abduction and they say they are 100 percent confident in each other's innocence. This is the latest blog post from Gerry McCann, made late last night from the U.K. where the couple traveled over the weekend, on the official find Madeleine website that had been updated constantly with news of the search. But this is the latest blog post since the McCann's were named formal suspects late last week. Gerry McCann on the site calling this an unending nightmare and saying they are now preparing for any possible charges.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you. Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with the Cafferty File.

Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the question this hour is how important will the Iraq war be in the 2008 presidential election?

In Cedar Creek, Texas, we hear from Vick, "The Iraq war will appear to be important but if one of the mainstream candidates is elected nothing will change."

Jill in Florida, "Iraq important? Not to me, not anymore. I'm listening hard for a candidate who wants to repair the damage done to America. Bush's war on Iraq has cost us far more than lives and money: respect, integrity, values."

Ryan in Gridley, California, "How stupid are you, Jack? Normally I really enjoy hearing what you think and the questions you ask. This one however, is utterly stupid. Of course Iraq is the big issue of '08! It was the big issue of '06 and guess what? The Democratic Congress hasn't done one thing they promised. Hey, Jack, how about this for a Cafferty file question, do you think it's time for the United States to have another revolution?"

Douglas in Rhode Island, "Jack, the war's important to me but I feel stronger about illegal immigration. The illegal alien problem is affecting my life more than al Qaeda is. My vote goes to whoever will stop the immigration problem without giving amnesty and securing our borders. I mean really securing them."

Gerald in Tampa, Florida, "The only thing that can prevent the Iraq war from being the most important issue in '08 is another Twin Towers type attack. That would save the Republican bacon like nothing else could."

And Dave in Virginia writes, "It will be as important as it is to remember to keep a narrow stance when using a men's room at the Minneapolis airport."

We invite you to tune in next Wednesday, September the 19th at 8:00 when we'll have time for more of this high-class material. We're going to do a one-hour long special of the Cafferty File talking about how ugly it's getting out there. We're going to talk about the do- nothing democratic congress, what's happened to the presidency under George Bush, what the next president will have to do with the mess that's left behind. By tomorrow, we'll have some kind of e-mail address where you can send stuff in if you want to send stuff in, you know, like keep a narrow stance in the Minneapolis airport bathroom.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Very clever, our viewers. 8:00 p.m. eastern next Wednesday right after THE SITUATION ROOM. Jack, see you tomorrow. Thanks very much.

It was a comeback performance that didn't go quite as planned. The pop princess gets panned for more than her singing and dancing. Jeanne Moos with a most unusual story when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: An embattled pop star and embarrassing comeback attempt. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The song Britney sang, oh, she got it, all right. Lard and clear said the "New York Post." TMZ TV was outright mean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't know they made stripper wear for Butterball turkeys.

MOOS: And the celebrity disher, Paris Hilton, scrawled help and mess over photos of manipulated to look Britney Spears look even bigger than the original pictures.

JAY LENO, TV SHOW HOST: This is a big comeback? What she's come back from is a buffet table.

MOOS: At the buffet table of pop culture, there were some who saw it ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my god.

MOOS: I take it you saw it. And those who didn't but heard about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. But I hear she was fat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I bet there's not one man criticizing her for being fat right now. I bet it's women and that's sad that women turn on women and call each other fat when they're not fat. She's had two kids!

MOOS: Well actually, there were men who were critical.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Her body looked terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She should get out of that outfit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If she's flaunting it, it's important to talk about it.

MOOS: She sure got talked about on late night.

DAVID LETTERMAN, TV SHOW HOST: She was rolling around on the floor like speared sea life.

MOOS: And to think that just last year Letterman was kissing Britney's hand and telling her ...

LETTERMAN: Lord, you look great.

MOOS: Back when she was pregnant.

BRITNEY SPEARS, POP STAR: Don't worry, Dave. It's not yours. MOOS: From laughing with her to laughing at her. On YouTube, a guy who calls Chris Crocker cried on Britney's behalf.

CHRIS CROCKER: Her song give me more for a reason because all you people want is more, more, more, more! Leave her alone!

MOOS: But leaving her outfit alone didn't seem to be an option.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on. You're going to be wearing a bra and bikini underwear in front of God and the world. You've got to be in better shape than that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When she started making the hip moves, the belly flopping was more obvious.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bad. Somebody should have put her away somewhere.

CROCKER: You're lucky she even performed for you [ bleep ]! Leave Britney alone!

MOOS: In this age of skinny models wasting away ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought her body looked great, in my opinion. I mean, if I had a body like that, I'd be pretty happy.

MOOS: Britney performed a public service.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It keeps your mind off of the important things.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm so sick of holding my stomach in, you know.

MOOS: Are you holding it in right now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Of course. I'm hoping he's up high. Don't you get me from behind?

MOOS: Tell that to Britney.

CROCKER: Leave Britney Spears alone right now!

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

BLITZER: Up next, the CNN special investigation, "God's Warriors."

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