Return to Transcripts main page


McCain Emphasizes Military Service in New Ad; Bill Clinton Campaigns for Hillary

Aired December 26, 2007 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: John McCain is sticking to military themes in his new ad that's running in South Carolina. It plays up McCain's service as a prisoner of war and his past calls for a change in strategy in Iraq.
All of Bill Clinton's campaigning for his wife may be helping his own image. In the annual Gallup Poll of America's most admired men, the former president is in a statistical tie with President Bush for the number one spot. Mr. Bush had a significant lead in that survey in the past few years.

Hillary Clinton tops Gallup's list of most admired women this year. But, she, too is in a statistical tie with a Barack Obama supporter -- Oprah Winfrey.

Remember, for the latest political news at any time, check out our Political Ticker at

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

Happening now, he took a gamble in Iraq. Now, there are growing signs President Bush's troop increase is making some progress. We're going to show you what it could mean for the thousands of U.S. servicemen and women.

Also, a 13-year-old American girl is the sole survivor of a plane crash thousands of miles from home. Details of her two day odyssey in the wilderness. That's coming up.

And new numbers painting a disturbing picture of the U.S. housing market right now and very troublesome developments for the overall U.S. economy.

Did last minute shopping provide a much needed holiday miracle?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


A grim milestone approaching Iraq on this day after Christmas. Military officials report two American soldiers were killed by small arms fire in Northern Iraq. That bringing the U.S. death toll in the war to 3,899. Still, significant progress is being made in Iraq but the key question is this -- can it be sustained?

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is standing by live. She's joining us with more -- Barbara what are U.S. military commanders saying?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, oddly enough, U.S. military commanders know that right now that the war in Iraq is not front and center in the presidential campaign. And that's just fine with them if it's because there has been progress.


STARR (voice-over): In Helena, Montana, people paid respects to Private Darren Smith, who died in Iraq. Another family suffering a deeply personal tragedy. Still, there are hopes now for a better new year. December may be the lowest month on record for U.S. troops dying in Iraq. As of Christmas, 18 troops lost their lives -- a dramatic drop from the high of 126 who died in May, when U.S. troops surged into Iraq. The military says the strategy of sending more troops has worked.

MAJ. GEN. KEVIN J. BERGNER, U.S. ARMY: The surge has been very successful in its purpose, which was to reduce the levels of violence, the casualties and to set better conditions for the important political steps that the governor of Iraq very much needs to take.

STARR: The Bush administration desperately wants that political progress so it can pull 30,000 more troops out of Iraq next year -- leaving about 100,000 on the ground.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: My hope has been that the circumstances on the ground will continue to improve in a way that would, when General Petraeus and the chiefs and Central Command do their analysis in March, will allow a continuation of the drawdowns.

STARR: The other goal?

Shorten the 15-month tour of duty.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM B. CALDWELL, U.S. ARMY: There's just something after the 12-month period where that extra three months is just a tremendous drain on families and on the troopers that are deployed over there.

STARR: The Pentagon will spend much of the new year working on what lies ahead, in part by reviewing what went wrong in the past.

CALDWELL: The one thing that we have looked at real hard is post- Vietnam era, we walked out of there and walked away from everything we have learned.

STARR: The military says it's learned that killing the enemy and reaching out to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis must go hand in hand for long-term success -- a lesson many soldiers and their families wish had not ever been forgotten in Iraq.

(END VIDEO TAPE) STARR: Wolf, you know, everyone agrees there's been a lot of progress in Iraq in the last six months. But none of the generals are willing to lay a bet on how many years it may be before all the troops can come home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And what's the assessment for 2008, as far as Afghanistan is concerned?

STARR: Well, you know, actually, Afghanistan might be much more troublesome right now in the hallways of the Pentagon. There is a feeling that more troops might be needed. NATO already says they need about another 7,000 troops -- some for combat, some for training Afghans. The Taliban attacks are on the rise in Afghanistan. If NATO cannot pull together those troops and send them to Afghanistan, there is distinct possibility it could be U.S. troops going back to Afghanistan in 2008, just as the United States is trying so hard to reduce its troop commitment back in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr reporting from the Pentagon.


And as Barbara just mentioned, the latest casualty figures in Iraq show a steep drop in U.S. troop deaths. The two deaths reported today bring to 18 -- 18, the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq this month. That's half the numbers killed in each of the last two months and about one third the number killed in September, and a major decrease from August, when 84 Americans were killed in Iraq. December is, by far, the least -- the least deadly month since the war began.

Let's revise that. That number is 19 -- 19 American service members killed in Iraq so far -- so far this month.

Meanwhile, an amazing, amazing story of survival. We're just beginning to get some of those details. An injured 13-year-old American girl spending two days alone in the remote mountains of Panama after a plane crash that killed her companions. Her parents are rushing to her hospital bed and we're hearing from them this afternoon for the first time.

Let's go to CNN's Keith Oppenheim.

He's following all these developments for us from Chicago -- Keith, what are the parents saying?

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've been hearing very emotional responses from them, Wolf, all afternoon as this story has been developing. And keep in mind, for this 13-year-old girl who survived, this was supposed to be a fun vacation for her. Instead, this turned out to be a mix of tragedy and survival.


OPPENHEIM (voice-over): These are pictures of 13-year-old Francesca Lewis on a stretcher as she's being taken to a hospital two days after the plane she was in crashed. Francesca, from Santa Barbara, California, was on vacation in Panama with her friend, Talia Klein, and Talia's dad, Michael Klein, a 37-year-old hedge fund manager. On Sunday, a Panamanian pilot took them to photograph a volcano when authorities believe the single engine plane hit bad weather. Suddenly, there was no radio contact and the search was on.

VALERIE LEWIS, SURVIVOR'S MOTHER: It was a nightmare. It was a living nightmare.

OPPENHEIM: Valerie Lewis, Francesca's mother, spoke to us by phone. On Christmas Day, two days after the crash, Valerie learned the wreckage had been spotted. It turned out when rescuers got to the crash site, the sole survivor was her daughter.

LEWIS: She thought she was in her home and that there was a -- why was there an airplane wing in her home?

So she was delirious.

OPPENHEIM: Francesca was also dehydrated and her arm was broken. Francesca's mother says many helpers got her daughter to a hospital.

LEWIS: They carefully moved her onto a gurney. And then they had to carry her three-and-a-half hours to a helicopter.


LEWIS: Through extremely rugged terrain in torrential rain.

OPPENHEIM: Francesca's parents rushed to Panama. En route, Kirk Lewis, Francesca's dad, spoke to his daughter on the phone.


KIRK LEWIS, FATHER OF CRASH SURVIVOR: Hey sweetie. We're going to see you real soon. They're -- they're bringing you down. And mom and Rosie's here, too . OK. OK. Good-bye, sweetheart. Bye-bye. See you soon.



OPPENHEIM: You really feel for that father.

And from what we can gather, Wolf, Francesca is going to be OK. As for the dead rescuers, they are going to remove the bodies from the mountainside today.

And, by the way, Michael Klein, the father who died, he was considered to be a brilliant businessman by many. He actually was the CEO of a group e-mail services business which he told to Yahoo! in 2000 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Keith, for that.

Keith Oppenheim reporting.

Let's get a little bit more now on this man, Michael Klein, the man who took his daughter and her friend on that trip. As he mentioned, he was chief executive and chief investment officer of the California hedge fund firm, Pacificor. He graduated from college at only the age of 17 and went on to be a major player in Silicon Valley, founding two successful tech companies before joining eGroups, the giant e-mail communications service, which, as Keith pointed out, was later bought by Yahoo!

The house -- the value of your house, that is, may have just take an major blow. House prices have slumped to a record low. It's the worst decline we've seen in 16 years.

Let's go to CNN's Ali Velshi.

He's watching all of this unfold.

And it looks like this fallout is not pretty from the housing market.

What's going on -- Ali?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the index that we're talking about showed that home prices fell in October -- the most recent month that they've measured. And that's the tenth month in a row. The average drop in 20 major metropolitan areas is about 6 percent.

Let's drill down a little bit. Six cities had drops of more than 10 percent in one year. Miami and Tampa both had 12 percent drops. Detroit, San Diego, Las Vegas had 11 percent. Phoenix was also down around 11 percent.

Now, if you've got another three seconds, that's all it will take to tell you where prices were up -- only three major metro areas. In this survey, Charlotte was up 4 percent, Seattle 3 percent, and Portland 2 percent.

Now before you get all morbid, let's take a look at this. Back in 2006, the median price for a single family home in America was about $146,000. Today, it's about $205,000. Wolf, that is a nice 40 percent gain.

Now, that's not a consolation if you live in Detroit or Phoenix. It's just a little bit of perspective. Now, that's where we are in the housing situation. That was one of the things that held markets back today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ali, thanks very much.

Not good news for the housing market.

Jack Cafferty has the day off. He'll be back soon.

We're also getting new details now on some -- on this other holiday tragedy that we're watching -- a man killed by a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day. Two others were mauled and are still in the hospital.

How did the animal escape?

Also, a new Jewish exodus -- this one from Iran to Israel. We're going to show you the surprising role that Evangelical Christians are playing.

Plus, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sealing a new arms deal with Russia.

How concerned should Washington be?

Stay with us.



BLITZER: A stunning Christmas Day tragedy at the San Francisco Zoo, where a tiger escaped from its habitat and killed one man and mauled two others.

Let's go out there.

Ted Rowlands is standing by.

He's watching this story for us.

This tiger -- this specific tiger did have a history of sorts. Tell us what happened and what's going on.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the history of this tiger -- a year ago almost to the day there was an incident at the San Francisco Zoo where the tiger attacked, if you will, a worker. But at that time, it was deemed that it was really the zoo's fault, the infrastructure there. The tiger was just being a tiger.

This is a totally different scenario -- a horrific, tragic situation that you alluded to. One man dead. We just learned his identity. He's a 17-year-old young man from neighboring San Jose killed here at the zoo on Christmas.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of questions. In fact, police just announced that there's actually a criminal investigation here. They're not quite sure what happened here and they are reserving the possibility and they're investigating the possibility that somebody may have let the tiger out. It's one of the many different scenarios. The bottom line, Wolf, at this point, they just don't know how this tiger got out.


ROWLANDS (voice-over): The only thing that's clear at this point is that Tatiana, the 300-pound Siberian tiger, escaped some time before 5:00 p.m. Christmas Day, first killing a zoo visitor just outside the tiger's open air exhibit. About 300 yards away, near a zoo cafe, the tiger attacked again -- two more visitors, both men, ages 19 and 23.

Police arrived to find the tiger sitting next to one of the victims. The officers yelled at the tiger, when she started attacking the victim again.

CHIEF HEATHER FONG, SAN FRANCISCO POLICE: When the yelling was occurring, the animal turned and now turned toward the officers. And it is at that time that they fired.

ROWLANDS: The tiger was killed. The two surviving victims are in serious, but stable condition.

DR. ROCHELLE DICKER, SAN FRANCISCO GENERAL HOSPITAL: I can tell you that the way that this occurred was typical, as I understand it, of tiger attacks. This is a wild animal -- and focus on being wild. And I think it was a combination of claw and tooth attack.

ROWLANDS: zoo administrators and police say they still don't know how the tiger got out. The door to the exhibit was closed, according to the zoo, meaning the tiger may have somehow jumped out of the enclosure.

MANUEL MOLLINEDO, DIRECTOR, SAN FRANCISCO ZOO: All I can tell you, it's an open exhibit. There's a 20-foot moat and an 18-foot wall.


ROWLANDS: The bottom line, Wolf, the different scenarios are this. Either the tiger somehow jumped out of this exhibit or somebody, either intentionally or not, left a door open and then later went and closed it, because the zoo officials say they went back and looked at the door and it was shut. They're still investigating here.

The San Francisco police have declared the area an actual crime scene, as they continue their investigation. As for the two survivors, they are expected to survive. The biggest threat right now is infection. They're being treated with antibiotics and still hospitalized.

BLITZER: Ted Rowlands watching the story for us.

Ted, thanks very much.

And joining us now, the director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo, Jack Hanna -- no stranger to our viewers out there.

Jack, I don't know what went through your mind when you first heard about this incident, but I wonder if you want to share with our viewers what exactly you began to think.

JACK HANNA, HOST, JACK HANNA'S "INTO THE WILD": Well, it's just very peculiar, Wolf. In all my 41 years of doing this, this is something like I've never heard. For example, as each hour goes on, it's more confusing to me -- from the standpoint that a tiger is one of the top predators in the wild, number one. Number two, obviously, this is an animal that's born in the zoo. You know, 95 percent of our animals or more come from other zoos. These animals are fed.

Now, in the wild, when I've seen a tiger kill before in India, filming them, it happens like a blast, like an explosion. It happens -- I've seen them take down a 2,000-pound water buffalo in less than 30 seconds. And usually the injuries are to the head and to the upper torso.

But what was going on here?

In other words, I can't imagine the tiger jumping 20 foot -- or whatever it was -- up in the air. If he's in the bottom of the moat, I just don't see him jumping straight up, number one.

Number two, how he could jump across the moat -- especially, you've got to remember something. These animals are still wild. They're still in pretty good shape -- but not like a wild tiger that has that muscular structure where that animal might have been able to leap 18 or 20 feet.

And then, also, I understand that one body -- the victim, I'm sorry to say for the family, by the way -- it's terrible -- how the one victim was there next to the tiger habitat and the other guys were 100 yards away at a concession stand or something.

In other words, the whole thing to me, Wolf, does not make sense and it's hard for me to comment on something like this, because I think there's something else going on. I don't know what that is, because I'm not there.

BLITZER: So when authorities say, Jack, that a criminal investigation is underway, is that just routine or is there something suspicious here?

HANNA: Well, I don't know about you, but I mean you've covered zoo stories and animals. You know, we've only had one death, by the way, to a visitor at a zoo in the last, that I know of, in my 40 years. This is the first time I ever heard of this. Yes, we've had animals -- tragic things happen with employees. But I've never really heard the term -- maybe you have -- I haven't heard the term criminal scene. Maybe that's what they call it out there.

But something is going on there somewhere. I just can't imagine the tiger, number one, leaping across after the zoo was closed. And what -- what I'd like to know is what their tigers are basically doing, Wolf, at about 5:00 or 5:30 at night.

What -- some tigers are being fed at that time?

Some tigers are resting at that time?

I'd like to know what the routine of those tigers are at that hour of the day. And once you find that out, then that may help us understand. Somebody said somebody was taunting the tiger. Well, most tigers are used to a lot of visitors.

I mean what kind of taunting are we talking about?

Throwing things?

If that was happening -- I mean I've heard this, that -- you know, there's all kind of rumors going around. But I'm still totally confused on how the one victim was right there next to the moat and then the other ones are a hundred yards away. I don't understand that.

BLITZER: Are you familiar with the San Francisco Zoo, where this occurred?

HANNA: I've been there several times, but I'm not real familiar -- several times -- but I'm not familiar with that tiger habitat, no. I'm sure I've seen it, but I just would walk by and see it, you know?

BLITZER: But until now, based on everything that I've read today, it seems to have a pretty good reputation.

HANNA: Oh, yes. The San Francisco Zoo is an AZA accredited zoo and they're a great zoo. You know, that's why -- that's why this whole thing -- and, of course, somebody said they had an accident with the same tiger, what, two or three months ago?

I don't know when it was.

BLITZER: A year ago.

HANNA: Yes, a year ago.

And then somebody said well, should you put that tiger down?

The answer is absolutely not. That -- that was a human error -- I think that was a human error and I don't believe that relates anything to what happened last night.

BLITZER: The fact that Tatiana, this tiger, was a female, is there anything that indicates female tigers are more aggressive or less aggressive than male tigers?

HANNA: No. It all depends, obviously, breeding season -- if the animal is in cycle, that kind of thing. That could affect it a great deal. But tigers are solitary. Tigers hunt solitary. A tiger in the wild, for example, these animals can swim. They can do all sorts of things.

They can even eat, Wolf, when they make a kill, we've even known tigers to eat so much meat -- 30 or 40 pounds at a time -- that their stomachs will actually explode and the animal will die.

But this is not the case here. These animals are fed on a daily basis. So this tiger wasn't after food, by any means.

I mean, let me tell you something, if this tiger was hungry, it would be like a bullet going off. There wouldn't be -- there would be three victims and not -- not one.

BLITZER: And so I guess what you're saying -- and correct me if I'm wrong, Jack -- it's too early to make any conclusions as far as other zoos that have tigers around the country or around the world, in terms of taking additional precautions, additional steps right now. We have to first learn precisely what happened in this incident.

Is that what I'm hearing?

HANNA: Yes. Wolf, you're exactly right. Because right now, everyone is saying, oh, my gosh is it safe to go to the zoo?

One hundred and forty-five million people went to zoos last year, Wolf -- 145 million people. Now, you take that times maybe the year before it was 130 million. The pointing I'm getting at is several billions of people have visited zoos throughout this country over the last 40 years. It's the number one recreation in America. So I want people to understand, going to the zoo is just as safe as pulling out of your driveway, because I sure don't want speculation starting that all of a sudden, everybody has got to change their tiger exhibits.

BLITZER: And you're also suggesting, by almost all accounts, this was -- there was some sort of human error involved here.

HANNA: Well, that's it. You know, knowing what I know now, that's what it sound like. But, of course, that's just knowing what I know now. I might be proven wrong tomorrow. But this is the most peculiar one I've heard about because of the -- where the victims were, the time of -- all sorts of. I'd just love to know what the tigers do at that time of day at that zoo. That would help me understand more of what might have happened.

BLITZER: Now you have some personal experience with tigers when they attack going back many years. Tell our viewers what happened.

HANNA: Well, we had an accident at the Columbus Zoo, I don't know, 20 years ago or so. And someone was volunteering. They were helping us clean the inside of the enclosure. At that point, we did that in those days because we needed all the help we could get. And the person at that point -- the keeper said all clear, walked out of the habitat -- a beautiful moated area. Nothing responded.

Sure enough, a lady was in there and they let the tigers out. And the tigers got on top of her and started tearing her apart. And a guy named Dan Hunt, who was a tremendous keeper, ran in there and took a broom stick and just had to get the tigers off of her. He drug her body and she didn't die. There was a lot of problems.

But -- oh, then the other -- the other incident we had was in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a very, very close friend of mine, a veterinarian, who was attacked by a tiger way back in the early '80s -- a very close friend. Four tigers got out. Three of them got put back up. One of them was still there. He said, Jack -- I wasn't there, but this is what was said -- that he was going to try and save that tiger. So he tranquillized it, shot the dart. That tiger leaped 15 feet, Wolf, right on top of him, into his arms, into his stomach, everything else. He survived, but I'm sorry to say that he passed away from infection that was caused by that tiger bite about eight months later.

BLITZER: Jack Hanna is the director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo.

Jack, thanks very much for sharing your expertise with us.

HANNA: Well, maybe we'll know more tomorrow, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's continue this conversation.


Thank you.

BLITZER: Their president has called for Israel to be wiped off the map. But now dozens of Iranian Jews fleeing their home for a new life in Israel with the help of American Evangelicals. But others are calling it a misinformation campaign. We have new details of a growing controversy.

Plus, new technology that could save lives in a terror attack. We're going to show you how it works.

Stick around.



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

Happening now, the war in Iraq is now funded well into the next year. This thanks to President Bush's signature on a $555 billion spending bill. But the president is not happy about $28 billion worth of what's called pork barrel spending that's tucked into the bill. His spokesman says the president will consult with his budget director to look for ways to try to cut back on those so-called earmarks.

Tension mounts along the Iraq/Turkey border, with more bombings of Kurdish villages. Iraqi Kurdish regional security forces say the hour long bombing by Turkish aircraft hit deserted villages, but there's no word any rebels were hit. This coming one day after Turkey's military said it killed up to 175 Kurdish militants.

And police in Carnation, Washington have a murder mystery on their hands. They found six people dead on a property east of Seattle. Right now, they're searching nearby properties for clues and possibly -- possibly other victims.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Their country's leader has called for Israel's destruction. So it's no wonder Iranian Jews are fleeing. But you might be surprised by who's financing their exodus.

Carol Costello is here in THE SITUATION ROOM watching this story.

Who's behind this mass migration?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You might be surprised at who's behind it and why it's happening. Some say it's the fear of another Holocaust. But it's unclear whether Iran's Jews are leaving in droves because of fear, because they want to, or because they're being used.


COSTELLO (voice-over): The end of a secret journey -- 40 Iranian Jews arrive in Tel Aviv after leaving Iran and traveling through a third country. Reunions with relatives not seen for years -- the start of a new life. Their journey paid for, in large part, by American Evangelical Christians.

RABBI YECHIEL ECKSTEIN, PRESIDENT, INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS: Christians are helping to fulfill mandates given in the bible to bless and to help Jewish people in need.

COSTELLO: And they're doing that through Rabbi Eckstein International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The organization gave $10,000 to each Iranian. Most of that money came from Christian donors, who feel creation of a Jewish state follows biblical prophecy and, according to Eckstein, because they fear Jews could be in danger in a country whose president questioned whether the Holocaust ever happened and asserted that Israel must be wiped off the map.

That kind of talk, according to Eckstein, could be a sign of things to come.

ECKSTEIN: When you add the rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad and the possibility of a strike against Iran by either the United States or Israel, the situation could change overnight and, at that point, it would be too late to get out.

COSTELLO: Since the Islamic revolution the Jewish community in Iran has declined from 100,000 to an estimated 25,000. But the man representing Jews in Iran's parliament says Jews can worship as they wish and travel anywhere they want, but like all Iranians of any faith, they are not allowed to go to Israel.

DR CIAMAK MORSATHEGH, CHMN TEHRAN JEWISH CMTE: (INAUDIBLE) we do not have any especial (ph) problems for Jews and social activities in Iran, and we are living in peace with the Iranian community.

COSTELLO: He and other Iranian Jews accuse Rabbi Eckstein of a misinformation campaign aimed at creating an atmosphere of distrust between Muslims and Jews. The rabbi says his goal is simple, though, and global.

ECKSTEIN: My ultimate goal is to help every Jew in the world who wants to go to Israel, but doesn't have the ability, either financial or freedom, to be able to do so.


COSTELLO: As for what the U.S. State department says about religious freedom in Iran, it says even though there is awful rhetoric out of Iran, there a little government restriction of Jewish religious practice, but it adds Jews have limited their contract with Israel for fear of retaliation.

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

Iran's defense minister says Russia has agreed to sell its country an anti-aircraft missile defense system. It's called the S- 300 and shoot down aircraft and missiles as far away as 90 miles at attitudes up to 90,000 feet. Earlier this year, Russia delivered 29 surface to air missiles to Iran in a deal worth some $700 million.

So, what should the United States make of this Russian arms deal with Iran? Let's get some analysis from the former senator or the former defense secretary William Cohen, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He runs the Cohen Group in Washington.

What do you think about this deal? A lot of people simply think the Russians are eager to make money, no matter how they do it.

WILLIAM COHEN, THE COHEN GROUP: I think this is the case where the government right hand knows what the left hand is doing. On the one hand the Russians have indicated to the Iranians that they're going to support sanctions. They have supported sanctions against what Iran has been doing in terms of enriching uranium to lead toward possibility development of a nuclear weapon. At the same time, Russia is providing some of that technology to allow the Iranians to continue. And so they're undercutting this policy where the United Nations Security Council has come down against the Iranians. Russia is undercutting that by selling the technique to allow them to continue. So, that's the bad news on that side.

BLITZER: And it's been made easier to a certain degree by the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which suggests that the Iranians stopped building a nuclear weapon four years ago.

COHEN: It has and that NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, has been characterized as precisely those terms. But, if you look at the entire report, it says that Iran has been covertly developing a nuclear weapons capability for 18 years that according to recent challenges it probably stopped in 2003. But the enrichment process goes on. You can make a case, it continues to build its capacity to develop one some time down the line.

In this particular case, what the Russians are doing, basically undercutting the Security Council by transferring that nuclear fuel technology to Iran and allowing them to continue on their own. This particular arms deal, however, is simply sending a signal that they are intent on pursuing their commercial interests, they're intent on continuing to build up their presence in the region by these arms sales. So, we ought to be concerned about it.

BLITZER: What about this latest test, the Russians successfully test fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. What's Putin up to right now?

COHEN: Putin is up to reestablishing Russia as a power player on this globe of ours and so, He's saying: we're back, we're going to flex our economic might and we're going to flex our military might. What we have to do is to continue to engage Russia, to have our allies throughout Europe and elsewhere also send a signal that Russia, yes, is entitled to regain its stature and its role in global affairs. It must do so in a peaceful and stabilizing way and not destabilize the environment any more than we are today.

BLITZER: Because if you're talking about intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear tip warheads, there's only one possibility of the Russians thinking in terms of and that would be the United States.

COHEN: I don't think they're thinking of pointing them at the Chinese at this point or anyone else. So, that's a signal to the United States that they're prepared to restart some aspects of the cold war, standoff of such. I think we should avoid that if at all possible. I think Secretary Gates has been sending signals that we want to engage Russia in this fashion.

The Russians also were saying something about Iran. They're encouraging Iran to start talking to the six parties, much as North Korea has been engaged in six-party talks, they want to send the signal that Iran should do the same. I think the United States should engage in direct talks with the Iranians provided the Security Council comes down hard on Iran and says: if you continue with your enrichment policies we're going to intensify the sanctions against you. If the Security Council does that and Russia and China join, then I think it puts the United States in a position to go to Iran and say: now let's talk.

BLITZER: You know, between the military, the arms exports, the Russians are making a lot of money on that, now they're a major oil exporting company, they're making a ton of money on that natural gas, as well. This is a country, Russia, now that has money, they can compete, maybe not like the United States, but it's not the battle days of the Soviet Union which were basically broke, they didn't have any money, but competed in terms of an arm's confrontation potentially with the United States.

COHEN: As matter of fact, we discussed this before and, so there's no conflict of interest, here. I represented some companies who do business in that region, the Persian Gulf region, and an arm's package before the Congress. Should it be rejected or should it be stalled, then the Russia and the Chinese are very interested in filling the gap that will be left there, because those countries in the Gulf region are very concerned about Iran. They're building up their military capabilities. Russia and China are poised to help them. So, we've got to take that into account, but to say the Russians are coming back. They have a history of transferring armaments, they're eager to do so not only in Iran, but any other area in that region.

BLITZER: But you think that these countries -- friendly countries in the Gulf, whether the Emirates or Bahrain or Qatar, for example, or Saudi Arabia, for that matter. Would they start buying weapons from the Russians?

COHEN: If the United States were to, for whatever reason, congressional opposition for whatever reason, were to refuse to sell a package to the countries in the Gulf, the answer would be, we need to defend our selves and if the Russians are willing and you're not, we'll go where we can.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, thanks for coming in.

COHEN: Pleasure to be here.

BLITZER: Ominous developments unfolding on the world scene right now.

A dramatic turn around in a city once plagued by murder. Now, they're at a record low in New York City. How did they do it? We're watching this story.

Plus, hostages held for years by Columbia rebels. We're going to tell you how the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, may, may have secured their release. Stick around, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Crime has taken a big hit in New York City, the nation's largest city is on track to set a record on crime reduction, especially when it comes to homicides. Let's go live to our senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff, he's following this story for us.

How dramatic, Allan, is this drop in homicides in New York?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN NEWS SR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, very significant. Murder is actually down to a record low. In fact, the city is on pace to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, that would be less than one quarter of the number of homicides back in 1990.

You know, when I was growing up here New York was called sometimes "Fear City." No more. New York now is one of the safest big cities in the nation.


(voice over): Another victory New York City's fight against crime, virtually all serious felonies are down this year, for the 17th year in a row.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK: Our philosophy has always been one crime is one crime too many. We've defied conventional wisdom...

CHERNOFF: Accord tog NYPD figures murder is down 17 percent from last year, rape down 11 percent, robbery off eight percent, and burglary declined seven percent. The subways are safer than ever, too.

RAY KELLY, NYPD COMMISSIONER: It truly is a remarkable accomplishment for which, I think, the men and women of the department can be justly proud.

CHERNOFF: How does the New York police department do it? Some conventional means, the department has been getting guns off the streets and has focused on narcotics cases.

KELLY: Just not narcotics enforcement in the vacuum, but where that narcotics enforcement can do the most good, as far as the reduction of violent crime is concerned.

CHERNOFF: The city has domestic violence officers assigned to every precinct and they make thousands of home visits that the department believes prevents serious crimes. But, most important of all, says Commissioner Kelly, is "Operation Impact," in which the department floods violent neighborhood with extra resources.


Of course, the crime situation here isn't exactly perfect. Mayor Bloomberg had his car stolen a few weeks ago. It was recover would a few parking tickets on it - Wolf.

BLITZER: That is pretty embarrassing. All right, what about the New York City Police Department. I take it they're having trouble recruiting new officers?

CHERNOFF: They absolutely are. The starting pay is fairly low and what they're going to do, beginning with the class that will graduate tomorrow from the academy is that they'll all be assigned it this "Operation Impact." Normally only two-thirds of the graduates are assigned. They certainly are having an issue with recruiting officers, here.

BLITZER: All right, Allan, thanks very much. Allan Chernoff reporting from New York.

Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, he's trying to get at his rival, Hillary Clinton, through her husband. We're going to have new details of a new round of attacks and counterattacks.

And on the Republican side, Republican Mitt Romney is hit by a new stinging anti-endorsement as it's now being called. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Freedom could be just hours away for three hostages held for years by Colombian rebels including little boy born in captivity, it's all part of a deal brokered by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. CNN's Karl Penhaul is joining us on the phone from Bogota. Karl, does this deal include the three Americans the rebels have also been holding?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: No, Wolf, this doesn't include the three American contractors that the FARC communist guerilla group took prisoner back in 2003. The three that are being released, two Colombian politicians, one of them whose son was born in captivity and fathered by a guerilla. As far as the three Americans, that will have to wait for a much wider prisoner swap that the FARC had proposed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Wouldn't Hugo Chavez be in the position, though, to lobby or to work for the American's release?

PENHAUL: Well, earlier this year Columbia's president, Alvaro Uribe, did call in President Hugo Chavez to help out with exactly that, to mediate for a wider prisoner swap that included all the hostages including the three Americans held by the FARC guerillas. Uribe then told Chavez to back off because he felt that Chavez was trying to gain political capital out of the hostage situation and this latest deal, the liberation of the three hostages is a unilateral gesture by the FARC, apparently to try and get Chavez back into the mix -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, give us a little perspective, Karl, these people have been held hostage for a long time. How much longer can this go on?

PENHAUL: Well, in total, in Columbia, as a whole, according to government figures, there are at least 3,050 hostages being held, probably one-third, according to the government, are being held by the FARC guerillas. Clara Rojas, one of the woman slated for release over the next few hours, have been held by guerillas to five years and 10 months. The other politician, Consuelo Gonzalez, has been held for six months and four months. To put that into perspective, the "AP" journalists held back in Lebanon in the mid '80s, Terry Anderson, he was held for six years and 10 months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story. All right, Karl, stay on top of it, we'll get back with you. Karl Penhaul reporting for us.

She's an iconic figure around the world, now the late Princess Diana is linked to a new U.S. skyscraper. We're going to show you how she inspired it.

Plus, Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee goes hunting for votes. Did he manage to bag any? Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring some other important stories incoming in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. What's going on - Carol.

COSTELLO: Well, Wolf, hope is dimming that more survivors will be found in a bridge collapse in Nepal, a frantic search under way for 50 people still missing. They were crossing a steel footbridge when it gave way sending hundreds into the icy river. At least 16 people were killed, 600 people were headed to a village fair when that accident happened.

In Indonesia torrential rain and widespread flooding has triggered killer mudslides. At lease 78 people are feared dead, and blocked roads are hampering efforts to rescue survivors. Some searchers have resorted to digging into the mud with their bare hands. This disaster on the third anniversary of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia that killed more than 2,030 people.

Six French aide workers convicted of trying to kidnap more than 100 children from the African country of Chad, have been sentenced to eight years of hard labor. A judge also ordered them to pay each child nearly $90,000. The workers were part of a charity that claimed the children were orphans fleeing war-torn Sudan, but aide agencies later said the children were from Chad and not orphans.

A building that could become Cincinnati's tallest structure may be a crowning achievement. The architect designed the Queen City Tower wants to top it off with a tiara inspired by Princess Diana. I'm not kidding. As the designer sees it that royal touch would give the 40-story building instant recognition almost like what the Empire State Building enjoys.

You have to admit, people would certainly notice it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lovely, tiara, indeed. All right, we'll see what happens. Carol, thanks very much.

This programming note, CNN's Anderson Cooper has a big show on New Year's Eve. Anderson will be in Time's Square as he has been the past several years. He needs your help, though. Go to and send us your photos, tell us your memories, post a shoutout to friends. The possibilities, as you can see, are endless. Anderson cooper in Time's Square on New Year's Eve right here on CNN.

Saving time and saving lives, new technology that could make the difference in the event of another terror attack. We're going to show you how it works.

Plus, the Iowa caucuses are now only eight days away. We're going to show you how they could turn the race for the White House upside down.

Plus, Mike Huckabee hunting for votes in Iowa. With so little time can he seal the deal with undecided voters? Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Scenarios for a terror attack, a chemical or biological weapon released on the population with hundreds, even thousands of people dying while officials scramble to figure out what agent was used. Now, there is technology in the works that could save vital minutes and lives. Let's go to CNN's homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She's watching this story unfold.

What are you finding out - Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, back in 2001 when white powder was discovered in news offices, congressional offices and media offices around the country, authorities lost vital time trying to identify exactly what that white substance was, but technology that is now in the works will hopefully pinpoint biological and chemical agents quickly and accurately.


ANNOUNCER: It looks like it is going to be a beautiful day.

MESERVE (voice over): This is the future, or one version of it. Drones are launched, robots deployed to investigate a chemical attack. The victims are wearing badges outfitted with sensors that can instantly identify the chemical, the nerve gas sarin in this case, and relay the information to a command center. Its beauty is its speed.

ORLANDO AUCIELLO, ARGONNE NATL LABORATORY: The sooner that person is treated, the better chance it is going to have to survive a biological attack.

MESERVE: At Argonne National Laboratory, scientists show us how a diamond film on a silicone wafer contains tiny mechanical systems that vibrate when they pick up an airborne molecule like sarin and send a radio signal. Researchers think a badge this size may offer instant detection of two or three different biological or chemical weapons.

But meet the biochip, it can detect thousands of biological threats all at once. One slide with tiny drops of gel, each the width of a human air, can test for anthrax, plague, tularemia and many more simultaneously.

DAN SCHABACKER, ARGONNE NATL LABORATORY: It's very rapid, within 15 minutes, but it's also very accurate.

MESERVE: Some day, researchers hope, small cartridges containing the biochips will allow instant analysis in the field, a big improvement over current testing technology, which takes days to test produce a conclusive result. Experts say there is a real need for better technology, but caution it must meet certain criteria.

TOM IMGLESBY, CTR FOR BIOSECURITY: What do people in the field actually need, would they use it if they had it, how much does it cost, and how do we know if it works?


MESERVE: Scientists at Argonne say any real world use of their technologies is still years away as they refine the science and find a way to commercialize it - Wolf.

BLITZER: Can these tests, Jeanne, be used forensically? MESERVE: Yes, that biochip technology that you saw can be used to fingerprint anthrax, figure out which strain it is. That, of course, won't necessarily be a cure-all in the case of the 2001 attacks. They finally did determine what strain it was, but they still haven't cracked that case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeanne Meserve, thanks very much. And to our viewers, you in THE SITUATION ROOM.