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Former Army Scientist wins Suit Against Government; One Clinton Missing from Picture of Unity; North Korea Destroys Part of Reactor; Pentagon Expects Increased Attacks from Taliban

Aired June 27, 2008 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, a dramatic implosion and a message to the world. Is it really the end of a long and tense nuclear showdown?

CNN's Christiane Amanpour is in North Korea.

Also, the Taliban regrouping, now waging a deadly insurgency in Afghanistan almost seven years after the U.S. invasion. Details of the Pentagon's grim new assessment.

And Hillary Clinton now on the Obama bandwagon. But what about Bill Clinton? His jump could prove to be a little bit more awkward.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But we begin this hour with breaking news. The U.S. Justice Department (INAUDIBLE) to agree to pay millions of dollars to a scientist it once implicated in that deadly anthrax letter attack of 2001.

Let's go straight to our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She's working this story for us.

Jeanne, what do we know?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Steven Hatfill will be getting $2.8 million from the Justice Department, as well as annual annuity of $150,000. This settles his lawsuit against the U.S. government. Hatfill, a former government scientist, was named by the Justice Department as a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax mail attacks which killed five people. But Hatfill was never charged and he sued, saying his constitutional rights had been trampled and his life destroyed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVEN HATFILL, FORMER ARMY SCIENTIST: I am not the anthrax killer. I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime. My life is being destroyed by errant government bureaucrats who are peddling groundless innuendo and half information.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MESERVE: In a statement this afternoon, Hatfield's lawyers say: "Our government failed us by leaking gossip, speculation and misinformation to a handful of credulous reporters."

And they criticized journalists for putting aside their professional skepticism and shoveling the leaked information all too willingly into publication.

The Justice Department, in a statement, admits no wrongdoing. The anthrax investigation was one of the largest and most complex in history. But as of today, the case remains unsolved -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And that raises the question for me, I don't know what's worse right now -- I suspect I do know what's worse -- whether U.S. taxpayers had to spend nearly $3 million to give this guy this lawsuit reward or whether they still don't know who committed these crimes, who killed these people and who tried to kill a whole lot more people. And God knows how much money that U.S. law enforcement has spent over these years.

MESERVE: They have spent an awful lot on a lot of very detailed scientific investigation. But as of now, it has not led them to the person who committed that crime.

BLITZER: I hope they find that person or persons.

All right. Jeanne, thank you.

It's the day many Democrats have waited for -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigning together in the town of Unity, New Hampshire -- by no coincidence. They praised each other and preached togetherness to a crowd of 6,000 people.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE: Hillary and I may have started with separate goals in this campaign, but we've made history together. Together, we inspired tens of millions of people to participate -- some to cast ballots for the very first time, others who voted for the first time in a very long time. But together in this campaign in 2008, we shattered barriers that have stood firm since the founding of this nation.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator McCain and the Republicans may have hoped that we wouldn't join forces like this. They may have wished that we wouldn't stand united to fight this battle with everything we've got. But I've got news for them -- we are one party. We are one America. And we are not going to rest until we take back our country and put it, once again, on the path to peace, prosperity and progress in the 21st century.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Meanwhile, Republican rival John McCain offered this assurance to Barack Obama supporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've always served my country first. I know that when I meet people here, I know that not every one of them is going to vote for me. I shook hands with a gentleman who had a shirt that said "Obama" on it. It probably should have said "Senator Obama" on it. But the fact is that I understand that.

What I'm here to tell you, that whether you vote for me or not, two things. One, is that is I will be president of everyone. I will not be a president just of Republicans or anyone else. I will represent everybody because this nation is in difficult times. And all my life I have put my country first. And as president of the United States, I want to assure you that I will reach across the aisle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So with Hillary Clinton now firmly on board the Obama bandwagon, there's new focus on her husband. He's yet to make a high profile endorsement of Barack Obama and some of his words could make it awkward.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is working the story for us.

First of all, Jessica, where is the former president of the United States?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he had been in Europe, but he is now back in the U.S. And so far we are told that he and Barack Obama have not yet spoken. And I'm told there is no plan for them to campaign together -- at least not in the immediate future.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Can you feel the love?

OBAMA: I am proud to call her a friend. And I know how much we need both Bill and Hillary Clinton as a party and as a country in the months and years to come.

OBAMA: Bill Clinton is one of the most intelligent, charismatic political leaders that we've seen in a generation.

YELLIN: It's a far cry from this biting assessment of the Clinton presidency during the heat of the campaign.

OBAMA: I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.

YELLIN: That comment drew a barrage of criticism from the Clinton camp. But now it's ancient history because this is unity time. The former president has been out of the picture in Europe, but his spokesperson tells CNN he will do whatever he can and is asked to do to ensure Senator Obama is the next president of the United States. If asked, he'll hit the campaign trail, but he'll have some explaining to do -- for example, why he no longer believes that voting for Obama would be to "roll the dice."

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's less predictable, isn't it?

I mean when's the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?

YELLIN: The former president has offered this praise for Obama's energy policy.

W. CLINTON: I favor Senator Obama's position, which is to go to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, over Senator McCain's position, which is to go to 70.

YELLIN: But so far, no full-throated endorsement of the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, I've spoken to someone inside the Obama campaign, who tells me that Barack Obama does plan to have a phone conversation with Bill Clinton, it just hasn't happened yet. Now that Bill Clinton is back on U.S. soil, maybe it will happen soon.

BLITZER: Sooner, perhaps, rather than later. But we'll see. We'll be all over that story.

Jessica watching it for us.

Let's go back to Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, with all this talk about unity, it occurs to me that there's a rather dramatic difference between having your spokesman issue a statement saying that you'll be willing to do whatever you can or are asked to assure that he's elected and picking up the phone a day or two after it's over and saying hey, congratulations, it was a good fight, you won, let me know if I can give you a hand with anything.

A big difference.

No shortage of issues concerning Americans when it comes to their vote for president -- the economy, skyrocketing gas prices, Iraq, health care, many more. But perhaps as important as any of these, although it remains mostly under the radar, is the future of the Supreme Court of the United States.

In recent weeks, the high court has made some key, often close, 5-4 decisions. These include the reversal of the handgun ban in Washington, D.C. , outlawing the death penalty for child rapists and upholding the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to have access to the U.S. court system. All of this serves as a reminder that the next president, whether it's Barack Obama or John McCain, could have a significant role to play in the makeup of the court, perhaps for decades to come.

The "Boston Globe" points out legal analysts say the court will likely have at least one vacancy during the next administration and it could well be more than that. The oldest justice is now 88. Two others are in their 70s. And since the court is evenly split between four liberals and four conservatives, even one vacancy could make a huge difference.

One expert suggests McCain could have more influence to swing the court if he becomes president because two of the oldest justices, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, are part of the liberal bloc. Antonin Scalia is the only member of the conservative bloc who is older than 60.

Both Obama and McCain have attacked the other for the kinds of justices they would appoint as president. But somehow, despite the intensity of our politics, our Supreme Court, for the most part, has remained comprised of justices who are fair-minded and dedicated to upholding the law.

As I said, most of the time.

Here's the question: How much will the future of the Supreme Court matter in your vote for president?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

It doesn't get the attention all the other issues get, but the implications of those decisions are potentially more far reaching.

BLITZER: Absolutely. Because they're going to affect for generations -- at least 20 or 30 years...

CAFFERTY: Sure.

BLITZER: ...given the fragile nature of these 5-4 ballots -- four liberals, four conservatives, one swing vote on the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy. He goes either with the liberals or the conservatives. And it's a very, very significant development.

CAFFERTY: Well, we try.

BLITZER: Good work.

A huge explosion and a spectacular collapse -- a milestone in a long nuclear standoff. Christiane Amanpour -- she's standing by live inside North Korea with details.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton combining forces against Senator John McCain -- two lawmakers debate the impact.

And something that's never happened in recorded history at the North Pole. Some fear an ominous sign of things to come. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton join hands and join forces at a campaign event in New Hampshire.

So how will it impact the race for the presidency?

And joining us now, Congressman Robert Wexler, Democrat of Florida. He's the author of a brand new book entitled "Fire-Breathing Liberal: How I Learned To Survive and Thrive in the Contact Sport of Congress."

Also joining us, Congresswoman Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico.

Thanks to both of you for coming in.

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), FLORIDA: Thank you.

REP. HEATHER WILSON (R), NEW MEXICO: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Congressman Wexler, I'll start with you.

There was a lot of show of unity today in Unity, New Hampshire between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. You've been a big supporter of him for a long time. But the word was that last night at that fundraiser, where a lot of Hillary Clinton fundraisers attended, it was lukewarm.

You have a lot of work to do to get a lot of those Hillary Clinton supporters on the Barack Obama side, don't you?

WEXLER: Wolf, the unity in the Democratic Party is authentic. There is, in fact, a cohesion. And the cohesion revolves around Senator Obama being the head of the party and we have a mission. And the mission is to take our country back. And there is so much commonality and mutual interest between the Barack Obama and the Hillary Clinton supporters, that that has overwhelmed any other concern.

BLITZER: But are you still getting a lot of hate mail from Hillary Clinton supporters, given the outspoken stance you took for months now in support of Barack Obama?

WEXLER: There was never any hate mail. What there was is very strong, emotional, passionate beliefs in Senator Clinton in my community. But my community is the perfect example. The Democratic leadership and rank and file Democrats have become unified. And we are as strong as we've ever been in terms of being prepared for November.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Wilson, you said the other day -- and I'm paraphrasing -- McCain will win a lot of these women supporters because Obama, in your words, is elitist and patronizing.

What does that mean? WILSON: He had made a remark that I thought was patronizing toward women. And he was called on it by a Democratic congresswoman. I think that John McCain appeals to Independents and conservative Democrats...

BLITZER: Excuse me for interrupting, but what did he say?

WILSON: ...who kind of feel left behind.

BLITZER: What did he say?

WILSON: He said -- his comment -- I want to make sure that I -- that I get it right. But it was a condescending comment toward women who supported Hillary, saying that, you know, that will help them get over it and that they needed to get over it. Now, that's patronizing and condescending. And that's the kind of thing that pushes away people who supported Hillary Clinton.

But I think John McCain has very strong appeal to people who are Independent and conservative Democrats who don't like the far left leanings of Barack Obama, who doesn't have that record of going after solutions with good ideas, whether they come from the Democrat or Republican side of the aisle.

BLITZER: All right, go ahead, Congressman Wexler.

WEXLER: All right. Well, first of all, let me talk about my own state, which is the, arguably, most important swing state, Florida. And in Florida, Senator McCain has...

WILSON: Next to New Mexico, Robert.

WEXLER: Well, we have more electoral votes.

WILSON: Oh, OK.

WEXLER: Senator McCain has some very unattractive positions for most Floridians. He wants to privatize Social Security in a time when the market fluctuates so greatly. Most seniors are going to react with great caution to Senator McCain's plan for Social Security.

BLITZER: All right. Hold on.

Let's let Congresswoman Wilson respond to the Social Security issue.

WILSON: Whoever is the next president, this country is going to have to come together and find a long-term solution to solvency for the Social Security program. And it doesn't matter who the next president or the next Congress is. We're going to have to do that, in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in the 1980s.

Barack Obama does not have a history of building bipartisan consensus and reaching across the aisle and John McCain does. BLITZER: Here's what John McCain said the other day about Barack Obama and his -- what he would call his flip-flop on public funding for the general election campaign.

Listen to this, Congressman Wexler.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: He would take public financing for the general campaign if I did -- written, stated it numerous times. Now he's obviously betrayed the trust that people had in him that he would do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Betrayed the trust. Those are strong words, accusing him of a betrayal.

WEXLER: It's just not a fair accusation. Senator Obama has the most publicly financed campaign in American history. One-and-a-half million Americans have given to his campaign. Ninety-eight percent of the contributions are $100 and less.

The irony is, is that Senator McCain is the one that has a great deal to answer on this issue. He used his public financing as a collateral for a loan and then didn't take it. I don't know who Senator McCain thinks he's kidding.

BLITZER: All right. Let's let Congressman Wilson respond.

WILSON: Robert, that's pretty -- it's hard to get that twisted in reply to a support for public financing.

I think Barack Obama did what -- kind of a typical political thing -- he followed the money and did what was in his best interests, irrespective of the positions that he had taken in the past. And that's the thing that people don't like about politicians in Washington. And let's face it, there's a perception that politicians do what's in their best interests.

And I think that Barack Obama made that decision based on the money.

BLITZER: Here's what Hillary...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Here's what Hillary Clinton said about John McCain in her remarks in Unity, New Hampshire today.

Listen to this, Congresswoman Wilson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H. CLINTON: In the end, Senator McCain and President Bush are like two sides of the same coin and it doesn't amount to a whole lot of change. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Basically, the argument, if you vote for McCain, it's a third Bush term. And a lot of people believe that. You know, that Congresswoman.

WILSON: Senator McCain has been straightforward on things like expanding the military, going after the Air Force during the Bush administration, insisting on a strong strategy in the Middle East and things that -- even some things that, frankly, I didn't agree with at the time, on campaign finance reform. He's not afraid to stand up and say what he thinks and also to do so in concert with Independents and Democrats. And that's the thing that people like about him.

It doesn't surprise me that Senator Obama or Senator Clinton would say oh, well, this is, you know, this is just more of the same. This is not more of the same. This is a very different kind of Republican candidate for the president of the United States.

BLITZER: And what -- and Congressman Wexler, what McCain and his supporters argue is that Obama as president would be a second Jimmy Carter administration. A lot of people have not so great memories of those four years.

WEXLER: Nothing could be further from the truth. Senator Obama's foreign policy is entirely different than President Clinton. His economic policy...

BLITZER: No, no, we're talking about Jimmy Carter.

WEXLER: Oh, yes. Entirely different than President Carter's. His economic policy is entirely different. But let's look at the facts with respect to...

WILSON: Robert, I wish I knew what his policy was.

WEXLER: Oh, well...

WILSON: It's hard to tell what his foreign policy is. And he has far less experience than Governor Carter had when he was running to be president of the United States. I think that's what scares Americans a lot.

WEXLER: (INAUDIBLE).

WILSON: We don't know what his positions are and he is frighteningly inexperienced.

WEXLER: Senator Obama has a very responsible plan to withdraw between one and two brigades a month from the war in Iraq. But let's look at the claim of Senator Clinton, which I believe is correct. In terms of the Iraq policy, Senator McCain is identical to President Bush. Nobody would dispute that. In terms of his economic policy, particularly...

WILSON: I would, for one. WEXLER: ...particularly with respect to their tax policies of providing huge tax cuts to the most affluent among us, Senator McCain's policy is identical to Mr. Bush's.

Where there was a difference, on, say, offshore drilling, Mr. McCain now just switched to mirror President Bush's policy.

So where Senator McCain used to have a reach across the aisle view, now he's back with President Bush's very stubborn view.

BLITZER: I gave Congressman Wexler the first word.

Congresswoman Wilson will get the last word.

WILSON: Well, let's talk about those taxes. Barack Obama has supported a windfall profits tax on energy. He has voted in favor of taxing coal and natural gas. He's done everything he can to shut off production of American-made energy.

We have a supply problem of energy in this country. We need to be less dependent on foreign sources of supply. The only one who is offering an energy plan that will get prices down at the pump is John McCain.

BLITZER: Heather Wilson of New Mexico, Robert Wexler of Florida.

WEXLER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks to both of you for coming in. We'll certainly have you both back.

WEXLER: Thank you.

WILSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: CNN's Christiane Amanpour in North Korea, as the secretive government blows up part of a nuclear reactor.

Congress is going on vacation while we all pay more than $4 a gallon for gas.

And the search for life on Mars -- there's new information from the Phoenix lander.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what do you have?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, with all the efforts of volunteers, engineers and emergency workers to keep Mississippi floodwaters from swamping Lincoln County, Missouri, may have been spoiled by muskrats. The last levee holding back the water there broke early this morning and officials are blaming the collapse on pockets dug by muskrats who were searching for shelter or food.

Scientists say the North Pole might be nothing by water by the end of the summer. A senior researcher studying the region says there's a 50/50 chance that the geographic top of the Earth may briefly be ice-free in September. He points to global warming caused by greenhouse gases as the cause.

Turning now to another North Pole, this one on Mars -- a soil sample gathered by the Phoenix lander from the planet's arctic plane brings new evidence that it may at one time have been able to support primitive life. Analysis reveals an environment similar to that found in most backyards here on earth. But they also say there is no sign of organic carbon, seen as a building block to life.

So no little green men, at least yet, Wolf, found on Mars.

BLITZER: Maybe some day a -- a little guy. Maybe. You never know.

COSTELLO: Maybe.

BLITZER: Carol, we'll check back with you.

COSTELLO: Sure.

BLITZER: An explosion at a nuclear reactor today. But this one was planned by the North Korean government. We're going to go live to our Christiane Amanpour in North Korea.

The impact of Barack Obama's unusual childhood on his quest for the White House.

And they've held dozens of hearings -- why can't Congress do anything about the soaring gas prices?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, nuclear implosion -- the dramatic destruction of a key part of a nuclear facility in North Korea. Officials there say it's a message to the world. Our Christiane Amanpour was there, an eyewitness. We'll hear from her.

Also, a resilient insurgency -- that's how a new Pentagon report describes the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Almost seven years after the U.S. drove them from power, is the country unraveling?

And the State Department is calling it a sham election. President Robert Mugabe is running virtually unopposed in today's presidential runoff, but that's not stopping the allegations of voter intimidation. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

To North Korea right now where top officials say the implosion of a cooling tower to key nuclear facility in that country just a short time ago is meant to send a message to the world.

CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, was on hand to witness today's dramatic event. She's now in Pyongyang.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the second time this year that CNN has been among a very small group of press to get unprecedented access to the Yongbyon nuclear facility. It is because they want to get the message out. The message they say is they are committed to the disarmament process that they started with the United States and four other regional powers here.

They took us to Yongbyon, put us at a hill top one kilometer away and showed us the demolition of the cooling tower. They blew it up with explosives. It took about two weeks to lay it carefully to make sure the whole tower came crumbling down.

Afterwards, the North Korean official, the safeguard director of Pyongyang, said he was sad to see this happen because after all it was his life's work. But he said the collapse of the tower, if it could bring peace, not just to the Korean peninsula, but to the whole world, then he was pleased to make that contribution.

And after inspecting the rubble, the U.S. official here from the State Department said that this is a very significant and important step towards disablement and it does put the United States and North Korea and the other parties on the step and on the stage for the next round of negotiations. That is the more difficult round which will have to be verified as all of these moves have been, to try to get North Korea to hand over the plutonium it's turned into bombs, to talk about any proliferation activities it may have undertaken, and to say whether it has an enrichment program -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour in Pyongyang in North Korea for us.

Other news from around the world, a grim assessment of the war in Afghanistan, very grim. A Pentagon report now says the Taliban has now regrouped into what it calls a resilient insurgency likely to step up attacks on U.S. troops and others.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, is joining us now live.

Jamie, how bad is this situation in Afghanistan?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: You know Wolf, this report was prepared months ago to send to Capitol Hill. But even then, the trends were clear in Afghanistan that the Taliban is back, and violence is up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: The congressionally mandated report card evaluates progress in Afghanistan through April. So it doesn't take into account the latest upsurge in violence. For instance, it touts Khowst, a former Taliban strong hold along the Pakistan border as a triumph whose successes are being applied elsewhere.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Khowst was an example of a successful counterinsurgency.

MCINTYRE: Notice the past tense. This week Defense Secretary Robert Gates used Khowst as an example of how Pakistan's past agreements with local tribal leaders have undermined U.S. success by providing sanctuary for insurgents crossing back and forth at will.

GATES: The pressure was taken off of these people and these groups. And they, therefore, have been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us.

MCINTYRE: While out of date even before its delivery to Capitol Hill, the Pentagon report acknowledged the obvious, the Taliban regrouped and has coalesced into a resilient insurgency. And it predicted accurately that the Taliban is likely to increase the scope and pace of its attacks in 2008.

The commander in charge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan also points a finger at the safe areas in Pakistan.

MAJ. GEN. JEFFREY, SCHLOESSER, CMDR., U.S. AFGHANISTAN FORCES: I think both sides understand that the relative sanctuary that is achieved along that border area is damaging to both Afghanistan as well as to Pakistan. And I think both sides understand that that cannot continue.

MCINTYRE: The U.S. sees as heartening that Pakistan's new government has put chief of staff general Kianai, a highly regarded military man, in charge of regaining control of over the ungoverned tribal regions.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: Overall, the Pentagon report is a mixed bag, citing some progress, but tempering the phrase with warnings. For instance, it notes that the effort to develop the Afghan police force is being seriously hampered by corruption and a lack of foreign trainers. When it comes to the counter drug war, wiping out the opium crop that fuels the insurgency, that is deemed an outright failure -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon with an important story.

Lots of talk, but very little action by Congress, as Americans are increasingly burdened by record high gas prices. Lawmakers developed have held some 40 hearings on energy on the price of gas this year. But we're still paying more than ever. Now Congress is going on vacation.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us for us right now.

A lot of outrage out here, Brian. But what do we know?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you mentioned, more than three dozen hearings this term in Congress alone just on the energy crisis. We know of at least six of them this week. Still, this is not an uncommon price to pay for a little more than half a tank of gasoline in this area. You see prices spiking here at about $4.20 a gallon. Motorists around here, this general area, are just fed up with Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're slowing down, even out at 100 bucks.

TODD: That's just to fill his SUV with regular. Customers in Kensington, Maryland now upset with Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're not doing enough. And they know it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm pretty sure they can do better than they're doing right now.

TODD: Before the Democrats took control in 2006, Nancy Pelosi touted a plan to bring down skyrocketing gas prices. Back then, the price, $2.91 a gallon. Here in Congressman Chris Van Hollen's district, it's $4.20 for regular. Now he and the rest of Congress are about to take a week off without any tangible relief at the pump.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: We're frustrated. We're asking the American people to look at the substance of the proposals we're voting on in Congress and make up their own minds.

TODD: Like bills to crack down on speculators, punish price gougers and pressure oil companies to drill on land they already sit on rather than offshore. None have been passed this term. Republicans generally favor more drilling for domestic sources of energy. Democrats oppose that on environmental grounds. They emphasize the need for alternative fuels and want to pay for that by taxing the oil companies more. Republicans fear that will be passed on to consumers. Both sides doing more finger pointing than compromising.

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: The Democratic proposals which we've seen coming forward involve taxation, involve litigation, and they involve regulation.

HOLLEN: Every turn, the Bush/Cheney White House and Republicans in the Congress have tried to protect the big oil companies.

TODD: At the pumps we asked, would you give Congress credit for at least trying?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I tell the government I'm trying, trying to pay my taxes, I pay increased penalties on my late taxes. Yet the government can try and try and try, and make us suffer while they're taking a week's vacation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Important to point out here, it has not been a total wash. President Bush and Congress get credit for stopping putting oil in the strategic petroleum reserves. Experts say that's going to put more oil onto the market and Congress passed a law for more fuel efficient cars. But that was back in December. Wolf, as you can see behind me, it sure hasn't stemmed the tide of high gas prices.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, in Kensington, Maryland. That's just outside of Washington, D.C. What a story.

Oil prices soaring once again today, closing in on $143 a barrel, before settling in at more than $140. What's fueling the spike? Supply and demand is part of the story. Developing countries like China and India are ravenous for oil. There's a new estimate that oil supplies will fall 10 percent short of demand over the next two decades.

Also, trading and speculation in oil is growing, and driving up the price. And what some analysts see as an oil bubble. Add to all of that the falling value of the U.S. dollar, and you get the record high gas prices that are hurting all of us right now.

How did Barack Obama go from searching for his identity to running for president? Suzanne Malveaux traces his rise.

And an Israeli television commercial manages to offend both Jew and Muslims.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: So how did Barack Obama come to seek the most powerful office on earth? CNN's Suzanne Malveaux is tracing Obama's rise. She's in Hawaii where he spent many of his early years.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Voters have a clear choice between Barack Obama and John McCain. They disagree in their approach on almost every major issue. And their personal stories couldn't be more different.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: To understand Barack Obama, you must come here, to Hawaii. This is where he was born. His parents were students who met at the University of Hawaii, a white woman from Kansas, a black man from Kenya. The boy called Barry, confided to his half sister Maya that figuring out what he was racially was tough.

MAYA SOETORO-NG, OBAMA'S SISTER: Certainly he struggled as a young man to understand, and he undertook those -- he took on those questions.

MALVEAUX: Those questions were made even more difficult, because his dad abandoned him when he was just 2. In his memoirs, he said he occasionally turned to drugs to avoid the pain.

SOETORO-NG: I think it was important for him to dare to love his father in spite of his shortcomings.

MALVEAUX: During his teen years he was temporarily raised by his white grandparents while his mother pursued her work and studies in Indonesia.

SOETORO-NG: They really offered him a lot of stability. And I think that our grandmother certainly gave him his pragmatism.

MALVEAUX: Stability was key. Obama was a popular kid at the prestigious private school. While he wasn't a stellar student, he wrote eloquent poetry and played hoops. He was one of a handful of black students there on scholarship. His sister recalls their childhood innocence.

SOETORO-NG: We would have picnics up on the top of the park there. And he would swing me around. And I'd climb trees.

MALVEAUX: But Obama's world shattered when as a young married man living in Chicago, his mother died of cancer. His greatest regret he said was not being at her bedside.

SOETORO-NG: The loss of our mother made us feel both very vulnerable. He was experiencing so many layers of longing, and memory, and desire during that period.

MALVEAUX: Barack Obama returned here to Hawaii to the south shore where he spread his mother's ashes in the Pacific Ocean. Friends and family here remember him as the boy with the big smile. Now the man seeking the presidency.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Hawaii.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Suzanne's going to have more here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Barack Obama's rise.

New York officials say they're dealing with an HIV epidemic in one section of the city. We're going to tell you about their new strategy for trying to fight it.

And reverent, blasphemous or just plain funny? Depends on who you ask. Controversy over a new commercial on Israeli television.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: An HIV epidemic is raging in one part of New York City according to officials there. Now they're taking unprecedented action to shop the spread of the disease.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She's in New York.

Mary, what's happening?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, New York City is making an aggressive push to test adults for the virus that causes AIDS. It's targeting the Bronx, a borough larger than the cities of San Francisco, cities like Atlanta. Health officials are concerned about the numbers of new infections of HIV.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to swab once in the bottom, once on the top.

SNOW: Staff at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx demonstrate an HIV test, one that the city wants to become a routine medical test for every adult in the borough; population 1.3 million. The AIDS death rate in the Bronx is higher than any other New York borough, despite Manhattan having the highest AIDS rate in the city. Doctor's say many patients only learn of their diagnosis when it's too late for treatment. Now the city's offering tests and clinics in emergency rooms.

DR. MONICA SWEENEY, NYC HEALTH DEPT.: If you're going in for a broken ankle, we want somebody to walk over to you and say we want you to get an HIV test. Do you want one?

SNOW: Monica Sweeney, New York's assistant commissioner for HIV prevention and control, says the tests are voluntary.

Will they feel pressured to do it?

SWEENEY: I hope so. I think that everybody knowing their status is important. And I think by the act of offering, many people will get it. If it puts a little pressure on them, I think that's fine.

SNOW: But why aren't more people getting tested? Doctors blame the process required by state law demanding written consent and counseling. The city has now condensed the entire process.

DR. DONNA FUTTERMAN, MONTEFIORE MEDICAL CENTER: All that can be done in one minute instead of the traditional 20 minutes that testing has actually taken.

SNOW: But the New York Civil Liberties Union executive director says while she applauds the city's effort, she's concerned about the widespread testing saying those with AIDS still often face discrimination.

DONNA LIEBERMAN, NEW YORK CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION: We're worried and we believe that it needs to be monitored to make sure that people's health and rights are simultaneously protected.

SNOW: City health representatives say they're carrying out the proper consent necessary. Adding if more people are tested, they hope to cut down on the spread of the epidemic.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: The city estimates there are about 250,000 adults in the Bronx who haven't been tested for HIV. Part of this program officials are aiming to get them all tested within three years -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary's working the story for us. Update us as the new information, Mary, comes in. Thank you.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: That's Cafferty with a C.

The question this hour is: How much will the future of the Supreme Court matter when it comes to your vote for president of the United States?

Karen writes from Tennessee, "I'm probably in the minority here, but I'm an independent. And this will be the deciding factor in my vote. If Sandra Day O'Connor had remained on the bench, I would feel freer to consider the many, many other issues."

Nick in North Carolina says: "All I have to do is think about Clarence Thomas, who will likely be a justice for the rest of my lifetime, to know that the answer is yes, yes, and yes."

P. writes from New Mexico on the Mexican border: "It isn't very high on my list of things to worry about. That list is topped with the economy, the neighbor's son in Iraq, and the probability that the drug-related violence south of me will soon be moving north."

Larry in Ohio writes: "You bet it will make a difference after my second amendment rights were barely upheld in a recent court decision. I'm going to have to hold my nose and vote for John McCain."

Donald in Hilton Head, South Carolina: "Supreme Court appointments are the singular reason that prevents my wife and me from even considering voting for John McCain. He has committed himself to the ultra right wing and his appointments to the court would be a huge setback for women's rights."

Dayton writes from Columbia, Maryland: "A lot. It seems the Supreme Court's the branch that has the most control over some of these divisive issues, abortion, gun control and the death penalty. These are the issues that divide America. They represent our principles as a nation, and they show our growth as civilized beings."

Mike in Ohio says: "None. It's the economy, stupid."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/CaffertyFile and look for your e-mail there among hundreds of others -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I tend to think that as this campaign gets going, more and more people are going to focus from the left and the right on this very, very fragile balance on the Supreme Court.

CAFFERTY: Although, on the other hand, it seems early in the campaign that these so-called wedge issues, things like flag burning, gay rights, abortion, yada, yada, yada, are not perhaps taking as much of our attention in this election cycle as they did, for example, in 2000 and 2004. Might be my imagination. But it doesn't feel like they're front and center like they were in those campaigns as much.

BLITZER: I think you're right on that point, Jack. We'll check back with you shortly.

At the height of a bitter campaign, this was the tone we heard. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H. CLINTON: Enough with the speeches, and the big rallies. So shame on you, Barack Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Look at them now. Democrats trying to unite in the wake of a bruising battle. Stand by for that.

And commercials that are offending Muslims and Jews alike.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our Political Ticker, the Washington state Democratic Party changed an ad attacking gubernatorial candidate Dina Rossi after an Italian-American group charged them with racism because they had originally featured the theme song from "The Sopranos."

Let's head back to the Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, who is watching this story for us.

So what was changed in the ad?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is the ad now. It's got innocuous music, instrumental music playing in the background. But take a listen to the video from the Washington State Democratic Party targeting Republican Dina Rossi before they got a complaint. The theme song from "The Sopranos," a candidate of Italian descent. The president of the Italian Club of Seattle called it racist and asked that the ad be removed.

And in a letter to the governor, Brian Dejulia (ph) wrote, the ad's "use of negative ethic stereotyping is beyond offensive." A spokesman for the Washington State Democrat said the music was changed immediately and they apologized. He said the music for the ad that linked Rossi to a lobby group was chosen because they thought it "jived stylistically with our communication" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well it obviously didn't.

Abbi, thank you. An Israeli cable channel has offended Jews and Muslims with a series of commercials as popular as they are controversial.

CNN's Atika Shubert shows us from Jerusalem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Irreverent, blasphemous or just plain funny? Depends on who you ask. Israel's cable television thought this was the perfect way to promote its new high-definition service, Orthodox Jews dancing in protest over the highly detailed resolution of HDTV.

But the ad was no laughing matter for Israel's religious community. They threatened to boycott, yes, unless the commercial was pulled. One orthodox agency called the ad anti-Semitic. They said their intention was not to offend anyone. It pulled the commercial and have decided to take a different tact. This spoof is a protest against plans to hit Israel with a nuclear bomb. With Israel wiped off the map they sing, how would they watch their must-see TV? Yes executives say surveys show both ads are controversial but extremely popular.

RON EILON, DIRECTOR, YES CABLE TV: We try to be bold. We try to be funny. A little bit going on the edge.

SHUBERT: Atika Shubert, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

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