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Taking on Drug Kingpins; How President Bush Justified Waterboarding; Crew Describes Being Held by Pirates

Aired April 16, 2009 - 15:59   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, President Obama stands with Mexico against deadly drug lords. We're waiting to hear from the president, live, showing solidarity south of the border.

Stand by.

Also this hour, a joyous homecoming and a harrowing amount of stories. The former hostages describe the fight for their lives against armed and dangerous pilots.

And one airline is set to make its heaviest fliers pay an extra price. Is it smart business or is it discrimination?

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This is one of the big reasons President Obama's in Mexico now, deadly drug violence spilling across the border into the United States. Mr. Obama is trying to show Mexico's president he's committed to ending a crisis that hits so close to home.

We're standing by for President Obama and President Calderon to hold a joint news conference. You'll see it live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But let's go to our White House correspondent Dan Lothian. He's with the president in Mexico.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Obama, in Mexico, looking to build a stronger relationship with President Felipe Calderon as both leaders confront the deadly drug war. An estimated 6,000 Mexicans were killed last year in the violence. And the bloodshed continues, fueled in part by guns and cash flowing from the U.S.

MIKE HAMMER, SPOKESMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: The United States has a responsibility, whether it's on the demand side, whether it's on arms trafficking into Mexico, because it shows that the Mexican government and Mexican people that we're willing to do our part.

LOTHIAN: In an opinion piece that ran in several papers across the country and Latin America, Mr. Obama again suggested that the U.S. is partly to blame for the problem, writing, "By reducing demand for drugs and curtailing the illegal flow of weapons and bulk cash south across our border, we can advance security in the United States and beyond."

But the administration seems unwilling to step into a political minefield by pushing for stiffer gun laws, even though some Mexican officials say the lifting of a U.S. ban on military assault-style weapons has made things worse. Instead, the Obama administration has stepped up efforts to fight against the cartels by appointing a border czar and using an old law to target specific cartels and the cash they might be hiding in the U.S.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The kingpin law allows us to go after the finances, the financial underpinnings, of the cartels in a much more aggressive and much more effective way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the drug war is "a national security threat," but another administration official I talked to today said that he doesn't believe it has risen to that level, but says if something isn't done now, it very well might -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand, Dan, the president is promising that he will go ahead and push the Senate to ratify some sort of arms trafficking agreement?

LOTHIAN: That's right, which would cut down on the flow of arms across the border to these drug cartels. This is something that was signed by former President Bill Clinton back in 1997. It was never ratified by the Senate. The president -- Mr. Obama is expected after his meeting with Mr. Calderon today to push for action now.

BLITZER: And we're standing by for a joint news conference. That's coming up, we think, later this hour. Is that right, Dan? They're going to be answering reporters' questions, the two presidents?

LOTHIAN: That's right. And it's unclear how that news conference will go. Based on what White House officials are telling us, they will take two questions each from reporters from the United States, reporters from here in Mexico, but perhaps they'll open it up a little bit more than that and take additional questions.

BLITZER: We'll have live coverage, Dan. Thanks very much. We'll stand by for the joint news conference in Mexico, the two presidents.

Mexico is the third largest U.S. trading partner after Canada and China. Mexico's most popular products sold to the United States include crude oil, car parts, and video equipment. The top U.S. exports to Mexico include electrical and car parts, plastics and computer accessories. Take a look at this. Trade between the United States and Mexico was about even back in 1994, but since the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, took effect that year, U.S. exports to Mexico have almost tripled, while Mexico's exports to this country have grown more than four times.

A new move today to help the United States catch up with Europe and Japan in developing high-speed rail. President Obama unveiled a long-term plan for routes with trans that travel over 150 miles an hour. The president says rail upgrades are needed to relieve traffic congestion, save energy, and help clean the air.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Imagine boarding a train in the center of the city. No racing to an airport across a terminal. No delays. No sitting on the tarmac. No lost luggage. No taking off your shoes.

Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president envisions 10 possible routes from such high-speed trains from California to the East Coast. He's proposed a five-year, $5 billion investment. That's on top of the $8 billion for rail improvement in the current economic stimulus package.

Here in the United States, the attorney general, Eric Holder, says the government won't prosecute CIA officials for using harsh interrogation tactics on terror suspects. The Obama administration just released Bush-era legal memos authorizing those tactics.

Let's go to our Congressional Correspondent Brianna Keilar. She's going through the memos.

We're learning what these memos said and what's going on right now, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. And we should tell you that the Justice Department is releasing four memos today. They released three so far just moments ago. We've been looking over them.

These were written by Justice Department lawyers in the Bush administration back in 2002, as well as in 2005. They give legal justification for using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists, controversial techniques, and one of these memos outlines 10 methods. One of these three memos here outlining 10 methods that interrogators could legally use against Abu Zubaydah, an alleged top al Qaeda operative.

Those included cramped confinement, as well as stress positions, which is something -- a position used to bring on muscle fatigue, as well as insects placed in a confinement box. These were harmless insects, but Zubaydah, who appeared to have a fear of insects, would be led to believe that they were stinging insects. And finally, waterboarding.

Now, critics say that some of these techniques -- in particular, waterboarding -- are torture, but this memo from the Bush administration Justice Department, Wolf, says these techniques fall short of the definition of torture and are therefore OK to use. Of course, when President Obama took office, he issued an executive order to suspend these tactics.

And today he justified the release of these formerly top-secret memos, saying that "... withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions were taken by the United States."

Now, President Obama also promised that CIA agents who did use these tactics, as you mentioned, Wolf, believing they were approved by the U.S. government, will not be prosecuted. And Wolf, we're going over these documents in detail and we'll be bringing you more on this later in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BLITZER: Brianna, thanks very much for that.

Brianna Keilar reporting what the president just announced today, that the U.S. government will not -- repeat, not -- prosecute CIA officers for using waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques during the Bush administration.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, as President Obama travels to Mexico, the U.S. continues to grapple with the spillover violence from the Mexican drug cartels and the enormous problem in this country of illegal immigration. So, in typical government style, the administration has decided to add another layer of bureaucracy in the hopes of solving these problems.

They have named a border czar to oversee the efforts of ending drug cartel violence that killed almost 7,000 people last year, and slowing the tide of people illegally crossing north into the United States. A border czar.

Why don't they just close the damn border, as he said for the thousandth time?

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named Alan Bersin to be the border czar. He's a former Justice Department guy. He worked on cracking down on illegal immigration in the '90s. Judging by the number of illegal aliens in the country, that wasn't exactly a homerun in the country either, was it?

The Obama administration has promised to target border violence and work with Mexican officials to stop gun and drug trafficking. They've already committed $700 million to help Mexico with this. They're sending hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs to the region.

If we want to get serious about fixing this stuff, the answer is to secure the border, which remains open almost eight years after the 9/11 attacks, and enforce the laws that are already on the books regarding illegal immigration. And don't forget, of course, the huge appetite for illegal drugs here in this country which is fueling the Mexican drug wars.

But we talk about all this other stuff as though it's somehow magically going to start working. It's not. More government bureaucracy hardly the solution.

Here's the question. Is a border czar the answer to our illegal drug and immigration problems with Mexico?

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

I suppose we could refer to you as THE SITUATION ROOM czar, couldn't we.

BLITZER: Yes. As I said the other day I think to Abbi or somebody, I don't like that word "czar." Can we find another word? Can we ask our viewers to get us another -- border official, border expert, border...

CAFFERTY: Border bureaucrat.

BLITZER: Bureaucrat, technocrat, something like that. Czar.

CAFFERTY: Border czar.

BLITZER: It didn't work out so great for the czars in Russia, I don't think.

CAFFERTY: No, it didn't. And this won't work out that great either. Trust me.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

We're standing by to hear from President Obama. He's coming up this hour, live. He's in Mexico. He's going to be talking about the drug wars and other big challenges south of the border.

He's having a joint news conference with the president of Mexico. You'll see it and hear it live, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The president may soon find himself face-to-face, by the way, with one of his angriest adversaries. He tells CNN how he'll react to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. They're going to potentially run into each other in the coming days.

Plus, they had knives and the pirates had AK-47s. Freighter crew members return to the United States and describe the terror of being held hostage at sea. And the Texas governor -- get this -- apparently threatening the ultimate tax protest. That would be cessation. Is it the Texas bluster or would that state really consider breaking away?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama and President Calderon of Mexico, they're getting ready to answer reporters' questions in Mexico City. We're going to the news conference live. That's coming up, we believe, shortly.

Stand by for that.

Meanwhile, a rescued U.S. sea captain and his crew are putting their pirate hostage ordeal farther behind them today. Captain Richard Phillips expected to return to Vermont from Kenya tomorrow. His crew members landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., early this morning, and they told terrifying accounts of their captivity at sea.

Our Brian Todd is covering the homecoming. He's down in Maryland, not far from Andrews Air Force Base, right now.

All right. Tell us what you picked up, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the narrative of this ordeal just got a lot clearer. Crew members are giving some riveting detail about how the pirates got on board the Maersk Alabama and what happened when the crew confronted them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Reunited with their families, crew members from the hijacked American tanker give new details about how the young Somali pirates overpowered them.

WILLIAM RIOS, MAERSK ALABAMA CREW MEMBER: Scary. Scary. All we had were knives. They had AKk-47s.

TODD: The crew now reveals they had been shadowed before on this journey.

RIOS: We were attacked three times. They tried to board three times. Different pirates were trying to attack us on that stretch.

TODD: They described taking evasive maneuvers to get away. Finally, the pirates got the upper hand.

ZAHID REZA, MAERSK ALABAMA CREW MEMBER: Before they came on board they started firing with AK-47s. And one guy, one pirate, their leader, Abdul, he was the one who came on board first. And he came on the bridge -- "Stop the ship. Stop the ship." And then we -- "Hands up."

TODD: Seaman Zahid Reza said he convinced the pirate leader, Abdul, a fellow Muslim, to go to the engine room with him to check on the crew. He says the hijacker didn't bring his gun. When they got him alone, the chief engineer jumped the pirate.

REZA: The pirate is lying on the floor, and chief engineer on his back, with the knife. And he's having a hard time to control him. And I jumped over the pirate, and I stabbed him. He was fighting me and chief engineer to get away from us. I was attempting to kill him.

And the chief engineer said, "No, no, no. We need him alive."

TODD: That hijacker got medical attention when the U.S. Navy got there and turned out to be the only pirate who survived.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, that one crew member, Zahid Reza, said that that lead pirate, the leader of the group, appeared to only be about 18 years old and had told them that he was looking for a ransom of about $3 million -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're going to get back to you. I know there's more information you're collecting as well.

Brian Todd, working this story.

The New York State governor, David Paterson, today formerly launched an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State. He's pushing a bill that was passed by the New York State Assembly two years ago, but it later died in the state Senate.

It's a political gamble for the Democratic governor, whose approval ratings have plunged below 30 percent. Paterson likens the fight for gay rights to the battle to end slavery.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. DAVID PATERSON (D), NEW YORK: We have all known the wrath of discrimination, we have all felt the pain and insult of hatred. This is why we are all standing here today. We stand to tell the world that we want equality for everyone. We stand to tell the world that we want marriage equality in New York State.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And this note. I'm going to be speaking live with the governor of New York, David Paterson, about his new push for same-sex marriage and the possible backlash, what's going on.

The governor of New York will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stand by for that.

In another story of major concern we're following right now, home foreclosures skyrocketed last month and the first quarter of this year to their highest levels on record.

Let's go straight to our Chief Business Correspondent Ali Velshi. He's got the details for us.

Wow, Ali. I thought things were getting better.

ALI VELSHI, CNN SR. BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, here's the issue. Let's talk about these foreclosures.

RealtyTrac is an organization that tracks this for us. Here's what they showed us.

For the first three months of 2009 -- that's the first quarter -- foreclosures were up 24 percent, compared to the same three-month period at the beginning of 2009. Here's the problem, Wolf.

You might remember that in December, a lot of banks put a stay on their foreclosures because they were waiting to see what the government was going to do. Now all those banks know whether the people that they have -- are foreclosing on will get refinanced under this new government plan. And if they don't, you're going to see an uptick in foreclosures. You can expect that number to start to increase.

Now, there is some good news here, and that is that mortgage rates are very low. We've seen mortgage rates go down. And right now, about 4.73 percent for a 30-year fixed mortgage if you have good credit and you can put 20 percent down. These are historic low levels, so people are moving in and buying homes, but because so many of the homes they're buying are at lower prices, maybe even foreclosures, you're seeing home sales tick up, but you're seeing the prices continue to go down.

So until some of that inventory of old homes that haven't been sold is gone, you're still going to see home prices drop. But interest rates are low.

The third issue here is, these are the prices we're talk about going down. When we started this recession, the median price for an existing home in the United States -- the median is the price at which half of all homes are sold above it and half sold below it -- the median price was well above $220,000.

Take a look now -- $165,000. That's a drop of 21 percent since this recession started in December of 2007, Wolf.

So a very mixed picture on the housing front but, yes, you can absolutely expect we're going to continue to see more foreclosures. And as our unemployment situation continues to worsen, which we know it all, and more people get laid off, that also affects people not being able to make their payments, and more foreclosures could come our way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Here's the question I get asked all the time. With prices going down, interest rates down, if someone has money or good credit, can get a loan, should they buy a new house now or wait six months or wait a year, assuming the price may go down? No one knows for sure, but what do you think?

VELSHI: Excellent question, Wolf. And that kind of depends on where you are in the country, because a lot of people expect the average home price in the United States not to bottom out until sometime in 2010, maybe even 2011.

But we've seen big drops on the West Coast, and those prices have started to come up. So, depending on where you are in the country, those hard-hit areas -- the Southwest, the West Coast, Florida -- you might start to see increases. The problem we've got is in the Midwest, places like Michigan.

Why would we see home prices come back up there just yet? Because we're still seeing those layoffs. But an excellent question. The best answer to that, Wolf, is to look local and see what's going on in the market you're interested in buying in.

BLITZER: And as usual, an excellent answer from Ali Velshi.

Ali, thanks very much.

We're awaiting President Obama. He's getting ready to speak with reporters, take questions, along with the Mexican president, Felipe Calderon. We're going to have live coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, Fidel Castro's message to the U.S. president: Cuba won't get down on bended knee. Now President Obama responds.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I don't expect Cuba to beg. Nobody's asking for anybody to beg.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So what is that talk about not wanting Cuba to beg? President Obama explains his intentions towards the communist nation in a one-on-one interview with CNN en Espanol.

And people go to the hospital to get better, not to get sick. So why wasn't a tuberculosis scare detected before it became a risk to others?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, spying on you. It's happened again. The National Security Agency accused of collecting information it shouldn't have, the glitch the government is now blaming.

Sarah Palin returns to the spotlight. Tonight, the governor's first major event in the lower 48 since this year.

Is her bright star fading at all? What's going on? And a CNN exclusive and a story that sparked international outrage, a new Afghan law that permits spousal rape. Why Afghanistan's president said he signed the law and what will happen now.

We're about to hear from Hamid Karzai.

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

It's a prime concern on his first trip to Latin America as president. More now on our top story, President Obama in Mexico City right now -- a major item on the agenda, illegal immigration. The administration hopes to create secure borders by protecting their integrity, improve the immigration system by fixing what it calls a dysfunctional bureaucracy, take away incentives for people to enter the United States illegally, support a system that allows undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens, and work with Mexico to decrease illegal immigration.

The president talked about this issue and a lot more with Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Espanol, specifically how it relates to efforts to stop drug cartels.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: Will immigration reform be part of this whole process? And also you've named a border czar. Was this consulted with Mexico, and what is he going to do?

OBAMA: Well, the goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security, and so that we are confident that the border patrols are working effectively with ICE, working effectively with our law enforcement agencies. So he's really a coordinator that can be directly responsible to Secretary Napolitano and ultimately directly accountable to me.

There has been a lot of interaction between Mexican officials and officials on our side of the border. And, you know, Janet Napolitano has already been there. She and John Brennan, who is part of my national security team, are currently there. We're going to continue to coordinate effectively.

Now, immigration reform has to be part of a broader strategy to deal with our border issues, and as I have said repeatedly, I am a strong proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. I have already met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and committed to working with them to try to shape an agenda that can move through Congress. And this is something that I think is important not just because of the drug cartel issue; it's important because of the human costs of a ongoing flow of illegal immigrants into this country. It's something that we need to solve.

LOPEZ: You're going to Trinidad and Tobago. Most of these countries, it's the first time you meet with the leaders. they have been -- they want to bring Cuba up as an issue. You've lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans. How is this issue going to play out?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I have no problem with them bringing up Cuba as an issue. I think I have been very clear about my position on Cuba. What I have said is, is that we should loosen up restrictions on travel and remittances. We have now acted on that. We also believe that Cuba can potentially be a critical part of regional growth in the region.

But Cuba has to take some steps, send some signals that when it comes to human rights, when it comes to political rights, when it comes to the ability of Cubans to travel, that there is some signs that we're moving away from what has been a set of policies that have really hampered Cuba's ability to grow.

I mean, I think -- think about the irony, the fact that, you know, on the one hand we're loosening up travel restrictions, and yet there are a lot of Cubans who can't leave Cuba. That, I think, is an example of the kinds of changes that we hope we can promote over time. And I think that our partners in Central and South America can be very important in helping to move away from the past and into the future.

LOPEZ: Fidel Castro reacted to your lifting of sanctions, saying it was a positive move, but that he expected the lifting of the embargo. And he said that Cuba won't beg, but that's what eventually they expect from the U. S.

OBAMA: Well, I don't expect Cuba to beg. Nobody is asking for anybody to beg. What we're looking for is some signal that there are going to be changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are released, that people can speak their minds freely, that they can travel, that they can write and attend church, and do the things that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for granted. And if there's some sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba, then I think that we can see a further thawing of relations and further changes.

But we took an important first step. I think it's a signal of our good faith that we want to move beyond the Cold War mentality that has existed over the last 50 years. And hopefully we'll see some signs that Cuba wants to reciprocate.

LOPEZ: Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon is considering a lawsuit filed by attorneys representing six Spaniards who were at one point held at Guantanamo. And that lawsuit wants to go after President Bush's legal team. What is your reaction to that?

OBAMA: Well, you know, obviously I have been very clear that Guantanamo is to be closed, that some of the practices of enhanced interrogation techniques I think ran counter to American values and American traditions. So I have put an end to these policies.

I'm a strong believer that it's important to look forward and not backwards, and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there.

So I have not had direct conversations with the Spanish government about these issues. My team has been in communications with them. I think that we are moving a process forward here in the United States to understand what happened, but also to focus on how we make sure that the manner in which we operate currently is consistent with our values and our traditions.

And so my sense is, is that this will be worked out over time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: He had more to say, especially about Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Stand by for that.

Let's talk a little bit about Mexico this with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

This is a trip outside the United States, but there's certainly domestic politics involved.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

On the one hand, Wolf, this is a very symbolic trip for Barack Obama, who has never been to Mexico, ever. He needs to convince folks there that he does care about the region. But it is a lot of domestic politics, because, of course, we're talking about immigration, as you just heard. We're talking about gun control.

They're very, very concerned over there. They want a ban on assault weapons in this country. They're talking about the drug war. They're talking about trade. Trade was a big issue in this campaign. NAFTA was a large issue. They're very concerned about what happens to Mexico if we start deciding we're going to revise our trade laws.

BLITZER: It's our third biggest trading partner...

BORGER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... after Canada and China, as well. So, let's not forget about that.

The other big story that is really developing even as we speak right now...

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: ... the -- the president deciding, you know what, what happened during the Bush administration with these enhanced interrogation techniques, what some call torture, it happened then, but no one from the CIA, no CIA officers who engaged in water-boarding or other techniques, they are not going to be prosecuted.

BORGER: Right. That's what the attorney general, Eric Holder, said today. He said, you cannot hold these CIA agents responsible for legal opinions that they received.

It's very clear that the Justice Department wants to turn the page. But, already, Wolf, we are getting in lots of comment from sort of left-leaning legal organizations saying, wait a minute, you have got to prosecute these people.

It's interesting. Senator Pat Leahy on the Hill is trying to sort of work a middle ground. He has proposed a commission of inquiry on this subject. I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing a congressional investigation.

BLITZER: All right. We will see what happens. Gloria, thanks very much.

President Obama is meeting with the president of Mexico right now. We're standing by for their joint news conference. You are going to see it and hear it here live.

President Obama says he's ready for possible -- a possible close encounter with a rather harsh critic of the United States, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Could there be fireworks when they run into each other over the weekend?

Plus, hundreds of people are now being tested for T.B. after a hospital doctor was infected with the disease. There's new information about how -- about how it happened and whether it could happen again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, you're looking at a live picture of Mexico City right now. They're getting ready for the president of the United States and the president of Mexico, Barack Obama, Felipe Calderon. They will be walking in, over to those microphones very soon, answering reporters' questions. We will have live coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

After President Obama wraps up his visit in Mexico, he is heading over to the Summit of the Americas tomorrow, where he will face some rather tough critics of U.S. policy, among them, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.

About a week ago, Mr. Chavez declared -- and I'm quoting now -- "The power of the U.S. empire," according to him, "has collapsed."

And, in recent weeks, he called President Obama "ignorant."

Mr. Obama, who spoke with Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Espanol, says he's heading into this summit with a new approach.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOPEZ: Now, more than the issues at the summit, a lot of people are focused on how you will interact with other leaders; for example, how you will face Hugo Chavez. Have you thought about that? Is it going to be any different than any other President?

OBAMA: No, look, he's the leader of his country, and we'll -- he'll be one of many people that I will have the opportunity to meet. And the whole message that we've tried to send throughout my campaign, throughout my recent travels overseas, at the G-20 for example, has been that the United States, I think, has a leadership role to play in dealing with many of the big problems that we face.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Hugo Chavez, of course, has been known to antagonize the U.S. over several years.

Let's talk about this and more in our "Strategy Session" with CNN political contributor the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, a former counselor over at the White House under former President Bush.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Ed, let me start with you.

What do you think about the way the president is handling the relationship with Mexico right now, more important, though, perhaps the -- the entire attitude he has toward the Americas?

ED GILLESPIE, FORMER REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Well, I think the relationship with Mexico, I hope it's a productive meeting with President Calderon, who has been very strong in support of the -- stopping the flow of drugs into this country. I think that is a two-way situation.

BLITZER: He's a real friend to the United States.

GILLESPIE: He's a very strong friend of the United States.

Obviously, Hugo Chavez not, and...

BLITZER: Not such a strong friend.

GILLESPIE: Not such a strong friend, and, in fact, antagonistic and -- and really putting pressure on one of our strongest friends and allies in the region. And that is President Uribe of Colombia.

And the fact is that it's been publicly reported that Chavez has supported FARC, the terrorists there who are trying to undermine the Uribe government, held the hostages.

To confer legitimacy that he craves, Chavez craves, and allow the presidency of the United States, the president of the United States, to confer legitimacy on him, like this, I think, is counterproductive in the -- in the long-term.

BLITZER: I don't think he scored a lot of points with the new president, Hugo Chavez, when he said this back on March 22.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Obama is going to accuse me now of exporting terrorism. At the very least, you could say he is a poor, ignorant man. He should study, read a little bit, so he can learn what is the reality of what he is living and the reality of Latin America and the reality of the world. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: "At the very least, you could say he is a poor, ignorant man" -- that's coming from Hugo Chavez regarding Barack Obama.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I hopes he takes back those words, because he will find that, in President Obama, he is not only a man who will listen, but a man of great intelligence.

But I wouldn't take anything that this -- this president is saying for -- you know, for granted. He has a grandiose sense of his own self-importance. And we know that based on many of the other things he said, not only by our former president, but also about the American people.

But, look, the president has a legitimate interest in going down to Latin America to renew our ties, to repair relationships, to strengthen our bonds with countries, as Ed mentioned, that are helping us in the fight against narcotics.

And, so, hopefully the president of Venezuela will not get in our way.

BLITZER: He's also...

GILLESPIE: If I could say something...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead, Ed.

(CROSSTALK)

GILLESPIE: ... because -- and I know Donna kind of shares this approach -- look, I'm offended -- I'm obviously not of the same party as Obama. He's my president. He's the president of the United States.

I'm offended when another leader talks about my president that way. And I -- I hate to see my president, frankly, sit down and talk to him and confer that kind of legitimacy on a leader like this.

BLITZER: Yes. And I think a lot of people are offending by this. And he said a lot worse about the president you worked for...

GILLESPIE: He has, yes.

BLITZER: ... too, as you remember, when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly only a few years ago.

All right, let's -- let's talk a little bit about the decision that the president made today not to prosecute anyone from the Bush administration for the enhanced interrogation techniques, President Obama making it clear he wants to look ahead. He doesn't want to go backwards and look back.

He's getting some grief, though, from the left for this decision on -- on water-boarding, for example.

GILLESPIE: Well, look, I think, when people see these memos, I -- I'm not sure it's in the best interest to make them -- to release them publicly, but people will see that there is a legal rationale, that those who engaged in the security of the United States of America in the aftermath of September 11 had legal justification for doing so, and should not be prosecuted.

And I commend the president, the attorney general, and this administration for making clear that we should be looking forward, and not back.

BLITZER: Because there was a sigh of relief over at the CIA. A lot of the CIA officers who engaged in these interrogation techniques, they didn't know did they need to hire lawyers, not hire lawyers, are they going to jail?

Today, the president and the attorney general said, you know what? Don't worry. There's not going to be any prosecutions.

BRAZILE: Well, I think this is one of those situations where the president said, look, these are public servants, and we want them to do a fine job in -- in helping us with this country and keep it safe.

But, at the same time, I think he's also sending a message that this is an administration that will respect and adhere to the rule of law, and, look, we might let you go this time, but let's end torture right now.

BLITZER: Well, these -- the CIA officers who did this, they believe that the Justice Department and the highest authorities approved it, that they were acting legally. They -- you know, they didn't have any doubt about that.

BRAZILE: Oh, look, Wolf, this puts many of us in a very uncomfortable position, because I believe, if you break the law, you should pay the price.

But, on the other hand, this -- this law -- many of these -- these public servants believed that this was the law. And, clearly, we know differently now.

BLITZER: We will leave it on that note, guys.

Thanks very much. Donna, Ed, thanks for coming in.

Tomorrow, President Obama will attend the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Among those expected to be there, as we have been pointed out, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. He recently called the president of the United States "ignorant."

So, here's the question. Should President Obama sit down with Hugo Chavez?

Submit your video questions to ireport.com/situationroom. And we're going to get some of your thoughts on the air tomorrow. We're awaiting President Obama. He's getting ready to speak with reporters, along with the Mexican president, Felipe Calderon. They're in Mexico City. There, you see a live picture over at the podium in Mexico City. We're going the carry that news conference live.

And it's a weighty issue. Should airlines charge passengers extra if they're overweight? Another major airline is now adopting that policy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're only a few moments away. We're told the president of the United States and the president of Mexico getting ready to meet with the reporters in Mexico City. We're going there live. Stand by.

But there's another story we're following, an ongoing health scare in the heartland of the United States. It involves people going to the hospital to get better, but fearing getting sick from a potentially deadly disease. What is going on?

We asked CNN's Joe Johns to take a closer look.

This is a pretty frightening story, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: That's for sure, Wolf.

It's been called the great masquerader. And, true to form, T.B. cases reached an all-time low in the U.S. last year, but, suddenly this week, tuberculosis was back in the news with a scare in Chicago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): Hundreds of people in Chicago, many of them children, are getting tested for tuberculosis, after a hospital doctor developed the disease. No one so far has tested positive. And health officials say they're encouraged by results so far.

DR. STANFORD SHULMAN, CHICAGO MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: Tuberculosis is not a disease that's transmitted by brief casual contact. It really does require, typically, hours and hours and hours. CDC has talked about 120 hours of face-to-face contact.

JOHNS: T.B. is rare in the U.S., under 13,000 cases last year. So, why didn't the system in Chicago find this before case it became a risk to others?

Usually, doctors in the U.S. get tested for T.B. once a year. But, in 2007, the sick Chicago doctor worked in Africa, where T.B. is a bigger problem. Experts said professionals with this kind of higher risk may need more testing.

Treating T.B. is tricky, too, especially with drug-resistant strains of the bacteria.

DAVID BRENNAN, CEO, ASTRAZENECA: There's a dynamic associated with the development of the bacterium that, you know, doesn't allow -- doesn't lend it to a -- one shot -- you know, you get it out by taking this one drug for one day, and it's over.

JOHNS: Also, T.B. is a disease of developing countries, so T.B. drugs aren't seen as having huge money-making potential for pharmaceutical companies. Still, one company, AstraZeneca, tells CNN, it could have a new T.B. drug in trial as early as next year.

BRENNAN: We will have to find a different way to make those products available from a market perspective, but the point is, they need to be made available.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: And you might be hearing more of that kind of thing. The pharmaceutical industry, along with former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and others, are out beating the streets to promote medical innovation these days, another way of saying, the federal government and rich private groups need to show the research and development community a little more love and financial support -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, a serious subject, though. And I hope they -- they get to the bottom of it.

Thanks very much, Joe Johns, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Texas may want a divorce from the union, the governor of Texas throwing out a rather provocative idea. Could the state really go it alone?

And Sarah Palin now back in the spotlight tonight, speaking to a conservative group, but some say she doesn't have the national star power left.

Also, the president of the United States and the president of Mexico -- you're looking at those live pictures from Mexico City -- they're about to walk into that room and answer reporters' questions. We will have live coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get back to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack. .

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour, is a border czar the answer to our illegal drug and immigration problems with Mexico? Here's a hint: No.

Edward: "How about, rather than some politician or lawyer, we do what other countries do? Use our military. Guarantee, if you put a general in charge, with troops on the border to secure it, the job will get done."

Judy in California: "I think it's a start. Our borders have been too open for too long. Drug wars or not, the problem has been ignored, and now look at us, sitting on top of a powder keg waiting for someone to light a match. No, it's not enough, but we got here by doing absolutely nothing. Border security is a must, and this is a start."

Adam in California writes: "Jack, you don't get it. This and the expansion of the war on terror are jobs programs. Rational decisions must take a back seat to providing employment."

Steve writes: "The U.S. should legalize marijuana, which would eliminate 90 percent of the Mexican drug cartels' money. Without that, the cartels will diminish severely. It would create large amounts of tax income potential that could then go toward prevention and treatment for those who need it."

Wade in Phoenix says: "Just what we need, another government agency. Since the U.S. Border Patrol is no longer an armed patrol, get rid of them. Put the military on the border and shoot anyone who isn't crossing through a designated crossing point, in or out. I don't care which direction they are heading. That should put a real damper on the flow of people, drugs and guns."

And C. writes: "Funny, nobody will address this issue head-on, because they will lose the Hispanic vote. The Soviet Union put up a wall on a weekend that stood for 50 years. The answer isn't tough. Then enforce the current laws. If you're illegal, over the wall you go. If you're employed, get the employer. Wow. That didn't take long."

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

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

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