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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Obama Debriefs Bill Clinton; Michael Jackson's Personal Physician Speaks Out; Al Qaeda Bunker 'Littered With Bodies'

Aired August 18, 2009 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Rick, thanks very much.

Happening now, President Obama debriefing former President Bill Clinton. The men together in the White House Situation Room right now discussing Clinton's mission in North Korea.

What did he learn about Washington's secretive longtime adversary? Stand by.

Also, an exclusive look inside al Qaeda hideouts in Iraq in the Iraqi desert, the scene of torture and executions and evidence of the unspeakable horrors everywhere around there.

Plus, breaking news. Michael Jackson's personal physician now speaking out publicly for the first time since the singer's mysterious death, explaining why he's afraid to use his phone or even his e-mail.

We'll play you his message to his supporters.

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.

Former President Bill Clinton scheduled to meet with President Obama right now in the White House Situation Room to reveal what he learned during his mission to North Korea to free American journalists. So, what insight did he gain into the secretive regime and its reclusive leader, Kim Kong-il, with whom the former president met and even had dinner?

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's working the story for us.

Ed, what do we know about this meeting?

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one thing we know is it's creating a lot of buzz over here. It's certainly not a normal day when you've got former President Bill Clinton coming. Just a short distance from me, there are about a dozen still photographers, video photographers, just in the last couple of moments, trying to get a picture of his arrival.

He's going to be in the Situation Room here at the White House with President Obama. That's obviously really rare, for a current and former president to sit down like that behind closed doors, secure doors, to talk about this very sensitive information, about the former president meeting with the North Korean dictator just a few weeks ago.

The key here at the White House is that they have already -- National security Council officials in recent weeks have had two conversations with the former president to debrief him, but now it's a chance, one on one, between the current president and the former president to see if there is any insight that Bill Clinton gleaned about Kim Jong-il that could help the U.S. in its approach to the very reclusive regime, trying to stop them from developing a nuclear program.

The other big question, of course, will these two leaders talk about health care reform, which was a very difficult subject for Bill Clinton, something that President Obama is having some struggles with right now? Robert Gibbs said he's not sure, he doesn't know whether or not they have previously or will today talk about health care. Even if they do, he said it's a private cover and he probably won't pass it along.

As you know, the former president never shy, especially with cameras around. We are all hoping he will come out and talk to us about health care, about North Korea. Robert Gibbs said if the former president wants to use the First Amendment, he's not going to stand in the way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: If he shows up at the microphone, we hope he does.

There was an interesting exchange, speaking about health care, that you had with Robert Gibbs just a little while ago at the daily White House briefing. Let me play this excerpt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: It has been...

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not saying that now.

HENRY: OK.

GIBBS: I'm saying -- I said that repeatedly, the president has said that.

HENRY: Is the public option an essential part of health reform?

GIBBS: I think the president answered that on Saturday.

HENRY: So it's yes?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This is a sensitive issue because, on Saturday, the president said at his town hall in Colorado that that so to called public option, a government-run health insurance agency to compete with the private health insurance companies, was but a sliver. He used the word "sliver" of his plan, leaving a lot of doubts about how firm he was in mandating, insisting that that be included in any final piece of legislation.

Tell our viewers the back-story of what's going on here.

HENRY: I think what's going on, it's almost a semantical debate now about, what is the meaning of "essential," what is the meaning of "preferred"?

Right now, Robert Gibbs is saying the bottom line is that President Obama believes that a public option is the preferred choice, but there is a caveat, that it is not a deal-breaker. That, if in the end, in order to get reform, he has to drop the public option, he is willing to do that.

And they are insisting that's not different than anything that's been said before, but it is, in fact, different. Where it's different is, back in June, July, the president repeatedly did say that the public option was his preferred choice, essential, whichever word you want to use, but he did not always add that caveat of it's not a deal- breaker. He was suggesting to his Democratic supporters that he was on board with the public option.

Now they are being more flexible because it may need to be something that's dropped to get a bill through. That is the bottom line politically -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Politically. It may need to be dropped in the Senate because they don't have the votes. On the other hand, they need the public option in the House because they won't have the votes without the public option.

HENRY: That's why they're swinging back and forth.

BLITZER: It's a delicate tightrope that they are walking right now.

Ed, stand by. We're going to get back to you. We have a all right more on the health care debate coming up.

We're also following some breaking news right now. The doctor who was with Michael Jackson when he died is now speaking publicly for the first time since the singer's death. Dr. Conrad Murray has just released a video message.

Let's go to CNN's Ted Rowlands. He's watching the story for us in Los Angeles.

What's Dr. Murray saying, Ted?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, basically, he is saying thank you to his supporters at the beginning of this message, but then near the end there is a clear message to everybody, saying that throughout this entire process, he claims he has told the truth.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. CONRAD MURRAY, MICHAEL JACKSON'S PHYSICIAN: I want to thank all of my patients and friends who have sent such kind e-mails, letters and messages to let me know of your support and prayers for me and my family. Because of all that is going on, I am afraid to return phone calls or use my e-mail. Therefore, I recorded this video to let all of you know that I have been receiving your messages.

I have not been able to thank you personally, which, as you know, is not normal for me. Your messages give me strength and courage and keep me going. They mean the world to me.

Please, don't worry. As long as I keep God in my heart and you in my life, I will be fine. I have done all I could do. I told the truth and I have faith the truth will prevail.

God bless you and thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROWLANDS: Now, according to Dr. Murray's lawyers, this was recorded last Wednesday in Houston. They were editing it for the last few days and released it about three hours ago on YouTube.

They sent it to his supporters and his patients, but clearly, they fully knew that it would also get out to the mainstream media. PR folks say this is a brilliant move, because up until now, we haven't seen him moving at all except for in still photos, and we haven't heard his voice. And just by doing that, it humanizes him a bit, and obviously he is being accused of a lot of different things throughout this process since Michael Jackson's death.

So, probably a lot of PR mixed with this message to supporters. Lawyers say he has not used his cell phone or his e-mail to respond to the well wishes that he has been getting over this past month and a half, and that was the reason for this video.

BLITZER: And we're also learning today, Ted, the family has finally made a decision about burial of Michael Jackson.

ROWLANDS: Yes. They have come to the -- to an agreement that they will lay Michael Jackson to rest here in Los Angeles, actually in Glendale, near Los Angeles, near Burbank, at the Forest Lawn Cemetery. They're going to do that on Michael Jackson's 51st birthday.

It will be a private ceremony. It is a week from Saturday here in southern California. But finally, after all of the rumors and this, he's been buried here, he hasn't, something definitive from the family, saying they have their burial plans solidified.

BLITZER: Ted Rowlands, thanks very much.

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, when it comes to the health care debate, a lot of Americans are fired up about what health care reform could mean for illegal aliens. One Blue Dog Democratic congressman says the issue comes up at every town hall meeting he holds.

Many constituents of Congressman Allen Boyd's events have been opposed to the idea that illegals would get any benefits under the new bill. Boyd insists that won't happen.

He quotes directly from the House bill: "No Federal Payment for Undocumented Aliens." "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."

Here is the problem -- the way the system works now, illegal aliens, who often don't have health insurance and don't pay taxes, can go to any hospital emergency room and get treated for free. And nothing in this bill would change that.

Supporters of the president's plan mostly dismiss the impact of illegal aliens on our health care system, but critics say that illegals are part of the reason our costs are so high. Here's part of the problem -- hospitals are not allowed to ask. They don't collect immigration data when someone comes into the emergency room, so it's unclear how much people who are in the country illegally actually add to our health care costs, but it's probably a pretty significant chunk of change.

Consider this: 46 million people without health insurance in the country. Of those, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that are about six million uninsured adults who are illegal and 700,000 uninsured children.

So, here's the question: How should health care reform address the issue of illegal aliens?

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

You don't hear this talked about among the politicians at all.

BLITZER: It's a good question. Linda Douglass, the White House spokeswoman on health care, is going to be on the show in the next hour. I'm going to ask her this question. Let's see what she has to say, Jack. Thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: Look forward to t.

BLITZER: All right. A good question from Jack Cafferty.

Coming up, an exclusive look inside a scene of unspeakable horror.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This was one of the main execution sites. It is literally like standing in a wasteland, and there are bones just strewn all over the place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Arwa Damon goes inside a former al Qaeda hideout in the Iraqi desert, and what she found was shocking.

Also, growing concern over the next step in DNA science. Could it lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit?

And the death of our long-time CNN friend and colleague, Robert Novak. Donna Brazile and Mary Matalin, they're both standing by to share their memories.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Al Qeada in Iraq, the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes, including beheadings. In a CNN exclusive, Arwa Damon travels to one of the group's former hideouts in the Iraqi desert. It's a horrifying place where insurgents routinely tortured and killed their victims.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): From the police truck the opening is barely discernible in the distance, part of a heavily-fortified bunker complex built under Saddam Hussein. It's hidden in Iraq's remote and forsaken desert and was used by al Qaeda as a hideout and execution ground where merciless killings were carried out.

The bodies, left to rot, were consumed by animals. In 2007, it finally came to an end.

(on camera): That used to be a two-room building destroyed the Americans. The Iraqi police are telling us it was an al Qaeda detention center where they kept their victims.

This was one of the main execution sites. It is literally like standing in a wasteland, and there are bones just strewn all over the place.

(voice-over): It's all that's left of the horror.

As we enter the first bunker, Captain Halid Bandar (ph) tells us they found the floor littered with bodies. He says tortured and murdered by al Qaeda. The insurgents used this layered labyrinth of passageways and hatches to carry out their summary trials and executions.

(on camera): Let's straight down here into this room we are about to go into. They found -- or there is still actually clothing, shoes.

The stench of decay is a lot stronger inside this bunker. There is also a lot more debris lying around. Clothing, it could be that of the insurgents or it could be that of their victims, and the American made-ready eat meals (ph).

(voice-over): Al Qaeda has been all but defeated in Iraq. According to one man who has close connections to al Qaeda in Iraq, the group lost support because it lost the protection of the Iraqi people. He asked not to be identified.

(on camera): So then, is the war, at least al Qaeda's war, over in Iraq?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No, the war is not over in Iraq. A type of battle is over, but there are new battles disguised in politics.

DAMON (voice-over): Like the recent spectacular strikes in northern Iraq meant to inflame ethnic tensions. According to the insider, the organization has remade itself into an elite fighting force that operates like mercenaries do, hiring themselves out to the highest bidder.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Al Qaeda's strategy of taking control of areas has been abandoned for now. The method is propaganda, instilling fear, terrorizing.

DAMON: Still able to send a message to those who work against them. The police show us bloodstains near the bunkers and tell us about two beheaded bodies found just a month ago.

Al Qaeda's global war has also shifted to a place it believes it can still win -- Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is made up of true believers, those who believe in jihad and fighting.

DAMON: Adding that it still has the geographic advantage there, and also believes it has the support of the local population. But he warns, al Qaeda still lurks in Iraq.

Arwa Damon, CNN, in Iraq's western desert.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: On edge in Afghanistan right now. Militants today carried out two attacks, one on the presidential palace of Hamid Karzai, the other a deadly suicide bombing. The violence comes only two days before the country holds pivotal elections.

Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's got the story for us.

Is the U.S. military prepared for what's going to happen over the next 48 to 72 hours as these elections go forward?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, commanders say both U.S. forces, NATO forces, and Afghan forces are prepared that more than a quarter of a million troops will be on duty Thursday for Afghanistan's presidential election.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Getting ready for Afghanistan's presidential elections, donkeys carrying ballot boxes into remote villages for Thursday's voting. NATO commanders are vowing to field the backup for Afghan police and army units that will provide the main security on election day. Three hundred thousand NATO and Afghan troops will be on duty.

BRIG. GEN. DAMIAN CANTWELL, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY TASK FORCE CHIEF: ISAF will be prepared to provide air over-watch capabilities, and also ready ground forces if we need to move to where any security incidents might arise.

STARR: But the Taliban are trying to make good on their promise to disrupt the elections, even as campaigning has intensified.

With just two days to go, a suicide car bomb killed 10 and wounded more than 50 on the Jalalabad road, a major thoroughfare in Kabul. A rocket attack damaged the presidential palace. This, after another car bomb Saturday exploded outside NATO headquarters.

Election day is vital for NATO's case that its troops can protect civilians against violence. Fifteen million Afghans are registered to vote at more than 6,000 polling stations across the country.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN: A key question would be, what percentage of polling stations would not be able to accept voters, or voters would not be allowed to vote in them? And if their percentage is high, it will raise questions about the credibility of the elections.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And what about after election day? Well, if there is a runoff, as expected, that runoff election won't take place until October. And with the fragility of the country and the rising violence, Afghanistan may be in for a very rough time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A real pivotal moment in Afghanistan's history in the next few days. ` Thanks very much, Barbara. We'll watch this story with you.

New details of the slaying of that Florida couple who had adopted so many special needs children. Some of them are now telling investigators what they say they heard the night of the killings.

Plus, Brett Favre out of retirement again. Who is he going to be playing for when the season starts?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Health care co-ops, they are billed by some as an alternative to a government-run plan. How do they work and would they work? We're going to find out straight ahead.

Plus, framing an innocent person by creating a fake crime scene. A frightening scenario that scientists say is possible with what they call hijacked DNA.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, tensions escalate in Afghanistan as militant go on the offensive just two days before the country's elections. Two U.S. troops killed in just one of the attacks.

We go to the front lines of Afghanistan and see coalition soldiers as they come under ferocious attacks. Stand by.

Swine flu causing a threat to young people. So, how do you get them to absorb messages about washing hands and covering their coughs? The federal government has decided to have a contest on YouTube.

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

It's a make-or-break month for health care reform, and in the middle of it all, the Obama administration may -- repeat, may -- be softening its stance on a cornerstone of reform, a so-called public option insurance plan.

Listen to what the health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, told our own John King on "STATE OF THE UNION" Sunday morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: And I think what's important is choice and competition. And I'm convinced that at the end of the day, the plan will have both of those, but that is not the essential element.

JOHN KING, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": But let me just -- quite simply, so the public option is not a deal-breaker from the president's standpoint?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think there will be a competitor to private insurers. That's really the essential part, is you don't turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing. We need some choices. We need some competition.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Now, listen closely to what she said today at a Medicare conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEBELIUS: All I can tell you is that Sunday must have been a very slow news day, because here's the bottom line: absolutely nothing has changed. We continue to support the public options that will help lower costs, give American consumers more choice, and keep private insurers honest. If people have other ideas about how to accomplish these goals, we'll look at those, too. But the public option is a very good way to do this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, if not a public option, what about health care cooperatives, something Sebelius indicated the president is open to as well?

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is working this part of the story for us.

What do we know about these proposed health care cooperatives?

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, we have been reporting on this program for months that negotiators in the Senate have been talking about a co-op as an alternative to a public option. Still, the details of how Congress would structure co-ops on are very thin, even now. And they are still being worked out.

What we do know is that supporters point to a co-op in Washington State as a model. So, we took a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. ERIC SEAVER, GROUP HEALTH COOPERATIVE: I'm going to give you one of my cards.

BASH (voice-over): For Dr. Eric Seaver, giving out his card is a ticket to more efficient health care.

SEAVER: I do 350 or more e-mails a month with patients. It saves them having to get in the car to come over here.

BASH: Dr. Seaver says he can take time to e-mail patients because he is paid a flat salary, not per office visit, and uses electronic records to collaborate with colleagues.

SEAVER: We have primary care, specialty care, pharmacy, physical therapy, all of the -- home care, all of those services. And we are able to communicate and coordinate our care.

BASH: This is Group Health, a cooperative in Washington State, which supporters of a co-op approach to health care call a model. How does it work?

Group Health is a not-for-profit health plan governed by its consumers, patients. Its 11-member board is elected by co-op members. The co-op covers 600,000 people. A central question is, will this kind of co-op in Washington State work nationwide?

A key Senate supporter say, experts tell him yes.

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: They think there would be 12 million members in very short order, that it would become the third largest insurer in the country, and would provide meaningful competition.

BASH (on camera): Do you believe that?

TIMOTHY JOST, PROFESSOR OF LAW, WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY: No.

BASH: Why not?

JOST: Because I can't imagine how that would happen.

BASH (voice-over): But this health care expert says, it would be tough to convince enough patients to enroll and enough doctors to participate.

JOST: All of the things that you have to do to start up an insurance company are not the kind of things that just a group of people getting together at the diner on a Saturday morning and saying, let's start a co-op can do.

BASH (on camera): You just -- you just don't see it happening?

JOST: You just don't see it happening.

BASH (voice-over): What about another central goal, providing competition to insurance companies that leads to lower costs? Again, skepticism.

JOST: It's going to be very unlikely that a co-op is going to get better rates out of providers than a commercial insurer.

BASH: But, back at the Group Health co-op, they say streamlined systems have led to reduced costs. The reality is, it has taken 60 years for this co-op to build success.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And when it comes to both the policy and the politics of health care, no one will be able to stomach a couple of years, much less 60, for co-ops to get up and running and be successful and be competitive.

And, Wolf, right now, Senate negotiators, they are talking about $6 billion in seed money. Many people think it would take a whole lot more just to get enough co-ops up and running to be competitive in...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Good story, important stuff, because everybody keeps telling me, at least the people who count votes in the Senate, that the public option can't pass in the Senate. But, on the other hand, they can can't pass health care reform without the public option in the House.

You are our senior congressional correspondent. Is that what you are hearing?

BASH: Absolutely. You know, we talked about these yesterday. That is absolutely the pickle that the White House is in.

And that's why you are, frankly, getting these mixed messages that's frustrating members of Congress that I have spoken to, senior aides that I have spoken to. But, when it comes to this co-op option, it is definitely the thing that is -- is being pushed by those Senate negotiators. And it is because it is not just Republicans in the Senate.

It's many conservative Democrats who are really skeptical about the government involvement, government-run option. And supporters of a co-op say the government won't be involved in this.

BLITZER: It underscores what you know so well, these two chambers very, very different...

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... the House and the Senate.

All right, Dana, thanks very much.

President Obama debriefing the former President of the United States Bill Clinton right now in the Situation Room. We're not talking about our Situation Room. We are talking about their Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House. They are talking about the mission to North Korea. Should Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be in that meeting right now as well? Guess what? She is not. I will ask Donna Brazile and Mary Matalin what is going on.

Also, disturbing possibilities for a new scientific breakthrough, fake DNA, raising new fears innocent people could be framed.

Plus, inside an ambush, amazing footage from Afghanistan, where militants are trying to create chaos just days before a crucial election.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's talk about what's happening in the Situation Room right now, not our Situation Room, the other Situation Room over at the West Wing of the White House.

Let's talk about that in our "Strategy Session" with two CNN political contributors, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

When the White House announced, Mary, yesterday that the president would be meeting with the former president at 4:00 p.m. Eastern in the Situation Room, when they announced it last night, I said, great, we're going to have a great show today...

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ... but, unfortunately, not necessarily our SITUATION ROOM. There is another one, as both of you know.

But, Mary, is it...

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You don't think we are a great show, Wolf?

BLITZER: I think you are great show.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: But, you know, if you had President Obama and former President Clinton in THE SITUATION ROOM, our SITUATION ROOM, that would be a great show, too. Maybe we will work that out on another occasion.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: But let's talk a little bit about somebody missing from that meeting that's happening in the Situation Room, their Situation Room, right now. That would be the secretary of state of the United States, and they're talking about North Korea.

Is that a big deal or a little deal, that Hillary Clinton is not participating in this meeting with her husband and the president?

MATALIN: Well, maybe it is because I'm back in New Orleans -- eat your heart out, Donna -- but...

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: ... I'm failing to understand what this Washington story is.

As you said in the throw to the break, we have a critical election in Afghanistan in 48 hours. We have an extremely volatile situation in Pakistan, fraying relationships in Israel, the ongoing Iran problems. It's not like Mrs. Clinton isn't -- or Secretary Clinton isn't aware of what the former president, AKA her husband, did there.

So, I think it would be a waste of time. And what she's -- what does she need, face time with Obama, which is another Washington cherished tradition, which I don't think she thinks she needs.

So, I'm not sure what the political implications are of this.

BLITZER: She's actually having a separate meeting today with the president herself at the White House.

State Department telling us, Donna, that it is simply a matter of trying to juggle schedules. At this time, this hour, she is meeting with the -- the Colombian foreign minister, who is visiting the State Department, and she couldn't make it over to their Situation Room.

So, you -- I -- I guess you agree with Mary this is not a big deal?

BRAZILE: I totally agree.

And, Wolf, I'm sure, by now, she has been debriefed by the former president. And this would be a redundant meeting for her.

Cheryl Mills, her chief of staff, who is very capable, will be in that meeting. This is a classified meeting. I'm sure that's why there are no cameras there, but this is an opportunity for the president to learn from the former president some of the former things that he probably might have glimpsed or talked to the president of North Korea about. So, this is a very important debriefing.

BLITZER: We lost an old friend, a good guy, Robert Novak, Mary, today. He died. We know he has been suffering from a brain tumor all these many months. But, unfortunately, today, he passed away.

You worked with him. You knew him quite well. Give me a thought.

MATALIN: You know, he was an institution. He was an historian. He had encyclopedic of all things politics. He was delightful, even in referring to himself as the prince of darkness. And he was a true believer. When we did "CROSSFIRE" together, if there ever a topic that had a party line, he would say: "Give that one to Mary. I'm only doing the true believer, prince of darkness, right-wing stuff."

And he -- he never, ever lost that sense of his principles, and was such a fine articulator of them, and really a -- a pussycat and a softy. And many a day cried on his shoulder.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people didn't see that side of him, although all of us who -- who knew him certainly saw that side.

Donna, you got to know him over the years as well.

BRAZILE: Not only as someone that Bob would call occasionally to find out what was going on, on the Democratic side, but here -- here at CNN, he was such a gentleman.

I will never forget the day I sat in -- I forget -- James or Paul on "CROSSFIRE." And I confessed, and I said, "You know, I'm a little bit nervous."

And he said: "Don't be nervous, Donna. I will take you through it. I will walk you through it."

We didn't agree on any of the issues, but we agreed on, you know, just having a civil debate. As you know, Bob converted to Catholicism, and he would often go to church near where I worked downtown. And, so, I even got to know that part of Bob Novak. He was really a -- a great guy, a gentleman.

And, Wolf, one day a couple of years ago, he broke his hip, and I saw him on an airplane. He were both going through Minneapolis. And I had a bunch of luggage. And here, Bob, just recovering from a hip replacement, he said, "Donna, I'm going to pick up your luggage and put it up in the rack for you."

So, he was a gentleman. He was tough. He was mean as nails. But, when you saw him in the green room, he was on the phone, calling people, getting his sources together. And Mary called had him a pussycat. He was a charming man. And we will all miss him.

BLITZER: A great family man. He loved sports, but he also loved being a reporter and breaking stories, which he often did.

We are going to have more on Bob Novak in our next hour.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

BLITZER: And up next: Will Democrats stand by President Obama if -- and it is a huge if still right now -- if he gives up the so- called public option in health care? I will ask one congressman, Eliot Engel. He's standing by.

And Americans are weighing in on Sarah Palin. A new poll shows many of you think she has made a major miscalculation when it comes to her career.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The possibility that the Obama administration may -- repeat, may -- be abandoning a so-called public option is outraging a lot of the president's most assertive supporters.

Let's talk about that and more with Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York.

Congressman, thanks for coming in.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: My pleasure, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: You may -- you may have noticed your hometown newspaper, "The New York Post," with a headline on the cover today saying "Sellout! Liberals Howl as Obama Caves on Health Plan."

Is this a sellout by the president, if -- and it's still a big if -- if he abandons, in the final legislation, what is called the public option?

ENGEL: Well, it's still a big if.

I notice that the president said that he still supports the public option and nothing is changed. I know that the secretary had mentioned the possibility of there not being a public option.

Look, many of us -- and myself included -- I'm on the Energy and Commerce Committee. I'm the senior New Yorker on the committee. I support the public option. The final bill didn't have a public option as strong as we would like, but there's a public option. I think whatever...

BLITZER: If -- if -- if the dust settles and it comes out of conference when the House and the Senate put their work together, there's no public option, would you vote for it?

ENGEL: I would have to think long and hard. I would have to see if it moved health care forward.

I tell you one thing. With a public option, it moves health care forward, because that public option would force the insurance companies to keep their premium prices down to compete with the public option. So, I think it would be a terrible miscalculation if we didn't have a public option.

But I do expect the final bill that is going to be voted on, on the House floor to contain the public option. And then I hope that we can convince the Senate to keep in the public option, because, again, we want the insurance companies not to negotiate with themselves to have -- to have the premiums high. We want to force them...

BLITZER: All right.

ENGEL: ... to compete with the public option.

BLITZER: Here is what Democratic Senator Kent Conrad -- he's the chairman of the Budget Committee -- what he told CNN earlier today on why he doesn't think there's enough votes in the Senate for the public option. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONRAD: There have never been the votes in the United States for a public option. That's just a fact.

That's why I was asked to come up with an alternative, something that might bridge the differences here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: An alternative is these so-called cooperatives, health care cooperatives, that he would like to see emerge with some government seed money, but they wouldn't be part of the government.

Would those cooperatives satisfy you?

ENGEL: Well, I have to learn a lot more about those cooperatives.

Right now, there's all kinds of conflicting discussion about them. Again, the Senate has said that there was no support in the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He meant to say -- he meant to say United States Senate.

ENGEL: OK.

Well, there's a strong support in the House, and it takes two to tango. And it doesn't necessarily mean that the finished product will be what the Senate wants. I hope it means that it will be what the House wants. We have to just see. I think co-ops are untested. We really just don't know. And I would have to be convinced that they would keep the prices down.

The bottom line is to insure everybody, the 47 million Americans that don't have insurance, and to keep the costs down, and to make sure people don't lose their insurance if they lose their jobs or change their jobs, and to make sure there is no preexisting condition where insurance companies are denying people coverage. We have to make sure that is all in the bill.

I think the best way to do it would be a public option.

BLITZER: A quick -- a quick -- a quick question, because it is Jack Cafferty's question this hour. Of those 47 million people in the United States who don't have health insurance, it has been estimated by the Pew Hispanic Research that about six million are undocumented aliens, illegal immigrants in the United States.

What do you do with them?

ENGEL: Well, let me first say that 80 percent of those 40 million Americans are working people and their families.

In terms of the undocumented, look, they are here and they are sick. And, right now, they are using our emergency rooms as their primary care. It is costing us a fortune and backing up -- if we go to an emergency room, it takes five or six hours before people will see you.

So, right now, we have a situation where we are paying for their care. We ought to have a situation where it costs less for everybody's care.

BLITZER: So -- but you -- should they be allowed to go into emergency rooms when the -- when the final bill passes, if it passes?

ENGEL: Well, I think that people who raise the issue of illegal immigrants is really a smokescreen. I think that this country has to come to grips with the situation.

And I hope, after we do health care and the energy bill, we will come to grips with immigration. But the fact is, now, that, when people show up in hospitals, nobody asks them for identification or for -- or for their status. And they're being served right now.

This bill doesn't alter that one iota. And this bill is not a bill that would take care of illegal immigrants. That is a smokescreen.

BLITZER: Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York -- Congressman, thanks for coming in.

ENGEL: My pleasure, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: And we will -- we will hear what Jack has got in the e- mail coming in on the sensitive subject. That's coming up shortly.

Also, the latest advance in DNA science is raising fears that almost anyone could be framed and convicted of a crime they did not commit.

CNN's Jim Clancy explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fast-paced crime series "CSI" weaves its fictional tales with recurring scenes depicting DNA science. The TV laboratory reinforces the notion, once the DNA evidence is in, the crime is solved.

But what would Horatio Caine say if we told him his DNA evidence was forged, his suspect framed?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "CSI: MIAMI")

DAVID CARUSO, ACTOR: I say, bring it on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ELON GANOR, CHAIRMAN, NUCLEIX LTD: It is scary. It is absolutely scary, because standard procedures for identification of DNA cannot differentiate between DNA which is natural, in vivo DNA what we call, or artificial DNA which was manufactured in a lab.

CLANCY: Elon Ganor's Israeli firm, Nucleix Limited, published a paper in a respected journal showing how laboratory-manufactured DNA was indistinguishable from real DNA. The possibilities are scary.

Could DNA be manufactured in a lab and then spread around a crime scene? By developing a test that does distinguish between the two, the company stands to make millions.

But some scientists are skeptical a clear and present danger exists.

DR. GEORGE CHURCH, PROFESSOR OF GENETICS, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: It could be scary some day, if -- because, certainly, the ability to make synthetic DNA and to spoof such things is technically feasible. It's just not clear whether it is the sort of thing that a criminal would think to do or want to do.

CLANCY: Questioning the motives for releasing such news and possible turmoil in the criminal justice system, some forensic experts declined to comment on the story for CNN.

But Nucleix and its scientists insists, it is not about money; it's about a loophole that scientists never closed and never wanted to admit.

GANOR: The good part of this news is that this loophole can be easily and quickly closed and maintain the gold standard of DNA fingerprinting, which is far better than the traditional fingerprinting or other ways of human education.

CLANCY: Geneticist George Church says, after reading this study, he is convinced that laboratories are already equipped to even get around this new test or assay.

CHURCH: Almost anything that you can imagine turning into an assay could be spoofed. To say one thing is much harder to spoof than another, I think, is a very premature conclusion.

CLANCY (on camera): Every scientist that we talked to said it is easier than ever before for someone to obtain a tiny sample of your DNA that could lead to some worrisome scenarios.

Dr. Church of Harvard reminds us, though, there is not a single case on record of laboratory DNA being used to fake evidence at a crime scene. But he quickly reminded us also that this story, this news takes us one step closer to that first case.

Jim Clancy, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Sarah Palin's resignation, Americans are speaking out in a new poll. How many support her decision to step down as Alaska governor?

Also, inside an ambush in Afghanistan -- we have some really dramatic images of the growing danger faced by American forces as the country nears a critical election on Thursday.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: She stole the headline with her surprise resignation, but was Sarah Palin's decision to step down as Alaska governor a smart political move? A majority of Americans don't think so, according to a new poll.

Sixty-one percent of people questioned in a Marist survey say it was a bad move politically. Only 15 percent think it will help her future. And even among Republicans, 51 percent disapprove of her decision.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, check out CNN politics.com.

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

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, is: How should this proposed health care reform address the issue of illegal aliens in this country? Sandra writes: "I am a Democrat, and I feel compelled to state that, so Pelosi and Reid can't say that only Republicans feel as I do. Hell no, nothing for illegals. Send them home. Let Mexico take care of them. Fed up with paying for their free ride when I can't even afford to go get new eyeglasses."

John writes: "Illegals will continue to get free health care. The politicians refuse to deal with that issue. It is costing us the taxpayers a fortune. The cost of all the freebies provided to illegals is one of the main reasons that California went bankrupt."

Cristina: "This is a public health issue. What happens if there is a pandemic in this country, but undocumented people can't get health care? That puts us all at risk. And there is a long tradition of helping our neighbors and strangers in the United States. We should continue to act in this spirit today by tending to the sick."

David writes: "Illegal aliens should only be treated for life- threatening conditions or accidents. Following their release, they should be turned over to immigration for deportation."

Richard in Watsontown, Pennsylvania: "If we gave everybody I.D. cards and fined employers who hired illegals, we would end the problem. You can't blame someone who is sick and goes for free treatment."

And Mark in Naperville, Illinois: "Health care reform should close the loophole for illegals to get free health care. We need to cut off the incentives for people to risk coming here illegally. I would risk entering the U.S. illegally if I could get free health care and a free education. In fact, could I become an illegal? These taxes are killing me."

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.

It's amazing, Wolf, that the politicians don't want to talk about this aspect of health care reform at all.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, we're going to ask them some good questions, Jack. Thanks very much.

You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: mixed messages to the public on the public option -- the White House facing some tough talk, but seems to be softening its stance on a controversial government-run health plan. Stand by.

An extraordinary report from the front lines in Afghanistan, with American troops under fire. We are going to take you inside an ambush.

And how to spread the word about how not to spread swine flu -- the government runs a video contest on YouTube.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM. Based on public statements over the past few days, the president and his team would seem to be edging away slightly from the idea of a government-run health insurance plan, what they call the public option. Are they edging away, or are they not?

That was certainly the hot topic today over at the White House press briefing.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, was right in the middle of it.

Are we any clearer right now, Ed, at this moment, shortly after 5:00 p.m. On the East Coast, precisely where the White House stands?

HENRY: Not exactly, Wolf.

It is a little confusing, but the bottom line is this.

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