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DEA Agents Dead in Afghanistan; Reid Supports Opt-Out Public Option; President Obama Speaks About Afghanistan and Iraq at Jacksonville Naval Air Station

Aired October 26, 2009 - 15:00   ET


RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): Making news right now, 14 killed in Afghanistan. More than 160 people killed in Iraq. What will the president say? We are minutes away from his address.

Bankers hold their annual convention in Chicago but it's stormed and disrupted. You'll see this noisy event.

And look what's back on the table in a big way, the public option. I'll tell you why.

What you're talking about during your national conversation for Monday, October 26th, 2009. It starts right now.

(On camera): Ok, this is odd. Not quite sure why we started that way, but it was kind of interesting, from darkness to light, I'm Rick Sanchez.

Hello again, everybody. This is the next generation of news. It's a conversation, it's not a speech and it's your turn to get involved.

We've got some pictures now of the president of the United States. He's just now getting off the plane. This is in Jacksonville. There's Senator Bill Nelson as well. Senator Bill Nelson along with the president of the United States.

Is this live, by the way? These are live pictures? These are live pictures of the president where he's going to be speaking in just a little bit.

This is important because, remember what's going on here, the backdrop to this. As you probably heard over the weekend, there were two deadly incidents in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, more than 160 people are dead, some 500 are injured. Two, not one, but two suicide bombings as probably as bloody a scene as has been seen there in quite sometime.

Meanwhile n Afghanistan, there was also a scene that U.S. military officials are now just trying to cope with. And that has to do with two helicopters that crashed in mid flight. Obviously, we're going to be dealing with that. And that's the reason that the president is there in Jacksonville.

Let's go ahead and put that picture back up. Do we still have that picture? Yeah, let's stay with that, while we have the president up. That's why the president of the United States is in Jacksonville. The president of the United States is going to be speaking today to servicemen. We don't know exactly what he's going to say, but obviously this is a very important speech coming out of those two incidents over the weekend. So we're going to let you listen in to what the president says.

It's now three minutes after the hour, and we understand that he's going to be speaking sometime like 15 after the hour. That's the area where he's going to be speaking to. Those are the -- that's the Jacksonville Air Station, the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, where the president is going to be introduced shortly. He's going to get in the limo now; he's going to drive to that location, go through the clearance, get back on stage, where he's going to begin his speech.

In the meantime, there's another story I want to tell you about.

Now you can come back out, Claude.

Do you want the public option that could make health insurance more competitive and cheaper, because it's looking like we may get it in some form at this point. Here's who else is going to be speaking in just a little bit, Senator Harry Reid is about to announce his position on this. I asked you this same question, by the way, a little while ago. How you felt about public option. You know, I've got to tell you, the numbers seem to show right now, it's about 61 percent in favor. And you, on Twitter, are in favor as well. Go to the Twitter board if you can, Zack. Look at the first one -- "Yes, it makes not sense why we can't have another public option.

Under that: "Absolutely, it is a must."

I have no idea what just happened that thing. But you know, sometimes technology gets the best of you, as it today. Let me go back here.

"Absolutely, it's a must."

Next one, here's something I want to know, "Would you like to see a public option? Yes, public option is the whole point."

Next one: "Yes, to the public option."

"I would love to see a public option, without the state opt out. Repeal the anti-trust laws, give real choices to us."

"One word: Yes."

Next one, "yes, but it should be for everyone, not just for a few. We should all be able to opt out from our current coverage if we want."

So, you get a sense there that there is starting to be -- a sense that Americans are embracing this idea of a public option in this country. And there are other people now who are getting involved and embracing it as well.

Come back to me if you would, Claude.

Nebraska's conservative Democrat Ben Nelson, is now saying that he -- this is interesting, remember what I just said, conservative Nebraska Democrat and Senator Ben Nelson, who hasn't been keen on the idea in the past, has over the last couple of days maybe possibly going through a shift in this. He's now saying he would not be opposed to the public option in some form. Listen to what he told John King.


SEN. BEN NELSON, (D) NEBRASKA: I certainly am not excited about a public option where states would opt out, or a robust, as they call it, robust government-run insurance plan. I'll take a look at the one where states could opt-in, if they make the decision themselves.


SANCHEZ: Why is that important? Here's why it is important. Because there is now talk of a possibility that there could actually be 60 votes in the Senate for some kind of public option. "Some kind" are important words there.

Let me show you something else. Harry Reid is going to be coming to the mic any moment now. And you're going to be able to see him live. We have a lot of stuff moving as we begin this show today. Bear with me, a lot of news may be made during this hour today.

Tell me what this is, Angie? Just to be clear. That is the podium where Harry Reid will be speaking in just a little bit. Harry Reid may be making news. Remember Harry Reid's been going back and forth on just how much pressure to apply, how much of the Democratic platform to make this -- he will be speaking shortly about the public option, and whether he is going to be pushing Democrats. Remember, this is going to have an effect on him in his own state, because there are --there's an opposition to Harry Reid in Nevada right now. We're going to watch this when harry Reid comes to the microphone unless the president of the United States beats him to it.

As I mentioned to you moments ago, the president is going to be speaking to troops at the Naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida. What he's going to say is going to have to do with the bloody weekend we told you about just a little while ago.

There's something else I wanted to show you, the question seems to be coming down to this. We talk about it a lot when we go on social media, and we have these discussions over the last couple of days. Should the United States continue to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq given incidents like the ones that happened this weekend? Just a little while ago, John Kerry spoke. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. JOHN KERRY, CHAIRMAN., FOREIGN RELATIONS CMTE., (D-MA): Make no mistake. Because of the gross mishandling of this war by past civilian leadership, there are no great options for its handling today. One American officer captured well our lack of a strategy when he said, "We haven't been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years. We've been fighting in Afghanistan for one year, eight times in a row. That is our inheritance."


SANCHEZ: Given that, as we continue this theme of what we need to do in Afghanistan, as we're probably just a couple of minutes away from listening to the president. I want to listen to this conversation now. These are two of the most knowledgeable correspondents here at CNN. When I sat down and talked to them, all right? Let's talk about our Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, together with CNN's Michael Ware, who's covered this war, himself, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Look what happened when the three of us got together. Watch this before we turn to the president.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The focus was taken off Afghanistan, by the Bush administration, and now they're having to refocus, to try to pull what was victory -- which defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, in the last few years.

The most important thing for people to understand, I think, because this is crucial, is that the Afghan people do not see the United States forces as occupiers. They believe the U.S. came in 2002 to help them, to liberate them, to set them on a better --

SANCHEZ: You disagree?


AMANPOUR: The Taliban see them as occupiers. The majority of the Afghan people -- this is very crucial.

SANCHEZ: He's giving you one of these, though, like maybe yes, maybe no?

AMANPOUR: He's not right.

WARE: I just came back from the villages.

AMANPOUR: You know, I've been in the villages, too.

WARE: I know, I know, and I understand.

AMANPOUR: And I've talked to U.S. --no, this is really crucial.


AMANPOUR: It is a misnomer to call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires.

WARE: Sure.

AMANPOUR: Yes, it happened to the Soviets. Yes, it happened to the British. But this liberation of Afghanistan by the United States was something very different. And to this day, everybody from the villages up to President Karzai and in between say, no, we believe that you came to do something good for us. What you haven't done is kept your promises.

WARE: That's true.

AMANPOUR: And that's the debate.

WARE: That's very true.

AMANPOUR: And that's the debate that's going on in the villages of Afghanistan.

WARE: That's true.

SANCHEZ: What's the difference that you find with what she just said?

WARE: I mean, there's a degree to which the Afghans -- you have to understand -- are very Afghan. Even a Pakistani, who comes just from across the border, is a foreigner. When Al Qaeda was there, in the last months, years of Al Qaeda's presence there, with the Taliban, Al Qaeda was starting to take over a little bit, putting advisers in ministries. The Afghans, even the Taliban bristled at that. They said, you may be good Muslim warriors, but you're still Arabs. Any foreigner, in that country for too long, comes to be seen as an occupier.

And we're drifting to that. Despite our intentions, and despite out good deeds and our misdeeds, there is a growing perception, particularly in the south, which is where this war is being fought, kinetically, of a sense of occupation. Good intention, well- intentioned, or not.

AMANPOUR: It's -- it's ...

WARE: And that's what's drawn a lot of the tribes who weren't fighting for the Taliban to the Taliban now.

AMANPOUR: What's drawing...

WARE: And that's why we're seeing the Karzai government step up and start to build militias.

AMANPOUR: What's drawing people to the Taliban, which by the way is some 40 to 6 to 10 percent, let's not exaggerate. The majority of the people of Afghanistan believe in wanting something better for themselves and believe in the government.

No, it's really crucial.

WARE: Go ahead.

AMANPOUR: Because it obfuscates so much of the debate that's going on right now. The fact of the matter is, that promises weren't kept, the eye was not on the ball. What had been a progress in security was allowed to fall apart. What had been progress -- even in corruption, even in drugs interdiction, was allowed to fall apart and now what you've got is the result of the work not having been done.

Meantime, the Afghan people still want progress, still want development. And it's going to take a long, long time.

SANCHEZ: I've got to ask you this question...

AMANPOUR: The American people and the politicians have to have the patience according to the Afghan people.

SANCHEZ: I want to read General McChrystal correctly. And I'm not sure the media has read him correctly. We keep reporting that he is all but insisting on sending more troops in there. Is he really insisting, or is he saying to the administration, much in the way you just suggested, we dropped the ball for a long time. Look, if you're going to do this, you've got to go in full bore?

WARE: Yes.

SANCHEZ: Or forget about it and just walk away.

WARE: That's what he's doing.

SANCHEZ: Which is different from insisting.

WARE: This is the fundamental question that's currently sitting on President Obama's desk. And it goes from the security aspect, where I focus, and it goes to the broader issues that Christiane has touched upon. Who cares how we got here?


AMANPOUR: Who cares? It was 9/11 that got us here!

WARE: No, just let me finish. Let me finish.

Who cares how we got here? We're here, right?


WARE: Are you going to fight this war in all its manifestations, guns and bullets, aid, roads, electricity, hospitals, or are you not?

SANCHEZ: Down to 30 seconds.

WARE: He's gotta --this is what McChrystal is saying, basically, to the president. Stand up, fight the war for once, or let's go home.

AMANPOUR: Do you agree?

WARE: Or let's pack up and go home.

AMANPOUR: No. General McChrystal has been asked to give his advice on how to do it. If you want to do it like this, then this is how many troops.


WARE: Yes, he's a good soldier.

AMANPOUR: If you want to do it like that, it is this many troops. And they will salute and do the job. But the Afghan people want the promises that were made kept.

WARE: Very true.

AMANPOUR: And they want progress.

SANCHEZ: And we'll leave it on that passionate discussion. I really enjoyed this. We have to do this again.


SANCHEZ: All right. Let's do this now. Let's talk about some of the things that have been going on, oh, in probably the next 15 minutes or so. We're expecting Harry Reid to come out and speak. We'll bring you that live unless of course, he gets trumped by the president of the United States, who's going to be coming out and speaking in just a moment as well.

What's interesting about this is we expect that the president will be making comments about both Afghanistan and Iraq. And especially that one incident that happened in Afghanistan over the weekend. Two U.S. helicopters crash in midair, 14 Americans killed.

Now we're learning, and CNN has confirmed, that several of them were, in fact, members of the DEA. Our Chris Lawrence is going to be following up on that for us. He's going to bring us the very latest on that.

There's Chris now as he prepares for this. Brooke Baldwin's also been working on this. She's been trying to drill down on what the DEA's role is right now in Afghanistan.


SANCHEZ: And globally, I suppose, as well. We'll have that for you.

The president's going to be coming out. You'll hear exactly what he has to say and we'll also hear from Harry Reid. Stay right there. A lot of stuff is moving. A lot of moving parts here, as they say. That is why I've been ad-libing all of this beginning f the newscast for you. And we'll continue to bring it to you as it happens. Stay right there.


SANCHEZ: Before we go to anything else, welcome back. There's that shot of the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. President Barack Obama is going to come out and address this group in just a moment. What we're going to do is, in case this happens, we want to make sure you don't miss it. We're going to keep at least that image in some form on the screen for you, maybe over in the corner, in a box, or something.

Let me bring in a couple of other people now who are going to be talking about, in many ways, about what the president is going be talking about. Brooke Baldwin, who's been putting together information for us on -- uh


SANCHEZ: The DEA and their involvement. The reason you're doing that is because we're also going to be talking to Chris Lawrence.

Chris Lawrence was able to report, to us, a while ago that of the 14 people who died on those two helicopters in Afghanistan, 11 of them were U.S. service members. But three of them were Drug Enforcement agents, which seems curious. Just trying to figure out what they were doing there. What their mission was.

Start us off by telling us what you know about why the helicopters went down. What happened?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Rick, it was in the western part of Afghanistan. I think when I explain to you what happened, you'll get a much better idea of exactly why those DEA agents were involved in that mission.

This was a strike team, a unified strike team, DEA and U.S. troops. They raided a compound in western Afghanistan where they suspected that insurgents were trafficking in drugs. We're told a vicious, very violent firefight came out of that, in which more than a dozen insurgents were killed. All of the Americans walked out of that firefight alive. Then they got on a helicopter, they lifted off, and at some point, that helicopter went down. As you said, seven American troops and three DEA agents on that flight.

The significant thing about this, and the midair collision of the two helicopters in southern Afghanistan, it has been more than four years now since this many American lives were lost in a single day in Afghanistan. And this is the first time that DEA agents involved in counternarcotics were killed here.

SANCHEZ: OK, that makes me very curious. It makes us want to reference what's going on with Afghanistan.

Angie, let me know as soon as the president comes out and we'll turn to that.

When I think of DEA agents, I think of a situation like Colombia, for example, not exactly a war, but a situation where American agents are involved. When I think of Afghanistan, we've been led to believe which is an all-out war we're fighting there. How prominent is the role of DEA? What are they doing there? What do you know?

LAWRENCE: They have what are called "fast teams." You know, they are foreign-deployed teams. And what they do is they basically do missions like that, going after the drug traffickers, and they also help train the Afghan police to fight drugs in their own country.

Just this morning, we spoke with an official at the counternarcotics agency here in Afghanistan. He said these kind of teams are vital and they actually need more of them here to help fight drugs here in Afghanistan.

SANCHEZ: How do you deal with the drug problem while you're fighting a war and having Marines in gunfights with people? I'm not sure I understand how they do that.

LAWRENCE: Well, well...

SANCHEZ: Hold on, Chris.

LAWRENCE: Usually a lot of people would...

SANCHEZ: Chris, hold on. I'm going to stop you. Harry Reid has just come to the microphone. Let's go to Harry Reid and see what he says about the public option. Here it is.


SEN. HARRY REID, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Senators Dodd and Baucus, on this critical issue of reforming our health insurance system. We've had productive, meaningful discussions about how to craft the strongest bill, strongest bill coming from a meld of the two bills, the Health bill and the Finance bill.

I feel good about the consensus that was reached within our caucus, and with the White House. And we're all optimistic about reform because of the unprecedented momentum that now exists.

I'm aware of the issue of the public option. It's been a source of great discussion for many weeks now. As I've said here on a number of occasions, I've always been a strong supporter of a public option. But the public option is not a silver bullet. I believe it's an important way to ensure competition and to level the playing field for patients with the insurance industry.

As we've gone through this process, I've concluded, with the support of the White House, Senators Dodd and Baucus, that the best way to move forward is to include a public option with the opt-out provision for states.

Under this concept, states will be able to determine whether the public option works well for them, and will have the ability to opt- out if they so choose. I believe that a public option can achieve the goal of bringing meaningful reform to our broken system. It will protect consumers, keep insurers honest, and ensure competition. That's why we intend to include it in the bill that that will be submitted to the Senate.

We've spent countless hours over the last few days in consultation with senators, who have shown a genuine desire to reform the health care system. And I believe there's a strong consensus to move forward in this direction.

Today's development, that is my sending, in the next few hours, to CBO a number of -- anyway, the proposal that we're sending them for their scoring, will make us a step closer to achieving a bill this year, that lowers cost, preserves choice, creates competition, and improves quality of care.



REID: I'm sorry. Say that again.

QUESTION: Do you think you had a greater chance of accomplishing health care reform with a public option, as opposed to not including it? (OFF-MIKE)

REID: Obviously, public option is something that has been talked about a lot. It's something I believe in, in the state of Nevada. All national polls show a wide majority of Americans support the public option. I think it's important that the matter that we work on from the Senate have a public option in it.

QUESTION: Can states opt-out immediately, or is there a period of time where they have to --

REID: They'll have until 2014.

QUESTION: Mine is a two-part question. One is, after your canvassing of senators on Friday and over the weekend, do you feel 100 percent sure, right now, that you have the 60 votes to get onto the bill --

REID: We've been working on health care as a Democratic Party, and much of that time we had Republicans helping us, since 1948. We've made significant progress these past months. As I've indicated, the American people believe there should be health care reform. I believe there should be health care reform, and my caucus believes strongly there should be health care reform.

QUESTION: But Senator Reid, specifically on this idea of a public option...

QUESTION: Are you going to give a trigger proposal for that, as well. And how close are you on that?


QUESTION: Senator Reid, with all due respect, is it possible to answer the question on whether or not you have the votes for this particular issue, public option, with states having the ability to opt-out, because...

REID: I believe that as soon as we get the bill back from CBO and people have a chance to look at it, which we'll have ample time to do that. I believe we clearly will have the support of my caucus to move to this bill and start legislating.

QUESTION: Can you talk about your thinking in terms of why you went with the opt-out as opposed to the trigger option, which we know is something considered prominent?

REID: I think it's the fairest way to go. I think at this stage in the proceedings, a public option which has received so much attention, and the public option with an opt-out is one that's fair and gives states, in fact, if they don't want to be a part of the public option, an opportunity to get out.

QUESTION: Can you explain how, exactly how states will opt-out until 2014 and what about Olympia Snowe who says "no" to the opt-out?

REID: I spoke to Olympia on Friday. I've talked to her on a number of occasions. And at this stage she does not like a public option of any kind. And so we'll have to move forward on this. And there will come a time, I hope, where she sees the wisdom of supporting a health care bill after having had an opportunity, her and others, to offer amendments.

Well, just a second here.

QUESTION: What determinations have you made on the other controversial parts of this, the affordability measures, subsidiaries, all the other things that are dividing senators?

REID: What I said in the beginning is this -- we had a bill from the Health Committee and a bill from the Finance Committee. This is a meld of those two bills. We've sent to the Congressional Budget Office a number of proposals, a number of alternatives that is a different meld of those two bills. And so that's what we did.

And it has information from both of those committees in it. Decisions had to be made as to what different issues would have to be eliminated from one of the two bills. We did that. And we're now within hours of CBO getting it. I've had a number of conversations today, meetings with Doug Elmendorf, the head of the CBO, I understand that situation quite clearly.

I'm sorry, let's get everybody here. Yes.

QUESTION: Senator, does this mean that the co-op idea goes by the wayside, or will there be a co-op in this bill along with the opt- out?

REID: There will be a co-op in this bill.

QUESTION: How so? How will it work? QUESTION: There will be a co-op?

REID: Uh-huh, same on the Finance bill.

QUESTION: (OFF MIKE) insurance plan, (OFF MIKE) of the AFL-CIO said today, "It is bad policy." I understand you're raising the threshold on families to from $21,000 to $23,000...

REID: You do? How do you know that?

QUESTION: I could be totally wrong. You know better than I do. But tell me, the AFL-CIO, they say this bill is bad policy. How do you respond to that? (OFF MIKE)

REID: This bill is for middle-class families. Barack Obama, when we were involved in this health care, in the initial stages, in a telephonic conference call we had. One of the things that President Obama said is to make sure when we finish this legislation it is not legislation that's only for poor people. It's for the American middle class, and that's where I've legislated since then, and that's what this bill does.

QUESTION: Senator Reid, you said you have the support...

REID: Yes.

QUESTION: (OFF MIKE) Can you explain a little bit more about the calculation? Are you looking at a Democrats only approach now, or are willing to vote on Senate floor, if that's what (OFF MIC).

REID: I'm always looking for Republicans. We look for Republicans on this. We look for them on extending benefits for unemployment insurance, it's just a little hard to find them. We've had to do a lot of this on our own. We're going to continue working. We invite Republicans to come and try to improve this legislation.

One of the things that's been so astounding to me is when I came here, to the Senate, we had a lot of moderate Republicans who worked with us on everything. And we worked with them. But of course, now the moderates are extremely limited. I could count them on two fingers.


REID: As a result of that, it makes it really hard to get help from them. I think they're making a big mistake not helping some things, as I've indicated, like unemployment extension, FAA extension, highway extension, all these things that are so important to the American people. And, of course, health care, which Republicans in years past have worked on health care. We had a Republican president who worked extremely hard on health care reform.

But this modern Senate Republican, in my opinion, don't represent the thought process of Republicans throughout the country, haven't been willing to help us on anything. We hope that Olympia will come back. She's worked hard. She's a very good legislator. I'm disappointed that the one issue -- the public option, has been something that's frightened her.

QUESTION: Is the opt-out the only option you're sending to the CBO?

REID: No. Yes, on the public option. Yes, that's right.

QUESTION: Why did you choose the opt-out, instead of the opt-in?

REID: Yes.

QUESTION: You said earlier that you had the support of the White House. Did you ask for them to make any calls on this? (OFF MIKE)

REID: I haven't asked them to make any calls. It hasn't been necessary to this point.

QUESTION: The moderates seem more comfortable with the opt-in approach. Why did you go with the opt-out instead?

REID: We have 60 people on the caucus. It's -- comfort level is kind of --we all hug together, and see where we come out.



SANCHEZ: And there you have it, just as Senator Harry Reid concludes -- lots of news made from Senator Harry Reid. I'm just going to talk over the president just for a little bit, here, because I see his speech and the first couple of things he's going to talk about is he's going to thank everyone there at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Let me just highlight what you may have caught late, if you were just getting back from work.

Senator Harry Reid is essentially saying that he will work to include a public option in the Senate bill. It does appear that the particular brand of public option, those of you know, that there is a robust public option. And there's also the opt-in and the opt-out public option. He seems to be in favor of the opt-out public option which would give some states the right to opt-out if they don't feel comfortable with the public option.

He went on to not be specific about how many votes -- obviously, the Senate needs 60 votes on this, where that would be the ideal situation for them -- he wasn't specific about how many votes he has at this point. But he did seem to castigate Senate Republicans, at one point saying that they're not willing to work, they're not willing to help -- is the word he used. He said, quote, "These modern Senate Republicans don't represent Republicans across the country."

So, obviously, Harry Reid is throwing out a bit of a dagger on that one. But the news, again, is that the public option seems to be alive and well and that Harry Reid will -- least according to what he just said there -- push for it in the Senate bill.

Let's go now to Jacksonville Naval Air Station and the president of the United States talking about Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's listen in.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... Air Force, Coast Guard and United States Marines from Blount Island.

Now, military communities like this one take care of their own -- your people, your families. But keeping you strong also takes the civilian community beyond the gates.


So we want to thank Mayor John Peyton and all your great neighbors, the people of Jacksonville for their incredible support. Give them a big round of applause.


Keeping you strong also takes leaders in Congress like those here today -- two great friends of yours, Representatives Ander Crenshaw and Corrine Brown who are here. Give them a big round of applause right here.


And a leader who fights for you as a member of the Armed Services Committee, Senator and Army veteran Bill Nelson is in the house.


Keeping you strong takes something else -- a country that never forgets this simple truth. It's not the remarkable platforms that give the United States our military superiority, although you've got some pretty impressive aircraft here, I've got to admit. It's not the sophisticated technologies that make us the most advanced in the world, although you do represent the future of naval aviation.

No, we have the finest Navy and the finest military in the history of the world because we have the finest personnel in the world.


OBAMA: You are the best-trained, the best-prepared, the best-led force in history. Our people are our most precious resource. We're reminded of this again with today's helicopter crashes in Afghanistan. Fourteen Americans gave their lives. And our prayers are with these service members, their civilian colleagues and the families who loved them.

And while no words can ease the ache in their hearts today, may they find some comfort in knowing this: like all those who give their lives in service to America, they were doing their duty and they were doing this nation proud.

They were willing to risk their lives, in this case, to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaida and its extremist allies. And today, they gave their lives, that last full measure of devotion, to protect ours.

Now it is our duty, as a nation, to keep their memory alive in our hearts and to carry on their work. To take care of their families. To keep our country safe. To stand up for the values we hold dear and the freedom they defended. That's what they dedicated their lives to. And that is what we must do as well.

So I say to you and all who serve: Of all the privileges I have as president, I have no greater honor than serving as your commander in chief. You inspire me. And I'm here today to deliver a simple message -- a message of thanks to you and your families.

Now, being here, you join a long, unbroken line of service at Jacksonville, from the naval aviators from World War II to Korea to Vietnam, among them a great patriot named John McCain. You embody that sailor's creed, the spirit of the Navy and all who have gone before -- honor, courage, commitment.

In recent years, you've been tested like never before. We're a country of more than 300 million Americans. But less than 1 percent wears the uniform. And that 1 percent -- you and those in uniform -- bear the overwhelming burden of our security.

After months of exercises in the Pacific and stopping narco- traffickers off South America, you -- the "Mad Foxes" -- joined the recovery of that Air France crash off Brazil. After hundreds of combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, when Somali pirates kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips, you -- the "Fighting Tigers"-- were first on the scene. And others among you -- the "Nightdippers" -- were part of the carrier group that brought our captain home.

You've delivered medical care to people around the world, as my wife, Michelle, saw this summer when she welcomed back to port the Comfort, including those of you from Naval Hospital Jacksonville.


And like thousands of sailors in today's Navy, you've gone ashore to meet the mission of our time, like the "Desert Lions" who served in Iraq.

Today, we also send our thoughts and prayers to all the folks from Jacksonville on the front lines at this very moment: pilots and aircrews around the world, Navy corpsmen on the ground in Afghanistan. And those of you -- the "Dusty Dogs" -- who will deploy next month to the Persian Gulf. You're going to make us proud.


But there is no service without sacrifice. And though few Americans will every truly understand the sacrifices that you and your family make --day in day out, tour after tour, year after year -- I want you to know this: Your dedication to duty is humbling. Your love of country is inspiring. The American people thank you for your service. We honor your sacrifices. And just as you have fulfilled your responsibilities to your nation, your nation will fulfill its responsibilities to you.

That's the message I just offered to the inspiring Gold Star families I met with a few moments ago, families who've made the ultimate sacrifice and whom we honor. And that's the message I bring to you and all our forces, families and veterans, around Jacksonville and across America.

You've made the most profound commitment a person can make: to dedicate your life to your country -- and perhaps give your life for it. So as your commander in chief, here's the commitment I make to you.

To make sure you can meet the missions we ask of you, we are increasing the defense budget, including spending on the Navy and Marine Corps. This week...


This week, I'll sign that defense authorization bill into law.

To make sure we're spending our defense dollars wisely, we're cutting tens of billions of dollars in waste and projects that even the military says it doesn't need, so that that money can be better on spent on taking care of you and your families and building the 20th -- 21st century military that we do need.

To make sure we have the right force structure, we've halted reductions in Navy personnel and increased the size of the Marine Corps. And this year, the first time in the history of the all- volunteer force, the Navy and every component of every branch of the military, active, Guard and Reserve, met or exceeded their recruiting and retention goals.

And, yes, that's due in part to tough economic times. But I say it's also a testament to you and everyone who volunteers to serve.

To make sure you're not bearing the burden of our security alone, we're enlisting all elements of our national power, diplomacy, development and a positive vision of American leadership in the world.

And while I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this -- and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan -- I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary.


And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, and the defined goals, as well as the equipment and support that you need to get the job done.

We are not going to have a situation in which you are not fully supported back here at home. That is a promise that I will always make to you.


Now, as you meet your missions around the world, we will take care of your families here at home. That's why Michelle has been visiting bases across the country. That's why the Recovery Act is funding projects like improvements to your hospital and a new child development center at Mayport.

It's why we're increasing your pay...


... increasing child care...


... increasing child care, helping families deal with the stress and separation of war.

And, finally, we pledge to be there when you come home. We're improving care for our wounded warriors, especially those with post- traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

We're funding the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to give you and your families the chance to pursue your dreams. (APPLAUSE)

And we are making the biggest commitment to our veterans, the largest percentage increase in the V.A. budget, even when we've got very difficult times fiscally, in more than 30 years.

These are the commitments I make to you; the obligations that your country is honor bound to uphold. Because you've have always taken care of America, America must take care of you. Always.

And know this: It's the spirit you live by every day. It's the pride -- and, yes, sometimes the anxiety -- when you wave goodbye to your loved ones on the tarmac. It's the joy-and relief when those loved ones come safely home. It's the dignity and respect you show every fallen warrior who comes home to Jacksonville, like the Naviator (ph) -- Navy aviator you honored two months ago -- Captain Michael Scott Speicher. Kid from Orange Park. Loving husband. Devoted father. Based at Cecil Field not far from here.

On the first day of Operation Desert Storm, he was taken from us. And in the long years that followed, a Navy family and this city would endure the heartache of the unknown.

Through all those years, no one missed Scott more or fought harder to bring him home than his wife Joanne. His friend and formy (ph) -- former Navy pilot Buddy Harris. Their children: Meghan, Michael, Madison and Makenzie. They were among the Gold Star families I met with, and we thank them for being here with us today.

Where are they?

Please stand up. Stand up (INAUDIBLE).


This summer, the news came. After 18 years, after all the dashed hopes, we found him. Scott's remains were finally coming home. The evening news and the morning papers told the story of that day, but few told the story of the days that followed.

It's the story of how you greeted the plane upon landing, hundreds of sailors, and escorted Scott's flag-draped casket to your chapel. How Navy honor guards kept constant vigil, through the night, as so many of you passed by to pay your respects. How thousands of you, sailors and civilians, lined the streets of this base as you gave Scott back to the city he loved.

That's what you did. That's what you do, not only for Scott, but for all the fallen warriors you bring home. It's the story of how that procession retraced the steps of Scott's life. Past the Jacksonville veterans memorial that now bears his name. Past the church where he worshiped, the high school where he excelled and Cecil Field where he served.

It's the story of how Jacksonville seemed to come to a standstill as people lined street after street to honor one of their own. Scott's friends, but also total strangers. Police and firefighters standing at attention. Small children holding American flags. Graying veterans giving a firm salute. And then, as Scott was finally laid to rest, a final fitting tribute -- his old squadron roared overhead, high across the sky.

That's the spirit we see here today. You, men and women devoted to each other -- and to your country and a proud country devoted to you. The example you set for us all: That if you can come together- from every corner of America, every color, faith, creed, every background and belief to take care of each other and to serve together, to succeed together, then so can we all. So can America.

So thank you for your service. And thank you for reminding us of the country we can and must always be.

God bless you, Jacksonville. And God bless the United States of America.

Thank you very much.


SANCHEZ: And there you go -- the president of the United States at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, talking to the troops there.

As we watch the president leave, I want to bring in Brooke Baldwin who's been following a part of this story today -- the part having to do with the DEA and their involvement in Afghanistan.


SANCHEZ: I understand the DEA reached out to us moments ago while we were listening to the president's speech. What are they saying?

BALDWIN: Right. The DEA is saying, "Hey, we've been -- we've had a presence in Afghanistan for the last four years." I spoke with a contact with the DEA just before the show started, and he said to me, in fact, they are just now beefing up their presence in Kabul up to about 50 different agents.

But keep in mind, a lot of people don't necessarily...

SANCHEZ: And just to backtrack real quick...


SANCHEZ: Fourteen people on the two helicopters, 11 of them servicemen, three of them DEA, all are deceased, all died.

BALDWIN: Uh-huh.

SANCHEZ: Wow. You were going to say...

BALDWIN: I was going to say, DEA has presence worldwide. Their mission is to dismantle these drug-trafficking operations and the drugs, as we know, that doesn't stop at the U.S. border. That is globally.

And if we can take a look at a map -- I just want to show our viewers who don't realize that the DEA certainly extends outside the United States. There are 87 foreign offices in 63 different countries. And so, it ranges all the way -- you know, you see all the way from Japan, Australia, all the way to, you know, Seattle, Washington, and everything in between, 5,200 agents worldwide.

And so, for example, we're talking about Afghanistan and this chopper crash, you know, after this raid on a compound, suspected drug trafficking, a lot of our agents were in Afghanistan because you think of the Taliban, they call it narco-terrorism...

SANCHEZ: Uh-huh.

BALDWIN: ... drugs, terrorism, hand-in-hand. And they're trying to stop that illegal flow.

SANCHEZ: But, yes, what comes as a surprise to me is you wouldn't think -- I understand the DEA is all over the world...


SANCHEZ: ... dealing with narco-terrorists -- but you don't think of a country where we're militarily engaging to be a place where you'd also have operations being carried out by the DEA. You just -- and I understand now why they're there.


SANCHEZ: It's just interesting to know that they've been so much a part of that process...

BALDWIN: Absolutely.

SANCHEZ: ... for the last four years and they've been reaching out to us to let us know that.

BALDWIN: And we've had crews embedded -- CNN crews embedded with the DEA in Afghanistan to tell their story and have been there for four years.

SANCHEZ: Wow. Brooke, thanks so much. We appreciate that.


SANCHEZ: Let's do this, one of the big stories that's taking place today is the fact that Harry Reid -- not only because Harry Reid has come out -- Ben Nelson earlier said that he may not be against some form of public option. Folks, it's looking like the public option may not just have life but may be, in fact, very, very much alive. We'll tell you why and how.

And Candy Crowley is going to join me in just a little bit. She's going to break all of this down for us.

Stay right there. We're coming back in like two.


SANCHEZ: The president was talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're being told now that he's just sent a note moments ago -- a note that we've received here.

Candy Crowley is joining me now.

Candy, are you up already? Are you there?


SANCHEZ: Perfect. Let me read you something we just received from the White House.

"The president congratulates Senator Reid and Chairman Baucus and Dodd for their hard work on the health insurance reform. Thanks to their efforts. We're closer than ever -- closer than we've ever been to solving this decades-old problem and while much work remains," reading on here, "the president is pleased that the progress in Congress is made. We're also pleased that the Senate has decided to include," here it is, bingo, "a public option for health coverage."

How significant is this? What's the White House -- what's the message that the White House is trying to send with this note?

CROWLEY: I think if you look back over the course of the past several months as this bill moved through the Senate and through the House, that you will find the White House saying, "Oh, we're really glad that this is moving forward, we really congratulate you for all this work," and the president has made no secret about the fact that he prefers the public option.

So, I don't think you'd find much different in that. They have been very hands off, a little too hands off for some Democrats on Capitol Hill saying, you know, he never said what sort of public option he wanted. Did he want this where states could opt out? Did he want the so-called "trigger" where if insurance companies don't get their act together it would trigger a public option, that is, a government-run health care insurance program?

SANCHEZ: Well, let me ask...

CROWLEY: Go ahead.

SANCHEZ: Let me ask you this. Let's break this down for people, because a lot of folks out there who are still -- heck, there's a lot of folks who are watching us right now probably don't even know still what the hell a public option is. But...

CROWLEY: They should join the club because we haven't really actually seen how this would work.

SANCHEZ: Explain -- explain what the public option is for us then, since -- since we're on that topic, let's tackle it.

CROWLEY: In terms of the details of it, we don't know particularly...


CROWLEY: ... how a state would opt out.

But here's the general idea -- the general idea is to offer as an alternative some sort of government-run health care insurance program. Now, how doctors would be paid, how much they would be paid, what employers would have to pay into it if they don't, in fact, insure their own employees, how it would compare to private health care insurance, whether all doctors would be forced to take this health care insurance from the government, or whether like Medicare they could say I don't -- I don't take Medicare patients or, you know, whatever health care insurance program they don't want to take.

So, there's lots of those details, but the idea -- supporters say -- is you cannot truly bring down prices for health care insurance until you have something that goes up against the private health care insurance providers.

SANCHEZ: Competition.

CROWLEY: A public option would be government-run. It's competition...


CROWLEY: ... and that's how they view it, and they say it will bring down health care costs in the private sector.

SANCHEZ: Well, you know, it's interesting, as we've been watching the progression of this thing -- you and I watched and had many conversations about this. We saw these town hall health care debates, and at that time, people were just saying, "Look, don't mess with our health care at all," and it seemed like they were getting some momentum and a lot of Democrats were kind of starting to shy away, especially those who are moderate or maybe even little on the conservative side.

Now, it seems that the momentum is going the other way, according to our polls, and we're seeing folks like -- I mentioned earlier Ben Nelson and now, Harry Reid come out just a little while ago and say this...


SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: As we've gone through this process, I've concluded, with the support of the White House, Senators Dodd and Baucus, that the best way to move forward is to include a public option with the opt-out provision for states. Under this concept, states will be able to determine whether the public option works well for them and will have the ability to opt out if they so choose. We have 60 people in the caucus. It's a -- the comfort level is kind of -- we all hug together and see where we come out.




SANCHEZ: So, here's the point. This thing that I'd say several months ago looked either diluted or on its last breath has, it seems -- you tell me if I'm wrong -- not just come back to life but become a very vigorous proposition now that seems to be getting a surprising amount of support.

CROWLEY: The question now is about form, and what form will this take. One of the things that they worried about on the Senate side was that the House, which has a more liberal bill that has been pushing at least for -- at least the Democrats, the progressive Democrats on the House side have been pushing for a full-on public option, none of this opt out, none of this trigger, they just want a public option set up.

SANCHEZ: A robust one, as they say, right?


CROWLEY: A robust one, exactly. Well, it's a public option without any caveats to it. Whereas, the Senate has taken a more middle ground here, at least Senator Reid has, and said, "Listen, we're going to let the states opt out if they really don't like it."

But here's the question -- the question now is, does Senator Reid, who is a very smart politician, who knows how to count votes, does he actually have the 60 votes he's going to need for this, or is he hoping that when he gets numbers back from the CBO which sort of looks at bills and says here's what it's going to cost, here's what it would do, is he waiting to sort of bring people on board like a Ben Nelson, certainly Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, is he waiting for those figures thinking they will go for this public option? Because the underlying politics for Democrats is this, they need to get something through.


CROWLEY: They need to have a health care bill to go into next year which is an election year.


CROWLEY: Obviously, they have buoyed by the public support that you're talking about, but we still have a ways to go. This is what Senator Reid is going to present out there to the Senate. It's not necessarily what the Senate is going to pass. But, yes, you're right, that certainly some kind of public option whether it's caveated or not has a whole lot more life than it did when it died in the finance committee.

SANCHEZ: You know, I bet you, if we asked Democrats, "Which form of public option are you going to pass," the correct answer would probably be, "The one that we can get 60 votes for," right?

CROWLEY: That's the only answer at this point.


CROWLEY: I mean, you could go for "We only need 51 votes," but that's so explosive at this point that certainly Senator Reid, the majority leader, has made -- made it clear that at this point, he's going for the 60 votes, and so you're right. He's going to go...

SANCHEZ: What...

CROWLEY: ... for what will get him 60 votes, and this is what clearly he thinks will.

SANCHEZ: What about the politics of this? I've got to ask you. I heard Harry Reid a little while ago, really come down hard on Republicans. He said that -- in fact, I wrote it down as I listened to him say it. He said, "These modern Senate Republicans don't represent Republicans across the country." He said that, "Unlike in the past where there was enough moderates that you could work with, the moderates now," he said, "are limited." And he also said that they don't help anymore.

Here's -- this is interesting, too. Let met read you something I've just gotten now. I don't know if you got it on your BlackBerry. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky has just sent this out -- Senator Mitch McConnell. He says, "While full details of the bill are still unknown, here's what we do. It's going to be a 1,000-page bill, $1 trillion bill that raises premiums, raises taxes, and slashes Medicare for our seniors to create a new government spending program. That's not reform."

That's Mitch McConnell. That's Harry Reid. It doesn't look like these guys are anywhere near together, are they?

CROWLEY: No. I think that the White House and the Democrats have clearly made a decision to go ahead without Republicans. They'd love to pull on Olympia Snowe, the Democrats' favorite Republican. She has said she doesn't like trigger options, anything that has to do with public option.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have been very good at framing Republicans as the "party of no." They don't want to help. They don't want to -- so all of the talk about bipartisanship, the Democrats have successfully said, "If we don't have bipartisanship, it's the Republicans' fault." We have seen poll numbers that show that in decades, numbers for the Republican Party have not been this low in terms of approval. So, it's been a winning formula for the Democrats.

Now, if you look at Republicans -- and in addition, by the way, and we should say and I try to say this all the time when we talk politics, there are very honest policy decisions and policy differences here. The Republicans and Democrats have. So, there are honest ways that they are voting "yes" or "no." The politics of it, though, is, that in the end, they are going to have some sort of health care reform bill.

And what is going to change people's minds and the ultimate determination is going to be: how does it work?


CROWLEY: And if it works really well, well, then, the Democrats are sailing for some time to come, I would think. If it doesn't, Republicans can say, "We did everything we could," because the reality is, Republicans...

SANCHEZ: Down to five seconds, Candy.

CROWLEY: ... don't have the numbers to stop this thing. Yes.

SANCHEZ: Yes. Candy Crowley, always good to be able to have a conversation with you on something that you have such a full knowledge of. My thanks to you.


SANCHEZ: And we're going to turn it over now to Wolf Blitzer who is standing by as well in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Wolf?