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Failed Bombing Suspect Indicted; Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Aired January 6, 2010 - 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: Happening now, breaking news: A new federal indictment against the suspect in a failed Christmas terror attack. This hour, we will go over the charges, including attempted murder of almost 300 passengers.
Who's to blame for the security breach that paralyzed a New Jersey airport? A new claim of responsibility and growing concerns about airport cameras and whether their record buttons are actually on.
And embattled Senator Chris Dodd announcing his retirement, giving Democrats, actually, a better shot at keeping his seat. But his party's clout in the U.S. Senate may still be in jeopardy on Election Day.
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.
The breaking news this hour, a formal indictment of the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas, a federal grand jury in Detroit issuing the charges just a few moments ago.
Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.
Jeanne, you have read the indictment.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
The six-count indictment charges Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian, with the following: attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison, attempted murder of the 289 other people on that Northwest Airlines aircraft, with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, willfully attempting to attack and destroy the aircraft, again, up to 20 years, willfully placing a destructive device in an aircraft, with a penalty, again, up to 20 years, and counts five and six cover possession of a firearm or destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence. Each of those counts carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.
It's worth noting that there's no mention of terrorism in the charges, although President Obama has characterized the events of Christmas Day as an attempt -- attempted attack by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder characterizes the investigation as fast-paced, global and ongoing and says it has already yielded valuable intelligence. He says that anyone found responsible for the alleged attack will be brought to justice using every tool, military or judicial, available to our government.
Abdulmutallab is scheduled to have his first court appearance on Friday -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. I suspect, with all these charges, no bail is going to be made available from this guy staying in jail.
MESERVE: I would suspect that's right.
BLITZER: All right, Jeanne, I know you had an exclusive interview today with Janet Napolitano as well. We're going to get to that later. I want to hear what she has to say today, but stand by for that.
Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, right now to assess this indictment, the six-count indictment.
I have it here, Jeffrey. I just read it myself. The bomb constituted, it says, a weapon of mass destruction. Specifically, what does that mean legally, as far as what kind of situation this young man is in?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the legal situation here is very similar to the one that Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, faced after he was arrested in 2002. The charges are very similar. And the consequences are likely to be very similar.
Because no one died, fortunately, there is no eligibility here for the death penalty, but, certainly, it's very hard to imagine that -- this case ending either in a guilty plea or after trial in anything other than a sentence of life in prison.
BLITZER: So, as far as a plea bargain is concerned, because we even heard the president's counterterrorism adviser speak Sunday of the possibility that, if there's a plea agreement, maybe these charges could be reduced, if he cooperates and provides information with U.S. authorities, as a former assistant U.S. attorney yourself, is that in the realm of possibility?
TOOBIN: Well, I would say it's close to out of the realm of possibility. Given the magnitude of this crime, the idea that the Justice Department would agree to anything less than a life sentence is very unlikely.
And, remember, the Justice Department and other administration officials have already said that he has provided useful information already. In a fast-moving investigation, the longer the time passes, the less valuable information is. I don't see what leverage this defendant has.
I think a plea bargain of any kind where he gets anything less than a life sentence is unlikely, because I don't think the Justice Department needs him anymore, since they have gotten information. And there will be enormous political pressure, appropriately, on the Justice Department to make him serve life in prison.
BLITZER: And, very quickly, if you were his criminal defense attorney, his public defender -- and he does have lawyers right now -- what strategy do you do?
TOOBIN: Well, I might consider going to medical school instead, because I don't think he -- the lawyer has much chance of doing anything.
I think, to the extent he could -- she -- his lawyer is a woman -- could negotiate perhaps for where he will serve his sentence, whether he has access to relatives, whether he can do some sort of training in prison. Those are the only things she could really ask for. I think the leverage of his defense attorneys is very small at this point.
BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey, thanks very much -- Jeffrey Toobin with the breaking news.
Also right now, the Obama administration is preparing to go public with its initial report on the failed Christmas terror attack. The White House says it will released an unclassified version tomorrow, the president expected to have a statement at that time as well. We will have extensive coverage, as you know.
The Transportation Security Administration says it's taking full responsibility for a startling security breach this week at the airport in Newark, New Jersey. Thousands of passengers had to be rescreened after a man walked through the wrong way -- walked the wrong way through security.
A lot of tough questions are being asked right now about what happened and why security cameras -- get this -- were not recording.
Our national correspondent, Susan Candiotti, has been digging on this story. She's joining us now from the Newark Airport.
It's a pretty shocking development that happened Sunday night, Susan.
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's hard for anyone to understand, Wolf. That's for sure.
You know, in fiscal year 2009, the TSA spent more than $93 million at airports nationwide upgrading and installing video systems. Well, this past Sunday at Newark, there was a glitch, a major glitch, in the system.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Amid interagency finger-pointing about who did what and when, disturbing new revelations about Sunday's security breach at Newark's airport.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has shaken the confidence of the American people.
CANDIOTTI: Three days after a man went the wrong way through a checkpoint exit, causing excruciating delays, the TSA is ordering a full-blown nationwide review of security procedures. After reviewing Continental Airlines' tape of the incident, New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg says he is convinced it was no accident.
SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG (D), NEW JERSEY: He stood there kind of measuring the scene, looking back and forth, and he wanted to do it. And that was -- that was the intent, and that's what he accomplished.
CANDIOTTI: He wants the TSA to release the tapes, so the man can be identified with the public's help.
LAUTENBERG: Get this man identified. Ask him why he was there, what he -- why he did it, and find -- and find out if there was a breach that we have to cover, and so that it can't happen again.
CANDIOTTI: A barrage of blunders preceded the security breakdown. A homeland security official tells CNN a distracted guard misses the security breach while answering a passerby's question. Port Authority cameras are not recording the incident.
The TSA and Port Authority each claim it's the other's fault. Cameras have not been recording for several days. Senator Lautenberg says no one knew they stopped working December 28, nine days before the incident. No cameras were following the suspect beyond the checkpoint, and TSA does not alert the Port Authority for 80 minutes, nearly an hour-and-a-half, explaining it first wanted to figure out whether the breach was for real before sounding an alarm.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Time is not a luxury when we have the potential of a terrorist attack.
CANDIOTTI: Some security experts say the blame game isn't helping.
STEPHEN FLYNN, AUTHOR, "THE EDGE OF DISASTER: REBUILDING A RESILIENT NATION": They should not be acting like children. They have the same responsibility, which is to safeguard the flying public.
CANDIOTTI: By anyone's measure, not knowing cameras are not recording, when they're supposed to be, cannot go on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a disaster in the making.
CANDIOTTI: Now, the TSA has already taken some steps to improve security at that particular checkpoint. They have reconfigured it and added more personnel.
And that TSA security officer who was on duty has been reassigned and cited by the Port Authority police. Finally, Wolf, I will tell you this. I am told that the request by Senator Lautenberg to release that surveillance tape, which is secured and owned by Continental Airlines, is under review by the TSA -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And here's the question. Is this happening at other airports around the country, that these video cameras aren't working?
CANDIOTTI: Well, there's a directive that just went out today by the TSA ordering all of its federal security directors at every airport to make sure that the cameras are working.
BLITZER: They better be working.
All right, thanks very much, Susan Candiotti, over at the Newark Airport.
The world sweats as Iran defies. What might the Obama administration actually do as Tehran insists on keeping its controversial nuclear program? And what might Israel do? I will speak live with the new Israeli ambassador here in the United States, Michael Oren.
And should some air travelers beware? At one airport, explosives are put in a passenger's luggage containment without him knowing. Wait until you find out who planted the explosives and why.
And, attention, all Democrats. There's new reason for some political fear -- surprise announcements posing more threats to the party's grip on power.
BLITZER: We will get to the Israeli ambassador in a moment, but Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File."
Lots of news today, Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Indeed.
How dare they? President Obama, Democratic leaders have decided to bypass a formal House and Senate conference committee in order to reconcile those two health care bills. Instead, White House and Democratic leaders will hold informal -- that's another word for secret -- negotiations, meant to shut Republicans and the public out of the process.
What a far cry from the election, when then candidate Obama pledged to -- quote -- "broadcast health care negotiations on C-SPAN, so that the American people can see what the choices are" -- unquote.
President Obama hasn't even made a token effort to keep his campaign promises of more openness and transparency in government. It was all just another lie that was told in order to get elected. The head of C-SPAN wrote a letter, asked Congress to -- quote -- "open all the important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media coverage" -- unquote. When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked whether the administration would support televising the negotiations, he refused to answer, instead mumbling something about, well, I haven't seen the letter.
That wasn't the question, Mr. Gibbs. You either support openness or you don't. The Democrats insist this is all on the up-and-up, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying -- quote -- "There's never been a more open process for any legislation." -- unquote.
Really? This is the same Nancy Pelosi who you may recall, after becoming speaker in 2006, promised the Democrats would have -- quote -- "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history" -- unquote.
Here's hoping the voters remember some of this crap when the midterm elections roll around later this year.
Here's the question: Should secret negotiations be used to reconcile the two health care bills?
Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. Post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good question, Jack. Thank you.
One item piled high on President Obama's political plate right now, what to do about Iran? Tehran remains defiant about its nuclear program, thumbing its nose at the world's demands. How should the world respond? How could the U.S. and Israel, for that matter, respond?
Joining us now, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Michael Oren.
Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.
MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Pleasure, Wolf.
BLITZER: I noticed in "The New York Times" on Sunday -- this line sort of jumped out at me I want you to clarify: "A senior Israeli diplomat in Washington said that, in back-channel conversations -- quote -- "'Obama has convinced us that it's worth trying the sanctions, at least for a few months.'"
Is that true, that you're going to go along with President Obama and see if these sanctions can make a difference?
OREN: Well, first of all, why we're cautious about and concerned about the question of time, Wolf, as time passes, those 4,000 centrifuges in Iran continue to spin out enriched uranium.
But we are not putting a timetable on this. We're trusting in the president's handling of this issue and his commitment to reassess Iran's willingness to suspend that uranium enrichment -- so far, they have rejected all compromises -- and then, having concluded that the Iranians are not going to cease suspending -- cease enriching uranium, to proceed with leveling sanctions on Iran to induce that outcome.
BLITZER: I guess the question is, is the government of Israel and the Obama administration on the same page as far as Iran is concerned?
OREN: We agree with a great number of things with the Obama administration. We agree...
BLITZER: What don't you -- what don't you agree with?
OREN: Well, let me talk about what we agree on first.
What we agree on, that the goal is the end and complete cessation of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. We agree that, if the Iranians do not accept a compromise package, that then the United States will join with the international community, with like-minded states, in developing, devising and imposing these crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy.
We are very much on the same page on all of those issues.
BLITZER: Where aren't you on the same page?
OREN: I don't think there are major differences between us on this. I think we're now reexamining how we're going to proceed to imposing these sanctions, and we're closely communicating with and cooperating with the Obama administration.
BLITZER: Because, in recent years, there have been differences as far as the intelligence assessment of the U.S. government and the Israeli government as to how close Iran is to actually possessing a nuclear bomb.
OREN: I think we're very closely communicating and cooperating on all of these issues. And our assessments are very, very similar.
BLITZER: Is your intelligence the same as the U.S. assessment?
OREN: Our assessments are very similar.
BLITZER: There's another story in "The New York Times" today -- you probably saw it on the front page -- about these secret tunnels.
And take a look behind you. You see that picture there, Ahmadinejad wearing the hardhat in the front there.
BLITZER: He visited a tunnel. This is not necessarily a tunnel where they're having some nuclear facilities. But it would be deep underground.
Does Israel have the capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities in these deep underground tunnels?
OREN: Wolf, we're nowhere near that point now. We're focused now on sanctions, not on destroying tunnels. We're focused on getting these sanctions up and running and to assessing their impact.
BLITZER: And you really believe these sanctions can change the government of Iran?
OREN: We believe that the sanctions can be effective. We are interested in seeing the degree to which the other important factors and actors in the international community will cooperate.
I think there's a growing awareness on the part of all international actors -- the Russians, the Chinese -- that Iran poses a threat, not just to Israel and the Middle East, but poses a threat to world peace. There are greater indications that the Russians are willing to come aboard. The working assumption is, if the Russians come aboard, the Chinese will not want to remain ashore. And we're hopeful that the sanctions can prove effective.
BLITZER: We're also seeing these demonstrations in Tehran, elsewhere in Iran, a lot of people out on the street protesting the regime of President Ahmadinejad.
Do you believe that there can be a revolution of sorts inside of Iran, regime change, if you will, by the people on the streets?
OREN: Well, I don't get into prophecy about the future of Iran, Wolf.
What's clear now is that, in the aftermath of the upheaval that began last June, it's the same Iran. This is not a monolithic, unchallenged leadership. There are great schisms within Iranian leadership and between the leadership and the people.
What we do believe, for example, is that sanctions will not galvanize the regime and its people, will actually widen the gaps between them. To put it very graphically, if you have a cabdriver in Tehran who runs out of gas because of sanctions, if before, in June, he would have gotten out of his cab and blamed Israel, the West for running out of gas, today, that same cabdriver in Tehran gets out of his gasless cab and blames his own government for bringing these sanctions down on him.
BLITZER: So, I guess the other part of that question is, if there is a revolution, Mousavi and his supporters were to take over, would that make a difference as far as Iran's nuclear program, as far as Iran and Israel is concerned?
OREN: I'm sure that Iran under a different government would have a different relationship with Israel. For many years, Iran had a close relationship with Israel. And for certainly the first -- at least the first two decades of Israel's existence, Iran was Israel's major oil supplier.
BLITZER: All right, let's talk about airline security.
As you know, since Christmas Day, there's been a huge amount of concern here as far as security at U.S. airports, for good reason. Israel is well-known for having very tight security at Ben-Gurion Airport, El-Al among the most security airlines in the world.
What is the single most important piece of advice you would give the U.S. as far as airline security is concerned?
OREN: I don't think Israel is in the position of giving advice to people. I think we learn from one another. And we are closely investigating the circumstances surrounding the attempted destruction of this plane bound for Detroit on Christmas.
But there is -- Israel does present a different model for airport and airline security. Israel is less concerned with what people are wearing or the way they're dressed and what they're carrying. Rather, we're more concerned with the way they behave.
And it's not -- you know, it's been widely misrepresented that -- that we racially profile. We don't. I have been -- I go through that airport every other week. And, very often, it happens that someone, an Arab, Israeli in flowing robes or a woman in a complete hijab goes through as easily as I do.
But I should know that I, as the ambassador of Israel to the United States, I get stopped every single time. And I get checked by people, many of them young enough to be my own kid, who are asking me questions, and they're looking for inconsistency in my answers. They're looking not what I'm wearing. They're not looking at my ethnicity. They're looking at how I behave and how I react to certain kinds of questions.
That's a different model. And, certainly, we're willing to share that model with the United States and other countries in the world facing this common problem of airborne terror.
BLITZER: One question before I let you go, and we're very tight on time.
A report in one of the Israeli newspapers today saying the Obama administration has told you it's going to disengage from the peace process unless Israel and the Palestinians start accepting some concessions?
OREN: Well, I don't know -- I can't comment on anything in the Israeli press. I haven't heard anything about that.
BLITZER: Well, the "Yediot Ahronot" report, Israel report, Rahm threatened disengagement, referring to the White House chief of staff, are you familiar with that?
OREN: No. Well, I'm not familiar with that, but I'm familiar with Rahm Emanuel, both before I got on to this job and in this job. And I can only assure you, unreservedly, of Rahm Emanuel's complete commitment to the security of Israel and to the search for Israeli/Palestinian peace. And not just for Rahm -- I'm speaking, I think, of the entire Obama administration -- shares his commitment to that, Israel's security, and the search for peace.
BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.
OREN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: He allegedly killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We have the latest on the 89-year-old avowed white supremacist.
And imagine you're at the airport and someone slips explosives in your bag. That's what happened at one airport. You may be shocked to learn who planted the explosives in the passenger's luggage and why.
BLITZER: Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
Fred, what's going on?
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf. Hello, everyone.
Well, the man accused of killing a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has died. Officials say James Von Brunn died this morning at a North Carolina prison hospital. Prison officials say he had a long history of poor health, including heart disease. The 89-year-old self-avowed white supremacist allegedly opened fire at the museum in June, and he faced multiple felony charges, including murder.
And Yemen's foreign minister tells CNN his country has not been able to focus fully on al Qaeda because it's been busy dealing with other civil insurgencies. He also insists that Yemen is not accepting direct U.S. intervention to deal with al Qaeda, despite reports the U.S. made military strikes again Yemeni targets last year.
And an airline security test gone horribly wrong. What if this happened to you? Slovakian authorities admit that they planted explosives in a passenger's luggage on a Saturday flight from Slovakia to Ireland without him knowing it. They say a police officer failed to take the explosives out of the bag at a security checkpoint. The unwitting passenger was tracked down and the explosives recovered. Slovakia calls the test a mistake, but insists no one was in danger, saying the explosives were harmless without bomb components -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Still pretty scary stuff. If somebody slips fakes explosives in your luggage, that's pretty scary.
WHITFIELD: Yes. It underscores just how easy that could be then, right? BLITZER: Yes. That's a problem.
BLITZER: Thanks, Fred.
Embattled Democratic Senator Chris Dodd decides to leave the U.S. Senate on his own terms. With another senator calling it quits, can the president's party keep its filibuster-proof majority? Team coverage of the Democrats' new worries coming this November.
And CNN speaks to the relatives of that Jordanian double agent who bombs a CIA base in Afghanistan. What do they know about his motives?
BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: We're going to live to Yemen. Security forces are trying to hunt down an al Qaeda leader suspected of masterminding a terror plot that forced U.S. and British embassies to close. We're going to Yemen.
And the father of the so-called balloon boy is now speaking out on CNN. It's Richard Heene's first interview since he was sentenced to jail.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Obama and Democrats have new reason to worry. Right now, they're staring at some serious threats to their grip on power in the U.S. Senate. Might they lose their 60-seat supermajority? That's the question now that one of the President Obama's closest and most powerful allies has essentially decided you won't have him to kick around anymore. We're talking about Chris Dodd, and he's not the only Democratic senator bowing out.
Jessica Yellin has more on the potential shift in the balance of power. That's coming up. But first, let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. Dana Bash, this was I guess sort of a surprise. Byron Dorgan definitely, Chris Dodd, too.
DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right and between the two of them, obviously, we've had two senior Democrats announcing in the last 24 parties that they're retiring. One is Chris Dodd. He is well known and he is respected by the party faithful. And it may sound counterintuitive, maybe even crass, but talking to Democratic political strategists as I have last night and all day today, they say when it comes to the balance of power in the Senate, they're relieved.
BASH (voice-over): A 30-year senate veteran took a painful step to protect himself and his party. SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: There are moments for each elected public officials to step aside and let someone else step up. This is my moment to step aside.
BASH: Chris Dodd spoke of a trying year. His battle with cancer, then losing his sister and best friend Ted Kennedy to the disease. But the big factor was that internal data showed his reelection virtually unwinnable, say Democratic sources.
DODD: Now, let me be clear. I'm very aware of my present political standing here at home in Connecticut.
BASH: That standing started to drop two years ago. Dodd not only waged a long-shot bid for president, he moved his wife and children from Connecticut to Iowa. But Connecticut voters appeared to take it as a sleight. Then he was dogged by controversy, an alleged sweetheart mortgage deal from Countrywide. The Ethics Committee eventually cleared him, but then there was this --
(on camera): You were very adamant yesterday, very adamant, you didn't know how this change got in there. And now you're saying your staff did work with the administration.
DODD: Going back and looking, and obviously I apologize...
BASH (voice-over): Dodd denied, then later admitted to CNN he helped write legislation that allowed AIG executives to keep controversial bonuses. His poll numbers collapsed, and never fully rebounded, despite leading roles in high-profile issues like health care. Dodd's exit now is actually good news for Democrats. They hope to keep the seat with Connecticut's popular attorney general, who jumped right in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This will be very much a grass-roots, bottom- up campaign.
BASH: But this surprise retirement of lesser-known Senator Byron Dorgan does worry party leaders. His was a safe democrat from North Dakota, a red state Democratic sources admit they could now lose.
STU ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: The bottom line is still nationally a difficult one for Democrats where in the Senate, it looks like this could lose some seats, and that 60-seat majority that they hold could be slipping away day by day.
BASH: And losing that 60-seat Democratic majority would have serious consequences for President Obama's agenda. Just look at the health care vote last month. It passed just barely, 60 votes along party lines. That is not a vote to spare. An Wolf, if Democrats lose even one seat, the president will have to change his approach and strategy toward Congress dramatically. He's going to have to work to compromise with Republicans more.
BLITZER: Try to get as much controversial legislation passed this year as opposed to waiting next year given what could happen in the Senate. Dana, thank you very much.
In the Senate right now, there are 37 seats up for election come November. How might Democrats and Republicans be crunching the political numbers? Let's bring in our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin. She's doing exactly that. Jessica?
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this sounds contradictory, but it is a tough political environment right now for both Democrats and for Republicans. The parties have different problems. Republicans are facing a split in their ranks between moderates on the one side and the tea party faithful.
And then Democrats, well, they're fighting voters' anti-incumbent rage. Now let's take a look at the Democrats first. One challenge for the president's party is that five Democratic senators are retiring. And it's usually harder to elect a new candidate than to reelect an incumbent. First of all, we have Chris Dodd -- I think -- well, we're starting here with Byron Dorgan. Byron Dorgan is the North Dakota senator, who as Dana pointed out, is retiring. Now he was facing a bitter uphill fight in his state.
Nationally, Republicans are hoping that the state's governor, a Republican will get into that race. And if he does jump into the race and they believe he could win, that could swing that state to the Republicans' hands from the Democrats.
Now if we can bring up that graphic that has all of the five retiring Democrats, they include not just Senator Chris odd and Byron Dorgan, but also Roland Burris -- okay -- we're having some graphics problems. Roland Burris of Illinois, who replaced President Obama in his Senate seat. Paul Kirk of Massachusetts -- he temporarily filled Senator Kennedy's seat. Ted Kaufman, who took Biden's seat when he became vice president, and have we run through? Paul Kirk, Massachusetts? OK, we've got them.
So there are five through. Now, we went through Byron Dorgan. We can go past him. Senator Dodd, we know that his exit actually means a radical change. It means that that could actually be a benefit to the Democrats. And then there is of course the Mountain West. The Mountain West, Wolf, was a place where Democrats made major gains in the last few years, but there is suddenly big trouble there.
In Nevada, one of the nation's most powerful Democrats, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, he's battling for his political life. And then Colorado, that's the poster child for Democrats, Western gains. They were bullish in that state. Democrats had their state convention there. Well, Senator Bennett of Colorado, a newcomer, could well lose that seat to a Republican. So Democrats face some real challenges.
BLITZER: What about the Republicans?
YELLIN: OK, we said there are five Democratic retirements. There are six Republican retirements. And all but one of them are long-term office holders. So the good news here for Democrats is if they lose in the states that I mentioned earlier, they have the opportunity to make up ground where? In the state of Ohio, where Republican George Voinovich is retiring. Obama won that state. And that race could go either way.
Another swing state, Missouri, where Senator Kit Bond -- look, we got the right one. Where Senator Kit Bond is retiring, and Democrats have a chance of picking up a seat there. There's Judd Gregg, a seat in New Hampshire, that's another state Obama won. And finally even Florida, Wolf. Senator Martinez' seat, you once would have thought that the current Governor Charlie Crist was a shoo-in to win there, but guess what? Because of internal fighting, the Republicans could fumble that race. So the bottom line here, there's plenty of uncertainty on both sides, and it will be another very interesting year for politics.
BLITZER: We'll cover every step up to November, all the primaries and of course the elections in November. By then, we'll get all those graphics right. Thanks very much, Jessica Yellin.
Democrats have decided to bypass Republicans to hammer out a final health care reform compromise on their own. The closed-door process is creating more skepticism about the president's promise of open government.
And CNN right now inside Yemen for a report on the country's battle against al Qaeda and its link to the attempted airline terror attack. Once again this network going places few others go.
BLITZER: President Obama met today with House Democratic leaders on health care reform as Republicans raise new questions about what's going on behind closed doors. Sources say Democrats now are prepared to bypass the traditional conference committee, as it's called, to hammer out differences between the House and Senate reform bills. That would exclude Republicans and prevent them from trying to delay final passage. It might also circumvent a request by a cable TV network, the C-SPAN network specifically, to allow coverage of the House/Senate negotiations. Critics say this isn't the kind of open government the president promised as a candidate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators, insurance companies, drug companies, they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is we will have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our senior political analyst Gloria Borger. Republicans, they don't really want to be involved in this conference committee report, do they?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, here's the thing. They're protesting about it, because obviously it's a political opportunity for them to say, look at Barack Obama during the campaign and look at him now.
And they do have a point when they say that. This is a president who promised open negotiations. Lots of things have been happening behind closed doors particularly in the Senate for months. But it is also true, Wolf, that you're probably not going to get one Senate Republican, maybe you'll get one to vote for this measure. There's not a bunch of compromising that's really going to go on and they'd like to bring the cameras in there to make their political point about this, which is that they feel like they're being run over politically and they're being excluded. Both parties over the years have done this at one time or another.
BLITZER: Because when all is said and done, the most difficult issues that have to be resolved are going to be resolved by Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the White House.
BORGER: Right and you know, if the folks who might have the most to be upset about are actually the liberal Democrats, because the liberal Democrats who are the ones who are probably going to end up losing their public option. It's clear that the president favors the Senate bill, which does not have the public option. It's clear that he might also favor the way that the Senate raises taxes in the Senate bill. And Nancy Pelosi isn't so happy about that. So the liberal Dems might want to have it out there on television.
BLITZER: All right, thanks very much. Clearly moving away from the campaign commitment on the part of the president if you listen to what he said then, as opposed to what has happened over these past several months.
Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Fred, what do you have?
WHITFIELD: Hello again, Wolf, hello everyone. Well the NBA has just announced it is suspending Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards. Commissioner David Stern says Arenas violated NBA rules by bringing guns into the locker room. He says the suspension is without pay and will remain in effect pending an investigation by NBA officials.
And an arctic cold wave is keeping much of the Central and Eastern U.S. locked in a deep freeze. Ice is building up in the Mississippi River in Illinois, forcing some ferries to actually stop running. Frigid temperatures are hitting as far south as Florida, where farmers are scrambling to protect millions of dollars worth of strawberries and oranges.
And a new leash on life for more than a dozen Chihuahuas. The pint-sized pups were flown today from San Francisco where they couldn't find a home to New York, where Chihuahuas apparently are in high demand. They flew in style as well inside the main cabin of a Virgin America jet. An animal rescue group will put them up for adoption, so score one for the little guy, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, good for him. Thanks very much for that.
The latest on that suicide bomber who killed eight people, including seven Americans at a CIA base in Afghanistan, the family of this double agent is now speaking to CNN.
And President Obama's former opponent sounding a vote of confidence in the president's plan. John McCain has some strong approval for what the president is doing right now in Afghanistan.
BLITZER: Let's get to our "Strategy Session." Joining us now, the Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, a CNN political contributor and Erick Erickson, he's the managing editor of redstate.com, billed as the largest online community of conservative activists. Do you have any competition? Who's your biggest competition?
ERICK ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM: You know, I don't necessarily consider them competitors, Hot Air, Town Hall.
BLITZER: National Review?
ERICKSON: Yeah, all good Web sites.
BLITZER: But you're the biggest?
ERICKSON: Well, community. We do it differently than they do. Anyone can come to Red State and start a diary and write.
BLITZER: Let's talk about John McCain. He's in Afghanistan right now. He tweeted earlier in the day. He said, "Another great day in Afghanistan, tough challenges ahead, but I'm confident we can succeed." That sounds like a vote of confidence in the president's new strategy in Afghanistan.
ERICKSON: I think Republicans are probably going to give him the benefit of the doubt. They've been saying he needed to send more troops in. He is now sending more troops in. I think the hesitancy among Republicans is also saying that they're going to come back out. I don't think come back out. I don't think they wanted kind of that suggestion that it was going to be so definitive, but give it a chance, see if it works.
BLITZER: Whenever John McCain says he likes a policy in Afghanistan, a lot of liberal Democrats, Hilary Rosen, say...
HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, not so much.
BLITZER: Not so fast.
ROSEN: And I think actually that was true when President Obama laid out his policy. There was a lot more skepticism on the Democratic side than there was on the Republican side, but I think for John McCain to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, it's really much more about his own politics in a way, that he consistently wants to be seen as having advocated a strategy that he thinks succeeded, the surge in Iraq now a semi-surge or a troop surge in Afghanistan. So I think it's less about President Obama and much more about him trying to claim some of his own legacy.
BLITZER: And they might -- may succeed in Iraq, may succeed in Afghanistan, we don't know, it's still too early. But let's see. Obviously the final chapter neither in Iraq or Afghanistan has not been written.
ERICKSON: I don't think we've heard the last from John McCain on this, either.
BLITZER: No, and we shouldn't. He is an influential senator and he should speak out, as he always does.
You said the other day, Erick, that one of your top priorities in this election year is to make sure that Charlie Crist, the incumbent Republican governor of Florida, does not become the Republican Senate nominee, that Marco Rubio, who's challenging Crist, gets that -- wouldn't Charlie Crist have a better chance of winning a general election in Florida than Rubio?
ERICKSON: No, I don't think so. You know, the same people who are saying that generally are the people who said that Rubio shouldn't even win, because Crist would have a walk with it. And now Rubio has gotten even with him in the polls and I think this is a product of the kind of the establishment conventional thinking that gets people into trouble.
BLITZER: Charlie Crist is a moderate, I think it's fair to say. He's got a lot of support -- at least used to have a lot of support across political lines in Florida. Would you rather, as a Democrat, face Charlie Crist in November for the U.S. Senate or Marco Rubio, who is much more conservative?
ROSEN: You know, people used to say that the reason Republicans won more elections is because they would rather win than be right and hear themselves talk and that Democrats would rather hear themselves talk than win. I think we've gone the complete other way. I frankly think that Kendrick Meek, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee in Florida.
BLITZER: He's a congressman.
ROSEN: Congressman from South Florida has a chance to beat either Rubio or Charlie Crist, because Republicans are not offering the country or the citizens of Florida solutions and Democrats are working very hard.
BLITZER: There are a lot of Democrats say they'd love to see a very tough bloody Republican primary to sort of soften up whoever the nominee is.
ERICKSON: I would disagree with that, in fact I hear that one of the gubernatorial nominees in the Democratic Party may jump in down in Florida because they're worried about Kendrick. He's polling badly against Crist. He's polling badly against Rubio as well. Interestingly, he's been pulling worse against Rubio lately than Crist, every since Crist did what Colbert called the terrorist nibble bump with President Obama at the event down in Florida over the stimulus package, Republicans have been a little upset with him. And he's done a good job of rubbing their noses in a lot of his successes that haven't turned out to be success.
BLITZER: One other thing you said the other day is you hope that any Republican success this year will not come to the benefit of the Republican political establishment. Explain what you mean.
ERICKSON: Well you know the Republican establishment that leads the Republican Party right now is the Republican establishment that led them out of power in 2006 because of corruption, dissatisfaction, big spending. If the Republican establishment is -- gets the success, for Republican successes, which typically the people out of power come back in an off-year election, you're going to see the Republicans who got thrown out of office in 2006 and all of a sudden be leaving again. That makes no sense.
ROSEN: I think the Republicans are doing what is typical when they're losing, which is to go back to an ideological war. Is it because we're not playing enough to our conservative base? Or do we need to be more moderate? There's no race in the country where that is going to play out more directly than in this primary in Florida, but again I go back to the point that I think citizens are beyond some of that, you know, right/left politics, the conservative politics. What they're looking for are solutions. They want jobs, they want health care, they want energy solutions. I think practicality is going to go.
ERICKSON: They're not finding it with the Democrats.
BLITZER: We'll continue this conservation. We've got a lot of time between now and the primary in August and then the election in November. We'll be busy. Guys, thanks very much.
ERICKSON: Thank you.
BLITZER: The president of Yemen likens his job to dancing on the heads of snakes. Is he someone the U.S. can really rely on as a partner against terrorists? Some people have their doubt.
And dramatic images, a war over whaling turns violent at sea.
BLITZER: Our "Political Ticker," PBS host Tavis Smiley is ending his annual state of the black union conference. The conference, which has featured names like Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, has been held every February for the last decade. Smiley says he needs time to focus on other projects right now.
The White House is welcoming a new first nephew. Craig Robinson, the older brother of First Lady Michelle Obama and his wife Kelly welcomed the baby named Austin on Monday. The baby is said to have weighed in at 7 pounds 5 ounces. Congratulations to the Robinsons.
Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com or go to Twitter and read my tweets.
Yemen now is seen as a major player in the war on terror. But is the country's president someone the United States can really depend on? We're digging in on that. We're going to Yemen.
And the homeland security chief acknowledges yet another glitch in the system to protect some airline passengers. An exclusive interview with the cabinet member who's gotten the most heat since the failed Christmas bombing.
BLITZER: Let's getting right to Jack with "The Cafferty File." Jack?
CAFFERTY: The question this hour is should secret negotiations be used to reconcile these two health care bills in Washington?
Don in Ontario says, "Health care is too important and complex to be negotiated behind closed doors. It's doubtful that any single member of the Senate or House knows enough about the topic to enact a bill that truly improves the current messy system. The negotiations should be televised so that news programs like CNN can daily ask their medical and legal experts to comment."
Helen in Washington says, "At this point, I'm sick and tired of hearing about health care. Anything to keep it off cable news is fine by me."
Ed in Maryland says, "In secret is generally where people do all their evil. That's also where people conspire. If they conspired to do good, why do it in secret?"
Doug in Dallas says, "What difference does it make, Jack, whether it's an open forum or closed, the end result will be the same. Why should the party of no be included? They all voted against it so if they hold true to their roots, they'll do everything they can do delay it even further."
Jayne in New Hampshire says, "It doesn't mater whether the negotiations are secret or conducted at Madison Square Garden. Without a single-payer health care plan, the whole mess is nothing more than welfare for the big insurance companies. And I thought there was a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans."
Sue in San Diego writes, "Even after Obama promised to work for all Americans and reach across party lines for the most bipartisan administration in history, they are conducting secret meetings excluding the Republicans and all the American people. We will respond the only way we can. The remaining Democrats that don't resign will be voted out of office and Obama will be a one-term president." Patrick says, "Well, how's that change working out for everybody? I don't think this is what American voters had in mind when they voted for change they could believe in."
If you want to read more about this topic, you'll find it at my blog at CNN.com/CaffertyFile. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right Jack, thank you.