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THE SITUATION ROOM

Koreas on Brink of War?; Interview With New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; President Obama Signs Compromise Tax Cut Bill; Al Qaeda in Yemen a Growing Threat; Treatment of Army Leaker Questioned; Retailers Finding New Ways to Learn about Shoppers; Marines Return Home for Holidays

Aired December 17, 2010 - 18:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, GUEST HOST: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, all eyes on the Korean Peninsula. There's real fear that a military exercise this weekend could spiral into all-out war.

Our own Wolf Blitzer is in North Korea with an exclusive assignment.

Also, violating U.S. airspace. A mysterious unmanned drone crashes in a Texas yard. So, who does it belong to?

And retail surveillance cameras, they may be recording more than just your picture. How businesses are using them to learn everything they can about you.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer joins us live from North Korea this hour.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It is a situation our own Wolf Blitzer describes as a tinderbox. He is North Korea right now on an exclusive assignment accompanying New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is trying to diffuse tension on the Korean Peninsula, tension that some fear could boil over into war this weekend.

South Korea will be conducting military drills with live artillery on the same island where a similar drill last month prompted North Korea to shell the island, killing four people. And the North is vowing a similar response this weekend.

One top Pentagon official is openly warning that could set off a chain reaction. And CNN has learned that the Obama administration and South Korea have established contingency communication plans. And the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon will be in constant touch with South Korean counterparts over the weekend.

Wolf Blitzer joins us on the phone right now from the North Korean capital.

Wolf, tell us what you have been doing today with the governor, Richardson. What kinds officials have you been meeting with? What have you learned? WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Suzanne, it is early Saturday morning already over here, and it is obviously a very, very tense situation, as you describe.

People are very, very worried that one miscalculation could cause a disaster. That is how concerned they are. I'm here with the governor. Governor Richardson is -- is here with me in Pyongyang. I'm covering his visit here.

He's joining me now. And I want to briefly speak with him and get his assessment of what is going on, because he had some major meetings yesterday with senior North Korean officials. He has got more today. And I will ask him bluntly.

Governor, how concerned are you?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, I'm very concerned, because my objection initially was to tamp things down, cool things down.

My sense is that the North Koreans are very concerned about this possible exercise that is coming up between Saturday and Tuesday, although the South Koreans claim it is routine, supervised by the U.S.

I have urged maximum restraint. I have said to them, look, you proceeded with this artillery shell before. You killed some civilians. You also went forward with the sinking of the ship, the enriched uranium increases. You have got to cool down.

I think that I made a little headway. But the big response is going to be today in a couple of hours. I met with Kim Kye-Gwan, who is the special adviser to Kim Jong Il, the president, the top nuclear negotiator, and then tomorrow with the head of the military.

So, right now, my objective is to say, tamp things down, let the routine exercise take place, if it does. There is enormous tension. There is potential for miscalculation. Just cool things down. And maybe here, although I'm not acting officially representing the U.S. government, there's some ways that we can take steps to send a message that North Korea is ready for serious negotiations to reduce and terminate its nuclear arsenal.

BLITZER: Because, Governor, the South Koreans say they are going to go ahead with this exercise. The North Koreans have issued a statement, a public statement, saying if they do, they will take military action.

Are you now urging the North Koreans not to take any action, to show constraint, or are you urging the South Koreans to delay their exercise?

RICHARDSON: Well, what I am urging -- I'm here with the North Koreans, so this is where I can hopefully make a difference. I'm urging them extreme restraint.

Now, last night, I was very, very strong with the North Korean Foreign Ministry officials. They gave us a dinner. And I'm going to do it again today.

In other words, let's cool things down, no response. Let the exercises take place. But, on all sides, I'm urging restraint. I saw that an American general is urging restraint on the South Koreans. I think that is encouraging. That is a positive.

But, right now, this is a tinderbox. And what we need to do is not just tamp things down, but look at steps that can taken by the North Koreans especially, such as perhaps allowing IAEA inspectors to come in to look at the nuclear arsenal, perhaps finding ways for responses between the North and South to avert any kind of altercation like we are having today, perhaps look at ways, also, that both sides can have some kind of a summit, some kind of direct discussions, North and South, about ways that the situation can cool down, because it is a tinderbox.

It is very sensitive. And so we have to, I think, address this immediate concern. And I'm going to do this in a couple of hours with Kim Kye-Gwan, who is a key player here, urging restraint, leave things alone, let things be, let things cool down.

BLITZER: What about the military? You are having a major meeting tomorrow that's now been scheduled -- it was not on your original schedule -- with top North Korean military officials. How unusual is this for you -- and you have been here several times -- to meet with North Korean military officials?

RICHARDSON: Well, it is unusual, because primarily when I visit here and when Americans visit, they have met with Foreign Ministry officials.

Meeting a top military person is significant, because the military on many of these drills and obviously in formulating national security policy in North Korea plays a major, major role. And so I consider this meeting tomorrow morning significant. It is an offline meeting that we asked for and they agreed to do.

So, hopefully, we can keep things from firing up, because I am concerned. And I will do my best. And, again, it's a good thing that I'm here, I believe, because my sense from the North Koreans is they are trying to find ways to tamp this down in this conversation that I had yesterday.

So, maybe that will continue today. That is my hope. But I am concerned.

BLITZER: Suzanne, that is the governor of New Mexico, the outgoing governor, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the former secretary. He is here in Pyongyang. I'm covering his visit. And, obviously, as you heard, he is worried that this could be a tinderbox right now.

We will be stay obviously in close touch with him. We're covering his meetings. I will be going with him throughout the day today. And we will see also if the North Koreans allow him to go visit the nuclear facility at Yongbyon. So, there's a lot of going on. We are scheduled to leave here on Monday. And, obviously, this is a very, very sensitive moment -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Wolf, what kind of signals are you picking up from the people that you have met that you have encountered in your trip so far? Is there a sense, a real palpable sense, of tension here?

BLITZER: The North Koreans are very, very concerned about South Korean objectives, about Japanese objectives, about U.S. objectives.

They have a good relationship, as you know, with China, a decent relationship, not as good, though, with Russia. But these people are very worried. They have a long history. They don't -- they are worried about what South Korea potentially could do. And they believe the only way -- the only card they really have is their military capability and their nuclear capability.

Now, they are concerned, if they didn't have that capability -- this is the message they keep giving me and they keep giving Governor Richardson -- is that there would be nothing stopping South Korea and the U.S. from moving in.

And they remember what the Japanese did in the years leading up to World War II, when Japan occupied Korea and they say stole its natural resources, enslaved its women for the pleasure of the Japanese military. I keep hearing this over and over again from the North Koreans. And even though that was 60, 70 years ago, it is still very much on their minds.

And what they say is that, if they didn't have this military capability, they would be done. So that's the message they keep conveying.

MALVEAUX: Wolf, thank you so much. Be safe. Obviously we will be in touch as you continue your journey.

U.S. officials will be eager to debrief Governor Richardson when he returns from North Korea.

Our CNN's Brian Todd is digging deeper into the aspect of it. He will have details of who wants to know what later this hour.

Well, less than two hours ago, President Obama signed the compromise tax cut plan into law. We will have more on that in just a few minutes.

But there are still three major issues on the Senate's plate, including the repeal of the don't ask, don't tell ban on gays serving openly in the military, the START treaty, which would reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and resume mutual inspections, and the controversial DREAM Act, the subject of some protests.

It would provide a path to citizenship and education for illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Lawmakers will be addressing all three issues over the weekend.

Over on the House side, the man in line to become the next speaker is already looking ahead to the next Congress and promising some change. Joining us to talk about that and more is CNN senior political analysts David Gergen and Gloria Borger and CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, host of "STATE OF THE UNION" Sunday mornings at 9:00.

Thank you so much for joining us on THE SITUATION ROOM.

First, I want to start off with you, Gloria.

There's just a few days left in the lame-duck session, and already a very powerful Republican is talking about the next Congress. Let's take a listen to what he said, John Boehner.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Beginning on January 5, the American people are going to watch their Congress do something differently, at least in one house. Beginning in January, the House is going to become the outpost in Washington for the American people and their desire for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.

We have banned earmarks. We have arranged to have cameras installed in the Rules Committee. We have reduced the sizes of committees, so that they can work more effectively and do a better job of oversight.

And we have instituted reforms like cut as you go that make it harder to increase spending here in Washington. These reforms have put us in a position to start immediately in January on the challenges that the American people are demanding that we address. And it starts with a pledge to America, and it will start with jobs.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Gloria, it seems like he is throwing down the gauntlet there and trying to shore up Republicans.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he has got to, because he understands that there was a lot of Republican unease, shall we say, lots of folks very upset about the $858 billion stimulus package, for lack of a better word, that was just passed through the Congress, which he signed on to.

I might add, by the way, he was not at the president's signing ceremony today. He did not give a speech on the House floor urging his colleagues to support it, because he understands that the new troops he's got coming in are not as enthusiastic about it. They are budget cutters more than anything else, so he is saying, you know what, we hear you and when we take charge, things will be different.

MALVEAUX: David, how do you think has the president measured up in pushing through his agenda in the lame-duck session?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Suzanne, I was in the White House yesterday and a little bit the day before, and I must say there was a widespread feeling of surprise at just how well he has done.

They had not expected this tax bill to be as big as it is. It's now -- they are calling it stimulus two quietly in the White House. So they see it as a real boost to the economy, but they have now got the possibility of getting -- tacking up two more significant victories before the Congress goes home.

One is on the repeal of don't ask, don't tell and the other is the START treaty. If they were to get all three of those done, there is no question that that would give them wind at their back, a real sense of momentum, sort of bouncing back, if you would, after their defeat in November. And it would help to level the playing field to going into next January.

You would not have a sense of a president who is down on the heels, down on his back. You have had a sense of a president who is up and ready to engage this Republican surge.

MALVEAUX: OK.

GERGEN: So, they're not there yet. There are some real roadblocks there, but there is that sense of possibility.

MALVEAUX: And, Candy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to keep Congress in session not only through Christmas, but the New Year's, until January 5 or so.

There has been an odd debate I think that has been taking over the significance of the Christmas holiday and whether or not people are going home or not going home. I want you to take a listen to Senator John McCain, what he said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I tell my colleagues that we are getting tired of it. We grow weary. And it is not that we want to -- quote -- "be home for Christmas." I spent six Christmases in a row away from home.

But what it is about is responding to the American people. Now, the American people yesterday, in a resounding victory for those who voted November 2, rejected the omnibus appropriations bill.

I believe that some of the issues before the Senate deserve the participation of the newly elected members of the United States Senate and House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Candy, that is pretty intense, to allude to the time he was held as a POW being held in Vietnam. What do you make of this?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I make of it that the Democrats drew a little blood the other day when they portrayed Republicans, John McCain and others, of, you know, wanting to leave because it is Christmastime and a holiday. And some of it stuck. It looked frivolous. For John McCain to bring that up says, hey, wait a second here. Here is what it is about.

I think they just didn't like the way they were portrayed. You remember Senator Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said, I don't need lectures about the Christmas holiday.

It got very out of hand, but it is the United States Senate. It is near recess time. They do tend to get out of hand. So I think this is just -- this is pushback. They got some bipartisanship on this tax cut bill, but it is really ornery bipartisanship.

And I think McCain is exactly right. They are tired. And what they're saying now is, listen, we're not going to put through this spending bill because we think part of the message of the elections is that we can't spend this much money. So, since that was said in November, why don't we take it over into January and let the new Congress that the people elected take care of this in a longer form? And they will just do a stop-gap measure.

But I think it's just -- they're pushing back. I think that Democrats are somewhat dispirited. The Republicans are antsy to have a greater majority in the Senate and a real majority -- I mean, I'm sorry -- greater minority in the Senate and a real majority in the House. And they're anxious to get out of town.

But I think there are some policy reasons, too, because the longer the Republicans can drag their feet on some of these issues, the more they can push it over into the next session.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: We are going to have to wrap it there.

Candy, I understand you have an exclusive with Senator Mitch McConnell this Sunday. We will be watching for that very closely.

David, Gloria, Candy, thank you so much for joining us.

We will be following all the political action over the weekend. You can get the latest, along with insights from key players. That is Sunday morning when Candy Crowley hosts "STATE OF THE UNION" at 9:00 Eastern. That's only on CNN.

Well, a different kind of plane crash. An unmanned drone from another country, how did it wind up in a Texas yard? And, more importantly, who does it belong to? It is now at the center of an international dispute.

Plus, allegations the military is mistreating the Army private suspected of giving thousands of U.S. secrets to WikiLeaks -- details of Bradley Manning's captivity.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: In El Paso, Texas, a possible first: the crash on U.S. soil of what U.S. officials say is a drone belonging to Mexico. But Mexican officials insist the unmanned aircraft is not theirs.

Our CNN homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is working this story for us.

And, Jeanne, what are we finding out? What do we know about this?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, let me tell you, Suzanne, the Mexican government is now telling us, yes, this was their UAV, but a little bit more about it.

The UAV, small and unmanned, landed in this neighborhood in El Paso, Texas, last Tuesday. U.S. officials say no one on the ground was hurt and the was no property damage. We have a Google map that shows the proximity of the crash site to the Mexican border.

You can see it is a very short distance away, less than a mile. So what was it doing in U.S. airspace? U.S. officials say it was being used by the Mexican government for law enforcement and homeland security. The manufacturer's Web site touts this UAV as the ultimate solution for over-the-hill reconnaissance missions.

A U.S. -- excuse me -- a Mexican official says their surveillance was being done on the Mexican side of the border when the drone had a mechanical malfunction and came down in the U.S. The official says it was in the air pursuing a target as part of a law enforcement operation coordinated with the U.S.

And, indeed, one U.S. official tells me there is no cause for alarm or suspicion, there is nothing to support that they were spying on us. NORAD said it had real-time awareness of the situation, but it was not deemed a threat and they did not take any sort of response -- back to you, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Jeanne, is there any idea why it went down?

MESERVE: Well, the National Transportation Safety Board is looking into it. The Mexican official with whom we spoke characterized it as a mechanical malfunction.

But people who are familiar with these UAVs say they are very lightweight and a gust of wind can wreak havoc with them. I'm told, by the way, by that U.S. official that a parachute on the UAV deployed and it drifted down and was not even damaged in this -- back to you, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, thank you, Jeanne.

Well, most shoppers are not surprised by surveillance cameras, but you might be surprised at how retailers are using them to learn all they can about you.

Plus, President Obama tells schoolchildren about some of his more unpleasant duties at the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MALVEAUX: President Obama signs a tax deal into law. Who are the winners and losers in the controversial compromise?

And what is life really like for the Army private accused of giving thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks? There are allegations that he is being mistreated.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, candidly speaking, there are some elements of this legislation that I don't like. There are some elements that members of my party don't like. There are some elements that Republicans here today don't like. That's the nature of compromise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: President Obama signing the controversial compromise tax cut measure. It was finally approved by the House late last night, despite strong Democratic opposition to extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

But the president made that concession to Republicans in exchange for extending unemployment benefits -- 112 Democrats voted against the bill.

So, who gets what under the new compromise tax law?

Our CNN's Mary Snow is working that part of the story for us.

Mary, is there something for everybody in this?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Suzanne, given the sheer size of this deal, there are many winners. And that starts with individual taxpayers who would have seen the taxes go up had the Bush era tax cuts not been extended.

Also, workers will see more in their paychecks, as the Social Security tax is lowered by 2 percentage points. The wealthy, though, are definitely among the winners. Take the estate tax. It now has a cap of 35 percent.

And for any individual, anything under $5 million would be exempt. Without this bill, the exemption was slated to be lower and the rate much higher. Taxes on capital gains and dividends that would have gone up now stay at the same rate capped at 15 percent.

The long-term unemployed will also be helped. Now they get a 13-month extension of the deadline to file for additional unemployment benefits, which go as high as 99 weeks. But here is where you come into those who are not getting help. They call themselves 99ers, people who have already exhausted that 99-week limit on state and federal jobless benefits. There is no help for them in this tax deal. And, at the end of the day, taxpayers stand to lose in the future. The bill has an estimated cost of $858 billion over 10 years. Because of that, Moody's has warned that the U.S. could face what was considered unthinkable, a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating if spending cuts aren't made to reduce the deficit, which could mean higher taxes and cuts to programs in the future.

So Suzanne, in the short-term, Americans will feel real relief by extending these tax cuts for two years, but ultimately, we all might pay a higher price for a ballooning deficit if nothing is done about it.

MALVEAUX: Mary, thank you so much. Appreciate the explanation.

The passage of the tax deal is a bittersweet victory for President Obama. He strongly opposed extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but today, he signed that into law.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Joining me now is White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Robert, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Thanks for having me.

MALVEAUX: Obviously, the president campaigned very passionately against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. I want you to take a listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: End the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

And it means letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire.

And rolling back the Bush tax cuts to the top 1 percent.

We have to roll back -- I want to roll back...

We're going to roll back the Bush tax cut for the very wealthiest Americans.

For the wealthiest Americans.

For the wealthiest Americans.

It is true that I want to roll back the Bush tax cuts on the very wealthiest Americans, and go back to the rate that they paid under Bill Clinton.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Robert, you get the point obviously, but how tough was it for the president to sign on to this?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, look, Suzanne, the president has said the whole time this was an imperfect compromise, and as you heard the president say, and I think I probably heard most of those in person, the president opposed extending the upper-end tax credits for the wealthy.

He vehemently opposed and would have vetoed a permanent extension of those tax cults, which would have cost over the course of the next ten years more than $700 billion, but what we couldn't do was risk watching taxes go up on middle-class families.

We did not have the votes for that position to prevail and carry the day. So what we did was fashion a compromise that ensures that the tax rates for middle-class families don't go up. In fact, their tax rates will go down through a payroll tax cut, and those that have lost their jobs will see their jobless benefits available for the entire year.

So, all in all, those are pretty big wins for -- for America, I think, and big wins for middle-class families.

MALVEAUX: Well, Robert, obviously, the main concern is the cost of this, $858 billion, that is not paid for. How are the American people going to pay for this?

GIBBS: Well, look, we're -- Suzanne, we're going to have a serious conversation about our deficits and our debt. The president appointed a fiscal commission to look into some of the changes that are going to be made.

And I will say this: the president would have vetoed a bill that Republicans wanted, including people like Sarah Palin, who you just mentioned. They wanted to take these upper-end tax rates and make them permanent for those wealthy wage earners. That, again, that's $700 billion over a ten-year period of time.

It does very little for the economy, because quite frankly, Suzanne, if you're making $1 million a year, you're not increasing your spending, because your tax rates remain the same. You can afford the big-screen TV now, and you're going to be able to afford it next year.

What we want to do is to help put the money back in the pockets of middle-class families, and that's what this agreement accomplishes.

MALVEAUX: Robert, you mentioned the president's debt commission, his own debt commission, was not able to muster enough support for members of Congress to take on some of those tough choices for a $13 trillion debt, a deficit here. Now the administration is adding on another trillion dollars. How are the American people supposed to believe that this administration is serious about tackling the federal deficit?

GIBBS: Well, let's be clear, Suzanne, it was most of the members that we had appointed to -- to this commission did, in fact, sign on to making some changes. The president's looking at many of their recommendations in a budget, and we're on a fiscal path to cut the deficit in half over the course of a four-year period of time. So we're going to make some substantial progress on this.

But Suzanne, we're going to have a debate about this. We're going to have a debate about these tax rates for at least the next two years, and they'll culminate in a presidential election in 2012. And the voters in this country are going to get to ask themselves whether we're going to spend $700 billion on tax rates for millionaires and billionaires or whether we're going to take some serious steps to get our fiscal house in order and make sure that middle-class families are protected and enjoy a recovering economy.

MALVEAUX: How -- how disappointed was the president that he was not able to get the kind of support he wanted from the Democratic leadership, including the Democratic whip? I mean, you had Congressman Van Holland. You had Congressman James Clyburn. Neither one of them who signed onto this.

GIBBS: Do you mean the tax agreement?

MALVEAUX: Yes.

GIBBS: Well, look, Suzanne, we got a huge number of Democrats; well over half of the Democrats in the Senate voted for this. More than half of the Democrats in Congress voted for this. Mayors and governors of the Democratic Party throughout the country are strongly supportive of this, and every public opinion poll I've seen has huge support for.

In fact, Pew Research did a poll that showed while 70 percent of the public supported the tax agreement or 60 percent of the public supported the tax agreement, the highest group among Democrats that supported it were liberal Democrats. So I think this is something that is good for the American people. Most importantly, it's good for the economy, and it enjoys broad bipartisan support.

MALVEAUX: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that he'll keep Congress in session until January 5. Is the president willing, if necessary, to give up his Hawaiian vacation and stay until January to make sure his agenda goes through?

GIBBS: Well, Suzanne, obviously, the president is looking forward to seeing his family in Hawaii and his friends in Hawaii where he grew up. The president will be here as long as Congress is in session. I don't actually anticipate that they're going to work through Christmas and into January the 1st.

I think we're going to be here for a few more days, and what we're going to see is a tax agreement that the president signed into law, and you'll also see the ratification of a START treaty that cuts the number of deployed nuclear weapons that we have with Russia, and also a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I think most people will find that the lame-duck session of Congress has been very productive.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MALVEAUX: Few westerners get inside North Korea, and when they do, U.S. Officials can have lots of questions for them when they return. We're learning details of what happens in that debriefing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: There's keen interest in the trip to North Korea by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, accompanied by our own Wolf Blitzer. When they return U.S. officials will want to know what the -- the governor, rather, heard and saw. Our CNN's Brian Todd is here.

Brian, what do we think this debriefing will entail?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It could entail a lot of different things, Suzanne. What we know right now, there's not a lot of detail emerging right now, of course, while the trip is ongoing.

But one thing is certain. Bill Richardson, our friend and colleague Wolf Blitzer, and their traveling party are going through a very heavily scripted, rigidly secured -- structured visit, rather. And Governor Richardson will likely be asked some important questions about the whole thing when he returns.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: I'm not here as a representative of the Obama administration.

TODD (voice-over): He may not have been sent by Washington, but Governor Bill Richardson's visit to Pyongyang may give U.S. officials a fresh source of intelligence on an aging, unpredictable dictator and his inner circle, when he returns.

Mike Green, former National Security Council official who dealt with North Korea, knows how officials in Washington will likely approach Richardson after his trip.

(on camera) You've done these debriefings. Take us inside that debriefing room when he comes back. What are the kind of questions he'll face?

MIKE GREEN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, if he meets Kim Jong-Il, there will be a lot of questions about his health, his command of the room and so forth. He probably won't. And people will still be interested in the government and in hearing, you know, what was the propaganda line he was given; trying to read the tea leaves to see if North Koreans are moving in a different direction or not.

TODD: Green says they'll ask Richardson who was in the room when he met officials in Pyongyang, what they might have said about Kim Jong- Il and his likely successor, his third son.

He says because Richardson, like many other visitors to North Korea, was asked by the North Koreans and not the Americans to go, another key question U.S. officials will have for him will be... GREEN: What did you tell them? Because there's a worry that the wrong signal is being conveyed when you have private citizens doing these high-level trips.

TODD: Green went to Pyongyang as part of a U.S. government delegation. He says this about what Richardson's group, including our colleague Wolf Blitzer, are likely experiencing.

GREEN: They will find that the North Koreans are cleaning the room every two hours, because they were going through everything. They are followed everywhere. They can get out and about a bit in Pyongyang. They can walk to the stamp store and buy stamps commemorating the death of American soldiers in the Korean War or extolling the virtue of Kim Jong-Il and his nuclear program.

The most stunning thing to me was to see, basically, battalions of schoolchildren, 8 and 9 year olds, marching to school in perfect regimentation with flags and bugles and drums and totally militarized society.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And notable on these trips is the level of electricity, believe it or not. Green says the North Koreans turn up the electricity in Pyongyang when high-level visitors come to give the impression that their economy is in good shape, but in reality when the visitors leave, it's very different. This nighttime satellite photo from 2003 shows the difference in electricity levels between North and South Korea. This dot up here is Pyongyang, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Amazing.

TODD: A stark difference, and it's not much different from 2003 right now.

MALVEAUX: Absolutely incredible. Thank you, Brian.

The soldier who allegedly gave WikiLeaks its most damaging material sits in the brig. Well, not there are questions about how he was treated in a U.S. military prison.

And retailers use radio frequency tags to track inventory. But soon, they could use them for another purpose: selling more merchandise to you. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: We're just getting some rather startling comments from President Obama's counterterrorism adviser today on Yemen. I want to go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, who has some information about this.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John Brennan, the president's top adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, told a Washington audience earlier today that, as he sees it, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, essentially al Qaeda in Yemen, now is a bigger threat to the United States than al Qaeda in Pakistan, the part of the terrorist organization, of course, run directly by Osama bin Laden.

Brennan says al Qaeda in Yemen is now the place to watch. They pose a larger threat, and that they are really trying to recruit not just westerners, not just Americans overseas, such as the cleric Anwar al- Awlaki, but Americans here in the United States, trying to recruit them into al Qaeda to carry out get terrorist attacks. Of course, it was just yesterday that the government, the U.S. government issued a warning to be on guard during the holiday season -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And Barbara, I understand that you're also learning new information and some details about the Army private who's accused of passing U.S. secret documents to WikiLeaks and how he has been treated in U.S. custody. Can you give us a sense of what you're learning?

STARR: Sure. Suzanne, Bradley Manning, an enlisted soldier, remains in jail in a Marine Corps detention facility in Quantico, Virginia, just south here of Washington, D.C.

You know, Julian Assange may be out on bail; not Bradley Manning. He is being held under maximum security conditions, we have learned. He has some basic comforts. He's in a cell by himself but not in solitary confinement. He's within speaking range of other detainees at this brig.

What are some of the conditions he's being held in? The Pentagon tells us now it includes he gets one hour of television a day. He can correspond or visit with those that are on the approved list. He is allowed to talk to other detainees. He has one hour of supervised recreation or exercise, and he has adequate bedding.

One of the questions that had been raised in some blogs was whether he was being held without blankets, sheets or pillows. The military says he has adequate bedding, but this is the type of bedding that does not shred; you can't rip apart for his own protection, of course -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Barbara, thank you for giving us an update on those two developing stories. Barbara Starr out of the Pentagon.

The WikiLeaks founder is making the case for his innocence, despite Swedish authorities' accusations of sex crimes. Julian Assange spoke from the English mansion where he is under house arrest. He asked why prosecutors still haven't shown him or his lawyers any evidence. Assange suggested to CNN that he is the victim of a campaign to discredit him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: Three point three million Web pages out of 4 1/2 million Web pages mention my name also mention the word "rape." That's a serious issue and a serious -- seriously successful smear campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And with only a week left until Christmas, lots of us are going to be spending time at the mall this weekend. While we're shopping the stores, they're going to be snooping around and using what they learn to make more money.

Of course, there are some things money can't buy. When a family member is serving with the military. Having them home for the holidays is just one of them.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: We all know retailers are trying to find out everything they know about us on the Web. But the hunt for intel doesn't stop there. In their stores, they're watching us, too. Our Mary Snow is back, and she's been digging into that.

Mary, what have we learned?

SNOW: Found some interesting stuff, Suzanne. This isn't something that many retailers like to advertise. We all know about security cameras that are in stores and how common they are. But retailers are also using those cameras and other technology to track you in hopes of boosting sales.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): This scene seems pretty ordinary: a woman browsing through a shirt rack. But for retailers keeping a watchful eye, this is considered valuable information.

(on camera) You wouldn't be surprised to know there are security cameras like this one videotaping you. What you might not know is what's being done with those images. As soon as you walk through the door, your movements are going to be tracked.

KATHRYN HOWE, BVI NETWORK: It's like getting really close without touching. Right. I understand as much as I can without invading your space.

SNOW (voice-over): Kathryn Howe provides technology to retailers hoping to boost sales by studying shoppers' behavior. American Apparel allowed us to get a look at how it works.

HOWE: I want to say -- all right. Get a little farther out and track people coming in who go to the coat display.

SNOW: Howe looked to see who goes to that coat display and for how long. Her job is to convert videos into information, like this map showing the store's most trafficked areas.

She also shows us how a camera captured shoppers inside a convenience store looking at a promotion sign, images she didn't want to make public.

HOWE: I could click on each of these, and I would get a little video clip that would show me exactly their behavior as they approached it.

SNOW: Armed with that information, stores might move displays or change how merchandise is presented.

In addition to cameras, this store attaches RFID, or radio frequency tags on clothes. John Brooks with American Apparel says his store uses them to track inventory and insists they aren't followed once an item leaves the store. He sees another purpose for them in the future.

JOHN BROOKS, AMERICAN APPAREL: There's somebody may go into a change room. We'll have run or the system will have run a logarithm that says with this particular item you're more -- or you are likely to be interested in these items. And our sales assistants can then move to efficiently provide those products.

SNOW: As retailers try to gain an edge on competitors, Paco Underhill of Pioneer and Consumer Behaviors says there's an infinite amount of technology.

PACO UNDERHILL, AUTHOR, "WHY WE BUY: THE SCIENCE OF SHOPPING': I can put sensors on a shopping -- shopping cart to track where that shopping cart goes and how long it stays for. I can key into your cell phone, and if it's turned on, be able to pinpoint where you are.

SNOW: What remains unclear, he says, is whether all this information is leading to something useful. But that's not the only question.

(on camera) How aware are consumers about how much they're being watched?

(voice-over) John Brooks says most people know about security cameras but has this message for consumers worried about their privacy.

BROOKS: At the end of the day, our technology is driving towards creating a more rich and efficient in-store experience, and that's our primary concern. Information outside of that is really of no interest to us, and it's unactionable [SIC] in terms of our business model.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: As you might imagine, the use of all of this technology has made privacy advocates increasingly uneasy. And as one attorney at the ACLU told me, you know, analytics being collected are warped by the information about you that's being obtained online. Something to think about next time you go shopping.

MALVEAUX: Watching it makes me a little nervous there. OK. Thank you, Mary.

Well, of course, speaking of holidays, an early present for hundreds of military families. We're going to unwrap it next in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here's a look at "Hot Shots."

The United Arab Emirates, folk dancers perform at a swimming competition.

In Germany, a cross-country skier makes her way across a mountain after heavy snowfall.

In Pakistan, people spit fire during a procession for a religious holiday.

And in Vatican City, people stop to take pictures of a 94-year-old Christmas tree.

"Hot Shots," pictures worth a thousand words.

Well, for military families, the best present imaginable this season is to have a loved one home for the holidays. Some saw that dream come true today when the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit returned to Camp Pendleton.

Our CNN's Casey Wian shows us the excitement and the emotion.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm here at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Southern California, and behind me are family members of some of the 2,000 Marines who are returning today from a seven-month overseas deployment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's tough, sir. I miss them a lot. Communication is not so good all the time, so it's good to -- good to finally see you, sir.

WIAN: What's it like to have your husband back?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God. It's amazing. It's so amazing. I was so excited to make sure he was back by Christmas. I can't tell you how excited I was.

WIAN (voice-over): Now, this group of Marines has been doing a variety of things during his deployment. And that includes providing air support in Afghanistan, helping flood victims in Pakistan.

And they were also the group of Marines that rescued a German cargo ship that had been hijacked by Somali pilots.

(on camera) They rescued the crew of that ship, the civilian crew, and they got the ship back from those pirates.

Joining me now is the commander of this battalion. It's Lieutenant Colonel J.R. Clearfield.

Commander, how did this mission go?

LT. COL. J.R. CLEARFIELD, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Well, I'm extremely proud. I just -- I can't say what a humbling experience it was to be -- to be a steward of this battalion and to be a member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

I appreciate you capturing the families, because for me, they're the real heroes. You know, us Marines, we're fantastically trained, fantastically equipped. We have each other. We're very, very good at what we do. But these families really just so impressed with them. They're the real heroes to me. And we had almost zero problems on the home front. And it's a real testament to these spouses keeping -- keeping everything together on the home front. And again, just to reiterate, they're my heroes.

TODD: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding you brought back everyone safely?

CLEARFIELD: That's correct. Yes, we did. So extremely proud for the battalion. We left with 1,248, and that's how many we brought back.

TODD: And they'll be having a happy holiday season. Here we are a week before Christmas, and they're home with their families. What could be better than that?

CLEARFIELD: It's pretty idyllic. It's pretty idyllic.

WIAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate your time.

It's Casey Wian reporting from Camp Pendleton in California. Back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: What a great story. Well, this weekend, don't miss a special documentary, "A Soldier's Story," giving us a rare opportunity to follow three Army troops from the home front to the front lines. Our CNN's Jason Carroll brings us "A Soldier's Story" Saturday and Sunday night at 8 Eastern here on CNN.

Remember, you can follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM on Facebook. Go to Facebook.com/CNNSituationRoom to become a fan.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.