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THE SITUATION ROOM

Mass Exodus From Gingrich Campaign; U.S. Airstrikes Against Al Qaeda in Yemen; Hundreds of Syrians Flee to Turkey; President Obama's Biggest Challenges; Your Personal Information at Risk; Royal Family Hacked?; Leon Panetta Under Fire Over Afghanistan; Massive Blow to Gingrich Campaign

Aired June 9, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

We look forward to seeing you here in Washington.

Happening now, the breaking news we're following -- Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign in crisis.

Can the Republican overcome a mass exodus from his staff after a series of missteps and major embarrassments?

Plus, the U.S. takes new aim at Al Qaeda, using a reliable weapon against some very dangerous targets. This hour, growing fears that terrorists are exploiting the unrest in Yemen.

And Internet hackers break into a banking giant and access a treasure trove of customer information. We're investigating the rash of cyber crime and how companies can do more to protect all of us online.

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

But let's begin with the breaking news this hour, a crippling blow from Newt Gingrich's already troubled presidential bid. CNN confirming a mass exodus from the Republican's campaign staff.

Our senior political editor, Mark Preston, has been digging into this story for us -- Mark, first of all, tell our viewers, especially those who may have missed what's going on, the latest on Newt Gingrich and his campaign seemingly imploding.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Of course, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was looking to run for president and is looking to run for president. Just in the past couple of hours, his senior campaign staff, his campaign manager, his senior aides and really key staff in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, have all resigned.

Now what we're told is that there was a difference in vision. There was a difference in vision of what Newt Gingrich thought was the proper way to run a campaign and what these senior staffers thought the way things should have been done -- Wolf. BLITZER: You know, the mistakes that were obvious to all the political observers, going after Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, his Medicare reform package -- it was just so popular with almost all Republicans out there, especially in the House of Representatives. Then word that the family had this half a million dollar credit account, if you will, at Tiffany's, which they repaid, in New York. And then he announces for president and then within a matter of weeks, goes on a two week cruise -- a vacation in the Mediterranean to the Greek Isles and Turkey. We discussed this yesterday.

Were those the factors that just convinced these senior professionals on his staff that what -- that this was a losing operation, it was time to move on?

PRESTON: I think so, Wolf. Look, the question was, was Newt Gingrich out of touch and were some of his actions showing that he was out of touch at this point, with these senior staffers?

Now, what I'm told by one of these staffers is that there was a money flow issue, that he had not raised enough money. There was also a question about how much time he was committing to spend to the early voting state of Iowa. They said that he had been there, you know, just a short time ago, but they didn't expect him to come back. And, of course, as you said, he took two weeks off the campaign trail at a time when he should have been raising money, certainly as we headed into this presidential debate up in New Hampshire, the CNN presidential debate.

So, Wolf, as you wrote yesterday in your blog post in THE SITUATION ROOM, there was a lot of question about what Newt Gingrich was going to do and why he made these decisions.

Now, Wolf, we have to say that Newt Gingrich has put a statement out. Let's just read it very quickly. He says: "I am committed to running the substantive, solutions oriented campaign I set to out to run earlier this spring. The campaign begins anew Sunday in Los Angeles. What that means we do not know. We don't know what's going to happen in Los Angeles. We suspect now that there will be a very large rally."

And, of course, we'll see him in New Hampshire because one of his other senior aides, who has stayed with the campaign, has told me that he will be at the debate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, well supposedly Sunday night, he's got a Republican Jewish coalition event in Los Angeles that he's going to be speaking to. And as of now, he says he will be in our CNN debate in New Hampshire Monday night, is that right?

PRESTON: Yes, that is absolutely correct. So Newt Gingrich trying to re-piece his campaign back together, as you said, at the top, which seems to have imploded, at least at this point.

BLITZER: All right, Mark.

Stay on top of this story.

We'll have more on it coming up.

Mark Preston doing some good reporting for us, as he always does.

Don't forget the debate, Monday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, from New Hampshire, only here on CNN.

Other news we're following right now. After weeks of unrest and political turmoil in Yemen, the United States decides it can't hold back its fire against Al Qaeda insurgents anymore. The U.S. launching new airstrikes against top Islamic militants, desperate to prevent terrorists from gaining strength in Yemen's leadership vacuum.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

She's working this story for us -- Barbara, what's the latest on this round?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, earlier today, CIA Director Leon Panetta, in testifying in front of Congress, called Al Qaeda in Yemen "an immediate terrorist threat."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: (voice-over): In Yemen, it's now a race against time. With the Yemeni government near collapse and local Al Qaeda operatives on the rise, the U.S. military has resumed airstrikes, hoping to put the terrorist organization out of business before it can attack the United States. Strikes stopped last May. Now the Pentagon, backed up by the CIA, is again turning to its fighter jets and drones to go after key operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

LEON PANETTA, CIA DIRECTOR: We are continuing to work with those individuals and their government to try to go after AQAP. And -- and we are continuing to receive cooperation from them. So at this point in time, I'd have to say that, you know, while, obviously, it's -- you know, it's a scary and an uncertain situation, with regards to counterterrorism, we're still very much continuing our operations.

STARR: A top target, Anwar al-Awlaki. At his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Defense, CIA Director Leon Panetta warned the American-born cleric poses a direct threat.

PANETTA: He is very, very computer oriented. And as a result of that, really does represent the potential to try to urge others, particularly in this country, to conduct attacks here. So that's a -- that's a concern.

STARR: Last month, the U.S. failed to kill him using a missile fired from a drone. U.S. officials say they were successful a few days ago in killing another key Al Qaeda operative.

There is good reason to worry about AQAP. Last October, it was behind a plot to blow up a U.S. cargo aircraft. In December, 2009, AQAP sent a Nigerian man on a Detroit bound aircraft with explosives in his underwear.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: Now, of course, one of the reasons Al Qaeda in Yemen remains this top danger is it has proven it can recruit individuals and then provide the finance, the training and the organization to send them to the United States and try and conduct attacks here. That's what the U.S. government wants to stop -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara.

Thank you.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey in the last 24 hours alone. It's more fallout from the crackdown on anti- government protesters in Syria. The violence exploding in one Syrian city in recent days -- a place now described as a ghost town.

CNN's Ivan Watson is at the Turkish border with Syria.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, let me give you a look at how the refugees are coming across the border. Joe is going to zoom in here. That is the Syrian border right there, less than a mile away. And there's basically a makeshift tent there. This has become one of the unofficial border crossings. And we've seen, since yesterday, clusters of Syrian refugees, mostly women and children, who have gathered there. They wait under the trees by the olive groves and they wait to cross over.

The Turkish government has been sending civilian vans and ambulances to pick up these people. According to the Turkish foreign minister, it's gone from a couple hundred refugees just a few days ago to now more than 2,400. And most of them are fleeing from the -- the border town in Syria of Jisr al-Shugur, which is maybe about 10 miles,, as the crow flies, over these hills. That's been the scene of some fierce fighting, the Syrian government claiming that it has lost more than 100 Syrian security forces there.

The residents tell us it's a ghost town now, that all the shops are closed, the electricity has been cut off. We've actually seen locals in this Turkish border village smuggling bread to the refugee communities over there right now. There have also been wounded people who have been taken out by ambulances -- scores of them, mostly young men -- being taken to Turkish hospitals with bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds, burns, as well.

The Turkish government insists its border will remain open. And they continue to call for reform from the Syrian president, Bashar al- Assad.

But no signs now, after more than two months of bloodshed, that either Assad will reform or that the protestors will give up their demands for him to step down -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson on the border with Syria.

Let's talk a little bit more about the unrest, the crackdown in Syria.

CNN's Hala Gorani is joining us.

She's reported extensively -from the Middle East -- Hala, it seems like every day, the story gets more intense and more dire.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And now we're seeing refugees cross over into Turkey.

The question is, how many thousands of refugees, if it gets to that, will Turkey accept on its side of the border?

We remember during the Gulf War, for instance, so many tens of thousands crossing into the border.

But this is really taking it to another level, because Jisr al- Shugur is that northern western town where people are really worried about a crackdown, that they still have that collective memory of what happened in that part of the country several decades ago. They really are concerned that the military is moving in and they have to flee.

BLITZER: The international news media, we -- CNN included -- we can't get into Syria. They won't let us get into Syria.

GORANI: No.

BLITZER: I know you've tried. You've been there on several occasions.

GORANI: Yes.

BLITZER: What do they say?

Why won't they let reporters go into Syria, go to Damascus and see what's going on?

GORANI: We don't get a no thank you, you can't come in. We just don't get an answer. We apply. We apply in embassies. We apply directly to the Ministry of Information in Damascus. We fax requests. We fax copies of passports. But we just don't get a reply. And that's what makes our hearts -- our jobs so difficult, is trying to cross check information based on eyewitness accounts and based, as we've seen online, on this material that is posted by private individuals and activists and in -- and people who take part in the -- in the demonstrations. So it's very difficult for us.

And you'll remember, we spoke of this gay blogger, Gay Girl in Damascus blogger, who was reported as kidnapped. And now there are concerns and questions regarding her identity, does she even exist?

So it makes it very difficult for us, as journalists, but not impossible, to put the story together.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, let me just say, on behalf of all of us, to all the Syrian government officials --

GORANI: (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: -- including Ambassador Imad Moustapha --

GORANI: -- yes.

BLITZER: -- a friend of -- of CNN over the years, who's here in Washington, let my -- let our people go in there and see what's going on --

GORANI: Right.

BLITZER: If you have nothing to hide, let Hala Gorani and others -- you would you go, right?

GORANI: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. Let's see if it helps.

GORANI: All right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

GORANI: Thank you.

BLITZER: A critical time for the war in Afghanistan -- where does the Defense secretary nominee stand right now?

What will he do next?

How many American troops should come out and when?

You're going to hear what Leon Panetta testified about today.

Stand by.

And an Internet crime spree -- hackers break into a major new target. Why it could be bad news for all of us who go online.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here, he has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, some people just don't know when to leave. For disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner it's past time, but he insists he's not going anywhere, that he has no intention of resigning. My guess, he's wrong and he's going to change his mind about that and soon.

A couple of late developments. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who broke this story, says he has got another X-rated picture of Congressman Weiner, but he says he is not going to release it yet.

The morning papers here in New York full of explicit text messages, disgusting stuff, more appropriate for a drunken college frat boy than a member of the United States Congress.

Yesterday, we learned his wife is pregnant with their first child.

On a scale of creeps from one to ten, Congressman Anthony Weiner is an 11.

Weiner arrogantly told a reporter from "The New York Post" today that while he is aware that he betrayed many people, he is not giving up his job. Instead, he said that he is going to try now to get back to work to, quote, "make amends to my constituents and, of course, my family." Notice which one he put first.

A Democratic source who spoke with Weiner told CNN that he is digging in his heels because he says his wife wants him to stay in Congress. She would probably prefer that he be anywhere at this point except at home.

But the sharks are in the water in Washington. Many of Weiner's colleagues want him gone, include a growing number of members of his own party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he won't take Weiner's calls. Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, second most senior member of the Senate, today called on Weiner to quilt.

Leahy joins fellow Democrat Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Congresswoman Allison Schwartz of Pennsylvania and a list of House Democrats all saying the Weiner must go.

I wonder if Las Vegas has the over and under on Weiner making through the weekend with. My guess is he is gone by Monday, but we will see.

Here's the question: Why won't Congressman Anthony Weiner do the honorable thing and resign?

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

Why do you suppose he is hanging tough, Wolf?

BLITZER: I guess he wants to see. Maybe people have a short attention span and will move on to other stories. I don't know. Let's see what he does. But you may be right. We'll see what happens the next few days.

Jack, thank you.

A new shock today in President Obama's economic record, from one of the Republican front runners for his job. We are talking about Mitt Romney. He told Michigan voters the Obama administration has failed the hard-hit state and the nation. The economy is clearly one of the biggest challenges for the president's re-election bid right now, if not the biggest.

Here's our White House correspondent Dan Lothian.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Launching anything into strong headwinds is never considered ideal, but the Obama campaign, with its slick Chicago headquarters, is doing just that, facing down a bad economy in the race to 2012.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, we're experiencing some headwinds, gas prices probably being most prominent. It has enormous impact on family budgets and on the psychology of consumers.

LOTHIAN: Dealing with the psychology of the consumer before he or she heads to the polls is a daunting challenge.

CROWD (chanting): Four more years! Four more years!

OBAMA: Well, actually, technically, it's about five and a half.

(APPLAUSE & CHEERING)

LOTHIAN: While fundraisers from Michigan to Miami have put the president's campaign on an impressive track to a $1 billion target, the U.S. economy is still faltering. And that, says Republican strategist Kevin Madden, will be the fundamental issue GOP candidates use to show the president's economic policies have failed.

(on camera): The problem that he says he has inherited is now his and he will be judged by it.

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Right. I think you are going to look at an election that's very much about the present and then the future, where we are going to take the country. And in the present right now, he can no longer make the argument that he made when he was a candidate in 2008, which is this is George Bush's economy. This is President Obama's economy.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): And you don't need a poll to tell you Americans don't like this economy, they want jobs yesterday.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons says, as long as people are looking for work, they will keep their minds open to another candidate.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He's got to convince people that his policies are actually helping the country turn the corner and do better. And at the end of the day, he is also going to have to also run against a real-life Republican who is going to have flaws and other problems that the president going to have to exploit.

LOTHIAN: And what about national security? Doesn't the killing of Osama bin Laden prove President Obama is a strong, gutsy leader who took a chance to keep America safe?

Madden says getting the elusive terrorist was good news, but voters like good jobs much better.

MADDEN: It may have been a temporary benefit, but it's not going to drive the long-term debate of this campaign.

LOTHIAN: But Simmons doesn't see dark clouds hanging over the president's campaign. While Republicans will hit him on the economy --

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand how jobs come and I understand how jobs go.

LOTHIAN: -- he can hit back with his achievements.

SIMMONS: What the president can say is he can come back at them and say I put two women on the Supreme Court, I passed health had care for 30 million people, I have turned it the corner to -- helped the country turn the corner when it comes to the economy, and we're growing that as fast as we need to, but we're doing much better than we were when George Bush was in office.

LOTHIAN (on camera): While many Republicans may not see health care reform as a positive achievement, Simmons says that the president needs defend it vigorously, making the case that this is good for millions of Americans, good for the economy and that the benefits will play out over the next year and beyond.

Dan Lothian, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Alabama follows in Arizona's footsteps. Just ahead, a growing backlash against what is now considered the toughest immigration law in the country.

Supreme Court takes tough new action against those violent police car chases you often see on TV. We will have the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Alabama now the latest state to follow Arizona in controversial legislation targeting illegal immigrants.

Our own Deborah Feyerick is monitoring that, some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Deb, what is going on here?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, both critics and supporters consider the new law to be the toughest in the country. The measure requires police to detain anyone they suspect is in the country illegally, if that person can't produce proper documentation. It also makes it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport someone in the country illegally. Immigration rights activists are vowing to challenge that bill.

And you've seen them on TV, well now those high-speed police chases got a little riskier for criminals. Today, the Supreme Court ruled that leading a police on a chase qualifies as a violent felony, which could lead to more jail time. The justices, by a vote of six to three, dismissed an appeal from an Indiana man who got a stiffer penalty because of a chase. This is the fourth time in four years the court tried to clarify the meaning of violent felony.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now says the United States recognizes the Transitional National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Clinton made the comments during a meeting on Libya in Abu Dhabi, she also pledged an additional $26 million in aid for victims of the war there and renewed calls for Gadhafi to go.

And Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has received a call from President Obama in the wake of a vicious wildfire raging across that state. The fire is now just miles from electrical transmission lines in Tucson which supply power to thousands of homes. Forecasters say weather conditions have improved somewhat, but mandatory evacuations remain in place. At least 389,000 acres have been scorched in that blaze -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Deb, for that.

The president's choice to become the next secretary of Defense getting some flak from both parties in his confirmation hearing today on Capitol Hill. Leon Panetta under fire over the war in Afghanistan.

And Congressman Anthony Weiner refuses to listen to the growing demands for his resignation coming from his own party. How long can he hold on? Paul Begala and John Feehery, they're standing by for our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Growing fears about the safety about the safety your personal information following a string of recent corporate hackings. Just today, the banking giant Citigroup announcing it was hit and hundreds of thousands of customers were affected.

Let's bring in our own Brian Todd with details.

This is a story that affects millions of folks out there. What's latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. One expert calls it cyber-civil unrest, it's for good reason.

The actual hacking of Citigroup took place in early May. The bank is just now announcing it, they say, because they had to take the appropriate steps to assess the damage.

It illustrates the increasing vulnerability of the entire banking system.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): If you do any banking online, you will see that reassuring template, here is how we will protect your money, your identity. Citigroup has got it, but Citigroup just got hacked. The company says someone accessed the personal information of about 200,000 North American customers. It won't say how much money was lost. The hackers didn't seize Social Security numbers, dates of birth or card security codes, the company says, but did view customers' names, account numbers and contact information.

(on camera): Can they still do damage getting names, account numbers, contact information?

MARK RASCH, CYBERSECURITY CONSULTANT, CSC: Sure. With just your name and you contact information, what hackers can do is they can sell that information for identity fraud or identity theft. They can try to poach customers from Citibank. But more importantly, they can use that information to try to trick Citibank tellers or other operators into believing that they are the actual customer.

TODD (voice-over): Mark Rasch is a former cybercrime prosecutor at the Justice Department. He says the banks' built-in protections only go so far.

(on camera): On the same page of its Web site where it says how you are protected, Citigroup says it uses 128-bit secure sockets layer encryption technology, the most widely used method of securing Internet transactions available today. Sounds impressive, but can it really protect you?

What does this even mean?

RASCH: What SSL is, it means that from your browser, from this window here, to their computer, there is like a secure pipe that's really hard to break into. It doesn't mean anything about -- it's like driving to the bank. When you're driving to the bank, you're secure. But once you get inside the bank and engage in a transaction, it doesn't mean anything about the security of that transaction or the files when they're stored in their filing cabinet.

TODD (voice-over): Hacking is everywhere and constant. While we were interviews Rasch, he spotted an attempt to hack our computer using a fake virus warning.

Marc Maiffret is a former hacker who co-founded a firm called eEye Digital Security. He and other experts said the recent hackings of Citi, Lockheed Martin, Sony PlayStation and Gmail are likely not related, but do have common threads.

MARC MAIFFRET, eEYE DIGITAL SECURITY: What we continue to see is an increase in folks actually targeting intellectual property that can lead to economic growth, and that's something that a variety of different countries have kind of become aware of, and hacking is very much at the forefront of that and increasing sophisticated attacks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Experts say one reason why everything is at risk right now is because the defenders, meaning the banks, the military, have to protect themselves against every possible threat, every possible way into their system. The hackers, they say, only have to get lucky once. It's like the terrorism threat -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. So what can all of our viewers, all of us, do to protect ourselves?

TODD: That's the big question. You know, Mark Rasch says, as an individual banker, always just run constant credit checks, credit reports to make sure that no one is using your identity, your information for unauthorized transactions. He says for everything else, cross your fingers.

This is a cyber security expert telling you that. That tells you how vulnerable things are. It's very hard to protect your personal information, your address, your phone numbers, that kind of thing, these days.

BLITZER: Very serious stuff.

TODD: It is.

BLITZER: And I'm worried about it.

Thanks, Brian. Thanks very much.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., more hacking concerns. This time, Prince William and his then-girlfriend Kate Middleton among the alleged targets. Police say a private investigator illegally got information on the members of the royal family and top politicians on behalf of media giant News International.

Here's CNN's Max Foster.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is a very big story here in the United Kingdom. Yesterday, it was brought up in parliament yet again, dragging in the prime minister, as well as senior police and various other politicians.

It all goes back about four years, when the royal correspondent of "The News of the World" was sent to prison after Prince William thought that some of his aides' phones had been hacked. Since then, all sorts of allegations have come forward involving all sorts of public figures. And Sienna Miller, the actress, recently got a big payout from News International, which runs "The News of the World."

The latest allegations largely stem from "The Guardian" newspaper, unsubstantiated allegations from their own sources, but suggesting that there are all sorts of other cases of invasion of privacy that the police currently aren't investigating involving royals, including the duchess of Cambridge, but also the former prime minister, Tony Blair, although he says he doesn't know anything about that. And St. James Palace say they can't comment because this is a police matter.

The metropolitan police saying they are investigating new allegations of breaches of privacy separate from the ones that they are already investigating in relation to "The News of the World." News International saying that they refute any of these allegations, and they haven't been in touch with metropolitan police about them.

Max Foster, CNN, Buckingham Palace, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: New evidence that Americans want the United States to simply get out of Afghanistan and get out fast. Congress tries to get some answers about the withdrawal from the president's nominee to lead the Pentagon.

And why did President Obama agree to sit down with an African leader accused of corruption and human right abuses? The meeting the White House would prefer you didn't see.

Stand by for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama's choice to be his next defense secretary facing Congress today as the Obama administration considers stepping up the U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan. It was a big topic of Leon Panetta's confirmation hearing, and a contentious one as well.

Let's go to our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty. She's been watching it all unfold.

How did it go, Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, this is really a critical time on Afghanistan. Right now, President Obama is deciding how many of those 30,000 troops he authorized for the surge he will pull out of the country when the withdrawal begins, the drawdown begins next month.

Meanwhile, in Congress, in the military, and at the White House, all sides are jockeying to influence this debate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Into the Afghan lion's den for the president's choice as defense secretary, Leon Panetta.

From a key Democrat who wants more troops out faster --

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN: Director Panetta, do you agree that the U.S. troop reductions from Afghanistan beginning in July should be significant?

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY NOMINEE: I agree with the president's statement.

DOUGHERTY: -- to a top Republican trying to pin him down -- SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Would you agree with Secretary Gates' repeated statements that withdrawals in July should be "modest"?

PANETTA: I agree that they should be conditions-based, and I'm going to leave it up to Secretary Gates and General Petraeus and the president to decide what that number should be.

DOUGHERTY: At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the popular CIA chief finds himself in a tough balancing act on Mr. Obama's unpopular war.

The current defense secretary weighs in from Brussels.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There will be no rush to the exits on our part, and we expect the same from our allies.

MCCAIN: I think it's not inappropriate for you to answer when I ask you if you agree with Secretary Gates' assessment that the withdrawal should be modest.

PANETTA: I have tremendous admiration for Secretary Gates. He and I pretty much walk hand in hand on these issues, but with regards to specific numbers, I just am not --

MCCAIN: I wasn't asking for specific numbers.

DOUGHERTY: And more sharp questions on whether millions of American taxpayer dollars spent on reconstruction projects could be wasted once the troops go home.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: This is hundreds -- tens upon billions of dollars have just gone down a rat hole because we didn't think about what happens when we're finished building it.

PANETTA: You know, the governance challenge that we're going to face there is to ensure that, as a nation, they begin to develop the resources, develop the revenues that they need in order to be able to govern that country. That's going to be part of it, otherwise it's not going to work.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY: And Panetta had no easy answers because there really aren't any easy answers. For example, he said you can't win in Afghanistan unless you win in Pakistan by eliminating safe havens for terrorists. And as CIA chief, he's the one who pushed for more use of drones to do precisely that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, thanks very much.

Look at this. Public support for the war in Afghanistan has fallen to its lowest point this year, just 36 percent in our new CNN poll. And look at this. A month after Bin Laden's death, 47 percent of Americans now believe the United States is winning the war. That's a 16-point jump for our CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey last summer.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans now think though the time is right to simply get out of Afghanistan. Thirty-five percent support a partial pullout of U.S. troops; 39 percent favor a full withdrawal.

They're known as monsters rumbling across Mexico. Just ahead, how these new tanks are now being used by drug cartels.

And the breaking news we're following, a major blow to New Gingrich's presidential campaign just weeks after announcing a run for the White House. Will he survive? Is his campaign imploding right now?

We'll talk about it in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about politics in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala. He's a senior strategist for the Democratic fundraising groups Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action.

Also joining us, Republican strategist John Feehery. He's president of Quinn Gillespie Communications here in Washington.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Big shot.

BLITZER: Good to call him "Mr. President."

BEGALA: Sure. The big Kahuna.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Don't call me that.

BLITZER: All right. We're just getting this in. Newt Gingrich's national campaign co-chairman, Governor Sonny Perdue, has now endorsed Tim Pawlenty for the Republican presidential nomination.

It's not a good day for Newt Gingrich. He has lost virtually his entire senior staff.

FEEHERY: You know, there's some precedent for a campaign completely collapsing and then resurrecting itself. John McCain, for example.

BLITZER: It didn't completely collapse like this. He lost some people, but it didn't collapse.

FEEHERY: This thing is over for Newt. I think Newt is done. I don't think he comes back from this.

He's not really a staff-driven person, so he doesn't need staff. But you need a few staffers.

And then Perdue leaving and going to Pawlenty, devastating for Newt. I think he is done.

BLITZER: It's his home state governor, Sonny Perdue from Georgia.

BEGALA: His home state governor, the first Republican governor in that state since reconstruction, if memory serves. A terrible blow to Newt.

What I take away from this is Newt is one of the smartest people in American politics. I don't agree with his ideas, OK, but he's a smart guy. And I think the beginning of the end for him seemed to be when he took the position that the Paul Ryan budget, which essentially ends Medicare, in the words of "The Wall Street Journal," was not a good idea.

When he criticized that plan to essentially end Medicare, it essentially ended his campaign. This is now the litmus test for the Republican Party. You have to be for essentially ending Medicare or you cannot run for president.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Here is my two cents. He tried fix that and he backed away from it. He tried to fix the Tiffany's credit account, whatever that was. But then he goes on vacation for two weeks on a Mediterranean cruise to the Greek Isles?

FEEHERY: Tiffany and then Greek Isles. That's like a bad one- two punch. Medicare was bad enough, but those two things -- Tiffany's was the thing I think drove him out of the race.

BLITZER: Would you have said, yes, you know, Speaker, this is a good time to go on a cruise?

FEEHERY: Listen, any time you're in a presidential campaign, the most important thing to tell your candidate is you've got to run and you've got to be at it, and you've got to keep wanting to run.

BLITZER: Especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. These are retail political states.

FEEHERY: Exactly. And obviously he wanted to take a vacation, which is not a way to start a campaign.

BEGALA: Yes. And I did notice, being a long-time hack, one of the people who quit today from Newt's campaign is Dave Carney, a highly respected guy, happens to be from New Hampshire, but really a smart strategist who has long been the closest political strategist for -- wait for it -- my home state governor, Rick Perry of Texas.

BLITZER: So does this mean -- what do you think? Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, does he jump into the race?

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: There is a huge -- a lot of running room for Rick Perry. There's not a real good social conservative other than Rick Santorum, not someone who is beloved by the hard right like Rick Perry.

I think that Rick Perry, if he runs, could make a significant step and get a lot of support right away. Will he win? I don't know. I mean, there's not the big social conservative out there that --

BLITZER: But Rick Santorum, when he sought re-election in Pennsylvania, he lost by, what, 15 points?

BEGALA: More than that. I advised that campaign. It wasn't because of me that he lost, it was because of Bob Casey. But also, Santorum had worn out his welcome in Pennsylvania.

Rick Perry will be a formidable -- he will be the candidate for every Republican for whom George W. Bush was just a little too cerebral. So, if Bush was too smart for you, Perry is going to be right in your wheelhouse. And I think that he is going to get n.

BLITZER: What do you think of the speculation that Newt -- that the former mayor of New York, the -- is thinking of running once again?

FEEHERY: Well, you know, I supported Rudy Giuliani last time. That was some money that kind of went down the rat hole. He ran a lousy race. Maybe he learned a lot this next time.

But I think for Rudy to run, he has got to -- once again, another guy who didn't really -- wasn't fully committed to the campaign trail. And he waited until Florida to start really running. That was the --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Didn't run in Iowa, didn't run in New Hampshire. He thought he was going to win in Florida. Did not exactly work out that well for him.

FEEHERY: Right.

BEGALA: And you know I was just teasing Rick Perry for being dumb, because he is. No one will accuse Rudy of being dumb. He is an incredibly bright guy.

BLITZER: Do you think he is going to run?

BEGALA: I hope so actually, honestly, just not even as a Democrat, because he is really smart. He's a great debater and a great speaker. It would be good, frankly, for cable. It would be good coverage.

But he's a moderate. Jon Huntsman seems to be a moderate. Let's see how Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, and Rudy, if he runs, how they do, because I think moderates are now an extinct species, not even endangered, in the Republican Party. But maybe not.

BLITZER: But he's not even going to go to Iowa and try to win that.

FEEHERY: That's interesting. Paul makes a good point.

You have Huntsman and Romney. And if Giuliani runs, that splits up a lot of the moderate vote. That gives Perry, if he decides to run --

BLITZER: Tim Pawlenty, too.

FEEHERY: -- and Tim Pawlenty, and that's why Sonny Perdue going to Pawlenty is actually huge for Pawlenty.

BLITZER: What about Anthony Weiner, the congressman from New York? Is he going to last a few more days, a few more weeks? What do you think?

BEGALA: You know, you've already had now prominent Democrats, former party chairman Tim Kaine, who's running for Senate in Virginia, Allyson Schwartz, who's a very progressive Democratic congresswoman from Philadelphia, calling for him to resign. I think the news today, if accurate from "The New York Times," that this young woman, a 21- year-old, who got that underwear picture, did not ask for it, did not so solicit it, seemed to be not consensual, I think that's terribly damaging.

Again, Congress is not in session now. When they all come back, I think it's only going to get worse for Anthony Weiner. I'm hearing more and more from Democrats. They say it privately so I can't name them. More and more, they're saying he needs to go.

FEEHERY: Pelosi wants him out, which is not a good sign.

BEGALA: Yes, she does.

FEEHERY: I think he wants to say, but it's going to be a tough road. The Ethics Committee is going to meet. They've got to decide the big question you had, was it unsolicited pictures?

BLITZER: The investigation of the Ethics Committee, that could last for months.

FEEHERY: It could, and frankly I think he should fight it out and stick around for a while.

BLITZER: Why do you think that?

FEEHERY: Well, you know, it would be good for us. I think that Weiner is in serious trouble, though, because a lot of his colleagues, people who he took money from, they are turning their backs on him. Anyone who's vulnerable wants him to leave.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Does he have any pals up there that are really tell him stick it out? BEGALA: Not that I've heard from. There's a lot of people though who say, look, there's a process, let the Ethics Committee process go.

It's not obvious on the face of it that he broke any laws or congressional rules. It's terribly icky and creepy. I don't ever try to tell people whether to resign or not resign. And I generally don't call on people to resign. I'm just telling you -- I'm not a reporter, but I'm just telling you from what I hear from my friends, more and more of the Democrats are starting to say, hey, you've got to go.

FEEHERY: The Democrat leadership is going to put more and more pressure on him to leave. And ultimately, he's got to decide whether he wants to really stick it out.

The other problem for Weiner is that, at the end of the road, you've got redistricting in New York and he might lose the seat anyway. So what's the point?

BLITZER: Let's see what happens.

Guys, thanks very much.

More ahead on the embattled congressman. Jack Cafferty is asking, why won't he do the honorable thing and resign?

And he's accused of illegally financing a lavish lifestyle at his country's expense for years. So how did he get a meeting over at the White House today with the president of the United States? We're going live to the White House to find out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at this hour's "Hot Shots."

In Belarus, firefighters extinguish flames during an exercise.

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, a girl lights candles during an annual Hindu festival.

And in India, check it out. A peacock shows off its feathers. The peacock is the national bird of India, in case you didn't know.

"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.

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

CAFFERTY: I like those. NBC has a peacock, too, right?

BLITZER: They do.

CAFFERTY: That's the network bird.

The question this hour is: Why won't Congressman Anthony Weiner do the honorable thing and resign? Larry in Kansas says, "Weiner is made from a different kind of clay. This clay, once it's molded, never changes. Its characteristics are power, fame and money, in that order. It doesn't matter who you hurt, what you destroy, or what it costs."

"Weiner will never resign no matter what he's done. He was voted in. Now he has to be voted out."

Dana writes from Livingston, Montana, "Because he has nowhere else to go, or at least he can see no other option for his life at this time. His career as a politician is over, his marriage may also be over. He many not know what else to do."

Steve in New York, "The last congressman from New York State who was a Republican resigned immediately. He only took his shirt off, didn't lie, or expose any body parts other than his chest. This happened only a few months ago."

"Apparently, the Democrats have a different standard. They scream real loud if it's a Republican. If it's a Democrat, not so bad."

Ed in Texas writes, "First, politicians are not honorable. If they were, they would get an honest job. Second, if Senator Vitter, Republican from Louisiana, didn't resign, why should Congressman Weiner?"

Rudy in Virginia says, "He shouldn't resign. Only a coward resigns. Weiner should get his act together and then serve the people who elected him. He can't tarnish the image of Congress any more than it already is. When election time comes around, the voters will tell him whether to stay or go."

And Russ says, "Because he's a jerk. That's why."

If you want to read more on this -- we got a lot of e-mail -- go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: Will do, Jack. Thank you.

It's a bloody war in America's back yard. And Mexico's drug cartels are armed to the teeth. A new weapon, huge custom-made tanks that might make the American military jealous.

Here's CNN's Rafael Romo.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICA AFFAIRS EDITOR (voice- over): They're known as monsters, and they rumble in northeastern Mexico. As such, Mexican officials say these custom-made armored trucks are used by drug traffickers to transport drugs headed for the United States and weapons back to Mexico. The bulletproof tanks are also used as weapons of war in clashes between rival drug cartels.

Take a look at how they're designed. They're fitted with swiveling turrets to shoot at the enemy in any direction. Two of them were seized by the Mexican army in Tamaulipas, a state just south of Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They caught by surprise several armed civilians who were running into a clandestine workshop where they were indeed making the kind of vehicle used by the cartels to transport drugs headed for northern Mexico.

ROMO: This is the workshop in the town of Camargo, where Mexican authorities say the criminals were hiding the tanks. In addition to the armored trucks, authorities also found 23 other cargo trucks in the process of being fitted as narco tanks.

A look inside these trucks is very revealing. They have hatches and peepholes for snipers. Its spacious interior can fit as many as 20 armed men, and it's coated with polyurethane to reduce noise. It also has air conditioner ducts.

They're built with one-inch thick steel plating, which can withstand gunshots up to .50 caliber weapons and grenade explosions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): To destroy this kind of vehicle, you would have to use anti-tank weapons.

ROMO (on camera): So far, Mexican security forces have seized 20 narco tanks in different locations in northeastern Mexico, all with very similar features. They suspect there may be numerous other clandestine workshops where these armored trucks are still being made.

Rafael Romo, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)