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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Terror Threats; Trust in Government Hits New Low; Interview With Afghani Foreign Minister

Aired September 28, 2011 - 18:00   ET

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


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: And Cheryl in South Carolina: "When my friends' kids used to fight, she would make them kiss and hug each other until they laughed. Maybe we ought to try this with the Democrat and Republican children currently in Congress."

If you want to more on the subject, go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jack, thank you.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: new terror threats at home and abroad -- an alleged plot to fly an explosives-packed model plane into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol and an urgent warning to Americans about possible abductions in a Middle Eastern country. Stand by.

The manhunt lasted four decades and covered at least three continents. But the FBI finally tracks down an escape killer, hijacker, and would-be revolutionary.

And the public's trust in government drops to an all-time low. Our shocking poll shows just how Americans feel about Washington. And it's not good. We go in-depth of our broken government.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But we begin with what authorities say was a foiled plot nipped in the bud to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol with remote- controlled model aircraft. It sounds extraordinary, but prosecutors say the suspect they charged today in Massachusetts was deadly serious.

Our Brian Todd has been digging into this story for us.

Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these are the types of model planes were talking about. We're going to get to those in a second. First, the meat of the story, federal authorities have arrested a 26-year-old man from Ashland, Massachusetts, his name Rezwan Ferdaus. In an affidavit, U.S. officials say Ferdaus started his plot last year by buying cell phones, modifying them to act as electrical switches for IEDs, and then giving them to people he believed were members of al Qaeda.

He hoped they would be used to kill U.S. soldiers overseas, according to that document, but the people he was giving this equipment to were really undercover agents from the FBI. Authorities say he then expanded his plot to use these devices, model planes. They say he planned to use them like drones, operated by remote control, filled with explosives, guided by GPS.

Federal authorities say he actually selected two models, this one, the F-14 Phantom. This is shown here in a picture that was provided with the affidavit. And the F-86 Sabre. These are about one-tenth the size of the actual aircraft.

Now, his targets, according to the charging documents, the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon down here. Federal officials say Ferdaus traveled to Washington this spring, took photographs of the Pentagon and the Capitol and they say he also took pictures of a place called East Potomac Park, and you can see it's just south of the Mall here in Washington.

This is where, according to the affidavit, he planned to launch the model planes filled with explosives. According to federal officials, he also planned a ground attack, planned to bring other people into the operation, people armed with automatic weapons who would then fire on people as they tried to evacuate these buildings.

We have to stress one very important point, Wolf. A U.S. law enforcement official CNN spoke with today said there was no danger to the public since undercover operatives were involved very early on. This official also says there is no information that Ferdaus was connected to a foreigner terrorist group.

But they believe his intent was very clear. According to the affidavit, a cooperating witness once asked Rezwan Ferdaus why he wanted to blow up the Pentagon. The document says he responded -- quote -- "That's the target to eliminate and terrify all enemies of Allah."

We have called and e-mailed a woman identified as an attorney for Rezwan Ferdaus. We have not heard back yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: The undercover agents, Brian, who were working with him until the very end, they really were confident that they could prevent any real damage?

TODD: That's right. Federal officials, just today -- they say that just today the operatives, the undercover operatives gave Ferdaus material that was supposed the explosive material C-4. They say only a small amount of it was the real thing. A law enforcement official also tells us they gave him AK-47s and grenades but those were not functional. According to a law enforcement official during this undercover operation, Rezwan Ferdaus was given the chance to back down from his plans, but he never wavered.

BLITZER: Yes, U.S. officials have been saying lately, including the president of the United States, that lone wolf is a real, real threat potentially out there. Apparently, he hasn't been connected directly to any of these international terror organizations. This could have been a case of a one Wolf.

Brian, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, there's a new warning out to Americans in Saudi Arabia right now. The U.S. Embassy it's received new information that a terrorist group may be planning to abduct Westerners Riyadh. U.S. citizens there are being told essentially to stay alert and keep their heads down.

The State Department calls the information specific and credible.

Let's bring in our national security contributor Fran Townsend. She serves on the CIA and Homeland Security advisory boards.

Fran, let's start with this travel warning in Saudi Arabia right now. How serious is this?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, this is very serious, because this is not the first time al Qaeda has actually done something like this in Saudi Arabia.

When I was in the White House, Paul Johnson was abducted, he was beheaded. The beheading was videotaped and it was released onto the Internet, much to the horror, as you might imagine, of the family.

And so what would have happened when they got this specific and credible information, the security committee at the U.S. Embassy would have met to discuss it. That's the intelligence and law enforcement officials in country. They would have evaluated it.

And clearly given the history here of al Qaeda in the kingdom, they decided they needed to issue a warning and the warning is actually quite specific and quite helpful, tells people the kinds of activities they should be wary of and the kind of steps they can take to protect themselves.

BLITZER: What kind of intelligence potentially could lead to this kind of specific warning?

TOWNSEND: There is the whole panoply of American intelligence officials in-country and so it's either coming from the CIA and their colleagues at the National Security Agency or I think, in my judgment, more likely from the Saudi security service, the Mabahith, whom is a very close counterterrorism partner with the American authorities and likely this sort of information would have been passed from the Saudi service to the Americans, who, based on where they got it from and what they knew about the sourcing, would have made the judgment.

BLITZER: What do you think about this other plot that Brian Todd was just reporting on? Apparently a lone wolf, if you will, you want to suggest it was a lone wolf, had an agenda certainly in terms of the ultimate objective, but apparently no direct connections with any international terror organizations, plotting to try to blow up the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol with these model planes.

TOWNSEND: Wolf, the first thing I thought of was your interview with President Obama, who told you his big concern had been lone wolves.

What this demonstrates very clearly is one individual with a plan and capability could actually cause a devastating attack. The government has been very clear with us that this individual was only dealing with undercover operatives, government agents, if you will, and so there was no real threat, but it does demonstrate the kind of impact a single individual with a plan and a capability could have on the United States.

BLITZER: All of us remember when there was that alert going into the 10th anniversary of 9/11. There was concern that some al Qaeda- related group, affiliate or whatever, sympathizer, might try to do something in connection with that anniversary, revenge for the killing of bin Laden.

Nothing happened, thank God, on that day. But has that threat gone away?

TOWNSEND: It hasn't, really.

I think -- I'm here in New York, and so we see less of a police presence. They obviously could not have maintained that indefinitely. But when you talk to federal officials, they say, look, we still feel like that information was specific and credible and we're going to continue to work to try and either confirm it or dismiss it.

They tell me there were two sources, both an American intelligent source as well as a signals intelligent source. That's why they took it so seriously. And I think they are still working, best as I -- based on my conversations, Wolf, to try and see if they can't either get additional information or dismiss it entirely.

BLITZER: We know these terrorists are very, very patient and they will look for opportunities. There's no doubt about that.

TOWNSEND: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Fran, for that.

TOWNSEND: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: America's top military officer is taking some heat for linking Pakistan spy agency, the ISI, to a terror group which targets Americans, but Admiral Mike Mullen is sticking to his guns.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's working this story for us.

What's the latest, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just a short time ago, I talked to a senior Pentagon official who says Admiral Mullen indeed is not backing down from anything that he has said in the last few days about Pakistan.

But then, on the other hand, Admiral Mullen is about to retire and so maybe it's easier for him to say what he really thinks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria wouldn't back away from his contention that the Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, is directly supporting a violent terrorist network.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: There are elements, I think of the ISI very active with Haqqani.

STARR: Admiral Michael Mullen, the president's senior military adviser, set off a new round of sour feelings between Washington and Islamabad last week when publicly accused Pakistan's intelligence service, one of America's closest allies.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, Joints Chiefs Chairman: The Haqqani Network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's internal services intelligence agency.

STARR: Several administration officials anonymously say Mullen went to far.

Pakistan acknowledges ties to the Haqqanis, but insists it can't control them. The Obama White House took the unusual step of distancing itself from Mullen.

QUESTION: Just to offer some clarity here, is the Haqqani Network a veritable arm of the ISI, yes or no?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, it's not language I would use.

STARR: Pakistan has been furious for days about Mullen's accusations, but the admiral says a Haqqani suicide truck attack injured more than 70 U.S. troops.

MULLEN: With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy. We also have credible intelligence that they were behind the June 28 attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.

STARR: Mullen appears to be under fire mainly for his frankness about a close political ally that the U.S. still needs.

CARNEY: We are quite candid about the fact that it's a concern, but also put it within the context of our broader interests.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, many wonder if the critics would have been there if it wasn't for the fact Mullen is about to retire from office on Friday. But on the other hand, would Mullen have been so candid if he wasn't about to retire, Wolf?

BLITZER: And later this hour, Barbara, I will be speaking with Afghanistan's foreign minister here in THE SITUATION ROOM and we will discuss whether Afghanistan, the government of Hamid Karzai, believes that Pakistan is directing that Haqqani Network to kill Americans and Afghanis in this war that is ongoing right now. Stand by for that interview, Barbara. I think you will be interested. Appreciate it.

It took four decades, but the FBI finally catches up with a killer who escaped from prison and hijacked an airliner. You won't believe where they found him, what is going on -- new details coming in.

And gripping new testimony in the Michael Jackson death trial. We will hear about the behavior of the defendant, Dr. Conrad Murray, on the day the pop star died.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Note to the United States from Germany: Mind your own business.

Can't really blame them either. President Obama, the owner of a $14 trillion national debt and $1 trillion plus annual deficits, scolded European leaders for letting the Greek debt crisis get out of hand.

Mr. Obama said Europe's financial crisis is "scaring the world."

Germany's finance minister pushed back, saying, "It's always much easier to give advice to others than to decide for yourself. I am well prepared to give advice to the U.S. government." Ouch.

But he's got a point, doesn't he? The United States hardly presents a picture of fiscal soundness.

We're facing unsustainable annual deficits and a national debt that will probably never be paid. And so far, no one in the federal government has been serious about doing anything meaningful about either one.

There's also the president's $447 billion jobs program. It's going nowhere fast. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Democrat, says the Senate won't even take up Obama's jobs bill until they come back from their next vacation or recess or whatever they call it when they go away, which is all time. Reid says -- quote -- "We'll get to that" -- unquote.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner spent the last three weekends travelling around Europe meeting with their leaders and telling them how to conduct their affairs. It's no wonder that he was given the cold shoulder on several of his stops.

Granted, in today's global economy, what happens in Europe greatly affects us here in the U.S., but there's an old saying: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Here's the question: Does the U.S. have any business telling Europe how to fix its financial troubles?

Here's a hint. No. Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

Our reputation as being an arrogant nation is well-earned some days, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sometimes it is, sometimes not so much. I'm curious what our viewers will think. And they will weigh in big time right now -- Jack, thank you.

A new United Nations report says violence in Afghanistan has jumped in the past year with monthly security incidents up 39 percent. NATO's force in Afghanistan is disputing that. But with the United States pouring assets into the conflict, it raises a serious question, whether the cost in lives and money for the United States is sustainable.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Dr. Zalmai Rassoul. He's the foreign minister of Afghanistan.

Minister, thanks very much for coming in.

ZALMAI RASSOUL, FOREIGN MINISTER OF AFGHANISTAN: It's my pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, the United States taxpayers are spending $2 billion every week in Afghanistan to maintain the military presence and the economic aid in Afghanistan. Tell our viewers why you think that is worth the money for American taxpayers.

RASSOUL: First of all, I think, for the last 10 years, just see the 10 years on, Afghanistan, because of the help, the money, and sacrifice of the United States is making tremendous progress.

Afghanistan of today is a democratic country. We have for the first time in our history the women's rights and human rights and everything, and freedom of the press, democracy. But also millions of children are going to schools, seven million, never in our history -- 45 to 50 percent of them are girls. We have built with your help as much as roads, paved roads. Never in our history we have done it. We have basic health care cover about 60 percent of Afghanistan. But at the same time, I think we have defeated al Qaeda and Taliban militarily. And I think we have protected together with our sacrifices not only Afghanistan, but also the security of the United States.

BLITZER: but it looks like the security situation, at least to those of us from the outside, is getting worse in Afghanistan, not better, with all of these blatant, brutal attacks that we have seen unfold in Kabul, at the U.S. Embassy, at some of the big hotels there. It looks like the situation is getting worse, not better.

RASSOUL: Look, Wolf, if you look military thinking, I think militarily, the Taliban in Koh has been defeated. Now we are having access to spectacular act of suicide bombing, assassination of (INAUDIBLE) inspector (INAUDIBLE) attacks.

These attacks are planned outside Afghanistan in the sanctuaries that are not in Afghanistan and we are working to that. So I think that is a sign of despair that you're doing it, but overall security is better, military has been defeated, and they are having now appealing to these kind of spectacular attacks.

BLITZER: How much longer do you think U.S. assistance, U.S. troops are needed? In other words, when will Afghan military and security personnel after 10 years of this U.S.-led operation, when will your forces be able to get the job done by themselves?

RASSOUL: That has been decided, Wolf. By the end of 2014, the transition will be completed. The Afghan national security forces will be fully in charge of security in Afghanistan.

The first tranche of this transition has been completed and you are working hard to complete it by the end of 2014. But, of course, in order to achieve that, we need the continued help of the United States and training and equipping of national security forces, which is under way very positively. And we hope that by the end of 2014, Afghanistan will -- Afghanistan national security forces will be fully in charge of security of Afghanistan.

BLITZER: As you know, there's a lot of pressure to pull out because of the money that the U.S. is spending. What if the U.S. simply was involved in helping to train your forces, but the bulk of those 100,000 troops left tomorrow? What would happen in Afghanistan?

RASSOUL: I think the plan is not about will leave tomorrow. The plan, decided in (INAUDIBLE) conference that by the end of 2014, gradually, this force will be reduced.

In the same time, the number of Afghan security will be increased in training and in equipping.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a second, Foreign Minister. I understand that. But I'm asking a hypothetical question. What if there were a change in the U.S. policy and all U.S. troops, for practical purposes, were to immediately leave Afghanistan? What would happen?

RASSOUL: That will to create a very, very dangerous situation, because the Afghan national security forces, despite a lot of progress that has been made, is not yet fully equipped and trained to take the full responsibility. And I think that will be a very difficult situation.

BLITZER: Do you believe that Pakistan is assisting the Haqqani Network and others, Pakistani military or intelligence services, in attacking Afghan, and NATO, U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

RASSOUL: There is no doubt that are there are forces from outside of our border, they are attacking the Afghans and U.S. and NATO forces. These sanctuaries are not in Afghanistan. So we need to work hard, try to convince Pakistan to cooperate more and more on not allowing them to do that.

RASSOUL: Is Pakistan helping the Haqqani Network kill Americans and Afghans?

RASSOUL: I think what I know, the Haqqani Network is not based in Afghanistan, and they are from there planning their attack. And we want Pakistan to be more efficient on stopping them to do that.

BLITZER: I know I'm pressing you, but maybe it's not diplomatic, but do you believe, as many U.S. officials believe, that elements in the Pakistani intelligence service, the IS, are directly coordinating these attacks with the Haqqani Network?

RASSOUL: I think there might be element which will help Haqqani Network.

But what is important for us, that Haqqani Network not inside Afghanistan, is outside our border. So we need the cooperation, the full cooperation, of Pakistan to stop them to do these attacks.

BLITZER: Foreign Minister, we appreciate your time. Thanks so much. And good luck to you and to all of the people of Afghanistan.

RASSOUL: Thank you very much, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The manhunt lasted four decades and covered at least three continents, but the FBI finally tracks down an escaped killer and hijacker and would-be revolutionary. We have got new information.

And also happening right now, look at this, safety inspectors are moving down the side of the Washington Monument. They're checking it out for cracks. We have more on that also coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jurors at Dr. Conrad Murray's involuntary manslaughter trial are hearing testimony about the chaotic scene inside Michael Jackson's bedroom on the day the singer died.

Jackson's personal assistant testified today that Murray made a series of frantic phone calls after Jackson stopped breathing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL AMIR WILLIAMS, PERSONAL ASSISTANT TO JACKSON: It was, call me right away. Call me right away. Thank you, something to that effect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And were you asked to call 911?

WILLIAMS: No, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Did you, upon hearing that message, call Dr. Murray?

WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. And were you able to make contact with him?

WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he ask you to call 911?

WILLIAMS: No, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did he say?

WILLIAMS: He said, where are you? And I said, I'm downtown. And he said, get here right away. Mr. Jackson had a bad reaction. Get here right away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Following your learning that Michael Jackson had been pronounced dead, do you recall an incident where Dr. Murray approached you and made a request that you found odd?

WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where did -- first of all, do you recall where that took place?

WILLIAMS: It was -- it was some time after. It wasn't too long, but it was after the family was already there. The children were with them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And where were you?

WILLIAMS: I was in a hallway. I'm not sure which one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. And what, if anything, was the request of Conrad Murray to you?

WILLIAMS: Well, we were making small talk about how horrible this is. And both of us I believe had tears -- was tearing. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

WILLIAMS: And he asked -- he said that there is some cream in Michael's room or house -- I believe room -- that he wouldn't want the world to know about. And he requested that I or someone give him a ride back to the house to get it so the world wouldn't know about the cream.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jackson's assistant says he didn't give Murray a ride to the house. Prosecutors claim the doctor wanted to retrieve evidence of medical misconduct. Murray is charged with giving Jackson a fatal dose of a surgical anesthetic.

Now to an extraordinary crime case that could have come out of a time machine -- 41 years ago, 41 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president of the United States and the Vietnam War was still raging, convicted murderer George Wright escaped from a New Jersey prison reportedly by stealing the warden's car.

He went underground with a black revolutionary group in Detroit. Then, in 1972, Wright, dressed as a priest, and fellow militants hijacked an airliner. That was back when hijackings happened on an average of once a week. There was a ransom drama in which FBI agents delivered a then record $1 million dressed in bathing suits to show they were unarmed.

The hijackers flew off to hard-line socialist Algeria at the time and Wright simply disappeared.

Now after decades of dead ends, the FBI has found the 60-year-old -- 68-year-old George Wright living in a Portuguese resort. CNN's Dan Rivers is now there.

Dan, what do we know about this man's life in Portugal?

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has lived, Wolf, a very modest and quiet life, by all accounts. This is his house right behind me. It's -- it's a very cute little cottage here in the little village of Casanovas (ph). It's a tiny little place of a few hundred people. And he was -- really just kept himself -- to himself. He was a house painter. He tried a few small businesses, a corner store and a sort of barbecue business. But really living a very modest life and of modest means.

People here had absolutely no idea of the extraordinarily life story behind him, as you say, being convicted of that murder and an armed robbery, being locked up, escaping from prison, hijacking a plane with $1 million ransom, escaping to Algeria, and then disappearing. And clearly, he -- well, he surfaced here about some 20 years ago. This is where he's been for 20 years.

Here's what locals had to say. Frankly, they were all gobsmacked.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): My jaw dropped open. I still can't believe what's happening. They were very nice people. Very nice people. I'm shocked. I really can't understand this.

VITOR LOSADA, NEIGHBOR (through translator): I can't believe it. I can't believe it. I'm very shocked. I can't believe it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The news to us was shocking. It was a huge surprise. When I heard this in the morning, I was completely shocked at the news I was hearing. Well, with the news I was hearing, that would surprise anyone. We weren't expecting it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIVERS: We're told that George Wright married a Portuguese lady, which is -- explains how he ended up here. They have a daughter and a son. But frankly, everyone here just can't believe it, as you heard, Wolf. They're all totally amazed by this incredible, long-running drama, a man on the run for 41 years.

BLITZER: So Dan, what happens to George Wright now?

RIVERS: Well, they're going to try and extradite him, the FBI. There is an extradition treaty here dating back to 1908.

It could be complicated by the fact that he is married to a Portuguese national. We're unclear at the moment whether he himself had gained Portuguese nationality and a Portuguese passport. He was going under an alias here, using the name Jorge Santos, but it may be slightly more complicated than simply extraditing an American wanted for murder and hijacking, if that is the case, that he is now a naturalized Portuguese citizen.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of this story together with you, Dan. Thanks very much.

A deadly Listeria breakout is spreading, killing more people. The source: tainted cantaloupes. And update, that's coming up.

And climbing down an historic landmark. Look at these live pictures right now. The Washington Monument, right here in the nation's capital. We're going to tell you what's prompted this unprecedented event.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A deadly Listeria outbreak is spreading right now here in the United States. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What's going on, this Listeria?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. The CDC says 13 people have now died from eating cantaloupe tainted with Listeria. Seventy-two others have gotten sick. The outbreak, which has spread to 18 states, has been traced to Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado. Jensen Farms issued a voluntary recall two weeks ago.

Seven people have been arrested in an alleged SAT cheating scam. Authorities say Emory University student, Samuel Eshaghoff, took SAT exams for six students at a high school on Long Island, New York. He allegedly charged the students between 1,500 and $2,500. Eshaghoff is facing felony fraud charge, and he could get four years in prison if convicted. The students who allegedly hired him, they are facing misdemeanor charges.

A federal law enforcement veteran is pleading not guilty to child pornography charges. Fifty-year-old Anthony Mangione -- you see him there -- the head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for south Florida, made his first court appearance today in West Palm Beach. He is accused of transporting and receiving depictions of minors engaging in sexual conduct.

And sources tell CNN Saudi King Abdullah has revoked the lashing sentence for a woman caught driving a car. The woman was arrested in Riyadh for violating the kingdom's ban on female drivers and received a punishment of 10 lashes. Now, the king's decision to revoke the lashings comes just three days after he announced plans to give women the right to vote and run for elected office in 2015.

And now an extremely high-level inspection of the Washington Monument. Today, engineers, they crawled out of the landmark building's 500-foot-high windows. Then they climbed to the very top of the pyramid and rappelled down the sides. You see them there. And what they're doing is they're looking for damage from the earthquake that hit the East Coast last month. The inspection is expected to take several weeks.

It looks pretty scary. You know, you've got to keep in mind that they're up 500 feet in the air.

BLITZER: Hanging. Would you do that? I don't know how much money these guys get paid, but it's pretty courageous work to just be out there like that. I admire these people who can do it.

SYLVESTER: Well, the thing is, if you notice, they're not actually rappelling down. And you know, just kind of hanging out there. I mean, they're obviously working, but they're working that high up. So it's not like you're on top and you make your way down to the ground. They might be out there for hours. So hats off to them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Got to do it.

SYLVESTER: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks, Lisa. Remember this programming note. For our North American viewers, beginning this coming Monday, THE SITUATION ROOM moves up one hour. Please be sure to join us from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern on weekdays. "JOHN KING USA" will follow at 6 p.m. Eastern. The new Erin Burnett show, "OUTFRONT" airs at 7 p.m. Eastern.

For our international viewers, guess what? THE SITUATION ROOM will air at the same time as it's airing right now. So all of our international viewers, no change coming up. For domestic viewers here in the United States and Canada, there will be a one-hour change, one hour earlier.

The American public's trust in the U.S. government hits a stunning low watermark. Gloria Borger and David Gergen, they're standing by on our brand-new poll and America's broken government.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The American's public's trust in the broken government here in Washington has dropped to an all-time low. Our shocking new CNN/ORC poll shows that all too clearly.

Asked if they trust the government in Washington always or most of the time, only 15 percent of the American public says yes. That's only 15 percent. Eighty-five percent say they rarely or never trust the government.

Let's discuss with our senior political analyst, David Gergen, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, where does presidential leadership fit into all of this?

GLORIA, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's a very important part of it. And in the case of Barack Obama, I think even he would admit that he didn't really lay the groundwork for the big programs he was proposing to the American public. He saw himself as a transformational president. And he proposed big things, including health-care reform.

But he was asking the public to buy big government. When they didn't trust the government, when they thought the government was bloated, and it was out of control. And the way he passed health-care reform was in a very partisan manner, and they don't like that either.

So in terms of this whole "trust in government" number, I don't think this president helped an awful lot. In fact, I think he hurt.

BLITZER: The American people, though, David, they put all these politicians in office. They voted for them, so there must be a disconnect here.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I do think it's important to see there's trust in government and historical framework. The government -- trust in government rose dramatically during the Great Depression under FDR, especially during World War II. And it continued to rise during the 1950s. So that, by the mid-'60s, a large majority of Americans trusted government in their lives. They thought it was responsible -- helped to win the war, for example, helped to bring prosperity.

But the Vietnam War and Watergate really broke the back of that trust. It started in a slide and has been going down and down since the mid-'60s, early '70s, and almost no president has been able to fix it. Yes, Gloria's right. Presidential leadership does matter. But even President Reagan, surprisingly restored some of the trust in government, as did Bill Clinton. It was -- it was -- it didn't last long.

BORGER: But -- but you know, David, what was interesting is after 9/11, the polls showed kind of a blip up for trust in government, although obviously, it was much lower than it was during the Eisenhower days, because people saw the first responders go in...

GERGEN: Right.

BORGER: ... and try and rescue people, and they realized, wait a minute, those people are government, and so there was a blip up.

GERGEN: That's true.

BORGER: There was a blip up then.

GERGEN: There have been spikes.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: But generally they've not lasted very long.

BORGER: You're right.

GERGEN: And what -- you know, it's not -- it's not only Vietnam. For a lot of middle-class Americans, you know, their incomes have been stagnant since the 1970s. And they feel government is not just working very well for them.

BLITZER: But, you know, if you look ahead, if the economy improves, Gloria -- there's no indication it's about to improve -- presumably the confidence level in the government of the American people would go up, as well.

BORGER: Well, if people are feeling good about their lives and good about the role of government in their lives, they're going to feel better about government.

But the entire political dialogue in this country right now, when you think about it, is about whether we can trust government to do what's good for our lives. And if you talk to Republicans, Republicans say government needs to be small and needs to get out of our lives. And Democrats say, no, no, no, government needs to be there -- Social Security, Medicare, for example -- because it needs to help make your life better. And that's the essential argument we're having. BLITZER: All right. Hold on a second, David, because I want to make a dramatic turn right now to a totally unrelated subject, the article you wrote in "Parade" magazine about George Clooney, your visit to his home, Italy, Como. And some, shall we say, sketchy things that you wrote about, that was going on, drinking and jumping into the water. Clooney spoke about it on the red carpet. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: So then I said to David Gergen, well, you know, Walter Cronkite jumped in the lake, and then I got Gergen to do it. And then I got Charlie Rose to do it, as well. So I'm getting all these world-class journalists drunk and dumping them in the lake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You did write that you got hammered. And that you -- did you really jump into the lake naked?

GERGEN: No. No. No. Let me just tell you something. I had the privilege of going to spend a weekend with George Clooney to talk to him about his new film, "The Ides of March." It's coming out in October. I did it on behalf of "Parade" magazine.

He was a very gracious host, and I must say, I had a terrific time with him. We did have a dinner the night before I left. It went on and on into the night. I got pretty hammered, because it was a long, long dinner. And then out of nowhere, he's -- he's a very serious man, but he's got a very playful side, as you know. He got up, jumped up, and went over to this fence that overlooks Lake Como, this gorgeous lake that -- he's got a place right next to it. And -- and climbed the fence, had his clothes on and just jumped out of nowhere and then challenged the rest of us to jump in.

Well, the other guys there, they jumped. I had to get a plane early the next morning, so I did not want to take wet clothes on a plane. So I did strip down to my boxers. But I climbed the fence and dammit, I jumped. And it was -- I thought I might die going down there because it was pretty dark.

But we had a lot of fun, and I must say, he's a classy guy. I appreciate the way he treated everyone. He was very kind to me.

BLITZER: I've been to Lake Como. It's a beautiful place. Not -- never to his place, but I did see it from a distance in a boat. You got inside.

All right, David. Thanks very much. Good work for that.

By the way, getting back to the original subject, broken government, both Gloria and David have excellent articles on CNN.com on this very subject. I encourage our viewers to go check them out. Guys, thanks very much.

The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, is a big topic on late- night TV. You're going to find out why. That's coming up.

And does the U.S. have any business telling Europe how to fix its financial troubles? Jack Cafferty and your e-mail.

A lot more right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The question this hour, Wolf, is: "Does the United States have any business telling Europe how to fix its financial problems?"

Paul in Dayton, Ohio, writes, "You know the saying about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones. Well, it applies here. Perhaps we can avoid generating more foreign enemies by addressing our own shortcomings and keeping our nose out of others' business."

Lauren writes, "The only place where government has mismanaged its finances worse is Greece, so if the advice is limited to Greece, then Opa!"

Now Russ in Pennsylvania: "This is like the pot calling the kettle black. But of course, politicians and bureaucrats in America pride themselves on knowing just how to fix things, all the while running this country into the ground. Ron Paul is right again. The U.S. should not be meddling in the affairs of others, particularly when the U.S. has proven itself incapable of behaving responsibly."

Ken on Facebook writes, "Hell no. It's like the guy in jail for robbing a bank, telling somebody else how to rob a bank without getting caught."

Larry in Denver says, "One thing about this country, no matter how big -- how bad things may be at home, we can always find ways to tell others how to fix their business. Our nose does not belong in many other places, but we don't let anything stand in our way. And it's not just the economy. It's battles and borders and wars and trade, et cetera. How about we try to fix what's broken here first? When we can show the world how good we are at something, then we can offer advice. When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."

And Jason in Virginia says, "Jack, us telling anybody what to do about their finances should provoke the same response that Chinese students gave Tim Geithner when they told him that he believes in a strong dollar. Laughter."

If you want to read more, go to the blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page, which is growing by leaps and bounds -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks very much.

The growing attention surrounding the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, it isn't all about his political aspirations. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Another big question surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Governor Chris Christie's profile gets bigger, so does the issue of his size.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: All right.

MOOS: Now that he's a national figure, comedians are starting to make his waistline a punchline.

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, CBS'S "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Take a look. I mean, does he show up, you know -- go to Google Earth.

MOOS: From late night to daytime talk, Chris Christie's weight is being tossed around.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": Can you see him as president?

BARBARA WALTERS, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": You say no? OK. Why not? She says because he's hefty.

MOOS: For a while, they danced around the "F" word. But then...

JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": I don't think the country is ready for a fat president again.

WALTERS: I think that's ridiculous.

ELISABETH HASSELBECK, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": Imagine this conversation about an overweight female candidate.

MOOS: Governor Christie is a bonanza for cartoonists like Jeff Danziger, who drew Republicans in a life raft, seeking rescue while Chris Christie is belly up on the beach.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: I saw the other day, I was amazed by him. He must be 300 plus. And that's something he's just got to deal with because you're not going to say I'm going to cut the budget. Well, how about starting with supper?

MOOS: But Chris Matthews would go to bed without his supper for that remark if Mike Huckabee had his way.

MIKE HUCKABEE, FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: To criticize Chris Christie because of the amount of his skin is absurd.

MOOS: The amount of Huckabee's skin used to be excessive. He lost 110 pounds. (on camera) His weight may be the elephant in the room, but Chris Christie talks about it comfortably.

CHRISTIE: I'll let all of your audience in on a little secret, Wolf. I'm overweight.

The thing I feel most guilty about, my weight.

PIERS MORGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Where do you fall down in terms of dealing with it?

CHRISTIE: I eat too much. I mean, it's not a complicated thing.

MOOS (voice-over): When it comes to portly presidents, William Howard Taft was America's biggest at over 300 pounds.

(on camera) Taft was famous for getting stuck in the White House bathtub. Aides had to come get him out.

(voice-over) He then had a new tub made, big enough for four men.

At a Christie town hall, one voter saw beyond size.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I think having a governor that is smart and that has the perseverance to do what's right is hot and sexy.

MOOS: Contrast that with Letterman's "Top Ten Ways the Country Would Be Different if Chris Christie Were President.

LETTERMAN: No. 2, instead of Iraq, we'd invade IHOP. And the No. 1...

MOOS: Prepare for a steady diet of jokes.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...

JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": I think his mantra could be no more vetoes, only Cheetos, yay!

MOOS: ... New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thank you for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'd like to wish all of our Jewish viewers out there a very happy and healthy new year.

For our international viewers, "WORLD REPORT" is next. In North America, "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.