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U.S. and Iran Trade Threats; Airport Security Useless?; Six Days To Iowa Caucuses, No Clear Frontrunner; North Korea Holds Funeral Services for Kim Jong-il; Americans Killed by Drug Cartel While Visiting Mexico

Aired December 28, 2011 - 15:00   ET

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


ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: All right, it is time to launch hour number two.

I'm Isha Sesay.

The Pentagon warns Iran not to bottle up the Persian Gulf. Did you hear about this? New nominees to the top brain trust at the Federal Reserve. And a chilly, soggy end to 2011.

It's time to play "Reporter Roulette."

We will start with our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with more on this warning to Iran.

Barbara, take us through this.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Isha, this is quite serious in terms of the rhetoric. We will see how serious it is in terms of the reality.

Iran reacting to statements from European countries that they might place an embargo on Iranian oil imports, Iran saying if that happens it will shut down the Strait of Hormuz, that vital international water that is the shipping lanes for much of the world's oil. As a result of that, the U.S. Navy today came out with a very strong statement saying -- quote -- "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations. Any disruption will not be tolerated," that word from the U.S. military.

But make no mistake, Isha, the White House is behind it. The Navy doesn't get out there and say these things all on its own, the White House sending a clear message to Iran you can have your rhetoric, but do not force anybody's hand and try and shut down these shipping lanes.

SESAY: Barbara, just give our viewers some sense of perspective as to the U.S. presence in the region that in the event of any action from Iran would be used to counter any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz.

STARR: Sure. Well, the United States as well as many allies have a fleet of warships in the region at all times on a very high state of alert, surface ships, submarines, aircraft that can patrol the skies.

The reality is it would be very tough for Iran to actually shut down the strait. But the bottom line is this is as much a piece of economic warfare as anything else. If Iran was to make a move, if they raised the rhetoric, how will world oil markets react? Very sensitive to any fluctuation in the oil market, crude oil well over $100 a barrel already.

If Iran upsets the oil markets, it could go higher and that's not good for anybody's economy -- Isha.

SESAY: No, it certainly isn't. Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

(STOCK MARKET UPDATE)

(WEATHER UPDATE)

SESAY: All right. A mother is furious about the way her son was treated at school by his teacher. Wait until you hear how he was punished. We will talk to the mom live.

Plus, is airport security useless? Despite no attacks since 9/11, we will talk with a man who says it's really not doing any good.

And the comedy of Arlen Specter. He's retired from Congress, of course, and now -- well, now he's a stand-up comedian. You will hear his jokes and why he wanted to give stand-up a try.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: I'm Isha Sesay.

If it's interesting and happening right now you're about to see it. "Rapid Fire," let's go.

An update on our breaking news from Tennessee. There are three miners trapped in a mine in the town of New Market near Knoxville. Rescuers say they are getting breathing equipment to the men and they expect them to be out of the zinc mine within the hour -- 51 other miners were able to get out safely when the fire broke out hundreds of feet underground over an hour ago.

The men left behind are in a safe area and are in contact with rescuers above ground.

Attention, holiday shoppers, you set a record for buying guns. The FBI reported more than a million-and-a-half background checks for buyers of firearms in December. That's a new one-month high. The actual number of guns sold could be even higher since people often buy more than one gun at a time.

Someone is shining a laser beam at jetliners at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. The FAA says the cockpit of a United Airlines flight was lit up by a green laser as it approached a runway at about 6,000 feet last night. The 737 thankfully landed safely. At about the same time, the pilot of an Atlantic Southeast regional jet reported a similar incident.

The latest NASA mission to the moon is expected to reach lunar orbit just in time for the new year, some time New Year's Eve, in fact. Two lunar orbiters called GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B, for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory will study how the moon was formed. NASA says the orbiters will explore the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core using a video imaging system. Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, heads the project.

Epic pageantry, dramatic displays of grief. The people of North Korea lined the snowy streets of Pyongyang today to say goodbye to Kim Jong-il, the man they called their Dear Leader. During the three-hour procession, his son and chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, walked along a black car that carried his father's casket.

Well, hoarding is being blamed for the death of a North Carolina man in an apartment fire. Police and neighbors say the man may have become trapped by the tremendous amount of combustible materials all over his apartment. Neighbors described the scene.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROB JORGENSEN, NEIGHBOR: I was banging on his door as hard as I could. And I kicked it to get it open. But -- and I couldn't get ahold of him. I was banging on every door just in case because I don't know where each person lives.

TOM WALTERS, NEIGHBOR: Lived there as long as I have. He used to live there with his mother. He's a single man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: Well, investigators believe an electrical problem started the fire.

A scare at the L.A. Zoo when a woman jumped through the security barriers at the elephant enclosure. Witnesses say the woman who is mentally ill told them she wanted to pet the elephants. Zoo workers and visitors coaxed her out of the enclosed area the same way she entered. The zoo say it's the first incident of this sort since the exhibit opened last year.

A cruise recreating the Titanic's first and only voyage has reportedly sold out. Of course the plan is to complete the journey without tragedy this time. The cruise is one of several events planned next year to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Now, you probably remember from the movie or your history books the ship hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and it sank back in 1912.

How is this for a headline? All that security at the airport, it doesn't mean a thing. That's the focus of a new article in "Vanity Fair." With 43 million Americans traveling this holiday season, it probably got your attention. We will get some answers from the author of that next. And the funeral of Kim Jong-il held today in North Korea broadcast live on state television, shrieks of despair. People there have no food and very little electricity. So the question is, why are they crying? An expert on North Korea talks about it next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Now to airport screenings.

By my next guest's account, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars on homeland security since the September 11 attacks. Is the high price worth it? Are we any safer when we fly.

"Vanity Fair" writer Charles Mann put the TSA to the test and he's here to join us and talk about what he found.

Charles, you tested airport security with the help of a relentless vocal critic of the TSA. Take us through what did you and what you discovered.

CHARLES MANN, "VANITY FAIR": Well, what I did was -- the relentless critic was Bruce Schneier, a well-known security expert who has been critic of the TSA for years.

And as he's been saying since at least 2003 it's extremely easy to get past the checkpoints. So on his suggestions, I downloaded a picture of a boarding pass from the Delta Web site, doctored it a little bit with Photoshop to put my name in it and walked through the gate, just exactly as said I would be able to. I got the official TSA squiggle and the whole bit. And then we walked around Reagan Airport while Bruce essentially denounced everything that he saw as what he called security theater.

It's a show of security that's designed to convince us that something is going on that's making us safe, but in fact isn't.

SESAY: So you managed to walk through security with a dummy boarding pass, no eyebrows raised, no questions asked?

MANN: Right.

And this is -- of course, I didn't get on the plane. What Bruce has been pointing out is that you need three things to get on to the plane. You need a computer record, you need your own I.D., and you need the boarding pass. And ideally you would match all these up at one time, but they don't.

So if a bad guy wanted to get on the plane what this person would do would be to avoid the no-fly list, he or she would make a reservation, you know, with a phony credit card and get a reservation, pay for it in that name. Then the problem is they don't have I.D. So they go through with their real I.D. and a fake boarding pass, throw that in the trash and then just go right in with their real fake boarding pass, if you understand what I'm saying, on to the plane.

SESAY: Sure. MANN: And this has been going on for years. And it simply hasn't changed.

And so the enormous expense that we're going through is not effective.

SESAY: So let me ask you this. The point is made in the article that al Qaeda, in fact, has used up the option of hijacking planes. That obviously caught my eye. Explain what is meant by that.

MANN: You're breaking up a little bit, so I'm going to make sure that I understood the question, which is you're saying that al Qaeda can do something else than hijack planes; is that what you're asking?

SESAY: Yes. In the article, it said that they have used up that option of hijacking planes.

MANN: Yes. Their goal is not to hijack planes. Their goal is to sow terror. They're terrorists, right? Their goal is make us feel awful.

What we have done at the expense of nearly a trillion dollars or more is to make it slightly more difficult for them to hijack planes, but that doesn't mean they can't buy a tank of gas, go down 30 miles down the road the next casino next shopping center, the next hotel, the next national monument and stage an attack there.

So the great folly is that we're attempting to protect against targets, and there's tens of thousands of potential targets. Instead, the only effective efforts is improved intelligence and looking at the plotters themselves. And of course they are doing that. But the whole security theater as Bruce calls it is the effort to protect against these targets in a way that makes us feel secure when it isn't actually doing anything.

SESAY: Charles, did they get anything right in the security upgrade post-9/11?

MANN: Yes. Some of the things are absolutely right. The most important is one of the cheapest, locking the cockpit door, reinforcing the cockpit door, so that terrorists can't get in there.

Another one that's really simple, really cheap and really effective is positive baggage identification, that is, not letting terrorists check in, put a suitcase full of explosives on and then walk off the plane. Now you can only go on a plane -- unaccompanied luggage is not allowed on the plane.

And third one is improved intelligence, which is sending people over to Pakistan or wherever the bad guys are and squatting on the ground and talking with them. But all of these giant X-ray machines that cost billions of dollars, that isn't particularly useful.

SESAY: We reached out to the TSA and they sent us a statement. I want to read to you and then get your response. They said: "This article is rife with misinformation and an unfortunate disservice to its readers, our work force and the traveling public pinpoint. It shows a lack of knowledge of the current state of aviation security and relies on critics without access to actual intelligence or transportation security experience."

So, let me ask you this. What did the TSA say to you when you reached out to them as you were doing this article after your research?

MANN: Well, what they say is what they say to all the critics. The first is, we know better than you. And the second thing is, if you knew as much as us, you would see why we do it.

But, you know, that's not really a very good answer. If you notice that statement that they gave, they didn't actually cite any actual errors in the article, right? They just said, oh, it's all wrong. And if he was in the trenches with us, he would know why it's all wrong.

SESAY: Let me read a little bit more of the statement because they write a reply. The TSA says: "Security measures are highly effective and have prevented more than 50 million potentially dangerous items from getting on planes, including more than 1,200 guns this year."

What do you say to that, Charles?

MANN: Well, those security measures that prevent the guns, for example, they were there before 9/11.

Do you remember -- you know, back in the '90s when you got on a plane you had to have it screened. And nobody is suggesting that you should be allowed to have -- planes. I'm talking about the additional measures that were done after 9/11.

I think it's very difficult to show that these additional measures -- for example, there are thousands of air marshals that now fly on planes and getting first-class tickets that are paid for, of course, by the airlines. These cost tens of millions of dollars and so far as has been reported they have not prevented a single attempted hijack, done nothing, although it is the case that one marshal shot a deluded passenger in Miami a few years ago.

SESAY: Well, Charles Mann of "Vanity Fair," we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you so much.

MANN: Sure. My pleasure.

SESAY: We want you to take a look at this. This is North Korean state television, kids, small children in tears after the death of Kim Jong-il. How does this happen? Are children told to cry? Are they taught to cry and when to cry, some people are asking? We will talk with a Harvard professor how the Korean state, the state itself orchestrates these events and these scenes you're looking at.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: All right. So most of the talk we're hearing out of Iowa concerns who will finish first in the first-in-the-nation caucuses Tuesday. But here's an interesting question to consider. Who will finish third?

Peter Hamby with us now in Des Moines.

Why do we need to be watching out who actually finishes third?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Well, traditionally, political observers say that you need a top three finish in Iowa to get your ticket punched to New Hampshire and South Carolina and beyond.

People here generally are coming to the consensus that Mitt Romney and Ron Paul will finish one and two. Where does that leave the rest of the field? You have Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich kind of scraping for that third-place finish at this point.

And why does this matter? Well, some of these candidates might drop out if they don't finish in the top three. If a Michele Bachmann drops out, if a Rick Santorum drops out after a poor finish in Iowa their votes may move to another conservative. And maybe another conservative in the race could coalesce some support against Mitt Romney down the road.

The other important thing to watch here is Newt Gingrich. After sort of peaking in the polls several weeks ago, he has slipped. Anything less than a top two finish would be very damaging to Newt Gingrich as he moves forward in the Republican race because expectations were so high for him just recently, but he hasn't really put together the organization, the ground game here to sort of capitalize on that momentum that he had earlier, Isha.

SESAY: Peter, I know you have been following Rick Perry. And it certainly sounds as though he's pulling out all the stops to try to push through next Tuesday. What is doing? What has he been saying?

HAMBY: He is. You're exactly right. Rick Perry is another person kind of grappling to get into that top three.

You hear some increasingly conservative rhetoric on the trail from Rick Perry. Listen to what he had to say today in Urbandale, Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Maybe it's because this war is unpopular with the Democrats. I don't know. But, Mr. President, our soldiers come first.

And it comes before party politics. We need to welcome our soldiers home. Give them that parade. Give them that pat on the back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HAMBY: So what you heard from Rick Perry there was basically criticizing the president in extremely harsh terms for not organizing a major welcome home parade for troops returning from Iraq.

That's some really tough rhetoric, basically saying that the president cares more about politics than the troops on the ground. You're starting to hear him talk in much more conservative red meat terms, even though he's already very conservative, in an appeal to social conservative, fiscal conservatives trying to coalesce some of that support and sneak into that top three.

After soaring in the polls earlier this summer, he's kind of hovering around that 12 percent mark and he really needs to increase his share of the vote here, Isha.

SESAY: Yes, we're certainly hearing a lot of that today, that the race is on for those social conservative voters there in Iowa.

Peter Hamby, thank you.

It was supposed to be a happy holiday trip for a Texas mother and her children visiting family in Mexico. But the mother and two of her children were caught in the crossfire of a drug cartel war. Her other children watched as they were gunned down on a bus.

And President Obama is still on his holiday vacation in Hawaii. In case you're wondering, it's 76 degrees there today. He's pretty much staying out of the public eye this week, except for one official duty. And it involved four sea turtles.

We will explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Intense wailing and sobbing during today's funeral for North Korea's Kim Jong-il. It was an epic sprawling three hour event. And in the details of the ceremony signs of the new power structure. Dr. John Park, a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, joins us now to discuss the funeral and of course North Korea's future. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Park. What did you glean from these images we say of this funeral, because it was an opportunity to see the new power structure?

JOHN PARK, RESEARCH FELLOW, HARVARD'S BELFER CENTER: Absolutely, Isha. There's two main things that really struck me. The first was you got to see the resemblance of what is the essentially the leadership structure. You saw it in a very physical manifestation, Kim Jong-un touching literally the hearse, and around it you his uncle who is the important regent behind the scenes, senior party officials and three very senior military officials.

So here we see this cocoon that is essentially is going to be the collective leadership as this especially process and this grooming process continues.

The second point, as you pointed out, the wailing of the people. That is I think very striking for a lot of outside observers. But the thing you have to be about North Korea is that one percent in North Korea live in Pyongyang. That's really a symptom of the structure of the regime where people are very carefully screened and those who are the most loyal and deemed to be the most pure are in Pyongyang, and a big obligation for them is to be the supporting actors in these very large pageants.

SESAY: So to be clear, the people that we saw, the wailing and the gnashing of teeth, as it were, that's genuine emotion?

PARK: It's mixed. For some there may be this genuine remorse at the loss of a Dear Leader. For the majority it's part of the obligation, part of the deal. If you are living in Pyongyang you are at the top of the listing terms of receiving rations. It's no longer existing national rations system, but in Pyongyang it is operating. It's a place where we see the latest Chinese consumer products. There's now 3G mobile phones, penetration of over 200,000 and growing. So this is a very different type of picture and image we have of North Korea.

But again, I reinforce the point, this is the one percent. The 99 percent are in the outskirts and outer reaches of North Korea.

SESAY: The images we got came to us by Korean state television, so obviously they were putting out what they wanted to us see. What is the message they wanted to us take from it?

PARK: That's an important point there. That is a message for external audiences. But I think the greater message is for internal audiences. This is another rare instance the North Korean people get to see Kim Jong-un and images of Kim Jong-un. It was only in the party conference in 2010, September, that the North Korean people saw the first photograph of Kim Jong-un. This is an important part of the succession process getting Kim Jong-un acquainted to the people and one of the key tasks of his father as he was dealing with declining time to accelerate this process meeting his son to the regime.

SESAY: You talked about the choreography of Kim Jong-un and those forming this collective leadership going forward there in North Korea. What do you expect? Do you expect continuity of policy there in North Korea and it will continue to go the way of Kim Jong-il?

PARK: I think for the near term there will be more continuity. The reason why is the leadership succession process is not over. Despite the death of Kim Jong-il there is a plan. I think what we're seeing is this plan being implemented. So if there's any decision- making going on in this collective leadership, it's related to the implementation of the plan. I don't think we're going to see any new decisions coming out until this new leadership structure is solidified and Kim Jong-un is able to consolidate power.

SESAY: Dr. John Parks Thanks so much for joining us. It was great to speak to you. Great analysis there. Thank you. The countdown is on. Just six days until the voting begins in the Iowa caucus. A preview live from Iowa with our own Wolf Blitzer.

And why was an autistic boy punished by putting him in a giant bag at his school? We'll talk to the boy's mother. That's next. And we'll also going hear what the school district is saying. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Now the word "brutal" doesn't come anywhere near describing what happened to a Texas family visiting Veracruz days before Christmas. A mother and two daughters were killed as gunmen entered a bus and opened fire. The attack, well, that was nothing short of savage, ruthless, but what's happening since this attack is equally disturbing.

I want to you watch this report from CNN Rafael Romo. He'll detail what happened during the attack in Veracruz, Mexico.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAFAEL ROMO, SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: It was supposed to a joyful holiday trip, a Texas family traveling by bus in Mexico to spend Christmas with relatives. Margaret Snyder says her daughter-in-law and her granddaughters were traveling in the Mexican state of Veracruz when their bus was attacked by a group of armed gunmen. All three women were shot and killed. Ten-year-old Mike Hartsell, who witnessed the horrific scene, told his grandmother what he saw.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARGARET SCHNEIDER, VICTIM'S MOTHER-IN-LAW: I turned around and I come back and I shot her in the head with the gun and they shot Carla, and he said that he knew his mom and Carla was dead.

ROMO: A Mexican army spokesman said the assailants killed total of seven people on three different buses on the same day, including the Texas family.

SCHNEIDER: I told her not to go to Mexico. I told her not to go Mexico. I just kept repeating that. I just, you know - senseless, just senseless.

ROMO: Violence in the state of Veracruz where the fatal attack happened increased sharply this year as a result of a turf war by two extremely violent Mexican drug cartels. Military authorities said the same assailants killed total of 11 people last Thursday -- ten were shot and another died in a grenade attack. Five of the hit men later died in a shootout with Mexican armed force military spokesperson said.

Mexican authorities are investigating the violent death of another American citizen -- 18-year-old Alexis Marone from suburban Chicago was one of three men whose charred bodies were found in the trunk of a car in a Mexican southern state.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESAY: So much brutality. Rafael Romo joins us now. Rafael, this attack happened last week. Where do things stand now with the investigation and in terms of tracking down the assailants?

ROMO: As you can imagine this is a very high-profile case and Mexican authorities so far have been very tight lipped. I called the state's attorney's office today, and officially they are only saying they shot and killed five of the assailants, but at some point it may have been as many as a dozen. So you have at least five to seven who are still at large.

SESAY: And efforts to track them down, I know they are keeping a tight lip, but typically, how do these investigations, how keenly are they investigated?

ROMO: They have set up an army station in the area where this happened, and normally when something like this happens the army takes charge of the law enforcement operations. So you can imagine that they are going hard and strong for these guys but, again, officially there have been no other arrests yet.

SESAY: I know you'll continue to follow this story for us. Appreciate it. Thank you.

From Davenport to Des Moines, Cedar Rapids to Sioux City, candidates are crisscrossing for votes. We're less than a week until Iowa caucus. Our Wolf Blitzer is there. He sat down with Mitt Romney this afternoon. We're going to talk to him next.

And a nine-year-old boy put into a bag as punishment at school. His mother is, of course, furious. We're going to talk to her next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: A Kentucky mother is furious. She says a special education teacher disciplined her autistic son by keeping him in a ball bag. Two weeks later she says she still has not received and apology. That mother, Sandra Baker, says she now plans to give the school board a piece of her mind at next month's meeting, and she joins us now. Take us through what happened and how you came to find your son in a bag?

SANDRA BAKER, MOTHER OF PUNISHED AUTISTIC BOY: Well, the school had called my mother and told her that they need me to come and pick my son up because he was bouncing off the walls. And I got in my car, went straight to the school like I always do. And when I got there I went to the office and signed in like I was supposed to do, and then I went into Christopher's hall and saw a big green bag laying in the middle of the floor with an aide sitting beside it.

When I approached the bag I heard my son say "Is anybody out there?" And at that point that kind of startled me because I knew possibly he couldn't see out of the bag. And I stood up against the wall for a couple of minutes, you know, just in shock wondering why he was inside the bag.

And then the aide and I were having a conversation and my son said "Mama, is that you?" And I said "Yes, son, it's me." And then I asked, instructed the aide, told her she need to get him out of the bag and get him out of the bag now. And when she reached over to undo the draw string that was pulled, she struggled with it to get it undone. Well, that startled me even more because I was scared, you know, what if he had gotten sick or he stopped breathing or anything like that.

SESAY: What state was he in when he got out of the bag?

BAKER: He was sweaty. His eyes were like half dollars. So I could tell he was shook up.

SESAY: And I understand it's your belief that this isn't the first time they've done this to your son?

BAKER: No. The teachers have told me they've had to do this to him, even last year.

SESAY: So this is something that's happened before. You, of course, made your feelings known to the school. What have they said to you? How are they cooperating with you?

BAKER: Well, I have not yet to hear from the superintendent since the incident has happened. He was not at the board meeting that we went to talk about what happened. And I just feel like that if he was any good superintendent he would have contacted me by now to try to resolve it or ask what happened, and he's not done that.

SESAY: Let's read the statement that we got from the school about the incident. They said "Due to the confidentiality rights afforded to all students I'm not empowered to correct misinformation and misconception. I'm therefore left to give my assurance that our school district strives to use appropriate educational procedures and techniques which are destined or approved by licensed professionals and that our employees receive appropriate trainings and certifications to prepare and equip them with the skills necessary to educate our children." When you hear that what do you want to say in response?

BAKER: Well, I think if they took appropriate action that, you know, he would have contacted me by now. I do plan to attend the board of education meeting next month on the 19th and state, you know, how I feel about everything.

SESAY: One last quick question four. Will your son go back to that school? I know we're in the Christmas break now.

BAKER: Probably not. I'll probably will end up home-schooling him just because of the fact I can't trust them with my son, the school.

SESAY: We hope you get the answers you're looking for. We're going to check in with you after the school board meeting. Appreciate it. Thank you so much.

BAKER: Thank you.

SESAY: Mitt Romney and his wife spoke with our Wolf Blitzer for today's "SITUATION ROOM" coming up at the top of the hour. And Wolf joins me live with a preview live from Clinton, Iowa. Wolf, what can we expect?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Well, it was a good interview. We were on the bus, the Romney campaign bus. And it's rare that we have the chance to speak with a future potential first lady, Ann Romney in this particular case, and her husband. So we spent a lot of time talking about their personal lives, her illness, and some other personal matters. We're going to get to that in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

But we also spoke politics. I want to play this little clip because I asked -- I asked Mitt Romney, he's the front-runner right now, to discuss the criticism we heard yesterday from Newt Gingrich. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't know why he's so angry.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: Look, this is a campaign about the things we believe in. I believe the country's being led on a very unfortunate and destructive way by a president that doesn't really understand our economy or understand America. I can get America working again. That's why I'm running.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And we also go into a bunch of other issues, whether or not he could potentially if Ron Paul would get the Republican nomination vote for Ron Paul as opposed to President Obama. The big interview coming up here in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

Also, Rick Santorum is standing by the join us live here in Dubuque. We'll get his thoughts on what's going on as well. So a lot of politics, lot of other news as well. Isha?

SESAY: Indeed. Something that caught my eye, are the Romneys getting a little tearful during the interview, Wolf, and the candidate showing his funny bone as well?

BLITZER: A little bit of both. Yes. They got emotional when they were talking about the fears that they had which she was beginning to show some symptoms of an illness she has, MS, but originally there was fears she may have ALS, Lou Gehrig's syndrome. And we started talking about that, and they both got sentimental, tearful, when we spoke about her struggles as someone with MS. So it was an emotional moment. And I also asked her to tell us something we don't know about Mitt Romney, and that's where the funny stuff comes in. But, Isha, you're going to have to watch the interview here in "the situation room" during our 5:00 p.m. hour, and you might have a chuckle.

SESAY: Yes, indeed, we should be watching. Wolf, thank you, as always. Well, live coverage of the first Republican contest, the Iowa caucuses begins here on CNN next Tuesday, January 3rd and 7:00 p.m. eastern.

More politics right now. It may not be that much of a stretch. A former U.S. senator taking the stage at the comedy club. Next, we'll show you the former senator's comedy act.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: Animals getting pardons from the president of the United States. Around Thanksgiving, it was turkeys. This time, it's sea turtles. Joe Johns joins me from Iowa for today's Political Pop. Really, Joe, sea turtles? What's going on?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Pretty amazing, right? We've heard of the president of the United States pardoning turkeys. Always happens around thanksgiving. Never matters who the president is. There's also a turkey or two that gets pardoned.

This time, we're talking about turtles, a new twist on that old idea. The first family out on vacation in Hawaii. Four sea turtles, they come from the sea life park out there, which is frankly the only place in the United States that breeds these green sea turtles. They got an opportunity. To set them free. They were born June of last year, so it's a nice green environmental story for the Obamas to get in, even while on vacation in Hawaii.

SESAY: It is a nice, green story, but I want to focus in on something else -- an 80-year-old former senator who's now performing comedy. Who is he, and more importantly, is he any good?

JOHNS: Right. OK, Arlen Specter -- this is former Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter known to many of us who covered him on Capitol Hill. He was known as something of a grouch, but he is also known as having a pretty sharp wit when he got an opportunity to use it. Well, this was obviously an opportunity to use it. He was at the Helium Comedy Club in the Philadelphia area last night apparently getting an opportunity to tell some jokes, told all kinds of jokes. Some were a bit racy, but we have one that's not so much so, and why don't we just go to the tape and listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARLEN SPECTER, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Congress tells a joke, it becomes law. Whenever Congress passes a law, it turns out to be a joke.

(LAUGHTER)

SPECTER: So, I've been in comedy now for -- for 30 years. The only difference is it's not stand up. We all have comfortable chairs.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESAY: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNS: He made jokes about Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ed Rendell. Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich. And you know, pretty funny guy. Everybody wondered what was Arlen Specter going to do after he left Capitol Hill. Apparently, he's got a new career in comedy. Who knew?

SESAY: Who knew? Is he going to do more of this or was this a one off? Some are crossing their fingers and hoping.

JOHNS: Anybody's guess. I mean, he's probably got a long list of people he can talk about out there. And I can tell you having been on the short end of some of Arlen Specter's jokes myself, you don't really want that because they can be pretty tough and biting, if you will, if he wants to be.

SESAY: All right, we shall see what else he has up his sleeve. Joe Johns joining us from Iowa, thank you.

All right, before we go, I want to bring you this update on the breaking news story we told you about earlier in the hour. Rescuers have reached those trapped miners in the young mine in New Market, Tennessee. You may remember we told you a fire broke out 800 feet underground at the zinc mine this afternoon, but now we are getting word they are heading back up to the surface. More information as it comes into us here at CNN. We will of course bring that to you, so stay with us for that, those three miners heading up to the surface.

That does it for us here in the newsroom. I am Isha Sesay. I'm going to hand it over to my colleague, Wolf Blitzer, who's there in Iowa with "THE SITUATION ROOM."

BLITZER: Isha, thanks very much.