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Unrest in Syria; Republican Votes Up for Grabs; Bad News for Newt?; Desperate Appeals From Inside Syria; "Completely Incapable" Partners; Obama Blinks In Birth Control Fight; Interview With Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

Aired February 7, 2012 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: Happening now: triple header Tuesday. As Republicans vote in three states, Mitt Romney's camp offers a reality check, as one of his rivals hopes for a major boost tonight.

The battle over birth control and health insurance plans, signs of a possible White House retreat in what's become a politically dangerous showdown with the nation's Catholic bishops.

And Syria's regime sends shells and rockets raining down on its own people. As chilling new images of slaughter emerge, how long will the world stand by? I will speak this hour with the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.

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

In just a few hours, results will start coming in from today's Republican triple-header caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota and a primary in Missouri up for grabs, dozens of delegates, but perhaps more importantly momentum.

The front-runner Mitt Romney's campaign is anticipating a potential setback as his rivals look for an opportunity.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is in Denver.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to turn around and we're going to look at this screen right back here, because Mitt Romney will talk to us from his bus.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With a snowstorm slowing him down, Mitt Romney ran about an hour behind schedule for his event outside of Denver, so he Skyped to the crowd that was waiting for him until he made his way on stage, a sign that not everything was going his way on this caucus day.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Colorado has got something to say about who our nominee is going to be, and I think I will be that nominee.

ACOSTA: Behind the scenes, Romney's political director released a strategy memo to reporters suggesting the campaign is anticipating a potential loss in one of the day's caucuses, in Minnesota or Colorado, or in the nonbinding contest in Missouri.

"Of course, there is no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest," the memo states. "John McCain lost 19 states in 2008 and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins, too."

The memo ridiculed Newt Gingrich's plans to concentrate on upcoming primaries in the South, boasting Romney would triumph in the West and in U.S. territories, suggesting the campaign is prepared for a long haul to the nomination.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our hope is that conservatives are stepping back, and looking at the race.

ACOSTA: Poised to win one of the day's contests, Rick Santorum declined to set expectations for himself, but he was more than happy to do so for Romney. Santorum predicted Romney would fail to attract as many voters as he did in 2008.

SANTORUM: He underperformed. He got less votes in Nevada. He underperformed in South Carolina. He's underperformed in New Hampshire. Just go on down the list and the same thing in Iowa. So he's underperformed from four years ago. And I suspect he will again.

ACOSTA: Both Santorum and Gingrich are now trying to tie Romney to the Obama administration's decision to require Catholic hospitals to cover birth control expenses for its workers. Gingrich noted Romney once mandated Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts to offer emergency contraception to rape victims.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The fact is Governor Romney insisted that Catholic hospitals give out abortion pills against their religious belief when he was governor. I think a Massachusetts moderate finds it very hard to draw a sharp contrast with somebody who is an Illinois radical.

ACOSTA: The former Massachusetts governor ignored the attack, instead assuring the voters the Obama regulation on contraception will soon disappear.

ROMNEY: This kind of assault on religion will end if I'm president of the United States.


ACOSTA: As for the Romney campaign memo, it also points out no delegates will be awarded immediately after tonight's contests. That will come later when state party conventions make those allocations. But make no mistake, a Romney defeat somewhere will send home the message to a lot of Republicans this race is not over until it's over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, Jim, thank you.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now, take a closer look at today's Republican contests, all three of them, what is at stake.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here.

If Romney were to lose one of these states tonight, how much of a setback would that be for him?


As Jim just pointed out, the campaign is spinning like crazy. And they're saying, look, the opponents cannot change the dynamics of the race. In other words, it's already baked is what the Romney people are saying. But Romney did win Colorado and Minnesota last time around.

If he were to lose one of these states, particularly Colorado, which is a state which some of his top campaign advisers are from that state, if he were to lose that, I think it would be a real problem for him, because people could make the claim, you know what, you don't have it locked up. By the way, you can't coalesce those most conservative voters around you which need to come out in a general election if Republicans are to win.

BLITZER: Because all three of these states, Minnesota, Colorado and Minnesota potentially battlegrounds in November in a general election. Listen to what Santorum said today. I will play this clip.


SANTORUM: I'm excited. I hope you can tell I'm excited. We're kicking off the day here in Colorado. You have got a big caucus tonight, and we will be heading to Minneapolis, and they have a caucus tonight in Minnesota. And the same thing, we're going to Missouri after that. We will be in Saint Louis tonight. They have got a primary. They're voting all day today. And at least if you look at the polls, today could be a very good day for the conservative caucus.


BLITZER: He needs to win at least something, I think.

BORGER: He does.

BLITZER: Is it make or break for him at this point?

BORGER: I think it is. He kind of blew off Florida, Nevada, to come to a place like Minnesota, where the most conservative people come out to participate in these caucuses.

And I think right now, what he's saying is, look, there's an opening for me. I am the conservative in this race, not Newt Gingrich. And by the way, we will be looking to see, Newt Gingrich, will he be third, will he be fourth here, Wolf?

But Rick Santorum needs to win one and really two of these contests this evening to show he's really got the juice to continue, not only with conservatives, but he's got to start raising some money, and the only way you can really raise some money is to actually put another one in the win category. This is very, very important...


BLITZER: And I wouldn't be surprised if Ron Paul in these caucus states does well, too, because he has an ardent group of supporters out there.

BORGER: He will be a competitor, absolutely.

BLITZER: Gloria will be with us through our coverage tonight. Thank you.

We will have complete coverage of this GOP triple-header beginning at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, right after THE SITUATION ROOM, a special edition of "JOHN KING, USA" and then complete coverage of all the results will begin at 7:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Let's go to Washington right now, where there's big news in the politically damaging fight between the Obama administration and the nation's Catholic bishops. This afternoon, the president's spokesman said the administration is open to compromise on implementing a rule the bishops say violated their conscience.

The rule forces religious organizations to offer birth control in health insurance plans, religious organizations, hospitals, universities and other institutions.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar. She's got more on what's going on, and what apparently seems to have changed today, Brianna. What's going on?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, more than anything it really seems like a softening of a tone and really reaching out an olive branch to certain Catholic voters who may be concerned about this.

Let's remind our viewers what this is about. About two-and-a- half weeks ago, the Obama administration said they put in place a rule that will go into effect this summer, a rule that says employers must provide FDA-approved contraception. We're talking about birth control pills, the morning-after pills, intrauterine devices, that employers must provide that by this summer.

There was an exception for churches to provide that, but the sticky issue had to do with religiously affiliated employers, like charities, universities, hospitals. There was a delay put in this ruling for them, that they had an extra year to comply, but it still created quite a firestorm, particularly with Catholic leaders who were very upset.

The development today is the White House kind of softening its stance on this, signaling it's open to working with these religiously affiliated employers in this amount of time that we have before us before this rule kicks into place. Listen to what White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said today.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: the president's interest at a policy level is in making sure that this coverage is extended to all women.

And the other side of the finding the right balance is concerns about religious beliefs and convictions.

We will, in this transition period and these discussions, seek to find ways to implement that policy that allay some of those concerns.


KEILAR: Notice the White House trying to thread a needle here. They're still insisting that women who are employed by these religiously affiliated employers have that insurance access to contraceptive coverage.

We did reach out to Planned Parenthood, even though this really is just developing not too long ago. Planned Parenthood doesn't seem concerned. They're not alarmed. At least one spokesman told me by this sort of softening stance that there are some Catholic leaders who have been opposed to this policy, Wolf, who still very much are. They won't be placated by this.

The general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying "Implementing the policy as is and allaying the concerns are mutually exclusive. If they want to allay concerns, they need to change the policy. Nothing less will do, Wolf."

BLITZER: The White House, Brianna, is clearly concerned. Catholic leaders can sway a whole lot of Catholic voters out there, many of whom are very important to the president's reelection. What do voters think about this policy?

KEILAR: Actually there's a study that just came out by the Public Religion Research Institute. A lot of folks in the White House are pointing to it. It shows that roughly six in 10 Catholics think employers should be required to provide this kind of insurance coverage.

Among Catholic voters, which is obviously very important, Wolf, it's slightly lower, 52 percent. But I think you're seeing is the White House kind of maybe realized it may be different or impossible to allay some of these concerns of, say, the Catholic bishops, but they're kind of taking a step back, softening the stance, certainly trying to extend an olive branch to some of those Catholic voters who might be swayed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna, thanks very much. We're going to be talking about this in our "Strategy Session" later this hour. Ari Fleischer and Donna Brazile are standing by. Praise and criticism are pouring in right now after an important court ruling on gay marriage in California. It sets up what could be the final chapter in a very long fight. Stand by for how the court ruled, what could be next. Stand by for that.

Also, we will ask the United States ambassador to the United Nations whether the world is just going to stand by and allow Syrian forces to pulverize a rebellious city.

Plus, a man who says he's uncovered what officials don't want you to know about the Afghan fighters who are supposed to take over once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. You will want to see this.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Indeed, another Election Day, Wolf, and with it another day of bad news for Newt Gingrich.

In this case, it looks like three more losses. For starters, Gingrich isn't even on the ballot in Missouri. Plus, recent polling shows him in third place in both Colorado and Minnesota, which is probably why Gingrich isn't in any of those states today, choosing instead to campaign in Ohio.

Newt's future doesn't look too bright at this point. There are two more weeks before another debate. At the end of the month come Arizona and Michigan, Romney is favored in both of those. And then Super Tuesday on March 6th. But Gingrich has given up on giving up on getting on the ballot in his adopted home state of Virginia that day.

When Gingrich took a thumping at the hands of Mitt Romney in Nevada, much like he did in Florida, he seemed to ignore the results. Gingrich held a bizarre news conference after the Nevada loss where he vowed to, quote, "find a series of victory which, by the end of the Texas primary will leave us at parity with Romney." Say what?

The writings are on the wall for Newt Gingrich but it appears he's the only one who isn't reading. Former candidate mish Bachmann says she thinks the race is going to be over soon. Tea Party leader Dick Armey says Gingrich is a lost cause for those voters.

Meanwhile, just one more sign that Gingrich is losing touch. Wikipedia says that Gingrich's communications director has made or requested dozens of edits on Gingrich's behalf. These including factual references to Gingrich's three marriages and ethics charges that were brought against him while he was the speaker of the House.

So, here's the question: Is Newt Gingrich kidding himself at this point?

Go to, post a comment on my blog, or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

Not looking good for the Newter, Wolf.

BLITZER: Not looking all that good. I'm going to be speaking with him live later tonight, as part of our extensive live coverage of these three elections coming. So, I'll have a chance to question him about a lot of this stuff that you raised there. Thanks very much, Jack.

A big ruling on California's ban on same-sex marriage occurred today.

Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, a federal appeals court says California's voter approved gay marriage ban is unconstitutional. The panel made its decision just hours ago saying the ban known as Prop 8 served no purpose other than to lessen the status in human dignity of gay people -- expect an appeal that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And we are learning more about the disturbing murder/suicide in Washington state. Police say Josh Powell attacked his two little boys with a hatchet before setting the house on fire, killing himself and his children. And in the minutes leading up to that rampage, Powell called family members and left this message, quote, "I'm not able to live without my sons and I'm not able to go on anymore." He says that on tapes obtained by ABC News.

Powell was the suspect in the 2009 disappearance of his wife.

Cuba's Fidel Castro says he's got nothing better to do than push his new 1,000-page memoir. The 85-year-old former president apparently spent six hours at a book launch party talking about current events and taking a swipe at the United States, saying no one's interested in the GOP primaries.

And that gritty Chrysler ad about Detroit's comeback, well, it turns out it wasn't actually filmed in Detroit. New Orleans and Los Angeles serve as stand-ins for the Motor City as Clint Eastwood reflects on halftime in America. That's according to "The Weekly Standard," which talked to a spokesman for the car company and the only video that is actually from Detroit turns out is stock footage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of publicity thanks to that video for Chrysler and Clint Eastwood, and a lot of debate going on.

Thanks very much for that, Lisa.

Today, we're seeing new records of Syrian gunners shelling civilian homes in a rebellious city. In a minute, I'll speak with United States ambassador to the United Nations. I'll ask Ambassador Susan Rice if the world can find a way to stop the bloodshed.


SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Assad is off the reservation. He is being armed and supported by Russia, perhaps others.


BLITZER: And later in our strategy session, we'll take a closer look at how much political damage President Obama has caused with a large very important group of religious voters.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Shells and rockets continue to rain down on a city of a million people. It's now the epicenter of Syria's revolt and brutal government crackdown. Opposition groups say at least 25 people have died today in Homs and other cities.

In Damascus, the regime rolled out the red carpet for Russia's prime minister just days after Russia and China blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at ending the violence.

A group of Arab nations have followed the U.S. lead in recalling their ambassadors in Damascus. But Syria's embattled population is calling on the world to so much more.

Our Lisa Sylvester is following harrowing accounts of slaughter that are emerging on a daily basis, sometimes an hourly basis in Syria.

What's the latest, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf. You know, an estimated 6,000 people have been killed in Syria. Many people have been arrested and detained. And there are more than 10,000 refugees.

The city of Homs has been hit hard. We are seeing images of civilians who have been caught in the violence, women and children, schools and homes have been bombed. We're learning more how activists are getting these pictures out to the rest of the world.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): Smoke rises above the city of Homs, the sound of continuous gun shelling.

Images of the destruction, including apartment buildings hit and a bombed-out school. CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos, but these clips posted on YouTube and other social media are one of the few ways the world can see what's happening there.

Syrian officials have only allowed a handful of journalists inside the country, limiting their access.

This man who only wants us to identify him as Zaidoun pleaded for the world to do more to stop the regime of Bashar with us.

ZAIDOUN, SYRIAN ACTIVIST: The entire world should be ashamed of what's happening here. Everybody is just silent and looking at us as being slaughtered every moment, for no reason, just asking for our freedom.

We are getting killed every moment. We are not able to even just to get some basic medicine to injured people. Children are really hungry. I swear, children are hungry.

No power, no fuel, it's so cold. It's too much. For God's sake, this is too much.

SYLVESTER: Social media gives a window to the rest of the world, but it comes at a great price, activists risking their lives. Only about 18 percent of Syria has access to the Internet, but there are enough people with smartphones in key cities to have an impact.

Activist Mohammad Al-Abdallah who now lives in the United States explains to me there are various ways they're getting information out. People taking pictures on their phone and using YouTube. But the Syrian government has knocked out the Internet, so activists are also using a cell phone app like this one called Bambuser. It allows them to take pictures and immediately stream them live on YouTube and Twitter.

(on camera): So, this is right now and it's actually recording.


SYLVESTER: So, I can take this and I can record you --

AL-ABDALLAH: Anything. And it's going to be live streamed to Bambuser Web site.


AL-ABDALLAH: Prior to the filming, I would e-mail my channel on Bambuser to the media, saying I'm going to be live streaming from this channel from 5:00 to 6:00, say.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): Activists say it's important to tell the world what is happening inside of Syria.

(on camera): Why is it so important that the rest of the world sees these images and pictures?

AL-ABDALLAH: Because the government keeps lying about what's happening. If we heard what the Syrian ambassador to the U.N. said, we did not bomb (ph) Homs, he denied to everything.

So, without those images and videos, we cannot prove that the Syrian government is lying. And we need to push the international community to act immediately, to stop the terrifying massacres happening in the country.


SYLVESTER: As mentioned, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have demanded Bashar al Assad stop the violence. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Arab nations is slamming what they call the collective massacre and UNICEF, the United Nations Children Fund, also reports that there have been deaths and injuries of hundreds of children, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story, horrible, horrendous situation unfolding.

Lisa, thanks.

Our coverage of the bloody fighting in Syria continues next. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has a tough message directly for Syria's leader, Bashar al Assad.


RICE: Your days are numbered, and it is time and past time for you to transfer power responsibly and peacefully.


BLITZER: My one-on-one interview with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. That's coming up next.

And an army officer risks his job, breaks his silence to tell CNN what he's really seeing on the front lines of Afghanistan, what he says the Pentagon doesn't want you to know.


BLITZER: As we've been showing you, thousands of people are dead, tens of thousands are wounded, many more have simply disappeared. Along with the shocking images of slaughter coming out of Syria, there are desperate -- really desperate appeals to the outside world for help.

But will the world answer?


BLITZER: And joining us now from the United States mission to the United Nations, the U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice.

Ambassador, thanks very much.

I want to get right to Syria right now. The whole world is watching what's going on.

I want you to listen to what Senator John McCain said today, because he's outraged.

Listen to this.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think we should have a contact group, a joint coalition and also we should start considering all options, including arming the opposition. The bloodletting has got to stop.


BLITZER: Is the U.S., the Obama administration, ready to start arming the opposition in Syria?

SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Well, Wolf, we are all outraged and very much frustrated by the fact that two countries only, Russia and China, following their own narrow interests, blocked a -- a very important resolution in this country that would have given hope to an Arab League mediated peaceful resolution of this crisis.

But despite that, we are very much committed to seeing this issue resolved through political means. And we think that's very much still possible.

So we are working with friends and -- and partners in the region and looking very actively at what Secretary Clinton has called the friends of democratic Syria, a form of contact group. We're looking at ways to ramp up the economic pressure on Assad, who's already feeling the economic squeeze quite potent, so that the pressure on him becomes unyielding. And we will certainly be consulting with our partners that neighbor Syria, the other Arab states that have been leading this initiative, and partners in Europe and elsewhere around the world about appropriate next steps.

But we believe this can and should be resolved through a combination of political and economic pressure.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, the Russians continue arming the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. So I -- I guess is the -- is the notion of the U.S., the Europeans, the Arab world arming the -- the opposition, is that something that you would support?

RICE: Well, Wolf, I think we -- we want to certainly have the opportunity to explore a range of options. But our strong preference is not to fuel what has the potential to become a full blown civil war. The aim is to resolve this through peaceful means. And Assad is -- is off the reservation. He is being armed and supported by Russia, perhaps others.

The opposition is increasingly -- the armed opposition, as opposed to the civilian opposition, is increasingly also resorting to -- to violence in self-defense.

That is not a dynamic that is in the interests of the people of Syria or the wider region.

So before we start talking about military options, we very much want to ensure that we have exhausted all the political de -- economic and diplomatic means at our disposal.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to what Professor Fouad Ajami, the Middle East scholar, said last night right here on CNN.

Listen to this.


FOUAD AJAMI, SENIOR FELLOW, HOOVER INSTITUTION: The world should be ashamed. And it's not just the Russians and the Chinese. The shame is obvious to the rest of -- to the rest of us. But there is also so much abdication elsewhere. There's abdication by the Turks nearby. There's abdication by the Arab League. There's abdication in Washington.


BLITZER: He's saying that Washington could be doing and must be doing a whole lot more.

What else, realistically, can Washington, meaning the U.S. government, do to stop the slaughter?

RICE: Well, I didn't hear him make any specific suggestions, but, Wolf, we think that the -- that the Assad regime is on its last legs, that the pressure is increasing. The economy is -- is crumbling. Defections are increasing. The regional pressure on Assad is building.

So we're interested in -- in accelerating that process of -- of economic and political pressure, such that Assad stops the violence and gets out of the way and gets out of power.

There's -- we do think that there are additional steps that we can take along that dimension that are -- that are -- that have yet to be undertaken. And we're going to do so.

But not every situation is identical. This is not a situation which -- unlike Libya, where the Arab League called for military intervention, where there was a broad international agreement on the necessity of international intervention, and -- and, frankly, even the people of Syria, the opposition themselves, are not making that the centerpiece of what they're asking of the international community.

So we -- we need to be careful that we don't apply a cookie cutter mode and think that the solution in one place is necessarily the solution in the other. Each of these are different.

But we have a very strong interest and a commitment to ending the violence in Syria and to employing all the pressure that we can muster, economic, diplomatic and political, in the first instance, to accomplish that goal.

BLITZER: Because they're still getting support, the Damascus regime, not just from Russia and China, but from some of their neighbors, Iran, to be sure, even Lebanon, even the supposedly U.S. regime, the government in Baghdad of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, they're still supporting the Syrian regime.

So if -- if you see them being on their last legs, they probably say to themselves, they still have some support out there.

RICE: Well, actually, I think they very much are on their last legs. And -- and while they have, certainly, Iran strongly in their corner and Russia for the time being, the fact is the region, the Arab League plus Turkey, plus the -- the international community, as we saw, in fact, on Saturday, when countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America, all came together to condemn this regime and call for its departure through a political transition.

So, you know, Assad may use the excuse of the Russian-Chinese veto to accelerate the violence in the short-term. But there is no question that that is not tenable over the long-term or even the medium-term and that, indeed, he is feeling the pressure economically and -- and otherwise.

And -- and our aim is to ratchet that pressure up.

BLITZER: We're out of time. But very quickly, you're being seen around the world, including in Damascus, right now. I want you to look into the camera, as you are, and assume you're speaking directly to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

What would you say to him?

RICE: I'd say the United States stands with the people of Syria fully and unequivocally in their aspirations for peace, for democracy and for a brighter future. Your days are numbered. And it is time and past time for you to the transfer power responsibly and peacefully. The longer you hang on, the more damage you do yourself, your family, your interests and, indeed, your country.

BLITZER: Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us.

RICE: Thank you, Wolf.


BLITZER: While allies are in Syria right now, an army officer here in the United States is risking his job to tell the world what he's seen in Afghanistan. He warns the Pentagon isn't telling the whole story.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is this the U.S. military telling the president and telling the country what this thinks we all want to hear?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I believe it is.



BLITZER: CNN has learned of a new deeply pessimistic account of the situation in Afghanistan right now. Even though the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicts the U.S. will be able to end its combat mission in Afghanistan next year.

One man says Afghan security forces are completely incapable of defending their own country. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's working the details -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is just one U.S. military officer's opinion, but he is getting a lot of attention for what he thinks.


STARR (voice-over): He is just one voice, but he's talked to many. On his second tour in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis traveled across the battle zone talking to troops about what was needed. He says he arrived skeptical, but hopeful about the war. Hope soon evaporated.

LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS, U.S. ARMY: As long as it's just on the right track and you can see evidence of it. That's all anybody could ask for and I still wanted to see that and didn't see that.

STARR: Risking his career, he's gone public in his first television interview. He does not have the Army's permission to talk. So he's on his own time, not in uniform. His candor is not what you often hear.

DAVIS: I was in eastern Afghanistan. It was one of the first trips that I had done and guys were about to go out on patrol.

STARR: Davis who shot this video says troops began talking.

DAVIS: One by one they started telling me about how the Afghan partners are almost completely incapable if they even doing their job and in some cases colluding with the Taliban.

STARR: The official line?

DAVID SEDNEY, DEPUTY ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: Our most recent report demonstrates that clearly the momentum has shifted to our side and the Taliban run their back foot.

STARR: But on the front line, Davis says he saw a lack of success on every level.

DAVIS: The frustration on these guys faces no one. They're going out there risking their lives every day.

STARR: He recounts just one day with U.S. and Afghan forces in the field.

DAVIS: All the Afghan guys peeled off over here into an abandoned building and took a nap. All the American guys went about doing their normal job to set up, you know, defensive positions.

STARR (on camera): So you see all of this, and it leads you to do what?

DAVIS: Well, at first it was just, you know, this is not right. I'm thinking maybe I would write something when I got back.

STARR (voice-over): Davis has a website with critical articles he's previously written.

DAVIS: What changed that into something more was when I saw the results of men being killed in action for no gain to America. Some of the men that I met and whose eyes I looked into this summer were killed in action just weeks later.

STARR: So he wrote for Armed Forces Journal, sent a report to members of Congress and a complaint to the Pentagon inspector general. The military's official response -- we've seen the article and this officer is entitled to his opinion. Davis says he's not trying to imply commanders are lying.

(on camera): Is this the U.S. military telling the president and the country what it thinks we all want to hear?

DAVIS: Yes. I believe it is.


STARR: Now, the issue that Davis is raising are getting a lot of criticism inside the Pentagon, but you know, it's the same type of thing we often hear when we go to Afghanistan.

Do the top commanders really understand what the troops are dealing with in the field? Whether you agree with Colonel Davis or not, his comments are getting a lot of attention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As they should. It's a critically important issue. A lot of lives are at stake right now. Thanks very much, Barbara.

The Super Bowl winners get a big parade on Broadway, but some real heroes have a problem with that. That's coming up in our next hour.

Just ahead in our "Strategy Session" signs of a White House retreat in what's become a politically dangerous showdown with the nation's Catholic bishops.


BLITZER: Get right to our "Strategy Session." Joining us right now our CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile and Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President Bush.

You saw Brianna Keilar's report from the White House at the top of the hour that the president, his advisers may be rethinking the policy of forcing Catholic institutions like universities or hospitals, to provide health insurance that provides contraception to everyone who works there.

Even though the Catholic bishops say this is a violation of their religion. What do you make of this? How much of a political problem does the president have right now with the nation's Catholics?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, it's probably relation battle. As you well know, whenever there's a big fight with the Catholic bishops and the Catholic Church, and of course, Republicans and Democrats, it's always overblown.

But let me just say this that it's time that we declare a cease-fire on women's health. And the full range of reproductive services available for women.

It's somehow -- I'm Catholic and I love the church and I love the bishops and archbishops, and cardinals, but I'm also a part-time professor at Georgetown.

So institutions like Georgetown, which has the hospital -- it's a Catholic University. They have a year to figure on you how to manage this and provide coverage for those employers who seek it, but there's a conscience clause, so no doctor will have to write a prescription. You know, there are so many exemptions involved in this whole policy that I would hope people just take a backseat and stop inflaming it.

If the White House wants to continue to work it out with the Catholic bishops and other institutions, fine, but right now it feels like another assault on women's reproductive rights and we just had one last week with Planned Parenthood and the Komen Foundation.

BLITZER: What do you think of this, Ari?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, I think this is one of those classic cases where it was overreach by the Obama administration. And it's classic case what happens with Obamacare and the whole health care reform.

I don't know that it's the business of the government to tell anybody in our free society what they must provide for health coverage and what they can charge for it. That is not the government's business to dictate pricing into the private marketplace.

Secondly in terms of Catholics and what this is, obviously it's a very sensitive issue and the White House is trying to get out of it. They had went too far. They're trying to walk it backwards now.

It's a question of conscience. For people like Donna, who look at this as if that's my insurance if Donna was a full time employee there. The private sector has to be where that is worked out, not the government dictating how it should be done.

It crosses the lines of consciousness. It crosses the lines of faith and it gets them to health care as Donna points out. The government is not the best arbiter out there.

BLITZER: But you know the Catholic bishops and the cardinals are outraged by this decision by the Obama administration secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sibilius.

BRAZILE: Look. Government has a role to play in this, to ensure there's no form of discrimination, especially against women. I appreciate the Catholic Church. I don't have to have an argument about the Catholic Church here. That's why I go to confession.

But this is a much broader issue about giving women full access to reproductive right and to ensure that women are not paying more for reproductive health services.

You know, men can get Viagra and other sexually pleasing drugs and nobody else is screaming, but a woman who spent more than 30 years of her life, five years trying getting pregnant or five years being pregnant and -- this is an issue that cuts across beyond Catholic women because it's about health care, it's about reproductive --

FLEISCHER: The government should not be telling men you must give a plan that has to be Viagra.

BRAZILE: The government is not doing that, Ari. Look --

FLEISCHER: That they have to provide these --

BRAZILE: Churches are exempt.

FLEISCHER: But Georgetown and other organizations are not.

BRAZILE: But they exist as a business. As a business, they cannot discriminate the government has an interest to ensure that women are not discriminated against, and women have access.

FLEISCHER: So it's another government dictate here is what you must provide.

BRAZILE: As long as men get what they want --

FLEISCHER: It's not a man/woman issue.

BRAZILE: It is, because women pay more simply because we're women. That's what the ACA -- the affordable care act --

FLEISCHER: It has nothing to do with gender, but everything to do with mandates.

BRAZILE: It's gender. There's no reason why I should -- is government making sure that women are not discriminating against.

FLEISCHER: That's between you and your employer.

BRAZILE: It's between the government should also step in.

BLITZER: The debate expanded today when Newt Gingrich raised this issue in going after Mitt Romney. Look at this.

BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's been a lot of talk about the Obama administration's attack on the Catholic Church. The fact is Governor Romney insisted the Catholic hospitals give out abortion pills against their religious belief.

A very similar pattern, over and over you get the same pattern. I think the Massachusetts moderate finds it very hard to draw a sharp contrast with somebody who's an Illinois radical.


BLITZER: What do you think of that?

FLEISCHER: Well, I know the Romney campaign issued a statement to date denying the accuracy of what Speaking Gingrich said. And this was actually before he was even governor so I don't know what the information he may have. Obviously, Romney's experience with health care in Massachusetts has opened him up to criticism from others. I don't know what --

BLITZER: We'll do a fact check on this one as well. All right, guys, thanks very much. Both of you will be with us throughout our coverage of all three elections tonight.

At the top of the hour, shocking images of the carnage and the destruction in Syria's cities, and the very latest details on the regime's bloody crackdown.

Up next, Jack Cafferty asks, is Newt Gingrich kidding himself at this point? Jack and your e-mail when we come back.


BLITZER: Jack is back with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Indeed, the question this hour is Newt Gingrich kidding himself at this point?

Michael in Dallas writes, "Newt was kidding himself when he announced his candidacy while a few uneducated bubbas in South Carolina might think him presidential material, the rest of the country knows better and remembers him."

Deb writes, "No, Jack, Newt is not kidding himself on the frontrunner has yet to cross the 50 percent threshold among his own party's loyalist. There's a lot left to be said in this game.

Newt is rightly fancying his chances. He knows he has a base among conservatives. He would be stupid to give up on the opportunity."

Michelle writes, "I watched Newt Gingrich a month ago before the campaign began. It was a totally different Newt then. These days he's depressed, mean, cruel, blaming. For his health's sake, Newt needs to take a break and go home. Dan writes, "Yes, Newt Gingrich is almost certainly kidding himself. He's peaked and there's no way now that he's going to be the Republican nominee. He's perceived as arrogant and abrasive. He has almost zero support outside the party's extreme right wing. The campaign is underfunded, poorly organized and he has more baggage than a Greyhound bus.

Ken in Seattle writes, "It's called delusions of grandeur. I believe it's usually considered a mental illness. One fully expects Newt Gingrich to start showing up in events in tights and a cape with a large "G" across his chest to mighty mouse's theme "Here I Come To Save The Day" playing over the loud speakers."

Richard in Texas writes, "Nah, Jack, Gingrich knows he has no chance. He's touring the country on other people's money. It will give him something to write his next book about, 50 ways to leave your lovers."

If you want to read more on this, go to my blog, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S" Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.