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THE SITUATION ROOM
U.S. Steps Up Spy Ops Against Syria; Campaign Themes In Obama Budget Plan; Israel Blames Iran for Car Bombs; The Fight for Independent Voters; L.A. Coroner: No Conclusions Regarding Whitney Houston's Death Pending Drug Tests
Aired February 13, 2012 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN ANCHOR: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now: new details about the final hours of Whitney Houston's life. This hour, the investigation, the unanswered questions and the pop icon's history of addiction.
Plus, new evidence that some independent voters are abandoning Mitt Romney. We'll look at his long-term headaches as the Republican presidential race drags on.
And Israel targeted with bombs planted on moving cars. Is it payback for the assassination of Iran's nuclear scientists?
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines, and Jeanne Moos are straight ahead. Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Jessica Yellin. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.
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YELLIN: So many of us are listening to Whitney Houston's songs and looking at the old pictures of her and asking ourselves why? Authorities in Los Angeles are refusing to speculate about the cause of her death. The coroner's office did reveal today that someone saw Houston within an hour before she died on Saturday in a luxury hotel room in Beverly Hills. She was only 48 years old. CNNs Casey Wian is following the investigation -- Casey.
CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jessica, the Beverly Hills Police Department and the Los Angeles County coroner's office are saying very little about their investigation into the death of Whitney Houston. Here's what we do know.
WIAN (voice-over): Beverly Hills police have sealed their preliminary investigation into the death of Whitney Houston at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where she was found by a member of her staff in a bathtub Saturday afternoon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have not ruled anything out. As of right now, it's not a criminal investigation. We have concluded our portion of the investigation at the hotel. We have a team of investigators that are specifically assigned to this case. But as of right now, in this state, it's a coroner's case.
WIAN: The Los Angeles County coroner's office completed an autopsy on Sunday but will not disclose the results. The coroner says he found no visible signs of trauma, and no foul play is suspected.
ED WINTER, ASSISTANT CHIEF CORONER: You can look at a body and not know what the cause of death is. You might have a suspicion, but the person could have suffered a heart attack or an embolism or something. And no matter what medications they're taking, until we run a toxin and see the level and what's in the system, we're not going to speculate.
WIAN: The coroner said there were no more prescription medications found in Houston's hotel room than are in his home. Those closest to the singer describe her final days and hours in light of her history of substance abuse.
VOICE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN, WHITNEY HOUSTON'S GODMOTHER: We were all aware of her challenges. But, I felt that she was overcoming them. She looked really great, and she was (ph) sparkled, and I thought that, at that point, she had kind of conquered the challenges that were ahead of her.
WIAN: She sang with Kelly Price at a party where Price says Houston drank champagne.
FRANKLIN: What I saw on Thursday night and what I saw on Thursday night was not an erratic behavior. I didn't see someone who was high. She was in good spirits.
WIAN: Gospel singer, Kim Burrell, says she missed a call from Houston about 90 minutes before she was found dead.
KIM BURRELL, SINGER: She and I were supposed to go to the Clive party together. And she left a message, and it's on my phone right now. She left a message at about two o'clock, and she says, Kim, where are you? I need to see you, call me back. And we were playing phone tag. And when I did try to call her back, it was no more.
WIAN: Toxicology tests could take six to eight weeks, even those results may not determine exactly what happened in Whitney Houston's final moments.
WIAN (on-camera): Now, Whitney Houston's body is going to be flown to New Jersey as early as today. Funeral arrangements are expected to be finalized. Funeral is expected to happen late this week, Jessica.
YELLIN: Casey, we also know that Whitney Houston's 18-year-old daughter had been hospitalized. What can you tell us about her condition? WIAN: That's right. She was hospitalized twice for anxiety and stress over the weekend, once on Saturday night and once yesterday morning. She has been released from the hospital, not in any kind of immediate danger than she has been, we're told, reunited with her family members -- Jessica.
YELLIN: All right. Well, at least, that's some consoling news. Thanks so much, Casey, for that report.
And we'll have much more on Whitney Houston's death a little later, including one of her last television interviews. That's coming up in just a few minutes.
And now, turning to Syria and what the U.N. is calling an ongoing onslaught that it's expected to formally -- and it's expected to formally condemn just a short time from now. At least 30 people have reportedly been killed today amid a fresh round of brutal attacks. And there's disturbing new concerns about al Qaeda's footprint in the region.
All this as CNN is learning brand new details about covert measures that the United States is now taking against the regime. Let's bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, with details -- Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jessica, military action against Syria is not contemplated by the Obama administration, but, that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty already going on.
STARR (voice-over): All eyes and ears on Syria. CNN has learned that spying on Bashar al-Assad's moves in the brutal war against his own people is now a top priority for U.S. intelligence and the military. The state department released these images showing Syrian artillery guns outside a town. American officials tell CNN, classified higher resolution imagines show military targets being tracked in case U.S. action is ordered.
The U.S. is looking to involve more satellites, drones and U-2 spy planes. Sources tell CNN that the U.S. is already secretly eavesdropping on telephone and electronic communications of Assad's regime. It comes as United Nation's official accuse Syria of crimes against humanity.
NAVI PILLAY, U.N. HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: Children have not been spared. Children have been killed by beating, sniper fire, and shelling from government security forces in several places throughout Syria.
STARR: Assad's government is not the only focus. U.S. intelligence has picked up on cell phone communications of known al Qaeda operative inside Syria. After several suicide bombings including this police station in Aleppo, there are growing indicators a small group of al Qaeda operatives from next door Iraq are now inside Syria.
SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: What's already been clear is that al Qaeda in Iraq, in particular, has pushed in operational and tactical level unit into Syria right now and appears to have conducted some of the high-profile bombings.
STARR: Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now calls al-Assad the butcher son of a butcher and praises Syrians for waging jihad. But there is little indication Syrians endorse al Qaeda or that he will have much impact just as he did not when he endorsed Egyptian opposition forces.
JONES: I think it's a safe bet that Zawahiri is definitely not involved in operational and tactical level efforts in either Iraq or in Syria right now. Only urging action.
STARR (on-camera): Now, by releasing those images, the Obama administration, itself, took that first public step to making clear to the Assad regime it is collecting intelligence and trying to independently verify what that regime is up to. Usually, Jessica, this is very classified discussion, but putting those images out there made it clear to the world that the U.S. is watching -- Jessica.
YELLIN: Interesting signal. Great report. Thanks so much, Barbara.
And now Jack Cafferty is back with the "Cafferty File." Hey Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hello, Jess. A 160 million Americans can see their paychecks shrink at the end of this month if Congress doesn't strike a deal on the payroll tax cut. This is the same cut they extended for only two months at the end of December, and those two months are just about up. The payroll tax cut reduces how much many Americans pay into Social Security on their first $110,000 in wages.
Instead of paying in 6.2 percent, they've been paying in 4.2 percent for the last year and two months. For somebody making $50,000, the tax cuts worth about $1,000 a year, that's significant money. Of course, it's money we don't have, but that's never stopped the government before. Just this afternoon, Congress seems to step closer to making a deal.
House Republicans are now saying they're willing to extend the payroll tax cut for the rest of this year without offsetting it with spending cuts elsewhere. This is a big turn around for them, something they weren't willing to do last week. Can you tell it's an election year? Republican leaders also say the measure could be voted on as soon as this week.
Lawmakers only have a little over two weeks to go before February 29th, and they're scheduled to go on recess starting next week. They certainly deserve some time off since they get so much done while they're in Washington. Meanwhile, the deadline could come even sooner. A lot of employers need to cut their March dated payroll checks well before the last day of February.
If Congress doesn't make a deal by the middle of this week, payroll processor is going to have to change their systems in order to reflect the new higher tax rate. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, though.
Here's the question, should the payroll tax cut be extended yet again? Go to cnn.com/CaffertyFile and post a comment on my blog or go to our post on the SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Jess.
YELLIN: Jack, you're starting to sound like a cynic?
CAFFERTY: I've been a cynic since I probably was in kindergarten.
YELLIN: I'm kidding. All right. We'll check back with you to see what your e-mails say a little bit.
And coming up, Whitney Houston's death ends her long and very public struggle with drugs. We'll take a closer look at the prescriptions she may have taken and whether it could have been a lethal mix.
Plus, a new attack targeting Israel. Is it public evidence of a secret war with Iran?
And why President Obama seems to be flying under the radar lately even when he tries to do something big?
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YELLIN: Amazing, wasn't it? That was, no doubt, one of Whitney Houston's shining moments singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl back in 1991. But now, the focus is on her family, specifically, her 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
A source close to the family says the teenager has been taken to the hospital two times since her mother's death and treated for stress and anxiety. Whitney Houston spoke about her daughter in one of her last interviews with A.J. Calloway of the entertainment news show, "Extra."
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A.J. CALLOWAY, EXTRA: How does it feel to be on set again and doing your thing?
WHITNEY HOUSTON, SINGER: Well, it's -- I'm comfortable. I'm real comfortable with it. Comfortable now, because I think over the years, being a mother and the (ph) whole thing, you know what I'm saying, I've matured in so many ways. My daughter is my greatest inspiration. She has trained me for this role. She has trained me. She trained me good.
CALLOWAY: Are we going to see you doing more film now as a result? Are you taking on more projects?
HOUSTON: I'm not saying that, but I'm looking at the prospect of doing another one after this but -- yes. I'm just -- I'm pretty cool. I'm all right. I'm good.
HOUSTON: I'm good where I'm at at this moment.
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YELLIN: A.J. Calloway who conducted that interview joins us now live. A.J., thanks for being with us. So, that interview for "Extra" was done just a few months ago. How did she strike you while you were talking to her?
CALLOWAY: How did -- I'm sorry, can you repeat that?
YELLIN: How did Whitney Houston seem to you while you were interviewing her?
CALLOWAY: She seemed -- she was in such a beautiful mood. She looked fine. She was extremely healthy. She was just in a really, really good place. And, everybody spoke about how wonderful she was doing on set. How, you know, this was a pivotal moment for her, and everybody was waiting and anticipating her return to the screen, and how her performance was impeccable. So --
YELLIN: Let me ask you about that, because her career had been at a standstill up until then. Was she optimistic about her career going forward, at least, about her movie career taking off again?
CALLOWAY: Oh, yes, completely, completely optimistic about her movie career. Really, everybody was talking about sparkle and how it was going to be the return of Whitney Houston. And even as, you know, the past couple of days, I just spoke to Rickie Minor (ph), and he was telling me that she was considering touring again.
And that she was swimming a lot. She was doing about two hours after swimming a day trying to get her lungs back and conditions again so she can hit the stage and perform like she used to.
YELLIN: Did she talk at all about her past drug use?
CALLOWAY: She didn't. She didn't. We didn't -- you know, I never brought that up with her in that interview. We didn't speak upon it. But, you know, as far as everything that I've seen and the people that I know close to her, she hasn't been dealing with anything of that sort in quite a while.
YELLIN: We're looking at a picture of the two of you together, and she looks great in it. Again, she didn't strike you as unhealthy in any way. She didn't look bloated -- people were saying in those final pictures --
CALLOWAY: Not at all.
YELLIN: Yes. Nothing?
CALLOWAY: Not at all. I mean, I know there are photographs circulating now from Thursday night at the Grammys, but people have to understand that the event that she was at, it was extremely hot. If you took photos of anybody in there, they were sweating. It was a hot room, and you know, she had just performed on stage. So, you know, you can put up a photo and say anything.
CALLOWAY: You know, I think it was just an unfortunate accident that took place.
YELLIN: Yes. All right, A.J. Calloway, thanks so much. One of the final interviews with Whitney Houston. We're grateful for your time, for sharing that with us.
CALLOWAY: Thank you.
YELLIN: Thanks. Coming up, a sitting Supreme Court justice robbed at machete point. Just ahead, the very latest on how it all went down.
Plus, if you're a fan of the Empire State Building, you may soon get the chance to own a piece of it. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.
YELLIN: President Obama says there's one major goal behind the budget plan he unveiled today, keeping the economic recovery on track. You can bet, an election 2012 is also an influence in the new spending plan for 2013. Let's go to my colleague, Brianna Keilar, at the White House. Hey, Brianna.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Jessica. Much less emphasis this year on the government tightening its belt. The president, instead, highlighting these populous policies that have already very much come to define his reelection effort and that has Republicans pouncing because this budget predicts that 2012 will be the fourth year in a row with a $1 trillion-plus deficit.
KEILAR (voice-over): $3.8 trillion, that's the price tag on the president's budget for 2013. A mix of spending, cuts, and new taxes. He calls for new spending to improve infrastructure, education, and increase manufacturing. That includes $30 billion to improve schools and $30 billion to hire and keep teachers, firefighters, and police officers on the job.
To pay for his plan, the president proposes tax increases on wealthier Americans, including households making $250,000 or more.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's just common sense, because Warren Buffett is doing fine. I'm doing fine. We don't need the tax breaks. You need them. You're the one who to see your wages stall. You're the one whose cost of everything from college to groceries has gone up. You're the ones who deserve a break.
KEILAR: There are also cuts, including almost half a trillion dollars in defense cuts over ten years. Cuts the Pentagon has already detailed, but the biggest contributors to the debt, Medicare and Medicaid go almost untouched. Deficit spending for 2012 will be $1.3 trillion, down to $901 billion for 2013, but even that means President Obama will break this promise he made in 2009 and break it big.
OBAMA: Today, I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office.
KEILAR: The president's budget met criticism on Capitol Hill, even before he formally unveiled it.
REP. JEB HENSARLING, (R) TEXAS: I mean, there's a debt crisis, and the president's budget doesn't deal with it. And what we have again are the largest debt we've had as a percentage of our economy since World War II.
KEILAR: In an election year, the president's budget is not expected to get passed Congress. This unveiling is more of a political statement than a fiscal one, and it echoed the president's message about fairness that he debuted in a speech in Kansas in December and reiterated in his "State of the Union" last month.
OBAMA: We can restore an economy where everybody gets a fair shot. Everybody does their fair share. Everybody plays by the same set of rules.
KEILAR (on-camera): So, while Republicans criticize President Obama as not being serious about dealing with the fiscal health of the nation, House Republicans will unveil their own budget here in the coming weeks. It's expected, again, to include an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid, and no doubt, Jessica, Democrats, including the White House, will criticize it as dismantling a safety net for the poor and for the elderly.
You have two competing messages in an election year. We'll see which one wins out in November.
YELLIN: You and I have our work cut out for us going through these budgets for the next few weeks.
KEILAR: Oh, yes.
YELLIN: Thanks so much, Brianna, for that report.
All right. The U.S. is about to hold its first talks with North Korea since the death of the country's leader, Kim Jong-Il. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM. Hey, Lisa, what do you have?
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Jessica. Well, the state department says a U.S. envoy will meet with North Korean officials next week to test the country's willingness to abandon its nuclear program. North Korea transferred power to Kim Jong-Il' son, Kim Jong-Un, in December after the long-time leader's death.
The Obama administration is hoping the talks indicate the new regime is willing to work with the United States.
And we are just learning that Supreme Court justice, Stephen Breyer, was robbed at machete point while on vacation. Justice Breyer was at him on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. The suspect took $1,000 in last week's attack. Breyer's wife and two guests were also there. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
And Washington is now the seventh state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. The bill which passed in the state legislature last week was signed into law today and goes into effect this June, unless, opponents block it by putting it on the November ballot. New Jersey State Senate also voted today in favor of such union, but Governor Chris Christie promises to veto that bill.
And you could soon get your chance to own a piece of the Empire State Building. That's right. The company which controls the multibillion dollar skyscraper has filed for an initial public operating it, purchased the building title from real estate giant, Donald Trump, back in 2002. The Empire State Building is New York City's tallest skyscraper. So, just a little piece of that could be yours, Jessica.
YELLIN: That's an interesting investment. I'll think about it, Lisa.
All right. Israel says it has new proof that Iran is the biggest exporter of terror in the world. Stand by for details of two car bombs and theories of a secret war.
And did Whitney Houston consume a deadly mix of drugs and alcohol? We'll look at addiction and the combinations that can kill you.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) YELLIN: Israel is blaming Iran for new acts of terror. A bomb attached to an Israeli embassy vehicle exploded in India today. Four people were hurt. A bomb also was found in an Israeli embassy car in the Republic of Georgia. It was diffused. CNNs Sara Sidner has more from New Delhi.
SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jessica, this attack happened in a high-security area in Delhi, just a few blocks away from the prime minister's residence, and also a few hundred yards away from the Israeli Embassy.
SIDNER (voice-over): A fireball chars a van with two people inside, the wife of an Israeli defense official and an Indian driver. Indian police say this was no random vehicle fire, but a targeted attack on an Israeli Embassy vehicle in New Delhi.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One Israeli Embassy vehicle was targeted. There's no doubt.
SIDNER: It turns out that car fire was preceded by a blast.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE).
SIDNER: Another eyewitness told police a motorcyclist drove up and put what appeared to be a magnetic device on the back of the van just before it exploded. The Israeli citizen is in critical but stable condition. She and the driver are expected to survive.
Thousands of miles away, in Tibilisi, Georgia, Israeli officials say a bomb in a vehicle of an embassy employee there was found before it exploded. No one got hurt. And no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pointing the finger at Iran.
He said, "Iran is behind these attacks. She is the biggest exporter of terror in the world."
SIDNER: Iran shot back. On its state-run news agency, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Netanyahu's accusations were baseless and part of Israel's psychological war against Iran. Tensions have flared in recent months between the two countries over suspicion Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
As for India, Indian authorities have not yet weighed in on who's to blame for the recent attack on its soil -- Jessica.
YELLIN: Thank you, Sara.
There's speculation that these new attacks targeting Israelis may be part of a bigger, secret war that's playing out in the Middle East right now. Our Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence is looking into that. Chris, a secret war?
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jessica.
Well, tonight, the White House says U.S. officials are in talks with Israel, but they don't have enough to assign blame right now. Our intelligence sources says they're looking at all the usual suspects, but a defense official I spoke with had to note the similarities between these attacks and those on Iranian officials.
LAWRENCE (voice-over): What do Israeli diplomats and Iranian scientists have in common? Both have been attacked by men riding motorcycles who attach sticky bombs to their moving cars. But were the Israelis targeted as payback for the assassination of Iran's nuclear scientist? Israel's prime minister accused Iran. A senior Pentagon official noted the similarities and says Iran does use Hezbollah to carry out attacks around the world, but he would not assign blame.
Others are more certain.
REUEL GERECHT, FMR. CIA OFFICER: There are only two possible, I think, culprits there, Hezbollah and Iran, and that's essentially overseas the same entity.
LAWRENCE: Reuel Gerecht was a CIA case officer. Based on his experience in the Middle East, he says foreign intelligence agencies can penetrate Iran for, at most, very quick visits.
GERECHT: I would say for the Israelis to operate in a sustained way inside of Iran is pretty bloody impossible.
LAWRENCE: Iran has accused Israel of working with Iranian terrorist group MEK to kill its nuclear scientists. Some recent media reports say U.S. officials have confirmed this, but other senior officials tell CNN they're not sure of the connection.
GERECHT: You would have to find an internal group that already has cohesion, that already is adept at evading Iran's considerable police powers, and can survive.
LAWRENCE: Analysts argue Iranian dissident groups don't want the clerics to get a nuclear weapon either, because it would strengthen the regime to the point an Arab Spring is impossible.
RONEN BERGMAN, AUTHOR, "ISRAEL'S SECRET WAR WITH IRAN": On a basis of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," it is just reasonable for such alliance to be carved.
LAWRENCE: Ronen Bergman is author of "Israel's Secret War with Iran." He says whether Israel was actually working with MEK, or just employs psychological warfare, the goal is the same.
BERGMAN: Maybe, really, it's just a lot of effort into trying to prevent the next assassination. Therefore, scrutinizing all the people again, trying to assess or find out who is Mossad (ph).
LAWRENCE: And then Iranian group MEK is on the radar of some very important people right here in the U.S., everyone from former national security adviser, General Jim Jones, to Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani, are part of a pretty large group publicly pushing to take MEK off the official terrorist list -- Jessica.
YELLIN: Wow. You connect the dots on this one, it's just fascinating. Thanks for that report, Chris. Thank you.
LAWRENCE: You're welcome.
YELLIN: Mitt Romney's loss could be President Obama's gain. We have new poll numbers on the battle for Independent voters. They could decide the general election.
YELLIN: In the midst of the roller-coaster Republican presidential campaign, President Obama's hits and misses sometimes fall below the radar. Let's take a fresh look at his standing and the Republican race.
We're joined now by CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen.
And we're honored to have you right here in the studio, live and in person.
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you, Jessica.
So, David, the president has had some success lately with his jobs numbers, but at the same time he's had a rocky road. He reversed his positions on super PACs, which means he's taking money now from lobbyists and corporations indirectly, not through the campaign.
YELLIN: He has now not kept his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term.
GERGEN: A bigger surprise.
YELLIN: And he had this tough go with contraception last week.
So none of this is really penetrating at the moment, but do you think it will hurt his brand in the general?
GERGEN: Here's what I -- I do think it's going to come back, some of this is going to come back to haunt him, especially on the deficits. I think one of the things that's interesting about Washington in recent years, there used to be a time when I was first here when a president got up on the radar screen and took initiatives and was being presidential, his numbers went up. In recent years, if you get up on the radar screen too much, your numbers actually go down because you do things -- you have to make hard decisions, some people don't like them.
And Obama, I think, has been helped by almost having the White House dark here for a number of weeks. He's now gotten back out front. And yes, I do think he's going to take more flack as a result.
Republicans have something more to -- they were able to take advantage of the contraception fight, to go after him, to stir up their base, stir up Catholics and possibly bring some over. And I think this deficit question.
YELLIN: I happen to think the contraception fight helps both people's bases.
GERGEN: That may be true, but --
YELLIN: It will actually help the president's base, too.
GERGEN: -- given the fact they've got an enthusiasm gap on the Republican side --
YELLIN: They need it more.
GERGEN: -- and the turnout -- yes, they need it.
YELLIN: Let's look at the new Pew poll that has come out, if we have a graphic of that. The Pew Research Center shows that there's been a 19 percentage point swing among Independent voters over the past three months in falling support for Mitt Romney. So he has lost the support of Independent voters.
Now, Democrats tell me this matters enormously, and they attribute it to Romney's negative ads, that Independents don't like how negative he's gone. Do you think that's inevitable in a bitter primary and it will reverse in the general, if Romney's the nominee?
GERGEN: No, I don't think it's inevitable, and I do think that he is -- that this Republican nomination process, especially all the negativity, the super PAC ads and the like, have served to weaken the whole field, especially Mitt Romney. And the reason President Obama has moved from being a slight underdog to now having a five-or-six- point lead over Mitt Romney is very consistent with what's on with Independents, and that is Romney's negatives have gone up. In this Pew poll, he's not seen as qualified for the presidency as he once was. You know, these personal attacks that have been going on, on both sides, I think have hurt.
Can he recover? Yes. Can he still win? Yes. But it has taken a toll.
This 19-point swing among Independents is, I think, highly significant.
YELLIN: Once the general comes along, the president, inevitably, will have to go negative, ,too, if not directly through his campaign, but through the super PACs.
YELLIN: Quickly, don't you think that will hurt him as well?
GERGEN: It could, absolutely. But one of the reasons Santorum I think is doing better is because those negatives between Gingrich and Romney took both guys down and allowed an opening for Santorum.
YELLIN: We'll see how this plays out.
GERGEN: Good to see you again.
YELLIN: Good to see you, David. Appreciate it.
And coming up, new information on our top story this hour, Whitney Houston's death. Up next, inside her longtime battle with drugs, including the ultimatum she once said her mother gave her.
YELLIN: And back to the investigation into Whitney Houston's death.
An official with the L.A. Coroner's Office appears to be downplaying suspicions that drugs were a factor, but Houston's struggle with addiction has been long, painful and very public.
Our Lisa Sylvester has more on a problem that affects millions of people around the world.
SYLVESTER: Hi, Jessica.
Well, you know, the autopsy has been completed, and the L.A. chief coroner has said that there were no signs of foul play and no injuries to Whitney Houston. And the coroner has not yet determined an official cause of death, but there is speculation that her years of drug abuse may have played some kind of role in her death, but it is, we emphasize, just speculation at this point.
Her death has, however, put the spotlight on drug and alcohol addiction.
SYLVESTER (voice-over): We don't know the cause of Whitney Houston's death. It will likely be weeks before the toxicology reports are completed. But what we do know is that Houston had a lengthy battle with drugs.
Those around her, including her mother, had begged for her to get help. She spoke to Oprah Winfrey in 2009 describing one such intervention.
WHITNEY HOUSTON, SINGER: One time my mother came in my house. It was kind of funny, but now I look at it and I see the love and the passion that my mother has for me -- she has for me. And she walks in with these sheriff's and she says, "I have a court injunction here. Either you're going to do it my way or we're just not going to do this at all. We're going to go on TV and you're going to retire and say you're giving this up because this is not worth it."
SYLVESTER: Whitney Houston went seven years without a new album. In 2009, she was back on the scene, now divorced from singer Bobby Brown.
In her Beverly hills hotel room, there were a few prescription bottles. But according to the coroner's office, not many. Was it drug abuse that killed her or something else?
There have been a string of celebrities who have died because of alcohol and drug abuse, singer Michael Jackson, actor Heath Ledger, singer Amy Winehouse, and model Anna Nicole Smith among them. The number of deaths from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the last decade, according to the nation's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske.
GIL KERLIKOWSKE, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL: I don't think people recognize the fact that prescription drugs can be just as deadly, just as addictive, just as dangerous as illegal drugs.
SYLVESTER: When prescription drugs are mixed with alcohol, it can be a particularly lethal combination.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you put the two together, again, it could have devastating effects. And that margin for error gets smaller and smaller the more you're adding things together.
SYLVESTER: William Moyers started using marijuana as a teenager, eventually became hooked on crack cocaine before getting clean.
WILLIAM MOYERS, HAZELDEN: Addiction doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care who you are, or who you aren't, for that matter. And if we, as people who are addicted in recovery, don't take care of our recoveries, we relapse.
SYLVESTER: Whitney Houston spoke publicly of her battles including in that Oprah interview, speaking of her mother's efforts to save her.
HOUSTON: And she said, "Let's go." She said, "Let's do this." She said, "I'm not losing you to the world. I'm not losing you to Satan."
She said, "I'm not doing this. I want my daughter back. I want you back. I want to see that glow in your eyes, that light in your eyes."
SYLVESTER: What happened with Whitney Houston in these final years and the days leading up to her death? Well, we don't know. Now, the Oprah Winfrey Network will air that interview though in its entirety in a two-hour special this Thursday -- Jessica.
YELLIN: That Oprah interview is heartbreaking.
SYLVESTER: I know. I know, because you really get a sense, Jessica, of just how much her mother had done. She showed up with the sheriff's office, basically, with sheriff's deputies at Whitney Houston's house, saying, I'm going to save you.
YELLIN: Tried to save her.
SYLVESTER: And, you know, there were numerous interventions. And again, we have to emphasize, we don't know for a fact that drug abuse played a role in her death, but there is a lot of speculation, it is an issue that's out there, and --
YELLIN: It's so hard to watch.
SYLVESTER: -- it is shining a spotlight on what an issue alcohol and drug addiction really is, the disease that it causes for so many people.
YELLIN: For so many people.
Thank you, Lisa.
And it is time now to check back with Jack Cafferty.
Hi, Jack. What are those e-mails saying?
CAFFERTY: Hello, Jess.
The question this hour: Should the payroll tax cut be extended yet again? It looks like it's going to be.
Rob says, "Yes, it should be reduced, but the cap should go away. All income, wages and investments should be included. It will be a better benefit that way for those who pay more and the solvency of the system would be ensured."
John in Pennsylvania says, "Come on, Jack. This is only an election year ploy. The money that should be going into the Social Security fund is being replaced by money from the general fund, which puts the government further in the hole. Most Americans should be willing to sacrifice a little rather than add to the deficit."
Marilyn writes, "If this was a debate about a tax cut for the rich, the Republicans would again be beating their drum about not taxing the job creators. But since this tax cut would primarily benefit the working poor, there's no urgency. After all, Mitt Romney is not concerned about us."
Luke writes, "As someone who doesn't even make $50,000 a year, I cherish every dollar in my paycheck. However, we have a Social Security system that's going bankrupt and needs as much funding as possible. We live in a time when tough choices have to be made if we want things that we have taken for granted for decades to remain available."
Jane in California writes, "It should never have been cut in the first place. There are much better ways to get stimulus into the economy. Building infrastructure creates something that may be of use and value for years. A couple of extras pieces a month, not so much."
And J.D. in New Hampshire writes, "Absolutely. As long as people sitting around the pool waiting for their checks to arrive get to pay 15 percent, the people who actually do work for a living need a break, too."
If you want to read more about this subject, go to my blog, CNN.com/CaffertyFile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Jess.
YELLIN: Interesting. Opinion pretty divided on that one, Jack.
YELLIN: Thanks so much.
"I Will Always Love You." Ahead, Jeanne Moos's take on one of Whitney Houston's most popular songs.
YELLIN: And it is the song the world is remembering Whitney Houston for, and it never seems to get old.
Here's Jeanne Moos.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If this isn't stuck in your mind by now --
HOUSTON (singing): And I --
MOOS: -- you have a Teflon skull. It's not just the media playing it over and over.
HOUSTON (singing): -- will always love you --
MOOS: It's the tributes from professional singer/songwriters like Butch Walker (ph), who posted this to YouTube --
BUTCH WALKER, SINGER/SONGWRITER (singing): And I --
SASHA ALLEN, SINGER (singing): -- will always love you --
MOOS: -- to singer Sasha Allen. And the amateurs are singing it, too, from a dorm room --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): -- love you --
MOOS: -- to a New York City subway car --
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP (singing): -- will always love you --
MOOS: -- Whitney Houston's number one hit sung on the number two train.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck wore it on her blouse on "The View."
SHERRI SHEPHERD, CO-HOST, "THE VIEW": And that song "I Will Always Love You" was always my karaoke song, and I would get to that last part, you know where she -- and I would always cough.
MOOS: To cover the failure to reach that high.
(on camera): Some in the music business had name for the highest part of that song. It was called simply --
(voice-over): "The Note."
HOUSTON (singing): -- love you --
MOOS: But sometimes even Whitney couldn't hit it.
HOUSTON (singing): -- love you --
MOOS: At this concert in South Korea --
HOUSTON: It's hot.
MOOS: -- she chugged some water and continued.
HOUSTON (singing): -- you.
MOOS: The song's appeal was global. Wen Yu Chung (ph) sang it on a Taiwanese talent show, then brought some in the audience to tears when he sang it on "Ellen."
And though we think of it as Whitney Houston's song, it was Dolly Parton who wrote it.
DOLLY PARTON, SINGER (singing): -- will always love you --
MOOS: Voted (ph) to ease the pain when she decided to part ways with a business partner, Dolly later told Country Music Television, "It's saying, just because I'm going, don't mean I won't love you."
One of the most popular tribute videos ricocheting around the Web was from the United Arab Emirates, where the Dubai fountains showered Whitney Houston with love even before her death.
Chances are we wouldn't have to be remembering her soundtrack from "The Bodyguard" if only she had guarded her own body better.
HOUSTON (singing): -- And I --
WALKER (singing): -- will always --
HOUSTON (singing): -- love you --
MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN --
WALKER: Bye, Whitney.
MOOS: -- New York.
YELLIN: A great song.
And that will do it for us. I'm Jessica Yellin, in for Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The news continues next on CNN.