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Syrian Women, Children Shot, Burned To Death; Justice Dept. Blocks New Texas Voter Law; Rampage In Afghanistan; Federal Aid Denied; Grit and Bear It

Aired March 12, 2012 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, dangerous stakes for U.S. forces in Afghanistan right now after a fellow service member allegedly opened fire on 16 innocent Afghan civilians in a deadly door-to-door rampage.

Can the Pentagon protect them from angry calls for revenge?

Plus, disturbing new questions about the suspect's military base here in the United States. Why one officer says that he isn't completely surprised to hear this happened again.

And the federal government now refusing to replace what nature destroyed in those deadly Midwest tornados. Just ahead, the desperate pleas for disaster aid denied, at least so far.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just into CNN, though, first, new information on the U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in a vicious massacre that's prompting heightened security at U.S. military bases throughout Afghanistan right now.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

You're getting this new information.

What are you learning -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, first up, here at home, we have confirmed that this staff sergeant's family, his wife and children, were moved onto the Lewis McChord Base in Washington State over the weekend for their own safety.

As for the incident, we have many new details this evening about how it happened. We are con -- we have been able to confirm that the first real evidence the U.S. personnel at the base had that something terrible had happened is when Afghans showed up at the gate carrying their casualties in their arms, saying that there had been a shooting, U.S. -- that U.S. personnel were involved.

It becomes a little bit of a simultaneous development, because they also know from an Afghan soldier that a U.S. soldier had walked away from the outpost. They have the Afghans with the casualties. They know somebody has left the base.

They immediately, we now know, have put up a -- put up an aircraft overhead to go search to see what they could find, if they could find the soldier, if they could find out what had happened as they were beginning to also mount a search party.

They found this man. We are told he invoked his right of self- defense and has not spoken about the incident since they took him into custody -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You also have some new details about this soldier's background, don't you?

STARR: We do, indeed, Wolf.

U.S. Defense officials are confirming that back around 2010, when he was serving in Iraq, he was involved in a vehicle rollover accident. Not a combat situation, but a vehicle rollover, that he suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of that, was treated and was found fit for duty. And that is what led him to another tour in Afghanistan.

That is not to say that his three tours in Iraq -- we believe he saw a good deal of combat on those tours. We are told that. But the accident that gave him a traumatic brain injury was not combat- related.

We have also confirmed that he is a qualified infantry sniper in the U.S. Army. That means he has the qualifications to shoot to kill at 800 to 1,000 meters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Only a few moments ago, I spoke exclusively with the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen.

He gave us some additional information about the shooter.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEN. JOHN ALLEN, COMMANDER, ISAF: He was supporting a village stability platform operation, which supports the Afghan local police. And he was providing support to one of those platforms in the Pajwai -- Panjwai District of Kandahar.

BLITZER: Would it be normal for a U.S. soldier to be able to walk off the base by himself and not be detected by others?

ALLEN: He was detected. In fact, an Afghan soldier detected his departure and reported it. And so he was detected.

BLITZER: And did any...

ALLEN: -- and it is...

BLITZER: -- did anyone try to stop him?

ALLEN: There -- a search party was being put together immediately. There was a head count done amongst the American soldiers, recognized that he was missing, unaccounted for. We put together a search party right away and it was as that search party was forming that we began to have indications of the outcome of his departure.

BLITZER: I've read reports that he had three previous tours of duty in Iraq. This was his first tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Is that true?

ALLEN: That's correct.

BLITZER: So is there -- was there any evidence, looking back, of -- of a mental illness or -- or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or anything along those lines?

ALLEN: We're going to look into all of that, Wolf, in the -- in the course of the investigation.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is also taking a closer look at what's being done to protect U.S. troops on the ground from possible retribution.

What are you finding out -- Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, retaliation is certainly a worry. And we know from a NATO official that security procedures have been increased across the board for all forces.

But in some cases, it's even more specific. Some U.S. troops on certain bases have even started to wear body armor, even in limited cases, on areas of bases where their Afghan counterparts are not allowed to carry weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): As angry Afghan villagers demand justice, remorseful American officials are urging caution. Defense officials say there are no plans to change the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. They call the massacre an isolated incident. But when it comes right after soldiers burned Korans and Marines were shown urinating on corpses, individual incidents can have a cumulative effect.

MARK JACOBSON, TRUMAN PROJECT: You can see years of work simply collapse in a few seconds when you have incidents take place that breach the trust that's been created.

LAWRENCE: Marc Jacobson is the former director of international affairs for ISAF command in Kabul. Based on his work with General Petraeus, he does not expect to see a shift in strategy.

JACOBSON: What incidents like this may cause is an increase to the pace of that transition.

LAWRENCE: It's early, but so far, the protests have not reached nearly the level of violence seen after the Koran burnings.

JACOBSON: Not to be callous, in a way, but the Afghans are, in some ways, used to the civilian casualty incidents and tend to respond to it in -- in a more reserved manner than something that seems to be a direct and purposeful affront to their religion and culture.

LAWRENCE: At some smaller bases, U.S. troops have instituted their own security precautions. Some have assigned an extra American to guard duty or having someone guard the barracks on bases where Afghan and American troops live together.

A Defense official says none of these changes are coming from the top military leadership, but each command is allowed the authority to take certain precautions if they see fit.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

LAWRENCE: For example, in the case of a watchtower where you'd normally have one American and one Afghan soldier, there were some reports that a second American had been added to those watchtowers. A Defense official I spoke with says he doesn't dispute any of those. He said it's quite possible that individual commands have instituted their own security precautions. But he said these individual commanders are given the leeway to do so -- Wolf.

BLITZER: General Allen, Chris, told me there's still more than 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan, another 30,000 or so NATO troops. And he says he doesn't see any accelerated withdrawal. They're supposed to all be out by the end of 2014.

So that's, what, almost three more years for those troops to be there. But I suspect the call for an accelerated withdrawal will continue.

What are you hearing elsewhere at the Pentagon?

LAWRENCE: Well, Wolf, not just what you're hearing here, but you've got to remember, as well, you've got this huge meeting coming up in Chicago in just a couple of months, in May, in which a lot of the leadership of these NATO nations are going to get together to plot the way forward in Afghanistan. A -- a lot of pressure could be building on some of those nations internally, from their own populations, to either accelerate the pace of their withdrawal or to diminish their activity in Afghanistan.

So that's something that the U.S. is going to have to keep a keen eye on going forward, is not only, you know, what the general says, but, also, what the partner nations are feeling right now.

BLITZER: Good point.

Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon for us.

Thank you.

The deadly massacre is raising new questions about the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, putting enormous new political pressure on the president of the United States.

Our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is working this part of the story for us -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, as Senate majority leader, Harry Reid put it, it is not a good situation, especially because U.S. troops in Afghanistan are already under so much pressure.

Here at the White House, they're still gathering information. And one aide told me they're focused on accountability.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): From inside his car on the way to daughter Sasha's basketball game, President Obama spoke by phone this weekend with Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. According to the White House, he expressed, quote, "shock and sadness" over the reported killing of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier, offered condolences and committed to establishing the facts quickly.

It was a message repeated by White House spokesman, Jay Carney, in a briefing dominated by questions about how this violent incident would impact the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where combat troops are scheduled to withdraw in 2014.

(on camera): This incident will not impact the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops (INAUDIBLE)?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, it will not. We will continue to work with the Afghan government, with Afghan forces, in the implementation of our strategy. We will investigate this tragic incident and make sure that there is accountability.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): But the latest incident, that comes in the wake of the Koran burning by U.S. troops, threatens to further strain an already fragile relationship, and potentially endanger Americans, as the Taliban threatens revenge.

CARNEY: The president is always concerned about the well-being and welfare of Americans stationed overseas, especially in a place like Afghanistan. LOTHIAN: The war in Afghanistan remains unpopular. An ABC News/"Washington Post" poll last week shows 60 percent of Americans say it's not worth fighting. That's an increase of 6 points since the summer.

Carney pointed to games on the ground, including a recent agreement, after more than a year of negotiations, where the U.S. will hand over control to Afghan officials of a detention center that houses 3,000 people.

But on the heels of the shootings, the administration's policy there is coming under increasing pressure.

And presidential hopefuls are weighing in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "FACE THE NATION," COURTESY CBS)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that we have to reassess the entire region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: Rick Santorum, who had been against a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, is now suggesting the timetable be moved up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "TODAY SHOW," COURTESY NBC)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Given all of these -- these -- these additional problems, we have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to -- to get out and probably get out sooner.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

LOTHIAN: White House aides say that they are fully committed to the strategy in Afghanistan. They're also confident in the relationship, the partnership with the Afghan government. But they also admit that there will be more challenges ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What did they say at the White House about the fact that it's still costing U.S. taxpayers, Dan, $2 billion a week to maintain that military presence in Afghanistan, more than $100 billion a year?

And this is not just this year, next year, throughout 2014, as well.

LOTHIAN: Well, first of all, they'll point out that this is a president who, early on, had committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan and that is what he is doing, pushing to that 2014 withdrawal. They also understand that there are a lot of Americans out there who are unhappy, as you saw that poll I just showed, who are not happy with the conflict in Afghanistan, want to see it come to an end.

And so that is the strategy. They're sticking with it right not -- right now, rather -- not being moved by this latest incident.

BLITZER: A lot of people are not convinced we should just spent another $200 billion or $300 billion. When all the dust settles, when all U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan, it's going to make much of a difference, in any case. And that's the big question that we're watching right now.

Dan Lothian, thank you.

The U.S. military base in Washington State where the alleged shooter is based is also under the microscope right now. We're learning that what some call a rogue base, because of its history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder issues. You're going to hear from a soldier stationed there. That's coming up later this hour. Stand by.

Also, in Syria, there have been countless horrors.

But what's happening now in Homs may be the worst yet. Details are emerging of a brutal massacre by Syrian government forces.

Also, the Obama administration blocks a new voter law in Texas.

Is it looking out for the underprivileged?

Is it playing politics?

And we'll assess what's going on.

Illinois is reeling from a deadly tornado.

So why is the federal government refusing to help, at least for now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Here we go again. Americans pain at the gas pump could translate to pain at the polls for President Obama come November. The national average for gasoline now tops at $3.80 a gallon. According to AAA, gas prices are at or above four bucks a gallon in night states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii has the most expensive gasoline, $4.44, Wyoming, the cheapest, $3.30 a gallon.

History has shown time and again that rising gas prices usually wind up hurting the guy in the White House. There's no logic to it. It's just the way it works. A new "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows President Obama's ratings are falling as gasoline prices rise. The poll shows almost two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of how the president is handling gas prices.

That's the lowest rating he gets on any issue in this particular poll. Also, most Americans say that higher gas prices are already affecting their family's finances. Almost half of them say they think gasoline is going to keep going up. When it comes to the economy, 59 percent of Americans give the president negative ratings. If gasoline prices continue up, they could impact the outcome of the election.

Exit polls last Super Tuesday show that almost eight in 10 American voters said that rising gas prices were an important factor in how they vote, and that's before the summer driving season gets under way. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans on average say gas prices of $5.30 to $5.35 a gallon would force major changes in their lives. Most Americans say they want the president and Congress to take action on rising gas prices.

Here's the question, how much will rising gas prices affect your vote for president? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile and post a comment or go to our post on the SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page. There's no rhyme or reason for it, but somehow, the American public, Wolf, blames the president when gasoline gets expensive. They just do.

BLITZER: Yes. That's -- historically, that's a fundamental fact. They just do. All right. Jack, thank you.

Shock and dismay at the new highs in the besieged Syrian city of Homs. The disturbing video purportedly showing the bodies of at least 45 women and children killed in yesterday's horrific massacre. Witnesses say the torture went on for hours. Most were brutally assaulted before being burned, stabbed, and shot to death. In total, more than 100 people were reportedly killed across the country.

On one day alone, at least another 14 are feared dead today as the violence rages on. Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who's been meeting with the Russian foreign minister in New York City, is urging all nations to join in calling for an end to the bloodshed. Russia and China veto a United Nations Security Council resolution last month that did just that.

Let's go straight to CNN's Arwa Damon. She's watching all of this unfold. Arwa, you have new information on what exactly happened in the massacre? You're getting it from activists in Homs. What are they saying?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that was made up of both government forces and what the opposition calls Shabiha, pro-government thugs, stormed into the homes of a number of families in the neighborhood of Karm al-Zeitoun These families were, according to the opposition, all Sunni.

Karm al-Zeitoun being a mixed Sunni-Alawite neighborhood. They then separated the men from the women. The men were tortured for around two hours. And then, they were shot at. Some of their corpses were set on fire. This is also based on testimony that is allegedly from a man who claimed that he, somehow, managed to survive. The women and children were not spared either.

There are reports that the children's throats were slit in front of their mothers. That women were raped before they, too, were slaughtered. And again, a lot of these images are quite simply too horrific to broadcast. The Syrian government, though, for its part, is saying that this was the work of terrorist armed gangs saying that they quite simply are trying to instigate even more international action by accusing the Syrian government of carrying out this atrocity -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the Syrian regime saying about all this?

DAMON: Well, again, they're blaming these armed terrorists gangs for the violence. And this has been the problem ever since the onset of this uprising as you have incidences like this do take place and then two completely contradictory accounts of what transpired, and because the Syrian government does not allow us access into the country or, at least, very rarely allows us access into the country, it's just about impossible to independently verify what is taking place.

But one thing remains undeniable and that is that people continue to die every day, and horrific things are happening inside Syria, and both sides are warning that if some sort of resolution does not take place, the violence is only going to escalate to even more unimaginable heights.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon watching the situation unfold in Beirut.

Newt Gingrich is going all out on the south. He's banking on wins tomorrow in Alabama and Mississippi in the primaries there. Will the deep south be a springboard for a comeback or not?

And a U.S. drone strike kills an American-born terrorist. Did the federal government cross a line by killing one of its own citizens? The attorney general of the United States doesn't think so. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Republican contenders for the White House are duking it out in the south right now. The next prize in the battle for the White House only 24 hours away. And from the looks at the polls right now, we could have another big surprise tomorrow night. CNN senior correspondent, Joe Johns, is standing by. He's got the latest from Birmingham, Alabama. What is the latest, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the Alabama Theater in Birmingham where both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are expected to appear later this evening. And it's been a wild campaign for both Alabama and for Mississippi where Newt Gingrich is, once again, trying to show that he has the advantage when it comes to southern voters, but it hasn't been easy for him or any of the others.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): The latest polls show Newt Gingrich, who's already won two southern state primaries, running neck-in-neck with Mitt Romney in Alabama and Mississippi, and one big question as voters get ready to go to the polls is whether the former speakers latest ploy once scoffed at by his rivals is actually working.

He's been hammering away at gas prices with big time appeals on Facebook and Twitter, claiming his $2.50 a gallon gas proposal is actually doable with the right White House policies, even though most economists say the U.S. president doesn't have the power to control the oil market.

Gingrich is also railing against the current president's energy policies with the kind of plain language that gets you points in these parts.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These people are ideologically committed to a fantasyland. And if you read the president's energy speeches, he's in cloud coo-coo land. And you take his policy on oil, which is drilling never works, unless, it's a natural gas, and there's work brilliantly, but in won't work in low because it can't.

I concluded that the only way you could explain Barack Obama is a technical term called cognitive dissonance, which is a psychological behavior when what you believe is so powerful that you reject facts that conflict with your belief system.

JOHNS: Actually, if you want to psychoanalyze this crazy campaign year, there's a lot of that belief rejection stuff going around. Case in point? Listen to Rick Santorum talking about Gingrich in a radio interview with host, Neal Boortz. Remember the latest poll shows Santorum in third place right now, behind both Gingrich and Romney.

VOICE OF RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand, you know, why he wants to continue. I mean, he's got a lot of ideas that he certainly brings a lot to the table. But, it's just right now, what he's doing is out there, you know, attacking me and the conservative vote and giving the, as he calls them, the moderate Massachusetts governor an easier, easier role.

JOHNS: So, the question here is why a guy like Santorum who says a lot of things southern voters traditionally want to hear and speaking about values and social issues isn't running stronger. We asked Ford O'Connell who worked for the re-election campaign of former Republican Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour.

FORD O'CONNELL, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: In a lot of ways, Santorum is talking about the right issues, but Gingrich speaks southern. By that, I mean, he's comfortable in his own skin. He tells better stories, and he's hammering home gas prices. You've got to realize, southerners drive everywhere, and gas prices really figure into their household budget.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (on-camera): Another issue worth watching as the clock ticks down is how the religious vote breaks out. Rick Santorum has had trouble winning the catholic vote, even though he's a catholic himself. He and Newt Gingrich have shared the evangelical vote and very important, as you know, Wolf, these two men are often competing for some of the very same voters, so we'll be watching that closely tomorrow -- Wolf. BLITZER: Big day tomorrow in Alabama and Mississippi. Thanks very much, Joe Johns.

And this quick note to you, tomorrow, Mitt Romney will join me live right here in the SITUATION ROOM during our 5:00 p.m. eastern hour. My interview with Mitt Romney tomorrow in the SITUATION ROOM.

The justice department in Washington is blocking a new law in Texas. It would have required all Texas voters to show an official photo I.D., which the Obama administration says, could lead to discrimination against Hispanics and other minorities.

CNNs senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin is joining us right now. Jeffrey, Texas says the law would cut back on voter fraud. Do they have a point? Shouldn't voters be required to show some sort of government-sponsored I.D.? That's the issue at stake right now.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what the Obama administration says is basically, Texas is looking at a cure for which there is no disease.

They are saying there is no major problem. There is not even a minor problem with voter fraud in Texas. And just as in South Carolina, which the Obama administration also stopped, they are saying this is just an attempt to disenfranchise minority and poor voters who tend to vote Democratic. That's the Obama administration's argument.

BLITZER: The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, issued a statement saying "The DOJ's denial is another example of the Obama administration's continuing and pervasive federal outreach -- overreach I should say -- federal overreach." So what happens now? Who wins in this fight?

TOOBIN: Well, this is very likely to go to court. And this is really going to be, perhaps, yet another big case before the United States Supreme Court this year because many conservatives, many conservative states, especially in the South, have argued that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has outlived its usefulness because that law says that the federal government has the right to go to these southern states and inspect all of their procedures as they change them and say -- look, not good enough. You're discriminating.

And what these states are saying is look that may have been true in 1965. But we have earned the right to be treated by the rest of the country and the Justice Department doesn't have the power to stop voting changes in the rest of the country, only in these southern states.

BLITZER: Eric Holder, the attorney general, he gave a major speech at the Northwestern University Law School last week in which he defended the decision to have the U.S. government go ahead and kill an American citizen without full due process, if you will, I don't know if you saw the lead editorial in Sunday's "New York Times," but it was pretty scathing.

among other things, saying "The judiciary has the power to say what the Constitution means and make sure the elected branches apply it properly. The executive acting in secret as the police, prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner is the antithesis of due process." At issue is the decision by the Obama administration months ago to go ahead and kill Anwar al Awlaki, the al Qaeda terrorist, even though he's a united -- he was a United States citizen. What's going on here?

TOOBIN: Well what's going on here is that technology has really changed everything because no would no one would argue that if an American citizen volunteered for the German Army during World War II that the American Army would have had to get a warrant to kill him. If you volunteer with the enemy you are an -- it's opened season on you. That's essentially the administration's argument. What "The New York Times" is saying and what administration critics are saying is look, this is different. It's not just a war where you're firing missiles randomly. You're targeting individuals. You're sentencing individual American citizens to death.

And that's different from a war where you are fighting a broad number of people. And if you are going to try to kill an individual person as the Obama administration clearly has tried to do, you need to have some procedures in place, some due process, some sort of review before you essentially execute people by drone. That's the argument here. Is it more like a war or is it more like an execution?

BLITZER: So very quickly, this targeted killing issue, is it likely to also wind up before the Supreme Court?

TOOBIN: Actually not. I don't think so because the president's power is so great when it comes to foreign policy, especially when you're dealing with military operations overseas. I don't see any way this is going to wind up in court. This is going to be an interesting debate in newspapers and Congress, but at the end of the day I think Obama or whoever the president happens to be, is going to retain this power.

BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey, thank you very much. All right, here's a question. Imagine speeding down a highway and having to shift gears into park to stop the car from accelerating on its own? Some four drivers say it is happening to them. We're checking into this.

And it's like from something from the movie "Jaws", only multiplied. A violent shark feeding frenzy and it is all captured on camera. We've got the video -- there it is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now including a potentially scary mechanical issue for one major carmaker -- Lisa what do you have?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right Wolf. Federal investigators are looking into reports of Ford Tauruses accelerating on their own. Fourteen drivers have complained that they've had to take drastic action to stop their cars, even shifting into park. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is focusing its probe on cruise control cables in some 2005 and 2006 Tauruses.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears ready to return home. The outspoken leader is in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery. Chavez also had a tumor removed last year, but says the recent one is smaller. The Venezuelan government has released few details about the surgery fueling speculation that he might -- might not return to office.

A 500--year-old masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci appears to have been recovered in Florence, Italy. The mural disappeared in the 16th Century but researchers believe another artist painted a mural over it preserving da Vinci's masterpiece. The paint pigment matches the Mona Lisa, but more research is needed to be sure that it is, in fact, the masterpiece.

And you may love tuna, but probably not as much as these sharks. This is new aerial video of a group of sharks on a vicious feeding frenzy near Perth, Australia. Experts say they were feeding on a school of tuna. Swimmers were ordered out of the water for a few hours -- not surprising there, but fortunately there are no reports of injuries. Look at them go. That is not a sight you see very often -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You don't want to be swimming around there --

SYLVESTER: No you don't.

BLITZER: -- while that is going on. Right.

SYLVESTER: Yes they're saying yum --

BLITZER: Thank you. All right, let's get onto some other news we're watching including the deadly massacre in Afghanistan raising new concerns about posttraumatic stress disorder on the alleged shooter's situation on the base there. Up next, why one officer says he is not surprised to hear the shooting happened, also why the federal government is denying desperate pleas for tornado victims.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The deadly massacre in Afghanistan is putting the alleged shooter's base right here in the United States back in the spotlight and is raising new questions about claims of posttraumatic stress disorder. CNN's Casey Wian has been looking into this part of the story for us. He's joining us now from Seattle in Washington state. What's going on there?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, I'm outside on Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma, Washington and obviously there's a lot of concern here. The fact that one of the soldiers at this base is the accused alleged shooter massacre of 16 Afghan civilians over the weekend. A lot of critics of this base say this just adds to the trouble that they've been having here, one actually saying that this is actually a rogue base, a former soldier himself, who now runs a center here that caters to the needs of local soldiers. I'll you some examples, Wolf.

Back in November, a soldier who was based here was convicted of murdering three Afghan civilians, actually cutting off parts of their bodies as souvenirs. Ten suicides here -- excuse me -- a dozen suicides here in 2010 alone. Also the Army Surgeon General has launched an investigation into the alleged improper treatment of soldiers here who claim they have posttraumatic stress disorder. Some of those soldiers saying that they believe that the way they were treated was in a way to try to save the Army money. Try to get their conditions considered less serious.

Now, we spoke earlier this morning with a noncommissioned officer, a senior noncommissioned officer in the Army who is based here. He is also being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder. He has done two tours of duty in Iraq and he says when he first told his supervisors that he needed help they reacted with skepticism. And it was also very difficult for him to receive treatment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

"JUSTIN", U.S. ARMY: The idea that, you know, they just didn't care that, you know, that I'm asking for help, was sort of shocking to me. You know if it was a physical injury, you know, what they were doing was akin to sticking their finger in the bullet hole and just twisting it.

WIAN: Are you surprised to hear what you heard about what this one soldier allegedly did over in Afghanistan?

"JUSTIN": I'm not really completely surprised, no.

WIAN: Why not?

"JUSTIN": I don't know about his particular case, but I do know that part of the reason that I raised my hand and asked for help was because I couldn't envision me getting through another deployment without making some bad decisions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WIAN: Now, to be clear, Wolf, there is no indication that posttraumatic stress disorder played any role in the shooting in Afghanistan over the weekend and officials here at the base are not having any comment on any of these issues at this time. We should say though that two senior medical officers have recently been transferred just in the last three weeks from their jobs here and replaced -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Casey Wian on the scene for us in Washington state. Thank you, lots to investigate there.

Meanwhile, deadly tornadoes tear through Illinois and when the governor asked for help FEMA in Washington says not so fast. Coming up why it's denying assistance at least for now.

Plus, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, they are fighting it out in the South literally, the Republican war of words continuing over cheesy grits among other things.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Illinois says it needs help. Seven people were killed, dozens injured, hundreds of homes destroyed or damaged from a powerful tornado this month, but FEMA in Washington says it won't provide assistance. Lisa Sylvester is following this story. Lisa what is going on?

SYLVESTER: Wolf, this is hard news for residents of southern Illinois. Many were counting on the federal government to help them in the aftermath of deadly tornadoes, but this weekend the state's request was denied.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): Twisters whipped through the Midwest tearing up homes, one of the areas hardest hit, Harrisburg, Illinois. Trees there are now dressed in debris, buildings squashed and there are empty lots where houses once stood. Seven people died in the small Illinois town.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you can tell it's total devastation. I have never seen anything like it.

SYLVESTER: What Mother Nature tore down the federal government is now refusing to help build back. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is denying federal aid to five southern Illinois counties which includes Harrisburg (ph) saying the damage was not severe enough. FEMA Director Craig Fugate defended the decision and noted that Ohio's request was also denied.

CRAIG FUGATE, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: It really has to do with the state as a whole, not the proximity of damage to the other states and so when we look and evaluate governor's requests we look at the total amount of impact versus the state, how much of that was insured, what other programs may be available.

SYLVESTER: But Illinois' governor and both senators are among those who are flabbergasted and outraged.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I can't believe it. I was there a little over a week ago and saw it firsthand. I have never seen worse tornado damage.

SYLVESTER: Access to FEMA aid means residents can get low interest loans and grants to rebuild. The Illinois Congressional Delegation has requested a meeting with FEMA's administrator and has written a letter asking the president to overturn the agency's decision. White House press secretary Jay Carney says the criteria is the same for all states applying for assistance.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's judged based on those objective criteria that the state in question has the wherewithal to handle storm recovery on its own. But FEMA has a lot of regional offices, a lot of presence on the ground in these affected states and the evaluation process continues.

SYLVESTER: But for some of these Illinois families, adding to their heartbreak, new headaches as they look to start over.

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SYLVESTER: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn contacted the Department of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano informing her that the state will appeal and asking her to reconsider FEMA's decision. And it might be surprising to know that it's not actually the dollar cost of damage that determines federal aid. It's other things like the size of the state and the number of people there with insurance -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. All right thanks very, very much. Let's get back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is how much will rising gas prices affect your vote for president? They just keep going up. Tina in Wisconsin, "They won't. If the president had any control over gas prices they'd never get above $2 a gallon during an election year" -- good point.

Carol in Massachusetts, "I saw my first gas line this weekend. No, it wasn't like the '70s, but it was a long wait for the cheapest gas in the hood. If this gets any worse it may make me annoyed enough to affect my vote." Don in St. Louis, "Not much. If a candidate is currently in office, I'm voting for someone else."

Steve writes, "Jack, it's never one thing, but gas prices will be the last item on a long list of failures by this administration." Robert writes, "If I thought the president had any real control over gas prices, it might influence my vote. The politicians who say they will bring gasoline at 1980 prices are liars and fools."

Greg writes from Noonday, Texas -- is that a great name for a town or what -- Noonday, Texas. "If you don't have a job or a car, the high price of gas is a moot point. Higher gas prices will keep more poor people away from voting than voter I.D. laws. What irony."

Ike in Georgia writes, "None. If this was the only issue the president faced during the next term it would be very important. Jobs, wars, U.S. debt, education, immigration, the global economy and my retirement benefits all precede gas prices."

Dan writes, "Did you forget to mention that our dear leader President Obama and members of Congress threaten Iran on a daily basis?" And Ron writes, "Hawaii/Wyoming conspiracy. Is it no coincidence that Obama's home state has the highest gas price while Dick Cheney's has the lowest? If you want to read more on this go to my blog, CNN.COM/CAFFERTYFILE or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you -- White House hopefuls in the South gritting and bearing it.

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BLITZER: All right, it's the great grit battle of 2012. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

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JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Yankee candidates down South feel like they have to grit and bear it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like grits.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand grits.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is a grit anyway?

MOOS: Grits are what some call the latest primaries after Mitt Romney fell into a steaming pot of grits.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Creamy, perfect grits.

MOOS: All Governor Romney did was try to joke around about grits.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I'm learning to say y'all and I like grits and things -- strange things are happening to me.

MOOS (on camera): And if you think that's cheesy, it got cheesier.

ROMNEY: Morning y'all. Good to be with you. I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits I'll tell you.

MOOS (voice-over): Then Newt Gingrich started to stir the pot.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Unlike one of my competitors, I have had grits before.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stir it continuously.

GINGRICH: As a Georgian, I understand grits. I even understand cheese grits. I even understand shrimp and grits, how's that?

MOOS: Once the grits were bubbling hot --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And add a few dashes of hot sauce.

GINGRICH: If you don't understand grits (INAUDIBLE) you don't understand the rest of the South (INAUDIBLE).

MOOS: For those of us who don't understand grits, they basically consist of ground corn --

(SOUNDS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I always like butter on mine or gravy, sometimes tomatoes.

MOOS: You say tomato I say tomatoes and if you've never tasted grits the author of the "Gone With the Grits" cookbook says --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You'll learn to love them.

MOOS: Better learn fast before the southern primaries are over. Cousin Vinny came South and after one serving of grits, he was able to use what he'd learn to cook his adversary on the witness stand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How could it take you five minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit eating world 20 minutes?

MOOS: And now Newt is trying to trap Mitt with his grittiness.

GINGRICH: With shrimp, with cheese, with gravy, I get it.

MOOS: And Mitt, next time Newt mocks you about grits just tell him what Flo the waitress told her boss in the TV show, "Alice".

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kiss my grits.

(LAUGHTER)

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN --

ROMNEY: I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits, I'll tell you.

MOOS: -- New York.

ROMNEY: Delicious.

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BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. Remember, tomorrow I'll interview Mitt Romney right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Until then, I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.