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THE SITUATION ROOM

U.S. Terror Group Planning Attacks In Europe; Suicide While Handcuffed?; Record Drought Shrinking Mississippi River; Sinkhole as Deep and Wide as a Football Field; Romney Trailing Obama in Polls; American Captured in Venezuela?; Disabled Vet Forced to Crawl Down Stairs; Dramatic Rescue

Aired August 10, 2012 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, an alarming warning from the state department about terror attacks it says are actively being planned in Europe and elsewhere around the world potentially in their words with little or no warning.

Plus, an enormous bubbling sinkhole. More than a football field long, and in some places, a footfall field deep. We're going live to the scene for the latest on efforts to try to determine what's causing it.

And a paralyzed war hero says he was forced to drag his own body down three flights of hotel stairs after being laughed at by the front desk agent he called for help.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We begin this hour with new information just coming in from the state department about active potentially imminent terror attacks likely being planned in Europe and elsewhere around the world by a group the United States government considers to be a major terrorist organization.

Let's go straight to our intelligence correspondent, Suzanne Kelly. She's got all the latest information for us. Pretty alarming stuff. What's going on?

SUZANNE KELLY, CNN INTELLIGENCE CORRESPONDENT: It is alarming, Wolf. The Lebanese-based Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, is actively planning attacks in Europe. That's according to Daniel Benjamin. He's the counterterrorism coordinator at the state department.

Not only does Benjamin say that the group is continuing a heightened level of terrorist activities, the plotting of terror attacks, he added that those attacks could happen with little or no warning. Now, remember, this is a terrorist organization that was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization before 9/11 when, of course, al Qaeda claimed that title.

What's the connection to Iran? Well, Hezbollah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, acknowledged for the first time this past February, that his organization does, in fact, receive financial and material support from Iran. The group denies however that it takes instructions from Iran.

Now, this news counts as the U.S. treasury department today announced sanctions against Hezbollah for its operational and logistical support of Assad's regime in Syria. Now, that was largely to draw attention to the Hezbollah-Syria connection, Wolf.

BLITZER: What about the warning coming from the state department counterterrorism chief over there? They say that imminent attacks potentially in Europe, but what about the United States?

KELLY: Great question. They know that Hezbollah is active in the United States, however, not operationally. They have cells across the country in major cities, but they're mostly for fundraising. And Daniel Benjamin addressed that today and wanted to sort of reiterate that there are no operational plans or anything that has them on heightened level.

They've known they're here for awhile. They've continuing to watch them, but right now, they're just raising money for the group -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ominous warning, though, for Europe. Thanks very much for that.

Let's dig a little deeper right now. Joining us is Bob Baer. He's a CNN contributor, former CIA operative. Bob, what do you make of this warning that the state department is now putting out about a potentially imminent Hezbollah-related terror attack in Europe?

BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, you know, I take this very seriously. In fact, I take Hezbollah more serious than al Qaeda. They're much more effective. They have military-type explosives. They've got good detonators. They've got sleeper cells all over Europe. They can strike once they decide to. And they will do a lot more damage than a small al Qaeda cell would.

BLITZER: Some have suggested that Hezbollah, in effect, is a holy-owned subsidiary, if you will, of Iran. What do you make of that?

BAER: It is. Wolf, the intelligence is so good on this. You know, all the attacks Hezbollah's undertaken from blowing up the marines to co-barbarics and I go on and on, the orders all came from the Iranian leadership. There's no disputing this. The intelligence is just black and white.

BLITZER: And this -- when I asked Suzanne Kelly about any plots that the U.S. is concerned about here in the United States. She said, not right now, but there are cells here, she says, that engage in fundraising for Hezbollah. What do you know?

BAER: Well, I'm going to take a contrarian view on that. And, last couple of years, I've been working for the United Nations tracking Hezbollah terror cells. All this information is based on a traffic analysis, telephone calls. And what -- it's very clear that Hezbollah has people that very well could be operational in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in particular, Detroit. These are not fundraisers. These are people with connections to people with weapons.

These are the security groups there that are so dangerous. So, I don't think we can rule that out. Now, they obviously haven't picked up a specific threat. But that doesn't mean one of these sleeper cells couldn't hit here in some extraordinary act of war.

BLITZER: When I was in Israel last week, I interviewed the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, and he said, in his mind, in the government of Israel's mind, there's absolutely no doubt that Hezbollah, he said, was responsible for the killing of those Israeli tourists in Bulgaria a few days earlier. Do you believe that?

BAER: Wolf, yes, I do believe it. I don't always take what they say on face value, but apparently, they've had a lot of telephone intercepts coming out of the same centers I'm talking about that communicate with the United States. Bulgaria, I tracked Hezbollah in Bulgaria for many years. I was actually there in Sofia (ph). And they have cells all over. It doesn't surprise me. I certainly don't have an inside scoop on this, but I believe them, yes.

BLITZER: On this particular issue. So, what do you do about this? What should the international community, the Europeans who may be on the front lines right now, the U.S., what do you do about this potential threat out there?

BAER: Well, I think a lot of these people they can probably get to and you just have to start rolling them up and see who's dangerous and who's not. I mean, frankly, I don't care about the fundraising. It's not important if people are sending money to Nasrallah or Hezbollah. That's not where they get most of their money from.

It's irrelevant in this country. What is is the people that have explosives and the know-how to use them. And you simply have to start filtering through these people and stop going after the money and go after the dangerous ones.

BLITZER: And one final question, Bob, the civil war that's brutal in Syria right now. How does that impact all of this?

BAER: Well, precisely, Wolf. If Syria goes badly, it's going to be a threat to Iran and Hezbollah. It would cut of supplies to Hezbollah from Iran. And it's unpredictable what the Iranians will do. The Iranians have talked about sanctions being tandem out to war. Are they going to react to this against the United States? I can't tell you, but that's certainly a concern in Washington right now.

BLITZER: Bob Baer formerly of the CIA, now a CNN contributor. Bob, thanks very much for helping us. Appreciate what's going on.

Turning now to Afghanistan where, for the third time this week, American troops have come under attack by those wearing the uniform of the very country the United States is trying to defend. Just today, three U.S. troops were killed when a man dressed in an Afghan military uniform opened fire in Helmand province.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is over at the Pentagon. He's got more on what's going on. This is ominous, ominous stuff, Chris. What is the latest?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly, Wolf. There is still some mystery surrounding exactly who this shooter was. But by now, it seems clear that this was someone that these American troops trusted.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Were three U.S. marines lured to an early morning meal by someone they thought was a friend? The Taliban claims that once they met with an Afghan police commander, he shot and killed all three then ran off and joined the insurgency.

U.S. sources would only say the marines were on a special operations mission to stabilize a village and had gone to meet a local Afghan contact.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Nonetheless, these incidents do concern us.

LAWRENCE: They should. It was the third time this week that Afghan troops attacked their American partners.

CARNEY: It is too early to say that this latest incident is part of a stepped up effort on the insurgent's part.

LAWRENCE: Of all the NATO troops killed this year, one out of three have been killed by someone in an Afghan uniform.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Tragically, it has huge implications for our forces and for the Afghan government.

LAWRENCE: Afghan intelligence officials have sent undercover agents to police recruiting centers to sniff out whether recruits have extremist views. And U.S. commanders have assigned so-called guardian angels to some squads whose only job is to look out for American troops while they're working with Afghan partners.

O'HANLON: But, they're smart. And they know how to go after us with minimal numbers of killings but maximum strategic effect.

LAWRENCE: Just a few days ago, two suicide bombers detonated their vests in Eastern Afghanistan. The blast killed Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffith (ph), a bronze medal recipient on his sixth deployment overseas. Also killed, Army Major Tom Kennedy(ph) who hadn't even been in country a month as well as Air Force Major Walter Gray (ph) and a U.S. A.I.D. officer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (on-camera): Now, that suicide bomber was obviously killed in the blast as well. As for the shooter in Helmand Province, although the Taliban claims that he escaped, U.S. forces say they quickly apprehended him. That brings, though, the number of attacks this year, the so-called green on blue attacks, to 25.

That's more than they had all last year. And, Wolf, we're only halfway through the summer, so far.

BLITZER: And based on everything I'm hearing, they suspect it's only going to get worse for these U.S. and NATO forces inside Afghanistan right now. Remember, the U.S. has what nearly 90,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. So, what's the impact based on what you're hearing, Chris, on morale for the U.S. and NATO forces who are still stuck in Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE: Well, if you listen to the words coming out of the White House and senior commanders say, they'd say there's no change to operations going on. That the U.S. is still going to be out there partnering with their Afghan partners.

But even senior U.S. commanders have admitted earlier this year that even though these incidents only occur very infrequently overall, given that there are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans interacting every day, even though there are very few of these incidents, they have a disproportionate effect on morale.

They really hit the morale of the American troops who are supposed to be working ever more closely with their Afghan counterparts to try to turn the country over to the Afghan security forces.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, thank you. We're going to have much more on what's going on in Afghanistan in our next hour, including my own take on the number of American troops dying there, what the United States should be doing about it. Standby for that.

Plus, a handcuffed man, yes, a handcuffed man, dies in the backseat of a police car. Was it suicide or murder?

And Venezuela's president claims to have captured an American citizen supposedly with suspicious intentions. Not everyone is buying that story. Standby.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Two weeks after police in Jonesboro, Arkansas, declared the death of a young man in custody of suicide, people are still looking for answers, including his mother. They want to know how Chavis Carter (ph) could have shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. The FBI is investigating so is CNN's Randi Kaye.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): No one is disputing that Chavis Carter died from a gunshot to the head while in the backseat of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The question is, who pulled the trigger? Police say he committed suicide.

CHIEF MICHAEL YATES, JONESBORO, ARKANSAS POLICE: Quite frankly, I've seen some of our people in custody do some amazing things.

KAYE: But Carter's mother doesn't buy it. She believes Jonesboro police killed her son.

THERESA CARTER, VICTIM'S MOTHER: I think they killed him. I mean, my son wasn't suicidal.

KAYE (on-camera): At this point, it's still debatable and still under investigation. Here's why. Twnety-one-year-old Chavis Carter (ph) was handcuffed at the time the fatal shot was fired, double locked behind his back.

Is it even possible physically to be handcuffed behind your back and somehow pull the trigger on a gun that you weren't holding when you were handcuffed?

YATES: To the average person that's never been in handcuffs, that's never been around inmates and people in custody would react exactly the same way that you just did about how can that be possible. Well, the fact of it is, it's very possible and it's quite easy.

KAYE: Chavis Carter and two others were pulled over July 29th just before 10:00 p.m. for driving suspiciously. The first officer called for backup. Then, the two of them questioned and searched the three men in the truck.

(on-camera) When officers first searched Carter, they say they found a small amount of marijuana and some small plastic bags. They did not find a gun. According to the officers, Carter was then placed in the backseat of one of the police vehicles. At that point, they say, he was not handcuffed.

It wasn't until later when the officer searched the suspect's vehicle and found drug paraphernalia like electronic scales and a large bag of white powder that they patted down Carter again.

They placed him once again, they say, in the same police vehicle's backseat, only this time, he was handcuffed.

(voice-over) how Carter managed to shoot himself while handcuffed using a concealed weapon police missed during not one but two searches is a mystery to many, including the FBI who is looking into it.

In their searching, they find a small bag, $10 worth of marijuana, but they miss a gun?

YATES: Apparently.

KAYE: Is that disappointing to you?

YATES: Yes.

KAYE (voice-over): The chief says the two men with Carter who were White were released. But Carter was held back after the officers who are also White discovered he'd given them a fake name. And there was a warrant for his arrest in Mississippi where he'd skipped out on a drug diversion program.

The chief says his officers don't know exactly when the fatal shot was fired, even though they were just feet away. According to this incident report, one of the officers heard, quote, "a loud thump with a metallic sound" but thought it came from a vehicle that ran over a piece of metal on the roadway.

Don't your officers know the sound of a gun being fired?

YATES: One would think. But, when those guns were in a confined space like the rear of a police car, it could be very different.

KAYE: It wasn't until the officers were about to leave when police say one of them smelled something burning in his vehicle. The chief says it was likely gun smoke. That's when police say the officer found Chavis Carter bloodied and slumped over in the backseat. The officers say they called an ambulance and tried to revive Carter. He died at the hospital.

CARTER: I can't see how.

KAYE: Carter's mother says it just doesn't add up. She told reporters her son was shot in the right side of the head, but she points out he was left-handed. Police would only say he was shot in the head.

CARTER: They searched him twice. I mean, I just want to know what really happened.

KAYE: Theresa Carter says her son called his girlfriend from the scene to tell her he'd phone her from jail, which to her, raises the question, does that sound like someone planning to commit suicide? In Jonesboro, supporters have held vigils.

Like many, they wonder what motive Carter had to kill himself. A $10 bag of marijuana? White powder that hasn't tested positive for drugs and is likely sugar? An outstanding warrant? We asked the chief about Theresa Carter's allegations, that one of his officers pulled the trigger.

Can you safely say you've ruled that out in your investigation?

YATES: Not at this stage in the investigation. It's certainly a remote possibility. Like I say, we haven't excluded everything. But I feel confident that that's not what it is. But I certainly understand how she might feel that way.

KAYE: There is dash cam video from that night, but the trouble is the chief says it doesn't show the moment the gun was fired. That's because the two police cars were parked trunk-to-trunk. So, the dash cam didn't capture Carter sitting in the backseat. Police have not released the video but have already reconstructed what happened using a duplicate vehicle.

They're waiting for the autopsy to be finished to see if what they visualize happened is consistent with the autopsy results.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Jonesboro, Arkansas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: A disabled veteran loses the use of his legs saving a fellow soldier's life, but he says his sacrifice meant nothing when he asked for help in a Texas hotel. We'll have the story. That's coming up.

And in two minutes, he's arguably the nation's best college cornerback, but LSU Brass say he broke the rules and the consequences are anything but sweet for Honey Badger.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A dramatic shift in a super high profile trial in China. Lisa Sylvester has that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. What's the latest, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, she's been on trial in China all week. Now, the wife of a former top Chinese official reportedly has admitted to poisoning British businessman, Neil Haywood (ph). According to the state-run news agency, Gu Kailai blamed a total breakdown for her actions.

Gu was accused of poisoning Haywood in a hotel room last November. Until the scandal broke, her husband was on the short list to become a top leader in China's ruling party.

And team USA is no doubt looking for a replacement for Manteo Mitchell as it challenges the Bahamas for Olympic gold in the men's 4x400-meter relay tonight in London. During the semifinal, Mitchell remarkably finished his opening leg of the race despite breaking his fibula. Mitchell said later that he heard the bone snap, but apparently, he just kept on running through the pain.

And Honey Badger has been cut. Louisiana State University officials announce that star player, Tyrann Mathieu, nicknamed "Honey Badger," was removed from the Tiger's roster for violating team policy.

LSU head coach Les Miles, did not say what the violation was, but the 20-year-old Mathieu was suspended from a game last season after apparently testing positive for synthetic marijuana. But he was still a finalist for the Heisman trophy.

And Wolf, I just want to go back to that Olympic story. Everybody's been talking about this runner. Amazing stuff. Absolutely running with a broken leg but didn't want to let his teammates down. There, we have the picture right now. That is just unbelievable. That's the stuff that people talk about, you know, when they talk about what the Olympics, what it's all about, what it means for these athletes.

BLITZER: Yes.

SYLVESTER: Major kudos to him for that.

BLITZER: Yes. You got to give the courage, the ability to overcome that, the adrenaline pumping. That's why he's a world class athlete to be sure, but good for him. We, of course, wish him a speedy, speedy recovery. Thank you, Lisa.

SYLVESTER: Yes.

BLITZER: Rain is at a premium, food prices are rising. We're going to get an up close and personal look at the historic U.S. drought that's even shrinking the mighty Mississippi. We're going in depth.

And a big chunk of the Bayou is sinking. Officials fear the slurred (ph) mess could be toxic.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's the worst drought to hit this country in six decades. The U.S. agriculture department now projecting a huge surge in corn prices due to the harvest slump. But farmland isn't all that's suffering. One of the country's most critical waterways, the Mississippi River, is rapidly shrinking in all the heat. CNN's Martin Savidge has an in-depth look at this crisis.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you might have thought I brought you out to a desert. I haven't. This is actually the exposed bottom of the Mississippi River here in Memphis and it stretches for a long way behind me here. It's all the impact of the drought. And it's hard to believe that just a year ago we were talking about record flooding. Now they're talking about the possibility of a new record, a record low.

The Mississippi River here a year ago was three miles wide. Now it is three-tenths of a mile wide. The river has dropped 55 feet in the last year. And those who work the river and have been on the water say they have never seen the water fall so far in so short a time. Now, there are some benefits. Look at this, new beaches. In fact, some have quipped that the Mississippi River now has more beaches than the state of Florida, which would be funny if it wasn't for the devastating impact that it's having on the commercial trade on the river.

This river is used to move a lot of stuff that we all use ourselves, things like coal, like oil and like grain. The problem is the barges now have had to be lightened quite a bit just to make it up and down the river. And there are some concerns that even with that they're running aground. The fear is that perhaps they might have to close the river like they did in '88. But take a look at this. So I brought you out here to show you something pretty cool.

This is a rock dike. The Army Corps of Engineers has built thousands of them along the Mississippi River and this is what they do. The water comes downstream. And during the drought it's redirected, deflected into the center of the river. It makes the channel deeper and it scours out the silt. But no matter what the Army Corps of Engineers or even the barge companies do, it still comes down to needing a lot of rain up river to try and raise the water levels here.

And that simply is not in the forecast, which is why the long range prediction is that here in Memphis at least they will break the record low water mark. Whether the river can keep operating, right now that's anybody's guess -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Martin Savidge, what a story that is. Thanks very much.

Another story we're following, it's as long as a football field and swallowing entire trees. There's a giant sinkhole that's threatening homes and a well containing 1.5 million barrels of liquid butane. CNN's Ed Lavandera's is in Louisiana's Assumption Parish (ph) right now. That's about 30 miles south of Baton Rouge. Ed, what are you seeing? What's going on over there?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a situation that has several hundred residents in the nearby area of where this sinkhole has dropped very much on edge as well as several thousand people who live in this town. But it all started -- let me first of all just describe this sinkhole area which is about 320 feet wide. In some places reaches as deep as 420 feet we're told by local officials here.

That area that you see is very murky. It has swallowed up massive cypress trees, some of them which are about 100 feet tall. Earlier today we went out by boat to the edge of where that sinkhole is to kind of see the area where it all kind of first started when people around here were out on the boats and the bayou here and noticed bubbles emerging from the bayou water. This wasn't any fish or anything like that. It wasn't from any pipelines that were in the water.

It hasn't been able to be explained exactly where all of this started. And this was about two months ago. And then about a week ago the sinkhole started dropping. People around here have been told to evacuate. And we spoke with a man by the name of John Achee, Jr. (ph), he's organized an advocacy group here from -- in the neighborhood trying to get answers from state regulators as well as a company called Texas Brine (ph), which is the company that has been mining this area. That sinkhole sits over a salt dome. And it's believed that there's a cavern in there that has collapsed. Many people around here are struggling and wanting answers quickly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAVANDERA: How frustrating has everything been that you guys are dealing with?

JOHN ACHEE, JR., RESIDENT: It's been very frustrating to all of the residents here. You know it's been going on for, you know, since May 30th. Answers have been very hard to come by. People have been, you know, evacuated from their homes, just extremely frustrated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAVANDERA: And, Wolf, all of this made even potentially more dangerous because right next to where this sinkhole is there's a well that has more than a million gallons of butane gas, which could be explosive, very dangerous if those vapors get out in the air. That's what many residents here are concerned about.

And to add even more pain to this entire situation, we've now been told by state officials here this afternoon that they have ordered this company, Texas Brine (ph), to drill a well into that sinkhole to determine whether or not it was this cavern that collapsed. That will take 40 days, we're told. And until then that evacuation order will stand here in this area -- Wolf.

BLITZER: People are not expected to be allowed to go back to their homes as you point out any time soon?

LAVANDERA: Yes. It's not a forced evacuation. They're not telling -- dragging people out. It's basically they've been told to evacuate. Some people have chosen to stay behind. It's a huge inconvenience. Many of these people don't have the ability to pay for another home or have anywhere else to go. So everyone here kind of scrambling to figure out what to do and stay in the safest possible conditions because no one around here really knows what might happen next.

BLITZER: That water that we see behind you, is it safe? Is it toxic? What's going on?

LAVANDERA: There have been -- tests that have been done. So far there haven't been any tests to come back to show that there are levels of toxicity anywhere near. We're about -- probably about -- little under a mile, if you just follow the bayou water back this way you get toward that area on the edge of the sinkhole. So all of that testing has begun in earnest as they try to figure out what the dangers are and what the long-term dangers are here for the residents near this sinkhole.

BLITZER: Are they saying what caused the sinkhole to happen?

LAVANDERA: Well, the suspicion right now is that there's that -- this salt dome that is underneath that sinkhole and that there's a cavern in there that was mined. And they believe that according to what we've been able to figure out about a year ago there was a breech of that cavern. And perhaps that's when all of this started. Obviously if it happened then, it's taken quite some time for this sinkhole to emerge.

But that's what they're in the early stages of beginning the testing of to try to figure that out. But right now all the attention is on that cavern that's underneath the ground there. You can't see it, but this cavern that perhaps collapsed and brought the ground down with it and swallowing everything else around it.

BLITZER: It's a huge, huge sinkhole. Thanks very much, Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us. Appreciate it.

It's issue number one with American voters, so when it comes to the economy why isn't Mitt Romney doing better in the polls?

And a disabled Iraq war veteran says he was forced to crawl down three flights of hotel stairs after the front desk laughed in his face.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Accusations, attack ads, side trips from a central message. If recent polls are any indication, summer distractions could be costing Mitt Romney some of his standing in the race to unseat President Obama. Let's bring in our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, the anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" to assess what's going on. I assume there are still good opportunities for Mitt Romney to turn things around despite these recent polls.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There are. First of all because of the nature of campaigns, you know it's a very long time still until November. But also look at the polls because I think this is the best way to show the opportunity. This was the question August 7th and 8th, the CNN/ORC poll, how are things going in the country today? It is down seven points, those who feel it's going well, that things are going well. This is a key indicator.

How do you think the future is going to be is generally what this question means. And what it shows is that people after sort of that whole I have confidence in the economy number was going up and now it's taking a dive again. So that's really what the Romney campaign all along thought was its best argument. The question is how to get back to it.

BLITZER: Because if the country's moving in the wrong direction, that would be good news presumably for Mitt Romney in terms of polls. But the polls don't show that he's taking advantage of that for some reason.

CROWLEY: They don't because the polls show something else. And that is the question of Mitt Romney's strength. And his strength he always said was his business credentials. Now look at this. Will the economy get better if Obama wins? Forty-seven percent say yes. Forty-five percent say if Romney wins the economy will get better. That's dead even. So if you are tied, basically, on the question of who is better for the economy going forward, what do voters then vote on, who they're most comfortable with and that's where Romney is falling down.

BLITZER: And if you take a look at those numbers you see it was 50 percent thought the economy would get better if Romney wins back in May.

CROWLEY: Yes.

BLITZER: Now it's down to 45 percent. So it hasn't been moving --

CROWLEY: Going the wrong way.

BLITZER: It hasn't been moving in the right direction for Mitt Romney, so what does he need to do?

CROWLEY: I think he needs to look at these last figures and these are the like-ability figures. And President Obama has always had the edge on that. He still does. Fifty-six percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of President Obama. This is not what you vote for. This is do you have a favorable opinion? Look at Romney's under 50 percent. That's not good.

And his unfavorables are up showing it's been a long, tough summer for Mitt Romney. But if you have basically a wash on who would be better for the economy, what do voters then vote on? It's their feel for a candidate. It's like who do you like. Voters are not going to elect someone they don't have a favorable opinion on. It just -- it doesn't happen. So that's what Mitt Romney needs to do going forward is to find himself rather than what appears to have happened over the summer which is letting President Obama and his reelection team define him.

BLITZER: Yes, at this stage four years ago when John McCain was looking for a vice presidential running mate, the polls showed he was in some trouble so he went for a quote "game-changer". We know what happened with Sarah Palin. What does Romney do now?

CROWLEY: Romney, I think you know we can talk all we want about the vice presidential pick, and it's important, but it's not the be all and end all because in the end this is about the top of the ticket. And so what Romney needs to do is take advantage of this VP pick, to say hey listen, this is the kind of manager I'm going to be. This is the guy I pick. It's a solid pick, however he wants to sell it and then he needs to go into the convention off of that kind of adrenaline of the VP pick, make a great convention speech where I think he needs to define himself.

He needs to find the likable Mitt and put it out there for folks. And then he has to have good debates. And I think you know, so those are all opportunities for him to turn this around because as we said, you know the economy still isn't viewed well by the American people. And generally you'd think, well, that's kind of curtains for President Obama. But Mitt Romney hasn't been able to get past the like-ability part.

BLITZER: So who's on "STATE OF THE UNION" Sunday morning?

CROWLEY: "STATE OF THE UNION" will have David Axelrod, as you know, senior adviser to the Obama campaign and one of his counterparts over at the Romney campaign and that's Ed Gillespie. And we're also going to talk to John Thune (ph) who's been on some of the lists about the VP choice --

BLITZER: The senator from South Dakota, 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning. We will be watching.

CROWLEY: I know.

BLITZER: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Intrigue in South America, the Venezuela President Hugo Chavez claims to have nabbed a suspected U.S. operative bent on bringing down his country. So how is the U.S. government reacting? You'll find out. And we're taking you inside the mission control room for the Mars rover Curiosity. That's coming up in our next hour.

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BLITZER: Venezuela's president is claiming his forces have captured a United States citizen holding up the so-called arrest as an example to his people. But not everyone is buying the dramatic story behind it. Let's bring in Brian Todd. He's been looking into the details. What are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, as you know Hugo Chavez not a friend of the United States. And he's got some alliances with some of America's enemies like Iran, so when he claims to have an American in custody and throws out serious accusations against that person, U.S. officials take notice even if it could be pure bluster.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

TODD (voice-over): From a U.S. antagonist known for his paranoia, a provocative claim. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez riles up the crowd at a campaign event, says his security forces have captured an American citizen illegally crossing into his country he says from Colombia and that's not all.

PRES. HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELA (through translator): His passport which he tried to destroy when he was caught and in other things he carried had evidence of entries and departures in the last few years from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Also this individual has the appearance of a mercenary and we're interrogating him.

TODD: Chavez says his captive also tried to destroy a notebook full of coordinates. He described the person as an American citizen of Hispanic origin.

(on camera): We pressed the Venezuela Embassy in Washington repeatedly for a name, any other information on the person or what they believe he was doing. We got no response. A U.S. government source tells us U.S. officials are operating on the assumption that Chavez's forces have someone in custody. The source says U.S. officials have reached out to the Venezuelan government on the matter but have received no information.

(voice-over): A U.S. government source tells us U.S. officials are operating on the assumption that Chavez's forces have someone in custody. The source says U.S. officials have reached out to the Venezuela government on the matter, but haven't received information. U.S. officials also don't have a name, the source says, and they view with suspicion Chavez's claim that the person has the appearance of a mercenary.

KEN ROBINSON, MILITARY INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: You know if you go on Google and you Google Chavez and say Hugo Chavez accuses, you're going to get five million, five hundred thousand hits. He is a serial accuser.

TODD: Analyst Ken Robison is a former U.S. Special Forces officer who conducted operations in Latin America and is familiar with intelligence matters there. He says Chavez could be exaggerating or making this up completely to play to supporters in an election year. Robinson says it's possible, the person, if he exists, could have been working for an oil company or a contractor, legitimately surveying the situation in Venezuela, but he also says spy operations aren't out of the question.

ROBINSON: The U.S. concern in Venezuela is its sponsorship of terrorist groups. The Fark (ph) that live in Colombia use sanctuary of the Venezuelan border to conduct operations and those same individuals have become what we call narco (ph) terrorists.

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TODD: But Robinson says if the person is a spy or a mercenary, he is probably a bad one. A good spy wouldn't be carrying an American passport with Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya stamps on it and wouldn't be obvious about carrying a notebook with coordinance (ph) -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But there is a spy game that's been going on between these two countries.

TODD: That is right. You know Ken Robinson says it is probably a bigger spy game than we are led to believe because it's not quite as big as the spy game with al Qaeda or the way we used to have it with the Russians, but the Venezuelans have people here probably at their embassy here, working under diplomatic cover, reporting back to their people in Karakas (ph). You know there are more spies per capita in this town than any other city in the world, so they have people here.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much, we'll get to the bottom of this story, too at some point. Appreciate it.

A hotel chain has now apologized for a disabled United States veteran of the Iraq conflict. It is not enough. CNN's Sandra Endo has the story of a wounded warrior who says he wanted nothing more than an elevator ride, and what he got was humiliation.

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well this is one of those stories our viewers brought to us. When a friend of a disabled veteran posted an iReport on CNN.com and then the story got picked up by a local TV station. The iReporter says his main goal is to raise awareness about the unfair treatment of disabled people and disabled vets who serve our country.

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ENDO (voice-over): War hero Staff Sergeant Chad Staples paralyzed while serving his country, his spine hit by a bullet in Baghdad. His dad told the "Odessa American" (ph) he used his own body to shield another soldier. Now back home he says he was forced to drag his own body down three flights of stairs.

STAFF SGT. CHAD STAPLES, DISABLED VET: I went down the stairs myself, which included chucking my wheelchair down, my bags, everything that you don't want to chuck downstairs. I was going down on my butt, which isn't that big of a deal. I was going to do that anyway. But I didn't want to chuck my stuff around.

ENDO: Staff Sergeant Staples told the newspaper he was making his way cross country. He stopped at this Best Western in Monahans, Texas, a small town along I-20. After getting a few hours of sleep in his room on the third floor, it was time to get back on the road. That's when he realized the elevator wasn't working, so he called the front desk for help. But he says the woman on the other end mocked him and laughed at him.

STAPLES: Then I blew up, slammed the phone, and then went down the stairs.

ENDO: Staff Sergeant Staples says he didn't want to be carried. He just needed help with his bags and his wheelchair. The manager didn't have much to say to a local reporter --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) you're closing the door, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) I'm saying, as soon as I --

ENDO: But Staff Sergeant Staples has plenty to say and he is demanding changes.

STAPLES: My ultimate goal and I have to admit I do want her fired. No one should ever be in service who acts like that. But beyond that they need to change their entire policy on handicapped rooms, where the handicap rooms are located and who they give them to.

ENDO: Best Western says in part "we are trouble sorry for the incident that took place. A power outage impacted the local area, including the elevator. We spoke directly to Mr. Staples and offered a full and sincere apology and reimbursed his expenses. We respect Mr. Staples' status as a disabled veteran and the sacrifices he has made for our country. We can only hope that Mr. Staples will stay at a Best Western hotel in the future as our guest."

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ENDO: As for that employee, Best Western tells us today she is on administrative leave and hasn't worked since this all happened -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sandra thanks very much, Sandra Endo reporting.

Meanwhile, a shocking rescue caught on tape, a fisherman pulled from shark infested waters after treading water for almost a day.

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BLITZER: A dramatic rescue caught on tape, a naked fisherman fighting for his life in shark infested waters, finally gets help thanks to a TV news station. Here is CNN's Michael Holmes.

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MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): A tiny speck in the ocean off the coast of Western (ph) Australia, look closer, you see a man struggling to keep his head above water. This 49-year-old fisherman was forced to tread water for 20 hours after his boat sank, finally spotted by a TV news helicopter.

GRANT TAYLOR, CHANNEL SEVEN REPORTER: I'm looking at it right now, waving to us, saw the relief on his face as he floats on his back stark naked in the water.

HOLMES: When the camera zooms in, you can see the man putting his hands together, praying for help.

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HOLMES: Search planes and boats have moved closer, but they must hurry. Those dark shapes in the water are sharks circling nearby.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we're trying to keep the sharks away from him. We just spotted a massive hammerhead shark that is just circling around him. Yes, they have, they've just dropped a parachute --

HOLMES: A search and rescue plane drops a parachute with a life raft, but the man is too tired to swim to it. Finally, a search and rescue boat pulls up alongside the exhausted man, tosses him a lifeline and brings him aboard.

TAYLOR: He is safe. Finally after all of this he is actually -- he is actually safe.

HOLMES: After being plucked from the sea, the man was taken to the hospital in Perth (ph), where he was being treated for hyperthermia and exposure. There were two other men onboard the fishing boat when it sank. One was later found, but did not survive. The other is still missing.

Michael Holmes, CNN, Atlanta.

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