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THE SITUATION ROOM
President Obama's Poll Numbers Improving; Nation Pauses for September 11 Anniversary; Romney Talks U.S. Goals in Afghanistan; Pressure Builds for Strike Agreement; Setting Debate Expectations; President Marks 9/11 Anniversary; Targeting Terrorists for U.S. Attacks; Al Qaeda Leader's Brother Talks Peace
Aired September 11, 2012 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: brand-new poll results show President Obama's approval rating passing a very important milestone.
Also, on this anniversary of 9/11, we will hear the president strongly defend one of the United States' deadliest and most effective weapons against would-be terrorists.
And in a CNN exclusive, the brother of al Qaeda's top leader now says there is a way to reconciliation and peace.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
All that coming up, but we begin with a very public and new escalation of some tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli sources tell me the White House at least for now has rejected Prime Minister Netanyahu's request to meet with President Obama later this month to discuss Iran's nuclear program.
Those same sources told me the Israelis were told a meeting isn't possible because of the president's schedule. Schedule they say won't permit it, even when the Israelis offered to have the prime minister come to Washington from New York where he will be addressing the United Nations.
The White House is pushing back saying the president and prime minister simply won't be in New York at the same time this month to address the U.N.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg in a much bigger disagreement right now over Iran's suspected quest for nuclear weapons.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us now. She's got that part of the story.
What's the latest on this really sensitive matter, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the bickering now is out in the open. Israel two months before Election Day wants to see some action from the United States, from the Obama administration, and the White House has a very different view.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is turning up the heat on the Obama administration's plans for dealing with Iran's program to make a nuclear bomb.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: The world tells Israel, wait, there's still time. And I say, wait for what? Wait until when?
STARR: Israel wants the U.S. to commit to a so-called red line with Iran. If Iran steps over it, they face military action against their nuclear sites.
NETANYAHU: Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.
STARR: Israel wants U.S. support because at some point its own air force won't be able to hit Iran's nuclear sites in increasingly hardened underground bunkers.
With two months to Election Day, the U.S. administration isn't anxious to get specific.
VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: The American people know that the president has said unequivocally he will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. I'm not going to get into how you unpack exactly what, who, how, when.
STARR: But not setting a line can also be risky while negotiations go on.
ANTHONY CORDESMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The other side of this is if you don't set very clear limits to Iran's behavior, you can go on indefinitely.
STARR: During his recent trip to Israel, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was very aware Iran has moved ahead with nuclear fuel enrichment and testing other elements essential to making a bomb.
LEON PANETTA, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: The viewpoint of the intelligence community is that if they made the decision to go ahead in order to develop the enriched uranium and develop the kind of weaponization that they would have to do, that we're probably looking at approximately a year.
STARR: A year, Wolf, once Iran made the decision to go for a nuclear bomb. Panetta doesn't believe they have made that decision yet.
That said, he is known to be frustrated with the sanctions process. He believes sanctions are working, that they're biting at the Iranian economy, but that the Iranian regime simply hasn't changed its calculus, hasn't made the decision to turn away from the path towards a nuclear weapon. And that also is Israel's concern -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much. By the way, here's the part of the White House statement just released, a statement released by the National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor, among other things saying: "The president arrives in New York for the U.N. on month, September 24, and departs on Tuesday September 25. The prime minister doesn't arrive in New York until later in the week. They're simply not in the city at the same time. But the president and prime minister are in frequent contact. And the prime minister will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary Clinton, during his visit."
Much more on this story coming up later.
But now the politics and another sign President Obama's getting a bounce out of the Democratic National Convention. Just in, results from our brand-new CNN/ORC poll. They show the president's approval rating is now 51 percent, 44 percent disapproving.
After spending the last half of 2011 in the mid-40s, the president's approval rating has been hovering near the all-important 50 percent mark for most of the year. Today, exactly eight weeks from Election Day, he's in positive territory.
Our chief national correspondent, John King, is over here at the magic wall. He's breaking down the numbers with a closer look.
That 50 percent is significant.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is significant. If you're the incumbent, you want to be above 50. You would like to be closer to 60 and then you have a much better chance of saying I'm going to win election. But above 50 is better than under 50.
Like we showed you yesterday, if you look deeper into the poll, you will see some of the reasons why the president's standings is improving. Let's look at one group here, a critical group in the election, the reason I pulled it out of Florida, how is the president handling his job among those 65 and older? The senior population absolutely critical in the state of Florida and in other states as well.
Tends to vote Republican. But look at the this, The president now 50 percent disapprove, 46 percent approve. So he's underwater, but look at the improvement from a year ago, 61 percent of senior citizens disapproved of the president's job performance a year ago and only 37 percent approved, so significant progress for the president there.
He would like to hold that through Election Day. Another group, I know we will talk about this in a minute, I believe is independents. Again, he's underwater, 44 percent approve, 48 disapprove, a critical group in a key election, in a close election, but look at the improvement. Last year, 35 percent, 60, he was way underwater.
As we watch the race play out in the final few months, one of the things we're looking at the regions of the country, the battlegrounds. We know Romney needs to win Ohio and wants to compete in Michigan and in Wisconsin. How does the race shape up in the Midwest? Look here again. The president approval, disapproval, it's a split. That's within the margin of error. That's a statistical tie. He's at 49 percent and 47 percent in the Midwest. But again 61 percent in this critical region disapproved of the president just a year ago. He's on a better track now heading in close to the election.
And we also know out West competitive battlegrounds could be Colorado and Nevada, two states Governor Romney has on his list, the president has on his target as well. Look as how they shape up out in the West. How is the president handling his job? He's above water here, 49-44. Again that's within the margin of error. That's essentially a statistical tie.
But again look at the improvement, especially from the disapproval. It was 54 percent a year ago and 44 percent now out in the West. The president's standing is improving among seniors, in the Midwest, the West and somewhat among independents as well. Not where he'd love it to be, but he will like this especially when you look back one year ago.
BLITZER: Once again, it shows conventions do matter, at least in the short-term. We will see how they stack up in the long term.
Gloria's with us as well.
Gloria, how about independents?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
BLITZER: Because that's critically important. A lot of independents are still undecided.
BORGER: Right. John was just talking about independent voters. They're important because they're the swing voters, and they're the voters president wants and the voters that Mitt Romney wants.
I thought we would sort of take a look at the president's love/hate relationship with independent voters.
KING: Good way to put it.
BORGER: He would like a little more love and a little less hate.
Take a look at this. If you go back to when he was elected February 2009, 76 percent with independent voters. Fabulous. January 2010, down to 47 percent. That was right in the middle of the battle for health care reform. January 2011, goes up a little bit. That was the aftermath of the Gabby Giffords shooting. He was seen as more of a leader, seen as more bipartisan.
Independent voters like that when you talk about bipartisanship. And then you see, as John was just pointing out, 44 percent in 2012. So he's been lower, he's been way lower. But he would like to see that way above 50 percent if he could. And he's not there yet.
BLITZER: When it comes to white registered voters, though, he's still not doing fabulous by an means.
KING: Still not doing fabulous. If you look at that number I believe the president's approval rating right now is right around 40 percent...
BLITZER: Let me put it up.
KING: The other number is 50 percent disapprove.
A Democrat doesn't often win the white vote. An African-American Democrat, this has been a problem for the president and an issue for the president since the very beginning, that's approval rating, that's not the ballot. In the ballot if the president gets 39 percent or 40 percent of the white vote on Election Day, he most likely will win the election, if his African-American and Latino turnout is anywhere close to where it was four years ago.
Again, that's progress for the president. You would like to be a little bit higher than that. That is a fact of life though in today's politics, even pre-Obama, in that the white vote tends to go Republican and the African-American and Latino vote are critical to the Democratic coalition.
BORGER: And the president's problem has always been white men.
KING: White men especially, yes.
BORGER: That's why the gender gap is so important to him because he does so well with women of all kinds. So if he can balance out that gap with white men, then he will win. Very important.
KING: That's Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin if he does well enough, good enough with white men.
BLITZER: In our new poll, I was interested in this question, who's more likely to win the debates? There will be three presidential debates in October.
BORGER: You tell us.
BLITZER: Look at this. At least according to this CNN/ORC poll, 59 percent think the president will win the debates, more likely to win the debates, 34 percent Romney. So the expectations are that the president will do well.
KING: I think in part that's because people are more familiar with the president.
But you know what is interesting? That's the exact number from four years ago when they ask would John McCain or then Senator Obama win the debates? It was 59 percent, 34 percent as well. I think we all know. We have personal experience at this from the Republican primaries. Governor Romney is not a bad debater.
BLITZER: He's pretty good.
BORGER: He's had a lot of practice, by the way. How many debates they do?
BLITZER: At least a dozen.
KING: Well, 433.
BORGER: Right. And if there are low expectations, that's just fine as far as the Romney campaign is concerned, right? Because the lower the expectations, the better people will think he does.
KING: They're all important.
BLITZER: Getting back to the original number, he's above 50 percent, 51 percent approval. So does he have a clear coast to the reelection.
BORGER: No. No.
Here's the issue for the president, which is that people like him more than they approve of him. While that number is good for him, the problem has been that people just sort of like him, but they don't think he's done as good a job as they thought he was going to do. They give him the benefit of the doubt on likability. They would like to see that approval number up.
KING: Again, why the debates are so important. If Governor Romney can convince them the alternative is a smart and safe place to go, then you can give up on somebody you like, like George H.W. Bush. If Governor Romney can't close that sale and you're at the end, if you're torn, you're going to pick the guy you like.
BORGER: It's hard to fire somebody you really like unless you're just sure that he's done a terrible job.
But if you like him, you're going to be just a little less -- reluctant, particularly when you're not convinced that the other guy out there, the other job applicant out there is really what you want.
BLITZER: Guys, thanks, very, very much. We will continue this later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Mitt Romney's toning down his attacks on the president because of today's 9/11 anniversary. But he's also trying to make up for what the Democrats say was a major omission in his convention speech.
BLITZER: Jack Cafferty's here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, it turns out a four-year college degree just might be a lousy investment. "Newsweek" magazine reports in this week's cover story that for a growing number of young people, the extra time spent getting a diploma will make them worst off. Many are pointing to troubling similar between college tuitions and the housing bubble. Things like rapid increases in tuition prices at rates much higher than inflation, and borrowing large sums of money and incurring debt in the process.
Part of the problem is the federal government has increased student aid big time. More people are taking out loans. And students are being told this is good debt, that they're investing in themselves. Maybe, maybe not. What kind of investment is it if you can't find a job when you graduate?
It's estimated as many as two-thirds of undergraduates come out of college with debt. For many their long balances are in the tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, half of all recent college graduates are either unemployed or have jobs that don't require a degree to begin with. And many are in debt up to their ears from student loans.
As "Newsweek" writes, quote, "These graduates were told a diploma is all they needed to succeed, but won't get them out of the spare bedroom at mom and dads," unquote. Of course, there are all kinds of degrees, a degree in engineering will help you find a job and pay off those loans a lot quicker than for example a liberal arts degree.
But it's past time to rethink how to invest in higher education. Some say we should put more young people to work through apprenticeship style programs that will teach them specific job skills as well as soft skills or how to succeed in the workplace. In the old days they used to have trade schools that did that kind of stuff.
The question is this, is college worth it? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile, post a comment on the blog. Or go to the post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you.
Today's anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks took the edge off the usual give and take of the presidential race. However, Mitt Romney is staying out there on the campaign trail.
CNN's national political correspondent Jim Acosta has followed him to Nevada -- Jim.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, both campaigns did take down their negative ads out of respect for this 11th anniversary of 9/11. But both sides are still finding ways to draw their contrast. Mitt Romney came all the way out here to Reno to do that on the subject of foreign policy.
ACOSTA (voice-over): On this anniversary of September 11th, Mitt Romney arrived at his charter to find firefighters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport holding their own remembrance. It was an unexpected moment for a tightly scripted candidate, a reminder that some days are bigger than a campaign.
Next, it was onto Reno in a National Guard convention for a speech that appeared to have a dual purpose. Both burnish Romney's foreign policy credentials and address an oversight that the Obama campaign has hammered for days.
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
ACOSTA: Romney's mention of Afghanistan came less than two weeks after Democrats point out he neglected to mention the war in his speech at the GOP convention.
GEN. WESLEY CLARK, RET.: It's more than a mission. It reveals a severe lack of understanding about the job as president. It doesn't reflect well on what kind of leadership he would bring. And frankly, it's just unbecoming of someone who wants to become commander-in- chief.
ACOSTA: In the latest CNN/ORC poll, voters by a wide margin said voters would better handle foreign policy than Romney. After saying in his was not a day for contrast, Romney slammed looming budget cuts at the Pentagon.
ROMNEY: The return of our troops cannot be an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts.
ACOSTA: In recent days Romney hit Democrats for an omission of their own, temporarily leaving out the word "God" from their party platform. Romney has referred to his faith in speeches and online.
On Twitter, he marked 9/11 by tweeting that America is united under God in its quest for peace and freedom. In Ohio, the same theme cropped up again in a not-so-veiled jab at the president.
ROMNEY: When and if I become president of the United States, I will not take "God" out of my heart and I will not take "God" out of the public square, and I will not take out of the platform of my party.
ACOSTA (on camera): He's making a point about the Democratic convention about the platform --
KEVIN MADDEN, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: Right. I think that was an issue that came up, that the Democrats had a disagreement on the floor of their convention. That's -- everybody's known, but I think the governor made very clear where he stands on that.
ACOSTA: And even though Mitt Romney said he was not going on the attack today, the Obama campaign did take Romney's comments on those Pentagon defense budget cuts as a contrast. Liz Smith, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, did send out a statement to us, Wolf, just a few moments ago. I'll read it for you.
She says the president agrees we should avoid the automatic defense cuts in the Budget Control Act, that's why he's called on congressional Republicans to help prevent them by asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.
So even though the attacks were toned down, they're still flying back and forth, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, they won't tone down tomorrow or the rest of this campaign for sure. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.
Other news we're following including Chicago's public school teachers. They're off the job for a second day. Our own Ted Rowlands is right in the thick of the protests. We'll go to Chicago for a live report of the strike.
BLITZER: Public schools are empty for a second day in Chicago, and the pressure is clearly building for the city and the teachers union to reach an agreement. Parents are scrambling to find alternatives for 350,000 idle students.
Our own Ted Rowlands is in Chicago. He's surrounded by some protesting teachers.
Ted, what are the main sticking points right now?
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it depends on who you talk to. According to the school district, there are only a couple of it. They have to do with merit pay scenarios and rehiring teachers after schools are closed. But talked to the union and they say there are a list of things that still haven't been ironed out in the excess of 12 or 13 points.
Bottom line here, while a lot of people thought this was going to be maybe a one to two-day strike, the way things have gone so far today, it looks though it may be a lot longer than two or three days. I'm surrounded by thousands of teachers right now in downtown Chicago marching through the streets.
Two things that did happen today, one is the district has come up with a plan to extend the hours of those schools that are open during the strike. That won't start until Thursday. And the other thing, Wolf, is they are talking about possibly taking off the offer that is currently on the table. If that happens, it's back to square one.
But they are negotiating at this hour. And they have continued to negotiate through this process. Whether or not that changes, we'll have to wait and see.
BLITZER: Ted Rowlands, surrounded by a lot of teachers out there on strike. Let's hope they resolve this quickly. Thank you.
In today's strategy session, the presidential debate's only a few weeks away. Our new poll shows voters have much lower expectations for one of the candidates.
BLITZER: I want to give you a background on presidential approval ratings at this in an election year and whether they're predictors for the race to come and the outcome.
Our new CNN poll puts President Obama right now as you saw at 51 percent approval. That's right about where George W. Bush was in 2004. He was narrowly re-elected.
President Clinton had a solid amount of support back in 1996, as did President Reagan in 1984. Both were re-elected. Approval ratings for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter lagged below 40 percent, neither was re-elected.
Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," two CNN contributors, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, and the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos, he is the co-founder of Purple Strategies. That's a bipartisan communications group.
So Donna, 51 percent is decent, but it's by no means conclusive at this point within two months.
DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely, Wolf. But, look, given the state of economy, the polarization in our country, the fact the president is now above 50 percent, that should give Chicago a little breathing room as they begin to plan for the fall debate and get ready for the ground game.
But President Obama has an enormous task over the next 54 days. He has to continue to make his case to the American people. He has to, of course, get ready for the fall debates, but I think he's in really great shape.
BLITZER: Do you agree?
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think so. Considering that most Republicans think the president's done a terrible job, he's lucky to be over the 50 percent mark.
Donna is right. It's a magic number. When you have 50 percent that means you've got enough vote to win. And you can really focus on getting the other guy and kind of holding his head under water.
BLITZER: Given the fact that the economy is not in good shape, still above 8 percent unemployment, why is he above 50 percent?
CASTELLANOS: You know, this is a race between the movable object and the resistible force. We've got a president who can't possibly get re-elected and a challenger who can't possibly beat him.
Obama's in terrible shape with the economy. He shouldn't win. Mitt Romney hasn't yet made the case why he's a better alternative. So this race is really stuck right now. I think that's what you see in these numbers. BLITZER: The undecided and the switchables as I like to say, that will be determined by the three presidential debates in October. Jen Psaki is the traveling press secretary for the Obama campaign. Listen to what she said to me last night right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEN PSAKI, OBAMA CAMPAIGN TRAVELING PRESS SECRETARY: Mitt Romney has a bit more practice than the president. He's done a lot of them recently. So, you know, we'll wait to see.
BLITZER: Are you nervous?
PSAKI: Well, he's a much better debater.
BLITZER: Who's much better debater?
PSAKI: Mitt Romney's been doing debates. He's done how many a dozen over the last year.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you agree with Jen that Mitt Romney's a better debater than President Obama?
BRAZILE: You know, I think he is a very effective debater. He's been involved in 20 debates since May 5th of last year. The last was CNN back in February. He is very focused on his opponent. He knows how to deliver his lines.
He plays defense and offense well. I believe the president needs to be very careful not to go in this debate thinking that Mitt Romney's not up to speed on the issues and he knows --
BLITZER: Who's a better debater?
CASTELLANOS: Well, we're going to find out. It's going to be hard for Obama to change the expectations. When you're president of the United States, when you're supposed to be in the big chair and take on the problems -- the biggest problems in the world.
It's hard for voters to look at you and say, yes, but he's going to get beaten by a challenger. You're the heavyweight champ until the number one contender beats you. But right now we're in that expectations game, Wolf. Everybody's trying to manage expectations.
BLITZER: I remember those debates between then-candidate Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, John Edwards when he was in. The expectations that this guy's relatively new, he's probably not going to do that well. They were low and then when he did OK, he managed to win. He won the nomination.
BRAZILE: He won the nomination, but I thought Hillary Clinton won all the debates. She was a very good, persuadable candidate back then. He won the nomination because he had a lot of grassroots support. BLITZER: How do you know who wins a debate? Is it the polls that come out afterwards or is there some other intangible that you as a political strategist would look at?
CASTELLANOS: When I'm in a campaign like that, you look at MOS, a moment of strength. You want to create that moment that lets people look into your candidate's eyes and say, wow, this guy has the strength to do the job, to meet the unexpected, I can trust him in that big chair.
I know when the time comes he'll do the right thing and you don't tell stories like that with words. You see them with events and actions. It's gladiator contest. It's that moment and it plays on the news for a week and that's how you win the debate.
BLITZER: You were Al gore's campaign manager in 2000. You rehearsed, you practiced with him. Take us a little bit behind the scenes. How does that work out?
BRAZILE: Well, you bring a candidate to a location where he's not distracted by the day-to-day activity. You allow him to rest up a little bit. I'm sure both candidates right now are extremely exhausted.
And you go through rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal and eventually have debate prep with someone, we have Paul Begala and the candidate builds confidence in himself. And they're ready for the game.
BLITZER: Paul Begala played President Bush at that time. How did he do, Paul?
BRAZILE: He did a great job. Paul is a wonderful Texan.
CASTELLANOS: This time I think the Obama folks have Senator John Kerry playing Mitt Romney. Senator Kerry's a very human-like figure. He should do a good job.
BLITZER: Rob Portman, I believe, is playing the president of the United States in the debate preparation for Romney. We'll see which one of these guys does a better job, who is better prepared. I've been in debates with both of them. They are both solid debaters, they're both very smart. I think these are going to be excellent substantive good debates.
BRAZILE: Wolf, I like THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: You like the new set?
BRAZILE: This is hot. It feels like this is an oval office. Thank you for inviting us.
BLITZER: As I said yesterday, when the president sees our THE SITUATION ROOM, he will be so jealous. He'll tell his staff in the west wing, we got to fix um e up our own situation room. It goes on and on and on. We have a lot of video screens, a lot of stuff and we're only scratching the surface right now. We're going to dazzle the folks with some of the technology that's behind those video screens.
CASTELLANOS: This is going to be the place to see the debates.
BLITZER: Yes, it will. Also the Super Bowl too, if you're -- Guys, thanks very much.
In a rare interview on a very sensitive subject, President Obama's opening up to CNN about the use of drones against militants and suspected terrorists.
BLITZER: On this 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Obama and the first lady observed a moment of silence over at the White House. Later the president attended a memorial service at the Pentagon and visited with wounded warriors over at Walter Reed Hospital.
Since the president took office, the U.S. dramatically increased its use of unmanned aircraft to target and kill militants and terrorists. Yet he almost never talks about these drone attacks.
For her CNN documentary, "Obama Revealed," our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin asked him about the process of choosing targets. It's a sensitive, sensitive subject, as we all know, Jessica.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. You know, the use of drones have increased four-fold since President Obama took office. Now, published reports say the president personally approves of the so-called kill list, those targeted for death. I asked the president in an interview about this and more.
YELLIN: Do you personally decide who is targeted and what are your criteria if you do for the use of lethal force?
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Well, I've got to be a little careful here. They're classified issues. My first job, my most sacred duty as president and commander in chief is keep the American people safe.
We brought a whole bunch of tools to go after al Qaeda and those who would attack Americans. Drones are one tool that we use. And our criteria for using them is very tight and very strict. It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws.
It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States. And we've got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties. Obviously as president ultimately I'm responsible for decisions that are made by the administration.
But I think what the American people need to know is the seriousness with which we take both the responsibility to keep them safe, but also the seriousness with which we take the need for us to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.
YELLIN: Sir, do you personally approve the targets?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I can't get too deeply into how these things work. But as I said, as commander in chief ultimately I'm responsible for the process that we've set up.
YELLIN: Do you struggle with this policy?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. That's something that you have to struggle with. Our most powerful tool over the long-term to reduce the terrorist threat is to live up to our values.
And to be able to shape public opinion not just here but around the world that senseless violence is not a way to resolve political differences.
And so it's very important for the president and to the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about, are we doing the right thing?
Are we abiding by rule of law? Are we abiding by due process? And then set up structures and institutional checks so that, you know, you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we're not being true to who we are.
YELLIN: Now, some human rights advocates say this practice amounts to targeted assassination. They especially take issue with the fact that a drone strike killed Yemen cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was a U.S. citizen.
You can hear how the president explains the rationale targeting a U.S. citizen when "Obama Revealed," the documentary re-airs this Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
BLITZER: Excellent documentary. It wasn't just Anwar Al-Awlaki who was killed in one of these drones. His 16-year-old son who was also an American -- he was killed as well. So that obviously weighs heavily on the minds of the president.
YELLIN: That's right. Two American citizens killed in Yemen in two drone strikes and the president says there is a rationale for it. He did not say he especially struggles with that anymore than with any other drone strike, but he explains why U.S. citizens can be killed.
BLITZER: Because sometimes some of the human rights activists complain that they're being killed without due process, if you will.
YELLIN: Right. That is true of all these people who end up getting targeted. That's the criticism these human rights advocates level.
BLITZER: Good work.
YELLIN: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jessica Yellin.
CNN's Nic Robertson also doing good work. He spoke exclusively with the brother of the top man in al Qaeda and he says there is a path to reconciliation and peace. But will any western leader ever agree to the terms?
BLITZER: Here's a look at a special edition of "Hot Shots" on this the anniversary of September 11, 2001 attacks. In New York, a soldier becomes emotional by the south pool of the World Trade Center site.
In Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta bows his head during a memorial service for victims aboard Flight 93. Here in Washington, the president and the first lady pause on the White House lawn for a moment of silence.
And in Chicago, Mitt Romney shakes the hands of firefighters and first responders. Pictures coming in from around the country. Jack's back with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Totally different subject courtesy of the cover story in this week's "Newsweek" magazine. The question this hour, is college worth it?
Susie writes, "In 1979 as an uneducated single mother of four, I went to a free two-year college and became a nurse. I supported my family. All my children got university degrees eventually. I make a decent living because registered nurses are always in demand, but my children and their friends struggle because the degrees they got don't necessarily translate to skills they can use in the real world."
Angel writes, "Yes and no. Some institutions of higher learning will lower their standards in order to accept students knowing that the system will eventually weed them out. Those kids end up in debt and without a degree. Meanwhile, the institutions profit from the unrealized dreams of those students."
Joe in Missouri writes, "College is worth it if you go at it in a practical way. Students have to choose marketable majors, do all possible to hold down costs. College was worth it for my wife and me and it's been worth it for our son and his wife too."
Christian on Facebook, "I've worked since I was 15. I went to college in order to better my chances for a better future. I got a bachelor's degree and a mountain of debt. Sure, college is important. But eight months after graduation and still no job, it may not have been worth it."
And Lou writes, "The first time I ever spoke to a person from another race was when I left my small town in Iowa and headed to Iowa State University. I took classes there from professors who had written books, traveled the world and made new discoveries and put more emphasis on thinking than the road memorization of high school. The whole college experience made me a better person. College is definitely worth it, but some degrees are more marketable than others."
If you want to read more on this topic, go to the blog on cnn.com/caffertyfile or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks, Jack. An important story we're following right now, just developing, warning shots are fired as protesters storm the United States Embassy in Cairo and pull down and burn the American flag.
In our next hour, we'll have live coverage, a live report on what sparked the anti-American anger.
Also, the brother of an al Qaeda leader is speaking out exclusively to CNN. What he's now offering to the west.
BLITZER: On this 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the brother of al Qaeda's top leader is now speaking out. Mohamed Al Zawahiri has been in prison on terrorism charges for years.
But now he is out and as CNN's Nic Robertson reports exclusively, he has a message for the west.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If the man next to me looks familiar, it's because he is. He is the brother of al Qaeda leader. We're meeting Mohamed Al Zawahiri because he says he has a plan to end al Qaeda's jihad against the west.
I only speak as a mediator for the Islamic movement. I don't represent certain groups. My role is a mediator between the west and them, he says. Our people like death the same way others like life. But we don't want to get into this endless cycle of violence. We like for others and us to live peacefully.
Mohamed Al Zawahiri was released from Egyptian jail barely five months ago after serving 14 years on charges including terrorism, charges he denies. Before jail he and his brother were fellow jihadists, still share the same ideology he says.
There is no difference between my brother's thinking and mine. The portrayal of my brother's ideologies and mine that it's bloodthirsty, barbaric or terrorist is not true at all, he says. His six-page proposal offers a 10-year truce if U.S. and west stop interfering in Muslim lands. U.S. to stop interfering in Muslim education, U.S. ends the war on Islam and the U.S. to release all Islamist prisoners.
It also calls on Islamists to stop attacks on western and U.S. interests, protect legitimate western and U.S. interests in Muslim lands, and stop provoking the U.S. and the west. It is similar to a proposal Bin Laden made in 2004.
(on camera): Then came the attack in London in 2005. Is your proposal like this if it isn't accepted then there's more attacks? I am sorry to say those who caused the London attacks were the west because the oppression was continuous.
Either stop the oppression or accept reconciliation, he says. You have to be logical if you want to live in peace, then you must make others feel that they will live in peace.
(voice-over): To make his point, he leads me to a protest outside the U.S. Embassy. The so-called blind sheikh jailed for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center attack in New York. We meet his son.
(on camera): And when you call for prisoners to be released as part of your document, you're talking about Sheik Abdul Rakhman.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course.
ROBERTSON: The first one. If Sheik Abdul Rakhman is released, this can help improve the relationship. How does that work? Why does it change people's minds?
Because, he explains, it reduces the impression of U.S. arrogance. Zawahiri denies he is in contact with his brother, but says he could be if the U.S. allows it.
Do you think it's realistic that the United States would release somebody like the man accused of master minding September 11th?
(voice-over): As you see, his hand is stained in blood of the Americans, he says. We also see the hands of American leaders and soldiers stained in the blood of the Muslims.
Those imprisoned with the Islamic movement would also be released. We want to turn a page and forget the past. Zawarihi has faith his brother wants to turn the page too, but it wouldn't be the first time the terms were unimaginable for western leaders. Nic Robertson, CNN, Cairo, Egypt.
BLITZER: A $25 million reward is still on the offering table from the State Department for the capture or conviction of Iman Al-Zawahiri.