Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer

Hastert Discusses Republican Agenda; McConnell, Lieberman Debate Bush's Proposed Budget; How Safe is America From Terrorism?

Aired May 13, 2001 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington; 11:00 a.m. in Oklahoma City; 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles and 5:00 p.m. in London. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for this two-hour LATE EDITION.

We'll get to our interview with the U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert shortly, but first the hour's top stories.


BLITZER: And later on LATE EDITION, we'll hear from both sides of the McVeigh case. I'll talk live with McVeigh defense attorney Robert Nigh and with former federal prosecutor Beth Wilkinson.

For his part, President Bush is standing by the Justice Department's decision to delay the McVeigh execution.

BLITZER: He's also pushing Congress to approve one of his key domestic proposals, a sweeping across-the-board tax cut before Memorial Day.

CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace joins us now live with details.


BLITZER: Joining us now from New York to talk about tax cuts, the president's budget, energy issues and a lot more is the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, the House speaker, Dennis Hastert.

Mr. Speaker, good to have you back on LATE EDITION. Thanks for joining us.

And I want your immediate reaction to the FBI's admission that it has mishandled those thousands of pages of documents, resulting in the delay in the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Should the U.S. Congress investigate what's going on inside the FBI right now?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-IL), HOUSE SPEAKER: Well, I think, first of all, we need to make sure that the FBI is operating as it should. We can't tolerate big mistakes, especially if it has an influence on the outcome of justice, as it may in this case, a very, very important landmark case.

So, we're going to look at it, but right now we need to make sure that we have that period of time to make sure that whatever the FBI has done or hasn't done doesn't influence the outcome of the McVeigh case itself.

BLITZER: How disturbed are you about this latest development?

HASTERT: Well, you know, everything that we do depends on a rule of law, and the various law enforcement functions, investigative functions support that. And we can't have a breakdown in that system. It just is underpinnings of our government. And we need to make sure that that agency and other agencies operate as they should.

BLITZER: Some have suggested that there may be a problem, a cultural problem within the FBI, that they were apparently running amok, at least some suggest that they were behaving as if they were cowboys out there, could do almost anything they wanted. Have you come to that conclusion?

HASTERT: We don't know yet. We don't know what the facts are, and that's why we need to look at what evidence comes forward, what investigations come forward and weigh it at that time.

BLITZER: Let's move on and talk about tax cuts, the budget. The Senate this past week followed the House of Representatives and approved a $1.35 trillion across-the-board tax cut over the next 11 years -- basically, largely what President Bush wanted.

BLITZER: But now the details have to come forward. In the Senate, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Grassley, says the top rate should go down from 39.6 percent, right now, down to 36 percent, as opposed to 33 percent which is what President Bush wants.

Do you think that is a more reasonable request right now, proposal by Senator Grassley?

HASTERT: Well, actually, that is exactly what the House passed, 33 percent. So we have a difference between the House mark and the Senate mark. That happens all the time, and we'll go to conference.

But I think what we have to focus on, now, what I call the three E's: the economy, education and energy. And that's what we are focused on in the Congress.

So, the economy we have done three things. We passed the budget this week, and basically it said that we need to pay down the debt in eight years, and we're going to do that, all available debt. We're going to actually lay out a spending agenda which is right for the American people. And then what's left over, we need to make sure it goes back into the pockets of the American people that made it.

And there is going to be some discussions. We got a marriage penalty, inheritance tax issues, pension increases so people can invest more in pensions. All types of schematics will be part of that tax bill. We just need to make sure that the pieces of puzzle fit together.

And the rate decreases across the board that the president has asked for is a very central piece of that, and that certainly will be a focus of the discussions when we go to conference.

BLITZER: Mr. Speaker, the Democratic leader in Senate, Tom Daschle, says this budget is basically a disaster. I want you to listen to what he said this past week after the Senate went ahead and voted in favor of the budget. Listen to this.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: I think this is a nuclear bomb for fiscal discipline in this country. You are going to -- I think the country will woe to day that this actually passed, and we are very concerned about its implications.


BLITZER: The main concern he and many other Democrats express, and a few Republicans, is it's weighed very heavily, the tax cuts, in favor of the wealthy at expense of the middle class and poor.

HASTERT: Well, you know, there are some in Congress that don't want to see tax cuts, that they would like to see increases in spending. That's just a fact of where people come from, what their philosophical view is.

I've heard a lot of rhetoric, but when we really look at dollars and cents, it's a very small percentage of the surplus that actually goes back through the tax cuts into the American people's pocket.

At this time, we need to stimulate this economy. We need to have things flowing back so that the American people can decide how they are going to spend their money instead of the bureaucrats in Washington.

So, I think that statement was misguided at best, and what we need to do is move forward on this. What we are doing is paying down debt. As of September of this year, we will have paid down $650 billion of public debt. We pay $2.4 trillion of public debt down in the next eight years. That's pretty spectacular, as opposed to what the actions of Congress have been for the last 40 years when Mr. Daschle's party were in charge.

BLITZER: On the issue of energy, which you say is one of the key issues, of course, facing the country. The governor of California you heard earlier suggest that what California needs right now are some price controls because the cost of energy is skyrocketing out there.

Should the federal government step in and help California, one- sixth of the U.S. economy right now, and deal with this emergency that they face?

HASTERT: Yes, I think the United States government needs to step in and help. We need to do it on a national basis because California isn't the only problem out there, although California has made no increase in generation, electric generation in this case, over the last 10 years.

They haven't built one power plant of any type. They've had a 24 percent increase in population, 7 percent increase in use. So somebody's been negligent over that period of time.

What we need to do is -- there's no really quick fixes to this. I think that there is some hydro-energy that we can redirect to California. There's some things to help them ease over this crucial area this summer.

But I don't think you need to change the economy and how the electric energy system works. What we need to do is start to find those systems that California and other areas can become more energy independent on themselves. They can build gas peaker (ph) plants. They can do some things with co-generation of electricity. In other words, every time you create heat, you can create energy at the same time.

So those are things that we have to look at. That's not done in a month or two, but can be done over a year or two years' time.

BLITZER: Well, what about the specific request, proposal, from Governor Davis for price controls to deal with the immediate problems people in California face?

HASTERT: Well, you know, even a freshman in college who is studying economics knows that if you cap the cost of being able to recoup your investment that people who want to invest aren't going to do it. I think that's a bad remedy for a very, very severe problem.

BLITZER: Is the fact that oil companies right now are achieving almost record profit levels at a time that gasoline prices are going up per gallon -- in Illinois, in the Chicago area, already, well above $2 a gallon in some areas, your home state of Illinois -- at a time when the oil companies are making record profits. Isn't this a potential political problem for this Bush administration, given the links it has to the oil industry?

HASTERT: Well, first of all, I think we look at the integrity of the Bush administration, of George W. Bush and of Dick Cheney. I think the American people elected them because of their integrity, and I think that takes care of that issue and their links to oil industry.

What we have to look at in Illinois specifically is an EPA that has designed what we call boutique formulas for gasoline, 11 of them in the Midwest alone, where you can't move that gasoline, that you can't produce it, refine it, and it's very problematic. We need to take those blends, give a greater interchange and get away with some of the regulation. The regulation has driven the price increases in the Midwest.

BLITZER: You voted this past week, Mr. Speaker, to cut U.S. dues, the U.S. funding of the United Nations, because the United States was kicked off the UN Human Rights Commission. You know, on this issue you disagree with the president and the Secretary of State Colin Powell, they want that funding to go forward despite this embarrassment.

HASTERT: Well, you know, we feel very strongly, and we've been in this argument for a number of years. What we want, just like any other constituent in the United States wants responsible representation from its government, we want responsible actions from the UN. And when we got kicked off not just of the Human Rights Commission but also the International Drug Commission, where we have tried to lead the way in stopping people from exporting drugs into this country, where we've lost 40,000 young people either to drugs or drug violence in this country, and all of a sudden we have a door slammed in our face in the UN, not only on human rights but also stopping drugs coming into this country, that's unacceptable.

And we need to send a message to the UN. When you look at Sudan and China and Libya and other countries that are on that Human Rights Commission, that's just unacceptable to the American people.

BLITZER: Mr. Speaker, unfortunately we have to leave it right there. I want to thank you very much for joining us on LATE EDITION.

HASTERT: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And still to come, I'll speak live with Timothy McVeigh's defense attorney, Robert Nigh, and former McVeigh prosecutor Beth Wilkinson.

But up next, President Bush's proposals have had a relatively smooth time in the House, but the situation is much more complicated in the Senate, given the 50-50 split. Will his agenda get a green light? We'll get the view of two leading senators, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Joe Lieberman.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.



SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: Is this budget a perfect document? Of course not. But does it advance the cause of governing in a democracy that is almost evenly divided among the two parties? I think the answer is, yes, it does.


BLITZER: Moderate Democratic Senator John Breaux speaking this past week during a floor debate on President Bush's proposed budget.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Joining us now are two of Senator Breaux's colleagues: In New York, Connecticut Democratic Senator and former vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, and here in Washington, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Senators, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

I want to begin, Senator Lieberman, with your reaction to the way the FBI has mishandled the evidence in the Timothy McVeigh case. You're an attorney. This is a serious embarrassment for the FBI, isn't it?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Yes, it's an embarrassment, and of course it's a terrible source of frustration for people who've already been through such torture, which is the survivors of those who were killed in Oklahoma City who were hoping for closure this week. So it's unfortunate.

I know there will be a lot of investigations. I think the important thing to point out is that these lost documents were not discovered as a result of any outside investigation. Perhaps it's faint praise, but they were discovered as part of an archivist's last review of all documents within the FBI. This was found by the FBI and immediately disclosed.

So, it was bad, and it shouldn't have happened, and I hope that it does not delay justice in this case, which is to execute Timothy McVeigh as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: And I know that you're a supporter of capital punishment, of the death penalty.


BLITZER: But specifically, is there a role for the Senate right now, in looking into this mishandling of those documents?

LIEBERMAN: I think the only role would be if -- and it has to be a very delicately done exercise of this role -- would be for some subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee to investigate what happened here within the FBI and whether there's anything that we should be doing to make sure this never happens again.

The FBI handles a lot, millions and millions documents, but they've got a computer system. If the computer system or the people running it are not adequate to the job, we ought to make changes. But I don't think that the Congress and the Senate ought to get into the business of being the FBI. We want the best FBI we can have, and we've got a pretty good one right now, but they made a mistake in this case.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, it's not just this one mistake, though, that is troubling to a lot of people who watch the FBI closely. A series of mistakes: the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, the Ruby Ridge. The whole matter of the FBI's involvement in a wide range of issues is suggesting to many that there has to be a rethinking of the whole culture of what happens inside the FBI.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: Well, certainly, it was an embarrassing incident, but, as Joe pointed out, the FBI itself revealed the embarrassment, which is in my estimation a sign of a still basically healthy institution that's willing to come forward with a mistake, even an embarrassing mistake, in close proximity to what is going to be the best-known execution, probably, in history of the country.

We are in the process, the president's in the process of finding a new FBI director. I happen to think Louis Freeh's done an excellent job, but there have been some incidences. And this is a good time, when you're changing directors, to maybe take a whole new look at the agency. But it's still a great investigatory agency. I don't think I'd want to trade it for any other one in the world.

BLITZER: But apparently there's some people within the FBI, in the field offices, once they began looking through this archival material, began to realize months ago that not everything had been handed over during the discovery phase to the defense attorneys, as was supposed to be the case, and only in recent days did they come forward and alert the director of the FBI, the attorney general, and in turn the president of the United States, that there was a serious problem here.

Isn't that worthy of some investigation of what happened there?

MCCONNELL: Well, there may be some investigation, but, first, it's important to find out whether this information in fact compromises this particular case. All indications are that it will not.

We have here a defendant who has admitted to the killing, proudly admitted to the killing. So I think we shouldn't lose track of the fact that the idea behind the justice system is to have justice, and here we have a killer who admitted proudly that he did it. And I think, whether it was May 15 or a month later or two months later, he's going to receive his punishment.

BLITZER: You heard, Senator Lieberman, the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, say that this budget that has now passed the House and the Senate, leaves plenty money left over, not only for cutting the national debt, but for all the spending that the federal government needs.

I know you strongly disagree. But there are several Democrats who are ready to work to come up with a specific formula for spreading out the $1.35 trillion tax cut, including Senator Baucus of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee.

It looks like all of these tax cuts now -- the specifics are going to be worked out, but it's a done deal. Is it?

LIEBERMAN: Well, it's certainly heading in that direction, but that doesn't mean that those of us who don't agree with it have to accept it, because we think it's bad for the country.

MCCONNELL: $1.35 trillion.

LIEBERMAN: Let me step back, Wolf. We're in an unprecedented situation here. Because of the tremendous work that everybody in the country did over the last several years, we've got a surplus the size which of we have never had before.

And the question is, can we use it responsibly? I think President Bush, and now the Bush budget resolution that passed, uses it irresponsibly. Because it spends not just $1.35 billion, but if you add on the interest costs that you have to and the alternative minimum tax, et cetera, et cetera, you get close to almost $2 trillion, which is about two-thirds of the available surplus spent on a tax plan that goes mostly to those who need it least; and leaves very little to invest in education, Medicare Social Security, national defense; and spends none of $2.7 trillion estimated surplus on actually paying down the debt.

So, I don't agree with this. I think we're wasting what we have earned. And I really believe it is going to take America back into annual deficits, raise interest rates and raise unemployment. It is a fiscally irresponsible tax plan.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, I know you strongly disagree with your friend Joe Lieberman.

MCCONNELL: Yes, Joe is my friend, but he knows the tax burden in America is at highest point since 1944 when we were fighting World War II. We are awash in a sea of surpluses, at minimum, $5.6 trillion, over the next 10 years.

What the president is suggesting here, with a support of the ranking Democrat of the Finance Committee, is that we return some of these income taxes to the taxpayers of America. An income tax cut, obviously, is for people who pay income taxes, as many Americans do not pay income taxes.

This is designed to provide some relief for a heavily burdened, productive portion of our society. And many of those who will benefit from the lowering of the highest rate are small businesses who operate in an unincorporated fashion.

We believe this will generate a lot of jobs. We're going to get new money back into pockets of the American people and help jump-start the economy.

BLITZER: Senator Lieberman, there were five Democrats who voted for the budget, went along with the Republicans, almost all of the Republicans. A couple Republicans didn't support it.

One of the Democrats was Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, and in explaining why he supported this huge tax cut, he said this. Listen to what he said. He said, "I am not going to switch to the Republican Party, but neither am I going to march in lock step with some of these Democratic senators up here blindly off a cliff, and that's where sometimes they try to lead me."

Sounds like he is not very happy with you and some of your Democratic colleagues. LIEBERMAN: Well I got to tell you, I admire Zell Miller's independence and his feistiness. I've been there on a few occasions in the past with my party. That is what makes American politics strong. I just respectfully disagree with him here.

We are for a tax cut. I would love to see the taxes dropped on working Americans, on middle-class families. I don't think folks at the top should get as much of this tax cut as President Bush, and now the Republicans in Congress, want to give them.

And we could actually work this out. You know, we're for $900 billion in tax cuts over the next decade. Some to individuals, some to businesses, some to help middle-class families, for instance, send their kids to college by deducting up to $10,000 a year on the cost of a college education.

So the question is not whether tax cuts, but how much and who they go to. And are we going to leave some over, as the Bush budget does not at all, for education. In fact, the resolution we passed last week cuts education spending over the next period of time.

I don't know where the president's going to get the money for the defense increases he supports, most of which I support myself, after he spends all this money on the tax plan.

BLITZER: All right. Senator McConnell, Senator Lieberman, unfortunately we have to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

And still to come later in the program, I'll talk live with Timothy McVeigh's attorney, Robert Nigh, and with the former McVeigh prosecutor, Beth Wilkinson.

But when we return, we'll continue our conversation with Senators Mitch McConnell and Joe Lieberman. They'll also be taking your phone calls.

LATE EDITION will be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.

Senator McConnell, President Bush caused a stir this past week when he suggested that the best way to deal with the high price of gasoline, energy costs in general, was to get this tax cut through.

But as you well know, some people who pay a very small amount of taxes or no taxes at all at the lower levels, they're still going to have to pay $2 a gallon for gasoline or even more. They're not going to get any breaks from the government because their tax bills are very little if anything.

MCCONNELL: Well, there are a whole lot of reasons to justify the tax cut the president's been advocating. He just made another argument that, in a time rising energy costs, this will help a vast number of Americans meet those higher costs.

He's also been careful to point out that there's no quick fix here. I mean, there's no immediate way to solve this problem, but some more money in the pockets of the American taxpayer certainly will help and get us past this crisis.

BLITZER: Well, that's the point Senator Lieberman that the president makes and now Senator McConnell makes, that with this tax cut, the $300, the $600 for a married couple, that the lowest levels are going to be receiving in the immediate short term, that's going to help pay the gasoline bills.

LIEBERMAN: Yes, I've got to tell you, Wolf, when I heard the president -- I mean, to say that the tax plan is the answer to the sky rocketing gas and electricity and natural gas prices, I mean, it's a little like saying that the tax plan is the answer to, you know, a mugging in the street. I mean, because the person who got mugged had money taken away from them will get a little more money in the tax plan. Obviously we want to arrest the mugger, we want to stop muggings. And the tax plan is totally separate.

And just to continue this metaphor, the fact is that energy consumers, individuals and businesses, are being mugged right now in energy prices -- gasoline, natural gas and electricity in California.

And there are some things that can be done in the short term. The president's going to come out with the energy plan this week, but that will sketch what we should do 10 or 20 years from now.

Today, the president can ask the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to investigate the prices that are outrageous and, particularly, the discontinuity between the record profits of the oil companies. I looked over the weekend, the top three oil companies in America made more than $10 billion in profits in the first three months of this year. Profits, not gross revenue, while the price was going up.

You know, the president ought to call in his former colleagues from the oil industry, sit them down at the table, and say, "Look, this is wrong. Draw a line somewhere. We don't want to have to legislate here, but if you don't charge more reasonable prices, we're going to have to put some kind of price control on." I think that's a first step.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell?

MCCONNELL: Well, Joe, I mean it's great fun to bash the oil companies, and have at it. And if -- you know, I don't mind looking at their profits, and if they're outrageous, the president has the option of trying to jaw bone them down.

The point is, we're in this crisis because there was literally no energy policy at all for the last eight years. California's not been building any power plants. We don't have new transmission lines. And conservation is an important part of all of this, but you can't conserve your way out of this problem. We have a growing population, growing needs for energy. And what the president and the vice president going to do is lay out this week an energy plan -- which I hope you'll support, Joe -- which will provide an opportunity for greater production, because that's the only way we're going to solve this problem. We can't go any longer without a national energy plan.

BLITZER: On that point, Senator Lieberman, a lot of Republicans make the point, and some Democrats privately agree, that during the eight years of the Democrat's controlling the executive branch, the White House, President Clinton's administration, U.S. dependence on OPEC oil did not go down, and there were no major nuclear power plants or energy plants or oil pipelines or oil refineries that were really built to deal with the growing appetite of Americans for energy.

LIEBERMAN: Wolf, part of this was for a good reason, which is that we had a strong economy, and individuals in businesses were using more energy and, frankly, not conserving enough. Part of the problem was that the oil industry itself didn't build refineries, and we're behind in our refinery capacity and everybody agrees we've got to get together and build them as quickly as possible.

A long-term energy plan cannot focus on drilling or conservation or new technologies alone. It's got to have all three together. And, you know, to hear Mitch talk about -- we're not going to drill our way out of this problem, because we don't have enough energy within our jurisdiction to do that without destroying our environment. We're not -- we shouldn't drill in the Arctic refuge or in national parks to get oil, but we can find other places to do it.

In fact, energy production in the U.S. on federal lands went up significantly during the last eight years, so that argument is not right. This requires balance, and let's not demean conservation. It's a good old American value of doing things we need to do more efficiently, and it doesn't have to change our lifestyle. We just have to use some of the smarts and thrift that we used to use in this country to get ourselves moving forward.

BLITZER: Senator McConnell, there is another issue that's before the Senate right now, these judicial nominees that the president is putting forward. He put 11 forward this past week. Most of them seem to be not very controversial, but others will be controversial.

As you know, in the past, there was a gentleman's agreement, if you will, among the senators, that if one of the senators from the home state of a nominee didn't want that nomination to go forward, there wouldn't even be hearings. That's causing some reconsideration right now.

Listen to what Senator Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat, had to say on this sensitive issue this past week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: The president after all is the one that nominates the person. But they can, as a practical matter, especially in the divided Senate, they can stop somebody going forward.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: The president has the right to select these judges and we have a right to advise and consent. But that advice and consent comes through voting.


BLITZER: Senator Hatch seems to be changing the rules of the game right now with a Republican in the White House.

MCCONNELL: No, he's not. This is my 17th year in the Senate. I know what the rules have been. It's never been possible during any of those 17 years, no matter who was in White House and no matter who controlled the Senate, for one single senator to stop a nomination. That's never been the case.

Republicans controlled the Senate in six of the eight years of the Clinton administration. 377 judges were approved. In my own case, 3 Democrats in my state were approved. Had I known there was some policy that I might have been able to stop those, I might well have done it. That's never been the policy.

Even The Washington Post and David Broder, not known as a conservative columnist, have pointed out in today's paper that the Democrats are simply heading down the wrong path here.

BLITZER: Well, let me point that out to Senator Lieberman. The Washington Post, in that editorial -- we'll put it up on our screen, Senator Lieberman -- said today, "It was wrong for Republican senators to hold up qualified Clinton nominees, and it's no more right now for Democrats to contemplate similar tactics."

Are you contemplating that tactic?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I hope not. I mean, look, my recollection of the last eight years is that several nominees of President Clinton's for the federal bench were held up. I heard one of my Democratic colleagues say this week at a meeting I was at that 40 percent of President Clinton's nominees for the federal circuit courts were stopped because of Republican opposition.

You know, I think the main point here -- we're having a flurry over these issues, over procedure. But the real point behind this is what kind of judicial nominees is President Bush going to send to Congress and put on the bench? And the fear is, when the president excluded the American Bar Association from the purely advisory role it had reviewing nominees for federal court -- and the ABA is not exactly a left-wing organization -- that got people nervous.

And so, I think the best way to have this go forward is to have President Bush give us qualified, independent and non-extreme judges for the courts, and then there won't be any problem. BLITZER: All right. Senator Lieberman, you had first word.

Senator McConnell, very briefly, you're going to have "Last Word."

MCCONNELL: OK. Just about ABA, Wolf. The ABA was given the right 40 years ago to, in effect, veto nominees to judiciary before the president could even nominate them. It'd be like a defense contractor having a right to pick the secretary of defense. All the Bush administration said is the ABA needs to come up before the Judiciary Committee in public and give their opinion about nominees, and they'll be given that opportunity.

BLITZER: Senator Mitch McConnell, Senator Joe Lieberman, always good to have both of you on our program. Thank you very much.

LIEBERMAN: Good to be here, Wolf.

MCCONNELL: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And up next, the Oklahoma City bombing. With Timothy McVeigh just six days away from being executed for the crime, a startling admission by the government buys the condemned killer another month of life and perhaps even longer. What does the FBI's mistake mean for the case? We'll ask McVeigh's defense attorney, Robert Nigh, when LATE EDITION continues.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He should say he's lucky to be in America, that's what he ought to say, that this is a country who will bend over backwards to make sure that his constitutional rights are guaranteed.


BLITZER: President Bush commenting on the Justice Department's decision Friday to delay the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh because the FBI failed to turn over thousands of documents to attorneys during McVeigh's trial.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Joining us now from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is one of the lawyers for Timothy McVeigh, Robert Nigh.

Mr. Nigh, welcome to LATE EDITION. Thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: I know you've been very busy these past few days. Attorney General John Ashcroft telephoned a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman Friday night. This morning's newspaper reports that the attorney general said this: "We feel that ample time has been provided, and I have no intention of further extending this deadline," the deadline being June 11, when he says Timothy McVeigh, your client, will be executed.

Does that sound reasonable to you?

NIGH: Well, right now Mr. McVeigh has two court-appointed lawyers, myself and Nathan Chambers. And five days before Mr. McVeigh's scheduled education we were provided with 3,150 pages of additional documents that should have been turned over prior to trial. To say that that gives us a reasonable amount of time to conduct a meaningful analysis of this, I think, begs the question.

BLITZER: The Justice Department says these documents really are just the same old stuff, more of the same that -- the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of documents you already received during the trial, that none of this information is really significant.

NIGH: Well, I have yet to hear that from somebody who has examined each of the documents. I have yet to hear one person speak that has conducted a complete analysis of the evidence contained within the documents in the context of the evidence presented at trial. And until that is done, no one can say that it's meaningless.

BLITZER: So are you suggesting that you're going to need more than 30 days to review these documents?

NIGH: It's certainly possible. I mean, we have to begin the process, the grinding process of taking them one at a time and analyzing the information contained within each of the documents. And then we have to compare it to the full context of the evidence that was available before the time of the trial and that was presented in the trial itself.

BLITZER: You spent five hours with Timothy McVeigh on Friday, in Terre Haute, Indiana, at the federal penitentiary where he's awaiting his execution. Did he give you reason to believe that he's changed his mind about wanting to avoid any further appeals and just get it over with?

NIGH: Well, he gave me the definite impression that he's at least willing to keep an open mind for the time being.

When he had made his decision to forgo further appeals, the case had been decided against him by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and the Supreme Court. But those decisions were made before it was clear that the FBI had withheld evidence. And in light of that disclosure, it is only reasonable for him to reevaluate his position.

BLITZER: He, as you know, told the authors of the best-seller "American Terrorist" -- you've probably read the book carefully -- he told them that he did in fact commit this crime. He, among other things, said this, he said, "I bombed the Murrah Building. My decision to take human life at the Murrah Building, I did not do it for personal gain, I did it for the larger good."

So he's already confessed to this crime. What possible information in these new documents could there be to change that confession?

NIGH: You have to examine this case in the context of the evidence at trial. In 1997, when Mr. McVeigh was tried, there was no information concerning any book or information concerning statements that Mr. McVeigh may have made to persons outside the courtroom. In light of that, you have to evaluate this case concerning the evidence, and the record that was presented in this case.

BLITZER: The evidence that apparently is on these 3,000 or so pages that you've now received, some of that evidence deals with what they used to call a "John Doe Number Two," another potential conspirator or defendant who was never found. Do you have any reason to believe that there is such a person out there who's still at large?

NIGH: My answer to that question would have to be based upon my review of the documents themselves and also my conversations with my client, which of course would be confidential.

BLITZER: As you know, one of his former attorneys, Stephen Jones, has suggested that he does in fact believe that there is someone else out there, perhaps even more than one person.

NIGH: Well, from my perspective, for me to make that kind of comment upon either the evidence that I've seen in these new documents or the evidence that I have seen in connection with the case would be beyond the scope of my duty, and I'm not willing to do it.

BLITZER: Let me play for you what Stephen Jones said earlier this week, a quick excerpt from an interview he gave on this specific point involving so-called John Doe Number Two. Listen to this.


STEPHEN JONES, MCVEIGH ATTORNEY: Very clearly, John Doe Two was the most embarrassing thing for the government. And if this should turn out to be about John Doe Two, I think it is far from clear that the Oklahoma City bombing case has reached a conclusion in federal court.


BLITZER: And you remember there was a sketch that the police released of the so-called John Doe Number Two that never materialized.

The question is this: With this new evidence potentially out there, do you think there is a basis for a new trial or perhaps some reconsideration of the death penalty as opposed to life in prison for your client?

NIGH: Absolutely, those are possibilities, and quite frankly in this case, I would suggest to you that anything is possible. A week ago nobody would have expected that anything was going to happen other than Mr. McVeigh's execution on May 16. This revelation at literally the twelfth hour makes it clear that anything can happen and those things are quite possible.

BLITZER: Do you accept the FBI's assertion that this was just a simple, innocent mistake, that there was no deliberate decision to withhold this information from you?

NIGH: I won't accept anything until there's a complete review of the facts concerning how this could have happened, when the documents were discovered, and why it was that they were not produced to us until literally five days before Mr. McVeigh was to die. Until there is a complete exploration of those question and some very concrete answers to those questions, I'm not willing to accept anything.

BLITZER: As you also know, Michael Tigar, the attorney for Terry Nichols, the co-defendant in this case who's serving a life-in- prison sentence, is now asking for a review, or for an appeal of that decision based on this new information that has come forward.

Is there a legal basis for you to keep Mr. McVeigh alive while that appeal goes forward?

NIGH: There certainly could be, and that's one of the things that Mr. Chambers and I have to turn our attention to immediately is to analyze Mr. McVeigh's legal options and to present him with information concerning those options so that he can make an informed decision.

BLITZER: The other point that you made when you emerged from the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Friday was that Mr. McVeigh is now, I guess the word you used, was distressed because he had been prepared mentally himself for the execution, his family members had been prepared, and now all of that once again is up in the air.

A lot of the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing -- 168 people killed, many of them children -- are saying, "Who cares what Timothy McVeigh feels right now? He's a murderer and he should be executed." Why should anyone care what his feelings are right now? That's what they're asking themselves.

NIGH: Well, they should care about the process. Right now the process that convicted Mr. McVeigh and the process that allowed him to be sentenced to die is in serious question. The discovery agreement that the government signed off on, said it would be abide by, said that it would meticulously ensure it would honor, has not been honored. And all of us as Americans should be concerned about the process by which somebody might be put to death.

And I understand the distress. I don't understand it certainly from their perspective, because no one can. But all of us have to make sure that the entire system is legitimate.

BLITZER: OK, Robert Nigh, I want to thank you very much for joining us, taking some time out from what has been a very, very, busy period for you. Thank you very much.

NIGH: Thank you.

BLITZER: For our international viewers, World News is next.

For our North American audience, stay with us for the second hour of LATE EDITION. We'll get some perspective on the delay in the McVeigh execution from a former prosecutor in the case, Beth Wilkinson. And we'll also talk with two guests about domestic and global terrorism. How worried should Americans be?

Plus, our LATE EDITION roundtable and Bruce Morton's "Last Word." It's all ahead in the next hour of LATE EDITION.


BLITZER: This is the second hour of LATE EDITION, the last word in Sunday talk.


JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have made a decision to postpone the execution of Timothy McVeigh.


BLITZER: Death delayed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh after a last minute FBI revelation about undisclosed evidence. Does this mean justice will be denied? We'll talk to former McVeigh prosecutor, Beth Wilkinson.


COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: If we adopted a hunker- down attitude, behind our concrete and our barbed wire, the terrorists would have achieved a kind of victory.


BLITZER: The Senate conducts hearings on combating terrorism. Is there anything the U.S. can really do against an invisible enemy? We'll hear from former Ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism, Paul Bremer, and terrorism analyst, Brian Jenkins.

Plus our LATE EDITION roundtable: Steve Roberts, Susan Page and David Brooks. And Bruce Morton has the "Last Word" on Britain's lightning fast election cycle.

Welcome back. We'll speak with the former prosecutor in Timothy McVeigh case, Beth Wilkinson, in just a moment. But first, let's go to Donna Kelly in Atlanta for check of hour's top stories.


BLITZER: Joining us now is Beth Wilkinson. She was one of the prosecutors at the Timothy McVeigh trial, and she argued to the jury that McVeigh should receive the death penalty.

Thanks for joining us, Ms. Wilkinson. How is it possible for the FBI to have made this mistake?

BETH WILKINSON, FORMER MCVEIGH PROSECUTOR: Well, as you know, there were almost a billion documents that were retrieved during this investigation. Half of the FBI was assigned to investigate. Over 5,000 agents, field offices from around the country and around the world participated.

And as we started to turn documents over to the defense, we went back to FBI over and over again to ask them for documents, for them to retrieve them from all of those field offices.

My understanding is that some of these documents were not entered into the individual databases and unfortunately were not disclosed to us, the prosecution team, and therefore not turned over to defense.

BLITZER: You know that the defense attorneys and others are suggesting this was not necessarily an innocent mistake, that there is something in those documents, potentially, that could be embarrassing to the government's case. Specifically, as you heard from some like Stephen Jones, a former lawyer for Timothy McVeigh, involving the mysterious John Doe Number Two.

WILKINSON: Well, I can't imagine how anyone could say at this point it would it be purposeful. There is no benefit to FBI. We have already disclosed in excess of 30,000 witness statements to the defense, including sightings of alleged John Dow Two. We debunked that theory during pretrial trial and during the trial which showed how that misidentification had occurred.

And in many of these high profile cases when pictures go out to the world through the media, individual citizens believe they see people. Although wrong often, they report to it to the FBI. And that's what's happened here.

But there is no reason to believe -- there is no evidence to support there is a John Doe Two or any other co-conspirators except for Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols.

BLITZER: But potentially this is a huge mistake that could delay well beyond June 11 the execution of Timothy McVeigh.

WILKINSON: Well, I don't know if it will delay it beyond June 11. As I said, my understanding is that the documents contain the same type of information that we have already disclosed to the defense, sightings of John Dow Two, other call-ins from citizens. None of that information goes to Mr. McVeigh's guilt. Mr. McVeigh's guilt was proved by his participation. It was proved overwhelmingly at trial, and now has been corroborated by his own admissions.

BLITZER: You haven't actually personally seen these documents, though?

WILKINSON: I have not. I'm no longer in the government. I have talked to people who have reviewed them. I reviewed the letter from Mr. Connelly, who was part of our team, who did review the documents, and reports that they are not exculpatory. In other words, they are not going to show that Mr. McVeigh was not guilty of the crime.

BLITZER: But if you were one of the defense attorneys -- and I know it's hard for you to put that hat on -- but if you were, and you were adamantly opposed as a matter of principle to capital punishment, the death penalty, you'd be jumping for joy right now, saying, "This gives me an opportunity to prevent this execution from going forward."

WILKINSON: I understand why the defense attorneys are making the representations they are, but you also have to listen for what they're not saying. They did not tell you during your interview, or I have not heard anywhere else, where they said there's anything in this information that will be useful.

They say they're waiting and they're reviewing the documents. They've had the documents since Thursday. I believe that, if there was something there that was really compelling that could help Mr. McVeigh save his life, they would have a responsibility to come forward and discuss it. I know that they're good lawyers and they'll do so if there's anything in there that will help Mr. McVeigh.

BLITZER: Michael Tigar, the attorney for Terry Nichols, the other co-defendant serving a life sentence, has already filed an appeal, saying that his case should be reopened as a result of these documents.

WILKINSON: I can't imagine how Mr. Tigar will have any more success than he's had. He's been turned down on appeal at every level already, he's made these same arguments before. He even presented evidence of John Doe Two sightings during the trial, and it still didn't make a difference. Mr. Nichols was convicted and given a life sentence.

BLITZER: The issue of the culture of the FBI, you, as a U.S. prosecutor, a federal prosecutor, had to deal with the FBI, in this case, in other cases. Is there a problem within the FBI right now that resulted in this mistake?

WILKINSON: I don't believe this is based on a problem with the FBI. The agents that I worked with on this case gave up their lives really to work on the case for three years. People left their families to come to Oklahoma City, and then, when we were moved to Denver, they were tireless advocates for doing the right thing.

We never had a problem with the agents turning over information. In fact, they agreed with us to in turn agree with the defense, that we would turn over everything, even things that were irrelevant. Every single witness statement that was collected, that we had in our possession we turned over.

So I don't think this was a result of a problem with the FBI. I'm concerned that their record-keeping system may not be adequate, and I'm sure that Director Freeh and others will address that. BLITZER: The New York Times in an editorial yesterday said that the issues involved in this issue right now go well beyond Timothy McVeigh.

Listen to what the New York Times editorial writers wrote. They said this: "People have been executed because of inadequate legal representation, corrupt or inaccurate scientific evidence, faulty eyewitness testimony and racial prejudice. Now there is the added danger to worry about defendants being sentenced while evidence relevant to their cases sits unreviewed in government files."

Which suggests that the Justice Department obviously did the right thing in delaying this execution.

WILKINSON: Absolutely. And no one would want to participate in a process where they thought the defendant didn't get a fair trial. Whether you work for the government or you're defending an individual, our entire system depends on a defendant getting a right of fair trial and being innocent until proven guilty.

But in this case, Mr. McVeigh had an extraordinary defense team. He had 15 lawyers. His defense cost almost $15 million dollars to the American taxpayers, and I have no doubt in my mind that he had a fair trial with an impartial judge and 12 jurors who decided that he was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, and decided that, because of that, the sentence of death was appropriate.

BLITZER: And just to button down that one issue out there on John Doe Number Two, there are plenty of people out there who believe that Timothy McVeigh is still trying to protect someone or some others out there.

Is there, in your knowledge, any evidence at all to suggest that he's withholding information at this late date to protect someone?


And you know, we had access to a lot of information that I think the American public is not familiar with. The best example is the phone card that Mr. Nichols and Mr. McVeigh used to make all their conspiratorial calls. They called to find fuel oil and pumps and all the different things they used to build the bomb. And the FBI was able to track those calls, and there were no calls to other co- conspirators and other individuals involved.

And if there had been, Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols would have used that card. They never believed the government would discover it. They used a false name when they made those telephone calls and used that debit card.

So there's really no concrete or credible evidence to suggest that there were other co-conspirators.

BLITZER: If you were looking ahead to June 11, the date he's now scheduled to be executed, do you think that day will come and go without Timothy McVeigh's being executed? WILKINSON: It's hard to say right now, because I don't know what the defense attorneys are going to do, whether they're going to file a motion with the Tenth Circuit, or whether they'll file a motion with Judge Matsch, and whether they would at least grant a limited stay for the review of the motion. But from what I know of the documents, I think would it be very unlikely that the execution would be further delayed past June 11.

BLITZER: Beth Wilkinson, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And when we return, domestic and global terrorism. With incidents like the bombing in Oklahoma City and of the USS Cole and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are Americans being targeted? We'll hear from two guests with special insight, former U.S. ambassador Paul Bremer and terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.



ASHCROFT: Americans comprise only about 5 percent of the world's population. However, according to our State Department statistics, during the decade of the '90s, 36 percent of all worldwide terrorist acts were directed against U.S. interests.


BLITZER: Attorney General John Ashcroft testifying this past week at a Senate hearing on terrorism.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We're joined now by two guests who are well versed on this issue of terrorism. Paul Bremer is a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism, served in the Reagan administration. And joining us from Los Angeles, Brian Jenkins. He's a terrorism analyst and an adviser to the RAND Corporation, a public policy organization.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

And Ambassador Bremer, I'll start off with you. What is a bigger threat to Americans right now, domestic, home-grown terrorism a la what happened in Oklahoma City, or international global terrorism?

PAUL BREMER, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT AMBASSADOR-AT-LARGE FOR COUNTER-TERRORISM: Well, I think, first of all, this distinction which is one that the bureaucracy has made for last 15 years is becoming a little bit artificial. What we're finding now is that terrorists from outside the United States are able, as they did in the World Trade Center, to attack us in the United States. What we have to worry about is major, large-scale attacks inside the United States, whether it's by people like Timothy McVeigh or people like the people who did the World Trade Center attack. That's what we really have to worry about, and not get too tied down in these bureaucratic discussions of domestic versus international.

BLITZER: Brian Jenkins, you agree with that?

BRIAN JENKINS, RAND CORPORATION: I certainly do. We've seen events in the United States that have been inspired by events abroad, in some cases appear to have been instigated by foreign groups, and also that have been carried out by domestic organizations.

BLITZER: Is there, Brian Jenkins, a link, though, that has been established between let's say, an Osama bin Laden-related group and American terrorists here in the United States, that we've seen any sort of pattern in recent years?

JENKINS: No, I don't think there's a pattern, and here's where we have to be careful. That is, in the 1970's and 1980s, we dealt with discrete, identifiable terrorist organizations that we could name and we could identify their leaders regularly and identify their modus operandi.

And more recently, terrorist organization has become a lot more fluid. We see universes of like-minded fanatics from which ad hoc conspiracies may emerge.

So the notion of necessarily having a direct set of links between some terrorist abroad and an event in the United States is something that may not occur.

On the other hand, we did see during the millennium celebrations the possibility of a terrorist attack being carried out in the United States that was clearly inspired from abroad.

BLITZER: You agree with that assessment, Ambassador Bremer?

BREMER: Yes, I do.

And I think the other thing that is of concern to people who follow this issue is, there seems to be in the 1990s and the beginning of this century, an inclination by some terrorist groups to be less concerned about limiting the number of casualties they create -- that is to say, a move towards mass casualties terrorism.

And that, I think, is one of the reasons why terrorist experts are worried about the possibility of these kinds of groups using biological or chemical agents in attacks, which really would be designed to create tens of thousands of causalities.

BLITZER: And the purpose would be what of this enormous kind of casualty rate?

BREMER: Well, as Mr. Jenkins said, the thing that has changed a bit is that the groups now are more interested, it seems, in revenge or in ideological or religious motivations, or they're simply apocalyptic-type groups, like Aum Shinrikyo which set off the chemical attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

There's a change in motive, and it's the change in motive, I think, that ought to give us concern.

BLITZER: Brian Jenkins, we did see this past week the president announcing a reorganization, if you will, in dealing with terrorism here in United States, putting basically, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and it's director, Joe Albaugh, in charge of all the various agencies that traditionally have been dealing with this kind of problem. No real counter-terrorism czar, if you will, or senior person, but putting it all under the FEMA umbrella. Is that a good idea?

JENKINS: I think it is. I think all of the commissions that have looked at this issue, including the one that was chaired by Ambassador Bremer, have reached a consensus that the federal response to the possibility of domestic terrorism has been something that has been fragmented; that needs better coordination; that, while the federal government will be most likely in a supporting role to state and local authorities in dealing with an incident of terrorism, nonetheless, that the federal government role has to be better coordinated.

There's been a number of proposed solutions to that, to include the elevation of a terrorism czar within the White House with a new office, to getting the Defense Department the lead, to giving FEMA or an office within FEMA the lead. But there's certainly consensus that the coordination has to be improved.

BLITZER: What do you think about restructuring?

BREMER: Well, I think it is a modest step in the right direction, but it doesn't deal directly with two problems. First of all, the goal of a good counter-terrorist policy is to prevent terrorism. And to do that, you've got to have better intelligence. And this does nothing in the way of improving our intelligence against terrorists so we can disrupt and stop attacks.

Secondly, the real problem is that there is very little coordination between the domestic and international. As I said earlier, it's a sort of a false dichotomy that the bureaucracy has set up. Which is why, I think the proposal of the commission that Jim Gilmore, Governor Jim Gilmore chaired, their recommendation was to establish a national office of counter-terrorism to look at both domestic and international.

The step of putting FEMA in charge of the consequence of a domestic terrorist attack is a good step, but it's a modest step and it doesn't go far enough.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

When we return we'll talk about the impact of terrorism on U.S. interests around the world, and we'll also be taking your phone calls.

LATE EDITION will be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We are continuing our conversation about the problem of terrorism with the former U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Counter-terrorism, Paul Bremer, and terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins.

Brian, the twin embassy bombings trial in New York has now gone to jury. A very, very sensitive case, obviously, out there. Is there any need for Americans who are going to be travel abroad any time soon or even for Americans here in the United States to be on heightened state of alert because of this kind of high-profile case?

JENKINS: Well, Americans have always been the preferred target of terrorists in many parts of the world. It's the price we pay for the U.S.'s perceived influence in the United States and certainly the presence of Americans throughout the world.

Does it call for heightened concern? Usually the warnings come out that ask people to remain aware, to increase their security. That doesn't necessarily automatically translate into a significantly heightened risk for every American traveling abroad. So there is no reason for paranoia here.

BLITZER: All right, let's take caller from Columbus, Ohio. Please go ahead with your question. Columbus, Ohio? Never mind, we don't have Columbus, Ohio.

Ambassador Bremer, there is a poll that is out, that just came out, that asked this question: Are you worried that you or someone in your family will be the victim of a terrorist attack? Look at these numbers: very worried, 11 percent; somewhat worried, 23 percent; not too worried, 34 percent; not worried at all, 32 percent.

Should Americans be more worried than the apparently they are?

BREMER: No, that sounds about right to me. I agree with Mr. Jenkins, I think you can work yourself into a state of real paranoia here if you're not careful.

It is true that Americans are the main target -- or American interests are the main target of terrorism, but we live in free society. There is no such thing as complete security against crime, or against terrorism. And it is right to take prudent steps, but it is not right to get overly excited about it.

BLITZER: Brian Jenkins, let's talk about some of those prudent steps, some advice that you might have. A lot of Americans are going to be traveling abroad, going around the world, to Europe, to South America, to Asia, over these summer months. Are there are some practical steps that they should be taking as they go sight-seeing?

JENKINS: You know, the situation is going to vary so dramatically from country to country. The best advice I can give is to be aware of the issue and to obtain accurate information on whatever location the person plans to visit. This information is available through the State Department. It may be available through the travel agency. There are a number of subscriber services that provide this information. It's also available through the Internet and through the newspapers.

So I would say, first of all, simply be aware of the threat. Look carefully at the destination.

BLITZER: And I'm sure, Ambassador Bremer, you would recommend that people look at the travel advisories that the State Department puts out for individual countries.

BREMER: Right, I think that's probably the best advice, is basically be aware of what you are doing and where you are going and have a good time.

BLITZER: How serious of a threat is cyberterrorism right now, given dependence we all have on computers?

BREMER: Cyberterrorism is a real potential problem. There is something like 30,000 known hacker sites on the web now -- that is to say, sites where you can go and find out how to hack in. The FBI estimates that something like 90 percent of the known viruses are freely available through those various sites. So, there is a potential for really causing quite a great deal of disruption through sabotage of the cyber network.

BLITZER: Brian Jenkins, do you get the sense that the government is on top of this potential threat of cyberterrorism and is dealing with it effectively?

JENKINS: Well, being on top is extremely difficult here. Criminal innovation is always going to accompany technological advance. Where we have a rapidly growing expanding technology, as we do with the Internet, then we are going to see the volume and indeed the ingeniousness of crimes associated with that technology expand very, very rapidly.

Governments are always going to be behind in this process. We don't invent laws for crimes that haven't yet occurred. And, so, in a sense, where you have a situation with, as I say, an exploding technology with crime to accompany that, it's going to be years before we have in place the kinds of defenses that we should have in place.

Are we on top of it? People are addressing it, but I wouldn't say we're on top of it yet, no.

BLITZER: All right. Brian Jenkins and Paul Bremer, I want to thank both you for joining us on LATE EDITION. Thank you very much.

Just ahead, what's the political fallout from delaying the McVeigh execution? We'll go 'round the table on that and much more with Roberts, Page and Brooks when LATE EDITION returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Welcome back. Time now for our LATE EDITION roundtable. Joining me, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, Steve Roberts, contributing editor for U.S. News and World Report, and David Brooks, senior editor for the Weekly Standard.

Steve, this FBI mishandling of these documents, you know that a lot of people don't believe this is just some simple mistake.

STEVE ROBERTS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I know, but there's no evidence that it was not a simple mistake. Beth Wilkinson said that there's nothing in these documents to indicate a difference in the outcome, and I think she's right. And I do think that if there was ever a case where the death penalty was justified, this one is it, based on what we know.

I think the real problem is going to be when people say, "Look, suppose there was something in these documents that could have change the outcome, and suppose that was discovered next Friday, not last Friday, two days after Timothy McVeigh was dead." We have to rethink this question of whether there are these kinds of mistakes made.

George Ryan, governor of Illinois, death penalty supporter, created a moratorium on the death penalty, said, "You've got to be morally certain that you're right."

And I think the real lasting impact of this is to add fuel to this question about whether we're absolutely certain every time we impose the death penalty.

BLITZER: So it sounds like what you're suggesting -- I'm going to have David add to this -- is that this is an opportunity for those who oppose the death penalty to go forward and use this as a reason for just opposing capital punishment.

ROBERTS: And raise the question: If evidence could be withheld in this case when everybody's watching, what about all those other cases we never hear about where the lawyers are not adequate, where the testing is not adequate? At least raises the question.

BLITZER: Will this give them ammunition?

DAVID BROOKS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, it is giving them ammunition. Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, I noticed, has already written this column saying, you know, people mess up, so we can't have the death penalty.

But this is why the death penalty advocates are wise, as Ashcroft and Bush have been, to delay, because this is why we can trust the death penalty to the extent we can, because there hasn't been a case where we know we executed somebody who was innocent, where there are these hoops and hoops and hoops. And Ashcroft was right to insert more hoops if necessary as in this case.

So I think the death penalty proponents, of whom there is still a clear majority, could feel quite comfortable that the death penalty is justified precisely because we're so careful about it. BLITZER: But you know that a lot of death penalty opponents say there's a time bomb just waiting, once we're going to find out with some DNA many years after the fact. In Oklahoma, for example, you're probably familiar with one of the scientists there, the forensic experts who apparently made some mistakes and that she was involved in certain cases that resulted in the death penalty there.

BROOKS: It's a human institution, and humans are imperfect. The question is, why do we support it? Do we support it because we think it's the just thing to do? Maybe it's still worth it, even if occasion mistakes are made. Do we support it because we think it's an effective deterrent? If you think it effectively deters murder and deters a lot of murderers maybe, maybe you live with the imperfections.

BLITZER: President Bush was quick to endorse Ashcroft, John Ashcroft, the attorney general's decision, and he spoke out at a news conference that he hastily called on Friday. Listen to what President Bush had to say.


BUSH: The very foundations of our democracy depend on our ability to assure our citizens that in all criminal cases, and especially in the death penalty, defendants have been treated fairly.


BLITZER: And as you know, he was governor of Texas and he approved more than 150 executions. How's he handling this embarrassment for the FBI?

SUSAN PAGE, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he's handling it just as he should, by backing up his attorney general for delaying and allowing a review of the documents.

I think it will create some issues for the president when he chooses Louie Freeh's successor, because this is yet another embarrassment for the FBI, one of a series in the last few years. Things that Louie Freeh came into office, you know, to clean up -- I mean, he came in as real reformer. And he's leaving with a good reputation, in many ways.

But with some of these issues involving the FBI, including not only their handling of papers in this case, but also the Robert Hanssen spy case -- another big embarrassment just this year for the FBI -- whoever Bush chooses as Freeh's successor is going to face questions in confirmation, questions in the administration's vetting of him or her, about what to do to make the FBI the kind of sterling law enforcement agency that it's long reputation was.

ROBERTS: David's point is certainly true that the death penalty still popular in this country, but the numbers are changing. It's gone from 80 percent, as a high point, down to only about 66 percent in the latest poll I've seen. And if you give people a choice between the death penalty and the alternative of life sentence without chance of parole, it's about even.

And you can certainly -- this would bolster, I think, the argument for the option of a life sentence without benefit of parole, because then that's not an irreversible verdict. That's not an irreversible outcome. And it leaves -- since you admit that these are imperfect processes and mistakes are made -- if you have life sentence, then you can change it. You can't change the death sentence.

BLITZER: Although, as David points out, if there is -- and a lot of people have pointed out that, if there was ever a case for justifying the death penalty,...

ROBERTS: Yes, I agree with that.


BLITZER: ... you can't think of one that's better than Timothy McVeigh in this particular issue.

At that news conference, David, that the president called on Friday, the main purpose that he seemed to call that news conference was to make the case that the best way to deal with the energy crisis right now and the higher gasoline prices, the higher costs for electricity, is to approve the tax cut, the across-the-board tax cut, by Memorial Day.

You know, he said that repeatedly and repeatedly during the course of that news conference.

BROOKS: Well, if it was going to rain too much, he would say the best way to make it stop raining is to pass the tax cut.

I was in Nevada and Florida this week, and the one thing that is clear in the town meetings I went to was the energy issue is the top issue in the country. It's what everybody is asking about, and they tie to it everything else. It is shaping people's perspectives about everything.

And Bush's argument is a coherent one: People want some more money. They're scared of $2 or $3-a-gallon prices. So, giving them money back in the form of the tax cut is one way to address the issue.

BLITZER: On that point, there's a new CNN-USA Today Gallup poll that was released, Susan, this week: How serious is the energy crisis? Very serious, right now, 58 percent of the American people say it's very serious. But look, in March, it was only 31 percent.

This is a potential political disaster for the administration unless it gets around and deals with this issue effectively.

PAGE: You know, just ask Jimmy Carter about how powerful energy can be as a political issue.

And George Bush has a big problem, I think, with the energy plan that comes out Thursday, because it has a lot of long-term solutions, that over a period of years we should build more refineries and lay more pipelines.

But people live in the short term. People are looking at this summer, they're looking at how much it costs to fill up their cars right now. And I think there's a lot of concern, particularly among some people in the White House and a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill, that this is going to be a hard sell, when people are facing problems now, to have somebody say, "I've got a long-term solution that in 10 years will ensure adequate gas supplies."

BLITZER: And there's a limit to how much the administration can pin the blame on this on the Clinton administration. There is a certain...

ROBERTS: Well, they try.

BLITZER: There's a statute of limitations that apparently would come into effect.

ROBERTS: There's no limit on how much they can try to blame the administration. But, look, George Bush himself said it this week: I know the president gets the credit, he takes the blame. That's going to be true.

Trying to use a tax cut as the answer, I mean, that really was silly. The next thing I thought he was going to say was, "And it cures baldness." You know, I mean, it was...

BROOKS: Does it?


ROBERTS: And so, I think that -- but that shows the problem that they have, that he was reaching for this really silly answer, to try to say, "Look, I'm really doing something for you," the average person, this summer, who is going to be paying $2.50, $3 a gallon.

And the one obvious other option, which is rebating something of the federal gas tax -- it's an 18-cent tax, not that much. But the problem is that a lot of people say, "Yes, this would be great for my constituents" -- they want that money to build roads. You can't use that money twice. Either you pay down the subsidized gas prices, or you have the money for roads. You can't do both.

BROOKS: One wise thing the Bush administration is doing is really looking to the long term. It's odd about this administration, that we have missile defense, taxes and energy, all of which are going to take effect, you know, eight, nine, 10 years from now, but it's the right thing to do.

BLITZER: All right.

The right thing to do right now is, we have to take a quick commercial break. But when we come back, we'll do the wrong thing.

(LAUGHTER) We're doing the right thing right now. The roundtable will weigh in on some of the other week's political developments, when LATE EDITION continues.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our roundtable.

You know, Susan, there is a lot of, I guess, confusion out there. How important is conservation as a means of dealing with the energy crisis? One day it's not the answer; the next day it is the answer. Dick Cheney said in Toronto a couple weeks ago that conservation may be a noble virtue and all that, but it's not necessarily the solution.

But listen to what President Bush said yesterday in his radio address on the issue of conservation.


BUSH: Twenty-first century conservation harnesses new technology to squeeze as much out of a barrel of oil as we have learned to squeeze out of a computer chip. We can raise our standard of living wisely and in harmony with our environment.


BLITZER: Now is that George W. Bush or Ralph Nader?

PAGE: Well, you know, I interviewed Dick Cheney this week. And I said, "With the benefit of hind site, do you have any regret about the words you used in that Toronto speech?" And he said,"No." And I said, "Did you change anything in the energy plan because of the criticism of conservationists?" And he said, "No".

You know what they changed? They changed the rhetorical approach to presenting their plan to emphasize some of their conservation measures. But this is fundamentally a plan that looks to more drilling, more development, more production of energy, not to more conservation as the answer.

ROBERTS: Look, I have some sympathy for the administration on this. The truth is, energy demands have gone way up. The pressures from environmentalists have limited production. They have limited refinery capacity. They have limited, for instance, nuclear power plants, which don't pollute the atmosphere and which are reasonably cheap to operate. So there has to be a rethinking, a reordering of the priorities, I agree with that.

But there is a political vulnerability here, and Joe Lieberman raised it with you. And that is, since you've got the president and vice president, both former executives of oil companies, the possibility that when the profits go up, for the Democrats to say, "Look, there is profiteering here. This administration is not cracking down." That's a real vulnerability because this is an old Democratic line: Republicans, party of big business. But on the substance of the issue, I think that the Republicans have some sympathy.

BROOKS: Yes, but it's partly the way Washington distorts issues. We take -- we always have to have two sides. So we have production over here, conservation over here, and then there has to be a battle between the two.

In reality -- and the good thing about the Bush plan is there is no way to effect the issue in the short term. Even in the medium term, as the New York Times reported today, private industry is going much faster than the government can do.

So this administration is looking to the long term, to nuclear power. Sort of like missile defense -- we take an ambitious project, we're really going to try to change something fundamentally, technologically, both on conservation and production.

BLITZER: You know, with the -- Marshall Whitman of the Hudson Institute, who's a conservative -- he's a well-respected thinker here in Washington -- is emerging as someone who is becoming very independent, as well, in not being afraid to criticize the administration, or to criticize his fellow conservatives.

Listen to what he said right now about some of his fellow conservatives.


MARSHALL WHITMAN, HUDSON INSTITUTE: Conservatives are happy going to the White House mess, going to the Roosevelt Room, and they may have lost their edge. You know, 20 years ago conservatives were even critical of President Reagan. Now they seem to have lost their touch because they like being part of the establishment.


PAGE: Well, you know, it is great to be in power. It's great to get to go to White House dinners.

And you know what else conservatives think? Conservatives believe they're going to be in power for some time. I think conservatives believe they're going to continue to hold Congress. They're going to hold the White House, they think, not just this term but for another term. And that gives, I think, the president some breathing room.

And there is no political standing that's been more helpful to President Bush then this united support he has from his conservative base. Stronger, more united conservative support from a political base than any president I can remember.

ROBERTS: But you know, this is happening in both parties, because you have liberal Democrats, for instance, saying this is a sell-out to agree to a tax bill. You know, you have the clip from John Breaux earlier. There are a core of moderate Democrats saying, "Look, we'd rather be at the table and have influence than just be bomb-throwers outside." And they're getting a lot of heat for that. The same thing is happening on the right. You have the conservatives saying, "Look, half a loaf is better than none. We want to be part of it. We want to be sitting at the table." And the more extreme orthodox conservatives say sell out, sell out, because you accepted a compromise. The fact is, that's how governing works, particularly when you've got a narrow margin.

BLITZER: Ten seconds. You've got the last word.

BROOKS: Marshall's right. Politics are becoming less ideological, more partisan. There used to be an independent conservative movement that didn't really like Republicans. That is gone. We've all been co-opted by the party.


BLITZER: Conservatives losing their edge. I guess we'll have to leave that discussion -- for more on that discussion to the next week. Thanks for joining us, David, Susan, Steve. See you next week.

Up next, Bruce Morton's "Last Word."


BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's hard to know whether Americans would like such a system. Are voters really fond of the presidential campaigns that never quite end? Or are they bored with them?


BLITZER: When it comes to choosing their president, can the United States take a page from the British?


BLITZER: Time now for Bruce Morton's "Last Word" on choosing America's president. Is there a better way?


MORTON (voice-over): British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced May 8 there would be an election June 7.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Earlier today, I saw the queen at Buckingham Palace to ask for a dissolution of Parliament so that there could be a general election on the seventh of June.


MORTON: Imagine an election campaign from start to finish which lasts just 30 days.

Why, in the United States, a presidential hopeful would need 30 days just to go to half a dozen coffee in Iowa or New Hampshire, sign up a few activists, maybe a state finance guy, just to get things rolling, so to speak.

It is, of course, a different system. Voters don't pick the presidential nominees in primaries the way Americans do. You vote instead for one of the candidates for parliament in your district, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat whatever. The leader of which ever party has a majority in Parliament is automatically prime minister, unless nobody has a majority and you get into coalition building, but that hasn't happened lately.

Blair's Labour Party has 417 of the 659 seats in this Parliament, against a 159 for the Conservatives, 47 for the Liberal Democrats and a scattering for little parties like the Scottish Nationalists.

In the United States, we have very long political seasons because candidates need to spend a lot of time raising money, mostly for TV ads.

In Britain, it's the parties again, not individual candidates, and the parties get free TV time. You are voting for one of the parliamentary campaigns in your district, but you won't see him on TV. It will be party leaders saying, "Vote for us and we'll do this or that." Party TV campaigns, not "Smith for Congress" or "Miller for Senate" or whatever.

It's hard to know whether Americans would like such a system. Are our voters really fond of the presidential campaigns that never quite end, or are they bored with them? They really don't end. We are in the first half of this president's first year in office, and already Democrats have been to New Hampshire. The great mentioner has a little list of names: Biden, yes; John Kerry, uh-huh, uh-huh; Edwards, well, there's talk.

The British will already have voted, and our wannabes will be courting a possible county chair here, a possible money guy there. For good or ill the chances of the U.S. adopting the British quick step are essentially zero, never happen.

Anyway, maybe it's time for a short trip to Iowa. Talk to David Yepsin (ph) at "The Register." Chat up a party guy or two. Dinner at that steak house -- you know, the one on Elm Street. After all, those all-important first donation caucuses are less than three years away.

I'm Bruce Morton.


BLITZER: Thanks, Bruce.

Now it's time for you to have the "Last Word."

Willa (ph) in Texas had this to say about one of our guests on last week's show, North Carolina Democratic Senator John Edwards: "I very much enjoyed John Edwards on your show. He is easy to understand and very knowledgeable. He has charisma, and I predict he will seek higher office in 2004. I would like to see more of him."

Jerry (ph) from Arkansas had some advice for Washington lawmakers. He writes: "Leave taxes as they are. Keep Social Security completely separate from other funds. Quit playing politics with our lives, and start acting responsibly."

About the United States being voted off the UN Human Rights panel, C.E. in Texas says: "We better wake up. It is not surprising that the U.S. was not selected to have a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission after having been president of that group since its inception in 1947. Our own allies are speaking clearly and loudly to us."

Finally, Calvin (ph) in Ontario, Canada, writes this about President Bush's push for a missile defense system: "Mr. Bush is correct to scuttle the ABM Treaty, but he should advance his effort as one to protect the entire earth rather than a system for protection of the United States alone. Other nations should be invited to participate with the technological and financial requirements of the defense system."

As always, I invite your comments. You can e-mail me at And don't forget to sign up for my weekly e-mail at

When we return, we'll reveal what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines.


BLITZER: And now a look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines.

"TIME" magazine proclaims: "Execution on hold. Timothy McVeigh's guilt," it says, "is not in doubt, but the FBI's latest screw-up further erodes faith in the bureau," with McVeigh on the cover.

"Newsweek" examines, "Evil: What Makes People Go Wrong?" with a negative of a picture of the Oklahoma City bomber on the cover.

And on the cover of "U.S. News and World Report," "A Better Way to Grow Old: Alternatives to Nursing Home Care."

That's your LATE EDITION for Sunday, May 13. Please join us again next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

And if you missed any part of today's show, you can tune in tonight, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, for a one-hour replay of LATE EDITION.

I'll see you tomorrow night on Wolf Blitzer Reports at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. And to my wife, Lynn, and my mother in Florida, and to all the mothers out there, Happy Mother's Day.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.