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The Situation Room

Wildfires Rage in Southern California; Reporter Judith Miller Testifies in CIA Leak Investigation; Bennett Remarks Spark Controversy

Aired September 30, 2005 - 15:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where news and information arrive in one place simultaneously. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories happening now.
It's 3:00 p.m. here in Washington, where there's been a major development in the CIA leak investigation. After three months in jail, a "New York Times" reporter testifies to a grand jury.

In Southern California, it's noon. Thousands of firefighters are battling a massive blaze, which has already consumed 32 square miles. Can they catch a break from the weather?

And it's 3:00 p.m. in the skies over the nation's capital. Is a radar glitch leaving some planes invisible to air traffic controllers?


In the hills near Los Angeles, firefighters face an enormous wildfire which has scorched more than 20,000 acres. We're getting live pictures in right now. Take a look at these pictures behind me. The winds have dropped a little bit, and so has the temperature, but another change in conditions could send that blaze racing toward new targets.

Our meteorologist Bonnie Schneider is standing by at the CNN Weather Center.

But we begin with CNN's Peter Viles. He's joining us now live from Simi Valley. That's where the fires are unfolding, among other places. What's the latest, Peter?

PETER VILES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Wolf. We're at the northern edge of this fire, the Thousand Oaks at the other end, where the 101 Highway has been threatened. But we're about five miles north of there at Simi Valley, and a couple of flare-ups here just in the past hour. I think we can get a shot of them over my shoulder.

They've been fighting these very aggressively with helicopters, dumping water on them. They're up there with hand crews with axes, also with huge bulldozers trying to get containment of these fires. They are sort of within the larger fire range. As you said, 20,000 acres have now burned. I think we can see one of those helicopters coming back from having dropped water, fighting these very aggressively. That said, as you said, Wolf, at the top, the weather is better today. It's a little bit cooler, and the winds are not as dry. There's even some moisture in the air, so they do feel like they've passed a turning point here. The 101 Highway to the south of me no longer threatened. They've even let some residents back into homes near the 101.

So all in all, they feel like a pretty good day. However, they are treating this fire, Wolf, with a tremendous deal of respect because it's still only 20 percent contained.

BLITZER: These pictures we're showing our viewers, Peter -- we're told this is near Burbank, actually. It looks like it may be a different wildfire happening there. That's not that close to where you are.

VILES: That is a completely separate fire, Wolf, and it is a smaller fire, although I did see on the morning news here in Los Angeles a lot of attention being paid to it because it's in a residential area. But it's a smaller fire. It does have some more dramatic flames.

I don't know if you can see behind me, though. They are sending a unit of firefighters into this area near Simi Valley. Those flames that we pointed to and the smoke we pointed to right off the top have gotten kind of worrisome to this group of firefighters.

They are approaching a summer camp. Now, the camp is completely evacuated, but they are going in there now to try to save the structures so that the physical camp itself is not a total loss, Wolf. But I think those pictures you were showing of Burbank, that is a completely separate fire, maybe 10 miles to the east of us, Wolf.

BLITZER: The smoke must make breathing relatively complex where you are. How bad is it?

VILES: It's not all that bad where I am, Wolf, but this fire has been so big and has been burning now for 48 hours that there are air quality warnings pretty much throughout the Los Angeles area. So older people and people with asthma, this is not a good day to be out and about, even if you were 10, 15 miles away from these fires.

BLITZER: The whole nature of these fires -- we were told yesterday, only about 5 percent had been contained. Now it's up to 25 percent or 30 percent having been contained. But if 20,000 acres already burned, that sounds like a great deal. How unusual is this situation in California right now, these Santa Ana winds blowing?

VILES: Well, the winds are -- those Santa Ana winds are not blowing today. That's the break they are getting from the weather. They do not have the dry winds.

The thing about this fire that has people's attention is that it is near so many heavily populated residential areas. It's not in any of them yet, but if it goes to the north, it hits Simi Valley where I am. If it goes east, it hits Chatsworth. If it goes to the south, it could hit Calabasas, or it could hit Thousand Oaks. All four of those areas are heavily populated. And the homes in those areas are million- dollar homes -- pretty much every single home. I think a handful of homes have been lost, but they've done a terrific job protecting those homes.

But that's the worst case scenario, that this somehow jumps one of the lines into those residential communities. That's why you have got 3,000 firefighters out here fighting a fire that's only destroyed a handful of buildings, Wolf. It's the worst case scenario that they're worried about.

BLITZER: We know some people are in shelters, others have evacuated. Do you have any numbers out there? Are they releasing those kinds of specific details?

VILES: I haven't seen numbers of people evacuated. I know that up to -- at one point 2,000 homes were evacuated, but then this morning in a really hopeful sign, they were letting some people back into their homes. That's about five miles south of me in the area where they were afraid maybe yesterday this might jump the 101 and head south towards the ocean.

That apparently is not as much of a concern today because they have let some people back into their homes. So that 2,000 number of evacuated homes probably a little lower today.

BLITZER: Peter, stand by. I want to bring in our meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. She's watching all of this together with us. Bonnie, what's the latest weather forecast? Is it good or bad as far as dealing with these fires are concerned?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, for the immediate future, it is good. This is the pattern that we're in right now. We have a light, onshore flow, meaning some of that moisture from the ocean is benefiting the area. It's coming in under light winds.

The jet stream is to the north. That's that fast moving river of air that was really over Southern California -- a good portion of it -- earlier this week. And we saw the fires kind of spread about.

That's the situation right now. It's favorable for them to contain the fires. But the problem is, it's not a situation that's going to last more than a few days. This onshore flow that we see right now for Southern California will eventually dissipate, possibly as early as Tuesday and then we'll get back into the original pattern that we were seeing earlier this week of the strong Santa Ana winds that rushed down the mountain fast and furious. And they bring down that dry, windy air and we could see the wind gusts get back up again towards the beginning of next week.

The good news is right now is that's not the situation. We have that cooler, onshore flow, Wolf. That will be beneficial for firefighters throughout the night tonight as well.

BLITZER: All right. Bonnie, thank you very much. We'll check back with you. Zev Yaroslavsky is the Los Angeles County supervisor. He's joining us now on the phone. What's the latest information you are getting, Zev? Yesterday at this time you were relatively hopeful, hopeful that you had beaten this fire, but it still continues.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY, SUPERVISOR, 3RD DISTRICT, LOS ANGELES COUNTY: I think things are looking very good. The weather has certainly cooperated, Wolf. The -- in terms of the fire itself, it's putting out. The fire departments have made a heroic stand to try to get a line around this fire.

Of course, life is the most important thing to protect and then property is the next important thing to protect. And they've done both with remarkable skill in this fire.

I want to make a comment to your listeners, especially those who live in the hillside areas here in Southern California. The reason we have had so few structure fires in this disaster is because people have followed the brush clearance laws that we have here in Los Angeles County religiously. They have -- anybody who lives in a fire area should really take this to heart.

You saw last night on CNN, homes that were within dozens of feet of the flames and the flames just came to a stop as though there was some supernatural force. The reason for it is there was nothing left to burn between the clearance area and the house, and the house was saved.

So the people have a sort of a great deal of credit, obviously, along with our firefighting personnel. But anybody who hasn't cleared their brush around their structure, we've just started our fire season here. A word to the wise should be enough.

BLITZER: There's two separate fires apparently, Zev. There's the one that we've been watching where you are in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks and that whole suburban area in Los Angeles. But there's another fire that has erupted in Burbank. What do you know about the Burbank fire? We're showing our viewers some live pictures of that Burbank fire.

YAROSLAVSKY: Yes, I can see the Burbank fire from where I am. It started yesterday afternoon. I don't know much about it.

I think I will just repeat what I've heard on the news and from our fire chief. It's an uninhabited area as far as I know. It's in the mountains above Burbank. It's heavy brush. It's heavy brush. The smoke is rising vertically, which suggests there is not a lot of wind where the fire is. I don't know what the prognosis for the fire is, but it's not in an inhabited area, the likes of which we've seen in the western part of the county that we talked about yesterday.

BLITZER: All right. Zev Yaroslavsky, county commissioner, we're going to get back to you. Thanks very much -- county supervisor, that is. He's been helping us better understand what's been going on.

Also helping us here in THE SITUATION ROOM understand what's going on, our own Tom Foreman. You've been looking at these fires. What are you seeing, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you talked earlier about the air quality. The depth and breadth of these fires, how far out they are spreading and the impact they are having. Nothing shows it better than this. Take a look at this latest image from NASA. As we move in here, toward the coast, that's where the key is, Los Angeles down there, Chatsworth up above there.

Look at what we have in this image. This is a photograph from space and these are the fires here, the smoke from them flowing all the way out here. Look at this distance. From here to out in here, we're talking about a distance of 200 miles of smoke drifting out to sea. And, of course, it's spreading out in some of these other areas around the central zone we're that we're talking about here.

So, in reality, we're talking about an awful lot of fire spread over a very big distance. And if we come in a little bit closer, you can see these NASA images. Right over here is the key to all of our fires. Want to turn this part here so we can move over that way a little bit. If we move back over to the main NASA image, you can see over here that we've got a tremendous cluster of fires around Chatsworth, all that smoke pouring out to the ocean, drifting all the way down, leaving ash in Hollywood, all over Los Angeles.

BLITZER: We've got some live pictures from Chatsworth. Let's show our viewers those pictures in Chatsworth right now, as opposed to Burbank. These are live pictures that we're seeing from Chatsworth. Let's also show our viewers what's happening in Burbank. This is a separate fire that began late yesterday and is continuing right now. We'll continue to watch all of these fires and get the latest information. Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

Let's check in with our own Jack Cafferty. He's watching all of these stories with us. He's joining us today, as he always does, from New York. Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Happy Friday. For the last several weeks, it's been all about the hurricanes. Rita and Katrina have taken our eyes off Iraq. But yesterday, some of this country's top generals told a Senate committee some pretty ugly news about how things are going there.

For starters, one general admitted -- quote -- "We've made a lot of mistakes along the way" -- unquote. The general said that the number of Iraqi battalions able to fight on their own has dropped from three to one; that the Iraq/Syria border is not under American control. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that insurgents are infiltrating the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army. And although the coalition commander insists U.S. troop withdrawal can still begin next year, that can only happen when the Iraqi forces are ready.

So here's the question. Are we wearing blinders when it comes to the real story in Iraq? CaffertyFile - one word --

Wolf? BLITZER: All right, Jack, thanks very much.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Judith Miller walks and talks. The jailed journalist is set free. Her lawyer, Robert Bennett, standing by here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll speak with him live. That's coming up next.

And a little bit later, the Elian Gonzalez interview. Hear why he says President Fidel Castro is like a father to him. And we'll find out what he's saying about his Miami relatives after all these years.

Plus, "Flight Plan." It's the number one movie at the box office, but it has flight attendants up in arms. We'll find out why they're boycotting this new film.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Who outed the CIA operative? It's a question that's been asked for the past 26 months, ever since that operative was named by the syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Robert Novak. For the past three months, another reporter, Judith Miller of the "New York Times," has been in jail for refusing to name her source on this story. But Miller never wrote an article on the CIA operative. Now she's out of jail and today she spoke before a grand jury.

Our national correspondent Bob Franken is outside the U.S. District Court here in Washington. He's joining us now live with an update on what happened. Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I suppose we could say she's leading a bit of a circular life, because today, Judith Miller came back to where all this started.


FRANKEN: Judith Miller had finally testified to the grand jury after 85 days in jail.

JUDITH MILLER, "NEW YORK TIMES": I heard directly from my source that I should testify before the grand jury. This was in the form of a personal letter and most important, a telephone conversation, a telephone call to me at the jail. I concluded from this that my source genuinely wanted me to testify.

FRANKEN: The source was the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby, whose lawyer contends he would have been glad to free her from any confidentiality pledge before Judith Miller went to jail. She refused to discuss that, but was clearly relieved she had found a way out.

MILLER: Believe me, I did not want to be in jail, but I would have stayed even longer. FRANKEN: Libby's lawyer says his client did not knowingly identify Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. That's the same contention made by the attorney for Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff. Plame was identified as an undercover agent in July 2003 by columnist Robert Novak, as the wife of Joe Wilson, who had been harshly critical of administration claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald began his investigation after charges the leaks were illegal. Judith Miller is apparently the last reporter to resist his demand that they testify about their sources.

MILLER: I'm really tired. I have a meal that I want my husband to prepare, a dog I want to hug, and I'd like to go home to Sag Harbor.


FRANKEN: Judith Miller is the first person to be jailed as a result of this investigation, Wolf, at least so far.


BLITZER: Bob Franken reporting for us. Thank you, Bob, very much.

She spent three months in jail for refusing to name a source on the story she never wrote. But now Judith Miller, as we now know, is out of jail. She's just testified before that grand jury.

Joining us now is Judith Miller's attorney, Robert Bennett. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Bob, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Bill Keller, the executive editor of the "New York Times," said last night -- he said, "In recent days, several important things have changed that convinced Judy that she was released from her obligation." Several important things. What changed?

R. BENNETT: Well, I think -- I think two things. On September 19, Judy Miller got what she really wanted all along, was this source actually making contact with her and authorizing her to go forward and relieving her of her commitment to confidentiality. This is the first time that there was this personal communication.

And secondly, we were able to work out an understanding with the prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, which enabled Judy to live with her journalistic principles, namely that there wouldn't be a fishing expedition, but that the matter would be limited to the Valerie Plame matter and that would -- those two things were recent developments, which opened the door for this.

BLITZER: There's some question as to the notion that's there been a recent development. Lewis Scooter Libby, the chief of staff for the vice president Dick Cheney, his attorney in the "New York Times" -- among other news organizations, including our own -- has identified Scooter Libby as Judith Miller's source. By the way, do you want to confirm?

R. BENNETT: No, I'm not going to confirm who her source is.

BLITZER: All right, but you're not going to dispute her own newspaper.

R. BENNETT: I'm not going to confirm it one way or another.

BLITZER: All right. Joseph Tate, Scooter Libby's attorney, says "I assured Bennett" -- that would be you -- "that it was voluntary." And he asked, "Would Scooter say that to Judy?" And I said, "Scooter doesn't want to see Judy in jail. My reaction was, why didn't someone call us 80 days ago?"

In other words, what Scooter Libby's attorney is saying, you could have had this deal not only 80 days ago but a year ago, that he signed that waiver of his confidentiality.

R. BENNETT: Well, I wasn't her counsel a year ago. And ...

BLITZER: But you were her counsel when she went to jail 80 days ago.

R. BENNETT: I was her counsel. It was really the responsibility of Mr. Libby to come forward. Judy Miller felt very strongly that she should not initiate things. And I'm not going to go really beyond that, and Judy is now satisfied that Mr. Libby came forward and voluntarily and personally gave her the waiver and release from confidentiality.

BLITZER: But when Tate, Libby's attorney, says she spoke to you about this before she went to jail, is that true? Did you have conversations with Joseph Tate?

R. BENNETT: I spoke with Joseph Tate for the first time on August 31.

BLITZER: And that was after she went to jail?

R. BENNETT: That was after ...

BLITZER: Why didn't you speak to him before?

R. BENNETT: ... she went to jail. As I told you, I had reason to believe that Mr. Libby was prepared to give that voluntary waiver. We did not want to take any steps to make it look like it was coercion.

Judy Miller did not want me to -- or anyone else for that matter -- to suggest that he should do anything. We had reason to believe that he was prepared. He had made those representations to some third parties. And so that's what happened.

Mr. Libby knew where Judy was. He had her phone number. They knew each other. There was no secret where she was. So I find it amazing that somebody would suggest that Judy would unnecessarily spend 85 days in jail. But also ... BLITZER: Because there are some people as you know, Bob, that are suggesting she has another agenda beyond the Scooter Libby issue that maybe she's trying to protect someone else.

R. BENNETT: Judy is not protecting anybody else. This has always been a reporter's privilege issue for Judy and it has been nothing more. Also, another piece of this, which you cannot forget, is whether or not I was able to work out with the prosecutor an agreement which Judy Miller could live with, which was consistent to her journalistic concern.

BLITZER: Was the testimony ...

R. BENNETT: Those things came together.

BLITZER: Was the conversations you had with Mr. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor -- was her testimony limited only to Scooter Libby's involvement in the Valerie Plame case, assuming that's her source as we all do? Or was it -- could he ask questions before the grand jury on other individuals?

R. BENNETT: I'm not going to go into her testimony before a secret grand jury, but I will say that the subject matter that we agreed to dealt with the Valerie Plame matter.

BLITZER: So in other words, it focused on that, but talk about other individuals as well?

R. BENNETT: It focused on the Valerie Plame matter.

BLITZER: That's all you want to say about that?

R. BENNETT: That's all I can say to you.

BLITZER: Do you expect Mr. Fitzgerald to be issuing indictments? The grand jury is supposed to wrap up its hearings by the end of October.

R. BENNETT: I have no idea. Mr. Fitzgerald never shared that with me, nor did I ask.

BLITZER: So what happens next as far as Judith Miller is concerned?

R. BENNETT: She goes back to being a reporter.

BLITZER: Does she -- did she get a guarantee she doesn't have to come back before the grand jury?

R. BENNETT: Prosecutors will never give you that guarantee. If something developed in the investigation, where her information would be relevant and if she were free to give it, she would give it. But I have no reason to believe that that's the case.

BLITZER: While you're here, I'm going to switch gears dramatically on you and ask you a question about your brother. As you know, he's in hot water for some remarks he made yesterday on his radio show, Bill Bennett. Listen to this exchange he had with a caller.


WILLIAM BENNETT, FORMER EDUCATION SECRETARY: One of the arguments in this book "Freakonomics" that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up.

CALLER: Well, I don't think that statistic is accurate.

W. BENNETT: Well, I don't think it is either. I don't think it is either because first of all, I think there's just too much that you don't know. But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.

That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far out -- these far reaching, you know, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.


BLITZER: Have you discussed this issue with him?

R. BENNETT: Well, no. And, Wolf, let me say, I am rather disappointed at you for not telling me you would ask me about that. This was about Judy Miller, and I think that's a courtesy you could have extended to me. What I would emphasize is Bill's comment that such a position would be morally reprehensible, I think it's largely making a mountain out of a molehill.

I mean, I suppose I'll get in trouble by saying that it's well established that men are more violent than women and so maybe if we abort all male babies, we would have a safer world. So I think this is really much ado about nothing.

BLITZER: Well, the reason I ask is because I know you and your brother love each other and you are good brothers. And it was only obvious to me, I assume, that you know I would ask a newsworthy question.

R. BENNETT: I didn't know that at all, Wolf. In the past you've always been very straight with me. And I'm honest with you and I'm offended by that.

BLITZER: All right. That's fair enough.

R. BENNETT: But I have never discussed this with him at all.

BLITZER: You are a good lawyer and a good brother and a good friend. Thanks very much for joining us.

R. BENNETT: OK, you're welcome. BLITZER: Robert Bennett joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Still to come, blazing fires in Southern California, celebrity homes under threat. We'll find out more about whose house could be taking the heat.

And a little bit later, Elian Gonzalez speaks out. We'll hear what he has to say about how President Fidel Castro and his Miami relatives -- we'll hear what he has to say about both of those subjects. That and much more IN THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.


BLITZER: We're watching the price of natural gas, which is up dramatically this year. CNN's Ali Velshi is following that story for us. He's got the "Bottom Line." What are you looking at, Ali?

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: I'm looking out at the park here. We have not -- a lot of police that have just pulled up into Columbus Circle and they are running into Central Park, supposedly chasing someone. It's not my beat.

Energy, of course, is, and let just tell you a little bit about something. This is my home heating oil, as you know. I keep a gallon of it around. And it's actually worth a lot more than it was when I got it several weeks ago.

I'll tell you, we've been following all the refinery stuff, we've been following the offshore Gulf production. But, Wolf, the issue continues to be natural gas.

We've talked a number of times on this show about the fact that the Department of Energy has said that a combination of the increase in the price of natural gas -- right now about 60 percent higher than it was a year ago -- and the fact that in those parts of the country that use natural gas, the Midwest mainly, where winter is expected to be a little colder than it was last year, we are looking at natural gas prices that could cost Midwestern customers now at somewhere between 69 percent and 77 percent higher than they were a year ago.

What do you do about that, Wolf? The Natural Gas Suppliers Association gave us some tips on this. I think we may have this audio that we can bring you.

Take a listen to what they say we should do.


SKIP HORVATH, NATURAL GAS SUPPLIERS ASSN.: Lowering your thermostats two degrees or so over the winter will help because it requires then less energy, less natural gas to heat your home. And that saves on some supply. That will then put downward pressure on natural gas prices. So it's really not a question of reliability. It's a question of keeping the prices as moderate as we can. That will help.


VELSHI: We've heard, Wolf, that we're going to hear from the Department of Energy on Monday. They'll have some further tips. The fact of the matter is that more than 60 million Americans heat their homes with natural gas. When you switch a light switch on, natural gas has become the energy of choice to power electrical generation plants in this country, as you know.

So this is going to affect everybody. Electricity costs are going to go up because of the fact that natural gas is used to produce electricity. This is a bit worrisome, Wolf, because as you know, we made this move to natural gas some years ago because it is thought of as a Made in America solution. It's thought of as plentiful, and it is cleaner than burning oil or coal. But looks like for those people who made the choice to go over to natural gas, this may be a very expensive winter.


BLITZER: I think everything is going up. Oil and natural gas and gasoline. Everything is going up. Sick and tired of hearing about everything going up, Ali.

VELSHI: Sweaters. Sweaters are the answer.

BLITZER: Ali Velshi, thanks very much.

VELSHI: Sweater vests.

BLITZER: Return to New Orleans: parts of the city are reopening. Who exactly is coming back? We'll take you there live.

Plus, blacks, crime and abortion. We'll see what the bloggers are saying about some very controversial comments by Bill Bennett.

Much more coming up. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. We're watching those fires in Southern California. Let's get an update now.

Mario Rueda is the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. He's joining us on the phone. Chief, thanks very much for joining us. First of all, that fire in Burbank -- we've been looking at those live pictures. I take it that's separate from the one in the Simi Valley?

MARIO RUEDA, DEP. CHIEF, LOS ANGELES FIRE DEPARTMENT: Yes, I just arrived on the scene here in Burbank just to assess needs and to assess the impact on the city. And it is a terrain driven fire. As you can see, the smoke is going straight up at this point. And it appears as though it's about four and a half miles from any homes on the other side of the mountain. It does look spectacular. I have not had a briefing from the IC here yet, but it doesn't appear to be impacting any homes shortly. BLITZER: Are you succeeding in containing that fire -- in other words, making it smaller and eventually getting rid of it, the whole thing? Or is it still spreading? I'm talking about Burbank.

RUEDA: I just arrived here. I have not received a briefing from the incident commander at the Burbank fire as to whether he's meeting his control objectives. It appears, based on my observation of the terrain, it's going to be very difficult to get full containment on this for probably several days.

BLITZER: Several days. And so potentially, city of Burbank, the homes in Burbank could be endangered.

RUEDA: Well, the fire is burning uphill away from the city of Burbank. I think they'll make a concerted effort to try to contain the flanks of this fire, and hopefully mop it up at the head and then do a couple of days of mop-up here, all the hot spots. But it is burning uphill -- that is one good sign -- away from the city of Burbank. There is no wind, which is really a blessing to us.

BLITZER: What about the other fire in Chatsworth and in the Topanga Canyon over there?

RUEDA: Actually, I'm still the incident commander at the Topanga fire. We are in unified command, which means we have four agencies that are basically cooperating to attack the fire and sharing resources, and that's the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the California Division of Forestry and Ventura County Fire Department.

We've been on the fire a couple of days now. The weather has shifted in our favor. There is a marine influence we're starting to observe, which is helpful. We're not getting the Santa Ana winds. But we still have a lot of uncontained lines that still presents problems for us. It still is -- brush is still critically dry and we will see, probably for another day or so until we can do complete mop-up, runs of fire that look spectacular. And we'll put crews on and hopefully not endanger any homes or residents.

BLITZER: Good luck, Chief. We'll be watching it with you. Hope it will go away very, very soon. Mario Rueda is the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department, the incident commander for this Topanga fire. Thank you very much.

From California, let's go to Louisiana -- New Orleans specifically. Some evacuees are going back home. But a month after Hurricane Katrina, exactly what home means is anyone's guess right now.

CNN's Dan Lothian is following the situation. He's joining us now live. Dan?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're in the Zip Code 70115. This is the Uptown area. This was an area that was -- didn't have a whole lot of flooding. Most of the damage here was wind damage. What's interesting is that you'll have on one side of the street, a home that pretty much is okay, maybe some trees that fell down. And right across the street, this home, that was being renovated, pancaked right here.

Some 200,000 people were allowed to return to their homes today for the first time since Hurricane Katrina kicked them out of town.


LOTHIAN (voice-over): For Uptown resident Diana Cross, there's no place like home.


LOTHIAN: Her boyfriend's house across town was destroyed, but her homecoming was sweet.

CROSS: I am so lucky. I'm beyond words lucky. There doesn't seem to be any major damage. Just some trees down. My fence is gone on one side. Otherwise, it looks great.

LOTHIAN: But it didn't smell great, at least not around the refrigerator.

CROSS: Oh, god. Oh, my god. Okay.

LOTHIAN: The New Orleans lawyer spent her morning cleaning up, unpacking, and flushing faucets. She had spent the last month living in multiple hotel rooms and relying on the kindness of friends -- all the while, worried about what she had left behind.

CROSS: I was tremendously nervous, worried about looting, worried about fires. I didn't know when the electricity came on if something would happen and the house would catch on fire.

LOTHIAN: But it didn't. Now, Cross will stay in the house that she had planned to put on the market the day Katrina hit.


LOTHIAN: As the residents return, the mayor has warned them that you should return at your own risk.

Now, one of the things is that some homes have been tagged with a warning that the roof either needs to be repaired or the foundation needs to be shored up before they can move in.


BLITZER: All right, Dan Lothian in New Orleans. Thank you very much, Dan.

When we come back, bloggers on Bennett. We'll get reaction from all sides on the remarks that the former Education secretary made. He's under fire right now.

Plus, the movie is "Flight Plan," but not everyone is eager to hop onboard. Why some people are calling for a boycott. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back. In our CNN "Security Watch," some very serious concern about air safety right here in the nation's capital. Airplanes disappearing off the radar screen, becoming temporarily invisible to air traffic controllers.

CNN's Kathleen Koch is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to explain what's going on -- Kathleen?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Air Traffic Controllers Union says that this problem of planes dropping off the radar screen for 14 to 30 seconds started about two weeks ago. And it's not happening as planes are landing, but when they're at very high altitude, above 15,000 feet and being handled by controllers at a central FAA facility in Leesburg, Virginia.

The union says this is a safety threat. But the Federal Aviation Administration says, no, and that the union has other motivations for bringing this to light.


JOHN CARR, NATL. AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS ASSN.: The problem we're encountering in Washington is that individual aircraft targets are dropping off of radar scopes. The problem is actually one where the presentation looks for all the world like it should. It's just missing one or two aircraft, which is critical. It's a critical safety issue.

MARION BLAKEY, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION: Well, you have to remember that this was raised by the Air Traffic Controllers Union. This is a part of a multi-million dollar ad campaign, safety campaign, that's going on because of contract negotiations. At the heart of it is not a safety issue. What we're finding is that our equipment is working fine.


KOCH: The FAA, though, does explain that what happens is occasionally ground radar is subject to interference from outside sources, sort of like driving down the road and then your radio signal goes out, you hear static and then it comes back. The FAA says it's investigating to see if it can pinpoint the problem.

But, Wolf, really central to this is the fact that both the FAA and Air Traffic Controllers Union say there have been no near misses. There have been no near collisions because of this radar glitch.

BLITZER: Still, when you hear those words, you get nervous.

KOCH: It's scary. It's scary. But they're going to get to the bottom of it.

BLITZER: All right. Let's hope they do. Kathleen Koch, thank you very much. And to our viewers, please stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security. Let's move on now. We want to go back to the flap over those comments made by Bill Bennett.

Checking the situation online, our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton. Abbi, what are you picking up?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the comments by Bill Bennett a couple of days ago have been spreading around the Web now for a couple of days, since Wednesday afternoon, when Media Matters for America -- this is a liberal media watchdog -- posted the comments online and included an audio clip. They then started spreading it around to lots of people linking to Media Matters.

Incidentally, Media Matters last month did something similar with some other controversial radio comments. Those were of Pat Robertson, when he commented on Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, and those also spread around online.

But the comments this week were from Bill Bennett. And people like Duncan Black, who's affiliated with Media Matters, a blogger at, started linking to them and soon they were all over the place.

Some notables weighing in on the subject. Congressman -- Democratic Congressman John Conyers posted at the popular liberal site,, about this. Also, the author of -- one of the authors of the book "Freakonomics," which Bill Bennett mentioned during the radio interview, weighed in on his blog on his site, pointing out that race is not an important part of the abortion crime argument.

What is interesting is that there are people on the left and the right saying that maybe this has been blown out of proportion. On the right, John Cole here at Balloon Juice, defending Bill Bennett. But also on the left, at, Matt Yglesias saying that Bennett has nothing to apologize for -- or rather, Bennett has a great deal to apologize for, but none of it pertains to this statement. So a little bit of an agreement there on the left and the right.


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

Up next, no more shop 'til they drop. Have hurricanes and high gas prices robbed consumers of their confidence?

And it took this tourist two years of hard work to prepare for his vacation, and his trip may cost him $20 million. His trip into space, that is. We'll have some details. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Zain Verjee is standing by in the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at some other stories making news right now. Hi, Zain.


In Argentina today, anti-terrorist police say they found several grenades, a book of the Koran, and a photocopy of maps of the city Mar del Plata. That city will host a summit in November which President Bush is scheduled to attend. Officials say that they found the items last Thursday in a strongbox at a train station in downtown Buenos Aires after getting an anonymous phone call. Officials are playing down the discovery, saying that the grenades were old and not the type typically used by terrorists.

Back here in the United States, two bus accidents in the Northeast today, both involving schoolchildren. In New Hampshire, officials are investigating a collision between three buses in Bristol. Three hundred and fifty students were riding in five buses in total when three of the buses apparently rear-ended each other. Eighteen students and a bus driver were sent to the hospital with minor injuries. They were heading home from a camping trip.

Meanwhile in New York, another bus accident. The bus, filled with seventh and eighth graders, flipped onto its side after crash with a car. All 42 students on board are being checked for injuries. Officials say more than 50 people were treated at the scene.

And in Iraq, a car bomb blew up in a crowded market in a town about 60 miles from Baghdad today, killing at least eight people and wounding -- and killing also women and children. Dozens more were wounded. The attack was apparently carried out by Sunni insurgents in the mostly Shia town of Hilla. It is the second attack against Shias in as many days.

Wolf, back to you in THE SITUATION ROOM and to our Jack.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Zain.

And let's go right to Jack Cafferty. He's been going through your e-mail. Jack, what are you picking up?

CAFFERTY: Wolf, there are some top generals in this country who told a Senate committee yesterday some pretty ugly things about how the war in Iraq is going, including this. The number of Iraqi battalions able to fight on their own has dropped from three to one, and that insurgents are now infiltrating the Iraqi police and army.

Our question is this. Are we wearing blinders when it comes to the real story in Iraq?

Jon in Odessa, Texas: "Yes, even the terms we use, such as insurgents are slanted and misleading. This is clearly more than scattered extremist riffraff. This is a highly organized resistance movement."

Skip in Naples, Florida: "For the last two years, I lived in Central America, and news about Iraq outside the U.S. is not sanitized as the news here. The American citizen doesn't have a clue about how much their government is hated for what it is doing in the world." Joseph in Oceanside, California: "Washington is in a state of complete denial. Iraq has been lost. It's just a matter of how long it will be before we retreat with our tails between our legs. Iraq will become the new training ground for terrorism, truly one of the most pathetic undertakings since Vietnam."

Chris: "It's gone from bad to worse. There's no distance to go any longer. As many of our military leaders now admit, we've made a lot of mistakes. Let's not continue in that direction. Draw down and get out of there."

And Michael in Coral Springs, Florida: "DeLay is innocent. So are Frist and Rove. The war in Iraq is going well. The deficit will be cut in half by 2009. Brownie did a heck of a job. There is a Santa Claus. Any questions?"

BLITZER: Michael is pretty funny in Coral Springs, Florida. You get a lot of those kinds of e-mails, Jack?

CAFFERTY: We yearn for those kinds of e-mails because you just can't take all this stuff completely serious or you would run out of here and throw yourself in front of a cross-town bus. So, yes, I look for those and thoroughly enjoy reading e-mails from people who have a sense of humor, albeit the subject matter is deadly serious.

BLITZER: All right, Jack. Thanks very much. Good job. We'll get back to you very, very soon.

Still ahead, buyers beware. We'll get the "Bottom Line" on consumer confidence after the Rita and Katrina disasters.

And the Bush administration and the leak of a CIA operative's name. Is the White House anxious about the new and somewhat surprising turn of events in the case?



BLITZER: It's almost time for the markets to close and the closing bell. Let's check in with our Ali Velshi in New York once again for the latest on that and more. Let's start with the more.

VELSHI: Well, the more is that the things we've been speculating about for the last month are coming to pass. We now have numbers in, in terms of consumer spending. We had a lot of numbers this morning -- consumer spending, income, and savings rates.

And it does look like the consumer -- the American consumer -- in the last month has given up more in terms of spending than we've seen since September of 2001. And, obviously in September 2001 the economy had a big, big shock from the attacks.

Well we're now seeing, when you adjust for inflation, a shock that's almost like that. This is not a good sign. It's a sign that we've been hoping we'd avoid. Between the hurricane -- and we haven't seen the full effect of the hurricane in these numbers. We already saw the economy slowing down. Remember, Wolf, that we had high natural gas and oil and gasoline prices for a while before Katrina hit.

We started to see gasoline prices increase at a rate higher than the increase that we had seen in crude oil prices since May. Those refineries had been offline and we saw that at the gas pump. That is starting to affect Americans.

Earnings releases are coming in from companies are talking about the fact that people are spending a little bit less when they go to the store. So those numbers are coming in and affecting the way Americans are spending.

A couple of other things we're following, Wolf ...

BLITZER: Let me just interrupt for a second.


BLITZER: That's about as bad as it gets for retailers, given the fact that it's almost October, getting ready for the Christmas holiday season.

VELSHI: This is when you need it to matter. And the problem is that after September 11, you'll recall, Wolf, that this became a rallying cry for Americans. It became the thing that Americans went and did. They went and spent their money on the holiday season to hold up, to shore up the economy. I don't know that that happens this time around.

Also, gas prices, gasoline prices were a lot lower. So not only is it the, let's go out and do our part for the economy, it's a lot more money to spend. You know, when the president said, curtail nonessential trips, that -- what does that do to the retailers? What does that do to the shopping malls? This country depends on a lot of nonessential travel. So this is not going to be -- it's going to be a challenging season for retailers.

Disney -- Wolf, there's some developments today. This is the day when Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney -- long-time CEO of Disney finally steps down. Bob Iger, the COO of Disney, is stepping into his place. That is the -- you know, it's the end of an era, as it were, so we'll be keeping an eye on that. I bet you the folks at Disney right now are keeping an eye on those fires to see how that's affecting their company headquarters.

And finally, Wolf, the jet fuel prices that we've been talking about, jet fuel is up more than natural gas and more than gasoline. American Airlines canceling 15 round-trip flights because of the price of jet fuel.

We're seeing the markets closing now. They had been down because of the news on consumer spending. Dow closing up about 13 points, almost 14 points higher to 10,568. Over on the right, Dana Bash closing 8 points higher to -- oh, there we go. It's the NASDAQ that's closing 8 points higher to 2,150. But Dana is up in my books, too.


BLITZER: Her stock is going way up. All right. Thanks very much, Ali. We'll get back to you very soon.

It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where news and information from around the world arrive in one place simultaneously.