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People Are Analyzing Bush's Annapolis Speech; Justices Hear Abortion Cases With Roberts As Chief Justice; Some Liken Iraq To Vietnam

Aired November 30, 2005 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Ali.
Welcome to our viewers here in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.

Happening now, an appeal for time and patience in Iraq. President Bush's big speech lays markers for victory. But he refuses to give a timetable for withdrawal. Is it enough to satisfy weary Americans?

Also, this hour, the Democrats firing right back, charging the public deserves more from the president. But from Kerry to Clinton, Democrats have their own Iraq dilemmas.

Plus, Supreme Court tests. New information about nominee Samuel Alito's stand on Roe versus Wade. And John Roberts makes his debut in the abortion battle as chief justice. We'll let you listen in on the arguments.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour, the American people are weighing President Bush's latest defense of the mission in Iraq. He says keeping U.S. troops on the ground until Iraqis can take over will be worth it. But the Democrats charge he offered nothing new, except, they say, a fresh spin on an old plan.

We have our White House correspondents standing by, Dana Bash and Suzanne Malveaux.

We'll begin with you, Suzanne, over at the White House. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, of course, really the timing of this is all very telling, a critical point here. The White House is looking at a very narrow window here, just weeks away from Iraq's national elections, a critical transition point for the Bush administration.

But they are also looking ahead politically to see how the U.S. mission Iraq will play and have an impact on the congressional midterm elections.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): With Iraqi elections a little over two weeks away, President Bush is trying to rally American support.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief.

MALVEAUX: But battling growing criticism of the Iraq war and calls for U.S. troops to come home, Mr. Bush also signaled an eventual withdrawal.

BUSH: We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.

MALVEAUX: But keeping with his strategy, he refused to say when.

BUSH: These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.

MALVEAUX: The president's speech before the U.S. Naval Academy was billed by the White House as the first a series of four, aimed at better explaining the U.S. in addition Iraq. But some dismissed it as little more than administration spin.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, his speech was like the Sherlock Holmes dog that didn't bark. It didn't say a lot of new things. He did not lay out an aggressive or bold new plan for Iraq.

MALVEAUX: But the president gave new details about the state of Iraqi security forces and acknowledged shortcomings in initial training.

BUSH: The civil defense forces did not have sufficient firepower or training. They proved to be no match for an enemy armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, so the approach was adjusted.


MALVEAUX: And we'll see then before the president's plan. They released a 38-page report here, declassified report entitled "The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," to show Americans that the administration does, in fact, have a plan, and they certainly hope that that plan generates at least some concrete successes before those congressional mid-term elections.


BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. Thanks, Suzanne, very much.

As you'd expect, many top Democrats are slamming the president's speech. Mr. Bush's 2004 rival, Senator John Kerry, says Democrats don't want to set an artificial date for a pullout but they do want an estimated timetable. And Bush critics accuse the president of using the troops to try to bolster his case.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the United States.


BLITZER: The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, took her stand on Iraq to a new level today, supporting Congressman John Murtha's call for a quick pullout. House Speaker Dennis Hastert accuses her of flip-flopping.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton took aim on the president on Iraq even before he spoke. Her position on the war is somewhat complicated politically and it may say a lot about her future ambitions.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, for more. Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Senator Clinton has her own position. She faces a dilemma on Iraq just as big as the dilemma President Bush faces.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In 2002, Senator Hillary Clinton voted warily to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I will take the president at his word, that he will try hard to pass a U.N. resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible.

SCHNEIDER: Senator Clinton has not gone quite as far as Senator John Edwards, who wrote recently has his vote for war was a mistake. In a letter emailed to her supporters this week, Senator Clinton writes, "based on the information we have today, Congress never would have been asked to give the president authority to use force against Iraq."

Some Democrats have call for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Senator Clinton has not gone quite as far. She wrote her supporters that President Bush should present a plan for winning the war, not a rigid timetable that terrorists can exploit.

President Bush says the Iraqi security forces are making real progress in fighting the insurgency. Senator Clinton has not gone quite as far. In her message to supporters, she accuses the administration of having "no benchmarks to measure actual progress, which would lead us to believe we had a strategy that was working."

She demands independent measures of success, because like most Democrats, Senator Clinton doesn't go quite as far as to trust President Bush.


SCHNEIDER: That's the third way her husband used to talk about. Don't go quite as far as people on either side of the debate.


BLITZER: All right, Bill, thanks very much. Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst.

John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, other Democratic leaders, were outspoken in responding to the president's address.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I can't summon the Naval Academy here or West Point to be our backdrop to talk about the truth about Iraq, but we can summon the truth. And truth is, that the president draws a false line in trying to make his case to America. The troops don't belong to his point of view. They belong to America, and to Americans. They are Americans.



REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: The plan for victory backdrop against which the president appeared at the Naval Academy today was no more accurate than the mission accomplished backdrop that he used over two-and-a-half years ago on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The president did not have a plan for victory when he went into his war of choice in Iraq, and he did not have a plan for victory today.


BLITZER: The Bush White House is trying to get a fresh start in convincing Americans to stay the course in Iraq. But the president has been talking about Iraq for months. By our account, he's given at least seven major speeches on the war this year and all that talking has not helped his poll numbers.


BUSH: Today the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom.

BLITZER (voice-over): His January 30, speech congratulating Iraqis on their elections marked a high point for the president this year. His approval ratings soon after stood at 57 percent. But it was downhill from there.

May 27, Mr. Bush gives the commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy. By early June, his approval rating was down to 47 percent. June 28 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

BUSH: We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy.

BLITZER: The president marks the one-year anniversary of Iraqi sovereignty, and an overnight poll showed the speech didn't help much -- his approval rating at 46 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President George W. Bush.

BLITZER: October 6, a major speech on Iraq and the war on terror in Washington. Soon after, his poll numbers hit a new low point of 39 percent. This month, Mr. Bush had given two speeches on Iraq and pre- war intelligence even before today's address. By mid-November, his approval rating had dipped even further, to 37 percent.


BLITZER: Another barometer of public opinion on Iraq. In February of this year, nearly half of those surveyed said was worth going to war. Two weeks ago, a little more than a third said it was worth it.

Stay with CNN or a new survey on Iraq we're taking right now. It will be released later tonight. You'll want to stick around and see that.

Just moments ago you heard John Kerry complain that the president often uses U.S. forces as a backdrop for his speeches on Iraq.

Our White House correspondent, Dana Bash, has been looking into that part of the story as well. Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in his formal remarks about Iraq, Mr. Bush almost always does speak before a military audience. The White House says it's because they are on the frontlines and they have the most at stake, but the president's critics say it's because he knows he'll get thunderous applause for the lines on Iraq that he wants to drive home. And they call it stage crap, that sometimes crosses the line.


BASH (voice-over): A sea of midshipman warmly welcoming President Bush for a major Iraq speech at the Naval Academy.

BUSH: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins, so long as I am your commander in chief.

BASH: Another appeal for Americans' patience and support in an increasingly familiar and to some controversial setting -- a military crowd. In the last three months alone, Osan Air Base, South Korea.

BUSH: Setting a deadline for our withdrawal from Iraq would be - quote -- "a recipe for disaster."

BASH: Elmendorf Air Base in Alaska.

BUSH: America will never run.

BASH: San Diego's Naval Air Station.

BUSH: We will stand with people of Iraq.

BASH: And to 10,000 troops and families in Idaho.

BUSH: We will stay. We will fight, and we will win the war on terror.

BASH: Lyndon Johnson tried military settings to boost morale for his unpopular war, even traveled to South Vietnam. But some historians say Mr. Bush breaks with presidential tradition by being so openly political with an audience of troops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, Harry Truman during Korea. They didn't go to military bases to contest what opponents were saying. They would make the argument in a political forum or in a speech before Congress, or in a State of the Union message.

BASH: To Bush critics it is crass.

KERRY: The troops don't belong to his point of view. They belong to America and to Americans. They are Americans.

BASH: The White House defends the events as wartime obligation, not opportunistic.

NICOLLE WALLACE, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS: There is nobody in this country with more at stake and a deeper commitment and a deeper impact on their lives, than the men and women and their families of the United States militaries.


BASH (on camera): And Wolf it is impressive stage craft. Though some call it preaching to the converted and question whether Bush aides choose these backdrops to avoid confronting skeptical, everyday Americans, but appears not to be in dispute is that military settings are comfort zones for the president. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much. Dana Bash reporting for us. Let's go up to New York and check in with our Jack Cafferty for his thoughts this hour.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Did you hear John Kerry say the troops are Americans?

BLITZER: Yes, he did say that.

CAFFERTY: It's comforting to know that our troops are citizens of this country. Stuff you pick up watching television.

BLITZER: I think he wanted to say that we're all Americans.

CAFFERTY: Well, yeah right. You know what? Did you watch the speech?

BLITZER: Yes, I did.

CAFFERTY: I thought it was terrific. And I haven't said that about our president in awhile, but he was good this morning. That was a performance that might be worth five points in the polls. I guess we'll know that a little later. The commander in chief acted like one. He was confident and convincing and his speechwriters left the word nuclear out of the text. I learned some stuff that I didn't know before about how they planned to achieve victory over there.

There were specific examples cited of some of the progress being made in Iraq. At one point, I even thought about enlisting, but then I decided against that. The truth probably lies somewhere between the president's vision of a shining country on a hill, and those who feel that we're hopelessly mired in a no-win situation.

But it was good to see the president get his fastball back. He was good this morning. Here's the question: did the president change your mind on the war? You can email us at or you can go to I don't know if he changed any minds, but he was sure a lot better behind that podium this morning, Wolf, than at some of the speeches I've seen him give recently, when he kind of thumpers around and just isn't very effective.

BLITZER: I think he did an excellent job delivering that speech today. I listened to the whole thing. Read that document the White House released as well. You can go to the White House Web site, it's got some interesting nuggets as well. There's going to be a lot of criticism, as you well know, Jack, and we'll get to that, I'm sure, this hour and next hour.

CAFFERTY: But the troops are American, remember that.

BLITZER: They are. Some of them, by the way, are not American citizens, you know. There are some non-American citizens in the military.

CAFFERTY: What prompts these guys to say stuff like that?

BLITZER: Coming up, the mission in Iraq and U.S. relations overseas. Both seem to be getting more complicated. I'll ask the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, about the fallout from those reports of secret prisons for terror suspects.

Also ahead, inside the U.S. Supreme Court. We'll get a rare chance to listen to the justices as they take on their first abortion case since John Roberts took the helm.

And deck the halls. It's a great way to get into the holiday spirit as Laura Bush shows us the spruced up White House. And we do mean spruced.



BLITZER: At a time when President Bush is trying to rally support for the U.S. mission in Iraq, reports of secret U.S.-run prisons for terror suspects are certainly complicating his efforts abroad and at home. Let's talk about Iraq and the war on terror with the State Department's spokesman, Sean McCormack. Sean, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Let's talk about Iraq first. Listen to the criticism that was expressed earlier by Senator John Kerry.


KERRY: General Casey has said very clearly that it is the large presence of American forces on the ground that feeds the insurgency and makes it more difficult for the Iraqis to assume responsibility, because they don't have to. Our own generals are telling the president that our presence in large numbers is part of the problem, and that you have to begin to reduce that.


BLITZER: What do you make of that criticism? That the U.S. military footprint in Iraq is causing some of these problems?

MCCORMACK: Well, Wolf, I'm not going to jump into a political debate, but I can only tell you what I saw on the ground when I was in Iraq with Secretary Rice two weeks ago.

I saw American forces and talked with some of the commanders on the ground, as well as our folks at the embassy. They're committed to the mission. They're committed to working with their Iraqi colleagues. But they're also committed to turning over as much responsibility as they possibly can, at the earliest possible moment, to the Iraqis, and they're confident the Iraqis are up to the task.

BLITZER: Some Iraqis, though, themselves are critical of what's going on. Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister over the weekend in an interview in London suggested that the torture, the abuse was even perhaps worse than it was under Saddam Hussein. And listen to what he said to CNN earlier today.


AYAD ALLAWI, FORMER INTERIM PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ: I don't know that the government is in full control, whether there are people who have infiltrated the system who are committing these atrocities, but we know that there are serious atrocities that are being committed, whether it's secret police, whether it's torturing chambers, whether it's assassinations. This is going on in Iraq and we are losing as people.


BLITZER: Is he right?

MCCORMACK: Wolf, the American forces, as I point out, are the forces that went into that center, in the middle of Baghdad and freed some of people that were being held, were -- we, along with the Iraqis, are looking into the circumstances of their incarceration and what happened to them while they were held. We have also seen reports elsewhere in Iraq about abuses. We, as well as the Iraqis, are looking into these reports.

Let me just say, there are no free passes when it comes to human rights. The United States stands at the forefront of finding out if there are any abuses and if there are abuses, holding those responsible to account. But I have to point out that it was the American forces that went in to that building in Baghdad and freed those people.

BLITZER: How worried are you about these reports that the Shiite militias wearing government army uniforms are going out, snatching Iraqis Sunnis, torturing them, and killing them?

MCCORMACK: Well, these reports are, again, very concerning, Wolf. And let me just tell you what our policy is with regard to these militias. There can only be one authority that is responsible for enforcing security and stability in Iraq, and that has to be the Iraqi government working with the multi-national coalition forces. There can't be militias operating outside the rule of law, outside the central authority of the Iraqi government.

Now, it's going to have to be up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to figure out how exactly they get to that state, where there is one authority that is responsible for ensuring security and stability in Iraq. But this is a task for the Iraqi government, and it's something that we are watching very closely.

BLITZER: But I think you'll acknowledge that right now, the Iraqis aren't there. There are these separate Kurdish militias, these separate Shiite militias that really operate on their own.

MCCORMACK: Well, there are a number of different militias in Iraq, Wolf. I think that you've pointed out a couple of those. And what the task is now, for not only the Iraqi government but for our trainers, is to integrate all of these forces into one coherent, cohesive Iraqi security force that operates under a strict command and control authority from the central Iraqi government.

BLITZER: The Europeans seem to be up in arms over these reports that the U.S. has these secret prisons in Europe, in Poland and Romania. First of all, does the United States operate secret prisons for terror suspects in Europe?

MCCORMACK: Well, Wolf, I'm not in a position to confirm or deny these allegations. I've seen the news reports. I've talked about these over the past several days it here at the State Department at our daily briefing.

Now, Secretary Rice met with the German foreign minister yesterday and she pledged to the foreign minister that we would provide a reply to a recent letter that we received from Jack Straw, in his capacity as the president of the E.U. regarding these allegations. We're going it respond to the best of our ability in a timely and forthright manner to those questions from the European Union.

BLITZER: But why can't you simply say that the reports are true or false?

MCCORMACK: Wolf, again, this is an issue on which we can neither confirm or deny these allegations, these news reports that have appeared in the newspaper. We understand that these reports are causing some interest and concern among European parliaments and European publics and we are going to seek to address those concerns in as forthright and timely a manner as we possibly can.

But I just want to step back for one second. These questions all arise within the context of the global war on terrorism, which we and European governments as well as other governments around the world are fighting, and fighting that war on terrorism involves all of our elements of power including military, our diplomatic power as well as our cooperation on the intelligence front.

So this is a common struggle for the United States, for Europe, for the E.U. and member states of the E.U., and I think that Secretary Rice is looking forward to answering whatever questions may arise concerning this issue as she travels to Europe next week.

BLITZER: We're out of time so we'll leave it right there, Sean. Thanks very much for joining us.

MCCORMACK: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sean McCormack works at the State Department, the spokesman for the State Department.

Bloggers on the left and the right are heavily dissecting the president's speech today on Iraq.

Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is joining us with the latest online chatter. What are you picking up, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, Wolf. Here's the 35-page report released today by the White House. You can find it on the White House Web page and lots of people are dissecting it online and President Bush is urging the American people to go ahead and read it.

On the right, for example, here is the "National Review" online, their conservative blog, "The Corner." They've been pulling out the section on the Web site that this document refers to, Web sites where the American public can go and read progress reports, for example, this one from CENTCOM about a the training of the Iraqi army.

On the other side Think Progress, for example. They went line by line, dissecting this, looking at what the document has. Then say that it's just a public relations document, and it says that it dismisses the increased violence in Iraq, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi. Thanks very much. Still ahead, new arguments before a Supreme Court with a newly confirmed chief justice. The court takes on its first abortion-related case under the Chief Justice John Roberts. We'll tell you what happened.

And it's a very white Christmas over at the White House. The first lady presiding over the displays and the decorations. We'll take you on a little tour. Stay with us.


BLITZER: CNN's Zain Verjee is off today. But we're very lucky that Fredricka Whitfield is joining us from the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at some other stories making news. Fred, hi.


The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, says it needs more time before it lets the government move accused terrorist Jose Padilla. In a two page order, the court blocked Padilla's transfer from military to civilian custody to face trial in Miami.

The three-judge panel says it needs to know if it should set aside its September decision upholding Padilla's military detention. Both sides must now return within two weeks with their arguments.

A Homeland Security source tells CNN that a ban on sharp objects on passenger planes is about to be loosened. The Transportation Security Administration is expected to announce the rules change on Friday. Under the new guidelines, scissors under four inches long and some tools measuring less than seven inches will be permissible. The change is expected to take effect December 20.

And doctors in France say they have performed the first-ever partial face transplant. A surgical team from two hospitals replaced a 38-year-old woman's nose, lips and chin during the ground-breaking procedure on Sunday. The woman had been severely disfigured in a dog attack in May. Doctors say she is in excellent condition and the transplanted tissue looks normal.


BLITZER: That's an amazing story. We're going to have more on it in the coming hour. Thanks very much, Fred, for that.

Up next, today the court heard its first abortion rights case under the new chief justice John Roberts. We'll let you live in on some of the arguments.

And did the Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito suggest ways to weaken Roe versus Wade instead of trying to overturn it? We'll bring you the details of a newly released document from 1985.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: A big day at the U.S. Supreme Court and for people on both sides of the abortion debate. The justices are hearing their first abortion case since John Roberts became their chief. At the same time, we're getting a new glimpse of how Samuel Alito might rule on abortion if and when he joins the court.

First up, CNN's Gary Nurenberg. He's joining us from the Supreme Court with more on the documents. Gary?

GARY NURENBERG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Alito had documents released by the Justice Department today. And in them, in 1985 in a memo there, suggest that the then-Justice Department might have more success in supporting efforts to limit and regulate abortion than in trying to have Roe versus Wade thrown out.


NURENBERG (voice-over): Alito's memo to his Justice Department boss came as the department was trying to decide what position to take in upcoming Supreme Court cases that could limit abortion rights. Alito writes, "No one seriously believes that the court is about to overrule Roe versus Wade," but he goes on to say that by accepting the cases, the court may be signaling an inclination to cut back.

Alito writes, "There may be an opportunity to nudge the court to provide greater recognition of the state's interest in protecting the unborn throughout pregnancy. I find this approach preferable to a full frontal assault on Roe versus Wade. It makes our position clear. It does not even tacitly concede Roe's legitimacy, and signals that we regard the question as live and open." The disclosure brought quick reaction from supporters of abortion rights.

RALPH NEAS, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY: The American people should realize that Samuel Alito is poised to change 25 years of Supreme Court law that protect women's constitutional rights to reproductive freedom and reproductive health.

NURENBERG: As a federal court judge, Alito has cited existing precedent when ruling to support abortion rights. But the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says that 1985 memo raises questions.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: It is at the same time that he prepared his so-called job application where he said that he did not believe that there was a right to an abortion in the Constitution. And as I say, that will be a central line of questioning. In fact, that's where I will begin the questioning.


NURENBERG: Specter and his Judiciary Committee earlier today got a 64-page questionnaire from Alito. And in it, Alito promises if he sits on the bench to practice judicial restraint.


BLITZER: Gary Nurenberg, thanks very much for that report.

Now, to abortion arguments inside the high court today. It doesn't happen often, but the court released audio of today's give and take on a New Hampshire law requiring teens to tell their parents before they have an abortion.

In his first abortion case as the chief justice, John Roberts asked a lawyer to explain why she thinks the entire law needs to be thrown out when her only real criticism of it is the lack of an exception for teens who have a medical emergency. Listen closely, this is lawyer speak.


JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT: Why should you be able to challenge an act as a whole if your objection is so narrowly focused?


BLITZER: Let's get the translations and insights into Roberts' views in today's arguments. For that, we're joined by our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin.

What did you make of this moment today in the Supreme Court?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, I thought it proved that John Roberts meant what he said when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes that the court should move slowly. This was not a judge, and this was not a court, that was looking for a confrontation about abortion.

Almost the entire argument was caught up in procedural issues about whether the case should be sent back to the lower court for more development of the facts before the Supreme Court even considered the merits. So it was very much a slow-moving, careful John Roberts and court in action today.

BLITZER: So we really didn't get any insight based on the questions the justices were asking how they might come down on this decision?

TOOBIN: Well, you really didn't. I was listening for it the whole time. And there were, from Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg who are clear supporters of abortion rights, they seemed uncomfortable with the New Hampshire law. Justice Breyer, too, at times, also a supporter of abortion rights.

But the center of the court, Justice Kennedy, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice O'Connor, if, in fact, she winds up voting on this case, very hard to read how they felt about the law. They seemed much more interested in sending the case back, seeing how the facts develop, and then considering the issue on the merits.

BLITZER: All right. Jeff, thanks very much. Jeff Toobin, our senior legal analyst. Coming up, winning in Iraq. The president lays out a strategy in a new speech. How are Americans reacting to it? We'll discuss that in our "Strategy Session".

And it's a curious street crime. Who stole actor Gregory Peck's star on the Walk of Fame? We'll tell you what happened.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Today in our "Strategy Session", President Bush lays out his blueprint for victory in Iraq in a speech over at the Naval Academy. Did Mr. Bush score, or did he miss the mark?

Joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM, Democratic strategist Paul Begala and former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke. Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Among other things in this "National Strategy for Victory", this document that the White House released, it says this: "It is not realistic to expect a fully functioning democracy able to defeat its enemies and peacefully reconcile generational grievances to be in place less than three years after Saddam Hussein was removed from power." Sort of lowering expectations.

VICTORIA CLARKE, FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: No, I think maintaining expectations. I went back today and looked at statements from briefings, interviews from the president, Secretary Rumsfeld, others, back at the start of the Iraq war. And they said then, this will take a long time. This is not easy work. Look how long it took our country to get to be the democratic institution that it is.

BLITZER: But a lot of Americans will remember, Torie, the "mission accomplished" banner shortly after Baghdad was liberated to make it sound like the mission was accomplished.

CLARKE: One statement that shouldn't have been said. In that same speech, however, the president said, "Much hard work remains." And I actually think people in this administration, most of them, have been quite consistent about how long this will take and how hard it will be.

BLITZER: What did you think of the president's speech?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought it was interesting, as a former speechwriter for a president, how often he quoted other people. The president's crisis is credibility. In addition to the problems on the ground, which are manifesting and enormous, he has his own problem, which is that the country now believes he didn't tell the truth about the war.

And so when you lack credibility, you can't just stand up and say, I say things are getting better. So here's -- I actually made a list. He quoted Iraqi Private Tar Kazem (ph). He quoted 60 Muslim clerks. He quoted an Iraqi first lieutenant. He quoted a lieutenant colonel from Richmond Hill, Georgia, General Marty Dempsey, an Iraqi army sergeant. He quoted eight different people, because we can't believe him.

BLITZER: But wasn't that a good technique to actually make it sound a lot more credible? He's got actual real named sources for his information, as opposed to anonymous sources?

BEGALA: Yes, he has to do something. He can't -- because we now longer take his word for it. So he says, now listen to General Marty Dempsey, or some Iraqi sergeant you've never heard of.

But he should have done something else, I think. If he wanted to rebuild credibility, he should have used the word "mistake." Nowhere in his 6,400-word speech did he say, I made mistakes. A lot of passive voice, sort of back-door acknowledgements that we've learned from our experience. But if want to rebuild your credibility, you have to say, guys, I screwed it up. I still think the mission is still worth it. Here's how I've changed.

BLITZER: Do you think those criticisms are fair?

CLARKE: I think they're a speechwriter's criticism. But I think this is about much more than this president. This is about a cause and a mission that is much more important. And I wouldn't discount some Iraqi sergeant we've never heard of. That is a very important person who is fighting for his country.

I think it is important to hear from him. I think it's important to hear from our commanders on the ground. They are the people who can tell the American people, this is what it's like, and this is what it's going to take. I think absolutely appropriate to put them in the speech.

BLITZER: Let's listen to a little excerpt from the speech. Listen to this.


BUSH: Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America.


BLITZER: Do you agree on those specific points?

BEGALA: Yes, yes. And there, he's on his strongest ground. He's trying to say, either my way or the highway. My way or cut and run. He's trying to foreclose any notion that there is another strategy for success. Democrats are trying to fill in, Joe Biden, John Kerry, lots of Democrats trying to say they have their own strategy.

But what the president did not do here is what he was doing a week or two ago, which was the politics of personal destruction against people who were calling for a pull out. Instead, he's just saying, don't cut and run. That's a strong argument that he's got, but he's got to fill it in with a credible plan for victory. And I don't think today's speech does it.

BLITZER: What do you think of the criticism that John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi leveled, that he's using all of these military facilities, these bases, the Naval Academy, as sort of backdrop props for these speeches? He's going to these friendly environments because he can't go to, let's say, a campus or something like that?

CLARKE: I've got to tell you, I think they're just trying to make some pretty cheap political shots on the backs of these fine young men and women. And I promise you, just about every single one who was there for that speech today was honored to have their commander-in- chief there giving that speech at this time in history.

BLITZER: Here's what the dilemma a lot of Democrats face, including Senator Clinton from New York state. In her letter that she just released, she wrote this, she wrote, "I take responsibility for my vote," she voted for the resolution. "And I, along with a majority of Americans, expect the president and his administration to take responsibility for the false assurances, faulty evidence, and mismanagement of the war." But she's been a pretty hawkish member of the U.S. Senate when it comes to fighting in Iraq.

BEGALA: And she was wrong. In my view, every Democrat who voted for that war was wrong. That resolution was not, as some Democrats have tried to say now in revising history, well, it was just a threat, and then to authorize -- nonsense. It was a blank check. Everybody who voted for it made a mistake, in my view. And they're going to have to account for that mistake.

BLITZER: So they should do what John Edwards has now done and admit they made a mistake?

BEGALA: Well, what Hillary essentially is saying is, look, I was lied to. And, by the way, so was the majority of the country was on Hillary's side and the president's side on that fight. They were not on my side. But I think that it's tough when basically, you're saying, well, I got duped. And that's what the Democrats are saying.

BLITZER: Button it up for us.

CLARKE: I think a lot of Democrats are going to try to position themselves for 2008 on the backs of this issue, which is a very dicey proposition. I think Senator Lieberman, Democrat of all Democrats, who says, I don't regret my vote one bit. We did it. We did it for the right reasons. And I'm glad we're there, and we have to finish the job. It's more powerful than anything else.

BLITZER: He wrote a strong piece in the "Wall Street Journal" yesterday, supporting the administration.

BEGALA: More wrong than anyone else, by the way.

BLITZER: All right, we'll leave it right there. CLARKE: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Torie, Paul, thanks very much.

BEGALA: Thanks.

BLITZER: Coming up, did President Bush's speech change your mind about the war in Iraq? Find out what Jack Cafferty been coming up with through your e-mail.

And what do you get when you throw Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa together in one giant retail blender? Can you say Christmahanukwanzakah? Let me say it again. Christmahanukwanzakah. If you want to say that, stick around, our 7:00 p.m. hour. We'll tell you what Sir Richard Branson is up to, literally up to.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Some critics of the president's handling of the war in Iraq have likened the conflict to the Vietnam quagmire.

Our national correspondent Bruce Morton compares the situations then and now. Bruce?

BRUCE MORTON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Bush says the U.S. will stay in Iraq until the Iraqis can take control. If you're old enough, you'll hear echoes of that other war there.


LYNDON JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over many years, we have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam defend its independence. Since 1954, every American president has offered support to the people of South Vietnam.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is the decision I have made. In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, our packs (ph) are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.

MORTON (voice-over): The word back then was Vietnamization. When the south could defend itself against the communist north and the Viet-Cong guerrillas in the south, the U.S. could leave. And in 1973, Richard Nixon announced a peace agreement and the American prisoners of war came home.

Could the south defend itself? Many were skeptical. One reporter asked Henry Kissinger, "Doesn't that just mean not on my shift?" Kissinger scowled, but that's just what it did mean. The communists captured Saigon, as it was named then, in 1975, during Gerald Ford's presidency.

Why did U.S. policy fail? General Vo Nguyen Giap told ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, "It's our country," and Ho Chi Minh, though a communist, was also Vietnam's George Washington, who proclaimed its independence from France at the end of World War II.


MORTON: Iraq is different. No Ho Chi Minhs among the insurgents, just killers. And there's at least a chance that next month's elections could produce a government that works.


BLITZER: That would be nice. Thanks very much. Bruce Morton reporting for us.

Another historical note, the president who first expanded the commitment of U.S. forces in Vietnam made a cameo of sorts in President Bush's Iraq speech today. Listen to Mr. Bush and see if these words sound familiar to you.


BUSH: And now it is the calling of a new generation of Americans. We will meet the challenge of our time. We will answer history's call with confidence because we know that freedom is the destiny of every man, woman and child on this Earth.


BLITZER: You heard the line, "a new generation of Americans." John F. Kennedy famously spoke those words in his 1961 inaugural address, saying the torch was being passed to a new generation of Americans.

BLITZER: Still to come, it's been a season of discontent. The devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season is finally coming to a close. But could more storms be in store?

The first human vaccine for bird flu. The U.S. says it will have 8 million doses by early next year. But who would get them? We'll tell you.


BLITZER: Let's go back to CNN's Fredricka Whitfield. I can't even speak today, Fred -- at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Fredricka, that's it. You've got some news making headlines right now. Fred?

WHITFIELD: I do, indeed. That's why so many people call me Fred. It's so much easier.

BLITZER: Fredricka. I can say that.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much, Wolf.

Well, message to hurricane season, good-bye and good riddance. The record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season officially ends today in spite of Tropical Storm Epsilon still out there threatening Bermuda. In Key West, Florida, in an hour from now, they will ceremonially burn the hurricane flag. We expect to tape that live when it happens.

Former President Bill Clinton visited Indonesia's Aceh province, which took a huge hit from last year's devastating south Asia tsunami. He laid a wreath at a mass grave for victims and promised survivors the international community would stand with them. Clinton is touring the region as United Nations envoy for tsunami relief. The December 26 tsunami left 216,000 people in 11 countries dead or missing.

A Hollywood star is missing. Actually, it's late actor Gregory Peck's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Police say someone cut it out of the sidewalk and left behind a big hole. That took place earlier this month. A replacement has already been partially installed. Peck's star was the fourth to be stolen since the Walk of Fame began decades ago.

Now back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Fred.

Let's go up to New York. Jack Cafferty's been going through your email. He's standing by. Jack, I can clearly say your name.

CAFFERTY: I want to say hi to Fred. Fred, are you still there?

WHITFIELD: Yes I am. Hello to you, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Good to see you, dear.

WHITFIELD: Good to see you, too.

CAFFERTY: Fred and I worked together in the mornings on CNN a long time again. And she's really good. She does a terrific job. I mean, we like Zain, but if Zain decided she didn't want to hang out with Wolf and me anymore, you could come do this.

WHITFIELD: You're so funny. I'm Zain's backup. When she wants to take a break, I'm here for her and for you.

CAFFERTY: I'm just trying to cause a little problem.

WHITFIELD: I noticed.

CAFFERTY: Good to see you.

WHITFIELD: Good to see you, too.

CAFFERTY: All right, take care. Question this hour -- and boy, we got a lot of email -- did the president change your mind on the war? He gave this speech in Annapolis this morning. We got over 1,000 emails in about 30 minutes.

A lot of them saying very uncomplimentary things about your humble reporter here because I suggested the president gave a good speech this morning.

Jeremy writes: "While he didn't change my mind or position on things, he provided a bit of clarity for what he's trying to do for once."

Neil in San Diego wrote: "Maybe a better question would be, in the face of new information, is the president capable of changing his mind?"

John writes: "Yes, we still support the president, the American troops, and the mission in Iraq, and against terrorism around the world."

Alan in San Angelo, Texas: "Why didn't the president's speech cite the 80 percent of Iraqis who want our troops to leave their country? And where are the statistics on electrical power generation, safe water, and functional sewage treatment?"

Cane writes from Honolulu, Hawaii: "Like the same fruitcake that's re-gifted during the holidays, Mr. Bush put a new ribbon on an old package and hopes nobody notices. I'm not buying."

And John writes from Philadelphia: "Yo, Jack, what speech did you listen to? It was really just more of the same. I heard nothing specific. Maybe you should join up and go over there."

I don't think that would help, John.


BLITZER: I don't think so either. Jack, thanks very much.