Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Senate Refuses to Extend Patriot Act; White House Has Allowed Spying on U.S. Persons without Court Aprroval, Says the New York Times; Iraqi Elections Boost Bush

Aired December 16, 2005 - 16:00   ET


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

Happening now, the Bush administration spying on phone call and computer messages without the OK of the courts. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where a new report on anti-terror tactics set off firestorm.

Also this hour, the Senate strikes a blow to the president's war on terror. Now, time is running out for the Patriot Act. We'll examine the politics behind the vote and whether you are at risk.

And making it count in Iraq. It's midnight in Baghdad where votes still are being tallied. Will U.S. troops come out as winners? And what about President Bush?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour, the president's terror fighting tactics revealed and at risk. The Senate today refused to reauthorize major portions of the USA Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the year.

Critics complain the anti-terror measure endangers Americans' freedoms and privacy. Those critics got new fuel from a report today that the president secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, in the United States. Sources with knowledge of the program confirm the story that was first reported in "The New York Times."

The move gave the NSA the power to search for evidence of terrorist activity without getting approval from the courts. All this creating new problems for President Bush politically and for his battle plan in the war on terror.

Our correspondents Ed Henry and Elaine Quijano are standing by. They've got details.

Ed, let's start with you.

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one day after the White House caved on John McCain's ban on torture, the Republican Congress dealt yet another blow to his agenda. This was already a fiery debate over the Patriot Act. But this "New York Times" revelation was like pouring gasoline on that fire.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D) VERMONT: This warrantless eavesdropping program is not authorized by the Patriot Act. A secret presidential order based on secret legal opinions by the same Justice Department lawyers, the same ones who argued secretly that the president could order the use of torture.

HENRY (voice over): Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist fell eight votes short of cutting off the filibuster, which means 16 key provisions of the Patriot Act will expire at the end of the month.

The lead Republican trying to save the provisions said "The New York Times" story tipped the balance.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R) JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: Very, very problemsome if not devastating.

HENRY: One Democrat suggested the story was the deciding factor for him.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D) NEW YORK: But I went to bed as I said undecided. But today's revelation that the government listened in on thousands of phone conversations without getting a warrant is shocking and has greatly influenced my vote.

HENRY: But the Republican who helped lead the filibuster said the bill already had big problems, secret search warrants and roving wiretaps that raise civil liberties concerns.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R) NEW HAMPSHIRE: I think the dye was cast well before this story came out this morning.

HENRY: But a leading Republican had a dire warning for the 41 Democrats and 4 Republicans who voted to let the provisions expire.

SEN. JON KYL (R) ARIZONA: God help us if there's some kind of terrorist attack when we are not protected by the Patriot Act, and the act could have enabled our law enforcement or our intelligence people to help protect us. We will have to answer for that.


HENRY: Senator Frist is vowing that he will not bring up a temporary three-month extension of these 16 provisions. He says it is all or nothing. He has the procedural right to bring this bill back up at any point in the next few days. He could do it Saturday, Sunday, Monday.

And the bottom line is the Senate may be stuck in town right up until Christmas--Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed. Thank you very much.

Let's head over to the White House now. The White House very much on the defensive after the huge blow to the Patriot Act and the report on secretly approved spying. What's the White House saying about the NSA eavesdropping story?

Let's go over to the White House. Elaine Quijano is there -- Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, President Bush is refusing to either confirm or deny that report, which as you mentioned first appeared in "The New York Times," that in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the president authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American's international calls and international e- mails without a warrant.

Now, sources with knowledge of the program have confirm to CNN that, in fact, the president did sign that order in 2002.

But today, in an interview with PBS, the president refused to comment on the report.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do not discuss ongoing intelligence operations to protect the country. And the reason why is that there's an enemy that lurks that would like to know exactly what we're trying to do to stop them.

I will make this point. That whatever I do to protect the American people, and I have an obligation to do so, that we will uphold the law. And decisions made are made understanding we have an obligation to protect the civil liberties of the American people.


QUIJANO: And, as we heard, this report has members of Congress very upset. We heard a moment ago, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, is pledging to have hearings on this issue early next year. He told reporters, quote, "there is no doubt that this is inappropriate."

But the White House insists, though, Wolf, that there is in fact congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence activities--Wolf.

BLITZER: What are they saying at the White House, Elaine, about this defeat the president and his supporters suffered on the Patriot Act?

QUIJANO: Well, what they say basically, Wolf, is that it's still not too late. They are saying still that the leadership of the Senate is with them. They continue to urge the Senate to move forward on this, but some people are saying there's no question this certainly is another setback for the Bush administration.

BLITZER: Elaine Quijano reporting. Thank you, Elaine, very much.

Another interesting angle to the story. "The New York Times" reports it delayed publication of this report on NSA spying for more than a year. "The Times" says it was asked by the White House not to publish its findings because the information could be useful to terrorists.

In response to administration concerns, the newspaper says it omitted information from the article published earlier today.

The NSA story has many Americans scratching their heads and asking, how is it that the government can do this?

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is joining us now live with more--Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, how did it start? Well, you can read for yourself online the 2001 Joint Resolution giving the president broad powers to fight terrorism, following that, the following year, this secret executive order.

Now, already in place, since 1979, special foreign intelligence courts that would approve requests for domestic surveillance and those requests have been steadily growing over the years.

In 1999, for example, somewhere in the region of 800. Last year, over 1700 of these requests asked for and approved by these courts. But that wasn't enough. The 2002 executive order circumventing these courts--Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you very much.

And to our viewers please stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

You know that Jack Cafferty wants to weigh in on this story. And Jack is joining us now live from New York with more.

What do you think, Jack?


Who cares about whether the Patriot Act gets renewed? Want to abuse our civil liberties? Just do it.

Who cares about the Geneva Conventions. Want to torture prisoners? Just do it.

Who cares about rules concerning the identity of CIA agents. Want to reveal the name of a covert operative? Just do it.

Who cares about whether the intelligence concerning WMDS is accurate. Want to invade Iraq? Just do it.

Who cares about qualifications to serve on the nation's highest court. Want to nominate a personal friend with no qualifications? Just do it.

And the latest outrage, which I read about in "The New York Times" this morning, who cares about needing a court order to eavesdrop on American citizens. Want to wiretap their phone conversations? Just do it. What a joke. A very cruel, very sad joke.

Here's the question. Was it appropriate for the president to order wiretaps on American citizens without obtaining a warrant? E- mail us at or you can go to file--Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. And they can just do that. Right, Jack?

CAFFERTY: That's correct. Just do it.

BLITZER: They can do it. Just do it like a Nike commercial.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty thank you very much.

Coming up, much more on the president and reports he secretly approved spying on American citizens in this country. We'll consider the fallout and the debate over privacy versus secrecy and security in our strategy session.

And in our next hour, the legal ramifications. Is this all unconstitutional?

Also ahead, a politically charged statement about U.S. troops in Iraq. Why are lawmakers at odds when they're still celebrating Iraqi elections?

And later, many critics wish shock jock Howard Stern would just go away. He is sort of. The story ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. On this day after the historic election in Iraq, votes are still being tallied and the situation remains relatively calm. Officials in the country -- officials in this country, that is, are at serious odds though, once again.

Just a short while ago, the House passed a Republican -sponsored resolution highlighting the Iraq vote. The measure also took aim at Democrats' call for a quick troop withdrawal from Iraq, saying a pullout would not be consistent with victory. Democrats calling that language that was added a cheap political stunt.

The top U.S. general in Iraq is emphasizing today that some troops are likely to come home soon. General George Casey says he expects the troop levels in Iraq to dip back from 155,000 or so to 138,000 by early February.

Over at the White House today, President Bush spoke again about finishing the job in Iraq and he celebrated the Iraqi election with the country's ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Bush also discussed Iraq today with some Republican and Democratic senators. Their takes on the U.S. mission didn't necessarily echo their party's positions.


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: In my opinion, the difference in this town, here in Washington, on the war is not between Democrats and Republicans. It's between people who believe essentially we've already lost in Iraq and it's time to get out and most of the rest of us who believe not only have we not lost but we're winning.



SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think it's important to emphasize, again, there's a long, hard struggle ahead. There's a lot of things that have to be achieved, including the formation of a government. We are guardedly optimistic. But there's a lot of hurdles that lay ahead in this incredible experiment.


BLITZER: Iraq politics front and center at the White House in the days before and after that crucial election.

Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider has been following every twist and turn -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, all in all, President Bush has had a very bad year, but not such a bad week. In fact, maybe good enough to claim this week's political "Play of the Week."


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): This week, President Bush did something unusual for him. He acknowledged mistakes in Iraq.

BUSH: We've adapted our tactics. We have fixed what was not working.

SCHNEIDER: His recent speeches were marked by a tone we haven't heard much from this president. Realism.

BUSH: So we can expect violence to continue.

SCHNEIDER: He even acknowledged the human cost.

BUSH: I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.

SCHNEIDER: All the national polls show the president's approval rating going up over the past month. The payoff for President Bush came when Iraqi voters went to the polls to elect their first constitutional government.

FARID AYAR, IECI COMMISSIONER (through translator): This means that the election was successful.

SCHNEIDER: Iraqi voters around the world were in a mood to celebrate, singing and dancing on their way to the polls, shouting and applauding every vote.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel so happy because it represents the beginning of our new life.

SCHNEIDER: She wasn't the only one who was happy.

BUSH: And there's a lot of joy as far as I'm concerned in seeing the Iraqi people accomplish this major milestone in the march to democracy.

SCHNEIDER: This time, Sunni Iraqis who had boycotted the elections in January voted in large numbers, embracing politics as an alternative to violence. Purple fingers became a symbol of the Iraqi people's triumph over adversity, and President Bush's political "Play of the Week."


SCHNEIDER: Last week, we gave Senator John McCain the political "Play of the Week" when he got Congress to support his amendment banning the torture of U.S. detainees.

This week, McCain got President Bush to reverse course and sign onto the ban. The president refused to treat this as a defeat. "We've been happy to work for him," the president said, "in order to achieve a common objective."

It may, however, be much more difficult for President Bush to interpret the Senate defeat of the renewal of the Patriot Act as any kind of a victory. And with that, the president's pretty good week may have already come to an end -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Bill, thank you very much. Bill Schneider with the "Play of the Week."

Still ahead, setbacks today for the White House on the Patriot Act and domestic spying. But can the Bush administration rebound? We'll find out in our "Strategy Session." That's coming up.

Plus, why is Senator Trent Lott so steamed? The answer in today's "Political Radar." Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. our Zain Vergee is joining us from the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, few things can toss heavy trucks around like toys quite like Mother Nature. From the Midwest to the Northeast, heavy snows causing traffic accidents, school closings, and headaches.

In Ohio, there were several crashes and fender benders; and in North Carolina, some 700,000 homes and businesses began the day without power when trees heavy with ice fell, snapping the power lines.

New York commuters are caught between a rock and a hard place, both sides negotiating a looming transit strike and making few concessions from their demands. New York's Transit Union says they'll strike on Monday morning. The first phase would affect bus service with a strike against transit lines to follow. Meanwhile, the New York's Transit Authority says their latest offer is final. No more talks are scheduled.

In Texas, fires still burn after a predawn explosion at a gas well outside Fort Worth. The explosion left a gaping hole in the ground and ignited fires a mile away. Right now, crews are trying to extinguish the fire and plug the well. One worker at a nearby drilling rig was hurt.

And Howard Stern will no longer heckle politicians, denounce religions, and interview scantily-clad women on FM airwaves. Instead, he's taking his act to satellite radio. The shock jock leaves his FM radio station today for satellite broadcasting. Thousands of fans gathered in midtown Manhattan to bid him farewell and to celebrate his move. Stern starts on the Sirius Satellite Radio network next month -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much.

In our "Strategy Session" today, the Senate deals a blow to the Bush administration on the Patriot Act and a new report says the White House authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. What will be the political fallout of all of this. Plus, after yesterday's elections in Iraq, is there a clear strategy for the next phase?

We'll ask our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala for his thoughts, as well as Republican strategist Rich Galen. Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

On this revelation that the National Security Agency is, in effect, spying on Americans and others here in the United States without getting formal court orders, listen to what Senator Russ Feingold said earlier today.


SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: I hope that this morning's revelation drives home to people that this body must be absolutely vigilant in our oversight of government power.

And I don't want to hear again from the attorney general or anyone on this floor that this government has shown it can be trusted to use the power we give it with restraint and care. This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every senator and every American.


BLITZER: The other argument as you know, Paul, is that extraordinary times after 9/11 require extraordinary measures.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: That's right. In fact, I want to make sure my government is spying on known or suspected terrorists. But they have the tools to do it without breaking the law, and this act by the president may well have broken the law.

There's a law that says you can spy but you've got to get a court order. And if you're spying on someone you think it's a terrorist, you go to a secret court so it's never revealed in public and the bar is very, very low. Over 90 percent of the applications to that court are granted. So there is no good reason for the president to go around the law here.

And that's what's so troubling here, is that you want to have a balance of power, a check and a balance. We want to be spying on the bad guys, but we can't slip away into this notion of doing these things without a court order, or else we have a government of men and not laws. And that's the beginning of a dictatorship.

BLITZER: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this earlier today. "The president of the United States acted lawfully in every step that he has taken to defend the American people and to defend them within his constitutional responsibility, but he absolutely wants to defend the American people."

The argument in favor of this, Rich, as you know, is that sometimes they don't have the time to go to a court and get that kind of formal authorization.

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I was -- as Paul was, I was shocked as well to find out that we haven't been doing this all along. I mean, why would we not do this? Now, just to make sure everybody understands, what the NSA, National Security Agency, has been doing is intercepting cell phone calls from the U.S. overseas.

BLITZER: And e-mail and faxes.

GALEN: Right.

BLITZER: All sorts of communications.

GALEN: But they have to be traveling overseas. They're not intercepting Paul's, you know, calls to me to find out where we're going to have a beer.

BLITZER: But if he's calling a friend in London, they could be listening to that.

GALEN: Absolutely, but it's only about 500 people at a time and it's not widespread. They're not intercepting every one. And, obviously -- Paul knows this better than either one of us -- a president has enormous power. And I refuse to believe that they didn't fully vet this to make sure that he had the power by presidential order to order this on a regular basis.

BEGALA: According to the "New York Times," they did vet it and many people involved in it refused to participate because they thought it was illegal. We have ...

GALEN: Yes, I'll bet you this leak came from the Senate.

BEGALA: We have a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which was passed in the '70s which regulates this. And it's very clear. The government can spy particularly on foreigners. If they want to spy on Americans they have to get a warrant. And if the "Times" is right and if there was no warrant, then Dr. Rice is wrong and the president didn't follow the law here. This could be enormously consequential.

GALEN: Well, I know you more about it then they do, but let me just say that we're at war and I want them doing this. And the fact is ...

BEGALA: But you don't want them going around a court. You don't want them to circumvent. You can't just give the president dictatorial powers.

GALEN: This isn't a dictatorial power. This is giving the NSA the power to intercept overseas phone calls.

BEGALA: Without a court order, phone calls of American citizens. Now we've arrested an American without a trial, without a charge, without a lawyer, Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago O'Hare Airport. We now have the right to spy on Americans' library records, their bank accounts, their credit reports under the Patriot Act.

GALEN: Yes, we do have that.


BLITZER: So, just to be safe, just to be precise, you don't have a problem with this.

GALEN: Absolutely not. I want them to be doing this.

BEGALA: It's illegal without a court order.

BLITZER: But you do have a problem of the timing of this disclosure undermined the extension of the Patriot Act.

GALEN: Sure, I twice said I guarantee this leak came out of the Senate.

BLITZER: Well, they've been sitting on it, the "New York Times" for a year.

(CROSSTALK) GALEN: But every -- the administration told the heads of both the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees, Republicans and Democrats, back in 2001 that they were going to do this. And as those people have changed they've informed the new leader and vice chairman of those committees. So this has not been a secret thing. The Congress has been aware of this.

BEGALA: Let me get back to the timing on this. The "New York Times" says ...

BLITZER: Let me just get to the -- before we do that.

BEGALA: ... they held off for a year. A year ago was the presidential election. So they sat on the story. The Bush White House put this off and until the election was safely won.


GALEN: I'm not blaming the "Times" for this.

BLITZER: The "Times" thought they were acting responsibly and they didn't want to undermine national security. That's what they said.

BEGALA: And I'm sure they're right. I mean, I accept their argument. I have slightly more confidence in the "Times" than in the Bush White House, but that is interesting that it doesn't come out a year ago ...

GALEN: I think that tells you everything you need to know about this discussion.

BEGALA: Only slightly more. They disgraced themselves before the war by taking all the Bush White House lies about WMD. But on this one, maybe you give them the benefit of the doubt, that they sure enough held off revealing this before the election when we could have done something about it.

BLITZER: The "Times" also says they're still withholding certain specific details that they've learned because they're convinced that could undermine national security.

GALEN: I want a special prosecutor.

BEGALA: Well, who's going to investigate this.

GALEN: No, I don't want a special prosecutor.

BEGALA: Senator Specter, Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, we saw him earlier. He's curious.

GALEN: The NSA could refer this, I mean, just like the CIA referred the Plame case, the NSA could ...

BEGALA: This is a potential crime. And somebody should look into this, and it can't be the Bush ... BLITZER: A bunch of senators were over at the White House today talking about the elections that occurred yesterday. Let's listen to Senator Lieberman.


LIEBERMAN: I believe the president has begun a new conversation with the American people, looking back and talking again about why we went into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, why we remain there, why success in Iraq is so critical to America's national security, and how we intend to win.


BLITZER: What do you think of that strategy that Joe Lieberman has? He keeps defending the president strongly.

BEGALA: Well, he believes in that. And good for him. Good for him. But he's slightly -- not slightly -- he's completely redefining why we went in. We went in because our president and Senator Lieberman and others told us there was a threat to America.

We didn't go in there because we wanted Iraqis to vote. I'm glad they vote. I wish they voted in North Korea and in Cuba and China too, but it's not worth my son's life. What's worth my son's life is if there's a threat to America. The president, Mr. Lieberman and others told us there was a threat, they knew or should have known there was no threat. And that's what people are angry about.

GALEN: You're making up that now. Now you're redefining it.

BEGALA: No, I'm not.

GALEN: Oh sure you are.

BEGALA: There was no threat.

GALEN: Now you're redefining it -- yes, of course, there was a threat.

BEGALA: There was no threat to America.

GALEN: Then you have the same view of international policy as your guy Pat Buchanan. He didn't think that World War II was a threat.

BEGALA: There was no threat to America. We're not talking about World War II.


BEGALA: He had no weapons. What was he going to do? Hit us with spit wads. There was no threat to America.

GALEN: No, he did have weapons. He just -- he got rid of them before we got in there. BEGALA: We certainly haven't ...

GALEN: And, by the way ...

BEGALA: This was not a war to give Iraq democracy, this was a war to protect America from a threat, a threat that did not exist.

GALEN: When we threw the Taliban out of Afghanistan, where do you think the al Qaeda guys were going to go? They were going to go to Iraq. They were going to ...

BEGALA: They didn't.

GALEN: Of course not, because we got there first. Good for us.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it there. Rich Galen, Paul Begala, thanks very much to both of you for joining us.

BEGALA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, they're counting votes in Iraq following yesterday's crucial election. Coming up, I'll speak with Senator Saxby Chambliss, who's just back from Iraq, and I'll ask him about the hurdles ahead.

And later, a lighter look at the political year that was. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Let's go to the Iraqi elections now and the report that President Bush secretly authorized spying on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in the United States. I'm joined by Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. He's a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, also, I believe, a member of the Intelligence Committee, as well. Senator Chambliss is just back from Iraq.

We're glad to have you back safe and sound, Senator Chambliss.


BLITZER: Let me read to you what Senator Joe Biden, who's just back -- Joe Biden of the Foreign Relations Committee, the ranking Democrat -- quoted in the "Atlanta Journal Constitution" today as saying this: "I'm not sure we're trading the dictator for chaos. That's the remaining question. For me, the next six months will tell the whole story. The fact of the matter is, we could end up with a Shiite-based theocracy."

How concerned are you of that scenario, based on what you eyewitnessed yesterday?

CHAMBLISS: Well, I was with Joe all day yesterday. And we both witnessed a real exciting event, very historical event for the people of Iraq. For the first time in the history of that country, Wolf, the people of Iraq are going to decide the people that are going to provide the legislative governing body for them. And that's history.

Now, what Joe has reference to is that there is a next step. We've got to have the election certified. We've got to see who the 275 members of the Iraqi congress are going to be, what party they come from. Are they Shia, Sunni or Kurds?

And what we're hopeful for is that, once these time lines are met, once the government is constituted, the new prime minister is in place, the new ministers are in place, the new constitution follows that, and we're very hopeful that we're going to come out with a unified Iraqi government.

We don't know for certain that's what it's going to be. But I think the people of Iraq spoke loud and clear yesterday that that's what they want. They were unified yesterday. And we've got to hope they're going to be down the road.

BLITZER: There's one school of thought -- and we've heard it on the air from some Iraqi analysts -- saying that the Iraqis Sunnis who did come out in big numbers to vote this time, as opposed to the earlier election on January 30th, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to stop supporting the insurgency. They're getting involved in politics, but they're still going to be involved in trying to subvert this new Iraq.

CHAMBLISS: Well, that's true, but it doesn't guarantee they will. But if they hadn't come out and voted, Wolf, I think we know what the answer to that question would be. So I think the fact that you had -- gee, I don't know what the number was, but based on what we heard, somewhere in the range of maybe 2.5 million Sunnis got out to vote.

If that many of them did, that shows that they've got a commitment that they're willing to make to the new government. And part of that commitment hopefully is going to be fighting the insurgency that's causing unrest and violence in their own country.

BLITZER: On the eve of the election, we did a poll, a CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup poll, "Does President Bush have a plan that will achieve victory in Iraq?" Only 38 percent thought the answer was yes; 58 percent thought the answer was no.

Why is the president, at least going into the election, why was he having such a difficult time convincing the American public he knows what he's doing?

CHAMBLISS: Well, Wolf, what's going on in Iraq today is not very pleasant business. It's a mean, nasty war. That's what wars are all about. There's nothing good about wars.

There are a lot of positive stories over there about the reconstruction of schools, hospitals, the teaching of kids now, and so many good things, putting water in sewer and sanitation into places they've never had it before. But that's not being told. That story's not getting out. And what the president is having to face is the drudgery of war, day in and day out. But, yesterday, Wolf, was a clear victory for the war on terrorism. I think president is due a lot of credit for that victory yesterday. But we've got to have more victories down the road, and I really think the way the Iraqi people spoke yesterday, we're going to see that.

BLITZER: Let's move onto this story that erupted today with a bombshell, the "New York Times," a story we've now confirmed, other news organizations have as well, that the president, right after 9/11, secretly authorized the NSA, the National Security Agency, to spy on Americans and others in the United States without getting a specific court order.

Listen to your Democratic colleague, Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: This warrant-less eavesdropping program is not authorized by the Patriot Act. It's not authorized by any act of Congress. And it's not overseen by any court.

According to the report, it's being conducted under a secret presidential order, based on secret legal opinions by the same Justice Department lawyers, the same ones who argued secretly that the president could order the use of torture. Mr. President, it is time to have some checks and balances in this country!


BLITZER: All right. I'd love you to weigh in, Senator Chambliss.

CHAMBLISS: Well, Wolf, you know, Pat's making a very emotional, passionate plea about something totally unrelated to the Patriot Act during the course of the debate on the Patriot Act. It's pretty obvious the timing on this is unique.

Let me just say this: As a member of the Intelligence Committee, obviously, I cannot discuss what goes on in the classified world. But honestly, I don't -- I've never received a briefing on this. Briefings of this sophisticated a program are limited to a very, very few members of the House and the Senate. That's the way it should be.

But let me say this also: Would we rather have somebody who is a known terrorist communicating with somebody in the United States being able to do that and have that story on the front page of the "New York Times" that this is what's going on and the government's going to be looking at these folks down the road or would we rather have the government have the ability to do investigations in very, very limited situations, where we know they're bad guys dealing with people inside the United States, who may or may not be United States citizens?

I don't know whether they were or not. But that doesn't make any difference. But if they're scheming and plotting to kill and harm Americans, should we put it on the page of the "Times" and let the whole world know about it, including those bad guys? Or should we investigate it and should we be able to interrupt and disrupt those types of activities in secret? I think the answer to that's pretty clear.

BLITZER: We have to leave it there. We're out of time, Senator Chambliss. Thanks very much for joining us once again. We're glad you came back safe and sound from Iraq.

CHAMBLISS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Moving on to our "Political Radar" this Friday, Senator Trent Lott is suing his insurance company over his beachfront home in Mississippi. It was leveled by Hurricane Katrina. Like many other storm victims, Lott is caught up in a showdown over whether flood insurance should also cover wind damage from Katrina. The senator pressed his case on the Senate floor today.


SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: The people of the area that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina cannot wait any longer. And I expect this to be done momentarily. And if it's not, there's going to be hell to pay this day.


BLITZER: The House, meanwhile, is moving toward a vote on a bill aimed at tightening U.S. border security. Among other things, the measure authorizes the building of a fence along parts of the border with Mexico, but it does not include a guest-worker program supported by President Bush or a volatile proposal to deny citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants here in the United States.

New fallout from the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger's, decision not to grant clemency to Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Political parties in Schwarzenegger's hometown of Graz, Austria, have started a petition drive to remove his name from the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium. There's considerable opposition to the death penalty in Austria.

These are, in fact, trying times for the California governor. Let's bring in our political analyst, Carlos Watson. He's standing by in California.

Are you in California, Carlos?

CARLOS WATSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I wish I was. It's a lot warmer than New York. I'm in New York as we speak.

BLITZER: But most of the time, you're in California. And I know you spend a lot of time thinking and watching Arnold Schwarzenegger. What's going on out there? How's this likely to end, his political situation this year and next year?

WATSON: Well, Wolf, we're really at a turning point for Governor Schwarzenegger. He started off the year like many Republicans, high in the polls, actually was in the 60s, in terms of his approval ratings, now is below 40 and obviously suffered a big special election defeat.

But two things to pay attention to. Number one, his state of the speech next month, will he author some big new centrist ideas, particularly in terms of covering children's health care and in terms of both education and infrastructure?

And then, number two, how important a role will Arnold play in the Republican brand in 2006? Republicans nationally are suffering. They frequently counted on the governor, both for raising money and his campaign expertise. We saw President Bush use him in Ohio in 2004. Will he be around to do it again? One important Republican told me Arnold is crucial to the brand. "We need him back not only for California but for the country."

BLITZER: You say you're cold in New York. I'm cold here in Washington. A lot of people are cold all over the country. That means that there are going to be some political fallout from all of this cold weather that we're experiencing.

WATSON: Very much so. Wolf, one of the most interesting things you're quietly seeing right now is that, whereas the federal government hasn't seemed to be able to move forward, in terms of an effective policy on high energy costs, you're now seeing states saying, "You know what? If Washington can't do it, we'll do it."

Three particular things are very interesting to me. Number one, you've got states like Massachusetts and Vermont negotiating directly with a foreign country -- in this case, Venezuela -- to try and get cheaper energy prices so that, frankly, particularly older residents can have lower bills.

Number two, you're seeing almost a half a dozen states significantly invest in alternative fuels, whether it's Pennsylvania and coal plants or California and solar energy.

And then, last but not least, you're seeing a number of states adopt what they call cleaner energy standards, everything from making sure that your refrigerator uses less energy to the mix, in terms of wind power, that's used by the state, ultimately changes. So some pretty big moves, although quiet moves by the states. And that may be where the newest innovations, in terms of energy policy, comes from.

BLITZER: On the issue of torture, you accurately predicted Senator John McCain would eventually get his way. He certainly has. What do you see him setting his sights on next?

WATSON: Next up, I would look for some ethics and lobbying reform, if you will, a follow-up to McCain-Feingold. Look for it in the first or second quarter of 2006. Republicans may be happy that John McCain's around in order to blunt some of the ethics criticism that they're certainly to get as the Abramoff scandal takes front and center in the new year.

BLITZER: Carlos Watson, thanks very much. Carlos Watson, our political analyst.

Coming up, Americans spying on Americans. New revelations about secret government eavesdropping here at home. Is it constitutional?

And a present from the president. Japan's prime minister goes for a ride after getting some practice away from the cameras. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's check in again with our Zain Verjee at the CNN Center in Atlanta for a closer look at other stories making news.

Hi again, Zain.


He's an 18-year-old boy accused of killing his girlfriend's parents after an argument. Now police say they'll seek the death penalty against him. Pennsylvania officials say David Ludwig killed the girl's parents last month after her father told him he could no longer see her. Ludwig then ran off with the girl, 14-year-old Kara Borden. At the time, it was unclear if the girl was involved. Today, officials cleared her of wrongdoing.

In Australia, lovers of Sydney's beaches are being told to stay home for the weekend. Police say that they have credible evidence that racial violence is being planned. Last Sunday, about 5,000 people took to one of Sydney's beaches and sparked a race riot that spread to other parts of the city. A massive security operation's been launched. It's actually being described as the biggest security operation since the 2000 Olympics.

And he often travels by secure motorcade, but look at this. This is Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. He's now using alternate means of transportation. Yes, this. Prime Minister Koizumi rode into his official residence on a Segway today. President Bush actually gave the prime minister the gift, this two-wheeled vehicle, at the U.S.-Japan summit last month in Kyoto. And Junichiro Koizumi, Wolf, says that he just got back from Malaysia and he had to practice his maneuvers a little bit before he could make it to work today that way.

BLITZER: I think we have tape of that. It looks like he's almost going to fall. Have you ever done one of those, Zain?

VERJEE: No, I haven't. But I have skateboarded, but I haven't done that.

BLITZER: Watch this tape. He looks like he's moving along pretty steadily.


Watch this. He's moving along. And then it looks like he's going to take... (LAUGHTER)

VERJEE: Uh-oh, almost.

BLITZER: We're getting close.

VERJEE: He says that...

BLITZER: Watch this. Watch, watch, watch. It's coming up close, near the end of this tape. It looks like he might take a tumble. I don't know if he does or he doesn't.

VERJEE: He says it's pretty comfortable and, you know, he enjoys riding it. And did you know, by the way, Junichiro Koizumi is a huge Elvis fan and he has one of the biggest Elvis collections in the world? So maybe the next president can be, you know, some sort -- present can be a tribute by the president to Koizumi for Elvis. That was a mess.

BLITZER: He did an excellent job on that. Zain, thank you very much.

Christmas in the culture wars, as we get closer to December 25th. The House has approved a resolution designed to protect the symbols and traditions of Christmas for those who celebrate it. But 22 lawmakers voted against the measure saying what really needs to be protected is the Christmas spirit.

Meantime, a new poll finds Americans prefer a "Merry Christmas" greeting over nonreligious welcomes, such as "Season's Greetings." But the Pew poll also shows the public isn't all that concerned about the Christmas versus holiday season debate. The debate, though, will continue.

Up next, spying on Americans. Was it appropriate for the president to order wiretaps without warrants? We're going to hear what you have to say.

And what has Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman got against Black History Month? We'll tell you. That's coming up in the 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's go back to Jack Cafferty in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the "New York Times," pretty good story on Page 1 this morning. President Bush signed a secret order after the 9/11 terror attacks. In the "Times" story, it's reported that this order allows the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens without first getting a warrant.

So the question this hour: Is it appropriate for the president to order wiretaps on American citizens without a warrant? Got to be kidding me. Linda in Newport News, Virginia, writes, "The fact the president of the United States authorized spying on its very own citizens should send chills down the spines of every person in this country. When the president took office, he swore to uphold the Constitution. He has not done so. He should be impeached."

Paul in Santa Clara, California, "Nyet, nyet, a thousand times nyet. If wiretaps are not controlled, the president has the ability to interfere with the rights of free speech, religion, assembly, protection from illegal search and seizures, even the right to vote, not to mention the privacy of any American."

Phil in Rochester, New York: "Not only is it not OK, the 'New York Times' has also done the general electorate a significant disservice by sitting on this story for over a year. This is the kind of underhanded behavior the populace had a right to know about before the 2004 presidential elections."

Jerry in Sandston, Virginia: "I want President Bush to catch every terrorist he can. I have nothing to hide, so he can tap anything he wants."

Fred in Auburn, New York: "No, no, and no. Bush has no such authority. He has simply made a mockery of everything American used to stand for. Is it impeachment time yet? I guess we'll know after the changing of the guard next year in November."

And Norma in Richmond, California: "Bush's abrogation of the Bill of Rights makes perfect sense in the war on terror. Since terrorists hate us for our freedoms, if we get rid of our freedoms, they won't hate us anymore. We'll all be the same, and peace will then prevail. See how simple it is?"

BLITZER: Not simple at all, but we'll move on from that, Jack. Thanks very much. And we'll check back with you very, very soon.

Still to come, President Bush had quite a year. Now one website offering some comic relief. And we're going to share it with you.

And it's a time-consuming but all-important count in Iraq. Counting is under way one day after the country's national elections. I'll speak with Washington State's Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell about her impressions. She was there. She's just back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Let's get an animated look now at the past year over at the Bush White House. It's the latest online video spoof on Take a look at this.


GEORGE W. BUSH IMPERSONATOR (singing): There is a great sense of urgency. We've got to squash the insurgency. My approval rating's in the dive. Hope it's not another year like 2-0-5. A leak investigation got my White House in a snarl. There's a special prosecutor after my friend, Karl. And our energy dependency has put me in a bind. Now, don't worry about Alaska. It'll be just fine.

My appointee was a big flop. The housing market is about to fop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALES (singing): With record profits at the pump...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): I drive an SUV and take it in the rump.

UNIDENTIFIED MALES (singing): All of our jobs gone overseas...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): ... sweet, I make $1.73.

BUSH IMPERSONATOR (singing): Well, Katrina, FEMA, Gitmo, too, the last thing I need now is the avian flu.


BLITZER: Very funny. The JibJab creators have gotten a lot of attention over the past year. Not only tens of millions of viewers have gone to that website, but also a deal with Microsoft, a spot on late-night TV, and even a lawsuit.

Here now with more on this online phenom, our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, if viewers want to see that video in its entirety today at the JibJab website, they're going to have to have some patience. This site is being absolutely slammed today. These are very popular online, these videos. This one playing behind me, "This Land" from 2004, got over 80 million views last year.

Past political parodies have dealt with the 2004 election and Bush's second term. The most recent, you'll find all sorts of issues, everything from Hurricane Katrina to pirates in Somalia. You won't see a mention of the issue of torture; the JibJab founders wanted to include that, but they didn't have time.

Wolf, expect more from them in 2006.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you very much.