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The Situation Room

Fierce Battles In Senate Over Alaska Drilling, Budget Cuts and the Patriot Act; Cornyn Says Clinton Also Engaged In Domestic Spying; Jose Padilla Will Remain An Enemy Combatant In Military Custody; Stress Fractures Found On Seaplane; Pirro Calls It Quits;

Aired December 21, 2005 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much. To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.
Happening now, new fallout from that deadly seaplane crash in Florida. Only moments ago, the plane's fleet was grounded. The airliner. We'll talk live with the acting chairman of the national transportation safety board. He's standing by.

President Bush sounding alarms about national security. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington, where key anti-terror legislation is in limbo. It's a high-stakes game of political chicken. Who will come out the winner, if anyone?

Also this hour, new chapters in the Bush administration's spy drama. A judge calls it quits. Is it a protest to the president's decision to order wiretaps without warrants? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Here in Washington this hour, a rush of frantic activity, some high tension and lots of emotions as President Bush keeps on insisting America's security right now is hanging in the balance. Today, he's blasting Democrats who are blocking renewal of key portions of the USA Patriot Act. Now time is running out for this Senate's session and for the anti-terror law.

Let's go to the White House. Our Suzanne Malveaux is standing by there and Ed Henry is on Capitol Hill. Suzanne, first to you.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As you know, they are running out of time. They have 10 days left before the Patriot Act expires. We understand senator Arlen Specter and others are working behind the scene to come up with a deal to push this through.

Obviously for this president here, this is a critical piece of legislation. He's put a lot of his own political capital into this as he emphasizes the need for a national security. Also comes at a very difficult time for this administration.

Members of Congress preparing for hearings early next year as to whether or not President Bush overstepped his bounds on pushing through a domestic spy program.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): Countdown to the holidays and President Bush isn't close to getting a break.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Our goal is to mend it or extend it, not end it.

MALVEAUX: Wednesday, the president and Democrats were fully engaged in a high stakes political game of chicken. At issue, the renewal of the administration's broad anti-terrorism law, the Patriot Act.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In order to protect America, the United States Senate must reauthorize the Patriot Act.

MALVEAUX: While many Democrats and some Republicans are blocking the vote on the measure because they believe it violates civil liberties, Mr. Bush insists it's essential to national security.

Eight Republican senators join Democrats in urging the president to extend the act for another three months to allow for more debate. But Mr. Bush made it a point to stop before cameras to insist Congress renew the law in its entirety, before it expires by the end of this year.

BUSH: The expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers.

MALVEAUX: And he sent his surrogates out to reassure Americans the act would not violate their civil liberties.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Common sense says that tools that have been used without any significant impact on civil liberties.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The Patriot Act includes many protections for civil liberties.

MALVEAUX: But that message continues to be overshadowed by the controversy over a secret domestic spy program. More political fallout came Wednesday after a federal judge, who sits on the court that reviews that spy program, abruptly resigned.

The "Washington Post" reported Judge James Robertson quit in protest of the controversial program.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't know the reason why the judge resigned from the FISA court.


MALVEAUX (on camera): Wolf, I continue to talk to people inside the White House, as well as Republican insiders, who believe that they do not think that this issue is going to overshadow the legislative agenda.

They believe when members of Congress go back to their constituents over the holiday, that this is not something that Americans are going to sit down over the dinner table and discuss, necessarily.

They say it is important for the administration and specifically for the president to continue what they say is walking a nice edge between civil liberties and security, but that ultimately they believe the American people will back the president on this issue, Wolf.

BLITZER: What is the White House response when members of the Senate say give us another three months to review this USA Patriot Act. We can do it properly. In the meantime, all the provisions remain intact?

MALVEAUX: They aren't going for that. Essentially, they'll point to Senator Bill Frist and say that he's not endorsing it either. The thinking behind this is that keep the momentum going here.

You've got members of Congress, they are debating this, they are talking about this. Let's not put this off for another three months. Let's keep the pressure on and perhaps we'll get everything that we're looking for. All of those provisions approved by the end of the year.

BLITZER: That's the White House line. Thanks very much, Suzanne Malveaux reporting for us from the White House.

On Capitol Hill, there's no shortage of drama. In addition to the USA Patriot Act cliffhanger the vice president cast a tie breaking vote earlier today and Republicans suffered a major defeat on an important issue.

Our Congressional Correspondent, Ed Henry, is trying to follow all of these developments. Ed, pick it up with the first story on your agenda. What's going on?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The action is fast and furious. Starting with the budget, but also dealing with the Patriot Act. Senators desperately trying to get home for the holidays and dealing some victories and defeats to the White House along the way.


HENRY (voice-over): Signs of high drama everywhere. Vice President Cheney arriving early to cast tie breaking votes. Senator Ted Stevens sporting his lucky incredible hulk necktie, hoping it would help muscle through a big bill. And Senator Chris Dodd hobbling in after surgery because Democrats were desperate for votes.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Had a full knee replacement two weeks ago.

HENRY: Cheney cast the deciding vote to help Republicans eke out a budget deal with $40 billion in spending cuts. DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The vice president votes in the affirmative.

HENRY: But Stevens was dealt a stinging defeat when the Senate blocked his attempt to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. With the help of Dodd, Democrats beat Stevens by arguing the provision should not be included in a defense spending bill.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Our military is being held hostage by this issue, arctic drilling.

HENRY: But Stevens is vowing to get his way, even if it keeps the Senate around for the holidays.

SEN. TED STEVENS (R), ALASKA: I can't go home for Christmas. I've already canceled. I've already canceled my trip. I spent one time before in the chair on New Year's Eve. I don't look forward to it, and I want you to know we're going to be here until then. Until we settle this problem.


HENRY (on camera): Wolf, at this very moment, senators are shuttling in and out of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office, desperately trying to work out a deal, extending the Patriot Act as you heard Suzanne talking about.

On the way over, I spoke to Senator Arlen Specter on his way to Frist's office. He said, quote, we're working desperately trying to get this deal. He repeated, they will not accept a short-term extension, but he also said the White House, in his words, has taken some positive steps.

They are trying to basically log roll and have some sort of a deal where the senators who voted for the filibuster will now go against the filibuster in exchange for getting votes next year on amendments that would try to bring back some civil liberty protections on some of the things they are concerned about. Not there yet, but they say they are close.

BLITZER: They are not going to do a three month extension. Is that what you are saying?

HENRY: They are saying absolutely not, although, never say never. Absolutely not is what they are saying now as their negotiating stance.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Ed Henry on Capitol Hill.

There's a developing story we're following here in Washington this hour. A federal appeals court has rejected the government's bid to transfer the enemy combatant, Jose Padilla, from military to civilian custody.

This is a complicated story. That's why we've asked our justice correspondent Kelli Arena to help us better understand what's going on.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The appeals court today basically denied the government's request to transfer Padilla from military to civilian custody.

Let's backtrack a bit. Padilla is a U.S. citizen. He's been held for nearly four years without being charged in a military brig in South Carolina. About a month ago, the government finally charged him and asked the appeals court to transfer him to civilian custody so he could face trial.

Well, this appeals court had already ruled the government had the right to detain enemy combatants in the United States. That ruling was challenged by Padilla's lawyers, and we were waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court would actually hear the case.

Today the appeals court says it's important for the high court to rule on that issue and so it's denying the government's request. Now in its ruling, the judges wrote that the government's new request has, quote, given rise to at least an appearance that the purpose of these actions may be to avoid consideration of our decision by the Supreme Court.

Now the government had no immediate comment. We're also trying to reach Padilla's lawyers as well, so it looks like Jose Padilla will remain an enemy combatant in military custody indefinitely now, Wolf. We'll see what happens.

BLITZER: I take it it's a setback for the administration because they changed his status from military to civilian only days before this appeals court was going to make a ruling, which I suspect they felt was going to go against the administration and that's why this appeals court today is ruling against the administration. Is that right?

ARENA: There was always a chance that the Supreme Court would rule against the government, which, of course, would be a very definitive word. The appeals court today saying, hey, wait a minute. Even if that's not what you are trying to do, it looks like you are trying to do that and you are not going to use this court for those types of political purposes.

Let this travel it's course, let the Supreme Court decide weather or not it's going to hear that case, and if it does let it make a decision, because this is really important stuff and we need to have some clear direction as we fight this war on terror.

BLITZER: Excellent explanation of this complicated story, Kelli, as usual. Thank you very much.

ARENA: You're welcome, Wolf.

BLITZER: Now another story that's still breaking this hour. Federal investigators say the seaplane that crashed off Florida had cracks in its air frame that went undetected, unnoticed by the airline apparently for a long time. Just moments ago, the Associated Press reported that the airline Chalks Ocean Airways, voluntarily grounded its entire fleet for inspection. Now the cockpit voice recorder from that seaplane that went down has been found and has arrived here in Washington.

Investigators raised a large part of the fuselage earlier today and while the investigation continues into the crash that killed all 20 people on board, we're going to get some answers from the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Mark Rosenker is joining us from Miami. Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us. Is it true that this wing that you have now recovered had that fracture, that crack in it, that possibly could have been a cause for this plane going down?

MARK ROSENKER, ACTING NTSB CHAIRMAN: Well, we certainly saw fatigue fractures and we've actually taken a section of that wing spire cap and we're sending it back to Washington. It's on its way right now for further investigation from our materials laboratory at our headquarters.

BLITZER: How often under normal circumstances -- and this is an old plane. It's almost 60 years old, these seaplanes. There's a small fleet of them that this airline uses. How often would you check for those kinds of stress fractures?

ROSENKER: Actually, it's a very sophisticated test that's required in order to do that. So we're taking a look at the manuals, but there may well not have a requirement unless there's air- worthiness directives or FAA requirements.

Because it's such an invasive type of a investigation and test, that it's rarely, rarely done, unless there's a reason. Right now clearly there's a reason to be looking at the rest of the fleet.

BLITZER: So none of these seaplanes for the time being are going to be flying anyplace in the United States. Is that right?

ROSENKER: This model, that's correct, with Chalks.

BLITZER: And just to be precise because we're showing our viewers that exclusive amateur video -- you've seen it. We've seen it. There's no doubt that it was the right wing that burst into flames and that wing had the engine attached to it as well as fuel in the wing, is that right?

ROSENKER: That's correct. It's what we call a wet wing, which means gasoline is in the wing tank in the wing itself and in reality, we were able to get that. That was the first piece we were able to recover, and that's when we recognized late last night that we had an issue here with fatigue fractures.

BLITZER: What do you expect to learn from the voice recorder that is now in the hands of the NTSB, I assume, by experts here in Washington? ROSENKER: Well, we'll certainly understand the initial takeoff phase of the aircraft. Hopefully we may learn something if there are any noises. We may hear the wing crack, an explosion perhaps. There air number of things that we will learn from the cockpit voice recorder if we're able to read it out.

BLITZER: At what point will you release the transcript of the exchanges, if there were exchanges, between the two pilots on board and the air traffic controllers?

ROSENKER: Normally what happens in an accident like this is we give some facts about the cockpit voice recorder and what might have been said, not verbatim transcripts. At the end of the investigation, as part of the investigation file and report, verbatim would then be provided.

BLITZER: And would we actually hear the voices at some point as well?

ROSENKER: Never. Never. The actual voices, the actual recordings are never publicly available.

BLITZER: And the reason for that is?

ROSENKER: The privacy and the dignity of the people involved.

BLITZER: Have you recovered all of the planes so far that you are still searching in the waters off Miami Beach for more parts?

ROSENKER: We're fairly satisfied that we've got virtually all of the aircraft that we're going to need to do this investigation. The aircraft is on a barge right now. It's being -- wouldn't surprise me right now if it's actually being unloaded in a secure area.

It will be put in that area, laid out. We will inventory what we have and begin the actual close-up investigation of the parts of the aircraft and understand what we have.

BLITZER: Will you try to recreate that plane in a hangar as we've seen with that TWA flight off the coast of Long Island? Will you try to do that?

ROSENKER: No. What we will do, Wolf, is actually just lay it out on the floor in an area where we can understand where the parts are supposed to be but not build anything around with a frame.

BLITZER: One final question, Mr. Rosenker, before I let you go. A lot of viewers watching this, they hear about a 58-year-old plane, almost a 60-year-old plane and they are wondering, is it safe to fly these older planes even if they have been modernized, retrofitted, even if they have been updated? How worried should they be when they get into these older planes?

ROSENKER: If they meet the air-worthiness standards, then clearly I'd be flying any plane like that. BLITZER: Well, you raised that question. If they meet the air- worthiness standard, what you suggested earlier -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is it's -- oh, we just lost Mark Rosenker. Are you still there Mr. Rosenker?

ROSENKER: I am, Wolf. Yes.

BLITZER: If you have to have these routine tests to make sure the planes are air-worthy and you don't know if this specific Chalks Ocean Airways plane had that kind of test to determine whether it was really air-worthy. Is that what you are saying?

ROSENKER: Well, we're going to take a look at all of the manuals. We're going to take a look at also the maintenance records to get a much better understanding of the condition of the aircraft.

BLITZER: Mark Rosenker is the acting chairman of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board. You have got an incredibly difficult mission ahead of you, you and your entire team. Good luck. We're all counting on you to get to the bottom of this so that, God willing, it will never happen again. Thanks very much, Mr. Rosenker.

ROSENKER: We'll do that, Wolf, and have a good holiday.

BLITZER: Good holiday to you as well.

Time for Jack Cafferty. He's in New York watching this and a lot of other stories as well. Hi, Jack.


President Bush said he wanted him dead or alive, remember, right after the September 11th attacks. Now, more than four years later, nobody is really sure what Osama bin Laden is up to, if he's up to anything at all.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he thinks it's interesting that we have not heard from the al Qaeda leader in close to a year, and if he's alive he's probably spending most of his time trying not to get caught.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I have trouble believing that he's able to operate sufficiently to be a -- in a position of major command over a worldwide al Qaeda operation. But I could be wrong. We just don't know.


CAFFERTY: Well, now that's a comfort. But with or without bin Laden, we've seen al Qaeda's continued ability to pull off attacks around the world. So here's the question this hour. Does Osama bin Laden still matter? E-mail us at or go to I don't like hearing those guys four-and-a-half years after September 11th going, we don't know. BLITZER: Whether or not he matters it would still be good to catch this guy and bring him to justice one way or another.

CAFFERTY: Or even better, find his body.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be nice. All right, Jack. Thanks very much. We'll get back with you soon.

Coming up -- did a past president do what the Bush administration has done? Approve secret wiretaps without court orders? It's a he said/she said debate. We're going to sort through all the legal realities. That's coming up.

Also ahead -- the president and the USA Patriot Act showdown. Are the parties taking gambles that could threaten our security?

And later, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton unbeatable? At least one Republican may think so and she's calling it quits. We've got new details. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, bombshell allegations by Saddam Hussein. At his trial in Baghdad today, the ousted Iraqi president claims that he and his seven co-defendants were beaten and tortured by their American guards.

A U.S. embassy spokesman calls the allegations, "bogus." The trial's chief prosecutor says he will investigate and will transfer the custody of Saddam Hussein to Iraqi force if the claims have merit.

A stunning turnout in Iraq's recent parliamentary elections. The Iraqi electoral commission says nearly 70 percent of all Iraqis eligible to vote cast ballots. It says there were more than 10 million valid votes. Final results from last Thursday's election are expected after the 1st of January.

And New Yorkers are bundling up for the cold trek home. And New York City officials are stepping up the pressure on striking bus and subway workers to go back to work. A New York state judge wants to hear from the Transit Workers Union president tomorrow. The judge says he may grant sentence union leaders to jail if they don't end the two-day-old strike. Wolf?

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much. We're going to get back to you very, very soon.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, federal investigators make several key finds in that deadly crash of the vintage seaplane off Miami Beach. What they found and what the plane's owner is now doing, that's coming up. We have more information on that story here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And a shake-up in the New York Senate race. A big one. Will it change things for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as she seeks a second term? That's coming up as well, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There's plenty of finger pointing going on over the domestic spying controversy now hanging over the Bush administration. A key Bush ally, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, contends the Clinton administration essentially did the same thing. Here's what Senator Cornyn told me last night right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: 1994, Jamie Gorelick on behalf of the Clinton Justice Department testified that they considered -- that President Clinton considered it within his constitutional authority to order wireless surveillance of potential terrorist operatives from a foreign power. And, you know, it goes back to an executive order signed by Ronald Reagan and others.

BLITZER: Were those American citizens?

CORNYN: Well they include American citizens, if it was connected with foreign power, agents of a foreign power.

BLITZER: Without a court order?

CORNYN: That's correct.


BLITZER: Cornyn was citing congressional testimony by then Clinton Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick back in 1994. At that time, Gorelick said the president has, and I'm quoting now, "Inherent authority to conduct warrant-less physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes."

Gorelick now tells us the Clinton administration never had to use that authority because Congress extended the so-called FISA legislation to include physical searches. And she says the Clinton administration never sought authority to wiretap -- to wiretap, without a warrant.

Let's try to sort through all of this with our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Did the Clinton administration essentially suggest they were entitled to do exactly what the Bush administration has now done?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I think we will all have advanced law degrees by the time this conversation is finished. The answer is, no, not exactly. What the Clinton administration said all along is that they believe that they were following the FISA statute. That they thought that the FISA statute was all the authority they needed to conduct the surveillance they did. However Jamie Gorelick did say in that comment that there was certain inherent authority. The Clinton administration never used that authority as far as they were concerned. And I think that's where the conflict is here, because what the Bush administration and Senator Cornyn are saying is that inherent authority is broader than what Congress gave in FISA. And that, I don't know if anyone knows whether that's correct, but that's the real difference here.

BLITZER: I remember I was the -- CNN's White House correspondent in '94 during that era. And as best as my recollection was, what the Clinton administration Justice Department, including Jamie Gorelick, what they were arguing was that U.S. authorities could go ahead and wiretap or even search.

I guess, physically search embassies, foreign embassies here in Washington, consulates elsewhere around the country without necessarily going for a formal court order. And if Americans got sort of caught up, got caught up in the process, maybe that was too bad.

TOOBIN: Well, what they were -- I mean it was a little tighter than that. They said that that surveillance could not include Americans. The executive order said it could not include any surveillance of Americans, and that's what -- and that's how the executive order proceed.

What's different about certainly the senator -- the approach that Senator Cornyn was suggesting was appropriate is that there was inherent authority in the presidency, in Article II of the Constitution, that is simply beyond what Congress needed to give in any law.

And that's certainly what Vice President Cheney has been saying all along and that's really, I think, the conflict that's at the heart of this controversy.

BLITZER: Here's the point that Senator Cornyn and many other Republican supporters of the administration make in Gorelick's own words, when she said that the president has, quote, "Inherent authority to conduct warrant-less physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes."

That's the direct quote that she made. And what they argue, the Republicans, Senator Cornyn included, is physical searches are no different, in effect are the same as wiretapping.

TOOBIN: Well the statement, as I understand it, and here we're getting into some real details. In 1994, when Jamie Gorelick made that statement, physical searches were not covered by the FISA law. And that was changed in 1995. But I think the general point you're making is right.

Jamie Gorelick at least appeared to say there were certain inherent powers in the presidency that went beyond what FISA provided for. The Clinton administration always asserted they never went beyond those powers, but there does appear to be a statement claiming inherent authority. The Bush administration now appears both to be claiming that authority and perhaps using it in this very controversial program that we've been talking about since last week.

BLITZER: But there's no evidence that the Clinton administration actually went ahead and wiretapped American citizens without informing or using the FISA court?

TOOBIN: Absolutely not. In fact, what the Clinton administration has said and did was that they followed the FISA law, and the FISA law prohibited wiretaps of Americans without a court order.

BLITZER: When we discussed this yesterday here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we spoke with the former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, who made the point that one reason why they wanted to change the rules after 9/11 was because there would be a lower threshold, a lower standard for going forward with these wiretaps without the FISA court orders. It wouldn't be probable cause as much as it would be some sort of reasonable cause. And that was a lower threshold than what FISA would require.

TOOBIN: Well, that's right. FISA -- I mean, FISA's not all that big a hurdle, it's worth pointing out. Of 19,000 applications under FISA, five have been rejected. So it's virtually a rubber stamp. But it is some sort of hurdle, and the Bush administration, as former deputy director McLaughlin said yesterday, they wanted to reduce that hurdle to the extent they could. The question is, under the Constitution, are they allowed to do it?

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, Jeff. Victoria Toensing has called us. She's a former Justice Department official. She's a well- known Washington attorney.

Vickie, you're hearing the discussion I'm having now with Jeff Toobin and you wanted to weigh in. So go ahead. What's your point?

VICTORIA TOENSING, FORMER JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Clinton administration did carry out that authority when they went into Aldrich Ames' house without a warrant and they argued before the House, Jamie Gorelick did, that they had the inherent -- the president had the inherent constitutional authority to do so.

BLITZER: Did they go to the FISA court after the fact, do you know, Vickie?

TOENSING: Well, I don't know if they got a warrant after the fact, because their position was in her testimony, was that the president, and I quote, "has the inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes." And the interesting thing about this is it was actually a criminal case by that time because they were looking at Aldrich Ames as committing espionage.

BLITZER: Aldrich Ames was the former CIA analyst who was convicted and serving a life sentence for spying for the then-Soviet Union. Jeff, are you familiar with the technical points of that Aldrich Ames search?

TOOBIN: You know, I really am not. It's worth noting that Aldrich Ames pleaded guilty, so there was never a court test (ph) of the appropriateness of that search. So no court ever passed on it. But how -- what authority was used, I am afraid to say, I certainly just don't know what was used.

TOENSING: Well, I can tell you what Jamie Gorelick said before the House committee.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

TOENSING: She said, "We relied on the inherent authority of the president to conduct warrantless searches." That's a quote.

BLITZER: Do you know of any other examples, Vickie, besides the Aldrich Ames example that you cite?

TOENSING: No, I don't, but I'm well aware of that one. So they did -- nobody was crying for impeachment when Bill Clinton did it in the Aldrich Ames case.

BLITZER: And we don't know if they subsequently went to FISA, because they do have up to 72 hours after a warrantless wiretap to go ahead and get FISA to sign off on it.

TOENSING: Well, I suspect that they didn't, or they would have said it. And the ACLU was very upset, so the purpose of the hearing was to see if legislation was needed in order to give that authority.

BLITZER: Victoria Toensing served in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. She was watching our program, called us in. And thanks for doing so. Vickie, Jeff Toobin. Thanks. You have no choice, you've got to be here because you work with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

TOOBIN: But it's still my pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Our pleasure always to have you because we learn something whenever you're on this program. Jeff Toobin, Vicki Toensing, to both of you, thanks very much. We're not going to let this story go away very far.

The online community, in fact, has latched on to this very issue. When it comes to warrantless searches, did Republicans overstep their authority, or have Democrats done this before? Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is joining us with some of the online information she's picking up -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, exactly this kind of discussion is going on online as we speak. And it is highly politicized out there. Both sides citing the law, congressional testimony, to make their case and support their position.

The Republicans have come out swinging at The Republican National Committee Web site, they have a big list of executive orders, newspaper articles, to defend their position that the president was within his presidential authority, and also that Democrats had done similar things before.

At liberal sites, Think Progress, for example today, a liberal blog, is highly linked around liberal blogs today in their argument that, no, Democrats did not do this before, President Clinton did not. But what everyone is doing out there is using these online resources, law school documents, archives, to make their case on both sides of the aisle, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's going to be quite a case on both sides. In fact, it's already shaping up like that. Abbi, thank you very much.

Up next, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton up for re-election in New York state next year. But the race has just changed rather dramatically. Will it help or hurt the former first lady? And what will Republicans do now? Do they even have a candidate that can challenge Senator Clinton?

And President Bush says, "Don't let the Patriot Act die." He's warning the United States could pay if it does. Is he right? We'll discuss that in our strategy session. All that right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Now to an unfolding political story in New York State, a story that may perhaps make some would-be presidential rivals of Hillary Clinton sit up and take notice. Senator Clinton's current Republican opponent has just called it quits. A statement has just been released. Mary Snow is in New York. She's following this story for us -- Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it was a statement that came out just a short time ago. Long-time prosecutor Jeanine Pirro dropping out of the race for the Senate and will instead run for state attorney general. While Senator Clinton is a formidable opponent, Pirro's campaign had problems right from the start.


JEANINE PIRRO, CANDIDATE FOR U.S. SENATE: For the jobs that we entrust them with. Hillary Clinton...

SNOW: A missing page of her campaign announcement speech left Pirro at a loss for words on day one, and she never really was able to find a political voice. Pirro's candidacy looked good on paper. A high profile, telegenic D.A., a strong woman who Republicans hope could give Senator Clinton a run for her money.

PIRRO: It certainly is a daunting challenge, but I'm really up for it and up to it.

SNOW: Apparently she wasn't. The former first lady held whopping leads in fund-raising and in the polls.

GOV. GEORGE PATAKI (R), NEW YORK: Beyond what any other prosecutor in America is.

NOW: New York's Republican governor George Pataki tried to help by endorsing Pirro. But by last week, state party officials still weren't satisfied. They urged Pirro to drop out of the Senate race and run for a job she had a good chance of winning, state attorney general. At first she said no.

PIRRO: I said from the beginning I'm running for the United States Senate. I am a candidate for the United States Senate.


SNOW: Pirro says her law enforcement background better qualifies her for a race for attorney general than Senate. Republican Ed Cox, son-in-law of the late President Richard Nixon, may decide to get back in the Senate race, but judging from Pirro's experience, he likely finds Senator Clinton very hard to beat -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Mary Snow, for that report. Mary will have more on this story coming up later tonight, 7:00 Eastern, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And another element of mystery in the secret wiretapping controversy that we've been following. We're going to investigate how a special court created to approve spying actually works.

And later, the Patriot Act showdown on Capitol Hill. Is it the president who's handling it right, or is he handling it wrong? James Carville and Bay Buchanan, they're standing by here in the strategy session. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's head back to the CNN Center in Atlanta. Zain Verjee is standing by once again with a closer look at some other stories.

Hi Zain, again.

VERJEE: Hi Wolf, again. Miami police are hunting for an escaped inmate accused of raping seven women and girls. Authorities say Reynaldo Rapalo escaped from a Miami-Dade county jail last night. They say he used bed sheets tied together to climb down from the building's roof. He's considered armed and dangerous. Rapalo was awaiting trial in February. If convicted of the attacks, he could face life in prison.

Religious and civic leaders are calling for unity in Cincinnati, Ohio, after two explosions at an Islamic mosque complex. Two adjacent buildings suffered minor damage in last night's blast, but luckily, no one was hurt. Federal agents and police are investigating the blasts. The FBI is analyzing fragments from the explosives.

And Wolf, Elton John is hitched. The British pop superstar and his long-time partner David Furnish tied the knot in a ceremony in Windsor, England, today, not far from the queen herself. The two were among hundreds of same-sex couples that took advantage of Britain's new law allowing same-sex civil unions. Scores of fans gathered to wish the couple well. They look happy -- Wolf?

BLITZER: I'm going to wish them well, as well. Thanks very much, Zain. We're going to get back to you soon.

Up next, on the loose in Miami. Much more coming up on that story, that escaped convict, a rapist. We're going to be following that story. That's coming up in the next hour.

BLITZER: Also anatomy of a plane crash. For planes that crash into water, why do some people survive and others don't? We'll take a closer look at that during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: In today's strategy session, the looming expiration of the USA Patriot Act. It's expected to expire in 10 days. President Bush says if it does, the country will be in severe danger. Democrats say if the act expires, the president will be responsible, he'll to be blame. Joining us now in our discussion, our two CNN political analysts, James Carville is a Democratic strategist. Torie Clarke's a former Pentagon spokeswoman.

The president said this today about the Patriot Act. Listen to this.


BUSH: The Senate Democratic leader recently boasted about killing the Patriot Act. This obstruction is inexcusable. The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers.


BLITZER: The Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid responded with this statement: "Let's be clear about who is killing the Patriot Act; President Bush and the Republican leadership. Twice last week, a bipartisan group of senators tried to move forward on a three-month extension, but instead of joining us, the president and the Republican leadership decided they would rather see the bill expire." This is real Washington brinkmanship, James.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I guess it is. I'm sitting here watching President Bush, and of course, he got like an F tripe minus from the 9/11 Commission, six Republicans and five Democrats. So for him to be lecturing people about homeland security or being serious about it is kind of ludicrous in the first place.

Look, I think that four Republicans, Senator Craig of Idaho, Senator Hagel, Senator Sununu, the Senator from Alaska -- so there are a lot of people that have reservations. Why not extend the thing for three months, and if there some are things that you can improve on and make better, why not do it? I don't understand his point. I guess maybe, Torie, you can tell me what his point is. Why can't you just extend the doggoned thing for three months, keep it in tact, look at it, and see where you can improve it?

TORIE CLARKE, FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: Because the terrorists aren't going to take three months off.


CLARKE: James, I didn't interrupt you. The fact of the matter is it is important legislation that is about protecting this country in very unconventional times. The point is that lots of safeguards have been built in over the past several months because of concerns people have. We need these kinds protections every single day, we don't need it three months from now.

But I'll tell you, the rhetoric for the people trying to score short-term political gain ought to be cooled down because it is not about politics. It is about long-term security for this country.

BLITZER: Well, the Democrats argue, and some Republicans, that over the next three months, the status quo remains, the Patriot Act remains the law of the land.

CARVILLE: Let me explain. It stays in effect. What the Democrats and four Republicans are saying is, "Extend the law for three months. Let us have a chance to look at it, and there are some things that we can improve on it." They're not saying don't have the law for three months.

They're saying, "What's wrong with extending the law for three months, taking a look at some provisions like Senator Clinton wants to do, where there's no risk assessment, so New York City is treated the same way as you would be in the middle of rural Wyoming?"

Well, certainly the risk is greater there. Why not extend the thing for three months, spend time going over and look at it. I don't understand what anybody's problem with this is?

CLARKE: The problem is that people are looking for short-term political gain. They're not looking at what's in the best interest of this country. It is important legislation, we need it now. We don't need it three month from now. We need it with the changes and the improvements and the safeguards that are built in.

CARVILLE: I repeat the obvious, extend the thing for three months. It's pretty clear, the president's trying to rebound from this F triple minus he got.

BLITZER: I think what they're trying to do -- and correct me if I'm wrong, Torie -- what they're trying to do is they see the pressure building. People want to leave town for Christmas and New Year's, so they want to resolve it now instead of letting it drag out for another three months, even though the current law would remain in effect.

CLARKE: Absolutely. And people have to have -- everyone should share the sense of urgency, the sense of importance, the sense of what is at stake here, and some people don't.

BLITZER: What do you think of this whole spying, or this electronic surveillance without court orders? How has that played out over these past few days because it's become a huge issue, as you know, James?

CARVILLE: Yes, it's become a huge story here. I'm not certain of, you know, what's happening out in the rest of the country. I think...


CARVILLE: Late night comics get it (ph), then people understand it now. And I think this is a place that -- we've got to come in and look at this because I think that they're -- they could tap my phone, or Jack McCaffrey, who's on the (INAUDIBLE) had some pretty contentious things right there. I haven't heard them say that there's any limit on any power that they have to tap anybody's phone.

CLARKE: They've said repeatedly, there are lots of limits on the authorities.

CARVILLE: Like what?

CLARKE: There are also things they can do under extreme circumstances. And what they were talking about is trying to do some surveillance on people who have connections with terrorists, not you...

CARVILLE: No, they said they already said in this morning's paper that they're doing purely domestic calls. I mean, what...

CLARKE: No, they didn't say that. They did not say that at all.

CARVILLE: I have said on numerous occasions that I thought the war in Iraq was a mistake. They say it's frontline on the war on terrorism. So they can say that I'm undermining the war on terrorism. They can tap my phone. I know Jack McCaffrey, I've seen him on here. He said some pretty harsh things to say. Maybe they feel like, "You know what, we've got to keep a tab on Jack McCaffrey." I don't know that they're not tapping his phone.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, not McCaffrey.


CLARKE: Torie Clarke, not Bay Buchanan. People shouldn't make sensationalist comments that you know aren't true. They're now talking about you, they're not talking about critics of the administration's policy. You should not say things like that because it's an insult to the people who are trying to protect this country. It is an insult to the seriousness of the issue.

CARVILLE: But they're not arguing that. They're arguing they have the power to tap my phone.

BLITZER: We'll leave it right there. But we'll continue this. Thanks to both of you.

CARVILLE: Jack Cafferty, I'm sorry. My apologies.

BLITZER: He's a very sensitive guy. He's coming up next. James, Torie, thanks to you both very much.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, dead or alive. President Bush once said it didn't matter how Osama bin Laden was captured, as long as he was caught. But with bin Laden's fate unknown and Al Qaeda still seemingly out there, does Osama bin Laden really matter anymore? Jack Cafferty's been going through your email.

And Saddam Hussein says he's the one who's been victimized. He claims he's been tortured during his detainment. We'll tell you more about his latest outburst. All that coming.


BLITZER: Let's go right up to Jack in New York. Hi, Jack.

CAFFERTY,: Donald Rumsfeld says he doesn't know if Osama bin Laden is still alive. The question we're asking is whether Osama bin Laden still matters.

Terry in Hamilton, Ontario: "The whole war started out to get Osama. Then the war became a hunt for WMD. Then the war became a push for democracy. Now, you'll probably have a theocracy, no WMD, and now Osama doesn't matter. It's all part of Rumsfeld's big picture that no one can see but him."

Stan in Champagne, Illinois: "Ask those who lost somebody in the attacks if bin Laden still matters. My guess is the guy's been dead for two years, but the administration needs a bogeyman to trot out every time their P.R. gets bad."

Ruth in Starkville, Mississippi: "Osama bin Laden has no significance now. The terrorists and insurgents are insolated and separate, rather like disconnected cells in the Communist Party used to be. Happily, we can anticipate their demise just as the commie cells died off, impotent and meaningless."

John in Lexington, South Carolina: "Osama bin Laden still matters greatly. Dead or alive, he's shown his followers you can punch the United States in the eye and get away with it. Now, to his people, he must seem like some kind of savior. So even if he's dead, his martyrdom is set for many years to come for them."

And James in Virginia Beach: "Does Osama matter? Cowboy Bob -- I mean, Bush -- said, 'Dead or alive.' Yes, he matters. Jack, can't your producers give you any real questions to ask? Are you having the end of the year brain freeze?"

BLITZER: No you are not, Jack. Thanks very much.