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First Official Word From Vice President Cheney About Hunting Accident; More Reason To Question The Way Investigation Into Cheney Hunting Accident Was Handled; Unoccupied FEMA Trailers May Have To Be Destroyed; Cheney With Associates During Accident; Evidence Of Fraud By Recipients Of FEMA Handouts Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Aired February 14, 2006 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou. And to our viewers you are now in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you the day's top stories.
Happening now, it's 6:00 p.m. in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Vice President Cheney's shooting accident takes a startling turn. His hunting partner now lies wounded with birdshot in his heart.

Here in Washington, the White House is accused of mishandling the Cheney misfire. But did it begin at the ranch with a local sheriff and a group of friends?

And thousands of Hurricane victims need homes? Why is the federal government letting thousands of high priced trailers fall apart in an Arkansas cow pasture? I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, we have the first official word from Vice President Cheney about his hunting accident and more reason to question the way the investigation into it was handled. Jokes about the misfire gave way today to a much more serious tone after doctors said the man Cheney mistakenly shot suffered a minor heart attack.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is standing by. Brian Todd is in the news room. Let's go out to Corpus Christi, Texas. CNN's Ed Lavandera has the latest.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This morning, we were told the news that Harry Whittington, 78 years old, suffered a mild heart attack. Quite a change from what had been said over the last couple of days.


(voice-over): Dozens of little pellets like these are lodged in Harry Whittington's face, neck and chest. Even though doctors first said the wounds were superficial, one of the BBs has reached Whittington's heart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We knew that he had birdshot very close to the heart from the get-go. But the point in fact, it's now got to the point where it has caused some inflammatory changes and moved to a position where it has caused some irritability of the muscle of the heart.

LAVANDERA: Whittington is back in the intensive care unit of this Corpus Christi hospital and will be kept here another seven days. Doctors say he's alert and talking and right now there are no plans to remove the birdshot.

PETER BANKO, HOSPITAL ADMINISTRATOR: If it were in a position to be removed, they would have gone in and done surgery immediately. It is not in a position where they think it's going to move any further to endanger his health.

LAVANDERA: Doctors say there's own one pellet they're concerned about. The rest of them pose no threat to Harry Whittington's heart.


But Harry Whittington awake, alert and talking to doctors. That is a good sign. They continue to say his condition here is stable. We mentioned there's only one pellet they're concerned about. One other note about the investigation here in South Texas, sheriff's deputies say this shooting was an accident, and they said that alcohol or misconduct by anyone in the hunting party was not a factor as well. Wolf.

Ed Lavandera at the hospital in Corpus Christi. Let's go from Texas to the White House. Our correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is standing by with a White House struggling to deal with the fallout from this misfire. Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, clearly the White House and the vice-president's office are trying to strike the appropriate tone. It's a tone today that has even changed. All of this coming as news that Cheney's victim and dear friend has taken a turn for the worse.


(voice-over): Since Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his hunting companion Saturday evening, he has remained silent. Ducking into the White House early this morning and later away from our cameras on Capitol Hill.

Word today that his victim Harry Whittington suffered a mild heart attack produced the first official written statement from Cheney's office acknowledging that the incident had even occurred, now providing specifics. That Cheney was notified Whittington's complications around 12:30 when his chief of staff quietly passed him a note during a meeting on the hill.

A half hour later he was in the White House watching the doctors televised press conference updating Whittington's condition. Around 1:30, the vice president called Whittington to wish him well, asking if there was anything he needed. The vice president said that he stood ready to assist. The White House press secretary fully aware of Whittington's heart attack earlier in the day continued to change the subject.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you all want to continue to focus on this you all can spend your time on it. We're going to focus on the pressing priorities of the American people.

MALVEAUX: Following an evening of late night jokes by David Letterman and others over the accidental shooting, earl in the day the White House tried to lighten the mood. Ahead of a visit by the college football champion Texas Longhorns, the press secretary joked his orange color had nothing to do with the team colors, but a signal to Cheney that he was not a hunter's target.


The tone change became much more serious as news about Whittington deterioration. The vice president's office says Cheney will make his first public appearance on Friday when he speaks before the Wyoming state legislature. The question remains whether or not he will comment on his friend's condition before that.

BLITZER: Suzanne, thank you very much. Three days after the hunting accident, we're slowly getting details about what happened on that South Texas ranch and about what happened immediately afterward.

Was the local investigation of the shooting handled by the book? Our Brian Todd has been looking into this part of the story.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf we started to look into that because of all of the back and forth about who is answering questions. At various times this week, the White House press office has deferred some specific and very important questions about the shooting incident.


QUESTION: One final question since that wasn't answered. Is it appropriate for the vice president to have waited 14 hours after the incident before he spoke with local law enforcement officials and do you think an average citizen would have been afforded that same amount of time?

MCCLELLAN: That is what was arranged with the local law enforcement authorities. You got to ask them that question.

TODD (voice-over): We tried to contact the sheriff's department in Kennedy County, Texas. Sheriff Ramon Salinas didn't return our calls. But he did speak with local reporters yesterday. That's one day after his deputy had spoken with the vice president.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How soon after the incident did he get to talk to Vice President Cheney?

SHERIFF RAMON SALINAS, KENNEDY COUNTY, TEXAS: He went the next morning to talk to the vice president. I got a call about ten minutes after it happened from The Secret Service advising me of what happened. UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Was he not allowed to talk to them that night?

SALINAS: He was. Because of other witnesses -- the amount of witnesses were there, everybody knew it was an accident, and it's not -- nothing criminal. So that's why he went the next morning. It's nothing you hear in Kennedy. We get calls like this, not very often, but we get them. Hunting accidents

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The witnesses who were interviewed, were they interviewed Sunday night or Saturday morning?

SALINAS: I believe Sunday also.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said that's routine procedure?

SALINAS: For a criminal, no, but for the amount of witnesses that were there, yes, it's procedure. Because of the witnesses.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you determine it was an accident if you didn't interview any witnesses until the day after?

SALINAS: We didn't interview them, but speaking to them and interviewing them is two different things, we didn't officially interview them until the morning but did speak with people that were there. I know some people personally that were on the hunting trip. I know, they're friends of ours. We're all -- a small community and we know each other. That's how we got the knowledge it was an accident.

TODD: Sheriff Salinas told CNN affiliate KZTV this is not out of the ordinary. The last time an accidental shooting happened in his county, they did not speak to the witnesses in person right away.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thank you very much. Coming up this hour, we're going to speak about the legal implications of the Cheney hunting accident and the way it's been investigating. Our senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin is standing by with that.

In the meantime, let's check in with Betty Nguyen at the CNN center in Atlanta for a closer look at the other stories making news.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. Saddam Hussein said he's on a hunger strike. The former Iraqi leader says he hasn't eaten in the past three days to protest his treatment by the trial's chief judge and the U.S. Several co-defendants say they're also on a hunger strike. Iraqi officials plan to investigate. After three witnesses testified today, his war crimes trial was adjourned until February 28th. We'll stay on top of that.

Violent protest intensified in Pakistan today. At least two people were killed when rioters burned and damaged cars in western- affiliated buildings in Lahore and Islamabad. The demonstrators are enraged over the European newspaper drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. Police fired on the crowd with tear gas. At least 11 people were hurt in those clashes. Well, the militant group Hamas is protesting what it calls interference by the U.S. and Israel. This follows a New York Times report that Washington and Israel are looking at ways to topple Hamas' incoming Palestinian government if Hamas does not renounce its violent ideology and recognize Israel's right to exist. Both the White House and the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. strongly deny the report.

And an Iraqi war veteran and Bush administration critic is dropping his bid for an Ohio Senate seat. Paul Hackett said he was pressured by Democratic party leaders to withdraw from the Senate primary to clear the way for long-time Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown. Hackett said he was urged to run again for a House seat he narrowly lost last year.

He said that would be going back on his word. So he says he is now leaving politics. Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much Betty. We'll get back to you. Let's go up to New York right now, Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File." Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Did we do something to offend Zain Verjee? Where the hell has she been?

BLITZER: Zain has been on assignment for "AMERICAN MORNING" the past two weeks, filling in for Soledad O'Brien. She's coming back next week.

CAFFERTY: Because you know, THE SITUATION ROOM is not quite the same when she's not around.

BLITZER: Agreed.

CAFFERTY: All right, more criticism aimed at Vice President Cheney for delaying the release of information on his hunting accident. And this time, it's coming from somebody who knows a little bit about handling the press. Former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who served under the first President Bush and President Reagan, says Cheney, quote, "Ignored his responsibility to the American people," unquote.

Fitzwater tells "Editor and Publisher" that he's appalled by the way the whole thing has been handled. He says Cheney could have had a statement out to the public within about two hours. President Bush's first secretary is also joining in the criticism. Ari Fleischer says that it shouldn't have taken a day for the story to be reported.

So here's the question. Does the vice president have an obligation to be more open to the American people? E-mail us, at Or go to Or you can go to Wolf's house, and he'll answer the question for you right there in person.

BLITZER: Personally, every night. Thanks very much, Jack, for that. Coming up, more outrage tonight after our report that trailers that could be housing hurricane victims are sitting unused. We'll have an update from New Orleans.

Also ahead, should Dick Cheney talk publicly about the hunting accident that practically everyone else at least here in Washington is talking about? Former Senator Alan Simpson, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, both of them avid hunters, they're standing by to weigh in.

And can a 78-year-old man fully recover from bird shot lodged in his heart? Our senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta will give us his expert opinion. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following the many angles of the vice president's hunting accident, the condition of the man he shot. He deteriorated today, suffered a mild heart attack. And all the legal and potential political implications. We're going to have much more on that coming up this hour.

But there's other important news we're following as well, including this. The U.S. government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on thousands of trailers to house victims of Hurricane Katrina. We showed you last night how they're sitting empty in Arkansas. But now we're learning they may never, never be used again and could even have to be destroyed. Our Gulf Coast correspondent Susan Roesgen is live in New Orleans with these startling details -- Susan.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: Boy, Wolf, you know, when we first started nosying around, it just seemed as if FEMA was slow in moving those mobile homes down to people who need them. Now we're finding out that those mobile homes aren't going anywhere, and congressional leaders are asking why not?


ROESGEN (voice-over): Who knew that a cow pasture in Arkansas could cause such controversy? But this is where 11,000 mobile homes have been sitting, unoccupied, 450 miles away from hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast. Today Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said he can't believe it.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: People are not living in them. And as we know, people are without homes all over Louisiana. This is part -- if you don't mind my saying so, part of the incompetence of this administration.

ROESGEN: FEMA paid more than $300 million for these mobile homes and started sending them to Hope, Arkansas, back in October. The deal was to use this land as a staging area until the mobile homes could be sent south.

But FEMA rules say the mobile homes can't be put in a flood plain, which means they can't be sent to the most devastated areas in Louisiana. Then the worst news, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general dropped a bombshell, testifying that the mobile homes are sinking in the soft Arkansas soil. They're falling apart and because of that, they may wind up being destroyed without anyone ever living in them.


ROESGEN: Today I talked to Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and Wolf, boy is she hot about those mobile homes. Tonight you're going to hear what she has to say and you'll find out who's working right now in New Orleans to try to get some of those mobile homes down here, on "ANDERSON COOPER 360," Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Susan, for that. We'll be watching your report.

All the money tied up in those trailers could go a long way toward the recovery of New Orleans. Our Tom Foreman has been looking into this part of the story, he's joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look where the money is, Wolf. This is where these trailers are located, up here in Hope, Arkansas. We'll bring them up and let you see exactly where they're located. And this, from this spot, down to here, is where they need to be. All the way down in New Orleans.

I want to show you one of the neighborhoods there which really has changed, precious little since this happened. This was part of the lower Ninth Ward before the flood. This is that same area to this day and that's what it looks like. And a lot of people there have a lot of ideas about how that money could be used.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Realtors say for $300 million, almost 2,500 permanent homes could be built and sold to working-class people. Then the money could be turned around to build even more. One New Orleans hospital has reopened at a cost of $92 million, a half dozen others are still closed.

But local officials say 300 million would go a long way to unlocking their doors. The New Orleans School Board has spent $20 million from its operating budget to reopen 20 schools. Educators say with $300 million, every school in town might be back in session, and the list of expenses goes on.

A new roof for the Superdome, $33 million. Refurbishing the convention center, $100 million. Insurance is picking up the tab for a lot of these projects, but locals say there are tremendous needs beyond what insurance will pay.


FOREMAN: What could you do with $300 million? Well take a look at this. This is New Orleans. You could go all the way to Washington, making a four-foot wide path of $1 bills and land right at the Department of Homeland Security. And the people I talked to all day today said they'd want to have a few extra dollars left over so they could get Michael Chertoff a new resume because they'd like him to have a new job. More on this tonight on "A.C. 360."

BLITZER: We'll be watching that, he'll be testifying tomorrow. I suppose the questioning could be intense. Thanks very much, Tom, for that.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a Cheney friend and a political opponent weigh in on the vice president's hunting accident and how the administration is handling it. Former Senator Alan Simpson and Paul Begala, they're coming up.

And are local authorities taking the shooting accident seriously? We have many questions for our senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin. Stay with us.


BLITZER: More now on Vice President Cheney's hunting accident which has a 78-year-old Texas attorney in intensive care tonight, suffering from a mild heart attack. It turns out also there are close ties between the Bush administration and many members of that hunting party in Texas. Our Ali Velshi is here with the "Bottom Line" -- Ali.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Who knew, Wolf, that Dick Cheney might like to hang around in his off-time with people who he might be hanging around with during his work time. Take a look at who was with him.


VELSHI (voice-over): Along with targeting quail were Vice President Cheney's fellow shooters hunting for dollars. This much we know. Cheney's group included the now injured Harry Whittington, a longtime Republican activist who owns a building in Austin, Texas, a building which has housed offices for President Bush's gubernatorial campaigns and for Karl Rove, among others.

Pamela Pitzer Willeford was also on the quail hunt. In 2003, the Bush administration appointed Willeford Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Well, they were all at the Armstrong ranch, owned by a family with deep ties to the Republican party.

Daughter Katharine was the one who called a local newspaper to report the incident. Her mother was on the board of Halliburton in 1995, when the company hired Cheney as CEO. But it's Katharine Armstrong's own history as a lobbyist that has critics interested.

According to one group, Texans For Public Justice, Katharine Armstrong was a lobbyist in 2004 for Parsons Corporation, a company that has made a lot of money off of this administration. Parsons is a privately held, California based company. It's in the business of engineering and construction. Parsons, like Cheney's former company, Halliburton, has won several U.S. government contracts to do work in Iraq. In fact, records from The Center of Public Integrity show that Parsons is the number two contractor working in Iraq with over $5.2 billion in contracts. That's second only to Cheney's former company, Halliburton.


VELSHI: Now, Katharine Armstrong has made it clear she doesn't work -- well, she hasn't made it clear to us. She does not work for Parsons anymore as a lobbyist. She also has downplayed her role as a lobbyist at the ranch, saying that they weren't talking business during Cheney's visit -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ali Velshi, with the bottom line. Thank you very much. Just ahead, more from the doctors treating the man accidentally shot by the vice president during that weekend hunting trip. Our chief surgeon, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, will explain what it all means. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back. As we told you at the top of the hour, there's been a fairly startling turn in the condition of Harry Whittington, the hunting partner wounded by Vice President Dick Cheney over the weekend.

Whittington now has birdshot lodged in his heart, causing what amounted to a heart attack, a minor heart attack as it's being described. Here is how officials at the hospital laid it out earlier in the day in Corpus Christi, Texas.


BANKO: This morning at 6:30 a.m., our trauma team evaluated Mr. Whittington and there were changes in his status and symptoms. We noticed a heart irregularity at that time. We quickly moved Mr. Whittington to our ICU where he was evaluated by our cardiac team and cardiologists.

He is actually in stable conditions talking to the doctors. He's what we call asymptomatic. He's had no chest pain. Dr. Blanchard could talk probably in better detail about that. He's not having a chest pain, alert. He wanted to go -- he talked to the doctors about wanting to go home. Doing very well, but we just want to make sure that there are no future issues with that.

DR. DAVID BLANCHARD, EMERGENCY SERVICES DIRECTOR: We knew that he had some birdshot very close to the heart from the get-go. But in point of fact, it's now got to the point where it's caused some inflammatory changes and has moved in a position where it has caused some irritability of the muscle of the heart.

And when the muscle of the heart is irritated, it does some quivering or some irritability, and he displayed those signs today in terms of listening to the heart, and on the EKG called atrial fibrillation.

So at that point, we immediately moved him back into intensive care services to the trauma section, and called the cardiologist which came in immediately and evaluated him and subsequently led to his cardiac cath.


BLITZER: Dr. Blanchard says the location of that birdshot is not 100 percent certain. He says doctors at the Corpus Christi facility, in consultation with other specialists, feel the best approach now is to be conservative and to try to avoid surgery.

Let's turn to our senior medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Explain, Sanjay, first of all, how these pellets -- these tiny, little pellets -- could cause a heart attack.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, it's interesting and this isn't a common thing, but, you know, typically what we're talking about here, the small pellets -- which I know you've shown today, Wolf -- they are very small. They can actually lodge themselves in between the ribs, through the chest wall, and actually adjacent to the heart.

Most times what happens in an injury like this, is that the pellets will actually just stay where they are. They're not going to move, although the moving is a concern.

In the case that they actually do, as you can see there, get close to the heart, start to irritate the heart, and actually embed themselves in the muscle, and that causes the heart to release these enzymes which essentially mimic a heart attack, Wolf.

As I mentioned, no chest pain, so certainly not the classic Hollywood sort of hand to the heart, hand to the chest sort of heart attack, but a heart attack nonetheless, Wolf.

BLITZER: You leave, though, these foreign objects in an area in or near the heart. Doesn't that open up potentially a lot of bad scenarios?

GUPTA: Yes, you know, Wolf, this is one of those classic situations where you really have to weigh the risks and the benefits. What you're talking about possibly doing is possibly going in there, into the chest cavity, and actually trying to remove these little pellets so that they don't further move or embed themselves further in the heart.

And you have to balance that with the risk of such an operation, a big operation, especially in a 78-year-old gentleman. There's a good chance that maybe nothing more will come of this. He's been stabilized, the heart rhythm's been stabilized. Maybe nothing else will come of it, and so the risks in that case would certainly outweigh the benefits of actually going in and doing anything.

BLITZER: They're going to keep him in the hospital, presumably in intensive care, for at least seven days now to monitor him, to watch him. Are they looking for possible infection?

GUPTA: Infection is one of the concerns. I think the larger concern really is, is he going to have any more of these arrhythmias, these funny rhythms of the heart. Atrial fibrillation is a term that a lot of people know, but that basically means that part of the heart is beating too fast.

And it sounds like they've gotten that under control, but if it continues to be too fast or starts to be too fast again, they'd have to give some medications. They may have to put him on blood thinners. Actions like that may need to be taken, so about seven days is the time that they want to monitor him to see if he develops any of those things.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much as always. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our senior medical correspondent.

Let's check in with CNN's Anderson Cooper now for a preview of what's coming up on his program later tonight. Hi, Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, hey, Wolf. Yes, "360 at 10:00 -- 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, a girl her family called their "blue- eyed angel," who's abduction, of course, was caught on a surveillance camera. She was murdered by a man named Joseph Smith in February of 2004.

Well, Smith now faces the death penalty. And today in an amazing moment in a Florida courtroom, he begged little Carlie's family and the judge to spare his life.

We're going to take a look at what he said today, and go beyond the headlines of the case and talk about how surveillance cameras are playing a part in catching criminals, and give you some tips on what you can do to prevent your kids from people like Joseph Smith. All that and more at 10:00 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Anderson, thank you very much. We'll be watching.

Up next, he's an old friend of Dick Cheney's and a long-time hunter himself. We'll talk about the vice president's accident with the former Republican senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson.

And what are the legal implications for the vice president? Could he face charges in a worst-case scenario? Is it at all realistic? Our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is here to weigh the facts. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Now let's hear from two men who know hunting and politics. And we'll get their take on the Cheney shooting accident.

I spoke just a short while ago with former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Democratic strategist Paul Begala here in THE SITUATION ROOM. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, two avid hunters in their own right, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson -- he's a good friend of the vice president -- and Paul Begala, our CNN political analyst, Democratic strategist.

Senator Simpson, let me start with you and read to you ...


BLITZER: ... from the National Rifle Association gun safety rules. When it comes to quail hunting, it says this: "Be absolutely sure you've identified your target beyond any doubt. Equally important, be aware of the area beyond your target. This means observing your prospective area of fire before you shoot. Never fire in a direction in which there are people or any other potential for mishap. Think first, shoot second."

Clearly good advice from the NRA, but it seems to suggest that maybe the vice president made a mistake.

SIMPSON: Well, I think you would like to portray it that way, but let's look at it. When you're quail hunting, there's three of you. There's a man in the middle or woman. I know many fine women shooters. There are people on both flanks. You stay together.

If one of them falls behind, you're looking always. If you're in the middle, especially, you say pull up, pull up there, let's get together. In other words, you have to be together. You're walking. The dogs are out in front. If the dogs suddenly get startled and look like they've got something, then you stop.

Apparently, this gentleman knocked down a bird out of a covey. And he went over and picked it up, and then the other two people went forward. And when he came back, he said nothing.

You can continue your volume that you're reading from, and it says, communication is critical when you're in that kind of a phalanx, going through the field, and that gentleman should have said I'm back. He should have said it for his own preservation.

When I ever dropped out of the line of three, I say, hey guys, Simpy is back here. I've caught up, I'm here. I'm on this flank, I'm on this flank. So to attribute it solely to Dick Cheney is a little bit inappropriate. So let's kind of start there and then talk about the fact the other gentleman made a serious error by not indicating that he was there.

BLITZER: Let me just correct you. I think you said I like to think that. I don't like to think that at all. I'm just asking a question. But let me bring in Paul Begala, who is an avid hunter himself.

And the Senator makes a valid point, and it's echoed by Donnie Buckland, vice president of Quail Unlimited. And he says this: "From what I can tell, Mr. Whittington" -- that's the 78-year-old attorney who was shot -- "probably was as much responsible, in my own opinion, as Mr. Cheney."

Shouldn't Mr. Whittington, Paul, have called out, just to be on the safe side, and said I'm coming back, you know, just know where I am.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Absolutely, and Senator Simpson is right. He should have announced himself. But look what that man from Quail Unlimited said. He didn't say the White House spin which is this is entirely Whittington's fault and not at all Mr. Cheney's. He said they're equally to blame. I, actually, would put a little bit more responsibility on the shooter, than the guy who got shot.

Whittington should have announced himself. That's right. But communication goes both ways. It was the vice president's obligation. He knew his colleague had dropped out of the line.

It was his obligation to call out and say where's Harry, where's Harry, wait, and look around. It's his obligation as a shooter to know where the guides are, where the dogs are, where his fellow shooters are. And he knew Whittington had been in the line, therefore he knew Whittington was in the field, but he didn't know where he was, according to Ms. Armstrong, his hostess.

So it was the vice president's obligation to know where that man was before he pulled the trigger. What he should have done is put his gun up, and said, wait, where's Harry? Let's not shoot anything until we've got everybody accounted for again, and that was the mistake that the vice president made.

I think they're both at fault here, and I think it's a shame that perhaps for political reasons, the White House is trying to blame it all on this poor Mr. Whittington. I think that that sends a wrong message, particularly to like my kids, to young hunters, who need to understand that the shooter has got to be responsible for every shot he or she takes.

BLITZER: Let me let Senator Simpson respond do that. Go ahead, Senator.

SIMPSON: Well I know Paul pretty well. He and I have done some shticks together. I wouldn't say the White House is laying it all on the poor Mr. Whittington. That's not what I'm hearing. But let's just look at it from a hunter's standpoint. You're a hunter, Paul, I'm a hunter. You're out there and it's 5:30 at night. I don't know what the atmospherics are.

But all I do know is this. If there's an attribution here to try to say that somehow Dick Cheney doesn't know how to shoot, I have seen him get doubles on doves with a .28 gage. He doesn't use a .20 gage, and some guys use a .12, which is all you bring back is feathers. And he uses a .28, I've seen him get doubles on doves, which is very tough to hit, and then quail. He's an absolute expert shot. And so I just want to leave that. We can go into the rest of conjecture, you can go your way.

BLITZER: Let me move on, Senator Simpson and get your sense -- you're a former United States senator, taught at Harvard. The political reaction, the explanation from the White House, did they do it appropriately? Should the vice president come out and have a news conference or give an interview and explain what happened? What do you make of the way the, quote, "damage control" has been conducted by the White House?

SIMPSON: Well, I think the press secretary himself said sometimes you think you can do stuff better, but the second-guessing here -- I think actually if the Palestinian-Israeli issue were solved today, it would be on the second page. All day long it's just been Cheney, the hunt.

But let's remember one thing. It's called a hunting accident. A man is seriously hurt, and all we're hearing is jokes. I think that's disgusting. I want to just share that, I think that's sick. That's what you have right now, a guy who is maybe critical, I don't know, but I bet Dick Cheney isn't sitting in his home tonight laughing and chuckling, so I think let's keep that in perspective.

BEGALA: And in fact, Senator, if I can pick up on that, I think that's an important point. It's equally important what the so-called mainstream media has done. They use verbs like sprayed and peppered. Well that diminishes the potentially lethal force of a shotgun blast. It is called a shot gun, not a spray gun.

And I think some of my friends in the media who don't anything about hunting were too quick to presume that this was just not a very big deal and not a very dangerous situation. And as you know, those things can be deadly weapons.

I agree, I'm sure you're right. You've hunted with the vice president and he is reputed to be an expert marksman. But he made a mistake here, as did Mr. Whittington, and I think that's an important lesson. And I don't like it when I see the media using these phony euphemisms for being shot. Man was shot, he was not sprayed or peppered, he was shot.

SIMPSON: Paul, the word pepper came from the hostess at the ranch. Dick Cheney and the White House never said anybody got peppered. The hostess at the ranch said, in fact, I thought it was a little bit lighthearted almost, that he had been peppered.

Well you and I have shot, and man, I've been peppered. I never was within 30 yards of the pepperer, but I've had the shot, you know, come down. You can feel it, you're hitting on your coat or your boots. That's happened. I'm sure its happened to you. do get peppered. But peppered is not the easy word the White House shoveled out or Dick Cheney.

BLITZER: Unfortunately gentlemen, we have to leave it right there. But a good serious discussion. Alan Simpson, thanks very much joining us. Paul Begala, thanks to you as well.

BEGALA: Thanks, Wolf, good to see you, Senator.

BLITZER: Thank you. And just in the past few minutes, the hostess at that ranch, Katharine Armstrong, called us to clarify her relationship with Parsons, the huge construction firm in Texas.

She said this, "I represented Parsons in Texas only. I have never represented Parsons in Washington D.C. or in any matter regarding Iraq contracts or defense contracts." Statement from Katharine Armstrong given to us here in THE SITUATION ROOM only a few moments ago.

Up next, could the vice president be in any legal hot water at all over this hunting trip accident? It's a question some are asking. Our senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin is joining us shortly to explain what's going on in that front. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back, we want to dig a little bit deeper now into the Cheney hunting accident, specifically the way the investigation into the shooting has been handled, the potential legal implications for the vice president. Let's listen once again to part of that interview with the local sheriff, Ramon Salinas.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you determine that it was an accident if you didn't interview any witnesses until the day after?

SALINAS: We didn't interview them. But speaking to them and interviewing them is two different things, you know what I mean? Because we didn't officially interview them until the morning, but we did speak with the people that were there. I know some people personally that were on the hunting trip. I know them, they're friends of ours. We're all, you know, small community and we know each other. And that's how we got the knowledge that it was an accident.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin, for a little analysis. What do you, first of all make of the way this investigation was handled?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well this seems to have been handled like a routine accident that happens in rural Texas, not involving the vice president of the United States. And it probably has been handled normally. Given the scrutiny that's inevitably going to come, it does seems like a very limited and not very complete investigation.

BLITZER: Some people are asking this question. Is the vice president potentially in any legal jeopardy? What's the answer?

TOOBIN: Well I think criminally, it's extremely unlikely that he has any liability at all. Obviously, he didn't intend to hurt this man. This was some sort of an accident. The question then would be, was it reckless? Was it so outrageous that it could be some kind of manslaughter, if in fact, as we hope it doesn't happen, Mr. Whittington were to die.

And based on the evidence that's come out so far, it doesn't appear to be reckless. Civilly there might be more of a case to be made because then if Mr. Whittington was the plaintiff, all he would have to claim was a lack of reasonable care, but Mr. Whittington -- as far as we know, he hasn't spoken publicly -- is not angry at Mr. Cheney, doesn't want to file a lawsuit. So chances are there won't be anything civil either.

BLITZER: The role of the Secret Service is important. Secret Service, obviously, they're always protecting the vice president of the United States. They were there on the scene. What is their role in this kind of an incident?

TOOBIN: Well I think their role would be, they're simply witnesses. This is not a crime. If a crime took place, the shooting of someone in a hunting situation, that the Secret Service would have any jurisdiction over, they would have to be witnesses, who would cooperate with the sheriff in his investigation. So they are simply people who saw what happened and would be responsible to report back to the local authorities like any other witness who saw a possible crime.

BLITZER: And there could potentially, if someone suggests there was a crime or any wrong-doing, or if there is a civil lawsuit that Mr. Whittington or someone else should file, they would be forced presumably to testify, is that right?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. As would Vice President Cheney himself. This has nothing to do with his responsibilities as vice president of the United States. This has nothing to do with executive privilege. He's simply any other witness, he is someone who is involved in something that appears to be an accident, he would have to testify, take the Fifth, whatever he would do, in this situation, like any other citizen.

BLITZER: Jeff Toobin with some good analysis as usual. Thank you very much for that. Some allies of Vice President Cheney are coming to his defense. I spoke earlier with Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Beyond the talk about legal jeopardy, political strategy, Coleman says there are real people involved and emotions to consider.


SEN. NORM COLEMAN (R), MINNESOTA: But, I think, on a personal level, right now, Wolf, you got somebody who wounded somebody in an accident, in a hunting accident. And, at some point, he might want to talk about that. But, you know, don't forget, the vice president's a man. And so, I got to tell you, I -- my prayers are with the vice president. My prayers are obviously with the person who got shot.

It's a terrible, terrible thing. I have known folks who have been involved in accidents like this. And it's a great burden. It's very, very difficult. So, we have got our vice president of the United States was involved in an accidental shooting of somebody.


BLITZER: Senator Norm Coleman speaking here in THE SITUATION ROOM earlier. Let's find out what's coming up at the top of the hour on "PAULA ZAHN NOW." Paula standing by. Hi, Paula.


BLITZER: Your microphone ...


ZAHN: ... all right.

BLITZER: We know you have a terrific snow coming up.

ZAHN: Sell it for me.

BLITZER: Paula's got a great show. She's going to get that microphone in place at the top of the hour. Paula, thank you very much.

Turning now back to one of the top stories, did thousands of dollars FEMA dollars earmarked for Katrina relief go to purchase guns, sex and booze. The answer, yes. According to a new report issued by the General Accounting Office. Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has the latest details.

ABBI TATTON, INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, here's a check for $2,000 of federal government money which was issued to investigators posing as hurricane victims in order to demonstrate how easy it was to defraud the government after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The investigation was done by the Government Accountability Office. It showed that FEMA failed to verify information given to them over the phone resulting in thousands of payments being made to individuals who used bogus information.

The report also looks into the use of FEMA issued debit cards. What it showed is they were predominantly used by hurricane victims to withdraw cash but in some cases, transactions took place that weren't exactly related to the emergency.

Look at this, $1,000 in a bail bond payment in Louisiana, a diamond engagement ring, a gentlemen's club in Houston, Texas, $1,200 spent there. Also, $450 spent at this Texas tattoo company. Full details, Wolf, of this investigation at

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Abbi, for that. Still ahead, Olympic gold, Saddam in court, The Westminster Dog Show. Today's hot shots and Jack Cafferty when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Welcome back. Here's a quick look at some of the hot shots coming in from our friends at Associated Press, pictures likely to be in you hometown newspapers tomorrow.

Baghdad, a defiant dictator, Saddam Hussein blasts the judge. He and seven other co-defendants are on trial for killing 150 Shiite Muslims.

Lahore, Pakistan, more cartoon outrage. Thousands of protesters hit the streets targeting western businesses including Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut and a Holiday Inn.

Torino, Italy, U.S. takes the gold. Ted Ligety takes the top prize in the Alpine combined after Bode Miller was disqualified for straddling a pole.

And to New York, a different kind of contest, The Westminster Dog Show. This cocker spaniel is presented for competition. Some of today's hot shots. Pictures often worth a thousand words. Let's go to New York. Jack Cafferty standing by.

CAFFERTY: Dog has funny looking ears. I have a dog that has cute ears. That dog had funny looking ears. More criticism aimed at Vice President Cheney for delaying the release of information on his hunting accident.

Former White House Press Secretary Marlon Fitzwater told "Editor and Publisher" today that Vice President Cheney, quote, ignored his responsibility to the American people, unquote.

The question we're asking is does the vice president have an obligation to be more open to the American people? Lots of mail.

Lorie in Nebraska. "The vice president is an elected official. He answers to the American public who put him in office. He has an absolute obligation to be far more transparent in his actions and motivations than he has been. His reluctance to be forthcoming to the American people could not be more obvious than it has been over the last four days."

Kay in Sacramento writes, "The Vice president followed protocol. The local police were notified, the injured party was immediately cared for by medical personnel. He doesn't owe the media anything else."

That's true, he doesn't owe the media but what about the citizens of this country who pay his salary.

Marty in Douglas, Alabama, "Cheney has an obligation to be more open with the American people but then he always has had that obligation. It would appear after the energy meetings, after the CIA operative leak and now this, he obviously feels he is above everyone else and he owes us nothing."

Chris in Atlanta, Georgia, "Why on earth should Cheney have to explain a mishap on private property involving a personal friend. The only criticism I hear is from a scandal-hungry press. Stop your whining already and get on with real news."

Bob in Pennsylvania, "Dear, Jack, ask the public their opinion if the roles in the hunting accident were reversed. What if Harry Whittington accidentally shot Cheney? Would it be covered up for 24 hours?

John in Ft. Meyers, Florida, "This isn't about a hunting accident. This is about news manipulation by powerful people. What else will we never know about?"

BLITZER: It's shaping up, Jack, as if the conservatives, a lot of supporters of the president and the vice president, accusing the quote liberal news media of concocting a story here and not really focusing in on the so-called real news. I used to hear a lot of similar complaints from the other side during the Clinton administration and Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.

CAFFERTY: Excuse me, when the vice president of the United States shoots somebody with a shotgun, puts him an intensive care with a shotgun pellet in his heart where the man who is 79 suffers a heart attack and could die and doesn't bother to tell anybody about it for 24 hours, that is a news story in the journalism school I went to.

BLITZER: Me too. Thanks very much, Jack. See you tomorrow. Paula Zahn starting right now in New York -- Paula.