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Cheney Misfire Fallout; Senate Rejects Effort To Block Patriot Act Renewal; Interview With Senator Joe Biden; Libby May Have Had Authorization To Leak Classified Materials; President Bush Answers Questions; Role Of Vice Presidents

Aired February 16, 2006 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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 details about the vice president's hunting misfire. It's 3:00 p.m. in Texas, where the sheriff spoke just a short while ago about the accident. We're going to examine what we know and what we still don't know about what happened.

Reviews of Dick Cheney's "I pulled the trigger" interviews are still coming in. It's 4:00 p.m. in Washington. Is President Bush satisfied with what the vice president said and when he finally said it?

Also this hour, the president's domestic spying program. Will U.S. senators investigate or will they strike a deal with the White House?

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

This hour in Texas, the sheriff investigating the vice president's hunting accident says the case is now cased. But a day after Dick Cheney spoke about the incident, is the full story out? One new source of information, the official report on the sheriff's investigation.

Our White House correspondent Dana Bash is standing by, but let's go to CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's in Corpus Christi, Texas, with the latest -- Ed.


Well, this report doesn't shed much new light on the actual circumstances under which this shooting occurred on Saturday, but it does raise some questions as to just how the investigation was handled in the initial hours after the shooting.

According to this report, the sheriff of Kennedy County based his opinion this was an accidental shooting largely in part on information coming from the constable, who is an elected peace officer in Kennedy County. And he based his opinion based largely in part of what the constable was telling him.

In the report, it says that "Constable Medellin had called the sheriff back and said this is, in fact, an accident. He stated that he had spoken with some of the people in the hunting party who were eyewitnesses and that they all said it was definitely a hunting accident.

I also spoke with other eyewitness and he said the same thing, that it was an accident. After hearing the same information from eyewitnesses and Constable Medellin, it was at this time that I decided to send my chief deputy first thing Sunday morning to interview the vice president and other witnesses."

And so it was 14 hours after the shooting had taken place that a sheriff's deputy actually made it on to the Armstrong Ranch and interviewed the vice president. In the report, it also said that Vice President Cheney was cordial and was willing to answer any questions that were -- that needed to be asked of him.

And also, the report goes on to mention that Mr. Whittington was interviewed here at this hospital on Monday morning, but asked that the conversation not be recorded. And a nurse here at the hospital also at one point during that interview asked the chief deputy to hurry the process along so that Mr. Whittington could rest -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It still doesn't explain, though, completely, does it, Ed, why the sheriff decided not to go out there Saturday night? Is that a matter of -- because, normally, if there's an accident, wouldn't they want to investigate or question people as quickly as possible while everybody's memories are really fresh?

LAVANDERA: You know, and that's under -- under the assumption that we're working on, too. And we've actually gone back to try to ask the sheriff about this and why, you know, someone wasn't out there sooner. We just spoke with the sheriff just a short while ago, and he didn't really feel like talking about this much more. In fact, his response was to us was, if you have any questions about the report, go back and read the report. They said no charges will be filed. This is simply a mere hunting accident, and they're going to leave it at that.

BLITZER: What about Mr. Whittington? When they came into the hospital to interview him, the sheriff wanted to record the interview. And he said, according to this report, that he had a raspy voice, he didn't really want a recording. But that -- I'm not -- that didn't necessarily convince me that that may have been the real reason. Mr. Whittington being an attorney, maybe he didn't want a formal recording under those circumstances while he was still presumably in some sort of pain or agony in a hospital room.

LAVANDERA: Right, you know, and this report, on many levels, in little moments like this where things like that are floated out in this report, that kind of -- that create another level of questions just so that we have a better understanding.

Because it does -- when someone says, you know, we don't want to answer questions or have it recorded for a reason of not having -- of having a raspy voice, it's -- on the surface, it just seems a little trivial. We, you know, we've tried to follow up and get a better understanding as to why exactly that wasn't happened.

And, then, obviously, the illusion -- alluding to the nurse, who tried to hurry the questioning along so that Mr. Whittington could get some rest. When you just read that on the surface, like I mention, it creates that other level of question and kind of creates some doubt in one's mind as they read this.

But hospital officials here say that over the last couple of days, we've tended to read too deeply into things. But we're trying to get some of the answers straightened out and having a hard time out of Kennedy County.

BLITZER: All right, Ed, we're going to check back with you soon. Thank you very much.

Let's go over to the White House now, where President Bush says he's satisfied with what the vice president said yesterday about the hunting accident. Some other Republicans, though, are still worried about potential political fallout.

Our White House correspondent Dana Bash is standing by with more -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they are definitely trying to turn the corner here. But even as the vice president said that he does not have any regrets in how the information got out to the public, we are learning more details about perhaps some confusion in that process.


BASH (voice-over): Now that the vice president has broken his silence, officials say the president, despite initial frustration, is satisfied and eager to move on.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: He was very thorough in his responses to the questions that were asked yesterday.

BASH: But some Republicans say not so fast. One interview may not be enough.

TORIE CLARK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Stand up in front of as many cameras as you can find -- and you can find those easily in Washington -- and say what you're going to say and answer the questions until there aren't anymore.

BASH: Cheney friends wonder why he waited four days to show his emotions and take some responsibility.

VIN WEBER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think if that side had come out immediately, it would have provoked an immediate positive and sympathetic reaction from the public. But remember, they wanted to get the actual facts out.

BASH: A Cheney adviser tells CNN there was actually was a plan for the vice president to talk to reporters Sunday at the hospital, but he didn't, primarily because he did not have staff there to deal with it. Senior administration sources tell CNN not talking early on irritated the president and his top aides, who make no secret they believe confusion and stubbornness made a bad situation worse.

Now, these sources say, there are discussions about changing what some insiders call Cheney world, perhaps having more aides travel with him. But those who know this vice president doubt more staff would have changed anything, noting he ignored pressure from top presidential aides to talk sooner.

WEBER: Someone like that is not going to be subject to the kind of, frankly, direction that presidents and their staffs are used to giving to vice presidents and their staffs.

BASH: Mr. Cheney did plan to speak a day earlier, on Tuesday, but then came word of Harry Whittington's mild heart attack. When you hear heart problem in the Cheney family, a close associate says, you go nuts.


BASH: Now we know the president and vice president didn't actually speak about this at all until Monday morning, when Mr. Cheney was back here at the White House. It certainly seems unusual, but one Cheney associate said it actually isn't. They do have a close professional relationship, but in terms of this, the president was getting updates from his staff. So, according those who know Mr. Cheney, perhaps it wasn't that surprising, given the relationship.

BLITZER: Dana, we understand the president may be speaking about all of this, even as we speak now?

BASH: Maybe. He is currently in the Oval Office with the president of Colombia. He might take reporters' questions. If he does, he could answer questions about this. He has not spoken out at all since this has happened. If he does, of course, we'll get it to you right away -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. Dana Bash at the White House.

And we're just getting this in from the United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan. Speaking out right now about the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, the detention center there for suspected al Qaeda terrorists.

Listen to what Kofi Annan said just a few moments ago.


KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: There's a lot in the report, and I cannot say that initially I agree with everything in the report. But the basic point that one cannot detain individuals for -- in perpetuity and that there have to be -- charges have to be brought against them and be given a chance to explain themselves and prosecute a charge or release I think is something that is common under any legal system. And I think sooner or later, there will be a need to close the Guantanamo. And I think it will be up to the government to decide and, hopefully, to do it as soon as possible.


BLITZER: Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, recommending the United States shut down the detention center at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba sooner rather than later. "As soon as possible," in fact, are the precise words that he said. This on the heels of a United Nations commission report on the detention center at Gitmo, as it's commonly called. We're watching this story. Get more on it for you as it becomes available.

Let's move over to Capitol Hill now. The controversy over the president's secret spying program is at a crossroads. Will the U.S. Senate launch an investigation or will it cut a deal with the White House?

Let's get the latest from our congressional correspondent Ed Henry -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, potentially a dramatic development. A proposed deal between the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Pat Roberts and the White House, that could slow down the congressional investigations of the president's NSA surveillance program.

In fact, that deal is being vetted right now just around the corner from me. The full Senate Intelligence Committee meeting on that deal. They were supposed to be actually meeting on a Democratic motion to open a full investigation. That would be the second congressional investigation, in addition to the Senate Judiciary Committee investigation that has been ongoing by Arlen Specter.

They have been meeting now for over an hour. We're waiting for Chairman Roberts to emerge. But on the way into the meeting, he was about 20 minutes late. He explained his tardiness by saying that in fact he had just sealed some sort of a deal, an agreement with the White House whereby they're going to do two things.

They're going to have a fix for FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to deal with the legal questions about this surveillance program. Secondly, the White House now offering more and fuller briefings of this program to the full Senate Intelligence Committee. There has been a lot of criticism that only a select few senators were actually being briefed about the program.

What we need to find out is whether or not the Democrats on this committee, led by Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, will feel that this proposed deal is good enough, whether it goes far enough to actually shut down any potential investigation by the intelligence committee.

What we're also being told that there is a proposal by Republican Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio that would create a new subcommittee of this intelligence committee that would provide new oversight of the NSA program. The White House has signaled they could live with that, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed, we'll get back to you as soon as we get some more information -- Ed Henry reporting.

Another notable vote today on Capitol Hill. The Senate overwhelmingly rejected an effort to block renewal of the USA Patriot Act. Democratic Senator Russ Feingold has been trying to prevent passage until more limits on government power could be added. Congress is moving to renew 16 key provisions of the anti-terror law scheduled to expire in three weeks.

Let's go to New York. Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File." Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. Even more fun going on there in Washington. The Jack Abramoff scandal continues to make waves throughout the nation's capital. Thirty one Senate Democrats are now asking Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to recuse himself from the investigation. They say that Abramoff's dealings with President Bush and others in the administration are reason enough for Gonzales to step aside.

Gonzales says that the career prosecutors in the Justice Department involved in this investigation are, quote, "not motivated by any political agenda," unquote. The Justice Department says Gonzales has followed all the guidelines and there's no reason for him to recuse himself.

So that's our question. Should Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recuse himself from the Abramoff probe? You can e-mail your thoughts to or you can go to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much for that.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, much more on the fallout from the vice president's hunting accident. Democratic Senator Joe Biden standing by to weigh in live. And we'll also get dueling takes on Cheney's mea culpa and whether it worked or not in our "Strategy Session."

Also head, more on the CIA leak case questions about declassified information. What power does the vice president really have? We're fact checking the vice president's account of his authority.

And a president with his share of problems. Are conservatives piling on? We'll take a closer look at Mr. Bush and whether he's holding on to his base. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Some Democrats have seized on Vice President Dick Cheney's handling of this hunting accident to press their case that the administration is simply way too secretive. Now that they've heard Cheney's side of the story, let's hear from a leading Democrat.

We're joined by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. Senator, thanks very much for joining us. The White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said this about the vice president's interview yesterday. Listen to this.


MCCLELLAN: The vice president participated in an interview yesterday, and answered all the big questions relating to this issue and explained his rationale behind the decision that he made. The president is very satisfied with the way this matter has been addressed.


BLITZER: The president's very satisfied. What about you, Senator Biden?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Well, you know, my mom has an expression. She said when I was a kid, "Joey, sometimes you're your own worst enemy."

You know, the irony is if -- I think the vast majority of Americans, including me, feel a sense of empathy and sympathy for both Cheney and his good friend who got shot. But the way they're going about this thing just sort of reinforces this whole notion that this administration, particularly this vice president is incredibly secretive about everything. You know, he's turned in a personal tragedy, which he'd get great empathy from the vast majority of Americans, into something that it didn't have to be.

BLITZER: Is he a liability to this president?

BIDEN: Well obviously the president makes that judgment. I think a lot of people have lost faith in Mr. Cheney, not because of this particular accident, but because he seems to sort of set himself apart and by a different standard than other vice presidents and presidents, for that matter have. And as things are kind of not going all that well in Iraq and not going all that well in other parts of the world with Iran and with Korea, I'm not sure that he helps the president much.

BLITZER: Do you want the vice president to have a full-scale news conference and answer questions, maybe more on this issue but on a wide range of other issues, including what's happening in Iraq in terms of domestic surveillance and other issue that have come and the CIA leak investigation, the loss of his former chief-of-staff, Lewis Scooter Libby who was criminally indicted.

BIDEN: Ordinarily you wouldn't want a vice president to do that. But it appears again, appearances -- it appears the vice president is a major, major, major policymaker within this administration. And so you kind of want to go to the horse's mouth, you want to go to the person who's credited and/or has the responsibility for the policy. And in the case of -- I'd like to know, for example, did he authorize Scooter Libby to take on what otherwise was classified information. Did he on the spot de-classify it in order to make a political point about the war in Iraq? I mean, its those selective kind of judgments where he seems to -- he kind of acts, Wolf, like there's a law and a rule for all the rest of us but for him they don't apply.

BLITZER: But in fairness to the vice president, Senator, he says that the executive order that was signed a few years back, gives not only a president, but also a vice president the right and the authority to declassify information.

BIDEN: By the way, it does. All he has to do is say I authorize declassification. That's all. I mean, and then why did he authorize it to be declassified? It's OK. I mean, look, as you know, you are one of the most seasoned reporters in all this country.

You know that 75 percent -- I won't say. I believe you know that a significant portion of the so-called leaks of information that's classified come out of the administrations, Democrat and Republican. The fact is there is this aura as to whether or not classified information before the war and after the war was selectively used to give an impression that was incorrect.

And now you have Scooter Libby saying that the vice president, who as my staff tells me, five days after we invaded Iraq was given the power to declassify and he does have that power. Apparently after that point gave Scooter Libby the authority to, I guess, selectively declassify. And so did he do that? That's the first thing. And why did he do it?

BLITZER: Senator, only a few moments ago, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- you're not a member of that committee, you're on Foreign Relations and Judiciary -- but Senator Pat Roberts spoke out about the NSA surveillance program announcing what some would regard as an important breakthrough in Congressional oversight. Listen to this.


SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE CMTE.: I have a statement I'd like to read first. "The committee has just completed a business meeting concerning its oversight of the administration's terrorist surveillance program. The meeting today was held at the behest of Vice Chairman Rockefeller so that the committee might consider his proposal to launch a far-reaching investigation into the surveillance program.

"I believe that such an investigation at this point is, basically -- would be detrimental to this highly classified program and our efforts to reach some accommodation with the administration. This program is one which I believe is vital for the protection of the American people. Like Senator Rockefeller, I have been briefed on numerous occasions over the past three years on the operational details of the program. I support the program. And I'm comfortable in my belief that it is necessary and effective, and also" ...


BLITZER: The senator goes on in a clip that we didn't broadcast there but we're going to cue that up. He goes on to announce what he says is a new arrangement he seems to be working out with the White House. But what do you make of his decision to avoid the kind of hearings that Senator Rockefeller, other Democrats, even a few Republicans, would like to have right now on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

BIDEN: I was on that committee 10 years. I was a co-sponsor of the FISA law. I was part of the investigation on the Intelligence Committee years ago that created FISA. The reason we held extensive hearings back then in the Intelligence Committee, in secret, is so we could find out whether or not what the administration was asking us to give them the power to do in secret -- in a secret FISA court -- was justified.

We concluded it was. Then we went to the Judiciary Committee, which I also served on, and we passed the appropriate law. The idea that for 52 months the administration could be eavesdropping and assuming it's only terrorists, that's just great.

But Eavesdropping and only informing two people on the Intelligence Committee and nobody else in that secret committee knowing what was going on and that was the design of the committee is absolutely preposterous. The motions that the Chairman Roberts says, quote, "it would be detrimental to hold a hearing in secret."

Now, the only thing he can mean by that is he assumes someone on that committee would violate the law and leak the information. I hope to the Lord that's not true. And so I don't quite understand, Wolf. I don't know -- none of the members of that committee but two know who, in fact, is being eavesdropped upon.

What is being done with the information that is garnered from people who accidentally are eavesdropped on? How many arrests have resulted from that? What is the program working? And there's no way of knowing that, Wolf, unless you bring the administration before that secret committee in secret and say, guys, tell us what the deal is, and tell us what you need.

BLITZER: Unfortunately, Senator, we have got to leave it there. But thanks very much for joining us.

BIDEN: Thank you very much for having me.

BLITZER: Senator Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware.

Still ahead in here THE SITUATION ROOM, Dick Cheney has been called by some the most powerful vice president ever. Some historians though might not necessarily argue that. That's not saying that much. Vice presidents, in fact, how important are they? We're going to have an answer. And then, she hasn't announced she's a candidate yet, but there was a Hillary 2008 rally today in New York. We're going to tell you all about it right after the break.


BLITZER: Our Zain Verjee is still on loan to "AMERICAN MORNING." Fredricka Whitfield joining us now from the CNN Global Headquarters in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news. Hi, Fred.


Well, France's top diplomat says Iran's claim that its nuclear research program is for peaceful purposes only is not true. The French foreign minister says there's no nonmilitary explanation for Iran's nuclear activities and that Tehran is actually conducting a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The comments are the strongest to date from Europe on the subject.

The FBI has been called in to help investigate a series of attacks on a mosque in the Detroit area. The attacks are taking place in the Hamtramck area and involve allegations of harassment, vandalism and assault. Federal investigators joined the case after complaints from Islamic community members that local police were not doing enough.

State and federal mine safety officials are investigating the cause of a fatal roof collapse at a Kentucky coal mine this morning. 33-year-old Tim Coddel (ph) was killed by falling rock and debris while working underground near the town of Hazard. He is the 20th mine worker to be killed on the job in the U.S. this year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fredricka Whitfield, thanks very much for that.

Zain Verjee, as I said, once again, on assignment on "AMERICAN MORNING." She will be back next week.

That fatal accident in Kentucky is putting the spotlight back on the American coal mining industry. How safe are these mines? Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is joining us now. She has some new details -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, online records, from MSHA, the mining agency -- the government mining agency that conducts the inspections of these mines showed that this mine has had incidents with falling rocks before.

If we look at those online records, we'll see that in this mine -- it is called Hazard Number Four in the east of Kentucky -- there were five such incidents, no fatalities, but roof incidents in the past year.

The most recent was just in December, an accident with falling rocks that struck a miner. You'll remember that the Sago Mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners lost their lives earlier this year, had frequent citations. The mine in Kentucky, the Hazard Mine Number Four that we just mentioned, had some 400 -- almost 400 in the last two years. Sago had around 200 in 2005. Incidentally, news citations at the Sago mine, three in the past month, have just been revealed after new inspections there, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you very much, Abbi, for that.

We understand the president has just spoken out on the vice president, what the vice president said yesterday. That tape is about to come in. We're going to show it to you as soon as we get it.

Also coming up, the series of unfortunate events on a Texas ranch. Has Vice President Cheney eased the uproar over the hunting accident? Questions about the fallout. That's coming up in our "Strategy Session."

And Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby says he got the go-ahead to leak classified information from his superiors. What power does the vice president have to declassify information? Find out. That's all coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: President Bush has now commented for the first time on the vice president's accidentally shooting a friend on a Texas ranch over the weekend and on the president's explanation yesterday of what happened. The president told reporters only a few moments ago, "I thought the vice president handled the issue," in his words, "just fine." I thought his explanation yesterday was a powerful explanation.

We're going to get the videotape of precisely what the president said only a few moments ago over at the White House. Bring it to you momentarily.

We want to follow up on something else that the vice president said yesterday. He contends an executive order gives him the authority to declassify secret documents. But he did not say whether he actually authorized his indicted former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby to release classified material to reporters. Our national security correspondent David Ensor has been looking into this story. He's joining us now live -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN AMERICA BUREAU CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for as long as there have been classified reports and politicians, some classified information has been privately provided to journalists. And usually, they are the parts that support the position that those politicians are taking.

Sine it is the executive branch, headed by the president, that decides what to consider classified material, it's the executive branch under the president's authority that can declassify it. Most recently, the rules governing declassifying material were update in a 2003 executive order signed by President Bush.


ENSOR: There are complex rules for lesser mortals, but the order makes clear that the president and the vice president can order aides, such as Mr. Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby, to give any classified material they want to a reporter.

JEFFREY SMITH, FORMER CIA GENERAL COUNSEL: Frankly, the president and the vice president have that right, if they so choose, to declassify something and put it out in public.

ENSOR: Now, intelligence officials say most commonly when administration officials want to declassify something, they will check with the relevant intelligence officials to make sure nothing they want to make public would compromise sensitive sources or methods.


ENSOR: That is not legally required. And Wolf, it is not always done.

BLITZER: David Ensor, thanks very much.

The president is about to speak. We just got the videotape in from the White House. The president's been over in the Oval Office meeting with the president of Colombia. But after their opening statements, the president answered questions. Let's listen in.



QUESTION: Yes, Mr. President. Do you feel it's appropriate that the vice president didn't reveal the shooting accident until the next day if you were a private citizen. And do you think it was OK that he didn't talk to you about it personally until Monday?

BUSH: I thought the vice president handled the issue just fine. And I thought his explanation yesterday was a powerful explanation. Now, this is a man who likes the outdoors, and he likes to hunt. And he heard a bird flush. And he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded.

And it was a deeply traumatic moment for him and, obviously, for the -- it was a tragic moment for Harry Whittington. And so I thought his explanation yesterday was a very strong and powerful explanation. And I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave.

QUESTION: But are you satisfied with the timing (ph)?

BUSH: I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave. The president is about to ask somebody to ask a question.

QUESTION: Mr. President, is there going to be a free trade agreement with Colombia or not?

BUSH: Espero que si. Vamos a ver. I spent time visiting with the president about the progress on negotiations. Free trade agreements are never easy to negotiate. Es muy dificil. And because there's interests. He represents the people of your country very well. He's a good negotiator, as is his trade minister. They're strong in representing the interests of the people, whether they be farmers or manufacturers.

And our people are good, strong negotiators, too. I'm very hopeful. I'm very hopeful we can reach a conclusion. Trade agreements are never easy. And that's what's very important to understand. In my judgment -- and by the way, I, too, have to convince the American people of the importance of trade agreements. And my judgment, in agreement with this important country, Colombia will be a very important agreement. And so we're working hard -- Steve?

QUESTION: Some Democrats (INAUDIBLE). What do you say to that?

BUSH: I think people are making the wrong conclusion about a tragic accident. The vice president was involved in a terrible accident. And it profoundly affected him.

Yesterday, when he was here in the Oval Office, I saw the deep concern he had about a person who he wounded. Again, I thought yesterday's explanation was a very strong and important explanation to make to the American people. And now our concerns are directed toward the recovery of our friend.

I knew Harry Whittington when I was the governor of Texas down there in Austin. He's a fine man. He had been involved in our state's politics for a long period of time. My concern is for Harry. And I know the vice president feels the same way. Final question.

QUESTION: President Bush, do you think the negotiators are making the link between the thought that it's important to improve the economy as a way to fight against terror and illegal drugs?

BUSH: A great question. I believe that when we work together in a free trade, it strengthens markets and the appreciation for open markets, whether it be in Colombia or here at home. I believe free commerce between nations will enable countries -- people in countries to realize their full potential.

I think one of the things that's very important, I know the president is dedicated on, is a strategy on the one hand that says he will deal harshly those who deal in drugs. But he also recognizes there needs to be economic activity to compete.

We've had a lot of discussions about crop substitution and microloans for people to be able to develop ways to make a living that is distinct from and different from being involved in the drug trade. So absolutely, we understand the connection between trade, legal products in a freeway between nations as a way to compete against illegal activities.

I appreciate the president's leadership on working hard to make sure that Colombia's rid of narco trafficking. It's a great country with a wonderful history. And the determination to rid the country of narco trafficking will go down as a very important part of your nation's history and will continue to say that Colombia's a great country with great enterprise and great hope and great opportunity.

Thank you for coming. Adios.


BLITZER: The president of the United States and the president of Columbia in the Oval Office just moments ago. During questioning, President Bush defended, said he was satisfied with the way the vice president explained what happened on that Texas ranch over the weekend. "I thought the vice president handled the issue just fine. I thought his explanation yesterday was a powerful explanation."

Joining us now, our CNN analyst, Paul Begala -- he's a Democratic strategist -- and Ron Kaufman. He's a Republican strategist, former White House political director. What did you think of the president's reaction to what the vice president said yesterday?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I always like hearing him speak Spanish. I really do. I think it's very good. It helps, I think, with America's image in Latin America. He was less clear when he was speaking English, if you ask me.

The vice president's performance yesterday leaves a whole lot of questions unanswered. First and most importantly, why was he drinking? How much was he drinking? And did that affect his cognitive ability while he was hunting?

Will the president encourage his friend Harry Whittington and the hospitals in Texas that treated him to release the blood alcohol content of Mr. Whittington? It wouldn't be dispositive as to whether Cheney was drunk, but it would certainly be suggestive, right?

Will the president tell the secret service agents, who are much more reliable eyewitnesses than a lobbyist who was 100 yards away and got everything wrong -- will he encourage them, order them, to come forward and tell us what really happened down there? He could clear this whole thing up, the president could. I think he's making a big mistake in allowing this kind of thing to simmer.

BLITZER: Ron, what do you think?

RON KAUFMAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE POLITICAL DIRECTOR: The truth is, Wolf, the only folks that are upset about this are angry Democrats like my friend Paul here and Howard Dean and the White House press corps. I checked the other day.

There's nothing in the Constitution that says things that happen to the president and the vice president have to be released to the White House press corps. The fact they did this through the local press corps, that's fine. And the bottom line, I hope Paul, if he by accident happened to shoot his friend James, which would be awful -- I'm sure that the first thing he'd would be call Dan Rather. This is not about that, Paul. The vice president did exactly the right thing. He made sure that Mr. Whittington, his friend, got to the hospital, his wife was notified, and the kids were notified. That's what I would do, that's what most Americans would do. That's probably not what Paul and the folks in Washington would do.


BLITZER: Let me ask you this question. This is still an unanswered question. The incident happened on Saturday. On Sunday, the woman who was the hostess of the whole event, Katherine Armstrong, said that, basically, it was all Harry Whittington's fault. He hadn't followed the protocol, he hadn't announced himself. And as a result, it was perhaps understandable that the vice president accidentally shot him.

The next day at the White House, the press secretary Scott McClellan said basically the same thing. The vice president waited until Wednesday to come to the defense of his friend Harry Whittington and correct the record and say, "Harry was not responsible. I was responsible." The question a lot of people are asking is, why did the vice president wait until Wednesday to set the record clear?

KAUFMAN: Well, actually, Wolf, he didn't change anything that happened.

BLITZER: He left that out there, that Harry Whittington was responsible for four days.

KAUFMAN: No, he didn't. What he did, Wolf, was say, "Listen. I pulled the trigger. Ergo, it's my fall. If you're driving a car and some young kid hits your car, you'd feel badly because you're driving the car. You'd feel guilty because you're driving the car. This is no different. This is an accident, a simple accident.

BEGALA: He had been drinking.


BLITZER: Be fair. Be fair. Hold on a second. The vice president, in the interview yesterday, he said that he had a beer over lunch, which was several hours before the incident which occurred at 5:30 local time, Central Time, in Texas.

BEGALA: That's what he admits to. What I want to know is, did Mr. Whittington, who presumably did have a blood test taken when he went into the hospital, did he have an elevated alcohol content? We've been told before there was no alcohol whatsoever.

BLITZER: In a police report that came out today, when they questioned Mr. Whittington, at first they asked him about alcohol. He said there was no alcohol.

BEGALA ; I'm interested in the blood alcohol content. I'm also interested, though, in -- Vice president Cheney is our vice president. He works for us. Because of his health issues, presumably, he takes a lot of medication. Or maybe a little, or maybe none. I want to know, is there interaction between alcohol and that medication? He won't tell us. Why won't he tell us? Why won't they get to the bottom of this?

It's not whether or not when they released it to the press. That's a legitimate concern in some quarters. But this is more important. If the vice president is behaving recklessly -- and I think he is. Whether or not he even had alcohol, he shouldn't have been swinging a gun around with a guy in the field.

Second, he shouldn't have picked up with that gun, even if he had one beer with lunch. Veteran hunters don't do that. And third, he ought to come clean about whether his medicine interacts with his alcohol.


KAUFMAN: Someone had a drink at lunch. Five and a half hours later, that one bottle of beer, Paul, had nothing to do with...


KAUFMAN: The bottom line is, everyone knows there Mrs. Armstrong -- the alcohol had no place, as the police who were there said so, Paul.

BEGALA: The police weren't allowed on it for 16 hours, Ron.


KAUFMAN: Paul, people care what's going on in Iraq, what's going on in Iran, what's going on -- they don't care about a sad accident. And it is an accident. Why are you making such a big deal about this? Because there's nothing else to talk about. This is about a tragic accident. Let Mr. Whittington alone, let the vice president do his job, and let's move on.

BLITZER: All right, we'll have to leave it there. The questions, I'm sure, Ron -- as you know, you've been around Washington a long time -- are not going to go away. Paul Begala, Ron Kaufman, a good discussion. Thanks very much to both of you.

Up next, some say Vice President Cheney is one of the most powerful vice presidents ever. Even Al Gore exercised vast power. But still, the question persists. Does the president, who's a breath from the presidency, matter? Our Bruce Morton will ponder that question.

And coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM, more details on the Cheney shooting accident. Why did the vice president wait four days to explain what happened? We're going to explore what we do know, what we don't know. 7:00 p.m. Eastern here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The official report on the vice presidential accident over the weekend was just made available online. Let's go to our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, INTERNET REPORTER: We have been waiting for this incident report from the Kennedy County Sheriff's Department. Now we've got it, Wolf. And now so you do at home. Go to It's a Web site that puts actual documents online. And as you go through this document, a couple of things that we found awfully interesting.

First of all, this is the chief deputy's report. He says he was contacted at 6:30 in the evening and was told to go to the ranch at 8:00 in the morning, would be given further instructions at that point.

Another thing we wanted to point out is when they went to talk to Mr. Whittington, they asked if he would be recorded. He said no because his voice was raspy. He did go on to talk about the incident, however, pointing out first and foremost there was no alcohol involved in the incident, and everybody was wearing proper hunting attire.

Also available online was the first report that we got from this incident. This was from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Association. This is their incident report. An interesting to note, under Whittington's section of this report, it talks about whether or not he was hunter educated certified. And would you believe he was not -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jackie, thank you very much. The Dick Cheney hunting accident has renewed focus on this vice president's style, influence, and ability to create controversy. Our national correspondent Bruce Morton has been looking at the role of Dick Cheney, the role of other vice presidents as well -- Bruce?

BRUCE MORTON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, do vice presidents matter? They disagree.


MORTON: John Adams, George Washington's VP called it the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived. Thomas Jefferson, Adams' VP called it honorable and easy while the presidency was just a splendid misery. Of course, they matter when the president dies. Andrew Johnson mattered when John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln. Though he didn't matter very successfully. He got impeached.

Harry Truman made tough decisions when Franklin Roosevelt died during World War II, dropped the atom bomb Roosevelt had never told him existed, backed NATO and the Marshall Plan. His decisions mostly turned out pretty well. Gerald Ford reassured a worried country when Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment over Watergate.

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our long national nightmare is over. MORTON: As vice presidents, they matter only if the president wants them to. John Nance Garner, Roosevelt's VP, said the job wasn't worth a picture of warm rhymes with spit.

STEPHEN HESS, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: And that's about the history of the vice presidency until recent days when presidents have chose to make something of them. And no one has made as much of the vice presidency as George W. Bush has made of his vice president.


MORTON: Other recent VPs have had specific tasks, Al Gore reorganizing and trying to shrink the federal government, for instance. But Cheney has been always in private a kind of first counselor among equals, not a rival of the president, but his principal adviser. Even if his aim at the weekend was unfortunate, it will probably take more than some birdshot to shake the president's faith in his principle deputy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bruce, thanks very much. And I'm very, very sad to say that was Bruce Morton's last report for us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's retiring from CNN after 13 years at this network and almost 30 years at CBS News before that.

Bruce is a modest man. He certainly did not want us to make a fuss at all. But we couldn't let this moment pass by without celebrating this truly talented journalist and his remarkable career. One of our colleagues likes to say that if there were a journalist hall of fame, Bruce Morton certainly would be in it.

Beyond his years of solid, hard news reporting, Bruce brings something very special to television journalism, a truly unique voice, smart and wry, with a perspective you could only get by covering politics for five decades. When we need a certain kind of piece we immediately know is Bruce material, Morton-esque, as many of us like to say right here.

That voice will be missed at CNN, here in THE SITUATION ROOM. It will be missed throughout the country. Bruce, we wish you well as you head into a new chapter of your life. But we hope though you're moving on, you'll come visit from time to time here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Bruce, good luck to you.

MORTON: Thank you, Wolf. Love to see you.

BLITZER: We will see you often.

And still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, here in Washington, some want the Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to step aside from the Jack Abramoff investigation. Some Democrats say Gonzales' dealings with President Bush and others are reason enough. What do you think? Jack Cafferty is going through your email.

And he was once a vice presidential candidate. He even ran for president. After many years in Washington, what does the former senator Bob Dole think of the Cheney affair right now? Coming up, my one on one with Bob Dole. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Let's go back to Jack in New York with "The Cafferty File." Jack, you're smiling.

CAFFERTY: You should never get that close to me with a camera. Scare the children. Thirty-one Senate Democrats are asking Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to recuse himself from the Abramoff investigation. Gonzales says that the career investigators involved with the Justice Department are not motivated by any political agenda. That's a quote. So the question is, should Attorney General Gonzales recuse himself from the Abramoff probe?

Mark writes, "Gonzales has demonstrated that he works for the president. We need someone who works for the people. Yes, he should recuse himself."

Cecil writes, "Alberto Gonzales has amply proven himself to be a loyal lapdog of the Bush administration. He should go to his kennel and stay. Let someone of independent mind investigate."

Dale in Oklahoma, "Of course he should. But did any member of the Supreme Court recuse themselves when they crowned Prince George? We are talking about a special prosecutor here, nothing short of that."

Larry writes from Colliers, West Virginia, "No, he should not recuse himself. All you liberals need to give up." I think he's talking about you, Wolf. "The American people are sick and tired of the liberal news media attacking this administration 24 hours a day. Frankly, it's getting old and boring."

Dexter writes, "Of course he should step aside on this issue. Why does the Bush administration think that ethics are only religious or sexual in nature? Cheating, lying, and stealing seem to be ethical as long as the cause is justified."

And Rob writes from Eugene, Oregon, "That's just silly. How can you run a good cover-up if Attorney General Gonzales recuses himself?"

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.