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Iran Offers to Talk to United States About Iraq; Operation Swarmer Targets Insurgents in Samarra Area; Cuban Man Protests Limited Internet Access With Hunger Strike; Tough California Smoking Ban; What's At Stake If U.S.-Dubai Relationship Is Damaged?

Aired March 17, 2006 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And 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, after years of offering a diplomatic cold shoulder, Iran is now offering to talk to the U.S. about Iraq. But the White House is not going to the table so fast, saying it does not trust Iran's motives.

And it's the story of a chilling plot, al Qaeda's purported plan to infiltrate Iraqi security forces and launch sneak attacks against embassies in Baghdad, including the U.S. embassy. But are the plot details mostly fact or fiction?

And happening now in Cuba, a man is literally dying to get on to the Internet. He's on a hunger strike to protest Cuba's tight limits on the information super highway. The man's mother says right now her son is simply fading away.

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

We begin with a developing story over a seemingly friendly offer from a longtime foe. Iran is offering to talk to the United States directly about Iraq. The White House says it does not yet trust the invitation is genuine.

Let's go to the White House. Our Elaine Quijano is standing by. She's got some late developments -- Elaine.


Earlier this afternoon, the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, talked to reporters about the circumstances surrounding this latest development, saying that it was actually four or five months ago the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was given the authorization to reach out to the Iranians specifically on the issue of their behavior in Iraq.

Now, with these latest developments, Stephen Hadley's response is that he believes this is simply a device, he said, by the Iranians to divert pressure now that, of course, the international community is wanting to examine more closely Iran's nuclear ambitions. Now, we're getting a little bit more this afternoon as well, Wolf, from a senior administration official separately, essentially echoing that sentiment, saying, on the timing of this, why the Iranians are apparently coming forward now, U.S. officials believe this is evidence that in fact that solidarity within the international community on the nuclear weapons program is having an effect, that it's now not just going to be the United States, but the whole international community that is looking at this nuclear weapons program.

Now, U.S. officials are also saying -- a senior administration official saying that they are also picking up information in intelligence that there's a debate going on within the Iranian government on whether Iran's president is on the right course or whether the Iranians need to perhaps take the Russian proposal as a way out. Nevertheless, they say make no mistake, this is not a diplomatic move, this is not a negotiating. This official saying that "Iran is using this as an escape valve for international pressure, we think it is a stunt" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elaine Quijano at the White House.

Thanks very much.

Let's get some more on this developing story. Our national security correspondent, David Ensor, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What are you picking up, David, on the prospect of talks, direct talks between the U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, U.S. officials, Wolf, senior administration officials are kind of annoyed by the timing here, and they don't think it's a coincidence.

They say, look, first of all, the president said months ago that he was ready for a dialogue about Iraq, just a very specific one in which the U.S. ambassador in Iraq who speaks Farsi would tell them that he doesn't want them interfering, he doesn't want them sending equipment to the -- to the terrorists in Iraq, IED equipment.

That was the kind of dialogue. It's been -- that -- the offer has been out there for two months. And the Iranians, various Iranian officials have said that they might be willing to have such talks.

Now they are trying to pump it up in the view of administration officials to try to distract from where the attention in the U.S.' view should be, which is, of course, New York, the United Nations, where for a week now, Iran has faced the possibility of action by the U.N. Security Council. And next Monday, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns will be up there, upping the ante a little bit as the U.S. seeks language that Russia and China can sign on to for a presidential statement, a statement by the head of the Security Council warning Iran that it needs to give up its nuclear ambitions.

BLITZER: Bottom line, I suspect we're not going to see a direct meeting between Khalilzad and an Iranian official in Baghdad in the next few days?

ENSOR: You might see one soon. I doubt you'll see it on television. The U.S. doesn't want a lot of attention brought to this meeting.

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

David Ensor is our national security correspondent.

We'll move on now to that major air assault campaign in Iraq that the military is calling a massive show of farce but that some now are calling a showoff for a war-weary public. In Operation Swarmer, Iraqis are showing they know how to fight, but just before the war's three-year anniversary, some say the campaign's real target is to shoot down war pessimism among Americans. Iraqi forces are rooting out insurgents and seizing weapons caches right now.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, has the latest.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What we have seen, what we've been shown is Iraqi troops and U.S. troops working side by side. We're seeing helicopters re-supplying troops, taking more troops into the field.

We've been able to see the slow, painstaking work of looking for the weapons caches. Six caches so far we've been told have been discovered.

What we saw as we flew past some of these ongoing operations, we could see the soldiers fanned out, walking through the fields. A very thorough search of fields, of sand berms, looking for weapons caches. We've been told AK-47s, explosive -- parts of improvised explosive devices, bomb-making equipment has been found in some of these weapons caches.

We've also been told that there have been about 50 people detained. We've been told as well during this operations there's still elements of the operation going on here.

Up on the top of the hill here, we saw an Iraqi soldier looking out with binoculars. When he was looking out with the binoculars, he spotted a vehicle going across the horizon. Then he called for his interpreter. He said, "Tell the Americans get a helicopter over there, get them to look at that vehicle. We think it's trying to get away from this particular area."

That's the way we've seen the operations being conducted here, 1,500 troops, 800 Iraqis, 700 U.S. troops involved. There's no information at all about high-value targets here, although there is some specific information perhaps linking in the -- linking in the people responsible for blowing up the holy shrine in Samarra a few weeks ago that precipitated much of the sectarian violence. We've been told that the perpetrators of that attack lived in this area, although the planning for this operation, Operation Swarmer, we're told, began before, before that attack on the shrine in Samarra. They tell us that they hope that this is a warning for the insurgents so they can now see the Iraqi security forces can move with U.S. support in fast-moving and large operations.

Nic Robertson, north of Samarra, Iraq.


BLITZER: Nic was embedded with the 101st earlier today for observation of this mission.

Is Operation Swarmer really meant to be a trial run for Iraqi troops, a way to get them a taste of success?

Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is day two of Operation Swarmer, and as you say, many questions about what really is being accomplished here.


STARR (voice-over): U.S. and Iraqi troops expect to remain in the Samarra region for the next several days. But so far, the largest air assault since the invasion of Iraq appears to be going quietly.

LT. GEN. PETER CHIARELLI, COMMANDER, MULTINATIONAL CORPS-IRAQ: The amount of resistance we had was very, very light, I think the last count I had is that we have 31 individuals that we have detained.

STARR: Iraqi intelligence had information weeks ago that insurgents might be hiding in the region. Commanders say the initial assault force of 1,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops was need to secure the 10-mile by 10-mile area. But clearly, this operation is also a chance to showcase the capabilities of at least these Iraqi units.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This operation which is getting an awful lot of hype somewhat puzzles me because it really is, from a military standpoint, a very modest operation. And so far, this results seem to be very modest.

STARR: Chiarelli pressing the case that Iraqi security forces are taking on growing responsibility.

CHIARELLI: By this summer, about 75 percent of Iraq will be in -- that battle space will be owned Iraqi units. We are finding Iraqi units with our support can be used in just about any operation we do in a counterinsurgency role.

STARR: But that 75 percent includes much of Iraq's uninhabited desert regions or the relatively peaceful areas in the south.


STARR: Wolf, General Chiarelli insisting that the timing of Operation Swarmer was not dictated by any political agenda in Washington -- Wolf.

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

In just a few minutes, I will speak live with the man who was Colin Powell's chief of staff. That would be Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He'll offer his opinion on the Iraq war now that it's just about three years old. My one-one-one interview with Colonel Wilkerson coming up shortly.

Operation Swarmer comes after news of an alleged plot for a spectacular attack inside Baghdad's so-called Green Zone. But within days of announcing the plot, some officials are quickly now backing away from those reports.

CNN's Brian Todd has been sorting through the contradictions. He's joining us from the newsroom with more -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we dug into this story after hearing reports of this plot all week, a story that seems at once spectacular and bone-chilling.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With the White House chorus against Iran growing...

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

TODD: ... and with the administration reinforcing its preemptive strike option, the question now: How would Iran be targeted?

Retired war planner Colonel Sam Gardner developed a war gentlemen for the "Atlantic Monthly" magazine in 2004. He presented three options. A conventional attack on Iran's revolutionary guard, using primarily air strikes. A so-called regime change option targeting the leadership.

COL. SAM GARDNER, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET): Special operations would probably come from Afghanistan, maybe come from Azerbaijan. And then the bulk of the ground force would come from Iraq in this option.

TODD: And what Gardner says is the most commonly discussed option, striking some of Iran's nuclear facilities.

GARDNER: There would probably be about a three-day air campaign with aircraft like the B-2, cruise missiles fired from ships and aircraft. And we would go after the facilities we know about. TODD: If those hits were successful, Gardner says, Iran's nuclear capabilities would be set back a few years. Military analysts we spoke to believe a conventional attack using ground forces would be difficult because of mountainous terrain in southern and western Iran. American bases, now in neighboring Iraq, provide shorter striking distances, but any response by Iran might tax already-thin U.S. combat units.

KEN ROBINSON, MILITARY INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: The Iranians can do the math. They see that we're tied down in Iraq, they see that we're tied down in Afghanistan, they see that we're tied down in North Korea.

TODD: Analysts say Iran's retaliation could be devastating, with a standing army with hundreds of thousands of troops, and an already sophisticated chemical and biological warfare program.

(on camera): And that's just the immediate military response. Analysts say Iran could then wreak havoc on the world's oil supply, minding the Persian Gulf, attacking tankers, all but cutting off the supply not only to U.S. and its allies, but also to countries like China, which could then bring about its own economic retaliation against the United States.


TODD: So, are we to believe this same ministry when it claims to have foiled a major al Qaeda plot? We've seen little evidence of this plot and heard the contradictions, but we've also seen no evidence that it's not true -- Wolf.

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

Let's go up to New York. Jack Cafferty standing by with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.


Some Republican senators are trying their damnedest to give President Bush a pass when it comes to his domestic spying program. Instead of conducting a formal investigation into whether or not the president broke the law by failing to obtain a warrant by spying on Americans, they want to change the rules in the middle of the game by writing a new law.

They introduced a bill that would allow the NSA to continue spying on some Americans without for up to 45 days. And at that point, the government could either drop the surveillance, get a warrant from FISA, which is what they are supposed to do, by the way, under the present law that's been on the books since the Nixon years, or get approval from a handful of House and Senate members.

The senator who are advocating this are the following: Mike DeWine of Ohio; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Chuck Hagel of Nebraska; and Olympia Snowe of Maine. They're all Republicans. It's unclear though that this thing will pass. For one thing, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, appears to have a lick of sense when it comes to this stuff. He says he objects to letting the government "do whatever the hell it wants for 45 days without approval."

Good thinking, Senator Specter.

Here's the question: Should the government be allowed to eavesdrop without a warrant?

E-mail us at or go to

It's amazing. Instead of prosecuting, or at least investigating and then deciding whether to prosecute under the existing law, we're going to ignore the existing law, ignore the alleged violations of the existing law, and just write a new law that makes all this activity all right.

I -- it's -- and we elect these people. We vote these morons into office -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Your welcome.

BLITZER: Coming up, suspected cases of bird flu in the holy land. We are going to have details of a possible new spread of the virus and who might have contracted it.

Also, one man's question for freedom of information. We are going to show you the drastic action he's taking all over Internet access.

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, no smoking, even outdoors. We're going to take you live to southern California for details of a harsh new anti-smoking procedure, possibly the toughest in the nation.



BLITZER: Time now for Ali Velshi. He's now with the -- in THE SITUATION ROOM with "The Bottom Line."

Hi, Ali.



VELSHI: And I will see you again at 7:00.

BLITZER: Ali, thank you very much.

Ali Velshi. Important note. Ali hosts "ON THE STORY" this weekend. The show takes all of us behind the scenes of the big stories that CNN covered all week. "ON THE STORY" airs Saturday night, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, replayed Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern. It -- he does it before a live studio audience over at George Washington University, which won in the first round of the NCAA last night.

Coming up, he's a good friend and served as chief of staff for former secretary of state Colin Powell. He's also become a harsh critic of the Bush administration's decision to go to ware in Iraq. He's standing by to join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, a hunger strike over the Internet. We are going to show you one man endangering his health, all in the quest for information.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: At that hour, U.S. and Iraqi forces are engaged in what the Pentagon is calling Operation Swarmer, rooting out insurgents in the so-called Sunni Triangle. This operation comes almost three years to the day since the U.S. invaded Iraq.

A key administration official involved in planning for the Iraq war was the secretary of state, Colin Powell, and his chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson. Wilkerson has now become a serious critic of the decision to go to work in Iraq, and he's on the record, calling the Bush administration -- and I'm quoting now -- "radical."

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's joining us now. He teaches courses over at George Washington University and William and Mary in Virginia.

Colonel, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Knowing what you know now, three years later, almost to the day, was it worth it going to war in Iraq?

WILKERSON: Well, Wolf, let me say that your original statement about Colin Powell and myself being involved in the planning for the war in Iraq I think is not quite correct, and I would like to establish that fact.

BLITZER: Are you saying Colin Powell was not involved?

WILKERSON: I'm saying that we weren't nearly as involved as I think that we should have been involved, and that was based principally on the president's decision on January the 20th, 2003 to make the Defense Department the lead agency in the war on Iraq.

BLITZER: But all of us remember in February it was Colin Powell who delivered that -- that presentation before the U.N. Security Council.

WILKERSON: That's true, but that didn't have anything to do with planning for the war in Iraq.

BLITZER: But it was the rationale for going to war.

WILKERSON: Absolutely, it was a part of that.

BLITZER: So what you're saying is that the Defense Department took over all the post-invasion plans from the State Department even though there had been a pretty detailed State Department plan?

WILKERSON: What I'm saying is that until things turned very bad for us in Iraq, the Defense Department felt like that it could handle things and didn't really need the State Department, except as it demanded that the State Department do this or do that.

BLITZER: All right. We'll correct the record on that.

What about the decision to go to war? Was it the right decision? Was it worth it knowing what you know now?

WILKERSON: Wolf, I have to say, after three years looking at it from a strategic point of view now, it was not. And let me say why I don't think it was strategically a sound decision.

First of all, the number one winner in the region is not the United States, nor Israel. The number one winner is Iran. Let' just tick off the things that strategically Iran has gained by our having invaded Iraq.

First of all, it eliminated its number one enemy, its enemy that it fought for eight years, most of the decade of the '80s, and lost hundreds of thousands of people fighting without even firing a shot.

BLITZER: That was Saddam Hussein.

WILKERSON: Iraq is gone. Saddam Hussein is gone.

It also eliminated another enemy, the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It also won the elections in Iraq on 15 December for all practical purposes.

BLITZER: Because the Shia, who were the dominant party in Iraq, are aligned with Iran.

WILKERSON: Precisely. And, I mean, there principally Hakim and...

BLITZER: And Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

WILKERSON: And Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

And at the same time, I have to say that Iran pretty much owns the south of Iraq, principally the key city of Basra. The British came to an agreement, I think, early on that they were going to minimize their casualties there and have not aggressively...

BLITZER: But the theory was that Iran, Iraq, North Korea were the axis of evil...


BLITZER: ... and that if you overthrow Saddam Hussein, that sends a powerful message to the people in Iran and North Korea, you might be next.

WILKERSON: And yet, Iran is now in the catbird seat. And if I were Israel and its leaders right now, I would be far more anxious now than I was prior to 3 March three years ago.

BLITZER: Why is that?

WILKERSON: Because Iran is in the catbird seat. Iran has gained enormous strategic flexibility by the fact that we are beleaguered in Iraq, our ground forces are more or less committed in Iraq. Our ground forces are committed to a struggle that looks interminable. So...

BLITZER: So are you saying that when the Iranians threaten Israel, the Israelis should be taking those threats to be wiped off the face of the map literally?

WILKERSON: I think they should be taking the threat seriously. I think they are.

BLITZER: So why not let -- you know, let them or let the U.S. go ahead and preempt?

WILKERSON: Well, that's an -- that's an option that this administration is looking at right now. I hope they're...

BLITZER: And you think it's serious?

WILKERSON: I hope they are looking at other options well before this on...

BLITZER: Because they say the diplomatic option is the priority.

WILKERSON: But the diplomatic option here seems to be, as was announced this morning, the same diplomatic option we have been exercising to no real end with regard to Pyongyang, the other member of the axis of evil, North Korea. We've had diplomacy going there -- and I use that term with great trepidation -- we've had diplomacy going there for an interminable period and we haven't succeeded in anything.

Let's examine that situation for a moment, Wolf, because when I say "strategic," I mean the entire axis of evil.

BLITZER: Are the people of Iraq better off today, three years later, without Saddam Hussein as their dictator? WILKERSON: No question that Saddam Hussein being gone is a plus. But the way he was made to go, and the aftermath of that has created a situation that's not conducive to America's interest or Israel's interest.

BLITZER: Listen to what the president said last night at a Republican Party fund-raiser. Listen to this.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I saw a threat in Saddam Hussein. Members of the United States Congress, both Republicans and Democrats saw a threat. Members of the United Nations Security Council saw a threat.

By removing Saddam Hussein from power, America is safer and the world is better off.


BLITZER: Do you agree with it?

WILKERSON: No. We see threats all around the world.

I see a looming threat in Pyongyang. I see a looming threat in Tehran. We are not using military force against those two capitals right now, and I hope, for god's sake, that we don't use it against either one of them.

BLITZER: Let me ask you this question about WMD, because you and Colin Powell were directly involved in this. We asked this question the other day in our CNN-"USA-Today"-Gallup poll: "Did the Bush administration deliberately -- deliberately mislead public" -- the public -- "on weapons of mass destruction?"

Fifty-one percent of the American public say yes, 46 percent say no.

And I'll pose the question to you: Did the Bush administration deliberately mislead the American public on WMD?

WILKERSON: Wolf, there's no question in my mind now after looking back at is as an academic, doing research over this last year or two, and my time in the State Department, there's no doubt in my mind that certain members of the Bush administration did in fact politicize the intelligence, did cherry-pick the intelligence..


WILKERSON: I would put at the top of that list Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, in the Pentagon, who was more or less the planner, if you will, if you can use that term, for post- invasion Iraq.

BLITZER: Who else? WILKERSON: I would also include in that list people like the vice president, who made statements that were simply egregious in terms of their error and in terms of their continued error over time.

Continuing to state the connection between al Qaeda and Baghdad when, in fact, the intelligence community and everyone I knew that had any expertise in the area had taken that down long before the vice president quit saying it.

WILKERSON: With all due respect to Doug Feith, he's not the vice president of the United States.

BLITZER: Doug Feith is not the vice president of the United States, but Doug Feith was a principle -- if not the principle key planner for post-invasion Iraq.

BLITZER: And so what about Rumsfeld, who was his boss, Wolfowitz, who was his boss. What about them?

WILKERSON: Wolfowitz as deputy secretary of defense probably did not do all that he could to make sure that the intelligence picture was as the intelligence community was rendering it.

I'm not sure about Secretary Rumsfeld. I think Secretary Rumsfeld's major concern was with transformation of the armed forces. I don't think he was focused as much on war with Iraq as was the vice president's office and certain members of his own Pentagon.

Did Secretary Rumsfeld politicize the intelligence? Did he cherry pick from the intelligence? If his policy planning shopper, his policy shop in Douglas Feith's realm was cherry picking the intelligence and providing talking points for the secretary to speak, then the secretary of defense was also cherry picking.

BLITZER: The secretary of state, who was your boss, Colin Powell, you spent a long time with him. He went to the CIA before he delivered that speech at the U.N. Security Council, spent days reviewing the intelligence. Did he cherry pick what he was going to tell the U.N. Security Council?

WILKERSON: He cherry picked it from the opposite point of view. He cherry picked it from the point of view of trying to get rid of everything in the testimony that he was going to give, the presentation that he was going to give, that didn't have a credible intelligence community backed source.

That was his criterion going in, and that was my criterion going in. And that's what we told Mr. Tenet, that's what we told Mr. McLaughlin the DDCI. And that's what we tried to do, which is why we threw out the package that the White House has given us almost the first day and moved to the NIE, the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, that Mr. Tenet said he could back up 100 percent.

BLITZER: Even though, with hindsight, there was a lot of bad information in that .

WILKERSON: A lot of bad information in that, too.

BLITZER: You worked with Colin Powell for a long time. And on December 6, 2003, this is how he described you at the Kennedy Center Honors Dinner for the State Department.

He said, "A dear friend of mine, an old war buddy by the name of Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larry is an infantry officer, like me. He's a combat helicopter pilot, served in Vietnam. And he's been with me and been my close friend and adviser for 14 years. He's a soldier." Which given his background, that's the highest compliment he can give. What kind of relationship since you've gone public with your criticisms have you had with the former secretary of state?

WILKERSON: Well, it's been strained. He believes in working behind the scenes, and has done much work behind the scenes. I found that -- I felt I could have the greatest affect, if I'm having any effect at all, by coming out and going public.

And I think the American people have verified my decision to come out and go public because, as I read the polls now, the American people are beginning to awaken to the fact that they've been lied to by this administration.

BLITZER: Colonel Wilkerson, thanks very much for joining us. And thanks for your service to our country.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, Internet access hard to come by in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Now, one man is putting his health on the line for the right to go online.

And they're back. They're kicked out of Afghanistan, the Taliban, that is. But it's taking control of parts of Pakistan right now, and they're making some gruesome documentaries to prove it. We have the pictures. You're going to see them here in THE SITUATION ROOM during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour. You'll want to stick around for that. Stay with us.


BLITZER: A Cuban man is on a hunger strike, protesting the very limited access in that country to the World Wide Web. Our Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman reports he could become a martyr to freedom of information.


LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF: It's hard to imagine that anyone would be willing to die for access to the Internet. But Cuban opposition journalist Guillermo Farinas claims he's putting his life on the line in just such a quest.

The 43-year-old former psychologist is inside this hospital, in Santa Clara in central Cuba. In critical condition, says his family, because of the hunger strike that began more than 40 days ago. Farinas' mother says he vows to become a martyr for freedom of information unless he's allowed access to the World Wide Web.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): He's asking for something that's very hard to get in this country, that's not available to everybody. I don't know how the government will react. I feel impotent as I see him slowly fade away.

NEWMAN: Farinas had been sending accounts of human rights abuses to foreign news organizations from a computer at this local Internet cafe until the government started blocking his mails.

The government keeps a tight rein on information. All print and broadcast media is owned and controlled by the state. Satellite television is strictly forbidden for ordinary citizens. And when it comes to the Internet, the controls are almost as rigid.

Even though children are taught to use computers, Cuba has the lowest number of Internet users per capita in the hemisphere. Sites critical of the communist state are usually blocked. And while there are a few state-run cyber cafes, at $4 to $6 an hour, half a month's wages, the Internet is out of reach for most Cubans anyway.

Post offices provide email services, but users can only surf Cuban sites. Not willing to take no for an answer, many Cubans resort to the black market, where they can buy passwords for clandestine computers. The government says Internet access is restricted because of limited bandwidth, due in part to the U.S. economic embargo.

President Fidel Castro is nevertheless a big fan of the World Wide Web. "The day will come when millions of Cubans will communicate via the Internet with millions of more citizens of the world," he said recently. The question is, when?

Lucia Newman, CNN, Havana.


BLITZER: And let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She has more on the fight to free up the web in Cuba -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, Farinas' plight has been tracked online by Reporters Without Borders. This is the organization that monitors press freedom around the world. They've been given updates on Farinas' health in the last couple of months.

They tell me today it's increasingly hard to do so since he entered the hospital. It's harder to get updates from there. This is an organization that tracks Internet freedom around the world. They recently identified Cuba as one of 15 Internet enemies alongside Iran, China, and North Korea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

Lou Dobbs getting ready for his program that begins right at the top of the hour. And Lou's standing by with a preview.

Hi, Lou. LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. How are you doing?

Coming up here at 6:00 here on CNN, major differences tonight between the president and top Republicans on what it will take to defeat radical Islamist terrorists. We'll be live with the White House with that.

And the Bush administration appears to have learned nothing from the failed Dubai ports deal. The administration is now pushing ahead with a proposal to ease limits on foreign ownership of American Airlines despite congressional pressure to do otherwise. We'll have that special Report.

And I'll talk with Clark Kent (ph), urban former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security about -- is this homeland security?

And on this St. Patrick's Day, Ireland's prime minister and Irish illegal immigrants in this country are lobbying for amnesty. Guess what. I don't like that either. We'll have a special report. We hope you'll be with us -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lou, for that.

Still to come, closing arguments in a closely watched case, the "Da Vinci Code" trial. We'll have the latest on the copyright infringement accusations against the best-selling author Dan Brown.

And coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, the Taliban making a comeback almost five years after the U.S. toppled them in Afghanistan. We're going to show you where and why they're as harsh as ever. Stay with us.


BLITZER: It's a drag for smokers. A southern California suburb is enacting one of the toughest smoking bans in the country today, effectively making it illegal to light up at all public places. CNN's Chris Lawrence is joining us now from the scene of that decision in California in Calabasas -- Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let me give you an example. Say you've got a condo, and you've got a balcony or backyard and that butts up against a public part of the condo, like a laundry room or the pool. You couldn't even smoke on your own balcony or backyard. That's how tough this law is.

And you know, you can forget about places like this. You know, used to be the patio outside the coffee shop was open. No more. Take a look at that sign. That's now a no smoking zone, like a lot of places here in Calabasas. Basically, it has outlawed smoking on streets, sidewalks, parks, patios, playgrounds, basically anywhere where people would gather.

Now, they have set aside certain places in outdoor areas. They're still in the process of setting up a few places where smoking will be legal. But they are few and far between. And we got a sense earlier today of exactly how people feel about this new law.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I do kind of think it's foolish because of the fact that -- I mean, that girl right over there. She's not going to get second hand smoke from me smoking a cigarette over here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the law is really good. We have young kids. Kids always want to sit outside. And all the smokers sit outside. And so we try -- we have to keep moving tables. So I think it is wonderful. I think it's good for the health of my children.


LAWRENCE: Yet, it's punishable by a misdemeanor charge and up to a $500 fine. And coming up a little later on the next edition of THE SITUATION ROOM, we're going to tell you why this might not just be limited to California for long -- Wolf.

BLITZER: One of the reasons is, what happens in California very often winds up happening in other parts of the country as well. Chris, thank you very much. We'll see you back here in THE SITUATION ROOM, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let's go back to Zain. She's joining us in the CNN Center in Atlanta with a quick look at other stories making headlines around the world -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, we're waiting for results of tests on at least one person who may have come down with bird flu in Israel. At least two other human cases are also reported. Agriculture officials suspect that the virus has been found in turkeys and chickens in southern Israel. Right now, they're in the process of killing tens of thousands of birds in the region.

Parts of northern China are being blasted by sandstorms. Strong winds are sweeping much of the arid region, depositing a layer of grit on many towns and cities. Officials are calling it the worst outbreak sandstorms in the region this year.

And closing arguments are under way in the copyright suit against the publisher of the bestseller "The Da Vinci Code." Two British historians accuse author Dan Brown of stealing ideas from their 1982 book. In a four-hour closing statement in London's high court, the defense said that the claimant's case is in tatters. Random House lawyers are arguing that the idea is, basically, too general to be protected by copyright laws. A decision could come next week--Wolf?

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much. We'll see you back here, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up ahead, God and politics. What role will religion play in this November's elections?

And, Jack Cafferty wants to know what you think. Should the government be able to eavesdrop on you without a court order, even if it's only for a month or so? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Jack is in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf. Four Republican senators have introduced a bill that would allow the NSA to continue spying on Americans without warrants for up to 45 days. Now, at that point, the government could drop the surveillance, get a warrant from FISA -- which is what they're supposed to do now, but haven't bothered to do -- or get approval from a handful of House and Senate members.

The question we asked is, should the government be allowed to eavesdrop without a warrant? Most of you don't think so. Surprise, surprise.

Jeanie writes, "Congress' role is not to make laws after the fact to rationalize an administration's actions. What cheek. Thank you for exposing the cowering culprits, and hats off to Arlen Specter." Arlen Specter on the Senate Judiciary Committee may keep this thing from getting through the Senate.

Rob in Newton, Pennsylvania: "No. Democrats should use the filibuster on this one, if they have the spines."

Mark in Naperville, Illinois: "I consider myself a centrist and not a fan of President Bush. But listening to your whiny, partisan, ex-smoker voice drives me nuts."

Steve in Indiana: "At no time in history have citizens of any government ever had their stolen liberty returned to them. Unless, of course, they took it back by force. That's the whole point of warrants, to prevent revolution. Congress would do well to learn this."

Sven (ph) writes, "The president's been intentionally breaking the law for five years now. If it were about surveillance of terrorists, he wouldn't have kept it a secret for five years and then thrown a fit against the leakers and the press when he got caught."

And Jim writes, "Breaking the law is breaking the law. You can't tell a policeman who stops you for speeding to raise the speed limit" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, see you at 7:00 p.m. Eastern right back here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, combining church and state and political campaigns. How much of it will we see in this year's elections? That's coming up next.


BLITZER: Congress and many Americans opposed the deal that would have put a Dubai-based company in charge of six U.S. ports. But the U.S. military has no problem with the United Arab Emirates. In fact, the Navy's newest ship and most advanced aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, is docked in Dubai right now. This is a story you'll see only here on CNN.


BLITZER: America's largest warship tied up at the port of Dubai on Tuesday, a reminder of what's at stake if the close relationship between the U.S. and Dubai is damaged by the port deal firestorm. The location is key for U.S. Navy planners since it's the only deep water port in the gulf where a carrier can dock. Admiral Michael Miller, commander of the USS Ronald Reagan carrier group, hopes this visit will help keep up good relations with Dubai.

REAR ADM. MICHAEL H. MILLER, RONALD REAGAN STRIKE GROUP COMMANDER: We're very pleased to be here and to be part of the local community, and hopefully to have a little bit of an international exchange that I think helps us both understand the nations that we visit, as well as the opportunity to hear a little bit of America from the sailors' perspective.

BLITZER: Last week in Dubai, U.S. Navy officer officers told me they were comfortable visiting the port.

CAPT. THOMAS GOODWIN, U.S. NAVY: If you look around here, pretty populated with U.S. Navy ships, military command ships. I feel very safe here.

BLITZER: But many members of Congress are not convinced Dubai owners could keep ports in the U.S. secure.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: The heart of what the Congress should be doing, which is assessing the impact of this deal on national security. That is the overriding concern.

BLITZER: Admiral Miller says that so far, he's seen no sign of backlash. As usual, sailors have been given shore leave for city tours, shopping trips, desert safaris, and, yes, even indoor skiing.

MILLER: Our many visits here in the United Arab Emirates and Dubai in particular have been very, very generous in allowing us to visit. And our sailors have a great time here, and we have never had any incidents.


BLITZER: Dubai, and the USS Ronald Reagan right now there.

A new role in religion in politics, and a local mayor's race that's getting national attention. All part of the buzz inside the beltway and beyond. Here to help us dissect all of that, our CNN political analyst, Carlos Watson.

Let's talk about religion and politics, Carlos, first. What are you picking up?

CARLOS WATSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Something very interesting, Wolf. You remember that whether it was Jack Kennedy or Mitt Romney's father in the late '60s, often when you're not a Protestant, you've had to play down your religion when you're running.

But something new is happening. People are playing it up. And actually, religion is becoming an asset for non-Protestants who want to broaden their base. When I say that, I think about Dan Morales, the former Texas attorney general who emphasized his Baptist background in order to win over some voters there. I think of Bobby Jendall (ph), the young Indian American congressman, who's a Catholic down in Louisiana, and used that to help him out.

And this year, we're watching Michael Steele, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, African American who's reaching out because of his devout Catholicism in a state where one out of four -- and in fact, a majority of those Catholic voters -- voted for President Bush in 2004.

BLITZER: On another matter, Carlos, Hillary Clinton and another senator, they put their finger on what you suspect may be a hot new political football. What do you think?

WATSON: Watch this one, Wolf. We may call this one first. It won't be as big as Iraq, or certainly the economy. But you remember in the '80s and '90s, people like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich on the Republican side often beat up on bureaucratic institutions, whether it was the IRS or the Department of Education.

This time around, Hillary Clinton and Senator Patty Murray of Washington have a big beef with the FDA, and say that this group that's in charge of making sure our groceries are safe, our Alzheimer's drugs are safe, and other things, aren't doing their job, that they're mixing and science, that it's not good stuff. And I expect that you'll hear that refrain over and over again, that the Republicans won't allow science to be science.

BLITZER: Carlos Watson, as usual, thanks very much. Have a great weekend.

WATSON: Good to see you. Have a good one.

BLITZER: And to our viewers, remember, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where political news is arriving all the time. CNN, America's campaign headquarters. I'm Wolf Blitzer. I'll see you back in an hour. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now.