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The Situation Room

Senate Panel Demands Dismantling of FEMA; Gulf Coast Visit for Bush; Paying for Damages?

Aired April 27, 2006 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

Happening now, it's 4:00 p.m. on the Gulf Coast. As President Bush tours areas hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, a Senate panel here in Washington is demanding the dismantling of FEMA, calling it a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy.

I'll speak live to the man who took the fall for FEMA's failures, the former director, Michael Brown. He's standing by.

It's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington. As big oil banks your gas money, some Senate Republicans say a rebate could ease your pain. But there's a hook. We'll tell you what "The Bottom Line" is.

And it's 5:00 p.m. in West Virginia, where the sole survivor of the Sago Mine disaster tells about the victims' desperate struggle and their final hours deep under ground.

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

With the next storm season just around the corner, President Bush today visited with volunteers helping to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But with debris still piled high in New Orleans, a storm is brewing right here in Washington, where a Senate panel is now calling for FEMA to be added to the scrap heap.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by live.

Let's begin our coverage, though, with our Homeland Security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She's on Capitol Hill -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, after holding 22 hearings and reviewing more than 800,000 pages of documents, two senators say it's time for a radical remake of emergency management.


MESERVE (voice over): FEMA is a flop. That's the conclusion of senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, and they say it has to go. SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: FEMA is discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional. It is beyond repair.

MESERVE: Collins and Lieberman propose a robust new agency to replace FEMA. It would still be inside the Department of Homeland Security but would reunite functions that have been split, preparing for disasters and responding to them.

The so-called National Preparedness and Response Authority would be a distinct entity within DHS like the Coast Guard and Secret Service. Its budget and programs shielded from internal reorganizations and cuts. The director would have real emergency management experience, and during a catastrophe would have a direct line of communication to the president.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says such a setup would muddy the chains of command and responsibility, and is badly timed.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I'm interested here, you know, a month before hurricane season, not engaging in moving the boxes around on the orb chart. I'm interesting in making sure we've got the planning finished.

MESERVE: Would the new plan, if implemented, make a difference on the ground in the next disaster? Most experts say only if a more fundamental question is addressed.

RICHARD FALKENRATH, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: If you have incompetent leadership at the top of an agency, they will fail, no matter what, when faced with a true national crisis.


MESERVE: Senators Collins and Lieberman would agree with that. Lieberman said today that government leaders at all layers of government were guilty of dereliction of duty during Hurricane Katrina. He singled out the president for criticism, Senator Collins singled out former FEMA director Michael Brown, who she said had been guilty of insubordination.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Jeanne, thanks very much.

He took the heat after President Bush told him he was doing a heck of a job. Now Michael Brown is ready to fire back. He has his own ideas about how to improve disaster response here in the United States. My one-on-one interview coming up live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush, meanwhile, has been touring the Gulf region and lending a symbolic hand to the recovery effort.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now live from New Orleans -- Ed. ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president even picked up a hammer himself to focus on rebuilding a home here in the Ninth Ward, but that message got stepped on a bit by all of those questions about whether FEMA should be torn apart.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We could use a few more hands.

HENRY (voice over): Making his 11th trip to the Gulf region since Hurricane Katrina, President Bush donned a carpenter's apron to help volunteers rebuild a home in New Orleans. And the president tried to reassure shell-shocked residents bracing for the new hurricane season just one month away.

BUSH: We pray there is no hurricane that's coming here, but we are working together to make sure that if there is one, the response will be as efficient as possible.

HENRY: Message: I care. But the empathy tour got stepped on by the bipartisan Senate report charging the federal government is still woefully unprepared for another disaster.

White House officials say they share the goal of improving governmental response, but now is not the time to restructure the boxes on a government flowchart by abolishing FEMA.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: I don't think it's productive to talk about dismantling the agency. I mean, I really think what the point of this is, is to strengthen the inherent case (ph) response and preparation capability, and that's what we agree on with the Senate.


HENRY: Now, yesterday's rollout of new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow got overshadowed a bit, as well, by Karl Rove's fifth grand jury appearance in the CIA leak case. It appears this is a White House that can't catch a break, even when it has some good news to promote -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand, Ed, that the president made some remarks in the last, I guess, hour or so on the whole issue of gas prices here in the states?

HENRY: That's right. The president unexpectedly stopped at a gas station in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was basically $2.95 per gallon.

We're told he stood with a man at a gas pump and was talking about how he thinks this is an unfair tax on working families, these high gas prices. The message, basically, I feel your pain. But the president realizes as well as anyone, there's not much the government can do.

He reiterated the fact, though, that the government now has launched this investigation into alleged price gouging -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed, thanks very much.

Air Force One now taking off, as we can see in that live picture.

We are going to have a lot more on gas prices coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Ed Henry, Jeanne Meserve, part of the best political team on television.

CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Zain Verjee getting ready to leave Atlanta, move to Washington. She's going to be part of the best political team, on -- on television, as well.

Zain, what else you got?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, some of the headlines here we want to look at right now.

This police action cost more than $500,000 dollars, but the government says its benefit to the community is invaluable. Authorities say more than 9,000 people who've long escaped justice have now been caught.

It was part of a nationwide campaign called Operation Falcon 2, led by the U.S. Marshal Service. Of the 9,000 arrested, officials say they took 1,100 sex offenders off the streets.

A juror in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial is said to be feeling better. The juror became sick today, prompting the judge to send the entire jury home before deliberating.

Moussaoui is the admitted al Qaeda conspirator on trial for his role in the 9/11 attacks. The jury is deciding whether Moussaoui will live or die. A court official says the deliberations will resume tomorrow.

And almost five years after the World Trade Center was knocked down in the 9/11 attacks, construction on a replacement building begins. Work on the Freedom Tower began at Ground Zero today. This, after the owner of the site and the site's developer reached a deal concerning who will get what.

And it wasn't actually as bad as expected, the current flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the winter flu season was one of the mildest in many years. Deaths due to flu and pneumonia were down. Experts say that's partly because the flu vaccine was really effective at fighting the most common virus this past season.

Wolf, back to you. I'll be there soon to harass you live in person.

BLITZER: And Jack, as well.


BLITZER: Jim or Jack, whatever his name is.


BLITZER: He's standing by with what we call "The Cafferty File".

CAFFERTY: Thank you, Aaron.


CAFFERTY: I probably will get in trouble for that.

There are days when it seems we live in "The Twilight Zone." Let me give you an example.

Forty-one percent of working age Americans with moderate to middle incomes had no health insurance for at least part of last year. This figure is up sharply from 28 percent who had no coverage in 2001.

More than half of these Americans, people who have jobs, say they have trouble paying for their medical care and their bills, and they have racked up debt to cover their expenses. In addition, the Census Bureau reports 46 million Americans had no health insurance in the year 2004.

Now, the raging debate in Washington these days is what to do with between 12 and 20 million illegal aliens currently in the United States.

You know what they do about health care? They walk into their local hospital and they get it free, courtesy of the American taxpayer.

Tens of millions of citizens, no health care. Illegal aliens, free health care.

"Twilight Zone."

Here's the question: If 41 percent of Americans with moderate to middle incomes have no health insurance, should the United States continue to provide free health care to illegal aliens?

E-mail your thoughts to or go to

Back to you, Mr. Blitzer.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Jack, for that.

Up ahead, a plan in Congress to give you a gas rebate. Our Ali Velshi has "The Bottom Line" on how much and what's in the fine print.

Also, the former FEMA director, Michael Brown, joins us in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll get his reaction to calls in the U.S. Senate right now for FEMA, his former agency, to be abolished.

Plus, an actor-turned-activist, George Clooney, promoting a new cause and taking the news media to task. We're going to have details of what brought him here to Washington. And remember, he'll be in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow, George Clooney with me.


BLITZER: Soaring gas prices and now soaring profits for the oil industry.

Ali Velshi is in New York with "The Bottom Line" -- Ali.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's pretty simple. The more gas we buy, the more money that the big oil companies take to the bank. And this morning, ExxonMobil, a big target for outrage these past few weeks, opened its books for the first three months of the year and reported $8.4 billion.

Now, that is not a record for Exxon. In fact, a few billion off for their all-time high.

Wall Street was actually expecting them to earn more money. Sometimes you just can't impress people. But it takes a lot of money to make a profit, and Exxon's revenue was almost $9 billion last quarter.

Now, with gas prices nearing $3 a gallon, Congress is feeling the heat and Senate Republicans have a plan: give most Americans $100 rebate checks to offset the money that they're paying out at the pump. Now, drivers might see those rebates as a little more than a small Band-Aid on a big, gaping wound.

One study that I was reading shows that families paid almost $900 more on gas last year than the year before. And that's low-income families. In fact, the average family paid almost $2,000 more in gas.

So, thanks for the 100 bucks.

By the way, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is worried about rising energy prices. Today he told Congress that high oil prices could pose a risk to our economic growth and inflation. But he said if nothing unexpected happens, the fed might actually stop interest -- stop raising interest rates soon.


BLITZER: Ali, thanks for that.

From meetings, to hearings, from hearings to news conferences, lawmakers all over Capitol Hill today are protesting the high gas prices. But how are many of them getting around? You guessed it, by car, and very often big, big cars. Are they practicing what they pump?

Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, has some answers -- Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, after a recent press conference discussing soaring gas prices, Senator Charles Schumer got into a staffer's Hyundai Elantra and Senator Richard Lugar got into his own Toyota Prius. Now, both of these cars are listed online as the most efficient mid-sized cars from

A couple of senators took different routes. Senator Jim DeMint got into his chief of staff's 1999 Nissan Pathfinder. Now, this car only gets about 16 miles a gallon averaged out.

Senator Ben Nelson got into a staffer's 2004 Ford Explorer. Again, 16 miles per gallon.

How does your car stack up? Well, go online to You can do a side-by-side comparison. You can check out what you should be getting miles per gallon.

Also go online to We've got all the links there. You can check out how you are doing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good work, Jacki. Thanks.

And as our Ali Velshi just reported, ExxonMobil is reporting a first quarter profit of $8.4 billion. Meanwhile, the company has yet to pay up in a 17-year-old accident that garnered worldwide attention.

Our Brian Todd is joining us now from the newsroom with details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, believe it or not, it has been 17 years since that accident. And in that time, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Exxon is still tied up in the courts with lawsuits.

As you'll remember, several million gallons of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound off Alaska that day in March, 1989. Now, in addition to the wildlife destroyed and massive environmental damage done, thousands of fishermen, other businesses and communities were devastated.

Well, some 33,000 different parties involved in the class-action lawsuit are still waiting for punitive damages to be paid. They were awarded $4.5 billion in punitive damages several years ago, and Exxon is still appealing.

Today, some of those former fishermen and others came to Capitol Hill to join members of Congress in appealing for Exxon to pay up. I interviewed one of them, Eileen Mullen. She had a successful fishing business catching salmon and halibut, had to get out of the business a couple of years after the spill, and now runs a bed and breakfast.


EILEEN MULLEN, LOST FISHING BUSINESS AFTER SPILL: Well, I just feel like I'm being rejected and ignored. And maybe I'm too small and nobody notices. Unless you're big, maybe -- unless you are a huge corporation in America, maybe nobody notices you.


TODD: We reached the chief spokesman for Exxon, Mark Boudreaux. In a statement, he said, "We believe that all damages associated with this tragic accident have been paid. ExxonMobil paid $300 million immediately and voluntarily to more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses affected by the Valdez spill.

And he says that's part of more than $3 billion in settlements and cleanup costs the company has already paid. Very important to note here, that's for compensatory damages. Those that make up for the money the victims lost. The money that Eileen Mullen and others in that particular lawsuit are seeking is for punitive damages designed to punish the company and deter others from those mistakes.

Exxon's position in this is they have been punished enough. The company believe it owes nothing in punitive damages. It's appealing that.

And Wolf, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has already sided with Exxon at least twice, ruling that that amount of $4.5 billion is excessive. They are still awaiting for the latest ruling on their latest appeal.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Brian, thanks for that.

Coming up, his old agency is under fire in the Senate. Should FEMA be dismantled in the wake of its response to Hurricane Katrina? I'll ask the former director, Michael Brown. He's standing by live to join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, new details of the Sago Mine disaster. The only survivor offers a grim look at the final hours of the dozen men who died.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric is giving his blessing to disbanding the country's militias. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia group, a majority of the population, making him among the most influential Iraqi leaders.

He met today with the incoming prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. And in a statement afterward, al-Sistani urged al-Maliki to curb the violence raging throughout the country. But it continued today, with the assassination of the sister of the Sunni vice president, Tariq al- Hashimi, whose brother was also assassinated just two weeks ago.

U.S. troops in Iraq rely on tips in some cases to help in their fight against insurgents.

CNN's Arwa Damon is with American forces as they chase down a tip in the town of Dujail.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we're going down to a suspected bomb maker down south and we're going to check it out real quick.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A tip and they are off.


DAMON: Roadside bombs are the number one killer of U.S. forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our little -- our battery itself, we've been hit 12 times.

DAMON (on camera): The platoon is moving along the bumpy back roads leading to the target house. The mission is a quick snatch and grab of a suspected bomb maker that they just received intelligence on, but they also suspect that it might be a trap.

(voice-over): As they are approaching the house...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just had a vehicle run from us, a black car that we were looking for earlier.

DAMON: The chase moves up a notch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they caught him.

FIRST SGT. ART CONNER, U.S. ARMY: We were coming up to the house, there was like five good cars, they all went different directions. They just finally caught this one. He's not telling us the truth on everything, so he's going back to the house to find out.

DAMON: He is allowed to leave and the men move on to the farmhouse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yesterday in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you have no idea where he went to?

DAMON: But no one will talk. And then a twist, the main suspect calls and says he's been kidnapped.

CONNER: They say he's kidnapped and they want us to pay them 50,000 because he's bad.

DAMON: But something is just not right about this scenario.

CONNER: Somebody is watching.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. There's a house around here somewhere.

DAMON: More bomb-making books are found inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Talking about the physics of it, the explosive energy of the plates.

DAMON: They move on to the next house. Everyone here is related to the suspect, but no one seems to know where he is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, you tell me the truth.

DAMON: This raid was based on a tip from suspected insurgents these soldiers had detained here the day before. They were found to have a variety of bomb-making material. One of the detainees had talked, saying the main cell leader would be at this location at 2:00 p.m.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Short, fat fellow behind us is the one that just got married.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's the fat guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, he's the one that just got married. He does not look happy.

DAMON: But all the troops find are family photos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to have to come back again in a couple of days and wait for the guy to show back up. He will show up. These guys are not going to tell you all -- the whole truth.

DAMON: One tip, one mission. For these men, it's just another day on the ground.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Dujail, Iraq.


BLITZER: And coming up, George Clooney brings his star power here to Washington. We're going to tell you why he's here and why you won't want to miss him in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, Lewis "Scooter" Libby stays in legal limbo. The vice president's former chief of staff had asked the court to dismiss an indictment against him. We're going to tell you what the judge has to say.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Michael Brown took the fall for the federal government's failures after Hurricane Katrina and resigned under pressure as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Now a bipartisan Senate panel wants to do away with FEMA altogether.

Michael Brown has his own ideas about what went wrong, what should be done right now. He's joining us live from Oklahoma City. Michael, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

Senator Susan Collins said this today -- I want you to listen to what she said.


COLLINS: FEMA is discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional. It is beyond repair. FEMA has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy in which the American people have completely lost faith.


BLITZER: What do you think, Michael Brown, about this recommendation to simply do away with FEMA, create a new agency, keep it in the Department of Homeland Security?

MICHAEL BROWN, FMR. FEMA DIRECTOR: Well, Wolf, I have a couple of responses. I guess, first and foremost, I'm glad the Senate has finally woken up. It's almost like they read my 2003 memo to Secretary Ridge and my 2004 briefing to Deputy Secretary Loy, and most importantly, my 2005 briefing to Michael Chertoff about what was happening to FEMA, and that if they didn't fix these things it was going to fail. Because if you actually compare their recommendations to what I was saying, it's almost like they copied those memos.

Don't -- don't split out preparedness response. Those need to be put together. There's not enough money. They don't have enough personnel.

So, I applaud the Senate for at least recognizing that what I've been saying for three years is true, and maybe now they'll really try to do it.

But -- but I also think, Wolf, that there's a little bit of gamesmanship going on here. For Senator Collins and -- to come out and say, look, we're going to abolish FEMA, that's not what she's really doing. What they are doing is, they're putting FEMA back to the way it used to be, before they shoved it into Homeland Security and then started stripping it apart.

BLITZER: Here's -- here's what Senator Lieberman, who is the ranking Democrat on this Senate panel, said. Listen to what he said.


SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Despite the clear warnings before landfall that Katrina would be catastrophic, the president and the White House were not sufficiently engaged, when they should have been initiating an aggressive response.


BLITZER: Here's -- here's the problem, as I see it. And -- and tell me what you think. When he makes the point that the president and his top aides were not sufficiently responsive, the president was still on vacation in Crawford, Texas. The vice president was on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Andy Card was on vacation in Maine. Michael Chertoff, that next day, the Homeland Security secretary, attended a bird flu conference in Atlanta.

What's the difference? If there's a FEMA or a new organization, if the top leadership isn't engaged and they are on vacation, would it make any difference what the structure is?

BROWN: Bingo, Wolf. That's exactly right.

If -- if they're not going to pay attention to -- I don't care who the FEMA director is. If they're not going to pay attention to the warnings and the things that people are saying that -- that know what's going on, then we all -- we're all wasting our time.

Again, it's just -- it's just a bunch of political oneupmanship. So, I think that Senator Lieberman is -- is correct in that regard, that I couldn't get my leadership to pay attention. And that is one of the problems that I had in New Orleans.

BLITZER: Now, you took the fall for a lot of the criticism. Senator Collins really went after you today. Listen to this sound bite.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: There were several findings that I found particularly troubling. The first is the blatant insubordination of then FEMA Director Michael Brown. It was clear that he was disengaged from the onset of Katrina.


BLITZER: And then her report included this. It said, "Brown" -- that is you -- quote -- "lacked the leadership skills that were needed for his critical position."

This is your chance to defend yourself.

BROWN: You know -- you know, Wolf, this is why politicians in Washington, D.C., lack credibility.

How can she say that I was not engaged, when you look at those videotapes, and I am warning the president of the United States and Chertoff and the others that the Superdome is not going to withstand Category 4 or 5 winds, that they have not evacuated people out of hospitals? They're leaving the poor and the elderly there.

What -- is she listening? Is she paying attention? And for her to say that I -- that I didn't have the leadership skills, all she has to do is go back and read those memos, which is the basis for their recommendations, to see who the real leader is here.

I'm very disappointed in my own party out saying these kinds of absolutely ridiculous things.

BLITZER: The other charge she makes is that you engaged in blatant insubordination. Were you insubordinate?

BROWN: Well, what am I -- you know, they -- they talk about this chain of command and insubordination.

What would Senator Collins like me to do when the president of the United States calls me and asks me, OK, you know, what do we need to be doing; what should I be doing?

That was the chain of command, Michael Brown and George W. Bush. That's the chain of command.

BLITZER: You believe FEMA should not be part of the Department of Homeland Security. The Katrina report said, whatever new agency is created, it should be part of the Department of Homeland Security.

And the report says this: "Removing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security would do nothing to solve the key problems that Katrina has revealed, including a lack of resources and weak and ineffective leadership. Separating FEMA from DHS would, in fact, potentially cause new difficulties."

Are you coming around to this position?


I'm -- I'm totally opposed to that. I think that misses the entire point. If the problem right now is a lack of resources, how are you going to get additional resources, if the 2,500 people in FEMA are fighting against the 182,500 other people in DHS for resources?

How are you going to absolve or get rid of all these layers of bureaucracy, if FEMA is still within the Department of Homeland Security? You just have two different cultures. You have the emergency management system and the first-responders trying to match up with all these law enforcement folks, who are trying to prevent things from happening. It's just not going to work.

BLITZER: Our Heidi Collins interviewed the acting FEMA director, David Paulison, here in THE SITUATION ROOM on April 14. And -- and he was asked what kind of grade he would give the current FEMA right now, just the -- weeks before the start of the new hurricane season.

Listen to what he said.


DAVID PAULISON, ACTING DIRECTOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: I think, at this point, if I -- and I hate to use those number things, but I would say we're at an eight. We have got some work to do. We are going to be ready by June 1 to respond to hurricanes.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: He gives it an eight out of 10, and he says they're ready.

Do you believe it?

BROWN: Well, I -- I -- look, I know Dave Paulison. And I hope that Dave goes and talks to some of the men and women in FEMA, because what they are telling me is, it's more like a four or a five.

Not only do -- do they still not have the resources that they need, but they are -- they're being bombarded by all these changes. Homeland Security has, in essence, taken over the entire operation of FEMA, so that they have -- they have marginalized the leadership there.

So, I think Dave, once again, is, unfortunately, because I have been in that position, just giving the standard administrative -- administration spiel about what's going on. It's just -- it's -- it's sad that we have to operate like that.

BLITZER: Unfortunately, we are almost out of time, but a quick question.

How are you doing? How is your new consulting business doing? What are you doing?

BROWN: Well, I'm working with some great companies, Onscreen Technologies, for example. We have got a great new product that's coming out. I'm advising a lot of people on different ways to get their critical infrastructure ready for upcoming disasters.

I -- I'm having a blast. I -- I'm making a good living. Life is -- life is very good, thanks to people like you, Wolf, recognizing that perhaps I wasn't this dummy that people like Senator Collins want to make me out to be.

BLITZER: Michael Brown, good luck to you. Thanks for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still to come, one of the only Western reporters in Iran is our man Aneesh Raman. He's talking with young people in the country, whose leaders seem determined to be on a collision course with the United States. That's coming up next.

And, then, the actor, the director, George Clooney comes to Washington with lots on his mind. And he is flanked by a Democrat and a Republican. We will tell you what's going on.



BLITZER: Welcome back. What if the United States does decide to go after weapons programs in Iran or North Korea? How can it reach targets deep underground? The Pentagon is now preparing for a massive test explosion at its own secret site.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has the story from the Nevada desert.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a matter of weeks, the U.S. government plans to carry out one of the largest non-nuclear tests ever. It will take place 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas at the Nevada test site.

This giant hole will be filled with 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, essentially, a fertilizer and gasoline bomb. It will take six days to fill the crater, just seconds to blow it up.

The Pentagon has brought CNN and other news organizations here to see the crater and the tunnel directly underneath it. The idea is to simulate an enemy underground weapons facility being hit by U.S. bombs.

(on camera): We're about to enter this 1,100-foot tunnel and descend 130 feet underground.

(voice over): Doug Bruder works on advanced weapons technologies for the Pentagon.

DOUG BRUDER, PENTAGON WEAPONS EXPERT: There are some very hard targets out there, and right now it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defeat with current conventional weapons. Therefore, there are some that would probably require nuclear weapons.

STARR: That is what the critics are worried about. The Pentagon insists the test is not going to lead to a new nuclear weapon. But what if weapons facilities are buried even deeper in the years ahead?

STEPHEN YOUNG, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS: If we end up deploying new nuclear weapon that can attack underground bunkers, you build a deeper bunker, you can't hit it anymore.

STARR (on camera): We are standing directly under where the blast will occur during the test. If this were a weapons facility in North Korea or Iran, the hope is that much of what would be here would be destroyed.

(voice over): Critics of the test say the explosion itself is risky. It will send up a dust cloud 10,000 feet into the air. Dust from a site used for decades to test nuclear weapons. The Bush administration insists no radioactive soil will be disturbed.

The explosion is scheduled for early June, but anything from bad weather to lawsuits already filed over environmental concerns, could cause it to fizzle. Barbara Starr, CNN, the Nevada test site.


BLITZER: And new details are now emerging about the January disaster that killed 12 men at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.

The sole survivor, Randy McCloy, has now written a letter to the victims' families, full of grim details about their final hours.

Our Zain Verjee is joining us from the CNN Center with the details -- Zain.

VERJEE: Wolf, the Associated Press has obtained a copy of McCloy's two-page typewritten letter.

Now, in it, we learn for the first time that at least four of the men's emergency air packs didn't work.


VERJEE (voice-over): Twelve men trapped by an explosion that collapsed part of the Sago Mine and began filling it with gas -- in his letter to victims' families, the only survivor, Randy McCloy, recounts their desperate efforts to live.

He writes that, as they put on their emergency air packs, they realized four of them weren't working, forcing them to share. And they tried to signal rescuers.

"We found a sledgehammer," he writes. "And, for a long time, we took turns pounding away. We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could. This effort caused us to breathe much harder."

In time, McCloy, writes, the men began to accept their fate. He says, they prayed together, and, later, "Some drifted off into what appeared to be a deep sleep, and one person sitting near me collapsed."

McCloy goes on: "The last person I remember speaking to was Jackie Weaver, who reassured me that, if it was our time to go, then God's will would be fulfilled."

McCloy was rescued after 41 hours.


VERJEE: McCloy closes his letter by expressing his sorrow and sympathy, adding: "I cannot explain why I was spared, while the others perished. I hope that my words will offer some solace."

The owner of the mine, International Coal Group, says in a statement that federal investigators examined the miners' air packs and found them to be in working order, with all having been used to varying degrees -- Wolf. BLITZER: What a sad story, Zain. Thanks for bringing it to us.

Up ahead, George Clooney, why did he come to Washington today? And why will he be right here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me tomorrow? We're going to tell you.

And, in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour tonight, Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton, which variation of her name might win her more support if she runs for president? We're going to share a new and intriguing CNN poll.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Iran has one day to answer a United Nations demand to stop enriching uranium. Although that deadline is tomorrow, it's not clear if the U.N. Security Council would impose swift sanctions. Some members are split on that issue.

Meanwhile, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, today said the world cannot sit by if Iran thumbs its nose at the international community.

As the deadline looms, what do everyday Iranians think of what's happening? And what do they think about this country? Is there any chance there could be a change of regime in Iran?

Our Aneesh Raman is one of only a handful of Western journalist in the country, and he brings us this illuminating report from inside Iran.


ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Tehran, population 10 million, the two constants are crowds and traffic.

And, amid them both, we went to found out what the Iranians think of Americans.

(on camera): It's incredibly difficult for us to get inside public places here, like malls or cafes. And, so, where we are headed now is Vanak Square, where Tehran's rich go shopping.

(voice-over): Here, we find 27-year-old Shada (ph), who has never been to the U.S., but, from all she's seen, would like to go.

"Radio, TV, satellite," she says. "When we see American films, we get to know how they live and how they behave. They are similar to Iranians. They are humane."

You have to look hard to find Americana in Iran. U.S. brands are banned, but there is a KFC. That's Kabooky Fried Chicken. And there's Pepsi, but not really, a ripoff from Dubai.

(on camera): To find out what Iranians think about anything, it depends on where you go. We were just in the north, where the more affluent, liberal people live. And now we have come to the conservative south, to the capital's biggest market.

(voice-over): Here, there's less awareness of the U.S. The last American movie Benjamin (ph) saw was "Terminator 2."

He says the media here should do a better job of covering the U.S., a state media that concentrates on hostilities, with past emotions still on display.

This mural, sanctioned by Iran's government, still hangs prominently, just off a main highway -- and, just days ago, a demonstration celebrating the crash of helicopters in 1980 during a failed attempt to save the American hostages.

Now, 25 years later, shopkeeper Ali (ph) says, "So long as the U.S. government pressures our people, our people will say, death to America, but not to the people of America."

And it is architect Nusheen's (ph) view that goes one step further, that two societies can connect, even if their governments cannot.

"Political problems have always existed," she says, "but our experience with the culture of Americans has been positive. And a lot of things they do is a model for me, including the way they work so hard and their willingness to learn from others."

Aneesh Raman, CNN, in the Iranian capital, Tehran.


BLITZER: The actor, the director George Clooney is trying today to shine the spotlight on the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan. He appeared at the National Press Club here in Washington, along with two senators trying to increase funding for Sudan peacekeeping.

Clooney recently was in Africa. And he showed a brief film of his tour of Sudan. The Academy Award winner said the American people and journalists must not turn their heads and look away from the genocide in Darfur.


GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: Not one bit of it is easy. But what it requires is news media telling people, because, quite honestly, it's pretty hard to find -- it's -- for a long time, it has been pretty hard to find in the news stories about genocide.

I know it's not sexy and not all that interesting, but it would be nice to see those stories out there and, I think, help inform the American people and the world. I think the entire world has the belief that killing of innocent people on a daily basis in this sort of mass scale is unacceptable.

- (END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: I sat down with George Clooney today to talk about Darfur, Washington politics, more. We are going to bring that you interview tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, when so many U.S. citizens are without health insurance, should the U.S. government provide free health care to illegal immigrants? Jack Cafferty is asking that question. He's going through your e-mails.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: There's a developing story we are following in Florida.

Zain has got details.

Zain, what's going on?

VERJEE: Wolf, our affiliate WKMG is reporting that a heavy cloud of smoke, as you see here in these pictures, has encompassed this area of Port Saint John in south Brevard County in Florida.

The fire and the smoke has essentially shut down I-95 in both directions. There are reports that the fire has actually jumped I-95 and is burning on the other side. You can see these pictures, the orange glow amid the green vegetation and the thick smoke curling and spiralling up in to the air.

There are homes in this area. But we don't have any reports of any evacuations. One pilot is estimating the fire could have grown to about 100 acres. We can't confirm that. We are working to get more details on this.

But, Wolf, WKMG, our affiliate, showing us these aerial pictures of a brushfire that's broken out in the Port Saint John area in south Brevard County in Florida -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I-95 is the major interstate north-south along the whole Eastern -- East Coast, including, of course, in Florida. We will watch this story, Zain, together with you.

In the meantime, let's go up to New York. I-95 goes all the way up to New York, in fact, and beyond.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is there.

CAFFERTY: Nice -- nice segue, Wolf. Very good.

Forty-one percent of working-age Americans with moderate to middle incomes had no health insurance for at least part of last year. That's according to a new study. And the figure is up sharply from 28 percent with no coverage in 2001. So, the question is, then: Should the United States continue to provide free health care to illegal immigrants? Somewhere between 12 and 20 million of them in the country.

Jim writes: "That question is what my 16-year-old niece would call a no-brainer. No immigrant, legal or illegal, should receive free medical care until all Americans are covered, no matter what their economic status. Americans should take care of their own first."

Linn in Manchester, Connecticut: "That loud sucking noise is my devalued middle-class paycheck being taxed to death in order to pay for illegal immigrant health and welfare benefits and the big tax breaks being doled out to the wealthy."

Tim in McDonough, Georgia: "Today's question is based on the false premise that only illegal immigrants use hospital emergency rooms for free health care. American citizens without health care do the same thing. I know, because I have relatives with the emergency room health care plan."

Con in Vermont writes: "The question should be, why don't the 43 million American citizens that don't have health care have health care? Every Westernized nation in the world covers all of its people, except the U.S. It's a disgrace."

Jerry in Las Vegas, Nevada: "Illegal or not, I believe we have a responsibility to aid in an emergency or humanitarian way. To deny these people medical care would be criminal and un-American."

Ben writes from Atlanta: "Absolutamente no. Jim, that is Spanish for absolutely not."

And Mike in San Diego writes: "Dear Jim, what the hell do I need to do to get some airtime?"

Well, Mike you just got some. Now, leave me alone -- Wolf.


BLITZER: See you in an hour, Jack.


BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Today, Britain's super-secret intelligence service, MI6, announced it is hiring. Could you be the next 007?

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has the details in her excellent British accent -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is an agency once so secret that it wasn't even officially acknowledged. And now they're taking out adverts in the British press, the secret intelligence service, or MI6, as it's widely known, advertising for spies.

These adverts feature guns, foreign lands. And they direct people to the SIS Web site, or the MI6 Web site, where you're getting a bit of a glimpse behind the scenes. Employees talk about their ordinary lives. One of them, Rachel, no last name given, said that she worked with horses before becoming a spy. The perks of the job are all -- are listed there as well, generous holiday, and even a bicycle-to-work scheme, would you believe?

But, if you're going to apply for one of these jobs, be clear on a couple of things. You must not tell anyone is the first thing. And, also, don't expect life to be like 007. There's a special section of this site dedicated to James Bond. And it says those movies inject a level of glamour and excitement beyond reality -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tatton, Abbi Tatton, thanks very much for that.

We are here every weekday afternoon, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, back in one hour, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now -- Lou.