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Peter Hoekstra Interview; Fresh Iraq Attacks on Battlefield; Democrats Pounce on Donald Rumsfeld; Ernesto Still Packs Flooding Threat

Aired August 30, 2006 - 16:00   ET


And 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, fresh Iraq attacks on the battlefield and in the U.S. capitol. Democrats are pouncing on Donald Rumsfeld, accusing him of a political rant against war critics. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where harsh words are flying around town. Is the defense secretary on the same page as the president?

Also this hour, public outrage about a secret senator. Which lawmaker anonamously blocked a move to shed light on government contracts? We're following new developments in this whodunit on Capitol Hill.

And storm fronts oceans apart. Ernesto weakens in the Atlantic, but still packs a flooding threat. And John grows into a monster hurricane with the power to pummel Pacific resorts. Updated forecasts ahead.

Wolf Blitzer is off this week. I'm John King. You're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

First this hour, a bloody day in Iraq, and fresh ammunition for war critics after Donald Rumsfeld's warning of a new fascism threatening the world.

At least 47 people were killed in a series of bombings across Iraq, part of a surge of attacks there in the last few days. About half of the victims died when a bomb ripped through the largest market in Baghdad. Another dozen were killed when a bicycle rigged with explosives blew up outside an Iraqi recruitment center in Hillah.

And the U.S. military reports another Marine was killed in Iraq, bringing the total number of troop deaths to 2,636.

The top ranking U.S. commander in Iraq today addressed questions about when American forces might start to come home.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: I can see over the next 12 to 18 months -- I can see the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support.


KING: Now, the White House says President Bush will give a series of speeches in the coming days framing the Iraq war and the war on terror as part of the same struggle against Islamic extremists.

Mr. Bush spoke about Iraq a short time ago in Arkansas.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we retreat before the job is done, this nation will become even more in jeopardy. These are important times. And I would seriously hope people wouldn't politicize these issues that I'm going to talk about. This is -- we have a duty in this country to defeat terrorists. That's why we'll stay on the offense to bring them to justice before they hurt us, and that's why we'll spread liberty in order to achieve the peace.


KING: Mr. Bush speaking out there after controversial remarks by his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, yesterday. Rumsfeld likened critics to the administration's wartime policies to politicians who wanted to appease Adolf Hitler back in the 1930s. Today, many Democrats up in arms.

Our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is standing by with all the political fallout.

But, first, our White House correspondent Ed Henry is on the road with the President -- Ed?

ED HENRY, CNN WHTIE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, you know, the president insisted last week that he was not questioning the patriotism of critics of the war. But it seems that Donald Rumsfeld obviously came pretty close to doing just like -- just doing that.

It seems really like a two-prong strategy. The president goes out -- as you saw a moment ago -- and says he's not playing politics, while Rumsfeld and others play some real hard ball.

And, John, the other part of this is that the president obviously -- this is the third series, really in recent months, of the president trying to roll it out.

And the problem is that the sales pitch is really -- the sale has not been made despite these repeated pitches. It's really a tacit acknowledgement by the White House that they have not made that sale. They see progress on the ground in Iraq not where they wanted it to be. So the president is now having to go out once again.

He's going to start tomorrow with a speech in Salt Lake City to the American Legion. He's going to continue with speeches throughout the coming weeks. It's going to culminate around the 9/11 anniversary, the fifth anniversary, go right through September 19th, when he'll speak to the United Nation's general assembly.

Obviously, some tough talk both from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday, Vice President Cheney as well on Monday when he delivered a tough speech.

The bottom line is what the White House is trying to do here is they say the president will acknowledge that these are very difficult times. But he'll also try to recast this Iraq, Lebanon, all as part of a broader ideological struggle all around the world.

But they've been trying to make that case before. And the bottom line is that a recent CNN poll found that 52 percent of Americans are not necessarily buying it anymore. In fact, 52 percent of Americans in that poll say they believe Iraq has been a distraction from the broader war on terror -- John?

KING: And, Ed, it's an interesting remark you make. The president, on one hand, says, oh, his remarks shouldn't be politicized. Yet, at the same time, they understand two-thirds of the American people, roughly in that ballpark, oppose the war in Iraq. And it is the biggest issue in the campaign.

And, again, as you noted, this is not the first series of speeches. I assume they think they need to talk about this although some Republicans are probably a bit nervous to have Iraq front and center every day?

HENRY: Well, absolutely. But they realize it's the elephant in the room. They have to talk about it in some way. They have to deal with it. And you're right, not political.

I mean, let's face it, Iraq is the central issue in the midterm elections. It's something that every time Secretary Rumsfeld speaks, every time the democratic leaders speak, it's blatantly political on all sides. It's just a fact that neither side really can ignore at this point -- John?

KING: Ed Henry, traveling with the president on this day.

Thank you very much, Ed.

And now to our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, for a look at how Secretary Rumsfeld's speech became an immediate campaign debating point -- Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the Democrats really pounced on Secretary Rumsfeld's comments. They see it as a chance to keep one of their key election themes front and center. And that is what they call the administration's incompetence, and a chance to go after the man they think is the most flawed messenger for the administration when it comes to the war in Iraq.

There was a deluge of press releases, conference calls, not only calling Rumsfeld's comments reckless and overly political, and even untrue they said, but going personally after him and his stewardship on national security and the Iraq war.

I went over to talk to the Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, just a short while ago. Take a listen to the way he talked about it in his office.


HOWARD DEAN, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: I believe Donald Rumsfeld is essentially an object of ridicule at this point. These ridiculous promises, they were going to pay for the war with the Iraqi oil revenues. That money's coming out of American taxpayers' -- for three months in Iraq, we could have totally fixed Mississippi and Louisiana as a result of what happened in Hurricane Katrina.

These folks who are leading this country have priorities that are wrong for America.


BASH: Now, Donald Rumsfeld's comments weren't that different or probably more political than what we've heard from other administrative officials, especially the vice president, in recent weeks.

But Democrats, their response to Rumsfeld, did appear to be a lot more robust. And Dean admitted that is because Democrats historically really just have not done a good job fighting back against Republicans on national security.

And this is an example, he said, of a Democratic Party determined to be more aggressive. And they insist they will continue that when the president begins his next round of speeches on Iraq, John.

KING: Well, Dana, an overload in the e-mail of Democratic campaigns and politicians trying to take on the defense secretary. What happens if you call up a Republican campaign? Are they happy to have him out there?

BASH: Well, you know, it's interesting that -- I talked to several Republicans today -- strategists today on this. And they said that, look, they really would prefer not to have the secretary out there.

They are well aware of the fact that he is a Democrat's bogeyman when it comes to the war in Iraq. That as a political messenger for them, he's not the person they want.

You know, privately, though -- certainly not many have suggested this publicly -- some Republicans think it would be even best for him to resign, for him to actually go, that that would send a strong political message as you get closer to the election.

I talked to one operative who simply said, with regard to Secretary Rumsfeld being a part of the administration's push on Iraq, at a minimum, they wish that he, personally, would just, quote, "keep his mouth shut" until after election day -- John?

KING: Interesting politics.

Dana Bash, thank you very much.

And both Dana Bash and Ed Henry, of course, part of the best political team on television, CNN, and America's campaign headquarters.

Now to our hurricane headquarters in Atlanta where we're tracking two storms. Tropical Depression Ernesto is crawling across Florida right now, heading back toward the Atlantic.

And a dangerous hurricane, called John, is threatening Mexico's Pacific Coast.

Let's get the latest forecast now from CNN Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras. Hi, Jacqui.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Hey, John. We'll start out with Ernesto, which really hasn't been much more than just a nuisance storm to Floridians.

There you can see on the radar imagery some heavier showers and thunderstorms across the central parts of the state.

Southern Florida has seen the most rain, thus far. We've seen some reports around three to four inches at best.

We are concerned a little bit about a couple of thunderstorms. This one right here, this is in eastern Osceola county. We do have a report of a couple of funnel clouds near Deer Park. And there is a tornado warning in effect right now.

As for the center of circulation, we think that it's just near Fort Drum right now, just off to the west of there.

It's continuing to move mostly into a northerly direction. And we're gradually expecting it to start to curve up to the north and to the east. And as it does that, we've got the chance for it to get back over open water.

How much time it spends over that water will determine how strong this storm will be when it is expected to make a second landfall in the Carolinas. And we think that's going to be sometime midday tomorrow.

And we're very concerned about what's going to happen after that, down the line, into the mid-Atlantic and the northeastern states.

This is a computer model forecast, over the next 48 hours, of how much rainfall we're anticipating. All of this white area you can see, from Miami, through Orlando, Jacksonville, on up into Charleston and into Wilmington, that's where we're expecting to see more than three inches. And really, from North Carolina extending on upwards, we can expect to see maybe even on the range of four to eight inches overall.

Totally different story when we start talking about what's going on with Hurricane John. This is a major hurricane.

This is in the eastern Pacific. And it is affecting Mexico at this time.

It's been a much more active season in the eastern Pacific. We're on our tenth named storm here, while we're on the fifth named storm in the eastern Atlantic.

Acapulco's been getting hit with some heavy rain bands and some gusty winds. Maximum sustained winds on John are about 135 miles per hour.

It's been scraping off the coastline, so that's been some good news. But some tropical storm-force winds have been reported into coastal areas.

Now, it doesn't look like, at this time, it's going to be making land fall in the mainland. But we are concerned about Baja, California and Cabo San Lucas, or what's going to be happening down the line.

No real weakening expected with this storm, expected to stay very strong and certainly a major hurricane. So we'll be watching. It'll be getting very close, if not potentially making landfall sometime late Friday or early on Saturday -- John?

KING: We'll keep checking back in.

Jacqui Jeras in the CNN Hurricane headquarters.

Jacqui, thank you very much.

And our Zain Verjee joins us now with a closer look at other stories making news.

Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Iran effectively tells the world it's not about to be bossed around by the U.N., despite the threats of U.N. sanctions. Iran still continues to enrich uranium, that's according to reports citing U.N. and European officials who say Iran was enriching uranium as recently as yesterday.

Now, tomorrow's the U.N. deadline for Iran to stop its nuclear activity. Today, Iran's president urged Europe not to seek sanctions.

Set them free now. That's the coordinated call coming from Kofi Annan and Ehud Olmert concerning the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah back in July. The U.N. secretary general and the Israeli prime minister met today in Israel and called for the unconditional release of the soldiers.

Hezbollah insists it'll release the soldiers only in exchange for Lebanese prisoners being held in Israeli jails.

And here in the United States, a federal judge has thrown out the verdict in the recent case against the maker of Vioxx. The judge ruled that the $50 million in damages awarded to Plaintiff is excessive, and ordered the question to be returned to the jury.

The plaintiff in the case said Vioxx caused his heart attack. A jury in August found the drugmaker, Merck, negligent. Now, today's ruling does not change that verdict.

After reaching nightmarish levels, it may seem like an illusion, but those cheaper prices that you see at your gas stations are, in fact, real. AAA says the current nationwide average for a gallon of regular is $2.82. That's the lowest since April.

And analysts expect that to go lower, some saying to $2 per gallon by thanksgiving. Experts say reasons include the end of the summer driving season and lower crude oil prices -- John?

KING: A little bit of good news on gas.

VERJEE: Yes, finally. We need that.

KING: No complaints here. We'll make viewers happy.

Zain Verjee, thank you very much.

And time now for the "Cafferty File." Jack, of course, joins us from New York.

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, NEW YORK CORRESPONDENT: You know, if you're a real cynic, you could also wonder if the oil companies might not be pulling the price of gas down to help Republicans get re-elected in the midterm elections a couple of months away.

KING: Lucky we don't have ant real cynics around here.

CAFFERTY: But I'm not a real cynic.

Long before he was host of "The Tonight Show," Johnny Carson was emcee of a gameshow called "Who Do You Trust?" The war in Iraq would have been a perfect candidate to appear on that program.

Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, says, "here's no civil war in Iraq and, furthermore, there never will be."

This is the leader of a government in a country where the Shia and Sunnis have been fighting and killing each other for hundreds of years. You know, sort of like a civil war.

The prime minister pointed to the fact that at the moment violence appears to be declining. Really? Check these numbers out. More than 200 Iraqis have died in bombings and shootings since Sunday. Forty-seven died today from bombings alone.

This follows a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. military to put additional troops into Baghdad to try to stop the secular violence.

Thirty-five hundred people were killed in Iraq in the month of July. That's the most ever in a single month.

Nevertheless, the prime minister, brimming with confidence about the future in Iraq, when he was asked over this past weekend how soon American forces would be leaving, he said within a year, maybe sooner.

I'll have whatever he's having.

Here's the question. Who do you believe when it comes to whether Iraq has descended into a civil war? E-mail us at or go to file.

The interesting thing to watch on that story about gas prices is what happens to them right after the midterms -- John?

KING: Always a cynic, Jack Cafferty.

We'll check back in a little bit later. Thank you, Jack.

And coming up, much more on Donald Rumsfeld and the political battle over Iraq. Does the defense secretary's tough talk actually hurt rather than help Republican s up for re-election? I'll ask Paul Begala and Torie Clarke in today's "Strategy Session."

Plus, we're just hours away from a major deadline on Iran's nuclear program. I'll speak to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee about the showdown with Tehran.

And the political whodunit on Capitol Hill that's got the blogs buzzing. Which senator put a hold on a bill that would have opened the books on some government secrets?

Stay right here, you're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."


KING: In our "Strategy Session" today, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the administration's new wartime take on so-called Islamic fascism. Joining me now our CNN Political Analyst and Democratic Strategist, Paul Begala, and former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke.

Torie Clarke, we're going to start with your former bosses, in the news. Surprise, surprise. A big speech to the American Legion yesterday in which he took on Democratic critics of the war, any critics of the war, saying essentially they are tantamount -- wait, wait, wait, let me -- no, wait. It is about the public will that you need to support an incredibly difficult effort like this war.

I thought it was important speech. I thought it was a very good speech with important historical parallels.

I was stunned by the response of a lot of critics, in particular, the Democrats. I mean, it just shows how vulnerable they feel on national security issues. The vehemence with which they responded to this, it was pretty extraordinary.

KING: Well, why was it extraordinary? I have more ground to cover, but let's stay with her point.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST & DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I was wondering if there was a strategy here. You know, I mean, I always try to operate on the premise that my adversaries are intelligent people and that they know what they're doing. And so he goes on...

CLARKE: He answered the ones close by.

BEGALA: He sounded like a batty old man. A more decent society would put him in one of those coats with cuffs and just lead him off some where to a room with nice padding on the walls.

It's bizarre. No one is appeasing -- that's the phrase he used -- appeasing terrorists. There's no voice for appeasing terrorists.

The criticism with Rumsfeld is that he hadn't been killing them. Osama bin Laden walks the earth today. Why? Because Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush didn't have the will to go after him in Tora Bora.

That's the Democratic critique on terrorism. And he completely comes up with this imaginary straw man about how, well, we're trying to appease.

And so I'm just wondering if their pushing him -- they, the White House, pushing Rumsfeld out to be a lightning rod so then they can fire him right before the election, and look like they've got some king of a strategy for a new direction in Iraq.

KING: Well, let's deal with that question, though. We can do the policy of this and the politics of this. Let's deal with the politics for a minute.

This is Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. He says this. "When it comes to the war in Iraq, there's no confusion among military experts, bipartisan members of Congress and the overwhelming majority of the American people about the need to change course in Iraq. The only person confused about how to best protect this country is Donald Rumsfeld, which is why he must go." The Democrats saying that. That's not new. Senator Kennedy has said that for some time.

Let me ask you a political question. You don't really want him to go, do you? You want him there?

BEGALA: No. That's right. As an American, as a political strategist, the Democrats are benefited by Rumsfeld being there. Why? Because Democrats can turn to Republicans in elections and say, I want to fire Rumsfeld. You won't. You won't stand up to George W. Bush. That hurts the Republicans. Because then they're linked to this very unpopular president and this unpopular war.

Now, I'll say as an American, I've stood on this set for over a year now and said honestly the president ought to fire him and actually replace him with Joe Lieberman from my party, who's the war's strongest opponent. It would have been a very good move for President Bush and the Republicans.

You have to separate the two hats. I mean, as an American citizen, I want somebody confident and honest. Rumsfeld is neither. As a Democrat you're right, they want to use him as an election issue.

KING: You know this man as well as anyone in politics. As you know, as he speaks, we are in a campaign year, and 61 percent of the American people oppose the war in Iraq in our latest poll. Only 35 percent support it.

Secretary Rumsfeld's approval ratings, if you look at polls taken over the spring and summer, some are in the 35 percent to 38 percent.

As much as you like him, as much as you might agree with what he might have said in his speech yesterday, is he a flawed messenger two months away from an election?

CLARKE: I don't think so. Because I think the secretary of defense, I think the president, the vice president, I think all the leaders in the administration have to be out there on a regular basis talking about what is at stake here, talking about how unconventional this war is; have to be out there talking about the need for public will.

We are not going to lose this war militarily. We just won't. But we could lose it if we don't have the public will. I think he has to be out there. And it is not about politics for him. It just isn't.

And I've got to believe -- I know its fun and the talking points and the e-mails and the press releases that go out, lots and lots of fun.

But come the election in November, the majority of people who are elected are not going to be getting elected because of what they said about Donald Rumsfeld. People are not going to win or lose based on Don Rumsfeld.

And it is just the realities of the time in which we live that he has got to be out talking about this extraordinarily difficult effort.

KING: Some may win or lose based on how the people going to the polls feel about the war in Iraq. It seems to be the biggest determinative of public opinion right now.

CLARKE: That's right. So there should be serious...

KING: Let's listen to one of the things the secretary said. You said he's not specifically targeting Democrats. But he was certainly out after war critics.

Let's listen to one of the things the secretary said yesterday.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF STATE: The struggle we are in, the consequences are too severe, and the struggle too important to have the luxury of returning to that old mentality of blames America first.


KING: Who's blaming America first?

CLARKE: I think a lot of people are out there saying the United States should tuck back in. Let's go back to the old days in which we could just mind our own business. And we wouldn't have to worry about things, which didn't work, obviously.

You can read al Qaeda writings year after year after year, who saw our weakness as provocative. It was one of the reasons they came after us on 9/11. It's one of the reasons they continue to come after us and our friends and allies around the world.

There are plenty of people out there who would just like to go back to the old days. It's not realistic.

And I give him a lot of points and a lot of credit for having the guts to go out there and say this.

Now, coming up to the election this fall, the war should be a matter of debate. But it ought to be serious debate, a very discussion. And people should read the entire speech and see what he said from start to finish before they just pick out a few words here and there.

KING: Is there a risk for Democrats in this? They view Secretary Rumsfeld as a great political pinata.

You heard Dana Bash interview Howard Dean, the chairman of your party right now. He said we spent all of this money in Iraq that should be spent on Louisiana and Mississippi. Is there a danger for the Democrats to appear to be isolationalists? Or spend all that money at home. Don't worry about what's going on over there?

BEGALA: For some, yes. I mean, I think the better criticism of Rumsfeld is that he has failed in his job. As I said, bin Laden walks the earth. That is wrong. That is because, I believe, the mass incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.

And so, if you're working at the White House -- if you're Karl Rove, right? And I used to work there -- what do you do? You know, the president is not popular. Mr. Cheney is not popular.

The one person they have is Condoleezza Rice, who the country still likes and trusts. And yet, she's not out there.

Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush are. And believe me -- you can check -- there are four or five different strains of venereal diseases more popular than Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. And so, as a Democrat, I want to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to...

CLARKE: You've probably been waiting all summer to use that line.

BEGALA: I want them on the (inaudible) every day.

CLARKE: That's right up there with Jack Cafferty the other day.


KING: There are not many things that leave me speechless. That is one. I'll end this one right here.

Paul Begala, Torie Clarke, thank you both.

And Paul and Torie, of course, are part of the best political team on television, even when they say things like that.


CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Next, we're just hours away from a major deadline on Iran's nuclear program. I'll speak to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee about the showdown with Tehran.


KING: Welcome back to "THE SITUATION ROOM." I'm John King in Washington.

Tomorrow is the deadline for Iran to stop its nuclear activity. And as we reported earlier, Tehran is effectively telling the world it won't be bossed around by the United States or the United Nations.

Joining us now, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Peter Hoekstra.

Mr. Chairman, thank you so much for joining us today. This is a very important deadline looming tomorrow. As you know, in the run-up to this, Iran has essentially thumbed its nose at the world, not only saying it won't meet this deadline, it won't stop enriching uranium and stop its nuclear program, but also showing off its military fire power. Some tests recently of submarines and a missile firing.

What can the United States -- what should be the United States do here at a time when Iran is essentially saying no? And not only no, if we want to, look what we have. We could shut down oil shipments to most of the world if our military decided to be a bit more provocative.

PETER HOEKSTRA, CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, I think the first thing that we need to do on this, John, is we need to go back to the other folks on the U.N. Security Council.

One of the reasons that Iran is going to thumb their nose at us again tonight or tomorrow morning is because the Russians and the Chinese are not going to hold Iran accountable for its activities.

And Iran, as long as it knows that the Russians and Chinese are going to support it in the U.N. Security council, Iran is not going to feel any pressure to do anything.

KING: And, Mr. Chairman, if there is no pressure on Iran from the U.N. Security Council, then, does the president of the United States have to go to the American people and say, we might have to do something unilaterally or with one or two allies outside of the United Nations? And should that be economic sanctions or should there be a clear military option?

HOEKSTRA: But again, John, economic sanctions are not going to work against Iran if you're going to have a great big sieve, big holes in it because of Russia and China, and perhaps some of our allies are going to be, you know, providing economic support to Iran.

It's the same thing that we saw with Iraq. Economic sanctions, the oil or the embargo against Iraq did not work because there were so many countries willing to ship materials into Iraq and to support Saddam's regime.

KING: So the president needs to put a military option on the table if economic sanctions don't work?

HOEKSTRA: I think it's going to be very, very difficult to put a military option on the table.

What we need to do is, we need to really push hard the diplomatic efforts. We need to present the case to the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans that a nuclear Iran is problematic.

I think the people in the Middle East, the people in Jordan, the leadership in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, they are starting to sense that a nuclear Iran is a problem in the region. I think they're actually closer to us than perhaps what the Russian and the Chinese are. But I think we really need to move forward, continue to move forward, and try to get this diplomatic solution. But it has to be a unified global effort.

KING: Another reason many think Iran feels that it has no pressure, not just maybe that Russia and China won't support the United States in -- in the Security Council, but that it has effectively hidden or buried much of its nuclear program, to make it protected from any military strikes.

You know all the intelligence, sir. What can you tell us, within the limits that you're willing to discuss publicly, about how much we know about the program, and how good they have been at protecting it?

HOEKSTRA: Well, let's put it this way. There's a whole lot more that we don't know that we would like to know.

There's gaps in our intelligence capabilities when we go at Iran. Iran has been a very, very difficult target. We have had difficulty in penetrating it. They have had denial and deception programs in place.

The other thing that they have done, we believe, is, they have dispersed their capabilities. They haven't put them in one place. So, it would be very, very difficult and say, you know, we're going to target this specific nuclear research facility, or enrichment facility, because it's spread across the country. And you might get a few of the targets correct. But you would probably miss a number of them.

You know, they have learned from what happened in Iraq. They have learned as to what other countries are able to do to them, from an intelligence standpoint. And they have adapted.

KING: I want to move on to Iraq, but I want to ask you one more quick question here.


KING: The best intelligence, how far away is Iran from a nuclear weapon?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I mean, the intelligence community, our intelligence community, we're on the record, as are other folks around the world, saying that it's probably in the neighborhood of five to 10 years.

A lot of that will differ. You know, things can happen over the next couple of years. You know, North Korea enhances their programs, gets more weapons, they might be a whole lot closer, because, guess what, they could maybe just write a check for one.

KING: I want to ask you about the political debate, the policy debate about Iraq in this country.

You're the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Many Democrats are hoping you're not the chairman come January. A swing of only about 15 seats would give them the majority.

And they're making a pinata today of the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who gave a speech yesterday talking about those who are appeasing...


KING: ... in his view, the new fascism, if you will, by not aggressively supporting the war, aggressively supporting this administration's efforts around the world.

A, do you think those comments are appropriate? And, B, as a Republican who wants to remain a chairman, would you prefer maybe that Secretary Rumsfeld might not be out so much two months before the election?

HOEKSTRA: You know, I think what we need to focus on is, we don't need to focus on the personalities out there.

I will tell you, I'm more than willing to engage in the debate as to whether radical Islam is a threat to the United States or is not. If there are folks out there that say radical Islam is not a threat to the United States, let them make their case, and let them make their case that the United States should step back militarily.

Let's have the debate about whether Iraq is a distraction or whether it is a central part of the war on terror. Let's have these debates and discussions. I welcome them.

KING: Republican Peter Hoekstra, congressman from Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sir, thank you for joining us today.

HOEKSTRA: Hey, John, thank you very much.

KING: Take care, sir. Thank you.

And, up next: a push to expose secrets on Capitol Hill bogged down by a senator who is keeping secret. We will tell you who that senator is when we come back.

And is there a doctor in the House or the Senate? We will have a checkup on the majority leader's credentials.

Stay right here. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


KING: On Capitol Hill today, the hush-hush story that nonetheless has everyone talking -- in a town known for leaks, the identity of a senator who blocked a bill aimed at revealing government secrets had been kept under wraps for days.

But our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel has new details -- Andrea. ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, not exactly an Agatha Christie murder mystery, John. That didn't stop this story from spreading like wildfire across the blogs and through otherwise quiet congressional offices this August.

The question on everyone's lips: Who had put an anonymous or secret hold on a bill designed to bring more transparency to government spending?


KOPPEL (voice-over): This political whodunit captivated bloggers for days and brought together an unusual alliance on both sides of the aisle. One conservative-leaning blogger noted, the bill "seemed to be speeding on its way to full Senate passage when, in the dark of the night, an unknown senator placed a secret hold on the bill."

Another liberal blogger asked, "Who is the secret holder? We want to know, and we want your help finding out."

Finally, after days of speculation, the mystery was solved -- a spokesman for Senator Ted Stevens confirming to CNN it was the seven- term Alaska Republican, explaining that Senator Stevens "has a series of concerns and questions about the bill, and he wants a cost-benefit analysis to make sure it doesn't create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and not meet its purpose."

But Stevens' office disputes bloggers' claims that it was a secret, saying, when Stevens placed the hold before the August recess, "He notified Senator Coburn and his staff, and identified several questions we had with the bill."

The bill, which would require the government to create a Google- like search engine to track all government spending, was introduced by Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn and Illinois Democrat Barack Obama earlier this year. And, if it passes, congressional watchdog groups say, it would bring much needed transparency.

ELLEN MILLER, CO-FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION: The key thing about this piece of legislation is, the public will be able to know who gets contracts and for how much, and be able to hold lawmakers accountable and hold corporations accountable for their execution of their activities.


KOPPEL: But, while the mystery may have been solved, the controversy over the legislation clearly is not.

Just a short time ago, a spokesman for one of the bill's chief sponsors, Republican senator Tom Coburn, told CNN: "Senator Stevens sits on the committee where this bill was considered and never raised any objections, because he skipped the hearings. His specific concerns were addressed at the hearings he skipped, and his office has yet to meet with us to discuss his concerns, despite repeated requests" -- John. KING: There's a shock. The whodunit gives way to finger- pointing on Capitol Hill.


KING: Andrea Koppel, thanks for solving that mystery.

We will have more on this story up ahead in our "Situation Online." It's a fascinating discussion among the blogs. We will have more for you on it.

And, on our "Political Radar" this Wednesday: The AFL-CIO says it will spend $40 million to get out the vote for Democrats this November. President John Sweeney says, the labor federation will play its biggest role ever in the battle for Congress, in hopes of driving Republicans from power. This will be the first election since three of the AFL-CIO's largest unions split from the organization.


JOHN SWEENEY, PRESIDENT, AFL-CIO: We are working very closely with many of the disaffiliated unions. Karen (ph) has been spending a lot of time structuring a program that will involve many of the members of the members of the disaffiliated unions in all of the activities of the campaign this fall.

And several of them have turned over their mailing list to us, so that we can contact these workers, and involve them in the campaign. And we're hopeful that we're going to have a very united labor movement throughout this campaign.


KING: New evidence today that New Jersey is a critical battleground in the fight for control of the Senate -- a new poll shows Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez now trailing GOP challenger Tom Kean by four percentage points. Menendez had been leading by three points in the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll just last month.

The plot is thickening today in the Virginia Senate race. Mega- bestselling authors Stephen King and John Grisham will appear at a fund-raiser next month for Democrat Jim Webb's campaign against Republican incumbent George Allen. Tickets for the Webb event will range from $100 to $2,100.

And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist often plays up his past career as a heart-lung surgeon, but it turns out the Tennessee Republican failed to meet all the requirements needed to keep his medical license active. Senator Frist's office now confirms that, despite the fact the senator gave paperwork to Tennessee officials indicating he had met all the requirements.

The possible presidential contender is said now to be working to clear up the problem. Coming up: a source of controversy in the CIA leak case. The outing of Valerie Plame Wilson is linked anew to the Bush administration. But our Jeff Greenfield says, there are still critical questions to ask.

And, in our next hour: Jesse Jackson's mission. I will talk to him about his new push to free captives in the Middle East conflict.



KING: Want to go straight to our Zain Verjee for new information on the case against Warren Jeffs, he, of course, the polygamist cult leader captured, taken off the FBI's 10 most wanted list, just this week -- Zain.

VERJEE: John, CNN is able to confirm that polygamist leader Warren Jeffs is going to be extradited to Utah first. He's in Las Vegas right now. He's in jail. And he's awaiting his court appearance on Thursday. We will bring you more when we know it -- John.

KING: Zain Verjee for us with the latest information -- Zain, thank you very much.

Now, new fallout and questions today in the CIA leak case. As we reported yesterday, sources now confirm to CNN that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the source who revealed Valerie Plame Wilson's identity to columnist Robert Novak back in 2003.

Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, has been thinking about that and the bigger controversy -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: John, yes, there's a new twist to a controversy that's been roiling the political waters for more than three years now. And it's a twist that has many on the right saying, we told you so, and some on the left saying, not so fast.


GREENFIELD (voice-over): In July of 2003, former career diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in "The New York Times," debunking a Bush administration assertion about Saddam Hussein's intentions.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

GREENFIELD: Wilson wrote that he had been dispatched to Niger in 2002 by the CIA, and found no such evidence. About a week later, a column by Robert Novak revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA employee. But what kind of employee? If she were a covert operative, was revealing her name a violation of the law? And, if so, who did it? U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was named a special prosecutor to investigate.

Reporters were subpoenaed. One, former "New York Times" reporter Judith Miller, spent 85 days in jail. And speculation swirled around key White House aide Karl Rove, who, his critics charge, was part of an effort to punish Wilson for his criticisms.

Indeed, on May 13 of this year, Truthout, a liberal Web site, reported flatly that Rove had been indicted for perjury. But, a month later, Rove received official word that he would not be indicted. And the only official indicted so far, former Cheney Chief of Staff Lewis Scooter Libby, is charged not with leaking Plame's name, but with misleading investigators about who he talked to.

But, now, in a new book, "Hubris," "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff and "The Nation's" David Corn report that Novak's source was, in fact, former Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a longtime top aide to Colin Powell.

Other organizations, including CNN, have confirmed the report.

Far from being one of the Bush administration hawks, Armitage spent much of the first term in bitter bureaucratic turf wars with Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. To many conservatives, this is proof that there was never any effort to smear Joseph Wilson or to injure Valerie Plame.

"The Wall Street Journal" editorial page today pointedly asks why Armitage never let Fitzgerald know of his role. "The National Review" says the whole controversy was much ado about nothing.

But does this revelation in fact put an end to the matter? Liberal bloggers say, maybe not. Maybe others were out to punish Wilson and his wife, even if Armitage's talk with Novak was wholly innocent.

And there is this curious report from a "Washington Post" piece way back in September 2003. "Before the Novak column was published," "The Post" said, quoting a senior administration official, "two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife" -- unquote.

If that reporting is right, the questions remain.


GREENFIELD: At the least, though, this story does suggest that passionate opposition to a policy or an administration is no guarantee that every suspicion will be borne out.

Conspiracy is a great plot device for "24." It's a much less reliable guide to what often happens in Washington -- John.

KING: Is there any guide for what often happens in Washington?


KING: Jeff Greenfield -- Jeff, thank you very much.

And up next: Is Iraq on the brink or in an all-out civil war? Jack Cafferty will be back with that question and its life-and-death consequences.

And Venezuela's president cements an alliance and defiance of the United States -- two nations in cahoots against Washington.

That's all in our next hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.


KING: Jack's back now with "The Cafferty File."

CAFFERTY: John, it's shaping up to be another bloody week in Iraq. Since last Sunday, bombings and shootings have claimed the lives of more than 200 Iraqis.

But, earlier this week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said, the country is not engaged in a civil war, and he said there would never be a civil war in that country.

So, the question we asked is, who do you believe when it comes to whether or not Iraq has descended into a civil war? Actually, it should be, whom do you believe?

Alan in Maine writes: "I believe my own observations. When two ethnic groups are indiscriminately killing each other on a daily basis, it is civil war. American troops don't need to be involved, and should be withdrawn immediately."

Ronald in Texas: "If I have to take anyone's word about this war becoming a civil war, I guess it would be anyone's except the people whose legacy depends on it not being one."

Pat writes, in Montana: "If you want to know, talk to one of the returning troops. They will tell you it is a civil war. They will also tell you we need to get out, and get out now."

Carol writes from Connecticut: "I certainly don't believe the three stooges, Rummy, Bush, Cheney, or Casey."

Hey, Carol, that's four.

"Nor do I believe al-Maliki's malarkey. I only believe the evidence, the daily reports of violence and increasing violence and deaths, which make fools those who state that things are improving."

And Rose in Virginia writes: "Certainly not you. You are so partisan, you don't deserve to be on television."

(LAUGHTER) CAFFERTY: I guess she doesn't like me, John.

KING: I guess not.


KING: Same do, though, Jack. Hang in there.


KING: Still to come: His identity is not a secret anymore. We told you about Senator Ted Stevens putting a bill to expose government secrets on hold. We will go online, where the hunt to out Stevens has been intense.



KING: Here's a look some of the "Hot Shots" coming in to the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

Southern California: A helicopter makes a water drop over a wildfire in San Bernardino National Forest.

Nanjing, China: Chinese youth learn kung fu at a school for troubled children.

On to Spain. A partier lies down in a huge pool of tomato pulp during the annual Tomatina food fight.

And, in western Austria, march of the pigs -- a long line of swine trek through the snowy landscape.


KING: And that's today's "Hot Shots" -- pictures often worth 1,000 words.

And turning back now to one of our major stories, CNN has confirmed that Senator Ten -- Ted Stevens of Alaska placed a hold on a bill that would require the government to make public and searchable federal spending details.

With more on how the online search for Senator Stevens went down, let's bring in our Internet sleuth, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: John, we should say that Senator Stevens had become the odds-on favorite in the blogosphere in last 24 hours or so, as people were searching for who had placed the hold in this bill that would create an online searchable database, a Web site of government spending.

Blogs on the left and blogs on the right had been calling Senate offices and urging their readers to do the same, to ask if this senator or that senator had placed a hold on this legislation. The site had posted lists and photos of those who were already in the clear. And other sites were looking for online clues, articles that had suggested that Senator Stevens was the person who had put this hold on.

Even Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, he blogged himself about this online effort, telling senators that they should urge their staff to answer the phone calls of these blog readers when they called, and give them an answer.

Now Senator Stevens is unmasked in the blogosphere, but he's no stranger to these Web sites that pursued him. The conservative- leaning anti-government Web site Porkbusters had given him a special award earlier this year for an Alaska bridge product they criticized as wasteful, Senator Stevens defended as necessary.

And we would be remiss if we didn't mention Senator Stevens' description of the Internet earlier this year as -- quote -- "a series of tubes" -- the online community having a lot of fun with that one -- Senator Stevens today finding himself again front and center in the blogosphere, left and right -- John.

KING: Abbi Tatton, one case solved. On to the next one.