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Distinctions Abound For Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Signs White House Is Looking Past Some Key Recommendations Of Iraq Study Group Report; Governor Jeb Bush Suspends all Executions in Florida; Pastor Rick Warren Increasingly Becoming Influential Evangelical Leader; Iraq United: Brief Respite From War

Aired December 15, 2006 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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, breaking news. The State of Florida has suspended all executions and a federal judge declares executions now unconstitutional -- unconstitutional -- in California. It's a major story. We're going to bring you all the latest details.

Also happening now, a farewell ceremony for the outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, full of pomp, circumstance and praise, especially from the president and the vice president.

But what about the bloody war that cost him his job? Is there a cloud hanging over his legacy?

Also, is the Iraq Study Group report now political road kill?

We're going to look at the growing signs that the White House is directly distancing itself from the group's recommendations for turning around the war.

And leading pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren teaming up with Senator Barack Obama.

Does Rick Warren think the Illinois Democrat has what it takes to become president of the United States?

I'll ask him this hour.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


First up this hour, breaking news. New and dramatic developments in the national debate over the death penalty. Just a short while ago, Florida Governor Jeb Bush suspended all executions in his state. And right now, we just got word from California that a judge there has declared that state's lethal injection method unconstitutional.

Let's turn to our Carol Costello.

She's standing by with all the late breaking developments -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, death penalty opponents have been fighting for this for a long time. This is all a result of a botched execution of a convicted killer earlier this week.

Officials who performed the autopsy on Angel Diaz says it took twice as long for him to die by lethal injection as normal, a full 34 minutes. And they say the execution required a second dose of the chemicals because the needles carrying the first doses were improperly inserted. They went straight through his veins and into the flesh of his arms. They pierced his veins, in other words.

Officials would not answer questions about whether Diaz suffered, saying these results are preliminary and a final autopsy report may take several weeks.

Governor Jeb Bush has now put a halt on all executions in Florida until a special commission is empanelled and can issue its report.

And, Wolf, as you said, we've just learned that a federal judge has declared California's lethal injection method unconstitutional. That's according to the Associated Press. We'll follow up on that. Much more to come on this story.

BLITZER: That California judge saying implementation of lethal injection is broken. He suggested it can be fixed.

We're going to have a lot more, Carol, on this, coming up with our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin. We're coming back to this story.

In the meantime, distinctions abound for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the only man to hold the job twice -- once as the youngest, now as the oldest. Tributes to him from the highest levels pouring out today over at a ceremony marking his departure. But all of is coming under the shadow of a deeply troubled war he helped launch and which ultimately cost him his job.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, standing by with the story -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, President Bush lavished praised on outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, calling him one of the most skilled, energetic and dedicated of America's public servants.


MCINTYRE (voice-over): There were the requisite full military honors and high accolades delivered by the joint chiefs of staff chairman, the vice president and the president.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This man knows how to lead and he did. And the country is better off for it.

MCINTYRE: But for all the warmth on this unusually mild December day, this is not how Donald Rumsfeld hoped to go out, under the cloud of a war his successor says the U.S. is not winning.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Leadership is not about doing what's easy. It's about doing what's right, even when it's hard, especially when it's hard.

MCINTYRE (on camera): President Bush ticked off a long list of Rumsfeld's accomplishments over the last six years. But Rumsfeld's legacy will hinge on one event -- the Iraq War.

(voice-over): Rumsfeld himself has named the abuses committed by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib Prison as the low point of his tenure, crimes that were punished, and, Rumsfeld argues, were never authorized by him or anyone at the Pentagon.

But his critics point to larger miscalculations, such as the failure to anticipate the tenacious insurgency that now resembles a civil war.

"It's been a fiasco," says "Washington Post" reporter Tom Ricks, whose highly critical book of the same name faults Rumsfeld, President Bush and many of the top generals.

THOMAS RICKS, "WASHINGTON POST" MILITARY CORRESPONDENT: I think he's likely to be remembered along with Robert McNamara as an aggressive, hard-charging leader who, unfortunately, presided a war that seemed to head south pretty steadily.


MCINTYRE: Rumsfeld's parting words were prayers for the troops that he sent into battle who did not return. He said: "I will remember the fallen and I will particular remember the families from whom I have drawn so much inspiration."

The parting words of Donald Rumsfeld -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the new Secretary is sworn in on Monday.

Thanks very much for that.

Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, as the White House looks for a new strategy for Iraq, there are signs it's parting -- or right now looking past some of the key recommendations of that report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd.

He's watching this story for us -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the secretary of state is less than receptive to one of the group's key recommendations and that is just the latest in a series of lukewarm signals coming from the administration, signals that raise the questions -- is this group's much anticipated report being blown off by the White House? And, if so, are its high powered members resentful? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Their stature and commitment equally impressive -- a highly esteemed former secretary of state, a hugely respected former Congressman lead nearly a dozen heavyweights from both sides of the political divide to find solutions to a president's most crushing dilemma.

They invest nearly a year of their lives, put forth dozens of highly publicized recommendations for a course of action in Iraq.

But in the week-and-a-half since the Iraq Study Group's report came out, persistent whispers in Washington -- the president and his advisers are distancing themselves from James Baker's panel.

The White House denies this on its face, but also says...

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The touchstone is not the Baker-Hamilton Commission. It's the situation in Iraq. And it's the situation in the region.

TODD: Then, the secretary of state takes what may be this group's most important recommendation and dumps it on its ear.

On the idea of talking directly with Iran and Syria to enlist their help in stabilizing Iraq, Condoleezza Rice tells the "Washington Post": "They're looking for compensation to do that, and that's a problem."

Neither James Baker nor former Congressman Lee Hamilton would comment for our story. But a Baker aide tells us the panel's leadership does not feel dismissed, citing reports that the president is considering sending more troops to Iraq. That, he says, falls within the parameters of the group's recommendations.

Analysts, including one critic of the report, say its lukewarm reception is the result of too much hype.

FRANK GAFFNEY, CENTER FOR SECURITY POLICY: The conventional wisdom in Washington prior to the release of the Baker Report was that the administration, in the aftermath of the election, would basically have no choice but to accept it.

TODD: And expert who helped put the report together says the group never thought that way.

JONATHAN ALTERMAN, IRAQ STUDY GROUP CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think anybody had the illusion that what was going to happen is people who had been arguing very strongly on one side were going to say hey, yes, we were wrong and you're right.


TODD: Jon Alterman says at the very least, the Iraq Study Group's report has become what he calls "the baseline for all future discussions about Iraq." Alterman and another source close to the panel believe some of the Study Group's recommendations will survive. And Alterman says despite what Secretary Rice says now, he won't be surprised if this administration does open talks with Iran -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Brian Todd reporting.

I want to go back to our top story this hour.

Two major decisions involving executions in the State of Florida and in the State of California.

Our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin, is on the phone.

He's joining us from California, Palo Alto, right now.

First of all, Jeff, let's talk about the decision by Florida Governor Jeb Bush to issue a moratorium, a suspension of all executions in the State of Florida after one prisoner who was executed, it took them more than a half an hour to use the lethal injection to kill him.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: This is -- Wolf, I mean, this is a combination of something that's been building for several years.

The lethal injection was invented as a supposedly more humane alternative to the gas chamber, which replaced electrocution, which replaced hanging. And it turns out that that this is simply a lot harder to do than people expected. And, you know, one of the chemicals used in lethal injections in this country has been banned for veterinarians to put animals to sleep.

So, it -- because of its supposed cruelty.

This is filtering through the legal system. It's not -- the executions aren't going well. So the courts are now having to struggle with this issue once again.

BLITZER: And the constitutional issue is that, presumably, the person about to be executed was going through an unreasonable amount of torture or suffering, is that the issue?

TOOBIN: Exactly. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has held that that doesn't mean that you can't execute people. The court has said many times that executions are legal. But they have never said what kinds of executions are legally permissible.

And what seems very likely to happen as a result of these latest series of controversies, both legal and political, that is, the decision in California and the political decision by Governor Bush, is that the Supreme Court is going to have to deal with this issue, because so many states have lethal injection now and it is now just not clear whether that constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

BLITZER: The federal judge in California issued his ruling opposing a moratorium on executions in California, saying that that state's lethal injection method is unconstitutional, implementation of lethal injection is broken, Judge Jeremy Fogel said in San Jose. But he also said it can be fixed.

So that means I would surmise, that they have to come up with a better way, a better lethal injection or some other way of executing prisoners.

TOOBIN: You know, Wolf, it turns out that that it's actually hard to kill someone in a humane way. It seems odd to say it, but it is just harder than you might -- than those of us who are non- scientists might expect. And cases like this are filtering all through the legal system.

The judge in California decided this one today, but there's a case in Tennessee. There's a case in Florida. In fact, most prisoners who are on the verge of execution because -- with the use of lethal injection, which is overwhelming the choice of the 38 states that have the death penalty, it's -- are challenging their execution on this ground. And the Supreme Court, in the next year or so, almost certainly is going to have to take up this issue, which it has not yet done.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thanks very much.

Jeff is going to stay on top of this story for us.

Major breaking news coming out of Florida and California, where suspension of executions has now been put into place.

We'll follow up on this story.

Jack Cafferty has the day off. He'll be back on Monday with "The Cafferty File."

Still ahead, new information on the condition of ailing South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson. We'll have the details of what his doctors are now saying about his recovery.

Also, he's being called by many America's pastor, and he's teaming up with rising Democratic star, Barack Obama.

So does Rick Warren think Obama has what it takes to be president?

I'll ask him.

And a potentially major new development in the search for those missing climbers on Mount Hood. We're going to show you what search crews have now found.

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Florida and California, bought states where lethal injection executions have been put on hold for the time being because of serious complications, especially in Florida.

I want to talk to our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

In this case in Florida, the prisoner was executed, Angel Diaz, but it took, what, 34 minutes or so to kill him and that was deemed by the governor, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, as cruel and unusual punishment, according to the constitution, and, as a result, he's imposed a suspension of all executions in Florida for now.

Tell us what happened in this case.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, what it sounds like happened here, typically three medications are given. One is to render someone unconscious. One is to make them paralyzed. And the third is to actually stop their heart. The medications are given in a certain order, certain doses are given so that all of those things happen in a coordinated fashion, one before the other.

If -- it sounds like what happened in this case, reading the -- all the statements, is that the I.V. the catheter that's actually supposed to be in the blood vessel wasn't actually in the blood vessel. Instead, it was in the soft tissue, some of the soft tissue surrounding the blood vessel. So the medication was being given, but instead of being quickly absorbed in the bloodstream, as it should have been, it was being absorbed more slowly in those soft tissues and took longer.

And I guess what's even more concerning is that, perhaps, the medication to actually cause the heart to stop may have been given before the anesthetic and the paralytics were fully in his system. And I think that's obviously the big concern.

BLITZER: It sounds like it was more technical, the way it was administered, than the actual drugs itself.

GUPTA: Yes, that's what it sounds like to me, as well, Wolf. I mean putting -- typically when you put an I.V. in, you put the I.V. in and then you basically pull back to make sure the I.V. is in the blood vessel. You should see some blood return.

If you don't see that blood return, that means you may have gone through the blood vessel and are actually in some of the soft tissues, and that's not the way you want to give a medication. And that makes it difficult to actually administer this form of -- these forms of medications.

BLITZER: Sanjay, stand by for a moment.

We're going to stay on top of this story, but there's another important story we're following, as well.

New details out within the past hour on the condition of the ailing South Dakota senator, Tim Johnson, recovering from surgery for a brain hemorrhage.

Let's go back to Sanjay for this.

You've had a chance to hear now, in his written statement from his physicians, the neurosurgeons -- and you're a neurosurgeon yourself.

Give our viewers a sense of how he's doing, because a lot of us are really worried about Senator Johnson.

GUPTA: All indicators are very favorable at this time, Wolf. It's some good news. I mean, uncertainty is one of the hardest things for a patient's family to deal with in a situation like this. But the -- some of the answers starting to get -- some of the questions starting to get answered.

The biggest concern was is he going to have some way of being able to not only speak, but also receive speech, understand things?

While he has probably not spoken yet, because he's probably still on a breathing tube, it sounds like he is able to understand things. His wife apparently told him to open his eyes, which he did, and he was able to open his eyes in response to that command, which suggests several different things in the brain are happening.

Remember, we're talking about something known as an arteriovenous malformation. We have an animation of that. You basically see this cluster of blood vessels growing together in part of his brain, and that cluster of blood vessels bleeds and that causes pressure on the brain.

The goal of the operation was to remove that pressure from the brain, which it sounds like was successful.

But, again, this idea that he could hear something, Wolf, and follow a command based on that is very significant and very favorable for his long-term progress.

BLITZER: The statement says: "The surgery was considered a success. The surgeons evacuated the blood and stabilized the bleeding. The surgery also relieved the pressure on the brain. Senator Johnson remains in the intensive care unit in critical, but stable condition."

And then his doctor is quoted as saying: "Considering his initial presentation, his progress is encouraging. He is now stabilized and continues to show signs of responsiveness to the medical staff and the family, which is all good news."

GUPTA: It very much is good news. And it was interesting the language they chose there. They said remove the bleeding and then stabilize the source of the bleeding. With this cluster of blood vessels, sometimes what surgeons will do is take out the pressure on the brain and then plan a second operation later on down the road.

But the surgeons, the office has told us he's had no further operations planned. So it sounds like they did both those -- accomplished both those goals at the first operation.

So it is all very good news. It's just going to be a few days, though, still, Wolf -- you know, we always emphasize it's days and weeks in terms of assessing how someone is going to recovery. But early on, it looks very good.

BLITZER: Well, that's encouraging and we wish him only the best, of course.

Senator Tim Johnson, he's certainly in all of our prayers.

Sanjay, thanks for that.

GUPTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of both of these stories, the moratorium on the death sentence in Florida and in California, lethal injections put on hold for now; also, the condition of this senator.

Also coming up, iconic images of war.

What pictures will we remember from Iraq?

Our special correspondent, Frank Sesno, on the pictures we remember and why.

Plus, my interview with pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren. I'll ask him about teaming up with Senator Barack Obama, a move criticized by some Evangelicals, and whether he thinks the senator would make a good president.

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


BLITZER: America's military commitments have led to some memorable images, pictures seared into our national psyche.

So what will be the iconic image from the war in Iraq?

Let's turn now once again to our special correspondent, Frank Sesno.

You've been thinking a lot about this -- Frank.

FRANK SESNO, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have, especially today, as Donald Rumsfeld took his bow off the stage and is getting ready to move on. You know, it's decision time for the president and it really boils down to this -- stay or leave, commit or cut your losses.

And, Wolf, we've been down this road before and sometimes it's not a pretty picture.


SESNO (voice-over): They are the pictures that say so much. In Vietnam, choppers on the rooftops, desperation on the ground, as America called it quits.

For years, a president had put America's power and prestige on the line.

FORMER PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: And we just cannot now dishonor our word or abandon our commitment.

SESNO: By the time the choppers pulled up and out of Saigon, America was exhausted and divided. The damage lasted for decades.

In the early days of the cold war, a Camelot president learned about American limitations much closer to home. A CIA-inspired invasion of Cuban exiles was supposed to topple Fidel Castro. The rebels counted on American air support, it didn't come and Castro crushed the uprising, the American president left to pick up the pieces.

FORMER PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Cuba must not be abandoned to the Communists. And we do not intend to abandon it either.

SESNO: Bay of Pigs still means loss and betrayal.

In Iraq, too, America has been on the line before, after Gulf War 1, Bush 1 encouraged uprisings against Saddam. The Shiites in the south, the marsh Arabs complied. They, too, wanted American help that didn't come. Saddam destroyed whole villages, drained the marshes, killed tens of thousands.

And now another president has to deal with the consequences of commitment. With no good choices and dwindling political support -- only 21 percent approve of his handling of Iraq -- America, it seems, wants out.

But it's worth considering the scenario before it happens. Helicopters evacuating the green zone this time, as Iraq descends into chaos and open civil war. Iraqis who helped and hope left behind to navigate the wreckage.

Is this the next picture we'll never forget?


SESNO: Wolf, it's so much more than about presidential popularity polls and how the Republicans and Democrats are going to do. You heard Kennedy say it. You heard Johnson say it. We've made a commitment, our word, the superpower word matters for something. And that's really what's confronting George W. Bush and the United States of America right now. What it does in Iraq is going to reverberate down for decades to come. BLITZER: And these images can be so powerful, so searing, as you point out, and certainly as he, in these last two years, thinks about his legacy, this has to be very much on his mind.

SESNO: Very much on his mind, because it really does matter about the projection of American power. And if America says something, is it there to carry it through?

Rumsfeld himself has said Americans don't like long wars. They're not popular.

True enough.

But what happens when you get in one and it turns out that to be long and unpopular? Then what do you do?

BLITZER: Well, we'll see.

Thanks very much, Frank, for that.

Frank Sesno reporting.

Coming up, an increasingly rare scene of Iraqis united. People across the country joined in support for Iraq's national soccer team. We're going to tell you if the team is bringing home a medal.

And his book, "The Purpose Driven Life," is a best-seller around the world. I'll speak with Evangelical leader, Pastor Rick Warren. What he's telling me about his invitation to Senator Barack Obama to come speak at his church, you're going to want to hear what he has to say.

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


BLITZER: We want to bring in our senior U.N. correspondent Richard Roth. There's a developing story we're following over at the United Nations -- Richard, what's going on?


CORRESPONDENT: Well, the U.N. security department says a suspicious package, maybe a letter, was delivered containing white powder in the mail area near reporters' areas, possibly directed at CNN or near there.

Many of these things turn out to be false reports or false when they're examined. Right now, New York City police and U.N. security are looking it over. There are some special units being brought in, environmental protection units from New York City. And that's all.

And some areas of the building are kind of on a closer watch or people are being asked to just move out of an area or two. But nothing of a major precautionary note at this moment. BLITZER: All right, Richard, we'll stay on top of this story and watch it. Hopefully, it's just some sort of hoax or some nasty, you know, person just sending some sort of a powder along. Hopefully it's not serious. But we'll watch this story together with you, Richard, at the U.N.

We want to go back to the breaking news we've been following this hour -- the decision by the Florida governor, Jeb Bush, to suspend all executions in Florida as a result of the execution of one Angel Diaz earlier in the week. It took longer than anticipated, more than 30 minutes.

Suzanne Keffer is the attorney representing Angel Diaz. She's joining us on the phone.

What exactly happened, Ms. Keffer, involving your client?

SUSAN KEFFER, ATTORNEY REPRESENTING ANGEL DIAZ: My understanding from the eyewitness testimony is that this execution took 34 minutes, almost three times longer than any other inmate. And during the course of that execution, Mr. Diaz, in fact, was trying to speak, it looked like.

His body shuddered. He was gasping for air for at least 11 minutes. It was very clear that he was suffering pain.

BLITZER: And you were not there? You were not an eyewitness, were you?

KEFFER: No, I was not. Actually, the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Neil Dupree (ph), witnessed the execution on my office's behalf.

BLITZER: And the reason that this is of concern is the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment, and that's why the Florida governor has now gone forward with this moratorium, the suspension of executions, in Florida. Is that right?

KEFFER: That's correct.

BLITZER: Is there -- you have no recourse. He's now dead, Angel Diaz. Is that right?

KEFFER: Well, that's correct. I certainly don't have recourse criminally, but I certainly think that there is some recourse that the family should be encouraged to take.

BLITZER: Like what? Give us an example.

KEFFER: It's not an area of law that I do, but certainly I think that there is a lawsuit here against the Department of Corrections. It's something they'd have to look into.

BLITZER: In this particular case, we're told, apparently the I.V. wasn't injected -- it wasn't inserted properly into the vein. And as a result, it took longer -- as you say, three times as long as required. And that's why he was showing these signs of pain.

How unusual, in your experience, is that?

KEFFER: Well, because in Florida we have not had access to information regarding the previous executions that have occurred, I don't know that I can answer that. I certainly believe that it probably occurs or problems do occur more often than we realize. These people that are doing the executions are untrained. There's no medical professionals that are assisting in the sense that if something goes wrong they could intervene. And that's the problem.

BLITZER: Suzanne Keffer, the attorney representing Angel Diaz, who was executed earlier in the week in the state of Florida. It took 34 minutes, she says. That's about three times as long as a lethal injection is supposed to take.

And today the breaking news out of Florida, the governor, Jeb Bush, announcing he's issued a moratorium, a suspension of all executions in the state of Florida because of this incident. Simultaneously, a federal judge in California has issued a moratorium as well on the lethal method -- lethal injection method used there for similar reasons.

We're watching this, and we'll get you more information as it comes in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

We'll move on now to some other news.

He's known by many as America's pastor. And even those who aren't familiar with Rick Warren have probably heard of his bestseller, "The Purpose-Driven Life."

Let's bring in our Mary Snow. She's joining us for a closer look at this increasingly influential evangelical leader.

Mary, we're going to speak with him in just a moment, but I want you to give our viewers some background.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you said, Rick Warren wrote "The Purpose-Driven Life," and his messages from that book are part of his ministry teachings around the globe. Some say Warren's influence is not only growing, but changing the relationship between evangelicals and the right.


SNOW (voice over): Pastor Rick warren's latest mission brought him to Washington for the White House summit on malaria. Wiping out pandemic diseases has become one of the cornerstones of the lessons he preaches. Lessons that have made him one of the most influential pastors in America.

E.J. DIONNE, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think what you're seeing with Rick Warren is almost a new version, a 2006 version, of Billy Graham. SNOW: But unlike Graham, who's always seen in suits, Warren is often dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Most people know him as the author of the best-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life." It sold some 20 million copies worldwide.

He's taken his message around the globe, even traveling to controversial countries like Syria. This past summer he tried unsuccessfully to enter North Korea.

PASTOR RICK WARREN, AUTHOR, "THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE": I'm always happy to be a back channel for peace.

SNOW: But there was anything but peace earlier this month when Pastor Warren invited Illinois Democratic senator Barack Obama to his California mega-church to address the AIDS crisis.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: We must do what we can to prevent...

SNOW: Some conservatives and ministers were outraged since they adamantly oppose Obama's support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Warren himself is conservative and opposes them, too, but he refused to bow to pressure and invited Obama on the pulpit, along with Republican senator Sam Brownback.

WARREN: You've seen the face of compassionate conservatism and the face of compassionate liberalism. And what we have in common is compassion.

SNOW: At least one political observer said the event marked a turn in American politics, predicting that conservative evangelicals and Republicans won't always see eye to eye as they have in recent years.

DIONNE: I suspect most will continue to vote Republican. But Republican politics won't be the most important thing to them anymore. It will be much more about what they see their Christian mission as demanding, and that will include some issues that aren't traditionally associated with the right.


SNOW: Issues that include poverty, AIDS in Africa, and concern about the environment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thanks for that.

This popular pastor also says his goal is to restore responsibility in people and credibility in churches.


BLITZER: And joining us now, the author of the best-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," Pastor Rick Warren.

Pastor Rick, I'll call you. Thanks very much for coming in. WARREN: It's good to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: A good time of the year to have a serious discussion on a lot of the issues that are in the forefront for you.

You caused a bit of a stir recently by inviting Barack Obama to your church to speak out on some of the sensitive issues of the day. You were criticized by some evangelicals because he supports abortion rights, gay rights.

What's your response to that?

WARREN: Well, you know, if you can only work with people you agree with 100 percent, you've ruled out the entire world, because I can't even get my wife to agree with me all the time. So you're going to have to work with people who have differences from you. And we had 60 speakers at this conference on AIDS, and Barack Obama was there, but so was Sam Brownback, Bill Frist, first lady Laura Bush, Bill Gates, Bono. There was a lot of people.

BLITZER: What did you think of Barack Obama?

WARREN: He's an amazing man. I think...

BLITZER: Do you think he's got it? In other words, he's got that potential like so many other presidential prospects, to be the president of the United States?

WARREN: I think he does.

BLITZER: Because?

WARREN: I think he has good character. I think both Sam Brownback and Barack Obama -- the reason I invited them both, first, they'll tell you the truth. They're not just going to beat around the bush. They'll tell you what they believe. And I appreciate that.

Second, they're men of civility. And I'm so tired of the rudeness we've got in our society where people are just mean to each other. We need to return to civility, which says, I treat you with respect even if I violently disagree with you. That we've lost the "civil" in civilization.

BLITZER: Are the American people ready for an African-American president?

WARREN: Oh, I think so.

BLITZER: Your congregants, what are you hearing?

WARREN: Well, I think that America's ready for leadership any time. I think Sam Brownback, who was there, I think Barack Obama, I think there's a lot of people in the field who are good leaders who could easily lead America with -- because they're clear.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what David Van Biema, writer for "TIME" magazine wrote.

"The invitation works perfectly for Obama. Through his autobiography 'The Audacity of Hope' and his public statements, the senator had already positioned himself as one of the rare potential Democratic presidential candidates who can truly talk the Christian talk."

Can he?

WARREN: Talking the Christian talk is not nearly as important as being a person of character. And I think that in the -- in this next election people are tired of partisanship.

I think whoever is going to get elected is going to be somebody who has the ability to draw people from different sides, even people who disagree with you, and say, let's work on the greater good. Let's work on the common good of our society rather than narrow casting, rather than saying I'm appealing to simply a base. I think base politics is out of date.

BLITZER: Here's what one of your critics who didn't like the fact you invited him because of his support for abortion said this, Wiley Drake, second vice president, Southern Baptist Convention.

"You can't work together with people totally opposed to what you are. This kind of conference is just going to lead people astray."

WARREN: Well, I disagree.

BLITZER: So you're ready to reach out and work with people who have different...

WARREN: We will work with anybody...

BLITZER: ... even on a sensitive issue like that?

WARREN: There's a difference, Wolf, between being an ally and being a co-belligerent. Francis Schaffer was a great writer who talked about this. And so did Wilberforce, by the way.

In other words, for instance, I'm a co-belligerent with the feminist movement when they're opposing pornography. I don't agree with everything in the feminist agenda, but I happen to agree with them on that, and I would work with them on that particular issue.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the other issues that you've really made a name for yourself...


BLITZER: ... including North Korea.


BLITZER: You're ready to reach out to Kim Jong-il and North Korea to do what? WARREN: Well, to preach the gospel. I'm a pastor, not a politician. And I report to a higher authority, where Jesus said, "Go into all the world, to every nation."

Does that involve Syria? Yes. Does that involve North Korea? Yes. Does it involve Iran?

I'll go anywhere as long as I'm not muzzled. Now, if they put restrictions on what I say, that's a different issue. But I have a basic message that says you were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life isn't going to make sense.

And if I get the opportunity to share that, then I don't go -- I don't ever go into these places as a politician. I don't go in as a diplomat. I don't go in as trying to take a job that's not my job. But if I get an opportunity to go in and bring hope, encouragement, and the message of the good news, I'm going to do it.

BLITZER: And another major issue for you is dealing with the crisis of AIDS in Africa. You've gone there.

WARREN: Right.

BLITZER: You encourage people to go there.

Why did you decide that this was going to be a seminal issue for you?

WARREN: Well, you know, Wolf, AIDS is no longer a sexy issue. It used to be on everybody's mind in the early '80s. And I think a couple of things have happened.

Hollywood has moved on from it. They're now looking into adopting kids and stuff like that.

The reason, though, is that AIDS is worse than it was 20 years ago. In America, it's become a chronic disease.

If you've got the money, you've got $10,000, $15,000 a year, you can live a pretty reasonable life with the antiretrovirals. What most people don't realize is that around the world it's exploding at an exponential rate.

Within a matter of 10, 15 years, there will be 100 million people who have AIDS or who have had AIDS. And it's still a death sentence.

You're going to die from it. And there is no cure. And so while the church is late coming to the table -- and I really think we have to repent over that. I think we have to say, we were wrong, we were flat-out wrong. And I've said that publicly. But we're in it for the long haul, and it is a -- it is the greatest health pandemic in the world right now.

BLITZER: You've been described as the next Billy Graham.

WARREN: Nobody can replace Billy Graham. BLITZER: But what are you -- let's look down the road. America's pastor, is that the kind of responsibility you would like to have one day?

WARREN: I never imagined I'd be sitting here talking to you, so I don't predict the future. I'm not a prophet. I'm a local pastor of a church that happened to grow quite large, and I've spent most of my ministry just helping other pastors.

I've trained about 400,000 pastors in 163 countries. And so we kind of stayed under the radar for a long time. I intentionally said we're never going to put our services on television like a weekly show because I didn't want to be a celebrity.

BLITZER: Well, your book and your comments have certainly made you a celebrity.

WARREN: Kind of blew my cover. The book blew the cover.

BLITZER: You're out there. And we want to thank you for coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

WARREN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Have a Merry Christmas and happy new year.

WARREN: Merry Christmas. Happy new year to you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

WARREN: Thank you.


BLITZER: And still to come, we've just learned in the past few minutes of another Republican who has now formed an exploratory committee to run for president. We're going to tell you who that is.

And an all-too-rare respite for Iraq's people. We'll find out how an international soccer tournament brought the devastated country together, at least for a few hours.

Plus, find out what President Bush had to say about Mary Cheney and the new baby she's expecting with her female partner.

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


BLITZER: And this just coming in from the campaign trail. Former Wisconsin governor and former Bush cabinet secretary Tommy Thompson is taking a major step towards running for the White House. An aide says Thompson has filed papers to set up a presidential exploratory committee.

Thompson was Wisconsin governor for 14 years before serving as secretary of Health and Human Services under the current President Bush. Thompson's Welfare to Work bill in Wisconsin served as a model for national welfare reform.

We're going to stay on top of this story for you. And remember, for all the latest political news at any time, check out our political ticker at

The horrors of the war in Iraq abated for just a few hours today for a sporting event.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, shows us why. He's in Baghdad -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a rare day in Baghdad today. The number of killings were down and Iraqis actually had something else to do, something else to focus on, rather than worry about the attacks. The national soccer team was playing a big match.


ROBERTSON(voice over): Crowded around TV sets, Iraqis of all stripes had time for only one thing this afternoon: soccer and their national team.

The Iraqis, in green, took on Qatar in the Asian games final in Doha. It had been a Cinderella run to get so far in this prestigious tournament. Exciting, and even briefly uniting an increasingly fractured Iraq.

"If, god willing, we win, it will unify Iraqi people," says 22- year-old Abbas (ph), "and there will be no difference between Sunni and Shia."

"It's so important to win, especially at this time," says 19- year-old Mohammed. "Iraq is very thirsty for this happiness."

Forty-five minutes into the game and still no goals. Nail- biting.

(on camera): Even Iraq's president says he's taken the afternoon off to watch the match. He's called the team and wished them luck in their sports battle and told them if they do win, they'll bring joy to every home in Iraq from the north to the south of the country.

(voice over): Soccer is a passion here. Wherever there's an empty patch of ground, you'll find a game, with kids even playing barefoot.

It's become an escape from the daily brutalities of war. This fan explains why.

"Because sport has nothing to do with politics," he says. "It's for all Iraqis."

On the eve of national reconciliation talks, the fans here just wish Iraq's politicians would show some of the same team spirit that its footballers have shown at the Asian games.

"Our problems are all political," this fan says. "If politicians agreed among themselves, then Iraqis will unite and there will be no difference between Sunni and Shia."

Back at the match, Qatar has gone one up. And despite some top- class soccer by Iraq, the home team holds the lead until the whistle. A sad moment for the fans, a brief escape from reality over.


ROBERTSON: It wasn't the win everyone was hoping for, but it was a rare insight into something in incredibly short supply these days: unity -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Baghdad for us.

Thanks, Nic, very much.

Up ahead, new suggestions today that Cuban leader Fidel Castro is very ill and may even be near death. We're going to take a closer look and tell you how the U.S. is preparing for this possibility.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Here she is, Carol Costello. She's here in Washington for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Carol.


Hello to all of you.

Just hours ago, Florida governor Jeb Bush suspended all executions in his state. A medical examiner says prison officials botched the insertion of needles when a convicted killer was put to death earlier this week. As a result, Angel Nieves Diaz took more than half an hour to die.

That decision comes as a judge has ruled that California system of executions could be cruel and unusual punishment, making it unconstitutional.

Brutally rough weather is slowing search and rescue efforts on Oregon's Mt. Hood, but there is one piece of good news regarding the possible fate of those three missing climbers. Just a short time ago, authorities reported finding a note left by the climbers when they started their climb eight days ago. In the note, the men detail the supplies they had with them. Authorities say items like food, fuel, a shovel and ropes could be helping the men weather the storms.

And President Bush says he is happy for the openly gay daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, who earlier this month revealed she is pregnant. In an interview with "People" magazine, the president says he believes Mary Cheney will be -- his words now -- "a loving soul to her child." In the past, the president has said he believes children should ideally be raised by a married mother and father.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that.

In Belgium, a fake newscast is stirring some real passions. As a hoax, Belgium state TV reported this week that the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders had declared independence from the French-speaking southern region of the country. One problem, thousands of viewers didn't get the joke.

Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, joining us with the story -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, this is what viewers in Belgium saw on Wednesday night: well-known and well respected Belgium journalists telling viewers that a third of the country had seceded, declared independence and just gone. Well, for the next half hour of this special broadcast, people watched people celebrating in the streets, reporters giving live updates from outside parliament. They were even told that the royal family had fled the country for the Congo.

Now, if they had been watching carefully, they would have seen a small disclaimer at the beginning and end of this broadcast telling them that this was a fiction, a long-planned journalistic stunt by state TV designed, they said later, to provoke public debate about Belgium's political future. However, lots of people didn't see the disclaimer and they missed the joke as well.

Emergency phone lines were flooded as people tried to figure out what was going on with this country. Two days later, even though it's all been cleared up, the debate is going on in newspapers which are dominated with this story, and the question, was this thought- provoking or was it irresponsible? Belgium's prime minister has weighed in. He called it in poor taste -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you for that.

Up next, new signs Cuba's Fidel Castro may be near death. Could that result in a new set of problems for the U.S.?

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


BLITZER: There are growing indications that Cuban leader Fidel Castro is nearing death and growing concerns about what some think might happen in the immediate aftermath, including situations that could cause some serious problems for the United States.

Let's turn to our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee -- Zain. ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, months, not years, that's all the time left for a weak, frail Fidel Castro, according to national intelligence director John Negroponte. El Comandante appears to be at death's door.


VERJEE (voice over): When Fidel Castro does die, the United States could be faced with new dangers. There are fears Cubans will jump on boats, head to Florida, causing chaos. Preparations are being made just in case.

REAR ADM. DAVID W. KUNKEL, U.S. COAST GUARD: We're standing up for a mass migration.

VERJEE: Experts say that's unlikely to happen. If it was, we'd have seen it by now.

PETER KORNBLUH, SR. ANALYST, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE: And it does not appear there will be any type of a significant exodus from the island.

VERJEE: Another fear, the Cuban exiled community, after wild street parties in Miami, they may head to Cuba to pick up relatives, claim back property, or, some experts say, provoke a military confrontation between Cuba and the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a threat of that type of provocation. The U.S. military has been studying that potential threat for some years now.

VERJEE: A senior Bush administration official tells CNN that Washington is urging Cuban exiled groups not to rush the island and introducing them to immigrants from the former Soviet bloc to show how the transitions from communist rule played out. The U.S. government has a plan to help on the ground in Cuba within weeks to work with the transition government, but some experts say that transition has already happened and Raul Castro is in charge.

The U.S. plan would also earmark as much as $80 million to support opposition to the regime and lay the groundwork for democracy.

On the front page of the communist party newspaper this week, a message to the U.S. government. "The Cuban government and people will take charge of guaranteeing the complete failure of these plans to encourage subversion in our country.

A U.S. congressional delegation is in Cuba now, hoping to open talks with the government.

REP. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Many of us felt that the time has long passed to enter a new chapter in relations.

VERJEE: The State Department opposes the trip. Its view, talk to Cuba only when it has a leader who wants Democratic change.


VERJEE: Experts say the day after Castro dies may not be much different. One official said Raul seems harder and more orthodox, even than Fidel. Potential reformers may just lie low for a while before making any move for real change from within -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know the remarks with John Negroponte, the director of National Intelligence, pretty blunt, thinking that he's getting increasingly near death. He hasn't been seen publicly, what, for almost two months. Is that right, Zain?

VERJEE: That's right. He hasn't been seen since July. He missed his 80th birthday party, which is something no one expected, that someone like Fidel Castro, who loves to speak with long, fiery, rhetorical speeches in front of adoring crowds. And they say that's an indication that he's really not well.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much for that.

We're going to have more on this, other stories coming up.

Let's go to "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Kitty Pilgrim sitting in -- Kitty.