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The Situation Room

President Obama Sets Date for Iraq Exit; Dems Question Iraq Exit Plan; Interview With Madeleine Albright, William Cohen

Aired February 27, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, President Obama sets an end date to U.S. combat operations in Iraq. It's getting unexpected reaction in Congress right now. I'll have a live interview with the former Obama rival, Senator John McCain. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, two top members of Bill Clinton's national security team on the drawdown in Iraq and the new president's global view.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Cohen, they're standing by live as well.

And the U.S. government takes greater control of one of the nation's largest banks. This hour, what the move means for Citigroup and for America's financial crisis.

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

President Obama says that by any measure, the U.S. has fought a long war in Iraq, but now, after nearly six years, he's declaring the end is in sight. Mr. Obama formally announcing his exit timetable today before Marines and military leaders over at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Our White House Correspondent Dan Lothian is traveling with the president.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Almost six years after the war in Iraq began, President Obama told Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, unequivocally, the end is near.

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31st, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

LOTHIAN: But the president's plan to withdraw troops, which he calls responsible, will leave 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops still on the ground in Iraq taking on an advisory role, training Iraqi forces, supporting civilian operations, and conducting counterterrorism missions, all of which could involve combat and getting killed, despite what the president announced.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So combat? ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes. The president's been very explicit and was very explicit, I think, in his speech, that this remaining force will engage in counterterrorism operation.

LOTHIAN: The president's plan to pull troops out of Iraq in 19 months is longer than the pleenlg he repeated endlessly on the campaign trail.

OBAMA: We would have our combat troops out in16 months.

Out of Iraq within 16 months.

LOTHIAN: The White House says Defense Secretary Gates and military commanders wanted more time to ensure stability on the ground during Iraq's parliamentary elections in December, and to make the transition easier.

OBAMA: The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraq's future is now its own responsibility.

LOTHIAN: A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll shows 69 percent of Americans want most troops out of Iraq, but some experts are more cautious.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, it's certainly on the fast side of what I would say is advisable. And the 23-month option that apparently was developed would be even better, by my eyes.

LOTHIAN: The president's speech got a mostly tepid response from 2,000 Marines until he said this...

OBAMA: We will raise military pay and continue providing...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so very much for coming.

LOTHIAN: Eight thousand Marines from Camp Lejeune will soon be deployed to Afghanistan. Private First Class Eric Dorsey, who gave a solute to the president's speech, is one of them.

PFC. ERIC DORSEY, U.S. MARINE CORPS: You have to fight for something that you believe in.


LOTHIAN: The Pentagon won't say when the troops affected by this plan will start pulling out of Iraq, but there is a deadline looming for all 142,000 troops -- December 31st, 2011. That's a date agreed to last year by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian, traveling with the president in North Carolina.

Four thousand two hundred and fifty-one U.S. troops have lost their lives in nearly six years of war in Iraq. And 655 American troops have died in the war of Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in October, 2001.

The president confirmed today that he's tapping Christopher Hill to be the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Hill is a career Foreign Service officer who served as the Bush administration's lead negotiator with North Korea. Hill will replace Ryan Crocker as the nation's top diplomat in Baghdad if confirmed by the Senate.

There's been some mixed reaction to what the president's timetable in Iraq means for the U.S., and it's blurring some of the usual party lines.

Our Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is joining us now with more on this part of the story.

What's the reaction up on Capitol Hill, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, we just got a statement from the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, and he said that he thought that there would be fewer troops left in Iraq under President Obama. That's just the latest example today of what we're hearing.

It's very ironic, what we're hearing, actually. Democrats are upset, but Republicans are applauding President Obama.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Senator Obama has asked...

BASH (voice-over): Here's something you never thought you'd hear from John McCain about his former rival on Iraq.

MCCAIN: I believe the president's withdrawal is a reasonable one.

BASH: After all, McCain spent all of 2008 pounding then-Senator Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

MCCAIN: He wants to reverse the gains we have made and set a date for withdrawal which would endanger our progress in Iraq.

BASH: But now, McCain supports President Obama's withdrawal plan because he leaves as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq. McCain calls that imperative forceability.

Ironically, it's the president's fellow Democrats launching criticism.

REP. DONNA EDWARDS (D), MARYLAND: It just strikes me, given other estimates of defense experts, that 50,000 is a huge number to serve in that kind of capacity.

BASH: Congresswoman Donna Edwards challenged and beat a fellow Democrat who voted for the Iraq war. She thought the president's campaign promise was to withdraw many more troops.

EDWARDS: I think that's what people expected in my election when I ran for Congress. I think it's what they expect of the president.

BASH: Other Democrats are less diplomatic. California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey ripped into the president's plan, saying, "Such a large number can only be viewed by the Iraqi public as an enduring, occupation force. This is unacceptable."

Democratic leaders aren't happy either. In a Capitol hallway, Senator Byron Dorgan told CNN...

SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D), NORTH DAKOTA: I would prefer to see him draw that down further. Because you know what happens, as is just the case with Korea, they just stay there forever.

BASH: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this to reporters Thursday...

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: That's a little higher number than I anticipated.

BASH: And CNN is told Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed their concerns directly to President Obama at a White House briefing Thursday night.


BASH: And in fact, I'm told that the House speaker was very blunt with the president. She said what she said publicly, and that is that she wants fewer troops than 50,000 to be left in Iraq -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What additional advice did Harry Reid have for the president, Dana?

BASH: It's very interesting. I am told that in the meeting last night, President Obama was talking about his plan to leave as many as 50,000 troops, and that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, he urged the president to really highlight the lower figure in the range that we heard from the president today -- 35,000 to 50,000 troops. That is something that Harry Reid said would be very important thing for the president to do, and it just shows you how sensitive this is politically and otherwise for Democrats, this whole issue about Iraq and how many troops are going to be left there.

BLITZER: It certainly does.

Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash.

Thank You, Dana.

This note. Coming up later here in THE SITUATION ROOM, I'll have an interview, a live interview with Senator John McCain. We'll get his reaction to President Obama's decisions as far as a troop withdrawal from Iraq. That's coming up, my interview with Senator McCain. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


OBAMA: So let say this as plainly as I can. By August 31st, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.


BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story.

Six years after the Iraq invasion, President Obama is laying out his exit timeframe for getting U.S. combat troops out of Iraq. The president says most of the troops will be out, as you just heard, by the end of August, 2010, but up to 650,000 troops will stay until all forces are supposed to leave by the end of 2011.

Let's discuss what's going on with the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and the former secretary of defense, William Cohen. They both served during the Clinton administration.

Is there any wiggle room, as far as you can tell, or is this hard and fast, irrespective of what may be happening on the ground in Iraq?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I think that President Obama made pretty clear that they were coming out by August 31st, the combat troops, but he is staying in very close consultation with his military people. I think that he has directed all this after very, very careful consultation with military on the ground, and that he has in fact said that there would be a residual force that stays to do training, deal with counterterrorism issues, and protect our civilian and diplomatic people there.

BLITZER: He says by the end of August of next year, there will be between 35,000 and 50,000 troops left in Iraq, that all the troops, they'll be down to zero by the end of 2011. That was the agreement, the timeframe reached during the end of the Bush administration.

But what if things fall apart in Iraq? Then what?

WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, there is some so- called wiggle room as such in terms of the flexibility. What the president has said is that he will continue to monitor the situation on the ground. He's obviously working in very close conjunction with President Maliki. This is what the Iraqi people want. They want to see us out as well.

But depending upon the circumstance on the ground, if something were to take place which puts that country in jeopardy, then obviously, as president of the United States concern and concern with our national -- his primary concern is our national security interests. He could have some flexibility to have more troops and for a longer period of time. That's not his declared intent, and I think that he set a time limit very clearly of when he wants the troops out.

BLITZER: Are you surprised that some Democrats on the left are disappointed with this timeframe? Lynn Woolsey, a Democratic congresswoman from California, "I'm deeply troubled by the suggestion that a force of 50,000 troops could remain in Iraq beyond this timeframe. Call such a troop level what you will, but such a large number can only be viewed by the Iraqi public as an enduring occupation force. This is unacceptable."

This is a supporter of the president.

ALBRIGHT: Well, you know, Democrats, we always have this capability of voicing our own views, but the bottom line is, the president of the United States, after a very, very careful study, and in conjunction with the Iraqis, has made this decision. And he has the commander in chief.

And I think he has -- I am very confident that President Obama has taken great care in looking through all the facts of this, and I think that he is the one that has made this determination. What I think is important also in his message, Wolf, is that he has said that the mission basically is one to get political stability in Iraq.

BLITZER: But you could understand, Secretary Cohen, why a lot of his supporters on the left, the antiwar element that worked feverishly to try to get him elected, are expressing some disappointment with this timeline right now.

COHEN: Well, I think it was a misjudgment or miscalculation on their part to think that we were going to totally out of the region. We will continue to have massive and substantial security interests in the region -- our fleet tied up in Bahrain, we have forward deployment elements in Qatar, we have UAE, Kuwait. All of the Gulf countries have an interest in seeing stability there.

So the notion that we were going to be totally out of the region, I think most people, if they believed that, they were mistaken. I think what the president is saying is we'll have a 35,000 to 50,000 residual combat training mission there, and it will be transitionary. It's going to transition to full support and control by the Iraqi government.

BLITZER: How much credit does the former president, George W. Bush, deserve for President Obama laying out what he saw as a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq right now, laying out his timeframe? How much credit does he deserve for staying firm and going forward with that so-called surge to try to ease the situation and turn things around?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that we have seen that our military has been fantastic and done what they were asked to do, but I do think that we still have to work on the fact that there's the whole issue of how we got into this war. So I do think that President Obama called President Bush, as I understand it, to tell him about this withdrawal plan, and he agreed with it, from what I can tell in the report. I do think our military have performed brilliantly.

BLITZER: But did President Bush do the right thing by, in the face of angry public opinion, going forward with that surge? ALBRIGHT: Well, I personally believe there were other ways to deal with this, but I think that I'm very proud of our military.

BLITZER: What do you think?

COHEN: Well, I think, obviously, the president changing tactics based upon the recommendations he got from the military. The military, General Petraeus, said, we have to have a better strategy and tactical intelligence implementation here. I think it was successful, and as a result of that, we're seeing this plan now being implemented.

But by the same token, candidate Barack Obama was pushing the Bush administration for a time certain. You may recall that President Bush said no time, no time certain at all, and then gradually came back to, well, perhaps within a two-year timeframe. And so I think that the combination of the push from the left and President Bush being on the right...


BLITZER: And the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki was pushing for a timeline, a timeframe like that, and that was one of the reasons why the Bush administration reluctantly, perhaps, agreed to that timeline.

COHEN: At some point, you take the training wheels off and you say, OK, you're riding now, and you're in the control. And that's what the Iraqi government wants, that's what the American people want, and that's what I think President Barack Obama now has tried to achieve.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, thanks very much.

Secretary Albright, thanks to you as well.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

BLITZER: John McCain blasted President Obama's positions on Iraq when they were both presidential candidates. So what does Senator McCain think of the president's troop withdrawal plans now? I'll ask him.

Senator McCain is standing by live. We'll be speaking with him, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And your city could be getting a huge slice of the economic stimulus pie. Would you like a say in how the money is spent? Now you have a chance. We'll tell you how, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, President Obama sets a date for a withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. What does his former presidential rival, John McCain, think about that? I'll ask the senator. He's here to talk about that and more. He's standing by live.

At a time when donations are way down, charities fear they're going to be taking another hit. We'll tell you about a proposed tax law change in the president's budget that could impact contributions.

And harsh words for Bernard Madoff from a famous Holocaust survivor who says his charity lost millions of dollars in the money manager's alleged scam.

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

By one measure of things, we're much worse than expected, the last few months of 2008. The gross domestic product, measuring output of goods and services produced in the United States, suffered its worst decline in 26 years. The government says it fell at an annual rate of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter, adjusted for inflation.

This comes as the shadow of influence the government casts over Citigroup is about to get even larger. It's increasing its stake in the troubled bank. Is this a step that Citigroup desperately needed?

Let's go to our Senior Correspondent Allan Chernoff. He's working the story for us.

Allan, what's going on?

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SR. CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is indeed an extreme measure to make the government the biggest stockholder in Citigroup. Let's illustrate. This is Citigroup, and this is the financial cushion that the company has just negotiated, essential for its stability.

Now, taxpayers who have put $50 billion already into Citigroup are not going to be putting anything more in, but they'll be getting less out of the company now.


CHERNOFF (voice-over): Citigroup, once the nation's biggest bank, is getting a desperately needed financial cushion from U.S. taxpayers. As much as half of the $50 billion in dividend-paying preferred stock the government received for bailing out Citigroup will now be converted to common stock, direct ownership shares that don't pay a dividend. And that represents a loss in dividend payments of $2 billion a year to U.S. taxpayers, but it improved Citigroup's capital base against future losses.

BERT ELY, BANK ANALYST, ELY & CO.: It conveys a greater sense of stability and permanence to the capital cushion it needs to get through these tough times.

CHERNOFF: Taxpayers could own as much as 36 percent of Citigroup, which means the government should have influence over the bank's future direction.

OBAMA: And I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive. And this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayers. This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet.

CHERNOFF: Taxpayers may still have to put more money into Citigroup. The bank is getting a stress test to see how well it can withstand further declines in the economy, which could lead bank regulators to determine Citi needs a bigger bailout.


CHERNOFF: Taxpayers do have potential upside here, if the company recovers.

But, at least today, Citigroup shareholders were bailing out. The stock fell 39 percent to $1.50. That's partly because the stockholders will now have less of a stake in the company.

Wolf, as shareholders of Citigroup, let's hope there's nowhere to go but up.

BLITZER: We can only hope. Let's see what happens, though, a lot of worry out there.

Thanks, Allan.

Do you want a say in where the economic stimulus money goes? With so much cash on the table right now, some states have actually set up special Web sites asking their residents for ideas on how to spend their money.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's going to explain this idea to us.

What are they saying?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, some of them are a little bit farfetched. If you're going to ask the public for ways that they would like to see their money spent, you are always going to get some jokers, like the man in Ohio who would like $100 million to build a golden statue of the president in his hometown. Two thousand jobs will be created, he is saying.

But you're also going to find on these lists on these state Web sites desperate pleas from people for cash, like the 71-year-old resident of Virginia who desperate wants a few thousand dollars in help trying to pay property taxes in his community.

Then you're going to find weird and wonderful requests out there as well -- in Illinois, 200 grand for a candy-packaging project -- Virginia, an earthworm farm -- and, then, in Ohio, employee training for professional wrestlers -- and of those actual requests, proposals, by members of the public made on state Web site set up so they can offer ideas about how to spend the stimulus money in their communities.

And some of these Web sites have been absolutely overwhelmed -- the Ohio Web site, more than 11,000 requests at this point. State agencies now go through it -- through them, identifying which ones might be eligible for funding. The vast majority of these ideas are serious ones, road rebuilding projects, school renovations, that kind of thing.

But, with so many of these thousands of requests out there, you can imagine that the vast majority of them are not going to get a dime -- and, in some cases, for good reason.

BLITZER: Yes, obviously.

All right, thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

In 2012, who would challenge President Obama? It's not too early for some people to start naming Republican opponents.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is joining us from Los Angeles now.

Bill, you're near Hollywood right now. Who's playing the leading Republican role right now?



SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Republicans are ready to cast their next movie, "2012: The Sequel."

They have got a script.

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Now, I have listened carefully to the president's speech the other night. I think it is the boldest effort to create a European socialist model we have seen.

SCHNEIDER: But who's the lead? George W. Bush? Dick Cheney? John McCain? Their last pictures bombed. John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? They're minority leaders, bit players.

The CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation asked Republicans who they like best for their party's 2012 nomination. There's no clear front-runner among the three best-known contenders.

Sarah Palin, whose debut was a little bumpy.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), ALASKA: You travel this road in life, and, as you turn a corner, and there may be something there that, circumstances change, you have got to call an audible, and you decide to shift gears, take another direction, I'm always open for that.

SCHNEIDER: Mike Huckabee, who has got some good lines.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Eleven-hundred-page bill that nobody read actually did have a title. It's the name of a movie. "Confessions of a Shopaholic."


SCHNEIDER: And Mitt Romney, who looks like a leading man.

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: I'm going to do my very best to -- to help Republicans across the nation reestablish a -- a balance of power in Washington.

SCHNEIDER: How about casting a minority, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana? Oops. His screen test didn't go so well.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: Our party is determined to regain your trust.

SCHNEIDER: Some Democrats already know who they want to cast as the Republicans' leading man. He's featured in a new ad being run by Americans United For Change.


NARRATOR: So, who are Republican leaders listening to?




SCHNEIDER: Can a picture do well even if it doesn't have a well- known star in the lead? Maybe. "Slumdog Millionaire" just won the Academy Award -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point.

Bill Schneider, he's out in Hollywood right now.

Thank you.

By the way, on Saturday -- that would be tomorrow -- 4:30 p.m. Eastern, we will know the results of the straw poll over at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. We are going to bring you those results tomorrow, 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

He's one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country, and he's resigning right now as head of a prominent conservative group. Dr. James Dobson will step down as chairman of Focus on the Family. Group officials say Dobson informed employees today, but he will continue to play a major role at the Colorado-based ministry by hosting its radio program, writing a monthly newsletter, and speaking out on issues the group considers to be important. Political chaos and unrest gripping Pakistan right now. Stand by for a report on the turmoil, what's driving it, and the risks for the United States.

And it could happen any day now -- growing fears of a missile test launch in North Korea. Is the U.S. prepared for the worst?

And coming up in our "Strategy Session": the president's ambitious agenda defined in very provocative terms.


SEN. JIM DEMINT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Earlier this week, we heard the world's best salesman of socialism address the nation.



BLITZER: One of Pakistan's worst political crises in years playing out right now in that nuclear-armed nation -- protesters battling police today, after a court ruling barring an opposition leader from elected office.

Here's CNN's Stan Grant.


STAN GRANT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wolf, this is the Pakistani riot squad. They're moving down here now on the protesters. These protests have been running for three days over this crisis of democracy, they're calling it here.

The opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has been ruled by the supreme court that he cannot contest elections. He blames the president, Zardari, of trying to keep him out. These protests have been going for days.

There is burning of tires, burning of cars. And the protesters and police have been in a tense standoff. This just goes to show how violent, how volatile, and how vulnerable Pakistan is right now, not just from the militant threat of the Taliban, but also the threat, Wolf, of the people on the streets protesting against the government.


BLITZER: Stan Grant, thanks very much.

Team Obama is working to make Pakistan a key player in its plans for a military buildup in Afghanistan. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is helping pull the new strategy together.

Let's go to our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty. She's looking at this volatile part of the world.

Jill, what is going on? JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know the phrase you hear a lot when it comes to Afghanistan is, don't repeat the mistakes of Iraq. And, as the Obama administration is learning, this is a different kind of war.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): The war in Afghanistan, in reality, it's also a war in Pakistan.

Listen to the administration's czar for the region.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN: A war going on in Afghanistan and the related war going on in the western tribal areas of Pakistan, and the combination is extraordinarily toxic.

DOUGHERTY: That's why the Obama administration now calls it Af- Pak.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Our three nations have a common goal, a common threat, and a common task.

DOUGHERTY: A sign of some progress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her new team -- two countries once at odds now working with the U.S. on shaping President Obama's new strategy for the region.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism, because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens halfway around the world.


DOUGHERTY: The policy review is not finished, but the outline is clear: more U.S. troops, 17,000 so far, more intelligence-sharing, more economic development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a new effort to turn some Taliban elements against violence.

GENERAL ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK, AFGHANISTAN DEFENSE MINISTER: I think we really feel ashamed that your boys and girls come from so far away and they shed their blood together with us.

DOUGHERTY: But insurgency is being funded by Afghanistan's booming drug trade. The State Department's narcotics report released Friday says, Afghanistan still produces more than 90 percent of the world's supply of opium poppies used for heroin. And it says, last year, the Taliban raked in as much as $400 million from it.


DOUGHERTY: How bad is it? The Afghan ambassador to the United States tells CNN that the Taliban are training 2,000 suicide bombers in Pakistan to come over the border to Afghanistan to attack. He says the Pakistanis are looking into it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sounds pretty bad to me. All right, Jill, thanks very much.

An accused terrorist held here in the United States was charged in federal court today with conspiring to aid al Qaeda. The indictment means alleged sleeper -- an alleged sleeper agent will be transferred to civilian courts for prosecution, after years in military custody.

Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, has more now on this story -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in this case, we're seeing a dramatic shift in strategy over the question of whether suspected terrorists can be detained indefinitely in the U.S. without charges.

Ali al-Marri, a native of Qatar, was arrested in 2001, accused of being, as you said, an al Qaeda sleeper agent. The Pentagon says he trained at a terror camp in Afghanistan, met with al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and volunteered for a martyr mission.

In 2003, he was declared an enemy combatant and sent to a military brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was held for years in virtual isolation. But al-Marri was never charged with a terror-related crime, until today, when the Obama Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging him with conspiracy to provide material support and resources to al Qaeda.

He will be transferred to Peoria, Illinois, and face trial in a civilian court, although it's unclear exactly what evidence can and will be made public.

This is the latest twist on what has become a very long legal saga. During his detention, al-Marri faced off with the Bush Justice Department, challenging the president's authority to hold accused terrorists in the U.S. without charges. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which was scheduled to hear arguments in April.

Now, with criminal charges filed today, the Obama Justice Department is asking that that case be dismissed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The latest twist, as you say, in this saga.

Thanks very much, Jeanne Meserve.

He's a loyal Republican, and he can't even vote yet.


JONATHAN KROHN, 13-YEAR-OLD CONSERVATIVE AUTHOR: Many people have come up to me and said: "So, you're a Republican. You know, you get up there and do this Republican stuff and you talk about politics."


BLITZER: All right, a 13-year-old speaking clearly about what the Republican Party means to him.

And wait until you hear what one adult congresswoman says about the party's new chairman.

And one of the tallest buildings in the world is about to go green. You're about the find out the plans for the Sears Tower in Chicago.



DEMINT: Earlier this week, we heard the world's best salesman of socialism address the nation.



DEMINT: I was right there, right on the second row. And it sounded so good.


DEMINT: But, like so much political doublespeak, President Obama's speech was designed to mislead the American people.


BLITZER: Strong words from Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

Let's talk about that and more with our CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen -- she's a Democratic strategist -- and Republican strategist Ron Christie. He's formerly special assistant to President Bush.

What do you think about words like that from Senator DeMint: the world's best seller of socialism?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I just hope that all Americans are sort of watching C-SPAN for this past couple of days, listening to these Republicans talk about -- talk the president down, talk the issues down, and try and turn this all into a joking sound bite.

I think this is going to so backfire on Republicans, that they don't really give this guy a chance, take it seriously, and think about the programs that people really care about, energy, health care, you know, making -- creating jobs. Instead, they are just name- calling. And I think it's just wrong.

BLITZER: She's talking about the conservative conference that is going in -- in Washington right now. And you do hear a lot of angry words, a lot of people over there upset about this new administration.

But -- but to call him the world's best seller of socialism, that's the pretty tough statement, given that, at the tail end of the Bush administration, a lot of these -- quote -- "socialist policies," bailing out the banking industry, were being -- were being inaugurated.

RON CHRISTIE, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT BUSH: That's absolutely right, a very provocative statement, but I think one that is designed to make us think.

Right now, the government is spending 40 percent of GDP. That's up from 36 percent 10 years ago. The European Union, that percentage is 47 percent. I think what Senator DeMint is saying, Wolf, let's take a look. Is it the right role for the government to increasingly encroach on health care, to run our education system? Is that the proper role of government?

BLITZER: I know he's trying to be provocative, he's trying to stimulate a debate, but is he going too far in branding the president, the new president, as -- as a seller of socialism?

CHRISTIE: Well, if you define socialism where government controls the means of productions and the economic system, I think what the senator is saying, is that what the president's budget is all about? Is that increasing the size of government?

It may be a tough, tough comment for him to say, but I think he's on the right track.

ROSEN: You know, the Republicans can't decide this week whether their problem is the deficit or whether their problem is -- is the spending and the tax hike, because, if you look at them complaining about the deficit, all they have advocated for are tax cuts for the last several years.


ROSEN: And that would increase the deficit even more.


ROSEN: What Barack Obama's saying is, we need a balance. We need certain tax cuts. We need investment. When the private sector stops spending, we're going to stimulate the economy with -- with government spending in certain key areas.

I think the Republicans are blowing this big-time. It's good for Democrats, but it's bad for the country, to be so partisan.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: It's good for the Republicans, though, the conservative base, to rally the base.

CHRISTIE: It's not only about rallying the base. It's about rallying the country.

This is a philosophical debate. We're not just saying, we're against everything.

And you said, it's a balance. This is not a balance, Wolf. If you look at the percentage of tax cuts in the stimulus bill, it was less than 40 percent. You had billions upon billions of social spending in this. Republicans are looking at this and saying, it's a 40-year wish list. You have tried to spend this money in the past, and you're putting it in an emergency bill.

BLITZER: Let me go back to the conference that the -- the conservative conference here in Washington right now, CPAC, as it's called.

Michele Bachmann, congresswoman, Republican, from Minnesota, she was referring to the new chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, an African-American, and she -- she said this.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Michael Steele, you be the man. You be the man.


BLITZER: Causing a little stir out there.


BLITZER: Is that appropriate, not appropriate, just funny, or what?

CHRISTIE: No, I think it's kind of stupid.

"You be the man"? I mean, for goodness' sakes, you're talking about the chairman of the Republican Party, and she's making some sort of hip gesture? I hope it wasn't trying to be a racial gesture.

I -- look, we need to add our -- add to our party. We need to get more people in the party, youth, diversity and whatnot. That kind of comment is just ridiculous.

BLITZER: Well, there was great youth and diversity at this conference with these words from a 13-year-old. I want to play it.


KROHN: Conservatism is not about the party, because the party's merely the shell.


KROHN: It's the inside, it's the filling that really means something.


KROHN: So, I want to get that straight.

And -- but, in the book, I define conserve and I -- as I believe it is fit, upon four categories of principle: respect for the Constitution, respect for life, less government, and personal responsibility.



BLITZER: Wow. He's only 13 years old, Jonathan Krohn. He's a conservative author. Can you believe that?

ROSEN: An impressive young guy, somebody that they ought to be listening you.

You know, skip the Bobby Jindal generation and go to right to the Jonathan Krohn generation, because they're probably going to get the freshest ideas from that generation.

The Republican Party right now is throwing out nothing but complaining and old ideas. And I think that, unless they give more of a platform to that, they're just going to -- the American people are just discounting them right now.

BLITZER: Pretty impressive young guess, 13. You were probably like that at 13, Ron, right?

CHRISTIE: I -- well, maybe so.


CHRISTIE: But, again, very impressive young man, but I think he espouses a philosophy that I think we need to return to. He articulated a message of what he was for and what he believed in.

And this is where I will agree with you. Rather than always saying no, Republicans need to do a better job about saying what they're for and the direction that they would take the country in. We need to do a better job of that.

BLITZER: And he took a very positive message. I didn't hear him attacking a whole lot of people.


ROSEN: Right.

BLITZER: And I did hear him put forward some very conservative, but responsible positions.

ROSEN: Look, I think the country right now is in -- is in such turmoil, what they're looking for are politicians to say positive things and to do positive things.

And Barack Obama really understands that, really gets it. And I think that the Republican -- current Republican leadership is just making mistake after mistake. And the country, as we see in the CNN polls, is tuning them out. And they want to give Barack Obama a chance.

BLITZER: Jonathan Krohn, a good young guy with a huge future ahead of him.

CHRISTIE: We will take him.


BLITZER: Yes, very impressive.

Guys, thanks very much.


BLITZER: The world's best-known Holocaust survivor now a victim of the alleged swindler Bernard Madoff, and he's eager to see him punished. Wait until you hear how.

And, later, why charities are in desperate need of donations right now and they see -- at least some of them -- the president's new budget as an additional threat.

We will explain what is going on -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty has got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is, when it comes to the economy, should President Obama's message be more positive?

Ray writes from Nashville, Tennessee: "He told the country Tuesday night that we would get out of this. It's hard to be more positive than that, when, all around us, we see more job losses, business failures, and banking troubles. If President Obama were to tell us that everything is OK, he would sound like an idiot, or a Republican, but then I repeat myself."


CAFFERTY: B.K. writes: "He will keep fear-mongering until he gets everything that he, Pelosi, and Reid want passed. Fear-mongering works. He is doing the same thing Bush did. No change here."

Judy in Bangor, Maine: "You mean like 'The fundamentals of our economy are basically sound'?"

Remember John McCain?

Wendy in North Carolina: "Jack, I'm in the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, so I have huge medical bills. My husband was laid off a year ago from his road construction job. We are trying to be responsible, hold on desperately to our very modest mortgage. The credit cards that we have used for over 15 years, and never been late, just raised our interest rates to 30 percent. There is nothing positive to say to us regular people who started suffering from the economy over a year ago."

Bob writes: "The president just has to be honest. Excessive rosiness is not necessary. We're Americans, tough enough to take the truth without gloss. Excessive gloom is also not necessary. We'll acknowledge his wins and his losses objectively. He doesn't have to set himself up or cover his butt. Just be honest and fair, and we will do the same."

And Theresa writes in Atlanta: "No. His assessment of the economy seems right on target. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, et cetera. Perhaps we could have pulled the nose up before we slammed into the ground if Clueless and Darth Vader had been a little less rosy with their rhetoric."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at, and look for yours there, among hundreds of others -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thank you.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.