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The Situation Room

President Obama Sets Iraq Exit Date; Mexico's Drug Wars

Aired February 27, 2009 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, an end date for U.S. combat missions in Iraq. President Obama makes the official announcement. Some fellow democrats are not all that satisfied.

Plus, the firsthand look at the drug war raging on America's doorstep. Hundreds killed in one Mexican city, in the grip of a brutal cartel.

The final exit. Undercover investigation of a group that may have helped up to 200 people commit suicide using extreme methods -- all that and the best political team on television.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

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


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


BLITZER: President Obama firms up the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq six week into his presidency and nearly six years after the war.

Some fellow Democrats who have been clamoring for the troops to come home are, though, raising concerns right now about the size of the force that will stay behind.

Our White House correspondent, DAN LOTHIAN, traveled with the president to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina -- Dan.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a major shift in Iraq, as the president announces his drawdown plan. Before laying out all the details to the public here, the president made a phone call to Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and to former President Bush.

Mr. Obama says, Iraq is still not secure, but it's time for that country to take charge of its own future.

(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.

OBAMA: So, let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31, 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 to take 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.

(on camera): So, combat?

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Yes. The president's been very explicit and was very explicit, I think, in his speech, that this remaining force will engage in counterterrorism operations.

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

OBAMA: We would have our combat troops out in 16 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, SENIOR FELLOW IN FOREIGN POLICY STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, it's certainly on the fast side of what I would say is advisable. And the 23-month option that was apparently 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 1st Class Eric Dorsey, who gave a salute to the president's speech, is one of them.

PRIVATE 1ST CLASS ERIC DORSEY, U.S. MARINE CORPS: 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 31, 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, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The reaction on Capitol Hill sort of mixed, the timetable blurring some of the usual party lines.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's got the reaction.

How did it go, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It really is jaw-dropping, what happened today, Wolf. President Obama angered Democrats and finally found bipartisanship with Republicans on an issue that had for years been probably the most partisan issue, withdrawing from Iraq.


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

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I am cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success.

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

In a Capitol hallway, Democratic 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 just as in the case of Korea, they could stay there forever.

BASH: The Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin said, "I had expected that the size of the residual force would have been lower than 35,000 to 50,000 troops."

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."

Congresswoman Donna Edwards challenged and beat a fellow Democrat who voted for the Iraq war. She's not happy either and will be demanding more details.

REP. DONNA EDWARDS (D), MARYLAND: Many of us in Congress are going to be asking, you tell us what every single one of those troops who are left after the major withdrawal of the majority of the troops, what they're left and what they're doing.

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 had anticipated.

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


BASH: And CNN has learned that, in that meeting, sources familiar with that meeting tell us, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid actually told the president he believes he would have an easier time selling the plan if he focuses on the lower figure, 35,000 troops, to stay in Iraq, and really urged him to talk about that range, 35,000 to 50,000 troops.

That gives you just a sense of how sensitive this still is for Democrats.

BLITZER: Very sensitive, indeed. All right, thanks very much, Dana, for that.

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

The Obama administration reportedly has decided to boycott a United Nations conference on racism in April because of deep concerns the meeting will simply be used to criticize Israel.

The Associated Press reports the U.S. wants references to Israel deleted from the final conference document, along with other controversial wording on defamation and religion and reparations for slavery.

Let's go back to Jack Cafferty. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Signs that people have less disposable income these days are everywhere. Take, for example, the earnings at large retailers like Target. Profits were down 41 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. Macy's, which fared even worse, had profits down 59 percent in the fourth quarter.

Some of the changes are more subtle, but just as revealing. Wal- Mart, for example, says sales of starter sewing kits have shot up by 30 percent. Landscaping companies have seen their revenue drop 7 percent in the last year. And Procter & Gamble says that more people are asking how to dye their hair at home, instead of spending more and going to the beauty salon.

In addition, a lot of people are anxious about the possibility of losing their home to foreclosure. More than a million people already have. Ask anybody, they will likely tell you they're at least a little bit uncertain about their job. Will it continue? Will they be laid off? Will they be asked to take a pay cut or work fewer hours? Or will they just be fired outright?

The reasons for squeezing a nickel until the buffalo's eyes bug out are everywhere. And that's a variation on an old expression that cannot be used on a family news program. If people have a couple of extra bucks, they are probably inclined to hang on to it.

So, as Friday rolls around and thoughts turn to the weekend, here's the question. In light of the economy, what's different about how you spend your weekends? Go to You can post a comment on my blog.

You probably know the older version of that expression, don't you?

BLITZER: I don't know. What is it?


CAFFERTY: I can't tell you. It's naughty.


BLITZER: Thank you, Jack Cafferty.

BLITZER: Travelers, beware. In Mexico right now, kidnappings, killings and other drug war violence could put vacationers in danger.

And Citigroup struggling amid financial trouble, and the government comes to the rescue again. It will wind up costing you, though.

And your city could be getting a huge slice of the economic stimulus pie. Do you want a say in how that money is spent? Now you have a chance. We will tell you what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: By one measure just released today, things were 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. That's adjusted for inflation. And this comes as the shadow of influence the government is casting over Citigroup is about to get even larger. It's increasing its stake in that very troubled bank.

Let's go to our CNN senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff -- Allan.


ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is 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, very important to its stability.

Now, taxpayers, who have already put $50 billion into Citigroup, won't be adding any more money in, but the company will be paying out less to taxpayers.

(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-trying 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.

That represents a loss in dividend payments of $2 billion a year to U.S. taxpayers. But it improves Citigroup's capital base against future losses.

BERT ELY, BANK ANALYST: 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 taxpayer.


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.

(on camera): Taxpayers do have potential upside here. If the company recovers, the government should profit. But, at least today, stockholders were bailing out of Citigroup, because, as a result of the deal, they will have a smaller stake in the company. The stock fell 39 percent, to only $1.50 -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Allan Chernoff, thanks very much.

The president is promising difficult days ahead, but, this time, he's not talking about the economy. The message he had for troops in his own words, that's coming up. You will hear what he had to say.

Plus, a sign of the times -- what's putting a newspaper more than a century old out of business and why others could be following.

And a scramble in the sky. What got a little too close for comfort just days before President Obama's visit to Canada?


BLITZER: Some people hope it offers vacation paradise, but for others, it's a nightmarish hell. In parts of Mexico right now, violent gunmen are trading bullets, and innocent people are being caught in crossfires in a violent drug war.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the cartel war in Mexico, a conflict raging on America's doorstep, a conflict in which Juarez police officers like this one under attack from a drug gang are fighting for their lives, while the drug cartels are battling throughout the city for control of a lucrative drug route into the United States -- 1,600 people killed in this city last year.

That's three times more than the most murderous city in America. And 50 of them were police officers -- this year, in just two months, 400 more already murdered.


BLITZER: That was CNN's Michael Ware.

Michael's joining us now. He has covered the drug war violence unfolding in parts of Mexico.

Michael, all of our viewers know you have covered the war in Iraq. But -- correct me if I'm wrong -- you believe what's happening in this part of Mexico is even more dangerous and deadly than what you have seen in Iraq?

WARE: Well, it's different kinds of danger, but it certainly shows no mercy whatsoever.

And the stakes, in some ways, perhaps are just as high. We're not talking about global jihad or al Qaeda, but we're talking about a real national security threat to the United States. And let's bear in mind, Mexico is essentially at war with itself. And I don't mean that in a literary sense. I mean in reality, I mean, in one town alone, as we saw there, 1, 600 dead in one year, 400 already this year.

And we're seeing some harbingers of Iraq: beheadings, paramilitaries essentially operating as militias, intimidating populations, governments and police forces.

And all of this is fueled by America's demand for illicit drugs, and is being fought on both sides, government and cartel, with American weapons.

So, yes, this is a dangerous place. This is a dangerous dynamic. And it's not just on America's doorstep. It's inside your front yard -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, where's the Mexican government and the Mexican police? Have they lost control?

WARE: Well, that's if they ever had it.

Now, let's look at the police, either locals there in Juarez or the national police, the federales. They're so riddled with corruption. The cartel drug money speaks volumes, much more than anything the government can offer. Indeed, in Juarez, we saw they had 1,600 police. They let 800 of them go because they failed a polygraph or wouldn't take the polygraph.

But the president of Mexico two years ago, when he came into office, declared war. And we now have 45,000 Mexican soldiers fighting the cartels -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting on this story -- thanks, Michael, very much.

A brutal, brutal situation.

A newspaper that's been in business for more than a century is now a victim of the times and the Internet age.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tomorrow is the final edition of "The Rocky Mountain News." It's a bit like being given the chance to play the music at your own funeral. And I want to play really, really good music.


BLITZER: We're talking about "The Rocky Mountain News." And other newspapers could follow. Howie Kurtz of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" is following this story for us -- Howie.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, it's hardly breaking news that the newspaper business is in deep trouble. Today brought word of the latest casualty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's certainly not good news for any of you and certainly not good news for Denver.

KURTZ: "The Rocky Mountain News," which has been around for 150 years, is publishing its last edition today. Despite four Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade, "The Rocky" couldn't survive its competition with "The Denver Post."

RICK BOEHNE, PRESIDENT, E.W. SCRIPPS: Denver can't support two newspapers any longer.

KURTZ: But, in a larger sense, the Colorado tabloid fell victim to the forces that are crippling the industry. Advertising and circulation keep dropping in the face of a nasty recession. Many people use online services, such as craigslist, rather than the old- fashioned classifieds.

And most papers give away their journalism on the Internet, where people have come to expect free news content and where meager advertising rates won't support sizable reporting staffs.

"The Rocky" is just the first domino to fall. Hearst says it may close "The San Francisco Chronicle" unless it can obtain deep spending cuts, and it will close "The Seattle Post-Intelligencer," if a buyer can't be found soon.

Bankruptcy is spreading like a virus. First, Sam Zell, the Chicago mogul who bought The Tribune Company, had the firm file for Chapter 11. And that affects not just "The Chicago Tribune," but "The Los Angeles Times," "Baltimore Sun," and a number of television stations.

Then "The Minneapolis Star-Tribune" filed for bankruptcy protection. And "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and "Daily News" wound up in bankruptcy court this week, with a judge promptly ordering owner Brian Tierney to roll back his $232,000 raise.

Can the patient be saved? Former CNN president Walter Isaacson argues in "TIME" magazine that newspaper Web sites should copy Apple's iTunes, charging small amounts for news stories, instead of songs.

(on camera): There are other proposals out there, such as turning papers into nonprofits with sizable endowments, like universities. But one thing is certain. Newspapers are locked in a struggle for survival -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Howie Kurtz, thank you.

Hurricane Katrina victims are worried, very worried, that they're being deserted by the U.S. military -- desperation and danger more than three years after the storm.

Plus, it's called the Final Exit Network. Does it help people commit suicide or simply hasten death? The investigation and now new arrests.

And President Obama, in his own words, drawing a finish line in Iraq.


OBAMA: Let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq.



BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: A lawsuit is filed over that deadly commuter plane crash near Buffalo, New York, this month. The family of one of the 50 people killed is suing Continental Airlines and the flight's operators.

Canada reveals fighter jets were scrambled to intercept an approaching Russian bomber just before President Obama's visit to Ottawa last week. Canada's defense minister says the bomber did not enter Canadian airspace. But he says it's a strong coincidence.

And three-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina, the National Guard is pulling the last of its troops out of New Orleans. The city's police force says it's up to the job of protecting the city.

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

Let's get some more now on our top story, President Obama announcing an end date for the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. Here's what he told an audience of Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the president explaining the reality of the situation, in his own words.


OBAMA: Let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq.

Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq's future remain unresolved. Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute. Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has difficulty delivering basic services.

Not all of Iraq's neighbors are contributing to its security. Some are working at times to undermine it. And even as Iraq's government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner, politically and economically, in the region or with the international community.

In short, today, there is a renewed cause for hope in Iraq, but that hope is resting on an emerging foundation.

On my first full day in office, I directed my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of our strategy in Iraq to determine the best way to strengthen that foundation, while strengthening American national security.

I have listened to my secretary of defense, Robert Gates. I have listened to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by Admiral Mullen, as well as the commanders on the ground.

We have acted with careful consideration of events on the ground, with respect for the security agreements between the United States and Iraq, and with a critical recognition that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political, not military, because the most important decisions that have to be made about Iraq's future must now be made by Iraqis.

We've also taken into account the simple reality that America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities. We face the challenge of refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan, of relieving the burden of our military and military families, of rebuilding our struggling economy. These are challenges that we must meet and will meet.

Today, I can announce that our review is complete and that the United States will pursue a new strategy to end the war in Iraq through a transition to full Iraqi responsibility.

This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people -- an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant.

To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists.

We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world, and we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region.

But understand this. We -- here's what we will not do. We will not let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals.

We cannot rid Iraq of every single individual who opposes America or sympathizes with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets indefinitely until they are completely safe, nor can we stay until Iraq's union is perfect.

We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars. America's men and women in uniform, so many of you, have fought, block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future. Now we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it.

The first part of this strategy is, therefore, the responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq.

As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of 16 months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we've made and to protect our troops.

These consultations are now complete and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months.

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


BLITZER: The President of the United States speaking in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Conservatives say they're looking to young people for new ideas.


Many people have come up to me and said so, you're a Republican. You know, you get up there and you do this Republican stuff and you talk about politics.


BLITZER: But how young are they willing to go?

Plus, : Bush talking for the first time about life after the White House -- what she and the former president are doing these days in Dallas.

Stick around.



BLITZER: President Obama is taking some heat from lawmakers in his own party over his newly announced plans to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of next August -- August 2010. They're voicing concern about plans to leave as many as 50,000 U.S. troops behind until the end of 2011. The president was asked about that in an interview with Jim Lehrer of "The News Hour" on PBS.

And here's how he responded to his Democratic critics.


OBAMA: What I would say is that they maybe weren't paying attention to what I said during the campaign. I said that we were going to take 16 months to withdraw our combat troops from Iraq. We are now taking 18 months rather than 16.


BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley; our political contributor Steve Hayes of the "Weekly Standard;" and Roland Martin, our CNN political analyst. They're all part of the best political team on television.

Does he really have a problem, Candy, with those on the left in his own party or is this sort of being blown -- over blown?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, since he's commander-in-chief, he doesn't have much of a problem, because he can do whatever he wants -- certainly when it comes to troop withdrawals. I think that their main problem -- Democrats who are complaining -- is the who's being left behind, not the numbers, but doing what. Because when you look at those three missions that he said they'll be doing, which is out in the field with Iraqi troops, counterterrorism activities and guarding U.S. personnel at the embassy there, those are not exactly peaceful places for them to be. These are still combat areas. So I think that's the biggest problem.

BLITZER: It depends on your definition of combat forces.

Steve, if you look at former President Bush's plan -- and Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent, pointed this out -- he had an idea of having all combat forces out of the cities by June of this year and, according to the Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq, all forces out by the end of 2011. President Obama now says he wants combat forces out of Iraq by the end of August 2010. And, as part of the overall agreement worked out by the Bush administration, all forces out by the end of 2011.

It looks like the differences are relatively mild.

STEPHEN HAYES, SENIOR WRITER "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Yes. I think President Obama has basically accelerated the schedule more than anything.

But what's interesting about the speech today, to me, was that this was George W. Bush's final gift to Barack Obama. You had the surge -- a tremendously successful surge that led to these elections, led to the peace on the ground -- a relative peacefulness on the ground that led to these elections. You have a relatively stable political situation in an Iraq that is more an American friend than a friend to Iran, next door.

So I think he's been gifted this situation. I think his speech today -- I had some disagreements with parts of it, I think. But it was generally a pretty good speech -- something that I think that those of us who supported the war in Iraq could -- could get behind. BLITZER: And, Roland, on the flight from Washington to Camp Lejeune on Air Force One, he phoned President Bush. I don't know what the extent of the conversation was.

But should he have said thanks to the former president?

ROLAND S. MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I don't think we're going to talk about some 4,000 soldiers being killed and we're still having to mourn those bodies and we talk about the issue of thanks and calling anything such as war a gift.

I mean the reality is this here. He is doing what presidents are supposed to do -- listen to your generals. Secondly, there is a -- and Democrats need to understand this. There's a reality to campaigning, there's a reality to governing. And so we have seen this before with other presidents. They make statements on the campaign trail, but once you're sitting behind that desk, it is a different reality.

BLITZER: Let's move on and talk about the economy right now -- Candy.

And I want you to listen to the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, speaking out about the president's economic plan.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: It was supposed to be focused on jobs, jobs, jobs and it turned into nothing more than spending, spending and more spending.


BOEHNER: But when you put this in the hands of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, it obviously it became a gravy train for left-wing pork.


BLITZER: All right. We're hearing a lot of that from conservative Republicans.

But does he have a point?

CROWLEY: Well, you know, it's a little late now, because the stimulus package has already passed. But they've sort of been back and forth with this. President Obama has said, listen, these things are helpful because they move forward -- whether it's energy, alternative energy or education -- that those -- that's where this money is going.

And he's also said, listen, we agree on 90 percent of this bill, why do we keep arguing about 10 percent?

BLITZER: The whole notion, though, of what's going on right now seems to have energized that conservative base. And we saw it unfold, Steve, here at that CPAC conference that's going on in Washington. HAYES: Yes, I think that's right. What I found most interesting about John Boehner's comments there was his allusion to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. You have Congressional leadership on the Republican side and lot of Congressional Republicans focusing their attacks on Congressional Democrats, on Washington Democrats, on Washington in general and refraining from attacking President Obama by name.

And they were able to do that on the stimulus, I think, because President Obama outsourced the writing of that to Congress, in effect. But they're not going to be able to do that as easily with the president's budget, because it's President Obama's budget. So I think you're seeing something of a split, where the conservatives want to start going after President Obama more aggressively by name, attaching the policies to him.

MARTIN: And, Wolf...

BLITZER: Do you agree, Roland?

MARTIN: Well, Wolf, this is what I call M and G -- moan and groan. I think what Boehner should be doing is actually coming up with something that people can get behind versus, oh, it's pork. It's all levels of spending.

It is still difficult -- and Republicans have to come to grips with this. It is difficult for any of these Republicans to stand in front of the American people and whine about spending after the last eight years. They have no credibility on this issue. That's their problem. And it's a yoke around their neck. And they have to deal with it.

HAYES: You can call it M and G, you can come up with whatever acronym you want to come up with...

MARTIN: It's moan and groan.

HAYES: You can come up with whatever acronym you want to come up with. The fact remains, Republicans and conservatives put out numerous alternatives to the stimulus package. They're putting out alternatives to the package. But as you say, as you're fond of saying, Roland, Barack Obama won, so he's going to rule the day. That doesn't mean the Republicans aren't putting them out.

MARTIN: Well...

HAYES: And if you haven't seen them, you need to look more carefully.

MARTIN: You see, the greater point is that they have eight years of the spending, the deficit went crazy. That is still the yoke around their neck. They can't get away from that. They're trying...

HAYES: I agree with...

MARTIN: ...but they can't.

HAYES: I agree with you on that.

BLITZER: All right...

HAYES: But you can't just ignore the policies they've put out.

MARTIN: I'm not ignoring it.

HAYES: They have.

MARTIN: It's still moaning.

BLITZER: All right...

MARTIN: It's still moaning and groaning.

BLITZER: All right. I'm not going to moan myself.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

MARTIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Have a great weekend.

Riding around the neighborhood, trips to the hardware store -- former First Lady : Bush revealing what life is like after the White House. Her first interview since leaving Washington.

Plus, is it an underground assisted suicide network?

Details about the group operating and the sting that may end it.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: The debate over assisted suicide heating up once again. Four people in two states have been arrested as part of an investigation into a group called the Final Exit Network -- an organization that police believe helped a Georgia man end his life last year.

CNN's Brooke Baldwin is covering this story for us in Atlanta.

What's going on -- Brooke?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, take a look. This is a 31-page affidavit. It's a court affidavit that police are using. They say they've found evidence within this on how this Final Exit Network might have assisted in suicide. Final Exit leaders, though, they dispute these claims.


BALDWIN (voice-over): Two people in Georgia arrested this week, suspects in an investigation into the Final Exit Network. It's an Atlanta area based organization police say may have helped as many as 200 people commit suicide, including 58-year-old John Celmer. He was suffering from cancer and died in Georgia last June.

According to a court affidavit, evidence involving Celmer's death prompted police to investigate. Wednesday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted an undercover sting -- sending in one of their agents to pose as a terminally ill man seeking assistance with his suicide. He learned that for a $50 membership fee, the group would help with helium inhalation and assisted suicide done with two helium tanks and a hood, known as an exit bag.

JOHN BANKHEAD, GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: They'd tell him what would happen. You know, described the use of the helium tank and the bag over the head. And then got on top of the agent on a bed, held his hands down and said this is what I'll be doing as you, you know, commit suicide.

BALDWIN: Seventy-six-year-old Claire Blair and 63-year-old Thomas Goodwin were arrested in Georgia. Then authorities in Baltimore, Maryland arrested two others, including Final Exit's medical director, Dr. Larry Egbert.

His wife spoke to CNN affiliate WMAR.

ELLEN BARFIELD, WIFE: It has been a very contentious issue on the front end of life -- choice. And I believe that people should have the choice to do with their bodies what they wish. And this is the back end of life. And I believe it there, too.

BALDWIN: Following those arrests, law enforcement in Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Montana began executing search warrants in order to locate and obtain additional evidence about the Final Exit Network. We spoke to the group's vice president, who was not charged on the phone. He denies his group of 70 volunteers assists in any suicides. Instead, its members "help hasten death when people approach them with a serious illness."

JERRY DINCIN, FINAL EXIT NETWORK: We're there to hold their hand. And it's quite an experience to hold the hand of someone as they move from living to dead.


BALDWIN: Assisted suicide pioneer Jack Kevorkian has come forward criticizing the Final Exit network's lack of doctors and method of death, calling it illegitimate. All four arrested have been charged -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brooke Baldwin reporting for us.

Thank you.

Let's go back to Jack.

He has The Cafferty File -- Jack. CAFFERTY: The question this hour is -- in light of the economy, what is different about how you spend your weekends?

We got a lot of good stuff.

R. writes: "Before the economy turned south, I used to go out to eat, maybe buy a DVD or two, go to movies, get together with friends, go skiing, go to Home Depot and get some things for the house. Now I just sit in the living room drinking cheap beer, worrying about getting laid off and wondering what it's going to be like if I have to go live in my car."

Bill writes: "I can't afford to fly anywhere, I can't afford to drive anywhere, I can't afford tickets to anything. I'll spend my weekends sitting on the back porch watching my dog run around in circles. It reminds me of the government."

Mike in Korea: "It's already Saturday here in Korea. I'm doing what I always do on Saturday morning, watch THE SITUATION ROOM, check my e-mail and drink a cup of tea. I've never been a big spender on weekends."

P. writes in Arizona: "I have to spend more time with my bored wife because she's not out spending money.

Who knows what the long-term effects of this might be?"

Cindy writes: "As a 21-year-old college student, I've substituted large bar tabs with staying home and studying, so maybe I can find a job when I graduate in May."

Tom in Florida: "Well, true capitalism has finally shown its real face and fleeced Americans. We stay home, ride our bikes, enjoy the weather in Florida, sit outside, read, cook out -- no more movies or eating out or going places. In a way, I enjoy this. Let the big companies feel the pinch after they pinched our wallets with all the trash that came out of China. If the American consumer watches his money, the big cats get worried."

And Anna writes: "We don't go anywhere and we don't do anything. We had to get rid of HBO, so we watch you guys instead. Now, that's a good time had by all."

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

You might check out the rest of the entries what do you do with your weekends thing. Some funny stuff.

BLITZER: A good question, Jack.

Have a great weekend.

CAFFERTY: You, too.

BLITZER: Thank you. Want a say in where all that stimulus money may be going?

With so much cash on the table, 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, to tell us how this works -- Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, some of these requests are a little bit far-fetched. There are some jokers out there. Like the man in Ohio, who would like $100 million to build a golden statue of the president, thus creating 2,000 jobs in the process, he says.

Then there are desperate pleas, like the 71-year-old in Virginia who just can't keep up with his property tax payments. And then there is everything and anything in between.

Look at some of these. In Illinois, $200,000 for a candy packaging project.

In Virginia, an earth worm farm. That one's only $50,000.

All of these actual requests for proposals for money for spending for the stimulus bill in specific states made through the state Web sites that have been especially set up to gather all these ideas for how the money should be spent in local communities. And some of these Web sites have got thousands and thousands of requests.

On Ohio's Web site alone, we counted more than 11,000 of them -- many for road renovations, school repairs, that kind of thing. All the projects flooding in and now the state agencies have to go through all of them and identify which of these might be eligible for some of this money. And with so many proposals coming in, Wolf, you can imagine that most of them won't get a dime.

BLITZER: Yes. But some of them might and that's good.

TATTON: Some of them might.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

Relaxed, leisurely -- descriptions of life after the White House. The former first lady, : Bush, says Texas is treating them well.

Plus, getting a feel for Marine One. We're going to explain this and more in our Hot Shots.

That's coming up next.


BLITZER: The former first lady, : Bush, opening up on life since leaving the White House and some newfound freedom.

Let's go back to Zain Verjee. She's looking at this story -- Zain.

VERJEE: Hi, Wolf.

Well, : Bush is telling ABC News that adjusting to being private citizens is slow.



VERJEE (voice-over): Out of Washington, but still hitting home with her causes -- improving Afghan women's lives.

LAURA BUSH, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm worried that Americans will wash their hands of Afghanistan. And I think it would be a terrible mistake.

VERJEE: In the White House, : Bush was passionate about Afghanistan -- even traveling to the war torn country. For now, she tells ABC News that the best part about going back to Texas is her personal freedom.

BUSH: George walked up and down the street of our street in our new neighborhood and met the neighbors the other day. In fact, I came driving back in the car and saw him out on his bicycle riding up and down the street to meet the neighbors.

VERJEE: And he is running errands.

BUSH: And George has actually made a trip to the hardware store to pick up night lights so we can find our way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

VERJEE: They don't have much furniture, she says, but are back online.

BUSH: He's on everything. He has BlackBerry. He's reading from a Kindle the new book he had that Vice President Cheney gave him for Christmas.

OBAMA: I have some good news to report.

VERJEE: She says they keep up with what's going on in Washington, but adds, she forgot to watch President Obama's big speech to Congress.

BUSH: I would be a nervous wreck before the State of the Union and be, you know, for days before, as George would be preparing his speech, worried about it and thinking about what was going to be in his speech. And this time, it came and went and I didn't even think about it.


VERJEE: Mrs. Bush also mentioned a journal that Michelle Obama gave her as a gift. On top of the journal, she says, she says was a quote by a famous American author, Wolf, written in calligraphy that reads: "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished, yet that will be the beginning."

She says she believes it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good.

Thanks very much.

Zain Verjee reporting.

Here's a look at some of the hour's Hot Shots.

The European Dog Sled championship underway in Switzerland.

In Iraq, a U.S. soldier shakes the hand of an Iraqi child.

In Russia, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin sit down for a meeting.

And in Washington, watching President Obama depart on Marine One.

Some of this hour's Hot Shots -- pictures often worth a thousand words.

Remember, we're here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow, Saturday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern. Among other things, we're going to take you inside the new White House. You're going to hear from Michelle Obama and we have some exclusive pictures coming up, as well.

All that coming up tomorrow, in THE SITUATION ROOM, 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

I'm Wolf Blitzer here in Washington.


Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou -- kitty.