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The Situation Room

Attack Will "Amaze" the World/Warning from Israel's New Leader/U.S. Wants Seat on Human Rights Council/Hoping to Prevent "Havoc"/Jobless Surge Hits New High/Poll: Americans Optimistic on Economy

Aired March 31, 2009 - 17:00   ET


BLITZER: And there's very tight security in London right now, where President Obama has arrived for the economic summit. Thousands of protesters are already in place.

How far will they go?

And he's been indicted for war crimes tied to the slaughter in Darfur.

So why did Sudan's president get hugs and kisses from some of America's friends at an Arab summit?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


A bold and shocking new threat against the United States from a group tied to the latest bloody assault in Pakistan. This man -- the commander of the Pakistani Taliban -- says his organization is now planning a terror attack on Washington, D.C. That, in his words, "will amaze the world."

Who is he and can he make good on that chilling vow?

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

When I read about it this morning, it was pretty frightening.

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. His name is Baitullah Mahsud. He is a dangerous man. There's no doubt about that. He has American blood on his hands for attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.

But can he really hit the homeland?

On that, opinions split.


MESERVE (voice-over): A Pakistani tribal leader is claiming responsibility for the shootout at a police academy in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday and is threatening further violence in the U.S. In an interview with the Associated Press, Baitullah Mahsud says: "Soon, we will launch an attack in Washington and the White House that will amaze everyone in the world."

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: He has access to Al Qaeda and its re -- its strategic resources, including those that could be deployed against the United States. And so when Mahsud talks about a threat to Washington, D.C. I can't imagine that anybody wouldn't take that seriously.

MESERVE: But current U.S. counterterrorism officials say it is unlikely he could carrying out an attack in the U.S. One describes Mahsud chiefly "as a regional player, a dangerous one, who moves in the same circles as Al Qaeda, but he is not part of Al Qaeda."

The U.S. has put a $5 million price tag on Mahsud's head, saying he poses a clear threat to American persons and interests in the region. He is also viewed as a serious threat to Pakistan. The assassination of former Pakistani president, Benazir Bhutto, was pinned on Mahsud by former CIA director, Michael Hayden.

Though officials are skeptical that anyone serious about staging a terrorist attack in the U.S. would advertise it so specifically and publicly, some experts are not.

STEVE COLONEL, PRESIDENT, NEW AMERICAN FOUNDATION: If he sees the United States as his enemy, American drones are trying to kill him, frankly.


MESERVE: The FBI says it is not aware of any imminent or specific threats to the U.S. The agency points out that Mahsud has boasted before that he would hit the homeland, but no attacks have materialized.

BLITZER: How close are Mahsud's ties to Al Qaeda?

MESERVE: Well, we don't know everything about their relationship. But he apparently has given them shelter -- a place to train, a place to equip. And so there's some feeling among some experts that Al Qaeda owes him. And if he asks for their help in a strike against the U.S. they might be willing to do that.

BLITZER: Because a lot of us remember, there were boasts from other Al Qaeda leaders before 9/11 -- before earlier attacks on the U.S. homeland. So it wouldn't be out of the question to make a vow -- to make a promise and then to try to deliver it.

MESERVE: That is absolutely right.

BLITZER: All right. Jeanne, thanks very much.

Seven weeks after Israelis voted, they finally have a new government in place and it's led by a familiar face -- the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He's U.S. educated. He's described as a hard-liner. He heads an unwieldy coalition that leans toward to the right.

Taking office, he immediately spoke of a threat from "extremist Islam," in his words. And he issued veiled warnings about a nuclear armed Iran.

CNN's Paula Hancocks has more from Jerusalem.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A second chance for Benjamin Netanyahu -- taking Israel's top job 10 years after he was voted out -- naming the two main challengers for his government, the economy and security, saying Palestinians would find him a partner for peace, but crucially not mentioning the words "two state solution."

He says he wants a final settlement in which the Palestinians will have all rights to govern themselves, except those that threaten Israel's ability to protect itself.

This could put him on a collision course with U.S. president, Barack Obama, and much of the international community, who explicitly endorse an independent Palestinian state.

Saeb Erakat, adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, tells CNN: "The only way the Palestinians can rule themselves by themselves is by ending the Israeli occupation."

Radical Islam and a nuclear Iran also singled out as threats to Israel. The new prime minister saying, the world must take decisive action and not give in to megalomaniacs.

This is to be Israel's largest cabinet ever, with 30 ministers. Mr. Netanyahu says the cabinet is big because it's one of unity. But his critics say he simply promised too much to too many and he's ended up with a fractious mix with little mandate for change. Either way, if the amount of heckling during his speech this evening was anything to go by, he has his work cut out for him.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, Jerusalem.


BLITZER: The State Department has just announced another major reversal in this new Obama administration from the Bush administration. The State Department saying the United States will now seek election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, citing its opposition -- its criticism of Israel and its failure to criticize flagrant rights abuses, including in Sudan.

But now the Obama administration -- the State Department saying it will go forward and participate in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

He has The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, when the then candidate, Barack Obama, went to Europe last summer, remember he was greeted like a rock star. Two hundred thousand people turned out in Berlin to listen to him give a speech.

There is little reason to think it's going to be much different this time around. The president's has a crowded agenda as he heads for an eight day, five country trip that includes critical economic and political talks. He'll attend that G20 meeting of the world's major economic powers in London. He'll go to a NATO summit marking 60 years since the alliance was formed and international summits on hot topics like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He'll also make his first trip to a Muslim nation -- Turkey.

Since becoming president, Mr. Obama has begun to follow through on a lot of those campaign promises concerning issues that are near and dear to the hearts of many Europeans -- things like global warming, ending the Iraq War and closing Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Polls show that Americans are very confident in their new leader as he heads overseas. A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey shows 86 percent of Americans think our president will do a good job representing the U.S. on this trip. Seventy-two percent say leaders of other countries respect Mr. Obama.

Compare that to just 49 percent who felt that way about George Bush right after 9/11. Other countries respected Mr. Bush, but only 49 percent -- and his numbers never got any higher than that.

Meanwhile, a new "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows the number of Americans who think the country is headed in the right direction has just about tripled since Mr. Obama's election. It's at the highest point it's been in five years. About 42 percent of us think things are going in the right direction. That's a huge increase over where it was as recently as last fall.

So here's the question -- as President Obama heads to Europe for the G20 Summit, how is America's position in the world changed?

You can go to and you can post a comment on my blog.

Did you want to replay that "Daily Show" interview I did last night?

BLITZER: No. But I'm sure that's on their Web site. People can watch it. It's all about your new book, which is excellent, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good work.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty.

It's a monumental task -- how to keep the leaders of the world's 20 wealthiest nations safe as they meet in London. We have new details of the extraordinary steps being taken right now.

Also, the American-born queen, Queen Noor of Jordan, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're talking to her about her very ambitious goal to try to reduce nuclear weapons.

And millions of pistachio nuts recalled -- possibly tainted with salmonella. We'll have some new information that's just coming in -- information you need to know.


BLITZER: President Obama today began his first overseas trip. He's already arrived in London, just a little while ago, for the G20 Summit of leaders from the world's largest economies. He'll talk global recession with his counterparts until Friday. That's when he flies to Strasbourg, France for a NATO summit. Saturday, the president goes to the Czech Republic for a European Union conference in Prague. On Sunday, he'll give a speech there on weapons proliferation. The president then heads to Ankara, Turkey, where on Monday, he'll speak to the parliament.

He flies home, by the way, next Tuesday.

In London, thousands of protesters have already -- already gathered ahead of the summit.

Let's bring in our international security correspondent, Paula Newton.

She's over at Number 10 Downing Street -- there's going to be intense security, Paula. We all know that.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: For sure. But here at 10 Downing Street, you know, it's very predictable. Where the G20 conference is going to be, miles from here in East London, again, very predictable.

Wolf, the problem right now for security services here is what is not on the schedule.


NEWTON (voice-over): The location is far from glamorous and it's miles from Big Ben -- London's old dock yards and the Xcel Center will host the world's G20 leaders. But as far as Britain's security services are concerned, it's perfect. A marine unit will troll the waters on one end. Concrete and barriers will cocoon the leaders on the other. So far, so predictable.

JACQUI SMITH, BRITISH HOME SECRETARY: We have some of the best in the world at dealing both with public order and with any other risks that emerge. NEWTON: There is no specific security threat to the G20, according to British authorities. But it's what could go on in the city's financial center and through landmark streets in London that is preoccupying police and the government here.


NEWTON: Saturday's G20 meltdown protest was just a warm-up for what security services worry will be some spectacular stunts still to come.

(on camera): And one of those stunts may have already kicked off. Police here near the Bank of England have performed a controlled detonation of a suspicious device. It turned out to be nothing. But police are taking no chances. They've even advised people here in the city -- bankers -- not to dress as bankers over the next coming days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So if you come in wearing a pinstriped suit and a smart shirt, you're going to look like an obvious target. So, obviously, the message is dress down. Try and not to stand out from the crowd.

NEWTON (voice-over): And then there are the truly random acts of protest -- shoe throwing, green slime chucking, banners flapping. All of it police are trying to get under control, placing moles inside protest groups they believe could upstage the G20.

SIMON O'BRIEN, METROPOLITAN POLICE: There's a lot of aspiration in the conversations that we're monitoring. They're quite open, some people, about their aspirations to cause disruption and havoc.

NEWTON: And so the show will go on, with the country still under a severe threat alert and authorities on standby for protest stunts that aren't typical security threats, but a real menace for politicians hoping for a flawless summit.


NEWTON: Now, Wolf, very fair to say that some of those stunts won't go anywhere near the president. What protesters are hoping is that he'll hear about them and learn some kind of lesson from them. We're not exactly sure what they intend. Let's keep watching to see what they come up with -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They keep the president of the United States very well protected.

All right, Paula.

Thanks very much.

When President Obama meets with his summit counterparts, they may not necessarily all be on the same page. Take the issue of unemployment. A number of U.S. states right now in double digits.

But is Western Europe feeling that kind of pain? We asked our own Tom Foreman to take a closer look and help us with this magic wall of ours.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is the world according to economics. And the truth is, not everybody is on the same page. But we're all wrestling with the same global economic problems.

Look at the United States right now. These are the states that we've been talking about so much. Over here, Oregon, Nevada, California -- all over 10 percent. Over this way we have South Carolina, North Carolina. Up here, we have little Rhode Island at 10.5 percent. And the big one here, of course, Michigan at 12 percent.

But when you go beyond this part of the world and you start saying let's look at what's happening over here in Europe, I did a little bit of quick math before I came up here. I took all the G20 countries, averaged their unemployment rates. Their average unemployment is pushing 7 percent. So there's a lot of hurting out there, but some of them are hurting much worse than others.

BLITZER: Well, give me some specifics of what's going on in Europe right now.

FOREMAN: Sure. Well, let's look at this. Let's start with a broad picture of the world. Australia at 4.5 percent. That's not terribly bad (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Australia is a member of the G20.

FOREMAN: Absolutely.


FOREMAN: So some of these are and some of these aren't. China comes in at 4 percent. That's kind of a screwy number a little bit, because China plays a little bit with whether or not they're measuring their urban population or the overall population.

Russia up here, 6.2 percent.

Over here is Iran at 12.5 percent.

Where did we see that number a moment ago?

Well, this is pretty close to the unemployment up in Michigan right now. So that's what they are feeling in Iran.

Then when you move in here, to the European Union, we have about 7.4 percent. As I said, that's fairly close to the average for all the G20 nations. But then you have pockets of real problems, like South Africa down here. Look at this. Their unemployment right now pushing 22 percent. This is where the tension comes in, Wolf.

The simple truth is, as all these nations look at what's going on in the world, some of them are doing very badly. Some of them are doing OK. And yet all of them depend on each other. That's why there are stimulus packages all over the world right now. And we and every other nation is watching what every other nation is doing economically to see if we can all get out of this mess -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Remember those socialist countries in Europe, it's much harder to fire people than it certainly is over here, as well. And that could be a factor in why their unemployment is relatively smaller than it is here.

All right. Tom, thank you.

Celebrity chefs -- a reception with the queen. It's not all work over at the G20.

Let's bring in our own Abbi Tatton -- Abbi, what else is on the agenda?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, organizers have been at pains to say this will not be a lavish meeting. It's got a price tag of about 20 million pounds, $35 million. That's a fraction of some of the previous summits.

The world leaders will be making their own accommodation arrangements. For President Obama, like presidents before him, that means saying at Winfield House. That's the U.S. ambassador's residence in London. It's quite a lovely property in the middle of Regents Park, about 12 acres. The gardens are second only in size to Buckingham Palace in London.

Speaking of which, the world leaders will be heading there tomorrow for a reception with the queen and Prince Philip. Some of the lucky ones, President Obama amongst them, will be having a one-on-one audience with Elizabeth -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you grew up in England, so you know the British press. They're pretty excited about what's scheduled tomorrow night at Number 10 Downing Street.

TATTON: At Downing Street. And this is something to avoid the embarrassment of past summits, where you see world leaders dining on caviar while talking about the world food crisis. They're avoiding that at Downing Street. They've brought in celebrity chef in England, Jamie Oliver, AKA "The Naked Chef," if you know him. He became famous in England talking about how to create cheap school lunches. So they're really trying to avoid that embarrassment.

No menu released yet. But the Downing Street Web site does say that they're promising budget British cooking.

No jokes about British food -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I love British food and I'm sure you do, as well.

TATTON: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Your parents probably have delicious food back in Oxford, England. TATTON: Yes, they do.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Abbi Tatton.

The Congressional Black Caucus right now walking a fine line when it comes to criticizing the country's first African-American president and getting more help for African-American businesses. Paul Begala neighbor Ron Christie -- they're here to discuss that and more.

Plus, decades after the genocide made famous in "The Killing Fields," the regime's chief torturer now faces justice and stuns his tribunal with what he says.


BLITZER: Betty Nguyen is monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's going on -- Betty.

NGUYEN: Well, Wolf, CNN has just confirmed that a Connecticut judge has frozen the assets of some of relatives of Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff. Now this order prohibits his sons, wife and brother from selling their homes or transferring funds. Mark and Andrew Madoff both worked for their father, who is awaiting sentencing for running possibly the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

And another newspaper publisher is seeking bankruptcy protection -- the Sun-Times Media Group and its flagship the "Chicago Sun-Times." The company is suffering the same decline in advertising that has shut down several major newspapers in recent weeks. Now, Chicago's other major daily, the "Tribune," is also operating under bankruptcy protection.

Crisis averted -- for now, that is. But Fargo, North Dakota isn't out of danger just yet. The Red River is about two feet below the flood crest, which had the town bracing for a disaster. But there is new snow falling. And with warmer weather on the way, well, officials, they are warning of another dangerous crest in mid-April.

We also want to tell you about this stunning testimony in Cambodia's first major effort to come to terms with the mass killings of the Khmer Rouge. The regime's chief torturer -- well, he apologized at his tribunal hearing and pleaded for the country's forgiveness. The 66-year-old is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the death of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're going to have more on this story, as well -- related stories, including what's going on in Darfur right now.

Thanks very much for that.

Betty Nguyen reporting.

A disturbing deja vu for shoppers -- there's another big recall -- of pistachio nuts, this time. But this one is voluntary. And we're going to tell you what's going on. We have information you need to know.

And he's been charges with war crimes linked to the slaughter in Darfur -- so why did Sudan's president get some hugs and kisses from some of America's friends?

Plus, they don't want to criticize the first African-American president, but they do have some serious questions about his economic plans -- what the Congressional Black Caucus wants from President Obama right now.


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

Happening now, the United States and Iran finding some common ground in Afghanistan. The secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, explains potential new cooperation with a long time adversary.

Also, for decades it was a favorite vacation destination for Americans -- could Cuba once again be an option for U.S. tourists? Details of a brand new effort to try to end the official travel ban.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Americans are optimistic about the economy. They're not blaming President Barack Obama.

Let's go to our senior political analyst.

He's been looking at the numbers for us -- does the public, Bill, see some hopes for the country right now?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, it's spring. There are signs of new life. Now they are weak and delicate, but they're noticeable. You can see them in the new "Washington Post"/ABC News poll.

Take the number of Americans who say things in the country are moving in the right direction, now 42 percent -- the highest it's been in five years -- triple the number who felt that way in December.

Nevertheless, 57 percent believe the country is seriously off on the wrong track. The public's outlook has improved, but I wouldn't yet call it rosy.

BLITZER: So are the gains related to the economy?

SCHNEIDER: Yes, they are. The number of people who believe the nation's economy is getting better jumped from just 6 percent in January to 27 percent now. They are still outnumbered by 36 percent, who believe the economy is getting worse. But that number, who think things are getting worse, had been -- had been a majority for the past year.

Now, what's driving the gains?

Probably politics as much as anything. "The Post" reports that the sharp rise in economic optimism has occurred among Democrats and Independents. Republicans don't see any reason for hope.

BLITZER: Are there any other polls that show some similar signs of an up tick?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there are. The Gallup Consumer Mood Index has improved over the past month. Still negative, but not as bad as it was a month ago. In fact, Gallup reports their Consumer Mood Index is back up to where it was in September, before the financial crisis hit.

And, you know, consumer spending is up a little bit, too. Last week, people said they spent $9 a day more than in the preceding week. Wallets are beginning to open, along with the cherry blossoms here in Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I love those cherry blossoms here in Washington. If you haven't been to Washington lately, come on down and check them out.

Our thanks, Bill.

Let's bring in our Democratic strategist, the CNN political contributor, Paul Begala. And Ron Christie, former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

They're not blaming the president of the United States for the miserable economy -- at least not yet.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. Seventy-one days on the job. I think no reasonable person would. The graphic that Bill showed that was most impressive to me was the right direction, wrong track. Back when I was running campaigns, that's a better predictor of voter behavior.

BLITZER: Let's be precise. We asked people out there, is the country moving in the right direction or is the country moving in the wrong direction?

BEGALA: Correct.

And the day Barack Obama was elected, only 8 percent according to Bill's chart. 8 percent. Today, 42 percent. Even though I think by any reasonable measure the economy is probably even worse today than it was the day he was elected. That's -- right there that graphic, that's the face of hope. That's the Obama effect. Now can he sustain that? Who knows? I think he can. I'm a democrat. But this is an important turnaround because a leader must be a dealer in hope. That's what Confucius said. That's what Roosevelt knew, Clinton knew. Every successful president knows it. Barack Obama is inspiring hope.

BLITZER: As you know Ron, a lot of the best political strategists out there, this right track, wrong track. They think that's so much more important than the other indicators, including favorability numbers.

RON CHRISTIE, MEMBER OF COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think that's right. I think one of the things now we'll see with whether or not the public will look and say this is the Obama economy. There are two key steps here. One, a stimulus bill. People are going to look and say is this make a key difference to turn the economy around? And second, I think there are a lot of people very worried about what happened yesterday with GM, removing the CEO from the president of the United States. Was that constitutional? If the auto industry doesn't turn around and if the stimulus package does not create new jobs, people will say this is the Obama economy and this is his fault.

BLITZER: Because the expectations are enormous for President Obama right now. Six months from now or a year from now, year and a half from now, the country is still in a miserable economic condition, people are going to say he didn't deliver.

BEGALA: Yes, and I think he's done a good job of trying to manage those expectations, though. And I see a lot of data, and I think our poll indicates this. People right now say they are going to give him lots of time, a year or two years. Now whether in fact, they do give him that time, who knows? Maybe they'll flip-flop and decide six months is enough. They've invested in this guy literally and figuratively.

BLITZER: How much time does he have?

CHRISTIE: I think about six months from now. He's campaigned. If we don't put a stimulus package in place, the economy is going to implode. Given what we've seen and looking at the auto industry in general, he does not have that much time.

BLITZER: He may have a little bit longer.

BEGALA: How long did it take Reagan? To get the stock market to return to where it was? 22 months. Two years.

BLITZER: Let me just point out his own economic advisers, including his treasury secretary have said by the end of this year, early next year, the country will turn around. And so they themselves are saying maybe nine months from now as opposed to what Ron is saying, six months.

BEGALA: What voters now are saying is a year to two years. I think that's much more reasonable. This thing -- I mean, don't lose sight of the mess he inherited. This wasn't even just a little recession like Reagan had. This is a catastrophe he inherited which your boss handed to him.

CHRISTIE: If you want to look at what this new administration has done and you want to look at the fact they'll add a trillion to the deficit each year.

BEGALA: The democrats --

BLITZER: Before we review all of that, let me point out the Congressional Black Caucus, they are getting a little concerned right now. There's the first African-American president of the United States. But some of them are not exactly happy with all of his economic policies Representative Maxine Waters, democrat of California. "We are not going to sit back and allow billions of dollars to be dumped into this economy and watch the same old players be advantaged by it." There is some concern, and they are tempering their public statements by the money is not necessarily going to the people they would like to see the money going to.

BEGALA: Well, and this is, I think, one of the interesting tensions within the Democratic Party. One of Clinton's laws of politics is that republicans want to fall in line but democrats have to fall in love. It's the Congressional Black Caucus. It's not the Obama amen chorus. So there are going to be a little friction. In NASCAR they say rubbing is racing. And here in fact, I think they are trying to point out that the folks who are suffering the most in this Bush recession -- depression, sorry, are perhaps being left out of part of the recovery effort. I think that's legitimate pressure to put back on the administration.

CHRISTIE: I think this is absurd. What this whole issue is focused on is whether there is relevance for the Congressional Black Caucus. They fact they don't want to criticize the president of the United States because he's black. They should applaud or criticize him because of his policies.

BEGALA: Isn't that what they are doing?

CHRISTIE: No, they are tempering it because they don't want to criticize a black president.

BEGALA: Clinton was the first black president but genetically happened to be white.

CHRISTIE: I think this country needs to move away from racial identification just because he's African-American. We're going to support him or be against him. The Congressional Black Caucus needs to coalesce around issues important to them and support them not because it's a black issue because it's good for the country. I'm tired of this racial polarization.

BLITZER: We'll leave it on that note. Thanks guys very much for coming in.

He's accused of crimes against humanity but warmly welcomed by leaders in Arab capitals. Why are they choosing to ignore alleged atrocities by Sudan's president? We're going to be talking about that and much more with Jordan's American-born Queen Noor standing by live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: He's been indict forward war crimes tied to the slaughter in Darfur. But Sudan's president received hugs and kisses from some of America's friends at an Arab summit. Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd. He's been looking into this story for us. What's going on, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This man is public enemy number one to human rights groups. He's offering Arab leaders a venue to stand up for what they see as a double standard from the west.


TODD: A key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The leader of Qatar an oil rich emirate that houses a crucial American base, walks the red carpet to the staircase of an arriving plane and warmly embraces an accused war criminal. Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, the first sitting head of state with an arrest warrant issued for him by the international criminal court. He's accused of involvement in the murder, rape, torture and displacement of civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan, where hundreds of thousands have been killed over six-plus years. His reception at the Arab League Summit from Qatar's Amir, Saudi Arabia's king and other leaders has human rights officials fuming.

JOHN PRENDERGAST, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: It's a stain on international on the pursuit of international justice and it sets back efforts to create some measure of accountability for the commission of massive war crimes and crimes against humanity.

TODD: Al Bashir denies the war crimes charges and Sudan doesn't recognize the international court. One Sudanese official called it the white man's tribunal. Arab leaders stand with al Bashir say this about the allegations.

PRES. BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA (through translator): We will discuss those with them after they bring to justice those who have committed massacres and atrocities in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon.

PRES. OMAR AL-BASHIR, SUDAN (through translator): Your strong stance with Sudan and your refusal of the unjust resolution that is targeting its unity in support of the humanitarian situation of Darfur are very much appreciated.

TODD: One analyst says it's unlikely al Bashir will ever stand trial for war crimes, but --

JONATHAN ALTERMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTL. STUDIES: It can be another vehicle for international pressure to try to change the behavior of the government of the Sudan, vis-a-vis what's happening.


BLITZER: Has the Sudanese president traveled anywhere else since the arrest warrant was issued by the international court earlier in the month?

TODD: He does seem to be thumbing his nose at that warrant, Wolf. President al Bashir has gone to neighboring Eritrea and now Qatar. But none of those countries recognize the court and neither, by the way, does the United States. BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

Let's talk about this and a lot more with Queen Noor of Jordan. Want to get to the project that you are under way, nuclear nonproliferation. Explain because you lived in Jordan, obviously, for a long time. How a man like Bashir, who is indicted by the international criminal court for atrocities in Darfur can be received so warmly and protected at these Arab summits.

QUEEN NOOR, WIDOW OF JORDAN'S KING HUSSEIN: Darfur is an obscenity. And it's the sources of that conflict are very complex but what is happening to people on the ground has been happening to people on the ground is absolutely unacceptable by any norms. What happened, I believe, at this summit is a reflection of Arab concerns about double standards, as was somewhat articulated in the piece there. And were there not so many cases where western pressure has been brought to bear on Arabs, but Israel, for example, disproportionate killing of civilians in Gaza during the recent and also in Lebanon in 2006 during the crisis there. If those cases had not taken place with relatively little western outcry, you'll find a different attitude with what's taken place in Sudan. So it is perverse what's taken place and it's a result of a perception of double standards. In fact in reality double standards in terms of who is held accountable for civilian deaths.

BLITZER: You understand the outrage, hundreds of thousands of people have been left to be massacred in Darfur and he gets hugs and kisses.

NOOR: I call it an obscenity. On the other hand, and I didn't want to get into this secretary today. On the other hand, Arabs see the United States, which is not a signatory to the international criminal court, which just held Bashir responsible. See the united states turning a blind eye to what are grotesque violations of international law taking place in the west bank in the occupied territories of the west bank and the Gaza strip, the longest military occupation in recent history.

BLITZER: We're not going to elaborate on that. I think I understand how you feel.

Let's talk about your current project because you would like to see the nuclear competition between the United States and Russia eliminated. And all those nuclear weapons gone. And you've been involved in a new project.

NOOR: Well, global -- we see at global zero and we're 100 people who represent former heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers, military commanders from the major nuclear nations and others. We see the world has two directions to move in right now, either a continued spread of nuclear weapons, nine countries now have up to 23,000 nuclear weapons, and there's another 40 countries that have enough material to make another 100,000 nuclear weapons. We either continue in that direction where we risk a country or a terrorist group or we move towards global zero, which we believe is possible, a finding verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.

BLITZER: Between the United States and Russia, which are the two -- specifically, it's a great goal, but how do you get there?

NOOR: Well, we're hoping for, and a lot of work has gone into this, that in this meeting between the Russian president and President Obama --

BLITZER: When they meet tomorrow, President Obama and Medvedev.

NOOR: I have a hard time with that name, too.

That nuclear weapons will be on the agenda. That deep cuts can be agreed upon by both of these leaders. It's an opportunity to send a signal towards other nuclear nations and to reaffirm their commitment because they both have spelled it out. They've both articulated a commitment to a world free of nuclear --

BLITZER: So tell us who is on the study, this panel that you have been -- the group of 100, as you say.

NOOR: We have former military commanders of the nuclear -- major nuclear states. We have former architects of the nuclear programs in various of the nuclear states. We have the United States, we have Russia, Pakistan, India, France, Great Britain, and a multitude of scientists and --

Because there's been concern --

BLITZER: Former heads of state as well.

There's been concern and maybe they'll have a new lease with Russia, Putin, Medvedev, that they are becoming more resurgent, looking back nostalgically on the battle days of the Soviet Union and the cold war.

NOOR: Putin and Medvedev have said that they are committed to working for a world free of nuclear weapons. Both of them have made that commitment. As has President Obama.

BLITZER: This is your new passion.

NOOR: Over 100 people who are -- and your listeners can go to and sign a declaration that has been signed by well over 100, as I said, former heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers, military -- top military commanders from the U.S., Russia and the other nuclear nations and others around the world.

BLITZER: We'll have extensive coverage tomorrow. We'll see what happens between these two leaders. Queen Noor of Jordan, thanks for coming in as usual.

Another salmonella this time has to do with pistachio nuts. What shoppers need to know.

And a new move to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. Why some lawmakers are pushing to lift the travel ban that's been in place for half a century.

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


BLITZER: We all remember peanuts but now pistachios, tainted with salmonella. What's going on? A massive recall is what's going on. Dan Simon is in California, working the story for us.

Enormous problems here, Dan.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're talking about a serious problem here, Wolf, and because pistachios are used in a variety of foods, it's possible a lot of impacts here. Several have been reported but no firm link to a salmonella contamination. Take a look.


SIMON: At grocery stores around the country, like this one in Illinois, workers are hauling off the pistachios.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In a situation like this, we want to be pro- active.

SIMON: Pro-active after the nation's second largest pistachio processor, California based Setton Farms voluntarily recalled more than a million pounds of its roasted nuts.

AL CONTRRAS, GROCERY STORE MANAGER: As soon as we feel it's safe and we're notified by the health department to do so, we'll put them back on the shelves.

SIMON: The problem, salmonella, the food sometimes fatal bacteria found during routine testing last week by Kraft Foods recalling its back to nature trail mix which includes pistachios. The roasting process is supposed to kill it but the problem is if it's not done correctly or if they're re-contaminated preponderance by mice or rats. For shoppers, it feels like deja vu considering the problem with peanuts. The two are not related.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It seems more problems lately. Be more selective what you purchase.

SIMON: The FDA is telling consumers to stay tuned. It says don't eat pistachios but don't throw them out just yet. You may not have to. The products could still be okay.


SIMON: Here's the deal, Wolf. If you want to know which products are affect heard, the best thing to do, do toe FDA website, and they will constantly updating the site. As we know with other food recalls, it can sometimes take time to sort things out. In this particular case, we don't know how much time we're talking about, bottom line, the FDA is saying we should all avoid products that contain pistachios.

BLITZER: Thanks very much Dan Simon. Now to Jack. He has the Cafferty File.


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's depressing. I like pistachios.

BLITZER: I love peanuts and pistachios.

CAFFERTY: I do, too. Sit in front of the TV with a bag of pistachios, it's all good.

The question, as President Obama heads to Europe to the G-20 summit, how has America's position in the world changed?

Mariah writes, "Based on history's view, America has only realized its creed of freedom and justice for all a select few times. The emancipation proclamation and civil rights movement are a couple of examples. As the leader in democracy and liberty, America finally has a leader who can back up its promise."

Julia writes from New Jersey, "I don't think we're out of the woods yet. It's going to take a lot of time and effort to bring us back to where we once were but I think President Obama will get us there or close by the end of his term. P.S. tell Wolf I think he's beard looks just fine."

Marie in Salt Lake City, "Finally we have a president we can be proud of, one who is articulate, follows the rule of law both at home and internationally and can speak English."

Ed in Athens, Georgia, "The moment that President Obama was sworn in, America's image in the world changed for the better. My wife and I were Americans in Paris in 2007, but Parisians treated us well. Must have had something to do with the "impeach Bush" button I was wearing."

Don in Florida writes, "We are a more bankrupt morally defunct nation. America's position in the world is declining as is the superpower status. Obama is trying to gain allies for America's fall. Hopefully he can gain enough support so the buzzards circling over this nation's head don't devour us in our weakened state."

Mike in California writes, "I think the world might now see there is intelligent life in the U.S."

And John in Texas says, "Dear Jack, too early to say anything yet but just in case, let's keep everybody barefoot over there at the G-20 meeting. We don't need any flying shoes at this point."

If you didn't see your email here, go to my blog and look for yours there. There are hundreds of them posted.


BLITZER: At any one point, there always are. Thank you very much.

Returning home to a flood zone, evacuees are overcome with emotion as they find everything they own under water.

Plus, destination, Cuba. Americans may soon once again be able to visit the island that's been off limits for decades.


BLITZER: Tomorrow President Obama meets with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. What do you want President Obama to tell the Russians? Submit your video comments to Watch to see if your video gets on the air.

First taking power half century ago, some lawmakers in Washington are now trying to lift the ban to Cuba. CNN's Jim Acosta tells us what may lie ahead.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For years members of congress have tried to change U.S. policy towards Cuba but to no avail. With President Obama in the white house, a key group of senators is giving it one more shot.


ACOSTA: The owner of this Miami travel agency that specializes in trips to Cuba is in a good mood these days, ever since Washington loosened the travel restrictions on Cubans visiting the island, non- Cuban Americans have been calling in, wondering when they can join the party.

TESSIE ARAL, ABC: I think most Americans will want to try to travel to Cuba because it's been the forbidden fruit so long.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D), NORTH DAKOTA: We allow Americans to travel to China, Vietnam, both communist countries.

ACOSTA: North Dakota democratic Byron Dorgan wants to do the same for Cuba with a bill in Congress that would end-all travel restrictions, yes, all of them for Americans visiting the communist nation, arguing the cold war era policy aimed at the Castro government has failed.

DORGAN: It seems to me if something has failed for five decade witness you might want to look at it again and see whether you should modify it.

ACOSTA: Dan Erikson, the author of the book "Cuba Wars" says there's one problem with the ban, the embargo that stops Americans from doing business in Cuba.

DAN ERIKSON, AUTHOR, "THE CUBA WARS": Americans tourists traveling to Cuba, drive around on Chinese buses, stay in Spanish hotels, eat Canadian food.

ACOSTA: They wouldn't be able to stay at Marriott, Hilton.

ERIKSON: No. There's no Hilton, there's no miles, the only drive through McDonald's has seen in Cuba was at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.

ACOSTA: President Obama hinted at changes at U.S. policy on Cuba but never mentioned how much. On a trip to Chili, vice president Biden mentioned support for the embargo. And that transition would have to get past those in Congress, like Senate Democrat Bob Menendez.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: The government is pure and simple a brutal dictator. The average worker lives on less than a dollar a day.

ACOSTA: Travel agent Tessie Aral is one of a growing number of Cuban Americans who says it's time to move on.

ARAL: For our country to tell us where we want to travel to, I think that's archaic.


ACOSTA: Supporters think they can get this bill to the white house and it has the support of Indiana's Senator Richard Lugar, whose policies have had a big influence on a president who's actually younger than the Castro regime.

BLITZER: Thanks. We'll see what happens.