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The Situation Room

Pirates Holding U.S. Ship Captain; Iran President Claims Nuclear Advances; New Statement on Pirate Standoff; President Prepares for Next Big Fight

Aired April 09, 2009 - 17:00   ET


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

Happening now, breaking news -- extremely delicate negotiations underway right now. The U.S. Navy, with the help of the FBI, working urgently to free an American ship captain held hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia. We have new information for you.

Also, bold new claims by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Is his country now too critical -- taking two critical steps closer toward a nuclear weapon?

And Michelle Obama and her mother on the cover of "Essence" magazine. The magazine's editor-in-chief is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to take us behind-the-scenes of the photo shoot and reveal new details of the first lady's relationship with her mom.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But first, we're following the breaking news this hour -- a hostage crisis unfolding in the waters off the coast of Somalia. That's where pirates are holding hostage Richard Phillips. He's the captain of an American flagged cargo ship.

Here's what we know right now. Phillips is being held on a lifeboat from his own ship. The lifeboat is disabled and Phillips is said to be unharmed. The U.S. Navy is in charge of the situation. The warship, the USS Bainbridge, is on the scene with negotiators on board.

Navy officials have asked for help from the FBI and its hostage specialists are in touch with the Bainbridge crew.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

She's in Bahrain right now.

It's home to the U.S. 5th Fleet. She's received some exclusive information -- some insight on what is going on right now -- all right, Barbara, what is going on?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we spent the day at 5th Fleet headquarters here in Bahrain. This is a military headquarters on edge.


STARR (voice-over): Vice Admiral William Gortney, the top U.S. naval commander in the Middle East, stepped out of his command center in Bahrain to give CNN an exclusive update on the piracy crisis off the coast of Somalia.

VICE ADM. WILLIAM GORTNEY, U.S. NAVY: Four pirates are currently in the lifeboat off that vessel with the master.

STARR: For the first time, a U.S. Navy warship is negotiating with ragtag Somali pirates, hoping to win the release of Captain Richard Phillips of the cargo ship, Maersk Alabama.

GORTNEY: We have USS Bainbridge on station currently negotiating with the pirates to get our American citizen back.

STARR: FBI negotiators are assisting. Gortney makes clear this pirate attack is a potential security crisis.

GORTNEY: Well, we've always thought that one of the potential game changers out there is a U.S. flagged vessel with U.S. citizens on board. And we're there. And -- and that's where we are right now.

STARR: Gortney is putting more naval power into this area off the southeastern coast of Somalia, where attacks have risen in recent days.

GORTNEY: We have been moving forces in that direction.

STARR: And while the pirates still appear to be poorly armed, there is a new grim concern about the Somali clans.

GORTNEY: We're -- we're just seeing that they are communicating. And with communication comes -- could possibly come coordination and cooperation with each other.

STARR: Gortney is pressuring the commercial shipping industry to take more steps to protect merchant ships, warning the military cannot protect an area four times the size of Texas.

GORTNEY: Just earlier this week, we had two instances -- unsuccessful piracy attacks, but the pirates couldn't get on board because those two ships had put barbed wire on the areas where the most likely of approaches for the -- for the pirates to get on board.


STARR: Now, Wolf, there may be one piece of good news in all of this. Admiral Gortney says so far, he sees no links between the Somali pirate clans and a group Al-Shabab. That is an Al Qaeda- related group that operates inside Somalia. Everyone has been watching very carefully for a terrorism link. So far, Gortney says there isn't one. But he said -- but he says if that developed, that is a game changer -- Wolf. BLITZER: Barbara Starr is reporting from Bahrain, the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

We have more now on that lifeboat where the pirates are holding the captain. Maritime experts say this orange vessel is similar to the lifeboat on the Maersk. It's about 28 feet long. The company that owns the Maersk says the lifeboat holds 20 people and carries enough emergency rations for 10 days. There are no toilet facilities, according to the father of the second in command on board the Maersk.

Let's get some more now on the FBI's role in trying to free this American captain.

Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is looking into that -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, FBI negotiators are not on the scene off Somalia. But they are, nonetheless, in the thick of it.


MESERVE (voice-over): With Captain Richard Phillips hostage, FBI crisis negotiators strategize with the Navy and the owners of Phillips' ship.

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The FBI people are here at Quantico. And so they're using, you know, telecommunication means to -- to be in touch with them.

MESERVE: But how difficult is it for U.S. authorities to communicate with the pirates?

Will the radio on the lifeboat run out of batteries?

Do the pirates speak English?

CHRISTOPHER VOSS, THE BLACK SWAN GROUP: If there aren't any English speakers among the kidnappers, then -- then you find someone that you can trust that can talk to them, someone that is -- is comfortable, someone that understands the things that you're trying to get across to them.

MESERVE: Former FBI negotiator Christopher Voss says the pirates are probably negotiating for safe passage away from the area and the presence of the U.S. Navy is ratcheting up their anxiety.

VOSS: It's good for the situation, overall, for the kidnappers to know that they're there, that the alternative to a peaceful resolution is a negative one.

MESERVE: Namely, that they will be arrested or killed.

But others are not so sure.

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I think once the pirates have hold of a vessel or a hostage, the pirates have the upper hand. We value the life of our citizens. They may not value their lives as much.


MESERVE: The U.S. government will negotiate with kidnappers, but will not make concessions. It also discourages families and companies from paying ransom, but in some instances that is the only way to win a hostage's safe release -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeanne.

Thank you.

The Iranian president is claiming major nuclear advancements right now.

Brian Todd is looking at that story for us. Wow! What's -- what are we learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, U.S. officials are being cautious, saying this should not be blown out of proportion. But one comment from the Iranian president gives a window into steps his country may be taking toward making a nuclear weapon.


TODD (voice-over): National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran -- one day after the U.S. government says it will join group talks on Tehran's nuclear program, the Iranian president brags about major nuclear achievements, including one that raises eyebrows in the West.


PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): The testing of two new types of centrifuges with a capacity -- with a capacity that is several times greater than the capacity of existing centrifuges.


TODD: One official counter-proliferation official says this doesn't look like a game changer. Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium, which can then be used to build nuclear bombs. Experts say Iran already has thousands of low grade centrifuges and had been testing these newer types.

Former U.N.

") weapons inspector David Albright says these two newer versions can enrich uranium faster and more efficiently.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, FORMER U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: If they have these advanced centrifuges and they can build large numbers and deploy them, then their -- they have a greater nuclear weapons capability. One is they could -- they can deploy them in Natanz and build out their capability faster there or they could simply make them and put them in a secret site and -- and re -- and they'd be required to have fewer centrifuges installed at that secret site to have a capability to make weapon grade uranium for -- for nuclear weapons.

TODD: But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is skeptical of the Iranian president's claim.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We don't know what to believe about the uranium program. We've heard many different assessments and claims over a number of years.


TODD: And none of this changes the overall timetable. David Albright and other experts say if Iran decides it wants to enrich the uranium to weapons grade, it would have to accelerate the process. And then, within about a year from now, it could have enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear device -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you're speaking to a lot of authorities and experts on this.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Is there any significance to this statement from Ahmadinejad coming only a day after a dramatic shift by the U.S. government?

Now the U.S. will be directly engaged in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, joining the Europeans.

TODD: Well, the timing is interesting. But it was Nuclear Technology Day. He had to say something about the nuclear program.

What's interesting is David Albright believes he might have been actually toning down his rhetoric because of the possibility of those talks with U.S. officials.

He sometimes exaggerates his country's nuclear claims. He could have said we're deploying these centrifuges -- these advanced centrifuges, we're -- we're doing more than testing them. He said only we're testing them.

David Albright says that may be a good sign, that maybe there's an opening for more talks and that they could come to the table with some actual, you know, breathing room to negotiate.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you very much.

Brian Todd reporting.

He's already tackling two wars, an economy in shambles -- and now there's word President Obama is going to push to resolve immigration once and for all.

Why now? And can he succeed where others have failed?

And newly released 911 tapes are raising questions about the death of the actress, Natasha Richardson, and the treatment she received. Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is standing by live.

And more on this hour's breaking news -- what options does the U.S. Navy have as it tries to free an American captain by Somali pirates?

I'll ask the former commander of the USS Cole. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What's going on?

We'll find out, when we come back.


BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news -- held hostage on the high seas. Somali pirates still holding the captain of that American flagged ship off the coast of Somalia. And now, there's a standoff with the United States Navy.

Let's bring in the former commander of the USS Cole, Kirk Lippold.


Captain, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: The negotiations that are underway, is this standard operating procedure in a situation like this?

You have an American captive on this small little lifeboat with, we believe, four Somali pirates who are holding him captive?

LIPPOLD: Yes. This -- this would be standard. They're coming into a situation -- every situation is going to be different. Obviously, in this case, the USS Bainbridge was patrolling in the waters, trying to deter piracy attacks from occurring.

When this one did occur, unfortunately, they were 300 miles away. They raced to the scene as quickly as possible and are working in coordination with Maersk Shipping Lines -- obviously, the Bainbridge's chain of command, as well as now the FBI hostage rescue team.

BLITZER: Is -- is this the kind of situation, though, that you just pay off these pirates, you give them a $1 million or $2 million and then you let them go and you get the captain back?

Is that -- is that what could unfold? LIPPOLD: It's a possibility. I mean every avenue is going to be exhausted. But at this point, I think they're slowly removing options as far as the negotiation is concerned. Clearly, the Maersk Alabama got underway and has moved away from the scene. The Navy is in the process of bringing another ship down to be with the USS Bainbridge, which is the USS Haliburton, a guided missile frigate.

So, clearly, we're going to increase our presence, which increases, very subtly, the pressure on the pirates that are in that lifeboat with the -- with the captain being held hostage so that they can clearly understand that this is -- we're willing to negotiate, but we may not be willing to compromise.

BLITZER: Because take a look at the USS Bainbridge right over there behind you. That's a warship. You know, these four pirates in a little, you know, a lifeboat -- I mean, in terms of firepower, this isn't a contest.

LIPPOLD: Well, from a combat perspective, no, it's not. But the reality of it is we're dealing with a human life that's being held hostage. And while you can bring as much combat power as the USS Bainbridge clearly does...

BLITZER: And that's Captain Richard Phillips right there.

LIPPOLD: Absolutely. The problem is going to be is that you don't want to bring that combat power to bear now. What you want to do is bring that presence...

BLITZER: So who is in charge of this negotiation right now?

Is it the private shipping line, Maersk, or the U.S. Navy?

LIPPOLD: I would say that it's the U.S. Navy. There may be a...

BLITZER: So right now it's a military...

LIPPOLD: That...

BLITZER: ...issue.

LIPPOLD: That commanding officer on board, Commander Frank Castellano, he is the one that is probably the representative. He's the on-scene commander. He's the one that has the best feel for what the situation is with the pirates.

He's got his unmanned aerial vehicle, that ScanEagle up there. It's watching how those pirates are reacting, what they're doing, how they're reacting to different things that are being told to them via radio.

Hopefully, the radios are going to continue to last so the negotiation process can continue.

But the reality of it is he has to be the key negotiator. He's the senior person on-scene. BLITZER: These are huge ships that are being pirated. You know, these pirates come with a small, little vessel -- a small, little boat. The USS Cole had a similar situation -- a tragic situation back in 2000, as all of us remember.

How do you deal with this?

LIPPOLD: Well, in this situation, you have to remember, it isn't the size of the ship, but how many crew. You've got to be able to defend it.

Clearly, Merchant Marines make a decision not to arm themselves. But this captain on board the Maersk Alabama clearly did a lot of leadership and training with his crew because he got them away. They weren't immediately found. They were able to take on the hijackers, regain the ship itself, work with the people on board to make sure that they could get those pirates off the ship.

The captain very bravely negotiated him going with them. Unfortunately, the initial negotiations to get him back did not work and now we're at a standoff situation. But there's a lot of...

BLITZER: He's a courageous...

LIPPOLD: A lot of credit goes to him right now for the...

BLITZER: He's a hero.

LIPPOLD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: He's a...

LIPPOLD: For what he's done.

BLITZER: He's a very courageous man, Captain Richard Phillips. We're praying for him. And certainly we want him to be freed very, very soon.

Thanks very much for coming in.

LIPPOLD: Absolutely.

Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: President Obama and a royal uproar -- did he bow to the King of Saudi Arabia?

If so, was it inappropriate?

It's burning up the blogs today. Donna Brazile and Dana Perino -- they're here. We'll talk about that and more.

And CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, travels to Canada to investigate the death of the actress Natasha Richardson. 911 calls raising new questions about her treatment.


BLITZER: We're just getting in a statement from Maersk, the shipping line -- the captain of that ship off the coast of Somalia being held hostage by pirates.

Let's go back to Fredricka Whitfield.

What are they saying in terms of updating us about the situation -- Fred?

WHITFIELD: Well, it's a -- it's a pretty lengthy update here. And let me read it to you as we have it. According to Maersk, it says: "The captain remains with the pirates on the lifeboat within full visibility of the USS Bainbridge. The captain has been in touch with the crew and the USS Bainbridge. He has radio contact and has been provided with additional batteries and provisions. The most recent indicates that the captain is unharmed.

The crew of the Alabama is separated from the lifeboat at the direction of the U.S. Navy. We have been in touch with the crew and they have been in touch with their families. Crew members very concerned about the welfare of their captain."

This is the written statement being provided to us by the Norfolk-based company of Maersk -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Fred.

We're going to get back to you and we're going to continue to watch this story, because the developments are moving quickly on this front.

Thank you very much.

Other news we're following, when the actress, Natasha Richardson, went to a popular Canadian ski resort, it was supposed to be a great getaway. But now, 911 calls are raising questions about her treatment in the immediate hours following her deadly brain injury last month.

CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon himself, headed to Canada to investigate.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By 1:00 p.m., 17 minutes after the initial call, an ambulance did arrive here and Natasha Richardson was already heading back to her room. She said she felt fine.

(on camera): I can tell you, as a neurosurgeon, that's not unusual. Someone has a significant blow to the head then has what is known as a lucid interval where they do feel fine. But that pressure is still starting to build up in the brain.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA (voice-over): The paramedics are told to stand-down. Richardson says she doesn't need medical attention. (on camera): Mont-Tremblant is a beautiful place. In fact, it's considered one of the best ski reports in Eastern Canada. But there are no medical helicopter services here. It got us wondering if this was less about the tragic story of Natasha Richardson and more about anybody who decides to ski here. Remember, the closest trauma hospital is two-and-a-hours away by road.

(voice-over): Richardson's story is about to take a turn.


BLITZER: Sanjay, these air ambulances that so many people just simply take for granted, based on the evidence -- and you're an expert in this area -- do they really make that much of a difference?

GUPTA: Well, you know, that's a fair question, Wolf. And there's a couple of things to point out. You know, we're not talking about all of Canada here. This is a specific area, Mont-Tremblant in Quebec, a province of Canada. They do seem to make a difference because speed matters in the world of neurosurgery, especially when it comes to head injuries.

So let me give you a couple of points of reference here, Wolf, overall.

Lots of studies on this sort of thing. If you look at the likelihood of dying from a head injury in Canada versus the United States, across the board, all head injuries, about 22 percent of people who have severe head injuries in Canada die. And you can compare that to about 3.6 percent -- less than 4 percent in the United States.

So, you know, quite a difference there. Those numbers speak for themselves. But, again, with the caveats that I -- that I mentioned -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's really a fascinating subject. And I know you've been doing some serious investigating during your trip to Canada on this. You know a lot about it.

Sanjay, you're going to have a lot more coming up on this later tonight.

Thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thanks, Wolf, as well.

Thank you.

BLITZER: What really happened to Natasha Richardson on that ski slope?

Dr. Gupta investigates the fatal fall and her final moments -- an "A.C. 360" medical investigation tonight, 10:00 p.m. only here on CNN.

Kidnapped and held hostage for months -- a New Jersey man has a harrowing story and he's alive to tell it.

So what happened to him in Pakistan?

And some pretty wealthy people now have the president's ear. In fact, they work in the White House -- how President Obama's inner circle made their millions.

And behind-the-scenes at the White House -- a revealing photo shoot with the first lady of the United States.

Stay with us.



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

Happening now, high seas standoff -- Somali pirates still holding a U.S. captain hostage off Africa. The U.S. Navy is on the scene watching closely -- what surveillance video is now showing.

A big blunder by the head of counterterrorism in the U.K. -- the secrets he accidentally revealed and the operation that had to be rushed.

And a big surge on Wall Street -- the Dow closing up this day 246 points, hitting its highest level in two months. Analysts say strong profits announced by banking giant Wells Fargo fueled the rally.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We're getting word from the White House the president of the United States pushing forward with comprehensive immigration reform, trying to keep a campaign promise.

Let's go to our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

He certainly has a lot on his plate right now. Add one other major issue.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. But let's call this sort of pushing forward. The immigration issue, both legal and illegal, did make its way into "The New York Times" headline today and the White House Briefing Room. White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said immigration reform remains a priority.

But with an economy in crisis and a soaring jobless rate, critics think the administration is simply playing politics -- trying to nail down the Latino vote.


CROWLEY (voice-over): For several years, it brought outrage to the streets...


CROWLEY: ...ignited town hall meetings...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And when is the Republican Party going to come out and say we've got to do what's right for the country?

CROWLEY: ...and dominated radio talk shows.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want only legal citizens in my country. I want illegal immigrants out of my country.

CROWLEY: It's played a role in elections -- both won and lost -- and it's never been resolved. Now the White House has let it be known a comprehensive immigration bill remains a priority.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, obviously it's a -- it's an issue out there -- a big issue out there that the previous administration and Congress worked to try to address. And it's something the president is committed to addressing as he said throughout the campaign trail.


CROWLEY: As a candidate, the president promised immigration issues would be a priority in year one. He won 67 percent of the Latino vote.

Fierce critics of his plan say that's exactly what this is about.

DAN STEIN, FEDERATION FOR AMERICAN IMMIGRATION REFORM: There's no way the American people are going to understand a move -- a big move for an immigration amnesty now is anything other than a naked party power grab of putting party interests above public interests.

CROWLEY: The president said throughout the campaign that, among other things, he wants better border security and reform of the immigration bureaucracy.

But what has stoked the opposition and has made this issue so divisive is illegal immigrants. The president proposes what supporters call a pathway to citizenship and critics call amnesty.

OBAMA: We also need reform that finally brings to 12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows. Requiring them to take steps to become legal citizens, putting them on a pathway to citizenship.

CROWLEY: The both sides of the debate fired up press releases and offered up interviews, there is time yet.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Obviously, there are a lot of things on his plate and a lot of pressing issues relating to the economy. I don't think he expects that it will be done this year.

CROWLEY: Immigration, it appears, is a lesser priority.


CROWLEY: In fact, it would probably be more advantageous for the White House to push for an immigration bill this first year, which is traditionally a pretty popular time for presidents and certainly so far for this one. But this year or next, it's an uphill climb for immigration reform, which ignites pretty passionate debate from the streets and on the air waves. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Candy. Thanks very much.

Let's discuss this and more with Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist, the former White House press secretary, Dana Perino.

Dana, President Bush, he tried his best for comprehensive immigration reform. He had Senator Kennedy, Senator McCain working together. Couldn't do it. You think this president could do what President Bush couldn't do?

DANA PERINO, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Wolf, I think that one of the things is I'm not so much concerned that President Obama has bitten off more than he can chew, but he might have bitten off more than the Congress can chew and get through this year.

And I think one of the things from a communications standpoint, maybe it was playing politics a little bit but actually it could have been actually floating a trial balloon just to see where the opposition is.

Remember, during the immigration debate the President Bush led in 2007, it was mostly the GOP that was fighting amongst itself and the Democrats weren't drawn out. So you don't exactly know where those Democrats fall down on this issue. And we weren't....

BLITZER: And the economy was a lot better in 2007 than it is...

PERINO: That's right. And it's going to be harder because people -- the main issue came down to people are concerned that their jobs are going to be taken by those who are illegally in our country.

BLITZER: Totally different economic environment right now.

Take a look at these 12 major issues. We recently did a CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll, whether these issues were extremely important for the president and Congress to deal with in this current year. It came out 10th out of 12 issues. If you take a look at the economy, terrorism, healthcare, immigration is all the way down near the bottom of that list.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Wolf, but I think everyone would agree that our immigration system is broken and that it needs to be fixed and I think it's time that Congress as well as the president learns how to walk and chew gum at the same time and tackle many of these concerns. I think it's important that we have strict boarder controls and have incentives to ensure that those who are here...

BLITZER: But to Dana's point, the president may have a full appetite to try to do all these things. Congress's appetite is more limited.

BRAZILE: Well, maybe we need to increase the appetite to do more because this is an issue that we continue to put off year after year and the president has said it's time to have a discussion. May not pass it this year but he is read to have a conversation later on this year.


PERINO: If I could add one other thing on that.

BLITZER: All right. Let's -- go ahead.

PERINO: I do -- I believe that we would have had a bill in 2007, May 2007, if Senator Reid would have kept the Congress in and the Senate in that weekend, but they all -- he let them go home and the political hammer came down from everybody and they all scattered.

With a Democrat in the White House and the Democrats controlling Congress, maybe they have a better chance but I think it's a really tough battle ahead.

BLITZER: All right. Well, we're going to have more on this in the next hour as well. But I want to move on to some controversy involving the president when he was in Europe last week.

He met with the king of Saudi Arabia. We got a picture there. I think we also have some video as well. He appears to bow when he met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. And the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had this exchange with our Dan Lothian over at the White House briefing earlier.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It does appear that the president actually bowed to King Abdullah. Did he bow or didn't he?

GIBBS: I think he bent over with both to shake -- with both hands to shake his hands. So I don't...

LOTHIAN: To show one hand...

GIBBS: No. I...


LOTHIAN: Did he bow or didn't he?

GIBBS: No. But I think this meeting was like a week ago, right? LOTHIAN: That's right, but this is something that a lot of people are still talking about today.

GIBBS: I can only imagine it is of great cause and concern for many people struggling with the economy.


BLITZER: All right. Clearly trying to play down the issue. The "Pittsburgh Tribune Review" editorial said this, Donna, "In the least, it was an embarrassing protocol faux paus. Mr. Obama is not the king's subject but his equal. But the bow," in quotes, "actually was worst than that, it's a troubling metaphor for a deferential presidency."

He's getting a lot of criticism from the right.

BRAZILE: Well, you know, they criticized Michelle Obama, the first lady, for supposedly touching the Queen, so I don't know if it was a bow, a nod or that was his way of saying -- you know (speaking foreign language), I don't know what the greeting was, but look, the fact is that he was just showing his friendship and his kindness to a country that we hope remains a strong ally in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Big deal or little deal?

PERINO: I think it's a little deal if they would have let it be a little deal but I think that they have perpetuated this story for several days because if you look at the tape, just from the plain face of it people can look at it and go, oh gosh, that kind of looks like a bow.

But I think they could have handled it differently. Look, when President Bush did the cultural and customary thing of grabbing the king of Saudi Arabia's hand, we saw the Democrats play that card over and over again.

BLITZER: He went further. Take a look at -- turn around, you can see the video we have. If you turn around, Dana, right behind you. But he went further, he actually gave him a kiss.

PERINO: Well, that's the customary thing to do. And you get your State Department memo, you left that protocol and you want to do the right thing.

BLITZER: But you can imagine if President Obama...

PERINO: But no American bows to anybody else.

BLITZER: ... would have kissed King Abdullah...

PERINO: But America -- our whole country is based on the fact that we're not the subject of anybody else and we're not supposed to bow. That's probably why this is a controversy. I think the White House probably could have blown this off earlier if they would have just said thought that that was the protocol, trying to be kind. You know, move on.

Instead, now it's like four days later and we're still talking about it and you're showing the videotape.

BLITZER: All right.

BRAZILE: Look, I just think he was just trying to show just some -- just show mutual respect.

BLITZER: On a totally different matter, we have the first lady of the United States saying this on an intriguing subject. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When are you going to get it?



OBAMA: Soon. .


OBAMA: When is the question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look in this last row.



BLITZER: Talking about the little dog that's coming into the White House. Maybe a big dog, we don't know.

BRAZILE: Well, look, and I'm sure the dog is getting trained as we speak to be able to salute the president.

PERINO: All I can say is that the Obama children are very patient because they were told on January 20th they were going to get this dog and I admire them for holding strong and waiting.

BLITZER: Good things happen to those who wait.

PERINO: Yes, I'm sure it'll be a great dog.

BLITZER: Didn't your mother once tell you that? Didn't every mother wants...

PERINO: I'm a huge dog fan, I think it will be great.

BRAZILE: I'm a huge dog fan as well.

BLITZER: We remember Barney. He was a cute little dog, too.

PERINO: He was a very cute little dog. (INAUDIBLE)

BLITZER: That's right.

BRAZILE: I have a beagle still one at home, too, named Tutu.

PERINO: Me too, Henry.


BLITZER: I have a dog growing up in Buffalo.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

From President Obama's inner circle, a rare, optimistic forecast for the economy. Details of what a top economic adviser is saying.

Plus, the first lady plants her fruit and vegetable garden over at the White House with a little help from some friends.


BLITZER: We're back. Fredricka Whitfield, she's monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Fred, what's going on?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, again, Wolf. Well, one of President Obama's top economic advisers is offering an optimistic view about the nation's troubled economy.

Lawrence Summers said today he expects the economic plight to end later this year.


LARRY SUMMERS, DIR., W.H. COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: I think the sense of the ball falling off the table, which is what the economy has felt like since the middle of last fall. I think that is going to -- I think we can be reasonably confident that that's going to end within the next few months and that you'll no longer have that sense of free fall.


WHITFIELD: Well, not everyone in the crowd was friendly when Summers was asked the question about whether there should be another stimulus. Two protesters unfurled a banner behind me which read "We want our money back."

Severe wildfires are burning across portion of the Texas Panhandle and central and western Oklahoma. The fires have forced Interstate 35 to shut down and the evacuation of several residences in south central Oklahoma.

Extremely dry conditions and strong winds are also causing a severe dust storm that has reduced visibility to less than a half mile in some areas.

And tens of thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Georgian parliament today, demanding the resignation of that country's president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Opponents of Saakashvili blamed him for Georgia's war with Russia last August and say he is unfit to lead Georgia because of his antagonistic relationship with Moscow.

Saakashvili is vowing to serve out his term which ends in 2013.

North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong-Il made his first major public appearance today since suffering a reported stroke last August. The 67-year-old Kim, who appeared much thinner, was greeted with a standing ovation from North Korea's parliament.

Kim was reappointed at the chairman of North Korea's defense commission, giving him a third term as the country's president. Wolf?

BLITZER: No opposition, obviously.

WHITFIELD: No. They dare not.

BLITZER: None at all. All right, thanks very much for that.

Ambushed, kidnapped and held hostage for months. A New Jersey man has a frightening story to tell about what happened to him in Pakistan. The U.N. worker was freed only days ago and he's now back in the United States.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's about to tell us what unfolded. Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Still a lot of questions remain, Wolf, because 49-year-old John Solecki is still not ready to talk about the ordeal in detail. He has been reunited with his family in New Jersey and the U.N. is expressing relief that he made it home alive.


SNOW (voice-over): Freed U.N. official John Solecki is glad to be home.

JOHN SOLECKI, FORMER HOSTAGE: It's great to be free and it's great to be home.

SNOW: Solecki was held hostage for 61 days in Pakistan. He arrived in the United States Tuesday and is seen here with his father and his brother. He spoke briefly outside of his parents' New Jersey home on Wednesday.

SOLECKI: My family and I would like to thank everyone who is responsible for my release. I'm a little bit tired right now so I just want to rest up with my family.

SNOW: Solecki is a senior official with the U.N. refugee agency and was abducted February 2nd, when police say gunmen opened fire, killing a U.N. driver and kidnapping Solecki. Eleven days later, a video appeared on a Pakistani network appearing to show Solecki.

SOLECKI: I'm sick and in trouble.

SNOW: At one point, Solecki's 83-year-old mother made a personal plea in a recording released by the United Nations.

ROSE SOLECKI, JOHN SOLECKI'S MOTHER: My husband and I are old. We want to be with John again. We cannot bear the thought of losing John.

SNOW: The U.N. says Solecki was found about 30 miles outside of Quetta in Balochistan, a region near the Afghan border where Solecki worked to assist Afghan refugees. The group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping was relatively unknown. Those who studied the area say this kidnapping was different than others seen in the region.

LISA CURTIS, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: It appears that this particular kidnapping was not related to the Taliban, what's happening in Afghanistan, but really was related to the Baloch ethnic insurgency.


SNOW: And Lisa Curtis says what also made this different is that militants in this area hadn't taken foreigners hostages before. Wolf?

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thanks very much for that. Good luck to this man.

Some members of Congress want to make it easier to visit Cuba, but now we're hearing from the critics. Why they say Fidel Castro should never be trusted.

And the first lady and the first grandmother behind the scenes over at the White House.

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


BLITZER: The first lady Michelle Obama is getting her hands dirty on this day. Earlier in the afternoon, she and some Washington, D.C. school children planted fruits and vegetables over at the White House garden. Something she hopes to inspire other Americans to do.


OBAMA: You know how much it costs to just do this? And we're going to have carrots and spinach and herbs and berries. We're going to have a ton of stuff in this garden. How much do you think it costs to do this garden? How much? Over $100,000.

My husband would go crazy if he thought we were spending that kind of money. No, a little lower than that. How much do you think? You. $5,000. No. A little lower. Yes? $1,000. Nope. 200 -- it doesn't -- it hasn't cost us more than $200 to plant this.


BLITZER: Television cameras captured another scene over at the yard of the White House. That was President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sitting down to chat over at the picnic table. That's next to Sasha and Malia's swing set.

The first lady and her mother are gracing the cover of the new issue of "Essence" magazine. Just as fascinating as the article is what went on behind the scenes.

And joining us now, Angela Burt-Murray. She's the editor in chief of "Essence" magazine. The cover story in the new issue of "Essence," "Michelle Obama and Mom: On raising smart, confident, kids, strong marriages, and future plans."

Angela, thanks very much for coming in.

ANGELA BURT-MURRAY, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, ESSENCE MAGAZINE: Thank you so much, Wolf. Happy to be here.

BLITZER: Take us a little bit behind the scenes. The interview, the photo shoot. What was it like doing this with Michelle Obama, and her mom, Mrs. Robinson?

BURT-MURRAY: Well, it was really exciting. We had first interviewed Michelle Obama in her home in Chicago last summer, so it was wonderful to come back and see her in the White House.

And when they first entered the room for our photo shoot, you could tell there was a little bit of hesitation on Mrs. Robinson's part. After all, this is the first time she's really stepping into her daughter's world.

So Mrs. Obama took great care to make sure that her mother was comfortable and you know, put her arm around her and was trying to tell her, you know, little private jokes and told her how wonderful she looked. And you know, just trying to ease her into her life now...


BURT-MURRAY: ... which is in front of the cameras.

BLITZER: You did this interview yourself.


BLITZER: You were there, you sat down with the two of them.


BLITZER: Obviously, you had to prepare for this. Talk a little bit about the relationship between mother and daughter. BURT-MURRAY: Well, it is just wonderful to have an opportunity to talk to two women who clearly mean so much to each other. And you could tell that Mrs. Obama has gotten a lot of her own parenting skills from her mother, Mrs. Robinson.

And they talk about that in the interview in "Essence" about how they were raised and Mrs. Robinson talked about how she treated her children as little people and not children. So she made sure to talk to them about, you know, a lot of topics that many parents may wait until later on to explore, to teach them lessons about accountability and responsibility.

Those things are very important. And you can tell that these are things that the Obamas are doing with their girls, Sasha and Malia, as well.

BLITZER: Well, what about the role that Mrs. Robinson, the grandmother, plays in the raising of these two sweet little girls?

BURT-MURRAY: Right. Well, she has said quite clearly that she is going to be there as long as the Obamas want her to be there. Her sole focus is making sure that the girls are comfortable and achieve Mrs. Obama's goal which is to make sure that their whole family comes out of this experience whole.

So she is dedicated to making sure that those two little girls come out of this OK. But, you know, it will be interesting to see as the years progress, will she step out and have her own role within the White House?

BLITZER: What kind of relationship does the president have with his mother-in-law?

BURT-MURRAY: Well, it seemed from what we can get from Mrs. Robinson that she's very proud of her son-in-law, and that, you know, the thing that makes her most proud is that her daughter and her son- in-law are good parents, because that's what she said makes her job so easy as a grandmother that they're great parents.

So they seem to be very close and very proud of each other at this time.

BLITZER: I know they also spoke movingly of Michelle Obama's father and Mrs. Robinson's husband who died a few years ago.

BURT-MURRAY: Yes. That's right.

BLITZER: Talk a little bit about that.

BURT-MURRAY: Well, it was the first opportunity that we had to ask Mrs. Robinson, you know, what would her father, who played such a big role in her life and her brother's life, what would he have to say about this historic moment. And Mrs. Robinson said, you would not be able to shut him up.

He would have been so excited because he used to brag about them before they had accomplished anything as major as becoming the first lady of the United States. So she felt like he would be bursting with pride and joy.

BLITZER: Do they feel a special responsibility, mother and daughter, as role models for African-American women out there?

BURT-MURRAY: Well, you know, it's interesting, one of the things that we've been hearing from the readers of "Essence" magazine is they do feel like seeing three generations of African-American women in the White House sends a very important message not only to African- American girls, but also the wider world.

And while they did not say that they believed that they have a certain responsibility, they do understand that the image that they project can have some influence and hopefully can counter some negative stereotypes about African-American women that are perpetuated in music videos and reality shows and things like that.

BLITZER: Angela Burt-Murray is the editor in chief of "Essence" magazine. Angela, thanks very much.

BURT-MURRAY: Thank you so much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Militants boasting of their deadly attacks online and now we are learning some of the Web sites are actually hosted right here in the United States.

Plus, millionaires in the West Wing. We're finding out how some wealthy friends and advisers to the president, where they made their fortunes.

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


BLITZER: New personal finance statements showing some members of President Obama's inner circle, they have some money.

Let's go to CNN's Samantha Hayes. She's going to tell us how much money we're talking about. Sam?

SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They sure do, Wolf. It just so happens seems that President Obama's top-level advisers like many of those previous presidents are all millionaires.


HAYES (voice-over): President Barack Obama probably doesn't need to balance no checkbook anymore. As the story goes, two best-selling memoirs elevated the family to a new tax bracket.

OBAMA: We just paid off our student loans, just several years ago, and that was only because Barack wrote two best-selling books.

HAYES: The president's closest advisers, all from Chicago, share similar stories. Recently released personal financial statements for 2008 show the inner circle of the West Wing is wealthy.

Chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, made millions in investment banking after working in the Clinton White House and before getting elected to Congress. His portfolio lists assets valued between $4 and $11 million.

Political consulting paid off for David Axelrod, who sold his stake in his two political consulting firms for $3 million. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, is also a millionaire. In 2008, she also earned hundreds of thousands in board directors' fees.

All three have the president's ear when it comes to the most pressing issues facing America, especially the recession.

BOB EDGAR, COMMON CAUSE: I would be disappointed if he didn't have some people who really understood the impact of this current tsunami on all of the things that are happening around the country and around the world in a personal way.

HAYES: Bob Edgar, a former member of Congress, who now works to reduce the influence of money in politics, says personal wealth can be a good thing.

EDGAR: It doesn't hurt to have someone who has a few dollars in the bank. In fact, maybe there'll be less corruption if someone knows that they have the financial resources to be public servants.


HAYES: Wolf, those disclosure forms are a requirement for top- level aides and their deputies every year.

BLITZER: Sam Hayes, thanks so much.

As Jews around the world mark Passover tonight is the -- tonight the first family hosting a traditional holiday meal called the Passover seder believed to be the first time this has happened in the White House. But this commemorates the exodus of Jews from Egypt and it includes unleavened bread, wine, and other symbolic foods.

Last year out on the campaign trail while still in Pennsylvania, the then candidate Barack Obama took part in an impromptu seder with some staffers unable to make it home for Passover. The meal traditionally ends with the exclamation, "next year in Jerusalem." We're told then candidate, then senator Barack Obama used the phrase, "next year in the White House."

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