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The Situation Room

Jobless Rate Hits 26-Year High; Massive California Wildfire Ruled Arson; Interview With Former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge; Interview With Tom Ridge; Obama Adviser Under Fire; Who's Visiting the White House?

Aired September 04, 2009 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, something we have not seen in 26 years: a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate. The White House says, brace yourself for even worse.

One of the president's men faces calls for his head, green jobs adviser Van Jones. And we will tell you why his name is attached to a conspiracy theory suggesting the government allowed 9/11.

And a picture of an American war Marine dying, should it have been published, or is it that appalling and hurtful to the family? Learn the defense secretary and family's outrage and hear the Associated Press' explanation.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

MALVEAUX: We begin with breaking news.

It appears the White House is pondering possible plan B's when it comes to getting health care reform. CNN is learning that, just a short while ago, President Obama himself was on a conference call with key members of the House to take their measure on reform.

We have learned the White House could possibly reverse course from its position on solely letting Congress come up with a health care plan.

Our CNN's Dana Bash is here, but let's also begin with senior White House correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, you have got some of the details you've been following. What do we know?


You know that, for months, the president has been resisting drafting his own health care legislation. We're now picking up from sources close to the process that the White House is privately talking about drafting some sort of contingency legislation in case a deal on Capitol Hill falls through.

In fact, our colleagues Jessica Yellin and Gloria Borger are getting some good information on this, suggesting the president could unveil it shortly after next Wednesday night's prime-time address to a joint session of Congress.

The key here is that we're hearing from these sources close to the process that the White House is leaning against including a public option in here, instead, leaning more towards something like a trigger, something that would kick in where a public option would only kick in if insurance companies don't make necessary reforms that the president wants to have in this legislation.

The bottom line is for something like that to work, the president is going to have to prevent a revolt from the left, because, if this public option is out, there are going to be a lot of people on the left who are very upset -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, you have new information about the conference call, the president on with members and lawmakers. What can you tell us?


The president, just a couple of hours ago, Suzanne, did a conference call with really the most liberal members of the House of Representatives, leaders from the Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Caucus, members who have said very clearly they cannot vote for a health care bill without a robust public option.

Now, I just got off the phone with two congresswomen who were on the call with the president. And they said he didn't tip his hand. He didn't warn them that they're going to have to maybe live with a health care bill without a public option.

But he did give them an opportunity to make their case, and they did. Listen to what these members of Congress told me.


REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: We communicated this very clearly to the president. The only way that that can happen for those that are already insured is to have a robust public option.

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY (D), CALIFORNIA: It was very clear in our conversation that we are totally together. And he heard it loud and clear, that we support a robust public option.

I think he probably would like to convince us that there is something sort of that could lead to a public option that would satisfy us. And guess what? It doesn't.


BASH: Now, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey said to me that it was that he's at a decision-making point and he has to decide where he's going to draw the line, and he wants to know where they can draw the line.

And he made really pretty clear that he knows this is a big, important, vocal wing of his party, these liberals, not just in Congress but around the country, and he wanted to at least get it out there that he was listening to them. And he actually invited them to the White House next Tuesday or Wednesday.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, what would be in a possible contingency plan from the White House perspective?

HENRY: I keep hearing from sources close to this process to keep paying attention, as we reported earlier this week, Dana and I, that, basically, Republican Olympia Snowe, some of her ideas, basically a bill that the White House is thinking about that would have insurance reforms, like preventing insurance companies from not covering you if you have a preexisting condition, but then having this trigger that would kick in, a public option would kick in if these reforms are not made, and that this bill will be much smaller.

And it's not going to cover everyone who is uninsured. But the president's message next Wednesday night, we're hearing, is basically going to be, look, let's get what we can now and come back and do more later.

And some people who are pushing the White House not to have a public option are saying, look, if the liberals, like the ones that Dana just talked to, are mad in the end, that could -- if it looks like the president is moving to the center, that can really help him sell a deal to the American people, to say, look, this is not on the left. It's not socialism, as people have been accusing him of wanting. It's something that the middle can respect.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, tell us about the third-ranking Democrat in the House, who I think at this point is saying the Democrats just have to make due.

BASH: Yes. And, actually, he's floating his own ideas.

Ed just talked about one that looks like the leading idea, which is this so-called trigger option. Well, Jim Clyburn, who, just like you said, is the number-three House Democrat, he told the McClatchy newspaper, which a spokesman confirmed with us, that what he thinks should happen is not maybe having a national public option or a government-run insurance option, but having some pilot programs regionally.

He said that that is a way perhaps for this bill to actually get through Congress, because he understands, as the -- the whip, the guy who counts the votes, that there certainly is a very powerful group, as we talked about of liberals in the House, who want a public option, but he also understands, as he said, that Democrats might have to take -- quote -- "half-a-loaf" of reforms in order to get some kind of health care through. And it just -- this is significant. Why is it significant? Because the House is the place that has been most adamant about this public option. Now that you have the number-three Democrat saying, well, maybe we don't need, it's a signal -- because he's also close to the White House -- that that is where they are heading.

MALVEAUX: And, finally, tell us about the six senators who are key to this debate. I understand they had a conference call or they met and they had some discussion.

BASH: That so-called gang of six, we talked about them so much going into the congressional recess, six senators on the Senate Finance Committee.

They had a conference call today. It was the first time they talked in a couple of weeks. Remember, all their cards at the White House and elsewhere were banked -- were on this group. Lately, they have been saying that they don't think they are going to get a plan. So, what this group talked about on the call was insisting that they are committed to continuing to negotiate. They are going to negotiate.

They said that the chairman, Max Baucus, made clear that he's going to move forward with a health care bill and they are actually going to meet face-to-face next Tuesday. Again, they insist that they are committed to getting something done. Their deadline, self-imposed deadline, is September 15. Unclear if they can make it happen.

MALVEAUX: All right, fast-moving developments. Dana, Ed, thank you very much.

HENRY: Thanks, Suzanne.

BASH: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File."

Hey, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Suzanne. It was supposed to be a feel-good event for the White House and a break from all of the fighting and name-calling over health care.

But, instead, President Obama's back-to-school speech next Tuesday has created a firestorm all its own. Some school districts around the country are now refusing to carry the speech. Some Republicans say they are appalled at spending tax money to spread the president's -- quote -- "socialist ideology" -- unquote.

They are comparing it to something you would see in North Korea or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. On the surface, it seems like a good idea, a pep talk, if you will, for the nation's schoolkids from the president, calling on them to take responsibility for their education, stay in school and do their very best.

Instead, it's beginning to look like another political miscalculation by the White House, with some Republicans and parents characterizing the ideas as developing a -- quote -- "cult of personality" -- unquote.

The White House is asking the students to write letters about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals. They will also release the text of the speech ahead of time, next Monday, so parents know exactly what to expect. It all seems harmless enough.

Ironically, the first President Bush was criticized by the Democrats when he made a similar televised address to students in 1991, where he asked the children to take control of their education and write him a letter about how they could achieve their goals. Been here, done this.

Here's the question. Is President Obama's back-to-school address an inappropriate mix of politics and education?

Go to to post a comment on my blog -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Jack.

Well, it is so bad that we haven't seen it in over a quarter- century. The nation's jobless rates go up to an even higher level of economic pain, and the White House warns, brace yourself for it to get worse.

An environmental extremist group claims responsibility for another radical act. It involves something critics say hurts animals and you.

And he's one of the president's men. Some people want him fired. Green job czar Van Jones, among other things he, called Republicans something we can't say here. This was the reaction and Jones' response.


MALVEAUX: President Obama's approval ratings are taking a bruising amid the rough debate over health care reform. But fresh poll numbers do offer some bright spots.

Let's bring in our CNN senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

Hey, Candy.


You know, Suzanne, Barack Obama had enormous poll numbers, as we know, in the 60 percentile, sometimes even reaching 70 percentile, when he first started. Those numbers have gone way down. But that doesn't mean that he's in a vulnerable position yet.

However, this is one of those polls that has some good news for the White House and has a couple of things in it that may get Republicans even being optimistic.


CROWLEY (voice-over): The president's summer slide in the polls continues, but as he hovers in the mid to low 50 percent range, there's no equal and opposite movement for Republicans. Democrats continue to dominate on the biggest issues of our time.

When it comes to handling health care, the economy, and Afghanistan, the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Americans believe Democrats would do a better job, even in traditional Republican strongholds, taxes, foreign affairs, deficits. Democrats virtually tie the GOP. Republicans prevail substantially in only one category, who is best able to handle the challenge of terrorism.

Overall, the CNN poll found 52 percent of Americans believe Democratic policies will move the country in the right direction. Just 43 percent say that of the GOP. Still, support for Democrats has gone down five points since May, and support for Republicans has ticked up by four. Also worth watching as the health care debate heats up September:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: We just don't need the federal government this involved in the delivery of our health care.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My hope is, we can do it in a bipartisan fashion, but the most important thing is getting it done for the American people.

CROWLEY: On the subject of who isn't playing well with others, Republicans still fare worse, but the number of people who think the president is not doing enough to cooperate with the other side has jumped by 10 points.

Also worrisome for Democrats, 64 percent of Americans say they are angry about the way Washington is working. And most of the anger is directed at the party in power, Democrats. The trend lines are inklings of hope for Republicans as the calendar marches towards another election year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): We're taking back America in 2010.

CROWLEY: A catchy little jingle, but it's with 13 months and five to 10 poll points premature. Inklings do not an election make.


CROWLEY: One other note: Even those 64 percent of Americans being angry at the way government is working right now, that's not as high as it was just before the so-called Gingrich revolution, so a ways to go, a lot of people angry, but it's not up there in the sort of dynamic-changing range.

MALVEAUX: And, Candy, how does this play into possibly the health care debate? CROWLEY: I thought what was really interesting in this poll was the 10-point increase in the number of people who felt that President Obama was not trying hard enough with Republicans.

I think that comes into play. And I think any time you look at your numbers -- and you can only look at this -- this -- the falling of the president's numbers, the falling of the Democrats' numbers since May. Well, what have we been talking about since May? We have been talking about health care, so there's something out there that are hitting these numbers fairly hard.

And that does -- you know, they step back and look at that and say, what's driving this? And it's health care. So I think it can't help but change the debate a bit.

MALVEAUX: OK. Candy, thank you so much.

Well, it is a number that is leaving many of you breathless. I want you to take a look at this. The unemployment rate has shot up to 9.7 percent. Now, to put that into perspective, the United States has not seen that high a jobless rate in 26 years.

I want to bring in our CNN senior correspondent, Allan Chernoff, to break down the numbers and explain this.

Hey, Allan.


We have got more lousy news on the jobs front. No surprise here, but have a look at this. We have lost 216,000 jobs during the past month. That brings the unemployment rate, as you mentioned, all the way up to 9.7 percent.

To put it in perspective, that is nearly double what the unemployment rate was at the beginning of this recession. And from where we stand right now, it's quite easy to see that we could easily have 10 percent unemployment. The White House essentially said that much.

The real rate, many economists say it's already above 10 percent, and this is the reason why. Nine million Americans are underemployed, meaning they have got part-time work, but they really want full-time jobs.


JOEL JOHNSON, UNDEREMPLOYED: Ladies, gentlemen, bicycle rentals.

CHERNOFF (voice-over): Joel Johnson is working part-time renting bicycles, when he would rather have a full-time job, but he hasn't been able to find one.

JOHNSON: I need a full-time job. Right now, if I can find a full-time job, I will be the happiest man in the world. But I can't find it. That's the point. CHERNOFF: Nine million Americans share Johnson's problem. They are underemployed. But since they have some work, they are not included in the unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

JOHNSON: Yes, nobody wants to hire. It's very, very tough.

CHERNOFF: The fact that the employment picture remains awful is increasingly frustrating for job-hunters, because there are signs the economy is emerging from recession.

Home sales are up. Manufacturing sales and shipments are improving, and consumer confidence is rising. As the economy improves, more Americans should reenter the job market. But there's typically a lag before employers have enough confidence to begin hiring again.

LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN, AUTHOR, "BEATING THE BUSINESS CYCLE": As demand begins to surprise them to the upside, they make everybody who is working for them currently work more. And then only when the demand outstrips what they can possibly produce do they begin to actually hire people.

CHERNOFF: A ray of hope in the employment picture is that job losses are diminishing. The August loss was the smallest in a year, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis emphasized to CNN.

HILDA SOLIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: That isn't something that I want to stand up and and -- scream for joy, but I do want to say that there is some moderation occurring here.


CHERNOFF: The stock market is jumping for joy. What's up with the market? Have a look at that. Since March, just soaring.

So, what's happening? Of course, the stock market is always looking forward, so the stock market is anticipating a stronger economy, a much stronger economy, whereas the unemployment situation, well, that is still lousy, because employment lags.

As we pointed out, it takes a while for companies to go ahead and hire. But many economists say, by next year, we should begin to see a real improvement in the job market -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Good news.

Thank you, Allan.

Well, a cocaine bust of monumental proportion, tons of the drug seized by the Coast Guard. We are learning new details. Plus, that massive wildfire in Southern California, it turns out it was no accident. Now charges of arson and possibly murder await whoever set that fire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: The giant wildfire burning above Los Angeles now ruled to be arson, and the deaths of two firefighters homicide. More than 148,000 acres have burned so far, and officials say full containment is more than a week away.

Our CNN's Brian Todd, he is there for us.

And, Brian, you have been following this for days now. What are we seeing today? What's the latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, we're seeing firefighters on the front lines battling these flames, as they have every day since this started.

They are getting the upper hand in some areas. In other areas, it's more difficult. We were told earlier today that firefighters are cutting what they call billy goat lines. These are lines, break lines in the fire, that have to be done in steep terrain that only billy goats can traverse over them. That's how difficult some of their work is at this point.

You mentioned that this is now considered an arson investigation, because they have -- they have ruled -- well, they're ruling these two firefighters' deaths now a homicide. They consider it arson. They are not speculating much on why they consider it arson.

There's also a report in "The Los Angeles Times" that an incendiary material was found on the site. Officials here not commenting on that so much, but one of the top commanders here, Mike Dietrich, talked about why arson means something quite different to him.


MIKE DIETRICH, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: Or any act of arson in the wild is domestic terrorism. That's my personal opinion. I believe that other folks have said that, because it affects communities, citizens, firefighters, law enforcement officers. And what else could it be?


TODD: And we got a very somber scene earlier today at Lake View Terrace, where the command center is. A procession of vehicles and a hearse carrying the remains of one of the fallen firefighters went past some saluting colleagues. It was a very moving moment on the way to this -- this gentleman's funeral.

But, in the meantime, we're going to show you a little bit here about, you know, when this investigation progresses, kind of what they're going to be looking at. We have been talking to experts all over the country and here in Southern California.

This is like a typical scene of -- of where they are -- what they're looking at a point of origin, which they have isolated in the mountains near here. They're looking at burn marks on rocks to determine the direction the fire moved in. They're looking at burned bottles on the ground, singed roots. That can all tell the speed with which the fire moved and the direction with which the fire moved.

Doesn't necessarily reveal arson, but they can find objects on the ground. They have dogs sniffing around that area to look for flammable material. And that's kind of, you know, the CSI, the shorthanded CSI of what we're looking at here of what investigators are doing right now on these mountains -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Brian, do we have any idea of how much of this fire has been contained?

TODD: Right now, they are saying 42 percent, nearly half of it, is contained. But the problem is, it is so unpredictable that it will go up a canyon quickly, down another canyon. They have to shift directions. That's the challenge that they're working with.

You can see the terrain behind me. It's very typical. It speaks to the unpredictable nature of these fires. Fires move up these canyons at rocket speed and it's very difficult for them to move around and contain it.

MALVEAUX: OK, Brian Todd.

Thank you, Brian. Excellent reporting.

Well, he was the first homeland security secretary. What does Tom Ridge think of Attorney General Holder appointing a prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogations during the Bush administration? Ridge is here to talk about that and controversial claims in his new book.

And calls to the president to fire a key adviser. Van Jones' name is attached to a conspiracy theory suggesting the government allowed 9/11, but Jones is trying to explain.



Happening now: Afghan outrage at NATO, after an airstrike targeting Taliban militants also kills civilians. What went wrong, and can an apology by the allies repair the damage?

Also, an exclusive interview with the son of the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Was the release of the Lockerbie bomber part of a larger deal for Libyan oil? New details in a growing controversy.

And man overboard. A passenger plunged from a cruise ship, but is saved in a dramatic rescue by another ship, all of it caught on tape.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

An explosive allegation from a former top official in the Bush administration, Tom Ridge. The first secretary of homeland security writes in his new book that he was pressured to raise the terror alert level just before the 2004 presidential election.

Tom Ridge is joining us here live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Good to have you here.

TOM RIDGE, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY CHIEF: Very nice to join you. Thank you.

MALVEAUX: I have been reading -- reading this book. I have had a little time to look it over.

Obviously, the better part of last week, you have been making a distinction between what you have written here, the question that you raised about whether or not the terror alert level should have been raised, and the recommendations by Bush administration officials, whether it was based on politics or security.

What has -- what has been the fallout from that? Have you heard from people who you mention in the book, John Ashcroft or former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, the distinction between -- there's a distinction between what I said in the book and what other people said and how other people have interpreted what I wrote.

And I have said of a lot of folks, please read the book, because, early on in the book, in my words, not anybody else's words, I explain really how the system worked.

We refer to that incredible dramatic event the weekend before the presidential election, but it's a process we had used before, where the Homeland Security Cabinet collectively has to decide whether to raise the threat level.

And I take you back to those incredible days. I use the word dramatic because it was. But in March -- on March 11 of that year, an election in an ally, Spain, was affected by a terrorist attack. We raised the threat level in August. The same people that made the decision not to go up right in -- before election eve, the same people made the decision to go up in August.

So, as I'm musing as I write the book after this, I say a couple of things. One, nobody pressured anybody. You have got a lot of strong-willed people sitting around that table. Nobody could pressure this group.

And, secondly, the process existed so that, only when there was a collective opinion that we go up -- so, a lot of people have interpreted that their own way. But, if they read the book and read my words, particularly on page 114, they will understand the process and hopefully understand what I was getting at.

MALVEAUX: Have you gotten blowback from -- from anybody in the book who you write about...

RIDGE: Oh, of course. I mean, there were some people... MALVEAUX: ... from Ashcroft or -- or from Rumsfeld?

RIDGE: Well, I have had a good...

MALVEAUX: Have they reached out to you?

RIDGE: ... good -- good conversation with John. I haven't had a chance to talk to Secretary Rumsfeld...

MALVEAUX: But what did he say?

RIDGE: ... but these are men that I worked with several years whom I respect, and I'm not second-guessing their motivation. I'm just trying to relate, after a couple of the years, the drama of the moment but, more importantly, the process that worked, because that's not the only time we sat around the table.

In this instance it was a video conference. Everybody sitting in their office.

We take a look at the bin Laden tape. We say to ourselves, should we go up, should we not?

A couple of my colleagues argued -- not argued, but basically said, we think we need to go up. John Ashcroft said that, Don Rumsfeld said that, rendered their opinion on other occasions. In this instance, they were in the minority. We don't go up. The process worked.

MALVEAUX: What did John Ashcroft say to you afterwards when the book was released after the controversy?

RIDGE: Well, John and I had a great conversation. We worked together almost daily in the White House.

MALVEAUX: Was he upset with what happened?

RIDGE: Certainly didn't get a sense that he was upset. We had a good conversation. He said, we were friends before, we're friends know, and this little dustup has not affected our relationship at all.

MALVEAUX: To clear things up here, in the jacket cover you don't write this, but certainly your publisher writes this in the jacket cover of your book. It says, "He recounts" -- referring to you -- "the pressure that the DHS received to connect homeland security to the international war on terror and to raise the security alert on the eve of the 2004 presidential election."

Will you have that taken out so that people don't get that message from you now that you're saying that's not the case?

RIDGE: It's a fair comment. We've had those discussions. That's why I've told some folks I understand what other people have said.

And frankly, there are other people who jumped on that before they even read the book as well. So, I think the answer to all this -- this frenzy about what I said is, read what I said and then draw your own conclusions. Not what other people say.

MALVEAUX: I want to turn the corner here.

RIDGE: Sure.

MALVEAUX: There's a CNN/Opinion Research poll here that talks about really the kind of anger that's out there in the American people towards the government, angry about the way government in Washington is working. They say that -- 64 percent say that they are angry. This was compared to 72 percent back in 1994.

And I want you to take a listen to opinions that have some from folks who are really just frustrated with the Obama administration.


MALVEAUX: This is a Tea Party.

RIDGE: I'll listen carefully.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You ready for a Tea Party?

CROWD: Yeah!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see the things that the Obama administration, the Democratic Congress are doing is really threatening the future of this country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I believe he's trouncing the Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Question everything our government is doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's something happening. We don't know quite what it is, but it's happening. And people who ordinarily wouldn't turn out to the streets to protest are turning out to the streets to protest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're the sleeping giant that has been awakened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Afro-Leninsm (ph) coming to you on a silver platter, Barack Hussein Obama. He ain't my president, people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How dare they give tens of trillions of dollars to banks and the people who caused the trouble?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It feels very grassroots to me, and I love that quality.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some are feeling that they are losing control of the government, that the government is taking over control, that we're headed towards socialism. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I don't want this to be a communist socialist nation. That's what our troops died for, so we would not be enslaved by the Nazis or the communists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have the right for the government not to control my health care and my life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I have the right to disagree with you, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm like the person they are going to say, take a pill and go die.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, Mr. Reid, Ms. Pelosi, support our troops in the United States Military!


MALVEAUX: You were the governor of a major state, obviously a cabinet secretary. What do you make of the tone and what is happening here in this country now, the mood toward the government?

RIDGE: Well, I think it's quite obvious from those snippets that we take our First Amendment freedoms very seriously. And in spite of the tone, I think there's just a lot of unrest and uneasiness.

President Obama ran an incredible campaign, and he promised change. And I've often said that change was like a beverage glass, and during the campaign everybody was pouring their favorite beverage into the glass. But now that he's president, he's poured his own beverage into it and people don't quite like the taste.

The tastes are big deficits. It's not a cap and trade bill. They think it's a cap and tax bill on energy. And really, this debate on health care scares a lot of people.

It's 13 million people employed, $2.5 trillion business annually. And the notion that a 1,000-page bill written by a bunch of people that really don't know too much about the health care system might dramatically alter their access to it or the quality of their care. That has people scared.

So, again, for me, I'd like to see the tone more civil, regardless of what the issue is. But people voted for change and they're not quite sure they like the direction the change is going now.

MALVEAUX: What do you think of the decision by the attorney general, Eric Holder, to appoint a prosecutor to look into possible abuses in CIA interrogations? We heard from former Vice President Dick Cheney saying it' was an outrage, but former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he thought it was a good idea.

Where do you fall on this issue?

RIDGE: I think it's a bad idea. I think these men were advised, told it was their responsibility to conduct investigations. And (INAUDIBLE) as saying waterboarding is torture, and that's easy for me to say, because I truly, truly believe it. But even those who may have been involved on those few occasions with waterboarding I don't think should be prosecuted because they were advised at the time that it was an appropriate procedure.

MALVEAUX: Secretary Tom Ridge, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

RIDGE: Been a pleasure. Thank you.

MALVEAUX: An Obama administration official is finding himself in the spotlight that is getting hotter by the minute as some of his past words and deeds come back to haunt him.

Our CNN's Mary Snow is looking into it for us.

And Mary, tell us what this controversy is all about.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, at the heart of it, questions about an adviser's links to a movement pushing conspiracy theories behind 9/11.


SNOW (voice-over): Van Jones may not be a well-known administration figure as an adviser for green jobs, but he's been thrust into the forefront over questions surrounding this 2004 petition he signed on the 9/11 Web site demanding "... a call for immediate inquiry into evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur." Van Jones is listed as "Signer 46."

Asked why his name is on it, an administration source tells CNN that Jones did not carefully review the language in the petition. And in a statement, Jones said, "I do not agree with this statement and it certainly does not reflect my views now or ever."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Jones' name appearing on the petition, responding, "It's not something the president agrees with," and that Jones continues to work in the administration.

Jones has also gained attention for comments he made before his White House job, including this one now on YouTube when he was talking about Republicans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How were the Republicans able to push things through when they had less than 60 senators but somehow we can't?

VAN JONES, OBAMA ADVISER: Well, the answer to that is they are (EXPLETIVE DELETED).


JONES: That's a technical term.

And Barack Obama is not a (EXPLETIVE DELETED). And so, now, I will say this -- I can be an (EXPLETIVE DELETED), and some of us who are not Barack Hussein Obama are going to have to start getting a little bit ugly.

SNOW: In 2005, he was quoted in the "East Bay Express" saying, "By August, I was a communist" when explaining about his radicalization following the acquittals in the police beating case of Rodney King in 1992. Jones said, "If I had offended anyone with statements I made in the past, I apologize."

The green jobs guru has come under scrutiny by conservatives, notably Fox TV host Glenn Beck. Defenders of Jones say Beck targeted him because Jones was formerly with a group now working to get advertisers to boycott Beck's show. The boycott came after the Fox host called President Obama a racist.

Before this, Jones was primarily known for his environmental work. Back in May, in comments on The San Francisco Chronicle's Web site, Jones even won the praise of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, now a Republican candidate for governor in California.

MEG WHITMAN, FMR. EBAY CEO: He's done a marvelous job.

SNOW: Whitman now says she didn't know Jones well and is distancing herself, saying it's clear he holds views she entirely rejects.


SNOW: And Suzanne, the pressure is growing. Congressman Mike Pence, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, is reportedly calling on Jones to be fired or step down. And Republican Senator Kit Bond is now calling for a congressional oversight hearing looking into the fitness of Jones as a senior White House official -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Mary.

Well, a picture of an American war Marine dying, should is have been published, or is it that appalling and hurtful to the family? The defense secretary and family, they were outraged but, The Associated Press is explaining.

And the White House is ready to reveal some well-kept secrets. They concern you. Is this an act of openness, or was there pressure to do it?

And caught on tape, corruption in Iraq. Some say it is so bad, that Iraqis are regularly urged to bribe Iraqi officials.



MALVEAUX: Well, the president often says that it's your house. So, shouldn't you know who is visiting? Many guests to the White House have been kept secret. Well, that is about to change.

And a young football player hailed as a hero. It appears he risked his own life to save others from a girl pointing a gun.


MALVEAUX: Well, who is visiting the White House? When it comes to letting Americans know, the Obama administration is doing an about- face.

Joining us for our "Strategy Session," Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee and Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Thank you for joining us.

First of all, I want to talk about this. This came out today. And essentially, they are going to release these Secret Service logs of visitors about three or four months after they are in the White House to give people a sense of who the president is talking to, who arranges these meetings, and how this goes.

Is this a good idea, or do they need to protect that information?

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Oh, I think it's a good idea. And I guarantee you, there will be some unknown finding that says, you know, that there's somebody that can get in without having to be reported on the logs, which is also fine, by the way.

But, you know, the executive branch is under much more scrutiny than the legislative branch. I mean, there is no FOIA for a congressional -- you can't do a Freedom of Information Act for a congressman's or congresswoman's letters or internal things. You can do that at any agency of the executive branch.

So, this is just -- and I think a good one -- a good continuation of what's been going on for decades now, is opening up executive branch operations to public scrutiny.

MALVEAUX: How significant is this, Mo?

MO ELLEITHEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think it's a big deal. And I think it continues what President Obama promised during the campaign, that he was going to have a more open administration, a more transparent administration, certainly than the previous one, which was known for being incredibly secretive in a lot of its dealings. So, I think this is a good thing. He's making good on a campaign promise.

GALEN: You want to go back one beyond this one? You want to talk about how secretive the Clinton administration was and maybe the president himself in terms of who was coming in and out? I don't think you want to go there.

MALVEAUX: Well, you know, what was frustrating, though, as a reporter covering Clinton, as well as Bush, who had the discussions with Vice President Cheney over energy policy -- those were very secretive -- with Clinton, who was actually having the sleepovers in the White House, who had that kind of influence.

Do you think that this was something that the Obama administration had to do? That this was a change that was necessary?

GALEN: Well, I think it's probably necessary in terms of the flow of history, literally. But I think that, probably, if you talk to the staff, they would just as soon not have to do this, they would just as soon be able to have open -- I mean, free and unfettered examination of kind of interesting discussions with people who they might not wish everybody kind of -- you know, having a stakeout outside the White House.

MALVEAUX: And Mo, you mentioned there were exceptions at the White House. That, in fact, friends of Sasha and Malia, for instance, there would be no disclosure of that, or if there would be things related to security measures.


MALVEAUX: That that wouldn't be disclosed, that kind of thing.

GALEN: Big umbrella.

MALVEAUX: Very much so.

Let's turn the corner here. Want to take a look at this poll.

The handling of the federal deficit, obviously Democrats making some gain here. Who would do a better job handling the budget deficit?

You've got Democrats, 46 percent. Republicans, 46 percent.

Mo, what does this say about the fact that you've got the Democrats, who are now -- they seem to be gaining in an area in which Republicans, for the most part, had a monopoly on, that people really felt that it was the Republicans that were better able to deal with this?

ELLEITHEE: Yes -- no, I think that's exactly right. It wasn't that long ago that my party wasn't looked upon too favorably by the American people when it came to controlling the deficit and spending. And I think after -- sort of using Rich's term -- the flow of history, looking at the last administration into this one, we're seeing people understand that the Republican Party ran up some of the most incredible spending that we've seen. President Clinton had a balanced budget at the end of -- or surplus at the end of his administration.

GALEN: With a Republican Congress.

ELLEITHEE: President Bush ran it up. And so -- ran up the deficit. So, I think it does say quite a lot.


GALEN: Well, it's interesting that the only thing that you can talk about as a silver lining in this poll is that Republicans and Democrats are tied on this one piece of issue handling.

MALVEAUX: Well, they're tied on taxes as well.

GALEN: But overall, the administration and the Congress are coming -- gravity has overtaken them. The president's approval ratings are down below where Bush was at the same time, by the way, in his first term. And people don't go -- and you, Mo, I think talked of this. People don't go from candidate A to candidate B. They go from candidate A, to undecided, to candidate B.

And I think we're seeing the shift back to being a 50/50 country, which is really (INAUDIBLE).

ELLEITHEE: But I think on a lot of the key indicators out there on handling of the economy, on handling of the deficit, on handling of taxes, you're right, Democrats are gaining ground. They're looking at what they saw over the last eight years in the Bush administration, compared to what they're seeing today, and it's a big change.

GALEN: Were you out of town in August? Did you miss what went on in August? I mean, if that's -- if that's support for Democratic policies, keep going.

ELLEITHEE: Well, they're still moving in the right direction for our side. They're moving in the right direction.

MALVEAUX: All right. We're going to leave it there.

Mo, Rich, thank you so much

ELLEITHEE: Thank you.

GALEN: Have a good weekend, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you. You, too.

Well, it is not just American jobs that are moving overseas. Now some students are outsourcing their essays. Details of a new way that some are cheating.

Plus, the uproar over President Obama's assignment to American school kids. James Carville and Tony Blankley are here to weigh in.


MALVEAUX: On our "Political Ticker," a key appointment to the future George W. Bush Institute, the think tank that will be part of his presidential center. James Glassman has been named executive director. He was an undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Affairs. And before that, he held top positions at "Roll Call," "Atlantic Monthly," and "U.S. News & World Report."

The institute and library will be at Southern Methodist University, along with a museum.

Another contender for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts has taken out the paperwork needed to launch a campaign.

Yesterday, State Attorney General Martha Coakley kicked off her bid for Kennedy's seat. Lynch has represented suburban Boston in the House since 2001, and before that spent almost a decade in the Massachusetts legislature. The primary election is December 8th, with the special election January 19th.

In Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell is trying to calm the uproar over his 20-year-old masters thesis with a new ad. In his paper, he argued that working women were harmful to traditional families. Well, his new ad tries to distance him from that position, paying tribute to his working mother and prominently featuring his three daughters, including one who served as an Army officer in Iraq.

And remember, for the latest political news any time, check out

Hey, Jack.

Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File."

CAFFERTY: That's one of those rules of politics. You know, if your position on an issue tends to become uncomfortable, just change your position.

The question: Is President Obama's back-to-school address planned for next week to schoolchildren an inappropriate mix of politics and education?

Got a lot of mail on this.

Mark in Houston, "The quick answer is no. Unless, of course, the real anger and hatred for Obama is based on the fact that he's not a Republican, he's not speaking out enough against abortion, and he's black, in which case you're going to hate the man no matter his efforts or accomplishments."

"I remember in grade school our sixth grade class being released from school, bused 35 miles to an adjacent town, where we stood and cheered President Eisenhower as he passed by in a campaign motorcade. The next day we were asked to write a short paper on how we could help support the president and become better citizens. Not a soul complained."

Bill in North Carolina, "Anything mixed with politics is inappropriate anymore . The Republicans are opposed to anything Obama suggests. But then, the Democrats are opposed to anything the Republicans would suggest."

"As you said, the Democrats criticized the first President Bush when he made a similar televised address to school kids. If the Democrats felt it was wrong then, how can they support it now? And if the Republicans feel it's wrong now, why did they condone it then?"

Ann in Nashville says, "This is unbelievable to me. I hated President Bush's policies, but I would have thought it was wonderful if he had addressed my granddaughter's school. It's the office of the president of the United States. Where is the civility and respect in this country anymore?"

Roanna in Peoria, Arizona, "Let's skip the niceties here. Anything Obama does, the loudest 20 percent will criticize and demonize. They'll fight until he's defeated and the country will stand stagnant. These people are racists and sore losers. The Republican leadership should walk around with their heads permanently held in shame, which is better than where their heads usually reside."

And Stephen in Macon, Georgia, says, "I suppose the Republicans would prefer a president who sits down with the kids and reads 'My Pet Goat' to them while the country is under attack."

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

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Jack.


Happening now, dozens are dead in Afghanistan, insurgents and innocents alike, after another NATO airstrike goes wrong. The allies apologize, but are alienating the civilians, whose support they desperately need.

A fire chief calls it domestic terrorism. Investigators find that the massive California blaze that killed two firefighters was deliberately set. Now homicide detectives are on the case.

And President Obama plans a speech to the nation's students. He'll urge them to study hard and stay in school. So why are so many conservative critics and parents upset?

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.