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The Situation Room

Worst Oil Disaster in U.S. History?; President Obama Speaks Out on Oil Crisis

Aired May 27, 2010 - 18:00   ET


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

Happening now: We're more than 24 hours into what many see as the last, best chance the plug the oil well fouling the Gulf of Mexico. We have new information this hour on the critical top kill operation. Stand by.

The magnitude of the crisis explodes, with new estimates making the Gulf leak officially the worst disaster in U.S. history.

And there is talk now of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. What can the U.S. do to calm the tension? I will ask the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

As the world watches and waits to see if BP can plug that spewing Gulf oil well, there is a stunning new government estimate out about the size of the leak. Get this, as much as 19,000 barrels a day. That would make it already twice as large as the Exxon Valdez disaster and now it would be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, is working this part of the story for us. Jeanne, this is a whole lot worse than the previous estimates and that raises the question, why?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it has a lot to do with the new data they have collected. This spill is now in a league of its own, the largest in U.S. history.


MESERVE (voice-over): When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989, 11 million gallons of oil fouled the waters of Alaska, but the Gulf Coast is now facing something much worse. A panel of independent and government experts estimates between 19 million and 30 million gallons of oil has spewed from the Deep Horizon well, and it's still coming.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD COMMANDANT: It's another estimate. It is a better estimate. It is more accurate, but it's a range. Now, I would suggest we don't get too fixated on the amount. It could go down or go up. MESERVE: By merging studies of the plume with surveys of oil on the surface of the water, scientists calculate 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day is gushing into the Gulf. That is many times larger than the previous government estimate of 5,000 barrels a day and totally dwarfs BP's initial estimation that only 1,000 barrels were escaping each day.

Congressman Ed Markey says internal BP documents show the company knew it was spilling at a higher rate, but didn't make it public, in hopes of reducing its financial liability.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: BP was more concerned about its liability than it was about the livability of the Gulf by lowballing the number of barrels of oil per day.

MESERVE: Some outside experts had overestimated the spill. One researchers says new data and better video have reduced his estimate from 70,000 barrels a day to 22,000.

STEVEN WERELEY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING, PURDUE UNIVERSITY: I hadn't been provided with the gas-to-oil ratio. My numbers were based strictly on one 30-second clip. And that clip was of relatively low quality.


MESERVE: The administration insists the new number would not have changed the government response, that it always planned for a worst-case scenario -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: I'm sure they are always fine-tuning these estimates. That's what they are, estimates, to begin with. Jeanne, thank you.

We are watching for any sign of progress with that top kill operation under way right now. It is attempting to plug the oil leak.

Let's bring in our meteorologist Chad Myers.

Chad, success. We're looking at these live feed, the pictures. What will it look like if it is successful?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, there are a couple of different stages of success. Success that they had a little bit earlier, but then they shut off the pump, is to get this big, heavy mud flowing down the other way, stopping the oil and the natural gas, stopping the hydrocarbons from coming up through.

This is the top of the blowout preventer, the blowout preventer and the surface of the ocean just down below me. And then the pipe was supposed to come up and go up to the rig. Well, the pipe fell down when the rig fell, so we are looking at this kink where that pipe fell. And this is where most of the oil has been coming out here and then the other part where there is another pipe is about a mile or so, almost half-a-mile away from here, because that was all the way up to the surface. What we will eventually see is all of this smoky-looking cloud cover here, that will all begin to slow down when they put this product in that's going to kind of fill in some of the holes. It's going to try to slow down how much oil can come out. And it's almost like a junk shot, but it's smaller, smaller pieces of rubber that will clog this flow.

When they clog the flow, then they will be injecting all of that mud, pushing that mud down almost 18,000 feet. That will take a long time. That could take 100 hours. I know we want this to stop now, but it's not going to stop now. It could take four days before we actually see complete success.

And, Wolf, a lot of things could happen before then. And BP, we know they are working on it, but I'm wondering why we didn't work on this 35 days ago.

BLITZER: That's a good question.

Let's talk a little bit about one additional complicating factor that could come into play.

MYERS: Ah, yes. Sure.

BLITZER: The hurricane season is about to begin. They have -- we have got some initial forecasts, and it's not very pretty. It could -- if this thing is still going, it could seriously complicate what's going on.

MYERS: The water is hot. The water is four degrees hotter than it should be in the Atlantic Ocean now. That's bad.

Hot water makes hurricanes. We already have an Eastern Pacific storm down here that's making a lot of rain for El Salvador. This is already active already. Now, it's not going to cross into the Gulf. It's not going to become a Gulf storm. But the Hurricane Center, as you said, came out with their new numbers, and they are scary, Wolf.

The normal, the average number of named storms is 10. They are predicting 14 to 23. The normal number of hurricanes, six. They're predicting 18 to 14. And the most significant number that I saw today, the average, two major hurricanes Category 3 or higher. They are saying there may be seven major hurricanes this year.

If you take that hurricane and you push that water like a Katrina into the marshes and into the estuaries, because of all this oil that's in it already, you would not only be killing the beaches. You will be killing miles inland and making that soil completely worthless for many years.

BLITZER: This -- you listen to that, Chad, it sounds like a bad horror movie.

MYERS: It certainly does. And you know what? NOAA has put it into perspective. NOAA said today, look, the worst thing that's going to happen with a hurricane and oil is that you're going to get killed by the hurricane if you don't get out of the way.

Yes, the oil will make a complication, but the hurricane and especially a major hurricane is still going to have more damaging power than the oil does right now.

BLITZER: Chad, we will stay in close touch with you. Let's hope we don't see a hurricane any time soon.

President Obama held a news conference today about the oil spill crisis, taking personal responsibility and saying it's his job to make sure everything is done to stop the leak and to make sure it never happens again. The president says he's fully engaged in what he calls a catastrophe.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Gulf -- this spill -- the Gulf is going to be affected in -- in a bad way. And so my job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about.


OBAMA: The spill.

And it's not just me, by the way. You know, when I woke up this morning and I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?


OBAMA: Because I think everybody understands that, when we are fouling the earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations.

I grew up in Hawaii where the ocean is sacred. And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their feathers and turtles dying, you know, that doesn't just speak to the immediate economic consequences of this; this speaks to, you know, how are we caring for this incredible bounty that we have?


BLITZER: The federal government is giving partial approval right now to Louisiana's plan to keep oil out of its coastal wetlands by dredging up new barrier islands. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, says the federal government will build new islands wherever work can be completed fastest.

But he says Louisiana will be responsible for the cost and environmental impact of larger portions.

We will have much more on the Gulf oil spill, including an emotional effort by the families of those killed in the rig explosion to get compensation. Some of them say current laws may protect Transocean and BP.

And some cleanup workers right now are reporting health problems. What effect is all of this oil having on humans?

Plus, amidst all of this right now, a new threat of all-out war between North and South Korea. I will talk about that and more with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.


BLITZER: Just wanted to update you on the news, what's going on right now with operation top kill. That's the effort to stop the oil from spewing out of that well in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

We have now been told by BP officials that they have halted or at least paused the injection of that mud, at least for now, so as to give them a chance to resupply their efforts. They will resume the effort. They can't say at this point whether there's been success or failure yet. They are watching this situation closely, but they are certainly at a critical moment, all eyes on this effort to stop the operation.

There are serious questions about the compensation of what's going on, especially for the relatives of those killed in the oil rig explosion.

Brian Todd is working that part of the story for us.

Brian, you had a chance to speak to the father of one of the victims. I assume it is a very, very emotional conversation.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly was, Wolf. And this father says that his son's family is not getting enough support from laws on the books right now to collect adequate compensation for this loss.

Keith Jones is making an emotional appeal to change those laws and punctuating that appeal with a stark description of his son's fate aboard that rig.


TODD (voice-over): Keith Jones has a jarring description of what he believes happened to his son on board the Deepwater Horizon.

KEITH JONES, SON KILLED IN RIG EXPLOSION: His body was cremated. The fire was so intense, it had to have cremated him. And then the fire boats came in to try to put out the fire, and his ashes had to have been washed out to sea.

TODD: Jones' son Gordon was a mud engineer on the rig when it exploded. Gordon's widow, Michelle, now has to care for two young sons, one of them born just two weeks ago. Keith Jones is in Washington to plead for more support for them than he thinks they are getting.

(on camera): You don't believe the laws are set up right now to compensate your family adequately, right?

JONES: No. And they haven't been for a long time. They -- the Death on the High Seas Act allows only for Michelle to recover the loss of Gordon's future income, minus what he would have consumed himself. She doesn't recover anything for the loss of her husband, for the loss of the father of her children, for the man she wanted to grow old with.

TODD: Jones' son worked for a firm hired by BP to work on the rig. Jones believes BP, if they are found liable for his son's death, would hide behind laws like the Death on the High Seas Act to limit the family's compensation.

And Jones wants those laws changed. Contacted by CNN, a BP official wouldn't comment. Officials of Transocean, the owner of the rig, tell us they have started to work with victims' families on compensation. But one Transocean employee says the company tried to trick him in the days after the explosion.

Listen to Stephen Stone, a worker on the rig.

STEPHEN STONE, RIG WORKER: A Transocean representative asked me to sign a document stating I was not injured in order to get $5,000 for the loss of my personal possessions in general. This happened 10 days after the explosion in a Denny's restaurant without my lawyer present.

TODD: Stone says he never signed the document. A Transocean attorney says a company person simply gave Stone the money, and:

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No employee has been asked to or has signed a release of liability.


TODD: Now, other Transocean officials have expressed some frustration to CNN about the claims that they made people sign waivers. One Transocean official says the form they were asked to sign after the accident was one asking where they were at the time of the explosion, what they were doing, and to affirm that they were not a witness and were not injured.

He says the workers were free to complete that form or not to complete it. He says they had their choice, Wolf.

BLITZER: This rig worker, Stone, does he say that he was in fact injured?

TODD: He says that he did not require medical attention at the time, but he says now he's being treated for the aftereffects of smoke inhalation and for some emotional distress that he suffered. So...

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much -- Brian Todd working this sensitive and emotional part of the story for us.

We're going to get back to what is happening with operation top kill momentarily, but there is some other important news I want to check out as well.

The Obama administration out today with its first national security strategy. We will talk about it with our national security contributor, Fran Townsend. She was the homeland security adviser to President Bush, worked in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration.

Fran, I read it pretty carefully. It's a lengthy document, about 50 or 60 pages. It speaks about what they call a loose network of violent extremists, what you in the Bush administration used to called terrorists, and a war on terror.

Is this just words, symbolic? What's the real difference between calling it a war on terror and a war against a loose network of violent extremists?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, a lot of this is rhetorical. And it's a language preference that the new administration has been perfectly clear about. They don't like using the phrase war on terror.

I, for one, think there is some benefit in clarity. After all, terrorism is in fact a tactic that these people use to terrorize populations, civilian populations, noncombatants.

And what we are -- what we're waging is this war, this conflict against this ideology and as well as the tactic. So I understand their change in language, but it's very difficult, Wolf. When you say we're in the war on terror, people, Americans, your average American understands what that means.

That we are in a conflict with a loose network of violent extremists does not exactly immediately resonate with your average -- your average American.

BLITZER: This new strategy, this new review that just came out, it's called the NSS, the national security strategy, also emphasizes Americans who have been radicalized right now and they -- and how much of a threat that poses to our national security.

Is that unusual? That does seem to suggest a change from the past.

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, Wolf, this has been an -- this has been an increasing threat over time. I can remember towards the end of the Bush administration, it was clear that we were -- that the prior administration was worried about this self-radicalization, the use of the Internet for the exchange of radical ideas.

And now we have seen things like Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood and the Christmas Day attempted bomber and the guy in Times Square, Faisal Shahzad. And so I think that they are right to include that in the national security strategy. And, in fact, Wolf, I think they would have been criticized if they hadn't.

But it's interesting. There used to be in the prior administration a national strategy and a homeland security strategy. And that second homeland security strategy not only addressed the terrorism threat, but also our preparation for natural disasters, like we are seeing in the BP situation now.

Wolf, they call this the national security strategy. They have merged both the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council. And it will be interesting to see what policy document will address the consequences and the preparation for natural disasters, like the one that they are dealing with right now in the Gulf Coast.

BLITZER: I read it carefully this document, this national security report. We are going to have more with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, on this, especially North Korea and Iran. Fascinating material.

Thanks very much, Fran, for that.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

BLITZER: BP stops pumping mud into that gushing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. What does that really mean about the prospects of the so-called top kill operation? We have an update on the breaking news for you. What is going on with top kill? We will tell you when we come back.


BLITZER: Getting some new pictures coming in of the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction, the damage of what this spill has caused. It is rather intense right now.

We have also just learned a little while ago, within the past 45 minutes or so ago, that BP has suspended operation top kill, injecting more mud into that rig down there and that well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, since midnight last night. They say they are going to resume it within the next few hours. This is not necessarily, they say, a sign of success or failure. They say they just have to get more supplies and make sure that the pressure levels are adequate.

We're going to stay on top of this story -- lots happening right now.


BLITZER: The top kill operation, as we have been reporting now, the breaking news, temporarily suspended. We're going to go live to the oil spill incident command center for the latest on efforts to seal that leaking oil well in the Gulf. Stand by.

Also, a surprising twist in a massive medicine recall -- there is now a criminal probe of the drugmaker.

Plus, details of a rebound on Wall Street.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: That massive effort to seal the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has, at least temporarily, been suspended. We have only learned within the past hour or so that they put a halt to the injection of the mud in order to deal with some other issues. That's not necessarily a sign of success or failure.

David Mattingly is over at the command center.

David, tell our viewers what we know about this, because you hear the words operation top kill suspended or halted, at least temporarily, you begin to wonder what's going on.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, a little bit of a surprise. They say for the last 16 hours, they have not been pumping any of that drilling mud into their system down there. They said they stopped after they believe that they successfully were able to pump mud down into the well.

They were monitoring a lot of things, decided to stop. They decided to restock with the mud and try again. This time, they're going to restart again any moment now. And, when they do that, they're going to try something called a bridging material that's a solid material similar to that junk shot we have talked so much about.

This bridging material, the solid material, they are going to inject in with that liquid to try and create a stronger base that will keep that -- that heavy liquid from leaking out the top, from blowing out the top, like we have seen it doing, and instead force it down even more down into the well.

And, of course, this is a big pressure game. They are trying to create pressure with that heavy liquid to force the oil back down into the well, so they can cover it up with cement and stop this leak. So, again, they have not been pumping this mud for the last 16 hours, and are about to start again, thickening it up a little bit with some solid material, to see if it works a little better this time.

BLITZER: That solid material, you're talking about the junk shot, what -- what they used to say were these old tires or golf balls. What exactly would be included as part of the solid material?

MATTINGLY: There is a variety of material that they can use and BP says they've got that material, the entire spread of the material ready to go. Some of it's larger than others. Some of it is small rubber balls. Some of it is pieces of tire like we have talked about before with the junk shot.

So, literally, a collection of junk, but it's all carefully picked according to size and will be used depending on what kind of situation they have to clog things up a little bit to give that heavy liquid more of a footing to start pushing down with that pressure they need to seal this well off.

BLITZER: David, is there an explanation from the BP officials? And I know you're at the command center. You're in close touch with them. Why they wait 16 hours to tell us if they suspended this operation top kill at midnight last night? They don't tell us until after 5:00 p.m. here on the east coast? Tell us why they don't update us and show some transparency.

MATTINGLY: Well, they were peppered with questions about what does this mean and why were you doing this? And the explanation is sort of is, sort of what we've heard all along, is that this is a learning process for them. They've got a tremendous amount of monitoring equipment down there. Sometimes they just have to stop, look at the data, make sure they're doing the right thing and try to figure out how to do it better.

They said the good sign here was they were able to believe -- they were, they believe, able to force some mud down into the well bore. That means if they give this a second shot, put some more heavy material in it, that they might have more success in getting the right mix down there to finally succeed in doing what they want to do, which is to shut this well down.

BLITZER: We hope they do it properly. We hope they do it safe rather than sorry. But they can at least share this kind of information with us. They don't have to hold everything in secret until for 16 hours or so. That's a little ridiculous.

All right. Just my personal complaint. David, stand by.

Anderson Cooper has been on the scene for us.

Anderson, tell us where you are now, what you have seen today.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): I'm heading back to New Orleans. I was in Venice today talking with Coast Guard admiral, Thad Allen, as well as other Coast Guard officials and local officials, just trying to get a sense of -- a read of their take on what President Obama had to say today and how they think the operations are going.

But, Wolf, I mean, what you just expressed of that -- why did they wait 16 hours to tell anybody, that's a -- that's a, you know, a fine example of why a lot of local officials here are upset at BP They feel that they haven't -- there is enough of that transparency. They don't feel they're getting straight answers, that they haven't been.

Admiral Thad Allen, who I know you talked to a short time ago, does seem to absorb those complaints. Today, he's talking about, you know, kind of changing the way business is being done here in terms of getting more Coast Guard officials who have decision-making power, getting them down to the local level in some of these parishes, and able to make, you know, command decisions on the ground and kind of decentralize some of the command and control structure that they have had in place.

And that's in direct response, no doubt, to a lot of the complaints from parish officials who say, look, you know, local officials know these waters, know where the booms need to go, know where the oil is, and they are not being listened to enough. BLITZER: Anderson, we know the president of the United States will be where you are tomorrow. He's going to take a tour and see what's going on. Based on the conversations you had all day today with officials and average folks, did he reassure them that he's in charge, that he knows what he's doing?

COOPER: You know, I think there was -- some people already commented about kind of a lack of emotion or a lack of intensity in his comments. You know, the president is often professorial. I think a lot of people here, you know, emotions are running pretty high and it's hot down here.

People are out on the water. They're working long hours. They're working around the clock.


BLITZER: We may have lost Anderson on the cell phone. We're going to check back with him. Anderson Cooper is on the scene for us. He's going to have a lot more coming up on "AC360" later tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern. Stay with CNN, of course, for complete coverage.

We're going to have a lot more on this oil spill and what's going on. There's going to be a lot more information coming out. This is a critical moment right now.

The headline we have been sharing with you for 16 hours: top kill effectively has been suspended as BP regroups and decides what to do next.

We're staying on top of this story for you. You're staying on top of other important stories as well, including the maker of Tylenol hammered at congressional hearings today. And now, there is an indication that the way they dealt with the series of recalls may -- repeat, may -- have been criminal.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The sinking of a South Korean warship now blamed on North Korea has tension between the two countries soaring right now. Today, North Korea gave a dire warning, saying it will meet war with all-out war.


BLITZER: And joining us now: the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.

Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: North Korea is now saying that they are ready for all- out war against South Korea. Here's the question: how close are we to all-out war?

RICE: Well, Wolf, I think, frankly, North Korea needs to cease provocative statements and actions, and refrain from any further aggression that could lead to a more severe situation. We, in fact, have had South Korea respond very responsibly in a measured way to what has transpired thus far. South Korea has indicated that it will bring this issue to the attention of the United Nations Security Council, even as it takes measures on its own in the region to address what has been a provocative act of aggression by North Korea.

And, we in the Security Council await South Korea's communication and request for action.

BLITZER: When you say "provocative action," you're referring to the torpedoing of a South Korean warship killing, what, 46 South Korean sailors. South Korea says North Korea -- a North Korean submarine did that.

The U.S. -- is it the position of the Obama administration that the South Korean assessment is accurate?

RICE: Yes, it is.

BLITZER: Why isn't that an act of war if --

RICE: The evidence -- the evidence --

BLITZER: -- if the North Koreans bomb or torpedo a South Korean ship killing sailors, is that an act of war?

RICE: It's definitely an act of aggression, Wolf, in the context of the cessation of the armistice agreement, it's prohibited. And it is unacceptable behavior.

We have said very clearly that we support South Korea, our ally and partner. We will stand with them against this act of aggression.

BLITZER: When you say an "act of aggression" as opposed to an "act of war," what's the difference?

RICE: The difference is only a technical one in the context of the armistice and the fact that there hasn't been a final agreement in the treaty between the North and South. In practical terms, there is no real difference.

BLITZER: Well, that's one very tense moment right now -- a tense issue, North Korea.

Iran is another source of tension right now. This national security strategy that the Obama administration just released outlining basically the strategy of the U.S. national security and foreign policy. It's a lengthy document. Every word is carefully considered, as you well know.

I read the section on Iran, because that's another issue that could be coming before the United Nations Security Council for a new round of sanctions. What was interesting to me, and maybe I missed it, but I read it pretty carefully. I didn't see any reference, specific mention of the growing democracy movement in Iran right now. Did you -- did I miss something?

RICE: Well, the section on Iran relates to countries that are not acting in accordance with international law, not meeting their responsibilities under international law, and the national security strategy makes it clear that the United States will work with others to hold such states accountable. The premise is that all states have rights but all states have responsibilities. And those that don't meet their responsibilities will be increasingly isolated.

BLITZER: All right. Let me rephrase the question. What, if anything, is the U.S. doing to support the dissidents, the protesters, those pro-democracy elements in Iran right now that seek regime change?

RICE: Well, the United States has been clear in the national security strategy that in Iran and all around the world, we will stand with those who are championing democracy and human rights. We will provide moral and material support to them because democracies are much more inclined to cooperate and act peacefully and share an interest in respecting individual rights and norms. That's core to our values. So that pervades the entire national security strategy and it applies not only to Iran but to countries around the world.

With respect to Iran, the United States has been very clear in calling out the regime for its tremendous abuses of human rights and for being clear that it stands with the people of Iran as they seek to express themselves freely and choose their government freely and with legitimacy. That hasn't been the case and we have stood up in strong support of those who have demanded those rights.

BLITZER: The regime of President Ahmadinejad, does the U.S. support regime change in Iran?

RICE: Our policy, Wolf, is not regime change in Iran. It is an Iranian government that reflects the will of its people and that acts responsibly in accordance with its international obligations, that ceases its pursuit of illicit nuclear weapons program, that ceases support for terrorism, and becomes a responsible player in the region and around the world. That's what we seek in Iran.

And we are doing it through the means I described, through making clear to Iran that it faces a clear choice: increased pressure and isolation, or if it chooses to act responsibly and deal with its nuclear program through diplomacy and dismantle it, it faces a different future -- a more cooperative relationship with the international community. That's the choice Iran faces.

And meanwhile, we stand firmly in support of the people of Iran who wish to choose their government freely who want to express themselves without violence or repression -- as we do with people seeking human rights and democracy around the world.

BLITZER: You've got your hands full as always at the United Nations. Ambassador Rice, good luck to you. Thanks very much for joining us.

RICE: Good to be with you, Wolf.


WOLF: And we are following two other important stories: the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There's a new development, a suspension of top kill.

Also, there's word coming from Capitol Hill, a major development on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Stand by. We'll be right back.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: A crucial vote on repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning gays from serving openly in the United States military.

Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

What has just happened, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What just happened is the Senate Armed Services Committee passed this repeal compromise, this passed it by a vote of 16 to 12. And that is part of the Defense Authorization Bill. That is going to ultimately go to the floor of the Senate.

This is significant, very significant, as you said. And the reason is because it was just this week that Democrats on Capitol Hill formed a compromise with the White House and one that was backed by some and backed by not others at the Pentagon.

But essentially, what this does is legislation to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" but -- and this is a big but, Wolf -- it would not take effect until after the military finishes its review of the policy and it is formally certified by the president, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by the secretary of defense. And that could take a long, long time.

But this is a big, big victory. We're already getting lots of statements from proponents of repealing this ban.

BLITZER: So, now it goes to Senate floor and the House of Representatives would have to pass the same legislation.

BASH: Exactly. And it's moving in the House as well. This is a compromise that was done on parallel tracks. The full House actually could vote as soon as tonight, but it's more likely that they are going to vote tomorrow.

Again, this is part of a larger defense bill. Again, most likely tomorrow. And the House speaker said today that she believes that she does have the votes to pass this in the House.

BLITZER: If it passes the House and the Senate right now, even if it wouldn't take effect until after this review at the end of the year or early next year, it goes into effect, it would be significant because you have to have a new law to get it off the ground. It would be easier with the current makeup -- the Democrats versus Republicans in the House and Senate -- than waiting presumably until after November.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

BASH: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Significant development on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

We're going to continue our coverage with what's happening in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There are new concerns about the health of those involved in the cleanup. Stay with us.


BLITZER: On top of everything else, there is now new concern over the impact of the Gulf oil spill on human health. Some cleanup workers are now saying they are getting sick.

Our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, has been investigating what's going on.

What are you finding out, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we are finding out there is that some irony here. Many of these cleanup workers are fishermen who've lost their livelihood for obvious reasons. So, they are taking work from BP, trying to help clean up this spill and they say they are suffering the health consequences.


COHEN (voice-over): Last night, seven workers who've been cleaning up the oil spill admitted to this hospital in West Jefferson, Louisiana, complaining of headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath. Some were brought by helicopter from the Gulf.

CLINT GUIDRY, FRIEND OF CLEAN-UP WORKERS: They are in the most dangerous place that they could have possibly been.

COHEN: Oil, as it evaporates can give off toxic vapors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals can enter deep within the lungs and the bloodstream.

Not only is there oil in these waters, but also dispersants -- the chemicals used to break up the oil. According to the manufacturer of the dispersants, they can irritate the respiratory tract. The label warns avoid breathing vapor. Dr. Irwin Redlener is head of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

(on camera): Are you worried about the health of these cleanup workers?

DR. IRWIN REDLENER, COLUMBIA SCHOOL OF PUBLIC SCHOOL: I am definitely worried about the health of the cleanup workers. I'm getting an eerie reminder of, you know, 9/11, where we let workers just sort of be, for unlimited amounts of time, on the pile down in New York. We want to make sure that we are not exposing workers who are now responsible for cleanup to short or long-term health effects.

COHEN (voice-over): Redlener says breathing in the dispersants can make someone feel like they are having a severe asthma attack. And long term --

REDLENER: The longer they are exposed, the more we don't know about the effects, let's say, on the kidney or the blood system.

DOUG SUTTLES, CHIEF OPERATION OFFICER, BP: I should just stress, though, that not only do we have the required training and personal protective equipment that's required for this job, we also do extensive monitoring for what are called VOCs or volatile organic compound.

COHEN: Guidry says BP didn't protect the workers.

GUIDRY: They did not afford them the protection of respirators or supplied air, which I have been asking for for almost three weeks. And this is the consequence.

COHEN: Thad Allen, former commandant of the Coast Guard, is the government's national incident commander for the oil spill. When asked if the oils were wearing masks, he answered:

ALLEN: I would have to go back and check on the exact personal protective equipment they were using there, but we generally try to abide by OSHA standards.


COHEN: Wolf, we just heard from BP that indeed they did not give those workers masks. They said that the workers -- that there was not enough airborne contamination. They said the air was not contaminated enough and they didn't the workers masks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Elizabeth, thanks very much. Let's hope they fix that.

John King speaks with BP's chief operator officer, Doug Suttles. See what he has to say about the prospects for plugging the leak and how he assesses the disastrous situation in the Gulf. That's coming up right at the top of the hour on "JOHN KING, USA."

Also, Jeanne Moos on an attempt to capitalize on a most unusual fashion statement by a world leader.

Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION.


BLITZER: A story involving Tylenol. Let's check back with Lisa.

What's going on, Lisa?


Lawmakers and safety officials are hammering the maker of Tylenol for its handling of a series of recent recalls. And now, there are new indications that some of the company's conduct may even be criminal. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of Johnson & Johnson has recalled products four times over a 7-month period.

At hearings on Capitol Hill today, one FDA official cited, quote, "significant violations by the company." Another official indicated that the FDA's criminal division is investigating -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll continue to watch it. Thank you very much, Lisa.

A few weeks ago, the prime minister of Japan caused a stir when he ventured into risky fashion territory by wearing a five-tone plaid shirt. Now, a clothing maker is trying to capitalize on this most unusual incident. Jeanne Moos explains.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We dished it out a few weeks back, nearly creating an international incident over the Japanese prime minister's plaid shirt, five different plaids, actually.



MOOS: But just when you thought you could kiss what some called the world's ugliest plaid shirt good-bye --


MOOS: -- it's back. No, not back on the prime minister, but on sale. For those who dissented from the criticism, that colorful plaid shirt is fantastic, awesome. Where can I buy that shirt? I love it.

Well, now you can buy it, here at presenting the Hatoyama shirt, hand sawn with red front, purple back, yellow sleeve, blue sleeve, green collar.

(on camera): But, hey, if you want a Hatoyama shirt, you better hurry, it's a limited edition. They're only making 50 of them.

(voice-over): The co-founders of the Web site call the prime minister a fashion hero. "It's about daring to be different. He is a fashion hero and we stand by him all the way."

So what if others say --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are no circumstances where I would wear that shirt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. Not even for free.

MOOS: Free? We're talking 500 bucks. That's 100 per plaid.

Jeanne Moos, CNN --


MOOS: -- New York.


BLITZER: Jeanne Moos, thanks very much.

That's all the time we have. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING, USA" starts right now.