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Racially-Charged Resignation From Former USDA Employee; Ground Zero Islamic Center Mosque Debate Rages On

Aired July 20, 2010 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This hour, the raging controversy, plus exclusive reaction from her now former boss, the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack.

Also, by blimp and by boat, an exclusive look at the Gulf oil disaster, as experts weigh an option that could provide a permanent fix.

And oil's impact on the Florida Senate race. Does the Republican candidate Marco Rubio still support offshore oil drilling? I will ask him.

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

It's opened up a new chapter in the Gulf oil disaster. Now BP and the federal government have decided to extend the integrity test of that new well cap for another 24 hours. For six days it has kept oil from leaking into the Gulf, giving experts time to consider a more permanent fix called a static kill that is designed to end the threat once and for all.

Let's go to CNN's David Mattingly. He is monitoring all of this for us from New Orleans.

David, this new procedure could be risky, though.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there is no green light yet, BP still drawing up the plans. They still have to pitch it to the Unified Command, but right now, a lot of positive things being said about this static kill.

They would pump mud into this closed well and they believe they would have a lot more success this time being able to fill in that well with the mud and they say that would allow them to kill this well sooner. But they still have a ways to go in terms of the planning right now.

Admiral Thad Allen not having anything bad to say about it, saying that, even if they put the mud in there and find that there is a leak, that will be valuable information as they move forward with that relief well. So, at this point, everyone looking to see if this could be the next weapon in their arsenal to finally kill this well.

BLITZER: It sounds a lot like the top kill that did not work out so well many weeks ago. What is the difference?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is a huge difference here, because the top kill involved a cap that was open at the top. Remember, we saw huge clouds of mud billowing out the top of the well, and they couldn't build up enough pressure to force that mud down and keep it down in the well.

With this closed system, they will be able to pump that mud in there using less pressure than they did before, and they have a higher rate of confidence here to think that they can actually drown this well now with that mud, in tandem with drilling that relief well. The two things working together, Wolf, they think they will end this thing quickly. Without it, we are looking at days, possibly weeks, after that relief well is finished.

BLITZER: And they have got to end it quickly, because there is now fear that weather could be changing and not necessarily for the good.

MATTINGLY: Everyone watching that storm system that is moving to Florida right now. It could mess up a lot of things on the surface, and raise some questions for what is below. Here is what Admiral Allen had to say.


ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), NATIONAL INCIDENT COMMANDER: I believe they have a reconnaissance flight scheduled for tomorrow to learn more about it.

The probability is low at this time that there would be gale- force winds that could impact the well site. That could change and develop over the next few days. Obviously, we are watching that very, very closely.

In association with that, we will continue to talk with BP and make sure that whatever stage we are in, that we have assessed how long it's going to take us to complete whatever element of work, whether it is putting the casing in for the relief well or the static kill or the containment options, how that relates in terms of timelines to when we might be able to expect gale-force winds.


MATTINGLY: And the big question right now, Wolf, do they have enough confidence in this well, with it being capped right now, to keep it closed if a hurricane comes up? They are still testing. They say they really don't want to offer up an answer right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: David Mattingly is in New Orleans for us, thanks very much.

And joining us now from aboard a blimp over the Gulf of Mexico, CNN's Amber Lyon, and not far away, but considerably closer to the Gulf of Mexico, Rob Marciano. He is on a boat watching what is going on. Amber, what are you seeing from your vantage point up there about this oil disaster?

AMBER LYON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are about, I would say at 500 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, and so far we have been flying around here for several hours.

We haven't seen any big thick slicks of oil. Our crew says that sometimes, around sunset, they will start to see a light sheen across the water, but we haven't seen anything like that here so far.

Something that has stood out in our minds is, if you take a look at these beautiful white beaches, we haven't seen a lot of tourists, been a lot of empty lawn chairs and umbrellas. In addition to that, the reason the Coast Guard is using this blimp in particular is you can see as Chris is getting the shot, we are just kind of gliding along here on the Gulf of Mexico, and that allows the spotters who ride on this blimp to get a clear view of the water to check for any injured wildlife.

We have also been checking out the boom, making sure that it is all in order, that none of it is damaged, and keeping an eye out for oil that we haven't been seeing. In addition to that, Wolf, it is really interesting, because this blimp only uses about 10 gallons of fuel an hour. Now, don't we all wish our cars could travel like that?

Now, that is in -- if you look at the Coast Guard helicopters that are also flying out here surveying oil, they use about 150 gallons of fuel an hour, so this is definitely more efficient. And I think another thing about this is we had the thermometer -- I can't find it right now -- here we go -- it says that the index in this blimp is about 105 degrees, so it has been a very hot ride for several hours.

And in addition to that, there is no restroom on the blimp, so you are kind of debating, OK, do I hydrate myself or not? -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right, stand by, Amber.

Rob Marciano, I know you can talk to him.

From your vantage point -- Rob, we see that blimp over your shoulder from where you are. Do you see a lot of oil in the water right now from your much closer vantage point?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, not in this immediate area.

Earlier in the day, we did get into some sheen and there were two vessels of opportunity that surrounded that sheen with some absorbent boom and managed to cleaned that space up. You may see us rocking and rolling here. Seas are pretty rough today, Wolf, and actually so rough now to where they are beginning to call off skimming operations that are around this area. It gets to a point where when it gets too rough, the skimmers are not quite as effective. I will tell you what is effective though is that thing right there, where Amber is and the guys that are up there reconning this airspace and water space here. It is a huge, huge tool in the arsenal now to combat this oil spill. Up to 500 feet, you can see so much more than you can see down here on this skimmer.

Even in the larger skimmers, where you have taller towers that you can get on top of and see a little bit better, it is still no comparison to what that can do. So, what has been happening is Amber's team up there and the commanders up there and the spotters up there have been searching and looking and radioing down to our boat.

This boat, which is called Zeke's Lady (ph) on any other day that is not an oil spill, it is a commercial boat that takes people out to fish for snapper. Well, now it is a vessel of opportunity. Now it's the command vessel in this 10-boat skimming operation for today and telling the other vessels what to do and where to go based on what that blimp is telling us. So, a really great asset into this battle that will continue to go on for weeks to come here.

The lucky thing is we have not seen a whole lot today. And one of the reasons for that, Wolf, we have to stay still a couple of miles from the shore. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to talk to you live like this. So it is one of the handcuffs that we have had and put on at least this team for today so that we can illustrate exactly what they are doing and it is quite a special thing for sure.

BLITZER: The cleanup is going to continue not for just weeks, I assume for months and years down the road. Rob Marciano on that boat, Amber Lyon up in the blimp, guys, thanks very much.

The impact of the oil disaster is spreading rapidly. The federal government says 622 miles of Gulf Coast are now oiled. That's a 10- fold increase from just a month ago. Louisiana is the hardest hit with 355 miles of oiled coast. Mississippi has 111 miles, Alabama 69 miles. Florida has 87 miles of oiled coast.

All right, a major reversal just coming in from the NAACP in a statement just released by the president and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous, the statement saying that this woman who used to work at least until yesterday for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an African-American woman, should not have been fired by Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture.

Among the other things, in the statement that they just put out, saying this: "Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, Shirley Sherrod" -- that is the USDA, Agriculture, woman who as fired -- "and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans. The fact is Ms. Sherrod did help the white farmers mentioned in her speech. They personally credit her with helping to save the family farm."

The NAACP then going on the say: "According to the USDA," the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Sherrod's statement prompted her dismissal. While we understand why Secretary Vilsack believes this false controversy will impede her ability to function in the role, we urge him to reconsider."

The NAACP in a statement now reversing itself, urging the Department of Agriculture, the Obama administration to take another look at this woman's case and appealing to the Obama administration, reverse this decision, let this woman continue to work at the Department of Agriculture.

A lengthy statement, we are going to digest the statement, have a lot more on what is going on. We will also hear later this hour from the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, what he has to say about Shirley Sherrod in her own words.


SHIRLEY SHERROD, FORMER USDA OFFICIAL: The administration did not -- they were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth.


BLITZER: She was forced from her government job over remarks she made almost a quarter-century ago. Now she is speaking out, along with the couple she is accused of discriminating against and they are on her side. Much more coming up on this story that has generated so much commotion.

And he is the country's newest senator, the youngest senator, and on this day, his first day in office, one of the busies, casting a crucial vote for Democrats.

And the man who wants to be Florida's next U.S. senator, Republican Marco Rubio, would he join a Tea Party congressional caucus? I will ask him.


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, that debate over a proposed mosque near ground zero keeps heating up.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is firing back now at Sarah Palin, who called on New Yorkers to "refudiate" -- that's her very own made-up word -- it's not really a word at all, except to Sarah Palin -- refudiate the planned mosque only blocks away from the site of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Palin called it an unnecessary provocation that stabs hearts.

Bloomberg says Palin has a right to her opinion, but that he couldn't disagree more, adding -- quote -- "Everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness" -- unquote. Even before Palin decided to wade into this with her own language, the issue has stirred a lot of controversy and passion here in New York City. Some relatives of 9/11 victims say it would be like a monument for the terrorists or a sacrilege on sacred ground.

Local Republican politicians are calling for an investigation into how the center would be financed. And they're also raising questions about the views of its leader. Opponents are hoping to get the city's landmarks commission to protect the current structure, which would thus block the mosque project from going forward.

But supporters insist the mosque would represent the voice of moderate Muslims. They say it's meant to improve relations between Islam and the West, and add that the location, only steps away from ground zero, shows how important religious freedom is in this country.

Some 9/11 families also support the mosque, saying that there's no better symbol of tolerance and inclusion.

Besides a mosque, the proposed $100 million community center would stand 13 stories tall. It would include a gym, a swimming pool and performing space, which would be open to anyone.

Here's the question then: Is it a good idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero?

Go to Post a comment on my blog.

No shortage of opinions among New Yorkers on just about anything, but this one has a lot of people pretty fired up.

BLITZER: Yes, I know they do, Jack. All right, thanks. Good question.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, put more than 2.5 million Americans one step closer to having their unemployment benefits restored today. The deciding vote was cast by the newest and the youngest U.S. senator, Carte Goodwin of West Virginia.

Our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, has more on this young U.S. senator -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is interesting because in terms of seniority, Carte Goodwin is 100 out of 100, yet he was undeniably the most important senator on the Hill today.


KEILAR (voice-over): Carte Goodwin's first hours on Capitol Hill, learning the ropes from the now senior senator from West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller.


KEILAR: And, soon after, the 36-year-old who has never before held public office was sworn in.



BIDEN: Congratulations.

KEILAR: Now the youngest senator, Goodwin replaces Robert Byrd, who was the oldest in the Senate until his death last month. After another ceremonial swearing-in, this one punctuated by Vice President Joe Biden's humor...

BIDEN: Now, who is that lovely lady?

GOODWIN: That's my mom.

BIDEN: Your mom or your sister?


BIDEN: Your mom.

KEILAR: ... it was time for serious business, his first vote, to support an extension of unemployment benefits. And Democrats, facing a Republican filibuster, could not have passed it without Goodwin as the 60th vote.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Goodwin? Mr. Goodwin, aye.

KEILAR: Afterward, flanked by top Democrats, he took his first political test, staying on message.

QUESTION: Senator Goodwin, with your support for this vote, you also supported adding $34 billion to the deficit. Are you comfortable with that?

GOODWIN: Obviously, the deficit is an issue that everyone needs to remain focused on. But I think is important to emphasize that this was a temporary emergency measure and one that was so needed for millions of Americans and again 12,000 hardworking West Virginians, as they continue to look for work in an environment where, as Senator Reid alluded to, there are nearly five unemployed workers vying for every job opening.


KEILAR: Now, Senate Democrats could be looking at a vote on passing this, this final measure for unemployment benefits, tonight. The House we're hearing from Democrats could vote on this tomorrow, but for how instrumental, Wolf, Carte Goodwin was on this issue, he is only expected to be a senator -- he only will be a senator for a few months, because there is a special election for Byrd's seat in November and Goodwin will not be running for that, Wolf.

BLITZER: The governor will be running for that. KEILAR: That is right.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Brianna, very much.

At his death, Robert Byrd was 56 years older than Carte Goodwin, the largest age gap ever between a U.S. senator and his or her replacement. In fact, when Goodwin was born, Byrd had already been in Congress for 22 years and had been married for 37 years. Goodwin was just 3 years old when Byrd became Senate majority leader for the first time back in 1977.

Among the many changes during Byrd's long Senate career, the salary. It was $22,000 a year when he started. It is now more than $169,000 a year.

Her resignation is sparking a bitter, bitter controversy. You are going to hear why a former African-American government employee says the White House is partly to blame what has happened to her.

And he is battling Florida's governor to become the next senator. My interview with the GOP candidate Marco Rubio, that is coming up as well.



BLITZER: Twenty-four years ago, she gave a speech that has now ignited a racially charged firestorm here in the U.S.


SHERROD: They want you the pull over to the side of the road and do it, because you are going to be on "Glenn Beck" tonight.


BLITZER: That is what her boss at the Department of Agriculture told her, and now she has lost her job and is fighting to tell the rest of the story. She says what officials missed was the critical context of her remarks.

And we are also going to hear from some other key players, including the white farmer she allegedly discriminated against, but he is coming to her strong defense. Plus her former boss, the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, he is speaking out. He is defending his decision to fire her.


BLITZER: Oil from the Gulf disaster is not just impacting Florida's beaches. It is now also colliding with the state's closely watched U.S. Senate race.

And joining us now, Marco Rubio. He is the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida, the former House speaker in Florida. Thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Do you think it is a good idea, what Charlie Crist, the governor, wants -- and he's your rival -- to get a constitutional amendment that once and for all would ban all offshore drilling off the coast of Florida?

RUBIO: Well, let me first say what would be a good idea is to actually have a real special session where they deal with the economic issues that the region is facing.

Offshore drilling is already illegal in Florida already. It's not legal now. You can't do it. The law prohibits it.

BLITZER: But they could change it. If you have a constitutional amendment, that would bar it once and for all.

RUBIO: And they can do that in a regular session.

I think the problem is, the legislature was called in, in an extraordinary special session to waste taxpayer dollar to come up and consider something that there is no imminent threat for. What the special session should have been about and what he did not expand the call to make it about was economic relief for Northwest Florida.

Luckily, the legislative leaders, the Senate president, the speaker of the house, have said they are going to call the legislature back in September to consider real relief, like the economic policy changes they need to make.

BLITZER: The last time we spoke, you left open the door to offshore drilling somewhat. Have you refined your position?

RUBIO: No, I believe America has to have an energy policy that includes domestic production. And that includes the Gulf region. That includes drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course it has to be done safely.

And that's why it's so important to learn why this accident happened, so something like this never, ever happens again. But 10 percent of our domestic production comes from the Gulf. if we were to stop that, it would be like imposing an oil embargo on ourselves.

BLITZER: Because it is a pretty unpopular position in Florida to have offshore drilling.

RUBIO: You know, I don't know that that is true, Wolf.

I think most Floridians are mature enough politically to understand that this was a terrible accident. It happened because BP cut corners and as a result led to this. But, on the other hand, America has to have an energy component of its -- has to have a domestic energy component as part of our portfolio. We can't keep depending on other countries to provide oil for us. It makes us vulnerable.

BLITZER: So to have deepwater or shallow-water drills not far off of the coast of West Palm Beach or...

RUBIO: Well, that is prohibited by law right now. Florida law prohibits drilling off Florida waters. We are talking about federal waters.


BLITZER: So, but you are saying that you could see that happening some time down the road?

RUBIO: Florida waters?


RUBIO: Well, Florida waters -- actually, drilling in Florida waters is something Charlie Crist supported about four or five months ago.

I think now that this has happened, you are never going to see that any time in the near future. Obviously, there is a cost-benefit analysis there. A mature decision would have to be made. I don't think anyone is advocating that we allow that to happen right now.

BLITZER: So, you are not in favor of that.

All right, let's talk a little bit about the most recent poll that we have that has Crist at 35 percent, you at 28 percent, Kendrick Meek at 17 percent. And he is the likely, but not necessarily the certain, Democratic candidate.

Why do you think Charlie Crist has now come up as rapidly as he has, because, as an independent candidate, a lot of people were earlier writing him off?

RUBIO: Well, those numbers are not dissimilar to what we saw initially after he switched.

And the truth is, when I got in this race a year ago, right around this time, I was 35 points down in the Republican primary. So, I have been here before and I know what it takes to overcome that.

That being said, these polls now on American politics, there's one every day. Everyone is doing one. What we are focused on is laying out the things we believe in. And here is what I know. Come November, in Florida, there's going to be a very clear choice.

If you like the way things are going here in Washington, then you have two people you can vote for. That is not me. If, on the other hand, you want to send someone up here that will act as a check and balance on the direction that this Congress and this administration is taking our country, I'm the only choice on the ballot. I can do that.

BLITZER: You don't think that Charlie Crist as an independent would - would have that check and balance?

RUBIO: Well, I don't believe he's really an independent. I think there's an increasing evidence that he now is embracing the Obama agenda. Today, we read in the Wall Street Journal that he now supports Obama care, and he has flipped on Sotomayor, now he says he would have voted for her. We don't know where he stands on Elena Kagan, but I think he's going to support her unless -

BLITZER: So you think if he won as an independent, he would caucus with the Democrats?

RUBIO: I think it's increasingly - he, I think, has almost admitted that at this point, said he has two phone conversations with Harry Reid recently to talk about, you know, his future in the U.S. Senate.

So, you know, obviously, those are questions he's going to have to answer, but I think all indications are, and I believe that he will caucus with the Democrats in Washington and be a part of promoting the Obama/Reid/Pelosi agenda.

BLITZER: You - you were the darling of the Tea Party in Florida when you were running for the Republican nomination. Did you embrace that now or you sort of moving away from that as you're reaching out to more Moderates, Centrists, Democrats?

RUBIO: You know, Wolf, that's - the people you find in Tea Parties are everyday Americans from all walks of life. These labels of making people sound like extremists, that's what people do when they don't want to debate the issues the ideas.

What people at Tea Parties largely stand for is the idea that it's government job to foster an environment where the economy can grow, or the private sector can grow. They don't believe the government can grow the private sector and they're right. They believe that American that that is dangerous that we shouldn't be spending more money than we take in and something needs to be done about in a serious way -

BLITZER: And when the NAACP says elements in the Tea Party are racist, and Mark Williams, the former spokesman for Tea Party Express sort of is pushed aside, what goes through your mind?

RUBIO: Well, I think it's unfortunate that labels like that are used to brand an entire group of people, the vast majority of homer folks that just care and love their country, believe it's the greatest nation on earth, and they want to see policies implemented at the highest levels of government that will keep us exceptional.

I certainly haven't confronted or seen that in my experience and the events that I've attended. What I run into are everyday Americans from all walks of life, from all parties (INAUDIBLE) -

BLITZER: But you've seen that - those hateful - hateful signs against President Obama that sometimes spring up at some of these events. RUBIO: Well, let me tell you, hate speeches are all involved all throughout politics. I saw hateful signs against George Bush. I saw George Bush jeered at Obama's inauguration and of a total lack of taste. I wouldn't - I'm not going to attribute that to every supporter of Barack Obama.

I think what we need to focus back is on the policies. What are the policies that candidates support? And are those policies good for America?

BLITZER: If you were elected, would you be part of the Tea Party caucus in the United States Senate? Let's say with Rand Paul, he's a Republican candidate in Kentucky or Sharron Angle, a Republican candidate in Nevada, would you be part of the caucus like that?

RUBIO: Well, I don't know what the need for that would be obviously. Maybe they - they feel there's a need for that or others feel there's a need for that. I'm more interested in being a part of a caucus that would lower taxes in America and create an environment where jobs are going to be created by the private sector, creating an environment where the private sector can grow and create prosperity.

BLITZER: Would you see yourself sort of move and support the Democrats on certain pieces of legislation even though most of the Republicans would walk away from it?

RUBIO: Well, if the Republicans - yes, you know what? If the Democrats propose extending the '01 and '03 tax cuts, if they proposer lowering the corporate tax rates, if they propose doing things that would grow the private sector, I would support that no matter who proposed that.

BLITZER: And most Republicans would support that too?

RUBIO: Well - but, again, it's the policies that I support. And, for example, if there are real serious policies to deal with the structural debt that America faces, because we're headed towards a grease-light day of reckoning. And if there are policies that deal with that, I don't care who proposes those policies, I would support them.

Ultimately, unfortunately, I don't think that this leadership in Congress is going to support those policies.

BLITZER: He's working hard to become the next U.S. senator from Florida. Marco Rubio, thanks for coming in.

RUBIO: Thanks, Wolf.


BLITZER: Former African-American government employee is making no secret about why she says she is now out of the job.


SHERROD: I had at least three calls telling me the White House wanted me to resign.


BLITZER: Her resignation and the politics of race. We're going to hear from her. That's coming up.

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


BLITZER: It's an explosive and racially charged story that continues to develop by the hour.

An African-American woman forced to resign her job with U.S. Department of Agriculture over a speech she made some 24 years ago. Shirley Sherrod's remarks were recently uncovered by a Conservative website publisher who put out a heavily edited version of that speech. Here's an excerpt.


SHERROD: I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farm land, and here I was faced with helping a white person saving their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough.

So, I took him to a white lawyer that we had that had attended some of the training that we had provided. So I figured if I take him to one of them that his own kind would take care of him.


BLITZER: There - the speech was a recent speech, but the incident took place 24 years ago. Sherrod says the remarks were taken completely out of context. She says she went in - went on to talk about in that speech about her change of heart and how she helped the white farmer keep his land.

We're going to hear from all of the key players this hour, including the farmer and exclusive remarks from the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who fired her.

But first, here is Sherrod herself telling CNN's Tony Harris how she was forced out.


TONY HARRIS, CNN HOST: Why are you out?

SHERROD: Why am I out? They asked me to resign. And, in fact, they harassed me as I was driving back to the State Office from West Point, Georgia, yesterday. I had at least three calls telling me the White House wanted me to resign.

HARRIS: So the pressure came from the White House?

SHERROD: And - and the last one asked me to pull over to the side of the road and do it.

HARRIS: You are willing to name names?

SHERROD: And that's exactly what I did.

HARRIS: Are you willing to name names?

SHERROD: Pardon?

HARRIS: Are you willing to name names?

SHERROD: Oh, I can tell you that was - that Cheryl Cook, the Deputy Under Secretary. She called me and said - because she called me and I said, Cheryl, I got a three and a half hour ride to get into Athens. She called me a second time, where are you now? I said I'm just going through Atlanta. She called me again. I said I'm at least 45 minutes to an hour from Athens. She said, well, Shirley, they want you to pull over to the side of the road and do it, because you are going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.

HARRIS: Wow. So, the administration pressured you out?


HARRIS: How do you feel about that?

SHERROD: I don't feel good about it, because I know I didn't do anything wrong, and I know during my time at USDA, I gave it all I had. I worked when I didn't feel like it. I pushed the staff to get out there and places they had not been into before.

HARRIS: Do you feel as though you had an opportunity to state your side of the story?

SHERROD: No, I didn't. The administration didn't - they were not interested in hearing the truth. No one wanted to hear the truth.

HARRIS: The NAACP released a statement late last night saying in part, we are appalled by her actions. That is an opportunity to explain what happened 24 years ago. Do you feel as though you got that opportunity? Even in a phone call -

SHERROD: No, I didn't.

HARRIS: -- with the NAACP?

SHERROD: The NAACP has not tried to contact me one time and they are the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the - the Tea Party, and - that all of this came out as a result of that.


BLITZER: The NAACP initially called Sherrod's actions shameful. You just heard her refer to that, Tony asked about that.

But as more information has come out throughout the course of this day, a lot of the information coming out right here on CNN, the organization reconsidered its position and has just put out this statement, a dramatic reversal from the NAACP.

With regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias. According to the USDA, Sherrod's statements prompted her dismissal.

While we understand why Secretary Vilsack believes this false controversy will impede her ability to function in the role, we urge him to reconsider.

He issued a statement in the course of today saying he's not reconsidering. He wants her fired. And as of right now, she remains fired.

The white farmer Sherrod talked about in her controversial speech is now speaking out in her defense passionately. We're going to hear what he say and we're going to talk about this raging controversy with CNN's John King and Jessica Yellin.

Lots more coverage coming up.


BLITZER: Let's get some more now on the forced resignation of the USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, official over some racially- charged remarks she made in a recent speech, remarks she says were taken completely out of context. We're digging deeper. Jessica Yellin is here, John King is going to join us in a moment.

I want to play a - a little clip of what the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told us about his decision to double-down, in effect, and say she should be fired, and she remains fired, Shirley Sherrod.


TOM VILSACK, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: It's not a matter of condemning, and it's not a matter of understanding the full story. The reality is that in creating the controversy, it jeopardizes the ability to do the real development director's job in a way that doesn't leave it open to judgments as to why you've made discretionary decisions as you have, and it compromises your capacity to get that job done without people raising questions.

I don't believe this woman is a racist at all. This is about a judgment that she made in making a decision to talk about this in a way that created a controversy and made it more difficult for her to do her job.

I didn't speak to anyone at the White House. I didn't speak to anybody at the White House. When I saw the statements and the context of the statements, it - I determined that it would make it difficult for her to do her job as a rural development director, and that it would potentially compromise our capacity to close the chapter on civil rights cases.

I didn't want anything to jeopardize her job in terms of getting the job done and getting people to work in Georgia, and I certainly didn't want us to have a controversy making it more difficult to turn the page. So I made this decision. It's my decision. Well, nobody at the White House contacted me about this at all.


BLITZER: All right. Tom Vilsack, Jessica, saying you know what? It's my decision. The White House had no role in this decision, even though Shirley Sherrod told Tony Harris when she was told she must resign, the impetus was coming, according to this official at the Department of Agriculture, from the White House.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, her account makes it very second-hand, third-hand, even though it was from the White House. What we do know is that the USDA, Department of Agriculture, doesn't need the White House to tell them that this was going to become an issue or problem.

Glenn Beck has already gone after - had two White House officials fired, essentially, by targeting them. He has gone after a slew of others, so they know how these stories explode. We're in a tinderbox media situation regarding race right now, and it does, in some ways, creating a chilling effect. It's very hard for people in government positions to talk honestly about race because of all of this.

But the bottom line is we all know the White House, as much as they say they don't care about cable chatter, they don't follow it, they really do, and they want to win each news cycle and I think the administration officials are aware of that.

BLITZER: And it's not everyday, John, that we hear Donna Brazile, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist say that the White House is wrong, the administration is wrong. She was critical of the NAACP, even though now the NAACP has reversed itself and said this woman should not be fired. There - there's a lot of angry people right now.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is very clear that both the NAACP and now, apparently, the Secretary of Agriculture made this decision without talking directly to the woman in question, and without looking at the full context of her remarks.

Wolf, just a few moments ago I talked to a White House official who said we are very unhappy about how this was handled. For now, they're standing by Secretary Vilsack. The White House is insisting that nobody there put any pressure on Secretary Vilsack, but we do know that Secretary Vilsack's office made clear this video was posted and he - the communication was that he was dealing with it, and the White House said OK.

For now, they're stand by this decision, but this is an evolving one. BLITZER: And only a little while ago, CNN's Ines Ferre caught up with the white family the white farmer whose job was saved by Shirley Sherrod.

I'm going to play a little clip.


ROGER SPOONER, GEORGIA FARMER: I don't know what it's all about. She never made any show to me as if there was any white or black or whatnot involved whatsoever. In fact, we ate up there together, and everything, and, heck, you know - I spent six years in the Navy, World War II, and I - I met all kinds of people, and I - and I never met a nicer person than her, if you want to know the truth.


BLITZER: Pretty emotional statement, and it's - it was a huge blunder, I think, first with the NAACP and then the White House, the administration, to make these moves without even talking to this woman.

YELLIN: Right. Well, it's a classic example of prejudging before you do your own investigation. These clips are now released on - in the media so readily because of all the access we all have, that it's imperative that everybody really do their due diligence and research it.

BLITZER: Now, John, you had a chance to speak to Andrew Breitbart, the conservative publisher, who got - who posted this video, and I want to play a little clip of what he told you.


ANDREW BREITBART, CONSERVATIVE WEB PUBLISHER: This was not about Shirley Sherrod. This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event. I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired. I did not ask for any repercussions for Shirley Sherrod. They were the ones that took the initiative to get rid of her.

I -I do not - I think she should have the right to defend herself, but what you see on the video are people in the audience, at an organization whose sole job is to fight against discrimination, and they're applauding her overt racism that she's representing.


KING: He wrote a long blog post saying that the NAACP and others on the left, including some of the media, were falsely accusing the Tea Party of being racist. And then, it appears at this hour, what he did was to take an out of context clip from this woman and accuse her of racism, that if you follow what she says afterhand, she actually makes the turn where she says I was prejudices. Prejudices were dictating my actions, and then I came to realize that and she makes the turn and gives what is actually a very nuanced and interesting conversation about race.

So it's an interesting conversation with Breitbart. He has grievances against the NAACP, excuse me, against what he calls the mainstream media, but he would not directly answer the question. It is about her. It is about her. She lost her job over this, and in part because of this posting. But he did not want to talk about that part.

BLITZER: Can she get her reputation and her job back? We'll see. Guys, I know you have lot more with the interview with Mr. Breitbart and a lot more on this coming up at the top of the hour. John, thanks very much.

Jack Cafferty's coming up next. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Check in with Jack for "The Cafferty File" - Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour: Is it a good idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero? A big ongoing controversy, especially here in New York.

Andy in Massachusetts writes: "Hell, no. I'm kind of an Old Testament guy on this issue, eyes for an eye, teeth for a tooth. I haven't seen enough eyes or teeth yet -- radical Muslim eyes and teeth."

Darren in Minneapolis writes: "In a country that promotes and celebrates tolerance, freedom and diversity, I don't understand what the problem is. I want to know how big a Muslim-free buffer zone around Ground Zero needs to be in order to make opponents of the mosque happy. How far away should the mosque be? Twenty blocks? Twenty miles? Muslims didn't attack us on 9/11, terrorists did. Comparing all Muslims to terrorists is like comparing all Christians to Timothy McVeigh."

Bill writes: "Politically, no. The wounds are still open and Americans are still hurting from the senseless attack on our citizens. Ground Zero is sort of like the Alamo of the new age. It's almost achieved the status of a shrine, so this is no different than building a Christian church near a Muslim holy site."

Jeff in Minnesota writes: "All this points out to the Muslim radicals is that their war on terror is just what they claim it is, a war on the Muslim religion. President Bush made it clear from the start this was radical fundamentalist Muslims that were the problem, and we seem to have forgotten that fact. All religions have done terrible things throughout history and yet we don't see protests against them or where they decide to build their churches."

Kim in Dodge City, Kansas writes: "Even though our country's in the death grip of political correctness, this is probably one of the worst ideas. If the mosque is built, it will forever be an irritant and flash point for violence and mayhem. A moderate Muslim is a totally fictional character. By choosing to follow their belief, they are sanctioning death to all those who embrace any other so-called religion."

And T. in New Jersey writes: "As a Jewish-American, I'm disgusted with right wingers who always equate Muslim with terrorism. Islam didn't bring down the towers. Tell the half-governor," he's talking about Sarah Palin, "that she doesn't know what she's talking about yet again."

If you didn't see your e-mail here and you want to read more on the subject, visit my blog, -- Wolf.

BLITZER: See you tomorrow, Jack. Thank you.

A "Moost Unusual" view is coming up next of Whoopi Goldberg.


BLITZER: It's a most unusual view of Whoopi Goldberg. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If Whoopi seems a little loopy, it's not your imagination.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, CO-HOST, THE VIEW: And welcome to - welcome - welcome to a day of hot topics right here on "The View".

MOOS: Next thing you know, Whoopi herself became a hot topic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you feeling all right, Whoopi?

GOLDBERG: I have to (ph) - do you know, I'd - I have to fly drugged -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, that's right. Yes.

GOLDBERG: So I'm still slightly drugged.

MOOS: She said she'd just flown in from an AIDS benefit in Vienna.

MOOS (on camera): Whoopi is one of those fearful flyers who has to knock herself out to get on a plane.

MOOS (voice-over): Well, her plane may have landed, but Whoopi still seemed high as she tried to master the teleprompter.

GOLDBERG: There's a slow-moving thing there that now says parents in Massachusetts are angry that schools are sending students home -

MOOS: "The View" had no comment when we called to ask what Whoopi was on, a spokesman saying she already explained everything.

GOLDBERG: You know what's funny right now? The fact that I'm still sitting up straight. MOOS: Whatever she took, it led to a truly memorable toss to commercial.

GOLDBERG: I got a little gas. We'll be right back.

MOOS (on camera): Could have been worse. At least Whoopi was no David after the dentist, still feeling the anesthesia.

"DAVID", DRUGGED FROM DENTIST VISIT: Why is this happening to me? Is this going to be forever?

MOOS: At least Whoopi was no Joe Namath.

JOE NAMATH, FORMER PRO-FOOTBALL QUARTERBACK: I want to kiss you. I couldn't care less about the team struggling.

MOOS: At least Whoopi was no Anna Nicole Smith.

ANNA NICOLE SMITH, ACTRESS: And if I ever record an album, I want this guy to produce mine.

MOOS: At least Whoopi was no Japanese finance minister, falling asleep at his own press conference.


MOOS: At least Whoopi was no Farrah Fawcett.

FARRAH FAWCETT, ACTRESS: Sort of like they - wow. I really thought I was looking out the window.


MOOS (voice-over): At least Whoopi had no window to distract her.

Not since Danny DeVito came on hungover has "The View" been so spacey. Whatever Whoopi took to tolerate being up in the air, she found herself on the air and still hadn't landed.

GOLDBERG: And this morning it's being reported that she's -

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN -

GOLDBERG: She's checking into celebrity rehab.

MOOS: -- New York.


BLITZER: That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.