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THE SITUATION ROOM

Democrats in Congress Oppose Troop Surge; President Tapping John Negroponte To Be Next Deputy Secretary Of State; Minority Opinion: The Republican Agenda; Africa & the War on Terror; Senator Mitch McConnell Interview

Aired January 5, 2007 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.
Happening now, many are calling it an incredible assertion -- has the Bush administration already given up on the war in Iraq?

Democratic Senator Joe Biden says he thinks some top administration officials, perhaps even the vice president, have privately decided that Iraq is lost.

But what does the vice president say?

Also, resist the urge to surge -- that's what top Democrats in Congress are telling President Bush, saying the idea of sending more troops to Iraq is one that's already been tried and already failed.

Meanwhile, what does the new minority party in Congress think of all of this?

This hour, I'll speak live with the Senate's new minority leader, Mitch McConnell, about his party's intentions and agenda.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A major shake-up in the Bush administration only days before the president is expected to announce a new strategy for the war in Iraq. But at least one top Democratic leader -- lawmaker, that is -- says there are White House insiders at the highest levels who believe it's already too late and that the war has been lost.

The White House publicly disagrees.

We have complete coverage of all of this, this hour, with our White House correspondent Ed Henry, our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

But let's begin this hour with our Brian Todd -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're heading into what may be President Bush's last stand on Iraq. A major shake-up in the combat command, a possible surge in troops, all with just two years left for this White House to salvage something from a spiraling conflict. And now, questions over who's on message.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Just ahead of the president's big announcement on Iraq, a crucial White House meeting with senators.

A top Democrat says they leveled with Mr. Bush.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Both Republicans and Democrats expressed grave concern about the situation in Iraq. I personally indicated that an escalation of troop levels in Iraq was a mistake.

TODD: And as the president shakes up his combat command, new questions -- is everyone inside the White House on message on Iraq?

The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, tells journalists he thinks some top members of the Bush administration, possibly even Vice President Cheney, believe the war is lost.

Biden and his aides tell CNN that impression is based only on his belief that Cheney and others have to know how bad the situation is.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I have no inside information to that effect. None whatsoever.

TODD: Cheney's aides would not comment on Biden's remarks, telling CNN Cheney's goals remain the same as the president's -- a free and democratic Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself.

But a former adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents says there may be some cracks inside the White House.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I have heard for some time now there are individuals in the administration and the military who believe this is -- we've lost it, that the best thing we can do is manage defeat.

There are those in the administration who believe that victory is still possible.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, aides to two top Republican senators, one of whom has close ties to the Bush administration, tell me there is no indication that any top White House officials believe that Iraq is lost -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Brian Todd reporting for us.

In Iraq, meanwhile, today, a Marine tank struck an improvised explosive device in Fallujah. No casualties reported, but at least six people were killed in sectarian fighting and a series of attacks around Baghdad. One of the dead is a driver for Iraq's agriculture minister, who is a supporter of militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Separately, a dozen bodies, including that of an Iraqi employee of the Associated Press, were found dumped around the capital. And a gunman reportedly attacked an Iraqi military checkpoint north of the capital, killing four Iraqi troops.

To deal with this unyielding violence might sending more American troops to Iraq be the best option?

No, say the two top leaders in the Congress.

For more on that, let's go to our Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Democrats have been in power here just a little over 24 hours and already the signs of change and confrontation are everywhere. Today, we got some new details about aggressive hearings that will be taking place in the next couple of weeks to question top members of the Bush administration on Iraq and also we saw a blunt message to the president from the two top Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): On the question of the day, the new House speaker had a simple answer.

(on camera): Do you support a surge in U.S. troops in Iraq?

(voice-over): Day two in power, Nancy Pelosi joined the new Democratic Senate majority leader warning the president in this blunt letter not to raise troop levels in Iraq. They called surging troops "a serious mistake" and "a strategy that you have already tried and that has already failed."

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: The surge is a bad idea. The president said he was going to listen to his commanders. If he's listening to his commanders, he can't do this. I know he's shuffling some in and out, obviously, because they're not telling him what he wants to hear.

BASH: The Democrats told Mr. Bush his urgent focus should be on troop withdrawal, starting in four to six months, a clear reminder the White House war strategy will now face heightened scrutiny in Congress.

Not just from Democrats. Republican Senator and likely presidential candidate John McCain warned reported plans of a temporary surge of about 20,000 troops won't work because it's not enough.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It has to be significant and sustained, otherwise, do not do it. Otherwise, there will be more needless loss of American lives.

BASH: McCain favors committing 35,000 additional troops, and even then...

MCCAIN: There is no guarantee for success in Iraq. From everything I witnessed on my most recent visit, I believe that success is still possible, but it will be very difficult.

BASH: Senator Joe Lieberman won reelection as an Independent after losing his primary to an anti-war Democrat. He supports a troop surge, too, and says the president should ignore demands from the new Democratic leadership.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: I think this is a time for the president to be president and Congress to respect that part of the authority of the commander-in-chief and all hope that it works.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: But senators from both parties did get a chance to directly challenge the president on his plans to send more troops to Iraq. There was a meeting today at the White House. One senator who attended tells CNN that Republicans were as skeptical as Democrats, making it clear to the president, in the words of one senator, that it was a "big ask" (ph) that will be very hard to explain to constituents. That senator also said that the discussion was open, but it was very clear, at least from this senator's perspective, that the president has already made up his mind -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tension building, though.

Thanks very much, Dana, for that.

Amid all of this, a major shake-up in the Bush administration. The president announcing new faces in some key positions.

Among the changes, the president tapping the current director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, to be the next deputy secretary of state. He would replace Robert Zoellick, who left the post in July to work in the private sector.

Mr. Bush also nominating retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell to replace Negroponte as the nation's spy chief. Both positions require Senate approval.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now with more on this part of the story -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president plans to reveal his latest Iraq strategy in a prime time address next week. We're expecting it to be Wednesday, though officials say it could slip to Thursday, depending on how all the final details are worked out. And officials saying privately, the expectation, as you heard from Dana, is the president is going to call for a troop surge, something in the neighborhood of about 20,000 U.S. troops.

Now, in advance of that speech, the commander-in-chief has now finished a complete overhaul of the command structure, as you noted. The day after the election, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld pushed out, Robert Gates now in as defense secretary.

And just moments ago, White House Spokesman Tony Snow confirming that, in fact, General John Abizaid is out as head of CENTCOM. He's going to be replaced by Admiral William Fallon.

Also, General George Casey now out as the lead commander on the ground in Iraq, to be replaced by Lieutenant General David Petraeus, though Casey will be staying on as the Army chief of staff, an elevation.

Now, a moment ago, you heard Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charge that the president is pushing out these generals because basically they're opposed to a surge and he just wants people around him who will say what he wants to hear.

That was flatly rejected by Tony Snow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's inaccurate. That's just flat inaccurate. General Casey is now going to be the chairman of -- I mean he's going to be the Army chief, the chief of staff for the United States Army. General Abizaid is somebody whose counsel we will continue to value and will listen to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, Tony Snow added, the president wanted these changes to get done now so that these players will be in place in the coming weeks as the president plans to implement this new policy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of changes going on.

Ed Henry at the White House for us.

Thanks very much, Ed.

There's a developing story we're following right now in Denver.

Let's turn to CNN's Fredericka Whitfield.

She's got some details -- Fred.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Wolf, the NTSB is now investigating a close call between two commercial airlines in Denver International Airport. Apparently the planes came within 50 feet of each other when a commuter plane inadvertently went to a runway where a Frontier Airlines Airbus was about to land. The larger jet, the Frontier Airbus, was able to pull up, narrowly missing this commuter flight, which was part of the Key Lime commuter plane outlet.

The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, is now investigating -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred, for that.

Fred covering the story for us.

Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, we have been in Iraq for almost four years. It's not like we're fighting to gain control of the entire continent of Europe over there. Iraq is a country about the size of Texas, 25 million people, most of them concentrated in a few major cities.

President Bush has been telling us all this time that the generals on the ground had this thing under control and he was listening to them and taking their counsel.

But now that things have gone from bad to worse and the outcry from the American public is getting louder every day, the decider has decided to throw out the old generals and bring in some new generals.

Wouldn't you think after four years of fighting the options in Iraq are pretty well known by this point?

My guess is this is nothing more than change for the sake of change and can be filed under political eyewash. To a degree, it'll give the president some cover next week when he goes before the nation to talk about his new way forward. That phrase is translated stay the course.

He'll be able to stand up and say well, it hasn't been going so well, but we got rid of the people who are in charge of that phase and now we've got people in -- and new people in and everything is going to be just ducky in the new phase.

This is patently ridiculous.

Here is the question -- how will the shake-up of President Bush's military team affect the war in Iraq?

E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that.

Jack will be back in a little while.

Up ahead, we're going to talk about the major Pentagon shake-up and how it might impact the war with the "Washington Post's" Tom Ricks. He's written a best-selling book about the Iraq mission entitled "Fiasco" and he recently traveled to Iraq with the new defense secretary, Robert Gates.

Also, changes at the national intelligence agency being closely watched by relatives of 9/11 victims. We'll show you what they think about the nomination of Vice Admiral Mike McConnell as the nation's new top spy. Mary Snow with that story.

Plus, an ordeal at sea now over for one American sailor. We're going to show you the complicated rescue mission that saved his life. All that coming up.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're tracking an important story about Iraq.

Democratic Senator Joe Biden says he thinks some top administration officials, perhaps even including the vice president himself, have privately concluded that the war in Iraq is lost.

We want to talk a little bit more about that, as well as the major shake-up underway involving key figures.

Joining us is Tom Ricks of the "Washington Post."

He's the author of the best-selling book, "Fiasco."

You recently traveled to Iraq with the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

Tom, thanks very much for coming in.

TOM RICKS, "WASHINGTON POST" PENTAGON REPORTER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Well, what do you think, first of all, about this notion that top administration officials may already have concluded, you know what? It's over. The U.S. is not going to achieve its objectives and it's only a matter of time?

Have you heard anything like that in all your reporting tonight?

RICKS: I really haven't. But it is clear that they expect to be in Iraq longer than just the next two years. So, yes, it's sort of a plain fact that this is now becoming a problem for the next president, more than it is for the current one, that the next president is going to be the person who ultimately decides what the U.S. does in Iraq.

BLITZER: Well, explain that, because I'm a little confused. There's still two years left.

You don't think over the next two years they can do whatever is necessary to try to resolve this situation in Iraq and see U.S. forces, at least many of them, come home?

RICKS: Yes, I think you could do that. That's kind of what the Iraq Study Group recommended -- bring your troop presence down to about 70,000 and use those troops to emphasize training and security for the new Iraqi government.

But even so, that posits that you're going to have troops in Iraq for many, many years to come and everybody thinks that as long as you're going to have troops in Iraq, there will be some fighting going on. So, you might get a much better situation -- it's doubtful, but you might have a much better situation with the changes that we see coming in the coming months. But even so, I think there's a general expectation of the U.S. military that troops will be there for many more years.

BLITZER: Because you've heard a lot of the critics say, you know what?

They've tried this so-called surge, they've brought up the numbers of troops in the Baghdad area, in the Al Anbar Province and guess what?

It hasn't achieved the goals. And just to throw another 20,000 or so more troops into the situation, merely would endanger them without really achieving much.

RICKS: There's a real concern about that in the U.S. military. And even John McCain, who is an advocate of a surge, was saying today at a speech that I attended, that if you had the kind of small surge that the indications are that the Bush administration is contemplating, that is, 10,000 to 20,000 troops for just a few moments, McCain was saying he didn't think that would do much, and, in fact, would be kind of dangerous and sort of the worst of both worlds, having a surge but not much of enough of a surge to really do anything.

BLITZER: Whatever happened to the notion of overwhelming force?

You and I covered the first Gulf War. The U.S. deployed a half a million troops to liberate a small country like Kuwait, which the Iraqis had occupied. Colin Powell wanted to use that overwhelming force to get the job done quickly.

In this particular case, Donald Rumsfeld wanted a leaner, meaner, if you will, military machine.

Why not simply build up the U.S. presence to 300,000, 400,000 and see if he can resolve it once and for all?

You hear that from some advocates.

RICKS: Well, it worked back in '91, when you and I were both dealing with the first Gulf War, because it was a short, sharp war, a blitzkrieg like war and the ground aspect lasted just a few weeks.

We are now in a war that's into its fourth year. This war in Iraq has gone on longer for the U.S. military than World War II did.

So if you're going to have those type of troop numbers, 300,000 to 400,000, you would have to have a much, much bigger military.

Basically, everybody in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps is either in Iraq, getting ready to go to Iraq or just back from Iraq. That's the life they live. I know guys who are coming back here and being home for only 10 months before they head back out again. That's their life for the least three years.

So it's one thing to have 400,000 troops for four weeks. It's another thing to have 400,000 troops for four years. You would really have to change the size of our military to do that.

BLITZER: In other words, we can't do today what we could do 15 or 17 years ago, given the nature of the size of the Marine Corps and the Army.

Let me get, briefly, into this -- the shuffle of the command structure in Iraq. General Abizaid retiring. General Casey leaving and becoming the Army chief of staff.

Critics are already saying you know what?

They're simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, that this isn't going to make a big difference.

You know all these guys.

What do you think?

RICKS: Well, I do. I know some of them pretty well. I wouldn't see it as a house cleaning, but I think it is significant for a couple of reasons.

First, by promoting General Casey to be the Army chief of staff, for the first time, we'll have an Iraq veteran sitting on the joint chiefs of staff. And that's going to give him a very big voice in deliberations at the Pentagon and in talking to the president at the White House, both the current president and the next one.

Also, by having an admiral take over Central Command from General Abizaid, that gives Army General Petraeus in Iraq a lot more running room. He's going to be the top Army dog out there in that fight. And so I think Petraeus is going to have a lot more maneuverability than, say, Casey had, serving under another Army general, Abizaid.

So it's going to be interesting in both those respects, to see the role that Casey plays back in Washington and the larger role that Petraeus is being given in Iraq.

BLITZER: Tom Ricks writes for the "Washington Post."

He's written a brilliant book entitled "Fiasco." If you haven't read it and if you're interested in the war in Iraq, as you should be, you should read it.

Tom, thanks very much for coming in.

RICKS: You're welcome.

BLITZER: And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, with Democrats now in control on Capitol Hill, how will Republicans advance their agenda?

I'll ask the new Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. He's standing by live.

Plus, it's a change they say affects them personally. 9/11 families weigh in on the shake-up over at the national intelligence agency.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Fredericka Whitfield for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: Hello, again, Wolf.

Hourly wages grew at more than twice the rate of inflation in 2006. Year end data just released by the Labor Department puts the average hourly wage in America at just more than $17, more than 4 percent higher than a year earlier.

During the same period, inflation was about 2 percent. The report also shows much stronger than expected job growth in December, somewhat easing fears among some economists about a weakening economy.

And just hours ago in Gaza City, a Palestinian cleric known as a vocal critic of Hamas was gunned down as he left a mosque after delivering a sermon. The slaying came as thousands of Palestinians marched through the streets of the city bearing the bodies of seven members of Fatah killed in a gunfight with Hamas supporters yesterday. There is no claim of responsibility for today's slaying.

And does your pooch have a bit too much paunch?

Well, help may be on the way for doggy dieters who just can't seem to lay off the biscuits. A short time ago, the FDA announced it has approved the first weight loss drug for dogs. It's called Slentrol and it helps decrease appetite and fat absorption. Roughly 5 percent of American canines are said to be obese and another 20 to 30 percent are overweight.

I guess a long dog walk is just not good enough -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They've go to start exercising, watch what they eat...

WHITFIELD: Oh, it seems simple.

BLITZER: You know what?

That's what happens when you eat too much and you just sit there.

Thanks very much.

WHITFIELD: Lay off the biscuits.

BLITZER: All right, Fred, appreciate it.

We're also getting some new pictures right now of a roof collapse at a stadium in downtown Vancouver. Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is standing by with some details -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the inflated roof at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver seems to have deflated. Take a look at this picture. This was sent into CNN through I-Report by Matthew Dorr (ph). He's 29. He lives in a high rise apartment building just across from this stadium.

Take a look at what it should look like. This is the world's largest air supported dome stadium and this, as Matthew saw it earlier today, is what it looks like right now.

Now, in the last 24 hours in Vancouver, there has been snow and rain. A statement at the Web site of BC Place Stadium says that beyond the bad weather, no direct cause has been determined at this stage. There have been no reported injuries.

It should be noted that this is the planned site of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much for that update.

Coming up, who might be out, who might soon be in -- we're tracking the major shake-up in the Bush administration. In minutes, we'll take a closer look at some of the people involved.

And he's an American man who was lost at sea for three days. We'll have the latest on what has now happened to him.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Happening now, a major shake-up over at the Pentagon, the national intelligence agency and the State Department, all certain to impact the war on terror. We're going to show you who's in and who's out.

Also, an urgent manhunt in East Africa for five top al Qaeda operatives. We have brand new information coming in from our sources about the search and the fears that they may be planning new attacks.

Plus, an American sailor on a solo voyage that almost cost him his life. He ran into a monster storm, was adrift for days but now has finally been rescued.

We're going to show you his dramatic story.

More now on that major shakeup in the Bush administration, including some big changes over at the Pentagon only days before the big announcement of a new Iraq strategy. The defense secretary, Robert Gates, has announced that Admiral William Fallon, head of the U.S. military's Pacific Command, will replace General John Abizaid as head of the U.S. military's Central Command, which oversees the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And Lieutenant General David Petraeus will replace General George Casey as the chief commander of all U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.

For more now, let's go over to the Pentagon. CNN's Kathleen Koch has the latest -- Kathleen.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's a clean slate. President Bush bringing in new faces to execute a new strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH (voice-over): They call him the "Silver Fox." Admiral William Fallon, a surprise choice, will be the first Navy officer to serve as head of Central Command, replacing retiring General John Abizaid. Fallon is seen as a Pentagon troubleshooter, over the years dispatched to tough duties, always excelling. The admiral has gotten high marks for his current job heading the massive Pacific Command and dealing with sensitive situations in China, Taiwan and North Korea.

Another plus, Fallon comes with a clean slate on Iraq.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think the main thing that he will bring that is different is a completely set of fresh eyes. In other words, he has no investment in what has happened in the past in Iraq. And so he's going to approach this in a very realistic, clear-eyed manner, much as the new defense secretary has had to approach it.

KOCH: Lieutenant General David Petraeus will be the new commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, taking the place of General John Casey, who becomes Army Chief of Staff.

An Oxford graduate, Petraeus is known as a brilliant thinker, but the general is also described as a tough warrior, leading the 101st Airborne during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and overseeing its occupation of Mosul. On his watch, forces restored and maintained order there while the rest of the country was still struggling. Petraeus was later charged with leading the effort to train Iraqi security forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think General Petraeus is absolutely the most qualified general officer we have to undertake a change of mission and strategy in Iraq. Irregular warfare is very different. There's not a lot of predictability. And there's a lot of uncertainty.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: He has a tall task ahead of him, but he's the kind of soldier that will be able to take that on if he's given the empowerment and resources to do so.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: And many point out that's the key. Without a functional, well-thought out plan for Iraq and the means to execute it, it will be tough for these new commanders to make a difference no matter how well qualified they are -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Kathleen Koch at the Pentagon.

So what do some top lawmakers in the new Congress think of these proposed changes? Amid the power shift, Democrats and Republicans are openly pledging to try to work together, but there already are some rifts.

Joining us now is the Senate's new minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell.

Senator McConnell, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Glad to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Congratulations, by the way, on being named -- elected the top Republican in the U.S. Senate.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.

BLITZER: I want to get to more on that shortly, but what do you make on this letter, first of all, that we got today from the top Democrats in the House and the Senate. Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi saying any so-called surge, increase in U.S. troops, is a bad idea and the president should not do it?

MCCONNELL: Well, look, the president is in charge of tactics in the war. I think he knows that the Democrats basically would like to withdraw as rapidly as possible. There are many of the rest of us who think that the strategy ought to be to prevail.

I, by the way, visited General Petraeus up in Mosul back in 2003. He's an outstanding choice. I think the president is correct as he changes directions here to get new personnel, as you've just described prior to my coming on this show.

I think our goals still ought to be to prevail there, and to have a stable country that's an ally on the war on terror. And it's also important, Wolf, to remember that we haven't been attacked again here at home for five years. It's not an accident. Being on offense in Afghanistan and Iraq has made a positive difference in protecting America here at home.

BLITZER: Some of your Republican colleagues are increasingly beginning to express concern about the strategy in Iraq. Chuck Hagel the other day saying, "It's 'Alice in Wonderland.' I'm absolutely opposed to sending any more troops to Iraq. It is folly."

Last month, Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, saying that "The whole strategy seems to be absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore."

How worried are you that the president's going to have a tough time getting support from his own Republican Party, especially in the Senate? MCCONNELL: Well, the president enjoys support for this, as you know, from Senator Lieberman, a newly elected -- re-elected Democrat in Connecticut. I expect it will...

BLITZER: Independent.

MCCONNELL: Well, he's caucusing with the Democrats.

Look, I think there are going to be people on both sides who are not going to like this particular move. As for myself, I'm willing to support the president when he makes his announcement, if it's what I think it's going to be next week.

I still think we ought to win there. I think we can win there. And as for myself, I'm willing to stick with the president on this policy.

BLITZER: The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, was here in THE SITUATION ROOM in the last hour. He's suggesting that, based on his own gut, not on hard information, that top Bush administration officials, maybe even the vice president, have concluded that it's over, the U.S. has lost in Iraq.

He also said this to me. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: I believe the only thing that will ultimately change the president's mind, and that is to make a radical change in course, is if in fact he looks out there and sees that the bulk of the Republican senators no longer support his position. That's the political reality.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think of what Senator Biden is saying?

MCCONNELL: Look, I just came from a meeting with the president this afternoon on this subject. I think the president believes that we can win in Iraq. I think he believes the strategy that he's going to be announcing next week is an essential component part of success there. And I think the majority of Republicans in the House and Senate are likely to stick with the president on this very important decision.

Withdrawing prematurely and taking the pressure off the terrorists, and making it easy for them to attack us here at home, you know, is a place I'm not willing to go. There may be some members of our party in both the House and Senate who have a different view. And I think that's been developing, frankly, over the last few years.

BLITZER: How many troops do you think the president is considering adding to the mix in Iraq?

MCCONNELL: Well, the president will make his own announcement next week. And that will be the final word on what he intends to do. BLITZER: Do you suspect that's going to be Wednesday night, as a lot of people are suggesting?

MCCONNELL: I'm sure they'll announce when that is. And I don't know the exact timing.

BLITZER: Talk a little about this. You and Harry Reid -- he's the Democratic leader, the majority leader in the Senate -- you've both been professing you want to work together. But given the nature of the differences, especially on Iraq, is that possible?

MCCONNELL: Look, we're getting off to a good bipartisan start. He and I are co-sponsoring a lobby reform bill that will come up next week. I think it will pass the Senate overwhelmingly.

He's indicated his willingness to compromise on a minimum wage proposal in a way that we find acceptable. I think we'll pass that overwhelmingly.

We're going to see how far we can go in working together. And, you know, Wolf, in the Senate, you have to do that. It takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate. Harry's got 51, I've got 49. You can do the math.

The situation requires that we work together. And I believe that we will. He and I like each other. We trust each other. And we're off to a good start.

BLITZER: Well, let me end by saying congratulations, once again, Mitch McConnell.

He's the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate.

Appreciate your coming in.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

And up ahead, what do relatives of some 9/11 victims think of the proposed changes in the nation's intelligence apparatus?

Our Mary Snow has the report.

And in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, take a look at this. Some are calling them the kissing Congress. With a new female House speaker, some members are doing away with handshakes and they're actually puckering up a little bit.

Stay with us. Jeanne Moos will have that. That's coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: New developments concerning the global war on terror. Among the areas the war is being waged are in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Africa, where al Qaeda operatives are feared to be plotting.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is in Nairobi with more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An urgent manhunt is under way in east Africa to capture five top al Qaeda operatives on the run from Somalia since the fall of the Islamic militia government. CNN has learned that U.S. and African intelligence services are closely cooperating in an effort to find them men before they slip away, with fear that they might plan new attacks.

The U.S. especially wants these two men, Harun Fazul and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabban, both said to be involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Authorities believe all five have ties to al Qaeda attacks across east Africa.

Escape routes from Somalia are being sealed off. U.S. intelligence sources believe the men may have been at a known al Qaeda training camp on the Somali-Kenyan border. Two U.S. Navy warships are now patrolling off shore, stopping and searching small boats.

Kenya has sealed its northern border with Somalia. U.S. Navy SEALS have been just south of the border, helping train Kenyan forces. U.S. military sources deny claims that the SEALS are engaging in search operations.

The top U.S. diplomat for Africa has been trying to muster an African peacekeeping force to help Somalia's new transitional federal government, finding al Qaeda is a priority.

JENDAYI FRAZER, ASST. SECRETARY FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS: We believe that it's extremely important, and we feel that the cooperation between the neighboring countries with the transitional federal government -- at the request of the transitional federal government is quite helpful in trying to prevent those terrorists from fleeing Somali territory into their neighbors.

STARR: All of this comes as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, has called for an Iraq-style insurgency inside Somalia.

(on camera): This memorial park now stands on the site of the former U.S. Embassy. The al Qaeda bombing here killed hundreds and wounded thousands. Today, here in east Africa, the concern remains that unless Somalia is shut down as a terrorist safe haven, the threat of another attack remains very real.

Barbara Starr, CNN, Nairobi.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Many relatives of 9/11 victims take a very personal interest in the fight against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. So they're particularly interested in the nomination of retired U.S. vice admiral Mike McConnell to replace John Negroponte as the director of National Intelligence.

CNN's Mary Snow has been talking with some of them, and Mary's joining us from New York -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, retired vice admiral Mike McConnell was just named to be the nation's second National Intelligence director, but already some are promising an unblinking critical eye on the job he does.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): For some Americans, President Bush's nomination of retired vice admiral Mike McConnell as director of National Intelligence is not just one of keen interest, but a choice that affects them personally.

Carie LeMack is one such person. Her mother was killed in the September 11th attacks. Since then, she's kept close tabs on the DNI.

CARIE LEMACK, FOUNDER, FAMILIES OF SEPTEMBER 11TH: My first thought was, why did we create the DNI? It was to make sure that the gaps and the failures that led up to September 11th never happened again. And you need institutional memory. You need somebody who is going to be making the tough decisions and who's going to stick with the job.

SNOW: Former top spy John Negroponte was the first and only National Intelligence director, and held the job for only 20 months. Critics question how much could have been accomplished in that time.

While some say the jury is out on the former top spy, they are applauding the experience of his nominated successor, retired vice admiral McConnell. McConnell served as director of the National Security Agency during the 1990s, and during the first Gulf War he became a familiar face when he served as intelligence adviser to General Colin Powell, giving routine briefings on troop movements.

Experts say this new post will require more than spy skills.

MCLAUGHLIN: This is not a James Bond job. It's more of a Bill Gates job in terms of developing integrated systems across a wide number of agencies.

SNOW: Sixteen agencies, to be exact.

All agree McConnell is faced with threats that are ever changing.

LEMACK: And what are we doing to stop Osama bin Laden, who has pledged to kill four million Americans with a nuclear bomb? What are we doing to stop him from getting one of those nuclear bombs?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, across the board, all agree that Vice Admiral McConnell faces monumental difficulties, and that includes the challenges posed by Iran and North Korea -- Wolf. BLITZER: Mary, thank you very much.

Mary Snow's in New York.

Up ahead, an American sailor trapped on a disabled boat hundreds of miles from shore. We're going to show you the dramatic rescue at sea at -- some are calling the bottom of the world.

Plus, time running out for President Bush to turn around the Iraq war and possibly salvage his legacy in the process. Our special correspondent, Frank Sesno, is standing by with this story.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lou Dobbs getting ready for his program that begins in a few minutes, right at the top of the hour. He's standing by to tell us what he's working on -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Hey, Wolf.

Thank you.

Coming up at 6:00 tonight, 6:00 Eastern, we'll be reporting on the Democrats' bold beginning in the new Congress and the battle to roll back corporate and special interests.

The House has passed ethics reform. Can the Democrats maintain the momentum? We'll have a special report.

Also, Reverend Jesse Jackson will be joining us here tonight. He's proposing a new deal for working men and women in our cities, a new plan to create jobs and give children a good education. He's joining us here tonight.

Outrage after a community in Minnesota. Withdraws from a federal program to tackle our illegal immigration and border security crisis. This case is being watched by communities all across the nation.

We'll have that report.

All of that and the day's news coming up at the top of the hour. Please join us.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: A solid hour coming up.

Thanks, Lou, very much.

There are new developments in the story we first told you about yesterday, a sailor from southern California adrift in a disabled boat off the coast of Chile. Earlier this morning, a fishing boat reached Ken Barnes. He has a leg injury, but is otherwise is in good condition. Abbi Tatton has been following the story online and se's joining us now with more -- Abbi.

TATTON: Wolf, there's been a site that's followed this journey from the years of planning beforehand to now the rescue pictures.

This is KenSolo.com, updated throughout the day today by friends of this round-the-world sailor who is now headed home. Pictures of the Chilean navy who were working in conjunction with a private fishing vessel who reached Ken Barnes on his 44-foot yacht early this morning. That's the yacht before the trip was started and this is what it looks like now.

Both masts were snapped in that storm. And he's been drifting since Tuesday.

There was another boat in the vicinity. Donna Lang (ph) is another solo sailor who was making a round-the-world trip. She's been texting updates to her site.

She was traveling in this direction, unable to get to Barnes' location because of the weather. Ken Barnes again now headed home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's good news for a lot of good people.

Thanks very much for that.

Let's check back with Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, the question this hour is: How will the shakeup of President bush's military team affect the war in Iraq?

Steve writes from Wisconsin, "A shakeup at this time can only make things worse. It reinforces the concept that President Bush surrounds himself only with those who hold the same views as himself. That's precisely why the other people are now gone. They didn't tell him what he wanted to hear: more troops! Invade Iran! You're the best president ever!"

Kathy in Tucson, Arizona, "The shakeup of President Bush's new military will not have any affect on the war in Iraq. This just means that there are new 'yes' men in place to support our incompetent and misguided management of the war. It also means that it will take about six more months for this new team to come to the conclusion that their predecessors have already come to: Iran is lost."

This next letter is interesting. Chris in North Carolina, "Jack, it's not as ridiculous as you think. My guess is the Navy is going to become much more involved in our war on terror. Watch and see if this isn't positioning for an attack on Iran, with two aircraft carrier groups already in the Gulf and an admiral now in charge of CENTCOM. The writing's on the wall. All you have to do is read it."

Jared in Florida writes, "We won't really know if anything's going to change until the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces gives his orders. Generals don't make the decisions, the president does. Let's wait and see first instead of writing off our president before he even opens his mouth and gives his new plans. After that, make whatever judgments you want."

And James in Arizona, "Jack, Bush's shakeup of generals will have no affect on the Iraqi freedom debacle. The war is between Sunnis and Shiites, and the last time anyone looked none of them answered to the American brass. It's like shaking up the Jenkins and the Smiths in order to stop the Hatfields and the McCoys."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

You'd think as many times as I read that I could remember it.

And you could read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And a good file, indeed, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. We'll do it again in an hour.

Up next, when it comes to salvaging Iraq, is this President bush's last chance?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: More than anything, the war in Iraq has certainly come to define the Bush presidency. But is the president running out of time?

Our special correspondent, Frank Sesno, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He has some thoughts -- Frank.

FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly was brought home today, wasn't it, as you watched the Democrats yesterday all talking about bipartisan ship and smiles. Today saying, no, Mr. President, the surge won't work, a preemptive strike, as you called it earlier.

The clock is ticking, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO (voice-over): There have been storm clouds before. A few years ago when things were looking bleak, this president rebounded. They called him the "Comeback Kid."

Now time is running out for this president. And at this point, George W. Bush may be the "Last Chance Kid," facing a last chance to shape policy at home and abroad.

He's not talking that way, of course.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Together, we have important things to do.

SESNO: And he wrote in "The Wall Street Journal," there's "... plenty of time..." only a quarter of his presidency left.

In Congress, the new House speaker accepted the gavel.

PELOSI: In the spirit of partnership, not partisanship.

SESNO: But no one in this town thinks that will last very long. And nowhere is the last chance more important than in Iraq.

The focus is on troop strength -- up, down, by how much. But the real issue, military experts say, is not how many, but toward what end, what will they do, and what else is happening?

So the White House is positioning the president's pending Iraq initiative in the broadest terms. It will be strategic, they say, not just about a troop surge, a term they hate.

There will be new leadership, a new general in charge in Iraq, a new admiral at CENTCOM, and a new ambassador in Baghdad. The president also wants hard decisions and hard commitments from the Iraqis. A nearly two-hour video conference call with the prime minister just yesterday, a last chance.

Because they can talk partnership all they want, but the political tide is coming in fast. The new Congress, an anxious public, and presidential politics already at warp speed.

The "Last Chance Kid" loves sports. He has his eye on the game clock.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO: Eye on the game clock, Wolf. But you know what? The president's aides say a couple things.

First of all, there will be no U-turns. You know, they don't want to talk about surge and they don't want to focus on the military because they don't believe that it's either credible or actually correct to say that the solution is a military solution. It's got to be bigger than that.

But also, that his fundamental beliefs, he's standing by Iraq. And he's not going to abandon Maliki and the Iraqis.

BLITZER: It was the "Comeback Kid." Remember, we used to have Bill Clinton named that. "The "Last Chance Kid"?

SESNO: Well, I just think that the time -- and you and I have seen this. You know, he's got six months. Six months from now, the presidential campaign in full flower. He's already had some defections among his Republicans. His wiggle room here is very narrow in terms of the Washington you and I both know and love.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Frank. Good thoughts from you.

Remember, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We're back in one hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Much more coming up. Until then, thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now.

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