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THE SITUATION ROOM

Robert Gates Angry About Conditions At Walter Reed; Defiant New Words From Top Iranian Leaders As They Face Increased Sanctions; U.S. Soldier Charged With Rape Of Iraqi Girl Will Face 100 Years In Prison; Ralph Nader Interview; EPA Has New Formula To Determine How Many Miles To Gallon

Aired February 23, 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.
Happening now, heads will roll -- that's what the secretary of defense promises regarding alarming conditions at the Army's top medical center. Robert Gates says treating vets under peeling ceilings and warped walls is no way to treat brave soldiers.

Also, angry air travelers unite -- how might you avoid being trapped on a plane with no working toilets, no food, no water for hours?

It's a series we're calling Fight Back Friday. And joining us, the long time consumer advocate, Ralph Nader.

And the hype over hybrids. There are new, more realistic numbers over just how many miles per gallon a hybrid car can go.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The secretary of defense says it's indefensible -- war wounded soldiers being treated in facilities with faulty plumbing, moldy walls and other deplorable conditions not far from the Pentagon at the Army's top medical center.

Not on his watch, says Robert Gates. Now, the Pentagon chief is doing something about it.

Let's turn to our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.

He was pretty angry -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, after meeting with five soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center this morning, Defense Secretary Gates emerged and made it clear that he's not interested in minimizing the problem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): CNN has learned that the company commander and two first sergeants who were in charge of the now notorious Walter Reed outpatient barracks known as Building 18 have been relieved of duty for failing to report unacceptable living conditions.

And Defense Secretary Robert Gates says other heads may roll, too.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: After the facts are established, those responsible for having allowed this unacceptable situation to develop will, indeed, be held accountable.

MCINTYRE: Among the senior officers who could face repercussions, Major General George Weightman, the Walter Reed commander who blames himself.

MAJ. GEN. GEORGE WEIGHTMAN, COMMANDING GENERAL, WALTER REED: Jamie, 100 percent of it falls on me. I'm responsible for everything that does happen or does not happen here at Walter Reed.

MCINTYRE: Also under scrutiny, the Army's surgeon general, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, who this week seemed to downplay the seriousness of the problem first revealed by the "Washington Post."

LT. GEN. KEVIN KILEY, ARMY SURGEON GENERAL: I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard. I know the -- the articles characterize it in such a manner.

MCINTYRE: That drew a rebuke from Secretary Gates, who sided with the newspaper, saying its description of bleak living conditions and a messy, Catch-22 bureaucratic battlefield was right on target.

GATES: This is unacceptable and it will not continue. The men and women recovering at Walter Reed and at other military hospitals have put their lives on the line and paid a considerable price for defending our country. They battled our foreign enemies. They should not have to battle an American...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: Army Secretary Togo West and former Army Secretary Jack Marsh are going to head up a review panel and Secretary Gates has told them to look not just at Walter Reed, but also at Bethesda Naval Hospital and any other medical facility in the country to check out conditions there.

They've got 45 days to report back. But Gates says he's not waiting 45 days to start making improvements -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Are there indications, Jamie, that similar deplorable conditions exist at other medical facilities around the country?

MCINTYRE: No. But if this could exist right outside the gate of Walter Reed without anybody really -- in a high position -- understanding what was going on there for this long then they think it certainly could happen some place else.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie, thanks very much. Defiant new words from top Iranian leaders, as they face increased sanctions for refusing to stop enriching uranium.

CNN's Liz Neisloss is joining us now live from the United Nations with the latest -- Liz.

LIZ NEISLOSS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany are planning to meet Monday in London to start drafting a new resolution that will punish Iran for defying U.N. orders to cease its nuclear program.

But even in the face of increased sanctions, the Iranians aren't blinking.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NEISLOSS (voice-over): Chants of "Death To America!" at Friday prayers in Tehran, where the threat of new United Nations sanctions is bringing together even political rivals.

Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, echoing the man who defeated him in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accuses the West of bullying Iran over it's nuclear program.

AKBAR HASHEMI, RAFSANJANI, FORMER IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I tell them clearly and certainly that this path will not come to any conclusion except making trouble for them, for the world and particularly for the region.

NEISLOSS: And Ahmadinejad quoted in state-run news media as saying: "If a few states do not believe Iran's nuclear activities are peaceful, it has no importance whatsoever."

And: "The Iranian nation has defined its right and will never give it up."

That hard line vow comes one day after the top U.N. nuclear inspector said Iran was not only continuing to enrich uranium, but also expanding its nuclear program.

Mohamed ElBaradei joined with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Vienna, urging more talks.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY: We believe still that the door is still open. There is a window of opportunity for both Iran and the international community to go back to the negotiating table.

NEISLOSS: But at the U.N. Security Council, the United States wasted no time pushing for tougher sanctions, likely to be resisted by Russia and China, which have strong trade ties with Iran.

JACKIE W. SANDERS, DEPUTY U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: The Security Council should be prepared to take additional appropriate measures to communicate to the Iranian regime that it's non-compliance is unacceptable and to persuade it to cooperate. NEISLOSS: The Bush administration insists its goal is a diplomatic solution. But it has steadfastly refused to negotiate unless Iran stops enriching uranium first.

TONY FRATTO, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: We don't take joy in imposing the sanctions or further sanctions, if that's what it -- that's what it comes to. But we do want to see them changed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NEISLOSS: Now, there may not be joy in negotiating those sanctions, either, as that expected resistance from Russia and China is going to be whether or not they've come down too hard on Iran -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Liz, thanks very much.

We'll watch the story with you.

Here in Washington, for 12 men and women, it's been just over two days. But for the accused, it may feel like a lifetime. In the CIA leak trial, will Lewis "Scooter" Libby be convicted of lying or found not guilty?

Let's go to the courthouse.

Brian Todd has been following this case for us.

They're still deliberating, or have they ended for the weekend?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just moments ago, they finished deliberating for the week with no verdict. The jurors concluded, as you mentioned, two-and-a-half days into the process, a total of about 18-and-a-half hours in, they are done for the day. They'll start again on Monday.

Just moments ago, "Scooter" Libby himself left the U.S. District Courthouse to head home for the weekend and I guess twist a little bit more as he waits for this -- this verdict.

Interestingly enough, this jury has not asked any questions to the judge. Interesting because this is a complicated case, so many convoluted webs of evidence, of exhibits, of testimony. You'd think that maybe they'd have a question for the judge. But they have exhibited a real focus in this case throughout and they are giving indications now that they are a methodical bunch.

What they have asked for are Post-It Notes, tape and pictures of the witnesses, along with a flip chart indicating that they may be constructing some kind of a time line or another kind of chart in the deliberation room.

So this jury very seriously taking this -- this evidence that they're weighing and this testimony -- Wolf.

They'll start again on Monday. BLITZER: Five counts. It's an -- and all of them rather complex.

How's "Scooter" Libby and his defense team, Brian, sort of handling this tense wait?

What do you see on the scene?

TODD: Well, we've seen them at various points around this building. We saw them today. I saw "Scooter" Libby and his wife chatting with the security guards. Another member of our team, Lindsay Pope, saw them in the lunchroom with their attorneys, very at ease, very composed in this situation.

So they are giving no indications that they're nervous at all and they haven't throughout the trial.

So it's in keeping with what they've been doing.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much.

We'll continue to watch next week.

Jack Cafferty is off today.

Up ahead, an elderly American tourist fighting back against attackers.

Will he be charged with murder?

We'll have details of this international incident.

Also, the brutal sights and sounds of war. We're going to show you exactly what U.S. troops in Iraq are facing every day.

Plus, some call him the spoiler in the 2000 election.

Will Ralph Nader run for president again in '08?

I'll ask him. He's standing by live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A ghastly incident and a stunning admission still causing shock waves in Iraq and here in the United States. At the center of it all, American troops now facing justice.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Sergeant Paul Cortez, one of five U.S. soldiers charged with the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl in Mahmudiya will now be facing 100 years in prison.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DAMON (voice-over): On a sunny March afternoon last year, this plain concrete house was the scene of a gruesome crime, a crime we now know was committed by U.S. soldiers.

Almost four months after it happened, despite the house being cleaned out, bloodstains and evidence of burning could still be seen in these Associated Press pictures.

The crime, the repeated rape of a young, 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza. She, her little sister and her parents murdered. Her body drenched in kerosene and set on fire in an attempted cover-up.

"We found them dead in the house," the girl's brother Ahmed Qassim says. "We also found the house blackened and smoke erupting from it."

The hideous act, allegedly masterminded by former Private First Class Steven Green, detained back in June, along with four other U.S. soldiers.

The rape and murder of a young Muslim girl at the hands of U.S. soldiers strained U.S.-Iraqi relations and inflamed already increasing anti-American sentiment. Young Abeer Qassim's violated body and her murdered family were buried quickly back in mid-March. Now, nearly one year later, the perpetrators are being brought to justice.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: One of the soldiers was already convicted of the rape and murder of Abeer and faces life in prison. Two more soldiers await a military trial for charges of rape and murder. And Steven Green faces those same charges in a civilian court -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa, thank you for that.

Arwa Damon reporting.

And though Sergeant Paul Cortez was sentenced to 100 years in prison, that's part of a plea deal in which he agreed to cooperate in the cases against those other soldiers. Cortez could be freed on parole in as little as 10 years. He'll be given a dishonorable discharge from the Army.

Booby-traps, insurgent attacks and the painful reality of fallen comrades -- all circumstances of war seen by American troops who face death every day.

Take a look now at what they face and hear about it in words of the warriors themselves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a lot of kidnappings and yes, it's normal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Things that the soldiers go through here, your average American at that age with that kind of wisdom and experience and education, isn't seeing what these soldiers see here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We, unfortunately, you know, we've learned some hard lessons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the shuffling madness of the locomotive breath...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there a day here when something doesn't happen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Especially when you go out on a mission, you don't know what's going to happen. It could be your last mission every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, the word gunshots...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where is it at?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got to grow up and mature quick, because if you act like a little kid over here, it might get someone hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you've hit three IEDs in a matter of months.

You think that helped?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think -- I think the IEDs were there and I think -- I mean if you believe in luck, I think this is what -- I mean I'm here today, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got to whether, if a car is, you know, covered up behind you or whether or not they're going to try to blow you up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have four killed in action due to sniper attacks and roadside bombs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of our guys got hit by a grenade in here. Now an IED went off two days ago here, right behind our truck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's it like when you first have to pull the trigger?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've just got to do what you've got to do, you know? It's either them or you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll be dreaming about that a lot, nightmares and stuff. You miss your family a lot. You think about them every day. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll look back on it as probably, probably the hardest tour I've ever done.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Our heart goes out to those young men and women.

And as the war rages in Iraq, the war over the war also continues right here at home.

Moments ago, I spoke with Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

And he fired another shot at the Bush administration's handling of the war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DW), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I think it is a worse blunder than Vietnam in the sense that -- in the sense that the consequences for us not getting it right in Iraq are going to stick with us for a generation. As opposed to, in Vietnam, we all knew when we got out of Vietnam we would have suffered great loss, but there wasn't another shoe to fall.

It wasn't like you're all of a sudden going to have Russia controlling the Straits of Hormuz or that you were going to have, you know, China controlling Vietnam or we were going to have another war.

But look what happens here.

We don't get it right here, what happens?

If this civil war metastasizes into a regional war, we may end up with war with Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Biden also says he believes Iraq is the worst foreign policy blunder of any president. On that note, he agrees with the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who told me the same thing last weekend.

Coming up, Congress reacts to a travel nightmare. We'll have details of efforts to pass a Passenger Bill of Rights and we'll show you how you can fight back.

Plus, rats running rampant inside a popular fast food restaurant. We're going to tell you what happened.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol to see what other stories are making news -- Carol. CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

A leader of Hamas has advice for the father of a young Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas inside Israel last June. Khaled Mashaal sent a message to the father today, saying if you want your son released, get your country to follow our demands. Mashaal told reporters in Cairo he values human emotions, but he insisted the soldier was carrying weapons to kill the Palestinian people.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq is apologizing for the U.S. military's brief detention of the son of a powerful Shiite politician. The ambassador says the U.S. is investigating the incident. Amar al- Hakim was entering Iraq after a trip to Iran today, when coalition forces stopped his convoy and detained him. His father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is seen by some as the most powerful Shiite politician in Iraq.

A story affecting the bottom line. A KFC-Taco Bell restaurant in New York City is closed -- oh, because of those rats you see right there. Those rats were seen scurrying outside of the restaurant this morning. The owner, Yum! Brands, says the restaurant was inspected as recently as Thursday and it says it is working to address the problem. The restaurant was cited as recently as December for a number of health code violations.

And the bottom line on the markets -- all three major Wall Street indexes fell today, with the Dow down 39 points, closing at 12,647. It was the Dow's third losing day in a row and it was fueled, in part, by inflation concerns and higher oil and gold prices.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Coming up, how is your gas mileage?

It might not be what you think. We're going to show you why the government is changing its calculations.

Plus, Fight Back Friday -- I'll talk to consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader about the Passenger Bill of Rights, the race for the White House and more.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, one of the first Democrats to enter the race for the White House now among the first to bow out. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack says money is the only reason.

Also, Senate Democrats working on a new tactic to try to influence the war in Iraq. They want to repeal the resolution authorizing it. In its place, they would offer a resolution restricting the U.S. military role in Iraq and implementing troop withdrawals.

And it may look good on paper, but your car's mileage could be a whole lot less than what you've been told. The government now changing the way it calculates mileage. We're going to show you why.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Fight Back Friday in THE SITUATION ROOM and new efforts on Capitol Hill to come up with a Bill of Rights for airline passengers. Adding to the urgency, last week's JetBlue meltdown, which left passengers trapped on crowded planes for up to 10 hours.

Our Congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel, is joining us now with a closer look at what lawmakers may be doing to try to prevent this from happening again -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is not the first time that lawmakers have tried to push through a Passenger Bill of Rights. Back in 1999, after a Northwest Airlines flight was stranded on a snow-covered runway for more than eight hours, the airline industry successfully lobbied against it and promised it would never happen again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL (voice-over): For California Senator Barbara Boxer, it's a question of right and wrong.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: How do you have a circumstance where children, people who are ill, people who are weak are in a circumstance where they're locked in an aircraft for four, five, 10, 11 hours, can't get off?

I mean you wouldn't treat your worst enemy that way.

KOPPEL: And if Boxer gets her way, the airlines won't be treating their customers that way, either. Under a Passenger Bill of Rights she's just introduced, if a plane gets stuck on the tarmac, airlines would be required by law to provide adequate water, food and access to a bathroom. And after three hours, they'd have to let passengers get off.

Most travelers we spoke with at Washington's Reagan National Airport thought it was a great idea.

JAMES CRAWFORD, AIRLINE PASSENGER: This was a sunny day in Seattle.

KOPPEL: Among them, James Crawford, who says he once sat on the runway for seven hours.

CRAWFORD: I think the airlines have not done enough voluntarily so legislation at the federal level makes a lot of sense to me. KOPPEL: Now, airlines, when it comes to passenger comfort, are self-regulating. The Department of Transportation's Consumer Tips Web site doesn't even mention tarmac delays.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have reached the aviation consumer protection division.

KOPPEL: But if you want to complain about getting stuck on the runway for hours, you can call DOT and leave a message.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: Now, the Air Transport Association, which represents most of the airline industry, refused CNN's repeated requests for an interview and instead posted a press release on its Web site saying: "Rigid national regulation would be counter-productive and could easily result in greater passenger inconvenience" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, thanks for that.

The movement for a Passenger Bill of Rights has gained momentum thanks to angry passengers who went online to fight back against the airlines.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we saw last week that YouTube became a forum for some passengers posting just what they went through. They had their digital cameras with them. And some of those videos are there. Two passengers here stuck at JFK last week. But this follows the formation of the blog Stranded Passengers. That was set up by passenger Kate Hanni, who was stuck on a plane for eight hours in December, an American Airlines flight.

And she now has more than 12,000 signatures on an online petition calling for that Passenger Bill of Rights.

Following last week's debacle, another site, JetBlue Hostage. This was set up by New Yorker Genevieve McCord (ph). She's also posted online her experiences. This is her pulling away from the plane that she was stuck on on Valentine's Day for 10-and-a-half hours. That also posted at YouTube. She says because of her blog and the online community of people she's building up, that list of names, she's now meeting next week with Jet Blue's CEO, David Neeleman, at the invitation of JetBlue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you.

So is a Passenger Bill of Rights the answer to ending travel nightmares?

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, former Green Party presidential candidate. He's also the author of a new book called "The 17 Traditions," a lovely, moving book about his family and growing up, lessons he learned.

He's joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Ralph, thanks very much for coming in.

RALPH NADER, CONSUMER ADVOCATE: Thank you.

BLITZER: What can people do if they want to fight back and do something about the problems that recently have been underscored?

NADER: Something very effective. Congress is very responsive to people complaining about airlines, because members of Congress use airlines. So, the important thing is to write your member of Congress. A letter is much more effective.

BLITZER: Does that really have an impact, compared to a huge lobby...

NADER: Oh, Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: ... like the airline lobby?

NADER: Well, I'm glad you...

BLITZER: They're pretty powerful, as you know.

NADER: Yes, this happens periodically. You know, something like JetBlue occurs, there's a little rustle in Congress, the air transport lobby is cooling (ph) off. But the reason why is that people are not seizing the moment. Letters now to members -- your member -- two senators or representative. E-mail is less effective.

BLITZER: Why is e-mail, as opposed to snail mail, the old- fashioned letters, less effective?

NADER: Because there's too many of them, whereas a letter indicates a real effort by the airline passenger.

BLITZER: So you think they're still reading those letters? They get them in congressional offices?

NADER: More than ever before. They often disregard the e-mail.

BLITZER: Yes.

NADER: They just flood in. It's almost like spam to some of these people.

But a passenger bill of rights will not come from the Federal Aviation Agency. It will come from Congress -- 535 of them folks. Get on the line, write them, seize the moment while the issue is hot.

BLITZER: This is advice -- this is advice you could have given 20, 30 years ago, before the Internet and the blogs and all the new technology...

NADER: Exactly, yes. BLITZER: ... the new media, but it's the same old-fashioned advice you have been giving people for a long time. Just go ahead and do the same thing.

NADER: They've got to seize the moment. There's only a certain period of time, window of opportunity in Congress for it to happen.

You see, all that fine print on your ticket, all those regulations that -- you know, the tariffs, that's the airline regulation of you, the passenger. All of that fine print escapes responsibility for the airlines and leaves you with, you know, frozen compensation for not keeping up with inflation. That, lost baggage, not keeping up with inflation, and not using the data that the FAA has to distinguish airlines in terms of safety and service.

I prefer Southwest Airlines, by the way.

BLITZER: All right. Well, that's a good plug for them.

Any specific recommendations if somebody wants to sit down and write a letter to their member of Congress? Any advice how they should do it?

NADER: Yes. In addition to what I just mentioned, the key is to make sure that it's enforceable, so it isn't just a bunch of exhortations. So there's got to be sanctions in the legislation.

And second, here's the crux. There is no really large airline passenger group representing people who fly. The way is to get it is to Congress to assess one tenth of one percent of the passenger tax and the airport facility tax and create an airline passenger group open to anyone democratically accountable. That is the only way they're going to take on the airlines, who are very, very organized.

BLITZER: Because the airline industry, as you heard Andrea Koppel report, they say this is going to make life, this kind of passenger bill of rights, more miserable for the flying public if the Congress intervenes and government restrictions come into play.

NADER: More balderdash. Is it going to make you more miserable when they prevent the airlines from diluting your frequent flyer miles? You know, you get them and they say, well, it's 20,000 frequent flyer miles will get you a round trip. Then it's 25,000. Now it's 35,000, sometimes it's 40,000.

There is no contractual obligation by the airlines. Its just one way.

BLITZER: So that's it. So your recommendation is, write a letter and get directly involved in the political process.

NADER: Seize the moment. The next two weeks are key.

BLITZER: Let me seize the moment with you and talk politics a little bit.

A lot of viewers are already anxious to know, is Ralph Nader going to run for president this time around?

NADER: Let me say, I wish someone else would. Like Bill Moyers could run in the Democratic party, good White House experience, a terrific communicator.

What we're seeing here with Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa...

BLITZER: He dropped out today.

NADER: ... dropping out, it's all about money. It's all about crushing dissent. It's all about fewer voices and choices for the American voters.

I mean, this is very serious what's going on. Not only do you have two major parties that are converging on policy more and more -- there are still differences -- and raising money from the same cash cows, but they're engaging in political bigotry against third-party candidates and Independents.

I mean, I was trying to get on the ballot in '04 in Pennsylvania. And the political judge slapped us with $90,000 in transcription costs, which is unheard of. It's never happened before.

You have to bet your House now to run for office in America? And the Democratic National Committee hires this big corporate Republican law firm, Reed Smith, to do that and get us off the ballot.

BLITZER: So what are you saying? Money talks clearly in America politics.

NADER: Yes.

BLITZER: It always has. What is the fact that so much money is going to be needed by the two Democratic -- the Democratic and Republican candidates this time, what does it say about you and whether or not you're going throw your hat in the ring?

NADER: Well, it's too early to say. But, not just me, but others have got to run for office at the local, state and national level. Otherwise, this whole election process is going to be destroyed by the overwhelming power of money.

It used to be millions of dollars. Now -- then it was tens of millions. Now they're talking Hillary is going to raise $300 million. Bill Clinton said he's going to raise $1 million a week for Hillary.

Where that's coming from? It's not coming from agricultural harvesters. It's coming from the big fat cats.

Our democracy is being run into the ground. And they all talk about spoilers and "Why are you running?" Let's get serious here. The American people need solutions that are on the shelf to be put on the problems on the ground.

BLITZER: You mentioned Senator Hillary Clinton. NADER: Yes.

BLITZER: The last time you and I spoke, it was clear you have no great love for her. You called her a panderer. You certainly suggested, at least to me, if she gets the Democratic nomination, it would move you a bit closer toward throwing your hat into the ring.

NADER: Well, that was your adroit interpretation.

BLITZER: Was it -- was it accurate?

NADER: I said there would be greater need for that.

BLITZER: Why is that? Why would there be a greater need if she's the Democratic nominee, as opposed to Barack Obama or John Edwards or somebody else?

NADER: Because she is pandering and flattering her away around the country as if she's moving to a coronation, and because she has not taken on power. She has not spoken truth to power, whether it's the military industrial complex and all the contracts and waste and abuse that you have reported on CNN, or it's the corporate subsidies and handouts.

She doesn't even stand for consumer protection or cracking down on corporate crime. The New York investment and brokerage community that Eliot Spitzer went after and was elected governor in a landslide, that doesn't take much courage. She doesn't have political fortitude.

The only good thing about what Hillary Clinton is doing now is she's starting really early, so people are going to get quite tired with that repertoire.

BLITZER: So you don't think she's going to get the nomination?

NADER: Right now she's the front-runner and she knows it. That's why she's not coming to grips with the important issues in the country.

BLITZER: What about Barack Obama? What do you think of him?

NADER: Well, he's -- I guess he's going to speak to 20,000, 30,000 people in Austin.

BLITZER: I think he's already done it. He's wrapped up that speech.

NADER: He has great capacity. He hasn't filled in the blanks yet in terms of where he wants to take the country. And in two years in the Senate, I wished he had more political fortitude, because there's no one in Congress today who knows about the abuses of corporate power, because he was a neighborhood organizer in Chicago. And you know about the abuses of corporate power, when you do that.

BLITZER: You and I have spoken often over these past six years about Florida, 2000, Al Gore. You've had an opportunity in recent years to spend some time with Al Gore and to reflect on your role, the 90,000 or so votes you got in Florida, whether those votes, more than fewer would have gone to Al Gore.

Tell our viewers about that conversation -- or those conversations. I don't know how many you've had with Al Gore.

NADER: My sense is Al Gore, it would be good for him to be speak up. He knows, and I believe him, that he won the election. And he knows it was taken from him before Election Day, during Election Day, and after. The press has reported a lot of that, like misdesignating willfully ex-felons by the tens of thousands just because they had the name of ex-felons in Florida and stripping them of the right to vote.

But he's not speaking out on that. And I think if he's going to really liberate himself, he has got to clarify that everyone in America has a right to run for office. No one is a second class citizen. Let's get over it, folks. Otherwise, those people who say "spoiler" will have to blame David McReynolds, who got 3,700 votes in Florida for the Socialist Workers Party, six times the difference between Bush and Gore.

Are they going to blame him? Are they going to blame Tennessee? Are you going to blame 250,000 Democrats in Florida who voted for George W. Bush, or the mayor of Miami who scooted to Madrid because he had a grudge with the Democratic Party and didn't bring out thousands of voters?

Let's get over it. Let's say -- let's have campaigns based on the record of the candidates, what they're putting forth for the future of the country, and to what the degree they're going for votes instead of commercial dollars.

BLITZER: You are rooting that he gets the Oscar Sunday night for his film on global warming, I assume.

NADER: In terms of importance, he should get it hands down. Theatrically, I'll leave that to Hollywood.

BLITZER: Ralph Nader, thanks for coming in.

He's got a lovely book, as I said, "The 17 Traditions." I think our viewers are going to like that book as well.

Appreciate it very much.

NADER: Thank you

BLITZER: Up ahead, in times of high gas prices, many people are buying or eyeing hybrid cars. Find out if you can find out how many miles you actually get in those hybrid cars. Guess what? They're not as high as you might think.

We have some revealing new numbers.

And imagine you're on vacation -- get this -- someone tries to mug you. That apparently happened to one man, but there was a shocking ending to the story.

We're going to update you on what happened.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: How many miles to the gallon does your car really get? It might be a lot less than the window sticker led you to believe.

Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello. She's in New York.

You've got details, Carol, of a major change in how they're looking at all of this.

COSTELLO: Oh, you've got that right. Major revision is right, especially when it comes to hybrid cars.

You think your car is green? Not so much.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Jason Diaz knows all about the high cost of fuel. He runs a service called Taxi Pass. Some of his drivers use hybrids powered by gasoline and electricity, just like the Ford Escape he's driving right now.

As for how many miles to the gallon he gets, well, it's not what he thought he'd get.

JASON DIAZ, TAXI SERVICE OWNER: It's not surprising that the EPA is dropping some of these numbers, because it's always been a bunch of BS.

COSTELLO: He's right. It was BS: bad statistics. For most people, the mileage estimates on the sticker have higher than reality. So after more than 30 years, the EPA has a new formula to determine how many miles to the gallon.

Let's use Jason's Ford Escape as an example. When he bought the SUV, the EPA-approved sticker told him he'd get 34 miles to the gallon. But after the recalculation, the EPA now says this year's model gets 30 miles per gallon. Although Jason says it's even less than that.

Take a look at all the new numbers. The Toyota Prius: old miles per gallon, 54; new, 45. The Honda Civic Hybrid: old, 50; new, 42. The Toyota Camry: old, 39; new, 34. And the Saturn Vue: old, 29 miles per gallon; new, 26.

The new ratings come as President Bush again touts his goal of reducing gasoline use by 20 percent over the next decade.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's going to require making sure our smartest scientists understand that this is a national priority. COSTELLO: Jason wants to believe that, but he's skeptical. After all, he thought his car was a whole lot greener than it's turned out to be.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Now, the new calculations will be on stickers of 2008 cars. I asked Jason if he'll believe those stickers. He said no. But the EPA says the new numbers are accurate and designed, Wolf, to help consumers make wise choices.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks for that

Let's get a little bit more on calculating how many miles per gallon your car actually gets.

And for that, we'll go back to our Internet report, Jacki Schechner.

Jacki, what are you seeing?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, the numbers have changed for all makes and models of cars. And you can go to fueleconomy.gov, the EPA's Web site. Plug in the make and model of your car, and it will give you some statistics.

For example, if you're on the 2004 Nissan Maxima, the old EPA miles per gallon was 23. Now it registers at 21.

There's also a calculator on the site. You plug in the old numbers, you push a button, and the new numbers turn up.

But even more fun than this Web site is a web site I want to show you called Mileage Will Vary. It comes from -- an automotive trade organization put this online to show you why it is that your mileage per gallon varies.

For example, the temperature will affect mileage. You can play around with this.

Mileage varies in very cold temperatures. Weather obviously affecting your mileage as well, the road conditions. And then, of course, there's also the terrain. Of course, if it's a flatter terrain, you're going to get better mileage per gallon.

So, mileagewillvary.com. It's a very interesting Web site. Fun to play around with. It gives you some more information, too, about the new EPA labeling -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki, for that.

Up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, grounded before it even got off the ground. That would be the first campaign casualty of the 2008 presidential race.

And it was supposed to be a vacation. A group of American tourists apparently targeted, but police say they fought back. We're going to tell you what happened. You're going to want to see this.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: They embarked on vacation paradise, but they're going home after enduring a real nightmare, some targeted tourists who wound up fighting back with deadly results.

Let's get the details. Mary Snow monitoring this story in New York -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf police in Costa Rica say an American senior citizen on a sightseeing trip fought off a 20- year-old mugger, killing him with his bare hands. The tourist is said to be a former Marine.

And as he held his attacker in a headlock, his traveling companions dropped in. Two of the robbers fled the scene, and at least one was said to be armed.

Now, one attacker was killed while being restrained. Authorities say he was apparently asphyxiated.

It happened in Limon, which is about 80 miles east of San Jose in Costa Rica. The tourists were part of a Carnival Liberty cruise line trip, and this happened during a private tour.

The cruise line says about a dozen of guests were involved. None injured. It says after police questioned the guests, they were brought back to the ship and continued with their plans.

Now, The Associated Press quotes police as saying the Americans were defending themselves, and therefore no charges will be filed -- Wolf

BLITZER: What are some of the other cruise passengers, Mary, saying?

SNOW: Well, you know, Wolf, they're on the ship coming back. And The Associated Press was able to talk with one of the passengers who was there by phone, quoting her as saying that she thought it was a joke, that these robbers were masked, they were armed, and when she saw the gun, obviously knew that this was very real. She said she thought she was going to die and later had to be treated for a panic attack.

So some very, very frightening moments. This happened apparently on a beach in Limon, Costa Rica.

BLITZER: I know you're working this story. We're going to update our viewers and get some more information for our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mary, thanks very much.

Up next, researchers reporting a surprising discovery that's anything but monkey business.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's take a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends over at The Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

In Moscow, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, warms his ears during a ceremony honoring the military

On the West Bank, a Palestinian youth throws stones during a protest against Israel's construction near the Al Aqsa Mosque, which is an area sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

In Seoul, South Korea, masked demonstrators rally to allow a factory to be built in their town

In Singapore, look at this, dancers perform in giant bubble spheres during a parade celebrating the lunar new year.

Some of this hour's "Hot Shots," Pictures often worth a thousand words.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: We're back in THE SITUATION ROOM, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let's go to New York and Lou Dobbs.

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