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THE SITUATION ROOM

Troubles at Walter Reed; Vilsack Out; Airlines Responsible?; Ralph Nader Interview

Aired February 23, 2007 - 1900   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Lou.
Happening now, spoiling for a new fight over Iraq, can Democrats take away the president's green light for war? Tonight, both battle plans and push back from the White House.

Also this hour, fight back Friday -- passengers air their anger after JetBlue's recent meltdown. What rights do all of us have to make demands on corporate America? I'll talk to consume advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

And tourists attacked, a vacation stop in Costa Rica turns deadly. We'll have the stunning story of this vacation nightmare.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senate Democratic leaders are set to come back to work next week and possibly add more fireworks to the Iraq debate. They're hoping to pull the rug out from under the president and his war policy. As our Dana Bash first reported on Monday, there's a plan in the works right now to try to repeal the 2002 authorization of the war in Iraq. Tonight there are new details.

Let's go to our senior national correspondent John Roberts -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NAT'L CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good evening, Wolf. When Republicans outmaneuvered them and blocked debate over the president's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq, Senate Democrats vowed they would be back. Next week they will be with something a little more meaningful, that is if it had any chance of passing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): It's an audacious move, a measure to repeal and replace the 2002 authorization for war in Iraq. The original premise now null and void claims coauthor Senator Joe Biden.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The original mission, weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein, compliance with the U.N. resolutions all have been met. No weapons. Saddam is gone. There is compliance.

ROBERTS: So it's time to change the mission, says Biden. His proposal would limit the U.S. role to counter terrorism in training Iraqi forces and remove all combat forces not necessary for that task by March of 2008. Battling the insurgency and sectarian violence would become an Iraqi responsibility.

The proposal roughly follows the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and carefully stays away from the politically poisonous issue of dialing back the war by cutting off funding for the troops. But even some fierce critics of the war feel it's far too early, that the troop increase should at least be given a chance.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: It seems to me the logical thing is to wait four to six months and use that four to six months and use that four to six months to evaluate the surge and then to develop some plan B proposals.

ROBERTS: Unlike the recent nonbinding resolutions on the troop build up, Biden's measure has teeth. He also admits it has no hope of attracting the 60 votes needed to pass, so why try to reign in President Bush with resolutions destined to fail?

BIDEN: To try to put pressure to him to stop. This is a process. We've got to keep coming forward. Whether or not we can pass it, it is a rational, logical next step.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: It also puts Democrats names on a list of votes that they can take out on the campaign trail in 2008. And trying to change the war knowing that they will never succeed means the Democrats can't get blamed for anything that goes wrong. Wolf?

BLITZER: And in the next few days, this new strategy that the Democrats have in the Senate, we're going to see that at least unfold?

ROBERTS: Looks like they're going to unveil it to other Democrats and some like-minded Republicans on Tuesday. As to when it ever might be brought to the floor of the Senate, at this point, Wolf, is anyone's guess. They know that the climate right now isn't good for it.

The thinking is that maybe two weeks or even two months from now it might be a little bit better. But it really seems at this point to be an exercise in introducing more opposition to the president's plan rather than anything that could actually become law.

BLITZER: And as you know, you almost always need 60 votes when you want something important done in the Senate. It's unclear if the Democrats are going to get close to that number this time. John, stand by because you're going to be back shortly on another important story.

The Bush administration meanwhile is warning it will fight the Democrats if they try to tinker with the president's war authority on Iraq. A White House spokesman saying it's still unclear what the Senate will actually consider citing what he calls shifting sands in the Democrats position on Iraq.

The secretary of defense says it's indefensible. War-wounded American soldiers being treated at facilities with faulty plumbing, moldy walls and other truly deplorable conditions not very far from the Pentagon at the Army' stop medical center. Not on his watch says Robert Gates.

Now the Pentagon chief is doing something about it. Let's go to our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre for details -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, after meeting with five soldiers at Walter Reed this morning and obviously angry, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that commanders will be held accountable for allowing wounded troops to live in what he called unacceptable conditions at outpatient facilities at Walter Reed.

In fact, he announced the appointment of an independent panel headed by former Army Secretaries Togo West (ph) and Jack Walsh (ph) to investigate Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval Hospital and any other military medical facility where wounded are treated. He gave them 45 days to return their report. But he said he expects things at Walter Reed to change well before that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I want to start by saying that, like many Americans, I was dismayed to learn this past week that some of our injured troops were not getting the best possible treatment at all stages of their recovery, in particular, the outpatient care. This is unacceptable. And it will not continue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: CNN has learned that the company commander and two first sergeants who are in charge of the facility known as Building 18 at Walter Reed have been relieved of their duties because of the failure to report the unacceptable conditions. And Secretary Gates has indicated more heads may roll as he gets more facts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know some people are saying that as bad as the physical conditions are for these veterans, these injured veterans, the bureaucracy makes life even more miscible. What are they saying about that?

MCINTYRE: Well you know I think that's really true. I mean we're focused on the physical condition of this building and obviously that's not acceptable. But what really hurts some of these wounded veterans is the difficulty they have with what Gates called a mountain of paperwork. He said they fought the enemy overseas. They shouldn't have to come back and fight American bureaucracy and they're going to do a lot to see if they can cut through that as well.

BLITZER: Jamie thanks for that.

Brace yourself, higher gas prices may be on the way. The cost of crude hit its highest point this year, climbing above $61 a barrel today. The rise is triggered by a government report showing a sharp drop in U.S. gasoline stocks and concern over tension between Washington and Tehran. The jump in oil prices comes as the government makes a stunning change that directly hits your wallet. It turns out the hybrid cars being touted as the way of the future even by the president today don't necessarily get the kind of mileage we've been led to believe.

Let's bring in our Carol Costello. She's in New York with the story -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, a lot of people are shocked by this. It's a major revision by the EPA, 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 B.S.

COSTELLO: He's right; it was B.S., bad statistics. For most people, the mileage estimates on the sticker have been 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 would 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, 55, new, 46; 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 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 the stickers of 2008 cars. I asked Jason if he will believe those stickers. He said not really. But the EPA insists the new numbers will be accurate and Wolf will be a good guy for consumers. BLITZER: A lot of people have been skeptical of those stickers for a long time. Glad they're working on this problem. Thank you, Carol for that. Carol will be back shortly.

Jack Cafferty is off today.

Coming up, they left their cruise ship and were attacked and they fought back. Wait until you hear what some of these American tourists did.

Plus, a Democratic dropout, we're going to tell you what forced former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack out of the race and whether others could now cash in.

And Al Gore has his eyes on a new prize, Oscar. If he's a winner on Hollywood's big night, what might he do for an encore?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the race for the White House the Democratic field is a little less crowded right now. Tom Vilsack abandoned his presidential bid today, just two and a half months after his formal campaign kickoff. The former Iowa governor acknowledges he just couldn't compete financially with the better-known candidates and their massive war chests.

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

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf in the almost three months he campaigned for president, Tom Vilsack was able to take a cold, hard look at the future of his campaign. He found there was none.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(MUSIC)

CROWLEY (voice-over): To run for president is about the American dream. But it is not about reality.

TOM VILSACK (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I came up against something for the first time in my life where hard work and effort couldn't overcome. I just couldn't work any harder, couldn't do any greater effort. And it just wasn't enough.

CROWLEY: The former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, the first to officially get into the Democratic presidential race is the first to officially get out, after a three-month run, a cash casualty.

VILSACK: Money and only money. That is the reason that we are leaving today.

CROWLEY: He's a charming, smart former two-term governor, former state senator, former mayor and short-lister (ph) for the number two spot on the 2004 Kerry ticket. He is a fierce opponent of the war and a supporter of universal health care (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: You need to be able to reach the voters. You need to have good ideas that speak to them. But even with all of those good qualities, if you don't have the money, you're not going to get your message out. You're not going to survive.

CROWLEY: And oh but a lot of money it takes to run for president. Watch this graphic as it begins with the 55 million Jimmy Carter spent to win the White House, moving ever upward to the almost 419 million George Bush spent two years ago. Even adjusted for inflation, the 2004 road to the White House was more than twice what the road cost in 1976. This cycle, most people figure, you need about $50 million to just make it to the primary season when people actually begin to vote.

KRUMHOLZ: Next year, you'll need about 100 million to get through the primaries. And if you are the nominee, you'll need half about a half a billion dollars to make it, to be viable.

CROWLEY: Only three kinds of people can raise that kind of money, somebody with a name, somebody with another name, or somebody who runs into a huge stroke of luck.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: It is the catch-22 of politics. If you don't have the name, it's hard to get the money. If you don't have the money, it's hard to get the name -- Wolf.

BLITZER: With the former Iowa governor, the native son now out of Iowa, the first contest for the Democrats. What does that mean in terms of opening up the field there to everyone else?

CROWLEY: Well, it opens up the field in terms of actual caucus goers by about a thousand. He had a lot of them signed up on his Web site, probably more than that. Those are moderate Democrats there. Who does that help? If Hillary Clinton can shape herself as a moderate, it helps her certainly on the war. There are others to the left of her, but remember that Tom Vilsack was very anti-war.

BLITZER: Perhaps the most anti-war of all the mainstream Democratic candidates. Candy, thanks very much.

California, meanwhile, is a major prize in the general election and it could play an even bigger role in the presidential primaries in 2008.

Our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield is in the "Golden State" -- Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Wolf, here's a question for you. What do Republicans do that Democrats haven't done for decades? Answer. In some states, including right here in California they still run their presidential primaries like steel caged wrestling matches, winner take all.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't believe we've won the whole thing.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): Back in 1972, George McGovern won the California primary and with it all of the state's delegates. At the Democratic Convention that year, the anti-McGovern forces tried to change that and impose a kind of proportional distribution.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENFIELD: The governor won the floor (ph) fight and with it the nomination. But the Democrats decided to stop winner take all primaries for the future.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

GREENFIELD: The Republicans, though, leave it up to the states. In some, it depends on how big a chunk of the statewide vote you win. Others like Florida and Oklahoma do it by congressional district. You win the district, you win those delegates, with another group of delegates going to the statewide winner.

But at least as of now, a couple of states that plan to hold their primaries on February 5, Delaware and Missouri, for example, are winner take all states. If you win the primary, even by one vote, all of the delegates are yours. And, oh, yes, at least one other state that plans a February 5 primary is winner take all California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: California proudly cast all of its 162 votes...

GREENFIELD: Which in 2004 had nearly 15 percent of the delegates needed for the nomination. Now ask yourself if you're a high level aide to one of the eight or nine or 10 Republicans who may be seeking the presidency where are you going to be concentrating your energy and time and money? The answer is obvious. If you think you have any chance to pull off a winner take all victory in the biggest state in the country, you're going to put everything you've got into California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: Two points bear mentioning. First, there's no way to know which Republican candidate this California system benefits. Yes, California has a pro-choice moderate Republican governor, but Arnold Schwarzenegger never had to navigate a Republican primary where voters tend to be conservative. Second, anything that lets us reporters spend more of our winter in California and less of it in Iowa and New Hampshire is an absolutely good thing. Make that a great thing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff thank you for that. Jeff Greenfield and Candy Crowley, they are part of the best political team on television.

Up ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM diplomacy in the lap of luxury. We're going to show you the new Iraqi embassy here in Washington, stark contrast to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad -- a tale of two embassies.

And JetBlue's crisis hits a nerve nationwide. Now many passengers want to protect themselves -- tonight consumer rights and fight back Friday.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well. I'll ask him about that and whether he's any closer to a run for the White House.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring stories coming in from around the world. What's crossing the wires now, Carol?

COSTELLO: Well Wolf this story is just coming in to CNN. A small earthquake rattled the San Francisco Bay area just a short time ago. These are lives pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge you see there. The earthquake itself was a magnitude 3.4. That's a minor quake, but lots of people certainly felt it, especially those living in high-rise buildings. No reports of damage at this time.

A frightening experience for passengers onboard a passenger train traveling from London to Glasgow (ph), Scotland. These are live pictures you're looking at in the dark. We're going to go to tape in just a second. The train derailed in a rural area of northwestern England today. One car went down an embankment trapping several people inside. No word on their conditions. We'll keep you posted.

Also a South Florida judge is questioning if whether it's up to him to decide who is the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby. The late model's ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead is one of at least three men claiming to be the father. He wants the case heard in Florida where Smith died. Today a Fort Lauderdale judge said the case probably belongs in the Bahamas because that's where the baby is.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Carol, for that.

Just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, many call him the spoiler in the 2000 election. Now Ralph Nader is weighing another White House run and blasting the leading Democratic contender.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She is pandering and flattering her away around the country as if she's moving to a coronation and because she is not taking on power.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And that's not all he has to say on the '08 race. My interview with Ralph Nader, that's coming up. You're going to want to hear it.

Plus, it promised U.S. supremacy in the air, so why were a squadron of brand-new F-22 fighter jets sitting ducks?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, Britain Navy pulling out troops from Iraq, but it's sending more troops into Afghanistan, about 1,000, according to British media reports. Britain says it's designed to help NATO forces battling the Taliban in the south.

In Iraq, the U.S. ambassador embarrassed. Zalmay Khalilzad says he doesn't know why a powerful Shiite politician's son was arrested and Khalilzad is apologizing. U.S. forces detained the son and the security entourage as they returned to Iraq today from Iran.

And in Texas families file a lawsuit to block Governor Rick Perry's order that schoolgirls be vaccinated against the virus that causes cervical cancer. The governor says his order is meant to save lives. Some argue it intrudes into families' lives.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Fight back Friday here 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 grounded planes for up to 10 hours.

Our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel joins us now for a closer look at what lawmakers are trying to do to prevent you from having to live through that sort of nightmare -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this isn't the first time lawmakers have tried to push through a passenger's bill of rights. A similar effort in 1999 failed after 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. 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's 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 is 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-regulated. 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: The Air Transport Association, which represents most of the airline industry, refused CNN's repeated request for an interview and instead posted a press release on its Web site saying quote, "rigid national regulation would be counterproductive and could easily result in greater passenger inconvenience" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea thanks for that.

So, is a passenger bill of rights the answer to ending travel nightmares? Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, and former Green Party presidential candidate. He's also author of a new book called, "The 17 Traditions".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (On camera): Ralph, thanks very much for coming in.

RALPH NADER, POLITICAL ACTIVIST: 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: There is 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, like the airline lobby? They're pretty powerful, as you know.

NADER: Yeah. This happens periodically. if something like JetBlue occurs, there's a rustle in Congress, the air transport lobbies cool it off. But the reason why people are not seizing the moment. And letters now to members of Congress, two senators, your representatives. E-mail is less effective.

BLITZER: While is e-mail as opposed to ol' snail mail, the old- fashioned letter, less effective.

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

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

NADER: More than ever before. They often disregard the e-mail. They just flood in. It's like spam to some of these people. But a passenger bill of rights will not come from a 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 you could have given 20, 30 years ago before the Internet and the blogs and all the new technology, the new media. It's the same advice old fashioned advice you've been giving people for a long time. Just go ahead and do the same thing.

NADER: They have to seize the moment. There's only a certain period of time, a window of opportunity for it to happen. You see all that fine print on your ticket, all those regulations, you know, the tariffs, that's the airline regulation of you, the passenger. All that fine print escapes responsibility for the airlines, and leaves you with, you know, frozen compensation for being bumped, not keeping up with inflation, 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 recommendation if somebody wants to sit down and write a letter to their member of Congress? Any advice on how they should do it?

NADER: Yes, in addition to what I just mentioned, the key is to make sure it's enforceable. So it isn't just a bunch of exhortations. There's got to be sanctions in the legislation. And second, here's the crux. There's no really large airline passenger group representing people who fly.

The way to get it is to get Congress to assess 1/10 of one percent of the passenger tax, and the airport facility tax, and create an airline passenger group open to anyone democratically accountable. That's the only way they're going to take on the airlines, who were very, very organized. BLITZER: Because the airline industry, they say this is going to make life -- this kind of passenger bill of rights -- more miserable for the flying public if Congress intervenes and government restrictions come into play.

NADER: More balderdash. Is it going to make it more miserable when they prevent the airlines from diluting your frequent flyer miles. You know, you get them, and they say it's 20,000 frequent flyer miles will get you a round trip. Then it's 25. Now it's 35. Sometimes it's 40. There's no contractual obligation by the airlines. It's just one way.

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

NADER: Seize the moment. Next two weeks are key.

BLITZER: Let me seize the moment with you and talk politics a little. A lot of our viewers already anxious to know, is Ralph Nader going to run for president this time around?

NADER: Let me say I wish some one else would, like Bill Moyers, could run in a Democratic primary. Good White House experience, a terrific communicator. What we're seeing here with Vilsack, former governor of Iowa.

BLITZER: He dropped out today.

NADER: It's all about money. It's all about crushing dissent. It's all about fewer voices and choices for the American voter. 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's still differences and raising money from the same cash cows.

But they're engaging in political bigotry against third-party candidates and independents. 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 American politics. Always has. What is the fact that so much money is going to be needed by the two Democratic and Republican this time. What does that say about you, and whether or not you're going to throw your hat in the ring?

NADER: It's too early to say. But not just me, but others have to run at the local, state, and national level. Otherwise, this whole election process will 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 million dollars a week for Hillary. Where's that coming from? It's not coming from agriculture harvesters. It's coming from the big fat cats. Our democracy is being run into the ground. They all talk about spoilers and why are you running? Let's get serious here. The American people need solutions on the shelf to be put on the problems on the ground.

BLITZER: You mentioned Senator Hillary Clinton. The last time you and I spoke it was clear you have no great love for her. You called her a panderer. You certainly suggest at least to me, that 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 accurate?

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

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

NADER: Because she is pandering and flattering her way 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 complex, and all the contracts on 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 Elliot 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 will get the nomination?

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

BLITZER: What about Barack Obama? What about him?

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

BLITZER: He's speaking, 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 wish 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 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 have had an opportunity, in recent years to spend time with Al Gore and reflect on your role; the 90,000 or so votes you got in Florida, whether those or 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 speak out. He knows, and I believe him, that he won the election. He knows it was taken from him before election day, during election day, and after. Like press have reported a lot on that. Like mis-designating, willfully, ex-felons, by the tens of thousands, just because they had the name of ex-felons in Florida and striping them of the right to vote.

But he's not speaking out on that. And I think if he's really going to liberate himself, he's got to clarify that everyone in America has the 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 3700 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 a quarter of a million 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 have campaigns based on the record of the candidates, what they're putting forth for the future of the country; and to what 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 it 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: And still tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, parts of Iraq may be crumbling. Here in Washington, though, Iraq is building, rebuilding, actually, its embassy. You're going to want to see the temporary offices. What's going on there?

And imagine you're on vacation and someone tries to mug you. That apparently happened to one man, but there was a shocking ending. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just learning about a serious glitch with one of the Pentagon's most promising new fighter jets. A glitch that left the crews flying blind as they headed to their first actual deployment. Let's bring in Senior National Correspondent John Roberts once again.

This is pretty shocking stuff, John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. It's a story we're going to cover on "This Week At War," this coming weekend. It came to us from one of our terrific military analysts, Retired Major General Don Shepherd, who was with the U.S. Air Force.

Of course, the F-22 Raptor is absolutely the most advanced fighter plane in the world. It's not just an air superiority fighter, it is an air supremacy fighter. It cost about $120 million a copy, research and development costs, anywhere from $250 to $400 million dollars.

This is the most advanced fighter in the world. Everything run by computer. It's got stealth technology in it. The only problem it has is it doesn't know what day it is. There was a first overseas deployment of eight of these that were heading for Kadina (ph) Air Force Base in Okinawa. It had problems when they got sort of over in western part of the Pacific. Here's what General Shepherd told us about what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPARD, U.S. AIR FORCE, RET.: You want it all to go right on your first deployment to the Pacific -- and it didn't. At the International Date Line, oops, all systems dumped. When I say all systems, I mean all systems. Their navigation, part of their communications, their fuel systems. They were -- they could have been in real trouble.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So what we have here, Wolf, is a Y2K bug with these multi-million dollar aircraft. They were flying over on the 10th of February, it was a Saturday, suddenly they crossed the international date line. It becomes Sunday. The computers freak out. They lose their navigation system. They don't know where they are, they don't really know how high they are, with the exception of some analog instruments that they had. They lost their radios.

They had to radio to the tankers that just refueled them to return to Hickam (ph) Air Force base in Hawaii, where they had just departed from. Had they been going into a hostile situation, there could have been $7.5 million of aircraft hitting the top of the Pacific. It could have been a very bad situation.

BLITZER: So, what about the manufacturer? They fixed this problem?

ROBERTS: They took them back into Hickham (ph) Air Force Base. It looks like they've got the glitch fixed. But this was a bug they didn't know was in there. Millions of lines of code in these computer systems and somebody forgot to figure out what happens when they cross the International Date Line.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Fascinating story. Thank thanks, John, for that.

And to our viewers, an important note, you can see a lot more of John Roberts reporting on "This Week At War." It airs Saturday nights 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, right after "Late Edition" only here on CNN.

Luxury and security, you'll find them in most countries embassies around the world. But when it comes to the United States and Iraq, those features take on some extra meaning. Let's turning to CNN's Brian Todd. He's joining us live from outside the new Iraqi embassy here in Washington -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf, this is a tale of two embassies reflecting the realities and the tensions of the U.S. relationship with Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice over): For 15 years, Iraq had no need for an ambassador in Washington. Now with so much riding on relations between Iraq and the United States, Baghdad needs a base in the American capital.

The old Iraqi embassy in Washington is in disrepair. So Iraq has bought a mansion on embassy row to use temporarily while the old one is renovated. Sitting just across from Vice President Cheney's residence, it's a 1920 Tudor house with winding staircase, chandelier, marble floors, and a Jacuzzi upstairs. It will house eight to 10 diplomats and their support staff.

SUMIR SUMAIDAIE, IRAQI AMBASSDOR TO U.S.: I think an embassy is a statement. In addition to its functional diplomatic role, it is also cultural statement. It's a statement of presence.

It's beginning to take shape.

TODD: The price, nearly $6 million. But if you think that's steep.

SUMAIDAIE: Congress authorized spending of $575,80 million for the embassy in Baghdad. This is about 1 percent of that.

TODD: The American compound in Baghdad's green zone will reportedly cover 104 acres with 21 buildings. America's biggest embassy anywhere. With all the security precautions, blast resistant walls, self-sufficient water and electricity, some call it Fortress Baghdad. It may also send a political message.

We have the largest U.S. embassy in the world by far, in Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now as for security at this facility, officials aren't commenting on what specifically they're doing other than to say they're satisfied with the security measures but they already have an issue on their hands. This front entrance is 40 feet from one of the busiest streets in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts Avenue. Something that officials here are clearly going to have to think through before they move in here in a couple of weeks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Thanks for that, Brian. Good report.

Still ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM: Get this, a vacation postcard with a shocking scene. A group of American vacationers almost mugged, but they decide they won't be victimized. You may not believe how it all ended. We're going to tell you. We're going to tell you.

And an Oscar for Al Gore? If Al Gore's movie wins a golden statue, what might that do for his personal stature? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: They embarked on a vacation to paradise. They'll go home enduring really a nightmare. Some targeted American tourists who wound up fighting back with some deadly results. Let's go to New York. CNN's Mary Snow has been monitoring this.

This is a pretty shocking story, Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. And some very frightening moments for tourists.

Police in Costa Rica credit a former Marine with putting his life on the line in fighting off armed robbers who assaulted the tourist group he was traveling with.

The former Marine, described to be older, fought off one robber with his bare hands and killed him. His traveling companions jumped in, warding off two other attackers. Authorities say the robber who was killed was about 20 years old and died of asphyxiation. And 12 tourists were said to be in the group and they were questioned by police.

The Associated Press quotes police as saying the American travelers were defending themselves, and will not be charged. They had been on a private tour during a stopover on their Carnival Liberty Cruise. It was in Limon, which is about 80 miles east of San Jose, Costa Rica, the capital. It was part of an eight-day Caribbean cruise that had originally left Fort Lauderdale -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are some of the other passengers saying about all of this, Mary?

SNOW: The Associated Press was able to contact one of the passengers. They're still on the ship. And one of the passengers is quoted as telling the AP that initially she thought it was a skit. But there was an armed robber with a gun at her head. She said that she felt that she was going to die. So some really terrifying moments for these tourists.

BLITZER: Some lucky tourist, in fact, as well. Thank you very much, Mary, for that.

Let's go to Paula Zahn; she is standing by to tell us what's coming up at the top of the hour.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Seven minutes from now when we continue our look at "Hip-Hop: Is It Art or Poison?" OUT IN THE OPEN tonight, the reasons behind hip-hop's exaggerated emphasis on male domination over women.

Also, how many of you out there are secretly stuffing yourself? We're talking not hundreds of calories, thousands of calories at one time, sitting there, and then you suffer from America's most common eating disorder, bingeing. We're bringing that out in the open tonight.

We're not talking about the kind of bingeing that you and I, Wolf, do on "Super Bowl" night. We're talking about really serious 7,000 calorie days. You can away with that one night, "Super Bowl" night. Then you don't do it again for a month.

BLITZER: We'll be watching. Paula, thanks very much. In a few moments, "Paula Zahn Now"

Up ahead, here in THE SITUATION ROOM, he lost the race for the White House, but will Al Gore win an Oscar, or two? This weekend Bill Schneider standing by live, on the red carpet, in Hollywood. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Movie stars and fans are counting down to the Academy Awards Sunday night. So are political pundits eager to see if Al Gore walks away a winner. The former vice president's staring role in a documentary on global warming has made him hotter than ever among liberal activists, especially out in Hollywood. That is where CNN's Bill Schneider is standing by, literally, on the red carpet.

Is it red there?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. And, Wolf, my friend Oscar over here is getting ready for his big show. He's seen a lot of political moments, but this year he could see his most unusual political moment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice over): It's Academy Awards night. Best documentary feature is up. And the Oscar is favored to go to, "An Inconvenient Truth", staring Al Gore.

LAWRENCE BENDER, PRODUCER, "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH": Al gore will be at the academies, sure.

SCHNEIDER (On camera): He'll be in the audience?

BENDER: He'll be in the audience.

SCHNEIDER: Lawrence Bender and the film's other producers come up to accept the Oscar, with Gore. The audience roars it's approval. This is liberal Hollywood. Gore speaks.

MARTN KAPLAN, DIRECTOR, NORMAN LEAR CENTER: There's even some speculation that he would use his Oscar as the occasion to announce that he's running. Imagine that. A billion people worldwide. Take that, Jay Leno, as an announcement venue.

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Really?

BENDER: It's electrifying because -- not politically because -- is Al Gore going to run or not going to run. That's -- there's nothing going to happen like that. It's electrifying because the man who was responsible for solidifying the forces about global warming is going to -- has now been acknowledged.

SCHNEIDER: Could an Oscar start the momentum for a Gore movement?

KAPLAN: People think that he's paid his dues, that he's had more of an impact on issues that people care about, than many people who have been in office. And I think there's that feeling that he's finally lost that student council president condescension, which was fingernails on the blackboard to a lot of supporters.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats are desperate to win. Doubts have begun to surface about the elect-ability of the party's current front runners. How is this for an argument? Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.

BENDER: He was right in Iraq. He was right on global warming. He has an issue that is so formidable and has attacked it, tackled it. So I would love to see him run, sure, but I don't see that in the cards.

SCHNEIDER: But once that envelope is opened, there will be a new card to play.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Maybe Mr. Gore will get up and say, I have a new song to sing. Because, after all, his film has been nominated for best song, too -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Could walk away with two Oscars. Thanks, very much. Bill, we'll be watching Sunday night.

I'll be back Sunday earlier in the day for "Late Edition." Among my guests, Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie. We start 11:00 a.m. Eastern for two hours, Sunday.

Let's go to Paula in New York.

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