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THE SITUATION ROOM

Bush Vows to Make Things Better for Wounded Troops; Will President Pardon Scooter Libby?

Aired March 7, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, from the commander-in-chief, vows to make things better for wounded troops at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. President Bush has a message for veterans in a special interview with CNN En Espanol.
Extraordinary images as an airliner lands and bursts into flames. Incredibly, most of the passengers got out alive. We're going to tell you how to save your own life in a similar situation.

And after the CIA leak verdict, everyone is asking if President Bush will actually pardon Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But in Vermont, no pardon for the president himself. Why dozens -- dozens of towns are now pushing for his impeachment.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We'll get to those stories in a moment.

First, though, Iraq is facing a furious new wave of violence. At least 30 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded cafe in the Diyala Province. That's north of Baghdad.

The U.S. military says the attack in this mostly Shiite area bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq. Shiites are coming under a barrage of bombings and bullets, facing ambush after ambush ahead of a religious holiday this weekend.

CNN's Michael Ware is in Baghdad -- Michael.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, vicious attacks against tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia pilgrims slowly making their way on foot to the southern holy city of Karbala, continue to add to a gruesome toll of dead and wounded in this country over the past three days.

So far, with the holy festival to take place on Saturday, as these pilgrims walk south, more than 160 civilians and police have been killed in a wave of suicide bombings and shootings attacking these devotees.

Since the pilgrims first set out earlier this week, there's been at least three suicide attacks and car bombings, the worst of which came on Tuesday in the southern city of Hillah, where at least 114 pilgrims were killed.

However, with three days yet to go before the religious festival peaks on Saturday, American and Iraqi government officials expect the toll of dead and wounded to rise -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us.

Thank you.

Meanwhile, a private security helicopter crashed in Iraq's dangerous Al-Anbar Province earlier today, injuring three civilian contractors. According to the U.S. military, the pilot blamed weather and mechanical failure.

Coming up, U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to put a lid on the violence in the Baghdad area with a huge new security crackdown. I'll speak about it with U.S. Army Major General William Caldwell. He's the chief spokesman for the multinational force in Iraq.

NATO, meanwhile, is on the offensive against Afghanistan's Taliban. Operation Achilles' pits 5,500 NATO and Afghan troops against militants in the northern Helmand Province, where the Taliban have made a comeback. The Taliban say they have 4,000 well armed fighters there, including suicide bombers.

The allies are trying to secure a major hydroelectric dam so that a U.S. funded reconstruction project can move forward. There's been bitter fighting so far.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is with British troops at Camp Bastion -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so far, one day into Operation Achilles, commanders here say they are being successful. They say they have had one decisive battle against the Taliban so far. The Taliban, they say, were trying to use the terrain, had built tunnels to try and hide from the troops. The fighting has been at close quarters, at times. At times the soldiers needing to fix bayonets to their weapons as they went into fighting, which was quite literally just a few feet apart.

One British soldier has been killed so far. The fighting in this operation expected to go on for a number of weeks yet. It is part of a much larger operation across Afghanistan, but NATO focusing this, its biggest operation so far, around this strategic dam, the Kajaki Dam. U.S. funding, U.S. AID funding, is providing the funding to reconstruct and rehabilitate this hydroelectric power dam over the next several years.

The Taliban have been trying to stop the reconstruction. If this Operation Achilles is successful, the dam will be completed, the hydroelectric power supplies will be refurbished and it will provide electricity for about 1.7 million people. And that is the heart of what NATO and the Afghan government are trying to do, to show the Afghans that they can improve the economy, improve the stability, improve peace and improve people's livelihoods -- Wolf. BLITZER: Nic Robertson on the front lines in this war for us.

Thank you, Nic.

Afghan troops, by the way, have caught a senior Taliban commander dressed in a burqa. That's the head to toe cloak worn by Muslim women in the region. NATO says Mullah Mahmud was caught in a checkpoint in the Kandahar Province.

President Bush is pledging better care for wounded American troops who now face substandard conditions at some U.S. military medical facilities.

Just a short while ago, the president spoke with our own Juan Carlos Lopez, of CNN En Espanol, on the eve of his five nation trip to Latin America.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL: As commander-in-chief, what do you say to the veterans who have gone through a very hard time at Walter Reed and other hospitals?

There are commissions -- there are solutions that are being proposed.

What -- but what do you, as commander-in-chief, say to those veterans and their families?

BUSH: I say anything other than excellent care is unacceptable. And, you know, I've been to Walter Reed a lot. There are some fantastic doctors and nurses and healers. And yet we found that there was some substandard care in a part of that -- in part of that organization, and we're going to correct it.

And I put the commission together -- a series of commissions -- to make sure that there -- that we fully understand the truth, fully elevate the problems so we can solve them.

And I had Bob Dole and Donna Shalala in today. They are chairmen of this very important commission I put together that will analyze the care our soldiers get from the battlefield into the Defense Department, then into the Veterans, and then into community. And I want to make sure there is -- that it is a seamless transition of excellent care.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: And the president now has some very close family ties to Central America, where one of his own children has worked for UNICEF.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

CARLOS: Your daughter, Jenna, is writing a book about her experiences in Central America. She will be focusing on a single mother with HIV.

Has she been part of your eyes and ears in the region now that she's been there for quite a while?

BUSH: Well, she is -- first of all, I'm very proud of her. She is an accomplished woman. She came back -- I haven't seen a lot of her because she's been spending a lot of time in Central America as a UNICEF volunteer. But she came back and talked to me about this -- this young girl that she has befriended.

And she is deeply concerned about alienationists in our world and is going to try to raise some money to help the education programs there.

It -- to me, her -- her book and her example is what America is all about. We're -- we've got compassionate people, and when we find suffering and see income disparity, or see poverty, we would like to help people lift themselves up.

CARLOS: Muchas gracias, Senor Presidente.

BUSH: Por nada. Por nada.

LOPEZ: Thank you, sir.

BUSH: Thank you.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: And you can hear and watch Juan Carlos' -- Juan Carlos Lopez's full interview with the president on our sister network, CNN En Espanol. That airs at 6:00 p.m. Eastern tonight.

Jack Cafferty airs right now in The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Stand by for this, Wolf.

Coming soon to a supermarket near you, healthy soda -- or at least that's what the soda manufacturers want you to think.

The "New York Times" reports today that both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are going to introduce new carbonated drinks fortified with vitamins and minerals. Add those extra ingredients and presto!

Sodas are no longer sodas, now they are sparkling beverages -- the company's terms.

Good old-fashioned sodas have been hurt by reports that they're linked to obesity. Plus, for the first time in anyone's memory, sales of soda in this country actually declined in 2005.

People are reaching for bottled water and sparkling juices and green tea and stuff instead of soda. The company's CEO says Coke's diet products should be part of the health and wellness category. He said that with a straight face. Critics call it a joke to market artificially sweetened soft drinks as healthy beverages, even if they do contain vitamins and minerals.

So here's the question -- will Americans ever consider soda a health drink?

E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is that sort of like ketchup being a vegetable? Is that...

CAFFERTY: The same idea.

BLITZER: The same concept?

CAFFERTY: The same idea.

BLITZER: Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Remember when they put filters on cigarettes and said now they won't hurt you as much?

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

Up ahead, amazing stories of survival in a fiery plane crash. We're going to show you what experts say you can do to increase your chances of getting out alive.

Plus, a presidential pardon for Lewis "Scooter" Libby?

Questions are swirling about possible White House intervention for the top former aide to the vice president.

Plus, find out which popular diet products produce the best results. We're going to have details of a new study that says one diet can help you shed more pounds than others. I want to see that.

Stick around. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The death count now is at least 23 aboard that Indonesian airliner which burst into flames upon landing. But incredibly, most of those aboard actually made it out alive. Extraordinary pictures and extraordinary tales of survival.

CNN's Dan Rivers is in central Java -- Dan.

Dan Rivers, CNN CORRESPONDENT:

Wolf, you joined me at the crash scene here. You might just be able to make out in the dark behind me the lights of the tail fin of this Boeing 737 400 that was engulfed in flames after it slammed into the field behind me, having over shot the runway. The police have sealed off the area now and they're beginning this intense investigation into what went wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

RIVERS (voice-over): Within seconds of overshooting the runway, Garuda Airlines Flight 200 was an inferno. This remarkable video was taken by a news cameraman who was aboard, moments after he had scrambled out.

In spite of injuries, he manages to film the awful scenes behind me.

Inside the burning fuselage, passengers who weren't so quick. Many horribly burnt, stretchered away by rescuers who fought the flames for two hours.

But, incredibly, many did make it out alive. Among the 140 passengers and crew were nine Australians preparing for a visit by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

ALEXANDER DOWNER, AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we have no reason to believe this was a -- this accident was as a result of sabotage or a terrorist attack or anything like that. It does look like just a straight accident where the aircraft apparently ran off the end of the runway.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

RIVERS: Defense sources have told CNN that the initial Royal Australian Air Force assessment of what happened here was that simply the pilot was going too fast, which would explain why this plane skidded off the end of the runway, smashed through a fence and then plowed into this field and exploded behind me.

The investigation will obviously take several weeks to come to any firm conclusions. But at the moment, it looks as if pilot error may well be to blame -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Rivers reporting for us from the scene of this crash.

A plane crash is not something anyone wants to think about.

But how might you -- you be able to survive one?

Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd.

He has more on this important story -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, aviation officials tell us that in survivable crashes like the one in Indonesia, most passengers actually do survive and experts have some critical advice for increasing your odds.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE) TODD (voice-over): The plane's nose sheared off. Smoke and flames whipping around inside and out. A survivor says getting out alive meant getting out quickly.

ALESSANDRO BERTELLIOT, CRASH SURVIVOR: So everything was dark and smoky and people -- people were shouting and screaming and -- and then 10 seconds after, everything was over because we managed to get out from the back door.

TODD: Current and former U.S. aviation safety officials tell CNN time is crucial in survivable plane crashes like the one in Indonesia and the 2005 Air France crash in Toronto, when all 309 people on board made it out safely.

Experts point to a simple rule.

DENESE GOUBIN, FLIGHT ATTENDANT: You have to be able to exit an aircraft within 90 seconds.

TODD: Federal officials tell us it only takes about a minute- and-a-half for what they call a flashover -- for the cabin to be engulfed in smoke, as shown in this simulation.

How dangerous is that in a survivable accident?

BLAIN STANLEY, PLANE EVACUATION INSTRUCTOR: Most people who are alive when the airplane comes to a stop but end up dead die because of smoke inhalation. They are consumed by the smoke and fire because the evacuation does not proceed rapidly enough.

TODD: To get out rapidly, experts say, know ahead of time where the nearest exit is. After the crash, find that exit or any break in the fuselage. To get to it, crouch if you have to, but don't crawl.

STANLEY: Getting really low in an aircraft to evacuate simply makes it so people start to trample over you.

TODD: If you can't get to an opening right away, you can buy yourself a few more seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody to bring your shirt above your nose and mouth and breathe through that.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Now, before those heart-stopping moments, before your plane even takes off, some other advice from safety experts. Wear long pants and sleeves and shoes that cover your feet completely to protect from burning and do something most of us never do, Wolf -- pay attention to those flight attendants' pre-flight safety instructions.

BLITZER: Are the experts suggesting it's safer to sit in the front of the plane, the back of the plane, or does it really not make any difference?

TODD: You know, the conventional wisdom is sit in the back of the plane. And if you saw the video from Indonesia, the back of the plane was fairly intact. But experts are very careful to say look, there's no set formula for that. And the -- that conventional wisdom doesn't always apply. Oftentimes the tail part gets sheared off. So don't go by any of that -- those old myths.

BLITZER: OK, Brian, thank you for that.

Brian Todd reporting with very important information. And listen to those flight attendants, indeed.

Coming up, town meetings in one state produce new calls to impeach -- yes, impeach -- President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

But will the push make its way to Washington?

Plus, we'll have details of another new report that has Senator Barack Obama's campaign on the defensive.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Carol Costello for a closer look at some other important stories making news -- hi, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

The man who was once Iran's deputy defense minister is now missing. Alireza Askari disappeared during a trip to Turkey last month. There's been speculation he may have defected to the West. But a former Israeli spy says Askari was the founder of Hezbollah and some Iranian officials and Israeli media are saying Askari may have been seized by Western intelligence agencies.

In the meantime, the U.S. is trying to put a financial squeeze on Iran. A top Treasury official is urging companies in the Middle East not to do business with Iran, saying they could unknowingly be helping to finance terrorism. Several major banks have already cut or limited business ties with the country.

Godless dollars?

Well, here's the bottom line. The phrase "in god we trust" is missing on an unknown number of new dollar coins. The U.S. Mint says it doesn't know what happened, but collectors are snatching them up. They're selling for about $50 each on eBay, although one coin went for $600 before it was known there are more than just a handful.

The ground on Wall Street still shaky. The Dow, the Nasdaq and the S&P all posted modest losses today after strong gains yesterday. Analysts say investors are still jittery after last week's global stock decline.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- Wolf. BLITZER: I'm still jittery among those investors.

I'm sure you are, as well.

COSTELLO: Yes. Exactly.

BLITZER: We're all pretty jittery right now.

Thanks, Carol, for that.

Coming up, will President Bush intervene in the conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby?

We're going to show you why there's growing talk of a possible presidential pardon for the former White House aide.

Plus, another critic of the Russian government hospitalized under very mysterious circumstances, this time right here in the United States. We're going to show you what happened.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As we reported earlier, there were more bloody attacks against Iraq's Shiite pilgrims making their way to a very important religious festival. They were targeted in at least three bombings in Baghdad today, even as a security crackdown targets the day in, day out sectarian violence in the capital.

U.S. Army Major General William Caldwell is the chief spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq.

Let's talk about the security sweep underway now in Baghdad.

I know you and Iraqi forces have gone into Sadr City.

Give us a sense how this operation, still in its very early stages, is -- is working out.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM CALDWELL, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, Wolf, you've got it right, it's the early stages. We still don't have all the forces yet closed on the city. We'll -- in about another week, we should have the last of the Iraqi security forces in. By the end of May, the last of the U.S. forces, which will then allow us to really move forward in this plan.

But we're in all 10 districts in the city. We're operating in all 10 of them right now. In Sadr City, where there's been a lot more coverage, there's cooperation ongoing with the mayor. They are establishing their joint security station. We've got just over 20 of them built in the city now, where we've got the American forces, with the coalition partners and also the Iraqi security forces down in the city with the people providing protection for the Iraqi police.

BLITZER: Are the bad guys, the -- some of these radical anti- American Shia militias -- are they simply melting away? Are they laying low, hoping to make a comeback? Or have they actually had a change of heart? CALDWELL: Wolf, our assessment is that it's a combination of both. That, in fact, there were some that were probably associated with these militias just out of the fact that there was no security present in their area and they aligned themselves with them.

But now that the Iraqi security forces, in fact, are located throughout the all 10 districts in Baghdad, with coalition forces working closely with them, we're not seeing the opposition that perhaps we had seen a few months ago with these militias operating freely in the city.

BLITZER: We're getting some confusion as to the actual troop increase that's projected now. Originally we thought it was going to be about 21,000 additional combat forces. Now some are suggesting it could turn out to be closer to 30,000 combat forces, support -- combat support forces.

Could you be precise and clarify that for us?

CALDWELL: Well, Wolf, there are 21,500 combat forces that are in -- en route right now, working their deployment schedule, with two of the five brigades having already arrived and operating inside of Baghdad.

But the enablers, the support forces, the logistics, some aviation support, transportation, mechanics and those type elements, anywhere between 4,000 to 7,000 additional forces will be required to provide the support for those combat forces.

BLITZER: And they will actually be in Iraq, also?

They're not going to be in neighborhood Kuwait, but they're coming into the theater?

CALDWELL: That's correct. That's -- that's what we plan to do at this time, bring them into the theater to support those 21,500 combat forces.

BLITZER: The Iranian weapons that are or are not coming in to kill Americans in Iraq, I know you have a big meeting coming up this weekend, a regional -- a meeting of Iraq and its various neighbors, including Iran and Syria. The U.S. will be participating.

What's the latest that you can tell us about whether or not the highest levels -- or at least the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Quds force, are still sending in these sophisticated bombs that can penetrate U.S. armor and kill Americans? What's the latest on that front?

CALDWELL: Wolf, obviously we uncovered a large -- another large cache here about 10 days ago up in the Diyala Province area, of those explosively formed penetrators, the EFPs. We don't know exactly when they did come into the country. We're continuing to watch the borders real closely. That's a difficult thing, though, to really act when they did or did not come in.

But we're looking at that very closely to see if we see a down tick in the amount of use of those or whether they are being sustained, or, in fact, increasing, as we had seen in the October through December time frame.

BLITZER: General, thanks very much for joining us.

Good luck over there and be careful.

CALDWELL: Thank you, Wolf.

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

Happening now, Jordan's King Abdullah speaking to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, telling American lawmakers the United States must take the lead in creating what he called a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and quickly, he says. The results are needed this year.

Also, Microsoft founder Bill Gates telling a Senate panel more U.S. jobs will go overseas unless American students improve their performance, especially in math and science. Gates says the future of the U.S. economy could hang in the balance.

And a NASA astronaut permanently grounded. The space agency firing Lisa Nowak in the wake of those charges she tried to kidnap a woman she believed to be a rival for another astronaut Nowak was romantically involved with.

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

Will President Bush actually pardon Lewis "Scooter" Libby? He's the highest ranking official convicted in a government scandal in two decades. And now, after being found guilty of perjury and obstruction in the CIA leak investigation, questions are swirling about whether the White House will actually intervene.

CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's been looking into this story.

This is an amazing story, Frank.

FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Not a bad story.

Look over my shoulder here. Some pictures. You know who they are? George Steinbrenner, Patty Hearst, Jimmy Hoffa and Richard Nixon.

If there's a pardon for Scooter Libby, he joins very colorful company.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO (voice over): It took about two minutes from the time Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice until Washington was buzzing about a possible presidential pardon. By this morning, "The Washington Post" "In the Loop" column had turned it into a giant pool -- "Guess Libby's Pardon Date, Win a T-Shirt."

At the White House, the spokesman was in overdrive, trying to shift everyone out of overdrive.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: All of this conversation, speculation about a pardon I know makes for interesting speculation, but it's just that.

SESNO: An eloquent evasion. Why? Because pardons are the ultimate stay-at-of-jail card. They can reward friends, derail investigations.

That's what happened when Bush's father pardoned several top officials implicated in the Iran-Contra Arms for Hostages scandal. Former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, National security adviser Bud McFarland among them.

Bill Clinton triggered pardon pandemonium in the final hours of his presidency. He forgave fugitive financier Mark Rich, who had merely been indicted for evading $48 million in taxes.

Ronald Reagan gave a pass to George Steinbrenner. His error? Illegal contributions to Richard Nixon, which conjures up the mother of all pardons, the one Nixon got after Watergate, after resignation.

GERALD FORD, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our long national nightmare is over.

SESNO: Gerald Ford will forever be tied to that pardon, which brings us back to Scooter Libby. A pardon for him would surely feed conspiracy theorists and raise questions about the president's motives.

Scooter Libby would join an exclusive rogue's gallery. And someone will win a T-shirt.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO: I don't know about that T-shirt, Wolf, but this parlor game, this Washington parlor game, is quite serious, and really little very high stakes, not only for Scooter Libby, for his life, for his reputation, but for the -- really for the Bush presidency and how it may be remembered now and on into the future.

BLITZER: Leave it to columnist Al Kamen in "The Washington Post" in that "In the Loop" column that he has.

SESNO: Took no time.

BLITZER: No, he's very good. He's a good friend.

Let's talk a little bit about timing of this. Normally, these pardons come up after an election, before the inauguration of a new president. What do you think might be possible this time around?

SESNO: The White House has a lot of running room here, partly because Libby and his attorneys are saying they are going to ask for a new trial -- in any case, they're going to appeal. So that pushes it down the road. The nightmare scenario for some, the easiest scenario politically for Bush and for the Republicans if it's a last-minute thing, basically as Bush is leaving the White House.

BLITZER: All right. Frank Sesno giving us some excellent historic perspective, as usual.

Thanks, Frank, very much.

There's a developing political story we are watching very, very closely. Let's go back to our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, what are you picking up?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, just announced that he is going to hold a news conference in his home state of Nebraska to discuss his "future plans". Now, we have been waiting to find out if in fact he is going to take the plunge and decide to run for president in 2008. This is a strong indication that he will do that.

His office, his aides, are being very cautious, very careful not to say that he is going to actually run, if that is what he is going to announce. But, as you know, it's not that often that a senator announces that he's going to have a press conference about his future plans in his home state and it won't be sort of the positive instead of the negative.

There are a couple of other indications, Wolf, that he certainly has been leaning towards running for president. Specifically, Chuck Hagel accepted an invitation to appear before a firefighters union. That is an invitation he will accept, along with several other Republican presidential candidates like Rudy Giuliani and others.

So, that is a strong indication, along with this announcement that he's going to make an announcement on Monday in his home state of Nebraska about his future plans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you know, Dana, he's been very coy. Whenever he's asked -- I've asked him, I'm sure you have asked him. He was recently in a major magazine, they asked him, "Are you thinking about running for president?" He didn't rule it out by any means.

He basically said something to the effect, stay tuned, I'll make up my mind. That's coming up. But certainly if he did run for the Republican presidential nomination, it would be very different than almost all of the other Republican candidates. He's been a fierce critic of the president's strategy in Iraq.

BASH: Very different. It would add a very different dynamic to the Republican race for president just for that reason, Wolf. He is by far the most vocal critic here on Capitol Hill and across the Republican Party probably at this point of the war, of the president's strategy there. And has pretty much said, has said point blank that he does not agree with the president's plan to send more troops there.

It certainly would add a very different dynamic to this race, and a very interesting one, because he is somebody who's been very close friends for some time with Senator John McCain, who, of course, is running for president. So, that could put it interesting wrinkle into this race, if in fact he does do what we expect him to do, which is announce that he will make steps to run for president on Monday, when he makes this -- has this news conference in his home state of Nebraska -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Senator Chuck Hagel thinking about running. And we'll have to wait until next week to know for sure whether or not he will. Himself a Vietnam War veteran, someone who has been outspoken on this issue.

Thank you, Dana, for that.

In Vermont, calls for impeaching President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Towns around the state approved non-binding resolutions on the subject during the state's annual town meetings.

Let's go back to CNN's Carol Costello. She's watching all of this in New York.

Pretty interesting story, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Interesting story. And you might say, Wolf, they are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. And even if this effort doesn't pay off, it sure feels good.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): They turned out in droves in tiny Jericho, Vermont, despite the cold and the long wait. For the towns folk, it was worth it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... whereas George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have, one, deliberately misled the nations- about the threat from Iraq...

COSTELLO: Voters love the "impeach Bush" resolution, passing it overwhelmingly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very dissatisfied with President Bush.

COSTELLO: The resolution is spreading like wildfire. People at more than 30 other town meetings across Vermont also voted to impeach Bush and Cheney.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what democracy is.

COSTELLO: Now, keep in mind this is liberal Vermont, land of Howard Dean and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Thank you very, very much.

COSTELLO: It voted for John Kerry in 2004. And, oh, yes, one of the organizers behind the impeachment push is none other than anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

Some Vermonters say, so what?

ELLEN MCCAY, VOTED TO IMPEACH PRESIDENT BUSH: This is not a liberal issue. This is an American issue.

COSTELLO: And the Impeach Bush movement is moving so fast in the state, Vermont congressman Peter Welch pledges to carry its sense of urgency to Washington, saying, "I will work in Congress to aggressively hold the president accountable through strict oversight and investigations that follow the facts."

Translation? He'll do what he can, because the speaker of the House has already squelched any congressional conversation about impeachment.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: I have said, and I say again, that impeachment is off the table.

COSTELLO: Some analysts say it's not so much that the Democrats wouldn't consider impeachment, but they don't want to give the president any ammunition.

STUART ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: I think the Democrats know they have the upper hand now, and they want to keep pushing that without -- without causing themselves problems.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Of course, no local resolution carries weight in Washington, D.C., but organizers in Vermont hope that at the very least the whole state of Vermont will jump on board.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Carol. Thank you for that.

Carol Costello reporting.

Up ahead, if you think all the diets are the same, you are going to want to hear the results of a brand-new study. It shows one works significantly better than the rest.

Plus, we have some details of the news report that has Senator Barack Obama's campaign fighting back this afternoon.

Stick around. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Barack Obama's presidential campaign is on the defensive today about the senator's investments. At issue, a reported link between Obama's stock trades and his political donors. It's a potentially embarrassing flap for a Democrat who says ethics reform is a top priority.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's got more on this story -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's a bit complicated, but the bottom line is, the Obama camp wasted no time in addressing scrutiny of two stock investments, and it speaks to how high the stakes are in 2008.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice over): Senator Barack Obama and his staff moved swiftly to make sure the financial assets don't turn into a political liability. The Democratic presidential hopeful came forward after an estimated $50,000 in stock purchases became front page news on "The New York Times."

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: At no point did I know what stocks were held, and at no point did I direct how those stocks were invested.

SNOW: But donors to Obama turned out to be backers of the companies he invested in, companies that stand to be business with the federal government. It started in 2005. Obama had a $1.9 million advance for his books and invested a portion of that money through a recommended broker.

At the time, he set up a blind trust. Simply put, he would have no knowledge of what his broker was investing to avoid conflicts of interest.

It turns out, his broker had invested in a satellite communications business and a biotech firm which is developing an avian flu drug. Avian flu is an area where Senator Obama took the lead in 2005.

Obama says when he realized his stockholder mailing he realized the trust wasn't so blind and sold the stocks at a net loss of about $13,000. So, is there a conflict?

Listen to Senator Obama.

OBAMA: What I wanted to make sure was that I didn't want to invest in companies that would potentially create conflicts with my work here or not abide by some public statements I had said in terms of how things work.

SNOW: Some of his public statements have been centered on ethics reform. It's been a hallmark of his short Senate career and his presidential campaign.

OBAMA: I was proud to help lead the fight in Congress that led to the most sweeping ethics reforms since Watergate. SNOW: One political watchdog group took notice of the speed in which the Obama camp came forward.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: The fact that he did take a loss ultimately, overall, helps him. I think helps undercut the claim that there was some funny business going on here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Now, Obama owned the stocks for about eight months. "The New York Times" points out there's no evidence either company benefited during that time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you, Mary, for that.

Let's move on.

Why were federal homeland security dollars used to pay for a tactical robot in Arizona and bullet proof dog vests in Ohio? Two U.S. congressmen, Democrat Anthony Weiner and Republican Jeff Flake, are introducing a bill today taking direct aim at what they call homeland security pork.

Abbi Tatton is watching this story for us -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we're going to take you to Dillingham, Alaska. Take a look at these pictures.

It's a town of 2,400 people, but with more than 70 cameras trained on the town. You are looking at a handful of them right now.

The cost? Two hundred thousand dollars in federal homeland security money.

The chief of police in Dillingham defends the cameras, saying that one use for them, one rationale, is border security. But Congressman Flake and Weiner pointed to this and other examples as what they call the very worst kind of pork.

Some of the other examples that they used in introducing this legislation, federal homeland security dollars that went to a Texas mushroom festival. The congressmen want all this homeland security spending to be publicly listed online so that everyone can see where the money is going.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that the vast majority of these grant recipients act in accordance with guidelines -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you for that, Abbi.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a Kremlin critic shot here in the United States. We're going to have details of a new mystery some say leads directly to Moscow. John Roberts standing by with that.

Stick around. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Assassins and hitmen, are they doing the Kremlin's dirty work abroad? There are growing allegations about attacks on those who defy Russia's leadership. Could a seemingly random assault right here in the Washington suburbs be the latest case?

Our senior national correspondent, John Roberts, has been looking into this intriguing story -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Intriguing. That's a good word for it, Wolf.

A bad break or payback that put Russia expert Paul Joyal in the hospital, a gunshot wound to the groin? Has the long arm of suspected Kremlin reprisals reached all the way to the United States?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice over): Paul Joyal was a friend of Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB defector who died in November, poisoned by radioactive polonium-210. While the Kremlin denies it, last week on NBC's "Dateline," Joyal charged Vladimir Putin's government was behind the killing.

PAUL JOYAL, RUSSIA EXPERT: The benefit from their standpoint is, we are letting everyone know that we will inflict a horrible death, a public, horrible death on those that speak out against us.

ROBERTS: Then, on Thursday, Joyal met another old friend and KGB defector, Oleg Kalugin, at a restaurant next door to the International Spy Museum. Shortly after they left, Kalugin got the bad news.

OLEG KALUGIN, FMR. KGB: About an hour later, his wife called me and she was very excited, and she said Paul was shot.

ROBERTS: Joyal told his wife he had been accosted by two black men as he arrived home. He grabbed at one. The other yelled, "Just shoot him!" Police believe it may have been a robbery attempt.

Oleg Kalugin can't be sure.

KALUGIN: Well, I would not rule out any option, but professionally, it doesn't look like special services were involved.

ROBERTS (on camera): Joyal's shooting could well be just a random act of violence, and the story might end there, if it weren't for the fact that several critics of the Russian government have recently met tragic ends.

(voice over): First, it was journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote harshly about Russia's campaign in Chechnya, shot and killed in an elevator last October. Then Alexander Litvinenko, who accused Putin of putting out the hit on Politkovskaya, dead a month later.

Last Friday, Ivan Safronov became the 14th journalist critical of Putin to die suspiciously. Russian police say he returned to a second floor apartment after buying a bag of fruit, then inexplicably walked up to the fifth floor and leapt out this window. Safronov's colleagues say he was investigating sensitive Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria.

ANDREI VASILIEV, EDITOR, "KOMMERSANT" (through translator): He could have been killed for his work. Everything is possible. But as yet, we have no evidence. I just know he wasn't the suicidal type.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: And add to that yesterday's revelation that a Russian- born American doctor from Los Angeles and her daughter had survived a mysterious poison by thallium, a favorite tool of assassins. They were in Moscow for a wedding in mid-February. Russian police so far have no clue how they were poisoned, where or why.

But as for Safronov, if you were going to kill yourself, why would you buy a bag of fruit before you leapt?

BLITZER: Yes. Some people are already suggesting it's a pattern of what they call assisted suicide.

ROBERTS: And not the Kevorkian type.

BLITZER: Not that kind. A different kind of assisted suicide.

John, good work. Thank you.

Up next, Jack Cafferty wants to know, will Americans ever consider soda a health drink?

Jack's standing by with "The Cafferty File."

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Coke and Pepsi have an idea. They're going to add some vitamins and minerals to their soda, re- market the new product as something called sparkling beverages. The question we asked is: Will Americans ever consider soda a health drink?

Laura, Newport News, Virginia, "Of course soda will be considered a health drink. You've seen the studies. Coffee is bad for you...months later, no, it's good. Eggs are bad for you... months later, no, they're good."

"Wait a few months until the soda lobbies get their appointees on to the FDA. Soda will be good for you. In the meantime, drink water. Right now it's good for you."

"Mr. Cafferty," writes Tom, "Only stupid people would consider soda a healthy drink. Unfortunately, there are plenty of stupid people to go around, so Coke and Pepsi are going to make a fortune with their new products."

Jerry in Georgia, "As all of Congress is aware, soda can be considered a health drink only when mixed with the proper amount of scotch."

Al in Kansas, "In my opinion, soda ranks right up there with red wine, beer and dark chocolate. I'm getting healthier every day."

Maggie in Illinois, "Sure, if the media gives it enough coverage saying that it is, Americans tend to believe anything the media spews in spite of the facts and common sense."

Brian in San Diego, "Technically, soda is highly-filtered purified colored water with a little flavoring and carbonation. Add a little Bacardi... now you're talking. Here's to your health!"

And Andrea in Michigan, "Dumb question, Jack. You can do better. If you're at a loss for good questions, e-mail me and I'll feed some to you. Nominal charge."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and read more of these online -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And if you wait long enough, what's good for you today, like vitamins, may be bad for you tomorrow. What's bad for you today -- smoking. All of a sudden, they're going to discover a la Woody Allen it's good for you.

CAFFERTY: I'll lay you eight to five and bet everything I've got in the bank that never happens.

BLITZER: I hope so.

CAFFERTY: Maybe you're right.

BLITZER: I agree with you, Jack.

Thanks. See you in an hour.

We've got a lot more coming up 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

In the meantime, let's go to Lou Dobbs. He's in New York.

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