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THE SITUATION ROOM

Gays in the Military?; Did Bush Administration Try to Purge Unfriendly Federal Prosecutors?

Aired March 13, 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: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, gays in the military -- America's top general tells what he thinks about don't ask, don't tell. And the battle lines are drawn for presidential candidates on this divisive issue.

Did the Bush administration set out to purge unfriendly federal prosecutors?

A Democratic counter-attack claims a high level casualty over at the Justice Department.

Could the attorney general be next?

And shocking images as a whale lashes out at fishermen?

What's behind this deadly encounter?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

America's top general launches an attack on gays in the military, saying bluntly what he thinks about homosexuality and setting off a fresh debate about the controversial policy of don't ask, don't tell, which bars gays from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.

CNN's Brian Todd is standing by as the battle lines are being drawn.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr for all the latest information -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, don't ask, don't tell has been in place for some 14 years now. But today, suddenly, once again, it was all front and center.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

STARR (voice-over): The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff threw a hand grenade on the sensitive issue of gays in the military.

GENERAL PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. So the -- the don't ask, don't tell allows an individual to serve the country.

STARR: Pace explained it was his own upbringing that led him to his beliefs.

But that led to ferocious criticism.

JOE SOLOMONESE, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: I think it is incredibly disrespectful to the tens of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans who have served their country honorably.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's four times to the right. Go.

STARR: Since 1994, more than 11,000 service members have been thrown out of the military for one reason -- openly engaging in homosexual conduct, a violation of the don't ask, don't tell policy.

As criticism grew and after talking to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General Pace took the unusual step of putting out a statement saying: "I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views."

But for gay service members, there still is anger. Eric Alva lost his right leg in Iraq. Now retired, he says he wants to be known as a gay man who served his country.

ERIC ALVA, GAY IRAQ VETERAN: The irony is that the one organization that is our shield of protection against terrorism, of hatred, is the one to discriminate within its ranks.

STARR: After a day of controversy, Gates made clear the current law will stand.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: What's important is that we have a law, a statute that governs don't ask, don't tell. That's the policy of this department. And it's my responsibility to execute that policy as effectively as we can.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: But, Wolf, some people have had second thoughts about don't ask, don't tell. General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, recently wrote that he is having second thoughts, that he's met with military people recently and he now believes that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers in the military -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Bill Clinton, the president who enacted all of this, he's coming up with a new stance himself.

Brian Todd, let's go to you for that -- what is the former president saying?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, General Pace's comments have not only forced the major candidates to show their hands, they have led that former president, Bill Clinton, to reveal he is not crazy about the law he himself enacted. (BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): An aide to Bill Clinton tells CNN the former president always felt openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military, but he got the best deal he could nearly 14 years ago, when against strong opposition, he got the don't ask, don't tell law passed, allowing them to serve only if they kept their homosexuality secret.

Now, the aide says, Mr. Clinton sides with his wife, who wants that law repealed.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: We have thousands of loyal, patriotic Americans who have been discharged from the military in a time of war. That, to me, does not make sense.

TODD: The joint chiefs chairman under Bill Clinton, John Shalikashvili, supported don't ask, don't tell at the time. Now, he says gays should be allowed to serve openly.

Contrast that to the current chairman, General Peter Pace. His comment that homosexuality is immoral has forced the presidential candidates to take sides, and they're clearly delineated on party lines.

Democrat John Edwards wants to let gays serve openly.

Republican John McCain says military leaders tell him the ban is working.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: And so I think it's logical to leave this issue alone.

TODD: Logical, also, for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

Analysts say General Pace has ignited a political fire that was only smoldering before, and only seems to burn for the moment on the campaign trail.

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO.COM: Remember what season it is. It's primary season. And Democrats are responding to the liberal wing. Those are the activists who turn out and vote. Republicans are responding to the conservative wings. Those are their activists.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Analysts say the Democratic leadership in Congress has not been eager to take up don't ask, don't tell despite a recent move by a Democratic Congressman to repeal the law. They say it's unlikely the ban on gays serving openly will be repealed, unless and until a Democrat wins the presidency next year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's no guarantee it would be repealed even then. Bill Clinton, back in the campaign in '92, wanted to let gays serve openly in the U.S. military, but under pressure from the then chairman of the joint chiefs, Colin Powell, among others, and from Congress, he had to backtrack and implement the don't ask, don't tell policy. So there's a history on this sensitive issue.

Brian, thanks very much.

Gays are allowed to serve openly in many, many militaries, and they include such key U.S. allies as Britain, France, Canada and Germany. Many of America's coalition partners in Iraq have allowed gays to serve, as well. And back in 1993, the same year that Congress refused to let gays serve openly in the U.S. military, the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, decided to drop the last of its own restrictions. Gays serve in the IDF, in the Israeli Army, openly, as well.

The American public seems to be moved -- have moved from skepticism to grave doubts about the war in Iraq. Our latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll asked this question: Can the United States win the war in Iraq?

Look at this. Back in November, 54 percent, more than half, said yes. Now, only 46 percent say the war is winnable.

Americans were also asked how they feel about the president's plan to deploy more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq.

Take a look at this. Only 37 percent are in favor. Fifty-nine percent oppose the plan.

And when people were asked who should be mainly responsible for setting U.S. policy in Iraq, Congress or the president, check out the results. Forty-seven percent say Congress, 33 percent say the president.

Those, the latest numbers from our poll.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty.

He's in New York.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I would think those numbers are very depressing for President Bush. Any time that the American public suggests Congress should be allowed to do anything, I mean that's -- that's a -- that's strong commentary for a group of people that are not held in very high esteem, as a general rule, here in this land.

This is depressing. Almost half of American workers live from paycheck to paycheck. This is a new survey that was done by an outfit -- an online outfit called careerbuilders.com.

Forty-seven percent of women live paycheck to paycheck, 36 percent of men. The results show 19 percent of workers who earn $100,000 or more a year also live paycheck to paycheck.

So it follows that when it comes to savings, then, some Americans aren't putting very much money in the bank. The poll found 20 percent of those surveyed don't save any money each month. And, again, when it comes to savings, the women are less likely to save money.

For those who do save, 14 percent save $500 or more a month, 28 percent save $100 or less and 16 percent save less than $50 a month.

So the question for this hour is as follows -- what does it mean when almost half of U.S. workers live from paycheck to paycheck?

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

The numbers can be a little tricky, I think, Wolf. We had people making $100,000 a year who live paycheck to paycheck. That would be, it seems to me, a little more consumption than might be warranted, as opposed to people who just don't have enough money to make ends meet.

BLITZER: I know people who are even making more than that and are living paycheck to paycheck, which is ridiculous, but that's the way it -- that's the way it is.

CAFFERTY: What are their names?

BLITZER: I'm not going to tell you.

Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: OK.

All right.

BLITZER: Up ahead, he's taken a lot of heat. Now the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, accepts some of the blame for the firing of those U.S. attorneys. But a showdown with the White House is brewing, at least between Capitol Hill and the White House.

The Reverend Al Sharpton says he was provoked to rip into Senator Barack Obama. We're tracking the war of words in the presidential campaign.

And more mystery surrounding a tomb said to hold the remains of Jesus. There's new intrigue over the evidence and a controversial documentary.

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Angry Democrats say the Bush administration fired eight federal prosecutors for their political views. A top Justice Department official has stepped down and the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is fending off calls for his own resignation.

Let's turn to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena -- what did the attorney general say today, Kelli, to try to ease this uproar?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the attorney general basically said that he accepts responsibility for what happened. He admitted that some mistakes were made and he also admitted that Congress did not get accurate information regarding the process.

He promised to work hard to regain that trust.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe in accountability. Like every CEO of a major organization, I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice. I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility and my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to asses accountability and to make improvements, so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARENA: You know, but, interestingly, Wolf, he followed that up by saying that it was actually his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who was in charge of the entire process. Gonzales says that he wasn't always aware of everything that was going on.

BLITZER: So was this statement from the attorney general, Kelli, enough to satisfy the Democratic critics on the Hill?

ARENA: The short answer, Wolf, no.

At least judging from what Senator Schumer had to say on the floor of the Senate shortly after Gonzales' remarks.

Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Simply claiming responsibility is not enough. He said: "I was not involved in any memos or discussions or memos of what was going on." That's his quote. Quote, he said: "Many delegations -- many decisions are delegated."

Mr. President, did the attorney general not know that eight U.S. attorneys were to be fired? If he didn't know, he shouldn't be attorney general, plain and simple.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARENA: Wolf, the attorney general says that he stands behind the decision to fire those eight U.S. attorneys. He also says that he's -- he's willing to work with Congress.

Congress, of course, is promising more hearings on this issue until they get to the bottom of what happened.

BLITZER: And we'll see if Congress goes ahead and subpoenas some of these White House officials like Karl Rove... ARENA: Right.

BLITZER: ... and what the reaction is from the White House.

Kelli, thanks for that.

ARENA: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Carol Costello is taking a closer look at some other important stories making news right now -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Hello to all of you.

A civil trial is underway in Norfolk, Virginia over the October 12, 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors. Victims' families are suing the African nation of Sudan. They say the deadly attack off Yemen could not have happened without Sudan's help and they say Sudan has provided a safe haven to al Qaeda since 1991.

The blast ripped a huge hole in the ship. The families are seeking $105 million in damages.

You remember this month's deadly bus crash in Atlanta that claimed the lives of seven people, including five college baseball players. Now, Georgia highway officials say they will add signs and reflective striping to seven commuter lane exits like the one the bus took before it plunged off a highway overpass.

The bus driver who died in the crash apparently thought the exit was a highway lane.

The woman accused of stealing a newborn girl from a Texas hospital has been arraigned on federal kidnapping charges. Rayshaun Parson did not enter a plea in today's court appearance in Lubbock. Police say she posed as a medical worker and left the hospital Saturday with a 3-day-old infant hidden in her purse. Tips led police to the baby in Clovis, New Mexico. She is now back with her family.

A Miami jury will decide whether John Couey should pay the ultimate price for kidnapping, raping and killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Jurors began hearing evidence today in the death penalty phase of Couey's trial. He was found guilty last week of Lunsford's murder. His attorneys say he should be spared the death penalty because he is mentally impaired. But prosecutors call the killing cold and calculated.

Back to you -- Wolf.

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

Coming up, controversial claims about the tomb of Jesus and a hot new film and a best-selling book. Now, there's a stunning new twist from a biblical scholar. President Bush makes a pledge to Mexico about immigration reform.

Can he sell it to Congress right here at home?

Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Perhaps not since "The Da Vinci Code" have claims about Jesus sparked such a controversy. Concerns a recent documentary that claims to have found Jesus' tomb. But that's based on a mistake, says a key scholar who actually worked on the film.

And joining us now in New York, our faith and values correspondent, Delia Gallagher -- Delia, you've had a chance to speak with this scholar earlier today.

What did he say?

DELIA GALLAGHER, FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he was essentially debunking one of the central claims of the documentary, and that is that Mary Magdalene's ossuary, or burial box, was found. The scholar is claiming that the inscription on the box was translated incorrectly by the people at Discovery and they think that it refers to Mary Magdalene. He says it has absolutely nothing to do with Mary Magdalene, that the words refer to Mary and Martha, two separate people, he says, that they have nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.

It's a very important criticism coming from an expert that was on the film.

BLITZER: Why is this coming out just now, though?

GALLAGHER: Well, this is what I asked him, because, of course, it's strange that he has worked on the film, so why is the criticism coming out now?

He says that he worked primarily on the Jesus ossuary, on the Jesus box, not on the Mary Magdalene one. He didn't have time to get his research done.

He also said, Wolf, however, that what he sees in these documentaries is what he calls a new form of science fiction. So perhaps also an attempt on his part to sort of reestablish his scholarly credibility in the face of some of these new forms of documentary.

BLITZER: You've spoken to a lot of scholars about this controversy, this documentary.

What's the bottom line? What are they saying to you?

GALLAGHER: Well, this documentary from the get go, on the part of most scholars, was something that they were generally skeptical about. However, it's interesting, now that it's come out, it's had a large viewership, most of the people that I'm hearing from are saying well, at least it might bring some renewed interest in biblical archaeology, in historical archaeology. And they think, considering their line of work, that might not be such a bad thing.

BLITZER: All right, Delia, thanks very much.

GALLAGHER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we contacted the Discovery Channel and the filmmakers for comment. We have not heard back from them yet. Once we do, we'll update you on what they say.

Coming up, they seemed like staunch allies just days ago.

But are cracks forming between presidential hopeful Barack Obama and the Reverend Al Sharpton?

We'll take a closer look at a startling new report of the rift.

And we're following the uproar over General Pace's comments about gays in the military. A retired U.S. Air Force colonel standing by to join us. That's coming up.

Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, it's been a disastrous day for the Dow. The Dow Jones Industrials plunged more than 242 points in its second biggest drop of the year, to close at 12,076. Investors are jittery about the increasing mortgage delinquencies and worries the economy is slowing down.

The United Nations atomic energy agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, is in Pyongyang. He's trying to cement North Korea's agreement to shut down its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and concessions. North Korea's first step -- shutting off its main nuclear reactor.

And Iraqi President Jalal Talabani apparently is on the mend. His chief of staff says that President Talabani will return to Iraq tomorrow after more than two weeks at a Jordan hospital. Talabani's aides say he was suffering from exhaustion and lung inflammation, but is now fully recovered.

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

Is a rift forming between two of the country's most prominent African-American leaders?

The Reverend Al Sharpton hasn't expressly endorsed Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign and now a newspaper article is making some startling claims that Sharpton may actually be jealous of Senator Obama. Let's go straight to CNN's Mary Snow.

She's watching this story in New York -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the message from the Reverend Al Sharpton to Senator Barack Obama -- don't take black voters for granted.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): He's been known to stir the pot. But the Reverend Al Sharpton insists this time he was provoked.

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK: This is one time I didn't start the fight.

SNOW: A fight? Between Sharpton and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama?

That is in question.

The Obama campaign insists there is no rift. Here in Selma, Alabama less than two weeks ago, the two men even embraced.

But Monday brought a chill when a "New York Post" article claimed Sharpton was trying to tear down Obama because of jealousy. The article quotes an unidentified prominent black Democratic activist supporting Senator Hillary Clinton. Sharpton denies the story and claims the Obama camp planted it as a pressure tactic for his endorsement, which he says he's not ready to give.

SHARPTON: In Selma, we started warming up. That's why out of nowhere this kind of article? And no denunciation of it from them?

It mystifies me.

SNOW (on camera): When -- when you talk to him, what did you want to say?

SHARPTON: I wanted to say to him...

SNOW: What do you think you're going to say?

SHARPTON: ... that I think that it is important. He's a very impressive candidate. I think he has a lot to offer. But I think that he must answer substantive questions in his own African-American community, as he does in other communities.

SNOW (voice-over): Some political strategists say when it comes to winning support from African-American voters, it can't hurt to have Sharpton on board.

But the question is how far should Obama go to win Sharpton over?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Reverend Sharpton can be a pretty polarizing figure. I think Barack Obama's strength is that he's actually a very unifying figure.

SNOW: Sharpton has figured in politics himself. When he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, he won 10 percent of the vote in South Carolina, a state with a high number of African- American voters.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW: And Sharpton, for his part, still hasn't completely shut the door on the possibility he may try to run for president.

As for the Obama camp, it says Senator Obama does plan to attend Sharpton's National Action Network summit for candidates next month. It declined further comment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there a lot of excitement in New York as a result of this little feud that has developed over the past couple of days?

SNOW: It certainly has generated a lot of interest because it seems to be a drama behind this political story. So certainly a lot of people are taking a look at it.

BLITZER: Mary Snow in New York watching this story for us.

Mary, thank you very much.

Let's get back to our top story now. An attack on gays in the military from America's top general.

The joint chiefs chairman, General Peter Pace, calls homosexual acts, and I'm quoting now, "immoral."

That's reopened the debate on gays in the military and the policy of don't ask, don't tell.

Joining us now from Los Angeles, retired U.S. Air Force Captain Reichen Lemkuhl.

He's the winner of TV's Amazing Race.

He's also the author of a book about his life as a gay man. It's called "Here's What We'll Say."

Reichen, thanks very much for coming in.

CAPT. REICHEN LEMKUHL, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.), AUTHOR, "HERE'S WHAT WE'LL SAY": Thanks, Wolf.

Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Well, let me get your reaction. I'm going to play an excerpt of what General Pace actually said, and then you'll respond.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GENERAL PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, you want to react, first of all, to what the -- the top military officer had to say?

LEMKUHL: Yes, I do. I mean whether he, you know, this general believes that these acts are immoral is one story. And whether that everyone in the country has to have this imposed on them, that this -- that these acts are immoral is another.

I'm it's just a big reasoning error for him to say that homosexual acts are immoral. He's basing this off of, you know, basically a jacked form of Christianity that is going out and judging people and he's basing this off of an overlying kind of Christian principle that I found at the Air Force Academy and in the Air Force overall.

And there's this kind of big judgment against homosexuality, and it's based on these religious beliefs that really have no room in the government and no room in military service. I mean, this is the United States, where we have people from all religions and all different moral backgrounds. And now, you know, someone judging us, using their kind of moral religious background is not correct, and it shouldn't be -- it shouldn't be allowed for someone like this general who is in such a big leadership position.

BLITZER: All right. Tell us your story, because you served in the air force. You obviously knew you were gay, you went along with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

What was it like?

LEMKUHL: Well, I mean, it was horrible having to live a double life, having to make sure that everything you did was kept secret. They always talk about the camaraderie that you are supposed to have in the military, and I didn't find that, because I couldn't let anyone into the actual double life that I was living.

I didn't want to go to events with the military, I didn't want anyone to know about my personal goings on. And so, it really, if anything, broke down the kind of moral fiber that's in the military. For me, it was the fact that I had to lie about my sexuality and hide it.

BLITZER: Because the argument has always been, if gays were allowed to openly serve in the military, it would impact negatively on moral of the troops, it would raise questions about good order and discipline, as they say.

Do you understand why they make that argument?

LEMKUHL: Yes, I understand why they make that argument. It's the argument that they made to keep women out of the military, Wolf, and it's the argument they made to keep black people and racial minorities out of the military throughout our U.S. military history, that if we let in the people that -- the people who are prejudice against them, if we let them in, that it will upset the ones who are prejudiced against them among the ranks.

It's just not a rational excuse. Here we are using it again, against gay people. You know, eventually we evolved and we said, OK, we can't use this excuse against racial minorities, and we can't use this excuse against women, so, we just brought ourselves to that place. But we can't seem to do that with the gay thing.

We're still using the same excuse -- oh, it's going to lower the moral of the troops. And the fact is, as General Shalikashvili just told us, that 75 percent of the troops coming back serving from Iraq are saying that they would have absolutely no problem serving next to service members who are openly gay.

Now we're kicking out two to three, is the official number -- kicking out two to three military people a day because they are gay? And these are people who have signed up to serve and die for our country. This is a national disgrace.

BLITZER: All right. Tell us why you decided to serve in the Air Force, obviously knowing the policy, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," knowing you were gay.

LEMKUHL: Actually, Wolf, I didn't know I was gay. This goes into the social aspect of whether you know you're gay or not or whether you want to admit it to yourself.

Most people go into the service not even having -- they don't have enough kind of personal -- I don't know, personal character to admit to themselves that they are gay yet. They just go in, and they might think they are gay, but they don't want to admit it.

Then they get in, they get away from home. They are in the military, and they start to build some character up and they realize, gosh, you know what, I'm gay. And what am I going to do about it?

And then they find themselves trapped into a contract and trapped into a system. So, you know, like a lot of other people, I did not admit to myself that I was gay when I was in the military. But once I did, and had the kind of fortitude to do that, I found myself stuck.

BLITZER: Reichen Lemkuhl, thanks for coming in.

LEMKUHL: Thank you so much for having me.

BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, they are so desperate to come to America that they risk their lives by hopping on moving freight trains. Our Soledad O'Brien is in Mexico right now. She's going to put a human face on illegal immigration for us.

And the new big controversy between the U.S. and Iran is not about nuclear weapons. Carol Costello shows us portions of a controversial new movie that some say puts Iran in a negative spotlight.

Stick around. Carol will explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On the last stop of his Latin American tour, President Bush today promised Mexico he will work as hard as he can to try to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Mexico's president said more jobs would help stem the tide of illegal immigrants.

But in the meantime, there's a steady stream of desperate people heading north. Many of them start by hopping on freight trains and hanging on literally for dear life.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien is joining us now from Mexico City with more on this part of the story -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon to you, Wolf.

It's a ride actually that is so dangerous they call it "El Paso de la Muerte," the ride of the dead. The passage of the dead. Migrants who are so desperate and so poor, that they are willing to risk their lives in order to hitch a ride on a moving freight train.

It's not just Mexicans. It's other Latin American immigrants, as well, and they have one thing in common. What they need is a job.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

S. O'BRIEN (on camera): Behind a small store along the train tracks in Tultitlan, Mexico, 10 men have the same dream, to get to the U.S. and to make money.

JOSE LUIS ESPINADA, TRYING TO ENTER U.S. (through translator): What motivated me is to get a better future and a brighter future for my wife and kids.

S. O'BRIEN: Jose Luis Espinada is from Honduras. He left behind his wife and five children 16 days ago to ride the trains north. He has cousins in Georgia who will help him if he gets there, but he's been turned back before.

So has Santiago Ortiz. Ortiz begins to cry when we ask him why he left behind his wife and two kids.

SANTIAGO ORTIZ, TRYING TO ENTER U.S. (through translator): Sometimes you take a chance, even death, to bring your family out of poverty.

S. O'BRIEN (on camera): Giant cargo trains like this one run right through the heart of Tultitlan, and it's a jumping off point of sorts for Mexicans and Hondurans and Guatemalans who are trying to get up north. And what they can do is just hang on to one of these ladders, like this, climb up on to the train, and then ride along for free, obviously, as this train heads up north. But clearly, it's very dangerous. Clearly, it can be deadly. And it's truly an indication of just how desperate people are to risk everything to try to get out of their poverty.

(voice over): Locals call the track "El Paso de la Muerte," the passage of the dead. Maria del Carmen Lopez Espindola (ph) lives with her family along the tracks. Six months ago, she saw a young man lose his legs. They were cut off when he tried to jump on board. She often helps the immigrants she sees, giving clothing or food.

The Hondurans we meet say they haven't eaten a real meal in days. They haven't slept.

So when a train passes heading north, they let it go. They'll sleep behind the store tonight and try to hop on board tomorrow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: So, while the presidents, Bush and Calderon, are talking about immigration, they're not just talking about the Mexican border. They're talking really about overall control of the border and making the border secure.

Mexico essentially acts like a funnel for many Latin American countries, where poor people are coming from those trains and then making their way north to the border. It will be interesting to see if they make any progress on those talks and if those talks have any actual impact on what happens on those trains -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the Mexicans, Soledad, are really unhappy about this fence, this wall that the U.S. -- or at least part of the U.S.- Mexican border -- the U.S. hopes to build. They really don't want that fence going up.

O'BRIEN: Yes, there's no question about that. We've sort of seen two responses. One, people aren't happy about it. It makes it much more difficult for a lot of these illegal immigrants to cross back and forth as they do on occasion. But also, many of them have sort of laughed when I asked them about the wall.

And they say you're talking about a 2,000-mile border and that no wall will keep someone who is so desperate and so poor, who needs to feed their family, no wall will keep them from coming across the border if they really want to. That's what they say -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Soledad, thanks very much.

And an important note to our viewers. You can see Soledad and Miles O'Brien every morning on "AMERICAN MORNING," weekdays. It starts at 6:00 a.m. Eastern. A lot more news in the morning.

This is something the news junkies want to see -- "AMERICAN MORNING" with Miles O'Brien and Soledad O'Brien, every weekday morning.

(NEWSBREAK) BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, it's a modern-day "Moby-Dick" tale of a giant sperm whale that gets too close to shore. Tom Foreman has the dramatic pictures of a story that takes a tragic turn.

And scenes from a movie that brought in $70 million in three days. It's also making Iran very unhappy. Carol Costello is standing by to explain.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's a real-life scene that could come right out of a movie. A whale entertaining thrilled onlookers at a seaside cove, but suddenly things took a terrifying turn.

Let's turn to CNN's Tom Foreman. He's watching this story.

It is terrifying.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is an amazing thing to see what happened over in Japan, off the coast of that island nation over there.

What happened with this whale was unexpected, and people have been talking about the video all day long.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN (voice over): The incident started with the best of intentions. A 30-foot sperm whale, a species rarely seen near shore, strays into a cove, and local fishermen try to shoo it back to open water.

They bang sticks, circle around. "He obviously noticed the sounds, but didn't move," one says.

So, the would-be rescuers press closer, at one point trying to rope the whale and drag it to sea. The whale spouts, appears to grow agitated, then disaster.

In an explosive rush, the whale slams into one of the boats, heaving two men into the water. A third remains on board, but only for a few seconds.

The whale hits again, flipping the boat. As the immense mammal thrashes the water, rescuers cannot even come close. And by the time divers arrive, it is too late. One man has drowned.

Whale experts say the mere fact that this animal was here was a warning sign.

TIM BINDER, GEORGIA AQUARIUM: When they do come in shore, it's because they are ill and they are stranded. So this is an interaction. When an animal like this ends up on the beach, they shouldn't -- you shouldn't be this close to it.

FOREMAN: Specifically, what spurred the attack will remain a mystery, because afterward, the whale simply swam away.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: You can't really understand how unbelievably huge these animals are. But look at this. This is about a third of the size of a real small sperm whale if we brought one in here. And when they get big, they get really big.

Take a look at this. The longest ones can be 60 feet long, they weigh 45 tons. That's more than half the weight of an M-1 tank.

They have 50 sharp teeth that come up in here, about eight inches long, just on the bottom jaw, and they do hunt and kill their food, unlike many other whales that sort of slide through large fields of krill. These actually hunt down giant squid, and they eat a ton of food a day.

Magnificent, amazing creatures. Obviously very dangerous to get next to. A tragic day today. Also an extraordinary story.

BLITZER: And these fishermen had best of intentions, and look what happened there. They were trying to help out that whale.

All right, Tom. Thank you very much.

A blockbuster movie about the legendary stand of a band of Spartans against the mighty Persian army brought to the screen by our corporate cousin, Warner Brothers. The ancient tale of heroism is drawing complaints, though, from the descendants of the Persians.

Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello. She's watching this for us -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, literally two seconds ago we got a call from the Iranian embassy, and it told us that this is a major issue. Who knew a Hollywood movie depicting a battle between half-naked ancient Greeks and Persians would cause this mini international incident.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): Both the Spartans and Persians have chiseled shiny chests. They duel and grunt and die in a fireworks of special affects that are explosive. Just enough theatrics to draw $70 million in ticket sales in just three days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "300": There's much our cultures could share.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "300": I happened to notice we've been sharing our culture with you all morning.

COSTELLO: But where U.S. critics scream blockbuster, Iran's top movie critic is crying culture clash. "300" is "... part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture." So says the art adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran is offended by the tale how of how a couple of hundred thousand of their ancestors were held up so long at Thermopylae by just 300 Spartans. Sure, in the end, the Persians did triumph over King Leonidas and his boys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "300": We must be diplomatic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "300": And of course Spartans have their reputation to consider.

COSTELLO: But today's Iran is in a standoff against the United States, so this moment of historical fiction is smelling a bit to them like modern propaganda. They say, "Following the Islamic revolution in Iran, Hollywood and cultural authorities in the United States initiated studies to figure out how to attack the Iranian culture. Certainly, the recent movie is a product of such studies."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "300": Submission. Now that's a bit of a problem.

COSTELLO: Gitesh Pandya of boxofficeguru.com says the Iranians shouldn't be so concerned.

GITESH PANDYA, BOXOFFICEGURU.COM: I think they wanted to make a movie that was cool as hell and that every 14-year-old boy would come and buy a ticket for and not wait for on the DVD.

COSTELLO: And Iran had better be ready. Pandya sees "300" becoming an international hit.

PANDYA: Compared to what "Borat" did to people from Kazakhstan, I don't think anyone should be really upset about "300". It's just a historical battle film, and it really doesn't mean much about what race the people are, you know, what country they come from.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "300": Remember this day, friend (ph). For it will be yours for all time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Now, this movie is a bona fide hit. It raked in a record $71 million when it opened. It will never be seen on the big screen in Iran, but, you know, bootleg DVD copies seem somehow to always turn up on the streets there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure this one will, as well.

Thanks, Carol, for that.

Up next, are you one of those people that lives paycheck to paycheck? Jack Cafferty with your e-mail right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check back with Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is: What does it mean when almost half of U.S. workers live from paycheck to paycheck?

Bill writes from Staten Island, "Jack, it means the only war the administration is capable of winning is the war against the middle class and its own citizens. Our tax dollars are used to support policies that ship our jobs overseas, give incredible considerations to illegal aliens, and line the pockets of Bush's political cronies."

Jim in Seattle, "Jack, I think the numbers are way off. They are much higher. My wife and I are not employed, we're retired. We live month to month on a retirement check, not a paycheck, but we and thousands of retirees like us should be added to that list. The wealthy continue to get wealthier, the rest of us are facing poverty."

This letter is signed "Broke in Illinois." "Jack, I'm 33. My husband's 35. We have two cars, a house, and two kids. We make a combined income of $120,000 a year and I can't see how we're not richer in the bank. But when you start adding up the cost of living, the cost of daycare, the coast of your commute, health care, taxes, et cetera, it's a struggle. And we barely manage to put anything away in savings each month."

Mike in Columbus, Ohio, "Let's go beyond blaming individuals for being poor savers. Let's take a look at the degree to which the average paycheck can no longer keep up with staggering energy and medical costs, which continue to rise unflinchingly. No thanks to our elected officials, many of whom see large campaign contributions from energy and insurance lobbies. Bump me up to $100,000 a year and I'll show you how to save."

Ernest writes from South Carolina, "Jack, it means this country and its people are living on borrowed time with runaway spending. One day China will come knocking at the door to collect."

And one of my favorite e-mails in a long time, Andy wrote to THE SITUATION ROOM from Philadelphia, "I like your show and I watch it every day. You have to get rid of Jack Cafferty. He scares the crap out of my dog."

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

BLITZER: Did you have any idea, Jack, you have that -- you have that affect on dogs?

CAFFERTY: Well, it's just this guy's dog. My dog loves me.

BLITZER: Good. Jack, see you in an hour.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

We're here weekday afternoons. Let's go to Lou in New York.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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