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THE SITUATION ROOM

Abductors of U.S. Troops in Iraq in Custody. Space Shuttle Atlantis Launches Tonight. Hilton's Crime Drawing Attention to Drunk Driving. Webby Awards. Shakeup in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Compromise on Missile Shield Offered by Putin

Aired June 8, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


CAFFERTY: Nora writes: "He's right. So tell me, why is impeachment off the table? And, Jack, as a loyal CNN viewer, I'm concerned I may not be getting enough coverage of the Paris Hilton most vital saga on the planet. Could you use your influence to get THE SITUATION ROOM broadcast from her jail cell all of next week? You can break away from important coverage whenever she says something that makes sense. Pining for Paris in California, signed, Ray."
What do you think about that, Wolf?

Put you in the cell with Paris and do THE SIT ROOM next week?

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: No, but I wouldn't mind going to Paris -- Paris, France, that is -- if we've got a legitimate reason to go there.

Thanks very much, Jack, for that.

CAFFERTY: You're welcome.

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

Happening now, a stunning Pentagon shake up. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff poised to leave his post. General Peter Pace becoming a casualty of Iraq War politics.

Also, the name invoked more than President Bush's in the race for White House -- god. Candidates, courting religious conservatives, talking frankly about faith.

But could it backfire?

And NASA hoping to launch tonight its Shuttle Atlantis.

And happening now, all seven astronauts are strapped in and on board. You're looking at these live pictures. We're going to bring you the launch. That's coming up live during our 7:00 Eastern hour.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A surprise announcement from the Pentagon today. The defense secretary, Robert Gates, announcing he's replacing the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Peter Pace. And in an extraordinary move, Gates concedes the politics of the war in Iraq are to blame.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- what exactly did the defense secretary say, Barbara?

Because this was stunning.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It was indeed, Wolf.

After 40 years of military service, the nation's top military officer, one of the last Vietnam veterans remaining on active duty is going to go. Some pretty unusual circumstances, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

STARR (voice-over): In the face of overwhelming public opposition to the Iraq War, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear he's not willing to take the heat from Congress, so he's recommending to President Bush that General Peter Pace not be renominated as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the senior military adviser to the president.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The focus of his confirmation process would have been on the past rather than the future. And further, that there was the very real prospect the process would be quite contentious.

STARR: For the last two weeks, both Democratic and Republican Senators warned Gates a confirmation hearing would turn into a referendum on the conduct of war.

GATES: I wish that that were not the case. I wish it were not necessary to make a decision like this. But I think it's a realistic appraisal of where we are.

STARR: Pace gave no hint of what was in the works just a day before the secretary's announcement.

GEN. PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I will serve the nation as long as the nation wants me to serve.

QUESTION: Has there -- has there been any decision?

PACE: You're asking the wrong guy.

QUESTION: Thank you, General.

STARR: Military and Congressional sources agree Pace would have likely been confirmed, but the political debate about the war and the rising death toll for U.S. Troops now casts a long shadow.

Admiral Michael Mullen will be nominated now as the next chairman of the joint chiefs and take office just as the military's assessment of the war is expected.

(END VIDEO TAPE) STARR: Wolf, we're developing some late information here. Apparently, there were, in fact, two very controversial issues about General Pace, in addition, of course, to the war -- his previous statements about being opposed to gays serving in the military. And just a few days ago, he wrote a letter to the judge in the "Scooter" Libby case, attesting to Mr. Libby's character.

Both of those issues did not sit well with Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because on the -- that first issue, I had heard from several lawmakers, especially Democrats, when General Pace said that homosexuality was immoral, that that raised all sorts of alarm bells. I had not heard that he had actually written a letter trying to get "Scooter" Libby a more lenient sentence -- the vice president's former chief of staff. Certainly, that's probably going to -- was a factor in generating some potential opposition on the Hill, as well.

STARR: Well, Wolf, to be clear, he didn't actually -- we've seen that letter to the judge. He didn't actually ask for a more lenient sentence for Mr. Libby, but what he did do is say that in his position as chairman of the joint chiefs, he had come to know Mr. Libby, that he had had very professional dealings with him. But he did that in his official capacity and that may not have sat well with Congress -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Barbara, for that.

Barbara Starr reporting.

Frosty relations between Moscow and Russia are suddenly thawing, at least a little bit. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is proposing a compromise to the controversial missile defense system President Bush wants to build on Moscow's doorstep.

Our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, has been traveling with President Bush.

She is now live in Rome -- Suzanne, what exactly are the Russians proposing?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Putin is actually proposing to work with the United States to build this missile defense shield, but certainly on his own terms. He is talking about putting a radar system in the Czech Republic, as well as 10 missile interceptors in Poland. But President Putin very concerned that, of course, this is really going to get in the way of things.

That was President Bush's plan. His plan, of course, is to actually use an existing radar system in Azerbaijan. A lot of controversy, as you know. And, of course, President Bush trying to engage in some high powered diplomacy here in Rome, as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Out for a walk at Poland's presidential retreat, Mr. Bush admitted to his host he got off to a rough start earlier in the day and needed some fresh air.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I need some fresh air. I got very sick this morning.

MALVEAUX: While looking better on his stroll in Poland, earlier in Germany, at the G-8 summit, he had to skip morning meetings. He held his first meeting with France's new president in his private quarters. After a few hours rest, he rebounded. Aides insisted the president's sour stomach wasn't from Russia's proposal to change his missile defense program, but rather a pesky travel bug.

Then it was on to Poland. This is where Mr. Bush hopes to base 10 missile interceptors. It is a key component to the controversial missile defense system, which he wants to build in Eastern Europe. Poland's leadership says it wants to cooperate.

PRES LECH KACZYNSKI, POLAND (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I can tell you that as far as the missile defense system is concerned, the two parties fully agree.

MALVEAUX: But the Polish government fears that allowing the program to go forward will make its country a target for Russia.

But Mr. Bush tried to reassure its nervous ally.

BUSH: I appreciate the support of the missile defense interceptors here in Poland. We will negotiate a fair agreement that enhances the security of Poland.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, of course, the next stop is here in Rome. Tomorrow, President Bush meeting with the Italian president and then an exclusive with the pope -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The stomach bug that he had, was it something that he ate or something else?

MALVEAUX: Well, they think it was some sort of a bug, a travel bug, perhaps viral in nature. He said, actually, that the first lady got it a couple days ago. So she might have passed it on to the president. But they say that both of them seem to be doing a little bit better -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks.

Suzanne Malveaux is in Rome for us.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty.

He's in New York for us -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When the history of the Bush White House is written, the word courageous will be in short supply.

Rather than face Senate confirmation hearings over his reappointment as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the Bush White House has decided to simply throw General Peter Pace under the bus.

You see, they don't want a lot of embarrassing questions asked of General Peter Pace about the war in Iraq. So just sacrifice him and bring in somebody else to take the rap for a while. Absolutely gutless and oh, so very typical.

If the war in Iraq is such a great idea -- and the decider insists that it is -- what's the harm in letting the nation's top military man answer questions about it?

But instead, they take the easy way out. Never mind the impact on General Pace. He's expendable -- just like so many who have come between President Bush's nightmare and reality.

The sad thing is nobody stands up and does anything about any of this. The Democrats caved in before the fight even got going and they were elected to stop the war. The public seems content to complain, but not much else. When it was going this poorly in Vietnam, Americans were in the streets, demanding to be heard. Students were tearing up college campuses in an effort to head off being sent away to die for nothing.

But not this time -- 3,503 U.S. Troops have been killed in Iraq and nobody does anything. Everything is off the table. No wonder the Bush White House gets away with this stuff.

Here's the question -- what's it going to take to bring the Iraq War to an end?

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

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

Still ahead, god playing an increasingly large role in the White House. Candidates invoking his name on the campaign trail.

But could it backfire?

Our Anderson Cooper has a special report.

Also, the alleged secret payments to a Saudi prince with close ties to the White House. We're taking a closer look at the fall out.

And we're also watching the Space Shuttle Atlantis. All seven astronauts are now on board. They're about to close the hatch. This shuttle will launch during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour. Miles O'Brien is down there. We'll have live coverage. You're going to want to see that. That's is coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

Stay with us.

We'll be right back. COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: It's a name that keeps coming up over and over again in the race for the White House -- sometimes invoked more than that of President Bush.

The name?

god.

It seems the name is everywhere in this campaign, with candidates on both sides talking candidly about their faith.

CNN's Anderson Cooper takes a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: EDWARDS: I have a deep and abiding love for my lord, Jesus Christ.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): It's starting to feel more like a camp revival than a campaign these days.

EDWARDS: Jesus Christ is my savior.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The hand of god was in what we are today.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper.

COOPER: Candidates for president on a mission to prove themselves pious.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have great gifts in this country that come to us from god.

COOPER: President Bush was mentioned just seven times in the Republican debate. God got three times more play, with a whopping 21 mentions. And we're not counting "god bless yous."

MICHAEL CROMARTIE, ETHICS & PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: All of the candidates have read the same polling data that most political scientists have read, which shows very clearly that Americans, for whatever reason, want their president to be a person of faith.

COOPER: Candidates aren't holding back. Reporters are digging in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it the story of creation as it is reported in the bible?

COOPER: Evolution has been a topic in two debates this year.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's interesting that that question would even be asked of somebody running for president. I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth grade science book.

COOPER: This coming from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister.

HUCKABEE: But I'll tell you what I can tell the country. If they want a president who doesn't believe in god, there's probably plenty of choices.

COOPER: Not really. Not since George W. Bush tapped into a gold mine of Evangelical votes. The president talks the talk.

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart and it changes your life.

COOPER: Republicans want to keep the base of religious voters. But now Democrats want a piece, too.

CROMARTIE: They want to pull away, you know, even several percentage points of -- of religious people who, up to now, have voted Republican. Remember, just a few percentage points in -- in any number of states can change an election.

COOPER: Hillary Clinton has hired a consultant to handle faith outreach. And Barack Obama and John Edwards launched faith Web pages in the past week.

Monday, Clinton and Edwards revealed how religion saw them through their darkest hours.

A son's death.

EDWARDS: I can tell you, it is -- it is prayer that played a huge role in my survival.

COOPER: A husband's infidelity.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought.

COOPER: Still, some believe all this talk of god could backfire.

CROMARTIE: If they're faking it, if it's contrived, if it's something they're using only to score political point, the American people will see through it and they will reject it.

COOPER: Amen to that.

Anderson Cooper, CNN.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: And you can see a lot more on this subject tonight and this weekend. Tonight, Saturday and Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, talk candidly about faith, politics and how both intersect in their lives. And then over the worked, on Saturday and Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, we're going to have a two hour special featuring highlights of both the Democratic and Republican presidential debates. You'll hear what the Democrats are saying on a subject and then the Republicans. This is coverage you won't see anywhere else from the best political team on television.

Still to come, we're watching several stories, including the search for those missing U.S. Soldiers in Iraq. We're about to get some exclusive new information on the abduction and who is behind it.

And the dead, sober -- sober -- the very sober issue of celebrity drunk driving. We're going to show you some numbers that you may find shocking.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

COMMERCIAL

BLITZER: There are new developments in an unfolding scandal involving a Saudi prince with very close ties to the Bush administration. The former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now live with some details -- what's this case, Brian, all about?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, allegations that Prince Bandar used the ties that he also had with the British government to make billions of dollars in secret payments. Now, that government and this very high profile Saudi royal are on the definitive.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A wealthy Saudi prince with deep connections to America. An estate in Aspen worth $135 million. Tutor on foreign affairs to George W. Bush before he became president. Confidante of George Bush, Sr. Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. A crucial broker in the first Gulf War.

Now, questions about another deal he brokered. "The Guardian" newspaper and the BBC report Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. May have gotten up to $2 billion in secret payments from a British defense firm. The payments, they say, took place over 20 years, and were sanctioned by the British government in return for Bandar's help in negotiating a multi-billion dollar deal to sell British war planes to the Saudis in 1985.

The British firm, BAE, denies wrongdoing.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair admits he supported a decision to quash an internal investigation. TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe the investigation, incidentally, would have led anywhere, except to the complete wreckage of a vital strategic relationship for our country in terms of fighting terrorism, in terms of the Middle East, in terms of British interests there.

TODD: Through his attorney, Prince Bandar issued a statement denying taking what he called "back handers." He says he was authorized to handle the money, channeled to the now defunct Riggs Bank in Washington, that the accounts were audited by the Saudi government and at no stage have the Ministry of Defense and Aviation or the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Finance identified any irregularities in the conduct of the accounts. But that, too, leaves questions.

THOMAS LIPPMAN, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: Who is the minister of defense?

The minister of defense is Bandar's father, Prince Sultan, who is also next in line for the throne.

TODD: Thomas Lippman, who covered Saudi Arabia for "The Washington Post," says payments like these are standard with the Saudis and often justified by Western governments and companies.

LIPPMAN: This has been a relationship that has helped both sides, but it's also one in which business is not done the way it's done in Australia or Canada.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Bandar says he's consulting with his attorneys regarding these media reports, but analysts say they likely won't affect his current standing as Saudi Arabia's national security adviser and they may never be reported in the Saudi media -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He made his initial reputation brokering these kind of deals way back in the '70s.

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Back in 1978, before he was the ambassador to the U.S. He successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to approve the sale of F15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. Throughout his tenure as ambassador here in the 1980s, U.S. Firms scored several billions of dollars worth of defense contracts with the Saudi government.

It's worth pointing out, these types of payments have been illegal on the part of U.S. Firms to any foreign government since 1977.

BLITZER: Brian Todd watching this story for us. Fascinating information, Brian.

Thanks very much.

Let's check back with Carol.

She's monitoring some other stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Carol, what do you have?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, a couple of stories to tell you about, Wolf.

Many air travelers up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest right now waiting out severe delays. If you're one of them, here's why. The FAA says a technical failure involving a computer in Atlanta that processes flight plans -- that's what caused all the delays. That problem has been fixed for more than six hours now. Yes. But it caused a cascade effect that has caused backups and at least 50 cancellations.

So, hopefully you're being patient.

Just a short time ago, a Tennessee judge sentenced the woman convicted of killing her preacher husband to three years in prison today. Mary Winkler was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting her husband while he slept last year. Now, according to the terms of the sentence, she could be eligible for early release and can actually serve some of her time in a mental health facility. That means she may be effectively done with her time behind bars.

The Bush administration is suspending some of its post-September 11th requirements travel abroad. Air travelers may now enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and some Caribbean islands without a passport -- but only if they have already applied for a passport. A backlog in processing those applications is cited for the change.

And checking the bottom line for you now, the three major stock indices finished on a high note today after a three day sell off.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rebounded, gaining 157 points or about 1.2 percent.

The broader S&P 500 and the tech heavy Nasdaq indices also finished the day up, just over 1 percent.

That's a look at what's happening now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The numbers were down earlier in the day, but they did make a major rebound.

COSTELLO: They did.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much.

Coming up, exclusive new information on the people who may have abducted those three American soldiers in Iraq. We're going to get the latest from the chief spokesman for the multinational forces in Iraq, in Baghdad.

Plus, the best of the Internet honored at the Webby Awards. CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look.

Lots more coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. COMMERCIAL

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

Happening now, Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana says the corruption charges against him are, in his words, contrived, and that he's innocent. He's vowing to clear his name and he's asking the news media and the American public to "keep an open mind."

Dick Cheney's pacemaker is running low on batteries. The vice president's office says he'll undergo elective surgery this summer to replace the device. Cheney has survived four heart attacks. A recent checkup is said to have uncovered no new coronary blockages.

In the Middle East, a killer cyclone is winding down. Oman is lowering its storm warning level from red to orange and Iranian media says the storm that killed more than 50 people in the region this week is quickly losing strength.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We have some exclusive new information on the people who abducted three American soldiers in Iraq last month.

Joining us now in Baghdad, the chief U.S. Spokesman for the multi-national forces, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, U.S. Army.

General Bergner, thanks very much for joining us.

What can you tell us about these two missing American soldiers?

BRIG. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, SPOKESMAN, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCES IN IRAQ: Well, Wolf, we continue our search for our missing soldiers. Our thoughts and prayers remain very much with their families.

There's nothing specific that I could share with you tonight about their status or their whereabouts and any change to that. And I wouldn't want to raise expectations about that -- about that changing in the near term.

But we have and continue to learn more about those who have abducted them.

BLITZER: Could you tell us -- because we did get some images, some pictures that maybe you can give us some perspective on what this means in terms of the hunt for those who may have kidnapped these two American soldiers?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf, you know, there's been an extensive effort underway. A lot of Iraqi security forces and our own forces trying to locate our missing soldiers and to learn whatever we can about those who were involved in their abduction. That intelligence, that information has led us to be able to identify 17 named individuals who either planned or executed the attack on our soldiers. And we have subsequently been able to detain three of those individuals that were involved.

And you'll notice in that image...

BLITZER: And you have been interrogating -- you've been interrogating those three individuals?

BERGNER: We have them in our -- in our custody, and we are doing all the appropriate questioning to learn more about what happened and what else might be involved.

And you'll notice in the image that -- and images -- other images that have been provided that they use the black masks, but what we're -- what we're increasingly seeing now is that even those who hide behind the masks are not going to be able to hide from justice. And so we continue our search for our soldiers. We will not cease in our search, or will we relent in our pursuit of those who were involved in this attack.

BLITZER: What have you learned? I know it's a sensitive -- a sensitive issue, but what can you share with us about what you have learned about those responsible for the abduction of these two American soldiers?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf, the operational aspects of how they conducted the attack and specifically who was involved, and the possibility that that information could lead us to locate our missing soldiers is what we're all focused on. And you can understand that sharing any more than that would perhaps not be in the best interests of our soldiers. And so we're developing all those leads and we're pursuing that information, just as you would expect us to.

BLITZER: We're getting conflicting reports here in Washington, at least, General, about how the Iraqi military itself is doing, whether they're making progress, they're willing to step up and do what they're supposed to do.

Are you encouraged or discouraged -- and be honest with us -- about the Iraqi military right now?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf, you know there's a little of both in that -- in that story. And you have read and heard reports about the conflicting loyalties of some Iraqi security force members. You have learned of sometimes being complicit in their attacks that might target Iraqis or coalition forces.

But this week, there were three incidents that stand out. And they're -- they happen frequently, not just this week, where the Iraqi security forces are on the front line of the defense, and they are putting themselves in harm's way to protect their own citizens and to help us defeat the extremists.

Just on Tuesday, a female suicide vest attack tried to get to a group of police recruits, and a police officer on the scene identified the threat, stopped the woman. She detonated her vest, and he protected those police recruits from ever reaching their target.

On Wednesday, the police in Kadhamiya stopped four truck bombs that would have otherwise piled on at one after the other in targeting Iraqi citizens.

And then just yesterday, up near Mosul, in my old operating area, the Iraqi army successfully kept two truck bombs from reaching their target. And they sacrificed -- a number of Iraqi soldiers gave their lives in that attack.

So, there's another side to the Iraqi security forces that people ought to know about as well. And they are increasingly the first line of defense. Sometimes two to three times the casualties of others on the battlefield. And so they deserve a lot of credit for the courage and sacrifice that they bring.

BLITZER: General Bergner, thanks very much for joining us. Let's hope you find those two missing soldiers safe and sound, as quickly as possible.

Brigadier General Kevin Bergner is the chief spokesman for the multinational forces in Iraq.

Thanks, General.

BERGNER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And Brigadier General Bergner also told us the surge in U.S. troops is helping multinational forces in Iraq to root out al Qaeda cells. The troop increase, he says, in the Al Anbar and Diyala provinces in particular, that troop increase is helping. He says locals there are increasingly refusing to help al Qaeda militants and opting instead to help U.S. troops. But he says it's a long haul and this process is only getting started.

Up ahead, countdown to the liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis. We're going to take you live to Florida for a preview.

Miles O'Brien is standing by.

We'll also bring you live coverage during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour of the actual launch.

Plus, find out if your favorite Internet videos were winners at the Webby Awards.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just about two hours to go until the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on an 11-day mission to help with the construction of the International Space Station.

We're going to bring you the launch live during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Right now, though, let's go to CNN's space correspondent, Miles O'Brien. He's joining us live from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It looks, at least based on what I can tell, Miles, that everything seems to be on track.

Is it?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: So far, so good, Wolf.

The weather is looking good right now. There's an airplane in the air right now, flown by the chief astronaut, Steve Lindsey. And he's flying around, doing a weather reconnaissance flight as we speak. And we haven't heard about any specific problems.

So, right now, we're not worried about the weather.

You have a space shuttle stack there filled with 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, tremendous explosive capability, a million moving parts. All the low bidder (ph), I might add. So, anything, anything can happen between now and the 7:38 p.m. Eastern Time.

The astronauts, all seven of them, all men in this case, strapped in, ready for their flight for the International Space Station. They went through the routine ritual in their suit-up and walkout and their pre-flight meal just a little while ago.

Joining me here, Wolf, to talk a little bit about what's going on right now in their minds as they get ready for their big mission -- it is game day, after all, after months and months of training and delays, which I'll tell you about -- is Cady Coleman, an astronaut who has flown on this shuttle twice.

Cady, good to have you with us.

First of all, right now I haven't heard really any significant problems in this countdown. Have you?

CADY COLEMAN, ASTRONAUT: It's so quiet, we're all worried. No, seriously, the talk around the center, it's just -- it's going so well. And then everyone wants to knock on wood, because, you know, there are a lot of moving parts. There are a lot of people involved in the launch, everybody trying to do their job right so it all goes right, and the machine itself performing well.

It all looks good.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's take a look at the space shuttle. There's Atlantis in all its splendor on launch pad 39-A.

I want to call you attention to that point at the top there, the top of the external fuel tank, which was damaged severely in February during a freak hailstorm, to say the least. Of all the space shuttles that have flown -- this is the 118th mission -- this has never happened before. And an inch and a half in diameter hail pelted it and caused all kinds of damage to it.

They have since gone through and filled in divots, shaped it, remolded it, used what sort of amounts to the world's largest pencil sharpener to reshape that pointy end right there. And as they strapped in, got ready for their flight there, people here in Mission Control, at the launch control center, are saying they feel that they have pretty much addressed it, they feel that this tank is safe.

What are you -- what are you hearing?

COLEMAN: Well, that's exactly what I hear. And, you know, those kinds of meetings, Miles, go on for months and weeks. You know, ever since that hailstorm first hit, it was, how are we going to repair the tank? Are we going to repair it?

We didn't really know. And so we basically had another tank in parallel coming up, you know, getting ready as well. But in the end, people felt good about the repairs, the analysis that we did to look at them to make sure that they were safe. And were we are today.

O'BRIEN: Now I want to call people's attention to these guys right here. These are the guys in the white room.

These are the guys that are getting ready to close that hatch, which I think you can see right there -- there's the hatch. It is a very laborious process. We've actually had missions where they couldn't get the door shut right, because the seal is very important.

These people -- who are these people and what is their role in this whole process?

COLEMAN: This is the close-out crew. And they are very special guys and women who are trained not only to strap in the crew, but also to do a lot of trouble shooting. And also, they're prepared for rescue.

You know, you talked about all the fuel and the danger of being on the pad. You know, these are the folks that are prepared to drag you out of that vehicle if they need to.

So they're special folks. They're also the last ones to, you know, punch you in the shoulder or slap you -- just really, they're nice guys that you feel real strongly about, you have trained about. And everybody likes them.

O'BRIEN: What kind -- yes, there's got to be a little bit of small talk that goes along with -- you know, there's a lot of tension. What kind of conversations do you have with these people in that white room, 195 feet above the ground there?

COLEMAN: You know, they're real people. You're a real person, too. You're getting ready to go on a very big trip, and yet you talk about the things that people talk about. "Hey, how are you kids? How are you doing?" You know, "It's been hot here."

All those kinds of normal kinds of things. O'BRIEN: Now, as you can see that countdown clock in your screen there, it doesn't match the time that we're headed toward for the launch precisely, because there's yet another hold which is going to come into play before we reach launch. They have a series of holds in these countdowns.

They're going to the International Space Station. They're going to add a huge solar array. It's an important mission, and all of these missions are interconnected to each other in the final days of the space shuttle program.

COLEMAN: It's true. And every single one of them is important. And you think, well, we'll just skip to the next one. But, you know, you can't put the next piece on until you put this one on.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Cady Coleman.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: You know, a quick question, and maybe Cady knows the answer as well. I assume you do, Miles.

What do these astronauts eat on a day like this? They're about to be launched into space. That could be rough on the stomach.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I want to have Cady amplify on this, but we noted earlier during the traditional picture where they have their meal, which usually is more like a photo-op than really a meal.

Six out of seven of the crew members were having a rather hearty breakfast fare, and Rick Sturckow, the commander, was eating very light, cereal. And maybe he prefers a little less in his stomach.

Have you experienced mal de space?

COLEMAN: You know, I'll have to say on my first flight, absolutely not. And on my second flight, absolutely.

O'BRIEN: So how do you figure.

COLEMAN: Everybody is different. Everybody is different, and, you know, you get ready the best way you can. For some folks, that's eating a lot. And for some folks it's not.

You do get to pack a lunch.

O'BRIEN: And you of course have that sandwich as soon as you get to orbit.

That's -- the last thing they're thinking about is eating right now. Right now what they're thinking about is, Wolf, the astronauts creed: "Dear Lord, please don't let me be the one to mess up" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Miles, thanks very much -- Cady. We're going to be checking back with both of you.

Live coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern Hour.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, what do you think it will take to end the war in Iraq?

Jack Cafferty with your e-mail.

And it may be fodder for late-night comedians and Internet bloggers, but the news media frenzy over one high-profile Hollywood case is also highlighting a very serious problem.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's a case out in Hollywood that's spawning a media frenzy, and it's drawing national attention to the issue of drunken driving.

Let's go back to Carol Costello.

Carol, tell our viewers what you're working on.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this should draw attention to drunk driving. Of course it is the case of Paris Hilton. And I know, but hear me out. Hidden in the extraordinary media circus is actual news.

The developments today, Hilton was taken from a California courtroom crying, "It's not right!" and screaming for her mouth. A judge had ordered her back to jail, rejecting the sheriff's decision to allow Hilton to serve her sentence at home with an electronic bracelet because of unspecified medical problems.

So, if Hilton had gotten special treatment, it ended right there.

But here's the thing. Hilton was serving her 45 days in jail because she violated probation on a reckless driving charge stemming from drunk driving. Her crime and her inability to take it seriously is not unusual for many people in any part of the country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice over): It is a celebrity-driven circus, one that has caused angst for news organizations, with some poking fun at Paris Hilton's saga.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ridiculous.

COSTELLO: And others, like NBC's Brian Williams, who blogged, "She won't make the broadcast tonight." But for Mother Against Drunk Driving, Paris Hilton's saga should make the news. Her face should be blastered on every newspaper across the country, because her crime is more than Hollywood-driven gossip. It highlights the most violent, prolific crime in our country, drunk driving.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The deaths should be going down.

COSTELLO: But they've been going up.

Deaths caused by drunk drivers are at an all-time high since 1992. Nearly 18,000 nationwide killed in 2006 alone.

And who is most at fault? According to the government, people 20 to 29 years old. The very group, says MADD, influenced by celebrity behavior.

Consider this. We did a quick check and found in just the last year and a half, at least 16 celebrities were arrested for DUI. Hard to understand when all of them can afford limousines to drive them around. But like all who get behind the wheel allegedly drunk...

GLYNN BIRCH, MADD NATIONAL PRESIDENT: They know what they're doing. It's just that no one thinks it's ever going to happen to them.

COSTELLO: There are jurisdictions trying to break people of that mindset. In Long Island, New York, the prosecutor considers drunk drivers criminals. Her change in attitude came after this horrific crash captured by a dashboard camera.

Driving the wrong way on the highway, slammed into a limousine carrying the Flynns (ph). Their little girl Katie (ph) was decapitated.

Prosecutor Rice (ph) charged the drunk driver with murder. He was convicted.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Now, Hilton's original sentence was 36 months probation, alcohol education, and a $1,500 fine. MADD says that's pretty normal and not nearly enough for a first-time offender.

And get this, Wolf -- 1.4 million people every year are charged with drunk driving.

BLITZER: It's a horrible, horrible situation.

All right. Thanks very much for that, Carol.

Let's go back to Jack in New York -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: A $1500 fine for the heiress to the Hilton Hotel empire? It doesn't seem like much of a deterrent, does it? The question that we're monkeying with this hour is: What's it going to take to bring the war in Iraq to an end?

Ron in Florida writes, "If every American who votes goes to the polls November 2008 and does not vote for a single incumbent, perhaps that would help. I certainly would give every Republican their walking papers, and those die-hard been in the Congress too long Democrats -- i.e., Byrd, Kennedy, Kerry, et al -- well, I'd give them their walking papers, too."'

Suzanne in Washington, "If you've been watching the media frenzy public curiosity today regarding Paris Hilton, surely you must be aware that whatever the Bush government does is not as important to the media or public as Paris is. It's a sad commentary, isn't it?"

Ian in Wisconsin, "Simple. Congress needs to stop funding the war. Americans who want the war to end need to write their representatives and tell them to end the funding."

Mike in San Francisco, "What will end the war? In a word, the draft."

David in Arizona, "Cafferty, stop disgracing yourself and your station with your un-American rhetoric about Bush. He's still our president, and like him or not, he deserves the respect of a president. If you are not willing to offer that, then get the hell out."

"Seventy-five years ago, your damaging remarks to our troops and enabling statements to our enemies would be considered treason. I don't want you hung, just fired."

Nick writes, "No war was ever settled until people sat down at a table together."

And Anthony in Torrington, Connecticut, "How about victory? Or is that only a Republican option?"

If you didn't see your e-mail here, go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. We post more of them online, along with video clips of "The Cafferty File" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A very popular feature, indeed, Jack.

Thanks very much.

Up next, our own Jeanne Moos reports on the Oscars of the Internet, where speeches are limited, get this, to five words.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: They have been dubbed the Oscars of the Internet. Jeanne Moos takes a look at this most unusual award show.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Only at the Webbys would this lame joke seem endearing.

ROB CURDORY, HOST, WEBBY AWARDS: Knock, knock.

AUDIENCE: Who's there?

CURDORY: Ya.

AUDIENCE: Yahoo!

CURDORY: That's my favorite search engine.

MOOS: If you're searching for Internet stars, this is the red carpet for you. There's lonelygirl15, winner of the Best Actress Webby.

There are the two guys who created YouTube.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: YouTubers...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is for you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... this is for you.

MOOS (on camera): The night is long. But the speeches, at least, are short.

(voice over): No more than five words allowed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, mom, whoever you are.

MOOS: Five words, even if you're the CEO of eBay.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bidding starts at 99 cents.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bidding starts at 99 cents.

MOOS: Even Facebook didn't get much face time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm just here for Bowie.

MOOS: That would be David Bowie, winner of the Webby for lifetime achievement.

DAVID BOWIE, MUSICIAN: I've only got five words. (EXPLETIVE DELETED), that was five.

MOOS: Bowie on the same stage as Monk-E-Mail?

And the Webby goes to Monk-E-Mail.

It lets you put your voice in a chimp's mouth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Monkeys are funnier than people. MOOS: Monkeying around at the Webbys were the Beasty Boys, Webby artists of the year.

Their five words?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can anyone fix my computer?

MOOS: The co-creators of YouTube were asked about their favorite online videos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With water buffalo, lions and a crocodile.

MOOS: A lion catches a water buffalo calf. Then the lions almost lose the calf.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh no!

MOOS: To the rescue, the whole herd of water buffalo. They beat up the lions, then reclaim their calf.

Hard to top that.

But YouTube co-founder Steve Chen picked this picture.

STEVE CHEN, YOUTUBE CO-FOUNDER: The video of a human slingshot.

MOOS: They didn't try that stunt at the Webbys, but they did try this one. Eighteen million people have watched what happens when Mentos mints react with Diet Coke. So what better finale for the Webbys than to perform it live using strings to pull open caps, releasing Mentos into the Coke?

(on camera): So you're soaked, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are soaked to the skin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are soaked to the skin.

MOOS (voice over): For a year, these two have made a living performing the Coke and Mentos routine. Practice makes perfect.

Better keep your Coke and Mentos away from your computer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're still here?

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks, Jeanne, for that.

Remember, we're here in THE SITUATION ROOM weekday afternoons 4:00 to 6:00 Eastern. Back in another hour at 7:00.

Remember, our live coverage of the space shuttle Atlantis, that will happen live during our 7:00 p.m. hour.

Let's go to Lou in New York.

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