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THE SITUATION ROOM

Airplane Crashes in Brazil. Iraq May be a Launch Pad For al Qaeda to Harm the U.S. Democrats Staging an All-Nighter Anti-War Marathon. Military in Iraq Waiting for Bomb-Proof Vehicles, Which Are Late. Are U.S. Nuclear Plants Able to Withstand an Earthquake? John Edward's Wife Dings Hillary Clinton

Aired July 17, 2007 - 1900   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Lou.
Happening now, there is breaking news we're following -- a plane crashing and flames into a filling station, 170 people onboard. We're going to tell you what we're learning about the accident. That's coming up.

Also tonight, political wives standing by their cheating husbands. The senator linked to the so-called "D.C. Madam" joins the ranks of scandal figures with supportive spouses.

And the dangerous hunt for a killer. Did a decorated U.S. Army sniper confess to taking deadly aim at his estranged wife?

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

But up first, breaking news we're following -- an airplane crashing into a gas fuelling station at the airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Reports say the plane was carrying 170 people. We do not, repeat, do not yet know if there are deaths. We're getting the video of the wreckage and we're seeing huge flames.

It involves what is being described as a low-budget Brazilian carrier called TAM Airlines. Reports say it did not stop in time on the landing. Let's go to the phone right now.

Tom Hennigan with the "Times of London" is joining us. Tom, what can you tell us?

TOM HENNIGAN, "TIMES OF LONDON" (via phone): Well, Wolf, I have just heard about this crash. I'm in Sao Paulo, not at the airport. What local media are reporting inside TAM Airlines passenger jet, flying from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) south of Brazil was coming in to land at (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Airport. Whether it touched down or crashed beforehand, we don't yet know, but that it came in and it burst into flames.

The footage shows that those flames are now beginning to die out, but it crashed into a building that actually has a sign from the same airline, TAM Airlines. The building as well was on fire. We don't yet know losses within the airport area or was it nearby to the airport. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Airport is an airport right in the heart of Sao Paulo City. It's completely surrounded by dense urban area and it has a short runway. That airport has had problems before with the main runway with water collection on the main runway. Authorities had closed this airport for several weeks and only reopened it recently after work to resolve that problem, water on the runway. We don't know if that had any impact on what happened this evening yet, but it has been a very bad day weather wise in Sao Paulo today with an awful lot of heavy rain.

BLITZER: The Associated Press, Tom, is reporting it was an Airbus A320, which is a pretty sophisticated jet liner. Do we know where this plane was coming from?

HENNIGAN: It was coming from (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which would be the capital of the most southern state in Brazil (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It was coming into Congorians (ph). Congorians (ph) is the busiest airport in Brazil. It's the main domestic airport for the city of Sao Paulo, the biggest city in South America. This was a TAM jet. If it was an Airbus, that would be very likely considering that most of their fleet is made of Airbuses. TAM is now the biggest carrier in Brazil and flies domestically and internationally.

BLITZER: All right. Tom, I'm going to have you stand by. As you get more information, we're going to share it with our viewers. Tom Hennigan joining us on the phone from the "Times of London".

Abbi Tatton is watching all of this unfold in real time on the Internet. Abbi, what are you seeing?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we're getting the very earliest pictures coming in right now on a photo-shown Web site called Flickr.com from Sao Paulo. These pictures just posted in the last few minutes. As we just heard, the airport is in a dense urban area.

As you can see from these pictures that have just been put online, very few comments with this photo set-up, about a dozen photos that we have just found. The person posting them talking about a plume of smoke and also these points in the sky here.

She says they look like stars. They're not. These are the helicopters from the TV stations that are buzzing around and recording these pictures here. We're going to go back online, Wolf, and see what more information is coming in. But these pictures just posted of this plane crash in the dense urban area in Sao Paulo, posted at Flickr.com, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Abbi, thanks very much. We're going to stay on top of the story and update our viewers as more information, more pictures come into THE SITUATION ROOM.

Other news that we're following, including some very important news -- a new U.S. government report warning that Iraq could be the launch pad for a new terror attack right here in the United States. The national intelligence estimate also says the remains of Osama bin Laden's terror network may be planning, may be planning right now for mass casualties and dramatic destruction.

We're watching the headlines from this report. It says al Qaeda is continuing its efforts to get chemical, biological, and radioactive materials and spreading propaganda through radical Web sites. The report also warns that Lebanon's Hezbollah may be aiming for a direct, a direct attack on the United States. Here is what President Bush is saying about this new report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Al Qaeda is -- would have been a heck of a lot stronger today had we not stayed on the offense. It's in the interest of the United States to not only defeat them overseas so we don't have to face them here, but also to spread an ideology that will defeat their ideology every time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux. She's watching all of this unfold. This is a pretty significant development. It's not every day that the best of the experts in the intelligence community come up with a consensus document like this.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you're absolutely right. And what you see the Bush administration doing, the president is really trying to convince the American people that they're safer now than September 11th. You heard the president say that al Qaeda is strong, but not as strong had the country not been on the offense.

Also heard from the homeland security advisor, Fran Townsend, who acknowledged al Qaeda has a significant presence in Iraq but she vehemently denies that the Bush administration ignored warnings from intelligence saying that's exactly what was going to happen if the U.S. invaded Iraq. She said even if they're using it for propaganda, for recruitment, that the U.S. mission is not going to be deterred -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux. Thanks very much. Suzanne is at the White House.

The terror report's assessment of Iraq as a staging ground for an ever growing al Qaeda comes as no surprise in Iraq, so says our correspondent, Michael Ware.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean that statement in the NIE is about three years too late. The fact that al Qaeda has real organized itself through the war in Iraq that America handed it on a silver platter in its own backyard, that the war here through al Qaeda in Iraq has energized the jihadi community across the globe, that it has produced a whole new generation of jihadis (ph), bolder, more brazen, and more brutal, and more committed, if that's at all possible, than the generation before it, is old news. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, we're going to have much more of my interview with Michael Ware. That's coming up also. Fran Townsend, the president of homeland security advisor, she'll be joining us as well.

Let's get to the political theater though that's unfolding right now on Capitol Hill. Democratic leaders are pulling out the stops and the cots to try to dramatize their demand for an Iraq pullout timeline.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's watching this unfold. So what's happening, Dana, right now? It's going to be a long night for U.S. senators.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Very long night and you can see what is going on. Right on the wall next to me, Wolf, the Senate debate is under way, beginning, as you said, of a very long night -- Senator Ben Cardin there on the floor speaking and check this out.

Democrats all day have been trying to bring in props for their political theater. Just a short while ago, they actually wheeled in several boxes of pizza for senators and the staff to try to you know keep their energy up, I suppose, for what is definitely going to be a long night. And behind the scenes, Democrats and Republicans right now are lining up senators to actually make sure they're there on the floor at 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning to actually talk about Iraq. And there will be some votes probably throughout the night. The Senate majority leader, Wolf, is going to schedule them just to make sure he knows that senators are here.

BLITZER: So despite all of the theatrics, Dana, is this going to have any real effect though on the debate?

BASH: Immediately, no and that's a very important point to make that despite the spectacle, Democrats will admit privately that they're not going to get what they want here immediately. And that is for Republicans to vote for their legislation, which is to bring troops home. A deadline for that by May 1st of next year, so at the end of a very, very long night, there will be a vote tomorrow morning and Democrats admit they are going to fall short in the votes they need to pass.

BLITZER: All right. Dana is going to have long night as well. Thank you, Dana.

Senate sleepovers aren't exactly new. Republicans held all- night sessions back in 2003 and 2005 to accuse Democrats of blocking the president's judicial nominations. And back, way back in the 1930's, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long (ph) brought the chamber to a standstill in reciting Shakespeare and reading recipes during a filibuster. The showy side of politics was immortalized in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Jimmy Stewart plays a new senator leading an emotional filibuster at the time. Take a look at this; roadside bombs the leading cause of death and injury for U.S. troops in Iraq, but this vehicle is called the MRAP is virtually bomb proof, but they're in desperately short supply.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre has the story -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just look at how mine resistant these mine resistant vehicles are.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): The MRAP's unique v-shaped underbelly deflects the force of the blast, but in Iraq, commanders overseeing the surge are still waiting for them to show up.

MAJ. GEN. RICK LYNCH, COMMANDER, MND-CENTER: We have none now. What I'm working with are the upper (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Humvees.

MCINTYRE: The Humvees are death traps compared to the MRAP, short for mine resistant, ambush protected.

REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER (D), NEW YORK: The tragedy, the tragedy is the number of wounded and the number who died who could have lived.

MCINTYRE: One problem, a single company, Force Protection, Inc. (ph), was awarded a series of non-competitive contracts and then fell behind schedule. The company says it did its best to meet an overly ambitious schedule and paid penalties for late deliveries and it insists its line of MRAPs including one model called the Cougar (ph) is delivering on the key promise to save lives.

(on camera): Are the taxpayers getting their money's worth for these expensive armored vehicles?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. What I tell people in the Pentagon is since you have increased serviceman's group life insurance to $250,000 per soldier and Marine, you count up my eight seats in the vehicle, the taxpayer is getting a great bargain because everybody is coming home alive in Cougars (ph).

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: The Pentagon is now asking Congress to ship $1.3 billion to buy 7,700 MRAPs ASAP -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie at the Pentagon, thank you. Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. None of the above, that is who is leading the Republican presidential field. A new AP- Ipsos poll is out with some pretty startling numbers. Twenty-three percent of Republicans are unwilling to back any candidate. Choosing none of the above or don't know instead.

That's followed by 21 percent for Rudy Giuliani, a steep slide in the polls for the former New York mayor, down from 35 percent in March. And almost even with Fred Thompson, who isn't even a candidate. Thompson comes in at 19 percent.

John McCain is at 15. Only 11 percent back Mitt Romney. Another interesting point in this is that none of these top candidates has a clear lead among Christian Evangelicals, a key part of the base and considered a necessity to win the primaries. One expert says these poll numbers show that Republicans don't see candidates who reflect their interests and who they think are viable.

When it comes to the Democrats, they seem to have a better idea of who they like. Thirty-six percent favor Hillary Clinton, 20 percent Barack Obama; Al Gore, who is not in the race, gets 15 percent and 11 percent support John Edwards.

So here's the question. What does it say about the GOP presidential field when nearly one-fourth of Republicans are unwilling to back any of the top tier candidates? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile. They're not impressing the electorate just yet apparently, Wolf...

BLITZER: Not yet, but there's still a few months to go before Iowa and New Hampshire. We'll see what happens.

CAFFERTY: All right.

BLITZER: Thank you Jack very much.

We are watching the breaking news story. A plane carrying more than 150 people crashing into a fuel station while trying to land at an airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. No report so far of survivors. We're following the story. The pictures are dramatic. We'll update you with more information as we get it throughout this hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also coming up, nuclear earthquake -- a radioactive leak in Japan raising nuclear alarm bells right here at home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't overstate how concerned I am that there will be nuclear material in the environment in the event of a major earthquake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And could a major earthquake really spark a massive nuclear disaster in the United States? We're on top of this story.

And adultery politics -- cheating husbands and the wives who stand by their sides. We'll take a closer look at some power couples who weather sex scandals together.

And a former U.S. Army sniper on the run and wanted for murder. Police say he shot his wife through a restaurant window while she was singing on stage. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're monitoring this plane crash in Brazil. A plane carrying at least 150 people has crashed into a gas station in Sao Paulo. It burst into flames. You see the pictures right here behind us. We don't have reports of injuries or deaths yet or survivors. It was an Airbus 320 from TAM Airlines. We're watching this story. We'll update you as more information comes in. It's not looking good right now -- pretty serious plane crash in Brazil.

Other news we're following, Japanese officials right now saying some radioactive material leaked into the air and sea at a nuclear power plant after yesterday's powerful earthquake -- tonight, similar fears unfolding right here in the United States. Take a look at this map of seismic activity in the United States.

No surprise the strongest earthquakes here in red are in the West, but parts of the Midwest and the East are also prone. Now take a look at the location of the country's 104 nuclear reactors, specifically 104 of them, that doesn't include, by the way, nuclear weapons laboratories.

Let's go to CNN's Dan Simon. He's joining us from Berkeley, California, to assess this risk. To all of us, what is going on, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well hi, Wolf. You can see the scenic bay area behind me. No question there are going to be earthquakes here, no dispute about that, but there is a dispute about whether the facilities here in California, the nuclear facilities can withstand earthquakes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON (voice-over): The images vivid enough to prompt fears across the ocean -- some in the U.S. now questioning whether nuclear facilities here could be this vulnerable to earthquakes.

MARYLIA KELLEY, TRI-VALLEY CARES: I can't overstate how concerned I am that there will be nuclear material in the environment in the event of a major earthquake.

SIMON: Just east of San Francisco lies the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. It stores more than 1,000 pounds of weapons grade plutonium. One watchdog group believes the site poses a deadly risk in the event of a large earthquake. Seven million people live within a 50-mile radius.

KELLEY: These finally divided particles of plutonium could drift on the wind. They would be available to be breathed in or respirated by the people around Livermore here in the bay area.

SIMON: A lab spokesperson dismissed those concerns saying quote, "Our facilities where we store nuclear materials meet or exceed current seismic standards. We have had no health or safety problems with our nuclear materials in the past, during, or after any earthquakes.

Similarly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the nation's nuclear power plants are safe and even earthquake proof. The Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plant in California both sit near active fault lines. Federal authorities say both were designed specifically to withstand severe earthquakes and would not have leaked like the one in Japan.

DALE KLEIN, NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION: It turns out, Dan, that the earthquake design includes both the reactor as well as auxiliary components, such as the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). These are designed to handle situations exactly like those that occurred in Japan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON: But officials concede nothing is absolutely 100 percent certain. As we saw in Japan, even the safeguards don't always hold up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks. Dan Simon watching the story.

Meanwhile, there's a massive manhunt going on right now for a Wyoming National Guardsman trained as a sniper and now suspected of killing his wife over the weekend.

Brian Todd is following the story for us. Tell our viewers, Brian, what has happened.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, an arrest warrant for murder was issued just a short time ago. There are now police, sheriff deputies, dog teams, Blackhawk helicopters searching for David Munis in a remote corner of Wyoming. The background of the suspect and the nature of this killing have law enforcement officials issuing stern warnings tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Robin Munis (ph), singing before an audience at a Cheyenne, Wyoming restaurant, cut down by a single bullet that witnesses say came through a plate glass window.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This part of her head was just -- it was gone.

TODD: On the other end of that shot, police say, Munis' estranged husband, a man who knows how to handle a high-powered rifle. U.S. military officials tell CNN that David Munis is a staff sergeant in the Wyoming National Guard, a decorated former Army sharp shooter, trained at the sniper school at Fort Benning, Georgia, a course that includes wilderness survival and evasion. It's that background, police say, that makes their search for Munis in a remote wilderness called Rogers Canyon very dangerous. They have this warning for anyone who might spot Munis.

CAPT. JEFF SCHULZ, CHEYENNE, WYOMING POLICE: If anyone were to come in contact with him, please don't try to approach him. TODD: That's because Munis is believed to be carrying a handgun and a rifle. Police say they found writings at Munis' home indicating he was about to commit this kind of act. But so far CNN has found no reports of previous violence, no indications that Munis ever served in combat. We asked an expert on domestic violence in military families about possible factors she seen in similar situations where there's no apparent combat stress.

CHRISTINE HANSEN, MILES FOUNDATION: That loss of control, they try to exert control within their most intimate relationships. And that's when these incidents occur.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Police say David Munis is not believed to be a wider danger to the public at the moment. But they say if he's cornered, he could be dangerous to them. Police also say at the moment they don't believe he is suicidal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I take it, Brian, you have actually spoken with a member of his family?

TODD: Yes, I spoke with Munis' aunt in Montana where he grew up. She says that people have made him out to be someone that he's not. She says he is not a violent person, never was when he was growing up. But she also admitted she did not know his wife, so she may not be aware of his particular domestic situation.

BLITZER: Brian Todd with this story for us -- thanks, Brian.

Still ahead tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Hillary Clinton gets a verbal smack from the wife of one of her Democratic rivals for the White House. We're going to have details of what Elizabeth Edwards said.

And why do political wives stand by their cheating husbands? We're going to show you what we're learning from the latest scandal.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're going to update you on that plane crash shortly.

Let's get to some other news first. Some harsh words from one political spouse to a Democratic frontrunner, the Democratic frontrunner in the presidential race. In an interview with the online magazine "Salon.com" Elizabeth Edwards is quoted as saying this about Hillary Clinton.

"Sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues. I'm sympathetic -- she wants to be commander in chief, but she's just not as vocal a woman's advocate as I want to see. John is."

Let's bring in Candy Crowley, our senior political analyst. What is she suggesting here, Candy? She seems to be suggesting that Hillary Clinton is acting, what, like a man?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, now the preceder (ph) to that was Elizabeth Edwards is talking about how as a lawyer, she understood what it was like to kind of be in this man's world and juggle these positions of trying to be a woman's advocate and yet playing by the rules generally set by males. Now having said that, what she's saying is my husband is freer to discuss women's issues and is a better advocate.

Having seen Hillary Clinton on the trail, I can tell you a couple of things. First of all, she always says I am a woman and that's obvious, but I'm not running as a woman candidate. I'm running as the best candidate -- the best qualified candidate in the race. Having said that, she does also talk about what we consider traditional female issues.

She talks about her time as a children's advocate and that sort of thing, so while she does, as we know, have to prove herself as the commander in chief, she also does address these issues from time to time.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Edwards also said this in the "Salon.com" interview. What we hope to achieve is a society that doesn't value a white man because he's a white man, but also doesn't value a woman because she's a woman or a black because he's a black. So it bothers me that the pitch is made, as it is, that there's an obligation of people to give support.

John Edwards being a white man, Barack Obama being a black man, Hillary being a woman, you understand the point that Elizabeth Edwards is trying to make here?

CROWLEY: Sure, and the polling to a certain extent bears it out as far as female voters are concerned. Hillary Clinton gets about 45 percent of the female vote of the Democratic Party. John Edwards is somewhere at 11 percent. So obviously, you know there is that perception that if you're female, female voters will actually vote for you.

It is not entirely true. It may well be true that people come to see you simply because of the fact that this is a very different thing. When it comes to Barack Obama, the truth is that he and Hillary Clinton have been fighting for the black vote. It is certainly not that African Americans have flocked to Barack Obama because he is black. So both of these constituents, these women and African Americans are up for grabs, but it's true that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do get a hearing.

BLITZER: Candy, thanks very much for that. Candy Crowley is our senior political analyst.

Coming up, we're going to have more on the breaking news we're following -- that fiery plane crash in Brazil. We're going to go there. We're going to have the latest for you.

Also, will the next terror attack in the United States be launched from Iraq? Michael Ware in Baghdad with a reality check -- lots of news coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following a breaking news story out of Brazil. A plane crash, an Airbus going down as it lands, skidding into a gas station. More than 150 people on board.

Andre Furtado is joining us on the phone. Andre, tell us what you know.

ANDRE FURTADO, TURNER EMPLOYEE, SAO PAULO, BRAZIL: Yes, what I can say is what I'm seeing here at Congonhas. And by knowing the place a lot, it's close to my place. And what I can see, there is an Airbus, A-320 that belongs to Tam airline. It was trying to land at Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo, and something happened, and then he hit the Tam building just across the building, a huge avenue just across the airport.

BLITZER: Are authorities, Andre, saying anything about survivors?

FURTADO: Yes. There is more information here, but I don't know if it's really accurate. They have two survivors that were working at the building.

BLITZER: Not necessarily people on the plane, but people in the gas station where that plane crashed into when it was landing at the Sao Paulo Airport and then skidded into this gas station. That's why we're seeing the fiery ball of these flames?

FURTADO: Yes. Actually, it didn't hit a gas station. It hit a building that belongs to the same company as the plane. It's not a gas station. And there's two people they're saying that survivors who were working at the building, not at the airplane.

BLITZER: And we know there's between 140 and 170 people on board.

Julian Brierre is also joining us. He's a journalist in Sao Paulo. Julian, what do you know?

JULIAN BRIERRE, JOURNALIST: What do we know right now? It's somewhat the same information that's coming from Andre. But we have no confirmation yet about how many passengers inside and no confirmation about survivors.

But right now, just from the authorities, that more than 50 firefighter cars are working trying to rescue the victims. This is the main concern now of the authorities.

BLITZER: All right. I want both of you to stand by, and as you get more information, we'll continue to follow this story. A Tam airline passenger jet crashed into a building at Sao Paulo's airport. And anywhere between 140 and 170 people on this flight, an Airbus 320.

Miles O'Brien is standing by as well. He's on the phone. Miles, give us a little sense of perspective. You have seen the pictures, you have read up, you have heard what we know.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's first of all talk about this airport, Wolf, and give people a sense of what we're talking about.

An analogy here in the United States could be something along the lines of Midway Airport, a downtown airport with relatively speaking short runways, not a lot of overrun space, space beyond the runway in case something goes wrong, and then of course dense population surrounding the airport.

The runway in this case about 6,000 feet long is adequate, but not especially long. Doesn't provide for much margin for error. On a typical day, with typical loading -- and this varies quite a bit, a lot of it has to do with weather conditions and how much fuel and people are on board -- but this airplane would take about 4,500 feet of runway up on landing.

So in theory, that runway should be adequate. Now, throw in all those other factors I was talking about -- let's say it was extra heavy, for some reason -- or in this case, we know that the weather prior to the crash, there was some light rain. That was, relatively speaking, slick runway.

There are also reports on the Web and some professional airline sites -- one particular site (inaudible) is reporting the pilots talking there -- that this particular runway had been recently resurfaced. Brand new sheet of concrete or asphalt, and had not been grooved.

I don't know if you have ever noticed as you're flying, but when you're flying on a runway, it has grooves carved right into it, which allows the water to -- keeps it from puddling and provides more surface for the wheels as they come down in slick conditions.

If it in fact had not been grooved, that potentially could have been a slicker runway. Combine that with perhaps a high approach speed for whatever reason. Maybe they landed with the wind behind them instead of into them. And all those combine together to put that -- to make that runway suddenly a lot shorter than it would seem.

BLITZER: And the Airbus A-320, we're told, Miles, by the Reuters News Agency, they have now reported that 174 people were on board that plane. That includes passengers and crew members.

I want to -- I want to get some sense from you on this Airbus 320. This is a pretty sophisticated plane.

O'BRIEN: It is. You know, this airplane -- first of all, the A- 320, the standard configuration is for about 150 seats. There's an A- 321, which is a stretched version, which is designed to hold 170.

If there were 170-plus people in the A-320, they were packing those seats in very tightly, and that would have been a pretty heavy load for it. The 320 goes back nearly 20 years. It first flew in 1988. Made by the Europeans, the Airbus, which is the direct competitor to Boeing. And this is the airplane they built to compete directly with the 737. This is the second most popular airliner in the world behind the 737. More than 3,000 in service. Has an excellent safety record and is technologically one of the most advanced airliners in the world. Certainly when it first rolled out, it was.

It was the first airliner, or among the first, to be so-called fly-by-wire, which is to say the controls that the pilots put in, it wasn't like there were mechanical linkages to the control surfaces on the wings. It actually went into a computer, and the computer sent electrical commands to little electrical motors, which then in turn moved the control surfaces. This at the time was a bit controversial, but certainly leading edge, state-of-the-art technology.

You go into the cockpit of an A-320 -- it's a very sleek affair. It's all the latest -- they call it a glass cockpit. A series of television screens, not a bunch of old-fashioned round gauges. Has side stick controls. It's a very state-of-the-art airplane. Anybody who has flown JetBlue, certainly U.S. Airways, United has many of them in their fleets. So they're very common all throughout the United States and all throughout the world.

BLITZER: Miles, we're going to stay on top of this story with you. 174 people, according to Reuters, on board, passengers and crew members. We'll watch the story. Tam airliner plane crashing on landing at Sao Paulo's airport in Brazil. Horrible situation.

Still ahead tonight: What is the real situation in Iraq right now? We'll get a reality check from our own Michael Ware in Baghdad.

And standing by their men. One day after the wife of a Republican senator linked to the so-called D.C. madam came out in support, we're going to take a closer look at some other political wives who have seen their private problems aired in public. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get some more now on this hour's top story. The just released National Intelligence Estimate, which forecasts al Qaeda efforting to attack the United States with the aim of mass casualties. It mentions the terror group trying to leverage terrorists in Iraq to kill Americans right here at home.

Is this a situation, though, that the Bush administration created itself? I asked Fran Townsend, the homeland security adviser to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Did the U.S. government, the Bush administration specifically, miss an opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda after 9/11 by taking its eye, if you will, off the ball and diverting resources to Saddam Hussein, who had nothing do with 9/11? FRAN TOWNSEND, HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: Well, there's no question -- there seems to be an issue what about the president meant when he said it's the same people in Iraq who killed Americans on 9/11.

What the president was talking about is quite right. The Al Qaeda core -- al Qaeda in the tribal areas -- bin Laden, Zawahiri -- are the same people who led that organization on September the 11th. These are the same people who are guiding activities of al Qaeda in Iraq.

We know that Zarqawi, who is now dead, but was the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, swore loyalty to bin Laden. There's no question we know Zawahiri has communicated with al Qaeda in Iraq. We know that al Qaeda in Iraq had been tasked to plan attacks against the homeland, welcomed that. We know that even recently, Al Qaeda core tried to send Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi into Iraq to plan attacks.

There's no question. These aren't separate...

BLITZER: But let me just rephrases the question, Fran Townsend. Looking back, with hindsight, if you had not diverted the resources to go and overthrow Saddam Hussein but focused in on Afghanistan, the border area with Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were on the run, would you and the American people not have been better off by destroying al Qaeda when you had him on the run?

TOWNSEND: But we did. We made tremendous progress in destroying al Qaeda and continue to ...

BLITZER: But he's still free at large?

TOWNSEND: That's right, but two-thirds of al Qaeda that existed on September 11th, Wolf, is dead or captured. There's no question we've had successes with our Pakistani allies in counterterrorism. Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, all these people were captured with the help of our Pakistani allies. And so we have had tremendous success. We never took our eye off the ball.

BLITZER: Let me get you to respond to Senator Chris Dodd. He is going to be on our show as well, and in statement he says, "The NIE plainly shows that our continued involvement in Iraq is making us less secure at home and abroad. Is that correct?

TOWNSEND: It's absolutely untrue. And in fact, what we know from our experience, including pre-9/11, is if we don't challenge al Qaeda where they seek safe haven, then they will use that as a place from which to plan and plot attacks just like they did in Afghanistan. Not challenging al Qaeda in Iraq is not an option.

And in fact, Sunni tribes in Iraq now, we know, have begun to distance themselves from al Qaeda in Iraq, because they don't believe in their tactics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, the president's homeland security adviser, speaking with me earlier.

The National Intelligence Estimate also characterizes al Qaeda as growing stronger and stronger in Iraq. Is this terror report, though, telling Iraqis anything they don't know already?

Who better to ask that question to than our man on the ground in Baghdad, CNN's Michael Ware.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Michael, among other things, this National Intelligence Estimate report suggests that Al Qaeda is seeking to leverage Al Qaeda in Iraq for attacks against U.S. targets outside of Iraq.

Now, you've actually reported on this extensively. You've met with Al Qaeda operatives inside of Iraq.

Is that your assessment as well?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me say this first, Wolf.

I mean, that statement in the NIE is about three years too late. The fact that Al Qaeda has reorganized itself through the war in Iraq that America handed it on a silver platter in its own backyard, that the war here through Al Qaeda in Iraq has energized the Jihadi community across the globe, that it has produced a whole new generation of Jihadis -- bolder, more brazen and more brutal and more committed, if that's at all possible, than the generation before it, is old news.

We saw that happen back in 2004. Since then, we've seen it nothing but flourish.

The question now is will an attack directly launched from Al Qaeda in Iraq against U.S. homeland?

Now, many of us were saying back in 2004/2005 if, heaven forbid, there's another 9/11 in America, then of the next 19 hijackers, I'll almost guarantee one of them will be Iraqi. And at least part of the plot will have been hatched here in Iraq.

That being said, while we are seeing the Iraq veterans -- these guys who come into a six-month tour or a 12-month tour in Iraq, blood themselves against American forces and go home, they're creating a whole new momentum back in their homelands, be it here in the Middle East, be it in the Gulf, North Africa or be it back in Europe.

That being said, also, the true danger of Al Qaeda in Iraq is the template or the model it offers. We've seen these bombings in the U.K. Now, these guys never came to Iraq. But as they said themselves, they were inspired by the war here.

Now, in the midst of all of this, despite this material, this evidence, we must be aware of the spin -- the smoke and mirrors from the administration, trying to reshape the message on Iraq being specifically about Al Qaeda -- America's lingering, most familiar fear, trying to invoke some Pavlovian response from the American public, to fear them into again supporting the war. That doesn't quite hold water -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Michael Ware in Baghdad for us.

Still ahead tonight, infidelity and the political spotlight. Why do the wives stand by their cheating men? We're going to have details of what they're saying.

Also, Jack Cafferty with you e-mail and our question of the hour. What does it say about the GOP presidential field when nearly a quarter of Republicans are unwilling to back any of the top-tier candidates? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Republican Senator David Vitter back at work here in Washington, and apologizing to his colleagues for the scandal over his ties to the so-called D.C. Madam. Wendy Vitter, the latest in a long line of political wives standing by their cheating husbands despite the public humiliation. Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello, she's watching this story for us. A lot of people asking this question, why do these women, these political wives, stay by their men?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot of people are asking it. All I can say is the answer is really complicated. Of course, that's the easy answer.

Wendy Vitter stood by her husband's side and seemed strongly committed. But to those who observed her for years, she also seemed a little shell shocked. So again that question. Why would she, or any other political wife endure this public humiliation?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice over): It's a scene we're getting used to a powerful husband apologizing and by his side, the wife he's let down. Ready to show the world, the missus is loyal, no matter what.

JAMES MCGREEVEY, FMR. NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: My truth is that I am a gay American.

COSTELLO: James McGreevey, then New Jersey's governor, apologizes for deceiving the public and his wife, Dina. She stood beside him.

BARBARA KANTROWITZ, "NEWSWEEK" SENIOR EDITOR: She really looked shocked, stunned, as though she had just found out. I think that was one of the most disturbing performances in this genre.

COSTELLO: At least in the shock of revelation, Dina McGreevey was the loyal wife. Some, though, deny Gary Hart's wife.

LEE HART, WIFE OF FORMER SENATOR GARY HART: Gary says nothing happened. Nothing happened.

COSTELLO: Others take the political offensive.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, WIFE OF FMR. U.S. PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I'm not only here because I love and believe my husband. I'm also here because I love and believe in my country.

COSTELLO: And then there's Senator Vitter's wife, who says problems can be overcome.

WENDY VITTER, WIFE OF SENATOR DAVID VITTER: Like all marriages, ours is not perfect. None of us are. But we choose to work together as a family.

COSTELLO: A former prosecutor actively involved in her husband's campaigns, she was once asked by the New Orleans paper what she would do if her husband ever cheated on her. She said at the time, "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

KANTROWITZ: It's just now a scenario that they get to act out. And I think it's up to us as voters, to decide whether we believe them.

COSTELLO: Such loyalty, misplaced or not, doesn't always last. Dina McGreevey soon sought a divorce.

DINA MCGREEVEY, WIFE OF FMR. NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: He had married me for political gain.

He lied and cheated on me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (on camera): And, of course, after admitting he was gay, Mrs. Mcgreevey's husband resigned. But all of the political pundits that I talked to Wolf, they say usually a man can keep his political office if the nation believes the wife beside him, really does forgive him.

BLITZER: All right, good point. Thanks very much, Carol, for that report. Let's go back to Jack in New York for the Cafferty File.

CAFFERTY: Balderdash. The greatest line to come out of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, and I wish I could remember his name, was a sitting Congressman who said if that had been me, my wife would have be standing over me in the kitchen saying how do you reload this thing? That's much more likely, I think, to be the response.

The question is this, what does it say about the GOP presidential field when nearly a quarter of Republicans are unwilling to back any of the top-tier candidates?

Nick writes from Oregon, "It means a lot of Republicans like me and my family are so sick of this Republican administration's abuse of power, that we're going to vote Democratic, no matter who the candidate. This administration and the former Republican Congress have made us ashamed to be Republicans."

Hal writes, "Jack, the answer to your question is dirt simple: we want the Congress to impeach Bush, then resign - all of them."

John in Virginia writes, "Jack at some point, all the speculation driving up the poll numbers for Fred Thompson has to indicate that Republican rank and file members are, well, unhappy with the choices. They're searching, grazing, looking for a knight in shining armor."

Dennis in New York, "You've asked why no significant number of Republicans backs a 'top-tier' candidate, meaning the candidates the main stream media has selected to shove down our throats. Were you being serious, you would be quite clear that Ron Paul sweeps every single online poll, every time, without fail. And now tops even Paris Hilton and the iPhone as a search term, on Google. I beg you, start paying attention to reality."

George in South Carolina, "What does it say when Republicans don't like any of their choices for president? The beginning of wisdom."

Digg in Seattle writes, "It means people are tired of the crap. Democrats are only more organized because Americans are begging for a change. That's what happened in the last Congressional election, but no changes. So we'll go through it again. There will be a change, and four to eight years later, we'll be tired of their crap, too. When are the Americans going to wake up and realize that currently neither political party is willing to offer the change that we want.

And finally, Joe writes from Florida, "Do you expect them to lower their standards after George Bush? He simply set the bar too high."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. We post more there, along with video clips of the Cafferty File.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Jack, thank you for that. Let's see what's coming up at the top of the hour. Paula is standing by. Hi, Paula.

PAULA ZAHN, "PAULA ZAHN NOW": Hi, Wolf.

We're just beginning to get some more details in on that plane crash in Brazil. Anywhere from 140 to 170 people on board. We'll have that breaking news for you coming up.

Also, we're going to try really something different this week. Counting down to the CNN/YouTube presidential debate. It's not going to look like any debate you have ever seen before because it's not your normal stodgy format. The questions are coming from you. People from all over the world recording questions, posting them on YouTube, and we'll look at the very best of them and explore some of the issues they raise, coming up at the top of the hour. And they asked some pretty good questions, Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, they do. I've seen some of them. Thank you, Paula, for that.

Still ahead, a toxic cloud. Martial arts, stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the hot shots coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press. Pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

In Ukraine, firefighters work to keep a giant toxic cloud caused by the derailment of a freight train containing yellow phosphorus.

In east Timor (ph), members of a martial arts group practice their moves on a hillside.

In Afghanistan, a police officer is seen through a heart-shaped hole at a police checkpoint.

And in Bosnia, check it out, a woman carries a package of water bottles on her head during a heatwave.

Some of this hours hot shots, pictures often worth a thousand words. That's all the time we have today, remember we are here in the SITUATION ROOM, weekday afternoons, from four to six p.m., Eastern. Back for another hour at 7:00 p.m., Eastern. Until tomorrow, thanks very much for joining us, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Up next, Paula Zahn with a CNN/YouTube Debate Countdown.

ZAHN: Thanks, Wolf, appreciate it. Good evening, everybody. We start off, though, tonight with this hour's breaking news.

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