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THE SITUATION ROOM
Russia Fuels Iranian Nuclear Plant; Bill Clinton v. Barack Obama
Aired December 17, 2007 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, GUEST HOST: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, it's a case that drew an angry and deeply personal reaction from President Bush -- a Saudi rape victim sentenced to be whipped and jailed. Now the Saudi king has intervened.
Can that undo any of the damage?
Russia fuels an Iranian nuclear plant even as Iran steps up its defiance of the international community.
Is this, you might say, adding fuel to the fire?
And now it's Bill Clinton versus Barack Obama -- the former president casts doubts about the would-be president's qualifications. But Obama works in some digs of his own.
Wolf Blitzer is off today.
I'm John King.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
It's a case that shocked the world and sparked outrage at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The victim of the brutal gang rape in Saudi Arabia sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison. Now that victim has now been pardoned by the Saudi king.
Let's go live to our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee -- Zain, tell us what you're learning.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it's been a real personal and legal nightmare for that Saudi rape victim. But she learned today that she's not going to be beaten or put behind bars. Good news for her and good news for the U.S. as well.
VERJEE (voice-over): The king's pardon was a source of embarrassment for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia -- the closest of allies on fighting terrorism, the Middle East and oil.
TOM CASEY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: And we're very pleased by the decision that was taken by the king. We certainly hope it will send a signal to the Saudi judiciary. VERJEE: Casey says Washington has made it clear what U.S. views were on the subject through its embassy in Saudi Arabia and in its public statements.
The case was a public relations disaster outside of Saudi Arabia.
GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What happens if this had happened to my daughter? How would I react?
I would have been angry at those who committed the crime. And I'd be angry at the state that didn't support the victim.
VERJEE: King Abdullah's pardon means a gang-raped teenager won't face six months in jail and 200 lashes for being alone with a man who was not her relative.
Saudi women and journalists call the pardon historic.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That sends a strong message that we should keep on hammering and demanding our rights.
VERJEE: Saudi activists say this is one case -- one pardon. But it's unclear if it will have any bearing on other rape cases. A Saudi justice official told a Saudi newspaper: "The king thought a pardon was in the best interests of the Saudi people."
It comes as millions of Muslims converge on Mecca for the Hajj Pilgrimage. The rape victim's husband called the pardon "a noble gesture which will lift the family's emotional and psychological stress."
Seven men were convicted for kidnapping and raping her and given sentences ranging from two to nine years in jail.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
VERJEE: Saudi women activist say that international media really helped in this case, John. But they also add that they worry that other rape cases like this in Saudi Arabia don't really get much international attention at all. They say what's really needed is much better legislation in Saudi Arabia to protect women's rights -- John.
KING: Well, Zain, what happened to the man this victim was with?
VERJEE: Well, the man she was with was also raped by those seven other attackers. Amnesty International is saying that he got the same sentence that she did -- so six months in jail and 200 lashes. Now, the Saudi newspaper that reported the king's pardon for the woman made no mention at all about any pardon for the man -- John.
KING: Zain Verjee.
Zain, thank you very much.
The Bush administration suffered a setback today in its effort to keep the list of White House visitors a secret. A federal judge ruled that visitor logs are the property of the Secret Service, and, therefore, subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The White House had argued those records could be kept private as presidential records. At issue -- visits to the White House by prominent religious conservatives and visits by former lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who last year pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Russian has started delivering nuclear fuel to a nuclear power plant in Iran. This comes despite the fact that Iran is in a standoff with much of the world community over its nuclear program.
Here's our White House correspondent, Ed Henry -- Ed, what's the reaction there?
ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it's interesting, the president is jumping on this. As you know, Mr. Bush has repeatedly said despite this new National Intelligence Estimate by the U.S. saying that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program, Mr. Bush again today saying Teheran is still a threat and they still owe the world an explanation about why they had a secret weapons program. And Mr. Bush today specifically jumping on the fact that Russia is now sending this fuel to this key Iranian power plant, Mr. Bush declaring that since Iran is getting the fuel that it says it needs for civilian purposes, they should suspend their own uranium enrichment program and prove to the world once and for all they do not have nefarious purposes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: Interestingly enough, today Russia sent some enriched -- or are in the process of sending enriched uranium -- to Iran to help on their civilian nuclear reactor. If that's the case, if the Russians are willing to do that -- which I support -- then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich. If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there's no need for them to learn how to enrich.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HENRY: Now, Teheran is still insisting, though, that it will not give up its uranium enrichment program, which is why the president asserted again today that he believes Teheran is a danger to world peace -- John.
KING: Ed Henry at the White House.
Ed, thank you very much.
And so is it a good thing that Russia is providing Iran with this nuclear fuel?
Joining me now, former congressman, senator and defense secretary, William Cohen. He runs the Cohen Group here in Washington.
Good or bad -- the president says it's OK with him in public.
Privately, does the Bush administration feel the same way? WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY, THE COHEN GROUP: I think it is undermining the effort to isolate Iran until such time as it really satisfies its obligations to the United Nations Security Council. So, I was in the region most recently and the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate did a great deal to undermine our credibility in the region. This is added to it. So now that Russia is sending this fuel and Iran is going on with its own enrichment program, I think it's the worst of all words.
KING: I want to ask you your thoughts on another provocative and, some say, troubling case, this Saudi rape case, in which the victim of the rape was initially sentenced. Now King Abdullah has intervened and pardoned the victim. I want your thoughts on it.
But first, I want you to listen again to the president's reaction when he was asked about this case a short time ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: My first thoughts is -- what happens if this had happened to my daughter? How would I react?
I'd have been angry at those who committed the crime. And I would be angry at a state that didn't support the victim.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: This is a closed regime, in many ways. But you understand it quite well from your days in Congress and at the Pentagon.
Is the king here responding to U.S. pressure or does it go deeper than that?
COHEN: I think he's responding to international pressure. We live -- whether you think it's a round earth or a flat earth -- we live under a microscope and everything that we do, whether it's our customs, it's our practices, our policies, our religious customs -- are all under that scrutiny. And when much of the world rebels or reacts against that, saying this is shocking, this is -- this really does shock the conscience, then I think it will alter the way in which people will look at that country and its religious practices and customs.
So I think that King Abdullah was obviously concerned about that and said he wanted to -- through his spokesperson -- wanted to see that justice was done to all.
We also have to be careful here in this country that we do not get so self-righteous, because it's been a long time in coming in terms of women's equal rights here. I was a prosecutor during the time when we almost had to have a witness to a rape in order to have a successful prosecution. I was also a defense counsel and was in a process whereby if you appealed a case at a lower level, the prosecutor said to you we're going to increase the penalties.
So we have to look at what happened during the movie that Jodie Foster was in, "The Verdict". That was really a commentary about what the practice has been in too many states, in too many communities in this country.
So we've come a very long way, but women have to be treated with the same sense of justice and righteousness that we have treated men in the past.
So I think the king did, obviously, the right thing, from our perspective. I think it was good for his country. I think that we all have to have a lesson here about how we treat women.
KING: In the case of the Saudis, how sensitive are they to U.S. domestic politics?
And I ask because if you watch this campaign, you hear Democrats and Republicans saying we need to get tougher with the Saudis, we need to do more about oil and energy independence. But it's not just about that. They talk about 9/11 and is Saudi Arabia doing enough on terrorism.
Mike Huckabee, in this "Foreign Affairs" article that has been the buzz of recent days, says altogether he would just forget about it. On day one, he would redefine -- if not stop -- our relationship, our friendship -- with Saudi Arabia.
COHEN: I think that's naive, to say the least, to say we're simply going to cut off our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia comes -- is still critical to fueling much of the industrialized policies of this -- of this globe of ours. They have, in fact, been helpful in trying to deal with Osama bin Laden and others. The notion that we simply cut them off and say we don't want to talk to you anymore, I think, is naive, at the very least.
KING: Former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen.
Thank you very much.
Jack Cafferty is in New York now with The Cafferty Foul -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: How likely do you think that pardon would have been if that story about that rape victim in Saudi Arabia hadn't leaked to the Western press and been played up over here for the absurd and barbaric approach to -- to the criminal justice system that it was?
KING: I think it is fair to say that the international pressure, including the pressure from right here in Washington, had an impact on that one.
CAFFERTY: And the other thing you wonder about, of course, is how many young women are being lashed and imprisoned for being the victims of rape, in what can best be described as a very backward society.
John McCain is on a roll -- at least when it comes to endorsements for his presidential candidate. He picked up a few. Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, backed McCain today, saying that "political parties are not more important than what's best for our country."
Now, Lieberman, who was Democrat Al Gore's running mate in 2000, says you can always count on McCain to be honest about where he stands. He also praised McCain's experience, strength, decisiveness and readiness to lead the nation.
A recent poll shows McCain tied for second in New Hampshire. So there's a hope that Lieberman could have some influence with Independents in the Granite State near his home state of Connecticut. But maybe not.
Last time around, Lieberman couldn't even win the primary in his home state of Connecticut, despite being an incumbent United States senator. He ended up running as an Independent for re-election.
McCain was also endorsed by the editorial boards of the "Des Moines Register" and the "Boston Globe". "The Register" wrote: "The force of John McCain's moral authority could go a long way toward restoring Americans' trust in government."
And the "Boston Globe" passed over their own former governor, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, saying that while McCain's views differ from theirs, his "honesty has served him well."
How important newspaper endorsements are these days is very much an open question.
Here's our question -- how much will endorsements from Senator Joe Lieberman from the "Des Moines Register" and the "Boston Globe" help John McCain's presidential campaign?
E-mail your thoughts to caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, where you can post a comment on my new blog. And I am told -- although I have very primitive knowledge of how these things work -- that this is quite a successful enterprise and lots of folks are visiting there and posting their e-mails and reading the stuff. And I guess that's good.
KING: It's Jackomania in the blogosphere.
CAFFERTY: Oh, not Jackomania, but it's good. It's a good thing.
KING: It is a good thing.
We'll see you in a little bit, Jack.
CAFFERTY: All right.
KING: Is Bill Clinton just speaking his mind or is he doing his wife's bidding?
He's launching some rough zingers against Hillary Clinton's main rival, Barack Obama. But Barack Obama is not taking it without a response.
Also, it's still the rule -- a ban on gays serving openly in the military.
But is that ban easing?
Senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre takes a look.
And shocking allegations against more than 100 United Nations peacekeepers. They're accused of sexually exploiting the women and girls they were supposed to protect.
KING: Hillary Clinton is touting a new high profile endorsement from former Nebraska senator and president of The New School, Bob Kerrey. Kerrey is also stirring a few waves, though, with a remark he made about Barack Obama in which he said he likes the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama and that Obama's father is Muslim.
Joining us now to explain all this and walk through it all, Senator Bob Kerrey.
He joins us live from New York.
Senator, it's good to see you.
BOB KERREY, PRESIDENT, THE NEW SCHOOL: It's nice to see you, John.
KING: All right, let me go through what you said specifically in this quote to "The Washington Post" and I want to ask you why.
Let's -- first, let's hear what you said. You said: "It's probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama and that his father was a Muslim and that his fraternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims and I think that experience is a big deal."
Now, Senator, you say that at a time when Barack Obama has to go out from time to time in his events and tell people, "I'm a Christian. I am a Christian." Because he thinks there's a smear campaign going on under the radar about who he is, trying to maybe peel some people away who might get worried about a guy named Barack Hussein Obama.
So some would say this is cynical -- a new Hillary Clinton supporter doing this to try to stir this up again.
KERREY: Well, it's not. First of all, there was a longer answer to the question. I'm a little reluctant to go into it because we're supposed to be talking about Senator Clinton. But I've got a very high regard for Senator Obama. And the question that I was asked was, you know, he ought to be qualified. You ran in your first term in the Senate, as well. And I think that he is qualified.
And the two things that I like very much about him, that I think will add a tremendous amount of value if he becomes the nominee and gets elected, is the fact that as African-American, he can speak in an authentic way to underperforming black youth who, I think, will follow his example.
And, secondly, I do -- there is a smear campaign going on and people acting as if he's an Islamic Manchurian candidate. And I feel that it's actually a substantial strength. He is a Christian. Both he and his family are Christians. They've chosen Christianity. But that connection to Indonesia and a billion Muslims on this Earth, I think, is a real strength and will add an awful lot of value in his foreign policy efforts.
KING: But you have to know when you're about to say something like that, that some will twist it, especially in this age of the Internet and the blogs.
Did you think about that before you talked about it or is it Bob Kerrey saying this is what I think, I'm going to say it?
KERREY: No. It's something, by the way, I've told Barack Obama when I've met with him. It's something that I've spoken about before. So this is not something that just sort of came out of the head birth out there in Iowa. I thought about it a great deal. I've watched the blogs try to say that you can't trust him because he spent a little bit of time in a secular madrassa.
I feel quite the opposite. I think it's a tremendous strength, whether he's in the United States Senate or whether he's in the White House. I think it's a tremendous asset for him.
KING: And you have endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton. And that might strike some as a bit odd. I spent time back with you in 1992, when you were seeking the Democratic nomination for president. You're known as a maverick, sort of a McCain Democrat, if you will, someone who wasn't afraid to challenge his party's orthodoxy.
Some might think if, OK, who will Bob Kerrey end up with?
You see a candidate like Barack Obama, you think that could be Bob Kerrey's guy.
Why Hillary Clinton?
KERREY: Well, she's really inspired the confidence that I need to believe that they're going to be able to manage this government, to be able to put a good cabinet together. The national security vulnerabilities -- especially in that first year. We saw it in the battle of Mogadishu in October of '93. We saw it on 9/11, 2001. I think she's going to hit the ground running. She's thrown herself into every job that she's got. I've been very impressed with her. I actually didn't know her nearly as well when she was in the White House as I've gotten to know her since she's been the senator from New York.
I'm extremely impressed with the way she's handled herself on the Armed Services Committee. I've had complete confidence that she can be a terrific commander-in-chief, have the right forcefulness and compassion that you need to be able to do that job.
So she's inspired my confidence that she can do the job.
KING: If I had a little truth serum, I would bet that Bill Clinton would not put Bob Kerrey on his list of favorite Democratic senators for some tough criticism you had of President Clinton over time. And you were not -- as I said, you were always -- you weren't always a fan of him, as well.
I guess you're able to put that aside in backing Senator Clinton?
KERREY: Well, you know, look, I made one comment about President Clinton after the 1994 election, after he went and he gave a speech in Texas. And it -- it's sort of stuck in the computers now as a very -- like I said it on every single day. He and I have gotten a lot of things done together. I like him a great deal. I supported an awful lot that -- what he did. We've had a time or two where we've disagreed, that's all.
KING: You're a red state Democrat. You were a successful governor of Nebraska, a successful senator from Nebraska, winning states, winning votes from Democrats, Independents and some Republicans in a red state. You know if you go west of the Mississippi and if you go south, there are a lot of state Democratic chairmen, a lot of Democratic congressman and governors who will tell you privately -- and some even say it publicly -- they're worried about Senator Clinton as the Democratic nominee. They think she will hurt the party down ticket.
Again, with your red state experience, tell them why they're wrong.
KERREY: Well, I mean that's not what Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio thinks. That's not what Evan Bayh, a two term governor, a two term senator of Indiana thinks. It's not what Mike Beebe, governor of Arkansas, thinks. Ask them. They're currently elected in red states.
So I think that once people get to know Senator Clinton, a lot of the, you know, a lot of the negative things that people think that is going to be attached to her disappears. She's very talented. She's easy to get to like. She's a terrific human being. As I said, I've gotten to know her, in the six years that I've -- that she's been serving here as senator from New York. And I think she'll be able to overcome all of that. Whether she wins the nomination and becomes president -- I mean one of the worst things about politics is people loading all these negative things on people without ever having met them without ever having any real evidence that there's something terrible about them.
So I think once people get to know Senator Clinton, especially in red states -- as I said, Indiana, Ohio and Arkansas aren't exactly the states you'd normally think of as having highly elected officials support Senator Clinton or any Democrat.
KING: And so let's assume she wins the nomination and she's having those meetings about who should share the ticket with her. And maybe she's looking for someone with some experience in national security. Maybe she's looking for somebody who wore the uniform. You were a decorated Navy SEAL in Vietnam -- a war hero. Maybe she's looking for somebody who can help her in the red states.
When Senator Bayh -- Governor Bayh is raising his hand, will Bob Kerrey be saying hey, look at me?
KERREY: No. I'm too old. She needs somebody that can -- that can follow her. I mean -- and any nominee needs to do that. So, no, I would not -- I would not be raising my hand.
KING: Let me ask you about another story today -- your friend and former colleague, Joe Lieberman, endorsing John McCain, an Independent Democrat, Senator Lieberman calls himself...
KING: ...today crossing over. Obviously, perhaps some bad blood. Senator Lieberman didn't like the way the Democratic Party treated him in the last cycle, when he was challenged in the primary.
But what do you make of that?
What does it tell you about the state of politics today and what both Senators -- Senator McCain and Lieberman saying look, it's time for people who can reach across the aisle?
As you know, your candidate, Hillary Clinton, is viewed as pretty polarizing.
KERREY: Well, I think it's great. I mean I think it's a courageous thing on Joe's part and it's a good thing for John McCain. So, I like them both and I think it's a -- it's a good thing in politics when people are willing to put their partisan differences aside. And Joe is an Independent. I actually campaigned for him when he ran in the general election, so I'm a bit biased. But I think it was a courageous thing on Joe's part and a good thing for John.
So what's not to like about it?
KING: We're about out of time.
But any chance -- you're sitting in New York today -- any chance we might you in Iowa over the next 17 days campaigning for Senator Clinton?
KERREY: It's possible. It's this full-time job that makes it a little difficult for me to get out there. I was there over the weekend and, you know, if possible I'll -- I may get back out there again. But at the moment, I'm not scheduled to.
KING: Bring all of the students with you.
Senator Bob Kerrey, as always, good to talk to you, sir.
KING: Take care, Senator.
A little over two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, there's a heated new spat between Clinton and Obama -- that's Bill Clinton. The former president is taking aim at his wife's toughest rival.
Let's go to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux.
She's live in Des Moines with the CNN Election Express, the campaign bus that's going all across America.
Suzanne is right there in Des Moines at the moment -- Suzanne.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, John.
It really is a fierce battle between Senator Barack Obama, as well as Senator Hillary Clinton over this whole idea, who has the experience to become the next president. But it is now Bill Clinton who is at the forefront of this feud.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): The battle lines have been drawn -- it's Bill versus Barack. On PBS' "Charlie Rose" show, the former president delivering this zinger over Senator Obama's credentials to become president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "CHARLIE ROSE," COURTESY PBS)
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean in theory we could find someone who is a gifted television commentator...
CHARLIE ROSE, HOST: Do you think?
CLINTON: ...and let them run. They'd have only one year less experience in national politics.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When I was 20 points down, they all thought I was a wonderful guy. So, you know, obviously, things have changed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: Boy, have they. With Senator Hillary Clinton's significant lead over Obama now gone in Iowa and diminishing elsewhere. It's her husband, Bill Clinton, who is sharpening the attack -- describing Obama as...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "CHARLIE ROSE," COURTESY PBS)
CLINTON: A compelling, incredibly attractive, highly intelligent symbol of transformation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: Symbol. His wife, on the other hand, he calls an agent of change. Translation -- the real deal.
What's going on?
STUART ROTHENBERG, "THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: Well, I think Bill Clinton has adopted a different role. Before he was a credential for Senator Clinton. And now, he's much more of an advocate, a surrogate, and taking a more aggressive role.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: You don't let somebody else tell you...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: Obama is fighting back, citing the very words then Governor Bill Clinton used to take on his critics when he ran for president at age 45.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Here's a quote. "The same old experience is irrelevant. You can have the right kind of experience or the wrong kind of experience. And mine is rooted in the real lives of real people and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change."
And that was -- that was Bill Clinton in 1992.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MALVEAUX: But Clinton counters he had the good sense not to run when he wasn't ready.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
MALVEAUX: Now, keeping them honest, Bill Clinton talks about the period of time when he was about 42 years old, when he was encouraged to run. And he said he didn't have that experience. Barack Obama is 46 years old. But the Obama camp is simply saying, look, this is not about age. This is not about traditional Washington political experience. But what it is about is that the timing is right and that voters are demanding change. They believe that is why he is uniquely suitable for the job -- John.
KING: Suzanne Malveaux in Des Moines, making me feel very old. I remember that 1992 New Hampshire day in your piece right there.
Suzanne, thank you very much.
A commanding general in Iraq says the news sounds good from Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAJ. GEN. JOSEPH FIL, U.S. ARMY: The coalition pounded away at the enemy and at their networks. And we've seen positive results from that persistent pressure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: But he also says now is not the time to pull out. The story just ahead.
And stunning allegations rock the United Nations. We'll tell you why it's kicking more than 100 peacekeepers out of Haiti.
KING: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, President Bush is trying to reassure Americans uneasy over the mortgage meltdown and credit crunch that the economy is, in his words, "still pretty good." The president says the nation will work through it.
Two Israeli air strikes in Gaza have killed at least four Islamist militants, according to Palestinian sources. The dead include a senior Islamic Jihad commander who has been on Israel's most wanted list for nine years.
And there are no pictures yet, but Britain's Queen Elizabeth is welcoming a new member of the royal family. Prince Edward and his wife Sophie had a new son.
Wolf Blitzer is off today.
I'm John King.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
U.N. peacekeeping troops are sent around the world to protect the most vulnerable. But now there are new shocking allegations that they're the ones some may need protection from.
Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd -- Brian, the United Nations has expelled more than 100 peacekeepers from Haiti.
Tell us why.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they investigated reports that these troops took advantage of young women and girls in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Haiti's campaign. They found enough evidence to send them back home. But now, justice is in the hands of the troops' own government.
TODD (voice-over): More than 100 U.N. peacekeepers have been kicked out of U.N. stabilization force in Haiti after being accused of preying on those they're supposed to protect. U.N. officials tell CNN the Sri Lankan troops were suspected of sexually exploiting women and girls. Two U.N. officials said they would not dispute a report in "The Los Angeles Times" saying the soldiers had sex with girls as young as 13, paying them as little as a dollar each time. The officials say they were first made aware of the conduct last summer, investigated it and sent the Sri Lankans back home in early November.
I asked Sri Lanka's ambassador to the U.N. if the soldiers will face prosecution there.
PRASAD KARIYAWASAM, SRI LANKAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: We are not -- not going to cover up on this, because this is very serious, because we are a very -- we are, peacekeeping-wise, our troops have been doing a good job and we want to keep those standards. So any badnicks, we'll take action.
TODD: One analyst who monitors peacekeeping operations said this kind of abuse is a major problem in several nations including the Congo where the U.N. deploys.
SARAH MENDELSON, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTL. STUDIES: What you have in places where there is tremendous poverty and you have an influx of internationals that have some money. Because we're not tackling the issue of poverty and education. A lot of these young women and girls view their own natural resource, their only asset is their body. They're using their body as some mechanism to raise money.
TODD: Sarah Mendelson says the U.N. doesn't train peacekeepers well enough to avoid these situations. A U.N. official flatly denied that and said they do train every peacekeeping unit on the conduct and discipline expected. But this U.N. official said that training is for the officers who are expected to train their personnel. John.
KING: Brian, these are horrible allegations. Any evidence that any Sri Lankan officers involved?
TODD: It appears there were. A U.N. official told us three officers were among 108 Sri Lankans repatriated after their investigation. It's important to note though this is out of a total Sri Lankan contingent there of about 950 so certainly not representative of the entire Sri Lankan force there.
KING: Troubling story. Brian Todd, thank you very much.
The United Nations currently has 17 peace keeping operations around the world. 119 countries are taking part in the missions. They provide military observers, police and troops. That includes the United States. It's contributing 331 personnel. That number is well below Pakistan which contributes more than 10,000 and it puts the United States in the 41st spot out of 119 countries. The missions are not without danger. Today 2,415 peacekeepers have been killed in the line of duty.
Now violence in Iraq has dropped significantly. The number of attacks against civilians in Baghdad is down by almost 80% since November of last year and IED attacks are also down. But the U.S. commander in Baghdad warns against an early troop withdrawal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAJ. GEN. JOSEPH FIL, U.S. ARMY: It's clear that pulling out too quickly before the Iraqis are truly able to take over these areas independently would be very risky and there are some areas in the city that at this point it would fail. They're simply not ready to stand entirely on their own.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Major General Joseph Fil says progress made in securing Baghdad is, quote, fragile and not guaranteed. Congress has shown no sign that it's ready to repeal the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the U.S. military. That ban was passed 15 years ago. But even without legislative relief, the ban seems to be easing. Here's CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. Jamie, are things changing and if so, why?
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Times change and it appears, John, that attitudes in the U.S. military are slightly more progressive than some of the attitudes in Congress.
MCINTYRE: The numbers tracked by gay rights advocates show a clear trend. While more than 1200 gays were kicked out of the U.S. military in 2001, only a little more than 600 were discharged last year. Is that because of the fewer gays or more tolerance? Jarrod Chlapowski thinks it's more tolerance.
JARROD CHLAPOWSKI, FORMER ARMY SPECIALIST: This is the Will and Grace generation. This is the generation that grew up with the Real World. Being gay is not something as exotic as it had been in past generations.
MCINTYRE: Chlapowski was a soldier for five years, a Korean linguist. He came to terms with his sexuality while in the army and gradually shared the information with fellow soldiers.
CHLAPOWSKI: They all knew I was gay. That wasn't an issue.
MCINTYRE: That is increasingly the case. Commanders, peers turning a blind eye to what is a dischargeable offense, admitting homosexuality.
Back in 1993, when Congress imposed don't ask, don't tell compromise, on President Clinton's Pentagon, the thinking in the military was that if gays served openly, it would undermine good order and discipline but times and attitudes are changing.
GEN. JAMES JONES (RET.), FORMER MARINE CORPS COMMANDANT: People can serve and serve honorably regardless where they come from.
MCINTYRE: Retired Marine Corps Jim Jones was a member of the joint chief and also served as NATO's supreme commander. Having served with and for marines who he later learned were gay, his views softened over the years.
JONES: I think we should try to keep good people.
MCINTYRE: That said, Jones thinks the don't ask, don't tell policy works reasonably well.
JONES: Sometimes if it ain't broke, you shouldn't try to fix it.
MCINTYRE: And you don't think it's broken in.
JONES: I don't think it's broken.
MCINTYRE: But for gays who want to stay in, every day is the day someone can turn them in. That could drive them out.
CHLAPOWSKI: No matter how accepting my peers were, there could be that one instance where we do not reenlist.
MCINTYRE: Gay rights advocates say that with the nation at war and good people in short supply now is the time to repeat the ban. If change comes, it won't come from the Pentagon. Congress instituted don't ask, don't tell policy and any change will have to come from Capitol Hill. John.
KING: Jamie, any evidence at all that this experience, leniency or call it what you will in this quote, unquote success of people serving and helping will affect the attitudes in Congress?
MCINTYRE: There's certainly discussion of it. And a new Congress will come in and take a whack at this issue. A lot of people will remember this is the issue that immediately started President Clinton off on the wrong foot. Saddled his defense secretary with a no-win political issue and really cost him some political problems at the beginning of the administration. I think it's highly unlikely the next president or Congress will want to step into this when they got so many other issues there facing at the same time.
KING: Caution often drives our politics. Jamie, thank you very much.
Some call it a historic victory against capital punishment but one person calls it "a slap in the face to convicting crime." New Jersey becomes the first state to ban the death penalty since it was reinstated over 30 years ago. We'll tell you why.
And a treasured piece of history would be yours for the right price. Find out how much you have to shell out to own the Magna Carta.
Stay right here. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
KING: Today, New Jersey became the first state to ban the death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated in 1976. CNN's Deborah Feyerick joins us now. Some are calling it a historic victory, others say it's outrageous.
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Well John, imagine eight prisoners on death row in New Jersey now face life in prison without parole. Their sentences were commuted by Governor Jon Corzine who signed the bill getting rid of the death penalty and instead making life imprisoned with no parole the harshest sentence a convict can receive. Now, the governor held, in his words as a day of progress.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. JON CORZINE (D), NEW JERSEY: Today, New Jersey is truly evolving. We evolve, if you believe, as I do, that government cannot provide a full proof death penalty that precludes the possibility of executing the innocent. Society must ask, is it not morally superior to imprison 100 people for life than it is to execute all 100 when it's probably we execute an innocent?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FEYERICK: Now, the bill passed legislature largely along party lines. Majority democrats pushing it through. Republicans tried fighting it, hoping to keep the death penalty for terrorists, criminals convicted of murdering law enforcement officers and those who rape and murder children. The move to get rid of the death penalty was based in part on a state commission report found that it did not deter criminal activities. While lawmakers were hailing it as a victory for decency, families of victims say justice has not been served. John.
KING: And Deb, one of the murderers effected, pretty infamous.
FEYERICK: Absolutely. The man convicted in the case that lead to Megan's Law. His name Jesse Timmendequas. He's a sex offender who murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. That killing inspired the law which requires police to notify the public about sex offenders who live in their neighborhoods. Now Megan's father, Richard Kanka, calls it "a slap in the face to the victims." Members of all the family victims fought against the law to reverse the death penalty. John.
KING: Deb Feyerick for us in New York. Deb, thanks very much.
An intense man hunt is underway for two escaped inmates. They used improvised tools to move cinderblocks to make a jump to freedom. Wait until you hear what they left behind.
And it's no surprise that Hillary Clinton is on the campaign trail just weeks before the Iowa caucuses. What's a more surprise is how she's getting around.
Stay right here. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
KING: Carol Costello is off today. But Zain Verjee is helping us monitor stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Hello Zain.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John. Russia's President Vladimir Putin may have a big job lined up when his second and final term ends next year. Mr. Putin announced he'll serve as prime minister if the presidential candidate he's backing wins elections in March. Following his comments, Putin's united Russia party overwhelming endorsed Mr. Putin's chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev to be their candidate.
They came, they saw and they donated billions more than many had expected. Organizers say a one day donor's conference in Paris has raised nearly $7.5 billion to help build a Palestinian state. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged $555 million from the U.S. in aid for next year. Palestinian leaders called support of vote of confidence.
An intense man hunt under way for two inmates who escaped New Jersey's Union County jail Saturday. Authorities say one of the inmates left behind a note thanking a guard for tools. They say Jose Espinosa and Otis Blunt removed cement blocks from two walls, squeezed through and jumped through a roof top and climbed over a 25 foot fence. Espinosa pleaded guilty to manslaughter and Blunt is awaiting trial on robbery and weapons charges.
And John, French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have a girlfriend. French newspapers are reporting that he's romancing supermodel turned singer Carla Bruni. They were photographed together at the Disneyland theme park near Paris Saturday. Bruni's past boyfriends include Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and John King -- I'm just kidding. Sarkozy's marriage ended in a much publicized divorce. John.
KING: You can be sure I wouldn't take her to Disneyland.
VERJEE: Not a very romantic public debut, is it, among pre- Christmas clouds and loads of lineups.
KING: Zain Verjee, thanks so much.
It helped pave the way for American democracy. Now, you might find some irony here, it's up for sale. The only privately owned copy of the Magna Carta goes on the auction block tomorrow in New York City. It's expected to go for $30 million. Originally written in 1215, the Magna Carta became the law in 1297 when this copy was signed by King Edward I. It's one of only 17 remaining versions from before the 14th Century. The Magna Carta was the foundation for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. constitution and provides the basis for the Fifth Amendment. This copy was displayed at the National Archives for two decades and is owned by Texas billionaire Ross Perot.
They've been kidnapped, terrorized and murdered in cold blood. They are ordinary citizens who happened to witness crimes and tried to do the right thing. Coming up, a look at a frightening new trend.
And he's the $6 million man, Ron Paul breaking his own records and bringing in a bundle. We'll show you just how. Stay right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
KING: From the Great Lakes of the northeast, residents are still feeling the fallout of nasty weekend storms. Take a look here. Parts of upstate New York buried under a foot of snow. That closed schools in Wolf Blitzer's home town of Buffalo. And you're looking now at live pictures of traffic in Albany from our friends at trafficland.com. Looks like everything is moving smoothly right now and in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, people are digging out from an ice storm that covered homes and cars. Detroit, more to the Midwest, digging out from one of the worst storms in a decade.
Time now to go to a man I know can drive in the snow. Jack Cafferty.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How do you know that?
KING: Where you live, my friend.
CAFFERTY: Where I used to live. That's true. We learned how to do that when we were kids. We had a little ice which was worse than the snow.
KING: You learned how to drive in the snow when you were a kid?
CAFFERTY: Yeah, yeah. I lived in Nevada. I started driving a car when I was 12 years old. Nobody cared out there then.
The question this hour is how much will endorsements from Senator Joe Lieberman, the Des Moines Register and the Boston Globe help John McCain's campaign?
Lee writes from Delray Beach, Florida, "As a lifelong democrat who voted for Al Gore, the thought that I might have put a back- stabbing opportunist like Joe Lieberman only a hear beat away from the presidency makes my flesh crawl. I despise everything this administration has done but Joe Lieberman's nothing but George Bush with no conscious and a whinny voice."
Susan in Encino, California, "I take seriously the endorsements by our major newspapers, and their reasons for the endorsements. Those mean a lot more to me then any celebrity endorsements (Oprah included). I liked very much what you just read on air about John McCain." I was reading from the Des Moines Register editorial that endorsed him. "While we may not always agree with him, you can't disagree, he's an honest man staying true to his feelings." Susan writes, "Joe Lieberman, John McCain are irrelevant. They can endorse each other until the cows come home. The 2008 election will usher in a new era led by progressive attitudes and a vibrant new leadership in the White House and Congress. Lieberman and McCain dinosaurs from the old political aristocracy who deserve a pat on the back for their service and a fond farewell."
James in Virginia, "Senator McCain's endorsements will help him because the blurring political party support works to counter the runaway partisanship which began with Gingrich in 1994. McCain's base will be from democratic and republican parties those of moderate persuasion in each."
John in California, "The days when endorsements meant something are gone. It's clear the media is not independent, so newspaper endorsements are just political endorsements. And we all know being endorsed by other corrupt politicians is meaningless. These fools are stroking their own egos and the mainstream media laps it up. Check to see who the voters are endorsing with their wallets."
W.B. in Las Vegas, "An endorsement from the "Lieberweasel?" That should be the kiss of death for John "Amnesty" McCain. I'm waiting for their "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" duet."
KING: You know your people out there Jack, they are always very unclear about what they think.
CAFFERTY: Listen. Don't be getting -- jumping ugly with my folks. I'll turn them right on you.
KING: I love them. The more provocative the better. Jack, thank you.
They put their lives in danger to do what's right. Ordinary people becoming victims after they witness a crime. Their stories are frightening and you'll hear them ahead.
Also Bill Clinton takes on one of his wife's rivals, slamming Barack Obama. But Obama is firing right back.
And democrats are dismayed. Republicans though, rejoicing. Senator Joe Lieberman endorses John McCain. I'll ask him why. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
KING: They've been kidnapped, terrorized and murdered in cold blood all for trying to do what's right. Witnesses are putting their lives on the line to testify. Let's go to CNN's Randi Kaye. How big a problem, Randi, is witness intimidation?
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, we did some digging and we found that witness protection programs around the country are being criticized for not making witness safety a priority. Critics we spoke with say witnesses are often used as pawns and then dumped. We're taking a close look at the witness protection program in Colorado which has a budget of $50,000 might sound a lot of money but consider this, the city of Denver spends more than twice that planting flowers and trees to make the city look pretty, far more than the state pays to protect its witnesses.
We also found witnesses who said they were never told the state even had witness protection program including one man who said he had to spend thousands of dollars of his own money to protect his family. He asked us not to show his face for his own protect. Here's some of our own interview.
KAYE: Scott and his wife testified against their daughter's boyfriend Keith Reynolds after he beat her.
SCOTT: Saw a 4-year-old grandson walking around with Kleenex trying to clean up mom's blood.
KAYE: Reynolds got three years for domestic assault. Scott said his family was terrorized. They would answer the phone and hear this -- a gun being cocked. Strange cars parked outside of their home and threats arrived by mail.
SCOTT: It was a threatening letter from him saying he was going to have us killed.
KAYE: Scott said Colorado prosecutors told him a hit had been put on his family. Still even though the state has a witness protection program, Scott said his family didn't get any help.
At any point did the Arapahoe County D.A. or any prosecutors make you aware there was a witness protection program available to you?
SCOTT: No, no. All they did was told us maybe he should move.
KAYE: Keeping them honest, we asked Arapahoe County D.A. Carol Chambers if Scott's family had been offered any protection. Chambers was not the D.A. at the time but worked in the office and was familiar with the case.
As a witness, he said your office never told him about any type of protection program.
CAROL CHAMBERS, COLORADO DISTRICT ATTORNEY: No I don't believe that to be true.
KAYE: We also asked the prosecutor assigned to Scott's case. She said she's pretty sure she told Scott or his wife about the program but wasn't sure she had given details.
KAYE: That man, Scott told me he spent $10,000 of his own money to install a security system even hire a bodyguard for his son's wedding. Also now, Scott, his wife and his 13-year-old grandson, who lives with them, have all learned to shoot and shoot well including multiple targets at once. Scott never leaves home, John, without his gun.
KING: As you do this digging Randi, how is it that some witnesses are not aware of these programs? And is there anything being done to change that?
KAYE: There seems to be a little bit of work behind the scenes being done. It turns out some Colorado police officers aren't even aware the program exists. We were able to confirm that some law enforcement didn't even know about it themselves so the word just isn't getting out but now, at least one county is attaching information about the program to every witness subpoena, plus it's posted around the courthouse and there's now training, John, for law enforcement to be sure they are aware of it.
KING: Randi Kaye in New York. Randi, thank you very much. And the full results of Randi's investigation into witness intimidation tonight on "ANDERSON COOPER 360." That's at 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.
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