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THE SITUATION ROOM

Turkish Troops Invade Iraq; Japan Tests Missile Defense System

Aired December 18, 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: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, first, punishing air strikes. Then, Turkish ground troops go after Kurdish militants inside Iraq.

Is Turkey getting a wink and nod from the United States or something more?

A stunning display of military might, as a key U.S. ally tests a missile killer high above the Pacific.

America helped build this defense system, but can it count on Japan for help if attacked?

And a federal judge calls the Bush administration into court to answer questions about the destruction of CIA interrogation videos.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm John King.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A dangerous new twist in Iraq today, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit, even as Turkish troops made a visit of their own -- to Northern Iraq, taking on Kurdish militants.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara, is the U.S. military playing a part in this?

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, behind-the- scenes they most definitely are, as Turkish troops have moved into Northern Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): A few hundred Turkish ground forces moved into Northern Iraq, pursuing Kurdish PKK rebels just days after Turkish jets bombed guerilla positions on the Iraqi side of the border. Officials say the U.S. military isn't directly involved.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: This was a Turkish decision and we have made clear to the Turkish government that we continue to be concerned about anything that could lead to innocent civilian casualties or to a destabilization of the north. STARR: But several U.S. military officials confirmed to CNN that before the air strikes, the U.S. gave the Turks the locations of the PKK positions.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have been coordinating and working with Turkey in order to -- and the Iraqis -- in order to help eliminate the terrorist threat that exists there. And we've asked Turkey to be very limited in its activity.

STARR: For weeks, the U.S. has been flying U-2 spy planes and drones over the mountains to gather intelligence. U.S. military personnel are in Turkey analyzing the data gathered and handing it to the Turks. The U.S. military, which controls Iraqi air space, was informed by Turkey about the strikes, according to a U.S. official. The U.S. didn't oppose it, hoping to keep Turkey from launching a full scale invasion.

But some Iraqis are dismayed at the incursion into their country.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: We believe any unilateral actions to destabilize the situation will harm Iraq's interests -- and Turkish interests -- at the same time.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: John, there are growing questions about just how soon the U.S. was notified by Turkey about those air strikes. Officials are confirming that the Turks did notify them. But they're not saying whether they notified them before the planes were in the air -- John.

KING: Fascinating. Fascinating.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, thank you very much.

STARR: Sure.

KING: A dramatic missile test this week in the Pacific Ocean and in the atmosphere high above. If push ever comes to shove, can the United States now count on a key ally to help defend against a threat from North Korea or China?

CNN's Brian Todd joins us now -- Brian, an impressive display of military might.

But will Japan use it if the United States needs it?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They may, John, but not under circumstances that many Americans might prefer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): First to blast off -- a dummy ballistic missile launched from an American range in Hawaii. Then, 275 miles away, a Japanese destroyer locks on the dummy target, fires an interceptor missile. Sensors capture the interceptor, taking out the target in space -- 100 miles above the Pacific -- a victory for the Japanese crew.

The entire sequence takes six minutes. But it's an important milestone in the struggle for military power in the Pacific Rim. It's the first time a U.S. ally has successfully shut down a mid-range ballistic missile from a ship at sea.

SHIGERU ISHIBA, JAPANESE DEFENSE MINISTER: The credibility of our country's missile defense system was significantly improved.

TODD: A huge signal to Japan's rivals -- most notably North Korea, which has occasionally threatened Japan by sending ballistic missiles around and even over Japan in tests.

With this test, Japan is now considered a leading partner in America's effort to build a multi-million dollar missile shield against its enemies.

But guess what?

If an enemy missile was ever headed for an American target, the Japanese likely would not destroy that missile -- even though Japan developed this technology with America's help and the crew was trained by Americans.

KURT CAMPBELL, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: The Japanese constitution forbids Japan from engaging directly in operations that are not related to the defense of the Japanese homeland. And this falls in a gray area. And so for both operational and political legal issues, I think Japan would be -- it would be uncertain whether we could expect Japan to be able to assist us in such circumstances.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Kirk Campbell says the only time Japan might intercept a missile heading for a U.S. target is if that target is one of America's bases on Japanese soil -- John.

KING: Well, Brian, is there something the United States gains strategically and militarily from this alliance?

TODD: It is not one-sided. Japan still houses some of those forward American bases. They're very important to American military operations in Asia. And it's also a staging area -- a kind of pipeline for American equipment sent to the Persian Gulf. So it's not a one- sided equation.

But some are kind of raising eyebrows at this particular arrangement with the ballistic missile tests.

KING: A question worth asking.

Brian Todd for us.

Thank you very much.

And Jack is in New York now with the Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Could we not, presumably, install our own missile protection in some of those bases in Japan?

KING: That's an interesting question. We'll add that to the list.

CAFFERTY: Just a thought.

Here, this is -- here we go. A 10-year old Florida girl -- 10 -- arrested for using a knife to cut her food. She didn't threaten anybody. She didn't attack anybody. She was 10. She used the knife to cut a piece of steak that she brought from home for her lunch.

School officials that Sunrise Elementary School in Ocala, Florida called the police -- had her arrested. She was taken away to juvenile detention. The girl now reportedly faces a felony charge of possessing a weapon on school property, along with a 10 day suspension.

Apparently, it was the teachers who called the sheriff after this fifth grader -- a girl who was 10 -- used the knife in the cafeteria to cut the meat. One when the cops showed up, they couldn't reach her parents on the phone, so they arrested the child and took her away to the county's juvenile assessment center.

School officials acknowledge she didn't do anything wrong with the knife, just used it to cut the piece of steak that she had brought from home. They say it doesn't matter what the knife was used for, the district has zero tolerance for weapons on school grounds.

I wonder if that applies to forks, too?

Maybe the kids are supposed to eat with their hands. These are morons. Of course, no one will admit that they have overreacted.

The sheriff's office points the finger at the school, saying that once they're notified, they have to take some kind of action.

It's in the manual, you know?

I guess taking the knife away from the kid never occurred to anybody. The girl's uncle says she's been very upset by all of this. He says they understand measures need to be taken to make sure people don't come to school with weapons, but that his niece is a really good kid.

So here's the question -- is it going too far when a 10-year old girl is arrested for bringing a steak knife to school to use to eat her lunch?

E-mail us at caffertyfile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/caffertyfile.

And once again, that's the Sunrise Elementary School in Ocala, Florida -- John.

KING: If I put this up on your blog, it would be only three letters long.

Is it too much, Y-E-S -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: There you go. See.

KING: Jack will have the answers in just a bit.

Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: OK.

KING: The Bush administration is hauled into federal court by a judge. The government will have to explain the destruction of those CIA interrogation tapes.

Did it violate an earlier court order?

Mitt Romney slams Mike Huckabee's record.

But is his new campaign ad accurate?

We'll do a fact check.

A teenager gets in trouble -- a teenager in trouble gets a big lift from the U.S. Navy. A helicopter ride from a cruise ship to an aircraft carrier for emergency surgery.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Bush administration will have to answer questions about destruction of those CIA videos showing the interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects. A federal judge is hauling government lawyers into court on Friday.

Let's turn to CNN justice correspondent, Kelli Arena -- Kelli, what's behind this move by the judge?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the Justice Department had asked the court to stay out of this matter entirely, citing its ongoing investigation. But a district court judge just ignored their plea.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice-over): Judge Henry Kennedy ordered the government to appear before him this Friday. Justice Department officials had warned that a court proceeding could complicate or even disrupt its ongoing investigation into the destruction of CIA tapes. Apparently, Judge Kennedy didn't buy it.

TIM HEAPHY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: If it goes the next step -- and I'm not sure it will yet -- but if it goes the next step and Judge Kennedy allows the plaintiffs in this civil suit to subpoena representatives of the CIA who have personal knowledge about this destruction, that is a very damaging fact for the Department.

ARENA: Back in 2005, Kennedy ordered the government to safeguard all evidence of possible torture or mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When it was revealed earlier this month that the CIA destroyed interrogation gapes, some questioned whether the government had violated that order.

The Bush administration says it didn't. That's because in 2005, the Al Qaeda operatives who were taped were being held at secret locations -- not at Guantanamo Bay. David Remes, who represents several detainees at GITMO, requested the hearing.

DAVID REMES, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Because as far as the government is concerned, it wants to keep the foxes in charge of the hen house. It only wants the Justice Department and the CIA to look into this question of document destruction.

ARENA: Even if the government did violate the court order, legal experts say it could be guilty of breaking other laws regarding evidence.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ARENA: Now, first part, the CIA says it hasn't done anything wrong. The Justice Department investigation is still in the very preliminary stage and officials there didn't have any response to today's order, other than to say that DOJ lawyers will be at court -- John.

KING: The judge is mad, Congress is mad. We'll keep a close eye on this one.

ARENA: We sure will.

KING: Kelli Arena, thanks very much.

No holiday just yet for the Bush White House. It's now in the midst of some intense political and legal struggles -- and that includes this new court date in the CIA tapes controversy.

White House Counselor Ed Gillespie joins us from the North Lawn.

Ed, thanks for joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I want to start with this judge's order today that the administration come into court on Friday and explain the decision to destroy those CIA videotapes of interrogations.

I want to get first to the credibility question. This is the same CIA that said the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a slam dunk. The same CIA that until just recently said Iran was well on its way and quickly trying to get on its way to producing a nuclear weapon. Now it says that wasn't the case. Given that and now this -- the destruction of tapes -- of videotapes of interrogations, why would any American or any world leader believe the president of the United States, if there was a crisis and he came forward and said we need to do this because the CIA tells me?

ED GILLESPIE, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Well, there's are two separate questions inherent there, John. Let me take them one at a time.

The first is that we, after the invasion of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, as you know, made a lot of reforms to the intelligence gathering community that I think have been helpful in terms of improving the quality of our intelligence relative to our national security.

Relative to the CIA tapes and the destruction, as you know, there is a preliminary inquiry that has been opened at the Department of Justice, working with the CIA inspector general's office. And the White House Counsel's Office here has instructed White House staff, given that circumstance, to not comment publicly about this while the preliminary inquiry proceeds and they gather facts. So I'm -- not having the benefit of a law degree or ever having gone to law school or being a lawyer, I'm going to the advice of the White House Counsel's Office on that and not take this opportunity to respond.

KING: Well, let's, then, move away from the specifics...

GILLESPIE: OK.

KING: ...if you say you can't deal with the specifics -- to the image of this. As you know, you're -- you helped the president communicate his message. As you know, overseas and in the United States, the image of this country has been damaged because of the controversy about these interrogation tactics.

You now have lawyers who are pressing this case, who wanted these videotapes -- they now have been destroyed -- saying that, essentially -- here's what one of the lawyers says: "The recent revelation indicates the government cannot be trusted to preserve evidence."

How do you try to communicate around the world when we are based on the rule of law in the United States and in this case gives people T-Ball (ph), if you will -- easy fodder to say the United States doesn't follow its own laws?

GILLESPIE: John, I'm not privy to what was on the tapes. I have not seen them and so I'm really not in a position to comment. I don't know that -- that any assertion of illegality is accurate, and I defer to the Department of Justice to -- and the CIA -- to pursue their preliminary inquiry to, you know, make their assessments.

I'm, frankly, just not qualified to answer your question.

KING: Do you have any sense as to why some speculate these tapes were destroyed because the CIA did not want another Abu Ghraib, did not want these tapes to become public and images to be broadcast around the world that could destroy the reputation of this country?

GILLESPIE: John, you're free to speculate. You're on a television program. I work for the United States government -- for the president of the United States. I'm just not free to speculate with you. I'm sorry.

KING: I want to take you now into the wonderful world of presidential politics and one of the rising stars in the Republican race for president right now, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He had some very tough words about the president of the United States -- your boss -- in the latest issue of "Foreign Affairs."

Governor Huckabee says this: "American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up and reach out. The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad."

He goes on to deliver some specific criticisms about Iraq, about Iran, about the president's lack of diplomacy and his view overseas.

Ed Gillespie, what does the president of the United States think about that?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, this is up to Mike Huckabee and the voters to talk about, along with the other Republican candidates. The fact is the president's foreign policy has been very successful. Our national security policy has been very successful...

KING: Well, let me jump in...

GILLESPIE: ...(INAUDIBLE) for the nation and...

KING: Let me jump in as you answer. Let me jump in as you answer.

Have you discussed this with the president of the United States?

What does he think about this -- a Republican candidate for president criticizing a Republican president?

GILLESPIE: John, as you know, we have resisted the urge all along to get involved in the 2008 presidential campaign. I appreciate the invitation to break that -- you know, that precedent or set a precedent to start talking about it here with you today. But, again, I think I'll take a pass. I work for the United States government, not for the Republican National Committee or the Democrat National Committee or any of the political committees right now. And I'm happy to talk to you about policies and taxes and spending and our national security policies, but I will leave the -- the commentary for the political campaigns to others.

KING: Well, I want to try one more related subject.

I want you to listen...

GILLESPIE: You're welcome to it. It's your air time.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Another -- I want you to listen to another former governor of Arkansas. This one happens to be a Democrat and he happens to be a former president. He was talking about what his wife would do -- Senator Hillary Clinton -- what she would do first on the foreign policy front if she becomes president of the United States.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, the first thing she intends to do -- because you can do this without passing a bill -- the first thing she intends to do is to send me and former President Bush and a number of other people around the world to tell them that America is open for business and cooperation again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Any chance I could get you to answer whether or not the president of the United States might call his father and ask if he's signed on to do that?

GILLESPIE: I understand, John, that the former president's office has a statement on that. And I would, again, defer to them and allow others to engage in the commentary on the political campaigns of what will soon be 2008.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: At some point, we'll get Ed Gillespie outside of the White House gates to talk more about the election season. I'm sure he would like to discuss more. But on this day, we respect your decision.

Ed Gillespie, the White House counsel.

Ed, thanks so much.

GILLESPIE: Thanks for having me on.

KING: And this is the response Ed Gillespie just mentioned there from George H. W. Bush's office, the 41st president: "Former President Bush whole-heartedly supports the president of the United States, including his foreign policy. He has never discussed an around the world mission with either former President Bill Clinton or Senator Clinton, nor does he think such a mission is warranted, since he is proud of the role of America continues to play around the world as the beacon of hope for freedom and democracy. President Bush is excited about several of the excellent Republican candidates running for president and looks forward to supporting their candidacy once the Republican nominee is determined."

Just in time for the holidays, lawmakers have a treat -- or is it more of a trick?

How your tax dollars could end up going to a nearly $1 million bike trial and other pet projects.

Mitt Romney slams Mike Huckabee as being soft on crime. We'll take a hard look at Romney's blistering new ad.

And is Fidel Castro ready for retirement?

What the Cuban leader is saying now.

Stay right there.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Carol Costello is off today.

But Zain Verjee is monitoring stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Zain, what do you have?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: John, they thought they were going to win a 42-inch flat screen TV. But some 20 fugitives got the surprise of their lives. They showed up at a New York City hotel after they received a fake letter telling them to claim their prize. Instead, they won a trip to jail. Police said that they sent the letter to some 200 people with warrants out for their arrests.

Prosecutors in Aruba say no charges will be brought against three suspects in the Natalee Holloway case. Authorities had rearrested Joran van der Sloot and Deepak and Satish Kalpoe last month, citing new evidence. But an Aruban appeals court ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to show Holloway died as a result of violent crime and ordered the men released. Holloway has not been seen since she went missing in May of 2005.

Astronauts at the International Space Station have wrapped up a seven hour spacewalk. They wanted to see if the station's solar wings might have been hit by space junk. The mechanism that's supposed to tilt the wings toward the sun apparently malfunctioned and the astronauts say it doesn't really look like it was hit by anything.

The Federal Reserve is trying to beef up protection for people taking out new home mortgages. It's endorsing new proposed regulations that would safeguard subprime borrowers. Among other things, they would bar lenders from making loans when they don't have proof of a borrower's income. They would also prevent lenders from penalizing borrowers who have weak credit -- John.

KING: Zain Verjee.

Zain, thanks very much.

Mitt Romney goes after Mike Huckabee's record in a new ad. That's fair enough.

But does Romney have his facts straight? We'll give the ad the once-over.

And a teenager stricken with a medical emergency on a cruise ship hundreds of miles from help -- we'll tell you how U.S. Navy came to the rescue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, Congress puts the brakes on the auto industry. Lawmakers rev up fuel economy standards for the first time in decades.

What could it mean for you?

Hillary Clinton courts votes in Iowa with her husband Bill and NBA legend Earvin "Magic" John. We'll tell you how rival Barack Obama is fighting back.

And you've heard a lot about using corn to combat high gas prices.

But did you know that's driving up the cost of another important crop?

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm John King.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just in time for their holiday break, the Senate is poised to pass a huge spending bill to provide $40 billion more for Iraq. But that's not the only thing in this $516 billion measure. It's overflowing with pork.

Let's go to our Brianna Keilar on Capitol Hill -- Brianna, tell us, what are some of these earmarks for?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, there's a bike trail, there's quite a few museums. There's even money to get rid of a rodent problem. Now some critics say these are not national priorities. But, of course, one person's pork is funding for another person's critical project.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R), VIRGINIA: I just think that this represents, you know, the most failed Congress in history.

KEILAR (voice-over): It's a $500 billion bill to fund almost the entire federal government. Republicans say it's chalk full of pork -- close to 9,000 earmarks.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: One of the reasons voters made a change in the control of the Congress was because they wanted Congress to change the way we spend people's money. The more things change in Washington, D.C. , the more they stay the same.

KEILAR: But Democrats insist they have been more forthcoming about who requests federal money for local projects. And they say compared to the last budget Republicans passed, their bill has far fewer earmarks.

REP. STENY HOYER (D), MAJORITY LEADER: We've had a 40 percent reduction, a transparent process and we believe that there has been as careful a vetting of projects in this Congress as has ever occurred.

KEILAR: Still, Republican Senator Tom Coburn, well known for waging war on earmarks, has signaled out Republicans and Democrats alike.

GOP Senator Ted Stevens gets $113,000 for rodent control in Alaska. A Stevens' aide says it's necessary to curb a rat infestation that's wiping out sea birds.

Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar put in for almost $700,000 for a bike trail in his home state of Minnesota. Oberstar's office said it's an alternative transportation route over an environmentally sensitive area and it could be a model for the entire nation. The watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense the rush to get this budget passed before Congress breaks for winter recess means there's not enough time to put earmarks under the microscope.

RYAN ALEXANDER, TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE: People slipped earmarks in and changes to policy and program spending and people have to vote without knowing what those changes are.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: That is a big complaint from some republicans, these so- called air dropped earmarks that are dropped into this massive spending bill pretty late in the game so they're not subject to scrutiny. That said, a lot of these air dropped earmarks are money for FEMA, for things like disaster preparedness and that's not exactly a bridge to no where, John.

KING: That one's not. But maybe a bike trail to the rodent infestation problem.

KEILAR: Perhaps.

KING: Brianna Keilar, keeping them honest on the Hill. Brianna, thank you very much.

The House voted overwhelmingly today to raise automobile fuel economy standards for the first time in decades. Part of a sweeping energy bill that boosts support for energy conservation. The fuel increases fuel efficiency in all vehicles requiring an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That mandates a six fold increase in ethanol use and it requires more energy efficient lighting and appliances.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: You are present at a moment of change, of real change, of rejecting the past, respecting the values of the past, but rejecting the insistence that we stay in the past and going into the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: As you can see, that all makes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quite happy and the White House says President Bush will sign the energy bill tomorrow.

The renewable motor fuel called for in the energy bill, ethanol starts out as corn. We all know that. Let's turn to CNN's Ali Velshi in New York. The U.S. can produce a lot of corn here. The significant concern so about the consequences, right?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes you're absolutely right, John. This idea of using corn to make ethanol to replace some of the gasoline we use sounds good, but America's new-found obsession with ethanol is literally taking food out of our mouths or at least making that food more expensive. Now, wheat has hit record prices this week, topping $10 a bushel for those of you keeping track and that is the first time it ever happened. Now, wheat is twice as expensive as it was a year ago and anyone that buys bread or cereal or cookies or pasta for that matter knows that, John.

KING: Why is this happening?

VELSHI: Well, there are a lot of reasons. The pressure to use corn for ethanol is one of them. To grow enough corn to meet America's increasing need for ethanol, farmers in America have been given incentives to switch from growing wheat for food to growing corn for fuel and that is aggravating a worldwide shortage of wheat.

Now, for a few years now fast-growing economies, John, like China and India have increased their demand for wheat to make the refined products, which tend to come with economic advancement. This year bad weather in Australia and Argentina and both are massive wheat producers and that's damaged crops and all this time America has been growing less and less wheat.

KING: Just wheat or is this more to this?

VELSHI: No, it's a lot more than wheat. Everything to do with agriculture. Cows, pigs and chicken and that made meat more expensive and dairy and for those of you not paying attention to this. Anheuser-Busch told us that growing corn instead of barley and hops can mean you will pay more for your beer next year, too.

KING: You don't have just one of those do you?

VELSHI: I have another five.

KING: Cafferty is coming across the room right now.

VELSHI: I'll pass one over to him. KING: Ali Velshi at New York. Ali, thanks so much.

VELSHI: All right.

KING: As Ali just said, it's not just wheat, prices for almost everything has gone up in the past six months. Overall, goods and services you purchased gone up 3.1%. Milk, cheese, other dairy products have gone up 20%. Home heating oil is costing you 50% more than it did six months ago and up more than 80 cents a gallon from this time last year.

Fidel Castro drops a huge hint about his political future. The ailing Cuban leader delivers a message to his people. What he's saying about whether he's ready to retire.

And Mitt Romney versus Mike Huckabee. We'll check out the facts behind Romney's new ad attacking his surging rival.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney is taking direct aim at surging rival Mike Huckabee in the latest Romney ad. He is blasting the former Arkansas governor's record on crime. Can the media message be trusted? Howard Kurtz at CNN's Reliable Sources has our fact check.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN RELIABLE SOURCES: John, how do you go negative here in Iowa where voters like their politics with a side of niceness? If you're Mitt Romney you start a campaign commercial by praising your opponent and then lowering the boom.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two pro-life supporters support an amendment to protect traditional marriage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: See the former governor of Massachusetts has great respect for Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor who surged past him in the Iowa polls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The difference, Romney got tough on drugs like meth. He never pardoned a single criminal and Mike Huckabee granted 1,033 pardons and commutations, including 12 convicted murderers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: That last part is true, Huckabee received far more pardon than Romney did and rejected 78% of them, but some more controversial. Including Huckabee's support for the state parole board's early release of Wayne Dumond, a convicted rapist who went on to rape and kill another woman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Huckabee granted more clemencies than the previous three governors combined. Even reduced penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine. On crime, the difference is judgment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Romney may say he got tough on meth peddlers, but his proposal to stiffen sentences never passed the Massachusetts legislature. Huckabee did sign legislation to cut prison terms for those making methamphetamine, but those terms were already averaging nine years, nearly twice as long as would have been the maximum sentence in Massachusetts, even if Romney's bill had passed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: With Huckabee way ahead among evangelical voters, Romney is doing his best to change the subject. Huckabee may have a hard time fighting back. He's got little money for TV while Romney is spending millions. John?

KING: Howard Kurtz out of the snows of Iowa.

Senator Hillary Clinton is getting some high-powered help from Bill Clinton and NBA legend Irvin Magic Johnson, this as rival Barack Obama takes aim at Clinton on foreign policy. We're joined now by our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. She is in Des Moines. Candy, quite contrasting images and messages top two democrats.

CANDY CROWLEY, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's really interesting. Like they stole each other's talking points for the day or put the way they're addressing the criticisms about them as we move into these final weeks of the Iowa caucuses. Barack Obama, as you mentioned, was out. He put that charisma and activity behind him for the day and held this very somber discussion about foreign policy with four of his foreign policy advisors, two of them, by the way, former Clintonites. Obama started out saying that, of course, this campaign has been a lot about the Iraq war, but he's worried about comes after that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Question is what comes next. Because we also have to change a conventional way of thinking about foreign policy and values and time in Washington over timely judgments, posturing over pragmatism and fear of looking weak over the conviction to get things right. And here I ask that you look no farther than my record.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: As for Hillary Clinton, who is master of the ten-point plan, as you know. She is out there trying to infuse a little charisma into her campaign using magic Johnson and magic Clinton, trying to give people a sense of who she is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that people were saying we need to know more about her. Know more about her personally and I totally get that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So, Obama addressing criticisms that perhaps he doesn't have the judgment or the experience to be president and Hillary Clinton addressing those criticisms that perhaps she's a little too cold, a little too calculating to be put into the White House. John?

KING: Can she shoot a three-point shot?

CROWLEY: Didn't ask that, I'm sorry.

KING: Maybe tomorrow. When you see this all going on, she's trying to soften her image and be more human and more genuine and her mother and her mother and daughter were involved in the earlier events when he's standing next to her today. What are they saying, what any voters are saying, does he help or hurt or both?

CROWLEY: Well, yes, I think it's both. Did you notice that every time that Clinton walks out he and some not always helpful to the Clinton campaign, as you reported, you know, yesterday, he talked about how when she is elected that she and former president Bush are going to go out and help repair the U.S. image to which the Bush office of the former president said this is the first he's heard of it and he doesn't think the mission is necessary. Little things like that keep happening. As you know, overall, he's such a huge draw in the democratic process. Yes, there is the idea that perhaps he could overshadow her. On the other hand, people out to see him and that's always good for a candidate, no matter what your last name is.

KING: Struck that Barack Obama is giving such a serious policy address right now. What is your sense, two weeks, two weeks, we have been at this for a long time and suddenly, here it is. Is there a particular issue, especially on the democratic side that you feel is an urge, the voters want to hear more about or is it, each candidate playing and filling in their weaknesses?

CROWLEY: I think it really is. You know, obviously, now, we're looking at electability. That's what it boils down to. We have seen all along that the democrats are pretty happy with their field. They kind of look out there and say, hey, we could take any of them. Biden, Dodd, Richardson, Clinton, Obama, they all look good to us. Who is the most electable here? So, on that score, both these candidates are looking at it and saying what is it that I have to fill in for these voters? To show that, indeed, I am nice on Hillary Clinton's side. I'm not cold, I'm not calculating, they could relate to me. On Barack Obama's side, I have experience, I have judgment, they need to know that. All boils down to what it has to boil down to. Who has the best chance of getting elected?

KING: Candy Crowley, thanks so much.

With the Iowa caucus quickly approaching, as we just said, two weeks, campaigns are pushing hard to get Iowa voters to caucus for their candidates. My Boston accent is coming out a lot today. Online videos from both Obama and Clinton feature former supporters who made the switch to the other candidate. Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton keeping track of this. What are these people saying?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: This is Susan. She identifies herself in this video as an Iowa resident and long-time volunteer for Hillary Clinton, but not any more. This is a video at the Barack Obama website and it shows her taking out her Hillary Clinton sign from her front yard and replacing it with an Obama sign. She explains it was negative stuff from the Clinton campaign that made her switch.

Well, anything you can do, we can do better. This new now from the Hillary Clinton campaign, a video entitled switchers not one but five defectors who say they were once with Barack Obama's campaign or supporting Edwards' campaign and now they're with Hillary Clinton. This all comes as the John Edwards Iowa website is pushing their snazzy new online caucus center. Take a look at this. It contains various advice trying to shore up advice for John Edwards volunteers for the state of Iowa and caucus night as they try to reel in any potential defectors and bring snacks is what they're saying in that video. John?

KING: Bring snacks. Looks like a nice loaf of bread there. Abbi Tatton, thanks so much.

Fidel Castro's political surprise; he's been in power for nearly five decades and now he's hinting at just how soon he might actually retire.

Where is Rudy Giuliani? Not in Iowa. We'll tell you which states he's focusing on, instead.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A stunning signal from Fidel Castro. He's been a powerful figure on the world stage for half a century but aging and unwell, is the Cuban leader finally ready to call it quits? CNN's Shasta Darlington is in Havana.

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, Fidel Castro hasn't made a single appearance in almost a year and a half. Now it sounds like he might be making that retirement official.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

A surprise message from Cuba's ailing leader, Fidel Castro. Before starting his daily talk show, one of Cuba's best-known anchors announced he would read a letter just received from the 81-year-old revolutionary. First, page after page about global warming. Then, something unexpected. "My basic duty is not to cling to office, much less obstruct the rise of younger people," he said. "But to pass on experiences and value arises from the exceptional era in which I lived." A hint that five decades Castro might finally be ready for retirement. That message was repeated throughout the night and reprinted in the newspapers on Tuesday.

But many Cubans seem unfazed 17 months after Castro temporarily handed power over to his younger brother, Raul, to undergo emergency surgery. Castro hasn't made a public appearance since, although he has appeared in dozens of videos and photos. He's also penned more than 60 essays on international topics like biofuels and the war in Iraq.

This is the first time he specifically mentioned his political future. Many Cubans, however, said they hadn't read it. Others said Castro was sending a message. "He sees the time for retirement is coming and giving an opportunity for younger people," she said. Even that reference has caused some confusion given that Raul Castro is only five years younger than Fidel.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DARLINGTON: The letter comes ahead of parliamentary elections in January. After that, deputies will elect a new president of the counsel of state and that's a position that has been held by Fidel Castro since it was first created in 1976. John?

KING: Shasta Darlington in Havana, Fidel Castro now on his tenth U.S. president.

Surgery at sea, a medical emergency aboard a cruise ship, a teenager in bad shape hundreds of miles from help. We'll tell you how a U.S. aircraft carrier came to the rescue.

And he's way back in the pack but republican candidate Ron Paul is suddenly rolling in dough and he turned all that campaign cash into results on that the campaign trail.

And lots of questions being asked about Mike Huckabee's Christmas ad, where there subtle symbols in the background? The candidate answers back. You won't want to miss it.

Stay right here. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Here's a look at Hot Shots coming over from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

In Bahrain, a mass protester runs from tear gas during clashes with riot police.

In Saudi Arabia, empty buses are parked near Mecca. More than 2 million pilgrims gathered there for the annual Islamic pilgrimage the hajj. In Kabul, Afghanistan, a girl carries a chicken on a way to family feast.

And in Rome, a pink flamingo dunks his beak into a pond at the zoo. Look at that. That's this hour's Hot Shots, pictures often worth 1,000 words.

A stunning rescue at sea. A 14-year-old girl's appendix ruptured while she was on a cruise ship hundreds of miles from any hospital. The U.S. navy sped to the rescue. Let's get details from our pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, how did the navy get involved?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, they simply were the closest over the weekend when 14 year-old Laura Montero suffered a ruptured appendix while she was onboard a cruise ship with her family off the coast of Baja, Mexico. You see her here. She is back in San Diego today. The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, which picked her up, is now back in San Diego and has loaded her into an ambulance and taken her to a local hospital. This, of course, after an emergency appendectomy was performed onboard the Ronald Reagan when they got her off that cruise ship. Her mother spoke briefly to reporters when they landed in San Diego earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUDY LAFIELD, LAURA MONTERO'S MOTHER: I really did not want it be left in Mexico with just her. Where we were, we were in the middle of no where in Mexico. We could go back to Cabo and I'm glad they helped us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: A pretty calm mother after all of this. But, John, it was a quite daring rescue. The helicopter, of course, could not land on a cruise ship. There's no room on a cruise ship off the coast of Mexico for a large military rescue helicopter to land, so they flew overhead, lowered a basket and a rescue swimmer onto the deck of the cruise ship, roped her into that basket, lifted her up and flew her off to the Ronald Reagan where they performed that emergency appendectomy over the weekend and then made sail back for San Diego so they could take her to a hospital onshore. She is resting comfortably and is expected to make a full recovery, courtesy of the U.S. navy, John.

KING: That brings a whole new meaning to 911, dial up the U.S. Navy. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon; Barbara, thanks so much.

Time to check back with Jack Cafferty. Hi Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John the question this hour is it going too far when a 10-year-old girl is arrested for bringing a steak knife to school to eat her lunch? She also brought a piece of steak. That's what the knife was for. It was to cut the meat.

Larry in Redondo Beach, California, "I think the problem here is not zero tolerance, rather zero common sense. The wrong person got hauled off by the sheriff. It should have been the teacher who called the law."

Ernie in Ocala, Florida, "As a resident of Ocala, I can qualify your assertion these people are morons. This town is full of them. That's why I bought a boat so I can escape the sick town once in a while."

Dora writes, "Get real Jack. We have 320 million people in this country. We can't make a different rule for every person. The rule is no weapons on school grounds or in school. That's the rule. I'm surprised to a complainer like you encourages people to break the rules."

Brian in Jersey City, "School officials have obviously confused a weapon with a utensil. Perhaps they should look up the difference in a dictionary or encyclopedia, I mean, you know, being a school and all."

Cheryl writes, "What were the parents of the 10-year-old thinking? Why didn't they cut the steak at home and send it in the proper container with the girl to eat at lunchtime. Were the police wrong? Yeah, a little too drastic. But the stupidity of the parents surpasses any measure taken by the school or the police."

Brad writes, "You made the story up, right? Nobody running a school in America is this stupid, are they?"

Joseph writes, "Zero tolerance for weapons? Something isn't a weapon until a person uses it in a harmful way. Desks, books, pencils, pens can all be used as weapons. So should students go to school in an empty-padded room?"

Britney in Alabama, "We can install video cameras, metal detectors and hire as many cops as we want to keep our schools safe, but if someone is insane enough to wreak havoc, they'll find a way. A 10-year-old using a knife to eat lunch, not a threat. Where do these idiots get the idea that arresting a kid is better than simply taking the knife away from her? We're constantly pumping false fear into society."

Bruce in Virginia writes, "Regarding the 10-year-old arrested for cutting meat with a knife at school, if this isn't a case for go vegetarian and nobody gets hurt, I don't know what is."

And Pat writes, "Forget the knife, I have a problem with a 10- year-old having steak for lunch at school. I don't have steak for lunch at home." John?

KING: Go vegetarian and nobody gets hurt. That's a good bumper sticker.

CAFFERTY: There you go.

KING: Interesting case. I suspect the police are getting much grief, more grief than your emails. Thanks, Jack.

Happening now, an Iraq surprise. Condoleezza Rice turns up the diplomatic heat in Baghdad. Her message, the clock is ticking. Did she make any new progress before time runs out?

Plus Bill Clinton tries to recruit the president's dad. Did Bush 41 accept a role in a Hillary Clinton administration? He's not wasting any time giving a response.

And Mike Huckabee's Christmas controversy, he's scoffing in charges that his new ads sends a subliminal message. It's part of a holiday grab bag with the best political team on television.

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