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Controversy About Jimmy Carter's Comments on Israel's Nukes; Bill Clinton's Plea; Obama's V.P. Search; Jumbo Jet Splits in Two

Aired May 26, 2008 - 17:00   ET


Happening now, a new Jimmy Carter controversy -- the former president reportedly gives details about Israel's nuclear arsenal.

The presidential candidates' mix Memorial Day tributes with campaign politics. Barack Obama and John McCain take time from their search for running mates to spar over government benefits.

And China's earthquake blows apart a mountain, dams up a river and creates a dangerous new threat for villagers below. We're on the scene.

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

But we begin this hour with a new controversy centered around former President Jimmy Carter. He's offering up information on Israel's unacknowledged nuclear arsenal.

Let's go live to our White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's watching this story.

Ed, what is the White House saying about Jimmy Carter's reported remarks about Israel's nuclear arsenal?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I spoke to White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino. She would not comment on this. This is obviously an explosive story.

According to the "Times of London," over the weekend at a literary festival, former President Carter basically came out and said that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. That's startling, of course, because Israel is not a declared nuclear power, even though it is widely assumed they do have some nuclear weapons.

The newspaper says that the former president said this in the context of urging the Bush administration to talk directly with Iran, to try to convince Tehran to give up its own thirst for nuclear weapons.

As I mentioned, I reached out to Dana Perino. She would not comment. The State Department not commenting. Also, the Israeli embassy here in Washington. I spoke to an official there. They do not want touch the story, as well.

We've reached out to the Carter Center in Atlanta. They're not commenting at all.

Obviously, this is an extremely sensitive story. Former President Carter has not been in the Oval Office in about 30 years. It's unclear even when was the last time he would have had access to such highly classified intelligence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You were with President Bush, Ed, on his recent visit to Israel, when he was celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary, trying to get this peace process started once again involving the Israelis and the Palestinians.

How did Carter's reported comments about Israel's nuclear arsenal impact this White House strategy?

HENRY: This is why the story is so explosive. This could make someone like Iran say, look, if Israel has 150 nuclear weapons, why shouldn't we be a nuclear power, at a time when the U.S. is trying to make sure that Iran does not get nuclear weapons.

Just in recent months, we've had the story about Israel taking out that site because they thought Syria was trying to get a nuclear weapon. This could lead others in the Mideast to say, look, if Israel has 150 nuclear weapons, if this story is to believed and a U.S. ally has 150 nuclear weapons in that region, then others should have weapons to protect themselves, as well.

It could obviously have enormous ramifications for this White House, as they try to deal with the Mideast diplomatically -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It would nearly -- at least the fear would be reinforced -- those who want to proliferate nuclear weapons, as opposed to those who want to see nonproliferation go forward.

All right, thanks very much.

Ed Henry at the White House watching this story. We'll stay on top of it for ramifications.

Let's get to the race for the White House right now. Bill Clinton once again making news on the campaign trail, with a very emotional appeal to voters and to delegates to not write-off his wife.

Let's to go CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us.

All right, what's going on on this front -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the former president says his wife's campaign is not always getting a fair shot and this time it's not a vast right-wing conspiracy that's to blame. Bill Clinton says every time you turn on the TV, someone is trying to end this race.


WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She'll keep standing up if for you. TODD (voice-over): The former president tells voters to ignore calls by "people on television" for Hillary Clinton to drop out and says she's been getting a raw deal throughout the campaign.

W. CLINTON: And I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen a candidate treated so disrespectfully just for running.

TODD: Pleading for time, he tells an audience in South Dakota his wife still has a chance.

W. CLINTON: Why have all these people tried to run her out of this race?

And they're trying to get her to cry uncle before the Democratic Party has to decide what to do in Florida and Michigan.

TODD: The former president says he also sees an effort afoot to strong-arm undecided superdelegates to make their choice fast.

W. CLINTON: I can't believe it. It's just frantic, the way that they're trying to push and pressure and bully all these superdelegates to come out.

TODD: But her rival, Senator Barack Obama, is taking the high road, praising her at every opportunity.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-I;), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She has set the standard. She has broken through barriers and will open up opportunity for a lot of people, including my two young daughters.

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": Well, he doesn't want her to feel disrespected and her followers to feel that she's been disrespected.

TODD: Will that be enough for Obama to win over her voters if he becomes the Democratic nominee?

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO: And a lot of her supporters, women supporters, feel that she definitely has not been treated respectfully. And they believe that the best sign of respect that Barack Obama could deliver is to pick her as his vice president.


TODD: Now, even Bill Clinton himself reportedly believes if she does not win the nomination, that she has at least earned a shot at the number two slot. But for now, Hillary and Bill Clinton are focused on the top job for her, not the number two slot, campaigning together today in Puerto Rico -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. It seems so much speculation. Every day we're talking about the possibility of an Obama/Clinton ticket.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: How realistic,, based on what you're hearing today, is that, Brian? TODD: Well, you know, it goes back and forth, Wolf. There's been clearly some tension between the two candidates. The spouses have also been involved in that. And then there's also the question of whether a President Obama -- if he gets that far -- would want Vice President Clinton's husband, Bill, in the West Wing, as well, especially given how uncontrollable Bill Clinton has been during the campaign.

But we all know how political calculation can overcome differences like that, like John Kennedy choosing Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan tapping George Bush, Sr. So it could happen.

BLITZER: If he thinks it could help him get elected to the White House, he just might do it. I guess that's the thinking.

All right. Thanks very much, Brian, for that.

There were solemn Memorial Day tributes from the presidential candidates today, mixed with a sharpening political battle on the issue of veterans rights. Barack Obama and John McCain are sparring over a bill to expand educational benefits for veterans. That was at the center of Obama's remarks today.


OBAMA: Number one is what we just talked about, which is making sure that the G.I. Bill for a 21st Century is passed. And although George Bush has threatened to veto it, our intention is to override that veto when it comes back to the House and the Senate, because we should make sure...


OBAMA: ...we should make sure that today's veterans get the same benefit that my grandfather got when he came back from World War II.


BLITZER: All this as the two candidates begin to look at running mates, at least according to sources. Obama's had a lot less to say on that front.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is looking into this story for us.

All right, were does this search stand? It may be premature, but the search is underway, I assume -- Jessica?


CNN has confirmed that a search has already begun for a running mate to fill out a possible Obama ticket. But the campaign is not naming names.


YELLIN (voice-over): The candidate is staying mum. OBAMA: I still have to win a nomination.

YELLIN: But the political world is buzzing with news his search for a running mate is on.

The question on everyone's mind: Will Obama choose one of his primary season rivals, Senator Hillary Clinton or John Edwards?

Each could bring the blue collar vote. But Edwards is said to be more interested in attorney general. And it could be difficult to bury the hatchet with Clinton.

Instead, Obama might woo Clinton's base by running with a Clinton surrogate, who'd help deliver a swing state Obama lost -- Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland or Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. The down side -- none of these candidates has significant national security experience.

Another alternative, appeal to Latino voters by running with the man he's with today, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He has significant foreign policy credentials.

Or Obama could look to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. She's a Democratic Party darling who could attract women voters. But this pick could alienate some Clinton supporters, who'd be angry Obama would run with a woman other than Hillary.

Finally, there are the national security experts who would help with the commander-in-chief test -- Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam vet and former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, brings bipartisan appeal. Senator Chris Dodd, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems to have a good rapport with Obama. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden is also considered a possible secretary of state in an Obama administration.

Others in this category, former NATO commander and Clinton surrogate, General Wesley Clark, or former Senator Sam Nunn, one-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both would bring significant defense experience to the ticket.


YELLIN: And, of course, there are still other names, Wolf, floating around out there. Tom Daschle -- he's an adviser to the campaign and could help with his small town appeal for Obama. Chuck Hagel, a Republican. And Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia. The guessing game is going on all over Washington.

But I'll tell you, as Democrats who have advised past candidates on this choice say that ultimately a nominee selects the vice president less based on their resume and more base on the person with whom that candidate feels most comfortable -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Jessica Yellin reporting. Senator John McCain may be stepping up his own search for a running mate. He hosted several potential candidates at his Arizona ranch over the weekend. They were spotted leaving a nearby restaurant. But the campaign is playing down the get-together.

Meantime, McCain, who spent years as a prisoner of war, spoke today at New Mexico's veterans memorial, noting last year's controversy about shoddy conditions at the nation's largest military hospital. He said it's a stain on the American honor when America forgets to honor its debt to veterans.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Walter Reed scandal recalled, I hope, not just government, but the public who elected it, to our responsibilities to the men and women who risk life and limb to meet their responsibilities to us. Such a disgrace is unworthy of the greatest nation on earth. As the greatest leaders in our history, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, instructed us, care for Americans who fought to defend us should rank among the highest of national priorities.


BLITZER: But McCain defended his opposition to the Democratic bill that would expand educational benefits to veterans. McCain says it would encourage noncommissioned officers to leave the military after three years. He's proposing a sliding scale of benefits based on years served.

They're calling it a scientist's dream -- an American spacecraft touches down on the surface of Mars. Coming up, the machine, the mission and why NASA is so excited about this visit.

It sounds like a good deal in a lot of parts of the country these days -- $3.99 for a gallon of gas. There are thousands of service stations across the country that can't charge more than that. You're going to find out why and who ends up paying.

And it's an image you just have to see to understand -- a 747 jumbo jet broken in half.

What could cause this? Can it happen again?

You're going to hear from an aviation investigator as we try to sort this one out.

Lots of news happening on this Memorial Day right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Take a look at this -- a jumbo jet -- a jumbo jet split in two. This Boeing 747 crashed and broke apart during a botched takeoff.

Let's go back to Brian. He's watching this story for us, as well.

Brian, what happened?

TODD: Well, Wolf, NTSB investigators are on the ground in Belgium assisting local officials in trying to find out that answer. Right now, there are many more questions than answers. So we asked a former investigator for his take.


TODD (voice-over): Split wide open above the wings -- also, cracked near the tail. A Boeing 747 sits well off a runway at Brussels airport, giving few outward clues as to what caused it to break apart.

This section and most of the aircraft fortunately carried only cargo.

JAN VAN DER CRUYSSE, BRUSSELS AIRPORT SPOKESMAN: There were five people on board -- five crew members. None of them was badly hurt.

TODD: The accident Sunday resulted from an aborted takeoff. What's not clear, whether this jet was ever airborne.

Former NTSB Vice Chairman Bob Francis, lead investigator in the TWA Flight 800 explosion, says investigators will be looking at that and the terrain.

BOB FRANCIS, FORMER NTSB VICE CHAIRMAN: If this is some kind of a banking or a berm here, then it may be that it started to -- if he rejected the takeoff and was still on the ground, he may have come along, started to come up on this and the nose broke off. And that would also explain what -- the way that the tail broke.

Now, if he was airborne, did the airplane stall? Did he try to put it down too hard?

TODD: A source at Kalitta Air, the Michigan based cargo carrier which owns the plane, would not confirm or deny several news reports saying there was a car on board, among other items, belonging to U.S. diplomats.

(on camera): Could the automobile's presence on board that plane have caused this at all, in the shifting weight?

FRANCIS: I think very unlikely.

What does a -- what does a car weigh?

Two or three thousand out of 76,000. It doesn't -- it's not anymore likely to cause something than any other heavy piece of equipment or cargo that hasn't been properly stowed.

TODD (voice-over): Francis says an unsecured crate would have been just as likely to cause a shift in weight that might have prompted an aborted takeoff.


TODD: Now, a source at Kalitta Air tells CNN the aircraft was carrying roughly 76 tons of cargo and says the plane was not overloaded. The official there told us the length of the runway at Brussels was 9,800 feet. Bob Francis says none of that is cause for concern at the moment and that at 10,000 feet, that runway is plenty long enough for a plane carrying that cargo at that weight. The problem, he says, is this embankment -- how steep was it, how hard did the plane hit it, at what angle did it hit the embankment here and at what of momentum, Wolf. That is the key question right at the moment.

BLITZER: And you were saying this plane was almost 30 years old.

Is that a factor?

TODD: That's right. It could be a factor. The plane was delivered in 1980. That could be one factor in this accident. But right now, there are a lot of planes out there that are older than that, so it may not be a factor. There was no history of safety problems with this particular airplane.

BLITZER: Have there been some other close calls, though?

TODD: Well, on the ground, in this particular incident, this plane stopped -- came to a stop only a few feet from a railway line and only a few hundred yards from a housing development. On the ground in Belgium, it was a very close call.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much for that very disturbing story.

Some are calling it a scientists' dream come true -- a flood of images pouring in from the surface of Mars thanks to NASA's Phoenix lander.

Let's go to CNN's Miles O'Brien.

He's over at the Jet Propulsion Lab -- Miles, what are these pictures that you're about to show us?

Explain what's going on.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CHIEF TECHNOLOGY & ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, the really -- the stunning picture of the day didn't come from the Phoenix lander, it came from a NASA orbiter that was training its camera at the lander as it streaked in for a landing.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): Here's a picture you've never seen before -- that is the Phoenix Mars lander moments before landing, plummeting toward the surface, its parachute in full bloom. The image comes from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter whizzing overhead during the landing.

BARRY GOLDSTEIN, PHOENIX PROJECT MANAGER: This is an engineer's delight. O'BRIEN: Engineers ordered up the image in case they needed some evidence after another crash. Instead, they got an unprecedented picture of a robot on final approach to Mars.

STEVE SQUYRES, MARS ROVERS SCIENTIST: It's a space geek's delight. I mean anybody who has any appreciation for the complexity of what they do here at NASA and JPL has got to be just amazed by that shot.

O'BRIEN: Meanwhile, the science team is getting the lay of the Martian land -- swiveling an eagle-eyed stereo camera in all directions to build a good panorama of the hard, frozen tundra.

PETER SMITH, PHOENIX LEAD SCIENTIST: The pictures may look a little bleak, but the science can be absolutely fascinating.

O'BRIEN: The most fascinating features are these indentations that interlace the turf. Scientists are fairly certain these are covered cracks created by water ice. Digging into one of them is a primary goal of the mission.

SQUYRES: What you do is you take it, scoop it up. You put it into this remarkable set of instruments on the deck of the lander and then start taking that stuff apart and see what's in it.

O'BRIEN: The hope is the ice has preserved organic compounds -- molecules with carbon, which are an essential ingredient to life. The Phoenix mission itself has a limited life. The temperature there is now 27 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and it's summer. By the time the long dark winter begins, it will all be over.

GOLDSTEIN: We're going to operate until Mars freezes over.


O'BRIEN: Now, Phoenix is supposed to last 90 days. But the team here believes they can probably eke that out to 150 days before the light becomes so dim that these solar rays will not be able to generate enough power. It's going to be a very busy three to five months for the team, Wolf.

The first order of business after they kind of assess the surroundings there, they're going to flex their arm -- get this 7.7- foot arm out there and start really digging into that tough Martian tundra. And maybe, just maybe, Wolf, we'll find something out about the search for life outside our planet.

BLITZER: Wouldn't that be good?

That would be excellent.

Miles, thanks very much for that.

Miles O'Brien on the scene for us on this important story.

You might remember that back in 2004, President Bush announced in his State of the Union address an initiative to put a man back on the moon by 2020 and eventually on Mars. NASA has no specific plans for a manned mission to Mars. But the successful landing of Phoenix is widely seen as a significant step, potentially, in that direction. It's the first successful Mars landing using legs and thrusters since the last Viking mission back in 1976.

Since then, NASA has used massive air bags to cushion spacecraft. But a manned mission will require legs and thrusters and a whole lot more than that.

Half of a small Midwestern town is in ruins -- just the latest victim in a string of devastating storms this tornado season. This one claimed lives in two states.

Plus, less than a week after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, Ted Kennedy is out on the water. You're going to find out what he's saying about his sailing adventure.

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


BLITZER: Carol Costello is monitoring some other stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Carol, what's going on?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, take a look at this utter devastation. This is Parkersburg, Iowa. You'll see it in a second here. It took a direct hit from a tornado last night. At least six people with killed here, 222 homes destroyed, another 200 damaged. Twenty-one businesses and city hall also wiped out. The same severe weather struck Minnesota's Twin Cities area, killing a 2-year-old.

A grizzly finding in Orange County, California. Five badly decomposed bodies were found inside of a home in a wealthy gated community. Police say it's a family -- a middle-aged man and woman, two young women and an older woman in her 70s. Handguns registered to the middle-aged woman were found near the bodies, but it's unclear how they died.

"It couldn't be a more wonderful day" -- Senator Ted Kennedy's words as he sailed from Nantucket to his hometown of Hyannisport today. Kennedy took part in a regatta that was planned long before his brain cancer diagnosis last week. Family and friends, including Senator Chris Dodd, were also on board, with Kennedy at the helm the entire way.

Back to you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nice to see that.

Thank you very much, Carol, for that story and all the news.

It's not just about the issues -- you're going to find out the important role emotion plays in the race for the White House and which candidate has the advantage.

Also, Fidel Castro -- not Raul, Fidel -- offers his opinion of Barack Obama. We'll have details on what the former Cuban leader says about some of the candidate's proposals and propaganda.

And find out why some gas station owners are being forced to sell at a discount whether they like it or not.

Stay with us.



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

Happening now, the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is holding back on information that could help determine whether the country is trying to make nuclear weapons. The nine page report obtained by CNN will be presented to the IAEA's board of governors a week from today.

Lebanon's new president says there needs to be a dialogue about the future of Hezbollah's weapons. The group refuses to disarm, saying it needs an arsenal to protect Lebanon from Israel.

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

If Hillary Clinton can't figure out a way to solve her delegate math problem, the presidential contest will come down to two very different men who appeal to very different emotions.

Let's bring back Carol. She's looking at this story.

We know policy issues are important. We don't often hear about the emotional factor.

COSTELLO: Yes. You know, Wolf, it's true. It's not like voters don't care about the issues. They do. But the feeling you get about a candidate can be powerful -- at times so powerful, it can knock the issues off the table.


COSTELLO: It's a powerful tool often overlooked by pundits -- emotion. It isn't a 12-point plan that sells a candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Improvement of our agricultural laws.

COSTELLO: It's his or her ability to touch voters emotionally. Analysts say Barack Obama has that down.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are offering the politics of the future. We are tired of the politics of fear. We're going to offer the politics of hope. COSTELLO: Drew Westen who wrote the "Political Brain" says if the race comes down to Obama versus McCain, McCain may have a hard time of it.

DREW WESTEN, EMORY UNIVERSITY: The hard thing for him is, I think, the same problem Hillary had against Obama which is the man is just so damned inspiring it's really difficult to out inspire him. You have to find some other kind of emotional tug that you can get to people with.

COSTELLO: Westen says McCain has found it. His emotional tug comes from attributes many Americans see in themselves, a maverick, yet kind style, courage, strength. In short McCain, is using the politics of patriotism. All are on display when McCain talks of the Iraq war.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Though my duty is neither dangerous nor onerous it compels me nonetheless to say to my fellow Americans, as long as we have the opportunity to succeed, we must try to succeed. And I firmly believe that with the continued right course of action, we will succeed.

COSTELLO: The big question for both candidates is which emotion will tug harder at America's heart strings, the politics of patriotism or the politics of hope? Westen says so far it seems Obama is strumming the right tune.

WESTEN: What he can do with people is something that very few people can do. He can pack a hall filled with 15,000 or 75,000 people and have them leaving feeling fired up and excited and enthusiastic.

COSTELLO: Don't count McCain's brand of emotionalism out. Polls show he's losing to Obama in a head to head match up but not by much.


COSTELLO: Again, it's not as if Americans don't care about specific plans to fix the country. As Westen says, when you go to that voting booth the most important factor for many of us is what kind of person will lead the country.

BLITZER: He's right. That does have a huge impact. Who do you want to spend some time with? What would you rather have a beer with, for example.

COSTELLO: Who's most like you?

BLITZER: That's a factor in these contests. We all know that. Thanks very much Carol for that report.

John McCain keeps saying things will be different when he's in charge. If he makes it to the White House he's promised a more open white house. Here's CNN's special correspondent Frank Sesno.

Frank? FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as the presidential contest sharpens, the candidates are trying to draw combinations not just about what they do but how they do it. John McCain, for example, after 25 years in Washington has some big ideas about how he'd change the nature of the presidency itself.


SESNO: Imagine what it would be like if John McCain delivered on his promise to be more accessible and more accountable, a president who'd practically be his own press secretary.

MCCAIN: I will hold weekly press conferences.

SESNO: A chief executive who'd go to congress not just to make speeches but --

MCCAIN: To take questions and address criticism.

SESNO: A leader who'd even admit to being wrong.

MCCAIN: When we make errors, I'll confess them readily.

SESNO: What if an American president did all that? It would be quite a departure. I'm wrong doesn't seem to be in George Bush's vocabulary, Bill Clinton admitted error only when forced, neither much liked talking to the press and no president has ever submitted to a regular public congressional grilling.

McCain says he'd set a new standard for accountability. But what if congress uses its question time to openly challenge, cajole and even, heaven for bid, try to set the agenda. With the media and all that access, what if it fixates on hunting for the confession? With the public expecting candor, what if it gets a no comment? It's inevitable to national security McCain might say or executive privilege. The blogosphere would go into hypocrite hyperdrive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This nation will remain a neutral nation.

SESNO: From Roosevelt to Reagan.

FMR. PRES. RONALD REAGAN: Go ahead, make my day.

SESNO: Bush to Bush, changing times and technologies have driven modern presidents to continually recalibrate their media and political access.

McCain's idea could be a good thing or it could backfire. It could redefine the bully pulpit. Or turn the commander in chief into background noise.


SESNO: One thing's for sure. If McCain were to do what he says he would do it would be a significant departure from the way George Bush has done business. His administration has not exactly been considered accessible in congress or critics say it hasn't been accountable. That contrast isn't lost on John McCain either.


BLITZER: Frank, thank you; Frank Sesno reporting.

World leaders have a big interest in whoever becomes the next president of the United States. Now Fidel Castro is making his feelings clear. What he says about McCain and Obama. That's coming up.

A new threat in China. A brand-new lake formed by an earthquake and it's growing by six feet every day. We have the satellite photos. What it's like for the people on the ground.

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


BLITZER: Barack Obama has said he'd be willing to meet with Cuba's new president Raul Castro but brother Fidel, the former president, seems underwhelmed by Obama's offer. CNN's Shasta Darlington is in Havana.

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Fidel Castro himself weighed in on the U.S. presidential race. In a newspaper column published today, he called Barack Obama the most advanced candidate in the running but he also criticized him for vowing to keep the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Castro said the near 50-year-old embargo was a formula for hunger. He said Obama's proposals to ease restrictions on family visits and on money being sent to relatives on the island would just make it easier to spread U.S. propaganda. Obama has also said he would be willing to eventually meet with Cuba's new president, Raul Castro. But his elder brother Fidel didn't comment on that offer.

Fidel Castro hasn't been seen in public since July 2006 when he temporarily handed power to his brother. State media has released videos and photos of the ailing leader. Three months ago Raul Castro officially assumed the presidency. But Fidel Castro has kept busy writing newspaper articles. Obama hasn't been the only subject of those writings. He's had plenty of harsh words for John McCain.


BLITZER: Shasta, thank you; Shasta Darlington in Havana for us.

They've been nicknamed quake lakes. And they're posing a growing threat in China. The tremendous earthquake two weeks ago triggered massive landslides and look what happened. They wound up blocking rivers and creating lakes that are rapidly filling up and threatening catastrophic floods. CNN's Hugh Riminton has more.


HUGH RIMINTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What force of nature blows apart a mountain to leave a new mountain of debris big enough to dam a river and create a new lake already 70 meters deep? Buried beneath this are a road, houses, a small hydroplant. The experts say the lake is rising two meters a day and at that rate, even without rain, within a week the water will begin to spill over the top. And perhaps cause this dam to burst. Chen Faxiu was two kilometers upstream when the mountain exploded.

CHEN FAXIU, EARTHQUAKE SURVIVOR (through translator): I heard the rumble of it. I rushed outside and everything suddenly went dark with the dust.

RIMINTON: She lost everything.

FAXIU (through translator): I can't speak about this without crying.

RIMINTON: The lake now stretches back five kilometers. It is drowning the now abandoned villages where, until two weeks ago, 8,000 people lived. She and her husband want to get back before it's too late to see if there's anything to be saved. And suddenly, their hope arrives. For ten days, sometimes with his father, Lee Ping has made two trips a day up river on homemade rafts.

We have evacuated more than 200 people on these rafts. In the last two days he says he has also retrieved five bodies floating in the water. Today he's returning with what he salvaged from his own home. Chen Faxiu begs him to make another journey back, but he's reluctant. He has a long way to carry all that he has saved from his own life. Meanwhile, Lee Ping's father has now volunteered to return up river and he will take Chen's husband.

It is a dangerous journey and it's already mid afternoon. It'll be nightfall before they get up to where the villages are. Yet this is a trip they believe they must take for the man to go and see what's left of his house to see what he can retrieve, for the soldiers to see for themselves what the situation is up river. The waters are placid but it's a flimsy vessel in a place of prime evil force. No one trusts anymore here the water or the earth beneath them.

Hugh Riminton, CNN, on the river in China.


BLITZER: China's bending its one child rule for earthquake victims. The provincial population and family planning committee says parents whose only child was killed, severely injured or disabled in the quake can now get a certificate to have another child.

He was a star football player and a soldier who died because of friendly fire. Pat Tillman's dead has always been shrouded in questions. My one on one interview with his mom coming up on this Memorial Day.

Plus, $3.99 for a tank of -- for a gallon of gas. Thousands of gas stations across the country don't have a choice. You're going to find out why. Right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: President Bush today marked Memorial Day by placing a wreath at the tomb of the unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery where he said broken hearts have received the broken bodies of troops killed in far away lands. President grew very emotional as he paid tribute to the fallen.

PRES. GEORGE BUSH, UNITED STATES: On this Memorial Day, I stand before you as the commander in chief and try to tell you how proud I am of the sacrifice and service of the men and women who wear our uniform. They're an awesome bunch of people and the United States is blessed to have such citizens.

BLITZER: And on this Memorial Day, a look back at the controversial death of Pat Tillman, the former pro football star who was killed in Afghanistan while serving as a U.S. army ranger.

And joining us now, Mary Tillman, the author of a brand-new book entitled "Boots on the Ground by Dusk," the story of her son Pat Tillman killed four years ago in what's been described as a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan.

Mary, first of all, our condolences to you and to your family. All of us are familiar with the story. But are you convinced even now that you know the full circumstances surrounding your son's death?

MARY TILLMAN, MOTHER OF PAT TILLMAN: Well, not exactly. I don't think we feel we have every -- every possible question answered. But I think we've pieced together to the best of our ability that pat's death was the cause of gross negligence on the part of the soldiers in the vehicle.

BLITZER: U.S. soldiers where he was on patrol in Afghanistan?

TILLMAN: That's right. Yes.

BLITZER: And define gross negligence to us.

TILLMAN: Well, according to the first investigative officer that did the investigation, within 24 hours of his death, he said that he -- after getting testimony from the soldiers that were present, that the soldiers acted very negligently. They were firing at soldiers that were waving their arms, trying to get their attention to stop. They were shooting randomly on the ridge line. They shot at buildings that were housing women and children. In fact, they were shooting so carelessly and irresponsibly they nearly shot the soldiers in the vehicle coming out of the canyon behind them.

BLITZER: Let me read from the book this paragraph.

"It is a concern that both of us that local Afghans keep reporting to U.S. and foreign press there was no enemy in the area when Pat was killed. Yet there are witnesses who state enemy were firing on the unit. I wonder if it's possible the ambush was staged. I wonder if Pat was killed on purpose." And a few times in the book you use the word murder. I want you to explain what you're suggesting. TILLMAN: Well, of course, this book was written in the present tense. It was written so the reader could understand the kind of contradictions that we were being faced with and why it was so confusing and disturbing to us. There were points along the way in the last four years that we were concerned that pat may have been killed deliberately just because of the circumstances, you know, evaluated in the documents. I think we've come to the conclusion, though, that that is not the case. But there were points along the way that we thought possibly, you know, he could have been killed on purpose. I mean, the families need to be very vigilant on behalf of their soldier.

BLITZER: He was a great football player, gave up that career to serve in the military after 9/11, gave up a huge sum of money that he was making. We all remember him very, very fondly. Leave us with one final thought about your son, Pat.

TILLMAN: Well, I would say that, you know, Pat liked life. He liked living life and he tried especially in his adult years to live with a great deal of integrity. I think hopefully in the future the military and, you know, the leaders and the administration will start acting with a lot more integrity.

BLITZER: Mary Tillman is the author of the book, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk." Mary, once again, our condolences to you. Thanks for sharing some thoughts on this Memorial Day weekend.

TILLMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

BLITZER: A quick marriage ceremony. Then off to war. That's a common scenario. Except this time they both went off to war and their lives were turned upside down. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has the story of a couple starting over.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: 23-year-old sergeant Mary Dague married her army sweetheart, 22-year-old specialist Jared Tillery in a justice of the peace ceremony in 2006, just before they both deployed to Baghdad. Life changed last November.

SGT. MARY DAGUE, WOUNDED IRAQ VETERAN: I hear this huge gong sound. Everything goes black. And I remember hitting something. It was a humvee. And I'm laying there. And I start to hear this woman screaming as the gonging sound is going away. She just keeping screaming and screaming. And then I slowly realize it's me. I couldn't feel myself screaming.

STARR: A bomb destroyed Mary's arms.

SPEC. JARED TILLERY, HUSBAND OF WOUNDED VETERAN: I didn't know how to feel. I didn't know whether to cry or, you know, part of me is, you know, scared to death because she got hurt. The other part is happy she's still alive. All I wanted to do was just get to her and see her and everything. STARR: Within hours, Mary was air lifted out of Iraq, Jared at her side. Jared now takes care of everything for Mary. There have been many low times.

DAGUE: I had this break down where I was like, why me? And I started screaming and crying. And I hated it. I hated everything.

TILLERY: It's kind of hard to think sometimes that I am 22. I feel like I should be older in a way.

STARR: They still both grieve for Jesse Jared's 19-year-old brother killed in Iraq just before Mary was injured.

TILLERY: I was less than a year from my little brother and everything. It was just all too much.

STARR: The couple is now planning a formal wedding. Mary is trying to find a dress that will make her feel beautiful.

DAGUE: I would like just checking out different things like what a prosthetic look in this or should I go without my prosthesis. I found one that I adore. The front is white with just a baby blue front on the top. It's -- you know, it was like my perfect wedding dress. I saw it, and I was like, oh, god, I wish I would look good in that.

STARR: Barbara Starr, CNN, Brook Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas.


BLITZER: If you'd like to comment on this story go to Send us your thoughts.

They charge more if they could, but they just can't. You're going to find out what's forcing some gas stations to give you major discounts against their will.

Plus, we'll take you inside Hillary Clinton's final Puerto Rico push. We're live in San Juan.

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


BLITZER: Highway travelers have had to pay record breaking gas prices this holiday weekend. Keep on the lookout. Some of the older mom and pop style gas station owners are offering some big discounts. But the secret is getting out.

Let's go to Jim Acosta. He is watching this story for us.

What's going on? Explain, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the owners of this gas station out on Long Island are offering their gas at a steep discount. Not because they want to, mind you, but because they have to.


ACOSTA: On car crazy Long Island, where living near the water means paying through the hood for fuel, a gas price oasis lies on the horizon, which is why they're lining up to fill her up at this mom and pop gas station in the town of Norfolk. Owner Vic Beeman showed us the secret is under the hood. The gears that manually adjust the price inside these old pumps can't be set to higher than $4 a gallon.

VIC BEEMAN, STATION OWNER: They were designed to go about 25 cents, 35 cents. Now when it got to 3.99 the machines don't know what to do anymore.

ACOSTA: The price is locked in at 24 cents lower than the competitor a block away. This owner topped off a tank in one vehicle then went home and brought back the other car.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I probably saved about $5, $6 today at least.

ACOSTA: Filling up both cars?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Filling up both cars today.

ACOSTA: The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the savings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is going to be the last time we'll pay this.

ACOSTA: You think so? You think it's going to go back down?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's probably going it's only going to go up.

ACOSTA: Even with the discount, some drivers still feel taken for a ride. This family says the savings here are just going elsewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It goes for food because food has gotten out of control.

BEEMAN: This is old school technology.

ACOSTA: Even though this station plans to install the new computerized pumps, some quaint traditions will endure.

What's with the nine tenths of the price here?

BEEMAN: It means absolutely nothing. It means nothing. It just looks pretty.


ACOSTA: And the trade association we contacted says only 5% of the pumps out there still use this old technology. Not enough to affect the bottom line. BLITZER: So who's losing money when all is said and done, Jim?

ACOSTA: Well, we asked the owners, and they're still making their commission off of every gallon of gas they sell and the suppliers, frankly there aren't enough of these pumps out here to make a big difference.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

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

Happening now, Memorial Day and presidential politics. John McCain and Barack Obama in the same state, and at odds, serious odds, over veterans' benefits.