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U.S. War Against Pirates; Rescued Captain Takes Detour; New 'Border Czar' for Obama Administration

Aired April 15, 2009 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, pirates seek revenge on Americans just days after a dramatic hostage crisis on the high seas. This hour, the latest attack and a new U.S. vow to fight pirates tooth and nail.

The president vows to take the dread out of Tax Day on this April 15th. What do the Obamas owe the IRS? We're going to find out this hour.

And are some celebrities getting away with being tax deadbeats?

And he was booted as the Illinois governor, and he's under indictment for corruption. Now Rod Blagojevich is facing another kind of wilderness on a reality TV show.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Turning into a full-fledged war against pirates seeking blood, treasure and revenge off the coast of Africa, a U.S. freighter loaded with food aid is under Navy guard right now after escaping a new attack by Somali pirates. Pirates have seized four ships and more than 75 hostages since Sunday's dramatic rescue of a U.S. freighter captain.

Just a short while ago, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, renewed America's vow to bring gangs at sea to justice.

Let's go to our Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence. He's working the story for us.

Lots of developments today. The U.S. trying to send a strong signal that it's getting tougher.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We have heard some very tough talk from President Obama, right on through the administration, and even from some members of Congress.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ike Skelton, sent a letter to the president urging him to get out of the waters where the Navy is currently patrolling and to take the fight directly to the pirates' safe havens. Skelton writes and tells the president that he believes we know where they are operating, and Skelton says we even know the names of some of the pirates who are organizing some of these attacks.

That also was done in conjunction with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said today that under no circumstances does the U.S. negotiate with pirates or make any kind of ransom payments. And she also had some tough words about what's coming next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States does not make concessions or ransom payments to pirates. What we will do is first send an envoy to attend the international Somali peacekeeping and development meeting scheduled in Brussels. The solution to Somali piracy includes improved Somali capacity to police their own territory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE: Secretary of State Clinton also talked about this Friday, a very important group getting together -- Justice, Defense, the State Department, the intelligence community -- all coming together as a group to try to figure out ways to respond to the pirates.

BLITZER: There's this claim that the pirates are making against this U.S. ship, the Liberty, that this was revenge, if you will, and they're trying to destroy U.S. ships.

What do they make of that?

LAWRENCE: Well, you know, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, says he is fully aware, the military is fully aware of what these pirates have said following that attack. But I talked to another defense official today who said it really doesn't matter how the pirates frame it. If they take a certain action, it will elicit a certain response on the military's part.

He also was questioning whether some of these individual pirates really speak for a larger group and whether this particular attack really was just out of revenge. He said it's easy for the pirates to frame it that way after it's been unsuccessful and they have been turned away.

BLITZER: All right, Chris. Stand by. We're going to get back to you at the Pentagon. There are new developments unfolding.

Crew members of the ship seized by pirates last week are now heading back to the United States, but they had to leave without their rescued captain, Richard Phillips.

CNN's David McKenzie is covering the pirate saga for us in Mombasa, Kenya -- David.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, everyone in Mombasa is keenly awaiting the arrival of the USS Bainbridge, the U.S. missile destroyer that has been central to this tale of so many twists and turns. Aboard, we expect Captain Richard Phillips. Now, he is the captain who was central to this whole story.

He was aboard the Maersk Alabama that was attacked last week by pirates. He was then taken hostage by those pirates on a small lifeboat, and he was held there for five days. The U.S. Navy then deployed snipers which took out those pirates, and he was safely taken to the USS Bainbridge.

He was expected here in Mombasa earlier today to be reunited with his crew from the Maersk Alabama. They had been resting and relaxing at a beach resort here in mombasa.

But in a cruel twist of fate, the USS Bainbridge was involved in yet another piracy incident. The Liberty Sun, a bulk carrier with a U.S. flag and around 20 U.S. sailors, was attacked by pirates.

The pirates came with RPG rocket launchers and automatic weapons, and attacked that ship for hours, apparently, and the crew hid in the engine room. After a while, the pirates gave up, but the USS Bainbridge was scrambled to the scene. Aboard that ship, obviously, Captain Phillips. So he was not able to reunite with his crew. They were sent on a charter flight back to the U.S., and some of the crew expressed disappointment but said they can't wait to meet their captain again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you happy to see Captain Phillips?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, I can't wait to see him. That's going to be huge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We really can't wait to see him. Everybody's dying to finally get him back. He's been through a lot.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCKENZIE: So now everyone is waiting for Captain Phillips to return to Mombasa on that U.S. ship.

But still, piracy continues unabated. At least four ships have been taken successfully in these past few days. And also, the navies are taking a more aggressive approach off the coastline.

The French navy saying they captured 11 pirates right here off the coast of Kenya. They deployed a helicopter to stop a pirate attack and then tracked those pirates towards shore and attacked them and captured them early this morning.

People feel that especially with this piracy on the rise, the only solution might be found on the shore of Somalia, but that certainly is a dangerous place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, David. Thanks very much.

David McKenzie is reporting from Mombasa.

On this April 15th, the president, President Obama, is making his tax returns public, and he's promising that on his watch, the IRS deadline day will become less of a hassle.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want every American to know that we will rewrite the tax codes, that it puts your interests over any special interests. And we'll make it easier, quicker and less expensive for you to file a return so that April 15th is not a date that is approached with dread every year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Obamas, by the way, will be releasing their tax returns shortly. We're standing by this hour to bring you the tax returns. As soon as we get them, we'll share with you how much the Obamas made last year, how much they gave in charity, and all that kind of information, as we do every year when a president and a vice president, when they release their income tax returns.

On this April 15th, residents of some states are feeling the tax bite more than others, particularly in the Northeast. A nonpartisan research group estimates people have the biggest tax burden in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, paying a rate of 11 percent or higher in state and local taxes. The Tax Foundation says Alaska has the lowest tax burden, 6.4 percent, followed by Nevada and Wyoming. Those states do not charge state income tax.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I left Nevada, where they have no state income tax. I now live in New Jersey and work in New York.

BLITZER: What's wrong with this picture?

CAFFERTY: Painful.

Yet another sign that when economic times are tough, things can get ugly. A new report suggests that right wing extremism may be on the rise in this country.

The Department of Homeland Security says these groups might be using the recession and the election of the country's first African- American president as tools to recruit new members. They say there's no specific information on planned violence by domestic right wing terrorists, but real estate foreclosures, unemployment and tight credit call all lead to a fertile recruiting environment. There's even the possibility of confrontation between these groups and government authorities. The reports says many right-wing extremists are antagonistic toward President Obama and his perceived policies on issues like immigration, expanding social programs to minorities, and restrictions on owning guns. It also points to concerns about anti-Semitism, saying that some people are blaming the loss of jobs in this country and home foreclosures on a conspiracy plan by a "cabal of Jewish financial elites." The report cites lone wolves and small terrorist cells as the biggest threats because their low profile makes it hard to catch them before they do something awful.

The Southern Poverty Law Center agrees that President Obama's election may have boosted membership in some of these groups but questions the link to the economy.

Meanwhile, at least one conservative radio talk show host suggests this report is meant to step on free speech and First Amendment rights, which the Department of Homeland Security of course denies. And it's worth noting that the Obama administration also issued a warning about left wing extremists. That was in January.

Here's the question: What should be done about a potential increase in right-wing extremism?

Go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

Did you file your taxes, Wolf?

BLITZER: I did. I e-filed them. Do you e-file or do you the old-fashioned post office?

CAFFERTY: No, no, no. I got some guy with nine pencils and a green visor that takes care of it for me.

BLITZER: Me too.

CAFFERTY: Shifty Finkel (ph), my accountant.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right.

Murder and mayhem in America's back yard. The homeland security chief doesn't think she can fight drug violence alone, but does she really need a new border czar?

Plus a charitable effort to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina tainted by potentially dangerous drywall.

And it's the story almost everyone is talking about. A contestant on a British reality show becomes an unlikely star.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PIERS MORGAN, "BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT": When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said, "I want to be like Elaine Paige," everyone was laughing at you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Murders, kidnappings, drugs -- this man now has a lot in his hands. Today, Alan Bersin becomes the new border czar, partly responsible for stopping the drug-fueled violence along the U.S./Mexican border and fighting illegal immigration.

The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano announced the new appointment.

Our Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve is here with details -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, some people are asking why Janet Napolitano, a former border governor, even needs a border czar. After all, she controls the entire homeland security apparatus. Well, the goal is better focus, better coordination, and hopefully better results.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): Illegal immigrants and drugs coming north, money and guns moving south, and violence, these are the issues the new border czar Alan Bersin will grapple with.

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: You need to be able to have someone to help coordinate those efforts and to ensure that everything we are doing is designed to strengthen our security and trade partnership with Mexico.

MESERVE: As Attorney General Janet Reno's southwest border representative during the Clinton administration, immigrant rights advocates say Bersin's hard-knuckle tactics drove illegal aliens to make dangerous desert crossings. Others say Bersin is an excellent pick with a big overarching challenge in U.S./Mexico relations.

STEWART BAKER, FMR. DHS POLICY CHIEF: Politics on both sides. There will be suspicions about our interests and our motives, and there will be suspicions about whether the Mexican government can carry out it's promises.

MESERVE: In recent years, the number of border patrol agents has doubled, 618 miles of boarder fence has been built, sensors and drones have been deployed. One expert says Bersin needs to take a different approach.

EDWARD ALDEN, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: We assume that the solution to every issue on the border is to ramp up enforcement, and we have been ramping up enforcement. We have done it very substantially in the last three, four years. And yet, the problems continue to get worse.

MESERVE: Bersin has already taken one thing off the table -- troops on the border.

ALAN BERSIN, BORDER CZAR: We should always be careful to be operating within a very sound constitutional tradition that's served us well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: In Washington, special czars have a history of being ineffective, but because Bersin is inside the Department of Homeland Security and will report directly to the secretary on a high priority issue, some analysts think he has a better chance at success -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They're going to have to find a new word for czar. Too many czars out there.

MESERVE: I know it. I know it.

BLITZER: You know? That's -- maybe that's just me.

MESERVE: And how inappropriate for our democracy, too.

BLITZER: Right. I agree totally.

Thanks very much, Jeanne, for that.

President Obama's preparing to travel to Latin America and the Caribbean. Tomorrow he's in Mexico. On Friday, he's off to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. There are several important items on his agenda.

Our Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider is joining us now.

Bill, are Americans divided over Mexico?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, they are, Wolf, and in a surprising way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Americans look at Mexico and see big problems -- drug wars, gun violence, border security, illegal immigration.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Earlier today, the president designated three Mexican organizations under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

SCHNEIDER: The issues affect everybody.

DORIS MEISSNER, MIGRATION POLICY INST.: Drugs, violence, immigration, these are things that we are all experiencing in our daily lives.

SCHNEIDER: But the American public is divided over Mexico. Just over half of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mexico. Nearly half have a negative opinion. Is it the traditional red/blue divide? To some extent, yes.

Most liberals have a positive view of Mexico. Most conservatives are negative. But it's not just left versus right. It's also the new America versus the older America.

The differences by age are striking. Positive opinion of Mexico drops steadily as age increases.

Two-thirds of Americans under 35 have a favorable opinion of Mexico. Among Americans 35 to 50 years old, 53 percent have a positive opinion. A slight majority of Americans 50 to 64 have a negative opinion of Mexico. Among people 65 and older, more than 60 percent are unfavorable.

Why?

MEISSNER: Close ties that exist between Mexico and the United States have been increasing dramatically in recent years, and those would be relationships that younger people would have experienced in their daily relationships in schools and in neighborhoods and in workplaces.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Younger voters are President Obama's base. Friendship with Mexico is likely to play to that base. But he's the president of all Americans, so he has to take a tough line on issues like drug violence and illegal immigration that all Americans care about -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Bill Schneider. Appreciate it.

Guess who's accused of being a tax cheat? Our reporter is knocking on doors and some of your favorite celebrities are accused of not paying their taxes.

And a scandal that left him in disgrace, played out on TV. So why not become a reality TV star? Apparently, that's what the former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, is thinking.

He wants to star in a show entitled "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: They're serving up tea and anger. There are protesters out there on the streets during these so-called tea parties. More on what they're railing against and the different ways the news media are covering it.

And if you're struggling in this economy, who are you going to call? You might never guess who's helping out everyday Americans with their everyday bills.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, a new warning about extremists within the United States. The government says right-wing radicals may be exploiting fears about the economy and other issues to gain new recruits. Political conservatives are outraged by the report. You're going to hear why.

Women turning against women in Afghanistan. The source of their fury? A new law that critics say legalizes rape. Some women support the law. Today they lashed out at female protesters in Kabul.

And the case of an American journalist charged with spying in Iran. We'll talk to a man who was also accused of espionage by Tehran. He says there's a very clear motive behind this arrest.

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

Time is running out. If you hope to beat the tax filing deadline, you only have a few hours left.

This week, CNN has been giving you the real deal on your taxes, digging deep to give you the facts about what you are paying and where the money is going. On this Tax Day, did you know that some famous celebrities are wanted for allegedly not paying taxes?

CNN's Dan Simon is in San Francisco -- Dan.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a list you do not want to be on. It contains California's most wanted taxpayers. The list published annually is meant to publicly shame the worst offenders in the state.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON (voice-over): Burt Reynolds is on it. So is singer Dionne Warwick. Sinbad, too.

They made California's list of the 250 most delinquent taxpayers. The list is published annually by law. Lawmakers thought it would motivate people to settle up.

But does it really work?

BRENDA VOGT, CALIF. FRANCHISE TAX BOARD: Actually, it has. We have collected over $14 million this year based on this current list and our activities, and letting people know that they were potentially going to be on the list.

SIMON: But unless they're celebrities, chances are you would not recognize the rest of the names.

Who ranks number one? His name, Winson T. Lee, a self-described investor and owner of apartments. According to the state, he owes nearly $10 million. He lives in this house outside of San Francisco.

No one came to the door. And he wasn't at this apartment complex either that he owns. But to our surprise, Lee was OK talking to us when I reached him on the phone.

(on camera): When you saw that you were number one on the list, what did you think?

WINSON T. LEE, OWES $10 MILLION IN TAXES: I was embarrassed.

SIMON (voice-over): Lee admitted to us that he hasn't filed any tax returns for the last 10 to 15 years. He says he knows he's wrong and likened it to some kind of illness.

LEE: I think my illness is my inability to deal with this -- you know, tax season every year, and to deal with the mound of paper that one needs to go through in order to prepare their tax returns.

SIMON: He says he's now trying to make amends, though he disputes the amount California says he owes.

The state says it doesn't comment on specific cases, but that California taxpayers each year fail to pay around $6.5 billion. That would more than pay the annual salaries for every high school teacher in the state.

If you think that figure is large, the IRS says its unpaid taxes for the last several years total about $300 billion. That would cover half of the entire U.S. defense budget. And experts say unpaid taxes will increase because of the recession.

PROF. CHUCK SWENSON, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: That gap is going to get bigger in tough times as people go from private sector, where they're losing their jobs, to self-employment, where it's much easier to evade taxes.

SIMON: As for those celebrities we mentioned, a rep for Dionne Warwick told us she's "... addressed the situation and has worked out a payment arrangement." Burt Reynolds spokesman says the actor has paid all his taxes and says the actor should be removed.

And Sinbad? His rep just said, "No comment."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON: Now, to get your name off of this list, you either need to pay in full, work out some sort of compromise with the state, or file for bankruptcy.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Dan Simon, thank you.

So, what happens for people who haven't paid federal taxes? Experts say the first thing to do is own up to back taxes as quickly as possible. Not dealing with them likely causes fines, penalties, even liens. The IRS will offer assistance, especially in the form of payment plans.

That's if non-taxpayers at least show their intent to pay off their back taxes. But those who do not could face jail time. You won't go to jail if you don't have the money to pay your tax bill, but you could go to jail for simply not filing your income tax return.

Of course, there are those who -- who do pay their taxes, but they think they're paying way too much. They're also outraged at what they see as too many government bailouts and too much government spending. So, they're taking their gripes to the streets on this day.

Many groups were small, but the anger was large in what they're calling Tea Parties across the country. Protesters are shoving tea into the body -- into bodies of water, even throwing what appeared to be tea bags over the fence at the White House.

Behind -- behind those protests, behind those gates, the president of the United States praising his tax policies, saying they're -- they will be of help to most of the people who are actually protesting. Also at issue, how the new media are covering all of these protests.

Let's go to Howard Kurtz of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" -- Howie.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (voice-over): Wolf, much of the media seems to have chosen sides for tea day. FOX News sees today's Tea Party tax protests as a big story, CNN as a modest story, and MSNBC as a great story to make fun of.

And, for most major newspapers, it's a non-story.

(voice-over): FOX began with a series of live shots this morning in cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, and Sacramento.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, FOX NEWS CHANNEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There will be a rally starting here in two hours, just like maybe 300 or 400 other rallies across the nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to the Tax Day Tea Party in D.C.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: I think what they're saying is, we hate big government and we don't like the direction that it's headed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: For days, Rupert Murdoch's network had been touting the fact that several of its high-profile hosts would be at the April 15 protests. And, today, the network was pushing its online coverage as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, FOX NEWS CHANNEL) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can join the tea party action from your home if you go to thefoxnation.com.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: MSNBC's liberal hosts, meanwhile, have openly mocked the Tea Parties.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN")

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": FOX News can't keep its mouth shut about tea bagging. It's claiming all of America is worked up about this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: MSNBC has mentioned today's protests in a couple of political discussions. And CNN has aired occasional report.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wait. Why do you say he's a fascist? He's the president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is a fascist.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you realize how -- do you realize how offensive that is?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's a fascist.

KURTZ: Conservative talk radio has rallied behind the Tea Parties.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: They are petrified and scared to death of the 500 Tea Parties scheduled for today in 50 American states. They're out there snarling: It was created by FOX News. It's a right-wing plot. This is all Limbaugh's doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, a FOX contributor, showed up at a protest outside the Treasury Department.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Regardless of whether the media covered this or not, I think that people are beginning to wake up.

KURTZ: As for the nation's newspapers, "The New York Times" hasn't run a single word in its news columns for the past month. The paper did post an online story this afternoon.

And "The Washington Post" has its first story today in the Metro section on page B4.

(on camera): By tonight, we will know whether the tax protests warranted more coverage from the mainstream media or whether the events were largely driven by media hype -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right, Howie, thanks very much.

Let's talk a little bit more about this with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She's here.

Gloria, what do Republicans hope to gain by what -- what's been organized today?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I -- I was talking to Republicans today about this, both in Congress and Republican strategists.

And their sense is, look, this is about rebuilding your base. It's not very easy, after you have lost an election, to reconstitute a party. But what they're trying to do is, if the house burned down, they're trying to get the foundation in order.

So, you go to your stalwart supporters, and you go to them on an issue that is a tried--and-true issue, which is the anti-tax issue for Republicans. So, that's what they're trying to do today.

BLITZER: But is it enough just to fire up the base?

BORGER: No. That's the second part of the conversation, always, which is, OK, you can do this, but now only one out of every four voters in this country self-identify themselves as Republicans.

So, they have a lot of work to do to get independent voters. And the problem, of course, is, in the days of Ronald Reagan, for example, when the anti-tax message was very strong, the electorate has changed. More minority voters, more suburban voters voted Democratic.

And this is a problem right now for the Republican Party. They have to come up with a different vision, Wolf, and ideas, if they're going to attract those new voters.

BLITZER: All right. A lot of us remember what they did, successfully, back in '93 and '94, the Contract With America. And that certainly helped them...

BORGER: Newt Gingrich.

BLITZER: ... regain control of the House and Senate during the early years of the Clinton administration.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: We will see if there's a similar development right now.

Thanks very much for that, Gloria.

In these desperate economic times, some people are grabbing the phone and calling their congressman. We are going to tell you about the surprising efforts some lawmakers are making to help constituents.

And what else should the U.S. be doing to stop pirates on the attack? Our I-Reporters are weighing in on that.

And, later, it's must-see TV. The Internet is buzzing about a reality show contestant. She went from being a target of ridicule to an instant sensation around the world.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "AMERICAN IDOL")

SIMON COWELL, JUDGE, "AMERICAN IDOL": OK, Susan, and where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm from (INAUDIBLE) near Bathgate, West Lothian.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: When people threaten to call their congressmen, they often have something to complain about. But now some constituents are reaching out to lawmakers to help them through the worst of these economic times.

Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She's been taking a closer look. And you have been talking to folks who are reaching out to their lawmakers. And guess what? They're getting some -- some action.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's true.

You know, when most people, I think, people about these tough economic times and their lawmakers, they think about the Washington debate, the debate about spending billions on the stimulus or to bail out banks.

But, you know, the reality is that seeking out your member of Congress for help with your bank or even finding a job, it may not occur to you, but we learned, it should.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: It was Mary Theriault's last hospitalization that forced husband, Stan, to leave his trucking job, which kept him far from home.

STAN THERIAULT, RESIDENT OF VIRGINIA: I honestly didn't think she was going to make it that time. And that's when I decided to come off the road.

BASH: Mary suffers from emphysema.

MARY THERIAULT, RESIDENT OF VIRGINIA: The life expectancy is 10 years after diagnosis. I'm on borrowed time. I'm on my 12th year. BASH (on camera): So, quitting your job to be here is...

M. THERIAULT: It's what I needed.

S. THERIAULT: Mm-hmm.

BASH (voice-over): Stan had trouble getting another job, and they missed a mortgage payment. They contacted the lender, but got the runaround.

M. THERIAULT: And we never heard from them.

BASH: On the brink of foreclosure, a friend suggested something they never thought of: Ask their congressman, Republican Frank Wolf, for help. They did.

Suddenly, the bank called back and said?

M. THERIAULT: Your congressman notified us. Can I ask what's going on?

BASH: The lender agreed to restructure their mortgage.

S. THERIAULT: We had everything in hand within four days.

(CROSSTALK)

S. THERIAULT: And it was incredible.

REP. FRANK WOLF (R), VIRGINIA: There is a lot of...

BASH: Congressman Wolf never met Mary and Stan, but at a food bank for his Virginia district, he told us it's his jobs to be a resource for struggling constituents.

WOLF: Yes, I think a congressional office ought to find out what's going on in their district and be willing to help.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: It's a mortgage company.

BASH: That's a bipartisan philosophy. Democrat Elijah Cummings represents inner-city Baltimore.

CUMMINGS: People looking for foreclosure help, that's increased probably maybe five or six times.

BASH: So, he hired Harry Spikes to troubleshoot for constituents.

HARRY SPIKES II, STAFF ASSISTANT TO CONGRESSMAN ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Are heat and light being cut off?

BASH: He works the phones and walks the neighborhood.

SPIKES: Yes, these are hard times. But you can help somehow. You can try. LUCY NORMENT, CONSTITUENT SERVICES ASSISTANT FOR CONGRESSMAN FRANK WOLF: Congressman Wolf's office returning your call.

BASH: Back in Wolf's Virginia office, it's Lucy Norment who answers calls for help.

NORMENT: All right, why don't you tell me what is going on?

BASH: She is isn't always able to save constituents from foreclosure, but can usually cut through red tape.

NORMENT: It's really just asking them to -- to consider the circumstances as laid out, and the -- the case comes on the front burner, instead of sitting where it was.

BASH: That allowed the Theriaults to keep their house. They still struggle...

M. THERIAULT: I don't know how we're going to do it. I just don't know how we're going to do it.

BASH: ... but hope others learn what they did: Your congressman can help.

M. THERIAULT: That's what they're there for, you know, to serve us. And we should use them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, there are members of Congress all over the country who have been assigning aides specifically to deal with the growing needs of their constituents in these tough economic times.

Now, Wolf, they remind us they're not miracle workers, but they do say that, look, if you're having trouble with your bank, they can help navigate, because the reality is, when a member of Congress' office calls, they get their calls returned.

BLITZER: Yes. And people listen.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: After your report, those phones are going to be ringing up on Capitol Hill.

BASH: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I think those...

BASH: Quite possibly.

BLITZER: ... 435 members of the House and 100 senators, they should get ready for some immediate phone calls.

Dana, thanks very much.

THERIAULT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Freedom isn't free. That's a quotation from our own Paul Begala. On this tax day, he likens paying taxes to an act of patriotism. And he's here to explain in our "Strategy Session."

And his scandal played out like a movie plot, so why not become a reality TV star? The disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich, he wants to star on a show entitled, "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!"

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our CNN political contributor the Democratic strategist Paul Begala, and Republican strategist John Feehery.

We're waiting. We -- we think, fairly soon, the White House is going to be releasing the president and first lady's income tax returns for this year.

What are you going to be looking for when you see that?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he's an awfully successful writer. So, I -- I'm presuming this guy made a whole lot of money.

BLITZER: Millions.

BEGALA: I think so.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: I bought both his books. They were terrific.

And then we always look and see what they make and what they paid. I was not a big fan of George W. Bush. Very generous man. He gave very generously to charity every year, and I'm sure every year long before he was president. And that's something to admire.

And I think you will see the same with President Obama.

BLITZER: What are you going to look for?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: How much money he made.

I want to see how much all these rich Democrats -- and Democrats always seem to make -- especially guys like him, they make so much money, and then they want to talk about the poor...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Nothing wrong was making money, right? FEEHERY: No. I wish I was.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: You wrote a very provocative column today on CNN.com, Paul. You never minced words.

Among other things, referring to these Tea Parties, these protests that are going on out there, you write: "If the whiners at FOX News want to advertise their selfishness, they are free to do so, but please don't dress it up as -- as patriotism. Patriotism is putting your country ahead of yourself, which is the precise opposite of what the Tea Party plutocrats are doing."

All right.

BEGALA: This is all a contrived thing.

You had a bunch of media millionaires organized by FOX News and frankly by some Washington lobbyists. An under-reported aspect of this story is that it has been Washington lobbyists who have been helping to organize this thing.

BLITZER: Like who?

BEGALA: There's a group called FreedomWorks. It's run by Dick Armey, who has been on this show a lot, who is a registered lobbyists for some of the big corporations in America. He's helping to organize this. And I think that ought to be disclosed.

But my point here, I should note and I should have in the piece that dissent is a high form of patriotism. And, to that extent, I admire that.

BLITZER: Nothing wrong with going out there, peacefully demonstrating.

BEGALA: Oh, not even just nothing wrong. There's something very healthy, very good. Even if I don't like it or Barack might not like it, very patriotic to protest your government. I love that.

But what they're protesting is, I mean, come on, they don't want to pay their taxes. Wolf, they ought to go to Walter Reed. They ought to see guys there who have given a lot more than money to their country and don't complain a bit. They're ready to go back and serve again.

So, my view is, guys like me, who never served, who have been showered with the blessings of liberty, if all my country asks of me is to write a check, I'm happy to do it.

BLITZER: You read his column. What did you think?

FEEHERY: Outraged. (LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: First of all, it's not a FOX News thing. CNBC started it with Rick Santelli. So, you're wrong on that front.

You're wrong on -- I think, strategically, you're wrong as well. This is not just about paying taxes. Actually, they're talking about the bailout and how their tax money is going to bail out Washington -- bail out Wall Street. And that's the outrage that a lot of these people feel.

And you want to be on the right side of the populist outrage. You don't want to be on the wrong side.

And, Paul, I think you're putting the Democrats on the wrong side of the populist outrage.

BLITZER: Because you remember the Contract with America, Newt Gingrich. I believe you were working in the House of Representatives -- working in the House of Representatives at the time.

FEEHERY: I was...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is this a similar phenomenon unfolding right now that potentially could get the Republicans back in the majority in the House and Senate?

BEGALA: I don't think so, because the Contract with America actually did have some ideas: Here's what we would do for the country.

This doesn't. This is one more time of saying, no, no, I disagree.

And, by the way, I will point out, President Obama and the Democrats have cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. And even rich people like me and you and Feehery...

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: ... don't even have to pay another nickel in income tax until 2011.

So, nobody's getting a tax increase -- an income tax increase. Cigarette taxes are going up. I think that's good. But short of that, nobody's getting a tax increase. And 95 percent are getting a tax cut.

BLITZER: Are the protests for the taxes mostly, or to protest the deficit spending, the exorbitant amounts of -- the trillions going to bail out Wall Street?

FEEHERY: People are angry at Wall Street and they're angry at Washington and they're angry at the whole cabal there. And I think that that's the -- people are expressing that today.

So, it's not just about taxes. I think that people are going to be more upset about taxes when they -- when the Democrats are successful in raising them, and they're going to raise them more than on just the wealthy. You watch. They have already raised them on poor people who smoke. And that's going to hit them the hardest. But this outrage is not just about taxes. It's about Washington and Wall Street and bailouts and bad spending.

BLITZER: All right, let's move on and talking a little bit about the piracy issue.

We asked our viewers to send in some I-Reports. I want to play this one, David Seaman from New York City.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID SEAMAN, I-REPORTER: We need a zero tolerance policy for piracy. If you target a U.S. flagged ship, it needs to be well known that you will get the Navy SEAL treatment. They shoot first, and they ask politely later on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, in our top story this now, you heard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say, in very strong words, that the U.S. is about to launch several new steps to go forward and get tough with these pirates.

BEGALA: Yes, I think Mr. Seaman is speaking for millions of Americans, probably almost all Americans.

I think what our Navy did there was extraordinary. It was so -- by the way, all paid for by taxes.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: It was -- it was really remarkable. I -- I do salute the commander in chief, President Obama, who gave the authorization for this. It's always risky. These things can fail. And a lot of times, military efforts, even with the best of strategy and training, fall short.

So, I think David's got a very good -- very good point. And I think that America's finally fighting back.

FEEHERY: Look it, the president did a good job. I think the Navy SEALs did a fantastic job. And we should commend them.

But the president should not lose sight of the fact that there are bigger strategic problems out there than just these pirates. And I think that, if we get overly fixated on this and use too much of our -- our resources and our attention on it, we're distracted from bigger items, like what's going on in North Korea, the Chinese, and what is going on in Afghanistan. All of those are much bigger strategic imperatives. BEGALA: Well, and the failed state of Somalia, which is what is breeding that.

FEEHERY: Well -- well, that's part of it, right.

BEGALA: But John's -- John's point is right on this.

BLITZER: There' a limit to what we or, in fact, anyone can do to try to make sure that Somalia is no longer a failed state, as it is. It's been going on like that for a long time.

BEGALA: Right.

FEEHERY: Right.

BEGALA: Right.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much.

Tomorrow, by the way, the president begins a trip to Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago. What issues would you like to see him address while he's abroad? Submit your video questions to ireport.com/situationroom. We will use some of them on the air tomorrow.

The Obamas will release their tax returns shortly. That's what the White House says. What did they earn last year? What did they give away and what did they pay in taxes? We're standing by. We're going to give you all the numbers and the details. Stand by for that.

And the ousted governor of Illinois has never let his legal troubles stand between him and the cameras. Now Rod Blagojevich plans to get more airtime on a reality TV show, if the judge says it's OK.

Plus, conservative backlash against the homeland security secretary -- did a warning about right-wing extremists cross the line?

And, in Afghanistan, a protest against laws that strip women of basic rights, it turn into a free-for-all. We're going there. We will have the latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

In China, auto workers shout slogans to protest a restructuring plan.

In India, children playing in the Ganges River.

In Vermont, a man delivers petitions to raise taxes, with hopes of saving state programs.

And, in Italy, turtles make their way to the land -- some of this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures worth 1,000 words.

Let's back go to Jack Cafferty. He has "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Absolutely nothing to connect any of those pictures, but I like those things.

BLITZER: Me, too.

CAFFERTY: We should do those more often.

BLITZER: We do them almost every day.

CAFFERTY: Well, you don't do them in front of me.

BLITZER: No.

CAFFERTY: You do them somewhere else.

BLITZER: Yes, we do.

CAFFERTY: So, I don't have a chance to comment on them.

BLITZER: Thank you.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

The question this hour is, what should be done about a potential increase in right-wing extremism?

Benny writes: "They claim they fear their guns will be taken away, but they're making the case that their guns should be taken away. They're about nothing but hate and disorder. It seems to me they hate intelligence and embrace ignorance."

Pete in Saint Louis writes: "The same thing we did to other unpalatable groups, such as the Mafia and the KKK. Let the FBI do their job. If they are a legitimate threat, they will be brought down appropriately."

Mike writes: "Right-wing extremism is a fact of life. They do not accumulate guns for nothing. I believe they are sincere in their efforts to prepare for a war. And, unfortunately, I believe they think it is going to be here. These people are dangerous and fueled by right-wing nuts on the air."

Tim in Arkansas writes: "This type of thing happens every time there is a recession. Young urbanites resort to crime to survive, and whites in rural America unite to blame others and protect themselves. Either the economy needs to recover -- and recover quickly -- or we will need to crush the extremists like pebbles, just as we did in the mid-90s. Let's pray that it happens before we get another Oklahoma City."

William in Minneapolis writes: "As a black man, I will shock your audience with this: Don't do anything. If the government does anything to restrict 1st Amendment rights of these extremists, they will go underground with more venom than before. Prosecute them under current law, if they violate the law, but don't squash their rights."

George in New York writes: "Now that they are out of the White House, I feel much better"

And Mario in Montreal suggests: "Put Rush in jail."

You can't do that.

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile, and look for yours there, among hundreds of others.

Who gets the assignment to go out and take still pictures of turtles crawling up the hill?

BLITZER: Look at those turtles. The turtles in Italy, sweet little turtles.

CAFFERTY: Italian turtles.

BLITZER: Yes, Italian turtles. Who knew?

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: Did you know there were turtles in Italy?

CAFFERTY: I -- I had no idea.

BLITZER: Very cute turtles.

CAFFERTY: You learn a lot watching THE SITUATION ROOM.

BLITZER: You -- this is information people need to know.

CAFFERTY: There you go.

BLITZER: Thanks, Jack. Stand by.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: The ousted Illinois governor stands indicted for corruption, his political career clearly over. So, what does Rod Blagojevich do for an encore? There's now word he could be a contestant on a reality TV show.

Let's go to CNN's Susan Roesgen. She's in Chicago.

All right, what are you hearing about Blagojevich's plan, Susie?

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GENERAL ASSIGNMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, it just might happen, Wolf. NBC is starting a new reality show in June. And, according to NBC, Blagojevich is going to be one of the contestants, if the judge in his federal case will allow it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN (voice-over): How are you feeling today?

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: Fine. I believe in the truth.

ROESGEN: Rod Blagojevich has never shied away from a camera. So, here in Chicago, at least, it's not so surprising that our flamboyant former governor could wind up on a reality TV show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "I'M A CELEBRITY... GET ME OUT OF HERE!")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a rugged walk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROESGEN: It's called "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!"

And the celebrities are usually Hollywood actors on the B-list. The goal of the show is to have them claw their way out of some remote Costa Rican jungle. And Blagojevich, who is certainly in good shape, could be a contender.

The problem is, with a federal case against him, Blagojevich isn't allowed to leave the United States. So, why do it? He's got enough publicity, but, according to his lawyer, Blagojevich needs the money to pay for his defense.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN: In fact, Wolf, the lawyer says Blagojevich is so broke that the lawyer is going to ask the judge next week if Blagojevich can dip into his campaign fund to pay for his lawyers. And, also at that time, Blagojevich would be able to ask the judge if he could leave the country to be in this show and presumably get paid for it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what the judge decides.

All right, Susie, thanks very much.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: The White House has just received -- released the president's tax returns. We are going to show you what the president made, what he gave away, and how much he paid in taxes. Stand by, that information just coming in.

Also, an Iranian-American journalist on trial for spying in Iran, even as the U.S. reaches out to that country. So, what's going through -- what's going on right now? What is likely to be her fate? I will ask another American journalist who's been in her shoes.

And an official at a major university admits -- and I'm quoting now -- "We blew it." The school is under fire for denying President Obama an honorary degree.