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THE SITUATION ROOM
Swine Flu Alert Raised; Detroit Desperate
Aired April 27, 2009 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Desperate new measures to try to keep GM and Chrysler from going under, what it all means for jobs, the economy, and a brand name that once stood for power and performance.
And the Joint Chiefs chairman returning from Pakistan saying he's deeply alarmed -- his dire warning about the Taliban threat and whether a U.S. ally can survive.
We want the welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Fears of a deadly global swine flu epidemic appear to be growing by the hour. The World Health Organization has now raised its alert level to four, two steps short of declaring a full-fledged pandemic. The highest would be six -- the Associated Press quoting a senior United Nations official as saying the flu outbreak cannot be contained. In Mexico, the health secretary says 149 deaths likely are linked to swine flu. And nearly 2,000 people in Mexico have already been hospitalized.
The infection has spread to a number of other countries, including 40 confirmed cases right here in the United States. No deaths in this country have been reported.
Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is over at ground zero for this outbreak. He is in Mexico. Sanjay is over at a hospital that is filled with people suffering from what we believe to be swine flu.
All right, update us, Sanjay. What's going on down there?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if Mexico City is the epicenter of this swine flu outbreak, then this is sort of the ground zero as you mentioned. A lot of the early patients were brought here, Wolf. And they have tried to get a feel for exactly what was going on for some time.
Remember, at the beginning they thought this was late-season flu. But they started to piece the pieces of the puzzle together. We are still seeing lots of patients come in to this hospital even throughout the day today.
I think what was most striking to me today, Wolf, was sort of this controlled chaos feeling. This is a public hospital. You have big steel gates that remain closed most of the time. You have armed guards outside the door as well. This is not a typical public hospital. There was also protesters that came outside the hospital today. They were from inside the hospital, workers who were complaining that they weren't being given enough masks, they were not being given enough meds. So you get the sense that there's a lot of almost cracking going on here in Mexico City. It is not a state of panic, but very, very high concern -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Is Mexico, Sanjay, based on everything you have seen so far since you have been there, is Mexico doing enough to stop this spread of swine flu?
GUPTA: You know, it is interesting, Wolf.
I think, in some ways, there has been a really dramatic response by the government both at the city level and the federal level. You remember that the schools were shut down. Many of the restaurants, sporting events, all that was shut down. When I arrived here over the weekend it was really a ghost town.
Remember this is one of the largest cities in the world. You could hardly see anybody outside and the few that were outside had these masks. But here is part of the issue, though, Wolf. In a city of 20 million people, there's simply not enough supplies. There's four million of these masks, a lot, but not enough.
There's about a million treatments of the Tamiflu, again, not enough. And I think that's what sparked some of these protests today as well. They are starting to wonder, look, I'm OK now. But if I get sick, is there something that can be done for me? is there some better way to protect myself? These are the questions that people are starting to ask.
BLITZER: Dr. Sanjay Gupta is on the scene for us.
We are going to be coming back to you, Sanjay. Stand by.
Mexico's health secretary says -- and I'm quoting now -- "This is the first time we had this virus in the world."
It appears to have a disturbingly new set of genetic ingredients. It's being called swine flu because it does have genes from the north American swine influenza and a form of swine flu normally found in Asia and Europe. But experts say this new disease also has elements of what's commonly called bird flu and ingredients from the human version of the flu as well.
Swine flu alone regularly causes outbreaks in pig populations, but does not normally infect humans. This one does.
The White House says it is in a strong condition to respond to this swine flu outbreak, despite holes in the administration's health team. President Obama is trying to convince the American public not to panic right now.
Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us with more on what the president and his administration are trying to do -- Ed.
ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a very simple message from throughout this administration: Stay calm.
HENRY (voice-over): From the president on down, the Obama administration is moving quickly to calm Americans about a possible pandemic.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And this is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm.
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What we are doing is a precaution and not to alarm people.
ROBERT WOOD, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We don't want people to panic at this point.
HENRY: But the potential of a public health crisis comes amid glaring holes in the White House's response team, after the botched nomination of Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services. The second choice, Kathleen Sebelius, is waiting for possible Senate confirmation Tuesday. So, a Bush holdover is serving as acting health secretary.
And there's an acting director at the Centers for Disease Control, putting the White House in the awkward position this weekend of having health news announced by Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano.
JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The Department of Health and Human services will declare today a public health emergency in the United States.
HENRY: But a prior presidential directive already mandates that Napolitano's department is in charge of coordination on such a crisis.
And White House aides note that there's no evidence the personnel gaps have backfired.
GIBBS: Our response is in no way hindered or hampered by not having a permanent secretary at HHS right now.
HENRY: Now, there had also been some concerns stoked by a Mexican newspaper reporting that a man that President Obama had met with in Mexico City died a day later because of a mysterious illness.
It turns out the White House has now put out a statement from the Mexican Embassy here in Washington insisting this man actually died a week later, not a day later, and that it was unrelated to swine flu.
And in fact White House spokesman Robert Gates today stressing the president's health, even though he recently visited Mexico City, was never in danger -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Ed Henry is over at the White House.
So, what are countries around the world doing to prevent the spread of swine flu?
Let's bring in our own Abbi Tatton. She's taking a closer look at the steps that are being taken.
A lot of concern not only in the United States, but indeed around the world.
ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Right.
Starting off with the United States, the government here now saying that nonessential travel to Mexico should be postponed, that as of this afternoon. In Europe, the health commissioner for the European Union caused a little bit of a stir here in the United States earlier today, when she seemed to suggest that nonessential travel to the United States should be reconsidered as well. She has since softened that advice, just restricting that to affected areas.
But that was something that a lot of people were noticing here earlier today. Other precautions are being taken across the globe. In airports, and we can show you some of these pictures -- travel arriving from Los Angeles were seeing signs like this in Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur at the airport there, "Please queue for a temperature check," as health officials are taking the temperature of people arriving from the United States to try and spot flu victims.
Other airports around Asia were just dusting off thermal screeners that were used during the SARS incidents in the last couple of years, trying to spot flu victims as well. And then other measures are focusing on imports. Russia, China is another country focusing on banning meat coming in from Mexico, specifically pork, coming in from the southern United States, even though, Wolf, we have heard again and again from the CDC that infection does not come from eating pork.
BLITZER: Lots of concern. A good point, though. Thank you.
Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File."
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Wolf.
If you have a couple of extra coins knocking around in your pocket, you might want to consider donating them to Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's legal defense fund. The former Republican vice presidential candidate has about $500,000 in legal bills, partly due to investigations into efforts by her to fire an Alaska state trooper who is her former brother-in-law. Also, supporters say about a dozen new ethics complaints have been filed against Palin over the last four months. The Alaska Fund Trust says on its Web site -- quote -- "For Alaskans, the time has come to end the siege on our government by political tricksters. Enough is enough. With the help of reform- minded advocates from across our nation, we will stand up for what is right" -- unquote.
And they add that the fund will -- quote -- "reduce the incentive for mischief by Palin's opponents" -- unquote -- and turn back the tide of partisan and personal political attacks.
Donations will be limited to $150. The fund will not accept money from corporations, lobbyists, foreigners, or state contractors. And supporters say the names and contribution amounts of all donors will be made public.
They insist this is one of the most restrictive and transparent legal funds in history and compare it to other recent legal defense funds like those for both Clintons and former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
So, here's the question. Would you be inclined to donate to Governor Sarah Palin's legal defense fund? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile, and you can post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack, thank you.
Hard times causing tough tactics, GM slashing jobs, killing Pontiac, while Chrysler's future right now hanging in the balance. Can they avoid financial collapse?
And the latest on how the government is fighting swine flu. The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, she is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to tell us exactly what the U.S. government is doing.
BLITZER: One hundred and forty-nine deaths are believed linked to swine flu in Mexico alone, health officials confirming 75 other cases of swine flu around the world, including some 40 cases of illness right here in the United States.
Let's get some more now on our top story, the growing fear of a worldwide swine flu epidemic. Let's get the latest on what the United States government is doing from the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano.
BLITZER: Madame Secretary, thanks very much. I know you're incredibly busy these days.
I want to get right to this story that's just moving, quoting the Mexican Health Department as saying that the World Health Organization is now raising this pandemic alert level to Category 4, verifying human-to-human swine flu.
I wonder if you know anything about this and can us what this means.
NAPOLITANO: Yes. The World Health Organization has a continuum of 1 to 6, 1 being no evidence of flu, 6 being full-fledged pandemic. And we have been at level 3 for the past several weeks. The World Health Organization now has moved to level 4.
For our purposes, our planning, our preparations, the things we have been doing over the past days are all the things you would do for level 4 or 4, or even preparatory, to level 6. So, it doesn't make a difference in terms of what we actually are doing within the United States, but does indicate that we have a serious outbreak of swine flu on our hands.
BLITZER: How worried should folks watching us right now be?
NAPOLITANO: Well, not worried, but be prepared and think through. For example, if over the next week or two, the school where your children go has to be closed because of an outbreak of flu, how are you going to take care of the kids? Make sure that if you are sick, you're showing a fever, a heavy cough, and what have you, don't go to work and contaminate others. Check with a doctor or other health care professional. And wash your hands a lot.
BLITZER: Because there's only been, what -- at least as far as we can tell -- 40 confirmed cases here in the United States, and none requiring any serious -- one maybe hospitalization. And so folks are just e-mailing me and they're saying, why are we reporting this as if this is such a threat?
What's your worst-case fear?
NAPOLITANO: Well, obviously, a worst-case fear is a full-fledged pandemic. And, you know, the scientists really can't tell us now why this is presenting so severely in Mexico, in Mexico City, and not as severely up here. And there are a lot of hypotheses for that, so that's probably better addressed to the scientists.
But, you know, this is a changing dynamic. And it may differ tomorrow from today, the next day from tomorrow. So we're going to have to be ready and prepared for whatever situation occurs.
BLITZER: Are we watching people coming into the United States from Mexico more carefully now, screening them, making sure they don't show symptoms including temperature?
NAPOLITANO: Yes. We have passage screening going on both at airports and our land ports. And both the CDC and the State Department have now issued travelers alerts or advisories for people to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico.
BLITZER: So that means if you're supposed to go on a vacation to Cancun or something, this is not a good time to do it. Is that what you're suggesting?
NAPOLITANO: You might want to rethink that for right now, correct. BLITZER: Yes, that's going to be another major concern for Mexico's already battered economy, because so much of that economy relies on tourism. But obviously health comes -- a lot more important than tourism.
NAPOLITANO: That's right. And we're working very closely with the Mexican government. We have CDC teams down there now. We're providing assistance on laboratory capacity, on collecting data, because one of the better ways that we can prepare up here is to know what exactly is happening epidemiologically in Mexico.
BLITZER: As you take a look at the vaccines that are potentially out there, you're releasing some right now, but there is no real cure if someone comes down with swine flu, is there?
NAPOLITANO: Well, we're not talking vaccine. We're talking antivirals, which you would take after you already got sick.
And there is a family of them, Tamiflu and Relenza, that's pretty effective. And we have 50 million courses of that in our stockpile. We have released 25 percent of those to states already. And discussions are being held with the manufacturer about ramping some more production.
BLITZER: And what point does the Department of Homeland Security, which you head, recommend that people start wearing masks?
NAPOLITANO: Oh, we're far away from that. And that would probably be a recommendation that would come out of your local public health department before it would come out of anything federal.
BLITZER: So at this point, that's obviously not necessary.
What about the pigs in the United States, the swine population? Is there evidence that they also have already been infected with swine flu?
NAPOLITANO: No. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is part of our team and have professionals working with us. And they have identified nothing in our swine population. And of course, you can't get the swine flu from eating pork. So that's not something not to worry about.
BLITZER: We see these cases in New York, Ohio, Texas, Kansas, California. You're a former governor of Arizona. Before this thing is over with, are we going to see cases popping up potentially all over the United States?
NAPOLITANO: We could certainly see it in a number, if not all of the United States. That's correct. Right now it's what we call kind of the popcorn effect, some here, some there, but in all likelihood, we will see other states have cases as well.
BLITZER: The fact that there is no secretary of health and human services right now, and no director of the Centers for Disease Control right now, no surgeon general of the United States. United States, none of these posts have yet been confirmed, how big of a problem is that for the Obama administration?
NAPOLITANO: Well, I'm looking forward to having Governor Sebelius confirmed, and I'm told that the Senate is going to be taking action on her nomination tomorrow. It will be great to have her there.
But in the meantime, the department has a number of career professionals. The acting head of the CDC, Dr. Besser, I think has been very good about communicating with the American people about what this is, what this is not, and very good to work with. So we'll work with the career professionals, but we look forward to Governor Sebelius' leadership.
BLITZER: He indeed has been very impressive at those briefings.
All right. Madame Secretary, thanks very much. Good luck.
NAPOLITANO: Thank you.
BLITZER: It triggered concerns about a possible pandemic after it skipped from Mexico to the United States. San Diego, California, could be an early entry point for swine flu. We are going to hear what they are saying about it there. We are going there live.
And he's no stranger to civil disobedience in order to right a wrong. Why is this congressman being led away in handcuffs?
BLITZER: We're going to be heading back to Mexico City momentarily. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our chief medical correspondent, is on the scene with the latest developments in the swine flu crisis. We will go there soon.
There's other important news, though, that we are following, including one issue to assess within the president's first 100 days, the very, very disturbing situation in Pakistan that's unfolding right now. Extremist elements, including the Taliban, are clearly a growing threat. And now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is said to be very alarmed.
Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is standing by with more -- Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Pakistan has a long history of military coups. Now there are worries it could happen again.
(voice-over): Residents in northwest Pakistan fled as security forces tried to push militants out of areas said to be under Taliban control. President Obama's top military adviser is sounding increasingly dire. Admiral Michael Mullen told CBS News, after two visits to Islamabad in less than three weeks, he is more concerned than ever before about Pakistan's ability to survive the Taliban advances.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "CBS EVENING NEWS")
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I was just shocked that it had moved so far so fast over a two-, two-and-a-half period.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STARR: Senior U.S. officials say the Taliban are in control of key areas of northwest Pakistan. A top Mullen aide says the chairman is -- quote -- "deeply alarmed."
For now, the U.S. is officially supporting the current government.
ROBERT WOOD, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Pakistan understands the threat that it faces internally. And it's got to take steps to deal with it.
STARR: But Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is under mounting pressure. Senior U.S. officials now question whether the Pakistani president is overwhelmed by the mounting Taliban challenge -- the ultimate worry, Mullen says, Pakistan's nuclear weapons in Taliban hands.
Zardari says it won't happen.
ASIF ALI ZARDARI, PAKISTANI PRESIDENT: It's not that one little Taliban can come down and press a button. There is no button. So, I want to assure the world that nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands.
STARR: Admiral Mullen now believes the situation in Pakistan is, according to an aide, precarious and sees little sign of that changing in coming days -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much, a very disturbing situation in Pakistan.
Dozens of death suspected in Mexico, and now the swine flu is spreading here in the United States. We are about to go live to the border with Mexico -- immigration and health officials right now on high alert over there.
And south of the border, at the epicenter of the outbreak, our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he is standing by live to give us an update from the Mexican capital.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: To our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now: Congressman John Lewis and four other U.S. representatives face misdemeanor charges. They joined a protest against genocide in Darfur outside Sudan's embassy here in Washington earlier today. The former civil rights activist was arrested for trespassing.
The FBI says a University of Georgia professor suspected of killing his wife and two other people had a ticket to the Netherlands for later this week. In an affidavit, agents don't say when he bought the ticket, but they also say he left behind an empty passport wallet. He has been on the run since Saturday.
A senior U.S. diplomat was poised to meet for talks with Cuba's top representative in Washington today. This would be the second such meeting. But the State Department says it does not signal a renewed push for improved relations with Cuba -- all of this, plus the best political team on television.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Let's get back to our top story.
The Obama administration says it is preparing to deal with the swine flu outbreak as if it were already a global epidemic. World Health officials have raised the threat level two steps short of a full-blown pandemic. They have raised it to a four out of a six.
The virus now is believed to have caused 149 deaths in Mexico, which is ground zero for this health emergency. Nearly 2,000 people in Mexico have been hospitalized there. Mexican officials have closed schools all over the country. And they are considering shutting down the subway system in the capital of Mexico City itself.
This ominous new strain of swine flu has spread to at least a half-a-dozen countries, including the United States. Three new confirmed cases in Texas brings the total to 43 in this country. No deaths have been reported outside of Mexico, at least not yet.
The swine flu outbreak is especially disturbing for Mexican- Americans with relatives in Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico.
CNN's Thelma Gutierrez is joining us now live from the border just south of San Diego -- Thelma you've spoken to a lot of people in that area right now.
What are they saying?
THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can tell you that they are concerned. There's no doubt about that. But they say, at this point, they're not panicked. Of course, the major concern is how their families are faring on the other side of the border. And this is a situation they're keeping a very close eye on.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HERB LIZALDE, RESTAURANT OWNER: I have family there. So we called them and talked to them and they're...
GUTIERREZ (voice-over): At the Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego, Herb Lizalde is concerned about family more than 1,000 miles away in Mexico City. Lizalde, the restaurant owner, says he became alarmed over the weekend when photos like this started surfacing in the media -- empty playgrounds, barren highways, nuns in face masks.
LIZALDE: The military is handing them all out. So it's kind of a thing that they have to do.
GUTIERREZ: So different from the city he saw when he was there just a few months ago for his niece's wedding.
He calls his cousin, Javier Tobollo (ph), to check on the family.
LIZALDE: How are you feeling and how is this affecting your family and the rest of like your daughters?
And how -- how are you guys doing?
JAVIER TOBOLLO: We can't go to the streets because they have to protect us.
GUTIERREZ: Tobollo tells him, as a retired teacher, he's able to stay home. But most people who have to work aren't that lucky.
LIZALDE: Did you see a lot of people with their mouth covered?
TOBOLLO: Yes. Yes. A lot of -- a lot of people doing that.
LIZALDE: As long as you guys are careful, you cover your mouth, you're allowed to go out to the streets?
TOBOLLO: And we wash our hands and we take baths and...
LIZALDE: And you don't have concern about your family?
Your family is fine, right?
TOBOLLO: No. My family -- my whole family, thanks God and thanks to our authorities, we are fine because we are -- we know what to do.
GUTIERREZ: It's a phone call to family that offers no guarantees, but gives him peace of mind.
TOBOLLO: Gracias, (INAUDIBLE).
LIZALDE: (INAUDIBLE) savamos pronto.
GUTIERREZ: Now, there are so many families like the Lizaldes, who are worried about their loved ones on the south side of the border. But there's something very interesting that we've actually seen right here -- this border crossing, which is one of the busiest land crossings in the entire world. We've noticed Mexican citizens who come shopping on the United States sides were they were actually wearing masks -- protective masks. And they say that they just want to take those extra precautions -- Wolf.
BLITZER: People are nervous, understandably so.
BLITZER: Thelma, thanks very much.
We're going to be going to Mexico City momentarily. Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta -- he's on the scene at ground zero in Mexico City. Stand by for that.
But I want to move on to a little bit of other news -- important news we're following. The Obama administration set to make history. In only two days, the president marks his 100th day in office. He'll face the intense scrutiny every president endures.
CNN is assessing his accomplishments, his missteps in a national report card. One item earning marks on his scorecard, efforts to help the U.S. auto industry. Two of the biggest automakers now fear financial collapse.
Let's go to New York.
Mary Snow is taking a look at what's going on.
What are we seeing -- Mary?
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Chrysler has just days now to convince the government to get another bailout loan. G.M. has weeks. And as G.M. made it clear today, it faces big hurdles.
SNOW (voice-over): Fighting for its life, General Motors is cutting 23,000 jobs by the end of 2011, cutting dealerships by 40 percent and saying good-bye to its storied Pontiac brand. Even so, CEO Fritz Henderson says the chances of filing for bankruptcy are higher now than just a few weeks ago.
FRITZ HENDERSON, CEO, GENERAL MOTORS: It's greater today. I mean it's -- the task at hand, in terms of what we need to get accomplished, is -- is formidable.
SNOW: Whether G.M. will avoid bankruptcy by a June 1st government deadline largely depends on a bond exchange to wipe out debt. G.M. is offering to exchange 225 common shares for every $1,000 in notes held by bondholders, which include banks, pension and mutual funds. And that means a change in who's controlling the company.
CHRIS ISIDORE, CNNMONEY.COM: What is clear is that the current shareholders of G.M. will end up with only about 1 percent of the company. The government and the union will end up with about 89 percent. The current bondholders will end up with another 10 percent. That's if everything works.
SNOW: Some industry observers are questioning whether it will translate into a more active role for the government on the company's board.
JEREMY ANWYL, CEO, EDMUNDS.COM: I think as long as the government is on the board in an advisory role, it's really nothing to worry about. If the government took a more active role in running the company on day to day basis, then that would be a cause for some concern.
SNOW: And while G.M. moves ahead with sharp cuts, the future of Chrysler hangs in the balance. It reached an agreement with union leaders, but still needs to reach a deal with the Italian automaker Fiat. And it needs banks to forgive much of its $7 billion in loans before Thursday's deadline to avoid bankruptcy.
SNOW: And, Wolf, G.M. right now is operating on $15.4 billion in government financing. It's indicated it would need another $11.6 billion in taxpayer money if its restructuring plan satisfies the government by its June 1st deadline -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Critical days for both Chrysler and G.M. right now.
Mary, thanks very much.
President Barack Obama versus his policies -- which is more popular with Americans?
We have some surprising new poll numbers. The best political team on television is here to discuss that and more.
Plus, our question to you this hour -- would you be inclined to donate to Governor Sarah Palin's legal defense fund?
Jack Cafferty has your e-mail.
And we're standing by for Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Mexico City.
BLITZER: All right. It's official right now. The State Department advising all Americans to avoid what it calls all non- essential travel to Mexico right now because of this swine flu outbreak. The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens of the health risks of travel to Mexico at this time due to an outbreak of swine flu. Let's talk about this and more with Gloria Borger, our senior political correspondent; Stephen Hayes, our contributor from "The Weekly Standard;" and our senior political analyst, Roland Martin.
You know, there's been some criticism of the Obama administration, Gloria, that they don't have a full team, they're not playing at full strength right -- right now. No secretary of Health and Human Services; no Centers for Disease Control director; no head of the FDA.
Is this a big problem for this administration in a crisis like this?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, obviously, they'd rather have Kathleen Sebelius in place. I'm told that she's going to be up for a vote in the Senate tomorrow, that the Democrats have the 60 votes to get her confirmed. And that's really been the bottleneck there.
But having said that, the White House has said this -- and the folks I talked to in Homeland Security, both current and former, say that, look, that's what the mid-level career officials are for.
And give the last administration credit, because what they did was training exercises in pandemic preparedness with their cabinet and those mid-level career people. And that's why people like Dr. Besser of the CDC are prepared right now to take over and to manage this, because they know what they're doing. And that's so important when you have a transition like this between administrations.
BLITZER: And I think everybody agrees, Steve, that the career professionals who deal with these kinds of critical issues, they're first rate.
STEPHEN HAYES, SENIOR WRITER "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Yes. And you have some people who literally do nothing else but prepare for something exactly like this. So I think you can go back and look at the 2002 potential bird flu outbreak. You had -- you sort of went through this. In a way, it was a test run.
And I think Gloria is right. I mean, Dr. Besser, that was his job. He was -- he was in charge of emergency responses. He learned these things. The careerists learned these things. I think we're in pretty good hands right now.
BLITZER: Yes. Roland is the administration itself, from the president on down, sort of themselves responsible for this -- for these -- the delay in getting some of these key positions filled, given the vetting that they've demanded?
ROLAND S. MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, obviously, the vetting process was a problem when you look at it. And thought they were coming out of the gate strong with Tom Daschle. Then, of course, he had his various tax problems. There is no doubt you have that problem there. So, obviously, they must bear some of the brunt. But I'll tell you what, if you're one of the bureaucrats, I mean you probably are having these political appointees who are not standing in the way holding news conferences left and right, because they can, frankly, get on and do their jobs.
And I think a lot of people, at times like this, need to understand that this is when folks are able to do what they do best.
And so oftentimes we focus on who is the secretary, who is the director. But it's really that staffer. That is the critical person in times like this, frankly, not political appointee.
BLITZER: I want you guys to hold on for a second.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our chief medical correspondent, is in Mexico City -- Sanjay, explain to our viewers, because a lot of them are confused, why this is such a crisis right now if "only 40 Americans have been infected with the swine flu" and none of them seem to be seriously ill -- only one taken to a hospital so far.
Why is this causing such alarm -- alarm bells in the United States and, indeed, around the world?
GUPTA: Well, you know, it might be one of those things that eventually, over time, starts to fizzle out and those alarm bells will go away. But here are the concerns.
This is a virus that the world has never seen before. That is one of the criteria that goes into making a pandemic.
Also, this is something that appears to be affecting people in the -- in the sort of middle part of their lives 20s, 30s and 40s, as opposed to the elderly and the very young, which is what the flu typically does.
That was also something that people worried about in the 1918 pandemic, for example.
We have no idea, frankly, Wolf, how fatal this thing is. I've been trying to crunch the numbers. We hear over 100 deaths here in Mexico.
But to your point, there's about 36,000 people who die of seasonal flu every year in the United States, on average. So, you know, there's a huge difference in numbers here.
But there are some red flags that have public health officials sort of worried.
BLITZER: And when the World Health Organization, Sanjay, says they're going up from a Level 3 to a Level 4 on this the so-called pandemic alert, global pandemic alert -- a global pandemic alert. The highest level would be a six. That sounds pretty scary to me.
But give us some perspective. GUPTA: Well, you know, going from three to four -- it was three yesterday, it's four today. That is probably not a huge jump. I think a lot of people suspected this was four on the scale already.
Are you starting to see evidence as human to human transmission. I think we already knew that there probably was evidence of that. So far, it has primarily been -- the deaths have been contained in Mexico.
So, you know, it's just going to be a wait and see here for some time to come.
I don't know. It's very hard to predict whether this is going go to a Level 5 over the next several days or go back down a bit.
But I think right now, even talking to the minister of health here in Mexico, no one is willing to -- to sort of put on any guesses.
BLITZER: Sanjay, stand by -- Gloria, how important is it for the president and his top aides right now to instill a level of confidence in the American public that the federal government really is on top of this and knows what it's doing?
BORGER: I think -- I think it's very important. And to your earlier point, Wolf, that's where you miss kind of the professionals who run the departments, because they're the ones who are experts in communication.
So you see Janet Napolitano out there, who's head of Homeland Security.
But yesterday, she had Dr. Besser speak first, because he really knows a lot more about how to manage this, having been through all these -- this preparedness training.
And I think that that's where you could use these undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in Health and Human Services that are not there yet.
But I think the White House is trying to strike a balance here between concern and not in instilling panic in people.
BLITZER: It may be Congress in recess or whatever, Steve. But so far, there hasn't been a whole lot of Republican sniping at the administration on this crisis.
HAYES: Yes, I know. I don't think there's much to snipe at. I mean we're in the -- the early stages of this -- this crisis. I think the most important thing that the White House can do at this point is put out information. And I mean, politically, it's important for them to project confidence, of course.
But really what they've got to do is tell people -- you know, give people the basics. I think they've done that and they've done it pretty effectively through the various spokesmen that Gloria has mentioned. BLITZER: What's the most important thing, Roland, the president needs to do right now?
MARTIN: Stay calm. I mean his attitude, how he approaches things, I think, is the most important things in terms of he -- you know, he does not get excited. He's sort of like right there in the middle -- not too high, not too low. It's exactly where he needs to be, projecting that kind of serenity and calmness, but focus, in this kind of crisis.
BLITZER: Roland is going to have much more coming up on this at 8:00 p.m. Eastern -- a little bit more than an hour from now on "NO BIAS NO BULL".
Roland, thanks very much -- Steve, Gloria.
Sanjay, we're going to be getting back to you.
Sanjay Gupta is on the scene for CNN in Mexico City.
Is the United States doing enough to handle the swine flu problem?
Or should it be doing more?
Should the U.S./Mexico border be sealed?
Submit your video questions to ireport.com/situationroom. Tell us what you think.
A frightening flyby -- it brings to life memories of 9/11 and prompts an apology now from a White House official. We're going to show you exactly what happened.
Plus, Jack Cafferty with your e-mail.
And this hour's question -- would you be inclined to donate to Governor Sarah Palin's legal defense fund?
LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up at the top of the hour, we'll have complete coverage of the prospect of a significant outbreak of the deadly swine flu in this country and globally. The World Health Organization tonight has raised the alert level for a possible global pandemic.
There are also new questions tonight about the ability of the federal government to deal with this worsening crisis. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says Customs and Border agents are only passably screening people arriving in this country from Mexico.
Meanwhile, no Health and Human Services secretary, no surgeon general and no director of the Centers for Disease Control. The top CDC official and one of the country's leading authorities on infectious diseases. Join us for all of that and more at the top of the hour.
THE SITUATION ROOM will continue in just one moment.
BLITZER: A plane flying low over Manhattan triggered real fears of an attack today. Now, the White House is apologizing.
Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, explains why -- Barbara.
STARR: Wolf, the White House Military Office is now apologizing to the City of New York after quite a security scare today. People rushed into the streets of Lower Manhattan affair a 747 aircraft, which is designated Air Force One when the president is on board, was observed being chased by F-16s.
It wasn't a hijacking or a terrorist incident, but rather a combined photo-op and training mission. According to U.S. officials, it was a chance to take some photos against the backdrop of New York monuments.
But just one problem -- nobody told the people of New York. The FAA knew, the NYPD knew. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he's furious. No one told him.
Now, the director of the White House Military Office, Louis Caldera, is issuing a statement saying he authorized the flight and adding: "It's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility," he said.
No word on future flights -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much for that, Barbara Starr.
Let's go back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: He should be fired.
I mean what moron does that in this city after 9/11?
BLITZER: People were scared when they saw that.
CAFFERTY: Well, of course they're scared. I mean I -- you see F-16s chasing some 747, what's the first thing that crosses your mind?
I take responsibility. That doesn't mean anything, after the fact. He should be fired.
The question, what: Would you be inclined to donate to Governor Sarah Palin's legal defense fund?
Here are some of the ones we can put on television.
Andy in Vancouver: "Let's see here. Palin won't take bailout money that would go to the people of Alaska, whom she represents. But she wants everybody to bail her out instead. I don't know who's a bigger idiot, Palin or the people who give her money."
Eric says: "Jack, buddy, get over it already. Your man won six months ago. Bush and Palin no longer exist. Obama owns all this mess now. You can't keep digging up Sarah Palin's long since buried political corpse to prop up as a red herring when people start realizing their child God is just a man like you and me."
Lola writes: "If it means she'll disappear, never to be heard from again. I live in the United Kingdom. I am so, so sick of hearing her name. What must it be like for you Americans?"
Frann in California: "I'd be very inclined to donate to her go away and don't come back to the political arena ever fund. Likely, that fund would be well supported, but unlikely, it could live up to its name."
Dale in Fort Lauderdale: "I intend to just because she's been so savagely and unfairly attacked by the media and the left, just because she's a conservative."
That's not the only reason.
"Funny how the media, feminists and the left defend Hillary -- rightfully so -- but don't defend Palin the same way because she's a conservative."
That's not the -- that's not the reason.
Elizabeth in Wasilla, Alaska, the little town that Sarah Palin used to be mayor of: "I live in Wasilla. I will not contribute one penny to her defense fund. I will contribute generously to anybody running against her in the next election. And from what I hear around town here, that's the prevailing sentiment."
And Tom in California writes: "I'll give the full $150 as soon as she donates to my speeding ticket fund -- $236.75 minimum. You first, governor."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, check out the blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can look for yours there. There are some very funny but television inappropriate responses to this hour's question -- Wolf.
BLITZER: See you in New York tomorrow, Jack.
BLITZER: Let -- let's take a quick break. When we come back, Jeanne Moos with a closer look at this swine flu crisis.
BLITZER: Jeanne Moos adds her "Moost Unusual" perspective to the outbreak of swine flu.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's hogging the headlines. And even if the president says...
OBAMA: But it's not a cause for alarm.
MOOS: It is cause to wonder -- how bad could it get?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) faded to something even more deadly -- preparing for a possibly pandemic. Hey, if you've been hanging out with pigs.
MOOS: It may be deadly...
(on camera): We're asking people questions about the swine flu.
MOOS (voice-over): But they're far from dead serious about it on the Web.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The origin of the swine flu has been found. Swine flu is caused by babies licking pigs.
MOOS: Pigs are taking a beating.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know who gave it to me. Don't fall for her feminine pig wiles. Just walk away and get your shots.
MOOS: Out on the streets of New York...
(on camera): Are you guys worried about the swine flu?
I don't know why nobody wants to talk to me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not worried.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not unless I see people walking around like you.
MOOS (voice-over): The most popular precaution...
(on camera): Like how many times have you washed your hands in the past three hours or four hours?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: About three.
MOOS (voice-over): This girl asked her teacher if she could leave school.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a little girl coughing in my face.
MOOS: Look at the hospital sized bottle.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is (INAUDIBLE), you know?
MOOS: Of Purell hand sanitizer she's lugging around.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. I'm (INAUDIBLE).
MOOS: No matter how often the misconceptions get knocked down...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You won't get this virus just by eating bacon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am kosher. I don't think I get it.
MOOS: People like this woman know that eating pig products won't make you sick. Nevertheless...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't buy the croissant with ham. So I got tuna instead. It's supposed to be filled with mercury, right?
MOOS: Some are using the swine flu situation to savor old commercials from the 1976 swine flu debacle.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Swine flu -- man, I'm too (INAUDIBLE) for that to catch me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You'll want to be protected.
MOOS: The vaccine did way more harm than the swine flu did.
More than three decades later, folks are passing around a clip from "Willow" featuring an evil queen turning people into pigs.
MOOS: Swine flu deserves a bad rap.
MOOS: Musicians are crooning over how not to swoon from swine flu.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Swine flu, swine flu, why'd you (INAUDIBLE) skulk at you?
MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
BLITZER: That's it for us.
I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.