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Changing the Afghan War; Pope Walks Out of Interfaith Meeting; Return to Human Rights Council; Republicans Bashing Republicans

Aired May 12, 2009 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Pope Benedict XVI walking out of an interfaith meeting in Israel. His trip to that country going seriously off script, at least then.

What prompted the pontiff's dramatic move?

Stand by.

And fear of a horrifying new Taliban tactic -- are students at girls' schools being deliberately poisoned with gas?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


U.S. forces coming face-to-face and gun to gun with Taliban militants in the Afghan city of Khost. We're getting new details of the suicide attack that started it all and the deadly toll.

CNN's Stan Grant is in the Afghan capital of Kabul with the latest -- Stan.

STAN GRANT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for more than six hours, police say, this battle raged with the Taliban in Khost, along the Pakistan/ Afghanistan border.

Now, the Taliban spokesman has told us at CNN that he sent 30 insurgents to attack a government compound. Now, the police say that seven of those insurgents detonated bombs, killing a number of people, security officials and civilians. More than 20 people, we are told, have been wounded.

Now, the U.S. forces were called in from a nearby base. Troops entered the city. There were helicopters overhead. And that's when they were also forced into a pitched battle with the Taliban.

The Taliban then holed up in the basement of a building and the battle then continued to rage for hours, until order and peace was able to be restored.

This battle shows that the Taliban have a real stronghold in Khost. They are picking up their operations there ahead of more U.S. forces being deployed to Afghanistan. And, of course, this change at the top of command -- General McKiernan being replaced, General McChrystal now coming in as a commander in Afghanistan.

This is an effort by the U.S. to have a fresh approach -- as they say, fresh eyes on defeating the Taliban -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Stan.

Stan Grant is on the scene for us.

A new U.S. military commander will bring a new strategy to the war in Afghanistan.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara, lots of fallout from the dramatic news of yesterday.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. And I can't underscore enough what my colleague Stan Grant just said from Kabul. This battle in Khost today simply underscores the threat that is emerging in Afghanistan now.


STARR (voice-over): In the Eastern Afghanistan city of Khost, U.S. and Afghan forces waged a six hour gun battle with Taliban fighters -- 10 suicide bombers killed, civilians caught in the middle. It's this type of battle that the new U.S. commander, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, will have to fight -- a war the Pentagon now calls a counter-insurgency war.

STEPHEN BIDDLE, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: The most important difference between counter-insurgency and conventional warfare is that conventional warfare is all about destroying the enemy. Counter- insurgency is all about protecting a civilian population.

STARR: So in places like Khost, McChrystal's troops will have to not just hunt insurgents, but also rely on other tactics to protect Afghans.

BIDDLE: You distribute your forces in smaller deployments outside armored vehicles, living in and among the people that you're trying to defend, in large part so that they can see their defenders and have a degree of confidence.

STARR: Many say McChrystal's career makes him the right general for this new war strategy. For five years, he ran the secretive Joint Special Operations command, which includes the U.S. Army's Delta Force and the Navy SEAL unit that recently rescued Richard Phillips from pirates off Somalia.

But McChrystal is also said to be a brilliant strategist who understands when not to use weapons.

The just ousted General David McKiernan was trying to bring a similar focus, but he was considered not up to the task. But just a few weeks ago, McKiernan issued this counter-insurgency guidance to his troops. A top aide says the general was already in the middle of detailed plans on how to bring security and aide to some of Afghanistan's most remote areas.

(END VIDEO TAPE) STARR: The new commander, General McChrystal, is also widely praised for running counter-insurgency operations back in Iraq. But some of his troops came under some criticism for their heavy-handed tactics that resulted in civilian casualties. And, of course, that's an issue that already has Afghans deeply concerned -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Especially the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, as we saw last week in our interview.

All right, Barbara.

Thanks very much.

Staying in the region, Pope Benedict XVI caught off guard by an anti-Israel tirade that actually prompted him to walk out of an interfaith meeting.

CNN's Paula Hancocks reports it's not the only part of the pontiff's Middle East trip to go seriously off script.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A well choreographed trip by Pope Benedict XVI, visiting the main holy sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- all bases covered. But this is the Middle East. You can't plan everything.

At an interfaith meeting Monday evening, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Islamic Court, unexpectedly took to the stage to blast Israel for its military operation in Gaza more than four months ago.

He said: "Killing children, women and the elderly, they demolished tens of mosques and thousands of houses with people still inside." After some confusion, but also applause from some of the crowd, the pope shook his hand. He had not had simultaneous translation. After he learned the content, the pope ended the meeting intended to improve interfaith dialogue -- proof he is following in the footsteps of his predecessor. Pope John Paul II sat through a similar speech by the same sheikh nine years ago.

The Vatican called Monday's speech, "a direct negation of what a dialogue should be."

And then there are the controversies that Pope Benedict does not see. A Palestinian press center set up for his visit in an East Jerusalem hotel was shut down by Israeli police. Israel says it was illegal. The Palestinian press say shutting it down was illegal.

RAFIQ HUSSEINI, PALESTINIAN PRESS SERVICE: We condemn this action because this is an attack on the right of speech and on the press.

HANCOCKS: This press conference was originally planned at the press center, but moved to a Jerusalem protest tent. The adviser to the Latin patriarch was not happy. And when asked if the Vatican condemns the move, said...

PETER MADROS, ADVISER TO LATIN PATRIARCH: The Vatican does not need to condemn every move of Israel. Otherwise, the Vatican would be condemning every other day.

HANCOCKS: Protesters against the pope, not that there have been many so far, have not been able to get anywhere near the pontiff. Supporters are, understandably, allowed a little closer.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, Jerusalem.


BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Wolf, Democrats are going to plow ahead with hearings into the so-called Bush torture memos, even if the White House isn't exactly on board. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a public hearing tomorrow, to be followed by House hearings. The committee chair says it will focus on legal issues such as the conduct of those Justice Department lawyers who wrote or approved the memos that justified harsh techniques like waterboarding.

Now this is separate from the investigation being done by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The White House isn't commenting on tomorrow's hearing, but has previously indicated that the president prefers the investigation that's already underway in the Senate Intelligence Committee. That inquiry, though, is going on behind closed doors, dealing with a lot of classified information -- and it's unclear how much of it will ever be made public.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to change her story about what she knew and when she knew it. Politico reports that a Pelosi aide was briefed, along with Congresswoman Jane Harman, in February of 2003 on the specific techniques that have been used on Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, including waterboarding.

At that time, Harman wrote the CIA a letter expressing her profound concerns with the tactic. Pelosi apparently told her aide to tell Harman that she agreed with that letter, but she didn't bother to sign it.

Last week, Pelosi said she was only briefed once in 2002 and was only told the Bush administration was considering using certain techniques in the future.

So here's the question -- should Democrats hold hearings into the Bush interrogation memos, even if the White House disagrees?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

You know, if this stuff goes forward and is -- and is in any way thorough, a lot of folks, I have a feeling, are going to get hung out to dry.

BLITZER: You're probably right, Jack. Probably right.

Thank you.

Poisoned gas filling girls' schools in Afghanistan, sending dozens of children to the hospital -- details of what many fear is a terrifying new Taliban tactic.

And a major turnaround over at the United Nations -- the Obama administration deciding to return to the Human Rights Council after a seven year absence.

Why now?

And the first lady gives a nod to community service -- we're going to hear directly from Michelle Obama in her own words.


BLITZER: A lively hearing today over at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as members, Democrats and Republicans, grilled Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Let's go to our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

She watched it unfold.

How did it go -- Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's interesting, Wolf, this is a Congress still smarting for -- from not asking enough tough questions when it came to the strategy in Iraq. So now we are seeing lawmakers in both parties asking tough questions.

Obviously, this is a very different mission and a very different president. But still, they're asking some tough questions and challenging the administration.


BASH (voice-over): The president's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan was bombarded with bipartisan skepticism about his plans there.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: I do remain concerned that the plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan has the potential to escalate, rather than diminish, the threat.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: We have not hashed out what's happening and we are going to be engaged there for many, many, many years.

BASH: President Obama is sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan to go after extremists who threaten the fragile democracy's stability. Yet some of the president's fellow Democrats told Richard Holbrooke they don't think administration has a comprehensive strategy.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: I have real concerns, I have to be honest with you.


MENENDEZ: What is it?

HOLBROOKE: Defeat the people who pose a direct threat to our homeland, Al Qaeda and its supporters, to stabilize the government of Afghanistan.

BASH: Other Democrats worry more U.S. troops in Afghanistan will further destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear power.

Holbrooke conceded it could.

FEINGOLD: Are you sure that the troop build-up in Afghanistan will not be counterproductive vis-a-vis Pakistan?

HOLBROOKE: No. I'm only sure that we are aware of the problem, that we are working intensely with the Pakistani Army.

BASH: This push back follows a testy closed door summit meeting last week with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, Republican Bob Corker now says Congress should hold off on approving tens of billions in emergency funding for the mission.

CORKER: We are potentially embarking on a monumental mistake, whether we end up doing the right things or not, by this body not discussing this in the way that it should.


BASH: Now, several Senate Democrats did defend President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the urgent need for more money there. Still, Wolf, skepticism is even more widespread in the House.

They are expected to pass that emergency war funding bill this week. But they're also going to require President Obama to give Congress a progress report -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They're trying to do their job, which is ask the tough questions before the strategy is implemented, rather than doing just postmortems later.

BASH: Yes, they are.

BLITZER: All right, Dana.

Thanks very much. What the Bush administration once called a sham is being embraced once again now by the Obama administration. The U.S. today reclaimed a seat on the United Nations controversial Human Rights Council.

Let's go to our senior U.N. Correspondent, Richard Roth.

He's watching this story for us.

All right, give us the background and what it means -- Richard.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama has called the United Nations imperfect, but indispensable. The message is to try to work on that imperfect part by re-engaging with the world in the human rights arena.


ROTH (voice-over): After a seven year absence, the United States is back on the United Nations' most prominent human rights panel.

SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: The United States is very pleased to be elected to join the Human Rights Council.

ROTH: It was a shock in 2001 when U.N. Member countries voted the U.S. off its predecessor the Human Rights Commission. The Bush administration refused to try to rejoin, accusing the commission of a one-sided approach and timidity. And then it was reorganized and renamed in an attempt to make it more effective.

The Obama administration announced in March it wanted back in. The U.S. was unopposed in a secret ballot.

But what has it won?

Human rights observers say the revamped panel is a huge failure. A large majority of its resolutions target one country -- Israel. Only modest criticism has been aimed at Sudan and Myanmar.

Longtime critics of the U.N. Predict nothing will improve.

ANNE BAYEFSKY, "EYE ON THE U.N." ACTIVIST: I think when the likes of Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba get elected to a human rights council, we have a lot to worry about. And your concern should be not that the world's biggest democracy should be elected, but that the others should be elected. It's a travesty.

ROTH: The U.S. believes it can work from within to reform the council.

RICE: We certainly share the view that the council has not performed to its potential. But we wouldn't be running if we thought it was impossible for the council to fulfill the vision that we all had when it was established.

(END VIDEO TAPE) ROTH: The U.S. campaign, Wolf, began with an admission by Ambassador Rice that when it comes to human rights, we haven't been perfect ourselves -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Richard Roth at the U.N. Covering this for us, as he always does.

Thank you, Richard.

Damage detected on the space shuttle. NASA has just gone public with it.

Is it a serious cause for concern about the Atlantis and its seven crew members?

We're getting new information. Stand by.

GOP infighting reaching an ugly new level, with fresh Republican on Republican sniping. We have details of who's saying what and the fallout.


BLITZER: Let's go back to Betty.

She's monitoring some other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Betty, what's the latest?

NGUYEN: Wolf, there's evidence today that yesterday's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis did not go quite as smoothly as believed. NASA engineers say some seemingly minor damage from debris has been detected on a wing of the shuttle Atlantis.


TONY CECCACCI, NASA FLIGHT DIRECTOR: We did see probably about 21 inches in all, but four tiles with some dings in them. And to me, I'm not the tile expert man, but they looked very minor. But we're going to let the folks go ahead take a look at it, the standard -- follow the standard process and determine what we need to do next on those.


NGUYEN: And, hopefully, it is minor. Atlantis lifted off Monday on an 11-day mission to repair the Hubble space telescope. The mission is deemed risky enough to warrant having another shuttle on standby if a rescue mission becomes necessary.

Well, five convictions today in the case of the so-called Liberty City Six in Miami. After a two month federal trial and six days of deliberations, the jury found the five men guilty of plotting to destroy Chicago's Sears Tower and wage bomb attacks on FBI offices. A sixth man was acquitted. Now, two previous trials ended in mistrials. Sentencing is scheduled for June 26th. And former Tennessee death row inmate Paul House has been cleared of murder 23 years after his conviction. Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court raised repeated questions about House's conviction for the 1985 murder of a neighbor. House, who is confined to a wheelchair, was released on bail last year to await a new trial. Prosecutors today asked a judge to drop all charges and the judge agreed.

Now, listen to this, Wolf. Rap star Eminem wants to show about 200 laid off autoworkers a good time. So the Michigan native plans to fly them to Los Angeles for Friday's taping of an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's late night talk show. Eminem says he and Kimmel want to remind everyone that real people are being affected by what's happening to the auto industry in Detroit. The rapper is promoting his first studio album in four years. And he's probably going to have some more beeps on that new album, too, Wolf.

BLITZER: He always does, as you know, Betty.

Thanks very much.


BLITZER: Home prices fell in almost nine out of 10 U.S. cities in the first quarter of this year according to a report from the National Association of Realtors. And it's foreclosures that are driving down the prices.

Abbi Tatton is following this story for us.

I guess the bottom line is anybody out there buying houses?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: In just a few states, yes. In a few states, home sales are up -- and way up, in some cases.

Take a look at the map. In Nevada, they've over doubled since this time last year; California, 81 percent up; Arizona, 50 percent.

But just because there's been an increase in home sales doesn't mean that the home prices are going up -- just the opposite in a lot of these places.

People -- the buyers that are buying these homes are seeking out foreclosures or they're first time homebuyers who are looking for the bargains, getting on the housing ladder. And that's really driving down the home prices, if you look at this report from the National Association of Realtors.

In fact, look at the cities here. In these seven cities across the United States, median home prices are down over 40 percent since last year. Phoenix, Arizona, is one. Fort Myers, Florida is another. And if we go to Saginaw, Michigan, look at the prices there. The median home price there is now $30,000. And I spoke to one realtor today who told me, Wolf, that she recently sold a foreclosure for just 2,900 bucks.


TATTON: Less than the price of a used car.

BLITZER: That's amazing. So there are sales that are going up, but they're getting a lot less for their houses in some of those areas where there has been an increase.

Are there any real glimmers of hope out there?

TATTON: Well, the National Association of Realtors still points to the first time homebuyers tax credit. The first quarter report doesn't really show that affect right now, but they're looking forward to the second quarter. Hopefully, they'll see a broader up tick in sales.

BLITZER: There are bargains out there. You've just got to find them.

TATTON: Right.

BLITZER: There's some distressed owners who need to sell. You can get a good bargain if you're lucky.

Thanks very much.

Trouble is brewing in the Republican Party, as you know. Party infighting touched off by the GOP's new man at the top and it's working its way through the rank and file.

Stand by.

A mystery unfolds in Afghanistan -- who might be poisoning girls' schools with gas and why?

And from high-powered, high paid attorney, to a life of service -- why the change?

The first lady, Michelle Obama, shares the pivotal moments that set her on a new path.


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

Happening now, a lagging economy, weakened private retirement plans -- now the Obama administration facing a Social Security fund on a fast track to nowhere.

New insights into the final moments before a commuter plane goes down in Buffalo, New York. A hearing reveals the chilling sounds from inside the cockpit of Flight 3407.

And on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day up 50 points, to close at 8469.

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

Republican infighting getting a little bit uglier right now -- top GOP players lobbing verbal bombshells.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley -- Candy, you've been watch this unfold for a while.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And here's the latest edition of what's turning into a novel.

The GOP hierarchy chose Michael Steele as chairman of the RNC because they saw him as a symbol of inclusion and a gifted spokesman. Certainly, Steele has been saying what's on his mind. And that's the problem.


CROWLEY (voice-over): After three-and-a-half months as chairman of the GOP, Michael Steele could put out a C.D. (ph) of greatest hits. He accused conservative fave Rush Limbaugh of ugly conversation, so mangled a question on abortion, he sounded pro- abortion rights -- which he is not -- and accused Republicans of being disingenuous in criticizing Democrats for the bank bailout program.

Now, his explanation of why former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney did not win the Republican presidential nomination.

MICHAEL STEELE, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CHAIRMAN: It was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism.

CROWLEY: Suggesting that the most reliable Republican voters are intolerant is what's called being off message. And honestly, if someone has to criticize the GOP, most Republicans would prefer it be a Democrat. Romney's one-time rival John McCain on damage control.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: But I think the fact that Mitt Romney succeeded as much as he did and remains an important and central figure in our Republican Party, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him run again as a testimony, I think, to the inclusiveness of the Republican Party.

CROWLEY: Romney world mildly objected. Sometimes a spokesman said when you shoot from the hip you miss the target. In a partial oops, a Republican Party spokesperson issued a statement. Chairman Steele, it said, regrets the way his comments have been interpreted.

Still, Romney and McCain is the latest in what some see as an unsettling string of Republican on Republican assault bringing us to '08 wannabe Mike Huckabee. Writing on the Fox News website, Huckabee launched another rocket as a new Republican group, a kind of mini think tank to help rebuild the party begin with grassroots outreach, organized by Congressman Eric Cantor, headliners include Romney, Jeb Bush, John McCain and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Huckabee wrote it was hard to keep from laughing out loud what he considered an inside the beltway group wanting to go on a listening tour. He also said it was sad that Jeb Bush has suggested the party needs to get past Ronald Reagan and the hits just keep on coming.


CROWLEY: I talked to a number of Republicans about this today. And they are sort of split into two camps. There are those who say this is awful. It's distracting. We need to at least somehow on the surface come together. And others who say this is perfectly normal. This is jockeying within the party. So put on a happy face and let's move through this phase.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Let's broaden this discussion. Don't go away. Hilary Rosen is here, the Democratic strategist and Alex Castellanos, republican strategist.

Alex, you are the Republican. What's going on here? It certainly isn't very pretty.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is not news. I think Candy is right. We've seen this before. Besides that, I think I was with the Romney campaign. I was there. You guys saw it. There were stories about John McCain attacking Mitt Romney for changing his position. Mitt Romney had to give a speech at the Bush library --

I think all Michael Steele was saying, Wolf is that it was commenting on the campaign and what happened. He wasn't commenting about Mitt Romney's position in the party today or his ability to lead it in the future.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney wasn't very happy though.

CASTELLANOS: Is it not true those were issues in the campaign? That is all chairman Steele is saying. Michael Steele is a fresh face. He calls it like he sees it. That's something that happened in the campaign. He commented on it. What's wrong with that?

BLITZER: Anything wrong with that? What do you think?

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You might think I'm going to take my sound bite here to gloat, but I'm not going to.

BLITZER: Because you've been there as a Democrat. You know what it's like.

ROSEN: If Democrats spend all our time gloating over the Republican identity crisis, we're going to get caught flat-footed at some point in the next few years. We've got an agenda. We've got a forceful president with a lot of ideas on the table. That's where the American people want politicians to be focusing, solving the problems of the country. But the Republicans are going to get their act together at some point over the next year or two. And they are going to be an opposition to a lot of change that the Democrats are trying to do in Washington. We've got to be careful. BLITZER: Charlie Crist is the governor of Florida and he's going to give that up when his term expires and run for the senate in the state of Florida. The Republican incumbent Mel Martinez not running for re-election. Some conservatives, though in the GOP say he's not conservative enough because he supported the president's economic stimulus package.

CROWLEY: Won't Florida be a lab test then because that's exactly what's going on in the Republican Party. Do we reach out? Do we bring in people with differing views from the party base, or do we try to find more in the party base? And so that's the --

BLITZER: He was one of those Republicans --

CROWLEY: Honestly, I think you are tapped out in that region. So I think --

CASTELLANOS: I think not.

BLITZER: He was one of those Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger who came up and supported the president and actually was at a rally with the president on the nearly $800 billion stimulus package.

CASTELLANOS: The question is not whether Republicans reach out or not. The question is how. Do you reach out by becoming Democrats? There are people who have different views than Republicans. They're called Democrats. It's another way to reach out across the middle. That's to say, look, our principles are not just for saying no but they can help solve problems and lead the country forward. We're missing a vision. That's why it's unfortunate.

BLITZER: People like -- hold on a second. Looking at Florida if he gets -- if he beats a conservative for the Republican nomination, Charlie Crist, he'll be a very formidable candidate in the general election against the Democrats.

ROSEN: He'll be a formidable candidate, but, let's face it, Barack Obama won Florida by over 100,000 votes. They were tens of thousands of new Democrats registered all across the state in the last election. You know, the Democratic nominee is going to be the formidable candidate in this race. I believe Charlie Crist will have a hard time winning.

CASTELLANOS: Barack Obama did not win a Republican primary and the principles that Charlie Crist has walked away from by embracing the Obama agenda it makes it tougher for him ...

BLITZER: He embraced the economic stimulus.

ROSEN: Democrats are likely to want to have the real thing, not the fake thing.

CASTELLANOS: Every Republican in congress was on the other side. It's going to make it tough.

BLITZER: We have an I-reporter, William Dawkins, who sent us this and, Candy, listen to the question because it's a good question.

WILLIAM DAWKINS, MESQUITE, TEXAS: I think Obama does have the political capital need to push through his health care plan right now. But I think he should act boldly and quickly because the approval ratings he enjoys today are not likely to last forever.

BLITZER: He's got a window of opportunity right now to try to do what former President Clinton couldn't do. How long is that window?

CROWLEY: That's a $64,000 question. I mean, listen. When we did all of that, what has Barack Obama accomplished in his first 100 days. I think the biggest accomplishment was holding on to those approval ratings for so long while pushing some really what would have been controversial things. Somewhere worried about the economy. Some think he should be given a chance. Can he carry it out for 100 days? Certainly he could. Will he? Presidents spend political capital in ways they don't think they're going to spend it.

BLITZER: Realistically how long does he have to get health care reform passed before that window goes away?

ROSEN: You know next to the economy, health care is the absolute number one priority of all Americans. When you look at the traditional opponents of health care reform in the past, whether it was the hospitals, the insurance, the drug manufacturers, they're all saying, you know what? We're going to be better off with certainty and with some bill. And so I think that when you look at the -- where competitiveness is going --

BLITZER: How much time does he have?

Alex, how much --

CROWLEY: 18 months.

CASTELLANOS: Only this year. Next year is an election year. Democrats in congress are sensing that Obama is more popular than his policies. Americans are worried about his spending. And so it's going to happen is voters next year are going to look for a brake pedal. Who are we going to send to Washington? We'll keep an eye on him. Tap the brakes now and then. Not next year, this year.

CROWLEY: Detail. Details.

BLITZER: Your firm represents some involved in this debate over health care reform.

CASTELLANOS: Over health care. Yes. We like people having choice in health care.

BLITZER: Just want to make sure we have full disclosure here.


BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much. President Obama is being pressured to nominate a Latino or A woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. How important should race or gender be when picking a nominee? Ethnic ties. What's going on? Tell us what you think. You can submit your video comments to Watch the program tomorrow to see if your video gets on the air.

A very disturbing story, dozens of schoolgirls in Afghanistan suddenly getting sick at school. Is it a horrible new effort to keep young girls from getting an education or just a series of tragic accidents?

And for the first time in more than three decades, a former president testifies before congress. Details of what Jimmy Carter told lawmakers.


BLITZER: There are growing concerns right now that schools for girls in Afghanistan are coming under an insidious type of attack. CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into this mysterious case for us.

What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're just now starting to inquire into what's happened recently with groups of schoolgirls in Afghanistan. It is still a mystery, but it is drawing concern because of the pattern involved.


TODD: Tuesday at a hospital in Kapisa province just north of Kabul, a young girl explains how she collapsed at school.

GULCHIN, AFGHAN STUDENT (through translator): I felt a very bad smell. I became unconscious. I do not know what happened afterward.

TODD: Hospital officials tell the Associated Press nearly 100 people from the school were admitted here. Their common symptoms: nausea, dizziness, headaches, fainting.

DR. GHULAM RASOL, INTERNAL DISEASES SPECIALIST (through translator): We think that this is a gas poisoning. We do not know what type of gas it was.

TODD: An alarming similarity to what happened just a day earlier in neighboring Parwan province. Officials told AP, at least 60 girls there complained of sudden illness and went to a hospital.

WASIMA, AFGHAN STUDENT (through translator): I was inside the class. I smelled a smell. They did not allow us to go out at the beginning. When I came out, I felt a headache.

GEN. KHALIL ZIAYE, POLICE CHIEF, PARWAN PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN (through translator): The investigation is ongoing. The school is under observation. We are trying to find out the cause of the poisoning with the help of health organizations.

TODD: AP reports officials sent blood samples to Kabul and to the U.S. base at Bagram to test for poisoning. Officials at Bagram tell CNN they know of no sample sent there. They don't have evidence of a hostile action. And that they'd heard the problem on Monday was a gas leak.

But these incidents follow another in late April when, according to AP, dozens of girls were sickened by strong fumes. It could be coincidence or hysteria, but why would gas leaks occur only where large groups of schoolgirls are gathered?

Have extremists in Afghanistan discovered a new weapon to keep girls from going to school? Asked about this by CNN, a Taliban spokesman denied any involvement in these incidents. Reuters quotes a security official in Kapisa province saying, "We don't think that the Taliban have done this, but the people who collaborate with and support the Taliban have done this."


TODD: The Taliban have been responsible for dozens of attacks and threats against girls' schools and against female teachers in recent years. But in a recent report CNN did on schoolgirls having acid thrown in their faces, the Taliban condemned that attack and we have to emphasize the Taliban have denied involvement in this latest pattern of incidents, and we are making our first inquiries into them, Wolf.

BLITZER: What are officials at the United Nations and the State Department here in Washington telling you?

TODD: The U.N., they're saying they are checking with their officials in Kabul to assess the situation on the ground. The State Department official told us the department has seen these reports and the quote here is we are extremely concerned. You are getting the sense these reports of this particular pattern and these latest incidents in Afghanistan, they are reaching critical mass now and you'll be hearing more about it in the days ahead.

BLITZER: And let's not forget, the Taliban, their goal is to prevent young girls from even going to school that they have no business learning.

TODD: They again say they aren't involved in this. It could be people, fringe groups, following them. I think we'll learn more in the days ahead.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much.

The Afghan Embassy, by the way, here in Washington says about 5.6 million Afghan boys and girls currently have access to primary education. According to Times Online, the British online paper, only 4 percent to 5 percent of children in Afghanistan had such access under the Taliban. Almost none of them -- none of them girls. Today, Times Online says roughly half of the millions of potential schoolchildren in Afghanistan are enrolled. Of those, about 35 percent are in fact girls. The past 18 months says 6 percent of Afghan schools have been closed because of terrorism.

Citizen Jimmy Carter is speaking out on energy reform. The former president of the United States testifying before a congressional committee on Capitol Hill today. Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider is joining us.

It's not every day one sees a former president actually testify before congress.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it doesn't happen often.


SCHNEIDER: In 1974, President Gerald Ford voluntary testified before congress about his role in the Richard Nixon pardon.

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT: I assure you that there was never at any time any agreement whatsoever concerning a pardon to Mr. Nixon if he were to resign.

SCHNEIDER: In the 35 years since, no president or former president has testified before congress until now. Former President Jimmy Carter appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to talk about a subject he knows deeply. Then --

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT: The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation.

SCHNEIDER: And now --

CARTER: Nothing could be more important than this question of energy and strategic interest.

SCHNEIDER: The energy crisis of the 1970s gave President Carter some of his biggest setbacks, gas lines, rationing. When he left office, more than two-thirds of the public gave President Carter negative marks on energy. So what gives President Carter the standing to talk about the nation's current energy problems? Mr. Carter also enjoyed some major successes. He created the Department of Energy. He got an omnibus energy bill through congress.

CARTER: Our strong actions regarding conservation and alternative energy sources resulted in a reduction of net oil imports by 50 percent.

SCHNEIDER: What advice did President Carter draw from his own successes and failures? You have to deal with the problem comprehensively.

CARTER: I insisted, however, on the maintenance of a comprehensive or omnibus bill, crucial then and now to hold this together.

SCHNEIDER: You have to be willing to confront powerful special interests.

CARTER: And the interest groups are extremely powerful.

SCHNEIDER: Only one person can do it.

CARTER: No one can do this except the president.


SCHNEIDER: The energy crisis was a crisis in the 1970s. Most Americans today say it's a major problem, but not a crisis. Gas prices have come down since last year. And that's why our dependence on foreign energy is being debated as a national security issue. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Bill, thanks very much.

A U.S. soldier stands accused of killing five of his fellow troops at a stress clinic in Baghdad. We're going to hear from the father of Army Sergeant John M. Russel.

Also, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, speaking openly of trading a life of privilege for a life of service.


BLITZER: Let's go back to Jack for the Cafferty File.


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the question this hour is should the Democrats hold hearings in to the Bush interrogation memos, even if the white house disagrees?

Joe writes, "Many democratic leaders in congress won't let this go until it plays out. It's a way for them to wash their hands of this whole affair even though many of them were deeply involved. I'd like to see if these hearings will put Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, who may have had full knowledge, on the stand. Get it all out in the open. Let the chips fall where they may."

Tony writes, "What a stupid question Jack. Why? Because your audience consists mostly of liberal democrats who will say that the democrats should prosecute Bush and Cheney, string them up and maybe drag their bodies around Washington. You thrive on those answers. You certainly don't look for the truth."

Joan in New York writes, "Jack, holding the hearings without Obama's approval is politically the smartest way to handle it for everyone. It shows that the Bushies can't get away with torture and it lets Obama stay free of the mess."

Helen writes, "This must be a joke. No one holds the Bush family accountable for anything. Anybody who served in war and was captured knows what torture is. And for our country to use this type of interrogation makes me sick. My son's on his second tour in Iraq. I dread every day that he's away. I wouldn't want this done to him or any service personnel."

John in Chicago writes, "This congress needs to start looking forward and quit blaming the prior administration for everything. The democrats have been in control of the congress since '06 and have not had a major impact at all. And if there is a hearing, the Democrats who were briefed and had knowledge should also be held accountable, not just the Bush administration."

And Mark in Bradenton, Florida writes, "Absolutely. These gangsters were sworn to upload the U.S. constitution to represent the American people. We have a right to know what was going on."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at Look for yours there, among hundreds of others. Wolf?

BLITZER: Will do, Jack, thank you.

Here's a question, a high-powered corporate lawyer turns to public service, the first lady, Michelle Obama, sharing the pivotal emotional moment that set her on a different path. Why did she do it in her own words coming up.


BLITZER: Executive pay and perks under fire in these tough economic times. But some warn that the new rules put American competitiveness at risk. Let's go to CNN's Susan Lisovicz. She had an interview with a key player in all of this.

What's going on?

SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's Dick Parsons, the chairman of Citigroup, the former CEO of Time Warner, our parent company, he told me this afternoon despite $45 billion in government funds, the Obama administration has left largely the running of Citigroup to Citigroup, with one exception. He says the administration has pushed back on executive compensation, but he says it would be a mistake for any new regulation to curb pay on Wall Street.


DICK PARSONS, CHAIRMAN, CITIGROUP: Regulation of things that, for example, we talked about compensation a minute ago, too much regulation in that space I think is going to be pernicious. I just don't see -- I can understand how people will feel better in the short term about, oh, we got those guys. But in the long term, it's going to -- it is going to disadvantage our system on a global basis as against the rest of the world. Not a smart thing to do in my judgment.


LISOVICZ: Parsons is a Republican who served on the Obama transition team. He said that while the president's career has been largely confined to academics and politics, he said Obama is a quick study who welcomes dissenting opinions. Parsons says he thought the stress tests were remarkably helpful in showing the resilience of the financial companies under review, and Wolf, overall, he gives the Obama administration close to an "a" in handling the economy. Wolf?

BLITZER: Interesting stuff, Susan, thanks very much.

LISOVICZ: You're welcome.

BLITZER: At within point in her life Michelle Obama was a high- powered corporate attorney. Today in Washington, the first lady shared the moment that put her on a different path.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Went from college to law school to a big, old, fancy law firm where I was making more money than both of my parents combined. I thought I had arrived. I was working on the 47th floor of one of the largest buildings in the city of Chicago. And I thought, well, I must be doing okay.

But then several things happened over the course of my life in a year to make me stop and actually think for the first time about what I wanted. I lost my father. I lost one of my good friends to cancer suddenly. She was in her mid-20s when she died. And I thought that for the first time I had to think about life and the life that I was building for myself, and I had to ask myself whether if I died tomorrow, would I want this to be my legacy, working in a corporate firm, working for big companies.

And when I asked myself the question, the resounding answer was, absolutely not. This isn't what I want to leave behind. This isn't why I went to Princeton and Harvard. This isn't why I was doing what I was doing. I thought I had more to give.

So, people were quite surprised when I told them at the firm that I was going to leave this big, lucrative paycheck behind and a promising career and go on to do something more service oriented. They all told me to wait and to become a partner first and then leave. And I was -- financially the better option. But I knew in my heart that I was making the right decision to leave then.

BLITZER: The first lady. By the way, she told her story to about 250 employees of the corporation for national and community service.

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

Happening now, the recession is putting your retirement at risk. The Obama administration says it's more urgent than ever to protect social security and Medicare.

Plus, they aren't the usual protesters. Doctors and nurses standing together and getting thrown out of the U.S. senate.

And more than a billion dollars worth of baggage. The thief fees that are propping up airlines and bringing fliers down.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.