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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Obama 'Appalled' by Iran; 'Strategy Session'

Aired June 23, 2009 - 15:59   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, President Obama's sternest words yet about the bloody crackdown on protesters in Iran. We're keeping you up to the minute on the unrest, the U.S. reaction and dramatic images of a nation in crisis.

We're going to Tehran. Stand by.

Also this hour, the subway crash wreckage that no one should have to see. This hour, new information coming in about the D.C. Metro disaster. Could this deadly accident happen again during your commute?

And the bizarre case of the missing governor. We're finally learning where South Carolina's chief executive has been for four days, but there are still questions about Mark Sanford's story.

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.

These are some of the newest pictures coming out of Iran right now. A show of force by troops and police over the weekend. We're told there's still a massive amount of security in the streets right now. We're getting reports of suspected protesters simply being rounded up in huge numbers, homes invaded in the middle of the night, and Iranians throughout the country living in fear. In response to this crackdown, most demonstrators apparently stayed indoors today after more than a week of unrest over Iran's disputed presidential election.

Iranian officials aren't backing down. They're promising that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be sworn in to a second term sometime between this coming Friday and August 19th.

President Obama is using tougher language to describe's Iran's threats, beatings and imprisonment of protesters. In a news conference today, he declared he strongly condemns Iran's actions.

Our White House correspondent Dan Lothian is covering the president and his news conference today.

Dan, what did the president say today, specifically, that ratcheted this situation up?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he certainly did appear to turn up the heat, but from the president's perspective, he says that he has not changed his tone on Iran, that he has always expressed profound concerns, and that he has called the violence unacceptable. But I'll tell you, Wolf, from the words that we heard from the president today, we haven't heard him use before.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): Less than two minute into his opening remarks, President Obama fired a verbal shot at the Iranian regime.

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests of justice.

LOTHIAN: The president says what he's witnessed through compelling reports from Iran has been appalling.

OBAMA: The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats of the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions.

LOTHIAN: The president seemed to get emotional when asked about watching images of the apparent shooting death of Neda, the Iranian woman who has become a symbol for the reformers.

OBAMA: It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that.

LOTHIAN: Despite pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill to dial up his response to Iran's crackdown, the president suggested he's not influenced by what his critics want.

OBAMA: We want justice to prevail, but only I'm the president of the United States. And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

LOTHIAN: The White House has been pushing a dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program, but with the current unrest and the disputed election, Mr. Obama wouldn't rule out a shift in policy.

OBAMA: Obviously it's not encouraging in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take. We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: While the president may not have been trying to please his critics, he apparently did just that. Republican leader John Boehner said that he congratulated the president for his stepped-up criticism of the Iranian regime and added, "We need to keep the pressure on them."

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dan. Thank you.

We'll get back to Dan at the White House.

At CNN's global headquarters, our Iran desk is working around the clock monitoring videos, photos and messages being posted Iranians on the Internet despite the government crackdown, and it is intense.

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is joining us now with more on this part of the story.

Abbi, what's the latest?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we're looking at everything here from Iran state TV to iReports, all the information that is coming in here. And the first thing I want to show you is of a protest today, but a protest of a very different kind.

These images brought to us from the Fars news agency. This is the semi-official news agency in Iran.

This is not opposition protesters. These are protesters outside of the British Embassy in Tehran today. A group, I count a dozen, maybe two dozens in these two or three pictures that we see.

They are burning flags, the British flag, as well as an Israeli flag, a U.S. flag as well, standing outside the British Embassy in Tehran with a row of police there behind them. This is the latest in a ratcheting up of tensions between the two countries, between Britain and Iran.

You'll remember on Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei singling out Britain, singling out the U.K. as the most treacherous of the Western countries that he accused of meddling in Iran's domestic affairs. Then yesterday you had Iran expelling two British diplomats. Britain today -- London responding by expelling two Iranian diplomats. And now you have today this protest at the British Embassy, burning multiple flags of Western nations, accusing them of meddling, but the location very telling. The location being the British Embassy in Tehran -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I take it we're not really seeing a whole lot of new video, a whole lot of new pictures on the Web sites today. That's pretty disturbing, but explain what's going on.

TATTON: Wolf, we've seen a drop-off. It's been quite considerable. The flood of images, YouTube videos, Facebook images that were coming in over the weekend, continuing into yesterday, compared to today, there has been quite a drop-off.

Whether that is because there were fewer people in the streets, there are no mass demonstrations being circulated, advertised for today on the Internet. Whether it's because of intimidation, whether it's because there are further clampdowns on the Internet, it's hard to know which or a combination of those it is, but it's a considerable drop-off -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, we're going to get back to you. Stand by. We have a lot more coming up on this. We're also going to be speaking with Roger Cohen of "The New York Times." He's still in Tehran right now, one of the few Western reporters there left. And we're going to be speaking with him momentarily.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty though right now for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: How is he getting away with staying in the country? Do you know?

BLITZER: Yes. Not much longer. They're getting ready to get rid of him.

CAFFERTY: They're going to throw him out.

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: They're probably watching the stuff he's doing with you on THE SITUATION ROOM and saying, well, we can't have any more of that.

President Obama's honeymoon with the American public might be drawing to a close. Princeton professor Julian Zelizer writes in a piece for CNN.com that the president who once seemed invincible is now seen as potential vulnerable. "This is where when the sharks begin to circle in American politics."

Zelizer points to the tensions between the left and center of the president's own Democratic Party. For example, gay rights activists are disappointed with President Obama for not living up to promises they thought he made.

Cracks in party unity will likely make it more difficult to get legislation like health care reform through the Congress. Color that dead.

Then there's the deficit. Republicans have gotten some traction by seizing on the record spending and linking the president's policies to the government's red ink.

And there's also the wider question on the economy. Now that things have stabilized somewhat, voters aren't as panicked and Republicans are asking why the U.S. needs to spend stimulus money if the recession is almost over.

On the international front, of course, the president facing criticism over his response to crises like Iran, North Korea. Nevertheless, even though some are taking issue with the president's policies, the polls show the president himself remains very popular among Americans.

The CNN Poll of Polls shows Mr. Obama with a 60 percent approval rating. His average rating has held steady for the last two months and is higher now than either those of President Bush or President Clinton as a comparable time in office.

So here's the question: Is President Barack Obama's honeymoon over? Go to cnn.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

Iranians are using their cell phones to record history, and the government they're protesting is trying to keep track of their every photo and message. Stand by for an update.

And scenes of devastation and a higher death toll. We're about to tell you what we're learning about that D.C. subway disaster.

And reporters try to smoke out the truth. Does President Obama still light up? And if so, how often?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Only I'm the president of the United States, and I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are we continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Obama says he's the president, not just a member of Congress, and he has major responsibilities that they don't necessarily have.

We want to continue to update you on the very latest on the situation involving Iran. Now, the president was responding to criticism from several Republicans, including John McCain, that he hasn't spoken out forcefully enough about Iran's violence.

Meanwhile, the president also used today's news conference to tackle other major issues you care about, specifically health care reform.

Let's talk about all of this with our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Let me play this little clip, Gloria, and then we'll discuss it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Let's say that we take the advice of some folks who are out there and say, oh, this is not the time to do health care. We can't afford it, it's too complicated, let's take our time, et cetera. So let's assume that nothing happened. I can guarantee you that there's the possibility for a whole lot of Americans out there that they're not going to end up having the same health care they have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. He's only making his case for health care reform, but who is he specifically addressing? GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: It's interesting. He's talking to the audience of people who have health insurance, because if you look at polls, Wolf, you know, a large majority of Americans say, you know what? I kind of like the health insurance I have, it works, my employers provides it to me.

And what he was doing today was saying to those people, you know what? If we don't get health reform through, your employer is not going to be able to afford that health insurance, so your health insurance may change.

He's also talking to the people who are worried about health reform in terms of the deficit. And what he said today is, look, health care costs drive the federal deficit, they add to the deficit. So even though this is going to cost us at least a trillion dollars over 19 years, in the long term it will help reduce the deficit.

BLITZER: I want to bring in our "Strategy Session."

Don't go away, Gloria.

Donna Brazile and Alex Castellanos, they're walking in right now.

And I want to pick both of your brains.

First of all, Donna, the president today, considerably more forceful and assertive in going up against this Iranian regime, and he was asked very bluntly by a reporter today, what took you so long?

Go ahead.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, first of all, Wolf, the situation has changed over the last couple of days. It's been 10 days now since the election. And what has happened is that the people have decided to take to the streets to protest not just the election results, but basically the sermon from the supreme leader. So I think President Obama has struck the right tone in criticizing what has taken place in Iran, at the same time maintaining the option to even say more.

BLITZER: Are you happy with the tone that he struck today?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think there were two problems with today. One is, he said basically the same thing he said before, which is he didn't want to upset the Iranian leaders. Well, when you say you don't want to upset the ayatollah, you're putting him in charge of America's foreign policy. I don't think that's a position he wants to be in.

And two, in the president's Cairo speech he said he wouldn't say anything behind closed doors that he wouldn't say in public. Well, diplomacy is the art of the indirect. He's taking the bat out of America's hands. And so I think he's put himself in a weak position which is still unresolved.

BORGER: But did he say he didn't want to upset the ayatollah, or did he say he respects the sovereignty of Iran?

BRAZILE: He said he did not want the United States to be a scapegoat, to be used as a fall, to even bring on more repressive tactics against the people who are protesting. He has been strong, he's been effective, he has been adamant that what has taken place in Iran is actually wrong.

BLITZER: But he's right when he says he has got responsibilities that Senator McCain doesn't have.

CASTELLANOS: Of course he does, but exercising those responsibilities in such a weak way, look what the Iranians have done anyway. You know, killing rioters in the streets, suppressing democracy there. And instead of standing up from day one, clearly for freedom, he's not. Freedom wilts in those situations.

BLITZER: All right.

BRAZILE: He did before the election when he saw the protests nightly. He did stand...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He did condemn the violence, he said he was appalled, and he used some pretty strong words.

But let me move out to a different subject, a mystery in South Carolina that's unfolding right now. And Peter Hamby, one of our political producers, is in South Carolina right now. It involves the disappearance, if you will, of the governor, Mark Sanford.

What's the latest on this story, Peter?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Hey, Wolf.

The latest is -- that we're hearing from the governor's office is that Governor Sanford called to check in with his chief of staff this morning after sort of mysteriously disappears for about five days and said that he was taken aback by all this attention, but he is coming back to Columbia tomorrow. And we're still waiting to see if he'll talk to reporters.

The second piece of this puzzle is Jenny Sanford, who is regarded as one of Mark Sanford's closest political advisers, talked to CNN's David Mattingly down in Sullivan's Island, where the family's vacation home is, and she said she still has not talked to her husband and does not know where he is. She told CNN that she is become a mom today, "I have not heard from my husband, I am taking care of my children."

So that's the latest we've heard -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A strange story, Alex, and maybe you have some inside information that the rest of us don't have. But he has four sons and he didn't want to be with them on Father's Day. Is that right?

CASTELLANOS: Well, this is a strange story. And there comes a point that a political leader just gets a little too flaky to be trusted by the public.

You know, being absent from his home on Father's Day and Friday was Nude Hiking Day on the Appalachian trail, it turns out.

BORGER: Thank you for sharing that.

CASTELLANOS: So, yes, it's a little difficult -- the lesson maybe Washington could learn is maybe we could lose a few politicians up here and save some money. But this a problem in South Carolina, because the governor of South Carolina is the chief law enforcement officer. Executive power to deal with emergencies flows through his pen. The state did not know where he was.

BLITZER: And usually there's a state trooper with a governor. I mean, I have never heard of a situation where a governor simply disappears.

Have you?

BRAZILE: Well, no, and I'm from Louisiana, and we've heard of strange things. But let me just say this, that it's appropriate for any official to take time off, to rest and to relax, but he should have told someone exactly his whereabouts just in case. A few weeks ago he was out of the country when the fires broke out in Myrtle Beach, and no one knew, not the state, not the press, anyone. So I'm surprised his wife is not familiar with his whereabouts.

He has some explaining to do. If that was my husband, Wolf...

BLITZER: And the lieutenant governor says -- and he's a political rival, but he didn't know where he was off to.

What do you make of this?

BORGER: Well, let's just say at the very least, it's highly irregular, and as somebody who has presidential ambitions, which I think this governor had -- and that's past tense -- should not be behaving this way. I remember when during the last campaign the word "erratic" was used to describe Senator John McCain, and it didn't do him any good.

CASTELLANOS: If he was camping, he's going to explain where he was planting his tent pole.

BLITZER: Yes. And you speak from somebody who knows the Carolinas. You're from North Carolina. So you obviously know something. I'm curious...

CASTELLANOS: We usually keep track of our governors down there.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll see what's going on.

All right, guys. Thanks very much.

Checking in on two American journalists sentenced to 12 years hard labor in North Korea, they've had a new meeting with a diplomat looking in to try to help them. Stand by.

And regarding images and words Iran does not want you to see or hear, is Iran's government spying on cell phones, using technology obtained from a western company?

Stand by. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Two Iranians who have just escaped from Iran are here in the United States. They're speaking out and they're saying what they saw in Iran over these past 10 days is sheer terror. Sheer terror.

We're going to be speaking with them in the next hour. Stand by for that. Much more of our coverage of what's happening in Iran coming up.

We'll also be speaking with Roger Cohen of "The New York Times." He's still in Tehran. We'll get his eyewitness account of what's happening right now.

But first, let's check in with Betty Nguyen.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, President Obama says he, like the entire world, is heartbroken. He's reacting to the powerful and disturbing images of a young female protester whose death was captured on a cell phone camera. Are images like these the reason his rhetoric seems to be ratcheting up?

Also, some of Iran's religious leaders are joining the protest. Might this be an ominous sign for the regime?

And the president takes a question from an Iranian in Iran, but asked by HuffingtonPost.com. Did the president know about it ahead of time?

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

More powerful images from Iran downloaded in the past several hours on the Internet. We're keeping track of it all for you right here on CNN.

A bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters appears to be keeping demonstrators off the streets today, but Iranians still are trying to let the entire world see their anger about disputed presidential elections. It's a message literally being shouted from the rooftops.

Listen to this.

Let's bring in our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's over at the Iran desk at CNN global headquarters. A new warning today for these Iranians. What's going on, Abbi?

TATTON: Wolf, we wanted to bring you a message, a letter in Farsi that has been posted online and has been circulating, a message that says, "Protest, but don't wear green. Don't say anything." Effectively, protest without actually protesting.

You'll find this letter at the Facebook page attributed to former president Mohammad Khatami, someone who has questioned the election results. This letter tells people to go out from today into the bazaars, into the shopping districts, and don't use the peace sign, don't carry signs, don't wear green, which is the color of the Moussavi campaign, don't say anything.

Effectively, it's telling them to carry out civil disobedience, but without doing anything that could get them arrested. This following the protests of people wearing green that you've sees in the last few days that ended with that crackdown over the weekend, people arrested, people killed.

This message very hard to authenticate, but it is definitely circulating. We've seen it posted elsewhere.

The message being that, this way, if you all congregate en masse around the shopping districts, around the bazaars, you'll have the effect of shutting them down. And that comes after yesterday. There was a lot of talk online of a general strike today, trying to shut down some of the businesses in protests. And we have heard some reports on the ground, though hard to quantify, that some shops, some outlets have been closed.

Again, that posting posted in Farsi to the Facebook page to former president Khatami, and that has been circulating online. We've seen it on multiple blogs and other postings -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That whole issue of the color green very significant -- "The New York Times" now reporting that six members of the Iranian soccer team who wore green at one of the recent games have been kicked off the team. Let's hope they have just been kicked off the team.

One of the few journalists still on the scene in Tehran is Roger Cohen of "The New York Times." He's being doing some amazing reporting. And, only moments ago, I spoke with him as he was getting ready to fly out of Tehran.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Give us your eyewitness account today. What did you see on the streets of Tehran as you prepare to leave?

ROGER COHEN, COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, Tehran today was much calmer. There's no doubt that the massive display of the -- of force has had a chilling effect, and I think also the fact that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader, has been invisible now for about five days, although he has put out statements saying that his followers have the right to protest, that and also maybe some exhaustion, after 10 days of protests, plus the Guardian Council coming out today and saying what was inevitable, that the election holds, even as they that three million votes might have been counted wrong.

I think all that has had -- has had the effect of, today, at least, keeping people off the streets. As I was leaving, driving through Tehran at night, and particularly through southern Tehran, massive, massive presence of Revolutionary Guards on the street, Basiji, police, everything that I have grown used to over the last 10 days, since -- since the election result came through.

BLITZER: It sounds like you're describing a -- a good old- fashioned police state during the height of the Cold War. Is that what you're seeing and feeling, a dramatic change in Tehran like that?

COHEN: Well, certainly, Tehran, for the last 10 days, Wolf, has been a police state.

It started -- and this was the strange thing -- it started at 1:00 in the morning of the Saturday after the Friday the 12th vote. And anybody who was here immediately felt that something very, very bizarre was going on.

Why, if you have won two-thirds of the vote, do you follow that with what amounted to a kind of push that shut down everything? And, ever since then, this show of force has been relentless. And the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made it pretty clear in his sermon last Friday that he was going to ram this through, however fraudulent it might have been.

And that's -- that's the position they have taken. I think the regime will pay a price over the -- over the long term. But, right now -- right now, the opposition has lost, I think, a little of the momentum that it had, even if the anger and the determination are still there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to have more of my interview with Roger Cohen of "The New York Times," still in Tehran. That's coming up in the next hour. We talk about the mystery surrounding the president, Ahmadinejad. Where is he? Why has he been largely invisible over the past few days? Good question. We will hear what he thinks about that.

Iran's economy certainly on shaky ground -- it's controlled largely by the state, relies heavily on oil exports. Oil prices, though, are down from record highs, and that is slowing economic growth dramatically, and driving unemployment way up.

The Iranian government puts unemployment at 12.5 percent, but some reports, reliable reports, put it at 20 percent or even higher. And depending on who is reporting it, Iran's inflation rate is between nearly 24 percent and 28 percent.

We heard President Obama today flat-out condemning the Iranian government's bloody crackdown on protesters. I will ask the president's senior adviser, David Axelrod -- Axelrod why the tougher tone is happening now. Axelrod is standing by live.

Plus, the deadly D.C. Metro crash -- could aging train cars have been a factor in the disaster? We have a transportation expert standing by.

And the death of a second banana who became a star in his own right -- my memories of Ed McMahon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama is using words like appalled and condemn. It appears that his rhetoric is certainly ratcheting -- ratcheting up over what's happening in Iran.

Let's talk about it with White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

David, thanks very much for coming in.

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's been very cautious over the past 10 days. He didn't want the United States to become, all of a sudden, the issue, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations. But a lot of that caution went away today.

Why?

AXELROD: Well, I think his -- his rhetoric has changed as events have changed there.

You're right. He was cautious and has been cautious, because he doesn't want to lend himself or the United States to the propaganda intentions of the -- of the leaders in Iran. This isn't between us and them. It's between them and their own people. And he wanted to make that clear.

But, obviously, the thing has escalated. There's been a lot of tragic loss of life. We have all been exposed to that through the various video that's been circulating. And -- and, so, we all feel that same sense that he expressed -- that he expressed today.

BLITZER: Is he still concerned, though, that what he -- his latest remarks condemning the situation in Iran right now, that that could play into the hands of the hard-liners there, and they could say, "Look, this is the United States who is responsible, and they're meddling in our internal affairs"?

AXELROD: Well, remember, he -- even today, he separated out two issues. We didn't have election observers there. We're not in a position to judge what happened. And he made that clear again today.

But everybody can see with their own eyes the suppression of peaceful protesters in Iran. And that offends our sensibilities and those of people across the world.

So, you know, I think that demands that we -- that we speak out, but still making clear that we're not meddling in their internal affairs, and, in fact, this is, in fact, a -- a dispute between the leaders of Iran and their own people.

BLITZER: And in the midst of all of this extraordinary scenes of protests that we're seeing on the streets in Iran and the violence, is it your sense that the Iranians are still moving ahead towards the development of a nuclear bomb?

AXELROD: Well, I don't want to comment on -- on what, in many ways, are intelligence matters, Wolf.

Obviously, we still have a -- suffice it to say that the president, the administration, and the world still has a concern about the nuclear program in Iran and what their intentions are. And that is something that we have to pursue.

Nobody believes that it's in the interests of that region or the world for them to develop a nuclear weapon. And the president is pursuing all avenues to try and prevent that.

BLITZER: There's no doubt that the president sought to reach out to the Iranian regime. Even before he was elected president of the United States, he wanted to establish a dialogue.

And, in recent weeks, the State Department even sending a cable to its embassies around the world: On July 4, go ahead and celebrate the Fourth of July, and invite, if you want, Iranian diplomats serving in Paris, or London, or -- or Beijing, or anyplace else.

Does that invitation, as far as you know, David, still hold?

AXELROD: Well, I will just repeat what the president said today. All of this is now in the hands of the Iranians. They can choose to isolate themselves from the world through their behavior, or they can try and develop relationships. And we will await -- we will wait and see what they do.

BLITZER: So, let me just be clear. Does the invitation to come and have a hot dog at July Fourth festivities at U.S. embassies to Iranian diplomats, is -- that invitation, does it still stand?

AXELROD: Wolf, I don't think anybody is worried about hot dogs right now. There's a crisis in that country we're all watching with interest, and we will see what develops.

BLITZER: But it is a symbolic gesture, if the U.S. wants to go ahead with it.

AXELROD: Well, again, this is beyond symbolism now. There's a serious crisis there. Let's see what unfolds in the days to come.

BLITZER: Explain, if you can, because I have in my hand a new book that Dennis Ross co-wrote entitled "Myths, Illusions, and Peace" about the situation in the Middle East, including a large chunk on Iran.

He was the special enjoy at the State Department for Iran, but now he's being moved to the White House. What is going on there?

AXELROD: Well, Dennis Ross is obviously one of America's most experienced diplomats and students of that region. And, so, his presence here would enhance our ability within the national security operation to -- to monitor events.

BLITZER: Is Iran still going to be part of his port -- portfolio?

AXELROD: Well, I'm not going to discuss that.

We will wait for -- for official announcements. But, you know, Dennis Ross is a valued member of this administration, and -- and his insights are particularly valuable to the president and to the administration at this time.

BLITZER: It's amazing how much the president has on his plate right now, national security issues, domestic issues that he's working on, including health care.

But North Korea, they have been threatening to launch some sort of missile in the direction of Hawaii around July 4. Is that just bluff on the part of Kim Jong Il? Or, based on what you're hearing, David, is that serious?

AXELROD: Well, again, that's something I'm not going to address directly.

Obviously, we're concerned about -- about what the North Koreans are up to. They have -- the entire world has come together to condemn the atomic test that they conducted several weeks ago. And -- and the entire world has a vested interest in -- in curbing their behavior.

And, , they have a vested interest in curbing their behavior, because the economic -- the economic net is going to -- is going to constrict around them. They're going to be very isolated economically, as well as in every other way. And they have to consider whether they want to take further provocative acts.

BLITZER: It's almost breathtaking, what's going on in the world right now. And the president has got, as I say, a full, full agenda.

David Axelrod, thanks for joining us.

AXELROD: All right, Wolf, thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Amateur video from Iran has given us a window into the unrest that has been playing out for days now. With journalists under tight restrictions, citizens with cell phones are recording history. And the Iranian government is watching, watching very closely.

We asked Brian Todd to take a closer look into this part of the story. What did you find out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we all know a lot of cell phone calls and video transmissions are getting out of Iran these days. They're often our only window into what's going on there. But, with the help of Western firms, the Iranian government can monitor them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It might someday be called the cell phone revolution, Iranian protesters transmitting unforgettable images from the streets through their mobile networks.

We have counted on these pictures and on cell phone calls. But so have Iranian authorities. A European firm, Nokia Siemens, confirms that, late last year, it sold the Iranian government some of the technology to monitor and control local cell and landline calls. And experts believe, right now, Iranian intelligence and law enforcement agencies are putting it in overdrive.

IRA WINKLER, FORMER ANALYST, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: They would have their monitoring station, which goes ahead and would list the source and the destination of every cell phone call that happens to be going on. Also, that would probably include text messages as well.

TODD: Ira Winkler is a former NSA analyst who has written several books on cyber-security. He says, with the technology the Iranian government bought, officials can double-click on any phone numbers that come up on their monitors and, in real time, listen to calls and look at texts.

A Nokia Siemens spokesman tells CNN the company sold Iran the same technology that U.S. telecom companies are legally required to have for lawful intercepts by U.S. authorities. And the spokesman says the technology doesn't allow the Iranian government to filter or censor Internet content.

But Winkler says Iranian authorities can block these phone calls and monitor the dramatic cell phone video we have all seen.

(on camera): I'm a protester. You're taking some video me. You want to send it on YouTube. How do they know that you're doing that?

WINKLER: You will see a lot of transmission going in and out of my phone here. And, basically, the volume of transmission, how long it takes, the fact that I'm doing more sending than receiving, that's an indication -- it's what's called traffic analysis -- to say this phone is sending an awful lot of data in one direction.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Winkler says, Iranian authorities cannot see that video in real time. They can just tell the video is going out. But every phone is also the equivalent of a GPS locator. It's the same in this part of the world. So, Iranian authorities can see where the video -- video is being sent from. And they will be able to view the video later when it's posted, Wolf. They can track that video as well.

BLITZER: But it's also true it's because of the technology of companies like Nokia Siemens that we're able to see some of these dramatic images to begin with.

TODD: Absolutely. And you cannot deny that fact. A Nokia Siemens person told us that, look, they have expanded their networks there over the past you're. They're getting millions of Iranians access to cell phones, and their mobile networks, the Internet usage, and also the video transmission that they never had before.

So, it is -- they have opened it up, so that we can see some of these images. This is a double-edged sword.

BLITZER: It's very dangerous for these Iranians who are posting and trying to send out these images...

TODD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... as well.

Thank you, Brian, for that.

Escape from Iran -- two women who just landed in the United States from Tehran describe the state of terror -- their words -- they left behind.

Plus, the D.C. mayor describes the Metro crash scene as a sight no one should have to see. We have new information on the investigation and whether the trains were missing something that could have prevented the accident.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're constantly monitoring events, dramatic events, in Iran.

We're getting some new iReports coming in to our Iran desk. Abbi Tatton is there. We're going to have them for you. That is coming up momentarily.

But let's move on to another important story you saw breaking here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday.

The mayor of Washington, D.C., says it's a sight -- and I'm quoting now -- "no one should have to see," the twisted wreckage from the worst subway train accident in the history of the local transit authority. Nine people are now confirmed dead.

Let's get more from CNN's Jeanne Meserve. She is joining us now with the investigation that is unfolding. What is going on, Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, rescue workers spent much of the day peeling back that wreckage and extracting victims.

As you say, the confirmed death count now is nine. But we're expecting a briefing in the next 10 minutes. That number could change. Frankly, some rescue workers have told us they're surprised the death toll isn't higher.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (voice-over): Working in the mangled wreckage of the trains alongside personnel, crash investigators seeking clues to how and why one train rammed into other sitting on the tracks.

The second train was traveling so fast, its front car ended up on top of the first train. In that front car was Jamie Jaio. He walked away with minor injuries, and investigators have already interviewed him.

JAMIE JAIO, TRAIN CRASH SURVIVOR: A few minutes before the crash, the train did stop for a bit. But that's routine. It happens all the time. You don't think of -- think about it. And then we start moving. But, usually, when you start moving, you expect the train in front to have moved already.

MESERVE: The driver of that second train was killed, leaving a lot of unanswered questions. Investigators will give special scrutiny to the automated system that ordinarily guides Metro trains at rush hour.

PETER GOELZ, FORMER MANAGING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: If it was in automated mode, then there's some real questions about, why did it accelerate and hit the standing train? The system is specifically designed to, you know, prevent that kind of occurrence. And it's got a pretty good record.

MESERVE: Even in automatic mode, the operator can manually take control in an emergency, raising the question, why didn't the operator see the stopped train ahead and brake? Investigators will be studying the tracks to see if she had a clear line of sight. They will also ask, was she tired, distracted?

DEBBIE HERSMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD MEMBER: We're going to be doing a 72-hour look-back at this operator's history. We're also going to be preservation records on any records, cell phone records or text records.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: The NTSB has repeatedly suggested to Metro that it put data recorders on its trains to help in an investigation. That hasn't happened. Metro also hasn't complied with another suggestion, that older cars be either phased out or retrofitted to better withstand a crash. In this accident, many of the deaths occurred in those older, unmodified cars -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Let's just hope they learn the lessons of this crash to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Firsthand accounts of what is happening in Iran are certainly hard to come by, but we have tracked down two women who have just escaped. They have landed in the United States from Tehran, and they're telling horror stories of the government crackdown on protesters. Stand by.

And President Obama answers new questions about whether he's practicing what he's preaching about the evils of smoking.

And remembering a TV trailblazer, Johnny Carson's longtime sidekick, Ed McMahon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: On our "Political Ticker": President Obama is grilled about his smoking habit, a day after signing unprecedented anti- smoking legislation. Mr. Obama has been cagey about exactly how much he still smokes, but, today, reporters pinned him down.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have said before that, as a former smoker I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes.

The -- am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No.

I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. And, you know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured. But there are times where...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: There are times where I mess up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Remember, for the latest political news any time, you can always check out CNNPolitics.com.

Jack Cafferty, I admire him for at least telling us the truth about that.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: How refreshing is he? I mean, that's -- that's great. I was a smoker, and I quit 20 years ago. And I -- you know, I -- I could never consider myself 95 percent cured. You either smoke or you don't. And I had to quit it completely.

My -- my late wife used to be able to have a cigarette once in a blue moon, and then not have one for a month. But I couldn't do that. If it lit one, then I had to have another one and another one. And I was a three-pack-a-day smoker for a long time.

But I hope he's successful and can quit completely.

The question this hour: Is President Obama's honeymoon over?

Doug writes Dallas: "President Obama has tackled more problems in his five months than most new presidents would see in one or two years. He is becoming a victim of the American instant-gratification syndrome. Forget about the fact all the issues on his plate not only require tough decisions; they also don't pay instant dividends."

Jeff in South Dakota: "For the sake of the country, I hope Mr. Obama soon puts an end to his own honeymoon by pushing the audacity envelope on a number of issues. Someone has to aim high once in a while. When members of his own party get nervous enough to ape the opposition, he will know he's on the right track. An end run around Congress aimed directly at the American people could easily energize the electorate into doing a lot of the blocking for him."

Agnes in Arizona: "The president's honeymoon was over the night of the inauguration. His style, wisdom and demeanor are traits the hard-line D.C. crowd can't get their hands around. Baffled as they are, they try to spin discord."

Mike in Guatemala writes: "His honeymoon has been like a honeymoon with your mother-in-law along. I admire him for most of his ideas, but I am nearly 100 percent skeptical that they can become reality, because there is no money to pay for them. As other politicians, including many Democrats, see the funding problem, his honeymoon will be coming to an end very quickly."

And Don in Wisconsin writes, "His honeymoon will be over when Chris Matthews' leg stops tingling."

If you didn't see...

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: ... your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile. Look for yours there, among hundreds of others.

You know, his personal popularity is staying up right there, even though there are some questions now beginning about some of his policies -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, 60 percent job approval, not too shabby.

CAFFERTY: Pretty good, yes. BLITZER: All right, that's very good.

All right, Jack, thank you.

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

Happening now, breaking news: We're just getting in new iReports from inside Iran telling of a heavy militia presence on the streets of the Capitol having a major impact on election protests. We're about to hear from two women who have just escaped from the country. They're revealing new details of the horror unfolding in Tehran.

Also, the searing image of a young woman's bloody death helps prompts President Obama to take his toughest stance yet against Iran's brutal crackdown. Will his sharper tone have any impact?

And the death toll in Washington's Metro train crash climbs to nine. We're standing by for a live news conference this hour. Plus, a top transportation expert says, safety officials should have seen this disaster