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North Korea Pardons U.S. Journalists; Severe Weather in Southeast U.S.

Aired August 4, 2009 - 18:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Well, happening now, breaking news, two jailed American journalists will soon be home. And they owe a huge thanks to Bill Clinton. He secured their release from North Korean imprisonment. What, if anything, did both sides have to give up?

And while Clinton was at the negotiating table, why wasn't Al Gore, who the women work for, or Bill Richardson, who's previously helped free Americans from North Korea's grip?

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in the "Situation Room."

Right now, it is morning in North Korea. There is speculation that Bill Clinton is still there.

But North Korea's state-run media says that he has left. It says Clinton got on a plane with his party. It is unclear if they are including American journalist Euna Lee and Laura Ling as part of that party or where Clinton will head next.

What is clear is that Clinton scored a diplomatic triumph. He secured the journalists release from North Korean imprisonment. They had been sentenced to 12 years hard labor on charges of illegally entering North Korea. And it's just the second time a former U.S. president has visited Pyongyang, the results of hush-hush negotiations. The White House calls it a private mission and denies a report that Clinton delivered a message from President Obama.

The White House is mostly mum about this stunning development.

Let's bring in our CNN White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

And, what do we know, Dan?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you, as you pointed out there, the White House is saying that despite these reports that the president, President Obama, gave a message to former President Clinton to deliver to North Korea, that is simply -- quote -- "not true," nothing written, nothing verbal. But, apparently, a message from the president here was not needed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): It was a secret mission by a high-level envoy, former President Clinton. Even as he was getting flowers on his arrival in North Korea, the White House was mum, no details, no confirmation until almost 10 hours later. Why this delicate diplomatic dance?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This, obviously, is a very sensitive topic. We will hope to provide some more detail at a later point. Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety of two journalists that are in North Korea right now.

LOTHIAN: According to sources intimately involved with the efforts, this was a culmination of weeks of quiet diplomacy and that Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was also closely involved.

One expert suggests the deal was virtually done before former President Clinton landed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That doesn't mean every detail is locked down and it doesn't mean things can't go wrong. But he wouldn't have gone unless he thought there was a good chance of success.

LOTHIAN: The two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were sentenced in June to 12 years in prison after being charged with entering North Korea illegally to conduct a smear campaign.

According to North Korea's state news agency, Clinton met with Kim Jong Ill and -- quote -- "courteously conveyed an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them and send them back home from a humanitarian point of view."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now, there is some talk that this could improve the relationship between the United States and North Korea, perhaps bring North Korea back to the table. But the White House trying to put some distance between these two different matters, saying that they are separate matters, that what happened today is a humanitarian issue -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Dan, do we know if President Clinton was asked to deliver a message to President Obama from the White House?

LOTHIAN: And the White House saying that that is simply not the case. And beyond that they are not really giving us any other details, saying that essentially they don't want to give any comment, any more information until he has left North Korea.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Dan.

Well, you may remember, the women were arrested in March along the Chinese-North Korean border while working on a story and sentenced in June, as we mentioned, on charges of illegally entering the North. They work for Current TV, Al Gore's media venture. Lee is South Korean born but a U.S. citizen. She is married and she has a daughter. Laura Ling is also married and the younger sister of journalist Lisa Ling. It's been a tough few months for their families, obviously. Listen to what the sister recently told our CNN's Anderson Cooper.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LISA LING, SISTER OF LAURA LING: All we can say is that they are journalists and they were doing their job. My sister has been a journalist for years. And that's really all we can say. We weren't in the courtroom. We don't know any sort of specifics other than what was released.

We just hope, given the fact that we know the girls have apologized profusely, that they will let the girls come home to us. It's been three months and that's been too long for us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: In our chalk talk, what might both sides at the negotiating table have given up?

Let's bring in Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute. He was the special envoy for North Korea in George W. Bush's administration and an adviser regarding the Korean Peninsula in the Clinton administration. He's here along with CNN's Tom Foreman.

Jack, let me start off with a really basic question here. In all of these pictures we have seen, the North Korean president looks like a very happy man here. Why is he so happy?

JACK PRITCHARD, PRESIDENT, KOREA ECONOMIC INSTITUTE: Well, he is happy because he is standing right next to Bill Clinton. He has wanted to have Bill Clinton there for a number of years. And finally he's achieved that. That's the happiest I have ever seen him.

FOREMAN: Why was Bill Clinton such an important guest for him?

PRITCHARD: Well, you may recall, in October of 2000, Kim Jong Il sent a special envoy, his number two person, Vice Marshal Jo Myong- rok, to the White House to meet with Bill Clinton. He brought a letter of invitation from Kim Jong Il to Bill Clinton: Please come, and we will do all of your concerns about security issues at the time.

FOREMAN: Security issues, sure, sure.

MALVEAUX: And the White House has said all along that this is an unofficial visit. So how does something like this actually get arranged and worked out this way?

FOREMAN: It looks very official.

(CROSSTALK)

PRITCHARD: Very official.

When you take a look at this, you have got John Podesta -- there we go -- former chief of staff. (CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: Why don't you go ahead and just circle the people we are talking about here?

PRITCHARD: We're talking John Podesta, former chief of staff under Bill Clinton. You have David Straub, an expert on Korean issues, fluent in Korea, was the former Korean affairs officials at the Department of State.

FOREMAN: So you have got some big players here in any event.

PRITCHARD: Yes, you do.

FOREMAN: What about -- let's move on back here and look at the actual table. They finally sat down across from each other. This looks like a negotiation. What exactly are they talking about? On the surface, they are talking about these two young women. Is that really the main order of business?

(CROSSTALK)

PRITCHARD: No. This is why they are there. And those two young women, as we now know, have been pardoned. They will be on that plane with Bill Clinton. But the purpose of this whole trip, from a North Korean perspective, was to get in the meeting room with Bill Clinton.

This is the same table that we sat across with Kim Jong Il nine years ago with Secretary Albright, essentially the same lineup that Kim Jong Il has with him now. But he wants to talk about other issues, and he particularly wants to talk about the U.S. relationship.

FOREMAN: So, this is partially about world respect, to some degree. They want to be seen as big, important players and having someone like Bill Clinton sit down with them makes them look that way.

(CROSSTALK)

PRITCHARD: The North Koreans, whenever you talk about -- talk to them, they say, listen, we are a small country, but for them having respect equalizes the differences in economic and military power. So, it's very important for respect.

MALVEAUX: And tell us this business about the North Koreans. What did they say about Hillary Clinton looking like a schoolgirl and going shopping? What was that about? What was that mean to convey?

PRITCHARD: Well, what they can't do is let the rhetoric go by without responding to it, particularly if it refers to what they call their leadership, Kim Jong Il, or their system. When that happens, they feel compelled to respond.

FOREMAN: And her comment suggested that their system was biased, it was unfair, it wasn't just. They didn't like that.

(CROSSTALK) PRITCHARD: That's absolutely correct.

And part of what has occurred here is to rectify what she said publicly. The North Koreans sent a signal that said, listen, we need an apology for this. We need our system to be recognized. Now, the U.S. government can't do that. They can't issue an official apology to the North Koreans.

But Secretary Clinton did something that was quite astute. She had an opportunity at an informal gathering, a news conference, if you will, talking about the two young women and she said the family has been very remorseful about this situation, and, quite frankly, we are all very sorry that it has happened. And we hope the North Koreans will grant amnesty according to their system.

Those were code words that were taken back to the North Koreans and said, listen, this is as good as you are going to get. The secretary of state has said, hey, listen, we are sorry this has happened. And we respect your system. It is up to you to let them go.

FOREMAN: What about Kim Jong Il himself? Because this is a photograph of him from some years ago, much, much healthier, much happier-looking guy. Many people have said his health officials are really playing into the hands of his own opponents in his own country who want to say, you are no longer fit to be leader and your son is not fit to take over.

How does this help him?

(CROSSTALK)

PRITCHARD: Well, that may be an exaggeration.

There really are not factions within North Korea that would say that and survive very long. But the feeling may very well be there.

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: Covertly.

(CROSSTALK)

PRITCHARD: Covertly at best. But it has said for the last year, his health is in question the future of the regime, the future of the Kim family. And So they have been undergoing this let's take measures for short-circuiting this problem.

They have expanded the national defense committee. They put his brother-in-law on there, kind of would be a future mentor to one of his sons, probably his third and youngest son.

MALVEAUX: What do you think President Clinton picks up from actually seeing Kim Jong Il, the way he appears, the way he looks, his sense of health and his sense of power in the regime? PRITCHARD: Yes. You can tell a great deal. And I go back to the meeting with Secretary Albright that I was on. He will do that. He is very astute, as you well know.

But equally as important, this man here, David Straub, will provide the contextual analysis for the president's own observations of the health, the welfare, the authority that Kim has.

FOREMAN: So, and one more question about this, just because some of this seems so strange to us. You know the culture there. You know the government there a lot more.

What does this -- frankly, what does a portrait like this stay? This looks so stiff and so formal compared to what we do here. What is this all about?

(CROSSTALK)

PRITCHARD: Well, this is very standard. And I go back to previous, -- almost the same scene, very powerful, a larger-than-life painting in the background, the carpet that extends throughout the hall. And now you have the one and only North Korean in the picture. He doesn't have any aides there. He doesn't have his first vice minister there.

And this is the entire U.S. delegation that went on this trip, very somber. But this is just the scene setter for the Korean newspaper. The president of the United States and his delegation has come to meet and talk with our leader.

MALVEAUX: Projects a sense of power?

PRITCHARD: It does, indeed.

FOREMAN: Just because you would know and I bet you can predict it, how will this, this picture and all of this, be reported to the North Korean people?

PRITCHARD: Well, we are getting a sense of that already in some of the -- what we see, the reporting. It will be very strange.

If we were to read this -- if President Clinton were to take a look at this and say, I didn't say that, I didn't come and give an abject apology, I didn't ask for leniency, I -- he may very well have conveyed a U.S. type of message. But for the North Koreans, they heard it exactly the way they wanted it. And that's the way it will be reported.

MALVEAUX: OK, Jack Pritchard, thank you very much.

Thank you, Tom.

We will get back to the breaking news from North Korea in just a moment. But, first, Jack Cafferty joins us this hour with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: All right, thanks, Suzanne.

Remember the recession? Some of the sharper financial minds out there think that the worst recession in decades may be ending soon. Economist Nouriel Roubini says -- quote -- "There is now potentially light at the end of the tunnel." And he thinks the recession will end at the end of this year. He is worth listening to. He predicted the financial crisis.

But his prediction isn't all rosy. He says there is a chance the economy will begin to recover, only to drop back into a recession by late 2010 or 2011 because of growing government debt, among other things, a so-called double dip recession.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says he is pretty sure we have seen the bottom of this thing and that economic growth may even pick up at a faster rate than what experts are predicting, but Greenspan warns recovery depends a lot on the housing market, which could possibly take another downward turn.

Other positive signs include recent reports on improving home and automobile sales, along with GDP numbers that show the economy shrank much less than it did in the second quarter. President Obama has credited the economic stimulus package for helping get things back on track. He say sit helped -- quote -- "put brakes on recession" -- unquote. And he says he is optimistic now about the economy, although there is -- quote -- "still a lot more work to do" -- unquote.

One of the biggest areas of concern is unemployment. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says, even as the economy begins to improve overall, the unemployment rate may not peak until the second half of 2010.

So, here is the question. How will you know when the recession ends? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. You can post a comment on my blog.

There seems to be a consensus that things are starting to look up, but we have got a ways to go -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Yes, got to feel it first.

OK, thanks, Jack.

Well, he has been to North Korea and stared into the eyes of its leader. Governor and former Clinton administration official Bill Richardson, he has been in tough negotiations to free Americans from North Korea's grip. Wait until you hear his firsthand accounts.

And their co-workers cheer the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling. We are live at the media company where these women work.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: More on breaking news this hour, the pardon of two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea. It is being celebrated right now by their colleagues in Current TV in San Francisco. That is where -- our own CNN's Dan Simon.

And, Dan, we are watching right now a picture of some bars from North Korean television awaiting for any kind of news or fresh video from there. It is about 7:15 in the morning North Korea time. Reports that President Clinton has left. And we don't know whether or not the journalists are with him. But I imagine there is a lot of anticipation where you are about their fate.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Suzanne.

I can tell you that we are basically doing the same thing here, waiting for any word from the folks here at Current TV. We are in downtown San Francisco. You can see the Current sign there. And obviously, a number of media crews have assembled here. We are actually creating a little bit of a hazard, if you will, inside the lobby. There are a bunch of crews waiting really to hear from an executive from Current TV.

Building security politely asked us to come outside while we wait for word from the Current folks. I can tell you that when I was inside earlier, inside the lobby, CNN was being broadcast. There were about a half a dozen employees watching our coverage. Of course, they, along with everybody else, was in the dark what was happening. So, they were watching in real time waiting for all the latest developments.

But I did speak to one company official about a couple hours ago. I asked him to sort of characterize the mood inside. And the word he used was joyous. And we are awaiting basically more information from Current. But we will here and we will come back to you when we get some more news -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, great, Dan.

We will get back to you as soon as there is anybody there who can shed some more light. Thank you, Dan.

Ling and Lee were first captured by North Korea along its border with China.

Let's bring in our CNN's Emily Chang, who is in Beijing.

Emily, what role, if any, did China play? What do we know about China's role?

EMILY CHANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, we are still waiting for official reaction from the Chinese government. It's still very early here, all of these developments happening overnight Asia time. So, what role if any China played in this breakthrough is as yet unknown.

We do know that China is North Korea's closest ally -- 70 percent of the food, fuel and economic aid that makes it to North Korea passes directly through China or comes directly from China. And, remember, this happened on the China-North Korea border. So, at the very least, we can assume the Chinese are going to be very happy about this. They are going to think this may be a step in the right direction, a step towards possibly breaking what seems to be the downward spiral of escalating tensions from North Korea and this increasingly aggressive behavior -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK, Emily Chang in Beijing, thank you very much, Emily.

So what was Bill Clinton's strategy as he dealt directly with Kim Jong Il, a look at that, plus why he may have been the only person who could pull it off.

Plus, details of an alleged obscenity-laced rant by the treasury secretary. Who was it aimed at and why?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MALVEAUX: When Bill Clinton was President Clinton, a former president went to deal with North Korea. That did not work out so well. So, what is different about this time?

And a Web site called Naked Emperor News says there is something you should hear from President Obama before he was president. But the White House says it is deceptive. Wait until you hear it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Is Bill Clinton the only American outside the government who could have pulled this off? THE SITUATION ROOM is going in-depth. The former president scores the release of those two American journalists sentenced to hard labor in North Korea.

Other people have dealt with North Korea on America's behalf, but few with names nearly as big as the one who is making news today.

Let's bring in our own Brian Todd -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, since the U.S. began dialogue with North Korea in the early 1990s, there have been a series of envoys and top-level negotiators. Some shown here were not household names, these three gentlemen. But some were more high- profile.

Former Governor Bill Richardson traveled to North Korea several times. Former President Jimmy Carter helped secure an agreement to end the region's nuclear program, at least temporarily, in 1994.

But Bill Clinton's case, very unique. We are told that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had been pressing for Clinton to come to Pyongyang for nearly a decade. Despite a personal history with the North, it was not always smooth.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): He presided over one of the most tense periods in a relationship marked by almost constant friction between the United States and North Korea. Recently, a public spat between his wife and the North Koreans resulted in Hillary Clinton being called a schoolgirl and a pensioner by the regime.

But to two former top U.S. negotiators with North Korea, President Clinton's visit to Pyongyang makes perfect sense.

ROBERT GALLUCCI, MACARTHUR FOUNDATION: President Clinton is President Clinton, and for what that means in terms of charisma, presence still on the world scene and no doubt a very good grasp of this issue from those days long gone.

TODD: Robert Gallucci was President Clinton's top negotiator with the North Koreans in 1994 and helped diffuse a crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear program. Now that Kim Jong Il's government has granted pardons to the two American journalists, I asked Gallucci how a Clinton trademark might have played into it.

(on camera): so, when he goes into the room and turns on the Clinton charm, number one, would he do it the same way as he does it here, and, number two, how might Kim Jong Il react personally?

GALLUCCI: I am imagining, but don't know, that President Clinton will be a tad more reserved than he might be at a Georgetown reunion, where he was coming back to speak to those of us from the School of Foreign Service, right?

So, I think he will adjust to the circumstance. But, at the end of the day, he is who he is. And I think that he will have an impact by his presence on the North Korean leader. And I think Kim Jong Il will take account of that, and he will be impressed.

TODD (voice-over): But, Clinton, Gallucci says, can't look impressed. Body language, he explains, is crucial here.

GALLUCCI: We're not at all in the business of signaling to the North that we endorse a regime, that we're doing anything other than business.

TODD: For Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, no need to mask his feelings about what this does to his stature at home.

Former negotiator Jack Pritchard says Kim Jong Il has wanted Bill Clinton to come to Pyongyang for at least nine years.

JACK PRITCHARD, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY TO NORTH KOREA: I have never seen -- any picture or when I met with him in person in 2000 -- that type of a grin. I mean you can't say it's a smile. You have to say it's a grin. He looks ecstatic.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Now, Jack Pritchard doesn't rule out the possibility that President Clinton might come home with more than those two journalists. He says there's a chance Clinton might have gotten a message that North Korea is, indeed, ready to return to talks over its nuclear program -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, Brian, what do we suppose that North Korea wants out of all this?

TODD: Well, these two negotiators we spoke with say it could be a range of things, from more energy resources to more overall recognition as a major player in this region. But the images of Bill Clinton with Kim Jong Il are incredibly valuable to Kim at home. Jack Pritchard says this visit could help him preserve his family's hold on power, maybe answer any questions about his health. They are incredibly valuable to him, just from an image standpoint.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Brian.

Well, we're here with the best political team on television -- CNN's Gloria Borger and Candy Crowley; Politico correspondent Eamon Javers. Jessica Yellin is here, too, with a closer look at former President Clinton's diplomatic feat today and what it may or may not mean for the future -- Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Suzanne.

Well, there will probably be a lot of smiles on the plane ride home from North Korea, but as Brian pointed out, not so much while the former president was photographed meeting with Kim Jong Il.

Look at these pictures. President Bill Clinton really kept a straight face, to say the very least. It would be hard to accuse Clinton of seeming friendly with the rogue nation's leader.

But compare that to this, when his then secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, clinked glass with Kim Jung Il or when Jimmy Carter visited North Korea and met with the current dictator's father back in 1994.

Now, when Carter took that trip during Clinton's presidency, the White House called it a private mission, just like the White House called Clinton's trip. As with this trip, Carter's, all seemed to go well at first. Carter even reached an agreement to stop North Korea's nuclear program at the time. But, Suzanne, there were issues.

Here's Wolf Blitzer reporting back then, in 1994.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM 1994)

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": The Carter mission poses a dilemma for Mr. Clinton. He doesn't want to appear to be giving into the North Koreans or let them avoid U.S.-proposed sanctions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Eventually, it collapsed and critics accused the Clinton administration of giving North Korea too much attention by letting Carter go and meet with them.

So the question is, despite President Clinton's success today, could sending such a high profile emissary eventually backfire on the U.S. down the road?

MALVEAUX: Great question, Jessica -- Gloria, we'll start with you, good or bad?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think we don't know yet. I think it really depends on what kind of message Bill Clinton brings back. We don't know what conversations took place. As Governor Bill Richardson was pointing out earlier, you have to assume that while there was a very narrow portfolio for the former president, that there were some other discussions.

If a message came back about six party talks or something that the United States wants, then that would be -- then that would be a win/win. So I think, you know, we just have to wait and see right now.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And put me down as skeptical. First of all, if North Korea wanted to send a message that resuming six party talks or whatever it wanted, there are avenues to do that.

I think Bill Clinton is more sort of, you know, what was -- did he seem like?

Is he really sick?

Did you get a sense of who around him, you know, is sort of -- I think it will be more intelligence, because we have so little from over there.

EAMON JAVERS, CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: This thing really could have backfired if they sent Bill Clinton over there and he wasn't able to secure the release of these hostages. These deals are always preset. When -- behind the scenes, they agree to some kind of terms and then they send a high level emissary over to come in and score the big victory.

If that hadn't happened, this would have been a big problem for the Obama administration. It looks like that's not going to be the case.

MALVEAUX: And let's talk about the Obama administration.

What -- how significant is this for President Obama, now that you have a former president, who has very much gotten involved now here in the mix with North Korea?

BORGER: Well, I think, first of all, it's probably a good use of former President Bill Clinton and all those folks who said, well, what's Hilary Clinton going to do as secretary of State, what's the role going to be for Bill Clinton, you see it right now. And so, you know, I think we've gotten these two women released, which is what we wanted to do. And again, you know, we have to wait and see. Bill Clinton, as Candy says, will bring back intelligence. He may bring back more. We don't know.

But so far, good for Barack Obama.

MALVEAUX: And, Candy, you and I remember during the campaign, there was that big question, what do you do with Bill Clinton, you know?

If he doesn't have anything to do, what do you do?

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: Yes. And I -- but I think that we can overstate what Bill Clinton brought to this behind the scenes. He clearly was key because this is who Kim Jong Il wanted to see. This is the man that they wanted over there. This is the photo-op that they wanted.

But behind the scenes, it was the Obama administration. It was not -- and John -- Senator John Kerry, we're now learning, also, had something to do with this.

But so he is the front man. He is the man that went over there that they wanted In that way, he's the last piece in the puzzle. But this is after weeks and weeks of diplomacy and that was all the Obama administration.

MALVEAUX: And are we going to get back to...

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: We're going to get back to you right -- right after this quick break. He has also visited North Korea and secured the release of Americans. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson gives a unique perspective on Bill Clinton's trip to rescue the female journalist in that communist country. He'll tell us why this meeting was so different and significant on several levels.

The Web site Naked Emperor News -- it's a strange name brewing quite a controversy at the White House. But we'll tell you the connection between the Naked Emperor, "The Drudge Report" and the Obama administration.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: We're back with the best political team on television -- Gloria Borger, Candy Crowley and Eamon Javers and our own CNN's Jessica Yellin, kicking things off with the Obama administration's latest war of words in the battle over health care reform -- Jessica, what do you have?

YELLIN: Suzanne, it's not just the Republican Party. Now the White House is taking on Naked Emperor News. Really. A Web site by that name posted old sound bites of President Obama from before he was president talking about a single payer health care system.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I don't think we're going to be able to eliminate employer coverage immediately. There's going to be, potentially, some transition process. I can envision a decade out or 15 years out or 20 years out.

I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: "The Drudge Report" and other conservative media -- that video was picked up by "The Drudge Report" and other conservative media sites. And it's now gotten more than 400,000 views.

You might say, so what?

Well, the White House isn't taking it lightly. They're not saying so what. They did not miss a beat posting this response online from Spokeswoman Linda Douglas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LINDA DOUGLASS, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF HEALTH REFORM: There are a lot of very deceiving headlines out there right now, such as this one. Take a look at that this one. This one says: "Uncovered video -- Obama explains how his health care plan will eliminate private insurance." (END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: She went on to debunk those claims. And it is clearly the White House in campaign mode.

Now, this might be why. When you go out on the street and ask folks what think they President Obama's health reform plan looks like, you get some answers like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Say for if you're 58 and you need a liver transplant, the government gets to decide if you get it or not. And they could say no, sorry. And then you die.

YELLIN: Where did you get that information?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Web.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: She got it from the Web and she takes it as gospel truth. So the Internet rumor mill is having an effect.

The question here is, is it smart or silly for the White House to take on the likes of Naked Emperor News -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Great question, Jessica.

Well, anybody jump in at this point.

(CROSSTALK)

JAVERS: Well, they have...

(CROSSTALK)

JAVERS: Yes, I mean, you can say the Naked Emperor has no journalism. But it doesn't matter. I mean, the...

(CROSSTALK)

JAVERS: ...in this day and age, these guys were so savvy during the campaign about new media and this fragmented universe that we live in today. They know that these bites of information get out there and they have to react and squash them as fast as they can.

BORGER: Remember during the campaign they established their own Web site called FightTheSmears.com?

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: That's right.

BORGER: I wouldn't be surprised if you see it back again, because I talked -- spoke with someone at the White House today who said this is the beginning of an aggressive push back. You're going to see that -- about the town hall meetings, where they're -- they feel like Democrats are getting heckled and on the Web.

And so I think now they're going to be in full 24-7 campaign mode.

CROWLEY: And why?

Because the polls are split between do you support Obama health care or do you not?

And they have to. I mean this -- this has to be the full court press or he's going to, you know, he could lose it over the August recess. So they have to figure out a way to battle back against this, to convince Democrats not to cancel their town hall meetings and -- and to move forward.

So they -- they have to do all of these things.

MALVEAUX: And the one thing about those Web sites, when they popped up and the White House was on defense, you always knew they were in trouble at that point. How -- how -- how much trouble is the Obama administration in when it comes to pushing for health care reform in this August recess?

BORGER: Well, you know, right now, the debate has become sort of a caricature. It's about socialized, you know, medicine, according to the -- to the critics. And, you know, the Obama administration says, no, no, no, no, we're trying to fight the bad insurance companies.

And I think the White House has to sort of get -- get beyond that. Their problem is they don't have a plan that they can sell, because there isn't a plan, which is why they wanted one before the August break.

So they had to go out there and sort of sell this abstraction about health care. And that's -- that's really difficult to do.

CROWLEY: I think their -- you know, they are -- it's not going to be as easy as they thought it would be. I wouldn't suggest that a president who still has an approval rating over 50 percent, who still has a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, still has the trust of the American people, is in his first year, I wouldn't be betting against him getting something.

Will they have to mush around with some of the things that he really wants?

Yes, they will. But I -- you know, his -- look, the advantage is still his, even though right now, the summer screaming and push back is all the critics.

JAVERS: But they are...

MALVEAUX: Eamon?

JAVERS: They are clearly on the defensive here. I mean when you have to reach out and squash these things, that means you're on the defensive.

That said, you know, as Candy says, they can get some kind of deal. And the real advantage here for the Obama White House is that nobody knows what's in this plan anyway. So they can declare victory after passing almost anything...

(CROSSTALK)

JAVERS: ...because nobody will know that they caved in on a whole bunch of things that they really wanted, because this thing is impenetrably complex and voters don't understand it.

MALVEAUX: Are people paying attention to it...

JAVERS: So if they get anything passed.

MALVEAUX: ...do you think?

Do you think they're paying to the day by day... (CROSSTALK)

JAVERS: ...about health care in general.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: -- is the problem.

BORGER: Very cut -- because you've got five committees, right?

And one of them we're still waiting for a bill. So...

CROWLEY: And just to dis -- I would just disagree a little, because I think if people find out that they still aren't going to get health care coverage or people find out -- you know, what do you mean that pre-existing conditions still do exist?

MALVEAUX: OK...

CROWLEY: That's a problem.

MALVEAUX: We've got to -- got to leave it there.

Thank you very much, Gloria, Candy and Eamon.

Thank you very much.

JAVERS: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: We're getting some gripping iReports of flash floods in the Louisville, Kentucky area, where some areas were deluged by a half foot of rain.

Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is sorting all of that out -- Abbi, what do you have?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Suzanne, if you want to see what flash flooding looks like, take a look at this. This -- that's a car -- or the very top of a car, if you can make it out there. The car was parked at the University of Louisville, parts of which were shut down earlier today.

Take a look at this one from an employee there, Jacek Jasinski, who said he made it into university to work just a little bit before the emergency alerts went out saying stay away, campus is closed.

Police say they took several people from vehicles that were stalled in the street.

And what this looks like for homeowners there, take a look at this. Another iReport from Erica Goins. She says this is the worst flooding she's seen in her neighborhood for decades. She's got knee deep water in her basement. We're hearing that 20,000 people lost power in this flash flood that happened -- six inches in an hour and 15 minutes -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Abbi Tatton, thanks for the very latest news.

We want to go for Lou Dobbs for "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou, what are you working on?

Thank you very much, Suzanne.

I mean it's amazing what's happening in Kentucky, the weather they've had there this year.

Tonight, on "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT," complete coverage of former President Bill Clinton's success in securing a pardon and the release of two American journalists imprisoned by North Korea.

What was the cost?

Critics say the United States is rewarding bad behavior by North Korea, a country that continues to threaten vital U.S. Interests.

And the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasting Americans who are exercising their Constitutional rights to protest against the president's health care plan. We'll have a special report on those rising protests against the Democratic Party's health agenda and we'll find out what is AstroTurf?

And President Obama has become the country's talker-in-chief in his first six months in office. Some say the president is overexposed, but not on his birthday, surely. We'll examine that in our Face-Off debate tonight.

Join us for all of that, all the day's news and more at the top of the hour -- Suzanne, back to you.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Lou.

Good seeing you.

He's been a diplomatic troubleshooter, getting Americans out of trouble in far off places. Now, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson looks at Bill Clinton's mission to North Korea and what it means for both sides.

Plus, President Obama cast as The Joker on conservative Web sites. Jeanne Moos finds that elsewhere, it's no joking matter.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Few Westerners have more insight into North Korea than New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He has visited the country and helped negotiate the release of other Americans that have been held there in the past.

He joined us in THE SITUATION ROOM with his take on the breaking news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: The fact that President Clinton went to North Korea is huge. It's huge for Kim Jong Il, who is, right now, ailing and he's looking for ways to shore up his domestic base. It's a succession issue.

So it gives Kim Jong Il a pretext to release the journalists. This is very important, that this happened, the humanitarian release.

But having President Clinton there and -- and the early signs -- when I was there to negotiating prisoners, you see the little -- little protocol issues, like President Clinton was met by a very high level delegation of North Koreans at the airport. They gave him a state dinner.

The fact that he saw Kim Jong Il was huge. I never saw him. He only sees big shots, heads of state. And those were the signals. And then the fact that the two journalists have been officially pardoned by a request from the U.S. government to give them amnesty shows that the two journalists most likely will be released. That's the main objective.

But what the president's trip does, it improves the atmospherics between the two countries. The relationship is really in bad shape right now. There is enormous tension. There's literally no dialogue.

So maybe what the bonus would be is President Clinton's visit could get both sides just to start talking. But I bet you there are no negotiations on nuclear issues going on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Jack Cafferty joining us again -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is how will you know when the recession ends?

Some of the brighter economic minds around are suggesting that we could begin to see the end of this thing shortly, if not -- if it hasn't begun already.

Gary writes from Arizona: "It will happen in steps. First, my youngest son will buy his first house after much searching. Then, my oldest son will buy a new car for the first time ever. Then my middle son will take his family on a postponed vacation to Europe. And finally, I'll take my wife back to the nearby Indian casino."

Dave writes: "For me, when I get a job. It's been a year-and-a- half. I can't blame it on Obama. This recession began long before he got into office."

Cody in New Jersey writes: "When we finally stop asking this question."

Jeff in Houston says: "When things get comfortable enough for Joe Six Pack to forget the degree to which corporate America destroyed the American dream. Probably around the time the Republicans get back into power. Maybe we'll get the government we deserve."

Maria in Brunswick, Maryland writes: "When I don't have to worry about having enough food to feed my dogs."

Michael in Pennsylvania: "When I can go the grocery store and buy the food I want, not what I can afford. Honestly, I'd love a good steak or piece of fish, but the prices the markets charge are ridiculous."

Bob in Colorado writes: "It's like porn, Jack, you'll know it when you see it."

And iris in Michigan says: "You'll know the recession is over when the skinny lady sings. Remember the skinny lady, don't you, Jack? She used to be the fat lady before she was forced to tighten her belt because of the recession."

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

MALVEAUX: So, Jack -- Jack, what do...

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: What do you think, Jack?

You used to cover business news.

What do you think?

CAFFERTY: Well, I think there are some signs that maybe we're bottoming out here and there. But still, until the employment picture begins to improve and consumer spending starts to rise and, you know, we see job growth in the economy instead of job loss each month and until we address the staggering national debt and government spending that's going on, we've got a -- we've got lot of plowing to do before this field is ready to plant.

MALVEAUX: OK. The Obama administration has a lot of work to do.

All right. Thank you, Jack.

A new picture of President Obama is circulating and it's less than flattering. The image portrays him as the arch villain, The Joker. Some who see it are doing anything but laughing.

And a boy, a wall and lots of tomatoes -- just one of the images in today's Hot Shots, just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here's a look at today's Hot Shots.

In Afghanistan, a boy slices tomatoes as they dry on a wall in Kabul. In Mexico, President Jimmy Faye (ph) Calderon and Honduras' ousted president wave during a welcoming ceremony.

In New York, Giants' quarterback Eli Manning signs autographs after training camp.

And in Germany, a 2-year-old gorilla -- a two day old gorilla is held by its mother.

Hot Shots -- pictures worth a thousand words.

Well, a new image of President Obama is making the rounds and it takes his likeness, transforms it into that of a comic book arch villain.

CNN's Jeanne Moos checks out reactions to this Moost Unusual image of opposition.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): In the words of The Joker...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE DARK NIGHT," COURTESY WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why so serious?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: You'd look serious, too, if you were the president of the United States being portrayed as The Joker.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh my goodness.

MOOS: Goodness and The Joker don't usually go together. But on conservative Web sites, this image is the latest thing. Someone took "Time Magazine's" cover and transformed it. Hope was changed to joke. The image is making its way onto t-shirts and onto a few posters alongside a highway ramp in L.A. Accompanied by the word "socialism."

The image got Rush Limbaugh's attention.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It's becoming cool to make fun of Obama.

MOOS: Maybe not quite so much in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yucky.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Extremely disturbing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seems kind of childish.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And whether you like the guy or not, you still don't do that to anybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shame on them.

MOOS: Shame doesn't seem to be inhibiting critics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bravo, Mr. President. Bravo.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: The White House had no comment on The Joker image.

But what do The Joker and socialism have to do with one another any way?

Writer and Joker fan Robert Dougherty points out that The Joker supports anarchy.

ROBERT DOUGHERTY, CONTRIBUTOR, ASSOCIATED CONTENT: I think if you're going to call Obama a socialist and then compare him to an anarchist, I think that undercuts your point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "BATMAN," COURTESY WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Obama critics could counter that the president and The Joker tend to give away money.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "BATMAN," COURTESY WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hubba, hubba, hubba. Money, money, money. Who do you trust?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: To cash in, the Web site Hero Builders plans to sell an Obama Joker action figure for 50 bucks apiece. But for some, the image is downright disturbing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think I do have a problem with the white face. It makes me think of black face.

MOOS: Back when President Bush was in office, he got The Joker treatment. So did Hilary Clinton. (VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: But when it comes to the current president...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a right-wing spin. It's disgraceful and you shouldn't bring any attention to it. Have a nice day. Thanks.

MOOS: According to the Obama socialism wall clock, maybe it's time to give The Joker joke a rest.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: This Thursday, we take note of 200 days in office for the Obama White House. CNN analysts and many of you will grade the president on the economy, health care reform, foreign policy and other issues that you care about. Special coverage of this National Report Card this Thursday night, right here on CNN.

We want you to check out our political podcast. To get the best political team to go, subscribe at CNN.com/situationroom.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.

DOBBS: Thank you, Suzanne.

And good evening, everybody.

Former President Bill Clinton winning a pardon for two American journalists imprisoned by North Korea. Critics, however, say the United States is rewarding North Korean bad behavior.

And the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasting Americans who exercise their Constitutional rights to protest against the president's health care plan. We'll have that special report.

And President Obama has become the country's talker-in-chief in his first six months in office. Some say President Obama is overexposed. That's the subject of our Face-Off debate tonight.

North Korea today declared it will free two imprisoned American journalists. North Korean's leader, Kim Jong Il, gave journalists a so-called special pardon after former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang. The North Korean News Agency saying President Clinton issued what it called "a sincere apology" for the journalists' actions on the border with China back in March.