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Security 'Panic' on 9/11 Anniversary; Breaking Extremists in Afghanistan; Aides: Congressman Wilson May Face Formal Rebuke

Aired September 11, 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: T.J., thanks very much.

Happening now, a security scare on this, the day marking the worst-ever attacks in the United States. What happened in waters near President Obama sparked panic, confusion, and now calls for a full- scale investigation.

Should more U.S. troops go to Afghanistan? The powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is lukewarm. He's a Democrat.

And when you hear what Republican John McCain says, you may wonder if he'll end up siding with President Obama.

And if doomsday struck the U.S. Capitol, critics say Congress does not have a plan to keep the government immediately up and running.

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.

An advocacy group for military families calls it incompetence and wants what happened today to be "addressed at the highest levels of government."

Right now, aftershocks and many questions after a security scare near the president amid ceremonies marking the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The president was never in any danger, and the incident that some say caused panic was borne out of confusion.

Coast Guard boats were in the Potomac River. This was near where the president's motorcade was crossing after a 9/11 event over at the Pentagon. And radio traffic overheard is what touched off the security scare.

Let's go straight to our CNN homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

Jeanne, tell our viewers exactly what happened.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it turned out to be a routine training exercise, but for a time it looked and sounded like it might be something more ominous.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MESERVE (voice-over): As President Obama attended ceremonies at the Pentagon commemorating the largest terror attacks ever on U.S. soil, a camera picked up boats darting and dodging in the nearby Potomac River, and this traffic was picked on a Coast Guard radio channel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you don't stop your vessel you will be fired upon. Stop your vessel immediately. If you don't slow down and stop your vessel, and leave our zone, you will be fired upon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have expended 10 rounds, the vessel is operating at stern. We're going to reassess the situation.

MESERVE: With Coast Guard headquarters providing no explanation, CNN began reporting what it saw and heard. Local and federal agencies responded to the scene. At nearby Reagan National Airport, air traffic controllers shut down flights for about 20 minutes as a precaution until the word came this was a drill.

VICE ADM. JOHN CURRIER, COAST GUARD CHIEF OF STAFF: No shots were fired. There was no suspect vessel. There was no criminal activity. This was a preplanned normal training exercise.

MESERVE: But there had been no notification to federal, state or local agencies. Even the Secret Service, although the president's motorcade crossed over the adjacent Memorial Bridge as the exercise was under way.

In April, a no-notice flight over New York City by a plane used as Air Force One sent panicked New Yorkers into the streets. It turned out only to be a photo shoot. Friday's events on the Potomac raised similar complaints.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Let's be clear. There was no excuse for having done this when they did it. Second, to the extent that they decided to do it, it was done incompetently. They didn't follow their own internal process and procedures.

They didn't notify other federal agencies as best we can tell. They certainly didn't notify the media.

MESERVE: But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs faulted reporters for jumping too soon, saying, "If anybody was unnecessarily alarmed based on erroneous reporting that denoted that shots had been fired, I think everybody is apologetic about that."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: The Coast Guard says it is reviewing today's events to see what lessons can be learned, and Senator Susan Collins, ranking minority member on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, says she will be looking into the timing, location and communications to see if this was the wrong time and the wrong place for a routine exercise -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeanne Meserve reporting.

And as you just heard, CNN did report on this story, and right now the network is releasing this statement. Let me read it to our viewers.

"After hearing a U.S. Coast Guard radio transmission that a boat had breached a security zone on the Potomac River a short distance from the Pentagon, where the president had just attended a 9/11 anniversary ceremony, CNN contacted the Coast Guard Public Affairs Office at the agency's headquarters. The Coast Guard spokeswoman said she was unaware of any activity taking place on the Potomac River."

The statement goes on to say, "After hearing a further radio transmission about 10 rounds being expended, and after reviewing video of rapid movement by Coast Guard vessels as the president's motorcade crossed the Memorial Bridge, CNN reported the story. Simultaneously, during a second phone call, the Coast Guard spokeswoman informed us that its national command center and other command posts knew nothing about any activity in the area."

The statement concludes with this: "Given the circumstances, it would have been irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing. As with any breaking news story, information is often fluid, and CNN updated the story with the official explanation from the Coast Guard as soon as it was provided."

We want to bring you some more details now on how the Coast Guard explained what happened. Here's the U.S. Coast Guard chief of staff talking to reporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CURRIER: Other agencies, including NORAD, conduct exercises on a dilley basis. It's only when they are affecting national airport or in close and become noticeable to the public would they make those notifications.

QUESTION: Sir, we understand the FAA actually stopped flights at Reagan National.

CURRIER: As I said before, we have very well defined security protocols in the national capital region. Apparently, what happened is, due to press reports and uncertainty that was generated by press reports, the FAA reacted by putting a ground hold on a small number of aircraft at Reagan National until they could sort out the information.

QUESTION: Admiral, you mentioned that no weapons were trained. Does that mean if I were standing on the shores of the Potomac when this happened, I would not have seen anybody holding any gun or pointing any gun at any other vessel? What would I have seen?

CURRIER: What you would have seen are four 25-foot response boats. They are colored orange. You've probably seen them out on the Potomac before.

They have moderate automatic weapons, 7.62-caliber weapons on the bow of the boat. You would have seen a crewman standing by that weapon as the boats were being maneuvered and simulating the interdiction that they would have done for a suspect vessel. But you would not have heard gunfire. You would have not had weapons pointed at anyone or anything of that nature.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about all of this with Fran Townsend, the former Bush homeland security adviser, now a CNN national security contributor.

Fran, I guess the first question I have, should the Coast Guard have alerted the FBI, the Secret Service, the news media, that such a training exercise was going on this, the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks?

TOWNSEND: You know, Wolf, what the Coast Guard is saying is this was a unit level exercise, they conduct them all the time, and those don't rise to the level of that normal notification procedure. Here's the point -- there is no reason on this earth that such an exercise, small or large, should have been conducted on the eighth anniversary near the memorial where the president was speaking.

By the way, Wolf, what we haven't commented on is if these -- if they were engaged in this exercise, who was actually doing the Potomac security mission while the memorial was going on? For many reasons, this was a bad time and a bad place to conduct an exercise. Exercises are generally good. This one was well-intentioned, perhaps, but poorly executed.

BLITZER: Because anybody can eavesdrop on the scanners and listen to what's going on, and if you don't know and you see activity mounted, guns on these vessels moving around an area close to the Pentagon, close to where the president's motorcade was, obviously you're going to get suspicious.

So what's the most important lesson all of us, the government, the news media, everyone, should learn from what happened today so that we don't repeat this kind of "panic" down the road?

TOWNSEND: Well, truthfully, Wolf, it's the same lesson we should have learned when we had the fly-over of lower Manhattan this spring. And that is, one, you've got to do notifications.

When you're going to do exercises in a large metropolitan urban area, do the notifications. There is no exercise too small that you don't notice, both the public, the federal, state and local authorities and the media, because if we -- if the media had been notified, there wouldn't have been this misinsing.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks very much.

Let's turn now to the war in Afghanistan.

Today, military officials say two service members with the NATO- led force were killed in eastern Afghanistan. This comes amid serious questions over whether or not more U.S. troops will be sent to the war zone.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux. She's got the latest -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, on the anniversary of September 11th attacks, President Obama is calling for Americans to engage in community service to show unity and patriotism, but at the same time the polls are showing that while he is saying he's going to keep Americans safe, they do not have the same appetite for the war in Afghanistan, nor do they put terrorism at the top of their priority list.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): A moment of silence and a mission.

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still. In defense of our nation, we will never waver. In pursuit of al Qaeda and its extremist allies, we will never falter.

MALVEAUX: Inside the Pentagon behind them, the U.S. military is engaged in that pursuit, an all-out war in Afghanistan that is now President Obama's own.

OBAMA: We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

MALVEAUX: President Obama has the bullhorn now. The message very similar to eight years ago.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(CHEERING)

MALVEAUX: But now, years in and casualties increasing, for many the mission is far from clear.

KARIN VON HIPPEL, CSIS SR. ANALYST: I think the main challenge is trying to understand what role this war will play in defeating al Qaeda over the long term. It is probably the case that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan in a significant way anymore.

MALVEAUX: The president says al Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan and Pakistan, becoming embolden to strike the U.S. again. Mr. Obama is considering sending additional U.S. troops, even in the face of criticism from his own party.

Senator Carl Levin is urging more training for Afghan security.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: We should implement these steps on an urgent basis before we consider an increase in U.S. ground combat forces beyond what is already planned. MALVEAUX: But his Republican counterpart John McCain says that would "... repeat the nearly catastrophic mistakes of Iraq."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And Wolf, it was just last month it was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. There were 51 soldiers who were killed. Candidate Obama promised to refocus on Afghanistan as president. That is what he's doing. But in the weeks to come, he's going to have some more difficult choices as to just how far to go -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, as if he didn't have enough on his plate with health care, and now Afghanistan. Major decisions all around.

Thanks very much for that.

Let's bring in Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, ever since the debate on health care reform heated up this summer, the rap on President Obama has been that he hasn't given us enough details about what he wants, how it's going to work and how it's going to be paid for. And despite the president's address to a joint session of Congress this week, a lot of people say he still hasn't.

For the first time in that speech, Mr. Obama referred to a set of ideas as "my plan," but he continued to paint with a fairly broad brush, and critics say he still hasn't been specific enough. Instead, the White House is pretty much leaving the details to Congress, saying that they will consider all options.

Well, leaving this to Congress is what got him in trouble to begin with, and as for the hotly-debated public option, the president seemed neutral, although liberals insist he's completely committed to it.

Now, you'll recall House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at one point said there's no way she can get a bill through the House that didn't have a public option. Not anymore. Now she says she will consider any plan that increases competition and accessibility for health insurance.

Republicans want what they are calling a "blisteringly specific plan" from the president, and some Democrats say they don't think there's enough focus on the cost. John McCain says Obama's proposal is an egregiously expensive and expansive form of government-run health care.

President Obama continues to promise that health care reform will not add one dime to the national deficit, but he's failed so far to explain just how that's possible, and a lot of people don't think it is.

Here's the question. Why won't the White House be more specific when it comes to the subject of health care reform? It seems simple enough.

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

People want the details.

BLITZER: Yes, but, you know, the negotiations are continuing. They don't want to show their cards before they have to.

CAFFERTY: Well, it may not matter if they don't start giving the public...

BLITZER: That's also a good point.

CAFFERTY: Yes. It may go down in flames.

BLITZER: I know. It's tough. Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: He accused President Obama of lying, later apologized, but the Republican lawmaker still has an argument to make regarding the potential for illegal immigrants getting government-sponsored health care.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOE WILSON (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: On these issues I will not be muzzled. I will speak up and speak loudly against this risky plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You're going to hear Congressman Joe Wilson's argument.

And on this, the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is the U.S. safer? Our strategists debate that in our "Strategy Session."

And you'll also hear a unique story of a girl who says her parents want to kill her because she converted from Islam to Christianity.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: After getting slammed online for his outburst at the president, defiant Congressman Joe Wilson takes to YouTube to ask his supporters for help.

Internet Correspondent Abbi Tatton is here to show us some of that YouTube response that he just delivered.

What is he saying?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, he does address the outburst in this video, saying that yelling out at the president was wrong. But on the issue of health care, Congressman Wilson says, don't expect me to be quiet.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILSON: On these issues I will not be muzzled. I will speak up and speak loudly against this risky plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: This is a fund-raising e-mail sent out to supporters. In it, Congressman Wilson tells them that the liberals are trying to silence him, he says, trying to stop him from speaking out on what he calls a poorly conceived plan. And he's asking for cash here on YouTube, on his Web site, on Twitter in, a fund-raising e-mail as well, and it appears to be working.

Two hundred thousand dollars raised in the last couple of days since Wednesday night, quite a haul until you compare it to this, the fund-raising page on ActBlue of his opponent, Rob Miller, which is know at $800,000 more raised, another quarter million dollars raised by a group of bloggers also online. ActBlue says the money is coming in at about $7 per second -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Abbi, for that.

Aides to Democratic House leaders are now telling CNN that a vote to formally rebuke Congressman Wilson is being planned potentially for next week unless he apologizes directly on the House floor.

Our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here watching this story for us.

What, if any, ramifications for the National Republican Party are there as a result of Congressman Wilson's outburst?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it does have some impact, and that's why you saw House Republican leaders distancing themselves very quickly from the outburst. Some Republicans I spoke with today are very worried that the party is becoming known as the angry party, the party of no, and that's not something they want, because if you want to lead America, you have to have a positive vision. Otherwise, you look like a party that's very comfortable just sitting back there in the minority, and right now a majority of voters have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.

BLITZER: They didn't do well in 2006 or 2008, so is there a consensus emerging on what the Republicans need to do to get their act together in advance of the next round in 2010?

BORGER: I know you'll be shocked to hear this, Wolf, but there isn't. You know, there's one camp of Republicans who say, look, President Obama is doing a good job for us. There are lots of people out there who are not content with his policies, we've been able to portray him as a liberal. The opposition strategy is working very well. Then there's another camp that's really taking the long view and saying, look, you have to provide an alternative in policy and in tone to Barack Obama, or the folks in this country are not going to turn to you in the next election.

Now to be fair, it's very difficult as a congressional party to oppose a president who has the bully pulpit, but lots of Republicans will tell you there's a leadership vacuum in the Republican Party, and there isn't anyone right there on the horizon that looks like he or she would be able to fill it.

BLITZER: Gloria, thank you.

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger reporting for us.

Could a terrorist attack leave America without a functioning government? Eight years after the 9/11 attacks, critics say one of the key branches of government is still very vulnerable.

And bad weather forces the shuttle to stay in space longer than planned. A series of scheduled landings in Florida have now been cancelled, forcing NASA to come up with a backup plan.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: It's where everyday people became heroes, the place in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 went down on 9/11. Their plane likely was meant to crash into the White House or the Capitol, but if Congress is ever hit critics say the government would suffer because Congress has no effective plan to handle doomsday.

And Colin Powell is among those visiting that site in Pennsylvania. He and victims' families are urging a special honor in memory of Flight 93 passengers and crew who died that day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Happening now, roadside bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan are soaring, up 350 percent since 2007. We're going to tell you about disturbing new tactics being used by the Taliban to make the bombs even more deadly and what the Pentagon is now doing to try to counter that threat.

Also, first they lost their home because of the Bernard Madoff scandal. Then they learned that an executive of the bank that took over their property allegedly kept it as his own personal weekend playground.

We're going to give you all the details.

And reports now that a world record-setting South African runner has both male and female organs. We're going to tell you about that and we're going to get reaction.

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

As we mark this eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, one issue some are discussing, what would happen if Congress were ever attacked?

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's been looking at what some call the doomsday scenario.

Brian, what are you picking up?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there are clear plans for the president's replacement if he dies in a terrorist attack, but eight years after 9/11, critics say the legislative branch of government is still very vulnerable.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The doomed Flight 93 -- if not for the heroism of those on board, the Capitol could have been in charred ruins. There were hundreds of members of Congress inside the building and no backup plan to replace them quickly if anything happened.

Eight years later, critics say Congress still doesn't have an adequate plan.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: This is bipartisan failure.

TODD: Just after 9/11, Norman Ornstein helped establish the Continuity of Government Commission. Its mission? Pass an amendment calling for immediate emergency appointments if hundreds of House members or senators were either killed or incapacitated in an attack.

The effort failed. Instead, the House passed a plan calling for special elections within about a month and a half of any attack. Ornstein says realistically it would take much longer to replace them. It's not that he's worried that without Congress government couldn't function.

(on camera): What could happen in that month and a half to four months, or even more, that really worries you?

ORNSTEIN: The attorney general could decide to round up half the country and put them in detention camps without anybody saying wait, hold on a minute here. The president could decide to go to war against four or five different countries, maybe settling scores that had nothing to do with a terrorist attack, without anybody saying, wait, you're not allowed to do that without Congress intervening.

TODD (voice-over): A clear line of succession covers the president's immediate replacement. In Congress, replacement senators can be appointed for those who have died, but senators who are incapacitated can still stay in office. But, in the House, leaders like David Dreier and others believe that chamber should hold to its tradition of being directly elected by the people, no matter what.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: There is no way that anyone should serve in the House of Representatives because of its constitutional history by way of appointment. They should be quickly elected.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Dreier says choosing your leaders is an important part of rebuilding after a catastrophe. Norm Ornstein argues that it's not feasible to have no House of Representatives at all until those elections can be held.

And he says if you try to cram potentially several hundred elections in within just 45 days after the country has been devastated in an attack, the potential for chaos and fraud would be enormous -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, what's the bottom line, the effort of Norm Ornstein and his group? What are they hoping to achieve right now?

TODD: Well, he says they are going to prod leaders of Congress. They are going to push for hearings, a floor debate and a vote, but he says, unfortunately, it may take another tragedy to shake the tree and get them to put in a real pragmatic plan in place to quickly replace members of Congress.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brian, for that.

And, as Brian just said, there is reason to worry about a possible doomsday attack against Washington. On 9/11, eight years ago, Flight 93 went down in a remote field in Pennsylvania, but was likely planned to crash into the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

Today, speakers gathered on that hallowed ground near Shanksville, among them, General Colin Powell, the secretary of state at the time. He gave this message to family members of the 40 passengers and crew who fought off hijackers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: All America today sends their thanks and prayers to you. Your loss, painful as it was, saved thousands of other family members from also suffering painful loss.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: General Powell also urges completion of the $58 million memorial on the 2,200-acre site. Many family members do as well.

Let's go to the scene. CNN's Kate Bolduan is there for us today.

Kate, a sad day, lots of remembrances.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.

Today seemed to be a mix of celebration, but very difficult memories. This day remains such a painful reminder for so many families. At the same time here in Shanksville, this anniversary is especially meaningful, as it marks a big step forward in the effort to honor Flight 93.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN (voice-over): September 11, 2001, 10:03 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These are the first pictures we have in. This is from Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

BOLDUAN: United Flight 93 crashed into this rural Pennsylvania field that fateful day. It's believed the plane's hijackers were likely targeting the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The 40 passengers and crew who died are considered heroes.

Dale and Ken Nacke lost their brother Joey.

KEN NACKE, BROTHER OF FLIGHT 93 VICTIM: He was probably one of the most loving people I have met in my life.

BOLDUAN: And now, to honor their big brother on this anniversary, the Nackes are riding cross-country, tracing Flight 93's intended path from New Jersey to California. We caught up with them outside of Chicago.

DALE NACKE, BROTHER OF FLIGHT 93 VICTIM: For me, it's a celebration. It's one of the best ways I know how to honor my brother and the other 39 passengers and crew. It's -- it's -- it's very spiritual for me.

BOLDUAN: They are also raising money for a permanent memorial to replace this temporary site outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The plans, which call for 2,200 acres, to include a visitors center and memorial plaza, are only now moving forward, after a long, emotional battle over the sacred ground.

LINDA MUSSER, LANDOWNER: The whole day was a change in our lives, in all our lives.

BOLDUAN: Linda and Randy Musser own more than 60 acres now within the memorial park.

RANDY MUSSER, LANDOWNER: I think everybody is happy that it's -- you know, once we actually see the dirt move and some progress made, it will, you know, make it all worthwhile.

BOLDUAN: Now eight years have passed, the families of Flight 93 still coping with their loss and, like Ken Nacke, hopes the nation never forgets the courage of the passengers and crew.

K. NACKE: You continue to live your life like it's September 10, 2001, and show that their actions didn't go in vain.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And, Kate, after the ceremony, you had a chance to meet and speak with General Powell?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely, Wolf.

I mean, the people here, they were -- they were very excited leading up to today's event to hear from General Powell, having such a big name, such an important person during 9/11 and after come to speak with them.

And he said to me he was absolutely struck by the emotion of this place, being the first time that he's ever had the chance to visit. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POWELL: I have never been here before. It's been very moving. And just -- just preparing yourself to come here and say a few words gives you a sense of what it must have been like in that plane, as they knew they were perhaps doomed and they were determined to try to do something about it. They weren't able to save their lives, but the terrorists weren't able to get to their target.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Now, they say more than a million people have visited this temporary memorial site so far. And, right now, Wolf, they say they are on target and they are planning to open at least the first phase of the permanent memorial by the 10-year anniversary in 2011.

BLITZER: Let's hope they can get that done.

Thanks very much, Kate, for that.

A stunning claim from a Muslim girl who converted to Christianity, then ran away from home. She says she can't go back home, or her parents, she says, will kill her because of her new religious beliefs.

And is the horror of 9/11 fading from Americans' memories? Eight years after the attacks, we have a new poll about attitudes toward terrorism. The numbers might surprise you.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said today that the case of a Muslim girl running away to Florida after converting to Christianity should be handled by Ohio authorities. The teen is making a stunning claim.

She says her parents want to kill her for her new religious beliefs. But her family is telling an entirely different story.

Here's CNN's national correspondent, Susan Candiotti.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this case has created a firestorm of controversy, pitting some vocal Christian advocacy groups against a central Ohio mosque and the parents of a runaway teenager. It's made her into a cause celebre all over the Internet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): If there's one thing all sides agree on...

RIFQA BARY, 17-YEAR-OLD: And I'm -- I'm fighting for my life. You guys don't understand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. All right.

BARY: They don't understand.

CANDIOTTI: ... it's that Ohio teen runaway Rifqa Bary appears to be one frightened girl.

R. BARY: They have to kill me.

CANDIOTTI: She says her parents want to kill her from converting from Islam to Christianity.

(on camera): Your daughter says that, at one point, you held up a laptop and said, "I'm going to kill you."

MOHAMED BARY, FATHER OF RIFQA BARY: It's not at all true. It's not at all true. I have never hit my child.

CANDIOTTI: Rifqa's parents say the 17-year-old first talked about being a Christian at age 14 to get baby-sitting jobs.

M. BARY: We did not fight over it. We just asked, and then that's -- and that's it.

CANDIOTTI: A couple of years later, Rifqa joined Internet prayer groups, including this one on Facebook run by a college missionary student.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, FRIEND OF RIFQA BARY: She shared with me her testimony of how she became a Christian.

CANDIOTTI: Brian Williams says he sometimes met the teenager at a prayer group near Ohio State University and baptized her at her request. Williams says, after Rifqa's dad allegedly threatened her, she announced on Facebook she was running away.

Rifqa's parents insist she's free to be a Christian. They say they even allowed their daughter to be a high school cheerleader, wearing short skirts and no head scarf. An anti-Muslim extremist, the Florida Security Council, says Rifqa's case deserves all the attention it can get.

TOM TRENTO, DIRECTOR, FLORIDA SECURITY COUNCIL: Publicity is a double-edged sword. On one sense, the story is getting out and more and more people are in this position seeing it, and she wants the story out. So, the positive benefits outweigh the negative possibilities of a sudden jihad syndrome jihadi running around and trying to kill her.

CANDIOTTI: At the family's Ohio mosque, supporters insist they don't advocate honor killing and say it's not in the Koran.

DR. ASMA MOBIN-UDDIN, NOOR OUTREACH COMMITTEE: I really fear that the longer that this goes on and the more hype and -- and hoopla and things there are, more difficult it's going to be for her to reconcile with her family in the future.

M. BARY: I want to say to my daughter, I love you. I want you to come back home. It's safe for you. Nobody will harm you.

CANDIOTTI: A Florida judge has ordered all sides to try to work things out at an October 9 meeting.

(on camera): With publicity swirling around her, for now, Rifqa remains in foster care, her immediate future left up to a Florida judge. It's a painful battle being played out in public -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Susan Candiotti, with a very painful story, thank you.

A behind-the-scenes look at 9/11 -- former Bush administration staffer Mary Matalin was with the then Vice President Dick Cheney as the attacks happened. We're going to talk to her about her memories of that day and more.

And it wasn't just Congressman Joe Wilson who couldn't contain his frustration Wednesday night. We are now learning that another Republican congressman simply walked out of the hall when the president was delivering his speech.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Eight years ago today, the 9/11 terror attacks, how did it define then President George W. Bush's presidency? How is it impacting the new administration as well?

Let's talk about that in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, two CNN contributors, Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Mary Matalin. Mary, I will read to you first a statement that President Bush issued today: "Eight years ago, our nation and our freedom came under attack. On this solemn anniversary, Laura and I hold the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers. On this day, let us renew our determination to prevent evil from returning to our shores."

Is it fair to say that 9/11, eight years ago, Mary -- and you were there -- you were working in the White House -- basically defined the Bush presidency?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, yes. That's -- that's irrefutable, Wolf. And you were around, and defined -- it was one of those defining moments for the country. A paradox of the success of the Bush doctrine is that people feel safer. They feel complacent.

I think the CNN polls are showing that they feel less threatened by terrorism. And we have made -- we have had great successes. We have -- in the countries -- the targets are harder. We have taken out a lot of the al Qaeda leadership. We have disrupted their finances. And the president is doing the -- absolutely the right thing in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

And I think the homeland security -- his homeland security team is continuing the vigilance on the homeland targets. But, you know, this is not, are we safer today? It's, are we going to be safer in the future? That's this president's job.

BLITZER: In this new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, we act -- asked a question that we always ask: Are acts of terrorism in the U.S., are they more -- are they likely over the next few weeks? Thirty-four percent say they are likely over the next few weeks. Sixty-six percent back in 2001 thought they were likely over the next few weeks.

Should Americans, Paul, feel more comfortable right now?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I mean, I think Mary has got it right: safer, but not safe.

You know, the Obama administration, as Mary points out, stepped up the use of these Predator drone attacks with Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. They killed Baitullah Mehsud, who was the head of the Taliban in Pakistan.

We're making progress. The -- the new homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, has made law enforcement agreements with 13 different countries to try to stop terrorists before they reach our shores. But, you know, the ports aren't safe enough. Our critical infrastructure is not safe enough. The food supply is not safe enough.

I mean, I -- I think there's still an awful, awful lot of work to be done. And I think Mary would probably agree with that.

BLITZER: Mary, you were there on 9/11 at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was then your boss. We have a picture we will show our viewers of that day.

If you look back -- hard to believe it's already eight years -- where were you when this picture was taken? We see you standing right -- right behind Condoleezza Rice.

MATALIN: That was in the PEOC, which is an acronym for the bunker, the bomb shelter that hadn't been used, had been put in, in the beginning, I think, of the -- the last century.

And I remember being so surprised at how everybody -- how orderly it was and how focused people were in their jobs. I expected more confusion, but Norm Mineta, the transportation secretary, was getting planes down. And the vice president was as steady as we all have come to recognize him to be, and Condi Rice was doing her job.

I mean, it just really -- the country would have been proud of the vigilance there. And we didn't feel this sense of horror and fear that has since clutched all of us in -- and just the sadness. Listening to Colin Powell talk earlier in the show about the last heroic minutes of the people on the Pennsylvania plane, I mean, it's -- it's really -- it is, as you said, just a defining moment.

BLITZER: Yes.

Let me switch gears dramatically and talk about some politics right now.

Paul, we know -- all know Congressman Joe Wilson. We know about his outburst when he screamed out "You lie" to the president. He apologized afterwards.

But another Republican congressman, John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, he simply walked out of the chamber while the president was speaking, a spokesman for the congressman saying, "Congressman Shimkus was frustrated that the president was not offering any new ground and left with just minutes remaining in the speech."

What does all this say about Republicans, if anything?

BEGALA: Well, it says the lunatics have taken over the asylum, but that's been going on for some time in that party.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: I am not one to stand in judgment of anybody else's civility, Wolf. You may remember a little show called "CROSSFIRE" that I hosted for a while. And so I'm not going to stand in great moral judgment about the civility.

It was wrong, I think, to interrupt the president, probably wrong to walk out. But they -- Mr. Wilson has apologized. He probably should apologize to his colleagues on the floor, but whatever. That's not my beef.

My beef with him is his mendacity. The -- he claimed the president lied, in his words, when the president said that legislation does not cover illegal aliens. The House bill, HR-3200, in section 246 on page 143, says this in plain English. "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."

It says it explicitly in the law. Current law says that illegal aliens are barred from federal health programs. The new law would say that as well.

And the perpetuation of this lie by Congressman Wilson and by many others on the right is -- is really shameful. They -- we can have an honest debate about health care. They are entitled to their own opinion. They are not entitled to their own facts.

BLITZER: Mary, you used to be a co-host of "CROSSFIRE" yourself. So, go ahead and respond.

MATALIN: Well, I -- I -- you -- no one likes to use the word lie, but the president's speech was replete with not just ideological demagoguery and partisanship; it was replete with mendacity. It was replete with dissembling. It was replete with prevarication. Call it whatever you want, but he...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: All right, well, give me one example, Mary. Give me -- give me one example.

MATALIN: The -- all right, and I will give you CBO validation, not some partisan validation. CBO says there's not one plan on the table anywhere that isn't going to increase the deficit. There's not one plan out there that's not going to cut -- will cut health care costs in the future.

The Congressional Research Service has said -- of course, we're not going to say we're going to pay for illegal immigrants, but it said that the absence of verifying the citizenship of people seeking to enroll in these programs, which the Democrats voted against twice -- twice, they voted against this.

If you -- if you're so certain that no illegal immigrants are going to get into this program...

BLITZER: All right.

MATALIN: ... then why not vote for the verification of their citizenship?

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: First off, because you don't...

(CROSSTALK)

MATALIN: ... mendacity last night, to be sure. BEGALA: Because you don't want to make every doctor in America an extension of the Immigration and Customs Service. But the law says it plainly. It says no federal funds can -- can...

BLITZER: All right.

BEGALA: ... for health benefits can go to these undocumented aliens. Maybe they should put it in there twice. I don't know, maybe -- maybe in Spanish. I don't know.

But -- but this is what's really frustrating.

BLITZER: All right.

BEGALA: And you can tell I'm getting frustrated, because they are not telling the truth.

BLITZER: We have got to wrap it up right now, guys. Thanks very much. Have a great weekend.

BEGALA: Thanks.

BLITZER: The first lady, Michelle Obama, says, let's make a deal. She has a special challenge for some college students. If they do something for others, she will do something for them they are likely never to forget.

And an unintended twist after Bernard Madoff's schemes. A family loses money and their exclusive Malibu home, but instead of the foreclosing, the bank selling the property, wait until you hear what a bank executive actually did there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In our "Political Ticker": The first lady says, let's make a deal. Michelle Obama is challenging students over at George Washington University in the nation's capital.

If they perform 100,000 hours of community service over the school year, the first lady will speak at their graduation next year. Both the first lady and the president have pushed for more young people and others to contribute in their communities.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File."

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: That's a -- that's a lot of hours.

BLITZER: It's a lot of hours.

CAFFERTY: How many kids go to Georgetown?

BLITZER: Thousands, but it's a great school. I gave the commencement speech there a few years ago.

CAFFERTY: Oh, it's...

BLITZER: George Washington University, not Georgetown.

CAFFERTY: And they didn't have to do -- they didn't have to do any community service to get you, did they?

BLITZER: They just got me. That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is, why won't the White House be more specific when it comes to health care reform?

Alexander writes: "It's pretty simple, Jack. First, the president doesn't write the bills. Congress does. Second, when Bill and Hillary tried to get reform back in the early 90's, they gave a specific bill to Congress, which was totally shot down. Obama has to walk a fine line between shoving reform down our throats, and being so ambiguous that it doesn't get done at all."

Steve says: "They won't say how they are going to pay for it because they don't have a clue. When they say they will cut waste, fraud and abuse from Medicare, they are disingenuous. Why won't they do that now?"

That's a very good question.

"No one in government has ever cut substantial waste, fraud and abuse from anything."

Nancy in Florida: "President Obama is taking a neutral stance, and he is ready and willing to compromise. I think it is a bad move, but it is his decision."

Madeline in New York: "I guess some of us aren't any smarter than a fifth grader. How much more specific can the president be? If you have insurance, don't worry. You keep it. The only thing that will change is lower premiums. If you don't have insurance, you will get insurance, either through insurance exchanges or a public option. You cannot be turned down for preexisting conditions or be dropped ever. This is so simple, my fourth grader understands it. I don't understand what all the fuss is about."

Donna writes: "It seems obvious to me that, when someone skirts around an issue and doesn't answer an question, they either don't have an answer or they know the answer won't serve them well. The president doesn't have a specific plan, or he doesn't want to play his hand, for fear of objections in Congress and negative public opinion."

And Michael sums it all up this way: "If you knew what was really in a hot dog, it would make you ill. You're supposed to concentrate on the mustard, and swallow."

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

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

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

Happening now: a powerful Democratic senator warning President Obama against sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, exposing a growing rift between, potentially, the commander in chief and his own party.

Also, when the owners lost everything to Bernard Madoff, the bank took their $12 million Malibu mansion, which top executives have been using as a private pleasure palace. Details are now emerging of lavish parties.

And a big-city police officer involved in two fatal shootings in just one week, with both suspects possibly unarmed. Why was he put back on duty after just four days?

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