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DNI Clapper Caught Unaware of Recent Terror Arrest in Britain; Government Warns of Possible Terror Attacks; Senate Approves START Treaty

Aired December 22, 2010 - 17:57   ET



WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Monstrous weather conditions are wreaking havoc on southern California in what's being called the strongest storm in a decade.

CNN's Casey Wian is joining us now from Laguna Beach.

Casey, these massive storms have already been very destructive. Tell us what's going on.


Twelve hours ago, Wolf, I would not have been able to stand here. I would have been swept out to sea. And let me show you some evidence of that.

Over here, you can see how this storm surge came from the canyons above Laguna Beach and completely wiped out the beach here. Some of the earth you are seeing has actually been moved in there by some of these cleanup crews to try to prevent against ocean water rushing back in, in case there is a high tide and severe surge of waves.

And moving back over toward downtown Laguna Beach, you can see that the businesses here are still closed. There's only a little bit of pedestrian traffic. You can still see mud on the streets.

What happened is that the storm surge actually came rushing down this main street called Broadway, three to four feet of water rushing down here. We spoke to one resident who was woken up in the middle of the night by the incredible storm last night. Here's what she had to say.


MARISA RHOADS, RESIDENT: At 3:30 in the morning, my fiance woke me up just because it was raining really hard. We went and looked outside of our window, and right down on Broadway, the street was completely flooded over the sidewalk, just basically taking over. I could have jumped on a boogie board and taken that all of the way to the ocean.

(END VIDEOTAPE) WIAN: It is not just Laguna Beach. Throughout Southern California. Let me show you some pictures from our affiliate KTLA of the Corona Airport, 200 airplanes were completely submerged by the floodwater earlier today.

In highland California, in San Bernardino County, we have a bridge that has collapsed because of the storm and the weight of the water. We also have had houses in that area inundated by mud and debris.

Here in Laguna Beach, the cleanup effort is under way. It's continuing. It's going to be several days likely because of the massive amount of water that has hit this community, Wolf.

BLITZER: Casey Wian, thank you.

You are in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Happening now holiday terror fears and an all-out effort by the U.S. government to prevent potential attacks. How big is this current threat.

And also, a stunning intelligence gap in the office of the National Intelligence Director. He was left in the dark on a major terror raid.

And an exclusive look inside one of the world's most secretive and isolated countries. You will see what I saw in my assignment to North Korea.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world -- breaking news, political headlines, and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you are in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

President Obama's point man on terrorism is telling the country there is an all-out effort going on right now to stop terror attacks on Christmas and New Year's. The White House is stressing increased vigilance as millions of Americans pack their bags, get on a plane or drive to their holiday destination. This strong statement came during a surprising briefing over at the White House today.


JOHN BRENNAN, WHITE HOUSE COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER: We remain vigilant to attempts by Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to carry out cowardly attacks against innocent men, women, and children, and we are working very closely with other governments to share all threat information immediately and to coordinate closely our counterterrorism and security activities.

I think the enhancements we have made to our security over the past decade have made it much more difficult for terrorists to conduct these large-scale attacks. We have degraded their capabilities, we have degraded their training capabilities and ability to plot and to move operatives.

So what we have seen recently is increased focus, I think, on the part of terrorist groups to try to carry out some of the smaller scale attacks. And so we are staying very focused on our ability to detect those types of attacks and stop them, whether or not they are by individuals or they are part of a larger organizational effort.


BLITZER: But if the structure of America's intelligence (inaudible) organization is at the center of the new controversy. The national director of intelligence James Clapper in an interview this week that was televised, he was asked about a terror-related arrest in Britain which had occurred 12 hours earlier. The news was all over the TV networks, but Clapper had no idea. How could that be? CNN's Brian Todd is digging deeper for us tonight. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is being called a simple glitch by Clapper's staff and not reflective of his work as DNI, but that glitch led the man who leads 16 intelligence agencies to be very embarrassed in front of network TV cameras.


TODD: If you were watching CNN or any other news network on Monday, you may have known about this -- the arrests of 12 men in Britain allegedly plotting a terror attack. You may have known about it, but on Monday afternoon, several hours after the arrests, the U.S. director of national intelligence did not know when asked during an ABC interview.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: London -- how serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here, any of the things that they have seen were coming here? Director Clapper?

BRENNAN: The arrests of the 12 by the British this morning...


BRENNAN: And this is something that the British informed us about early this morning.

TODD: White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan quickly jumped in, but ABC's Diane Sawyer later came back to Clapper, who oversees 16 intelligence agencies.

SAWYER: I was a little surprised you didn't know about London, Director Clapper.


TODD: The DNI's office called Sawyer's first question confusing and ambiguous. Brennan said before that interview, Clapper had been working on developments on the Korean peninsula and the START treaty.

BRENNAN: Should he have been briefed by his staff on those arrests? Yes. And I know there was breathless attention by the media about these arrests, and it was constantly on the news networks. I'm glad that Jim Clapper is not sitting in front of the TV 24 hours a day and monitoring what comes out of the media.

TODD (on camera): What do you make of that comment? Backspin?

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, CNN'S "RELIABLE SOURCES": Not sitting in front of the TV? Does he have Internet access? I mean, well, part of his job is to be on top of everything that is going on in the world. Nobody expects him to be a cable news addict, but at the same time, Clapper should have a staff that is savvy enough to keep him on top of the news before he goes in front of the cameras.

TODD (voice-over): Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast and CNN's Reliable Sources says it's unacceptable that Clapper was embarrassed on national television because his staff did not brief him. Contacted by CNN, a spokeswoman said he was not briefed on the London arrests because they did not involve a threat to the U.S., quote, "Nevertheless, he should have been briefed on the arrests and steps have been taken to ensure that he is in the future." The spokeswoman told us nobody has been fired. Former CIA Director James Woolsey is one of four top former intelligence bosses I spoke to who defend Clapper's integrity, command of his job, and its rigors.

TODD (on camera): Is it this never-ending swirl of demands?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. In '93, '94, '95 when I had essentially combined the CIA and DNI job, DCI, Congress was in session 195 days in my first year, and I had 205 appointments on Capitol Hill. I was up there on average of more than once a day when Congress was in session, and that is just one part of the job.


TODD: Other former top intelligence officials told me as DNI, Clapper probably works about 20 hours a day, but he has to focus on the big picture of future intelligence gathering, unlike someone like John Brennan, who zeroes in on current threats. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian, you have gotten some additional insight into the layout of his office, which could play into all of this, isn't that right?

TODD: Yes. These former intelligence bosses took us kind of inside of DNI's office, and they said unlike the CIA director, there is no ops center right there with a consistent flow of information coming to the DNI. They say the nearest ops center is in the National Counterterrorism Center in the next building, right next to him in Virginia, but they say the DNI's job is more like a chairman of the board rather than an operations chief.

So another factor here, Wolf, James Clapper does not have a principal deputy right now. That person has been nominated, but has not taken the position yet.

BLITZER: But before you go into an interview with a news anchor, the television news anchor, you should be briefed by your staff on what the latest news is, because you assume that they are going to ask you about the recent most newsworthy developments. All right, Brian, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this with Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Do you accept his explanation that he didn't know something had occurred in Britain, the arrest of these terror suspects 12 hours earlier?

REP. PETE HOEKSTRA, (R) MICHIGAN, RANKING MEMBER INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: It is very simple. His staff screwed up. As you said, he is going on national TV, he's talking to a major anchor, and he is not briefed on what has been on TV all day.

You go into these things prepared. It's not that I am chairman of the board, I should know this stuff, you know you are going to get these kinds of questions. His staff screwed up when -- before he went into the interview, and then afterwards when they started to make all of these excuses, well, he is working on North Korea, he's working on START. No, it's kind of like, the staff screwed up, he should have known, he should have been prepared, but he wasn't.

BLITZER: And that is rule number one. If you are going to do a TV interview, you are the ranking member of the House Intelligence, you ask your staff, is there anything I need to know? What is the latest developments going in, right?

HOEKSTRA: We spent the last two hours before -- I had a staff person watching the last two hours of CNN before I came here to kind of say, OK, what are they talking about, I need to make sure the same thing does not happen to me. But that is rule number one, that's how you always work.

BLITZER: And it is not just public relations or a media issue. You are the director of national intelligence, they have a major terrorist operation that they deal with in Britain, which is our number one ally. You should know about that.

HOEKSTRA: Yes, you should know, because at the same time what we have seen is all these threat streams in Europe. I am sure that Jim Clapper is aware of all these threat streams. You have got threat streams here in the United States. It would have been very simple. It is not that the operation center is in a different building. It is about his press person coming in before he goes or some time in the day saying, hey, you need to know that they have arrested these 12 people in Europe. We are getting all the details. We know that NCTC and these people, they were following it, but he should have had the information. He was badly served.

BLITZER: I guess the only explanation that would have made some sense if there was a much bigger crisis that was unfolding, and maybe there was. Maybe North Korea, South Korea, the tension on the Korean peninsula was dominating all of his energy right there, and he could not afford to deal with some other issues. And that is a possible explanation.

HOEKSTRA: That's possible, but still, his people should have told him these are the kinds of things you are going to be asked about. You need to be prepared. You don't go in cold. BLITZER: Do you know Clapper?

HOEKSTRA: Yes, sure I do.

BLITZER: What do you think of him?

HOEKSTRA: I think, you know, I did not support his appointment to DNI, but I don't think that there is any question about his integrity, his competence. He is a very smart individual. I have got confidence in his capabilities to do this job.

I think that this was a blip, it was a serious mistake by his staff. It doesn't undercut my belief that Jim Clapper can do this job.

BLITZER: You think he is worthy of this job and he can handle all of the responsibilities?

HOEKSTRA: Yes, I don't think this is symptomatic of a deeper problem.

BLITZER: Is there another problem, though, that may be at stake, some layers of bureaucracy that prevented him from knowing about this?

HOEKSTRA: That is one of the frustrations I've had with the DNI's office. We always wanted the DNI to be a chairman, to have the big picture idea. What has now happened with the DNI, it has grown into a whole big bureaucracy. It has layers upon layers upon layers that should not be there. He should be setting strategic operations, not managing day-to-day operations.

BLITZER: Let's get back to this, what I thought to be an extraordinary appearance today by John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism adviser. All of a sudden, without any notification, he goes into the White House press briefing room and starts talking about potential threats out there on the eve of Christmas and New Year's. We remember what happened last year, the Christmas day bombing.

Is Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda associates now, are they -- do they look at the American calendar, if you will, and try to plot something to coordinate with Christmas or New Year's?

HOEKSTRA: I think, number one, he went there, he wanted damage control, he wanted to change the subject. He wanted to be talking about something else.

BLITZER: From the Clapper issue?

HOEKSTRA: From the Clapper issue. He wanted to move beyond that. I think the second thing is clearly, I mean, we have seen, you know, the attack at Ft. Hood, we have seen New York, we have seen all of these other attacks. Al Qaeda, specifically Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, wants to attack the United States. They are not looking at the calendar, other than it's been nine and a half, you know, nine years since they have had a major success. We are coming up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I look for, you know, from January 1 to 9/11, 2011 as being a very active time. They want to hit us. They are committed to hitting us. They will pull out all the stops to make it happen.

BLITZER: People are going to be traveling in the coming days for Christmas and New Year's. How worried should the American public be right now?

HOEKSTRA: I don't necessarily see a higher, you know, intensity level right now between now and Christmas and those types of things. I think the American people need to be aware these folks want to attack us. It is going to be our reality for much of the next year.

And you know, then we have got to have the confidence that John Brennan, Jim Clapper, Napolitano, they are doing the things - they are doing a lot of things that are right. The fundamental thing that they're not doing - they are not unwilling to call this radical jihadism, you know, and those types of things. But we have come a long way since 9/11, but we are still not safe. We are still vulnerable.

BLITZER: Because I have always been told that there is a difference between the traditional Al Qaeda, bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, that group which committed 9/11 and some of these spinoff groups like Anwar Al-Awlaki, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, some of whom are Americans, like Anwar al Awlaki, the cleric, that they have a different modus operandi, and they do look at the American calendar, because they are in fact, at least some of them, are Americans.

HOEKSTRA: Well, they do look at our calendar, they do look at 9/11's 10th anniversary. They understand us. The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they are the focal point, they are the brain center for attacking the U.S. Awlaki understands our psyche and how, you know, the impact that a successful attack or a series of smaller attacks would have on us.

Bin Laden and that group are focused on holding out until August in Afghanistan and then watching us pull down and believing that they can then defeat us in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

HOEKSTRA: Always good to be with you, thank you.

BLITZER: We will have you back, and good luck with the next chapter in your life after leaving congress.

HOEKSTRA: Thank you.

BLITZER: A whirlwind day on Capitol Hill today, major action on controversial business with late developments earlier today. Stand by, we will have it all for you.

And they had no choice but to leave the career they loved. Now gay military veterans are reacting to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The chair declares the second session of the 111th Congress adjourned. (inaudible).


BLITZER: That is it, the House of Representatives adjourning. The Senate is still working a little bit longer after a very busy day on Capitol Hill. Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill working all of these stories for us. Take us inside some of these important final votes today, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it really was a frenzied whirlwind day here on Capitol Hill. You just saw the House of Representatives go out, the 111th Congress is done for the House, but just moments before that, they actually gave final approval to the 9/11 first responders bill. That was one of the things that the Democrats were able to make a deal on and get through rather dramatically and pretty quickly in the frenzy that went on this afternoon.

Basically what happened on that particular bill is that Democrats from New York, the two Senate Democrats, were able to craft a deal with the Republicans, including the Republican who was the biggest opponent of this. They brought down the price of it and they made some other changes so that they could pass it. Listen to what Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York, said about it.


SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, (D) NEW YORK: This is the day we have all been working towards and waiting for. Our Christmas miracle has arrived.


Democrats and Republicans came together to make sure we could fulfill our undeniable moral obligation to our men and women who are our first responders, our heroes, and all of the survivors at ground zero.


BASH: So, that was the final piece of business of this 111th Congress, and along with it, Wolf, was the president's top priority in terms of foreign policy, and that of course was Senate approval of the START Treaty. It had really been in no-man's-land for a long time, very unclear whether or not the president would actually get that in this Congress, but at the end of the day, 71 senators said yes, including 13 Republicans. That was more than the 2/3 majority that the president needed. Many Republicans, the majority of Republicans did not vote for it, saying that they didn't like the treaty when it comes to substance, and we are not happy with the Democrats in terms of the process they used, cramming it in in these final hour, but the president got a victory on that, too.

It was -- everybody is admitting here, even Republicans reluctantly, that this was quite a lame duck session and not so lame. The president is getting credit, as is the Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

BLITZER: And the president is getting ready now to get out of Washington, go to Hawaii to meet his family and have a few days of some R&R during this Christmas season. Thank you, Dana. Thanks very much. Thanks for all the good work up on Capitol Hill. I hope you get out of here as well, you have been working hard during this lame duck session, as we all know.

He famously challenged Russia to tear down the Berlin wall, now that city is divided over a tribute to Ronald Reagan. We will have the details of the unfolding controversy.

Plus, you're about to see what I saw in my exclusive assignment inside North Korea. Even the subway was different from anything I had anticipated. You are going to find out what life is really like in one of the most isolated countries in the world.


BLITZER: Getting stranded at the airport is not exactly how anyone wants to start the holiday vacation, but now travelers in Europe are getting some relief, finally. Kate Bolduan is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Tell us.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A little bit of good news for the people stuck. You should probably know this already if you are there. Thousands of holiday travelers stranded in Europe are on the move once again. London's Heathrow airport is now operating at more than 70 percent and could be at full capacity by tomorrow.

Heavy snow grounded hundreds of flights earlier this week, and flights are also now resuming at Germany's busy Frankfurt airport. Heathrow's boss says he is 100 percent focused on passengers and won't even take his end of the year bonus because of the travel chaos.

But there will be no Christmas celebrations for some Iraqi Christians. Church leaders in several Iraqi cities are urging Christians to mark Christmas with private prayer and to stay away from festivities following deadly attacks. 52 people died when militants took worshipers inside a Baghdad church hostage in October. An offshoot of Iraqi Al Qaeda is threatening more attacks against Iraqi Christians, thousands of whom have fled.

And you may remember when then President Reagan famously urged the Soviet Union to tear down this wall, the Berlin Wall of course, back in 1987. Now Germany is divided over whether to honor Reagan. Germany's defense minister and other conservative leaders are criticizing the Berlin city government for not commemorating Reagan's 100th birthday this coming February. They want a street named in his honor.

You want to talk about a little money? How about a lot of money? Spain has not had much reason to celebrate lately, with its struggling economy, but it found billions of reasons to celebrate today. Spain's annual El Gordo, love that name, lottery paid out $3 billion to hundreds of lucky winners. The biggest prize totaled $4 million. One winner was a bar owner who said he felt like Robin Hood after selling some winning tickets to his customers. How much was it, whatever, $4 billion, $3 million?

BLITZER: $3, $3 billion.

BOLDUAN: Well, whatever, I'm clearly flustered, because that's a lot of money.

BLITZER: A lot of cash.

BOLDUAN: I would like that for Christmas.

BLITZER: Billion.

BOLDUAN: Billion.


BLITZER: Thank you. A remarkably productive lame duck session of Congress. President Obama got many of his priorities through, but not all of them. He just revealed his biggest disappointment. Stand by.

And why some people are doing a double take at the CIA's WikiLeaks task force.


BLITZER: President Obama is adding to his list of lame duck victories with an impressive scorecard for a congressional session that is notoriously usually at least unproductive. The tax cut compromise with the Republicans passed, along with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," passage of the food safety bill, and just today the Senate approved the new START Treaty with Russia.

President Obama touted those successes at a White House news conference about two or three hours ago, calling this lame duck session of Congress one of the most productive in decades. But he clearly was frustrated with the failure to pass the so-called DREAM act. Listen to this.


OBAMA: Well, I will tell you that maybe my biggest disappointments was this DREAM Act vote. You know, I get letters from kids all across the country, who came here when they were five, came here when they were eight. Their parents were undocumented. The kids didn't know.

The kids are going to school like any other American kid, they are growing up, they are playing football, they are going to class, they are dreaming about college. And suddenly they come to 18, 19 years old, and they realize, even though I feel American, I am an American, the law does not recognize me as an American. I am willing to serve my country, I am willing to fight for this country. I want to go to college and better myself, and I'm at risk of deportation.

And it is heartbreaking. That can't be who we are. To have kids, our kids, you know, classmates of our children who are suddenly under this shadow of fear through no fault of their own. They didn't break a law. They were kids.

We need to reform this immigration system so we are a nation of laws and we are a nation of immigrants. And at minimum, we should be able to get the DREAM Act done. And so I'm going to go back at it.


BLITZER: It's going to be high priority for the president in the new year. Let's bring in our White House correspondent Dan Lothian, our senior political analyst Gloria Borger, along with our CNN political contributors Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

Are they confident over there at the White House, Dan, that the president will be able to use this momentum from the lame duck session to get stuff passed in the new Congress?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly hope so over here at the White House, Wolf. First of all, they feel great about what the president was able to accomplish. One senior aide said that no one really expected that they could get this much done in a short period of time, but they did.

And they are carrying this confidence into the next two years believing that this is sort of a template for what can happen when both Republicans and the Democrats get together, compromise, figure out a way to get this done. You know, the test will really be what happens when everyone returns next year. I mean, is this just -- just sort of a one-time event, the perfect storm, the 100-year storm or whatever you might want to call it, or in fact, will this carry over into next year or the year after that? This White House certainly believes that that would be the case, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the big problem that the president is going to have, Gloria, is that John Boehner is going to be speaker of the House, not Nancy Pelosi, and there's going to be a lopsided Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a very modest Democratic majority in the Senate, where there's the potential for some moderate Democrats actually siding with the Republicans.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that actually -- that might not turn out to be such a problem for Barack Obama, because he's not standing side by side with Nancy Pelosi running the House and Harry Reid running the Senate, letting them run the show, as he did on health-care reform, for example. Now he has people he can oppose. He will be able to get some clarity on what he believes in, because he'll be able to speak for himself.

And so, in the end, politically, Wolf, this may turn out to be good for him, particularly if he proposes things that the American public believes are rational solutions to our problems.

BLITZER: Bill Clinton, as you well remember, you served in that White House, he became more popular when the Republicans were in the majority and Newt Gingrich was the speaker than before.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He did, but it was no day at the beach, Wolf. You covered it. I don't know if the folks at home actually picked this up. But they impeached him, and for no good reason, and I'm not saying -- well, actually, I am saying if Barack Obama is president long enough, they'll try to impeach him, too, for no good reason...

BORGER: No, that wasn't that...


BEGALA: ... because this is a very radical Republican Party. But here's what his advisers are telling me. And I'm very hard on him for accepting this tax deal. What they say is, look, this now gives us the flexibility. We know this president can cut a deal with the Republicans when they want to be reasonable, and this will give him the authority to stand up and fight them.

And I think the big fight, and they think the big fight is going to come on health care. And then maybe on the budget, but the Republicans...

BLITZER: Repealing health care?

BEGALA: Repealing the health-care protections for consumers that the president will not let them do that. And he'll have to fight. He'll have to fight. And he named some of the things today. Veterans, teachers. He's not going to let them go at the education budget, the innovation budget. The things he talked about today in his press conference he talked about for a reason, I believe. He laid out markers.


BLITZER: Is that priority No. 1 for the Republicans, repealing the health-care law?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Priority No. 1 for the Republicans is going to be an agenda for jobs and growth, and that's what they're going to try to put, I think, on the table.

BLITZER: Does that mean repealing the health-care law? CASTELLANOS: I think the health-care law is going to be part of that, but it's not going to be, I think, what you see on day one. We don't want to fall in the same traps, I think, the Democrats did, which is they spent the year they should have been talking about the economy talking about health care. We don't want to flip that problem on its head, but...

BORGER: But they are going to...


CASTELLANOS: ... smarter than...

BORGER: They are -- they're going to call for the repeal of health care.

CASTELLANOS: Sure, they're going to call for the repeal of health care. And it's going to be a big vote.

BORGER: The job-killing health-care bill.


CASTELLANOS: And it will pass the House and it won't pass the Senate, and then there will probably be a series of test votes throughout the year, repealing the parts that you don't want to keep, keep the parts that work. Veterans, things likes that. Deductibility.

But it's really going to be who gets to keep the focus on the economy, on jobs and growth. But first, whether it's the president or John Boehner, the first one to put something on the table called a strategy for jobs and growth and how we're going to compete with China is going to win.

BLITZER: Well, let me go back to Dan Lothian. Your colleague over there, Jake Tapper, one of the reporters at the White House, he had this exchange with Robert Gibbs back on November 30. Listen to this.


JACK TAPPER, REPORTER: There is a period of -- the president thinks that funding the government, passing unemployment insurance extensions, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, the DREAM Act, tax cuts and START all can be done in the next 18 days?



BLITZER: He said yes, and then Tapper said something to the effect of "18 days?" And Tapper said, "Good luck."

LOTHIAN: Good luck.

BLITZER: And you've got to give Gibbs credit. He says, "Yes, thank you, you'll have a lot to cover."

LOTHIAN: And we did, right?

BLITZER: That turned out to be right.

LOTHIAN: That's right. We did have a lot of to cover, in fact. But you know, that's the thing. From the very beginning, when there were a lot of critics out there saying that the president could not get all of these things on his ambitious agenda ticked off, the White House remained fairly confident that they could, from Robert Gibbs, the president himself saying that they could.

And what you saw from the president was rolling up his sleeves and working the phones along with the vice president, as well, when you look at START working the phones over to the weekend, continued to work the phones all week to try to pressure those who were still on the fence and not yet convinced and lay out the facts for them so they could -- so they could support this. And so the president did push very hard, and he walks away, flies away, rather, to Hawaii with some big wins, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's flying away tonight. Let him enjoy a few days during this Christmas/New Year's season. He needs the rest right now because there will be a lot of work to do in the new year.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

President Obama says he was overwhelmed by emotion when he signed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Today, he's not the only one. What gay military veterans dating back to World War II are now saying, stand by.

And I'll also take you inside my visit to North Korea. Odd moments during the tension of war, from an impromptu run with the country's young girls' ice skating team, to Kenny Rogers singing in Pyongyang. I'll tell you all about the surprises I encountered.


BLITZER: Do you -- do you speak English? My name -- my name is Wolf. My name is Wolf.



BLITZER: Lovely shot of Air Force One over at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. The president will be heading out there momentarily. He's going to fly out to Hawaii for a little bit of vacation during this Christmas/New Year's season. His family is already out there. It's something he looks forward to every year going back to his home state of Hawaii, especially this beautiful time of the year.

President Obama signed the bill today repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" the policy banning gays serving openly in the U.S. military. Because of the policy, more than 14,000 people were discharged over the past 17 years. It will be months before the repeal is fully implemented, but the president pledged swift action, and he paid tribute to gay service members past and present.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There can be little doubt that there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence, who consecrated the ground at Gettysburg, who manned the trenches along the western front, who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials. Their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington.

And so, as the first generation to serve openly in our armed forces, you will stand for all those who came before you, and you will serve as role models to all who come after you. And I know that you will fulfill this responsibility with integrity and honor, just as you have every other mission with which you've been charged.


BLITZER: The new policy was a long time coming for so many gay military veterans. Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, spoke to some of them. He's in Honolulu right now where the first family is spending Christmas.

What did these men tell you out there in Hawaii?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we went out to Pearl Harbor, such a historic site. We found a lot of veterans of all ages, but we in particular found some gay veterans who live in this state, and they say, as the president sort of suggested, that there are gay veterans buried in military cemeteries all over the world, maybe even some entombed there with the wreckage of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor who are finally, finally getting some recognition.


HENRY (voice-over): Jeff Canavona and Dale Head served in the U.S. military long before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Back then, gay people were simply banned from serving, and Jeff, who was in the Air Force and not open about his sexuality, says it was like being hunted.

JEFF CANAVONA, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): When I was in the military in the '60s, that -- that hammer over you for being openly gay, if they found you out, they'll kick you right out.

HENRY: Dale, who was in the Army, simply gave up and did not reenlist.

DALE HEAD, U.S. ARMY (RET.): The reason I got out down in Hawaii was I had to make a decision whether to live a double life, as so many do in the military, or be honest about it and just get out.

HENRY: Most of the straight veterans we spoke to at Pearl Harbor were sympathetic to the plight of their gay comrades. Leo Holl, a veteran of the Korean War, said there were some in his unit who did not like serving with gays, but he says it never affected operations.

(on camera) And you think that will be justice served for people who have been kind of having to keep their sexuality secret?

LEO HOLL, U.S. ARMY (RET.): I think so. I think so. You know, those people are, they're soldiers or sailors or Marines or whatever first, you know, and they do what they're told, just like the rest of us did.

HENRY (voice-over): A long time coming for Jeff and Dale.

HEAD: I thought it would come sooner.

CANAVONA: Yes. Sooner.

HEAD: But it's here now, so...

CANAVONA: We're happy.

HEAD: It's very pleasing to live long enough to see it.



HENRY: Now they're very pleased indeed, but the big question moving forward is whether or not this is really going to be implemented quickly and whether it's going to take hold and whether some of the service chiefs like the Marine commandant who have expressed public reservations about all this will actually follow through on it.

The president at his news conference today said he's spoken to all the service chiefs, including the Marine commandant, and he's gotten assurances that they're going to implement this, in his words, "smartly and swiftly" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because that's what the military always does. The commander in chief gives an order, and they implement it.

All right. Thanks very much for that, Ed Henry, already out in Hawaii.

Wild weather batters the west. One California airport is all but underwater in the floods, and the torrential rains may not be done yet.

And wait until you hear what the CIA is calling its task force on WikiLeaks. Three little letters rarely reveal so much.


BLITZER: Looking at live pictures of Air Force One and there is the engine there, and behind it, you can see Marine One. It's moving. The president has just landed at Andrews Air Force Base. He'll be getting off the helicopter, Marine One, walking over to Air Force One, making the long flight to Honolulu.

His family is already out there. He stayed behind because of all of the activity in the Senate and the House, but both of these bodies have adjourned now. They're getting ready to get out of Washington, D.C., as well.

Ed -- Ed Henry is out in Honolulu already. Any major activities the president has planned in the -- during his Hawaii vacation?

HENRY: You know, Wolf, they're going to kick back and not really do very much. I was just speaking to the former Honolulu mayor, Mufi Hanneman, who is a very close friend of the first family. He said all indications he's gotten is they want to kick back; they want to relax. It's been a pretty bruising year.

And the reason why the mayor -- the former mayor said they come out here in the first place, he's got his roots here, obviously, but also, it's relaxing. People don't bother him. It's relatively private for him. He's on the other side of the island from where we are on Waikiki Beach, where a lot of tourists. He's in Kailua, is where the family is staying, much more quiet.

Bruising year, but it ended on a high note for this president, as you've been noting. He got most of what he wanted in this lame-duck session, but he's looking at a very difficult 2011 with a much more muscular Republican force in Congress there, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed, stand by. The president will be arriving there in a few hours. We wish him and his entire family, obviously, a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Coming up next, some exclusive video from inside North Korea.


BLITZER: Well, the president is on the tarmac, walking from Marine One over to Air Force One. He'll get on that plane. He'll fly off to Hawaii for his little Christmas/New Year's celebration. His family is already out there. The president is leaving Washington at a time when he has achieved some pretty impressive results up on Capitol Hill. Got the START treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate today, got that tax deal, that compromise worked out with Republicans, got the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" today. And both houses passed the 9/11 first responders' health-care bill. So did quite well during this process. Let him go enjoy now for a few days with his family in Hawaii.

It's morning now in South Korea. Seoul is preparing for its largest ever land and air winter drills. South Korea remains on high alert amid fears that Pyongyang could retaliate.

I was the only TV journalist to travel to North Korea with Bill Richardson. He's the New Mexico governor, the former U.N. ambassador. It was a private diplomatic mission to North Korea. It was still an extraordinary and surprising journey. And I want to share some of it with you. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): The North Korean capital is a lot different than I thought. Take, for example, the subway system. It takes forever to get to the underground station. I never saw such long escalators, even longer than the ones at the Washington, D.C., Metro. So deep that it could and does double as an underground bunker.

(on camera) We're here at the Prosperity Subway Station. It's deep underground. You saw how long it takes to get through that -- those escalators. We're really, really deep underground. Patriotic pictures all over the place. As we're speaking right now, also very patriotic music going on. It's the nature of Pyongyang and North Korea. A lot of patriotism. A lot of propaganda music. And a lot of propaganda pictures all the time.

(voice-over) New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's senior adviser is Tony Nam Kun (ph). He's been to North Korea 40 times, going back to 1990.

(on camera) Hi, we're here on a subway train. It's still in the station. We're about to take off. We'll see where it goes. I have no idea where it goes. So far, so good.

Tony, what do you think about this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It reminds me of an underground bomb shelter. It's so deep.

BLITZER: That's what I thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very colorful station with all the paintings and the color and -- it's very crowded, midday. A lot of people moving forward, moving backwards.

BLITZER: Do people pay for these...


BLITZER: How do they -- because I didn't see...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I have one.


BLITZER: How much is that U.S.?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very little. About 100 to a dollar now so...

BLITZER: So it's like 5 cents? So it's a nickel?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But most people use six-month passes, which they buy for about 100 yuan.

BLITZER: So just a dollar?


BLITZER: A dollar, they can basically ride for six months.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, as much as they want.

BLITZER: It's a pretty good deal.

We're moving now. Pretty smooth.

(voice-over) But sometimes it goes dark. Electricity shortages are always a problem in North Korea.

We went to this high school where the students were in cold classrooms, with overcoats. So cold, you could see their breath. The rooms were not well lit.

(on camera) All right, here we are. This is Kim Il Sung Square. As you can see, it's really huge. It's magnificent. And they often have events here, which is totally understandable. These are all government buildings over here. And this is a magnificent palace right in front of me over here, if you want to just look over. You can see the foreign ministry. And then you see this marvelous structure over here.

This is a brisk cold day on this Friday here in Pyongyang. But it's nice. There's not a whole lot of traffic here. It's icy. The streets are icy. It's snowy. You can see a lot of people shoveling.

And there you see the hammer and sickle of this communist government. You see Lenin; you see Marx, manifestations of the communist philosophy.

And then you see a lot of young people, and not -- some not so young, just shoveling snow, which is totally understandable, given what's going on. But it's brisk. It's lovely. It's a nice day here in Pyongyang.

(voice-over) We drove all over the North Korean capital, saw lots and lots of buildings. Some looked impressive from afar, but I couldn't help but wonder if they were just for show. Were there really people living inside? I couldn't get access to find out.

We also went to the national library, where they have lots of less than state-of-the-art computers. They also have a music room with old-school boom boxes and headsets. Folks can listen to their favorites. I was surprised by some of them.


BLITZER (on camera): Who would have thought -- Governor, we're here at a library in North Korea, Pyongyang, and we're listening on a beat box over here to Kenny Rogers.

How are you? (voice-over) I had some fun when I saw the North Korean Girls' National Ice Hockey Team jogging outside the National Ice Rink.

(on camera) We're running. We're running. Everybody is looking good.

(voice-over) I couldn't help but join them, with my handheld camera shooting away.


BLITZER: A lot of fun. A lot of fun indeed. A different side of North Korea. Tomorrow, by the way, I'll have a vastly different experience. We're going to go outside of the capital of Pyongyang in what might some -- some might say is a trip back in time. You're going to want to see what's going on in North Korea.

Online right now, by the way, over at, the main page at, as well, you're going to find my reporter's notebook, chock full of anecdotes from my exclusive trip to South Korea. A lot more photos, as well, and video. That's at You're going to want to see what's going on.

With the holidays around the corner, time for some "Most Unusual" looks at some awkward holiday photos.


BLITZER: Check your in box at your own risk. 'Tis the season for the "Most Unusual" and Awkward Family Photos. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 'Tis the season of photo opportunities: posing and poking.

(MUSIC: "Jingle Bells")

MOOS: Poking and placing.


MOOS: And if it doesn't always feel jolly in the moment...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just take the damn picture.

MOOS: ... maybe it will become jolly with age, which is why a Web site called Awkward Family Photos holds an annual holiday contest.

DOUG CHERNACK, CO-CREATOR, AWKWARDFAMILYPHOTOS.COM: The holidays are the most awkward time of the year.

MOOS: Folks in photos featuring awkward-looking outfits. People posing in awkward positions. A kid tied up in Christmas lights. Another chewing on a cord. CHERNACK: That caused a little bit of a firestorm on the site.

MOOS (on camera): But we've been assured no babies were harmed in the taking of these photos. The kid chewing the cord is alive and well, all grown up now.

(voice-over) The winner of the awkward holiday photo contest might seem ordinary at first glance, until you notice that little Calvin Meuser is flipping the bird. Now it's come home to roost almost four decades later.

(on camera) When did your parents realize that you were flipping them off?

CALVIN MEUSER, WINNER OF AWKWARD HOLIDAY PHOTO CONTEST (via phone): OK, so when my parents were recently digitizing their old slides a couple of years ago, they found it. And they had never noticed it before.

MOOS: But Calvin's parents didn't think the photo was so funny. They threw it out. He actually had to rescue it from the trash.

(voice-over) From garbage can to first-place winner, it's entitled "Birdie."

"White Christmas" came in second. The white part is a guy named Scott.


MOOS (on camera): Scott, are you dressed?

BURKHART (PH): For the most part, yes.

MOOS (voice-over): The same goes for the photo. Scott is wearing gym shorts. Although some say, "What's with Dad? Creepy." The family sent this out as their Christmas card.

Some were riveted by Scott's toes.

(on camera) What exactly is with the red toenail polish?

BURKHART (PH): It's not red toenail polish.

MOOS (voice-over): Scott says he dropped a wood stove on his foot.

BURKHART (PH): I've got a camera on my phone. I can show you a current photo right now. You can see that they're definitely a brownish blue shade, and not red.

MOOS: From toes to fingers.

MEUSER: I don't remember why I did it, but I remember doing it. And I remember getting away with it until now. MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just take the damn picture.

MOOS: ... New York.


BLITZER: That does it for us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.