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The Situation: Wednesday, September 14

Editor's Note: The Situation Report is a running log of dispatches, quotes, links and behind-the-scenes notes filed by the correspondents and producers of CNN's Washington Bureau. Watch "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer on CNN 3 p.m. ET to 6 p.m. ET weekdays.

FBI agents






George W. Bush
John Roberts
Hurricane Katrina

Posted 5:38 p.m. ET
From Terry Frieden, CNN America Bureau

FBI Director Robert Mueller Wednesday acknowledged the FBI is unable to easily retain experienced agents, after a newly released independent management report called for an overhaul of the FBI's effort to maintain a stable workforce.

"We have a tremendous problem retaining persons, particularly since September 11th, because there is not a corporation that doesn't want a security officer," Mueller told a House panel. He said federal agents with experience in the FBI, Secret Service and other agencies continue to lose experienced personnel to the private sector.

Mueller testified shortly after the lawmakers had received the outside report, which cited problems caused by the constant juggling and rapid turnover of veteran agents at FBI headquarters and its field offices nationwide.

The report on the bureau's personnel issues by the National Academy of Public Administration was delivered by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

Thornburgh credited Mueller with being fully receptive to the changes recommended.

The proposals recommend a sweeping change in the way the FBI handles human resource policies and practices. Among the recommendations is a single executive to oversee FBI workforce issues, replacing several who "have sometimes been at cross-purposes."

9/11 Commission-Atta

Posted 5:32 p.m. ET
From David Ensor, CNN America Bureau

Former 9/11 Commission members dismissed claims by two members of a Pentagon intelligence unit that it had evidence Mohammed Atta was a dangerous terrorist living in the United States before the 9/11 attacks. "We have not been able to come up with any fact-based evidence" supporting the claim of Lt. Colonel Anthony Shaffer and Captain Scott Philpott that they saw Atta's name and picture on a chart prepared by an analyst for the "Able Danger" exercise back in 2000, said former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission, at a news conference Wednesday.

Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who was deputy chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said Philpott "changed his story a number of times" and that "we concluded that his account was not substantiated and should not be included" in the 9/11 Commission report.

"At this point, we stand by that judgement," Hamilton said.

Philpott and Schaffer both met with Commission staffers prior to the report. Schaffer has said he told staffers about Atta at an October 2003 meeting in Afghanistan. Commission members confirmed the meeting took place. Hamilton said, "We had three people in that room. The White House had one. None of them remember any mention of Mohammed Atta."

Kean said at the request of the former commissioners, the Pentagon has conducted a "massive" search for documents that would shed any light on the matter and found nothing.

Terror suspect plea

Posted 4:55 p.m. ET
From Carol Cratty, CNN America Bureau

Alleged al Qaeda operative Ahmed Omar Abu Ali pleaded not guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court on additional terror charges. In an expanded federal indictment last week, Abu Ali was charged with conspiracy to assassinate the President, conspiracy to commit air piracy and destroy aircraft as well as providing material support and resources to al Qaeda. He previously had been charged with supporting al Qaeda through various acts and had pleaded not guilty.

Abu Ali, a 24-year-old U.S. citizen, did not speak during the short court hearing. His attorney, Ashraf Nubani, entered the not guilty plea. Abu Ali wore a prison jumpsuit and had a dark beard. "We believe in God. It will be all right," the defendant's father, Omar Abu Ali, told CNN after the hearing.

Held by Saudi authorities for nearly two years before being returned to the United States in February, Abu Ali agreed to carry out the assassination and received a religious blessing to kill Bush, according to an indictment from a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia handed up last week.

Abu Ali has alleged he was tortured while in Saudi custody. U.S. officials have denied that charge.

Defense attorneys for Abu Ali will argue in a hearing next week his purported confession to Saudi officials should not be used in U.S. court because of the torture allegation.

Border fence

Posted 3:08 p.m. ET
From Jim Spellman, CNN America Bureau

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff signed a waiver Tuesday night allowing the Border Patrol to build a controversial security fence near San Diego despite the concerns of environmental advocacy groups.

The fence project began in 1996 but could not be completed because of a lawsuit filed by the California Coastal Commission, a state agency charged with preserving coastal areas.

In February Congress passed a law enabling DHS to ignore lawsuits and other laws in place to ensure the "expeditious construction of border security infrastructure." The law was attached to the "Real ID Act," which requires states to use stricter criteria for issuing driver's licenses. The law is designed to reduce the ability of illegal immigrants to enter the United States and acquire valid identification.

The issuance of the waiver Tuesday is the first time DHS has invoked the privilege. The waiver goes into effect Friday.

Environmental groups contend that the fence will damage a sensitive area known as "Smugglers Gulch", which empties into the Tijuana Estuary, a State Park that hugs the US-Mexico border.

Katrina-9/11 Commission

Posted 1:22 p.m. ET
From David Ensor, CNN America Bureau

Members of the former 9/11 Commission Wednesday blasted Congress and the Bush administration for inaction on some of its recommendations, which the former chairman said could have saved lives in the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane.

"If Congress does not act, people will die--I cannot put it more simply than that," said Thomas Kean, referring to what could happen in the next major disaster or terrorist attack.

He said it is a "scandal" that more has not been done to improve the job of first responders in the four years since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. "Hurricane Katrina pointed out serious flaws in our emergency preparedness and response. And what is frustrating to us is that many of the same problems we saw in 9/11 and the response to that disaster," Kean said.

The Morning Grind

Posted 8:52 a.m. ET
From John Mercurio, CNN Political Unit

Iraq Returns

Here's a word we haven't written in a while: Iraq. Deadly violence there spikes today, distracting us (for how long?) from congressional hearings on Katrina and John Roberts, as well as President Bush's mea culpa and Bayou speech tomorrow.

Violence rocked central Iraq this morning, killing more than 150 people and wounding hundreds of others. In Baghdad a suicide car bomb exploded near a gathering of laborers in the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, killing over 100 people and injuring 162 wounded.

According to witnesses, the bomber had pulled up in the minibus and called to a group of men to gather around, saying he was looking for workers. He then detonated his explosives. Another suicide car bomber hit outside a cleric's office in a Shiite area of western Baghdad, killing at least four people. Another suicide car bomber killed at least 11 people in northern Baghdad. Three Iraqi troops were killed in an attack on an Iraqi convoy today, also in Baghdad.

In Taji, men wearing Iraqi army uniforms stormed homes and pulled 17 Shiite men from their homes, shooting them execution style in the town's main square. Hundreds of Shiites have been killed by Sunni Insurgent groups in the past few months as those groups try to foment sectarian strife, and even civil war, in Iraq.

* In Louisiana, the media appears to have found its first set of hurricane villains. Mable and Salvador Mangano Sr., the owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, who are charged yesterday with 34 counts of negligent homicide.

The Manganos' attorney said they were never told about the mandatory evacuation, and the couple were concerned that if they moved their patients, many would have died. They stayed in the nursing home through the storm with their children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews, he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kathleen Blanco will address a joint session of the state legislature tonight at 730 p.m. EDT in the chamber of the state House. She'll discuss her proposals for rebuilding southeast Louisiana and, we hear, will call an emergency session for lawmakers to deal with the storm's impact on the state and its budget priorities.

Earlier, the Bush administration keeps up its presence in the hurricane-ravaged city. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta will be holding a 1 p.m. EDT presser at the Port of New Orleans, where he'll announce the deployment of additional ships and inspect the situation of the port.

For his part, Bush has a full day at UNGA. He addresses the U.N. General Assembly at 9:40 a.m. EDT and then attends bilateral meetings. He returns this afternoon to DC, where he makes remarks at a 7 p.m. dinner celebrating "350 Years of Jewish Life in America."

* On Capitol Hill, at 10 a.m., the Senate Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on "Recovering from Hurricane Katrina: The Next Phase." This is the first committee to take up response and aftermath of Katrina. Witnesses include: Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, and Pete Wilson, former governor of California.

The Roberts hearings get underway today at 9 a.m. EDT. Each of the committee's 18 senators will get 20 minutes to ask questions.

Per aides, the key line we'll hear today from Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy, is a sustained critique of Roberts' on the Voting Rights Act, specifically Section 2. (Section 2 was amended in '82, with Kennedy's support, to say that voting rights were violated when voters felt the "effect" of being discriminated against, lifting the burden of having to prove there was the "intent" to discriminate).

"[Former Chief Justice Earl] Warren understood the impact of separate but equal on generations of both white and black children. That's what a chief justice does," one Kennedy aide wrote in an Emil to the Grind. "Roberts has given nothing but bloodless answers."

Roberts went farther in opposing the '82 amendment than others in the Reagan administration, and memos Roberts wrote on this topic suggest he could have been acting on his own beliefs. In fact, when Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Brad Reynolds raised concerns about sending the Senate a letter on this issue, Roberts pushed the attorney general to do so, stating that "my own view is that something must be done to educate the Senators on the seriousness of this problem."

Democrats argue that this was one time in Roberts' career in which he was not acting as a judge or a litigator, constrained by precedent, but as a senior policy advisor with a free hand to promote whatever position he saw fit.

In his exchange with Sen. Russ Feingold yesterday, Roberts said he didn't really have an opinion as to whether the intent test, in retrospect, was correct and right and would've had the effect of electing fewer African Americans to public office. "If he's as good a lawyer as everyone says he is, then he understands how prohibitive an intent test is in enforcing a civil rights law. The effect would have been no minority representation in Congress," the Kennedy aide wrote.

The RNC counters that the Reagan administration opposed amending Section 2 because "experience demonstrated that the act was working well and should be extended unchanged. ... Judge Roberts' record on the D.C. Circuit demonstrates that he applies the law in cases involving civil rights. In private practice, Roberts represented civil rights plaintiffs and assisted those who are less fortunate."

Political Hot Topics

Posted: 8:35 a.m. ET
From Stephen Bach, CNN Washington Bureau

SELLING IRAQ AT THE UN: Before skeptical world leaders, President Bush is seeking to sell the global community on his blueprint for spreading democracy in Iraq and elsewhere, overhauling the United Nations and expanding free trade. The president, aides said, also was to try to persuade world leaders to partner in his second-term pledge to spread democracy, even in unlikely or unreceptive places, and was to tout U.S. efforts to battle AIDS in Africa and prevent a bird flu pandemic. AP via Yahoo! News: Bush Seeks U.N. Support on Democracyexternal link

NO WORD ON ROE: John G. Roberts Jr. testified yesterday that he believes that the Constitution protects the right to privacy, the legal underpinning of the nation's landmark abortion law, but he refused to say whether he would vote to uphold Roe v. Wade if he is confirmed as chief justice of the United States. Washington Post: Roberts Avoids Specifics on Abortion Issueexternal link

BUCK STOPS THERE: President Bush said on Tuesday that he bore responsibility for any failures of the federal government in its response to Hurricane Katrina and suggested that he was unsure whether the country was adequately prepared for another catastrophic storm or terrorist attack. "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Mr. Bush said in an appearance in the East Room with President Jalal Talabani of Iraq. NY Times: President Says He's Responsible in Storm Lapsesexternal link

TOO CLOSE TO CALL: Fernando Ferrer finished in first place Tuesday night - but razor-close to facing a runoff in two weeks against the second-place Democratic mayoral candidate, Rep. Anthony Weiner. With more than 20,000 absentee ballots and affidavits still to be counted, it may take several days to decide whether a runoff will be needed to determine who faces Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Nov. 8. The drama was thick. With all precincts reporting, Ferrer's share of the vote stood at a tantalizing 39.9 percent, just shy of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff. NY Newsday: Democratic primary too close to callexternal link

PATAKI GIVES FIRST '08 SPEECH: George Pataki on Tuesday gave what will likely be remembered as his first presidential campaign speech in Iowa. Pataki, considered a probable contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, introduced himself to the first-in-the-nation caucus state as a leader tested by catastrophe. Speaking to about 1,000 business leaders at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, he recalled his role responding to the terrorist attacks four years ago. He seized on the post-hurricane recovery in the Gulf Coast to tell how Sept. 11 has affected him. Des Moines Register: Gov. Pataki touts role in responding to 9/11external link

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