Thursday, June 29, 2006
Can a D-e-m spell G-o-d?
Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith -- the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps, off rhythm, to the gospel choir. Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. To say that men and women should not inject their personal morality into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
Those aren't my words. I'm quoting. And who am I quoting? You might guess an evangelical Christian leader. Perhaps even a Republican strategist or conservative lawmaker. But would guess a Democratic senator? Those are the words of Senator Barack Obama, addressing a bipartisan religious conference sponsored by Sojourners founder Rev. Jim Wallis.
Obama had strong words for the Democratic party, both in his speech and in an interview I conducted with him afterwards, about the party's historic aversion to talk about faith. Faith is a very big part of the life of many Americans, contends Obama, and for Democrats to not talk about religion or even try to understand a person's faith is to eliminate almost all possibility of communicating meaningfully with them.
Republicans are great at talking about faith. And they are rewarded for it. In 2004, white evangelicals counted for 23 percent of voters. And they broke overwhelmingly for President Bush. "The biggest mistake the Democrats have made is to cede the entire territory of religion and values to a religious and political right, who then narrow the issues to only two -- abortion and gay marriage -- and then manipulate them politically," says Jim Wallis.
Democrats are trying to correct the mistake. There is a movement afoot led by Obama, the new superstar of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and others to encourage party members to acknowledge faith as a means to broader communication. Whether it's for a Democratic politician to make public his or her own faith, or simply learn how to talk about it, party leaders believe it could be a foot in the door to get those exurban evangelicals to listen.
Democrats are also trying to expand the field of "moral" and "value" issues to include some of their strengths. For them to play, it needs to be about more than abortion and same-sex marriage. So they're attempting to making moral issues out of poverty, hunger, human rights and "creation care" (a new phrase for "environmentalism"), believing that if there is common ground on belief in the idea of moral values, there might be fertile ground to approach evangelicals on the Iraq war, the deficit and other issues.
Take Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, for example. He talked a lot about his personal religion during his election campaign. Not in terms of politics, but he let people know that he was a person for whom faith was important. He spoke of his mission in Honduras, and he talked about religion as part of his background. On faith issues, he sounded more like a Republican than a Democrat. No one questioned his sincerity. And wouldn't you know it, he won.
Many Democrats acknowledge that they have been the party of secularism for so long that they have alienated a significant part of the electorate. And they want to try to win those voters over. As Senator Obama pointed out, the majority of great reformers in American history -- Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King among them -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.
Now, certainly this is going to make secularists uncomfortable. They will argue about blurring the line between church and state. But some Democrats have their eyes on another line. The 50 percent line. And they know that unless they can peel off a portion of that growing segment of society that is firmly rooted in the South and now sweeping across the Midwest, they will likely remain the party of the minority and continue to see "red"in the White House.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
President Bush vs. The New York Times
Instead of reading The New York Times, it's quite possible White House staffers are using the venerated newspaper as fish wrap or lining for canary cages these days.
President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and congressional leaders -- primarily Republicans -- are calling a recent Times report disgraceful, dangerous, even illegal.
In a nutshell: The Times told the story
of a secret program to track terrorists by monitoring bank accounts, and the White House believes
the Times report has endangered national security.
Some concern seems reasonable. It is never good when the away team gets a free peek at the home team's playbook. Furthermore, terrorists widely and commonly monitor U.S. media sources for their own intelligence gathering purposes.
We know, for example, that when newspapers reported on how portable phones were being used to track terrorist movements, the terrorists hung up and quit using them. And a former KGB intelligence chief once told me that reading American papers and watching American TV was an essential part of his spy job, simply because free societies generate so much valuable information.
That said, the other side of the coin is also clear. The New York Times (and by the way, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, too) could report on this program only because people working on it leaked information.
There is hot talk here in the nation's capital about pursuing criminal charges against these newspapers and designing new laws to stop potential leaks from making it into the press.
So what do you think: Is the problem that these newspapers reported this secret or is it that the secret was not being kept very well in the first place?
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
New Orleans' suicide rate nearly triples
In the weeks and months since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many people in the area have told us about their feelings of depression. And we've heard reports of people killing themselves because they couldn't cope with their changed lives.
The stories have been plentiful, but the tales of increased depression have basically all been anecdotal. But now some numbers have been thrown our way.
According to the coroner's office in New Orleans, the city's suicide rate nearly tripled in the months after Katrina. A suicide rate of nine per 100,000 residents jumped to almost 27 per 100,000 residents.
We spent time recently with a very charming, lifelong New Orleans resident named Gina Barbe.
Gina worked in the tourist industry before Katrina, helping to arrange vacation stays for people visiting New Orleans. She told me her life before Katrina was happy; that she was always laughing. But things changed after August 29.
Gina says after the devastation of the hurricane, she lost her job and her medical coverage. Some of her friends died in the hurricane; others committed suicide.
She says the city became dark and dangerous to her. She told me she has frequently thought about killing herself, and that for days at a time, she has not felt like getting out of bed. She thinks she's been profoundly depressed.
The New Orleans police department operates a "crisis unit" that helps people who need to be protected from harming themselves. Sgt. Ben Glaudi, the man who started the unit 24 years ago, says there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of people who need to be helped.
Sgt. Glaudi says Gina's story is unfortunately fairly typical. In fact, he says he himself has been depressed. His house was destroyed in the hurricane, and he and his family now live in a trailer.
Gina has yet to get professional help for her depression. But she says she will. She knows her life may depend on it.
Billions of dollars with nowhere to go
No matter how many times I come to New Orleans, the destruction surprises me. But even more surprising is how much work still needs to be done.
I went to New Orleans yesterday to take a good, hard look at Mayor Ray Nagin's "100-day plan" for rebuilding and revitalizing the city.
Today marks day 26, nearly a third of the way into the 100-day plan, and everyone seems to have an opinion about whether or not enough has been done so far. Many people accuse city hall of more inaction than action.
We stopped on a corner in the lower ninth ward where Michael Reed was battling 90-degree heat to fix up his mother's house. Until the storm hit, she had lived there for 49 years. Since Katrina, she has been living in an apartment in Texas. I didn't have to spend more than a minute with Michael to see his frustration.
"That's what politicians do. They throw out a 100-day plan. When that one's over they'll throw out another 100-day plan, so I guess we'll be like that for three or four years. By the time he gets out of office, the next guy will have a 100-day plan," he told me.
In some areas, such as the Lakeview neighborhood, there is some progress. Damaged homes are gutted, with many completely rebuilt. But around nearly every corner there is still a ton of trash, piles of debris that dwarf me, and I'm 5'3".
Rob Couhig, who is heading up the 100-day plan committee, says starting today there is a plan for trash cleanup. He says there is also a plan to get every streetlight operating and every stop sign back upright.
"This is not a magic wand, 100 days. It is to lay the predicate for the next three years," Couhig told me.
Billions of dollars in federal aid are heading to New Orleans, but neither Couhig nor the mayor's office could explain where all that money is going to be spent.
City Councilman Oliver Thomas says crime and housing should be priorities. With just half the population of New Orleans back in the city, crime is reaching pre-storm levels. And people here still don't know which neighborhoods will be rebuilt and when Mayor Nagin will let the public know.
I asked Councilman Thomas what he would do if it was his 100-day plan.
"If it was my 100 day plan, man, you would have the AFL-CIO and their pledge of $1 billion for homes. They'd be out there working right now. ... You would have a job or workforce development plan where residents are being trained in the recovery," he said.
That's his take. What would you do if you had 100 days to get New Orleans going again?
Monday, June 26, 2006
Too much Angelina Jolie?
Anderson is in New Orleans today. For tonight, he's working on a piece on an alarming uptick in crime in New Orleans. (We also have a piece from correspondent Randi Kaye about Mayor Ray Nagin's 100-day plan and how far along the city is or is not. Yes, "We're keeping them honest.")
We've been talking a lot around here today about the bust of alleged terrorist wannabes who were associated with the Sears tower and the question of what is or is not entrapment and the perhaps even more dicey question: When is the right time for authorities to intervene? In other words, when does angry "talk" really constitute a threatening plot? We'll have more on this later in the week and would love your thoughts on it.
Also, we've taken a few hits from established media critics for our Angelina Jolie/World Refugee Day coverage. My view? They need to get lives. We had a significant and large viewership for both hours we produced last Tuesday. Yes, the Angelina interview was woven into both hours, but so, too, were thoughtfully reported pieces from CNN's Christiane Amanpour from Darfur, Jeff Koinange from Congo, Dr. Sanjay Gupta looking at the medical crises that inevitably follow the chaotic migrations of displaced populations, and Anderson from his time in Niger.
As for Angelina, she is absolutely a world-class celebrity AND she's made 20 visits as United Nations special ambassador to refugee camps around the world. She is informed, sincere and passionate about the subject. If interviewing her gave us an opportunity to shine a bright spotlight on a critical issue facing the world, then I'd like the chance for Anderson to interview her again.
Meantime, take a look at David Carr's column
taking a shot at us in today's New York Times. Let us know what you think.
It's not Iraq, but it's no cakewalk
It is midnight when I meet Sgt. Kennery Foster on a New Orleans street. Sweat has beaded on his face, nearly covering it.
It's not the threat of violence that makes this soldier uncomfortable; it's the city's unrelenting, muggy heat. After all, it takes a lot to scare Sgt. Foster, a Louisiana National Guardsman who recently did a yearlong tour in Iraq.
We're in the city's fifth district, and just a few minutes into our pleasantries there's an unmistakable "Pop, pop, pop, pop..." I don't know how many shots were fired, but there were a lot.
Foster and two other soldiers exchange glances, wait, listen, then go on with the discussion.
"That was gunfire," I said.
Foster says he and other troops here have developed a "sixth sense." No screaming, no calls cracking over the radio. They call in a helicopter with infared capabilities and begin looking for the bad guy.
It's no secret New Orleans is once again developing a nasty crime problem.
It all came to a head 10 or so days ago, when five teens were brutally murdered sitting in an SUV in a sketchy area of the city at four in the morning. This prompted Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to dispatch 300 Louisiana National Guard troops to the city at the request of Mayor Ray Nagin.
Sgt. Foster is from Lafayette, not terribly far from the Crescent City, and he professes to love Louisiana and the city of New Orleans.
While we are out for a few hours in the wee hours of the morning, people hanging out of windows of cars going to and from a late night club are thanking the sergeant for being here.
The truth is that Sgt. Foster is surprised the city needs military muscle nearly 10 months after Hurricane Katrina.
A year in Iraq, a few months with his family, and he's back on patrol. It's not Iraq, but it's not a cakewalk either, as a short burst of gunfire proved on his third night on patrol, a night when his "sixth sense" was put to the test in the battle to take back the nighttime streets of New Orleans.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
How I saved a Marine from a shrapnel-filled brain
Over the past couple of years, I have been firmly embedded in some of the worst places on earth: In the middle of the northern mountains of Pakistan after the earthquake; on the eastern shores of Sri Lanka after a tsunami; and in Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Still, one of my most vivid memories was when I spent two months in the middle of the war in Iraq in the spring of 2003. With bullets whizzing around and shrapnel flying through the air, I always triple-checked my Kevlar vest and helmet anytime I might be in danger, which was pretty much all the time.
Having that equipment made me feel a little more comfortable in the midst of wartime dangers. So imagine my concern when I saw a young Marine corporal, Jesus Vidana, brought by chopper into the tent of the Devil Docs, a medical unit tending to injured soldiers, because his helmet failed to stop a bullet.
He had been shot in the head and shrapnel had sprayed throughout his brain. Twice pronounced dead, once in the field, once in the helicopter, he was in fact alive, but barely. Looking at his injuries, I could not believe he had been wearing his helmet.
Given my background as a trained neurosurgeon and Jesus' dire condition, I was asked to shift from reporting on events to participating. I performed an operation on Jesus that day, removing the shrapnel and the life-threatening blood collection that was placing pressure, too much pressure, on his brain.
In the middle of the desert, my next objective was to find something sterile to repair the outer layer of his brain. My only option was to open a sterile IV bag and flip it inside out. It worked. Jesus Vidana survived and is living today in southern California.
After the operation, I went and found Jesus' helmet to investigate what exactly had happened. Sure enough, there was a hole in the back of his helmet on the right side. Jesus had done everything right, but his equipment had failed him. Needless to say, it was unnerving for all of us as I showed that helmet to everyone in the unit.
For sure, designing protective gear is a difficult job. As with anything else, there are advantages and disadvantages to changing the equipment. Not only should it be protective, but it must be relatively light. Not only should it be safe, but it should be able to accommodate the unforgiving nature of the desert heat.
For Jesus, everything worked out in the end, but what about the thousands of other Marines still fighting today? There's a debate raging about the adequacy of their protective gear. I am curious to hear your thoughts.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Going carless to save the planet
We hear so much about global warming, yet are often left wondering, "What can I do to help keep the earth cool?" Well, I met a family of five in Seattle that is living without a car for at least one year in order to help save the planet from global warming.
When 19-year-old Gary Durning totaled the family car, his parents made a deal with him and his two siblings. "If we didn't get a car, then we'd get cell phones, and for me that was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's so awesome,'" 12-year-old Kathryn Durning told me.
So the Durning family has stopped spewing greenhouse gases from a car and now commutes mostly by foot, bus or bike. Once in a while, they'll splurge and rent a hybrid car for $8 an hour. These are cars that neighbors can share once they buy into the "flex car" rental plan.
I asked Alan Durning if he really thinks one family can make much of a difference when it comes to global warming.
"Absolutely ... We're making a quantifiable difference because we're not burning anywhere near as many gallons of gasoline," Alan told me.
Alan figures his family is saving the planet about 4,000 pounds of pollution this year, since he says most cars emit roughly their own weight in pollution. He says it can only help what is a worsening situation in his part of the country.
Experts say the snow pack in the Cascade Mountains, which are just east of Seattle, has diminished by about 50 percent over the past 50 years. As temperatures rise, more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Snow sticks around longer, giving a steadier supply of water. Rain doesn't help as much.
The result: Water rationing and a drought in Washington. If global warming continues, a lack of water could, in theory, even affect Seattle's energy supply, because about 90 percent of its power comes from hydropower dams.
We've all heard about Seattle's famous rainy weather. Well, that weather has made for a lot of wet commutes for Alan on his bicycle. He estimates he rides about 40 miles a week to and from work.
His wife, Amy, walks most places. She admits she's crazy, as a mother of three children, to give up the family car. But one advantage, she says, is that the kids can no longer argue in the back seat, because there isn't one.
To run errands, the Durnings use a baby stroller, which they call their "minivan." It has carried groceries, a broken vacuum cleaner, and even their son, Peter, to the doctor.
The Durnings say one of the best parts of this whole experiment is not only is it helping the planet get in shape, but they're getting in shape too. Together, Alan and Amy say they've lost about 10 pounds. On top of that, they're saving about $200 a month by living the carless lifestyle. They call this savings "walking around money," since, after all, they're doing a lot more walking.
Here's my question for you: Do you think you could live without a car for a year?
Monday, June 19, 2006
One-on-one with Angelina Jolie
When Angelina Jolie came into the room, just four days after returning from Namibia, she was alone. No handlers, no entourage. True, elaborate precautions had been made to make sure no photographers followed her to the hotel where we met, but there she was, by herself, walking into the hotel suite, smiling, ready to talk.
There are a lot of ridiculous stories circling on the Internet, spread by alleged "insiders" who claim that CNN or its parent company Time Warner somehow paid for the chance to talk to Angelina. These anonymous "sources" claim that People Magazine and CNN had some kind of joint deal to secure rights to photos and the interview.
I have no idea what People Magazine did or did not pay for those photos of the Jolie-Pitt family. It's been reported they paid as much as $4 million, which was donated to a variety of charities in Africa, but I have no way of knowing if that is true or not. What I do know is that CNN did not pay anything -- directly or indirectly -- to get Angelina Jolie to sit down for an interview.
So why did she do it? And why talk to me?
Both are valid questions. I'm sure there were plenty of news programs requesting interviews with Angelina Jolie. The truth is, mine wasn't one of them. They called us. I was told that they were aware of my interest in Africa and knew that as a broadcast we have devoted a lot of time to reporting stories from the continent.
Tuesday is World Refugee Day. Angelina Jolie was interested in discussing the plight of refugees, so we sat down to talk about what she has seen and learned in refugee camps around the world. She had no movie to promote, no product she was pitching. In fact, I have no idea what her next movie is and we did not discuss any upcoming films. There were no ground rules. I was free to ask whatever I wanted.
A lot of celebrities have causes and show up to talk about them when cameras are around, but the truth is that Angelina Jolie knows what she is talking about when the subject is refugees. To use a cliche, she doesn't just talk the talk, she walks the walk. She has traveled to some 20 countries over the years as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and she says she donates one-third of her income to charitable causes.
I'm not sure what I expected before I met her, but to say I was impressed would be an understatement. She is smart, funny, self-deprecating, and intensely passionate about her children and her work on behalf of refugees.
Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, you will hear Angelina Jolie talk about some of the experiences in refugee camps that have changed her life. Yes, you will also learn about Angelina's family -- Maddox and Zahara as well as Shiloh Nouvel -- but the focus of the interview is the plight of refugees. During the two-hour program, we will take you to the frontlines of some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
It's going to be an interesting broadcast, and I hope you watch.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Ailing Americans seek Chinese organs
There are 90,000 people waiting for organs in the United States. Many of them will die before they ever get close to a transplant. Eric DeLeon of San Mateo, California, did not want to be one of them.
Eric was diagnosed with liver cancer last year. Because he had nine tumors, he was taken off the U.S. transplant list. Doctors considered him a poor candidate for survival.
"I just knew that cancer was going to grow and spread throughout my body and I thought I would be another statistic," Eric told me recently.
So Eric and his wife Lori searched the Internet to check out other transplant options. He found a transplant service in China that promised to find him a healthy liver in a matter of weeks. Eric mortgaged his home and paid $110,000 for a new liver. Two weeks later, he arrived in Shanghai. A couple weeks after that, he had his new liver.
Eric is not alone in looking to China for a new organ. We're told that tens of thousands of foreigners are paying for transplant surgery in China. The problem is those organs may be cut from an executed death row prisoner without consent. That's not all. Some organs are said to have been removed before the prisoner took his last breath in order to keep the organs as fresh as possible.
"I can still hear the sounds of those people shouting when they're having their organs harvested while they are still alive," one former prisoner told me.
You're probably asking yourself by now: How is this allowed to happen?
Well, China executes more prisoners than all other nations combined. More than 4,700 men and women were executed in the last two years, according to Amnesty International. People there can be executed even for white collar crimes like tax fraud, embezzlement and bribery.
The harvesting method is cold and calculating: A single shot to the head if chest organs are needed; a shot to the body if the brain or eyes are needed. Recently, China started using "death vans" where lethal injection is administered on the road so all of the organs can be harvested.
Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, has written a letter to the President of China calling on him to put an end to this practice.
"That smacks of Nazism, when people were reduced to mere commodities that were wanted only for the organs they could provide," Smith told me.
China's deputy health minister acknowledges the organs are harvested from prisoners. But he says they are only harvested from those who give consent.
What constitutes consent? In the United States, death row prisoners are not allowed to donate organs because the government believes they can't freely give consent behind bars.
New York transplant surgeon Thomas Diflo calls what's happening in China a gross violation of human rights. He is refusing to treat people who have had surgery in China. He remembers the first time he heard about this from a patient. "I said, 'Where did you get your organ?' And she said, 'I got it from an executed prisoner.'"
The Chinese government refused our request for an interview, but issued a statement: "The reports about China's random transplant of organs from executed criminals are untrue and a malicious slander against [the] Chinese Judiciary System. ... In China, it is very prudent to use organs from death penalty criminals."
The government promises to change its transplant law July 1 by banning the sale of organs and limiting organ transplants. Critics doubt it will change much of anything for Chinese prisoners.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Might be no way out of this traffic jam
Driving through the relentless crush of Los Angeles traffic, it hits me like a bolt from the blue: There may be no way out of this. Traffic, I mean. Congestion. The slow smothering of large cities coast-to-coast by rising oceans of commuters.
I live in the Washington, D.C., area, so the idea of a 10-mile trip taking an hour is not foreign, but after a look at what California is facing, I am left wondering about the future.
Traffic experts say, basically, everything we have done to ease traffic problems has largely failed.
We've added lanes to busy highways, only to find that businesses and neighborhoods expand right alongside them, devouring the new capacity.
We've added carpool lanes to encourage conservation, only to find that the added speed of these lanes lets people move further from the city center, promoting sprawl.
We've talked about adding more public transit, but the amount required to make a substantial difference is enormous. In Los Angeles, 48 million trips are made every day, but less than one million of them are on public transit.
The Southern California Association of Governments has a three-pronged plan to address traffic congestion:
1. Push to build more communities with jobs, homes, shopping and recreation all within a relatively small area.
2. Make businesses and individuals who add to congestion pay for it directly through more toll roads, development fees, that sort of thing.
3. Educate drivers about their own bad habits. The association says 50 percent of the region's congestion could be eliminated if drivers just learned to avoid accidents, breakdowns, and other bad maneuvers that create traffic jams.
Can all this work? Maybe. But it's going to require basic changes in how we live, changes that so far we have not warmed to despite $3 gallons of gasoline and traffic delays that are, on average, eating 47 hours of an urban commuter's life every year.
The question is: Are we ready, willing, or even able to make enough changes to make a difference?
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
The other side of high-speed police chases
We've all seen police chases on television. They're fast, and lots of folks would tell you they're fun to watch. But the fun ends when you meet a family that's been affected by a police chase in the worst of ways.
The Priano family of Chico, California, lost their only daughter, a 15-year-old girl they called "the sparkplug of the family," during a police chase four years ago. I spent time with them recently at their home to see how that moment changed their lives.
Here's the background: 15-year-old Kristia Priano was on the way to a basketball game at her school. She was in the family van with her parents and her brother.
Another 15-year-old girl had just stolen her mother's car across town and was out for a joyride. Police pursued her in a slow-speed chase. But for some reason, the girl suddenly floored it and smashed into the Priano's van at an intersection.
Here's what Kristie's mom, Candy Priano, told me she remembers about the moment right after the accident: "She always was so talkative. I mean, if she had been alright, I know she would have said something. So, in my heart of hearts I knew that something was really bad."
Kristie went into a coma and died one week later. And that other girl, the driver on the joyride, well, she left the accident scene uninjured.
Here's the question the Priano's have been asking for 4 years: If the suspect in this case was not a murderer, not even a dangerous felon, why were police chasing her? She was a high school student who took the family car out for a joyride. Does that warrant a police chase?
"Yes, because it fits the policy, because it's more than just a vehicle infraction," says Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty, who wasn't with the department at the time of the accident. "The trouble with pursuits is there is always a possibility that even if the officers do everything 100 percent the way they are trained to do that the pursuit will still end in a tragedy."
Hundreds of innocent people like Kristie Priano die each year as a result of police chases. You'd think law enforcement would have found a safer means to snare a suspect. But some experts we spoke with say there are a lot of police departments out there that will "chase until the wheels fall off."
The Priano's have been working for four years to pass "Kristie's Law" in California. It would restrict police chases to violent felons posing an immediate threat and make it a felony to flee from police. The bill has yet to pass.
Kristie's mom told me something her daughter said to her a few days before she died. "Oh, if I were to die, I'd be okay, because I know in that instant I would be with Jesus," she says Kristy told her.
Candy's reply: "Oh, well, Jesus isn't gonna have you die, because he knows I couldn't live without you."
It was sweet then, but haunting now.
Where should "360°" go next?
So we are back on the road. Tonight and tomorrow night, we will broadcast from Los Angeles. Then we'll take the show to San Francisco and Seattle for broadcasts on Thursday and Friday.
There's a lot of news to cover tonight -- President Bush visiting Iraq, Karl Rove breathing a bit easier, Tropical Storm Alberto moving through Florida. We also have a number of interesting stories out of California, including the debate over a national park that one Republican Congressman wants to use as a hunting ground for disabled vets.
We are planning some other trips for "360°" this summer and have been discussing a handful of possible destinations. I'd be interested in hearing any suggestions from you about places you think we should go. Any ideas?
On another note, I really appreciate all the e-mails and letters I've received from those of you who've read my book
. I've done a number of book signings across the country in recent days and the response has been really amazing. Last week, the book went to number one on The New York Times bestseller list, which was remarkable, and I just wanted to say thank you.
Poll: Slight bounce in U.S. opinion on Iraq
There were two dramatic events in Iraq in recent weeks. First came allegations that U.S. marines may have killed innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha. Then came the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
So how do Americans think things are going for the United States in Iraq? A little better than three months ago. In March, 38 percent thought things were going well. Now, 43 percent feel that way. But most Americans, 54 percent, continue to believe the war is not going well.
The Haditha allegations were particularly troubling. "If these allegations are true," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, "The incidents dishonor the uniform and bring great pressure to bear on our mission in Iraq."
The public is inclined to believe that U.S. troops have crossed the line at times. Fifty-seven percent of Americans think it's likely that U.S. troops have committed war crimes in Iraq, compared with 37 percent who think it's not likely.
Some observers see recent developments in Iraq as a strong argument for the U.S. to begin withdrawing its forces. How does the public read the evidence? In March, most Americans wanted U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq within the next year.
Now, the pressure to withdraw has diminished, at least a bit. Forty-seven percent favor withdrawal within a year, while 48 percent believe U.S. forces should stay as long as necessary.
Despite recent events, Americans have not changed their minds as to whether the United States should have invaded Iraq in the first place.
Two months ago, 55 percent of Americans said it was a mistake for the U.S. to send troops to Iraq. How many feel that way now? Fifty-five percent.
Americans certainly see the elimination of Zarqawi as a positive development. But did it turn around opinion of the war in Iraq? No.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Taking a bullet for the politicians
Security contractors in Iraq are a private bunch. They don't like media attention and they don't open their doors to many outsiders. But after a lot of talking and explaining, we were recently able to get an inside look at some security contractors in Iraq.
There are roughly 25,000 security contractors in the country. They spend much of their time providing security for the convoys that bring in raw materials and daily necessities for military bases around the country.
The 130,000 troops in Iraq need places to eat, to land aircraft and helicopters, and to sleep. Most of the materials for these activities need to be brought into Iraq. Supply convoys often drive up from Kuwait, through areas that are very hostile to the United States, especially as the convoys near Baghdad. The contractors get the job of maintaining security for on these journeys.
In the past, the army would have provided its own supplies along with the security for them. No longer.
The use of private contractors is part of a gradual trend that has been developing over the past 30 or 40 years. You could even argue this trend has been developing over the past 100 or 150 years. You have always had private contractors who have gone into battle, whether to maintain suits of armor or feed horses. But in Iraq, this is taking place on a much grander scale.
The contractors also provide security for high-level government officers in Iraq, an incredibly violent place now. If you are associated with the Iraqi or American governments, then you are a target. Some of best-qualified people to defend high-level officials are the security contractors, many of whom once served in the American, South African or Australian special forces.
The U.S. government won't say how much has been spent on private security contractors, but industry experts estimate the figure is in the tens of billions of dollars.
What's in it for the contractors? In a word, money. Security in Iraq is a dangerous job and it pays well. A contractor with a good level of skill can make $650 per day, perhaps more if they have a top flight job. This kind of money can provide a good standard of living for their families, perhaps puting their kids into a better school or moving them into a better house. And the contractors have insurance to make sure their families will be taken care of in the event they are killed.
The use of so many private contractors in Iraq has drawn fire from critics both here and abroad. The contractors justify their presence by explaining that it would be very consumptive of men and materials if the military had to do everything the contractors now do. You would probably see troop levels such that a conscription or draft would be required.
The use of more soldiers would expose more soldiers to death and more politicians to political heat. The way the contractors in Iraq look at it is that there is an economic and political cost equation. They are keeping the administration from paying a price for a larger number of soldier deaths or the need for a larger number of troops.
That's their take. What's yours?
Friday, June 09, 2006
Arab media reacts to al-Zarqawi's death
When people ask about Arab media reaction to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, they expect to hear one answer or the other. But like many other issues in the Arab world, reaction to events vary with nationalities, age groups, affiliations, geography, religion and many other things that play a role independently and interactively. Thus, reactions come in black, white and every shade in between.
Zarqawi was never treated in Arab media with the respect awarded to Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was mainly seen as the foreign fighter who turned the struggle against occupation in Iraq into an aimless bloodbath targeting civilians, killing, beheading, bombing and terrorizing a whole nation and even a region. Most experts and commentators on Arab media blame Zarqawi for crossing the line and committing acts that "no one in Islam approves of," not even the al Qaeda leaders themselves. He is also blamed for playing on the differences within the Iraqi culture to pit Sunnis against Shiites and fan the flames of civil war.
Arab media showed the graphic images of Zarqawi's body without a disclaimer or apology. Right there on the main pages of newspapers, TV headlines. It was the subject of discussion on talk shows and the main topic of opinion editorials almost everywhere. Newspaper headlines described the "joy in the US, Europe and parts of Iraq" but warned that "the entire region awaits Zarqawi's successor and the revenge." Others thought that the strike on Zarqawi will fuel the insurgency; they predicted "the worst is yet to come."
Political cartoonists also saw an opportunity to make their opinions known. One cartoon shows a surprised Ossama bin Laden sitting on a stool representing al Qaeda. One leg of the stool is knocked off by a US missile. The severed leg lies down lifeless with the head of a dead Zarqawi.
Another cartoon from Lebanon showed a falling statue very much like that of Saddam Hussein which became the symbol of the fall of Baghdad and the Hussein regime. The statue this time is that of a masked Zarqawi wearing his insurgent outfit with the dagger and all. Under the fallen statue are images of hostages and beheadings.
A cartoon from Saudi Arabia had Zarqawi's face of terror and pencil eraser wiping off the face. On the pencil the words "New Iraq" are written in English.
Any support for Zarqawi? Sure, there were those who called him "a courageous leader who's credited for hiring hundreds of men into the insurgency." He was called a "hero" and a "martyr" by his followers who said they are more interested in death than life and promised to continue what Zarqawi has started.
On this story, the voices cheering Zarqawi's death drowned out those cheering him on in death as they did in life. The moderate opinions prevailed over those of extremism. Both sides agree on one thing, that the road ahead remains difficult and dangerous.
Al-Zarqawi: 'Eyes are everywhere'
The first time I heard Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's name was back in early 2002. I was in Amman, Jordan, meeting with members of Jordanian intelligence when a colonel there told my colleague and me that we should pay attention to this man.
Over the course of the next several months, I learned how al-Zarqawi was wanted for a plot to blow up Jordanian hotels on the eve of the millennium. Then a U.S. diplomat was assassinated in Amman and al-Zarqawi came into the frame for that.
There were so many rumors about him no one knew what was legit and what wasn't. Did he really have a fake leg as a result of a wound suffered in Afghanistan? As it turns out, no. Was he Palestinian? No, again.
And then suddenly, he was public enemy number one, starting with the bombings of the U.N. compound and Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in 2003.
CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson and I have hit a lot of places while reporting on him since that first mention in 2002: Zarqa, where his family was from; Amman, walking through the bombed-out ballrooms of hotels where his suicide bombers had slaughtered more than 50 people; in other towns in Jordan, where we talked to his friends and his enemies; on the Internet, where al-Zarqawi laid out his bloody vision of sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and where finally he showed his face in a breathtakingly egotistical video just a few weeks ago.
The riddle was how this one-time troubled young Jordanian had vaulted to worldwide prominence as an uncompromising terrorist who cut the throat of an American hostage and put the videotape of the event on the Web. In his mind, perhaps, it all made sense. Not to me.
There were missed chances, when the U.S. military failed to get him, but even he knew it was just a matter of time before he would be caught or killed.
"Eyes are everywhere," he wrote in a 2004 letter to Osama bin Laden intercepted and published by the United States. Perhaps that's why he kept his face hidden for so long, until that videotape in April.
About three weeks ago, before I left for an assignment in Afghanistan, I updated al-Zarqawi's obit. It's just one of those things you do as a journalist in case someone like him is captured or killed. Wishful thinking, perhaps. Turns out it was good timing.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Bin Laden might find relief in al-Zarqawi's death
Osama bin Laden and his number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would have first met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi around 1999, just after he had been released from a Jordanian jail and made his way to Afghanistan.
Al-Zarqawi went there to set up a training camp in the western part of the country for a small group of his Jordanian followers known as Tawhid, an organization that aimed to overthrow the Jordanian government.
During this period, al-Zarqawi had no wish to attack the United States, as al Qaeda's leaders had already decided to do, and his relationship with al Qaeda was as much competitive as it was cooperative.
After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, al-Zarqawi fled the country to Iran and made his way to northern Iraq sometime in 2002. He then started planning to attack American forces in what turned out to be the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in April 2003.
Al-Zarqawi's group of mostly "foreign fighters" was small in number, no more than 1,500 at any time, but had an important strategic impact on the Iraq war.
It has been the foreigners who have conducted by far the largest numbers of suicide operations -- up to 90 percent -- and it is those operations that helped spark the incipient Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq. This unrest forced the United Nations and many other international organizations to withdraw from the country.
For this reason, bin Laden was delighted when in the fall of 2004 al-Zarqawi announced publicly that he was renaming his group "Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers," i.e. Iraq. Al-Zarqawi also pledged bayat, a religiously binding oath of allegiance to bin Laden, who he described as his emir, or prince.
So far so good as far as bin Laden was concerned. But by 2005, al Qaeda's leaders were worried that al-Zarqawi's beheadings of civilians were turning off popular support for their jihad in Iraq. Al Qaeda's leaders were also deeply concerned about al-Zarqawi's efforts to provoke a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq.
While bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, both of whom are Sunni fundamentalists, may privately consider Shias to be heretics, they have never said this publicly. Al-Zarqawi by contrast has referred to the Shia as "scorpions" and has organized suicide operations against some of the holiest Shia sites.
The concerns of al Qaeda's leaders about al-Zarqawi's use of beheadings and his campaign against the Shias were underscored in a letter sent from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi that U.S. military forces discovered in Iraq last year. In the letter, al Qaeda's number two gently suggested that it was time to end the beheadings and to start acting as more of a political leader in anticipation of the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
In recent months, al-Zarqawi has stopped beheading his victims, but he has not let up in his campaign against the Shia. Upon hearing the news of al-Zarqawi's death, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri likely will release audiotapes indicating their joy that al-Zarqawi has finally received what he has always wanted -- martyrdom at the hand of the infidels.
But privately, they may hope that al-Zarqawi's successor in Iraq is more amenable to taking directions from al Qaeda central, which is located somewhere on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Viewed this way, al-Zarqawi's death could bring bin Laden some relief.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Afghan insurgents learning from Iraq
The e-mail from the military's press office caught up with me in Frankfurt, Germany, halfway home between Afghanistan and Atlanta, Georgia: "Three U.S. Soldiers were injured today when a Coalition combat patrol was struck by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device just north of Salerno in the Khost Province."
We'd been with coalition soldiers at a forward operating base in Salerno, Afghanistan, 10 days earlier and spent time in Khost as well. We'd also been on a convoy with the U.S. military, though we haven't gotten word whether any of those injured were the same soldiers who were with us.
This was supposed to be the war that was over, the one that we had won, helping the Nothern Alliance kick out the Taliban after 9/11 and sending Osama bin Laden into hiding. Hamid Karzai had been elected president.
So it was surprising to me to hear the U.S. military using the i-word to describe what was going on in this country. "We're fighting an insurgency" was the message we kept hearing from the military. And they told us that parts of Afghanistan are as dangerous for the U.S. military as Iraq.
It didn't seem that way when we were in Khost. The roses were blooming, the market was busy. Flying over the valley, we could see the wheat harvest had been good this year.
It was hard to believe that just eight years ago, a few miles from here, Osama bin Laden had held a press conference to declare his holy war on America.
Just a few miles away, at a forward operating base closer to the Pakistani border, Lieutenant Billy Mariani of the 10th Mountain Division was describing a recent ambush. A rocket propelled grenade hit the hood of his car while out on patrol. His men returned fire. It was quick and intense. Before they could call in artillery, the bad guys escaped across the border into Pakistan, less than a half-mile away.
But the real danger is in southern Afghanistan, where we learned from Afghan and American officials that the Taliban is stronger this year than last and that in some places it had never left at all.
In Kandahar, newly sworn-in Afghan police officers who will be on the frontlines of the fight told us just how extensive the Taliban presence is. To underscore the point, a day after we left, there was a suicide bombing in downtown Kandahar aimed at a convoy of Canadian soldiers. Four people were killed.
Most Afghans we spoke to don't want a return to the bad old days of the Taliban. They are tired of war. They want peace and security, and they want jobs. They don't want to be scared to send their children to school. Life, they say, is already hard enough.
Afghanistan isn't Iraq. But the insurgents, be they Taliban, al Qaeda or various warlords, are learning from Iraq. That's why we're seeing more suicide bombings, more roadside bombings, more raids on villages.
One unfortunate result is that I'm expecting more e-mails like the one about Khost.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Trolling the Niagara for terrorists
Mention border security and illegal immigration to someone and the border between the United States and Mexico likely comes to mind. But what about the U.S. border with Canada?
With the recent arrest of terrorist suspects in Canada, we decided to take a look at border security in the area near Buffalo, New York. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say that in terms of cars and trucks it is the busiest crossing on the northern border. Only about two hours from Toronto, millions of vehicles enter Buffalo from Canada through a number of bridges in the area. Checkpoints are in place for those vehicles. But the border itself in that area is all water. Securing it, as we found out, can be difficult.
The U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Buffalo patrols a 600 mile stretch of the coastline, which is just a small fraction of the roughly 4,000 mile long northern border. The unit took us along to give us a sense of what it's like on the front lines of this nation's border defenses.
Outside of Buffalo, the Niagara River separates the United States and Canada by less than a mile in some stretches. Coast Guard boats patrol the river for everything from boaters in distress to safety violations; they also look for smugglers and terrorists.
They say one of their most difficult tasks is trying to spot suspicious behavior in these waters due to the traffic of pleasure and commercial boats. They tell us that people have tried to slip through the border by using this waterway -- some use little boats, others use life jackets, many try to cross using a cloudy morning or the darkness of night as their cover.
While the number of illegal immigrants trying to get through the northern border is much smaller than on the southern border, the job of securing the Canadian border is coming under increasing scrutiny with the recent arrest of 17 terror suspects in Toronto.
Some terrorism experts say there are two main reasons to be concerned about the possibility of terrorists slipping through our border with Canada. One reason is the terrain. Because the border is made up of vast stretches of water and forest, it is nearly impossible to seal.
The second reason is that Canada has more lenient laws than the United States when it comes to political asylum. The Canadian ambassador has denied that claim. But some experts say Canada's recent arrests should get our attention. They say a problem in Canada could easily become a problem in the United States.
Ivy League but illegal
Dan-el Padilla Peralta is a 21-year-old whiz kid: Highly honored for his academic achievements at Princeton University, fluent in five languages, a budding master in classical Greek and Latin. He is also an illegal immigrant.
His story is like something from a novel.
Dan-el was brought to America from the Domican Republic by his mother when he was only four years old. Their temporary visa ran out, but they stayed.
Dan-el started excelling at school, and when he was ready for college, Princeton was ready for him. His academic success, however, has brought him to a crossroads.
Oxford University wants him to come study in England, but as an illegal immigrant, if he goes, he can't legally come back. On the other hand, if he stays, he can't legally hold a job. So he has reported himself to authorities and is pleading for a chance to stay.
Supporters of strict immigration law enforcement say, for all his accomplishments, Dan-el was given an unfair advantage over other legal immigrants and he should not be given any breaks now. Supporters of Dan-el's appeal for a new visa say he did not choose to come here, has known no other home, and has worked hard to be the very kind of immigrant America wants.
Did he take a spot at Princeton that could have been awarded to a legal citizen? Absolutely. Has his American education given him a unique advantage from which to argue for citizenship? Probably.
But the big, unanswered question is this: What is the fair or right thing to do now that Dan-el is finally old enough to truly contribute to America with the education he has gained?
Monday, June 05, 2006
Snatching body parts for profit
Imagine going in for a routine operation only to find out months later that the tissue and bone used in your surgery could kill you one day.
That's exactly what happened to Robbie Zappa of Georgia. He had neck surgery last summer. In December, he got a letter from his doctor urging him to get tested for syphilis, hepatitis A and B, and even HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Zappa is healthy so far. He's lucky.
So why does Robbie Zappa have to get tested for these diseases?
Prosecutors in New York City, hundreds of miles away from where Zappa lives, say toxic tissue was harvested illegally from corpses and sold to the medical community. Four men from New York City are charged with "enterprise corruption" for stripping dead people of tissue and bone to make a buck in the body parts business. It's a billion dollar industry.
Prosecutors say the alleged kingpin in this body snatching scheme, Michael Mastromarino, forged donor forms and changed medical histories in order to pass off diseased tissue as healthy to tissue banks and hospitals.
Mastromarino's defense attorney, Mario Gallucci, says his client denies illegally harvesting body parts. Gallucci says Mastromarino inspected bodies at the funeral homes' request and collected the tissue to be tested. But, Galluci insists, it was the processors that determined what tissue was diseased or viable for sale to the medical community. At no point, Gallucci says, was his client ever told any tissue was diseased.
As for consent forms, Gallucci says, "The funeral home would fill out that form and give it to the doctor." He says Mastromarino had no way of knowing if they were fraudulent.
One of the bodies allegedly harvested belonged to Brooklyn, New York-native Dannette Kogut. She died of ovarian cancer last year. Her sister, Wendy Kogut, told me her last dying wish was to be cremated. She was, but likely not all of her. Now, Wendy is living with the guilt of not carrying out her sister's last wish.
Wendy says someone stole her sister's leg bones and pelvic bone and even parts of her skin before she was cremated. She says police told her the forged donor form was signed by her grandfather, who has been dead 30 years. Wendy says the form also reads that her sister died of "blunt trauma" instead of ovarian cancer, which could be one way the masterminds behind this scheme passed-off Danette Kogut's tissue as healthy.
Her diseased tissue, like the tissue from hundreds of others, has likely made its way to other countries. The prosecutor told me this body-snatching scheme could reach as far away as Europe.
It is believed the men behind this scheme made as much as $4 million selling harvested bone and tissue without consent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says parts from a single body can be used in as many as 250 different people and can sell for as much as $250,000.
This whole situation makes you think twice about going in for surgery, doesn't it? I think about all the people whose lives may be affected by this. There are victims on both sides here: Those with relatives whose corpses may have been illegally harvested, and those like Robbie Zappa, who will wonder for years to come if the tissue implanted inside him will make him sick.
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Congo doctor heartened by Americans' response
Thank you all for the tremendous outpouring of emotion, anger, disgust and concern over the unspeakable crimes against women being committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Believe me, it makes my job all the more rewarding when these stories get such a huge response.
Please tune in to Anderson Cooper 360 on Friday at 10 p.m. ET, when my latest story on the crisis will air.
I've been back in touch with Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, the lone physician at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the only center for victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo. He tells me he's been getting hundreds of calls from concerned Americans since our story
went out on CNN and CNN.com.
"The response has been amazing," he says. "Americans have opened their hearts and are prepared to open their wallets as well. I'm humbled by their generosity. Whoever once said miracles do come true was right in every sense. God may have closed a door on the women of Congo, but he's opened a window and the sun is shining through."
I'm humbled by the strength of this man, and I'm glad he has a renewed sense of energy. He confirms the number of new patients continues to go up. "Just [Tuesday] we had 15 women arrive, all of them raped and mutilated less than 24 hours before."
I also heard from Marie Walterzon of the Swedish Pentecostal Mission, one of the few NGOs providing some much-needed assistance at Panzi Hospital. "God bless America," she told me.
I seek answers for these barbaric and medieval crimes from Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who rose to power almost by default when his father, Laurent Desire Kabila, was assassinated in an attempted coup in 2001. He is filling the position on a transitional basis.
I want him to see the story we did last week on the victims in Bukavu on the women who were raped and mutilated by soldiers. I hand him headphones and he watches the piece in silence. Occasionally his large, piercing eyes narrow into tiny slits. His jaw tightens when he hears the atrocities his former colleagues are accused of committing.
Kabila asks me to play the piece again. Does he really want to see the piece again? He seems interested, angry, disappointed at the crimes his former colleagues are accused of committing. He watches again, lips pursed, his head shaking every now and then.
He removes the headphones and pauses -- pin-drop silence.
"It's shocking," he finally says. "These kinds of acts are simply unforgivable. I'm not saying it's anything new. It's just shocking when you hear their terrible stories. These are innocent victims being terrorized by soldiers. This is not right. This has got to change."
I'm determined to get more answers for my story
. "Mr. President, you have a six-year-old daughter, a twin sister, a mother. What if this happened to them? What would you do?"
He stares at me for an eternity then says, "You definitely have my answer right there, you definitely have my answer."
I press on.
"Isn't it shameful that men in uniform in your country are allowed to perpetrate such atrocities with such impunity?" I ask.
"It's shameful that soldiers anywhere are allowed to do such things," he says. "That's why I want to be president [on a permanent basis]. I want to change this. I want to make security one of my first priorities so that these and other acts come to an end once and for all."
If you would like to help, please contact:
The Swedish Pentecostal Mission -- PMU
Contact person: Marie Walterzon
Telephone in Congo: 011-243-81-318-6246
Contact person: Tilly Leuring
Telephone in Congo: 011-243-997-089-850
Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere
FEMA rules force Biloxi to exploit rebuilding loopholes
Before this week, I hadn't been to Biloxi, Mississippi, since Katrina hit. Nine months ago, this community looked like it would never be able to recover. But driving around here, the first thing I noticed this place smells different; that "smell of death" that hung in the air for weeks after the storm is gone. Also, the streets are clear. We could actually drive around without detours and rebuilding is in full swing.
We came to Biloxi to meet Bill Stallworth. He is a city councilman who has figured out a way for residents to rebuild their homes without meeting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new height requirements.
He found a loophole where residents can be grandfathered in even if they don't meet the new standard, which is 22 feet above sea level. This means they can qualify for federal flood insurance even if the home is rebuilt on the ground. Stallworth has already repaired 120 homes with the help of volunteers and he has another 160 partly finished.
Stallworth is an ex-schoolteacher with determination like I've never seen. He is angry at the government for forcing new rules on his community members that they can't afford to follow. Stallworth tells us that 40 percent of residents make less than $15,000.
And it will cost them, FEMA admits, as much as $50,000 in some cases to build their homes higher to meet the new elevation requirements. The new elevation is anywhere between 18 and 25 feet. They simply can't afford that.
One resident, who is 93, even told me she'd never be able to get in and out of a home so high -- too many steps. But FEMA says Stallworth and others are building the homes too low, which is putting residents in jeopardy. Stallworth counters that homes here have survived floods before and they will again, built just the way they are.