Thursday, August 31, 2006
Woman still believes in religion but not Jeffs
Warren Jeffs is in a jail cell. But most of his thousands of followers remain in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah.
I have now been in those towns several times. It has been an unfriendly place to be as a reporter, but now it's quite hostile. Warren Jeffs' followers believe outsiders (and particularly politicians and the media) are out to persecute them. Now that the man they believe is a prophet to God is in jail, they feel very besieged and confused.
When we try to talk to them to get their opinions, they either run away from us in fright -- they are told not to talk to outsiders) -- or mutter angry and derogatory things at us.
But we have discovered some exceptions. I walked up to Elsie, a 23-year-old woman. She is the mother of two, the only wife of a man who may ultimately marry more women, and a member of Jeffs' FLDS church. I asked her how she felt about Jeffs' arrest, and she nervously told this stranger she wasn't sure. But she warmed up to us, and she invited us into her modest home that like most FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) houses has no television.
Elsie then told us that although her conservative lifestyle and religion are still important to her, she and her husband no longer love Warren Jeffs. Ever since he's been on the run, they say they realize he is dishonest, and no longer regard him as a prophet.
Elsie says Warren Jeffs presided over her wedding. She says Jeffs told her you will marry a man whom we have picked for you; a man she hadn't yet met. I asked Elsie how long after that introduction the marriage took place, and she told me five minutes later! I thought she was kidding, but she was not.
However, three years later, she says she has indeed fallen in love with her husband, Robert, and she remains grateful to Jeffs for matching them up. Nevertheless, she does believe Warren Jeffs is a hypocrite and not the man she once thought he was.
Hours after we interviewed Elsie, she told me she talked to her father who was not happy that she spoke with us. Elsie's parents are still devoted to Jeffs, and the parent-daughter relationship has suffered because of Elsie's independent views. Elsie told me she is sorry she hurt her father by talking with us, but adds she was always taught to be a nice person, and believed she was being nice by talking with us.
Elsie has undoubtedly lived a conflicted life. But whatever she has gone through, we did indeed find her to be very kind to us.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Star witness surprises polygamy prosecutors
I left New Orleans for Kingman, Arizona, in a flash yesterday after hearing of the arrest of polygamist Warren Jeffs. I came here to cover the trial of one of his followers, which was supposed to start yesterday. But prosecutors got a big surprise when they put their star witness on the stand and she refused to answer questions.
Candi Shapley was just 16-years-old when, she says, Warren Jeffs ordered her to marry then 28-year-old Randy Barlow. Shapley had testified before a grand jury last year that Barlow had forced her to have sex with him after she'd moved into the home he shared with his other wife and children.
"I had never even seen him in my life. He just held me down and took my clothes off and raped me," Shadley told a local television station.
Barlow is charged with sexual conduct with a minor, which is more commonly known as statutory rape. But yesterday in court, Shapley, his former wife, refused repeated requests to answer questions on the stand.
How come? That's what I asked Mohave County District Attorney Matt Smith.
"Her family has put a tremendous amount of pressure on her. They're members. Her mother, father, both are believers in Warren Jeffs as being the prophet and in the FLDS church and they don't want her to have anything to do with these prosecutions," he said. "The victim is also a key witness in Warren Jeffs' case and here Warren Jeffs gets arrested. That pressure, that added scrutiny."
Barlow is one of eight men facing similar charges. All of them believed to be members of Warren Jeffs' FLDS church. This is the largest group of men to be prosecuted for polygamy-related crimes in this area since 1953. But prosecuting polygamists isn't easy, according to District Attorney Smith.
"Most of the victims won't talk to us. The neighbors won't talk to us. All the people that are loyal to Warren Jeffs won't talk to us." He told me some witnesses even go so far as to move homes so they can't be found again.
I also talked to Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County Attorney's office. He has been following this issue for years.
"I think eventually justice will win out. If I didn't, I couldn't continue to do this. So I just keep pushing and pushing and see where it leads us. I'm not done yet. I'm not ready to give up," Engels told me.
Seven of the eight FLDS members charged in Mohave County are still awaiting trial. All have pleaded not guilty and refused to speak with CNN. The only one who's been tried is appealing his verdict. His name is Kelly Fischer. He was found guilty last month of statutory rape and given 45 days in jail and three years probation.
Here's the tricky part of the Barlow case -- if Candi Shapley stays silent, then Randy Barlow could go free and Candi -- now held in contempt of court -- could be the one who ends up in jail.
Prominent polygamist denies interest in Jeffs' job
Greetings from Spokane, Washington. I'm on my way to Bountiful, British Columbia, to interview one of the most notorious polygamists in North America: Winston Blackmore. He's got about 20 wives and a hundred kids.
Some observers are speculating he might be the one to succeed Warren Jeffs as leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) now that Jeffs has been arrested.
Blackmore says he's not interested in the job, but perhaps no one is better positioned to take over. He was the head of the FLDS sect in Canada until Jeffs booted him from power a few years ago. Now, with Jeffs in custody, some people think Blackmore has the leadership skills and charisma to take over the whole church.
Despite what you may think of Blackmore's lifestyle, he's an engaging fella. He's friendly to reporters (unlike most polygamists) and is an ardent defender of the way he lives.
Today, we plan on talking to him about what he thinks of Jeffs' arrest, how he views the future of the church, and whether he might entertain taking over. I'm also curious to hear his thoughts about Jeffs having more than $50,000 in his SUV along with computers and iPods -- the very things he tells his followers to shun.
So here's my question: If you were interviewing Blackmore today, what would you ask him?
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Trying to prevent the next Katrina
A year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, officials on the local, state and federal level are not only pausing to honor those who lost their lives, they're also trying to convince themselves and residents of the Gulf Coast that this will not happen again ... that next time, things will be different.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers has erected flood gates to keep waters from filling up fragile canals that buckled under the weight of Katrina's floodwaters last year. It is staggering what the Corps has accomplished in the last year, but even Corps officials admit, the true measure of their success won't be known until the next storm hits.
In the course of the past year, a lot of work has gone into arranging buses, trains, planes and automobiles to shuttle people out of the city if another storm threatens the Crescent City. There are 200 buses on standby in Louisiana, and another 1,600 that could quickly be pulled into service. Twenty-four train cars sit idle at the station, waiting to evacuate people in case of emergency. It's all part of a plan to get people out of the city, especially people who don't have the resources to get themselves out.
But in the course of all this planning, one group has seemed to fall by the wayside -- the elderly. In the aftermath of Katrina, 32 residents of St. Rita's nursing home died before rescuers could reach them. In response to that tragedy and other similar cases, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals decided to test nursing homes in the affected region to see if they'd be ready when the next big one hit.
So teams from the DHH set forth to test out hurricane readiness plans for the 72 nursing homes in the New Orleans area. They were checking to see if the nursing homes had things like adequate generators to power life support devices, sufficient transportation contracts to get residents out if the need arose and a place to shelter those residents in the days following a catastrophe.
The results of those surveys were mailed to the operators of the homes in July. The outcome?
Out of 72 nursing homes, only 21 of them complied with the minimum licensing standards for emergency preparedness. Nineteen facilities had one fault in their plans -- either they didn't have adequate generators or they didn't have a bus contract to evacuate. Then there are the other 32 nursing homes that had multiple gaps in their emergency preparations -- not only did they not have generators, they also didn't have a plan for how or when to evacuate.
So, one year later, the question remains: If and when the next big storm hits New Orleans, will the people who need help the most be in a position to get it?
No jazz funerals for these victims
I'm new to this town. Just moved in last week. Before I came, I read that in New Orleans they embrace death as part of life. When someone dies, a jazz band plays as the funeral procession leaves the church. It starts with a dirge on the block where the church is located. But when they round the corner, they turn up the tempo and march through the streets celebrating their fallen friend's life.
One of my first assignments was to do a story on 50 victims from Hurricane Katrina who remain unidentified. The city of New Orleans is storing the bodies in a warehouse a couple blocks from the Superdome. The warehouse also holds 51 identified victims whose families haven't been able to pick the body up.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, by appointment only, funeral homes can arrange to pick up the identified bodies at the warehouse. It took us a while, but we found the unmarked warehouse on a rainy day last week.
When we arrived, a white minivan converted to a hearse was pulling up. We watched as the middle of five bay doors slowly pulled up to reveal the dimly lit interior. One hundred and one coffins were lined up side-by-side on the bare concrete floor. The city coroner told us the silver-colored coffins were the same kind in which they bring dead soldiers back from Iraq. Each coffin was tightly wrapped in plastic, the same kind you put on the outside of your house before you put siding up to keep the water out.
I was struck by the irony of these caskets wrapped in plastic to keep the water out. Most, if not all, these people drowned in their homes.
Morbid as it seems, we wanted to see inside the warehouse to show viewers what it is like one year later. The coroner told us it would be undignified to shoot video of the coffins. Standing on the sidewalk in the rain, looking inside the warehouse at the rows of coffins, made me question just how dignified it was to leave these people in a warehouse instead of burying them.
A year to the day after Hurricane Katrina, there is no plan to bury the unidentified dead. The DNA samples have been taken and they're waiting for matches. The city says they'll keep the nameless bodies in the nameless warehouse for as long as FEMA pays the rent.
The coroner couldn't or wouldn't give us a breakdown of men, women, children, age, race or gender. They are identified only by a square black and white sign with a number posted on the wall above their coffins -- numbers one through 50 still waiting for their jazz funeral.
One fact remains in JonBenet murder
I think I should get my quarter back.
When John Mark Karr burst onto the news as a possible suspect in the nearly decade-old murder of Jonbenet Ramsey, I was floored.
I have covered this case from the beginning, and over the years, time and again, when people have pulled me aside to whisper conspiratorially, "Who really did it?" my answer has always been the same. "Until the courts convict someone of this crime," I have said, "We will not know who the murderer is, but some of those investigating the murder, lacking other suspects, still cling to the possibility the Ramseys were responsible."
I would always take pains to say that this does not mean the parents did it, but that until someone else was convicted, some investigators felt the family could not be utterly cleared either.
So as Boulder authorities started beating the drum on John Mark Karr, I thought a page might finally be turned. Maybe after all this time, all the speculation, and suffering, the Ramseys would finally be proven to be not involved, and the actual killer would be brought to justice.
I felt that way for about 24 hours. Then the story of John Mark Karr started falling apart. You know all the details by now. You've heard about the unanswered questions about his past. The alibis he didn't even ask for, but were offered up by his family. The strange e-mails and apparent obsession with a little girl's death.
I wrote on this blog
some days back that I long ago bet a quarter with a colleague about the Ramsey case. I told this co-worker that I thought no one would ever be charged with the murder. John Mark Karr, for a short day, made me believe I'd lost the bet, and I was happy for it.
Now I'm back to where I've been for ten years, writing the same sentence that expresses the one undeniable fact of this terrible case: A 6-year-old girl was murdered in her own home on Christmas night, and no one has ever been charged with the crime.
And once again, I doubt that anyone ever will be.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Remembering the city that never forgets
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana -- One year later.
In some ways, it's hard to believe. Parts of the city are cleaned-up, scrubbed fresh. You stare at the Convention Center and the Superdome and there's no sign of what happened there, no marker, no memorial.
I flew in yesterday, and while waiting for my luggage in the airport, I thought back to the elderly and sick people who one year ago were placed on the baggage conveyer belt. There was nowhere else for them to go.
It's strange. I'm staying in the exact same room of the same hotel I stayed in a few weeks after Katrina and it seems normal. But drive through the Lower Ninth Ward, of course, or Saint Bernard Parish and Katrina is not just a memory. People's possessions still lay out in the sun. There is still no clear plan for what will be rebuilt, or when, or how.
Did you know that in New Orleans they never take the names off buildings, even if the name of the building has changed?
My father's high school was called Francis T. Nicholls, named after a racist governor of Louisiana. The name of the school was changed years ago. It's now the Frederick Douglas Academy, but Nicholls' name is still carved in stone on the school facade.
This is a city of memory, a city which never tries to erase its own past. I think there is something important in that. We must never forget what happened here. We must never allow others to simply rewrite the history of this storm. We must remember by honoring the dead and telling the stories of the living.
As we look back tonight on "360" at what happened one year ago in Mississippi and Louisiana, I'd be interested in hearing from you.
What memories do you have of Katrina? Whether you lived through it yourself or just watched the horror unfold on TV, was there a moment, a picture, a story that stays with you? Let us know. Help us remember.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Cluster bombs raising troubling questions
Humanitarian groups have long opposed cluster bombs. These unique weapons consist essentially of canisters full of small grenades or bombs that are launched or dropped on a target and then spread their payload far and wide.
Sometimes all the little bombs are designed to blow up on impact. Sometimes they are made to lie in the dirt and wait for a passing soul to disturb them before they erupt. And sometimes, no matter how they are designed, they just don't explode. Instead, they lie around for weeks, months, years, until someone stumbles upon them, and then, with no warning, they can burst, killing long after the serious fighting of a battle is done.
The United Nations says it has identified 249 cluster bomb strikes in southern Lebanon and expects to find more than 300 by the time the counting is through. Thousands of the little bomblets are believed to be scattered around these sites, posing a very real and mortal danger to both the UN peacekeeping soldiers and the Lebanese civilians who are now moving back home.
Military forces say cluster bombs are essential, powerful weapons, capable of wiping out a group of men operating a rocket launcher or even disabling a small patrol of vehicles. Others say any weapon that can kill a child by accident many years after the weapon was deployed is simply too crude and too imprecise to be used by civilized nations.
When it comes the worldwide battle against terrorist and militant groups, what do you think: Are cluster bombs a necessary tool or an avoidable evil?
Friday, August 25, 2006
Why Oprah never had kids
SOWETO, South Africa -- "Hi Jeff," she said. "Glad you could make it. By the way, I watch you all the time."
These were the first words Oprah uttered to me as I held out my hand to greet her stepping off her van accompanied by her ever-efficient staff.
I was floored. Oprah knows who I am? I asked myself. And I had this whole introduction thing planned out. What a woman, disarming as ever, and ever the woman in charge. I liked her from the start, even more than I did watching her all these years on television.
We were in Soweto, a sprawling slum in Johannesburg, which actually stands for South West Township. Oprah seemed as comfortable here as she would be in a five star hotel. She walked right into the home of a couple of prospective students who had applied for entry into her exclusive Leadership Academy and had impressed her to the point she wanted to see where they lived and what their life was like.
As you can imagine, the two girls, cousins actually, were instant celebrities. "Oprah's come to our house," they kept saying. "Our friends will never believe us."
Their friends didn't need much convincing. Word in the townships spreads fast and even before Oprah had taken a tour of the two-room seven-person shack. Outside was like a market place with women ululating the famous freedom line of the 1980s, but with a new twist.
"Viva, Oprah Winfrey, Viva," one woman yelled followed by the chorus line "Viva" from the rest of the growing crowd.
"You've spent $40 million on the school so far," I began.
"$40 million and counting," she interrupted. "I think I'll stop at $50 million. You can build a good school for $50 million," she added.
Fifty-million dollars anywhere in the world is a lot of money. In South Africa, it's an almost unheard of amount, especially if it's being spent by one person for the benefit of others.
"The money means nothing to me," Oprah continued. "When I look at these girls, I see me. That's why I want to give them everything I didn't have growing up. These are the leaders of tomorrow's Africa."
The Leadership Academy, set on more than 50 acres of land just outside Johannesburg, is a site to behold. From the classrooms to the dormitories to the dining room to the library (complete with fireplace) to a 600-seat auditorium, where Oprah will be 'checking' up on her girls by video-conferencing, everything has been made to the highest standards.
"I want this school to be a reflection of me," she says. "I made a promise to Madiba and I intend to keep it." Madiba is the clan name given to former South African President Nelson Mandela. Back in 2002, Oprah asked Mandela what he wanted from her as a gift to the nation. He simply said, "Build me a school." And she did. School begins January 2, 2007.
It's Sunday afternoon and Oprah leaves for Chicago in a few hours. She's invited all 150 girls that have "made the grade" and will be attending her academy. The only thing is she hasn't told them this. She's invited them to an informal get-together. None of the girls suspect Oprah's up to her "old tricks." She springs the surprise.
"I called you all here today to let you know that you all be part of the first class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy," she said.
The girls scream and shout for joy for a good 15 minutes. Their parents too are screaming and shouting. Everyone's crying, Oprah's crying, I'm crying. It's an unbelievable scene. Then Oprah opens up in a way that surprised even her best friend, Gayle King, who was present and is part of the academy.
"Some people ask me why I never had children," Oprah says, adding, "Maybe this is the reason. So I can help bring up other peoples' children, your children. I want you to trust me to bring up your children and I promise I'll never let you down."
This time there's not a dry eye in the room. I'm bawling by now and wiping away tears on my sleeve. "You're such a cry baby," Graham, my cameraman, says. "I can't help it," is all I can offer.
"What you did back there was simply amazing," I tell Oprah afterwards. "You'd have done the same thing, Jeff. Remember, I've seen your stories on CNN."
I'm fighting back tears again. "Hey, give me a hug," she says. "Today is a good day, and I feel my life has come full circle."
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Fear creeps into Iran's streets
It is deceptively easy to find out what Iranians think about this nuclear dispute. When we travel around the city, we have no government minder and need no permission to go around and interview people on the streets. Only once since I've been here has a policeman come up to ask us what we are doing. One look at our accreditation kept him at bay.
But the real hurdle comes when the camera comes out, when people realize we are a Western television crew, and even more so, when they find out we are from CNN. Iranians are incredibly friendly and insightful people, but it can be difficult to get them to open up on camera. That said, you have to look at the nuances to get a real sense of what's going on here.
When we were last here a few months ago, everyone we spoke to, from the rich to the poor, from the moderates to the conservatives, told us they believed in their country's right to a civilian nuclear program. They felt insulted that the world wanted to withhold the chance from Iran to have nuclear energy produced by its own scientists. And there was a huge undercurrent of nationalist pride in the fact that Iranian scientists had figured out how to enrich uranium, that they would never have to be dependent on others to do that.
But now, with a new United Nations mandate to stop the program by the end of the month and in the immediate aftermath of the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, fear is creeping in to the Iranian streets.
In the past few weeks, I've been to all parts of Tehran.
In the blue-collar south, there remains defiance against the West. I was told repeatedly at a car parts market that Iran has endured sanctions before and can endure them again.
But in the north, university students spoke openly to us about their fear of the economic hardships Iran could soon face. Iran's youth make up the majority of Iran's population. The median age is 25. And there are large groups of college graduates who have no jobs. Inflation here keeps going up, so the economic situation is ripe for things to get dramatically worse if sanctions are imposed.
Iranians I've spoken to are aware that theirs is a government looking to flex its muscles, looking to gain international clout. And they know all of that is part of Iran's defiance against the West over the nuclear issue.
But now, international affairs could soon hit home in a very real way. Jobs could be lost. Prices could skyrocket. Gas could become too expensive for some to buy. And this prospect will prove to be the biggest test of domestic support for Iran's official position to continue its nuclear program. Are Iranians willing to follow their government and seemingly fight for this right whatever may come?
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Al Qaeda recruiters target Europe
In the years since 9/11, government officials say Al Qaeda has undeniably been hurt. The Taliban government in Afghanistan was crushed. Without the Taliban's protection, the leaders of Al Qaeda were put on the run, and the terror group's cells all over the world became isolated, no longer able to communicate or coordinate their attacks without serious danger of discovery.
But by almost all accounts, Al Qaeda is trying hard to recover, and security analysts say that effort involves intense recruiting in Europe.
Here is how it works: Terror leaders, who continue to operate largely out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, know that anyone traveling directly to the Western nations from any predominantly Muslim country will be scrutinized. So they are reaching out through personal connections and the internet to frustrated young Muslims in countries such as Britain and France, selling a message of Muslim victimization.
Once a recruit is found, he can be matched with a team, trained, and hardly raise on eyebrow when he hits the immigration line at a U.S. airport carrying the passport of the friendly nation in which he was born. At least, that is what terrorism analysts say.
Here is what I wonder: How can western nations bridge the gap to these disaffected Muslim minority populations and effectively innoculate them against these recruiting strategies? Or should the Muslim community in the West be doing more to help?
Did Santa Claus kill JonBenet?
Imagine trying to weed through hundreds, maybe thousands, of leads to figure out who killed JonBenet Ramsey. We've heard about some of the suspects over the years, including the Ramseys and their son, Burke. But I wanted to know who we hadn't heard much about, so I decided to look into who some of the previous suspects were and why they were cleared.
Two days before JonBenet Ramsey died, Bill McReynolds played Santa Claus at her home. After her death, investigators instantly became curious about McReynolds and his wife Janet, who had played Mrs. Claus. Back in 1997, McReynolds told a Colorado television station, "I know I didn't do it." But for investigators, there were too many eerie connections between the McReynolds and the Ramseys to just drop it.
Trip DeMuth, one of the original prosecutors on the case, told me that Santa Bill gave JonBenet a card that read: "You will receive a special gift after Christmas."
"Statements like that led me to have some sort of suspicion: What was going on between Santa Bill and JonBenet? Again, he is an individual who was involved with her, had an interest in her, was seen with her, shortly before the murder," DeMuth said.
Investigators were intrigued by the fact the McReynolds' daughter had been abducted 22 years before JonBenet's death ... to the day. And Janet McReynolds had written a play about a child who was molested in her basement, then murdered. The couple gave hair, handwriting and blood samples, but were eventually cleared thanks to DNA tests. Bill McReynolds died back in 2002.
Another man, Michael Helgoth, was also a prime suspect. He was a Colorado native who died shortly after the murder. But his death left more questions than answers.
It appeared to be a suicide. And what about the stun gun discovered next to his body? Investigators believe a stun gun had been used on JonBenet.
Prosecutor DeMuth told me this about Helgoth: "I remember that he had footwear that was consistent with the footprint evidence, he had a stun gun, he had reportedly made statements to a friend, very similar to the types of statements that we're hearing about today in the press with the arrest of John Karr. "
Even more strange, a baseball cap with the letters s-b-t-c was found near Helgoth's body. Those are the same letters found in the ransom note at the Ramsey home. DeMuth says he believes Helgoth's DNA was tested and didn't match up.
All of this leaves me wondering: Will John Mark Karr finally lead to closure in this case or just add himself to the list of names that never panned out?
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Polygamy supporters rally in Utah
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Polygamy is part of the history of the Mormon Church. But since 1890, the church has repudiated it. As a matter of fact, Mormons are excommunicated from the church today if it is learned they are polygamists.
But there are by most accounts, many thousands of people who think the Mormon Church has gone against God's intentions by banning polygamy. However, these people have for the most part kept low profiles about their beliefs, since plural marriage is against the law and they fear arrest.
That's what made what just happened in downtown Salt Lake City so unusual. For the first time that anyone can remember, a large-scale demonstration supporting polygamy was held in the open -- a demonstration that was led by the children of polygamists.
Some 250 people turned out to a rally site just down the street from the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to express their support for polygamy.
Children as young as 10 took to the podium to declare that they and their parents have the religious right to practice polygamy and that they feel they live perfectly normal lives with multiple mothers and huge numbers of siblings. Children and teens came up to me saying they can't imagine living a childhood without having more than one mother.
Although polygamy is against the law (a felony in Utah), authorities say they won't arrest ordinary polygamists, although they do want to prosecute polygamists accused of molesting children, like Warren Jeffs.
There were husbands who attended the rallies with multiple numbers of wives. They stayed low-key out of habit. But one man did tell us he did not mind appearing on the news for the first time in his life because he wanted to show his support for polygamy rights. But he, like everyone else at the rally, did not use last names because of their long held fears.
The Mormon Church says these people can no longer consider themselves Mormon because they violate the church's rules. But these polygamists believe they are doing what the revered founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, would want them to do.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Some questions for JonBenet investigators
BOULDER, Colorado -- As I race all over this quiet and beautiful town at the foot of the rockies, following the latest developments in the JonBenet Ramsey case, I keep thinking about troubling questions.
They are questions that arose 10 years ago, when I first started covering this story, and they remain unanswered today. If John Mark Karr actually gave a confession, and if it is true, and if he is to be charged, authorities will want some answers to these questions.
Simply put: How did an intruder get into the Ramsey house? Police said at the outset there was no sign of forced entry, no footprints in the snow. Those assertions have since been challenged, and apparently a window was left unlocked, but the details still matter.
How did the killer navigate through this huge, labyrinth of a house in the dark to find his victim, brutally kill her, and hide the body without waking anyone?
Why did the killer leave a ransom note for a murder? And how did he know private details of John Ramsey's past and his finances?
The questions go on and on.
I'm sitting in a scorching satellite truck writing my story for tonight's "360" and suffering from deja vu. Once again, 10 years later, the story of this girl's terrible death is bringing more questions than answers.
JonBenet murder mystery far from solved
A man named Raymond Donovan, who was President Reagan's secretary of labor, was implicated in a long-forgotten scandal early in the 1980s. Many years later, Donovan was totally vindicated, but he and his family had suffered enormous embarrassment, legal fees and heartache. On the day Donovan was cleared, he said, "Where do I go to get my reputation back? Who do I see about that?"
The Ramsey family today might be asking the same question. Six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was murdered on Christmas night of 1996. It is difficult to imagine a greater horror for any family to endure -- the brutal death of a beloved daughter, followed by years of suspicion that they were the ones who killed her. In 2003, they were officially cleared, after DNA tests on JonBenet Ramsey's clothing showed trace evidence of an unknown male -- but not any member of the Ramsey family. By that point, the case had largely disappeared from public view, destined, it seemed, to remain an unsolved mystery.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the charges against John Mark Karr, who was arrested yesterday in Bangkok. In a bizarre and chaotic press conference, Karr made damaging admissions -- that he was present when JonBenet died, that her death was accidental, and that he was not "an innocent man." In New York, the Daily News summed up the new developments with a banner headline -- "SOLVED!"
But maybe it's time to put to work some of the lessons from the Ramseys' ordeal. The case is not solved. Karr has not been convicted of anything. No physical evidence has been made public that ties him to the crime. His confession has not been corroborated. In a peculiar press conference earlier today, the Boulder district attorney, Mary Lacy, seemed to claim that her own investigation had a long way to go and that the only reason she ordered the arrest was that she was concerned that Karr might flee or abuse his young students in Bangkok. Those are worthy goals, but they don't prove that Karr killed JonBenet.
No one is more impatient than a journalist. We want our stories resolved -- SOLVED! -- as soon as we learn about them. But in this case, of all cases, it's a good idea to take a deep breath, wait for the charges, the evidence and even the verdict, and then make up our collective minds. Enough reputations have already been unjustly destroyed in the wake of this young girl's death.
'Missing' Marine from 9/11 comes forward
On the night of September 11th, 2001, I stood near the site of the devastated World Trade Center complex, doing live reports on CNN.
One of my most vivid memories is watching police, firefighters, and private citizens desperately searching for possible survivors amid the fiery and smoky rubble. I marveled at their selfless courage. The wreckage that still stood and the rubble that was strewn precariously around the scene could have collapsed at any time.
Their goal was to find survivors. We all presumed many people were trapped under the wreckage, but when the rescue effort was over, only 20 people were pulled out alive.
The new Oliver Stone movie, "World Trade Center," tells the story of two Port Authority police officers -- Sgt. John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno -- who were found by two former U.S. Marines working as volunteers. But the moviemakers only knew the whereabouts of one of the Marines; the other had seemingly vanished.
But now we know about that other one.
About three weeks ago, retired Marine Sgt. Jason Thomas was watching TV and saw a commercial for "World Trade Center." In the commercial, he saw two Marines rescuing two police officers at Ground Zero and realized one of those Marines was actually him!
For almost five years, Sgt. Thomas had decided to keep a very low profile about his heroic role that terrible day; partly because of modesty, and partly because of the emotional toll it took on him. But after family members saw the commercial, they told Sgt. Thomas he should get in touch with the movie producers. So he did. And now, we have gotten in touch with him.
Yesterday, Sgt. Thomas told me the tale of what he did on September 11 -- how he met up with another retired Marine, Sgt. David Karnes, and together they moved along the rubble looking for survivors. They yelled "U.S. Marines, anyone down there?" continuously, but got no responses.
Finally, after night fell, they heard a soft voice coming from the two police officers trapped below them. The two Marines promised both men they would be rescued, and they were. They were seriously injured, but are recovering well.
I saw the movie and believe it was exceptionally well done and, for the most part, realistic. But something very interesting happened in the casting. Because the moviemakers (and most everyone else) didn't know much about the "missing" Marine, the actor playing him is a white man. In real life, Sgt. Thomas is African-American.
Sgt. Thomas says has no hard feelings about the racial mix-up. He realizes he received little acclaim because of his decision to stay quiet, but that's what he wanted to do.
And here is something else noteworthy -- Sgt. Thomas has not seen the movie and doesn't plan to. While he hears it's a very inspirational motion picture, he says the day of September 11, 2001, was too emotional for him, and he doesn't think he's ready to see it played back on the big screen.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
What really matters about JonBenet's case
I never thought I'd see it. When I covered the JonBenet Ramsey murder and the unending aftermath that started a decade ago, I reached only one firm conclusion about the case -- I just knew that no one would ever be arrested.
Missteps by the police, the apparent wariness of John and Patsy Ramsey, and sheer time seemed to make it impossible for anyone to ever be locked-up for this crime.
Every suspect I heard about was soon discounted by the authorities. Every new lead turned to trash. Every suspicion seemed to lead back to the family or someone very close to them, and yet police could simply not find enough proof to level a charge. The winter of the killing turned to spring, then to summer, then to fall and then winter came again, and still I was stalking the streets of Boulder and filing reports on the horrible murder of a six-year-old girl.
I took to ending many of my stories with a simple statement; something like this: "For all the months of investigation, this is all we know -- a six-year-old girl was killed in her home on Christmas night, and no one has yet spent a day in jail for her murder."
I thought it was a line that captured what really mattered. Beyond the hype and tabloid coverage and prurient interests that swirled around the death of a little beauty queen, I felt I should always point out that she was first a little girl. It was her house. No one was being charged. And that is inherently tragic. I thought it was a line that would last forever.
The man who has been arrested, no one should forget, has not been convicted of this crime and we haven't even heard his side of the story yet. The book on JonBenet's murder is far from closed. But a new chapter has been opened and that is an enormous surprise.
A colleague in New York asked me years ago the perennial question: When will someone be arrested?
I took out a coin, taped it to the top of her computer, and said, "I'll bet you this quarter that it never happens. If it does, take the quarter. Meanwhile, I'll always know I've got 25 cents waiting for me in New York."
I hope she took it today. Best quarter I ever lost.
A case-study in missing the point
I will never cease being amazed at the speed with which the world's leaders miss the point.
As I write, the Capitol dome is visible through our office windows. I'm thinking about the great ideas that America has championed for more than two hundred years. I'm thinking about freedom of speech.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is feeling heat at home over the money he is spending on his nuclear program and charges that Iran has spent a fortune supporting Hezbollah while 40 percent of the Iranian people live in poverty. So he has launched a new blog
, apparently to shore-up support among conservative Muslims at home and abroad.
The site is available in four languages and says precious little in any of them. The president's first post drones on about his childhood, select Iranian history, and of course includes a reference to America as the great Satan. He also asks if the United States and Israel are trying to start World War III.
Is it good for leaders to communicate with their people? I think most folks would say so. Good for them to solicit feedback to better inform their decisions? Again, many of us would agree.
But human rights activists say that is not what is happening in Iran. They say while the president expands his already vast capacity for free speech, his government is shutting down free speech for all its critics -- online, in newspapers, on TV, radio, you name it. And recent history in Iran lends a ring of truth to the critics' charges.
I think the point of free speech is supposed to be that everyone has it, not just the people who can already say what they wish because of their wealth, position or power.
The Iranian president's blog implies that he likes the idea of free speech, but I'll bet he doesn't like what I've written here.
What do you think: Is he missing the point?
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Abu Ghraib whistleblower: 'I lived in fear'
Joe Darby is a military guy. A tough guy. About 6-feet tall, with a shaved head. He is best known as the whistleblower behind the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
"I think the picture that bothered me the most was the one you see on TV and Internet of the male Iraqi standing and the other male Iraqi kneeling in front of him with the sandbags over their heads," Darby told me today.
Darby was first given the disturbing pictures by Specialist Charles Graner, who is now serving 10 years for his part in the abuse. Darby said he had asked Graner for photos from their travels so he could share them with his family. Instead, he got photos of prisoner abuse.
For weeks, Darby struggled with the biggest decision of his life. Should he turn in the photos to the Criminal Investigation Division?
"Ultimately it needed to be done. ... It had to be done," he said.
As the suspects were rounded-up, Darby grew scared.
"They had their weapons. They slept in the same compound I did. And they were trying to find out who turned them in. For that four to six weeks, I lived in fear that they would figure out it was me. I slept with a loaded weapon under my pillow until they left," he said.
Unfortunately, Darby couldn't stay anonymous forever. While dining at the mess hall with 400 others, he watched and listened as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld publicly thanked him on national television. Darby says he left the mess hall immediately, out of fear.
Darby stood his ground as members of the military and his own family ostracized him. They called him a rat, a traitor, and a whistleblower.
"I don't like the tag that much. I view it as -- I was a soldier and I was an MP. I was just doing my job. And they violated the law," he said.
Things got so bad his wife called the Pentagon for extra security. Eventually, Darby and his wife had to move away. They entered military protective custody.
Today, they won't tell anyone where they live or who they work for. Still, Darby says he's proud to have served in the military and that he has no regrets.
(Editor's note: Randi Kaye's piece on Joe Darby airs on "360", tonight 10 p.m. ET)
'The most dangerous two miles in America'
Drive up and down the New Jersey Turnpike, and it's easy to see why this state is a potential playground for terrorists. There is a two mile stretch from Newark Airport to Port Elizabeth that terrorism experts have dubbed, "The most dangerous two miles in America."
"It's the consequence that frankly scares the pants off of us, when you think about what might happen in such a congested area," says New Jersey Homeland Security Director Richard Canas.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country. And on this particular swath of land there are hundreds of potential terrorist targets -- chemical plants, rail yard, rail lines, refineries, an international airport, and the third largest port in the country, Port Elizabeth.
If a terrorist were to strike one of the many chlorine gas plants here, how much damage could he do?
Canas says a worst-case attack would bring lethal harm to more than 12 million people in a 14 mile radius. Even so, he's most concerned about the port itself. More than four million containers arrive there every year. But they are only inspected on the way out, not on the way in.
Clark Kent Ervin, a CNN security analyst and former inspector general of DHS, says New Jersey needs more money, better technology, and tighter perimeter security to really protect itself.
Canas tells me he has asked the federal government for $800 million to secure the state, but only got 10 percent of that. So he's forced to rely on tips from the public to keep safe. This year, his homeland security department received only one tip about a suspicious vessel.
What makes the chemical plants vulnerable?
Canas says only a fraction of the security requirements are mandated by the state of New Jersey. Most policing is left up to the plants themselves.
I spent some time yesterday in Kearny, New Jersey, where many of the potential targets fall. I talked to Deputy Police Chief Jack Corbett, who told me, "We have adequate patrols there. Could we staff that area 24 hours a day with 100 people to try and keep terrorists away? I don't think that's possible."
The railways in the area are another concern. Given the passenger train bombings in India and London, Canas has added rail marshals and is increasing training for transit police.
After hearing about all these vulnerabilities, I wonder how much will be enough when it comes to deterring terrorism.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Key oil port concerned about security
Los Angeles, Miami, the New York region -- those are areas that probably come to mind when you think about port security. But in Louisiana, the focus is on Port Fourchon (pronounced Foo-shon).
The port is a beehive of activity, with hundreds of boats constantly on the move, carrying supplies or crew members to offshore oil rigs. There are miles of pipes waiting to be put on ships and brought out to sea for use on oil rigs and on the ocean floor.
But what you don't see is what makes the port commission here worried about the possibility of a terrorist attack.
Each day, more than 1.5 million barrels of crude oil are pumped from offshore to Port Fourchon through underground pipelines. The site handles nearly 20 percent of all the crude oil the United States uses each day.
A well-planned terrorist attack would sever this critical energy artery, causing significant damage to the U.S. economy.
Right after 9/11, Port Fourchon received a healthy security grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It enabled the port to set up 16 cameras with an unblinking eye on all important sites on the 700-acre facility. The harbor police also bought a patrol boat to monitor activity near offshore rigs.
But Port Fourchon can't count on getting any more money from DHS, even though the federal agency doles out millions of dollars each year.
Ted Falgout, the port's commissioner, says DHS changed the criteria for its security grants -- DHS gauges the amount of cargo that comes in, and oil through a pipeline doesn't fit that bill. So Port Fourchon will likely have to be content with what it has, despite its desire for more patrol boats, harbor police and training.
So the busy port goes on with business as usual, hoping it never has to deal with a terrifying "what if" scenario. DHS did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
America the vulnerable
Three years ago, New York City went black, along with dozens of other cities in the eastern United States and Canada.
A massive power failure sent millions of people pouring into the streets trying to figure out how to stay at work, head home, or do much of anything with no electricity. And immediately, fears arose that the crippling blackout might be the work of terrorists.
It was not, of course, but three years later many of the major systems we rely on for everyday life remain vulnerable. Protecting our electrical supplies, computer networks, transportation systems, our economy, food, and water, remains an almost overwhelming challenge for security analysts.
The simple truth is, in our free society, there is too much to protect. Just look at the sheer number of potential targets in Target America.
The United States has more than 6,000 power generating stations from coast to coast, transmitting electricity over a half million miles of bulk transmission lines.
There are 12,000 miles of coast, 141,000 miles of railroad lines, 11 major seaports, with a dozen more up the Mississippi.
America has more than 5,000 airports with paved runaways.
There are 47,000 shopping centers, attracting nearly 200 million Americans each month.
Cyber attack? This year, the number of Americans using the internet, according to the Computer Industry Almanac, hit 198 million.
How do we even count the public events in which we might be vulnerable to a mad bomber or group of crazed gunmen -- concerts, sporting events, conventions, worship services, political rallies?
And what about the physical sites that matter so much to our national identity -- the great buildings that mark our skylines, the monuments to our nation's history and honor?
Every security analyst I have spoken to for years has said the same thing: We can't protect everything, and one day terrorists will hit America again.
So if that is a fact, what should we do in the meantime? Are we doing enough to secure ourselves against the most pressing threats or are we doing too much, living in the darkness of our fear so much that the terrorists are already winning?
Sunday, August 13, 2006
'Hello, Bonjour, Willkommen, Salaam Aleikum'
I set out on a walk of central London to gauge the mood. I began in Soho and went south toward Westminster.
Regent Street, with its high-end stores, was bustling. Hamleys toy store was packed -- sardine tight-- just like FAO Schwarz in New York City. Tall men dressed in pirate costumes engaged the children. I was struck by a young Muslim girl, her hair covered by a traditional black scarf, working the cashier.
I passed Picadilly Circus and stopped at Trafalgar Square. People were lined along the railings outside the National Gallery. Others sat at the base of Lord Nelson's column watching a modern dance recital performed by an Asian women's group.
The narrator welcomed everyone, saying, "Hello, Bonjour, Willkommen, Salaam Aleikum" -- a multicultural greeting for the tourists and Brits who had stopped to see what was going on. No one seemed worried. No one seemed afraid. They felt safe enough to stop and linger.
The sound of Indian music boomed over the loudspeakers and women in brightly colored saris walked out in a traditional bridal procession. It was a dance about women who crossed the ocean to have a different life than the ones they might have lived in Asia and the Pacific.
The roar of an airplane came across the speakers, and a voice talking about women's struggles and challenges said, "Fasten your seat belt there is turbulence ahead." Having spent the last 72 hours immersed in covering the jetliner terror plot, I smiled at the irony.
I was surprised to see only four policemen outside 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister Tony Blair lives. An American man turned to his son, who looked to be about 10 years old, and said, "There's lots more security outside the White House." Though in all fairness, it could be due to the fact the prime minister and his family are on vacation in Barbados.
Reaching Westminster Hall and Parliament, I smiled as families snapped photos with Big Ben in the background. Millions of people from around the world must have that same photo of themselves from the exact same street corner.
It wasn't until I stepped off the return bus at Oxford Circus that I was yanked back to reality. A poster from the Evening Standard with the headline -- "TERROR PLOT: NEW DETAILS" -- in capital letters. I asked a shopkeeper whether business at 4:00 in the afternoon was slower than normal and he said, "Actually it's busier. People can't leave. We can't get rid of them." With that, he smiled and I walked back to the office.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
No escaping terror's reach
I'm in London. A few hours ago, I was in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, listening to a barrage of artillery fire.
Just after we finished the broadcast this morning at 7 a.m. local time, we started to get word of the alleged terror plot in London. I saw the story pop-up on my BlackBerry, and sure enough, a short time later I got the call from producers at CNN.
"Can you get there?"
"Yes," though it certainly wasn't easy.
We have already assembled a fascinating program covering all the angles on this alleged plot. I'm now on the way to shoot some elements and interiews for the broadcast.
It's odd to hop from one place to another so quickly, but it's even odder how world events are increasingly linked -- Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers, Israel strikes back, Al Qaeda threatens attacks against those supporting Israel, and now this.
Is this alleged plot linked to what is happening in Lebanon? Not likely. British police say the investigation of the plot has been under way for months.
Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security chief, put it this way: "This operation is in some respects suggestive of an Al Qaeda plot." But as authorities are quick to point out, the investigation is still under way.
The world has gotten very small. We can wake up in Israel and hours later be in London, and terror can strike anywhere.
Early morning call prompts mad dash
A lot of you ask how we operate....
When my phone rang this morning, I looked quickly looked at the clock: 4:15 a.m. Nothing good ever happens at 4:15 a.m.
It was our vice president of news coverage. Did I know about the terror plot? Where was Anderson?
The assignment desk had already set up a conference bridge -- a kind of discreet party line -- for CNN managers to dial into to sort out the story and the logistics of getting London staffed-up. After all, many of CNN International's considerable resources were already dedicated to the Middle East.
As for Anderson, after 28 days in the Middle East -- Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel -- he was driving down from Israel's northern border toward Tel Aviv to start a long weekend break. When I found him, Anderson and his cameraman Neil Hallsworth already had sketchy details of the breaking terror story and were looking into ways to get from Tel Aviv to London.
Heathrow airport in London was shutdown. So we looked at flights to Paris and Budapest and then connecting to the Eurostar train. We figured that with air travel paralyzed rail would be a sure way to get Anderson to London.
As it turned out, all of the connections were dicey at best, so we arranged a charter jet to a small airfield in the United Kingdom, added a couple of additional CNN producers to fill the seats, and before long, the plane was in the air. All of this happened before 6:30 a.m.
Anderson should be on scene and reporting from London by mid-afternoon. Of course, we will continue our extensive coverage from the Middle East as well. John Roberts will anchor our coverage from there.
Flying in the face of terror
As I get ready to board a flight to London to cover the terror plot story for CNN, immediately I see the impact at New York's JFK airport.
I re-packed all my luggage when I got the list of what was banned on flights. But I didn't realize until I checked-in at the airport that make-up foundation is considered a banned liquid. So I had to throw that out.
Of course, no bottles of water or beverages of any kind are allowed for grown-ups. Baby formula and medicines are still allowed, and I do see young children at the gate drinking out of their sippy cups, so the rules may not be as tightly enforced for kids.
So far things are calm here and not too crowded, but it's early.
The list of prohibited items reminded me of the kinds of materials terror mastermind Ramzi Yousef used when he tested a bomb on a Philippine Airlines airliner on December 11, 1994. He built his bomb in the plane lavatory and left it under his seat when he disembarked at Cebu Airport in the Philippines before the plane continued to Tokyo.
When the plane flew over Minami Daito Island, near Okinawa, the bomb exploded, killing a Japanese businessman and injuring 10 others. The plane made an emergency landing in Okinawa.
Yousef later decided to increase the potency of his bombs since the plane wasn't destroyed. This was to be part of what became known as the Bojinka plot designed to blow up a dozen airliners in the air at the same time. The plot was interrupted.
Whenever I fly, I always check under my seat.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Putting a human face on the wider conflict
No one feels comfortable attending a funeral of someone they don't know. The sad reality is that for a journalist covering the Middle East conflict, this happens almost every day.
As a reporter, the moment you arrive, the family wants to tell you the story of their loved one. They show you photos. They want to make sure he or she is not forgotten. They want to know their loved one didn't die in vain.
The shiva for Shlomi Buchris was no different. His friends tell me he was funny, had an infectious laugh and could light up a room.
But Shlomi was a reserve member of the Israeli military. He wanted to fight. He had a day job working on the family farm and learning to breed exotic fish. But he also wanted to protect his country.
At the age of 36, he guessed this would be his last chance.
Shlomi's father struggles to tell us of the moment he knew his son was dead. He was watching the news and heard that 12 reservists had been killed by a Hezbollah rocket on the border. He saw one body with the shoes of his son's parachute unit. He tried calling Shlomi. And when his son didn't answer, he waited for the call every parent dreads.
Shlomi's mother still hasn't left the house.
The number of casualties in this war has risen well past the point of being able to tell each story of loss. But seeing how one death devastates a family, friends, and in this case, a small community, puts a human face on the wider conflict, however briefly.
Renewed bombing interrupts funeral
I went to a funeral today, but then the war broke out.
It was supposed to be the burial of 29 of the 41 people killed in an Israeli missile attack Monday evening in the crowded suburb of Chiyah. But just as one of the children was being lowered into the grave, two bombs came crashing down a few hundred meters away. After the first hit, young men at the funeral raised their arms and began shouting, "God is great!" Everyone backed-off when the second one hit.
More funerals, perhaps.
The day started when I opened up my copy of Beirut's English-language Daily Star newspaper this morning to see a huge, front-page image of Abbas Wehbeh. He was holding up the body of his 10-day-old niece, Waad, his face collapsed in pain.
Hours later, we sat down and talked in a cemetery not far from the apartment block that was pulverized Monday evening. As Abbas, a taxi driver who says he has never had anything to do with Hezbollah, began listing his family members who died in the strike, it seemed he would go on forever. Twelve in all, they ranged from his infant niece to a 1-year-old nephew, a 1-year-old niece, a brother, a sister-in-law, and more children.
With the summer sun beating down and sweat running down his face, Abbas poured out anger at Israel and the United States. He demanded to know if I would fight if my country were occupied. He demanded to know what his family members had done to deserve their fate. I was thankful he didn't really expect an answer, because I didn't have one.
Near the end of the interview, he shared a thought about how the present in Lebanon will affect the future in the Middle East. He told me his 7-year-old son, Mohammed, approached him last night to announce that when he grows up he's going to get a gun and go fight the Israelis. It wasn't fair, Mohammed reasoned, that he had only been playing with his cousins a day earlier and now they were gone forever.
"It's not us," Abbas offered up. "I never told him to carry a gun. Who is planting the seeds of hatred, us or them?"
The funeral that was interrupted by bombs came after this conversation. Beirut has a tendency to confound chronological order.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Arabic pop, 50 Cent and exploding bombs
The schedule has almost become routine. No need to set alarm clocks as the sound of heavy bomardment serves as the daily wake up call.
It is not too much later that members of the international media start to congregate at camera positions on the poolside patio of the Tyre Rest House Hotel to watch, from not too afar, the latest morning bombing and rocket launching taking place outside the seaside city of Tyre in southern Lebanon.
The almost month-long war is strange by most accounts. Watching the exchange of hostilities from our semi-tropical beachside location it sometimes feels like we are on some sort of perverse vacation package -- surf, sand and explosions.
Dotted with palm trees, the hotel has all the outward signs of a popular summer destination. Signs for water-skiing and Mediterannean excursions abound and, oddly enough, the beach bar has managed to stay open for business; open into the wee hours every night playing an assortment of 50 Cent songs and pop Arabic tunes.
Missing from all of this are the tourists. Instead, the hotel is packed with journalists and a few southern Lebanese who have sought refuge here. There are so many people here that we are sleeping two, three, and four to a room ourselves, and we are the lucky ones. Many of the other international news organizations have personnel sleeping on the beach and on cots outside.
The city of Tyre itself has been largely evacuated. Only a handful of employees are running the hotel, charging sky-high prices for basic services. The upkeep has become so poor that there are now wild cats roaming the halls of the building, rummaging through piles of uncollected garbage. Luckily, the power and the water are still working, but worries abound that conditions will become truly disgusting if the power grid and other utilities get knocked out.
Moving outside the city of Tyre has become a difficult and dangerous proposition, as many areas of southern Lebanon are hit very hard on a daily basis by Israeli fire. Yesterday, Tyre became isolated from Beirut when a bridge over the Litani River on the main road between the cities was destroyed in an Israeli bombing run. The fear that created was only heightened this morning when leaflets were dropped in the city by the Israeli military warning people that any cars on the roads of southern Lebanon would be considered targets.
Needless to say, this has curtailed our ability to go out and gather news, which is extremely frustrating for all of us. It has also made the normally simple task of picking up food from the few restaurants and stores still open a more complicated process. Yet, this is nothing compared to what the few remaining aid agencies working in southern Lebanon face on a day-to-day basis in getting aid to people in isolated towns and villages.
Doctors Without Borders was desperate move in some medical supplies from Beirut, so their team in Tyre met their counterparts from Beirut on opposite sides side of the Litani River and hand-carried the supplies in a human chain across a tree spanning the river.
The shelling and bombing has largely been taking place south and east of our our location, but the city of Tyre itself was hit yesterday when Israeli Air Force jets dropped bombs on a neighborhood of small five-story buildings. It was not clear if anybody was killed, as most of Tyre has become a ghostown, but it adds to the extreme feeling of fear and angst for those reamianing in the city.
Sometimes the explosions take place too close for comfort. But for the most part, they have become part of the daily din here in Tyre. We watch them from our camera location and we feel like odd spectators in a war that seems to get more complicated and dangerous by the day.
Will the city find itself under siege? Will Israeli ground forces enter the city? How long will this all last? These are the questions residents and journalists here ask themselves every day.
Monday, August 07, 2006
History repeats: Blown up once, blown up twice
I just got back from southern Lebanon. The eight-hour mission turned into a 14-hour one.
Veteran cameraman Neil Hallsworth, who probably has been on more embeds in Iraq than any other journalist, informed me that our vehicle's cramped quarters made this the most hellacious embed he's ever been on.
Whoever designed the Puma, the Israeli transport in which we were riding, needs to be forced to spend 14 hours in one. Anyway, enough griping.
The mission turned out to be interesting. The combat engineers with whom we were embedded were ordered to go into southern Lebanon and take out a Hezbollah position at Karkoum.
It had been one of the main command outposts in southern Lebanon. It had actually been an Israeli outpost back when they occupied Lebanon. When they left, they blew it up. Hezbollah rebuilt it. Now the unit I was with was supposed to go back in and blow it up again. History repeats.
We left under cover of darkness, but it was dawn by the time we reached the bunkers at Karkoum. Things moved quickly once we exited the Puma.
Israeli soldiers discovered a cache of anti-tank weapons, which Hezbollah has used to devastating effect. The soldiers rigged those to explode with the same C4 explosive they were using on all the structures.
The blast was massive, though we couldn't actually see it because we had to take cover back inside the Puma.
After the dust cleared, armored bulldozers moved in and leveled what remained.
We'll have the story on "360" tonight. We continue to broadcast from the region, and will continue to do so all week.
Tracking Hezbollah with a Puma
I can't say where I am exactly. Actually, I don't have any idea where I am, so even if I was allowed to, I couldn't tell you.
I know it's southern Lebanon, because as soon as we crossed the border, my Blackberry got a text message welcoming me to a new cell service.
I am in what the IDF calls a Puma, a kind of armored vehicle, which sounds sleek and fast, and it may be, but right now it is crammed with soldiers. Literally, when one person moves, we all have to adjust our position.
Cameraman Neil Hallsworth and I are embedded with a unit of combat engineers operating inside southern Lebanon. I can't talk about the mission until it's over, but safe to say, the unit we are with is targeting Hezbollah positions.
It's just before midnight. The Puma has no windows, so you can't see out. Riding in one can be kind of disorienting.
It's an armored vehicle, but the soldiers know that doesn't guarantee their safety. Hezbollah has been very effective at using anti-tank weapons, RPGs, and IEDs.
In some ways, Hezbollah is a double threat for Israeli forces. On the one hand, they have the zeal of jihadist guerrillas. And on the other hand, they have at least one state sponsor, Iran, and support from another, Syria, so they have money and plenty of modern weapons.
"They are tough," one Israeli soldier said to me. "They have courage, but they are just people."
I think about that a lot. He meant of course, they are human beings, not supermen, not phantoms. They can be located, shot and killed.
That's what the unit I'm with now is hoping to do -- find the enemy and kill them. This embed is only supposed to last about eight hours. It's a pretty direct mission, but you never know what can happen. I'll write more later.
Friday, August 04, 2006
'These men have nothing to lose'
As we watched a feed of today's pro-Hezbollah rally come in from Sadr City, Baghdad, I had to wonder: Did those young men dressed in white shrouds to demonstrate their willingness to die for Hezbollah really mean it?
It's one thing to get caught up in the fervor of a mass demonstration and say you'd be willing to die for a cause. It's another thing to actually do it.
One of the Arabic-speaking producers in our bureau in Baghdad was standing next to me as I watched the feed. I turned to him and asked him what he thought. His answer was a categorical yes. "These men have nothing to lose," he said. "Their fervor is their sustenance."
The constant suicide bombings in Iraq are proof people are willing to die for their cause. I'd just never seen a potential suicide bomber or fighter express his will in such a passionate, public way.
The white shroud is a powerful symbol. Its message is one of purification through the ultimate sacrifice.
The crowd in Sadr City today was a mass of white. A mass of passionate men expressing their support for Hezbollah and Moqtada al Sadr, who use violence as a way of effecting the changes they say their region needs.
But many of those who were shrouded in white were young men, some of them, just teenagers. Could they really believe death is the only way to better their lot?
Obviously, many do.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
White House denies giving green light to Israel
President Bush made a rare visit to the White House briefing room this afternoon to celebrate the fact that the ratty, old pressroom that we correspondents call home (where the carpets are disgusting, the chairs are falling apart and the air conditioning is spotty at best) is about to undergo nine months of extensive renovations.
The president yukked it with newbie correspondents, as well as some veterans like Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson, who came back for this special event and fired-off a screaming question for old-time's sake, prompting the commander-in-chief to joke that the ABC News denizen is a "has-been." Ouch.
But the president took no questions from the press corps as the war in the Middle East raged on for a 22nd day, leaving it to his press secretary, Tony Snow, to face a barrage of queries about why the United States has not stopped the violence yet.
"We would love a cease-fire yesterday," Snow said. But he again repeated the mantra that the administration wants a "sustainable" peace, not one that will slip away within days. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is still hopeful that a U.N. resolution can be passed by the end of the week.
Despite emphasizing diplomacy in his remarks, Snow acknowledged that three weeks into the crisis President Bush still has not called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. That's led even some Republicans, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, to raise questions about whether the Bush administration has given Israel tacit approval to level Lebanon, in hopes it will destroy the terrorist group Hezbollah, despite the ongoing toll on innocent victims in both Lebanon and Israel.
"We don't have a green light," Snow said. "The idea that the U.S. is saying, 'Go, go, go,' I think is a disservice to the Israeli government, which operates independently, and this government."
But has the White House given Israel a green light to "go, go, go"? We'll explore this question in more depth tonight.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Rockets so close you can smell them
Monday was a quiet day along Israel's border with Lebanon. Instead of more than 100 Katyushas hitting the area, only a handful did.
But it was my first day here and I was still adjusting to the loud sound of artillery going off around us. So one rocket, two rockets, three rockets. It felt crazy enough for me. But all in all, by Monday night, I thought, "Not bad, I can handle this."
However, that peace of mind would not last long.
Tuesday around 2:30 a.m. local time, cameraman Neil, driver Elias and I left our hotel to start prepping for the show at our live location about 20 minutes away. We were about halfway there when a rocket or perhaps a mortar hit up ahead. That was followed by a second one, which landed even closer.
It took a second for us to all realize what actually was happening. I believe I even asked, "Is that incoming our outgoing?" The fireworks-like effect should have made it obvious enough.
Elias pulled the van over to the side and we debated for a second whether to drive forward or stay put. Then Neil pointed out that incoming fire often come in packs and that we were a sitting duck by staying parked to the side. I am not sure if it helps to stay still, drive your way through or turn around. All I knew was I wanted to get the hell out of there.
As we moved forward and around the bend, we found ourselves right next to the site of the explosions. There was a lot of smoke and the smell burned my nose. A piece of casing was sitting on the road. Neil managed to crack a joke about getting out of the car to shoot some b-roll. But I couldn't muster a smile. I was too busy trying to get my flak jacket and helmet on.
We made it to our show location safely and the show itself went smoothly. But I have to admit, I was spooked. I spent much of today wearing my flak jacket ... even in our hotel ... opening myself up to some friendly ribbing at the hands of my colleagues.
Here's hoping tonight is a little less eventful.
Syria bids for world's attention
Last night, Syrian President Bashir Assad told the country's armed forces to "raise their readiness." It was a deliberate statement, timed amid rising tensions in the region and meant to remind the world that Syria should not be ignored.
President Assad did not mobilize more troops. He did not increase the number of military vehicles at the border. He simply told the forces to train harder and to be ready for whatever comes next.
Amid growing calls for a diplomatic solution, Syria is trying to make enough noise to let the world know it doesn't want to be left out of the discussion.
The United States, among others, has been wary of calling for an immediate cease-fire, fearful violence will return to the region after the world stops paying such close attention. Instead, "sustainable peace" is the phrase bandied about by American and Israeli leaders. There are, they say, root issues, such as getting rid of Hezbollah's militia -- labeled a terrorist group by the United States and Israel -- that must be dealt with permanently before lasting peace can be achieved.
But a permanent solution seems increasingly elusive. Since the tragic attack in Qana, Lebanon, there have been demonstrations across the Muslim world, from Tehran to Damascus to Baghdad. Not surprisingly, many demonstrators screamed anti-Western slogans, burned American and Israeli flags, and voiced support for Hezbollah.
But from where I sit it in Syria, it seems that those impassioned voices are finding more sympathy in Arab countries. Where there were some skeptical Arab voices when it came to Hezbollah, there are now more and more impassioned supporters. Hezbollah's infrastructure can be decimated by Israel's military, but allegiance among a new generation is rising by the day.
Clearly, the region's problem will not be solved in the weeks ahead by any simple means. At the end of the day, this may be one of the key questions: For real peace in the Middle East, does everyone in the region need to be at the negotiating table?