Saturday, September 30, 2006
So close, yet so far
It doesn't get more IRONIC than this.
We thought we were almost there, travel permits sitting in the Ministry of the Interior in Sudan for us to go to Darfur have just been approved, but with one slight HICCUP. Two of our crew members, Dutch producer, Kim Norgaard and South African cameraman, Chevan Rayson, are good to go. But guess what, for yours truly, of Kenyan descent but holding a US passport, there's a problem.
You see, at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York, the US State Department decided to restrict the travel requests of certain Sudanese officials. Now it seems like a tit-for-tat scenario. Sudanese President, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir has said he too will restrict the movements of US citizens wishing to travel outside Khartoum. 'But I'm actually Kenyan,' I insist. 'They don't come more AFRICAN than me,' I argue. 'But you have an American passport,' say the officials here, 'That makes you one of them.'
Is this what you call a diplomatic 'stand-off?' Will the travel restrictions also be applied to journalists and more importantly, much-needed Aid workers wishing to ease the misery of the desperate and downtrodden in Darfur?
Even as I write this, we're in a 'holding pattern'. We're trying to get on a flight early Sunday morning to El-Fasher, capital of Northern Darfur. We're so close and yet so far, the next few hours are critical, and the proverbial ball is back in the court of the Sudanese Government.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Dying in silence
We are on our way to central Africa. Right now we're in Dubai waiting for one of several connecting flights we'll be taking to get to the Congo.
It's a place many Americans know little about, and yet each of us carries a piece of the Congo with us, wherever we go. Minerals mined in the Congo like tin ore and coltan are essential components in cell phones, computers, and video game consoles.
The battle over who gets to mine those minerals has fueled the deadliest conflict the world has seen since World War II. More than three million people have died in the Congo since 1998 and there has been very little coverage of it.
Tens of thousands of women have been raped; often gang raped by soldiers and militia members. What has happened there is hard to fathom, and still some 1200 people are dying every day from malnutrition and disease.
It is ironic of course, that in our hi-tech world, the very place that makes our phones and computers work, is one of the least developed and impoverished places on the planet.
Next week we will be doing something I don't think any other network has ever done. We will be covering two major humanitarian crises at once, the Congo and Darfur. Jeff Koinange and Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be reporting on Darfur and I will be in eastern Congo.
Logistically this is an incredibly difficult undertaking. It's expensive, and requires a huge team of people. The truth is no one but CNN would undertake a mission like this. Our plan is to take all of you along on this journey, to two places you have rarely seen.
So many people in the Congo and Sudan have already lost their lives; so many more lives hang in the balance. There are few things worse than dying in silence, too many already have. I hope you'll join us on this trip.
Mission Darfur, job one: part the red tape
We almost failed to make our flight out of Johannesburg, on our way to Darfur as '360' focuses next week on the humanitarian crisis in Africa.
The booking was fine for the first sector to Nairobi, Kenya, but it was the continuing sector to Sudan that was 'choc-a-bloc'. We did the only thing journalists do in that kind of situation; we begged and begged and begged the airline officials like our lives depended on this 'mission'. They must have seen our sincerity (or is it desperation?) that finally they checked us all the way, complete with 18 pieces of baggage, digital news gathering gear, laptops, satellite phones, bottles of water, clothes, everything we would need for about a week in what's been described as THE world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Both sectors of the flight were uneventful and we finally landed in Sudan later that night. Clearing immigration proved easier than expected and our luggage made it, believe it or not. We were ecstatic as we wheeled our FIVE carts towards the customs officials and the first of what was going to be a lesson in patience and tolerance. We showed our paperwork to one of the officials who barely glanced at it before handing it over to his colleague and on it went until the fifth customs officer took a quick look and yelled something back in Arabic to our fixer who'd met us at the airport. 'He has to call his superior,' Akram told us. 'Ok,' we replied. Five minutes, ten, twenty, half-an-hour. 'What's the delay,' we aseked? 'It's Ramadan,' was the answer, the fasting just ended for the day and no-one's available.' This was understandable given the timing of the flight and the Muslim Holy month. 'How long do we wait?' we asked 'He'll soon come,' the official responded.
Two hours later, we'd finally gotten the necessary paperwork sorted we were walking out of the now deserted airport, humbled but happy to have all our gear with us. We eventually got to the hotel, checked-in and crashed for the night.
The next morning we were up early. Copies of passports were made, photographs taken, ID at the ready. First we had to register with the authorities, let them know we're in town. Then to the Ministry of External Affairs to get accredited and receive permission to film, then to the Internal Ministry to get permission to fly to Darfur, then to the police to make sure they know we can film in the streets of the capital. In a word, Sudan is a bureaucrat's dream, paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork.
Two days later, we just about have everything in hand, except the all-important permission to fly to Darfur. That's been promised by Saturday and we plan to be 'wheels-up' Sunday to a place called El Fasher in Northern Darfur, a region as large as Texas or France. From there it's a helicopter ride to a camp that was the recent scene of bloody clashes. Fingers crossed until we actually set foot in one of the world's most wretched locations.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The run for the money
There was cake aboard Air Force II this week as Vice President Dick Cheney passed a milestone, his 100th fundraiser of the midterm election cycle.
Counting his Tuesday night dinner for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Vice President has raised $37 million dollars for the party and candidates. Not far behind in the fundraiser count is President Bush (with 68 as of Tuesday night), though he is way ahead in dollars with more than $170 million.
Republicans still hold their traditional lead in campaign donations, raising an astounding $870 million dollars between the candidates, the party and the national campaign committees. Democrats are doing much better than in the past, but they still lag more than $100 million behind the Republicans. A real bright spot for the Democrats is their Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has actually outpaced its Republican counterpart in fundraising.
Political scholar Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution says that's likely a result of the thought of success breeding success. The possibility that Democrats might take back control of Congress has unleashed a flood of donations from people who don't ordinarily give.
A potential downside for the Democrats is the bickering that's been going on over how much money party chairman Howard Dean is willing to commit to Congressional races. Dean says he'll cough up $12 million, just a fifth of the $60 million his Republican counterpart Ken Mehlman is planning to spend. Dean insists he needs to put money into rebuilding the party's election apparatus on the state level, but many Democrats worry his stinginess with the campaigns may cost them dearly in morale and retirements if they don't capture at least one house in Congress.
There's an old saying in politics. Whoever spends the most, wins. Some analysts believe a rising tide of Democratic support may help to mitigate the fundraising deficit, though the Democrats' Senate committee chairman Chuck Schumer told me he'd still like to have the cash. The Republicans financial advantage WILL make a difference, he said.
'How much of a difference? We'll have to wait and see on Election Day.'
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Safe at home, for now
Less than ten minutes before I met Private First Class Justin Watt, military attorneys privately pulled him aside to remind him not to talk about the case that put his name in headlines. That gesture suggested how important Watt has become to the Army's investigation and prosecution of five soldiers who are suspected in a disturbingly violent crime in Iraq.
The incident happened earlier this year where Watt's company of the 101st Airborne patrolled and manned checkpoints in the Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. In a place where violent acts are commonplace, this crime was particularly brutal and disturbing. An Iraqi family had been murdered in their own home, the 14 year old daughter was raped, shot in the head and her body was burned. Watt was horrified to learn the killers could have been some of his own brothers in arms.
Reporting the soldiers was not easy to do. Watt, like his fellow soldiers lived and died by an unwritten code of loyalty and trust. His father Rick told me that Justin was so committed to his "brothers" that he turned down a chance at a holiday leave and once refused to come home for his grandfather's funeral. At a military hearing last month Watt said he came forward after hearing stories about what had happened from members of his platoon. He testified 'If you have the power to make something right, you should do it.'
After his testimony Watt reported back to the 101st. He and his parents were concerned about retaliation from within the ranks. Watt had put himself in the uneasy position of wondering if the soldier he was trusting to watch his back might harbor some resentment or feelings of betrayal. Already serving in some of the most arduous conditions in Iraq, this kind of problem could easily get him killed.
My crew and I were just a few feet away Wednesday morning when Watt came home with hundreds of other weary soldiers who have completed their tours in Iraq, to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, and into the arms of his parents.
Tonight on 360 you'll see the love and support Justin is getting from his family, and their relief that he is safe at home, while they wait and wonder what the two years he has left in the army might bring.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
It's an odd kind of President's Day at CNN today. President Bush and Iranian President Ahmadinenjad. Wolf Blitzer talked to President Bush for the Situation Room, and later tonight on 360 Anderson interviews Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In his interview, Wolf asked Bush the straightforward question: Why not just meet with the Iranian president since they were both in New York? If averting a nuclear standoff is so important, and who thinks it isn't, then why don't they simply meet face-to-face? Anderson will get Ahmadinejad's reaction to that, and will ask him about his speech to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday.
It looks like the two leaders are a long way from meeting face-to-face, so our two interviews, shot just hours apart, are as close as we're going to get to them addressing each other directly.
Though he has been far more strident in the past, calling for the eradication of Israel, for example, Ahmadinejad was unflinching in front of the United Nations. Bush says you've got to assume he means what he says. In a world at war, every word counts. What do you want to hear from Iran's president tonight?
Monday, September 18, 2006
A twisted, savage murder
If you don't know the story of the Black Dahlia murder, you need to ask yourself this: Do I really WANT to know?
The reason that Los Angeles crime buffs still obsess over this unsolved murder after 59 years and the reason it still inspires books, movies, conspiracy theories and Web sites is this: The murder was so twisted, so bizarre, so savage, that once you've heard about it, you can't forget it.
Here is the sanitized version: On January 15, 1947, the body of 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. The body had been cleanly cut in half at the waist and drained of blood; she had been beaten and tortured, perhaps for several days, and her body was mutilated in unspeakable ways. If you must know more, there is plenty on the web; you can try lmharnisch.com
For tonight's story for AC360, we spoke at length to a retired LAPD detective who believes he has solved the crime, and has convinced a lot of people he is right.
Even that part of the story is twisted: Steve Hodel believes the killer was his father, a prominent doctor who died in 1999.
Hodel came to this conclusion only after the father died and left behind a small photo album containing two mysterious pictures, Hodel believes they depict Elizabeth Short. There is more: his father was trained in surgery; many believe it would have taken a surgeon to cut the body in half so cleanly, and his father's handwriting closely matches that on notes the police received in the 1940s from a main claiming to be the killer. The father's specialty was venereal disease, and because he treated LA's most prominent citizens, he was untouchable, just the kind of man who could get away with murder, the son says. He lays out his case in a widely praised book, 'Black Dahlia Avenger.'
When Hodel's book came out in paperback in 2004, James Ellroy who wrote 'The Black Dahlia' in 1987 said in the book's foreward, 'Now we know who killed her and why.'
But for reasons he won't now discuss, Ellroy has changed his mind, and made it clear he no longer endorses the Hodel theory. When I went to hear Ellroy speak in Los Angeles last week, he started his talk with these words of warning: 'One topic is forbidden: Who really killed Elizabeth Short. It's un-provable across the board. I will not discuss it under any circumstances.'
Friday, September 15, 2006
A little 'MacGyver' goes a long way
Editor's note: Students from U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism present their films on military life on "360" tonight at 11 p.m.
Shooting the Djibouti piece was a case-study in Murphy's Law -- anything that can go wrong will -- and do-or-die improvisation, like using electrical tape to keep the dust out of our camera or developing characters that we had never planned to meet.
Roadblocks went up each way we turned: A de-mining operation in Kenya was put on hold; a training mission in Ethiopia was canceled; Yemen proved to have hardly any story at all. That left us stuck in Djibouti. Totally boring, right?
Actually, it was a blessing in disguise. Being stuck at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti meant that co-producer Najlae Benmbarek and I had ample time to meet and strongly connect with troops who would eventually become central characters in our piece, most notably Lt. Steve McKnight.
The short story is that Murphy's Law can create the conditions in which you're left to rely on chance encounters and/or your own improvisational prowess, which, if you're into "The Real World" and "MacGyver," respectively, means a bad situation can lead to a rather satisfying outcome.
(Watch Aaron and Najlae's film on life on a U.S. military base in Africa -- 6:11
Would soldiers talk to 'liberal' Berkeley students?
Entertainers get to see a side of soldiers that civilians rarely see, which is why producer Aliza Nadi and I wanted to follow Hello Dave, a Chicago-based rock band, as they toured American military bases in the Middle East.
We had no idea what to expect, since neither of us had ever set foot on a military base before. But we were given the chance to take the journey, and it paid off.
Because we would be moving from base to base so quickly, we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough time to get anyone to open up to us on camera. We also had a few other strikes against us. Not only were we from the media, but we were students from "liberal" University of California, Berkeley. But this was never a problem.
People were usually surprised to see two women on base who were not in uniform and holding a video camera, but most of the soldiers we met were too young to even remember what Berkeley once meant. We not only got access to six military bases in five Muslim countries over 11 days, but in some small degree, we also got access to the "hearts and minds" of the soldiers serving on them.
(Watch Cerissa and Aliza's film on a rock band's tour of military bases in the Middle East -- 9:49
Berthing doesn't mean what you think it does
Boarding a Navy ship is a little like traveling to England: The fact that people are speaking English veils how different things really are -- from the culture to the way people live to even how the language is used.
When I first boarded the USS Tortuga to shoot a short documentary film, entire conversations eluded me due to their strange vocabulary and acronym-laced verbiage. Sure, I had read books on the military before my departure, but I had focused on strategic issues, like why the U.S. military was in certain countries or where it was training foreign militaries, not the day-to-day lives of sailors. After all, we were there to witness the Navy's exercises with six Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.
But within the first day or two, co-producer Lee Wang and I realized the big Navy strategy story we hoped to record was only the backdrop to what was much more fascinating -- the lives of ordinary sailors who make the ship run.
So we followed three sailors -- Ensign John Cobb, Undesignated Seaman Mike Plitt, and Boatswain's Mate Seaman Noelle Tschudy -- as they went about their lives.
I spent the night in a women's "berthing" (dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds and lockers) and watched Noelle, a 21-year-old New Jersey native with red streaks in her hair, wake up at 3 a.m. for her shift to watch for small boats that the ship's radars might miss. When Mike's boss ordered him to fix a broken water machine in the mess hall, I watched him find the clogged pipe and without a moment of hesitation, put his mouth to the pipe to suction what looked like gunk at the bottom of a drain.
I had never seen people in their early 20s work so hard and give so much of themselves. Many nights, Lee and I struggled with the question, "What is this all for?" But the more we got to know the individual sailors and their reasons for joining the Navy, the less the big naval strategy questions seemed to matter. It might have been a troubled family or a life of partying leading to nowhere. But the people I met were those who had the gumption to get away and do something interesting with their lives.
(Watch Emily and Lee's documentary on life on a Navy ship -- 10:28
Young students on America's young warriors
Anderson and I are jazzed about a terrific new project we are debuting in the 11 p.m. hour tonight. We're building the show around three short documentaries shot and produced by students from U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism.
These students -- ages 25-35 -- fanned out across the world in groups of two to produce reports providing a sense of what life is like for American soldiers. What we've done is take their material (though we did not edit it other than to shorten it to fit our format) and weave in Anderson's interviews with the grad students to get a fresh feel for who really is fighting overseas for America.
This is not an hour about casualty stats. But instead, you will really get to know some of the young people serving our country aboard the supply ship USS Tortuga and at a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and at a number of bases in the Middle East. The students' work and perspectives are thoroughly professional and yet they are slightly rougher, a little less polished and especially candid. We were drawn to the material as soon as we saw it.
We've streamed the pieces online, so check them through the links below and let us know what you think. And tune in tonight at 11 p.m. to experience these pieces on the big screen and watch as Anderson interviews the students about their work.
(Watch a piece on winning hearts and minds -- 6:11
(Watch a short film on a rock band's tour of military bases -- 9:49
(Watch a mini-doc about life on a Navy ship -- 10:28
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Tonight on "360" we'll look at the human catastrophe that is taking place in Darfur, Sudan. Earlier today, John Roberts interviewed George and Nick Clooney after George spoke to the UN Security Council. We'll bring you that interview tonight.
We'll also feature an on-the-scene report about Darfur, where more than 250,000 men, women and children have been killed (some put the number closer to half a million). If you are interested in doing something about the situation in Darfur, here are a few organizations you might want to contact:
- World Food Program
Are we losing the war on terror?
Against the backdrop of anti-American protests (Translation of sign at left: "No no America"), occasional terrorist bombings, and continuing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration has said time and again that the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror.
And there has been undeniable progress: Some terrorist leaders have been arrested, funding and supply lines have been disrupted, and plots have been foiled. In addition, there has been not one major attack on American soil since 9/11. Five years. Not one.
But security and foreign policy experts seem to be talking more and more about the long-term effects of this conflict and painting a bleak picture.
What is the problem? I asked that question of Steven Kull, an analyst who specializes in conducting global opinion surveys. Kull's office overlooks Washington, D.C.'s Massachusetts Avenue, which is lined with embassies representing many of the world's nations. That is where he told me about what he has found through his Program on International Policy Attitudes
"The perception is that the U.S. isn't simply trying to pursue the war on terror in a sense of trying to stop terrorism. The perception is that it's being used as a pretext for the U.S. to promote its interests, to increase its presence in the Middle East, to gain greater access to oil, and to just generally gain a more powerful position in the world," he said.
The key to this rising mistrust of America, he says, is a broad sense, especially in Muslim nations, that America is using its military and economic might to do whatever it wants, with no regard for international opinion. And this, he said, is fundamentally undermining efforts to promote broad-based political alliances, democracy, and sustainable peace, and it is pushing more young Muslims closer to terrorist groups.
The war on terror is a deadly serious matter, and some folks say worries about popularity should and must wait.
My question is the one being posed by numerous foreign policy analysts these days: Are we winning the battle but losing the war?
Father seeks truth in CIA son's death
Several times during my brief visit with Johnny Spann, he expressed concern that he would be portrayed as a man obsessed with a conspiracy theory. It was clear to me he wasn't. Spann was a loving father who, five years after the death of his only son (pictured left), simply wants to know how his son died.
The CIA gives the obvious details. Mike Spann was working for the agency, questioning captured Taliban prisoners at a fort near Mazar-I-Sharif in Afghanistan. He was killed when those prisoners revolted and took over much of the facility. Since then, Johnny Spann has been to Afghanistan and back, trying to fill in the painful blanks.
Was Mike executed? Was he tortured? Or was he shot and killed in those first chaos-filled moments of the uprising?
I asked Johnny why he needs to know this and why he's worked so hard and so long for answers. He compared it to losing a child in a car wreck. He said you want to know how the accident happened, where, who caused it, what kind of injuries were inflicted, etc. Except in Johnny's case, his child was killed more than 7,000 miles away and in a chain of events that few witnesses lived to describe.
When I asked about Mike's final moments, Johnny spoke softly. He said Afghans who were there at the time say his son went down fighting, firing his weapons until he was out of ammunition, then hand-to-hand until prisoners overwhelmed him. But that's where the story stops.
Johnny Spann told me his son lived an honorable life and died an honorable death. I saw evidence of this is all over Spann's real estate office in Winfield, Alabama. Pictures of his son as a young Marine and a proud father of three are on display along with his funeral at Arlington and the framed flag that draped his coffin on the flight home.
I thought it was very interesting when Spann said his son once told him not to believe he was dead until he saw his body. It was a son's way of trying to comfort his father who worried about the dangers of a risky and secretive job. But Johnny Spann looks back at it now as a challenge to discover the truth about his death. He's decided he can't rely on others to tell him what happened. He has to find out for himself.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Taliban profits from U.S. heroin addicts
I don't get scared easily, but busting suspected heroin dealers with undercover cops in St. Louis this week really sent my heart racing. We went there to see what happens when heroin from Afghanistan hits America's streets.
We watched as an undercover officer from the St. Louis County P.D. invited a suspected dealer into his car after the guy promised he knew where to get heroin. They call this "tripping with a steer" -- that's when a suspect is taking the undercover cop on a ride to find drugs. (The things you learn on the street!)
There were about seven cars, including ours, tailing the suspect and the undercover cop. We could hear the suspect and the cop talking on the walkie-talkie because there was one hidden in their car. That's how the street team knows their guy is still safe.
It's scary stuff though. Heroin only costs 20 bucks a pop, but people are willing to kill for it.
We watched as the suspect made a buy on the street. Turns out it was crack, not heroin, and he wound up getting away after the deal. But the police pounced on the dealer who sold the suspect the drugs. They were yelling, "Don't swallow it, man."
The sad part is the work for these guys never ends. Reports suggest Afghanistan's Taliban are responsible for a growing number of poppy fields. (Poppies are a raw ingredient used to make heroin.) It is estimated that Afghanistan now supplies around 90 percent of the world's heroin.
So in a strange twist, the Taliban, a group at odds with the United States, stands to profit handsomely from the sale of drugs on America's streets.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The hidden dangers of jingle trucks
Beware the jingle truck. That's what we learned when Anderson, photographer Phil Littleton and I spent the day on patrol with members of the 10th Mountain Division on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Jingle trucks are flat-bed vehicles about the size of a U-Haul truck, painted with intricate patterns and bright colors. They get their name from the thousands of chimes that dangle and ring from base of the vehicle whenever it moves.
The trucks come down from the high mountain passes that separate the two countries and have traditionally carried mostly firewood to sell local markets. But during these days of war, they're sometimes carrying something different -- U.S. troops have lately found smuggled rockets buried in the firewood.
The recent discoveries are prompting something of a new policy for the troops here. When units are on patrol, they stop and inspect nearly every jingle truck that passes.
It's really a striking sight -- young soldiers with M-16s and high-tech gear talking to talk to grizzled, bearded men traveling in their colorful trucks on old silk routes.
We stood by and watched as translators explained to drivers why they and their trucks were being searched. None of them seemed to mind. They climbed down from their cabs and emptied their pockets and were frisked. Their trucks sat idle as the wind rang the chimes and soldiers pulled back wood and looked for missiles.
Of the half dozen or so trucks we saw inspected today, none carried weapons. You can't fault the soldiers here for conducting the searches. They're sustaining casualties in war against a tough and clever enemy.
Some of them told us the hardest part about this war is not knowing who exactly is the enemy. The village elder who invited you into his home yesterday might shoot at you today, they said. You have to be aware of everything, even jingle trucks.
Why are Ground Zero workers getting sick?
Could this be a coincidence? Is this for real? How will we ever know? Those are just some of the questions I asked myself when writing about workers and emergency responders from Ground Zero who now claim they're sick from the toxic cocktail to which they were exposed.
I got to know two guys in particular. They are former New York Police Department detectives Rich Volpe and John Wolcott, partners for 11 years in the narcotics division.
They worked together on the pile at the World Trade Center site for nine months. Now Wolcott has leukemia and Volpe has double kidney failure. Both blame their illnesses on the toxins at Ground Zero, like benzene and dioxin.Click here to read more
Monday, September 11, 2006
The last person pulled from the towers
Five years ago, as darkness fell and fires burned at the World Trade Center site, I reported live on CNN about the heroic people I was watching trying to rescue any survivors who might be buried under the rubble.
As it turned out, I was standing very close to where one woman, who is now my friend, was buried alive with her head stuck between two concrete pillars and her right leg crushed. Her name is Genelle Guzman McMillan, and 27 hours after the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on top of her, she was rescued.
Genelle, who was working for the Port Authority at the time, wound up being operated on four times over the course of a six week hospital stay. I was with her in the hospital during the days after 9/11, doing a story about how she survived. Twenty survivors were pulled out of the rubble of the stricken buildings; Genelle was the 20th.
Now, five years later, I just finished spending the day with Genelle, updating her inspirational story. Doctors thought they would have to amputate her leg; but they saved it. They thought she would not be able to walk without a cane; although she has a slight limp, she no longer has the cane. They weren't sure if she'd be able to work full time; she's now back at her old employer working out of an office at JFK airport.
Genelle was engaged to be married when the towers fell. Her fiance was sure she was dead. Today, they are married and have had two children since she was rescued.
I often think about Genelle being buried under the rubble while I was reporting from Ground Zero. But more often than that, I think of the other people who undoubtedly were still alive under that rubble and were never found. Five years later, that still haunts me.
A helicopter ride to remember
It doesn't matter how many times you do it -- taking a ride on a helicopter is as about as close to good sex as it gets.
I'd taken along a book for the flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, to a U.S. military forward operating base close to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I shouldn't have bothered, as this was yet another ride to remember.
We flew on a twin-rotored U.S. Army Chinook helicopter, a massive beast of a bird. I sat next to the open tailgate and watched smooth new buildings almost shine against the rough rock strewn terrain. I saw too the stark contrast of new black tarmac road cutting a sinewy trail over a mountain pass. I smiled. The last time I drove that road, roughly two years ago, there were more potholes than hardtop.
The beauty of the country, as we skimmed mud roof tops, wove down mountain valleys 10,000 feet up, was staggering. From up here, Afghanistan looked fresh. The darkness that drenched the country under Taliban rule before 9/11 appeared to be washed away.
After touching down at the forward operating base, I watched my colleague Anderson Cooper begin a live broadcast with troops from the third brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, who were gathering for a minute of silence for the dead of the 9/11 attacks. Suddenly, a rocket whistled in, landing a half mile or so from the base. (Watch Anderson Cooper dodge rocket attack -- 2:24
It got my adrenalin pumping. What I felt was pure momentary fear, then the realization I'd better get on with my work and get reporting.
The reality I'm finding here is that while some parts of Afghanistan may be all shiny and new, Taliban fighters are hitting back with a vengeance not seen since 9/11. They may not be strong enough to overthrow the country, but they are still a force to be reckoned with.
Friday, September 08, 2006
Tortured border is terrorist haven
On a map, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan seems complicated enough -- a tortured squiggle running back and forth. Fly over that squiggle in a helicopter and you get a sense of just how impossible the border is to patrol. There are twisting river beds, mountain trails, stunning cliffs -- nothing like any border I've ever seen.
Small wonder why it's been a haven for the Taliban and possibly even Osama bin Laden since the United States drove them from their Afghan strongholds.
We spent hours today flying over North Waziristan with members of the Pakistani military. They were eager to show us how they're sealing off the border between North Waziristan and Afghanistan.
At one point, I was just a couple of miles from Camp Tillman, an American forward operating base in Afghanistan that I'd visited just a few months ago. The base named after Pat Tillman, the former NFL player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. At the time of my visit, a couple of the soldiers told me about being out on patrol and taking fire from insurgents, who then disappeared across this same border back into Pakistan.
Now, a very gracious Pakistani general was telling us that he's got it all under control. Yes, some individuals might make it across the border -- one or two -- but certainly no vehicles. And he was telling us something else -- that the deal the Pakistani government has just cut here in North Waziristan that allows the Taliban and other local groups to police themselves as long as they don't try to spread trouble across the border in Afghanistan would actually make the border safer.
Others have a different take on the deal, calling it akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
The general is a sincere and gracious man and was clearly proud of what Pakistani army is accomplishing along the border. But we're going to be on Afghan side of this border once again in just a couple of days. What do you think we are going to hear from the U.S. soldiers this time?
Taliban adopting al Qaeda tactics
Anderson and senior producer Charlie Moore landed in Afghanistan early this morning.
We sent them because we figured many news organizations will use the backdrop of Ground Zero here in New York to memorialize the five-year anniversary of 9/11. Of course, remembering the victims is hugely important, but we also wanted to go back to where this all began and assess exactly what has happened to the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the presumed safe-haven of Osama bin Laden.
(Nic Robertson and his producer Henry Schuster and terrorism expert Peter Bergen arrived a few days ago to begin their reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan for us.)
As for the massive explosion and suicide car bombing near the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan this morning, Anderson and his team had just landed in Kabul and were waiting for their equipment when Peter Bergen alerted them a huge blast had just occurred. They rushed off to the scene and found it already cordoned off by Afghan, French and U.S. troops. U.S. soldiers quickly confirmed to them that two of their comrades had died (and by now we know at least 16 civilians also died).
Anderson described the tremendous impact of the blast. They were about 50 yards away from where it went off. The street was covered with broken glass. Flesh and blood were everywhere, Charlie reports.
A U.S. intelligence official there told them they expect to see more of this -- the Taliban capitalizing on the 9/11 anniversary to remind the world it is anything but wiped-out. What about al Qaeda? The intelligence official told Anderson and Charlie that the Taliban and al Qaeda do not cooperate per se. Instead, he said, al Qaeda acts as a kind of big brother -- he called it a role model -- for the Taliban.
Naturally, you'll see Anderson on all of our prime-time programs tonight and he'll have much more to report on "360" tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Will the real Mullah Omar please stand up?
I'm sitting in my office staring at the grainy images of a mysterious man on the U.S. State Department's "Rewards for Justice"
Web site. At this moment he may be hiding in a cave along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Maybe he is eating with close aides. Maybe he is dead. Maybe he is walking down the middle of a street, making small talk with visiting American troops.
The man in question is Mullah Omar
, the mysterious and secretive figure who was the head of Afghanistan's authoritative Taliban government. Ever since the Taliban was driven from power following 9/11, he has been hunted for, among other things, his suspected close ties to Osama bin Laden.
The State Department has two pictures of Mullah Omar on their Rewards for Justice Web site. But a photojournalist in New York, who is experienced in Afghanistan, has been arguing for months that there is a basic problem revealed to him by his sources: The pictures are not Mullah Omar. Ed Grazda is pushing hard for the State Department to update its images.
Confusion is understandable. The Taliban, citing ultra-orthodox views of Islam, outlawed photographs of people, saying making any image of a human being was forbidden by the Koran. But intelligence agencies argued years ago that another key purpose of that move was just this: If the leaders of the Taliban could keep anyone from taking their pictures, it would be very hard to track them down or prove they were the men in charge during the Taliban's most brutal and repressive days.
The State Department is understandably defensive about the allegation of a mistake. After some relatively tense phone conversations earlier, they sent me an e-mail explaining that they have looked into Mr. Grazda's claim that the men on their site are actually other Afghans ... not the guy they want; but they are sticking with their current pictures because they believe those are the best images they have. They believe the pictures are of Mullah Omar.
Maybe it's him. And maybe it doesn't matter. He's been on the run for nearly five years and we haven't caught him yet.
What do you think? Is a Web site WANTED poster ... right or wrong ... going to make any real difference in the hunt for Mullah Omar?
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
My summer job ... nearly 20 years ago
So an interesting thing happened today. A Web site has published an article saying that I once worked for the CIA.
CNN received a call from the Web site yesterday informing us that they were going to publish this story. They didn't have all their facts straight, and I've received some questions about it, so I decided to just write this blog post, hoping to get the facts out there.
As a college student, I had a number of summer jobs and internships, including working at the CIA. Keep in mind, we are talking about nearly 20 years ago. The Bangles "Walk Like An Egyptian" was on the radio. I was 19 years old, and like many college students was curious about a variety of careers.
There was a flyer for the CIA in my college career counseling office, and I applied for a summer job. I was a political science major and was interested in serving my country.
For a couple months over the course of two summers, I worked at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There are reporters who've been in the military, others who've interned on Capitol Hill while they were in college.
I know the CIA may sound more exotic and mysterious, but it was actually pretty bureaucratic and mundane, at least the little bit that I saw of it. By the end of the second summer, I realized it was not a place I wanted to work after college.
I've told all my employers about it over the years, but have chosen not to talk about it publicly. When I began to travel overseas to war zones as a reporter, I realized that some Jihadist might not understand that what people do for summer jobs in college doesn't mean they make a career out of it.
Oh, yeah, in case you're interested, after I graduated college, I briefly worked as a waiter, but I decided not to make a career out of that job either.
Friday, September 01, 2006
'Your momma' jokes cease as battle begins
We've only been in Ramadi, Iraq, a few days. Maybe it's the heat, which is in the low 120s, and a few long nights, but it certainly feels much longer.
It took Michael Ware, cameraman Neil Hallsworth and me about four days to get here. The few fights to Ramadi only fly at night, and after mechanical failures, sandstorms and changes in flight plans, we ended up spending several nights on the still-hot concrete of a helipad in Baghdad. Finally, we jumped a ride to Falluja. Honestly, I felt like we were hopping a freight train as we threw our bags onto a Chinook heading vaguely in the right direction and hoped for the best.
We wanted to join a military operation unfolding in Ramadi, and we knew our window of opportunity was rapidly closing. Even with our detours, we managed to show up at the doorstep of the 1-6 Infantry just in time.
Operation Pegasus was nothing if not complex. The aim was to hit four targets simultaneously -- one by a land team, moving in Humvees and Bradleys, another target from the air, with troops dropped in by Blackhawks, and the last, the sea team, which came in on boats sneaking up the river Euphrates.
We ended up hanging onto the back of one of the boats. The troops were equipped with night vision goggles, but we were not. As we moved up the river in the dark, I had to rely on the light from a half moon, which wasn't so bad, but it did make every shadow in the reeds look rather menacing.
After spending time with the soldiers of the 1-6 and the brigade recon troop, I was struck by how tight of a group they are. Most of them are young, perhaps even shockingly so. As cliched as it sounds, these guys act like brothers. They take taking care of each other very seriously and give each other a hard time at any opportunity.
Riding in a seven-ton personnel carrier to the boat launch point, it was quiet for a while, and a little tense, until the soldier behind me turned to one of his platoon mates and said with a very dead pan delivery, "If anything should happen to me, tell your mom I love her." I guess if you can't tell a mother joke before you're sent into combat, then when can you?
Once they hit the ground, no one made any more jokes.
It was a hard night for the brigade recon troop. They were lucky no one was hurt, but they missed their target and an Iraqi grandmother was accidentally shot and killed. You could tell who in the platoon knew what had happened; you could see it in their faces. These soldiers are like most Americans, with varying views on this war. But none of them wants something like that to happen. As tense and full of nervous energy the ride out was, the way back was somber.
The raid lasted about four-and-a-half hours, yet felt like minutes. As we waited for the boats to return and pick us up, the night had become extremely dark. The half moon in the sky had set at some point. We all laid down in a field next to the river, still staying low. Neil and I were just saying that we can't remember ever seeing so many stars.
This isn't an easy tour for these soldiers and the men that lead them -- Captain Dan Enslen, Captain Chris Kuzio, and Captain Danny Pedersen -- just to name the few that I have been able to spend a little time with. These are guys my own age, who over coffee instantly seem familiar. Yet I cannot imagine the lives they are leading, American and Iraqi alike.
As we were leaving for the operation Captain Pedersen looked at me and said, "There is no way I would go past the wire with just a camera." Truth is I am not sure I could go out there with what he has to carry.