Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Flashpoint stories for 2007
There is an old saying: No matter where you go or what you do, there you are. And here we are at the changing of the years; a great time to take stock of all the flashpoints that came our way in 2006, and what we might expect in 2007.
That is what our special edition of AC 360, "Flashpoints", is all about.
We chose five major flashpoints from the past year: Iraq, Immigration, the Israel-Lebanon conflict, Terrorism, and the political upheaval of the last U.S. election. Then I had the pleasure of sitting down with a smart panel of folks to talk the issues over: Lewis Black, the comedian and political commentator; Arianna Huffington, the influential voice behind The Huffington Post; Reza Aslan, a young and exciting author with powerful insights into the Muslim world; and Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence whose expertise is cultural anthropology.
Working through a stack of electronic maps and graphs with them, I enjoyed a remarkable hour of ideas and insights...and a sense, through their eyes, of what the coming year might bring. Certainly, our list of flashpoints was not exhaustive, but they were more than enough to spark a lively conversation...and Lewis Black, as you might guess, took off on a tear more than once.
One example, I asked him what steps we could take in 2007 to improve the situation in Iraq? He rolled his eyes, and gestured in that "crazy uncle" way, and said: "If I knew that I wouldn't be doing what I do for a living.". Then with a broad smile, "I'd be working for Halliburton!"
Before Lewis and the other left I asked them: What Flashpoints did they think might directly affect Americans next year?
They have their ideas, and I hope you'll watch this unusual show to hear more...but now I want to hear from you: Higher gas prices? More political discontent? What flashpoints do you think will light up the news in 2007?
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Your top stories of the year
Unless you are David Letterman, making Top Ten lists can be a tricky business. Fortunately, we didn't have to pick a top story when putting together our "Anderson Cooper: Unforgettable Stories 2006" special for tonight. We left that to you.
And this Democratic process ended with a Democratic result: You chose the "Democratic Takeover of Congress" as the top story of 2006. Thanks for the input. And check out the results below to see how your choice stacks up against those of your fellow voters.
Question: What was the top story of 2006?
Sago mine disaster
7% - 515 votes
Darfur crisis in Sudan
15% - 1115 votes
Democratic takeover of Congress
28% - 2047 votes
Israeli-Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon
13% - 957 votes
Iraq war: Donald Rumsfeld's resignation
11% - 792 votes
8% - 593 votes
Nuclear concerns over Iran
4% - 279 votes
John Mark Karr's false confession
3% - 213 votes
Warren Jeffs' capture
1% - 40 votes
Scandals: Congress, the Rev. Ted Haggard
3% - 222 votes
North Korea nuclear scare
7% - 506 votes
James Frey's fictional nonfiction
0% - 28 votes
Celebs' bad behavior
2% - 129 votes
Total: 7436 votes
(Disclaimer: This QuickVote is not scientific and reflects the opinions of only those Internet users who have chosen to participate. The results cannot be assumed to represent the opinions of Internet users in general, nor the public as a whole. The QuickVote sponsor is not responsible for content, functionality or the opinions expressed therein.)
Next available flight: Christmas Day
Getting back to "getting there"
... we're still going nowhere, at least for the moment.
Five of us from CNN are here in Dallas. We can't get on any commercial flight to Denver, Ft. Collins, or anywhere near where the big snowstorm has struck. We were all set to charter a plane yesterday after our commercial flight was cancelled, but the weather made it too unsafe to fly. Airports in the snowy region are all closed.
Adding to our problems, when planes do start to take off, they have a whole lot of back-up, so getting seats seems impossible. Our travel agents told us we could make a reservation for Christmas Day. Honestly.
How about driving? The interstates going to eastern Colorado are closed.
As I said in my last post, a big part of covering the news is just getting there. And this is one of those weird weather stories where, like a lot of other people, we are stranded.10:44 a.m. update:
We're getting steady phone calls and messages from CNN staff in charge of planning and logistics, folks who are wracking their brains trying to figure out how to get us into Denver.
It's reminding me of one of my Dr. Seuss favorites: "Green Eggs and Ham." Pardon the paraphrasing:
Would you, could you, on a plane?
Would you, could you, on a train?
I could not, would not, on a plane!
I'm stuck right now. It is just insane!
OK, maybe I'm no replacement for the great author of children's books.
But I am eating eggs at the Dallas Marriott.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Vote for the top story
Please vote in the "top story" poll on the right rail of this blog. Voting ends today at 5 p.m. The results will be a part of the show's year-end special.5:00 p.m. update:
Voting is now over. We'll publish the results tomorrow. A big thanks to the more than 7,000 of you who participated.
To-do list: Call mom; chase snowstorm
This is about the challenge of getting to a snowstorm.
But first, indulge me, and hear a little confession from a 46-year-old man: Just about every morning, when I can manage it, I call my mother. I tell her where I am going.
This time, I said, first I thought I was going back to the Chicago bureau. That got changed to an assignment near Texarkana. That got changed to a story in Amarillo. Then to Dallas. Finally to Denver.
She's incredulous. "Your job is nuts!" she tells me.
I didn't argue with my mother.
The truth is -- my job at CNN is to be flexible, to move with the news as it changes, and most importantly, to get there. As Woody Allen is reputed to have once said, 90 percent of life is just showing up.
Sometimes, that ain't easy.
Currently, a powerful storm system is about to blanket the nation's mid-section with rain, ice and snow. We've got crews coming together from at least four different cities. We're coordinating with our travel department so we can all meet up and get to the story. Everybody is Blackberrying everybody. We've got a plan. We're on the move - at least in theory.
I had been stuck in the airport all morning, but as I text message this blog, the pilot tells me we are about to take off ... got to go.3:41 p.m. update:
Now in Dallas. The commercial flight we booked to fly to Denver got cancelled due to bad weather.
The latest plan is to hop on a charter with four co-workers. But first, I need clothes. My team makes a mad dash to a Bass Pro Shop near the airport. I pick up a fleece jacket, thermal underwear, waterproof gloves. The things I just didn't bring to Texas.
Now a Blackberry message arrives from one of our West Coast crews. They're heading to the storm, too. The producer who writes the e-mail issues a challenge: Which team will get there first?
My mother continues to be accurate.
Hot Links: Stories we're following today
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Man mourns slain prostitute ... his wife
In Atlantic City, a town known for its gambling, the biggest risk-takers aren't in the casinos, they are on the streets. Prostitutes who sell sex for money or trade it for crack cocaine risk their lives every time they sit in a stranger's car or walk into a hotel room.
Late last month, everyone was reminded just how dangerous this life could be as the bodies of four women (three with criminal records for prostitution) were pulled out of a dark and smelly New Jersey marsh. I walked through that marsh Monday struck by the sheer inhumanity of these murders.
Some of the details of the crimes suggest the women may be victims of a serial killer or killers, although authorities will not confirm that suspicion. The victims were placed facedown in a shallow watery ditch; they were fully clothed but their shoes had been removed; and they were arranged so that they were facing east, toward the lights of the casinos.
I came here to learn more about one of the victims, in particular -- Kim Raffo. She was a homemaker, a wife and a loving mother of two; that was before crack took over her life.
I met Raffo's estranged husband, Hugh Auslander. He's a carpenter used to building things with his hands. But despite his best efforts, he couldn't keep Kim from falling apart and destroying their happy home.
Auslander refused to divorce Kim, not even when she told him that she had begun selling herself on the street. He always hoped that if he showed her that someone still loved her, she would clean up and come home to stay.
That dream ended in late November, and now his only wish is to have her remembered as the caring, smiling woman with whom he fell in love, and not the victim whose life spiraled out of control on the streets of Atlantic City.
Reporter's notebook: Behind the sugar story
In this piece, I explain how we got the idea to report on the conditions of sugar production in the Dominican Republic.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Is sugar production modern day slavery?
Haitian children in a sugarcane worker settlement in the Dominican Republic.
Is the sugar you eat a product of slave labor? That's the accusation leveled by one of the readers of this blog, who pointed us to the Dominican Republic, where, she said, Haitian migrant workers are kept in slave camps, forced to work in the fields under armed guard, for a pittance.
It was a powerful charge, and some human rights groups say the accusation has merit. With the United States slowly increasing the amount of Dominican sugar sold here, we thought we'd check it out. What we found there was not slavery by any definition, but working conditions that were not acceptable by U.S. standards.
One of the nation's most powerful sugar families, the Vicinis, had decided to open its doors to a U.S. congressional delegation heading there on a fact-finding mission. We suspected the company would put its best face forward, but we tagged along anyway.
Sugar cane workers live in what are called bateys, small settlements of a few hundred people dotted among the cane fields. The Vicinis showed us one of the bateys. It appeared to have plumbing and electricity; the people seemed happy, and there was a shop, and a school.
But just down the road, we came across another batey, where other Vicini workers lived, that was not on the official tour. No running water, no electricity, too little food. The old or infirm looked like they were starving. One old man told us he hadn't eaten in four days. Children told us they planted cane in Vicini fields for three pesos a row. It takes a half day to plant a row.
The company says it doesn't hire children, but that it can't always control what unscrupulous subcontractors do. And it said it is trying to improve the lives of the workers, with an ambitious plan to build hundreds of new houses.
Along a roadside near the batey, we found people in some desperate straits: One man in his 50s was working on a Sunday, all day, to earn the equivalent of about $5, some of which he sent home to his children in Haiti, who he said were starving. And that's the problem: the reason these people work for so little is that there's even less where they came from. They're out of options, and without the legal rights of Dominican citizens, they're effectively voiceless.
Under terms of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. government is slowly increasing the amount of sugar that can be imported from the Dominican Republic. The members of Congress told the Dominican government that they would need to improve conditions for the workers. According to a Reuters report, the Dominican government told them to stop interfering.
Have you climbed Mount Hood?
Are you a climber? We want to see photos and videos any peaks you've scaled, especially Mount Hood, and hear why you did it. Did you narrowly escape trouble or have a problem-free adventure?
Christian CEO brings faith into workplace
When I visited Bart Azzarelli's construction company north of Tampa, Florida, it was almost like going to a church. The day began with prayer and bible study in a standing-room-only conference room. At lunch, employees lined up for grilled hamburgers and hotdogs while they listened to personal testimony of a man who had accepted Christ. There is a large painting of a cross in the lobby and the mission statement is posted for all to see. It reads, "The purpose of our company is to glorify God."
Azzarelli, the company's owner and CEO, is part of a new wave of executives who view their businesses as ministries. He brought his faith overtly into the workplace and actively keeps count of how many souls are saved on the job. So far, he says, four hundred have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. He will also tell you that business (the dollars and cents kind) is good, and he attributes that success to God.
But while Azzarelli believes that the only way to God is through Christ, he knows there is a line he cannot cross in the workplace. Federal law prohibits any act that might make an employee feel coerced into participating in this kind of religious activity. To avoid complaints about discrimination by non-Christian workers, he says he tries to make sure everyone is treated equally. So far, he says, there have been no complaints.
Azzarelli believes that part of the reason he been able to walk this tightrope is because he bases his management style on Biblical principles. He says that to him, this means genuinely caring for his fellow man. He says he wants his employees to know he loves them and treats them with care and respect. Employees told me they've never worked at any construction company where they felt more appreciated. Some even told me that working for Azzarelli had turned their lives around.
What I didn't know going into this report was just how many Bart Azzarellis there are today in American business. Azzarelli is one of about 20 members of just one chapter of C12, an association for Christian business leaders with franchises all over the country. And there are a number of other business organizations with a similar focus and membership throughout the United States.
Hot Links: Stories we're watching today
Editor's note: Please vote in the "top stories" poll you see on the right side of the 360 Blog. The year's top story, as chosen by you, will be announced on on air during a special show about the most interesting stories of 2006. Voting ends Wednesday.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Mount Hood searchers hope for calmer weather
Rescuers search the north side of Mount Hood on Tuesday.
For two days now, search and rescue crews looking for the three lost climbers on Mount Hood haven't been able to do anything other than wait for the weather to clear. Storms rolled in last night making things even worse. There are a lot of fallen trees and downed power lines.
(Our motel in Parkdale, Oregon, lost power. I had to use my Blackberry as a flashlight.)
Despite the challenging elements, we've been told a C-130 airplane will be flown today above the mountain today to see if anything can be spotted from the air. They'll be looking for any clues to the location of the missing climbers: Kelly James, Brian Hall, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke. The military is devoting a considerable amount of resources for the search, including several paratroopers who have expertise with frozen terrain.
For the families, there is renewed hope today that their loved ones are alive. The local newspaper had a story about three teens who survived 13 days in a snow cave. Also, authorities showed the media another note the trio had left at the ranger station before their climb. It mentioned they had food, fuel, a shovel and sleeping bags. Relatives believe it shows how well prepared they were for any challenges they might have faced on the mountain.
The weather is supposed to clear up tomorrow. As soon as it does, we're told scores of rescuers will finally be able to scale up the mountain and hopefully find these three missing men.
Hot Links: Weather hinders search for missing hikers
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Ohio pastor battles 'secular jihadists'
What is a Christian?
In less than two weeks, nearly nine out of 10 Americans are going to celebrate Christmas. Here are the numbers: In a nation of 300 million, about 85 percent of us are Christian. And since we are now in the wake of the mid-term elections and all the talk about the conservative Christian voting block, it got us thinking:
What is a Christian?
Preachers are becoming rock stars and filling giant stadium-size churches -- Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Robert Schuller, Rod Parsley, to name a few. Some Christians, such as James Dobson and his massive evangelical audience (radio, books, Internet) have impressive agenda-setting influence. While at the same time, a lot of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are having trouble filling the pews, and those who do attend are getting grayer.
Christian-themed movies are blockbusters (The Passion of the Christ, the Chronicles of Narnia) and Christian books have topped bestseller lists. One-in-five Americans read one of the "Left Behind" books and Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" is hugely successful.
All of this speaks in part to the organic nature of faith and Americans' need to believe. Christianity in America is such a uniquely American thing. It has taken a faith and values bulwark that has survived for centuries and morphed it to fit one of the most dynamic cultures in the world -- ours.
For American Christians, one size doesn't fit all. That may be why the diversity within Christianity has never seemed greater. And yet, for all the talk of what separates Christians from one another (that's what always seems to make news, anyway), Christianity does provide a great source of strength and comfort for literally hundreds of millions of Americans.
So, here's the plug. Tonight, in our 11 o'clock hour, we're going to take a try at answering this question: What is a Christian? (It's a giant task, so this will no doubt just be a first attempt.)
As expert guests, Anderson will talk to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Jim Wallis, author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" and president of Sojourners, a progressive Christian ministry, along with Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
In the hour, we'll approach American Christianity through a variety of prisms -- evangelicals (and the belief of some that these are the Last Days), capitalist Christians (God wants you to prosper, if not be wealthy), conservative Christians, questioning Christians, gay Christians, fundamentalist Christians. And for those of you who call yourself Christian, you might wonder, just what kind are you?
Hot Links: American Christianity
Editor's note: Tonight's show looks at the following question: What is a Christian? The links above contain tons of material on this subject.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Mel Gibson: Audience hissing 'not my problem'
The Shot: Rubik's Cube solved ... blindfolded
Hot Links: Search for climbers continues
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
New Yorker writer discusses the 'global insurgency'
This is an extended version of Anderson's interview with the New Yorker's George Packer.
Plastic surgery too expensive? Try Mexico
Hot Links: Stories we're watching
Monday, December 11, 2006
Would you take organs from executed prisoners?
Hot Links: How far would you go?
Friday, December 08, 2006
Surviving in the snowy wilderness
CNN Correspondent Rick Sanchez burrows into a makeshift shelter in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
I took a blow-dryer to my feet last night. It was one of those super-duper ones that painters use to dry their canvasses. No matter how close I put it to the underside of my feet, I didn't feel any heat, not a bit.
My feet were frozen from trekking through the Rocky Mountains. I was out there for an hour-and-a-half. I maybe walked a mile. James Kim walked between seven and ten miles during his ordeal in the Oregon wilderness.
I was wearing a jacket, boots not fit for the snow, gloves and a hat. No mountaineering gear of any kind. Just the kind of stuff someone might wear while driving. James Kim was wearing sneakers, a couple of shirts and a jacket, but he reportedly had no hat.
Last night in the wilderness, I found out firsthand just how dangerous extreme conditions can be. The temperature was in the teens; our elevation was 8,500 feet.
At the suggestion of survival experts, we tried different techniques to see what works in those conditions and what doesn't. We tried making a shelter of last resort by literally burrowing four feet into the snow (see picture above). We tried using a candle to keep our car heated.
One thing we learned is how important it is to be prepared, because as I found out, when one is 8,500 feet up in the Rocky Mountains and the temperature is dropping into the teens, it is too late to look for the kinds of items that could save your life.
Here are a few things that Ken Brinks, a ranger with the Colorado State Parks, suggests keeping in the car at all times:
- Fluorescent tape (even just one piece of orange tape can be spotted by a helicopter)
- Couple of candy bars (but not chocolate -- chocolate can dehydrate you and so can, say, salted nuts)
- Coffee can to hold the candle (and melted water)
- CD to use as a reflector in case you see a helicopter
But the most important thing you can do, Ken says, is to tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to get there. If nobody knows where you are going, nobody knows where to look for you. Just like a pilot would, you gotta file a flight plan.
Midwest power outage sparks angry questions
Does it seem like public utilities and other energy companies are getting better ... or worse ... at serving the public?
In Illinois right now, thousands of people who lost electricity in an ice storm last week may well say "worse." That's because some of them are still without power.
The storm was admittedly a whopper. More than a half million customers of the Ameren company lost electricity, and the company says it has been working relentlessly ever since to restore full service. But the fact remains, tens of thousands of customers were driven from their homes by the cold and darkness while the repair effort went on.
The blackout in New York, the brownouts on the West Coast, and of course, the lingering problems on the Gulf Coast following Katrina, have raised alarms about the vulnerability of the nation's power grid.
In Illinois, where people waited longest for their power to be restored after the recent storm, state officials are asking questions: Did Ameren have enough repair crews standing by? Did it do enough to prevent damage by, for example, trimming tree branches near power lines aggressively? Some officials in Illinois and neighboring Missouri are calling for an investigation.
Ameren says it welcomes these questions. It says it has done an excellent job maintaining its infrastructure, responding to its customers, and mitigating the impact of a terrible storm.
My question is this: In the wake of Katrina and all the delays that followed in restoration of even basic services, are you more ... or less ... inclined to believe that the "powers that be" are watching over your home's power supply?
Hot Links: Stories we're following today
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Wilderness survival: The rule of threes
A SWAT officer is lowered by helicopter to the remote spot where James Kim's body was found.
Probably every one of us who has seen the tragic story
out of Oregon has wondered what they would do if faced with same situation as James Kim and his family. I'm no different.
I've discussed it with my colleagues. I've discussed it with my wife. So now I'm heading into the Rocky Mountains to find out what it is really like to be in the kinds of unbelievable conditions James and his family faced -- the freezing cold, the snow, the wilderness.
To prepare for this story, I've been interviewing experts about how to survive brutally cold conditions. They've told me about something call the rule of threes:
- You can survive for three hours without shelter
- You can survive for three days without water
- You can survive for three weeks without food
So now I know. And now the rest of us know. If you have to make a choice between food, water and shelter from the cold, then shelter wins out in a big way.
But what happens when you become desperate? When you look into your wife's or kids' eyes and see desperation equal to or greater than your own?
The last thing I want to do is judge James Kim's actions. After all, none of us could ever imagine what must have been going through his mind after being in caught with his family in the Oregon snow, with nothing but wilderness around and seemingly no hope for rescue.
I now know he should have stayed. Tonight, in my report, as I trek into the Rocky Mountains and meet with some survival experts, I hope to show what we're all supposed to do if faced with similar conditions.
Hot Links: Oregon father's effort 'superhuman'
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Hamilton: U.S. running out of time to save Iraq
Here are some excerpts from Anderson Cooper's interview with Lee Hamilton and James Baker, co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group:
COOPER: Secretary Baker, you called the situation in Iraq "grave and deteriorating." How much time do you think the U.S. has? How much of a window of opportunity is there?
BAKER: Well, I don't think you can measure it exactly. But we firmly believe in the assessment which we put in the report, which is a very tough assessment, very bleak assessment. But one thing I can tell you for sure -- that is all 10 members of our commission, Democrats and Republicans alike, think we ought to implement the recommendations of this report if there's any chance for success
COOPER: "Grave and deteriorating," though. Does that mean we are losing?
BAKER: Well, I don't think that you can say that we are losing or winning. I'll give you General Pace's definition: We're in the midst of a war, and if we don't adopt these recommendations, we run serious risk of losing.
COOPER: Do you (Hamilton) believe we are winning?
HAMILTON: I don't think we're losing; I don't think we're winning. I just think we're engaged right in the middle of war. I think there are a lot of steps we can take to enhance our prospects of winning and we'd better take them very soon. You ask how much time we've got. The answer is not very much. We don't measure this in terms of months. You measure it in terms of weeks and maybe days in which we have to act.
COOPER: How much of this insurgency right now is motivated by al Qaeda? President Bush seemed to be indicating that al Qaeda is behind most of the violence. There are criminal gangs, there are, as you talk about in the report, death squads, nationalist insurgents....
HAMILTON: We think chief violence today is sectarian, not al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is present, al Qaeda is part of the violence, particularly in certain areas, but it is not the chief source of violence today. There are a number of different sources of violence, including just plain old criminality. Al Qaeda is a factor, but not the chief source. The American casualties are coming from the sectarian violence largely.
COOPER: Is it possible that getting U.S. troops out will lessen the violence? It will at least take away the motivation of nationalist insurgents.
BAKER: Many people have argued that to us. Many people in Iraq have made that case.
COOPER: Do you buy it?
BAKER: Yes, I think there's some validity to it. Absolutely. Then we're no longer seen to be the occupiers. We're still going to have a very robust force presence in Iraq and in the region for quite a number of years after this thing sorts itself out, whichever way it sorts itself out. We have to do that because we have vital national interests in that region. We have the problem of al Qaeda. We cannot leave the country to be a Taliban-like base for al Qaeda. So we're going to maintain. Even after we do what we said here, there's still going to be a lot of force protection combat capability, a lot of training, equipping and supporting, and there will be rapid reaction teams and special ops forces to chase al Qaeda.
COOPER: Based inside Iraq?
BAKER: Based inside Iraq.
HAMILTON: As you draw down American forces, at whatever rate or level, we have to acknowledge that you create some risks. When you embed American forces with Iraqi forces, that creates a situation of some risks. We want to minimize those risks as much as we possibly can.
COOPER: You have both met with President Bush in the last couple of days, and his spokespeople have indicated, "Look, there are other groups looking into this. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is going to issue a report." He (Bush) says he's willing to listen and read the recommendations. What's your sense of his willingness to act on your recommendations?
HAMILTON: Look, the president is getting a lot of advice from people other than ourselves and he should be, and we don't object to that. We don't have all the truth here. There's one very, very big difference. The only source of bipartisan advice is from the Iraq Study Group. You've got a country today that is badly split, a government that is badly split, executive, legislative, split within administration, split all over the place on Capitol Hill.
If you're going to have an effective policy in this country in the next two years, we've got to come together. And the only way to come together is for the president and the leaders in the Congress to reach out to one another in bipartisan effort. What we did in the report was put together realizable goals -- goals that could be achieved given the political environment in Washington and political environment in Iraq. It's very easy to sit anywhere and shoot off a lot of recommendations to solve the problem of Iraq. They won't work unless you have bipartisan report. That's what our report brings to this whole effort -- a bipartisan solution.
BAKER: That, no other report is going to bring. And the American people desperately want this.
Baker/Hamilton interview begins shortly
Anderson is interviewing Iraq Study Group co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton any moment now. We will post excerpts here as soon as they are available.
Does the Iraq report matter?
"Must be something going on in Washington today."
That's what one of the TSA screeners said to me as I walked through the metal detector at LaGuardia Airport.
"Brian Williams just came through," the screener continued. Sure enough, there he was in the back of the packed plane to Washington, D.C.
I'm now at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington waiting for a press conference. Details of the Iraq Study Group's report have been leaking for the past week, and now the main points are well known.
I'm scheduled to interview James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the study group's co-chairs, in a couple hours. All of us who are interviewing them will gather and wait together, and then one-by-one go in to talk to them.
Tonight, I'll also be discussing the report with Barack Obama, Kay Bailey Hutchison and others.
Critics are already saying the ISG report is essentially proposing the status quo approach in Iraq -- there is no timetable for troop withdrawal; everything depends on the situation on the ground. Every year, the Bush Administration has talked about drawing down the number of troops, and every year, the facts on the ground have made that impossible in their assessment.
The question, of course, is: How much of a say could a group like the ISG really have at this point about what happens in Iraq? Are events so beyond our control, moving so fast, that whatever recommendations this panel could come up with would be beside the point?
Finally, what do you think of the ISG's recommendations?
Hot Links: Iraq Study Group findings
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
A very brief history of poison
The poisoning of the former Russian spy in London has all of us thinking about other famous poisonings. So I took a look, and wow, what a history.
The use of poison to kill or maim stretches back millennia, but it really took off in the 8th century, when an Arab chemist turned arsenic into an odorless, tasteless, undetectable powder, making it an attractive murder weapon. By the Renaissance, people were selling poison rings, knives, letters, and even poison lipstick.
Today, poisoning is the method of choice for many killers. The United States saw more than 147,000 poison-related deaths from 2001 to 2004, according to the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Of these, 434 were considered homicides. Were there more? Nobody knows, because poisoning deaths often resemble natural deaths.
See if you remember any of these:
The "CandyMan," otherwise known as Ronald Clark O'Bryan. He poisoned his 8-year-old son with cyanide-laced pixie sticks back in 1974.
How about the "Gatorade Murder?" James Keown is charged with slipping antifreeze into his wife's Gatorade, killing her. He's pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
One of the more mysterious cases involves a Bulgarian defector who was struck by a ricin-laced dart investigators believe was shot from an umbrella. The case is still unsolved.
A poison expert I talked with told me that poison is considered a "white man's weapon," even though plenty of women poison too. He said most poisoners are serial killers and that they tend to be greedy and manipulative.
Do you remember any famous or mysterious poisoning cases you want to share?
Spy's downfall was fearlessness, friend says
Sipping coffee at his home in the quiet suburbs of London, Oleg Gordievsky speaks of his friendship with Alexander Litvinenko. He tells me that Litvinenko firmly believed the current Russian government would one day fail and that he would return home to help rebuild a counterintelligence service free of corruption. Gordievsky, himself a KGB defector, says he was instrumental in convincing the British government to offer Litvinenko political asylum from Russia.
Passion and conviction apparently came easy to Litvinenko. He seemed utterly fearless. Gordievsky suggests to me that this might have been his friend's downfall. Even Litvinenko, who knew how powerful his enemies could be, did not believe a hit would be attempted against him as long as he stayed in London.
A great deal of attention is being paid to the meeting Litvinenko had over tea with two Russians at a London hotel the day he became ill. If this proves to be where Litvinenko was poisoned, Gordievsky theorizes the killer or killers knew his habits well.
Gordievsky told me his friend was a man without vices. He didn't smoke nor did he drink. He always tried to meet with people he was unsure of in upscale and busy public places. Gordievsky believes the only way such a potent dose of radioactive poison could be administered was to slip it into Litvinenko's tea during a casual meeting. I emphasize that this is just a theory -- one of hundreds. And it comes from just one figure in a tightly-knit Russian expatriate community that is more than just a little shaken right now.
There are also theories that Litvinenko was collecting information for personal gain. The British newspaper, the Observer, printed a series of interviews with a Russian academic. The article suggests Litvinenko may have turned to blackmail, selling damaging information involving powerful Russian oil interests. But neither his friends nor his family believe that the man who was so set against corruption and took such great personal risks to expose it would ever compromise
It's hard to pin down just how many Russian ex-pats have taken up residence in London, but there seems to be a lot. Prominent members of the community offer guesses that there could be anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 in the United Kingdom, but they don't know for sure. Most keep a low profile, content to find a safe place to live and a job that provides a decent living. A few however, like Alexander Litvinenko, don't disappear into the crowd and live a simple 9-to-5 life.
Litvinenko's friends say he could not rest or stay quiet as long as long as he believed he could bring about change to a Russian government that he viewed as rife with corruption and violence. They say that in life, Litvinenko was a star among the Russian expatriates who want to see an end to the government of Vladimir Putin. In death, they say, his star seems to be shining brighter than ever.
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Monday, December 04, 2006
Poison that killed spy lurks in most everyone
Thanks for all of your comments and questions in response to David Doss' post
previewing tonight's special report on the murder of the former Russian spy. We've spent the past few days researching the medical angle of this story. Here is some of what we've found:
First off, polonium-210 can be found in harmless trace amounts everywhere. It naturally occurs in the earth's crust -- in rocks and minerals, even in our own bodies. If any of us took an alpha radiation detector and put it right next to our skin or if we took a urine test, we would most likely test positive for trace amounts of polonium-210. It's that common in our environment. That may sound frightening, but it's important to remember that in order to make it dangerous, you'd need a large amount.
As Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health physicist told us: "In the toxicology world, dose makes the poison."
So, how much was used? Well, far more than what naturally occurs in the environment, but an amount still invisible to the naked eye. We're talking micrograms here. To best see it, you'd need a very powerful microscope.
"We can't see it, feel it, sense it," Whitcomb says.
You could make polonium-210 a few different ways: By extracting it from rocks containing radioactive uranium or by chemically separating it from radium-226. But, in order to get an amount that would be lethal, you'd have to produce it in a nuclear reactor laboratory. Hence, there are only a handful of people and places in the world capable of making polonium-210 such that it could poison someone.
What kind of threat does polonium-210 pose to the general public? The good news is that it poses very little danger. In fact, our skin provides natural protection from polonium-210. You'd have to sniff it or eat it in order for it to pose a health danger. You see, polonium-210 is an alpha emitter, the weakest form of radiation. Alpha radiation waves can be stopped by a piece of paper.
What kind of danger did the assassin face? The fact is the assassin risked very little by carrying the poison. The person could have carried polonium-210 wrapped in plastic or in a vial and been completely safe.
Why use it as poison? How long did it take doctors to determine it was polonium-210? These are just a few of the additional questions we'll try to answer in tonight's report. Please keep your questions and your comments coming. It's a medical mystery in the truest sense.
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Friday, December 01, 2006
Spy murder mystery: The medical questions
Besides the Pope's trip to Turkey and President Bush's quick visit to meet with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, the dominant story of the week has been the poisoning of the former KGB agent in London. That mystery just keeps deepening.
As British security agents continue their investigation, we now know of others who were also contaminated by the exotic murder weapon -- the radioactive isotope polonium-210 -- including Alexander Litvinenko's wife.
We are preparing an hour-long special on this to air Monday at 10 p.m. We'll have reports from London, the United States, Italy and Russia. But the story that most intrigues me right now will come from our "360" MD, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Any good murder mystery -- and this is a good one -- spends much time examining suspects and motives. But in this story, perhaps the strange murder weapon itself could prove to be the most fascinating angle. And that's what Sanjay, with his tremendous medical expertise, will examine. Consider some of the questions he'll explore:
1. Why use polonium as murder weapon? Clearly, there are many ways to poison or kill someone, most far less risky and perhaps even more effective, so the mystery is, why use it? Is it 100 percent effective? Does the agonizing nature of the death send a message?
2. Polonium (that concentration, anyway) is extremely rare, so perhaps they figured toxicology and pathology reports would not screen for it, would not find it?
3. How in the world did the docs figure out what it was? What kind of medical and toxicological screening would you need to ferret out the polonium?
4. What is the risk to the assassin? Today's news reports indicate there is a good chance the assassin got it on him or herself. What is the assassin's risk factor?
Our teams are working through the weekend on this. So if you have thoughts or advice on these questions, please "blog" us. We'd love your help.
Hot sauce for FEMA
We first got wind of more problems with FEMA's Gulf Coast reconstruction effort from the office of Lousiana Senator Mary Landrieu. What her people told us was depressingly familiar -- that beset by mistakes and indecision, FEMA was trying to back out of commitments it had made to relocate some flood-damaged schools to higher ground.
When we got down to Iberia and Vermillion parishes, about two hours west of New Orleans in bayou country, we got an earful from local school officials.
Turns out FEMA had spent the last year assuring them that they'd get new schools, then turned around and took it back. Apparently the schools weren't damaged enough to satisfy one of FEMA's rules. Rather than relocate, they'd have to rebuild in the flood zones.
The problem is at least one district, taking FEMA's original promise at face value, had already bought some land. Another district was well into the planning stages when FEMA put the brakes on.
As you can see by our report, the locals weren't about to let FEMA off the hook, and neither was Landrieu. The upshot -- FEMA is now looking for ways to make good, and those kids, who have been basically camping out in foster schools for a year, may end up wth their new schools after all.
Take a look at our report (viewable above), and if you know of any other instances where FEMA is trying to pull out of commitments made, let us know. We'd also love to get your tips for other "Keeping them honest" stories we should chase ... on any subject. We'll check them out.
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