Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Biden's comment on Obama: Racist or not?
We just had our afternoon production meeting and there was a lot of talk about what Senator Joe Biden said about Senator Barack Obama.
Today, the New York Observer
published an interview with Biden. What caught our eye -- and plenty of other media outlets are picking it up too -- are his comments about Obama. Here's the quote that's generating all the buzz:
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man." (Listen to Biden's statement here
Some of the staff think he was out of line. Some feel he said nothing wrong. Several bloggers
believe his remarks may have been racist.
We're not sure whether to add this story to our show tonight. What's your opinion about Biden's statement? Let us know.
Alleged con artist baffles police ... and me
Esther Reed, an alleged con artist, may have been spotted in a northern California restaurant.
The story about Esther Reed, an alleged con artist, really is a strange one. It's strange, not just because so many of the details are bizarre, but also because her motives are so mysterious.
Reed, who was born in Montana, had officially been missing for about seven years. But this summer, police in New York City came across her. The catch is they didn't know it was her at the time.
Esther allegedly had stolen another woman's identity. She used the identity to get accepted at Columbia and Harvard Universities, despite the fact she herself was a high school dropout. Esther apparently got her GED and took the SAT on her own, and did so well, she was admitted to both schools.Click here to read more
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Kidnapped, nearly executed in Iraq
CNN's Michael Ware has been covering the war in Iraq since it began, and has watched Baghdad spin out of control.
In September 2004, on Baghdad's Haifa Street, U.S. troops were battling supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Zarqawi's fighers captured a Bradley fighting vehicle during the battle. When Michael heard that al Qaeda in Iraq had claimed the area as its own -- even plastering its banners on the street -- he went there to see for himself -- and that's when he was caught by al Qaeda fighters.
Michael was in New York last week, and Anderson talked to him about that terrifying day. Their full conversation about events in Iraq airs tonight.
The writer's block: Interesting e-mail about Iraq
I'm the early writer this week. It's my job to be in the newsroom at 11 a.m. for the "senior" call. That's when executive producer David Doss and the senior staff discuss what stories we're working on for the show.
It's a preliminary rundown and always subject to change, but it's a good jumping off point. (This conversation begins on Blackberry and phone around 7 a.m. everyday, and the show is not on until 11 or 12 hours after the senior call.) My job is to offer editorial suggestions, work on early scripts and take notes and e-mail them to the rest of the writers. New ideas are always welcome.
Usually, one person does most of the talking on the morning call. Today it was senior producer Barclay Palmer. He started things off with Iraq. There was an attack on Shiite pilgrims. Barclay said two CNN correspondents, Arwa Damon and Michael Holmes, had a couple of reports on violence in Iraq, and in particular, the Shia resurgence. That got us talking about an e-mail note another senior producer, Ted Fine, had sent earlier. Here's what Ted wrote:
"Reading Arwa and Holmes makes me wonder: Didn't the U.S. KNOW what would happen when they kicked out Saddam? I mean seeing this now, how could people in the know NOT know that Iran would fill the power vacuum in Iraq? It seems like such a huge mistake and bad planning."
Ted's note got us thinking: With centuries of sectarian hatred in Iraq, how could the White House not anticipate this would happen?
Our Baghdad correspondent, Michael Ware, told Anderson recently that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites fled to Iran during Saddam Hussein's regime. When it fell, they returned, backed by Iranian forces. Michael had much more to say. We're going to air the interview tonight, breaking it up into several segments. I've got to run. David's asking me if I'm done with this blog already.
Monday, January 29, 2007
How to help ... veterans
The following organizations are featured on tonight's program on a new rehabilitation facility for injured veterans in San Antonio, Texas:
Clinton: Bush should be 'subtracting' troops from Iraq
Sen. Hillary Clinton, Democrat of New York.
Excerpts from Anderson Cooper's interview with Sen. Hillary Clinton at the Brooke Army Medical Center today in San Antonio, Texas.On leaving Iraq:ANDERSON COOPER:
You said this weekend that the president is responsible to extricate the United States (from Iraq). You said it would be irresponsible not to. Do you mean U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq by the time the next administration comes to power?SEN. HILLARY CLINTON:
...This was his war. He conceived it poorly. He executed it incompetently. He's pursuing a strategy that's more of the same. I see no change in direction. And that's what I've been calling for. I want to begin a phased redeployment of our troops.
I think there are still vital national interests in Iraq, particularly in Al Anbar Province, where we're fighting insurgents, particularly against Iran trying to extend its influence, particularly in the north. We have to work with Kurds to make sure they're able to continue building a better future. I just don't see that the present strategy is working or workable. I really don't understand how he's just so willing to pass this on without understanding what needs to be done to change direction to whoever comes after him. COOPER:
Extricate ... you think they should be out?CLINTON:
You know, it's problematic to set a deadline. I'd like to see a process. I'd like to see a strategy that is moving toward us beginning to move our troops, as I've called for over a year-and-a-half.COOPER:
You called for a cap. Obama [called for a cap]. Critics say if you believe there haven't been enough heretofore, what does capping do?CLINTON:
Well, cap is meant to send a signal, as is our effort to get a resolution of disapproval that he no longer has political support in the country or the congress for pursuing this policy. The cap is to literally cap the number of troops so that we can begin redeploying them out of Iraq. And we've got to start somewhere. And this gives us a way of making the argument that this president shouldn't be adding troops. He should begin subtracting troops. Now I'm a realist, and I know that we're still fighting to get just the resolution of disapproval through the congress on a bipartisan basis, but I think it's important to start laying down these markers and send this signal to the White House, to this president and this vice president.On taking care of wounded soldiers:COOPER:
This center cost $50 million. American citizens, some giving a dollar here, others large donation, have given a lot. It says a lot about the American people. What does it say about the government?CLINTON:
That's a really good question, Anderson. Obviously, we're unique in America because we have the partnership between our government and our citizens unlike anyone anywhere in the world. And we do meet needs that are not gonna be met. But this doesn't relieve the government responsibility for doing everything we can to fund the VA, to make sure every VA in the country is ready to prepare a welcome with the services that are necessary. So one of the reasons that I fight to get VA funding is because that is national obligation. But what the Fisher family and 600,000 donors decided to do was to speed the process. Unfortunately it takes a long time to get things done in our govt. COOPER:
Money has been earmarked for Walter Reed facility that hasn't been built.CLINTON:
In fact, there's even talk about closing Walter Reed. So we don't have facilities in place to deal with more than nearly now 23,000 wounded coming out of these conflicts. This is a great facility, where we are right now, the Fisher houses are really a truly private philanthropy that is to set up these living quarters so that families can come and be near their loved ones when they're recuperating. I've met a lot of families who've been living in Fisher houses for a year, year-and-a-half, because it takes that long. So we have this partnership, but that doesn't mean we should let government off the hook.COOPER:
We're not ready to meet the needs of our servicemen and women?CLINTON:
No, we're not.
McCain: Clinton, Obama Iraq plans lack logic
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Excerpts from Anderson Cooper's interview with Sen. John McCain at the Brooke Army Medical Center today in San Antonio, Texas.On the possibility of genocide in Iraq:ANDERSON COOPER:
Some argue ... If the United States is taken out of the equation, it's a Sunni-Shia war basically ... The war happens and it happens and at least the United States is not the central focus of it.SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:
Well, maybe that's what we decided in Rwanda, but...COOPER:
You think full-on genocide is possible?MCCAIN:
Of course. Of course, I think there would be ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. But as importantly, when you see Iranians asserting their influence in the region, which is already significant. When you see Sunnis, particularly Saudi Arabia, feeling they have to do something to protect the Sunni, when you see uh, Turkey becoming more and more nervous about what happens with Kurds, you have a very volatile situation. And not to mention the Syrian involvement as well. So, the scenario is not good. There are no good options.COOPER:
Any scenario where withdrawing is acceptable to you? Or re-deploying?MCCAIN:
Not until we have a situation under control to the degree the Iraqi government can exert its influence through most of country that you start, you move forward with a political and economic process. That's what the goal is. COOPER:
Success is crucial before the United States can pull out?MCCAIN:
That's my view, and that view, by the way, is held by the majority of experts I know about the region. Now, if you want to pull out, set a date, one week, five months, six months, whatever it is. Then I think you have the obligation to say what happens when we leave. We hear all the talk about leaving. ...But I'd respect it more if they said, and then, what's going to happen. Everything will be quiet and peaceful? I don't think so. And I think that again, our national interest, our vital national security interest, resides in the Middle East certainly at this time. COOPER:
Sen. Clinton is proposing cap on troop levels at the January 1 level; Obama says January 10. Does that make any sense to you?MCCAIN:
First of all, I think I'm fairly well versed in military matters and tactics and strategy. I've been involved in it literally all my life in one way or another, but I can't tell you how many troops are needed. I think it's pretty clear the number of troops we have isn't getting the job done. I think there's almost universal acceptance of that. So you put a cap on it? So the status quo remains? Which is a steadily deteriorating situation? Again, intel sources tell me, by the way, public not classified, that if this present situation continues, within six months you'd see absolute chaos in Iraq. So cap on troops? There's a certain lack of logic associated with that position. But I respect it. And I think we need respectful dialogue and debate on this issue.On government care for injured veterans: COOPER:
Do you think the full cost of this war is really known in terms of what it's don to young people -- lost limbs, PTSD?MCCAIN:
Probably not, because good news is that our ability to save lives is enormous, and yet it leaves us obviously with many, many people who are injured permanently. But again, when you look at some of the state-of-the-art artificial limbs, it's pretty remarkable. And they're able to do many things that even a few short years ago they weren't able to. And the indominable spirit is incredible. COOPER:
This center was built with private funds. This Fisher House we are in was built with private funds. Why isn't the government doing this?MCCAIN:
I think we probably should get into that. I do think that it's a partnership. Once these facilities are built, such as rehab center, then the military takes over. It is a partnership. It's federal law, etc. But probably we should do more and the Fisher family is probably an example to all of us.
But i also would point out, it's nice to see this symbol of generosity. Thousands and thousands of americans donated to this facility. That's a sign of support. No matter how people feel about the conflict, it's clear how they feel about the men and women who are serving.COOPER:
A lot of our leadership says our veterans are important -- they deserve the best treatment possible. Yet it took a private organization to build this. Why hasn't the government spent $50 million on a center like this?MCCAIN:
In reality, we are spending billions, and we should for the care of our injured and veterans. I'm proud of many of the veteran facilities that we have. Can we do more? Always do more. Because the reality is we can never do enough for people who have served and sacrificed in this fashion.
What would you ask McCain, Clinton?
A new rehabilitation institution at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
With all of the debate over sending more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, we were glad to hear about a new institution
built on both hope and private donations to help some
of the U.S. service men and women wounded in war. So far, more than 20,000 U.S. troops have been injured -- some horribly burned -- and more than 500 have lost a limb, according to the Associated Press. These are America's fallen heroes.
So tonight, Anderson will broadcast live from San Antonio, Texas, at the Brooke Army Medical Center for the opening of a state-of-the-art military rehabilitation facility, The Center for the Intrepid. The center will treat America's most severely wounded troops, including service members who have lost limbs or were severely burned.
A number of dignitaries are there today, including two presidential candidates: Senators John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both are speaking at the ceremony and both are sitting down for interviews with Anderson.
Anderson will also give us a tour of the new rehabilitation center and speak with the doctor in charge of the operation. He will also talk to soldiers receiving care.
We'll also try to find out why the $50 million raised to build the center and the adjoining Fisher Houses (places for families to stay while they attend their loved ones during their rehabilitation) came entirely from private donations. Not a dime was paid by the government. Why is it that this state-of-the-art center for injured troops had to be funded privately?
As for Senators McCain and Clinton, both are sharply critical of President Bush's policy in the war in Iraq (she said it has been executed "incompetently"; he said it was a "train wreck"). What would you ask them? Let us know in the comments section below.
Friday, January 26, 2007
Border battle moves to Arizona's sewers
Illegal immigrants use tunnels like this one to enter the United States.
The cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, are separated by a huge wall.
Many people illegally come into the United States over the wall or through broken portions of it. But the U.S. Border Patrol has gotten increasingly aggressive at patrolling this area, so illegal immigrants are increasingly adopting a subterranean tactic -- they are sneaking through the sewer system that sits under both cities.
This story attracted our attention when we heard that over a recent three month period, more than 1700 illegal immigrants were apprehended in the tunnels that act as sewers and storm drains for the city. They were captured by a specially trained U.S. Border Patrol unit that works within the pitch dark confines of the tunnels.
We spent a day with them recently in the muck and utter darkness of the sprawling sewer system. There is no way to see anything without night vision goggles. For the first 15 minutes of patrolling all was quiet.
We passed smaller tunnels in the sides of the wall with welded grates that are often broken by smugglers and illegal immigrants. Everything seems relatively routine, except for the vermin we hear scampering around. But then, the agents command us not to make a noise.
Watch Border Patrol agents take to the sewers
They hear something a few hundred feet away; on the other side of the line that separates the U.S. from Mexico. They get their weapons ready. Their night vision goggles make it clear that at least six individuals are hovering in the darkness.
They ask in Spanish, "Who is it?" There is no response.
"We are American police," an agent yells. "Slow down."
We hear the mystery people responding, but their soft voices make it hard to understand what they are saying. Minutes go by where we do not move. Down here, there is always concern that smugglers with nothing to lose will fire first, then agents tell me.
And then we see bright lights.
It turns out they are the lights of Mexican authorities, who the Border Patrol called to help out on their side of the tunnel. By then, the six people in question disappeared; not into the United States, but somewhere back in Mexico.
The mission is over. The agents consider it a routine day; we on the other hand, are still struck by the tension in the sewers.
Our clothes soaking wet, we climb through a side tunnel to get out, and exit through a sewer cap on a downtown Nogales, Arizona, street. I am struck by how none of the people passing by seem surprised to see a man climbing out of the sewer.
Within 30 minutes, we see four illegal immigrants arrested above ground in two different incidents after they get by the border fence. Just another normal day in Nogales.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Nicholas Kristof journeys into Cambodia's sex trade
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times
tracks down a young sex worker he helped free three years ago.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Invisible chains: Sex, work and slavery
Tonight on "360," we're digging a little deeper into an issue many Americans probably thought was resolved almost 150 years ago -- slavery. But in reality, certain forms of slavery (or forced labor) still occur around the world, and even, right here in the United States.
According to the United Nations, more than 12 million people worldwide are forced to work against their will. They work in fields and sweatshops, in homes and factories; many of them are caught up in the sex industry.
Tonight, we'll have reports on this issue from around the world: Randi Kaye is in Atlanta reporting on U.S. sex slavery, Anderson Cooper brings us the story of New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof's journey to Cambodia to track down a teenage prostitute that he bought and freed three years ago, Dan Rivers is in Cambodia to report on a former sex slave who has helped free many other women and children, and Jeff Koinange is in Uganda to report on children forced to be soldiers.
If you're interested in learning more about these issues or looking for a way to help, here are some links to organizations mentioned or featured in tonight's program (by no means is the list exhaustive, but it's a way to start):
Atlanta struggles to fight child prostitution
In this business, we cover a lot of great stories and a lot of really tragic ones. A story I just did on child prostitution falls into the latter category and -- I must say -- made me sick to my stomach.
Here's why: In the city of Atlanta, girls as young as 9 years old are being sold for sex, according to interviews with the girls themselves and the women who try to help them.
Pimps shower them with gifts, lure them away from their families, and then force them to have sex with strangers, often men old enough to be their father, for just $10 a trick.
Many of the pimps are drug dealers looking to make some extra money, according to LaKendra Baker, a counselor for current and former child prostitutes.
"You can only sell a dime bag once; you can sell a 10-year-old girl over and over again," Baker said.
Amazingly, pimping a minor wasn't even a felony in Georgia until 2001 - it was a misdemeanour. But even heavier penalties and some high-profile convictions are not enough to put pimps out of business.
How many have been arrested? I wish I could tell you, but none of the authorities in Atlanta could tell me how many pimps or underage prostitutes had been arrested, or how many pimps have been convicted.
What Fulton County District Attorney's office did tell us was this: "We need to be much more organized and we need many more resources to adequately combat the plague of child prostitution. While the Georgia law making pimping or pandering a child a felony has helped us secure tougher sentences, the shift from street activity to internet transactions has made it harder to get at the source of the problem."
LaKendra estimates that hundreds of girls are prostitutesof Atlanta, but she doesn't have a firm number.
With a crime so disturbing, you'd think somebody would keep a close track of the numbers.
Numbers on the national level are tough to come by too. According to the advocacy organization Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), 200,000 to 300,000 children are involved in prostitution in the United States and an estimated 10 million children worldwide. But these are just rough estimates.
I spent some time in Atlanta with a girl named Shantique, who had been on the street for a time when she was twelve.
She said that her pimp, known as "Batman," tied her spread-eagled to the bed posts in the bedroom of a home he shared with his family. He threatened to kill her and her family if she didn't have sex with another pimp he knew. Sometimes he'd take her out and see if anyone was willing to pay to have sex with her.
Luckily her aunt found out where she was and got her home. But other girls aren't so lucky. Some of them stay on the street for years.
Shantique is now 19 years old and a freshman in college. She struggles with what she went through, but is getting good grades. She's also counseling young girls about how to stay off the street.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
The war that swallowed a presidency
Smoke rises from twin car bombings Monday that killed scores of Iraqis in Baghdad.
Americans have a lot of issues that concern them these days: Immigration, health care, the environment, personal debt, housing prices. That's just to name a few.
But there is only one real issue in front of President Bush right now: Iraq.
Polls of Americans and foreigners alike show that majorities disapprove of the way President Bush is conducting the war in Iraq and question whether the United States is still a positive influence in the world.
The president is planning to send more troops, talking about the need for stabilization and a promise of better times, but in Washington, even members of his own party are skeptical. And the newly empowered Democrats are circling like dogs around a soup bone.
Sure, President Bush is engaging other topics. The White House is talking about "bold" legislatives initiatives and the need for bipartisan support to the keep the nation moving forward. The State of the Union is supposed to be the moment for a president to discuss such things, to weave a grand tapestry of his visions for the nation.
But Iraq is relentless. Some Republicans fear that unless the White House can somehow turn Iraq around or defuse it as a political time bomb, worry about the war will undermine every idea put forward by their party. They worry, quite openly, that if President Bush wants to protect his legacy, he may have to compromise on all sorts of other issues to get Democratic support.
Saddam Hussein was undeniably a terrible guy. He imposed unspeakable suffering on his own citizens and ruled with the despicable force of all tyrants. President Bush put an end to that. But in the process, the war he launched became something more. It morphed into the definining characteristic of his presidency for both good and bad.
So with two years left before he leaves office, here's my question: Can the president get any traction on any other legislation while the future of Iraq remains up for grabs?
Hot Links: State of the Union
Monday, January 22, 2007
Inside Obama's alleged madrassa
The call from the news desk in Atlanta came at 4 a.m. Sunday. It was about a report that presidential hopeful Barack Obama may have attended a madrassa, an Islamic religious school, as a boy. That seemed an odd claim; at 4 a.m., downright bizarre.
A day's travel later, cameraman Brad Olson, producer Andy Saputra and I were in Jakarta, Indonesia, outside the school in question. A hotbed of radical Islamic extremism it was not. Moms and dads dropped their kids off for school, kids played soccer, expensive houses lined the street, including the U.S. ambassador's residence.
We went in and spoke with the deputy headmaster, other officials, even some of Obama's old schoolmates. There were boys and girls singing and dancing, Christian kids next to Muslim kids.
This was nothing like the madrassas I had been to in Pakistan, where young boys learn the Koran by rote, memorizing every word, where no other religion is tolerated, where the teachers are men with long beards dressed in traditional garb.
To be honest, I felt embarrassed to ask the school about the controversy in the United States. The deputy headmaster was surprised, and I think a little taken aback that some had made the assumption his school was a hotbed of radicalism.
An old classmate of Obama's was more blunt. He said it was a racist assumption that every school in a Muslim country is a hard-line extremist madrassa.
I spoke with the bosses back in New York and Atlanta and outlined the facts, not entirely sure what they would want me to do next. The response was pretty simple: Do the story, report what you find, nothing more, nothing less. So that's what I did
Strategists: Clinton must settle 'Billary' issue
Observers on both sides of the political aisle say that after all these years what Hillary Clinton needs is a separation agreement from her husband. No, not that kind, a political separation, where she gets his assets, without the liablities.
Former President Bill Clinton's political assets are of course considerable: He's considered by many to have the finest political mind in the Democratic Party, his ability to connect with voters is as impressive as ever, and he remains the biggest draw on the Democratic money circuit.
But being so closely identified with Bill is not without its drawbacks for Hillary, according Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist, and Scott Reed, a Republican strategist.
They say that one reason around 40 percent of U.S. voters have an unfavorable opinion of Senator Clinton (according to CNN polling) is that they don't like her husband, and that because Bill and Hillary originally came as a package, she gets saddled with the mistrust directed toward him.
Her challenge? Reintroduce herself, drop the baggage, move past the soap opera, become a candidate of the future, not the past.
As Anita Dunn told us today, Senator Clinton's problem is that the voters don't know her, but they think they do. New Yorkers now know her apart from her husband, and reelected her overwhelmingly. It's her job now to take that separation national.
Hot Links: Stories we're watching today
Friday, January 19, 2007
Psychic told parents that son was dead
Of the many horrors Shawn Hornbeck's parents and loved ones faced during the four years their son was missing, some news they received early on -- just four months into the ordeal -- perhaps was the cruelest ... perhaps.
They had looked everywhere for Shawn. There were no fresh leads, no rumors, no trails to follow. His parents were beyond desperate when they went on Montel Williams' syndicated television program, where they were brought together with renowned psychic Sylvia Browne. The following is the transcript of the exchange between Craig Akers (Shawn's stepfather) and Pam Akers (Shawn's mother) and the psychic Sylvia Browne:
CRAIG AKERS: Can you tell how far from the area he was taken?
SYLVIA BROWNE: Maybe about 20 miles.
CRAIG: And he's still within a 20-mile radius even now?
BROWNE: He's still within a 20-mile radius of -- let's say, here's where you are, 20-mile radius, but it's really southwest of where you are.
BROWNE: So whatever is southwest, because it looks like this is -- here we go again with the wooded, with the -- you know, the wooded areas. So southwest of you.
PAM AKERS: Is there any landmarks around?
BROWNE: Yeah. Strange enough, there are two jagged boulders, which look really misplaced. Because everything is trees, and then all of a sudden, you've got these stupid boulders sitting there.
MONTEL WILLIAMS: And he could be found near there?
BROWNE: He's near the boulders.
PAM: Is he still with us?
CRAIG: Do you see the bicycle anywhere?
BROWNE: I think the -- see, here's what's strange. I think the--the--the bicycle is in another state in a dump.
In other words, Sylvia Browne was telling his parents the worst possible news -- that Shawn was dead, and that his body was in a rocky, forested area within 20 miles of their home. For the next three weeks, the search reportedly focused on finding Shawn's body in that prescribed area.
Of course, they failed to find the body because last week -- four years after he went missing -- Shawn Hornbeck turned up very much alive.
We wanted to talk to Sylvia Browne about her responsibilities and about delivering that kind of information to a desperate and vulnerable family, but she chose not to speak with us in person. In a written statement, her publicist said, "She cannot possibly be 100 percent correct in each and every one of her predictions. She has, during a career of over 50 years, helped literally tens of thousands of people."
All this is a lot to think about, especially if you are family desperate to find your missing child. What do you think? It's something Anderson will discuss with a number of experts on tonight's show.
9-year-old runaway snuck on two flights
You have to be a pretty sharp (albeit troubled) kid to know how to a) steal cars and b) drive them. Nine-year-old Semaj Booker has done both. Three times, according to his mother. She says he learned how to drive by playing video games. If only the story ended there.
On Sunday, Semaj stole a car from his neighborhood near Tacoma, Washington. (In each instance, the cars had been running while their owners were temporarily out of sight.) The fourth-grader wound up leading police on a high-speed chase. The cops wanted to put Semaj into juvenile detention, but were told he's too young. So they took the boy home.
The next morning, Semaj snuck out of his house and took a bus to the Seattle airport. He went to the Southwest ticket counter and gave a fake name. According to this mother, he told the ticket agent his last name is "Williams." The agent looked in her computer and said, "Frank Williams?" Semaj answered, "Yep," and off he went with the boarding pass with the name "Frank Williams."
He got through security with no issues, because children don't need photo id. Semaj hopped on a plane that stopped briefly in Phoenix before heading on to San Antonio. He tried to get on a third flight for Dallas where the boy still has family, but Southwest figured out something wasn't right and called airport police. (The airline told us it's investigating the incident.)
Semaj is now in a shelter in San Antonio until authorities figure out what to do with him. He's been charged with car theft and eluding police, but prosecutors may drop the case because he's so young.
Obviously, this kid is pretty smart. How else could he pull off something like this? Let's just hope he gets some help and is able to put his mind to good use someday.
As for the real Frank Williams ... there's no word on what happened to when he checked in for his flight. So Mr. Williams, if you or anyone who knows you is reading this, we hope you'll let us know what happened when you went to pick up your ticket.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
U.S. prisons could breed terrorists, report claims
My father is a retired corrections officer who worked inside a prison for more than 20 years. Most days he went to work without incident and he always tried to comfort us by saying that acts of violence behind bars are not nearly as common as most people think. But on one terrible day something happened that showed us just how dangerous his workplace could be. Without warning an inmate attacked him and left him badly beaten.
It took a long time for him to recover. But he eventually went back to work in the same prison, surrounded by the same inmates. Nothing like that ever happened again (thankfully), but my dad was never able to comfort us any more by pointing out how that attack was the exception for prison life and not the rule.
That traumatic time for my family was very much on my mind as I heard the loud clank of the heavy metal doors behind me at California's infamous Folsom Prison. We had come to ask questions about the potential for a new kind of violence and those new exceptions that could leave innocent people injured...or worse.
A special report
from two major universities warned of a global trend of men going into prison as criminals and coming out transformed into religious and political radicals. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid is believed to have been influenced by a radical Imam while in a British prison. In the United States, California inmate Kevin James allegedly founded his own radical Islamic group and directed a failed terrorist plot, all from behind bars. (James pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy to wage war against the U.S. government and other charges, and is awaiting trial.)
At Folsom, we found that there is indeed concern that today's overcrowded and understaffed prisons could be an incubator for terrorism. Some officials say it is the perfect environment for someone with radical ideas to stoke the flames of hatred and give rise to a wave of homegrown terrorists. Prison officials compare this "radicalization" of inmates to gang activity saying it is impossible to stop and difficult to manage.
Religious converts behind bars (and there are a lot of them) are said to be prime targets. And while converts of any religion could be at risk, the universities' report says those new to Islam could be more vulnerable than others. That's because prisons like Folsom don't always have a qualified, full-time chaplain to lead services and teach. This could give a motivated inmate the opportunity to spread his own radical ideas to a captive audience.
Imam Salem Mohamed, a prison chaplain, has to split his time between inmates at Folsom and one other prison. He is available to the prisoners for only five days every other week. In ten years, he says, he has only encountered a few inmates with radical ideas. The vast majority he says follows the call to prayer seeking peace, many trying to escape a life of violence. But the authors of this report say all it takes is one charismatic figure to take advantage of this vacuum and sow the seeds of jihad.
It's important to note that followers of Islam are a small minority in a large prison population. Those with radical religious ideas (of any faith) are believed to represent a much smaller minority than that. The odds that one of them might actually cause harm to innocents seems remote. And had it not been for my own family's experience...I might have found that comforting.
Have you seen this woman?
Gary Tuchman is working on a story
about Esther Reed, the woman pictured to the left. Esther allegedly stole the identity of a missing South Carolina woman and used that identity to create a new life for herself in New York City. Gary's television piece on this subject is scheduled to air tomorrow night. In the meantime, please e-mail
us if you have any idea where she might be.
Would you e-mail during sex?
Hot Links: Con artist's crazy cons
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Congressional felons could lose pensions
Over the past few weeks, your calls for an end to fat pensions for congressional criminals have gotten the ears of both sides of the U.S. Capitol.
By an 87-0 count, the Senate recently passed legislation that would abolish pensions for lawmakers convicted of the biggies: Fraud, bribery, conspiracy. Those are the financial crimes that lead to ethics disasters, like those of former Congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham, for whom the act is dubiously named.
And just last night in the house, freshman Democrat Nancy Boyda of Kansas filed her bill, H.R. 476, which looks a lot like the Senate version. It could pass if it comes up for its scheduled vote this Friday.
But this is Washington after all, so although the speed with which this legislation is moving is admirable to the rest of us taxpayers, the nitty-gritty exposes some "hole-e-mole-e's."
This is what many of you told us on this blog
: Any lawmaker convicted of any crime should be denied his or her federal taxpayer-funded pension.
This is what the bills say, in essence: Any lawmaker convicted of a very few specific felonies, like bribery and fraud, related to their conduct in office, should be denied a taxpayer-funded pension. So if you are convicted of any other felony, yes, even murder, you still get a pension.
Oh, and one more hole. If a certain lawmaker is convicted of a certain specific felony and does forfeit his or her pension, Congress must evaluate what the loss of that income would do to his or her family. If this would leave the lawmaker's spouse or children destitute, then special provisions should be made.
Congresswoman Nancy Boyda says, "Hey, it's a start." Yep, and there's a long way to go.
Payments to Iraqi victims draw scrutiny
This is the TV version of the story that Steve Turnham blogged about yesterday.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Fairness sought for 'condolence payments'
An Iraqi woman mourns the death of a relative killed during a battle between U.S. soldiers and insurgents.
The terrible news out of Iraq today: At least 70 people people died in a sectarian attack at a university. Plus, the United Nations released a report finding that 34,000 Iraqi civilians died in Iraq in 2006. Most of those civilians were killed in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, but not all of them.
The U.S. military has been involved in a number of civilian casualties, and we wondered, what does the United States do when that happens? Do they make reparations for the families who've lost loved ones?
We checked, and in fact, the Pentagon does have a program to compensate victims of so-called "collateral damage." But as we found out, it's pretty haphazard, and there are those both in and out of the military who think it would be a good idea to set up an official policy to compensate civilian victims of U.S. military actions.
One of those is the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat. He wants the Pentagon to replace the old system of leaving the amount of so-called "condolence payments" up to the discretion of field commanders with a formal program where the Defense Department would need to come to Congress to ask for money, and Congress could then ask questions about civilian deaths. The idea hits on fairness and transparency.
A significant side effect of that kind of program would be to, for the first time, give the public an idea of how many Iraqis have died under U.S. fire. Because right now, no one is counting.
Neighbors: Alleged kidnapper kept to himself
So often when reporting on stories like the Missouri kidnapping, I encounter neighbors and co-workers of someone who has become the focus of an investigation and am told how that suspect was quiet and stayed to himself.
But according to Michael Devlin's neighbors, he fits only part of that description.
Late last summer, neighbor Rob Bushelle says he got into a loud argument with Devlin over a parking space. It ended when Devlin called the police, according to Bushelle. In hindsight, this move appears baffling, given that the abducted boy Shawn Hornbeck was living in Devlin's apartment at the time.
Another neighbor complained of shouting and loud noises from inside Devlin's apartment.
But beyond these negative encounters, no neighbor we found could say they really knew him at all. Devlin worked two jobs and never socialized around his apartment complex or was known to engage anyone in conversation.
People who worked with Devlin also now wonder if they really knew him either. Devlin worked at one pizzeria for 20 years. He became a manager and was known to be dependable and friendly with the customers, including the occasional police officer.
There was nothing to suggest to those around him that he might be an abductor of children.
Hot Links: Military surplus exploited
Monday, January 15, 2007
Raw Data: Kidnapping statistics
The discovery of the two missing boys in Missouri got some of us here at "360" wondering: Just how prevalent is kidnapping in the United States?
While researching this question today, I came across some interesting statistics. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
(citing U.S. Department of Justice reports), nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. That's more than 2,000 a day.
The NCMEC says 203,000 children are kidnapped each year by family members. Another 58,200 are abducted by non-family members. Many others are runaways or pushed out of the home by parents.
Despite these huge numbers, very few children are victims of the kinds of crimes that so-often lead local and national news reports. According to NCMEC, just 115 children are the victims of what most people think of as "stereotypical" kidnapping, which the center characterizes thusly: "These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently."
Of these 115 incidents, 57 percent ended with the return of the child. The other 43 percent had a less happy outcome.
Have you seen Cherrie Mahan?
Their stories are eerily similar, but only one, so far, has a happy ending.
When Ben Ownby disappeared in Missouri last week, Janice McKinney, a Pennsylvania woman, shed some tears at the thought of what he and his family must have been going through. Janice, after all, can relate. Her daughter, then 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan, was kidnapped more than two decades ago after getting off her school bus, just like Ben Ownby.
Cherrie, who now would be 30 years old, hasn't been seen since.
Like in Ben's case, there was a witness who saw a vehicle. A student from Cherrie's bus described a blue van with a snowcapped mountain and a skier painted on the side of it. Investigators never found the van. Janice McKinney lives with terrible guilt. It was the first time she hadn't picked up her daughter at the bus stop. She had given her permission to walk the 300 feet from the bus to her driveway.
Next month marks the 22nd anniversary of Cherrie's disappearance. She's happy that William Ben Ownby and another young boy, Shawn Hornbeck, were found. Janice told me it gives her hope that one day she'll have her little girl back too. "Twenty-two years later, I'm still searching for any kind of answer," she said.
As it turns out, Cherrie was the little girl who helped put a real face on missing kids. Hers was the first to appear on those "Have you seen me?" fliers you get in your mailbox.
Friday, January 12, 2007
The pride of New Orleans
Anderson is heading back from New Orleans, but we thought we'd show you a great interview he did last night with Herbert Gettridge, an 83 year-old Lower Ninth Ward resident literally rebuilding his home by himself.
New Orleans, circa 1942
Samuel Rumsey points to the yard next to his house and remembers when cows used to roam here. Rumsey is 87 years old, and his house was the first one on this block of the Lower Ninth Ward back in the 1940s.
His family grew and built around him. The Rumseys pretty much owned the block. Then Katrina struck and they scattered; all of them except for Samuel. He's back and slowly rebuilding, living in a FEMA trailer in the front yard of his house. There's still spray paint on the house where first responders checked for dead bodies.
We've seen many faces of the Lower Ninth Ward: First it was just underwater, next it was soggy and collapsed, then it was brittle and rotting, and now it just feels like a wasteland -- houses are razed and there's simply no one around.
The city says residents can move back in down here, but there remains confusion about FEMA flood codes and rumors still persist the city will eventually knock everything down and make it into a park. Even to the people who are trying to rebuild down here, it's not an outrageous idea -- the Industrial Canal levee certainly looks strong, but it looked the same way 17 months ago, and it's collapse is a vivid nightmare.
Nonetheless, Samuel Rumsey is determined to rebuild, and start over. He says he remembers being the first one here in 1942, and he smiles as he says it feels like those early days all over again.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Marchers refuse to let Nagin speak
We came to New Orleans today planning to do a progress report on rebuilding. We arrived, however, just as a demonstration against crime was getting underway.
For those of you who haven't been following the latest news out of New Orleans, crime here has once again reared its ugly head. There have been at least eight murders so far this year. It could be nine, but there seems to be some quibbling about whether or not that murder occurred before or after the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve.
New Orleans has long been a divided city -- divided by race and class, money and power. Today, for a few hours, those chasms were crossed, as people from all over town marched on City Hall. They were brought together by anger and frustration, fear and heartbreak. They clutched pictures of loved ones lost, babies murdered, friends gunned down.
One woman held up a poster with an infant's smiling face staring out. It was her eleven month old son, shot to death by a carjacker in front of her. "I've come not just for me, and my son," she told me, "But for everyone."
Mayor Ray Nagin tried to address the crowd and likely would have used the phrase he's used for the last six months, "Enough is enough." That's what he said in June when he asked for the National Guard to help patrol the streets, and that's what he said on Tuesday when he promised new anti-crime initiatives.
Today, however, the crowd didn't want to hear those words. They've heard them too many times already. March organizers refused to let the mayor speak. It was a very public slap in the face, a sign of just how deep the anger here has become. It was an extraordinary day in this bruised and battered city. I hope you'll tune in tonight.
Anger rises in New Orleans
Following Katrina's money trail
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco recently set aside $500 million for New Orleans.
Where is the money? That seems to be the most-asked question around New Orleans.
Nearly everyone here has heard the federal government allocated around $12 billion to Louisiana. Major charities donated about $2.5 billion. Even foreign countries sent about $1 billion, including $126 million in cash earmarked for Katrina victims.
So where is it? We went to find out, and were told much of it is still in the hands of the federal government.
I met Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco at the governor's mansion to talk about the money trail. She says the state has received and paid out about $2 billion dollars of the $12 billion or so that's been promised by the federal government.
But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says that's not enough. He says the city is broke and wonders why it's only received about $100 million of the nearly $1 billion it has been promised.
Here's one thing that's holding up the money: The federal government's reconstruction fund works as a reimbursement program. The city needs to spend money to get money back. Problem is, the city says it doesn't have the money to spend on the construction projects, so it can't get reimbursed for work it can't get started.
Gov. Blanco says she recently put aside about $500 million to help the city make down payments and get projects started, but will construction companies be willing to do work for a city that's broke and has to get reimbursed to pay them? People here aren't so sure.
In the meantime, many people here will continue to live without a working sewer system, without power in many areas, and without much hope of a speedy recovery fed by a vast infusion of funds.
More fingers needed to plug 35K leaks
"The gift that keeps on giving." That's what residents here in New Orleans are calling the aftermath of Katrina. Comedy is a great recuperative tool, but it's not much relief for the 1,300 or so people whose heat routinely cuts off in the middle of a chilly winter night, because their natural gas fuel line has a water bubble in it.
Among them: A wonderful little old lady with whom I spent an afternoon. Her name is Thais Noriea. She's 90 years young, tough as overcooked andouille sausage, and willing to deal with what whatever Katrina throws her way. But no heat? That's where she draws the line. During our visit, plumbers arrived to fix the gas line and soon got an earful from Ms. Noriea.
Most of the four million gallons of water that poured into the city's natural gas lines was flushed out after Katrina. But some of it hides in pipes throughout the city, and all it takes is a teaspoon to block fuel from getting into a home. Plumbers tell us all they can do is blow it out, but that it then travels to another neighborhood, another home like Ms. Noriea's.
Another area of the city's infrastructure that remains compromised is the water system. Most of the floodwaters that overran New Orleans dried out in just weeks. But many underground pipes were busted by the roots of toppled trees and homes lifted from their foundations. Also, the salt water that poured into the city is corrosive and continues to ruin still more pipes. And there is a shortage of both workers and equipment to fix them.
Officials estimate there are 35,000 leaks to plug. And consider this: They've already sealed an equal number. About 50 million gallons of water leak out through these pipes everyday, officials say, water that people could use to drink, water for which residents are paying.
Ms. Noriea is not happy about the state of the city's battered infrastructure. But she isn't leaving. You'll meet Ms. Noriea tonight, and if you're like me, you'll come away with a better understanding of what it means to be resilient.
New Orleans residents: 'Tired of Being a Target'
Anderson is doing the show from here in New Orleans Thursday night and one of the subjects we are tackling is the community response to the recent spate of murders in the city.
Last night, I spent some time with residents in the Bywater district as they made signs for Thursday's big march to City Hall. The idea for the march began among residents in the Bywater and Marigny districts, which are located just east of the famous French Quarter, but has become a citywide event that will take place later this morning.
One event that helped galvanize city residents is the well-publicized shooting death of filmmaker Helen Hill. She and her husband, Dr. Paul Gailiunas, were shot in the doorway of their home in the Marigny district on January 4th. Hill's husband survived, but she was killed, leaving behind a two-year-old son.
New Orleans has seen nine murders since January 1 and residents in the Bywater neighborhood, like Jim Mondoro, don't see the city doing much to control the situation. Jim told me that part of the problem is that city leaders tend to ignore areas Marigny and Bywater, which are not frequented by tourists. He said that he and his neighbors do their best to keep an eye out for each other, but that hasn't stopped serious crimes from happening.
Longtime resident Karen Rittvo knows six people, all New Orleans residents, who have been killed since July. This crime spike is even more of a concern for her because not a single arrest has been made in any of these deaths.
Last night, Jim, Karen and their neighborhood friends painted posterboards with slogans like "Tired of Being a Target" and "Enough is Enough" in hopes that Mayor Ray Nagin and the city's police chief will come out and speak with them about solutions to what they see as a problem that will not go away.
Mayor Nagin held a press conference on Tuesday and announced new crimefighting initiatives, including more police foot patrols and expediting murder investigations. Jim and Karen don't think that's enough. They hope that somehow, today's march will force the city to take more action. Nine murders since January 1st is more than enough for these angry and scared New Orleanians.
Hot Links: Dodd for prez
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Bush's plan may please no one
I just landed in Washington and am heading to a round of meetings in advance of President Bush's speech tonight.
I always find it interesting how momentum seems to build in Washington before a speech like this one and how a sort of conventional wisdom develops. Frankly, I'm always wary of conventional wisdom. Rarely, it seems, is it very accurate.
By now, some of the president's proposals for Iraq are well known, and "last chance" is the term a lot of observers are throwing around, Republicans and Democrats alike.
The plan to escalate or "surge" some 20,000 more troops is unlikely to truly satisfy anyone. The troop number is lower than many hawks would like and too high for those who would like to scale back our involvement. There are also real questions about the Maliki government's willingness or ability to make good on its reported promises to go after Shia militias.
As always, it's easy to get caught up in the politics of an event like this one, and no doubt that is what much of tonight's coverage will explore. But I also think it’s worth remembering that human lives are at stake.
For American servicemen and women and for all Iraqis, this is not some laboratory experiment. I've been on enough patrols in Iraq to know that our brave soldiers and Marines will continue to do what is asked of them, no matter how difficult, no matter how dangerous. Lets hope what we ask of them is worthy of their sacrifice.
We've assembled a really smart panel to talk about the speech tonight -- Joe Klein of Time, former presidential advisor David Gergen, blogger Andrew Sullivan, as well as military analysts, and of course our best reporters.
What are you anticipating from the speech? Is there anything you would like to ask our panel of guests?
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Why we go to war
Want to know why nations go to war? Start with this: 80 percent of us consider ourselves better-than-average drivers.
I know, the connection seems weak, and maybe a bit flip, but stick with me.
A new paper
in Foreign Policy magazine suggests this point of view is a cornerstone of humankind's warlike nature. The great majority of us simply think we are smarter, more skilled, and more fair-minded than the next guy, and that makes us naturally a bit more inclined to be hawks than doves, to feel we are right when it comes time to fight.
The paper was authored by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and professor at Princeton University, and Jonathan Renshon, a doctoral student in government at Harvard University. I sat down with Kahneman to go over the details. Essentially, he argues that 40 years of psychological studies have uncovered some inherent biases shared by people all over the globe, regardless of race, age or nationality, and that those biases favor war.
How does it work? First, even though we often deny it, we commonly think we are better than the next person/group/nation, and we think our plans for progress are reasonable and fair to all involved. So when any human meets with resistance from another, he or she automatically sees the opposition as unreasonably hostile.
Second, because we have such a high opinion of ourselves, we tend to be overly optimistic. In each conflict, people on each side think they'll win. During World War One, for example, both the Germans and the French predicted quick, easy victories. Instead, the war lasted years and took nearly 20 million lives.
Lastly, we hate accepting losses. Gamblers know all about this. Offer a guy a choice between losing $850 for certain right now or maybe losing a $1,000 tomorrow, and he'll choose tomorrow, even if there is only a slight chance that he'll avoid tomorrow's losses.
What it all adds up to, according to Kahneman, is a tendency to favor hawkish views. Remember, this is not an attack on Americans or about the war in Iraq specifically. Frankly, it is not even a condemnation of such views. Rather, Kahneman's idea is that people everywhere should be aware or how these natural tendencies flavor our public debate, and even now may be pushing us toward the next battlefront.
Do you buy it?
Hot Links: How to help
After last night's report on Oprah's school and educational disparities in South Africa, we got a lot of e-mails from people wondering what they can do to help. Here are a few suggestions:
To donate to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa, here's a link:
To donate internationally, go to UNICEF's Web site:
To help in the United States, you can contact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at its Web site or Teach for America, which sends teachers to the country's neediest schools:
And here is a link to a South African organization we featured in last night's show:
Monday, January 08, 2007
Congress skips work to watch football
Listen to Congressional Democrats and you'd be forgiven for thinking the country is in crisis: Chaos in Iraq, a nation drowning in debt, a Congress known more for breaking laws than making them.
So what's the new Congress doing about it all today? We'd love to help you out on that, but we can't, because after a fairly busy week, the U.S. House of Representatives decided to take the day off, apparently because so many members wanted to go to tonight's college football championship game in Arizona.
Democrats say their lazy Monday was the result of a request from Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, whose Buckeyes will play the Florida Gators in tonight's game. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer agreed to hold off on voting today.
Tickets to the game are running at over a thousand dollars on eBay, but many of the members reportedly
got a sweet deal from Ohio State University -- tickets for less than $200.
Who says members of Congress aren't thrifty?
They're all back tomorrow, and the Democrats' much-hyped 100 hours of legislative action begins. We're sorting all this out for tonight's show, as always, "We're keeping them honest."
Preview: Oprah's promise to Africa
Hot Links: Bush's dusty veto pen
Friday, January 05, 2007
Oprah leads; celebs, media follow
Oprah Winfrey and CNN's Jeff Koinange in South Africa.
South Africa is used to hosting all manner of celebrities. After all, who wouldn't want a photo-op with one of the world's greatest living legends, Nelson Mandela, the man who spent 27 years in prison and walked out forgiving his tormentors?
But this past week, one celebrity managed to steal the show under Mandela's watchful gaze, and the "old man" didn't mind that it was none other than U.S. talk show host, Oprah Winfrey.
You know the story ... Oprah's $40 million leadership academy for girls in South Africa has generated enough publicity to attract not only the world's media to the tip of Africa, but also Hollywood's elite.
Everyone from Tina Turner to Mariah Carey, from Chris Rock to Chris Tucker, from Mary J. Blige to India Arie, from Spike Lee to Sidney Poitier, and many more have made the journey to the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg.
Oprah, as usual, was in her element, working the crowds, showing off her "girls" wearing their new green uniforms. Oprah herself picked the uniforms out. (And yes, Oprah does have plans to open an academy for boys, too.)
Oprah, of course, asked everyone to bring a favourite book. Chris Tucker brought Rick Warren's bestseller, "A Purpose-Driven Life."
"It's helped me so much," Tucker told me. (By the way, my choice was the story of Mohamed Amin, the famous cameraman who filmed, among other things, the famine pictures in Ethiopia back in 1984 that led to the whole "We Are The World" campaign. It's appropriately titled, "The Man Who Moved The World." Amin died when the plane he was on was hijacked and later ran out of fuel, crashing into the Indian Ocean in 1996.)
Back to Oprah and her mission.
It's the day after the big event, and Oprah's people have lined-up a press junket for her. She has more than a dozen interviews to do this morning with stations as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles. CNN is first, at 9 a.m. local time, a live-to-tape interview with Anderson Cooper in New York.
Anderson Cooper interviews Oprah about her new school.
Anderson comes up on the satellite. He's stayed up well after his 10 p.m. show (it's now 2 a.m. ET) and he and Oprah are chatting away like old friends. The interview starts promptly. Oprah's great, Anderson's equally great. The whole interview is great. They say their goodbyes over the satellite and Oprah gets up to go get ready for her "sit-down" interviews with the reporters who are there in person.
I grab a bottle of water and hand it to Oprah and ask her if we could do a walk-and-talk in the school courtyard, something different. She agrees immediately: "Whatever you want, Jeff."
The cameras are rolling and we proceed. Oprah talks about why it was important for her to visit the homes of the girls to see what their background was. She spoke candidly about how she grew up poor, how difficult her childhood was, how she overcame certain obstacles and why she feels these girls will do the same.
"I have no doubt that this school will produce the future leaders of Africa," she said. "I'm so excited."
She's excited? Imagine the girls, by this time walking around the campus in little groups, confidence written all over the small faces. They're out of uniform, but wearing matching outfits -- some in orange tops with blue jeans and orange sneakers; others in green tops with blue jeans and green sneakers. It all looks so surreal, so pristine, so nice.
As Oprah and I walk, I feel as though I'm witness to a great event. A woman has come here to South Africa from far away on a mission to make things better, in her own way, one girl at a time.
Can Rehnquist's decisions be appealed?
A lot of us here at "360" began the day fascinated with the story about the newly-released FBI files on former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. For those who have not read the details
: For nearly 10 years, Justice Rehnquist had been taking a prescribed medication, Placidyl, to help with insomnia caused by his chronic back pain.
Apparently, the then associate justice was taking three-times the prescribed dosage. People who heard him on the bench began wondering about Rehnquist's slurred speech, and in 1981 -- five years before he was nominated for chief justice -- he checked into George Washington University Hospital to help get off the Placidyl. Withdrawal was difficult and caused delirium, with Rehnquist in one episode trying to escape the hospital in his pajamas because he believed the CIA was after him.
There are so many medical questions: How exactly does Placidyl work? What are the long term effects of it? How does one over-medicate with it? And how in the world could that ever happen to a Supreme Court justice? (It could be as simple as, if Rehnquist was asking for the medication, what physician would say "no" to a Supreme Court justice?) Who better to answer all these questions than our "360" MD, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who will join Anderson tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
And what about the broader legal questions? What about the many, many cases he ruled on during that decade when he might have been impaired because of the medications? Our chief legal correspondent, Jeffrey Toobin, points out there is no appealing a Supreme Court decision. After all, it is the Supreme Court, and it takes a majority of justices to make a decision. But Jeff also points out Rehnquist again raises the question of life-terms versus term-limits for Supreme Court justices. He reminds us that Justice William O. Douglas suffered a serious stroke toward the end of his legal career, and yet he refused to step-down. The law dictates the only way to remove a Supreme Court justice is impeachment. So Jeff will also join Anderson tonight to chew on all of this.
We've also spent a lot of time here talking about a remarkable story Anderson shot recently. It's about an army sergeant deployed to Iraq before his son was born. To be closer to his baby, Charles Monroe King began writing letters to him -- advice and from a father to his son: "Remember who taught you to speak, to walk, to be a gentleman. These are your first teachers my little prince. Protect them, embrace them and always treat them like a queen."
During his tour First Sgt. King wrote all of these thoughts in a journal for little Jordan. When you read about this in his wife's account in the New York Times
and hear Anderson's story tonight, you'll no doubt be touched, as I was, by this father's love for his son.
Finally, later today and through the weekend I encourage you to read and comment on correspondent Jeff Koinange's blog post on his visit with Oprah at her new girls academy in South Africa. It is an amazing story: A good Samaritan flying across the world to provide education, hope and a future for kids who never guessed they'd ever see anything like this.
Jeff's post, which we'll publish later today, is a great preview of the hour special we are running Monday night, 10 p.m. ET. Anderson interviewed Oprah via satellite about what she is doing, and why, and we've had Jeff and his crew shooting stories of the girls' lives and what the school means to them. You'll see from Jeff's blog that our time with Oprah in South Africa will be one of those hours you'll want to share with others.
Hot Links: Military leadership shuffle
Thursday, January 04, 2007
JFK's heir ... Mitt Romney?
We all know about the New York Democrat who may try to become the first woman president and the Illinois Democrat who may attempt to become the first African-American president, but what about Massachusetts Republican who's trying to become the first Mormon in the White House? We haven't heard so much about him.
But that's all about to change.
Former Governor Mitt Romney formed his exploratory committee yesterday, the first step in a presidential campaign. Romney's not a household name like the guys leading the pack for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
But he's got one big advantage over them: He speaks the language of church folk ... the evangelical Christians who wield enormous power in Republican primaries.
Giuliani and McCain have long kept religious conservatives at arm's length. This year, they've been working hard to build bridges with evangelicals, but their efforts don't always ring true in the pews. They haven't championed social issues like abortion and same sex marriage and they don't seem particularly comfortable talking about their faith.
So there's a real ideaological opening in the top tier of the Republican presidential field, and Mitt Romney is ready to fill it. He's become an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, despite indications he may have supported different positions earlier in his political career. He's held meetings with top national evangelical leaders, and reached out to smaller Christian groups in the key primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. He's got the message on social issues that these groups want to hear.
But there's a catch.
Romney is a Mormon, and many Christian conservatives aren't comfortable with Mormonism. Michael Cromartie, an expert on religion and politics, told me many evangelicals see Mormonism as a cult. In a recent ABC News poll, 35 percent of voters said they're less likely to support a Mormon candidate.
Think about it. Apart from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the top Mormons in the news lately have been alleged polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and the fictional polygamist family on HBO's hit show "Big Love." Most Americans probably know next to nothing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the roughly six million Mormons living rather ordinary lives in the United States.
So chances are Mitt Romney will have some explaining to do. He's used to it, and points to another famous Massachusetts politician: John F. Kennedy. As the first Catholic president, JFK's road to the White House was paved with a million questions about whether the Vatican would shape his presidency. He was finally compelled to declare that on matters of public policy, he didn't speak for his church, and his church didn't speak for him.
Expect to hear something similar for Mitt Romney, before too long.
So what do you think? Is America ready for a Mormon president?
Hot Links: Dems assume power
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Convicted congressmen collect public pensions
The voice was unmistakable: Gruff, raspy, Rosty. And from his greeting, I knew this would be a story.
"Congressman Rostenkowski" is how the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee answered his cell phone. Not "ex-con Rostenkowski," not "Mr. Rostenkowski," not even "Hey, I've been pardoned by Bill Clinton, Rostenkowski".
Nope, it's "Congressman."
And with good reason. Congress is still paying the chairman. According to the National Taxpayers Union, an organization that advocates for lower taxes, Rosty is making $126,000 a year from his federal pension. Not bad for a guy that went to prison after being indicted on 17 counts of, among other charges, embezzling public funds.
Now those same public funds pay Rosty. And the National Taxpayers Union is sick of it. The union sent a letter to the new leaders in congress. This letter was signed by a couple of dozen watchdog groups, from the left and the right to the middle, and it asked, in effect, why are we paying the pensions of congressional felons?
According to the Taxpayers Union research, 20 lawmakers over the last 25 years have been found guilty of serious crimes while in office. All 20 received, or are still receiving, congressional retirement benefits.
Randall "Duke" Cunningham and James Traficant are both in prison right now, and both collecting. "Duke" gets an estimated $64,000 a year. Traficant's estimated pension is $40,000.
The National Taxpayers Union is pushing Congress to stop this by adding simple provision to the law: If you are convicted of a serious crime while in Congress, you lose the taxpayer-funded portion of your congressional pension.
I wanted to ask Congressman Rostenkowski what he thought about this, so I got his cell phone number from a friend and called him. That's when he answered, "Congressman Rostenkowski." But the senior statesman apparently picks and chooses his topics these days carefully.
"What benefit is it to me?" he asked, before denying my request for an interview. For an ex-con who's getting an estimated 126,000 benefits a year from taxpayers, keeping quiet makes a whole lot of cents!
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007
A story that needs to be told
On the wall of my office are pictures of four young men. They are smiling the way people in their twenties do when the world is a river of possibilities stretching ahead. I have never met them, and never will, but I miss them every day.
Jesse Strong, Chris Weaver, Karl Linn, and Jonathan Bowling. Marines. Two years ago this month they all died in Iraq in an ambush on the banks of the Euphrates River.
As we pass the milestone of 3,000 fatalities in Iraq, it troubles me that there is simply not enough time in the world to tell the stories of all who have served and died in Iraq and Afghanistan, although their stories certainly deserve to be told and remembered.
So for the past few months I have been reconstructing the story of just these four men: Strong, Weaver, Linn and Bowling.
I've looked at their lives, their deaths, and the enormous impact they had on everyone around them. I have visited with their families; talked to brothers and sisters, friends, fiances, neighbors. I have read the military reports on how they died, and talked at length with other Marines who stood with them on that terrible night when the darkness erupted with bullets and rockets. I have stood in the homes these young men left behind, and knelt beside their graves.
And I have sat in my office here night after night, often until 3:00 in the morning, staring at their pictures and trying to write their story. It is easier at night, when no one is knocking at the door, no one calling, no e-mails; nothing to disturb the profound sadness that surrounds the events that took their lives.
History will judge the rights and the wrongs of this war, but whether you are in favor of it or not, you need to know the story of these men. Maybe because stories such as this help the war remain real and visceral; not abstract numbers and names flying through the news. Maybe because these four young men willingly did what their country asked them to do ... what we asked them to do ... and because they did it with courage, faith and honor. Maybe you should know their story, because we can't know all of the stories of all the thousands who have died.
So tonight we will tell the story of these four Marines. And once you know them, I suspect you too will miss them every day.
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