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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Pentagon Acknowledges at Least 3 Deaths of Iraqi Prisoners in U.S. Custody; Wildfires Burn in Southern California

Aired May 4, 2004 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again.
By now you've seen the Iraqi prisoner pictures more than once. You get it by now but the story only begins with the pictures. It hardly ends there. Congress will hold hearings. And tonight the White House said the president will do interviews with Arab TV networks to explain, if explain is the right word.

Beyond the most obvious, what were they thinking in that prison exactly, there are other troubling questions and here is just one. How could it be that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn't read the report that one of his generals wrote on the prison until the other day? The report was completed in February.

Fair or not, it leaves an impression that it only was a big deal when it became a public deal and it has become a very big deal and a very public deal for the chairman, for the White House, for the country and it is likely to get worse.

The whip tonight begins with our Chief Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, Jamie a headline.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Pentagon today had to acknowledge that there were at least three cases in which Iraqi prisoners had died in the hands of the U.S. military in which the U.S. might have been responsible. Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insisted that these are the exception not the rule.

BROWN: Jamie, we'll get back to you at the top tonight. Thank you.

Damage control next, our Senior National Security Correspondent David Ensor with us, David a headline.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, with Democrats and one senior Republican calling for heads to roll, and just about anyone who's anyone overseas saying American credibility has suffered a body blow, the administration is pulling out all the stops to explain, to regret, to promise justice but they're up against those pictures that are more powerful than words -- Aaron.

BROWN: David, thank you.

And finally to the scene of wildfires now burning again in Southern California. CNN's Ted Rowlands is there, so Ted a headline from you tonight.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot of concern here in Southern California. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes as firefighters tackle six separate wildfires tonight -- Aaron.

BROWN: Ted, we'll get back to you and the rest shortly.

Also on the program tonight, an exclusive look at a place this side of Washington where no terror threat, no matter how vague, goes unchecked and where the government decides when and when not to warn.

Plus a memorial at St. Paul's, the chapel that was the heart and soul of the rescue effort at Ground Zero in those difficult days following 9/11.

And later, as always, your favorite, it is your favorite isn't it, we hope it is, it's ours, morning papers, what your paper will be when it lands on your doorstep tomorrow, all that and more in the hour ahead.

We begin with something a guest on the program said to us last night. The Iraqi prison story, he said, goes to the essence of what the country stands for, what separates us, we hope, from our adversaries.

For most people that would include accountability, responsibility and, in the military context, the chain of command. Today, all three were in the spotlight starting at the Pentagon.

Again, here's CNN's Jamie McIntyre.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice-over): Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said that as the senior official responsible for the Pentagon he intends to take all necessary actions to find out what went wrong and to fix it.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The actions of the soldiers in those photographs are totally unacceptable and un-American.

MCINTYRE: The pictures put Rumsfeld in the uncomfortable position of having to explain the difference between the abuse by the U.S. military and the torture and murder by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

RUMSFELD: Equating the two I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what took place.

MCINTYRE: With some in Congress calling for hearings, the Pentagon dispatched the Army's No. 2 general to reassure members it could investigate itself.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY, ARMY VICE CHIEF OF STAFF: We are fully committed to getting to the bottom of this and holding accountable those who we find guilty through the judicial process. MCINTYRE: So far a dozen people have been reprimanded or face criminal charges but even with the investigation still underway, the Army is saying this is an isolated case.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), ARMED SERVICES CMTE.: There were a number of allegations of prisoner abuse in both Afghanistan and in Iraq but we were assured that none of them were similar to this type of abuse.

MCINTYRE: The Army says there have been 25 prisoners who've died while in U.S. custody in Iraq or Afghanistan. Twelve of the deaths were said to be from natural causes but two are homicides and a third a possible homicide. One incident was ruled justifiable when a U.S. soldier shot an escaping prisoner.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: And, Aaron, tonight many of Rumsfeld's top aides were huddling deciding whether to respond and how quickly to a request from Congress for the secretary to appear to answer questions. Reportedly, Rumsfeld said he's not sure what he can tell them. What they want to know is exactly what he knew and what action he took when he knew it -- Aaron.

BROWN: Have they all, by all I mean at the top of the chain of command, have they all now acknowledged they have read the general's report that was written last February?

MCINTYRE: No, they haven't. In fact, Rumsfeld said today he only read portions of it, the 53-page executive summary of that report and he noted that there were a lot of annexes to it as well but he still says he hasn't read the whole thing.

BROWN: And he hasn't read it because?

MCINTYRE: Well, you know, the explanation they give at the Pentagon is a very technical one. It has to do with rules regarding command influence and how things normally go up through the chain of command.

But the question I was asking Rumsfeld is those rules are not (unintelligible) and in a case like this where there's such an implication to this why wouldn't they make an exception. If they're guilty of something, it appears to be guilty of handling things the normal way when this is an extraordinary event.

BROWN: Jamie, thank you very much, Jamie McIntyre at work again tonight at the Pentagon.

Last night on the program Jamie closed with the words of a Pentagon staffer. "If we have any friends left in the Middle East" this officer said to Jamie, "it is a wonder to me."

Given that states do what they do out of self interest and not friendship in the long run there may be less here than meets the eye but, for the moment, the United States is toxic, something the president is expected to address in interviews with Arab television in the coming days, an effort his top advisers began today.

Again, here's CNN's David Ensor.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR (voice-over): On Al- Jazeera television and other Arabic language networks, Bush administration officials fanned out to limit the damage.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We have a democratic system for holding people...

ENSOR: People will see, said Condoleezza Rice that we are determined to get to the bottom of what happened. At the Pentagon briefing, Secretary Rumsfeld appeared aware his remarks were broadcasting live well beyond U.S. borders.

RUMSFELD: The United States of America is a wonderful country and the overwhelming majority of the people...

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: While we deplore this and while we are all stunned and shocked that our young people could do this, let's not forget what most of our young people are doing in service to the nation and in service to the Iraqi people.

ENSOR: But officials concede that the TV interviews are only damage control and the damage will be great.

REP. JANE HARMAN (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: A picture is worth 1,000 words and this -- these pictures, these horrible, despicable pictures have undone thousands of acts of kindness and courage in Iraq by American soldiers and civilians.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ENSOR: Administration officials concede America's reputation in the Mid East region is at a low point now. In Iraq they say though that U.S. assistance will soon be creating 20,000 reconstruction jobs and Iraqis will soon be running their country again. The hope is that the image of this country in that region will start to get better.

BROWN: David, what can you tell us about the president and his plans to address this?

ENSOR: Well, the president, as you mentioned, is going to be going on two of the Arabic language stations in the next day or so, I believe tomorrow one of the interviews at least will be and, again, it's damage control but they realize the damage is going to be great anyway.

They feel that by going out there and saying look we're sorry, we regret this too, we're horrified also, they may at least diminish in some sense the damage but right now the damage assessment is going on and they're quite worried about it.

BROWN: David, thank you, David Ensor in Washington tonight. The prisoner abuse scandal may be dominating the news out of Iraq but the insurgency in Fallujah remains a major story. The new plan is to let Iraqi forces patrol the besieged city. There have been snags. The first Iraqi general chosen to command the so-called Fallujah Brigade has stepped down, well perhaps pushed aside says it better.

Another general is waiting in the wings. The force he'll lead is primarily made up of former members of Saddam Hussein's military and they began their new job today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): They certainly acted like veterans. In their new American-style desert camouflage uniforms the Fallujah Brigade formed up today and fanned out to begin patrolling this difficult place. Most of those celebrating in the streets were still wearing their old uniforms and waving their old flag.

General Mohammed Abdul Latif, dressed in a gray suit, is expected to be named to lead the brigade and he arrived to confer with other former Iraqi Army officers including Major General Jassem Mohamed Saleh.

Saleh was the original commander, his name hurriedly withdrawn after accusations arose that he had been involved in the bloody repression of Shias that followed the first Gulf War.

Latif was reported jailed by Saddam and was clearly out to convince the residents of Fallujah he was on their side.

Blaming the slaying of American civilian contractors on suspects from the outside, Latif said it was the ignorant and the jobless people who mutilated their bodies and he added the people of Fallujah should be proud of the fact that the mutilation was condemned from every mosque.

General Latif emphasized that the new brigade was not the enemy but part of Fallujah and that they would stay and defend the city's women and children.

Since American commanders suspect that some of the soldiers now patrolling the city were shooting at U.S. troops only a few days ago, one can only wonder exactly who they are planning to defend Fallujah against. At this point, the Americans are satisfied they are working together.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: There was word from the Pentagon today that the number of troops in Iraq will be kept at the current level, 135,000 give or take, possibly through the end of next year. In addition, commanders say replacement forces rotating into the country will be more heavily armed in recognition of the dangers these days.

Needless to say this is another unwelcome bit of business, along with the prison pictures and Fallujah and so on but does it and the rest also hide a larger, some would say less dire, reality?

Michael Rubin is an adviser to the Pentagon on Iraq and Iran. He recently returned from a long stretch in Iraq working for the CPA. We're pleased to have him on the program tonight. It's nice to see you, Michael. Thank you.

MICHAEL RUBIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Thanks for having me here.

BROWN: Let me start with the hanging curve and then we'll go to a few fast balls here and there. But take 30 seconds and tell me what we're missing, what we don't see.

RUBIN: One of the things which I always looked at when I was in Baghdad is what people were investing in. If people are willing to put down tens of thousands of dollars into a new house, for example, that shows they have some confidence in the future.

When I got to Baghdad back in July there were very few women on the streets and those that were, were fully veiled. People said it wasn't out of religious conviction. It was more because they were worried about security.

But by the time I left in March you had teenage girls walking without escort down the streets in Baghdad and Nasiriyah in Iraqi Kurdistan basically enjoying the nightlife, window shopping into the new boutiques and everything like that. It did show some improvement.

BROWN: Would you say it's fair to say that what you have is a very complicated picture in Iraq that on the one hand clearly things are better, whether it be newspapers and satellite dishes and Internet cafes and all the rest that's going on and, on the other hand, you have a reality that 135,000 Americans, more, 20 percent more than anticipated, are going to be there for another year at least?

RUBIN: Exactly. I mean it is a very complicated situations. Sometimes actually we talk past each other when we talk about security. When Americans talk about security, of course, we mean force protection. When Iraqis talk about security they often mean freedom from violent or random crime.

They're two different issues. The freedom from violent or random crime from an Iraqi perspective security has gotten better. When you actually go down the streets, you see electrical appliances stacked on the sidewalks. The age of looting and the age of just random violence is over but Iraqis are still worried about terrorism and we need to be worried about force protection.

BROWN: Is that -- is terrorism the right word? Is that what they're worried about?

RUBIN: Yes. It is the right word because what's been going on with many of the car bombs, for example, is that they're trying to maximize civilian casualties. When I lived in the Mansoor district of Baghdad, or the Korada district of Baghdad outside the Green Zone, there were a couple car bombs that were clearly they killed 50 people in Baghdad lining up in a market.

In Karbala and Haramia (ph) you had car bombs and in Erbil you had suicide bombings. They were going after civilians. They were going after civilians for political gain. That's terrorism.

BROWN: What do you make, if you believe the polls, sometimes people don't and I'll get that too, the polls that show that the Iraqis really want the Americans out now that they've had it and that they really do see this as a hostile occupation at this point?

RUBIN: I think the polls can be rather volatile and when you actually look into the details of the polls many of them are just based on a sample of a couple hundred to maybe 3,000 or so. There's a large silent majority in Iraq.

They haven't come out demonstrating in favor for us but after having lived there, not just eight months with CPA but eight months before working in the university system, they very much want us to stay.

The reason they're not coming out is they fell that in 1991 we cut and run and left them to Saddam Hussein and the thugs and they're worried we're going to cut and run again. Until they're sure that we're going to see it through to the finish, they're not going to put their necks out on the line for us again.

BROWN: Michael, it's very good to have you on the program. I hope you'll come back from time to time. It helps, I think, paint the broadest picture which is good for all of us. Thank you.

RUBIN: Thank you for having me.

BROWN: Thank you, Michael Rubin tonight.

A couple of other notes here to pass along. In Germany today, Thomas Hamill, the American contract worker held hostage in Iraq for three weeks spoke publicly for the first time since his escape over the weekend. Though injured, Mr. Hamill says he feels well and urged Americans not to forget those he left behind.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS HAMILL, FORMER HOSTAGE: First and foremost I would like to thank the American public for their support of all deployed in the Middle East. Please keep your thoughts and prayers for those who are still there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Former American hostage Thomas Hamill who was in Landstuhl, Germany today. His doctors say he'll likely return home to Mississippi later this week.

Still ahead on the program tonight a look inside the proceedings against one of the soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners.

Plus, democratic elections in Afghanistan, hardly simple or easy, a break first.

From New York this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: We often speak of the fog of war and the Iraqi prisoner abuse story is a prime example. There are more questions than answers tonight, lots of grays, despite the vivid photographs at the center of the scandal.

The family of one of the accused soldiers, Chip Frederick, has defended him fiercely. They say he's been made a scapegoat to protect his superiors. CNN has obtained a copy of the military hearing in the case of Sergeant Frederick and it too raises more questions.

Here's CNN's Kathleen Koch.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Thirty-seven- year-old Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick's family has portrayed him as a whistle-blower, an observer of the worst abuse, ignored when he raised concerns.

IVAN "RED" FREDERICK, ACCUSED SOLDIER'S FATHER: The more he complained and went to his superiors, it was you go back and do the job. They said we're running the show and don't you worry about it.

JO ANN FREDERICK, ACCUSED SOLDIER'S MOTHER: My son was raised right. He's never abused anybody.

KOCH: But a transcript of Frederick's Article 32 proceeding, the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing tells a different story. The military court decided to proceed with criminal charges after seeing evidence, including a photo of Frederick sitting on a bound prisoner.

A witness testified: "I remember SSG Frederick hitting one prisoner on the side of its ribcage. The prisoner was no danger to SSG Frederick. They were still flex-cuffed and sandbagged."

Frederick in journal entries his family released wrote he was essentially following orders and was told: "This is how military intelligence (MI) wants it done."

ROBERT GOLDMAN, LAW PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: And it can be a defense and a successful defense but only if he can establish that he did -- he or she did not know or reasonably could not be expected to know that this was an illegal order.

KOCH: Frederick's attorney admits his client is not blameless.

GARY MYERS, FREDERICK'S ATTORNEY: The defenses involved here do not involve necessarily abrogating all responsibility. They involve abrogating criminal responsibility. KOCH (on camera): It's unclear when and where Chip Frederick and five other soldiers accused in the alleged abuses will face courts martial.

Kathleen Koch, CNN, The Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Earlier in the program, David Ensor highlighted the damage control efforts aimed at the Arab world. Their public opinion seems evenly divided between outrage and the notion, true or not, that this is nothing new.

For Americans, we imagine, this is something new. We don't pretend any great wisdom here about how the pictures might change the minds about the broader mission. What we can offer is a small sampling of public opinion concerning the story itself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's a good thing they took the pictures. I think it shows how war actually occurs and what happens during war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's too bad that the -- some of the U.S. soldiers, a very small minority, have chosen to give the Arabs one more reason to claim that, you know, Saddam wasn't that bad after all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When the U.S. government sends our people into a quagmire that they've got going on in Iraq this is the result they should expect. When you send young American guys and girls into hell they're going to get these kind of results and they should not have expected any less.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's an abuse of the soldiers if they were instructed to do that, which perhaps they were. It's an abuse of the Iraqis themselves and it's not a way to bring democracy to people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was a little disheartened by it. I thought that they were being treated fairly but I guess by those pictures they weren't.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought it was a disgrace. I think, however, it's been shown way too much on television and we need to get back to the business of paying attention to what's really going on in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Some reaction around the country tonight.

The reaction in Congress has been fast and furious, as you would imagine. The top Democrat on the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, saying today that what happened in the Iraqi prisons is "the single most damaging act to our interests in the region in the last decade." He also said if Congress doesn't get satisfactory answers from senior Pentagon officials about the abuse, resignations should be sought.

He wasn't alone in his outrage. On the Senate floor today, Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, a military veteran, lit into military officials high in the chain of command. We spoke with the Senator earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Senator, let me start this way. When looking at this whole question of what happened in the prison and who's responsible and the rest, what is it you would most like to know now?

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, I think there are three things we need to know. First, we need to know what are the factors that could lead to these kinds of abuses and humiliations occurring.

Clearly, we need to know how extensive the problem is. Was it just this prison? Was it all of our prisons in Iraq? Was it prisons perhaps in Afghanistan or somewhere else that we operate through our military?

And then a third -- the third issue is we need to know what actions were taken in response to these horrendous facts by our -- by the people in the chain of command once they were briefed on what was going on.

BROWN: One of the problems, it seems like a problem to me, it may or may not seem like a problem to you or others, is that as you work up the chain of command you find people who didn't even read, who had never even seen the report. General Myers said he hadn't seen the report. The president never saw the report. It doesn't sound like the chain of command took it all that seriously.

BINGAMAN: Well, I think that is one of the major problems. Obviously, if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs had taken it that seriously he would have said give me that report. I want it on my desk by noon. Secretary Rumsfeld would have said the same, presumably the president the same.

I don't know when they were briefed or when they became aware that these kinds of practices had occurred. I guess General Taguba's report was completed sometime in February and for them not to have insisted upon seeing that and dealing with it immediately, I just can't understand that.

BROWN: Do you believe if the pictures had not surfaced that this would have come out in the way it has come out?

BINGAMAN: Oh, I think clearly the publication of these pictures and, of course, this report now in the "New Yorker" magazine has brought the whole thing crushing down upon us and the world community is faced with it.

Clearly the better course would have been for us, our government, our military, our Pentagon to announce that we had discovered this kind of problem existed, announce what steps we were taking to deal with it and have the whole issue become public that way instead of us having to react to a leaked report.

BROWN: I want to -- speaking of how the world is looking at this and how all of us, how media, how you all in Congress and others are dealing with this, are you at all concerned, do you think it's possible that all of us are spending too much time on this or making too big a deal of this or beating the country up too much about this at our own detriment?

BINGAMAN: Well, my own view is that clearly these particular acts were horrendous and much of the world is judging us on the basis of those acts by a few individuals perhaps. I hope by a few individuals and nothing more.

But the other judgment that's going to be made is how do we react to what we have now been shown? I think most Americans would want us to react strongly to this. This goes to the every essence of what this country stands for.

BROWN: Do you think when all is said and done that blame will be placed at the appropriate levels in the chain of command or will ultimately it fall to the lowest level?

BINGAMAN: Well, I don't know. I think -- I think that there's probably blame at several levels and I hope that if that is the case that it will be properly placed at several levels but I don't think we know enough yet to say where the blame should be placed. We don't know what actions should have been taken that were not taken, what information people had, at what point in time. All of that has to be determined.

BROWN: Well, we hope you and others will work through all of that. It's obviously a very uncomfortable chapter for the country to have to deal with. Sir, thank you for your time today.

BINGAMAN: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: I talked to the Senator late this afternoon.

Coming up tonight, when to warn of the possibility of a terrorist attack, not an easy call to say the least. We'll take you behind the scenes to see how they do it, a break first.

This is NEWSNIGHT on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: With so much attention fixated on June the 30th, the handover date in Iraq, there is less being paid to another milestone, the date in September for planned elections in Afghanistan, if, in fact they happen in September. As in Iraq, getting there will be rough, and for many of the same reasons.

Here is CNN's Nic Robertson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Preparing for a photo, no small step in this religiously conservative society. Women register to vote in the provincial town of Ghazni, as the United Nations expands election preparations nationwide.

"I heard it was time to register," this teacher says. "So I came."

Men, in keeping with tradition, registering separately for the presidential and parliamentary elections due in September, for most, their first taste of democracy.

"In my life, I have never seen such a process before," this storekeeper says, "and I welcome it."

(on camera): U.N. officials hope to open between 4,000 and 5,000 registration centers like this one. But in some areas of the country, particularly the south and east, a lack of security is presenting huge problems.

(voice-over): Election officials, particularly in Ghazni, where the killing of an international aid worker last year stopped aid efforts, tread carefully. Gibril Turay was first to return.

GIBRIL TURAY, REGISTRATION COORDINATOR: We have the districts have been classified into low-risk areas, medium-risk and high-risk areas. So the strategy is to start with low-risk areas.

ROBERTSON: (on camera): Privately, though, some U.N. officials with other postconflict election experience raise bigger concerns about security, pointing out that those elections have not been held until a cease-fire is in place and disarmament has happened, neither of which they say has taken place here. The risk they say is that these elections could legitimize the country's warlords and because of poor security lead to low voter turnout in the ethnic Pashtun areas close to Pakistan, risking, they say, alienating the country's majority ethnic community.

(voice-over): Marginally improving economic conditions in some parts of the country and broad support for the elections bolster government claims security fears are overplayed.

Afghanistan is a country which is prone to these kind of problems. I don't think one should categorically say that the problem will be concentrated in the Pashtun belt. That is not my judgment that and that is not my concern.

ROBERTSON: Few here doubt the process is flawed. It is just a question of by how much and what the risk is of not going ahead.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Kabul, Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BROWN: Back to this country now and tough decisions in the new normal. Last week, government officials -- excuse me -- received an anonymous call suggesting a possible terrorist attack at a mall in Los Angeles. A public warning went out, even though the tip was uncorroborated. The attack, of course, never came. And today the FBI said it was a phony. A Tanzanian man living in Canada has been charged in the hoax.

Terror tips rarely spell out the five W's, the whos and whats and wheres and whens and whys. That's what makes weighing them so difficult. But they must be weighed and evaluated. At some point, a decision must be made whether to warn or not. No computer can make those calls. People must.

Here is CNN's Kelli Arena.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Officials in Los Angeles say they had no choice but to alert the public. An anonymous caller warning of an attack on a shopping mall gave them a date and a location.

JAMES HAHN, MAYOR OF LOS ANGELES: We think, in abundance of caution, it was important to share it with the public.

ARENA: But often the information coming in is more generic. For example, this year there had been threats against Texas oil refineries, planes flying into the United States, and commercial transportation in -- quote -- "big U.S. cities."

RAY KELLY, NYPD COMMISSIONER: If it is very general in nature, then obviously that is given a lot less weight than something that is more specific and where the source has a track record.

ARENA: In Maryland, threat information is funneled to this center, analyzed and shared with the agencies who can best respond statewide.

TERRENCE SHERIDAN, BALTIMORE COUNTY POLICE CHIEF: If we have a call coming into here about some suspicious activity, we have got people out in patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week that can get that information and start the initial investigation.

ARENA: CNN was granted exclusive access, but many of these individuals work under cover and much of the information gathered here is sensitive. The center houses law enforcement, public health and homeland security officials.

KEVIN PERKINS, BALTIMORE FBI AGENT IN CHARGE: The key to some form of comfort level in the general public is for the public to know that information sharing between these agencies is taking place, not only information sharing, but appropriate action is taking place. No leads are going uncovered.

ARENA: Nearly all officials say, given the huge amount of information, it is difficult for professionals to sort out what is important and to connect the dots, much less the general public.

DENNIS SCHRADER, DIRECTOR, MARYLAND HOMELAND SECURITY: There is always that tradeoff between how public you are, but how discrete you are depending on the situation. And if you overreact on a regular basis, then people won't take it seriously.

ARENA: While law enforcement may not always share the leads it is running down with the public, officials say it is imperative that relationship work the other way around.

PERKINS: Let us decide what is credible and not. If you see something that is suspicious to you, please call us.

ARENA: Kelli Arena, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Still ahead on the program tonight, fire season comes early to a very hot Southern California. It's off to a fierce start. We'll go to the fire line when we come back.

Around the world, this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Fire season is off to an early and difficult start in Southern California, six major fires burning tonight between Santa Barbara and San Diego. More than 15,000 acres have been destroyed, thousands of people already forced from their homes.

CNN's Ted Rowlands joins us from Corona, California.

Ted, good evening.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Aaron.

Four of the six fires that are burning in Southern California are burning here in Riverside County. And tonight, there is some real concern about a cluster of about 250 homes which are located near the area of Lake Elsinore in Southern California, just east of Los Angeles off of the Interstate 15.

In all, as you mentioned, 15,000 acres have burned. Resources are scattered around the region. This is a -- there is a major blaze also just south of the city of Temecula that has consumed more than 4,000 acres. There is a blaze in Santa Barbara County which is only 10 percent contained tonight, that in the Los Padres National Forest. And 1,900 acres have burned in San Diego County at Camp Pendleton. That fire has been contained, for the most part, tonight.

All of the focus tonight, at least in this area, is on those 250 homes that could possibly be in danger. A 44-year-old has been arrested on two felony counts of negligence for dragging a steel plate, which is used by the highway repair -- for highway repairs in California. He was dragging this behind his vehicle. They believe that is what started this fire which is threatening the homes tonight. This, of course, is a very early start to the fire season in Southern California. It has been extremely hot over the last few days. The hope is that Mother Nature will pitch in overnight. They're hoping that the humidity will go up and that the temperatures will go down -- Aaron.

BROWN: Any fatalities yet?

ROWLANDS: What's that? No casualties, no fatalities. There have been some minor injuries to a number of firefighters. More than a dozen firefighters have been injured. The bulk of them have been the victims of heat stroke. A couple people also have suffered smoke inhalation problems that were in the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County.

But other than that, there has been no major injuries. Structures, there's only a few outbuildings that have been taken out, no homes thus far. But, again, those 250 homes are considered in danger tonight.

BROWN: Ted, thank you. Good, quick work tonight, too. Thank you, Ted Rowlands.

A few other bits of business before we head to break, starting with the Sasser computer worm. Sounds ugly. It is ugly. So far, it's infected and clogged up several hundred thousand computers, mostly in Europe, including the British Coast Guard's. Experts say it has a tough time getting through certain common computer fire walls. So the spread of it hasn't been as fast or as wide as other computer bugs like Blaster. Thank goodness.

And the markets had a fine day despite strong hints from the Fed that interest rates are on the way up. OK, it is not a brilliant day, but it's better than a losing day, right?

Ahead on the program, a place we had almost forgotten, the sanctuary at ground zero remembered in a new light. You'll like this one.

From New York, this is NEWSNIGHT on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: One of the earliest pieces NEWSNIGHT did as a program was set in a church in Lower Manhattan across the street from where the World Trade Centers once stood. It was, the church, quite literally a sanctuary, a quiet place in a loud and shattered corner of the world.

Into this sanctuary came firefighters and medics and volunteers of all sorts. They came to keep body and soul together. Tonight, there is no memorial across the street at ground zero. There won't be for years. There is one at Saint Paul's.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have a need and I respond to it, period. That is what Saint Paul said and that's what this place did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The name of the exhibit is Unwavering Spirit, Hope and Healing at Ground Zero. The title basically reflects the idea that people mounted this amazing volunteer effort at this chapel to help with the recovery effort and to work with the recovery workers who were working in ground zero and provide the emotional, spiritual and physical support that those workers needed.

DIANE REINERS, VOLUNTEER: One person didn't do this. This -- 14,000 people did this, 14,000 volunteers and 500,000 workers. Everybody gave something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was an every man's kind of thing. There were people here who were stockbrokers. There was rabbis. There were, you know, teachers. We had the podiatrist. We had the massage therapist. The musicians came down and played, violins, pianos. Singers came down and entertained. And that was the spirit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were moved. Sometimes there was a smile. Sometimes there was a hug. Often there were chills. Very often, it was tears.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A big part of the experience of Saint Paul's happened outside. The Saint Paul's fence became a memorial in itself. So what we wanted to do was kind of recapture the spirit of the fence and of those blank canvases. So people can leave their message here.

REINERS: Every single person, every single card, every letter, every little breathing thing that happened in here made a difference.

KELLY FITZGERALD, STUDENT: We made that, mom.

We came to New York for the dedications because our class made a flag. People were saying how they came in here and saw that flag and it really meant something to them. So I really -- it -- it has changed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This exhibit really right now is the only one and I think that's real important to New York City is that there is some place here. There has to be a place where people come and have a touchstone to all the loss, all the pain, all the suffering. You look at this place as a symbol of hope.

REINERS: I think it is really important that people look at what happened and experience the good that can come out of a tragedy and think that hopefully it doesn't have to take a tragedy to create this kind of goodness.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: People ask me all the time when they're coming to New York if they should go to ground zero. And I always say, yes, absolutely. And now I'll say, go Saint Paul's, too. You don't really get it until you do.

Morning papers after the break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(ROOSTER CROWING)

BROWN: Okeydoke, time to check morning papers from around the country and around the world. There's so many, I don't know how we'll get them all in tonight. We may have to stay late. You'll stay with us, won't you?

Begin with "The Times of London," or "The Times" in London. "America's Catalogue of Torture," the lead. "Pentagon Details 20 Criminal Abuses." Actually, there are investigation into 20 cases. And they pretty much list of the worst of the Taguba report -- Tabuga (sic) report -- the general who wrote the report. That's their lead. I love this headline. "Doctors Accept Trips for Unproven Hips." It has to do with hip replacement. That's everything I could figure out from the story.

"Christian Science Monitor." "Lessons From Abu Ghraib. Morality Aside, Experts Say Prison Abuse is Also Ineffective." This is in most papers today again for a second day.

"The Washington Times" as well. "Pentagon Probes Iraqi Prisoners Deaths." But a lot of other things on the front page of "The Washington Times." "Casualties of Iraq War Can Get to U.S. Medics," a nice story about the stress that medics endure. And also, this is an issue that is very big to the editors of the papers. They put it on the front page. "Methodists Tighten Stance on Homosexuals." It's another gay battle going on.

"The Boston Herald." It's an awfully good story. "I Can't Get the Time Back I Lost. Failed System Sent Him Away for 19 Years and Ruined 21 Other Lives," a very good story.

"The Philadelphia Inquirer" leads with the hostages -- or with the detainees, rather. "Anger Rises on Capitol Hill. Legislators Demand Rumsfeld Answers For" -- or "On Iraq Abuse."

Let me do the Burt County thing. Here we go.

How we doing on time?

"Burt County Plaindealer" in Burt County, Nebraska. This is good news, right? "Forty-Four Seniors to Graduate This Sunday." And they picked four of them, all really pretty to show. And I'm sure all the young women in Burt County are attractive, including these four. Anyway, graduation day is coming up. And it is a reminder there's good news out there.

We don't have "The "Chicago Sun-Times," but we do have the weather. You ready?

(CHIMES)

BROWN: Thank you. The weather tomorrow in Chicago is, "Ah." That sounds good. We'll wrap up the day interestingly after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Quickly looking ahead to tomorrow, the beginning of a series of reports on the wounded and bringing them home from Iraq in the wake of the deadliest month in the war.

Beth Nissen returned to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where the injured are brought. Eventually, they are flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. And Nissen made the trip home with some of them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There is one scheduled almost every day from Ramstein Air Force base in Germany, a medevac flight carrying troops wounded in Iraq back to the U.S.

On this flight, 37 troops with gunshot wounds, blast fractures, serious shrapnel injuries. Two are in critical condition. One with a spinal cord injury is on a ventilator. For the nine-hour flight home, the huge cargo plane turns into a flying hospital. It is a constant struggle for the onboard medical team. Stethoscopes are useless. They can't hear heart sounds or breath sounds over the roar of the C- 141 engines.

Changes in altitude, turbulence can cause drops in blood pressure, spikes in pain. Everyone from the onboard nurses to the on- ground refuelers has the same sense of mission: get these sick and wounded soldiers and Marines back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other U.S. hospitals for surgery, treatment, rehab, to carry on the fight to recover.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Nissen's full reports begin tomorrow. We hope you'll join us for that.

"LOU DOBBS" for most of you coming up next.

Until tomorrow, good night for all of us at NEWSNIGHT.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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