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Paul Johnson's Family Makes Plea To Kidnappers; 9/11 Commission Debunks Cheney's Iraq, al Qaeda Connection

Aired June 16, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Tonight. Tracking terror at home: Al Qaeda, coiled and ready to strike again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They may strike next week, next month or next year but they will strike.

In Saudi Arabia, the countdown to save an American hostage. A son begs for his father's life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want him brought home safely.


ZAHN: Good evening. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us tonight. Paul Johnson Jr. may have less than 48 hours to live. The American contractor was kidnapped in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. In this videotape released yesterday, his captors threatened to kill him unless the Saudi government releases imprisoned al Qaeda members. They are also demanding that all Westerners, including 35,000 Americans, leave the country. Today CNN's Deborah Feyerick sat down for an exclusive interview with Paul Johnson's family.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You see him captive. How does he appear to you? How does he sound to you?

PAUL JOHNSON III, HOSTAGE'S SON: He sounds good. It looks like he's not being mistreated or anything.

DONNA MAYEUX, HOSTAGE'S SISTER: We viewed the video. We were able to see this is serious and I'd just like to say that my brother is an honorable man. He's always treated people with dignity and respect. And I'm sure they were able to see that as they've spoken with him and our family just pleads for his safe return.

FEYERICK: You see the kidnappers, one is behind him, clearly one is there shooting the video. What goes through your mind?

MAYEUX: For me, it's disbelief. My brother always felt safe in Saudi Arabia. He never feared living there.

FEYERICK: Did he ever consider listening to the embassy warnings for Americans to leave Riyadh, to leave Saudi Arabia? JOHNSON: He's been there for over ten years and he likes working with the Saudis. He respects their culture. And there was never a problem. He respected everything they believed in.

FEYERICK: The last conversation you had with him, what was his demeanor? What was he saying to you?

JOHNSON: The last conversation I had with him, we were all supposed to be reunited later this year in Thailand because he's building a house over there and we were just all going to get together for the holidays and all be together as a family and that's the last I've heard from my father.

FEYERICK: He has a wife in Riyadh. Have you spoken with her?

JOHNSON: Yes. And she's waiting for my father to come through the front door and it's hard for her being so far and we're here and I'm thinking about her constantly. I know what she's going through. And we're trying to get through this.

FEYERICK: He was taken on Saturday. How have you been spending your days since that abduction?

JOHNSON: I've been constantly on the phone trying to get ahold of Senators and just try to get ahold of somebody that can give me answers and that's all I want.

FEYERICK: Paul's mom is not well. Your mom, your grandmother. Does she know that there is a 72-hour deadline?

MAYEUX: No, she does not. She has not viewed the video. I told her that he's alive and that this is serious, but we did not discuss any demands with her because her health is fragile.

FEYERICK: Donna, you've watched the video of previous captives and now you're in that same position. Can you describe that?

MAYEUX: It's disbelief. I guess it's something you never think is going to come to your own family. We kind of feel numb.

FEYERICK: The U.S. government, the Saudi government says that their policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. What do you say to the governments?

JOHNSON: The governments, you know, we know what they want. And my father, I know he's an innocent victim in this whole matter and I plead with the Saudi government and the group of men that are holding my father to please let him return home safely. He will leave your country. You will never see him again. I just plead with them to get him home safely.

FEYERICK: The kidnappers who are holding him, what do you want them to know about your dad and about his family?

JOHNSON: My father is a loving father. He's a grandfather. He would give his shirt off the back to them if he knew them and he respected -- he respected the Saudis.

MAYEUX: He's an innocent man. Killing him is not going to solve anything. We would just like his safe return. My mother, his wife, my niece, and my three girls, we would just like a safe return.

FEYERICK: Now, Paul, we know that you've brought your son here. He's 3 years old. He's never seen his grandfather. I guess Christmas was going to be when he saw him. What is the message that you have for your dad right now?

JOHNSON: I just want him brought home safely.

MAYEUX: We're doing everything we can to bring him home. Everybody is trying to help. We appreciate that.

JOHNSON: I just plead with the Saudis to, please, do whatever it takes. If you've got to -- we're all human. Just please, he's done a lot for your country. I respect your country. I respect -- I respect everything that everybody has done. And I just want to see my father brought home safely.

And the Saudis, you can make it happen. And I'm just asking you, please, make this happen. He does not deserve this. And he was just doing his job and let's -- please, just bring him home and the group of people holding him, just please, he don't deserve this.

MAYEUX: We just -- we just ask that they treat him with the dignity and respect that he's often talked about that they have in their culture, Just please -- please don't murder them -- murder him.

FEYERICK: OK. Your son is here. He seems a little bit upset. I know that you want to show him to your father if, in fact, your father is watching, or perhaps the men who are holding him are watching. But I don't know if he wants to come over.

JOHNSON: Yes. This is my wife, Jody.

FEYERICK: OK. What do you want to say to your father about your son?

JOHNSON: I want to say I know that the group of men that got my father, you guys are probably fathers. And just please let him come home and be a grandfather. And this is Paul Marshall Johnson IV. My father gave me his name. And I honor my father so much, I gave him -- my son his name. And I just want a safe return and I'm optimistic with -- the Saudis can get him home safely.


ZAHN: And Deborah Feyerick who conducted the interview joins us now from Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Deborah, it was heartbreaking to see the rawness of this family's emotions, and, yet, it was also clear when you listen carefully to his son, there is a sense of optimism, isn't there?

FEYERICK: There is definitely a sense of optimism and I think one of the reasons that they really felt strongly about doing this interview is because they thought it was their best chance of directly speaking to the men who are holding their father captive and that's one of the reasons that they wanted to sit down with CNN so that, in fact, perhaps they could get their appeal out to those men.

ZAHN: And I guess they see, in effect, a part of their appeal showing. Mr. Johnson, the grandson, he's never seen. Is that their hope, that some way this video will be shared with his captors?

FEYERICK: Absolutely. Absolutely. They really -- when Paul Johnson, when I first met him, one thing he said is that he wanted to let the captors know that if they have a son, to take pity on the family because they have a grandson, they have a son and that was one of the reasons. And, also, in the back of Paul's mind, I think, was that his father has never seen his grandson. So whatever the outcome is, he wanted to make sure that at least he saw the child's face.

ZAHN: It's apparent to hear how moving it was to being given your father's name and then, in turn, giving that name to your son. Wow. Deborah, one last question. He made a direct appeal to the Saudis to bring his father home safely. In the end, does he think the Saudi security forces will get the job done?

FEYERICK: He is very optimistic, as you say. A top Saudi adviser today said that they have brought in American hostage rescuers. In and of itself, that is pretty optimistic. But, again, the ultimate outcome of this, everybody is just waiting.

ZAHN: Deborah Feyerick, thanks so much. The fate of Paul Johnson largely depends on Saudi Arabia's security forces. When we come back, how the Saudis are handling the latest surge in terror attacks there.

Then, a little bit later on, disturbing revelations about the 9/11 day of terror and what al Qaeda may be trying to do next. That's coming up.


ZAHN: In Saudi Arabia tonight, the Associated Press says gunfire was heard after Saudi security forces, including a special anti- terrorism unit surrounded a neighborhood in Riyadh. The AP says police withdrew after searching a home and a mosque. It is not clear, at this point, whether this could be related to the kidnapping of Paul Johnson, Jr.

His abduction puts the U.S. and Saudi government in a very difficult position. One of the kidnappers demands is for all westerners to leave the Saudi peninsula. And while both governments refuse to negotiate with the terrorists, the State Department has urged all 35,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia to leave.

So are the terrorists tactics working? Joining from Dallas tonight, Robert Jordan. He was the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia until last October. And in London this evening, Sajjan Gohel, director of the International Security for the Asian Pacific foundation. Welcome, both of you.

Sajjan, let's start with you this evening. How dangerous is it for Americans right now in Saudi Arabia?

SAJJAN GOHEL, DIR. OF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASIA PACIFIC FOUNDATION: Well, what we're witnessing is the Saudi Arabia has become totally inhospitable place for any foreigner. The situation has become very precarious. The terrorists are not making any distinction between men, women or children, everyone has become a target, including the 35,000 American citizens there.

The situation is deteriorating as we speak. And the terrorists have warned that there will be a bloody, miserable year ahead for any foreigner inside the country. And we're witnessing that as we speak.

ZAHN: Mr. Jordan, if you were still ambassador today, would you, more or less demand, that all Americans leave the country?

ROBERT JORDAN, FRM. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA: I'd be pretty emphatic about it, Paula. I think all Americans in the kingdom should follow the State Department's advice, which is similar to the advice we gave last year after the May 12 bombings. Americans need to leave the kingdom right now.

ZAHN: So you could read that as caving into the terrorists, no?

JORDAN: Absolutely not. This advice came out long before the current assault. There was an order departure of embassy personnel that occurred based on intelligence that we found. This is what you do to be prudent. And American lives and the lives of our countrymen are sacred, and we've got to protect those lives with any advice we can give them that is responsible.

ZAHN: And it may be a prudent thing to do, sir, but certainly the terrorists will probably use that for propaganda, won't they? Saying they got exactly what they wanted?

JORDAN: The fact of the matter is that we've got to work on protecting these lives regardless of what the terrorists claim. There is not a connection between the terrorists claiming a victory here and the safety of Americans. We've just simply got to look at the safety first.

ZAHN: Ambassador Jordan, how would you describe the level of cooperation between the Saudi security forces and the U.S. government at this hour in trying to return Mr. Johnson home safely?

JORDAN: They're working very closely together. And as both governments have announced, we have American assistance on the ground working side-by-side with the Saudis and we're also sharing intelligence real time. This is a very precarious moment though, in dealing with this threat.

ZAHN: Sajjan, how much faith do you have in Saudi security forces this evening, even with the help of U.S. forces? GOHEL: Well, Paula, I'm very skeptical about the role of the Saudi security forces. I think the only thing that could end up saving Mr. Paul Johnson's life is the role of the U.S. forces on the ground. They will play a key leading factor in there.

However, the Saudi security forces, we have to question their role in the past. They have -- some of them have sympathies with the terrorists. Let's not forget 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, some of whom used to be with the security force.

We've witnessed in the last few terrorist attacks, Saudi security forces just letting the terrorists go, not dealing with the situation properly. We would have to question where their loyalties lie and what they will do. And that is the biggest key factor we're going to have to deal with.

ZAHN: Mr. Jordan, do you question with the Saudi security forces loyalties lie? And can you see there have been problems in the past as Mr. Gohel just explained?

JORDAN: There will always be problems. And you'll find problems in just about any country you deal with. But I think this is a gross overgeneralization to characterize the entire Saudi security forces as somehow being sympathetic with these terrorists.

The Saudis are doing a sincere and energetic job. Can they do more? Of course, they can. Just as Secretary of State Colin Powell said the other day. But today, for example, Crown Prince Abdullah has announced a major increase in the force that will be used and the numbers of forces that will be used. Time will tell whether this is effective or not.

They clearly need to train and hire many more security officers, they need to train and hire many more intelligence officers. This is an essential thing for them to do. The crown prince appears to be poised to do this. But overall, we have had generally good success, since the last bombings in May of last year, in seeing a dramatic increase in the level of Saudi cooperation. There clearly, though, is more that needs to be done.

ZAHN: Gross realization there, Sajjan about the Saudi security forces?

GOHEL: Well, look, Paula, we have to deal with what we're witnessing. In the last six weeks, we've had six major terrorist attacks. Since May of last year, we've been witnessing major compound attacks where foreigners are being attacked. We've seen individuals being shot in the streets and now we've seen a new event taking place where people are being kidnapped.

The Saudi security forces, I'm not saying all of them are sympathetic with the terrorists, but a large number are. And the situation is just deteriorating as we speak. The Saudi security forces have sympathies with the terrorists, many do, and the problem is just going to deteriorate as we speak. The Saudi Arabia has become totally inhospitable. ZAHN: Sajjan, I need a very brief answer, do you think Mr. Johnson will return home safely?

GOHEL: I pray and hope, Paula, that that is the case. However, as time continues and we're not able to find him, the situation will look worse for him. I fear the worst.

ZAHN: We are sorry to hear that. Ambassador Jordan and Sajjan Gohel, thank you both for joining us tonight. Appreciate your time.

Coming up, a closer look at al Qaeda the -- or planning behind the 9/11 attacks and whether Saddam Hussein was really involved.

And searching for al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are U.S. troops looking in the wrong places? I will ask an expert later on.


ZAHN: Today, the 9/11 Commission opened its 12th and final public hearing with two disturbing reports on al Qaeda. The commission says Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, originally wanted to hijack 10 planes. Some of his intended targets, the report says, were the White House and the headquarters of the CIA and the FBI. The commission also reports that al Qaeda is actively seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and that an anthrax attack is the most immediate threat to the United States. Joining us now from Washington now 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer.

Always good to see you.

TIM ROEMER, 9/11 COMMISSION: Paula, nice to be back.

ZAHN: I have to say, I read the reports and it made my stomach churn. Tell us a little bit more about what the anticipation is in terms of al Qaeda's ability to pull off what we just mentioned, chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks.

ROEMER: Paula, I, in some ways, hope that the American people pay attention just like you did. Your heart probably skipped, your stomach churned, and maybe your hair stood up a bit when you read this and you hear it. We need that sense of urgency today.

We learned a number of things about al Qaeda in this report. One, they're decentralized. It's not just bin Laden making these decisions overseas. Two, that they are very shifty, flexible and dynamic. They change dates. They can change the date two to three months and make it later. They're flexible. They change targets. It's chilling, absolutely chilling to see the conversation between the target of the White House or Congress. And pick September 11 specifically because Congress will be in session and full of members of Congress.

And, lastly, Paula, what is chilling about this is that they are more and more decentralized. It's not a hierarchical organization all in sanctuary in Afghanistan, they're spread out like mercury on a Mirror (ph), all over the world now.

ZAHN: So what is the commission's conclusion then given out decentralized al Qaeda is today, that the terrorists in the future will freelance or is Osama bin Laden at this point intimately involved in planning a future attacks?

ROEMER: My personal opinion on that, Paula is that Osama bin Laden is more worried right now about being caught and he is spending more of his time probably in caves and seeking to stay away from U.S. troops. He's highly valuable symbolically, inspiring operators and recruits to sign up. But there are a host of al Qaeda-like organizations that are morphing like a hydra of a snake all around the world. The Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia and as you mentioned before, and our report specifies al Qaeda wants religiously to get ahold of chemical or biological weapons. They have an anthrax capability and they would love to get nuclear weapons.

ZAHN: Finally tonight, sir, Vice President Cheney on Monday suggested that Saddam Hussein had, quote, long established ties with al Qaeda.

Did your commission find evidence of those significant ties?

ROEMER: I respectfully disagree with the vice president on this. We addressed in very minute detail this purported meeting in April and I believe in Czechoslovakia and have one of the alleged hijackers that participated in this and nailed almost specifically with cell phone calls in the United States in Florida, with that particular event that has gotten so much attention.

I think, overall, our statement is that in that instance that's been highlighted, no, that did not take place, and we'll have more to say on this particular event as we put our final report out.

ZAHN: I want to make sure I'm understanding this correctly. So not only did the commission find that Saddam Hussein was not involved in any way in the planning of 9/11 or in the carrying out of the plan, you also, as a commission, do not believe there have been long- standing ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?

ROEMER: My personal opinion on that is that there are not long- standing ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. There might have been lower governmental exploration of a meeting in Africa at some point between a lower level government official at Iraq in the intelligence service and somebody with al Qaeda, and it took two or three meetings even to pull that off. What I'm saying is between Saddam Hussein personally and al Qaeda specifically, I do not see that connection, nor is it reflected in these statements.

ZAHN: Well, 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer, thank you for sharing more of that report with us this evening.

ROEMER: Sure. Happy to be with you.

And as you could hear, today's 9/11 Commission report calls into question part of the Bush administration's key case for war in Iraq. As we mentioned earlier, the panel says there is no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, but the White House still maintains that that is the case.

Tom Foreman has that story.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The war in Iraq was launched, in part, on arguments that Iraq and al Qaeda, to some degree, were working together to promote terrorism. And, now, even this week, as the 9/11 Commission flatly says there is no proof of such sinister cooperation in the U.S. attacks, Vice President Cheney is pressing the case against Saddam Hussein.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT: He was a patron of terrorism and providing safe haven and support for such terrorist groups as Abu Nidal and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He had long established ties with al Qaeda.

FOREMAN: Cheney went much further last fall on NBC's "Meet The Press" he said the Iraqis trained agents of al Qaeda in chemical and biological warfare, in bomb making, even suggesting that Iraq may have been involved in the first World Trade Center bombing.

But three days later, the president said this...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September the 11th.

FOREMAN: Cheney, in the past, pointed to Prague to an intelligence report that said four years ago, 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta allegedly met an Iraqi intelligence officer. The commission however, has now confirmed that meeting never happened. The commission says that 10-years-ago, Osama bin Laden meet in Africa with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and later in Afghanistan with other Iraqi officials.

DOUGLAS MACEACHIN, FMR. DEP. DIR. INTEL. CIA : Yet they do not appear to resolve in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq.

FOREMAN: Just this afternoon John Kerry capitalized on the commission's report...

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The administration misled America or the administration reached too far. They did not tell the truth to Americans, spell what was happening, or their own intentions...

FOREMAN: One problem may lie in this simple fact. In the murky world of terrorism, proving anything is difficult. What one analyst may see as a casual meeting between two people, another may see as the start of a conspiracy. The commission clearly has not found enough evidence to make its members join the conspiracy theorists and even some staunch Republicans suggest the vice president should stop talking so much about an Iraq-al Qaeda connection.

BAY BUCHANAN, AMERICAN CAUSE: I think Dick Cheney is wrong. He said this many, many times and I don't know where he gets this information.

FOREMAN: Still, consider this. The last time the American public was polled about this issue by the "Washington Post" six months ago, 70 percent said they believe Iraq had something to do with the attacks on 9/11.


ZAHN: That was Tom Foreman reporting.

The U.S. has spent nearly three years and billions of dollars fighting al Qaeda, but are U.S. forces any closer to stopping the terror threat? That's coming up.

And then a little bit later on, the invasion of Iraq. Was getting behind the decision to go to war a mistake?


ZAHN: We have heard from the 9/11 commission today that al Qaeda is planning to hit the U.S. again. We've also heard that it's become more decentralized since 9/11, but what do we do about that? How potent is al Qaeda now? Joining us is an expert on al Qaeda who testified before the 9/11 commission last month, investigative journalist Peter Lance. His latest book is "1,000 Years of (sic) Revenge." Welcome back.


ZAHN: Before we get to the specifics of this report today, I wanted to quickly ask you to react to something Dan Bartlett, the spokesman at the White House had to say today about the commission saying they could find no evidence of long established ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Quote, "just because al Qaeda and Iraq may not have collaborated in specific attacks in 9/11 does not mean that there is not a relationship or past relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."

LANCE: Well, there is a relationship now, because they invaded Iraq, decapitated the leader and because the country's poorest, al Qaeda operatives are mixing with Baathists, and Sunnis and Shiites and everything now. But my book went back 12 years, Paula, and I did an exhaustive study of these allegations which were completely (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Saddam Hussein was anathema to bin Laden and Ramsey Yousef. They hated him. He was considered a secular Islamist. In fact, when Ramsey Yousef was being sentenced in 1998...

ZAHN: We should say he was the mastermind behind the first World Trade bombings.

LANCE: And I contend in my book, both, that he was the mastermind of 9/11 and that today -- the one thing that I disagree with the commission about was that it happened in '98. It started in '95. But we can get into that. But in his last public moment before the curtain fell on his career he went out of his way in New York federal court to attack Saddam Hussein, Ramsey Yousef. So, believe me, there wasn't a shred of evidence and, obviously, the administration used that as the central reason of the invasion so they're holding on to it.

ZAHN: The commission depicted al Qaeda as very much now a freelance operation. You don't buy that?

LANCE: Absolutely a centrist organization...

ZAHN: With who?

LANCE: Well, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri who has been with bin Laden from the beginning, who is a, you know, extraordinary Egyptian -- former Islamic Egyptian Jihad member, a brilliant man. Many people think he is actually the true mastermind behind al Qaeda.

Look, Paula, when I was on in December, if you remember, the "National Review" guy came on and he said, "oh, they're on the ropes, they're finished." Then we had the Spanish bombing, we had an Orange alert over Christmas.

Al Qaeda has tremendous bench strength and they're a centrally organized organization and one of the things that happened today that just shocked me was the former CIA deputy director of intelligence MacEachin who did the staff report in the beginning today of the commission said that it was a loosely organized group, that Ramsey Yousef, there no proof of him being in al Qaeda, there was no connection between Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center bombing and the Manila plot. Ridiculous! Horse feathers! I mean, the amount of evidence connecting bin Laden going back to 1989, to the original Trade Center bombing and the murder of Rabbi Kahane, the Manila air bombing plot, the Cole bombing, the African embassy, it's extraordinary.

ZAHN: We've got 20 seconds left. Tim Roemer argued that maybe the government should think about reallocating resources, if you've got so much concentrated in Iraq and Afghanistan you should think more about this overall war terror.

LANCE: Got to stay in Afghanistan to get bin Laden. But Iraq is a whole other issue and clearly if it can be internationalized so we can disburse our assets in Asia, Philippines. Very, very important potential al Qaeda threat in the Philippines.

ZAHN: Peter Lance, thanks for educating us tonight. Appreciate it.

Coming up next, supporters of the war in Iraq answer a simple question one year later. Have you changed your minds about sending U.S. troops into a war?

Then the horrors of living under Saddam. One of Iraq's new leaders describes the years of misery and terror. That's coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back. With 14 days before the handover of power in Iraq, questions remain about the Bush administration's justification for going to war and some people who back the decision are having second thoughts. This week, in a special issue of the "New Republic" the magazine ask were we wrong to support the war?

Joining us are three people who wrestle with that question in the magazine.

"New Republic" editor, Peter Beinart in Washington.

Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Hopkins University.

Also in Washington tonight, CNN analyst Ken Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome all.

So, Peter, why did you do this issue?

PETER BEINART, EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, we supported the war even though we're a liberal magazine, not generally big fans of President Bush, we supported it. This war has been -- produced great pain and even tragedy over the year that's it's been going on.

And so we felt we owed it to our readers to say, would we do it again? Do we still support this and we thought we'd ask a number of distinguished people who also supported the war, Ken Pollack, Fouad Ajami and Senator McCain, Senator Biden, Tom Friedman, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to answer those same questions.

ZAHN: So, were you surprised by what you found?

BEINART: I was surprised. I was -- I was -- I was struck by -- by the really anguished tone that many of the pieces had. Of people who I still think still believe that this was a noble mission that America was trying to do something that was genuinely good, but have been really horrified by some of the things that happened: what happened at Abu Ghraib, the lack of American troops that have created this terrible problems of insecurity, that have turned many Iraqis against the United States. So there was a powerful anguish tone, that I think ranked through many of the pieces.

ZAHN: Fouad, why don't you help us understand some of the statistics. In a poll commissioned by administration, it found that 55 percent of Iraqi's would feel safer if U.S. troops left immediately. Fifty-four percent believe all American behave like the guards at Abu Ghraib. Then go on to another poll showing 81 percent of Iraqi's have an improved opinion for radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And 64 percent say the insurgents have unified Iraq.

FOUAD AJAMI, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: See Paula... ZAHN: Has it done anything to change your mind?

AJAMI: No, not at all. I actually don't believe in any of these numbers.

ZAHN: Why.

AJAMI: The idea of just walking around the streets of Baghdad where there is no basic security, going to Mosul, going to Kirkuk and asking people what do you believe?

What do you think the coalition?

And the idea that Iraqis would like us to leave. I've been in Iraq twice and that is false. Iraqi is -- the thing that would trouble them the most would be our departure, so we should treat these numbers with caution. And the idea that people think well of Muqtada Sadr, that is simply we can dismiss it.

I mean, I wrote -- I myself wrote the book about the Sadr family and one luminary of the Sadr's, and this Muqtada Sadr is a brigade. And the fact that 81 percent of them think better of him, nobody wants him there. The shopkeepers in Najaf and Karbala don't want him.

So I think we should understand what we're really doing in Iraq and we should treat, these numbers public opinion polls with caution. We like -- we like to go and ask people if they love us. Well, they'll give us the answer that's the easy answer. But if we tell them we are really leaving, you watch and see.

ZAHN: You may be right. Ken, we do try to use these polls with a degree of judiciousness, but when you saw those numbers, did you react the way Fouad did, which is basically discount them, because we know how some of these questions are asked or does it make you have any second thoughts about your early support for the war?

KENNETH POLLACK, CNN ANALYST: Well, I think the numbers are important. And I would -- I think I would agree actually with Fouad's analysis. I might characterize it slightly differently though. I think Fouad is absolutely right that you need to be very careful with these polls, because mostly what is being reflected is Iraqi anger and frustration.

I've also been over to Iraq in recent months and what you get from Iraqis is they're angry at us, they're frustrated, they're very disappointed in the course of the reconstruction and they use these polls as a way of trying to register that frustration.

So I tend to agree with Fouad, I don't think 81 percent really like Muqtada Sadr. By the same token I absolutely agree with him that the vast majority of Iraqis do not want us to leave. But what I do think is important is the fact that Iraqis are increasingly frustrated, increasingly unhappy with the course of the reconstruction, and that they are trying to use these polls to register that dissatisfaction. That to me gets to the biggest problem we have. ZAHN: But Ken, let's come back to your very own personal feelings about this war. At one point you were quite in line with the administration in wanting to oust Saddam. In fact, you were called a charter member of the, "I can't believe I'm a hawk club." But your opinion has changed, a little, has it not, by watching this reconstruction project?

POLLACK: It -- I mean, it certainly been informed -- I certainly have, I think, a deeper position. You know, there were several issues for me, Paula. Fouad mentioned the human rights argument. That was a very important argument for me. Saddam was one of the worst dictators of the last 50 years.

There was also the mass destruction issue, I've written elsewhere about that. Clearly we exaggerated the threat of the weapons of mass destruction. But the point that I tried to talk about in the piece was my own sense of surprise, of real shock, that the administration handled the reconstruction and the prewar diplomacy in the kind of cavalier fashion that they did. I expected much more from this administration. For me, this is the group who fought the Gulf War in a truly magnificent fashion and I was expecting much more of the Gulf War in what we did in Iraq.

ZAHN: Were you, you think, misled by the U.S. government about, as an American taxpayer, what to expect in the aftermath of this war?

AJAMI: Not at all. I remain unrepentent.

ZAHN: You thought it would be this way?

AJAMI: No. I don't know how. No one really can say we could look ahead and see how the war will work out. I think -- I view this as one of the two wars of September 11, 2001. The war in Afghanistan was the first war, the war against Saddam Hussein was the second war. And I believe this was the American people's war. I believe Congress authorized it. This wasn't Bush's war, Wolfowitz's war, this was the war of the American people. It was made in the shadow of September 11, 2001 with great unanimity.

Has Iraq broken our hearts, conceivably, we don't know. It's too early to tell. Are we chastened by what has happened in Iraq, of course.

Would we -- did we know we would suffer some 850 fatalities of our soldiers in Iraq? Probably not.

So it didn't really quite pan out in every which way we thought. But it was fought for a noble reason and it still remains a noble expedition and Abu Ghraib, notwithstanding, it still remains a noble war.

ZAHN: Gentlemen, we appreciate all of your points of view. It's interesting how honest you all were while you tried to go back and analyze while you had the decisions you did going into this war. Fouad, thanks so much. Kenneth Pollack, Peter Beinart, appreciate your time. When we come back, a new Iraqi leadership rises. He survived the horrors of Saddam Hussein's prisons, now he is representing Iraq around the world. It is an inspiring story. You'll hear it next.


ZAHN: When Saddam Hussein is turned over to the Iraqi interim government, his fate will be in the hands of some who suffered terribly under his rule. Our next guest Hoshyar Zebari is one of them. Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, is the new interim government's foreign minister. Mr. Zebari was a fierce opponent of Saddam's rule and he was imprisoned and later spent many years in exile.

Well, today, Hoshyar Zebari is still living in danger. Just this past weekend, his deputy foreign minister was gunned down as he left his home. Iraqi officials blamed that attack on leftover supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime. Recently, I sat down with Mr. Zebari to talk about the horrors of life under Saddam.


ZAHN: Hoshyar Zebari, welcome. You were subjected to years of discrimination and humiliation as a Kurd in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. What did you put up with?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, it's true, yes, we suffered a great deal but we survived the hard way. And we've come a long way, in fact, to represent Iraqi people in this new post.

ZAHN: That may be but you suffered a lot personally.

ZEBARI: Personally, indeed. Yes. I personally have suffered, my family have suffered, my brother has been -- have suffered. And mainly because of this discriminatory policy Saddam Hussein had against the Kurds of being of different ethnicity. And we were discriminated, in fact, in employment, in public offices, in representation. I, myself, because of my political affiliation, because of my political activities, as a student, and as a politician, Saddam punished me by collective punishment of my family. He killed three of my brothers.

ZAHN: He killed three of your brothers?

ZEBARI: He killed three of my brothers. One of them was poisoned with thallium, it's a rat poison. He was invited to a security office and offered an orange juice drink with poison. He lost his hair. He was paralyzed and then he died very slowly. Two others were killed also through prearranged car accident which the Iraqi (UNINTELLIGIBLE) were very professional.

ZAHN: And you believe your brothers were killed simply because of your opposition activities?

ZEBARI: Absolutely, absolutely.

ZAHN: Seeking revenge against you and your brothers? ZEBARI: Absolutely. And I'm only one case of that. I mean, thousands of Iraqis will tell you some of their stories, but this has happened with me personally.

ZAHN: Do you feel lucky to be alive?

ZEBARI: I am lucky, yes. I survived, actually. Since I have taken this position I've been the target of two assassination attempts. When first I took my position in the foreign ministry, a few days later, there was a bomb next to my office that went off, but luckily, I was not there. Also one day our car -- while I was driving to the ministry were shot by some snipers, very sharp snipers. They missed us. So we face these daily life-threatening situations, but determined really to move on.

ZAHN: And you're confident come June 30, we will be looking at a different country than we're looking at today?

ZEBARI: I think the situation will be better. I'm not saying that June 30 is the magical date, you see, that all of our problems in Iraq are going to be resolved, but I think it's an important date, especially if we make a clear departure from the concept of occupation.

ZAHN: When you look back on your life, did you ever think not only would you be targeted by Saddam Hussein, but that you would hold a pivotal role in this transitional government and still be targeted for assassination?

ZEBARI: Yes. Yes, I did. Because still, the remnant of this regime are still around. Many of them actually now are fighting in Iraq. They are the torturers, they are the jailers, they are the interrogators who are afraid to come out. They are naughty (ph) people.

But what's happening in Iraq is really a major political democratic project. And our only hope that our friends, our allies here in Washington and London and Europe will not lower their expectation of the people, you know, to live in a free democratic society.

ZAHN: Mr. Zebari, thank you for sharing your story to us tonight and best of luck to you, sir.

ZEBARI: Thank you, thank you.

ZAHN: And we will be right back.


ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us here this evening. Thanks so much for spending some time with us tonight. Tomorrow night, the 9/11 attack and a major flaw in America's air defense. Why weren't fighter jets ready to intercept the hijacked planes? That's tomorrow. Again, thanks for joining us tonight. Have a good night. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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