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Tom Ridge Steps Down; Building Bridges of Understanding Between Muslims and Non-Muslims

Aired November 30, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome.
The man whose main responsibility is to keep us all safe from terrorism is stepping down. Today, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge became the seventh member of President Bush's Cabinet to quit since the election. President Bush called Ridge to Washington in the aftermath of 9/11. And despite the jokes about color-coded threat levels and duct tape, Ridge believes his legacy is substantial.


TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I'm confident that the terrorists are aware that from the curb to the cockpit we've got additional security measures that didn't exist a couple of years ago, that from port to port we do things differently with maritime security. I'm confident they know that our borders are more secure.

ZAHN (voice-over): As homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge certainly had his work cut out for him, pulling together a tangled web of 22 different government agencies with close to 180,000 employees. The department was the product of the largest government restructuring in more than 50 years.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will take strong precautions aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and prepare to respond effectively if they might come again.

ZAHN: Ridge resigned as Pennsylvania governor just after September 11 to oversee a creation of an agency born out of the violent attacks on American soil.

In January 2003, he was sworn in as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, a new seat at the Cabinet table, one that would put him on the front lines of protecting the United States from coast to coast, in the sky and on its streets. He is perhaps best known for creating the color-coded terror alert system. This rainbow of warnings would become an American obsession, a strategy critics charged could lead to panic.

RIDGE: Stash away the duct tape. Don't use it. Stash it away.


ZAHN: In early 2003, during one of six code orange alerts the country would experience under his tenure, Americans ran out to buy duct tape and bottled water, but in the end there was little public understanding of the true difference between yellow and orange. Even Ridge acknowledged the difficulty of predicting when, how and where the nation would be attacked.

RIDGE: The information we have to work with more often than not is very vague. It does not tell us when, where or how the terrorists might try to harm us again.

ZAHN: Ridge faced other battles. He didn't always get the funding he wanted and he frequently fought turf battles over enforcing the war on terror with the FBI and Justice Department.

Announcing his resignation today, Ridge called the department an extraordinary operation that contributes to keep America safe and free. Whether the U.S. is in fact safer than it was on September 10, 2001, is for history to tell. Since the department was created, there has not been another terrorist attack on American soil.


ZAHN: And joining me now from Washington tonight, Richard Falkenrath, a former deputy homeland security adviser to President Bush who worked closely with Tom Ridge, and from Bay Harbor, Florida, Miami Police Chief John Timoney.

Good to see both of you. Welcome.


ZAHN: John, I'm going to start with you this evening.

Or, excuse me, Richard. We have talked a little bit about what Tom Ridge was up against when he took this job. A lot of people called it mission accomplished -- for mission impossible. In the end, what do you think was his most significant achievement?

RICHARD FALKENRATH, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: I think he will be remembered for having created the Department of Homeland Security, for being its first secretary.

This is a department with a lot of challenges ahead of it, still, a lot of integration that still has to occur, but one which has come a very long way. And I'm confident history will look favorably on this department and see that it has provided an invaluable service to the country. And his legacy I think will be this new Cabinet agency.

ZAHN: Chief Timoney, a lot of your colleagues see it quite differently. They thought the color-code system in some circles was a joke. They found it confusing. Late-night comics made a lot of hay with it. Some people accused Tom Ridge of using it as a political tool. How do you view that part of his legacy?

TIMONEY: Oh, I thought most of those things were cheap shots.

I happen to know Tom Ridge, a man of high integrity. He had a monumental task, that he had to put together this agency on the fly while we still faced the threat of terrorism. I think he did a remarkable job. It took somebody of his strength and personality. He's kind of an easygoing guy that people warm up to. And it was kind of that personality that was needed.

Additionally, not just pulling those agencies together, but he also had turf battles with the Justice Department, with John Ashcroft, who is no wilting flower, who wasn't so willing to give up part of his turf. And so, Ridge had his hands filled, but I thought he did -- overall, but I thought he did a very good job.

ZAHN: So, Richard, in the end, how much did that turf battle cost Tom Ridge in terms of his credibility?

FALKENRATH: I really don't think it cost him too much, Paula.

I think the American people see Tom Ridge for who he is. And he is exactly as the chief described. He's an honest, authentic man. He's really a man of the people. He's a natural leader. He's one who is committed to the security of the country and who did his dead-level best to make sure that we stayed safe during his tenure as homeland security director.

You were right in your intro piece that there has been no further attack since 9/11 against the homeland. And I think the policies that Tom Ridge put in place and drove through to implementation have a lot to do with that.

ZAHN: Chief Timoney, you have many prominent members of the 9/11 Commission who are basically saying it's just a matter of time before we are struck again, and maybe the next time with nonconventional weapons.


ZAHN: So what do you think needs to be done? Tom Ridge talked about the curb-to-cockpit improvements, port-to-port improvements, but a lot of people say that that's not enough.


Well, it's never enough. However, what I can tell you, I've been in this business 35 years. The agencies are now under Homeland Security, Secret Service, ATF, the Coast Guard in particular, their operational posture is completely different now than it was prior to 9/11. We work on a daily basis with the Coast Guard, like we never did before.

And so, for example, divers from the Miami Police Department, along with the Coast Guard, check the hulls of cruise ships on a daily basis, making sure that there are no bombs or some other devices attached. That stuff never happened in the past.

The posture on the part of the Secret Service is much more aggressive, ATF. And so, while things are not perfect, I can tell you, the day-to-day operational posture on part of the homeland security agencies working with local authorities is much better than it ever was. ZAHN: Richard, in spite of what the chief is saying, what do you believe is our greatest vulnerability today as Tom Ridge leaves his post?

FALKENRATH: Well, we have a lot of vulnerabilities. There's no shortage of them in a free and open country like ours.

And there are any number of scenarios that could cause mass casualties if al Qaeda successfully carries off another attack. And so I can tick through them. I have a list of nightmares, like many people do. But I think the first step, though, is prevention, getting the terrorists before they are able to get here and insuring that border security is so strong that they are deterred from coming here and go elsewhere in the world if they need to carry out their attacks.

That's one of the top goals of the secretary of homeland security. Tom Ridge has spent a lot of energy in that. And we know with certain knowledge that al Qaeda deems it much more difficult to penetrate the American homeland today than it did prior to 9/11.

ZAHN: Finally tonight, Chief Timoney, if you were put in place at this post, what is the one thing you wish you could deliver on right now that you think would make an appreciable difference to our safety?

TIMONEY: I think there's a need to convince both the CIA and the FBI to do a much better job with getting hard intelligence on the ground, using informants and a lot of the undercover agents.

They are doing a great job in proactive investigations, on intercepts, wiretaps, things of that nature. But I think that there needs to be more done with foreign-speaking, Arabic-speaking informants and agents.

ZAHN: So, do you think you are getting shortchanged in your department and other law enforcement offices across the country?

TIMONEY: It's not shortchanged, but you would like the intelligence to be much more -- much harder than it presently is. It is kind of nebulous. And I think you need, as I say, people on the ground, foreign, Arabic-speaking agents, undercovers, confidential informants.

ZAHN: So you are the guy that everybody looks to, to give your community direction. When you get this nebulous information, how frustrating is that for you, Chief?

TIMONEY: It's a little frustrating, but you have to work with what you have. And somehow we manage. I don't think crying about it does anybody any good.

ZAHN: We're not going to do that here tonight. Chief John Timoney, thank you for your time.

TIMONEY: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Richard Falkenrath, thank you for your time as well.

FALKENRATH: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: My pleasure.

Talk radio also weighed in on Tom Ridge's resignation.

Here is G. Gordon Liddy's take on Ridge's legacy.


G. GORDON LIDDY, HOST: The four years that he has been there has put, like, 15 years on his face. There had not been a department to take over. He had to build it. And he did. And he did a good job. We are all thankful for him.

Now he can go out in the world and earn a decent living. We are very fortunate in this country that people are so patriotic that they make a huge financial sacrifice and they bring all that talent, initiative and ability and drive what have you and put it to work for the American people.


ZAHN: And that brings to us our voting booth question tonight: Do you think the Department of Homeland Security has made America safer? Vote at The results and much more ahead, including a case that pits national security against the rights of a U.S. citizen.


ZAHN (voice-over): A young Arab-American thrown into a Saudi prison, no charges, no explanation and no end in sight. After 17 months, a father struggles to free his son.

OMAR ABU-ALI, FATHER: He did not do anything wrong. I have to do something to bring my son back home.

ZAHN: In the war on terror, is he a suspect or a victim?

And tune in to a hot new TV channel aimed at one of the country's fastest growing market.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have my own identity.

ZAHN: It's America's first network for Muslims.

That and more tonight on PAULA ZAHN NOW.



ZAHN: Elections in Iraq are scheduled for exactly two months from today. But insurgents are determined to derail that plan. A car bomb exploded today near a U.S. military convoy on Baghdad's Airport road, wounding at least five American soldiers. The Pentagon is saying at least 135 U.S. troops died in November, one of the deadliest months for American forces in Iraq. In the northern city of Baji, at least seven Iraqis were killed in two separate bombing attacks. Nearly two dozen were injured.

Insurgents stepping up their attacks on Iraqi police and National Guard forces. As we reported yesterday, a car bomb exploded outside a police station in Ramadi, killing 12 officers. And that campaign to keep Iraqis from cooperating with American forces appears to be working. Today's "New York Times" quotes an unnamed senior Iraqi official saying that Iraqi forces are so weak, American troops may be needed for another 10 years.

Given the current situation, can elections realistically be held on January 30?

I'm joined in Washington by Iraq's representative to the United States, Rend Al-Rahim.

Good to see you again. Welcome back to the broadcast.

REND AL-RAHIM, IRAQI AMBASSADOR-DESIGNATE TO UNITED STATES: Thank you, Paula. It's a pleasure to be here.

ZAHN: There's an alarming report in "The New York Times" today suggesting that Iraqi security forces are so intimidated by the insurgents that they are walking off the job altogether. How do you think Iraqi security forces are performing?

AL-RAHIM: Paula, I must tell you that I have just come back from Iraq. And I was there for several weeks.

And I was absolutely stunned by the bravery and determination of the Iraqi forces, whether they be police or National Guard or Iraqi army units. They are braving dangers every day by performing their jobs. And they are truly determined.

I had an opportunity to hold a conversation with a group of about a dozen or more. And they really were -- their wills were flint-like. They were absolutely determined to serve their country. And yet, of course, they are the most targeted group of the population. Now, this report of "The New York Times" is a bit off the mark. In Falluja, the Iraqi forces, I believe there were five Iraqi battalions from the National Guard working alongside coalition forces.

And they acquitted themselves extremely well. They did not flinch. They did not shy away from the task at hand.

ZAHN: Do you acknowledge, though, that some Iraqi security forces have abandoned their jobs altogether out of fear?

AL-RAHIM: Yes, I do acknowledge that.

And in fact we know that unfortunately in Mosul some of the police force of Mosul did leave their jobs. And that was a very sad situation. The police, of course, are both the most vulnerable because they're the ones in the cities day in and day out and on city streets and they are the least equipped. And perhaps they are the most poorly trained. That does not mean all the police are moving away.

They are still there. As I said, I was just in Iraq. And it was amazing seeing those police patrolling, manning the streets and going after the ordinary criminals.

ZAHN: How much does it concern you, though, that you have U.S. military commanders saying that some of these recruits are so poorly trained that they actually duck and cover from errant shots by these Iraqi security forces?

AL-RAHIM: I don't know what American commander said that. And I cannot answer for what American troops are saying.

But I have seen, in the same newspaper, reports of American commanders who have actually given credit to the Iraqi forces and said that they have performed well in recent crises.

ZAHN: So what do you make of the quote in "The New York Times" from a senior Interior Ministry official, who says basically if this keeps on going on at this rate, that you are going to need U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq for at least a decade?

AL-RAHIM: The priority of the Iraqi government, this Iraqi government and any subsequent government, is going to be to build up our own indigenous security capability.

The police, the National Guard, the army, our intelligence services, we need to build them up.

ZAHN: Will that take 10 years?

AL-RAHIM: It would surprise me, Paula. And this figure is, I think, very stretched. I don't want to comment on that. I don't know who made that statement. We want to build our forces as quickly as possible.

ZAHN: How long do you think it will take?

AL-RAHIM: I'm not a military expert. And I'm not involved in the training. And I think it is best to talk to people who are.

ZAHN: Let's not look so far down the road. Let's just look two months from tonight, when the elections are supposed to take place. What do you see happening?

AL-RAHIM: This is all the talk of the town in Baghdad, that the elections are coming. These elections are important. These elections are a milestone.

Very -- there are no Iraqis who are dismissing these elections. Everybody, whether voters or candidates, are taking them seriously. My government has said that they will hold the election on the date that is prescribed, which is 30th of January. And I know that there has been some discussion and some debate. It seems to me that there is a determination to hold them on the date.

ZAHN: And what percentage of the country do you think the election will take place in?

AL-RAHIM: The appetite of Iraqis for these elections is high. People are really preparing for them, whether as voters or candidates.

ZAHN: So your hope is that the results will reflect a large majority of the Iraqi population?

AL-RAHIM: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I think there will be a great turnout for those elections. People really are taking them seriously and feel that this is a landmark in Iraq's political transition.

ZAHN: Iraqi representative Rend Al-Rahim, always good to see you. Thanks so much for spending some time with us tonight.

AL-RAHIM: Thank you. Thank you.

And from the war in Iraq, we turn now to the war on terror and an American jailed in Saudi Arabia. No one is saying exactly why. His family wants some answers.

But, first, combat stress on U.S. troops in Iraq, it's a topic that has at least one radio host talking, this one from the left.


RANDI RHODES, HOST: Now, what we do want is our soldiers who have been surveyed after they have come back who are suffering from major depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, sleep disorder, violent outbursts, panic attacks, acute anxiety and emotional numbness. Almost 20 percent of the guys coming home are testing for this and coming up positive for one or more of these maladies that will ruin family life. But the family values people couldn't care less.



ZAHN: The Pentagon today denied that the U.S. military tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Now, that comes in response to a story in "The New York Times" based on a leaked report from the International Red Cross. Now, that report says that the military had used psychological and physical coercion that is -- quote -- "tantamount to torture." There are more than 500 prisoners at Gitmo, as the military calls it.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, an American citizen is in prison. His family believes he was mistakenly caught up in a terror investigation, but they can't be sure. Why? Because no one is talking. Here is justice correspondent Kelli Arena.


KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Omar Abu- Ali wants some answers. The eldest of his five children is in custody in Saudi Arabia and has been for nearly a year and a half.

O. ABU-ALI: He did not do anything wrong.

ARENA: Ahmed Abu-Ali is 23 years old and a U.S. citizen. Raised mostly in Virginia, he was valedictorian of his high school. He went to Saudi Arabia to pursue Islamic studies. After last year's terrorist attacks in Riyadh that killed more two dozen people, his father says he was yanked out of class and detained.

O. ABU-ALI: Saudi Arabia, they didn't do that because Ahmed did anything wrong. They did that because -- on the order of the FBI.

ARENA: Abu-Ali still has not been charged. Publicly, Saudi officials will not discuss his case. Privately, they say they are holding him at the request of the United States. Abu-Ali's sister says she has seen proof of that.

TASNEEM ABU-ALI, SISTER: On May 12 of this year, we met with the State Department. And in an official cable from the U.S. Embassy, the Saudis were saying that they're ready to release him, that they have nothing against him.

ARENA: Abu-Ali's case is unique in the new war on terror. The State Department says its consulate periodically checks on Abu-Ali, but refuses to say anything about his legal status, citing privacy issues.

ADAM ERELI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: What I can tell you publicly is that, as you know, he is incarcerated in Saudi Arabia.

ARENA: With neither government officially saying why Abu-Ali is being held, his family is growing frustrated. According to senior government sources, Abu-Ali's name surfaced in a Virginia terror investigation. His family's home was raided by the FBI after his arrest.

T. ABU-ALI: They subpoenaed everybody on the planet that they could find that knew Ahmed. And absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing, for 17 months, absolutely nothing has resulted from this grand jury, no indictments.

ARENA: Law enforcement sources vary widely in how they describe Abu-Ali. Some say he poses no threat and that there's no reason for him to be detained. Others insist there is evidence that he is connected to al Qaeda, but admit they do not have enough to prosecute him in the United States.

His family has filed suit in the United States to challenge his detention. And his lawyer says the government is setting a dangerous precedent.

MORTON SKLAR, WORLD ORGANIZATION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: It's part of a policy of sending people who are suspected of being involved in terrorism or having information about terrorism to foreign countries, where they can be interrogated using torture and other techniques not permitted in the U.S.

ARENA: The U.S. government denies the charge and has asked the court to dismiss the case, saying the U.S. has no jurisdiction. Abu- Ali's father vows to keep fighting.

O. ABU-ALI: The American government failed 100 percent to protect my son.


ZAHN: That was Kelli Arena reporting for us tonight.

Next, a look at one of the newest channels in our vast television universe. It's called Bridges TV. And its mission is to bridge the growing gap between Muslims and non-Muslims here in America.


ZAHN: Since 9/11, the distrust between Muslims and non-Muslims has mushroomed here in the U.S. Well, today, a new cable television channel called Bridges TV debuted in hopes that it can help build bridges of understanding. Maria Hinojosa has that story.


MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They're pretty much your typical American family, raising kids in suburban Buffalo, New York.


HINOJOSA: But Mo Hassan (ph) and his wife are bringing up their four kids to follow Allah and Islam, just five miles away from Lackawanna, where in the fall of 2002, six Muslim men were accused of operating a sleeper al Qaeda cell.

Listening to their car radio one day, the Hassans heard derogatory statements about Muslims in America, and they had an idea -- create a cable TV network that would be about and for U.S.-based Muslims.

MUZZAMMIL HASSAN, FOUNDER, BRIDGES TV: When you read the papers or listen to the news, almost the two words that go together, it's either Muslim extremists, Muslim terrorists, Muslim insurgents, Muslim militants, whereas all the stories about Muslim service, Muslim excellence, Muslim tolerance, Muslim contribution, you know, they are not out there. And yet those are the people that we know.

HINOJOSA: On Tuesday, Bridges TV had its national premiere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to Bridges TV.

HINOJOSA: There are the usual flashy graphics and dramatic music. But this network's target audience is one of the country's fastest growing, with estimates as high as seven million Muslims living in the United States.

African-American Muslims, immigrant Muslims, women Muslims, children who will watch Muslim cartoons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good morning, mommy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good morning, sweetheart.

HINOJOSA: And, yes, given that Bridges TV calls itself a lifestyle and entertainment network, there are Muslim comics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys have it easy. When you guys get to the airport, you guys get there an hour, two hours before your flight. Takes me a month and a half.

HINOJOSA: It was a dream, but Mo Hassan (ph) knew there would be challenges.

HASSAN: The thing is, you know, let's be real. You have got the word Muslim in there, so when people first hear it, they're like, oh my God.

HINOJOSA: But the country's largest cable carrier, Comcast, has agreed to distribute Bridges TV. American Muslims are so desperate to support this venture that for the past year, 10,000 supporters have been paying monthly fees, even before the network was on the air.

Jamilah Fraser used to produce news for local TV; now she is Bridges TV program director.

HINOJOSA (on camera): What is the one stereotype that you hope this network banishes?

JAMILAH FRASER, BRIDGES TV PROGRAM DIRECTOR: That the women are (UNINTELLIGIBLE), that the women are uneducated, and it shows us that we are -- we're a little bit of everyone, we are doctors, we're lawyers, we're teachers, we're producers.

HINOJOSA (voice-over): So on Bridges TV, which hopes to bridge the gaps between Muslim and non-Muslim, you see Muslim women dealing with a hate-based attack alongside cooking shows.

But this is not a political network. Bridges TV says it will stay away from anything overtly political. The leader of the country's largest Muslim sect will host a show.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't all agree. You know, Shiite has a different view than the Sunni, and then there are so many others everywhere. So that would make for confusion.

HINOJOSA: So if you sign up to watch Bridges TV, don't expect a crash course on the complexities of Islam. What you can expect is to see what American Muslims like the Hassan family want to wear, eat or do on a family vacation.


ZAHN: And that was Maria Hinojosa reporting. I would like to welcome now Salah Zalatimo, an American of Palestinian descent, and a member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals. Good to see you. Welcome.


ZAHN: Let's talk a little bit about what you are up against, in terms of American perceptions. We are going to put up on screen a graphic now that you might find pretty alarming, basically showing that one in four Americans believe that Islam teaches hatred and violence.

So, how is this channel that's going to go into 50,000 subscribers going to change this picture?

ZALATIMO: Well, I think this channel is an important first step in kind of a larger struggle that we Muslim Americans have in this country. And that's specifically against ignorance and kind of fear that have developed since September 11th about the Muslim faith in general. You know, one in four -- it's really a situation where we just need to provide an outlet for uninformed or the average non- Muslim to see what Muslims are like in an everyday setting.

ZAHN: But aren't you preaching to the converted? I thought the people -- the Muslims are going to watch this by and large?

ZALATIMO: Well, the Muslims are, you know, they are the first supporters of the station, and I'm sure it's going to be a large base. But at least, you know, as I said, it's a first step in kind of offering a channel for someone who is even a little bit curious to kind of look and see that Muslims don't just live in the news where there's fighting and there's war and there's violence. There are everyday lives, and they are very normal people. And the average Muslim 15-year-old is going to school and playing video games, and they are doing the same things that all people do, and I think...

ZAHN: That may be true, but you yourself have been a victim of discrimination because you are Muslim. What happened to you?

ZALATIMO: Well, it was an unfortunate incident on the night of the Iraq war. I was living in Boston at the time. And essentially we were standing outside a restaurant, me and another Muslim friend of mine, and my roommate, who is a non-Muslim, actually. You know, it happened so quick I don't even know how it built up. First things happened, a few words were exchanged, and all of a sudden we were, you know, basically being beaten to the ground by about eight or nine other non-Muslims, to put it euphemistically, I guess.

ZAHN: So basically they were blaming the war on you? ZALATIMO: I mean, you know, it was like we are terrorizing you now, and how do you feel about this? And the famous last words were, now you really look different, don't you?

ZAHN: Strikes me another challenge you have is changing another perception that has taken root, and we're going to put this up on the screen that a survey shows -- that half of all Americans think that Muslim Americans are not doing enough to condemn acts of terror. I know you don't think that's fair, but that's the reality of what you are dealing with.

ZALATIMO: It's true. It's true. I think, you know, if you take that question just kind of a step further and you know, get to -- putting that question to a survey has a major underlying assumption. It kind of assumes that Muslims need to, and every time another Muslim does something wrong all Muslims need to stand up and reassure everybody that, look, we're different, and we don't think the same way, we don't support what he was doing or what that person did. I think that's fundamentally wrong, and that's actually...

ZAHN: But do you think you have done it enough to begin with? To make either an apology or acknowledgment that there are these extreme acts of violence that you condemn?

ZALATIMO: I mean, I certainly think so. I think people have actually screamed until they can't scream anymore. And it's really an issue of -- especially when you talk about the news and kind of where these kinds of condemnations fit into the overall story. I mean, you have obviously the news littered with the more negative events that are going on in the world, you know, because there is so much war and violence going on all over the place, that these small voices saying I condemn this or I condemn that, it might show up here or there, but it is not going to make the same impact that the other stories being covered will do. So at the end, the take-away will be a lot more towards the negative than the positive.

ZAHN: We will be watching. With a lot of interest. Salah Zalatimo.

ZALATIMO: Thank you very much.

ZAHN: Thank you for coming in. Appreciate your time.

Coming up next, after some high-profile controversies, a change at the helm of the nation's oldest civil rights group. What's behind it? What's next for the NAACP? We have got two reverends squaring off tonight. The Reverend Al against the Reverend Joe. Stay tuned.


ZAHN: The future of the nation's oldest civil rights organization is in question tonight after the unexpected resignation of its leader. Kweisi Mfume leaves the NAACP better organized but maybe no more relevant to the new generation of African-Americans.

Here's Tom Foreman. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kweisi Mfume stepped down as president of the NAACP in a storm of applause, recognition even from his critics that he had taken on a daunting task.

MFUME: For the last nine years, I have had what I believe was both the honor and the privilege to help revive and to help restore this great organization, which for all intents and purposes, has really become an American institution.

FOREMAN: Mfume did much to help the nation's oldest civil rights group. The NAACP was deep in debt. He dragged it back into solvency. He widely expanded the group's capacity to press legal cases on behalf of civil rights.

MFUME: We have made progress, but I believe it today more stable, more secure, and I think much better balanced to face the future.

FOREMAN: But huge challenges remain. Many younger African- Americans see the organization as mired in the past, and membership is stagnant. The NAACP's tax-free status is under IRS investigation after board chairman Julian Bond attacked President Bush in a partisan way during the campaign, a possible violation of tax laws.

Critics of the NAACP's old guard say Bond's comments helped drive out Mfume, who favored a more cooperative stance.

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: They've lost touch with reality. They've become so blinded by the Democratic causes and their bias against all Republicans, and especially this president, that they are headed down a course -- on a course of no return that only spreads disaster and spells disaster for this storied organization.

FOREMAN: Even as Mfume stepped aside, Bond was making no apologies.

JULIAN BOND, CHAIRMAN, NAACP: I never thought that anyone in the United States who headed any kind of organization, non-profit or not, wasn't allowed to criticize the president of the United States.

FOREMAN: And political analysts say Bond's strategy may yet work for the NAACP.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The way they stay in business is to talk about outrages, to talk about things that they're not getting, to build up anger against the White House. If they can do that, then they'll stay in business.

FOREMAN (on camera): For some time, there has been talk that Mfume would eventually step down from this organization to run for political office, perhaps a Senate seat or governor of Maryland.

(voice-over) For now, Mfume says he wants to spend more time with his family while his professional future and that of the NAACP are unexpectedly up for debate.


ZAHN: That was our Tom Foreman.

Joining me now, former Democratic presidential candidate, the Reverend Al Sharpton. Former Bush campaign adviser, the Reverend Joe Watkins, who's also the director of Hill Solutions.

Time for church.


ZAHN: So is the NAACP relevant, Reverend Al?

REV. AL SHARPTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Absolutely. I think when you look at the fact that we are in the midst of the fight to preserve affirmative action, a fight that they helped to lead, when you look at the fact we are dealing with voter protection, a fight they've helped to lead, the NAACP is more relevant now than ever before. There's no question about it.

And I think under Chairman Bond and under Mfume, they were able to aggressively solve a lot of problems. Most of our civil rights organizations are in debt. They were able to reduce a lot of that and stay on top of a lot of the cutting-edge issues of our times.

I think they're very relevant, and I think they've always been accused of irrelevance by those that don't want to deal with the issues. They've never succeeded in that.

ZAHN: I see you nodding adoringly, but I know you don't agree with one word that just came out of his mouth.

WATKINS: Actually, I think the NAACP is very relevant. And remember, I'm a life member. I'm somebody who bought a life membership back in 1984.

ZAHN: But you agree it's been marginalized.

WATKINS: I don't like what Kweisi Mfume and Julian Bond had to say about the president. I think the president is a great guy, and I think he's doing great things.

But I do like the fact that the NAACP has always been a champion for the little guy and for people who have been oppressed and beaten down.

And now they have a new opportunity. Now it's time to -- to look at the new challenge. And the new challenge was really laid down by Bill Cosby, who I think is talking about all the right stuff, like personal responsibility and parental responsibility. Those are some of the biggest challenges that face the minority community going forward.

SHARPTON: Well, I'm glad you said that you like the president, because you and I debated about that.

WATKINS: We did.

SHARPTON: And you went around the country, even Don King effectively went around, helping to increase the black vote. I want to see if President Bush listens to you and King and others. The challenge is on you guys now. Will George Bush listen to you?

Has he consulted with you about the cabinet? I thought that was a laugh.

ZAHN: We have to look at the numbers and be honest about the numbers. Ninety percent of the African-American vote went to John Kerry. So in spite of what you're saying about the president growing, but not by much...

WATKINS: It's grown a little bit.

ZAHN: A little bit.

SHARPTON: Growing?

WATKINS: Remember, the president did get -- the president got -- he got double digits. He got double digits this time among African- American voters. That's a good thing. A lot of African-American voters...

SHARPTON: He went from nine to 10 percent.

ZAHN: Ten percent.

WATKINS: ... are really, really concerned -- a lot of African- American voters are really concerned about the values issues. And I think you're going to see a trend toward more African-American voters voting their values in the coming years.

SHARPTON: I think that we were always concerned about values, but I think those values include poverty, and health care, and it includes our being involved in wars that are not necessary.

Values are not just narrow issues. When I think to talk about those voters will come your way, we just had an election less than a month ago, and 90 percent, nine out of every 10 black voters, voted against that.

So I don't think that we can sit here and guess anymore. The last time we did the show together, we did. The numbers are in. And we overwhelmingly rejected George Bush.

WATKINS: Well, the president was pretty successfully demonized by Kweisi Mfume and by Julian Bond and some others. Very successfully so, I should add.

ZAHN: But what they would argue, Reverend Joe, is they have the right to be critical of the president.

WATKINS: They do. That's what makes America great.

ZAHN: As they have of every single administration.

WATKINS: Everybody has the right to say what's in their heart. Absolutely. This is what makes America great. This is what makes -- but now it's time to focus on the upcoming -- on the new battle. I say the new battle is what Bill Cosby says it is. How do we empower our young people to be everything that they can be?

ZAHN: Before you go any further -- so do you think it's fair they're going to get audited, because you believe they have been so fiercely partisan?

WATKINS: Well, of course...

ZAHN: Are they not reflecting the opinions of their member body?

WATKINS: You know what? You know what? No, there isn't a not for profit going that has the right to violate the IRS code. So they're being investigated right now by the IRS because the comments made by Julian Bond in an open -- in an open meeting were partisan.

SHARPTON: Every Christian right organization that is IRS tax- exempt, from Jerry Falwell across the board. Isn't it some strange coincidence you want to look at the NAACP? Why aren't we looking at all the Christian right churches?

ZAHN: Some are being investigated.

SHARPTON: Jerry Falwell told people they must vote for Bush. If they're going to be real Christians. I mean, come on.

WATKINS: The law is blind. And that is to say that anybody that violates that statute has the right to be investigated.

ZAHN: There are Christian churches being investigated.

SHARPTON: The investigators are blind, too. I only hear them going after the NAACP and many other...

ZAHN: We talked about that.


WATKINS: I know an African-American minister who actually endorsed President Bush who's being investigated. So I mean, it goes both ways.

SHARPTON: By his church or by the IRS?

WATKINS: The IRS. SHARPTON: Well, I think my thing, Joe, I agree with you. Bill Cosby said some important things. I don't think it's either/or; it's both/and.

Yes, we should assume responsibility. Yes, we ought to correct some of the bad in our community, but we also must have the legislative and political protection to do it. We can't raise -- we can't raise young people up...


WATKINS: Because young people can't do anything without education.

SHARPTON: And he gives us a budget that he doesn't fulfill. And we've lost a lot of educational opportunities. You can't tell young people to stand up and then not help them.

WATKINS: More money for black colleges, more money for public schools.

ZAHN: All right. Let me ask you this question, Reverend Al. There is some criticism of the NAACP, that it has basically assumed that the Democratic candidate was going to get the majority of the African-American vote. And you're not paying enough attention to the real concerns of the average African-American person. Not you, the NAACP.

SHARPTON: Well, again, I think again, if that was the assumption, and I don't necessarily agree it was, the vote is out now, Paula. We don't have to debate about that. Nine out of 10 blacks said that they agree with that position and voted against Bush.

I think that that does not mean we're not concerned about some of the values that Bill Cosby raised. And Bill Cosby has been a life- long civil rights fighter.

WATKINS: Yes. Yes, indeed.

SHARPTON: And has fought in the causes that the NAACP and Dr. King others have fought for. So let's not act like Cosby is anti- civil rights. No one has done as much for civil rights in the entertainment world as Bill Cosby.

I think a lot of our friends on the right wing who fought Dr. King who now quote him are the ones that are -- some strange irony to me.

WATKINS: You know what the beauty of America is? The beauty of America is that people change. Lyndon Johnson was against the civil rights bill in the '50s, and as president of the United States he ushered through the civil rights bill. People change and they grow. A lot of Republicans are on the side of civil rights and doing the right thing and leveling the playing field. I love that.

SHARPTON: He won't change me into going to George Bush. (CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Is this the next guy that should be doing it?

WATKINS: I think taht a great person to lead the NAACP is somebody like the Reverend Al Sharpton, who has national name I.D., has the ability to galvanize people.

SHARPTON: Well, that's just nice if I were running...


ZAHN: Yes, or no if they offer you that job?

SHARPTON: ... from the Bush black adviser. But I would say this, I think the NAACP would not only survive, it will be strengthened, because I think the need for it is there. And I think that the relevance is there. People will always need someone to stand up as long as there are causes to stand up for.

ZAHN: Double handshake for the reverends. Thank you both for coming in.

WATKINS: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Reverend Sharpton, Reverend Watkins.

We're going to take a short break here.

Well, the clue to our next story lies in the answer to this question: who lives in a pineapple under the sea? I'd sing it for you, but you'd turn the set off. That is, if no one has stolen him. It is the strangest crime wave yet. It's next.


ZAHN: You may want to send the kids into another room. I've got some disturbing news for you tonight. It is about Spongebob Squarepants. You know, the guys who lives in the pineapple under the sea?

Well, less than a week after his high-flying debut at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, well, I better let our Jeanne Moos explain.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Put out an Amber Alert for a yellow sponge, blue eyes, two teeth, last seen wearing tube socks and yes, square pants. Spongebob has been kidnapped.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who would have something against Spongebob?

TOM KENNY, VOICE ACTOR: You're going to exterminate us?

MOOS: You may have seen us at the movies or at the Thanksgiving Day parade. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Spongebob Squarepants.

MOOS: You can find Squarepants on everything from boxers to Burger King, but in at least ten states, more than a dozen inflatable Spongebobs have been kidnapped from Burger King rooftops.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You wouldn't think that it would happen in little old Sheboygan.

MOOS: From Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to Baytown, Texas, to Manayans (ph), New York, folks are asking, "Spongebob, where is he?"

In Little Falls, Minnesota, sponge nappers even left a ransom note: "We have Spongebob. Give us ten crabby patties, fries and milkshakes. Also give us McDonald's because your food -- never mind. Signed, Plankton."

Plankton is the villain in the Spongebob movie.

MR. LAWRENCE, VOICE ACTOR: I'm planning to rule the world.

KENNY: Well, good luck with that.

MOOS: It's not believed the sponge nappings are connected, but is it coincidence that suddenly, huge inflatable Spongebobs are popping up on eBay for as much as $300? One is described as having a small hole in it.

Another says, "New in box. This is not a stolen unit."

An Albany, New York TV station even aired a grainy surveillance tape of a nighttime abduction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then soon after, a much clearer picture of the get away car, a gold-colored SUV like a Nissan Pathfinder.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who would take Spongebob? I mean, come on. Get real.

MOOS: Put out an APB. Make that an SOS. But don't confuse Scrunge Bob for Spongebob.

The idea of Squarepants caged up somewhere makes you want to free Spongebob.

(on camera) And now Burger King is offering a whopper of a reward for information leading to the return of any Spongebob: a free year's supply of Whoppers.

(voice-over) A year's supply? This whole thing is enough to scare the Squarepants off of me.


ZAHN: It's not like Jeanne Moos to editorialize like that.

We're going to have the results of tonight's "Voting Booth" question right after that.


ZAHN: And we're back with a quick look at politics at home and in the Ukraine, as seen on late-night TV.


JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Over in the Ukraine, you know, they're having terrible problems with the elections over there. And Ukrainian officials now have declared a winner in their presidential elections, but now the European Union says no, the results are illegitimate. The give away was when the new president, Viktor Yanukovych, thanked his brother, Jeb Yanukovych.

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": By the way, here's a late-breaking bulletin -- the Bush -- from the Bush White House. The White House Christmas tree has submitted its resignation.


ZAHN: And now on to our "Voting Booth" results tonight. We asked, "Do think the Department of Homeland Security has made America any safer?" Twenty-six percent of you said yes. Seventy-four percent said no.

Not a scientific poll. Just a sampling of those of you who logged on to our web site tonight.

That wraps it up for all of us here tonight. Tomorrow night, Patty Davis will be my guest, the rebel of the Reagan family. She will look back with love on her father and her family, the painful reconciliation and the Reagans. That's tomorrow night.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is next. Thanks again for joining us tonight. We'll be back again tomorrow night. Have a good night.


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