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Authorities Investigate Radioactive Trail; President Bush Hedging His Bets on Iraq?; Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama About to Enter Presidential Race?

Aired December 4, 2006 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everybody. Glad to have you with us tonight.
There is important news coming into CNN all the time. Tonight, we are choosing these top stories for a more in-depth look.

Our first story, the "Top Story" in crime: the poisonous path. There's more concern over contamination and more questions to answer in the case of the former spy killed by radioactive poison.

The "Top Story" in politics tonight: the 2000 (sic) heavyweights. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama could change the landscape of the presidential race. Tonight, we go in-depth on when either or both will start running.

And our top consumer story: towed away. The drivers of these cars did absolutely nothing wrong, but they're victims of an alarming nationwide scandal -- tonight, an investigation: keeping your car safe from rouge tow truck operators.

We begin now with our "Top Story" in crime. Tonight, there are new signs that the trail of a radioactive assassin leading directly back to Moscow. Today, Russian diplomats warned the British not to play politics with Alexander Litvinenko's death by radioactive poison. But British investigators tonight are tracking the source of the deadly radiation in Moscow.

Matthew Chance has the very latest on this case from London.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): From a poisoned KGB spy in London to the Russian capital, the radioactive trail from Alexander Litvinenko has now led British police to Moscow.

A team of nine investigators has already arrived to gather evidence. Under international scrutiny, Russian authorities are pledging full cooperation. But there are signs of increasing diplomatic tensions. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is warning that continued suggestions about the Kremlin's alleged involvement in the poison plot could damage relations between the two countries.

"We need to avoid the politicization of this tragedy," he says. But much of the evidence turned up so far does point to some kind of Russian link. Experts say, the radioactive polonium 210, which killed Litvinenko and sparked a public health scare in Britain, may have originated in Russia. And aircraft between Moscow and London were contaminated, perhaps, say experts, as the poison was carried into Britain.

There are also a number of key witnesses British police, they want to interview in Moscow, not least, two Russians who met Litvinenko in a hotel on the day he was poisoned. One of them now says he is also contaminated.

ANDREI LUGOVOY, FORMER RUSSIAN AGENT (through translator): We met with him on November 1 and agreed to meet again on November 2. But, at 7:30 on November 2, he called and said: 'You know, Andrei, I don't feel good. I have been throwing up. I don't think I can meet you."

CHANCE: British police may also seek to interview Mikhail Trepashkin. He is currently serving a jail sentence in Russia for revealing state secrets. But his lawyer says, in letters, he has alleged Litvinenko was the victim of a death squad, set up to liquidate Kremlin opponents.

Back in Britain, speculation in press is rife about the poisoner's motives. Was Litvinenko trying to blackmail Russian tycoons? Was he killed for his criticism of the Russian president? It is just speculation.

As more sites are scanned for contamination, British officials say they will follow the evidence, and neither politics, nor diplomacy, they say, will obscure the truth.


ZAHN: So, Matthew, is there still a public health concern, as British officials look at several more potentially contaminated sites?

CHANCE: Well, I think this is one of the reasons why the British press, in particular, has been so -- covering this with such wall-to- wall coverage.

It's not just the fact that this prominent Russian dissident was killed on British soil, but that the weapon was -- that was used was this radiological poison that has contaminated large areas. Thousands of people have called into the government hot line, just over 3,000, according to the latest figures.

Some 179 have been followed up for further tests. And 27 people, according to the latest figures I have, have been referred to a specialist clinic to undergo radiological tests. The government is stressing that the health risks are very low, but no one is saying they're not there at all -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, if anybody even has low levels, no one can predict what that will mean, of -- of -- low levels of exposure? CHANCE: What, low levels of exposure, what they're saying at this point is, it probably, in the short term, won't have much health implications, certainly not the devastating implications it had for Alexander Litvinenko. We have all seen that photograph.

But, in the long term, not enough is known about the effects of polonium 210, that radioactive isotope, to know whether you're at greater risk of diseases like cancer or an immune deficiency, things like that. It could have quite disastrous consequences, still.

ZAHN: Matthew Chance, thanks so much for the update.

Now, Alexander Litvinenko believed he was marked for death. He actually told people that. He thought someone inside the Kremlin was out to get him. And he took special precautions. But, somehow, someone managed to make him ingest a fatal dose of fact-acting polonium 210.

So, we asked Paula Newton to retrace Litvinenko's steps on the day he was poisoned, looking for any clues she could find to this murder mystery.

Here's what she found out.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alexander Litvinenko's home remains contaminated with polonium 210. Figuring out when and how that happened is key to cracking this case. We pick up the trail on November 1, the day he fell ill.

(on camera): Litvinenko left his home that morning, like he always did, on the lookout for anything suspicious. He was always afraid someone was following him. That morning, he thought it was all clear, so he headed off to central London.

(voice-over): Police say there were no traces of polonium in the private taxi. It's clean. This Japanese restaurant, where he had lunch, is where the radioactive trail begins.

It is still the most likely scene of the crime, but police can't say for sure. What they do know, this is the first place Litvinenko visited that day that has since tested positive for atoms of polonium.

PETER ZIMMERMAN, FORMER CHIEF SCIENTIST, U.S. SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: They drift in the air. They settle down like dust. But they're radioactive. And that certainly is helping people identify where Mr. Litvinenko might have been, conceivably, where his poisoner was, and -- and where other people, perhaps, like professor Scaramella.

NEWTON: Mario Scaramella, Italian spy catcher, he's certainly a witness. He is the man who met Litvinenko at Itsu that day, and claimed he warned that both of them were on a Russian mafia hit list. He remains in a London hospital in good condition, but with high doses of polonium still in his system. Picking up the trail of Litvinenko, he leaves the restaurant for Down Street, and the office of a friend, Russian exile Boris Berezovsky. And then it's off to another meeting.

(on camera): And that brought him here, to the Millennium Hotel and a mysterious meeting with two Russian men now at the center of this investigation.

(voice-over): That from British authorities who have not named either as suspects.

Andrei Lugovoy is a former Russian agent now in Moscow, who's been telling the media he's been framed. He, too, has low levels of polonium in his body. The other man who met Litvinenko at the hotel, Dmitri Kovtun, a Russian businessman, who police say will also be questioned by British investigators now in Moscow.

Back in London, police know that Litvinenko's home, the Itsu restaurant, the Millennium Hotel were all contaminated by the former spy. But more than a dozen sites are contaminated, hotels Litvinenko wasn't in, airplanes, offices in central London. And, tonight, police were checking even more sites for polonium. By plotting them on a timeline, investigators believe they can piece together crucial evidence the assassins left behind.

JOHN O'CONNOR, FORMER SCOTLAND YARD COMMANDER: What they -- I think what they didn't -- they didn't realize is how the radiation trail could be left. I don't think they realized the extent of that. And that's what's going to be their undoing.

NEWTON: The radioactive trail left by Litvinenko, the men he met, and possibly his killers remains the best forensic evidence police have.

Paula Newton, CNN, London.


ZAHN: And that takes us to a second startling development. Mario Scaramella, who, as you just heard, met with Litvinenko the day he was poisoned, is now convinced that he too has received a fatal dose of polonium 210.

Scaramella, as Paula also just mentioned, is under heavy guard in a hospital tonight, in good condition.

For the latest on that connection, let's go straight to our Rome bureau chief, Alessio Vinci.

So, Alessio, there are a lot of confusing things we're trying to figure out here. Paula just described a little bit about what Mr. Scaramella was up to.

But help us better understand the business connection between him and Litvinenko, the victim.

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN ROME BUREAU CHIEF: Well, the two, according to Scaramella himself, worked together for quite some time.

First of all, Scaramella had set up a company years ago that was specialized in tracking dumped nuclear waste. And Litvinenko was one of his key sources in trying to help out, work out on documents about that.

But, more recently, Scaramella was named in a -- a consultant on an investigation, on a commission here that investigated alleged KGB links during Soviet times with Italian politicians. And there, too, Litvinenko was a key source, according to the president of that commission, to Mr. Scaramella. So, the two worked very closely together.

Now, that commission ended, basically, in April this year, but, still, the two were in contact. And we now know that they have met for the last time on November the 1st.

And Mr. Scaramella, in a news conference days after that meeting, said that he had shown, during that meeting in that sushi bar, a Russian hit list, in which both Scaramella and Litvinenko were -- were on it. And, so, he was very much concerned about this.

Now, however, the contamination of Mr. Scaramella really thickens the plot, first of all, because he alleges that he was also poisoned during that -- during that encounter. But he is still alive. And, as we know, Litvinenko died. So, it's quite unclear how, and -- and -- and in what -- in what form, he was really poisoned or -- and contaminated.

ZAHN: And -- and there are doctors who have said on the record they think he's essentially a ticking time bomb; it's just a -- a matter of time before this guy dies.

In the meantime, we had been given some kind of indication that he might make some kind of a public statement. Does that look like that's going to happen?

VINCI: Well, as far as the contamination is concerned, the British doctors confirmed that he has traces of polonium 210 in his body. But they're not saying that it is a lethal dose. They're saying that, actually, it's a dose far smaller than the one that killed Litvinenko.

Mr. Scaramella, in interviews that he gave to Italian newspapers, and an e-mail that he's sent to his lawyer here that I have seen, he claims that that dose is six times higher than a little dose. And, therefore, he has no, basically, chances of surviving this one.

And, therefore, he's saying that, after he's finishing these medical tests he's undergoing right now in London, he will make some of these revelations, if you want, that he says was the reason, to begin with, why he's poisoned.

ZAHN: That's an awful lot to catch up with and try to make sense of. And we will count on you in the coming days to do just that. Alessio Vinci, thanks. And, right now, we have a clarification. When we did this story on Friday night, one of the people we heard from speculated that Mario Scaramella could be a possible suspect. We want to make this perfectly clear. British authorities have not named Scaramella as a suspect.

It seems that every trail in the poisoning story leads back to Russia. Tonight: Do we need to worry about Russian agents, just like we worry about terrorists?

Coming up next, a "Top Story" panel, including a former KGB general, will come in to talk to us.

And, then, a little bit later on, the "Top Story" in the Iraq war: The White House insists an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and a leader of one of Iraq's warring factions is not a case of President Bush hedging his bets. So, what is it, anyway?


ZAHN: We're going to return to our "Top Story" in crime: the hunt for the assassin of a former Russian spy who died from radiation poisoning.

Our "Top Story" panel has plenty of real-life experience in the world of Russian espionage, Michael Baker, who is with me tonight, a former CIA covert operations officer who worked extensively in and around Russia, Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB major general, who says he has no doubts about who killed Alexander Litvinenko, and Hedrick Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former Moscow bureau chief of "The New York Times."

Good to see all of you.

Mr. Kalugin, I'm going to start with you tonight.

Who do you think killed Mr. Litvinenko?

OLEG KALUGIN, FORMER KGB MAJOR GENERAL: The Russian security services.

ZAHN: Why are you so convinced of that?


KALUGIN: Well, he betrayed that service in 1999, when he was supposed to assassinate Berezovsky. He refused to obey the order. He went public.

He later wrote a book, which was published in the West, "Blowing Up Russia," in which he exposed the FSB plot to launch Mr. Putin's career as president, just because they bombed the Russian apartment houses. And, later, when he emigrated -- actually, he had to flee from Russia -- he was sentenced to a jail sentence on fraudulent charges. He later came to the West. And he was critical -- I would say sharply critical -- of the Putin regime. He never minced words. In fact, he attacked personally Mr. Putin in his weekly for the Chechen press. He sided himself unequivocally with the independence movement in Chechnya, those people who are called terrorists, and -- while, indeed, they resort to terrorism. Well, in that sense, his personal attack on Putin in the weekly made him truly a man who had to be disposed of.


KALUGIN: And the Russian services have a record.

ZAHN: And he himself has made that very clear to a bunch of people in his circle, that he thought he was being threatened.

Michael Baker, we explained that you worked for some 15 years as a covert officer.


ZAHN: Is it possible, given how concerned Putin is about his image, that maybe it wasn't Putin himself involved with this, but some rouge officers, trying to make him look bad?

BAKER: Sure. I mean, you have got all sorts of -- of speculation around this, going from Putin, all the way it could be the Ukrainians. There has been some theory it could even be the U.S., trying to damage the relationship -- the Russian relationship.

Oleg pointed out, also, it's of motive. And -- and, certainly, he's correct in pointing out all the -- the work that Litvinenko was involved in. What we don't have is, we don't have any conclusive evidence pointing right now to whom.

But, yes, if you're asking, is it plausible, Putin, who hates criticism, early on in this, they were very dismissive. Now that this story is gaining momentum, now that it's clear that the -- the -- the British authorities are not going to let this go, I think the -- the Russian authorities, meaning Putin, and that very small circle of leadership there, they realize they have got to deal with this.

Well, so, how are they dealing with it? They're doing what they always do. They're -- they're denying. They're accusing others. They're admitting nothing. And...

ZAHN: And they're telling the United States to not make any assumptions about it as well.

BAKER: Exactly.

And they have told -- they have told the British authorities that, "We are disappointed that you were not able to shut Litvinenko up," which is -- is a little bit more insight into the ways that they view things.

There's no transparency right now in terms of -- in Russia -- in terms of how the FSB, the former KGB, operates. People always accuse the -- the agency, the CIA, there's always these theories: Oh, my God. You know, there's a conspiracy in the CIA.

ZAHN: Right.

BAKER: What are they up to?

Well, in honesty, the CIA is -- is probably the most transparent service in the world. What you have got in Russia is, you have got a very well-resourced, very well-experienced intelligence service that almost has free rein. And, certainly, the person at top of that government has terrific experience within that organization.

ZAHN: And, Rick, it seems so abundantly clear that Litvinenko was a man who went out of his way to make his criticism of Putin so, so vocal, as is his criticism of the war in Chechnya. He was perceived as a Chechnyan sympathizer. How provocative was his actions, do you think, in what happened to him here?

HEDRICK SMITH, FORMER "NEW YORK TIMES" CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think -- I think what's interesting, to go beyond that a little bit, is how characteristic this is of this past era, since the fall of communism, particularly in the last four or five years, political assassinations.

Go back to the journalists, Klebnikov, an American, Politkovskaya, whom Litvinenko was trying to find, her murder. What you have is, this is a technique. And what's striking to me is how obvious this polonium 210 is -- very unusual poison. I mean, if you want to poison somebody, you could use strychnine or lots of other things that are more common.

Somebody wanted to convey a -- a message far and wide to people, intimidate people far and wide. And -- and, to me, that helps support what Oleg said before, namely, that it is the FSB, it's the security services, that did it, not just to get Litvinenko, but to shut other people up, to intimidate other people.

ZAHN: Something the Russian government continues to deny tonight -- all very interesting theories.

Michael Baker, Oleg Kalugin, Hedrick Smith, thank you.


ZAHN: And there's more on this incredible nuclear whodunit on "A.C. 360," tonight at 10:00 Eastern.

We are going to move on to our "Top Story" in the Iraq war this week. The focus is squarely on the White House -- coming up, what President Bush told a key leader of one of Iraq's warring factions. What really went on at the White House today?

Plus, a little bit later on: the "Top Story" in politics -- brand-new hints that the Democratic Party's two top heavyweights are getting closer to joining the race for president in 2008, one man, one woman. I guess you could figure that out yourself, who they will be.


ZAHN: On to our "Top Story" in the Iraq war: the first crucial steps in choosing a change in course.

In just two days, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group will reveal its road map for the war. Then, President Bush meets with his staunchest ally, Britain's Tony Blair.

But, today, the president turned to a new face, a top Iraqi power broker, a major Shiite leader in Iraq's parliament, in the effort to end the chaos in Iraq.

Let's turn to White House correspondent Ed Henry, who joins me now.

So, what was the significance of the president's meeting with Mr. al-Hakim today?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The bottom line is, this is a key Shiite cleric. And the president was trying to send a message to Iraqis that he's firmly behind the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, amid signs that that government is pretty shaky.

But I think that the bottom line is, back here, the president was trying to send a message to the American people that he realizes pressure is building on him; he realizes he's going to have to chart a new course; and he realizes progress is just not coming quick enough. And here's how he put it.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I told him that we are not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq, and that we want to continue to work with the sovereign government of Iraq to accomplish our mutual objectives, which is a free country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.


HENRY: The president obviously realizes that this report from the Iraq Study Group on Wednesday could be blistering in its assessment of the war itself. So, he's trying to shore up Nouri al- Maliki, as I mentioned, but he's also trying to shore up his own standing back here at home -- Paula.

ZAHN: The reporting, Ed, is all over the place on how the president is likely to react to this report, and whether he will accept any of it at all.

What do your sources tell you?

HENRY: Well, the expectation, frankly, around town is that he will accept probably very little of the actual Baker-Hamilton commission, in part because the president, in recent weeks, has ordered up all kinds of other internal reviews.

He has his National Security Council conducing a review of Iraq policy, the Pentagon, the State Department. And, in fact, Tony Snow got a question today, saying, isn't this an opportunity for political cover? The president can events -- eventually change course, but pick one of those other reports, instead of Baker-Hamilton. They insist that, no, they're just doing a thorough job.

There's a lot of wondering about why there are so many reports -- Paula.

ZAHN: We won't have to wonder anymore on Wednesday, will we, Ed? Thanks.

HENRY: That's right.

ZAHN: Just who is Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim? It might surprise you to know that he heads an Islamic revolutionary party in Iraq, not the kind of politics President Bush once envisioned for Iraq.

We asked State Department correspondent Zain Verjee to check into the background of the man the president is now turning to for help.


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fresh face in Washington may reflect some fresh thinking by Washington on Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Your Eminence, welcome back to the Oval Office.

VERJEE: Reach out to influential leaders in Iraq's Shia Muslim majority.

ABDUL-AZIZ AL-HAKIM, PRESIDENT, SUPREME COUNCIL FOR THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION IN IRAQ (through translator): The U.S. interest, the Iraqi interest, the regional interest, they are all linked.

VERJEE: Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim is one of the most powerful clerics in Iraq -- his black turban a symbol that he's a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He leads the largest Shia party in Iraq, known as SCIRI. And he's got strong links to Iran, and, perhaps most important, a 10,000-strong militia accused of revenge killings against Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority.

KENNETH POLLACK, SENIOR FELLOW IN FOREIGN POLICY STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The powers behind the thrones are the various Shia militias. And the most important of them are the SCIRI, the Badr Brigades, led by Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim.

VERJEE: Hakim is seen by many in Washington as a voice of reason, urging fellow Shias, at least publicly, not to lash out against Sunnis.

BUSH: Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists.

VERJEE: But Hakim warns, Iraq needs more U.S. help in going after what he called Sunni terrorists loyal to deposed tyrant Saddam Hussein, before Iraq plunges into an all-out civil war.

AL-HAKIM (through translator): Patience has its limits. I'm afraid that, some day, the Shiite religious authorities might lose their ability to calm down the reaction to the continuous sectarian cleansing attack.

VERJEE: The U.S. may also see Hakim as a bridge to Iran. He has close ties to Tehran. He lived there in exile for decades during Saddam's rule. Hakim says he opposes calling for help from Iraq's neighbors...

AL-HAKIM (through translator): We cannot bypass the political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems.

VERJEE: ... and says, Iraq shouldn't become a battleground for a war between the U.S. and Iran.

AL-HAKIM (through translator): We refuse to transfer Iraq to a base for aggression against our neighbors.

VERJEE (on camera): With Iraq marching into civil war, experts warn that ties between Shia in Iraq and its brothers in Iran could grow closer, and, as Iran continues to provide weapons and training to these militias, its influence could grow even stronger -- Paula.


ZAHN: Zain Verjee, thanks.

Our "Top Story" in politics tonight: two people who might be dreaming of the Oval Office -- coming up, the brand-new signs that Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama could be getting into the 2008 race.

And our "Top Story" in health: what the public failure of a potential blockbuster cholesterol drug means for your heart and for millions of others.


ZAHN: On to our top story in politics now.

Tonight, we're getting word that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has just started hiring key staffers for a possible run-for president. But there is a story behind the story. She may be doing this now to stop the growing enthusiasm over Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who is also thinking about running.

Senior political correspondent Candy Crowley looks into this potential clash of the titans.


Oh, how are you doing?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If Hillary Clinton is not off and running, she is, at least, out and talking with colleagues about a presidential campaign. Perhaps more important than with whom is why.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, FORMER KERRY AIDE: The more you're sticking your toe in the water and having stories about that you're thinking about getting into the race and that you're preserving your territory, you'll keep people from committing to other potential political candidates, and that's very important right now.

CROWLEY: Message from Camp Clinton -- hold your horses, I'm on my way.

It is probably no accident this happens following weeks of Obama fest.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: I've watched with a heavy heart as my deepest suspicions about this war's conception have been confirmed and exacerbated in its disastrous implementation.

CROWLEY: For a guy who hasn't decided whether he's running for president, the electric senator from Illinois has been a busy bee. A major speech on Iraq in the comfort of his home state; a talk to an AIDS conference in California...

OBAMA: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Making the rounds on television.

This evening, he showed up in Senator Clinton's backyard for a New York event. And, oh, yes, he's going to New Hampshire this weekend.

They are two political titans jockeying for early post position. He is new to the national game. She is an old hand.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Her people would say is what we lack in freshness we more than make up for in experience. And what Obama's people would say is, is that, you know what I mean, we're fresh and we've got to bring a new perspective to things.

CROWLEY: He opposed the war from the beginning, though he never had to vote on it. She was supportive, but grew increasingly critical.

He's an absolute natural, an exclusive, inspiring presence on center stage.

OBAMA: We worship an awesome god in the blue states.

CROWLEY: She is a steadied, cautious tactician who lacks his pizzazz.

CLINTON: In '06, let's elect Democrats so that we can take back the Congress.

CROWLEY: And now consider the case of lesser-knowns.

CARVILLE: If you've got some 500 pound gorillas, you've got some -- you've also got some 300 pound gorillas with some healthy appetites and that could grow fast.

CROWLEY: For now, the 300 pounders struggle for oxygen.

GOV. TOM VILSACK (R), IOWA: I announce my candidacy to be the next president of the United States.

CROWLEY: Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack made his presidential ambitions official last week with less fanfare than Obama's September trip to Iowa.

Indiana's Senator Evan Bayh opened his exploratory committee today, to less attention than Hillary Clinton's private talks. Bayh has collected a good bit of money and spent more time in the early presidential states than any other Democrat. He pondered the problem of lesser lights five months ago during a trip to Iowa.

You know, is it a little bit of a David versus Goliath situation?

Yes, it probably is. Because as I recall, David did OK.

CROWLEY: The problem is, there was only one Goliath then. Now there are two.


ZAHN: And that's certainly changing things, doesn't it?

Senior political correspondent Candy Crowley is here now for a top story panel, along with two other members of the best political team on TV, senior national correspondent, John Roberts and senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.

We're throwing all the seniors at you tonight, folks.

So, Candy as we just saw in your piece, you talked an awful lot about Barack Obama's media blitz and this newfound popularity.

Was the Clinton camp caught off guard by this early promise running into a potential Democratic primary?

CROWLEY: Not that I can tell. It certainly does -- what the surprise was a little while ago -- because you remember, Barack Obama said I'm not going to run-in '08 and then began to change his mind. So the surprise was some time ago.

Obviously, Senator Clinton is well aware, and everyone has been since the convention, of what a compelling politician Barack Obama is. As you heard James Carville talk about, however, the Clinton camp believes that her experience and her ability to kind of gather both moderates and Democrats together in New York, will serve her well.

ZAHN: So, Bill, when you hear even political -- Republican political strategists saying that Barack Obama is this walking, talking hope machine, what a lot of people want to know is if America really would end up voting a black man into the presidency or voting a woman into the presidency?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's very hard to tell, Paula, because polls are not very reliable. People won't acknowledge any kind of prejudice to a poll taker. They probably won't even admit it to themselves. So it's kind of a risky thing. And Democrats worry about it.

When I run-into Democrats, they'll often ask me a simply question. They'll say, can Hillary be elected? And sooner or later they'll ask can Obama be elected?

My guess is if people want change, they'd be willing to vote even for a minority or for a woman because they want change badly enough.

But, you know, there are going to be as many as nine other candidates in the race the Democrats can take a look at, too.

ZAHN: Sure. And that means they're going to be splitting the money pool a bunch of different ways, John Roberts, when it comes down to it.

That is the only thing we really know for certainty is a major factor here at play, right?


ZAHN: Hillary Clinton has some $12 million in her coffers. She has incredible name recognition.

Can Barack Obama match that? Or does he even need to?

JOHN ROBERTS, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the thing, Paula. I remember being at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004 and Barack Obama came up on stage to give that keynote address. And he was one of those people that had the light. You know, you can just tell them -- they're destined to be superstars one way or the other.

And he's the sort of person -- look at what happened in Iowa -- who can draw an enormous amount of buzz. And that means he can draw an enormous amount of money.

I have been telling people for the last six months that I think the Democratic ticket in 2008 is going to be Clinton as president, Barack Obama as vice president.

But it's looking more and more now as though he has really got his own horse going here. And in terms of can an African-American really be elected president, where would Colin Powell be right now if he had a run-for president?

ZAHN: But I think the one thing we can't ignore is that -- to -- in many respects, Candy, Colin Powell is a guy who had a sort of a clean palette. We didn't really know exactly what he stood for on a whole range of issues.

Isn't that true of Barack Obama, as well?

He has not been as tested as Hillary Clinton has.

CROWLEY: It's absolutely true. Not only do we know -- not know as much about where he stands on the issues as we do Senator Clinton, we don't really -- we haven't really seen him under the spotlight. We know he has this inspiring story of his family roots. We know what an amazing politician he is on the stage.

But he hasn't really gone through the Kleig lights. And that's a whole different thing. And, look, you know, despite the popularity of these two people, anything can happen over the course of the next two years.

ZAHN: Sure.

CROWLEY: I mean we saw Howard Dean and everybody was ready to anoint him president at one point and then he lost the first caucus. So lots of things can happen.

ZAHN: Very quickly, in closing, Bill Schneider, does it hurt Barack Obama that much that he's just a first term senator?

SCHNEIDER: Well, maybe it could help him, because he becomes the candidate of change. You know, when you ask Democrats who are their top choices, the answer is Senator Clinton, Barack Obama, Gore, Edwards and Kerry. There's only one name on that list of the top five that doesn't -- isn't tied to the past.

ROBERTS: And as long as he doesn't go eyaaa (ph) he's probably going to be just fine.

ZAHN: Can you do that for us again, John?

ROBERTS: No, that's my limit.

ZAHN: We're going to really make you sing for your supper tonight.

All right, Candy Crowley, John Roberts, Bill Schneider, thank you all.

Always good to have our whole team together.

Tonight's top story in health involves a drug you'll never be able to take. Why do you care about that?

Well, coming up, what the failure of a potentially blockbuster cholesterol drug means to the millions of us who already take cholesterol meds.

We'll be right back.


ZAHN: Now for our top story in health tonight, we choose a miracle drug gone bad.

Torcetrapib was supposed to be the new remedy for the millions of us who have high cholesterol. But this weekend, Pfizer suddenly stopped the clinical trial because 82 people have died while taking that drug. So now you might be wondering, are the millions of us who take pills like Lipitor taking a risk?

Joining me now, Dr. Mehmet Oz is a heart surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center, who has his own show on X.M. Radio.

We won't hold that against you, that you're not with our network.

How are you tonight?


ZAHN: So, do the millions of folks who are on Lipitor have to worry about this?

OZ: No, not at all. In fact, Lipitor and other statin drugs are wonderful drugs. But even if you put these statin drugs in the water supply, the major cause of death of all the Western Europeans and Americans would still be heart disease, because we don't think about cholesterol the right way. Cholesterol is carried by two different proteins. There's the lousy or LDL cholesterol proteins. These are like these Thanksgiving day floats. They're floating, you know, they bounce around your arteries and they fracture and they spew toxic cholesterol into your arteries.

Then there are the healthy or HDL cholesterol molecules. And these are like Mighty Mouse. They fly in there and they grab the cholesterol and take it away. The statin drugs only address the LDL or lousy cholesterol.

ZAHN: So this miracle drug, then, was supposed to fill in the other part of the equation.

OZ: Bingo. It was the contingency plans for folks who weren't getting the benefits we desired. And it turns out that that for most people the healthy HDL and the lousy LDL numbers are equally important. That's why your cholesterol itself isn't as critical as how it's carried.

And so this drug was going to help us by elevating that healthy cholesterol value.

ZAHN: So now we don't have this drug. This company has lost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on these experiments.

So what are folks supposed to do who are trying to find that balance that you're talking about --

OZ: Well, they're...

ZAHN: When Lipitor isn't enough?

OZ: It turns out that that low tech is probably the best way to go, because the things that we know actually evaluate your healthy cholesterol level are the things you should be doing anyway -- exercise, eating the right kinds of fats -- and these are specifically fats that are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil and fish oils, as opposed to the fats that are solid at room temperature, like saturated fats, which come from four-legged animals and trans fats.

ZAHN: They usually taste better than the other.

OZ: They do. And, you know, if you really are worried about it, you know, go have a drink, because it turns out that that a glass of alcohol, any kind of alcohol, including red wine, but others, as well, will actually elevate your HDL level. But they're not as powerful as the drug that was going to be on the market.

And now we're left with a drug called niacin, which is a B vitamin, which is a drug that has very few side effects...

ZAHN: It could cause flushing of the skin. It can make you get a tingling in your fingers and all of that stuff.

OZ: Without question. And it turns out that, by the way, that if you take niacin late at night with some aspirin, then you actually have the flushing when you're asleep and it's not so bad. And it's a new drug being developed now, and we think it's going to change that quite dramatically by reducing the flushing.

But even niacin is not as strong as this drug was going to be.

ZAHN: So I'm having trouble understanding, is this a really big deal this drug has gone down the tubes?

OZ: The reason it's a big deal is we're not sure if the problem is the drug itself or the way the drug was going to act in our bodies. See, there's a whole class of drugs that will have the same benefit, that will be able to take this high density HDL cholesterol and elevate it. If that whole class of drugs are gone, we've lost a lot.

ZAHN: Eighty-two people lost their lives in the process of developing this drug.

Why didn't the drug company pull it earlier?

OZ: Paula, this is, I think, about as well as you can possibly do. We've had an age old ethical conflict about whether to sacrifice a few lives to learn things for the whole of humanity. And this is an example of that. And when you enter into a clinical trial, you're willing to be a martyr, potentially, to support advancement of clinical medicine.

As soon as it was identified by an independent data safety monitoring board that this drug was dangerous, it was pulled off the market.

ZAHN: Dynacor (ph).

OZ: So it's about as well as we will do.

But, Paula, you're absolutely right. We lost 82 people, and that's a concern.

ZAHN: Yes, a risk we should be aware of any time they try to put a new drug on the market.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, always good to see you.

OZ: Paula, the pleasure is mine.

ZAHN: Thanks for educating us tonight.

Right now we're going to move on to a quick biz break.

On Wall Street, stocks surged despite a sharp fall for Pfizer because of what Dr. Oz and I were just talking about, that cholesterol drug that went down the tubes.

The Dow gained 89 points. The Nasdaq moved up 35 points. The S&P picked up 12 points.

The historic Bank of New York just got a whole lot bigger, taking over Mellon Financial in a $16 billion all stock deal. The merged company will handle $16 trillion in assets. Thirty-nine hundred people will lose their jobs in the process.

More bad news for the housing market. The National Association of Realtors index for pending sales of existing homes fell 1.7 percent in October. That is down 13 percent from October of last year.

An alarming CNN investigation is our top consumer story coming up next -- rogue tow truck drivers who demand money and threaten to tow your car even if you haven't done anything wrong.

Wait until you hear some of these stories.

We'll be right back.


ZAHN: Our top consumer story tonight, tow trucks can be life savers when your car breaks down. But predatory tow truck drivers can leave you stranded or even dead. You may not realize it, but it is a nationwide problem.

And here's our consumer correspondent, Greg Hunter, with his investigation.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My god, what are you guys doing?

GREG HUNTER, CNN CONSUMER CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This woman's legally parked car will be towed away unless she gives this man quick cash.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want $180 now?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't have the cash on me.

HUNTER: This seemingly helpless driver is an undercover cop conducting a Los Angeles Police Commission sting to catch illegal towing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want my car back now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to have to wait.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. I want my car back now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One eighty, or, no, you're not going to get it right now.

HUNTER: Her car was towed and the man was arrested for attempted extortion. Authorities say towing abuses have become a nationwide problem because anybody can be in the towing business.

REP. JIM MORAN (D), VIRGINIA: The fact is when you have an industry with little or no regulation, you're going to attract a lot of bad characters and that's what's happened in the towing industry.

HUNTER: Virginia Congressman Jim Moran is pushing states to crack down on rogue towers who prey on the public. California has some of the toughest towing laws. Authorities say they've seen a dramatic drop in illegal towing since the LAPD started doing stings like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is ridiculous. You can't do this.

HUNTER: But sometimes it's more than just a matter of cheating consumers. Eight months ago in Florida, Adama Rich got a frantic call at 5:30 a.m. from her husband Chuck, minutes after he was shot by a tow truck driver.

(on camera): What did he say to you?

ADAMA RICH, WIFE OF CHUCK RICH: How much he loved me and that he's sorry that he was going to die. HUNTER (voice-over): It happened near this Tampa nightclub. That night, Donald Montanez was towing cars from around the club to this nearby secluded lot. Chuck Rich and others found the lot and according to police, an argument broke out. As Rich tried to drive his car away, Montanez shot him through the passenger window.

Rich died 12 hours later, leaving behind his high school sweetheart and five children.

(on camera): What kind of a void in your life is this?

RICH: Not being able to talk to him. He took care of us. He was the sole provider for our home.

HUNTER (voice-over): Montanez is charged with second degree murder. He declined our requests for an interview.

The tow truck driver, who is licensed to carry a gun, says that Rich tried to run-over him and his employees, and that he fired in self-defense.

Mike Seamon, head of the Professional Wrecker Operators of Florida, believes towers shouldn't carry guns.

MIKE SEAMON, PROFESSIONAL WRECKER OPERATIONS: That's just asking for trouble and once someone gets killed, it's too late to try to reconsider.

HUNTER (on camera): These days, it doesn't take long to tow a vehicle. With today's modern towing technology, the driver doesn't even have to get out of the vehicle and your car can be lifted up and towed away in just a few seconds.

AMY MCTIGUE, CAR THEFT VICTIM: My car wasn't there. And I said, "What do you mean it wasn't there?"

HUNTER (voice-over): Amy Mctigue's car disappeared from a Buffalo, New York street two-and-a-half years ago.

MCTIGUE: I was six months pregnant at the time my car was stolen and it was horrible. I had no vehicle.

HUNTER: But it wasn't just Mctigue's car.

DET. MARK JEDD, CHEEKTOWAGA POLICE DEPARTMENT: The plate number that you got is...

HUNTER: Local police also had reports of vehicles mysteriously missing from places like this hotel parking lot.

Detective Mark Jedd was part of a task force assigned to investigate how dozens of cars, like Mctigue's, could simply vanish.

(on camera): So you're talking about over a car a week.

JEDD: That's correct, a car a week, sometimes two cars a week, that were taken.

HUNTER (voice-over): Finally, the trail led to this salvage yard, where police found 82 cars worth a million dollars, illegally towed and chopped up for parts -- the largest recovery of stolen vehicles in western New York history.

(on camera): You can't even recognize some of the vehicles. I'm sitting on what's left of a 2003 Ford Explorer. Think about this. This is what's left of somebody's SUV. Now, all it is is evidence.

(voice-over): The salvage yard owners say they bought the cars from this tow truck driver, Ronald Metzger, who's facing 68 felony counts for possession of stolen vehicles and filing false papers.

(on camera): You've got 68 counts against you.

What do you say to that?


HUNTER (voice-over): Metzger says he was working for police as an informant. Law enforcement sources confirm that, but say they did not authorize him to take any cars.

(on camera): The police got it wrong?

METZGER: That's correct.

HUNTER: Sixty-eight felony counts? They got it wrong?

METZGER: That's correct.

JOE PERDIGO, TOWING & RECOVERY ASSOCIATION OF NORTH AMERICA: You can look at any industry and find a few incidents that make the press that create a problem for us all. But that does not in any way, shape or form represent the other 30,000 of us that's in the towing business.

HUNTER (voice-over): Joe Perdigo of the Towing and Recovery Association of America says the vast majority of towers provide a valuable service -- helping police, businesses and stranded motorists.

But some of its own members want background checks to weed out people like Metzger, who's accused of having all of those stolen cars. It turns out that he's a convicted felon who previously served time in prison for attempted robbery.

(on camera): You don't want people to think you're a crook?

METZGER: That's correct. I'm not.

HUNTER (voice-over): Amy Mctigue says she's still suffering. With no theft insurance, she lost thousands of dollars and more than two years later, this single mother still doesn't have a car.

And in Florida, there's Adama Rich, who never could have imagined losing her husband over a towed car.

RICH: A few hundred dollars -- that's not worth a life. That's not worth anybody's life.

HUNTER: Greg Hunter, CNN, Tampa, Florida.


ZAHN: And as Greg just pointed out, once again, tow trucks are often more a blessing than anything else. The American Automobile Association handles about 30 million calls for help on the road every single year.


ZAHN: Sorry about the intercom system going off there. I don't understand it, so maybe you're not hearing it either.

Coming up at the top of the hour, Larry King's guest tonight is the fiance of the New York man who was shot to death by police as he was leaving his bachelor's party, even though he was unarmed.


ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us here tonight.

Thanks so much for being with us.

We'll look back the same time, same place tomorrow night.

We hope you'll join us then.

Until then, have a great night.

"LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.


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