Friday, April 28, 2006
Wary of watching 'United 93'
I walked into a Universal Pictures screening room in New York City this week to watch a movie about a day that changed our lives. "United 93" is about 9/11 and the last plane, the one that did not hit the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, the one that went down in a Pennsylvania field killing everyone onboard.
I did not much want to see this movie. I have witnessed enough mayhem through decades of reporting that I don't go out of my way to see it recreated on screen. And as expected, I spent the next couple of hours cringing in my chair at the brutally frank, unsentimental version of events captured in this film.
Put together with the cooperation of many of the victims' families, "United 93" neither reduces the terrorists to animalistic caricatures, nor elevates the passengers and crew to superheroes. It relentlessly grinds forward, almost like a documentary.
I used to be a movie critic, and I would not recommend this movie as entertainment. It is so unlike most films that many audience members will be unable to connect.
But the families of many 9/11 victims suggest a different reason people should see this film: Because it is more of a memorial than a movie. They see the terror, fear, violence, and despair so many of us felt on 9/11, but they see something else too: That on the day enemies attacked America from within, their loved ones on United 93 fought back.
We'll never know everything that happened on that plane that day. We'll never know how close this movie's account of events comes to real life. We do know, however, the plane crashed into an empty field, and not into the U.S. Capitol, not into the White House, not into a dense neighborhood, not into any of the targets that we have reason to believe it might have been headed toward.
For the families I talked to -- and now for me, too -- that's reason enough for a film like this to get more than just passing consideration.
A Bush supporter ... in Iran?
The rhetoric between Iranian and American officials is rising, and rising fast. So today, we decided to head into the streets of Tehran, Iran's capital city, to see what ordinary Iranians think of America.
We started our day in a shopping area in the northern part of Tehran, which is where more affluent and more liberal Iranians reside.
One man, off-camera, told us he was a fan of President Bush because he had gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody 8-year war in the early 1980s. But when we turned the camera on, he didn't want to touch that subject. It's a glimpse at some of the difficulties in getting people to truly open up to a Western television crew.
We also met a few Iranian women who were willing to talk. They said they separate the American people from the American government and had great things to say about American society. One even said she models herself after what she considers the best parts of being American -- working hard and working well with others.
From northern Tehran, we traveled south, toward the more conservative part of the city, where we interviewed people at Tehran's biggest market.
People there said they aren't very aware of Americans, because they get very little information from the local media. One shop-owner warned us that as long as the American government continues to pressure Iran, Iranians will say, "Death to America." But not to the American people, he added.
Many of the Iranians we spoke to have split views of America. They say great things about the American people, but reserve harsh words for the American government.
These harsh words manifest themselves in some rather public ways. Off a main highway in Iran, there stands a government-sanctioned mural that reads "Down with America" on a U.S. flag dotted with skulls and bombs. And just days ago, a few hours outside the capital, there were celebrations marking the 26th anniversary of a botched U.S. rescue attempt to save Americans being held hostage in Iran.
The nuclear dispute is clearly heating up between Iran and the United States. But from the handful of Iranians we spoke to, they are hoping the two peoples can connect even if their governments cannot.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Hybrid drivers face 'Prius backlash'
You have to be careful when you toss around the words "road rage" in California, because people are shot and killed fairly often on the freeways out here. Police say that's partly because the freeway system is so huge it's like a city unto itself, a city that once in a while has a shooting death.
But there is a kind of non-violent, low-level road rage building out here, and it has to do with special privileges for owners of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. It's been dubbed, "Prius Backlash."
First, the background: Under legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, drivers of the highest gas mileage hybrids -- only certain Toyotas and Hondas -- can now use California carpool lanes even if the driver is alone. If you try using those lanes alone in your Escalade, or even your Jetta, you'll get pulled over by a cop on a motorcycle, and the minimum fine is $271.00.
So not only is that nerdy guy you made fun of in high school now getting 52 miles per gallon, he's getting special treatment from Arnold himself, which allows him to zip past you in the carpool lane, while you sit stuck in traffic.
And here's the complicating factor: Not only is this a special privilege for people who buy certain cars, but the hybrid owners, as a group, have a reputation for driving slowly. Sometimes maddeningly so. That's because they get better gas mileage at lower speeds, and if they didn't care about gas mileage, then they wouldn't be driving a hybrid in the first place.
This is why Prius drivers like Jane Velez-Mitchell (Yes, the TV legal analyst who sometimes appears on CNN Headline News) say they've been yelled at, honked at, cut off in traffic and generally messed with.
Some advice: Don't mess with Jane unless you want an earful.
"I do get hostility, especially from SUV drivers," she told us. "And let's face it, they've made a really bad choice in their vehicle. ... If your little Prius is standing in the way of their Escalade, they get angry. Well, that's not how it works. Just because you drive a big Escalade doesn't mean you're more powerful or more important or should be able to get in front of me."
Folks on the other side of this divide say, essentially, "Lady, will you shut up and drive?"
You'll find these anti-hybrid sentiments on car forums like the one on edmunds.com, where someone writes, "Hey all you hyper milers, if you want to go slow and save gas, get a bicycle." The same writer, complaining at how cautiously some Prius drivers accelerate off the mark to conserve gas, claims hybrids are so slow "the Semi next to them with two trailers and towing the USS Nimitz has no problem out-accelerating them."
Despite the backlash, Velez-Mitchell has no plans to ditch her hybrid for a gas-guzzling speedster...or a semi.
Friend or foe: Candy's version
Ever see that program on the Game Show Network (no comments please) called "Friend or Foe"? Let's play my version.
Who made the following statement, friend or foe?
"Bush's advisers have swaddled their guy in so many cloying alliterations -- he's a 'compassionate conservative' and a 'reformer with results' -- that he has become a living cartoon." (08/00)
How about this one?
"The newly passive George Bush has become something of an embarrassment." (11/05)
Last one, friend or foe?
"No president has looked this impotent this long when it comes to defending presidential powers and prerogatives." (9/05)
Answer to all of the above: Tony Snow, the new White House spokesman. With a spokesman like that, who needs a press corps? Just kidding.
The truth is, Bush administration officials are enjoying this little kerfuffle over Snow's statements. They hope his pointed words against President Bush (and believe me, they were few and far between in a voluminous body of work as a writer and pundit) will run against the widespread notion that the White House is intellectually inbred.
For my TV piece on this subject, I talked to a lot of people about Snow's new role. None of them -- Democrats or Republicans -- think Snow's paper trail has much staying power. They believe events and issues will quickly overtake the google searching for Snow's old statements.
The truth is, if you're a columnist who toes the party line 100 percent of the time, people might as well just tune into the White House spokesman every day. Oh wait.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Passing the buck for high gas prices
Who should be accountable for gasoline running at three dollars a gallon? Who caused bills at the pump to swell to fifty, sixty, even a hundred dollars? Who is to blame?
"Not us," say the American oil companies that turn crude into gas, even though this week they are announcing staggering earnings for the first quarter of the year ($16 billion expected for the top three companies alone).
Blame it on the foreign oil producers, they say. Foreign producers are charging more for crude oil, and the people who invest in oil are willing to pay it, because they are nervous about potential disruptions in the supply ladder.
Blame China and India, some international affairs experts say. The economies in those countries have heated up, sucking up oil from the world market.
Blame it on lack of innovation, environmentalists say. The United States could have, should have, long ago developed a better alternative fuel program, they argue.
Blame it on drivers, economists say. As long as they are willing to pay $3.00 a gallon, that is what gas will cost.
Driving by my local gas stations these days with a quarter tank left is like playing some sort of wacky lottery; just hoping I'll run dry during a price dip. Is the cost of gas breaking my bank account? No. But watching those numbers spin on the pump is surreal when I think back to just a few years ago. Same gas. Same place. WiIdly different tab in the end.
The problem for consumers is that it is virtually impossible to prove where the blame lies...or if anyone should be blamed at all. The system by which we get gasoline is so vast that there are plenty of opportunities along the way for extra pennies to be skimmed, extra dollars to be gouged.
So what are you thinking out there as you watch the big board at your gas station? Who do you blame? Anyone?
Gas for 40 cents a gallon
With gas prices reaching record highs in the United States, we decided to see what was happening here in Iran, so we went to a gas station and found that a gallon of gas costs only about 40 cents.
Not a real surprise given that Iran has the world's second largest oil reserve, but there's a hitch to all the low cost gas -- congestion.
With gas so cheap, everyone can afford it, which results in people here driving everywhere. This means traffic is heavy and congestion is building.
A big reason why gas is so cheap in Iran is because the government subsidizes it, but that could soon stop. The Iranian government is set to ration gas in the coming months, and if you want to buy above the allotted amount, the cost goes up five-fold.
Iranians we spoke to at the pump had differing opinions. Some said rationing will help force people to drive less and use public transportation more. Others said it would only deepen the country's economic divide, where the rich will be able to buy as much as they want and the poor will not.
The government wants to ration gas partly because Iran doesn't have a huge capacity to refine oil, even though it sits on so much of it. So Iran ends up importing 40 percent of its gas from other countries, mainly India. The less it has to import, the more self-reliant the country can become.
And then there's the larger issue looming amid the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West. Will Iran use oil as a weapon and cut its supply to cripple the West? Iranian leaders have said so far that's not the plan.
But at the gas station, many Iranians told us that if Iran is pushed into a corner, oil production is an asset they should use to their advantage.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Move or get married
Imagine you've bought your dream house. And you've moved in. Now, imagine being told you can't live there because you -- and your children -- are not considered a family. That's the situation facing Olivia Shelltrack, Fondrey Loving and their three kids in Black Jack, Missouri.
They moved from Minneapolis to the St. Louis suburb a couple of months ago. I visited them recently at their five-bedroom home. They told me Black Jack requires all homes to have an occupancy permit, but that they were denied one. They said they were told that because there are more than three people in their house, and not all are related by blood or marriage, they don't meet Black Jack's definition of a family.
As Black Jack's mayor, Norman McCourt, put it recently at a city council meeting: "It's overcrowding because it's not a single family. It's a single-family residence and they're not a single family."
Olivia and Fondrey aren't married and had two of their three children out of wedlock. The third child is Olivia's from a previous relationship. They appealed to the city's Board of Adjustment for an exemption, figuring it wouldn't be hard for anyone to see they're a real family. But they were denied. Olivia and Fondrey told me they came away from that meeting feeling like they were given a clear message: Get married or move.
"Just because we don't meet your definition of a family doesn't make us any less of a family. ... We've been together for 13 years. ... We're raising three kids together," Olivia said.
So the couple called the ACLU. That's when they discovered at least three other families have had this kind of trouble in Black Jack before. The ACLU showed CNN a letter it says it received from Mayor McCourt in 1999 explaining why another family was being denied an occupancy permit at the time.
"While it would be naive to say that we don't recognize that children are born out of wedlock frequently these days, we certainly don't believe that is the type of environment within which children should be brought into this world," the mayor wrote.
The city has issued a statement saying at least 89 municipalities in the St. Louis area have similar occupancy permit requirements. The ordinances are designed to eliminate boarding houses and illegal renting of rooms, but the city now admits its 20-year-old ordinance may not be in step with the times.
And after a public hearing scheduled for Thursday, Black Jack may soften the wording of its ordinance. If the ordinance isn't changed, the ACLU says it will sue the city, arguing it is violating federal fair housing rules and the constitutional right to privacy. In the meantime, all Shelltrack and Loving can do is hope the city won't force them to move.
Playing politics with gas prices
There's a revolution of sorts brewing at a small gas station near Fallston, North Carolina. The Rockett Express has shut down its gas pumps in protest over high prices. The owners say they would rather stop selling gasoline than pass along to their customers the additional 11 cents more per gallon they say they have to pay than their brand-name competitors down the road.
The 'outrage' factor has spread. In the San Diego area, at least three independent stations also closed in protest after they say they were quoted 40 cents per gallon more than their brand-name competitors.
It's one thing when customers can't afford the gas, but it would seem to be a whole different ballgame when the gas stations can't afford to buy it. And as the price of oil keeps ticking ever higher, this could be just a hint of what lies ahead.
The cost of gasoline has become an incendiary election-year issue even though there may be little politicians can do to affect gas prices. Democrats and Republicans are lining up to say they're on the side of consumers.
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sent a letter to President Bush on Monday urging his administration to keep a close eye out for price gouging. On Tuesday, Bush announced a federal probe into cheating in gas markets.
Democrats, meanwhile, stood up to say that not only does the White House need to investigate price gouging, but let's also take a look at those plush subsidies and tax breaks that the oil industry got in last year's energy bill. Big oil was granted billions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives over the next decade.
As consumers struggle to make ends meet and the price of fuel skyrockets, many people are asking: Why does an industry that is making record profits need a government handout? Weren't those subsidies designed to keep prices down?
For the record, the five largest oil companies, Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips took home more than $111 billion in profits last year. That's greater than the GDP of 174 of the world's countries (2005 figures). With oil above $70 a barrel, it would hardly seem necessary to encourage people to go out and look for it, yet the government still does. Some people argue that without subsidies, the price of gas would be higher still.
There is something to be thankful for in all this: Thankful that you're not buying gas in Norway, England or Italy, where it hovers around the $6.00 per gallon mark. Alternately, you could wish you filled up your car in Kuwait, where gas is about 78 cents per gallon, or Caracas, where Venezuelans are paying a little over a dime. Or you can get used to paying $3.00 per gallon right here at home, because that's probably where it's going to stay for a while.
Just keep your fingers crossed that nothing disrupts the supply chain, because if it does, the price could go even higher.
Monday, April 24, 2006
Bin Laden's relevance
Osama bin Laden always seems to be with us. Or at least with me.
I've spent the past few weeks in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan covering terrorism; before that I was in Jordan.
During this trip, I spent some time working on a CNN Presents documentary about bin Laden that will come out later this year. I talked to people who knew him in high school, in college, and in Afghanistan. Some unusual facts emerged: He used to drive a Chrysler and liked to spend time riding horses.
But the question that dominated my interviews about bin Laden concerns his significance: Is bin Laden still relevant? Or to move the discussion forward: Do tapes like the one that came out Sunday still matter?
Most of the people I spoke to would like to say, "No, he isn't relevant." And maybe bin Laden isn't significant anymore in terms of running a worldwide network like a CEO. But then you get three blasts going off in an Egyptian resort town the day after bin Laden's tape surfaces and you have to wonder if there is a connection.
It is highly doubtful, though possible, that whoever did this attack was acting directly under bin Laden's orders (or those of his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri). After all, bin Laden's most significant activity these days seems to be sending out audio tapes on an intermittent basis to Al Jazeera.
But think about bin Laden differently for a minute. Think of him as the face on a brand, a kind of figurehead, instead of viewing him as a CEO-type. His brand is anti-Western (what he calls the Zionists and Crusaders) and pro-his distorted version of Islam.
Viewed this way, bin Laden is able to get things done even if he doesn't have a direct hand in planning and helping carry out particular terrorist attacks. There are people who believe in the bin Laden brand enough to act upon his exhortations. That doesn't mean he has any direct connection to what happened today in Egypt. But it does mean he remains an important figure.
So back to my original question: Is bin Laden still relevant? You tell me.
Illegal immigrants' cheap ticket home
We're 33,000 feet above the Sonora Desert in Arizona. Guards are watching for any sudden movement. They are wearing dark sunglasses so the passengers can't see their eyes. In all, there are 14 of them: Federal marshals trained in hand-to-hand combat. The passengers are for the most part wearing shackles and handcuffs.
Welcome to "Con Air." That's what Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials call this flight full of undocumented immigrants, which left from Williams International Airport in Mesa, Arizona. From this airport alone, three full flights leave each week bound for Central America.
This "expedited removal" program began last September in order to cut through the red tape and remove undocumented immigrants from the United States -- not within months or years, as was typical, but within days. The number of flights nationally has already been increased to 12 per week. ICE officials say they've removed 81,000 people in three months this year. Never before have so many illegal immigrants been removed from the United States in such a short period of time, these officials tell us.
The flight we're on is headed for Honduras. Onboard, we find immigrants separated by two classifications: 1) Criminal aliens, whose crimes range from heroin smuggling, murder and petty offenses; 2) Those whose sole crime is being in the United States illegally.
When we land, we realize Honduran officials are almost embarrassed to receive us. They can't keep their own people in their own country, and there are three reasons for it: No money, no money, no money.
After touching down, we visit some small villages outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital. It appears as though half the boys are gone. Where are they? Many people told us they are in America looking for work.
On this trip, we met one young man, Marlon Vargas, 23, who has snuck into the United States seven different times. He says the United States is making it more difficult for him to stay in the country, so he plans to join the Honduran military instead of trying again to get into the United States.
Prior to the "Con Air" program, illegal aliens would have gotten written notice to appear for a deportation hearing. More often than not, they wouldn't show, according to Gary Mead, assistant director of ICE. Now, they often are on plane out of the country within days.
"It's a hope that these people, when they get back, will explain to others that there is no safe haven anymore, and that when people are apprehended, they are processed quickly and they are returned quickly," Mead said.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Alaska feeling effects of warming earth
CNN Producer Steve Turnham and I traveled to Alaska recently to report a series of stories on the how global warming is affecting America's northernmost state.
One perspective we tried to capture in our pieces is that of the natives whose families have been in the state for generations. They, perhaps better than anyone else, know how the changing climate is affecting Alaska's glaciers, wildlife and age-old traditions. But getting to them wasn't easy.
Fairbanks, Alaska, whose population of around 30,000 people is big enough to make it the second largest city in the state, was our launching pad. From there, we wanted to go to Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States, about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to talk to some locals.
We took an Alaska Airlines flight toward Barrow, accompanied by a bunch of scientists and students who were going there for a climate change meeting. The pilot circled Barrow for roughly 30 minutes before determining it was not safe to land due to something called "ice fog," which I had never heard of before that day. We got impressive aerial shots of the area from the plane, but we couldn't get on the ground to talk to anyone.
Back in Fairbanks, we rented a car and drove three hours into the mountains of central Alaska to a town called Minto. On the way, on a deserted snowy road, we happened upon a woman with two small children, whose pickup truck had broken down in the middle of nowhere. One of the things you realize in the Alaska wilds is that it's such rough country you're very much obliged to help anyone who is stranded. The woman's name was Janet, and she just happened to have a son living in Minto, the town we were driving toward.
So we packed Janet and the kids into our vehicle and off we went to Minto. When we got there, we dropped Janet and the kids off at her son's house and went in search of the town's leaders. We talked to the chief and some of the village elders about the changes they've seen in the weather.
There is a certain uniformity to the stories the villagers tell. All say it is warmer than it used to be. Also, many of them say they used to be able to forecast the weather to a degree, but now they say it's very unpredictable.
The next day we wanted to try again to get to Barrow. But realizing we might end up circling in the sky again (and burning up the budget for this trip), we decided to send Doug Schantz, our cameraman, on his own to see what, if anything, he could get. He actually got on the ground, shot beautiful footage of the sea ice and the town, and did some solid interviews to boot.
The native elders he interviewed talked about the changes they have seen in the area since they were children -- things like more sunburns and insects, and having to go farther out to hunt for bowhead whales, a major source of food for the Inupiat tribe.
Earlier on this trip, we took a helicopter ride to the Grewingk Glacier in sketchy weather. When we put down on the glacier it started snowing, and there were small avalanches of snow falling out of the mountains that surround the ice field.
Scientists say the glaciers in the area are shrinking dramatically. The question is whether the retreat of the glaciers is directly related to carbon emissions or natural heating in the atmosphere.
It's important to note that while there is still a lively debate over whether global warming is the result of burning fossil fuels or regular oscillations in the atmosphere, most scientists agree that the climate is indeed warming. And as we saw in Alaska, the warming of the earth's atmosphere already is having a significant impact.
Racing against the clock in New Orleans
There are few certainties in New Orleans. But one thing everyone here is sure of is that June first will usher in a new hurricane season. And if the experts are correct, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer than usual and could foster another very active hurricane season.
So imagine the pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with rebuilding the damaged levee system that protects the city from flood waters. At the same time, the Corps is building new floodgates designed to keep Lake Pontchartrain from pouring into the city during a harsh storm.
The Corps is adamant it will finish its critical work by June 1st. But we talked to a scientist and an engineer who are just as adamant that despite a "valiant" effort the Corps will not have its job completed by the deadline. They say there is just too much to do in too short a time.
Yesterday, I toured a massive construction site at the 17th Street Canal with Col. Lewis Setliff, the man in charge of making sure the Corps meets its deadlines.
Setliff can look you right in the eye and say, "We will be ready by June 1st." He knows the world is watching, and that if New Orleans floods again, many people believe it would become a lost city, never coming anywhere near full recovery.
Setliff points out more that than 90 percent of the workers on the project are local guys who have their livelihood at stake in getting the job done.
He also says that even though the most critical work will be completed by the start of the hurricane season that does not mean construction will end. He says upgrades to levees and canals will continue.
It may seem like a huge contradiction, but Setliff says it isn't: "I think the proof will be in the pudding....At some point our work will get tested by Mother Nature."
Here's hoping that test comes later rather than sooner. The last thing anyone here needs is to find out the hard way that the rebuilt levee system would have been better if only workers had gotten just a little more time.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Government service can lead to big bucks
My father used to watch political campaigns and say, "You should never trust a man who will spend millions of dollars to get a job that pays only a fraction of that."
The problem is, in Washington these days a lot of political offices are paying much, much more than taxpayers would ever know about.
Conventional wisdom says if you work a few years at a high enough level of the public sector, you can clean up in the private world. Press Secretary Scott McClellan earned about $160,000 a year in the White House, but political analysts say in the outside world he could pull in five or ten times as much.
How? Two words: Information and access.
There is a long line of folks -- industry leaders, lobbyists, consulting firms, professional associations -- who will pay big money for accurate knowledge of plans being considered at the highest levels of government and connections to the top government players. Recent insiders have both.
And there is money to be had beyond that too: Book deals, speaking fees, political punditry. Want Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to speak at your next convention? The fee listed by his agent is $25,000 to $40,000.
None of this is illegal. But many taxpayers I've talked to believe it is a sign of just how cozy government has become with big business, and they fear that in such a clubby world of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," what's best for taxpayers may be sliding further and further down the list of priorities.
Realistic concern or sour grapes about the spoils of political war?
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
No politics in combat
I felt something of a fool asking the Marines with whom we had just spent 45 minutes darting around the war-torn streets of Ramadi what they thought about the calls for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
Most looked at me blankly, sweat still pouring down their boyish faces, unaware of the politics behind the battle they fight everyday.
In this part of Iraq, where ankle-deep stagnant water and sewage fills the streets and nearly every building bears witness to the ongoing fight, all their time is focused on the mission, and just getting themselves and their fellow Marines home alive.
This fact of their existence in Iraq was emphasized less than two hours later, when the local governor's compound came under a complex attack, a regular occurrence in this part of the city. Mortars, RPGs, car bombs, bullets flying -- this is reality for these boys.
There were hectic efforts to figure out where the incoming fire was impacting and if there were any casualties. Marines were running up to the roof to re-supply those manning weapons, firing rockets, tank rounds, and finally, celebrating when the fight was over and there were no casualties.
As they had said to me earlier -- there are no politics on the ground here, just combat.
Monday, April 17, 2006
Quake's terror reverberates still
I spent Friday and Saturday in San Francisco, reporting a story about the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire that almost wiped this city off the map. It's a frightening, haunting chapter in American history, and it really hits home now because of the parallels to Hurricane Katrina and what happened in New Orleans.
As historian Philip Fradkin wrote last year, "Both cities had been forewarned of disaster...Both cities and their populations ignored the warnings and were, as a result, woefully unprepared. They were, in other words, ripe for major catastrophes."
For this story, we looked at disastrous mistakes made by San Francisco leaders that almost destroyed the city after the 1906 quake, such as Mayor Eugene Schmitz's order to thousands of police and federal troops authorizing them to "KILL any and all persons found engaged in looting" and the city's decision to fight the spreading fire with dynamite, which for three days succeeded only in starting more fires.
The city initially said 478 people had died. But historians now believe 3,000 to 5,000 died in the earthquake and the fires that followed.
The story that haunts me most is what happened to the city's visionary and talented fire chief, Dennis Sullivan. Jolted awake by the quake, he had the presence of mind to wrap his wife in a mattress. But falling debris from a nearby building crashed through his roof, hurling Sullivan and his wife four stories downward into a sea of wreckage. Badly burned, he fell into a coma and died four days later.
As author James Dalessandro told us, "The one man who could have made a difference was lost." Sullivan's wife, though, survived -- the mattress saved her life.
The other story that sticks with me is the heroism of a Navy lieutenant, a man named Frederick Freeman. Acting without orders and without supervision, he took it upon himself to muster his men and fight the fire at the water's edge. It is now believed he saved the city's waterfront.
Had the waterfront been lost, the death toll would have skyrocketed because it was the main avenue of evacuation and the main route for incoming supplies. In a city ruled by panic, chaos, lawlessness and drunkenness, Freeman inspired his men to work for 70 straight hours.
"He was not a man who would wait for instructions before taking action in an emergency," wrote one of the midshipmen under Freeman's command. "He was a born leader of men, a skipper whose men would go to Hell and back for him. I can hear him now, 'Come on men, sock it to 'em!' and they did."
I can't imagine the terror in San Francisco a hundred years ago. That earthquake lasted 40 or 50 seconds. The fires burned for three days. But it must have felt like an eternity.
Best-selling author's link to serial killer
Hope you all had a great weekend. I wanted to let you know in advance about a special edition of "360°" that is going to air tomorrow night.
Sebastian Junger, the author of "The Perfect Storm," has written a new book called "A Death in Belmont." It's a chilling and controversial reexamination of the Boston Strangler murders of the early 1960s, as well as a killing not attributed to the Strangler, a murder that happened about a mile away from Sebastian Junger's childhood home.
What makes this book so interesting is that before he confessed to being the infamous Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo was Al the handyman, a carpenter working at the home of a woman named Ellen Junger. Ellen is Sebastian Junger's mother, and in "A Death in Belmont," she recalls this encounter with the serial killer she knew only as her handyman.
"I went to the basement door and looked down at him and he was looking up at me with this frightening expression in his eyes, kind of intense and burning. It wasn't anger. It was more as if he was trying to mesmerize me, to compel me to come downstairs. It was like he was seeing right though me. I've never had anybody look at me like that. I was terrified."
Ellen Junger was lucky. Thirteen other women were not. But it's that other murder, the one the one the Strangler did not confess to, that has haunted Sebastian Junger all these years. This murder had all the markings of another Strangler killing, but an African-American cleaning man named Roy Smith was found guilty of the crime.
The case against Roy Smith is strong, but there are some intriguing questions that Sebastian Junger has spent several years trying to answer. Was Smith truly guilty or did DeSalvo get away with one more murder? Some have criticized Junger's new book, questioning his research and some of his conclusions. This Tuesday night, in a 2-hour special, we'll take a closer look at "A Death in Belmont," and let you be the judge.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Big Easy health care falls on hard times
It's 5:15 p.m. when two nurses pull back the curtain to speak with Martha Breaux about her chest pains. She has been in the emergency room at East Jefferson Hospital in New Orleans since 5 a.m.
Considering how long she's been there, the elderly patient is in amazing spirits.
"The doctors and nurses have been great," she tells me. "There's just no room to put me in."
This is the norm these days here in New Orleans. Only five hospitals remain open in the area post-Hurricane Katrina. Couple that with the fact that as many as 40 percent of doctors have left the area in the past seven months, according to the Orleans Parish Medical Society, and it's clear why overcrowding is a problem.
On top of that, the hospitals still open are bleeding money, in part because they're treating more uninsured patients than they were before Katrina.
Until it flooded after the hurricane, Charity Hospital had been treating most of the uninsured patients in New Orleans, bolstered by more than $400 million in annual state funding.
But with Charity closed, the remaining hospitals are picking up much of Charity's work. They are doing this without most of the $400 million that Charity had been receiving, because the state eliminated the bulk of this money from its budget, another result of its post-Katrina financial crisis.
Local health officials have lobbied lawmakers in Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C., for extra funding, but they have come back empty-handed, dire news for a city struggling to provide health care to its residents.
Generals question Rumsfeld's leadership
Last night, we had a great discussion with three retired generals. The topic was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the question on the table was why are so many former generals calling for Rumsfeld to resign?
I don't take sides, but what I find interesting about the current debate
is that for the first time we are hearing from high-level officers who served on the ground in Iraq.
For years now, Rumsfeld and others in this administration -- from President Bush on down -- have said that they take their cues from commanders on the ground. Whenever asked about troop levels and whether there are enough forces on the ground, they've said that if the commanders wanted more, they would have asked for them.
Well now it seems we are hearing from commanders who are saying that's not the way it really worked.
Some supporters of Rumsfeld will say, well, these guys are politicized or they are trying to scapegoat Rumsfeld. And those arguments should be taken into account.
But I thought Major General John Batiste, who commanded the Army's First Infantry Division in Iraq, was compelling last night when he said that for him at least, this isn't about politics. Batiste says he's been a Republican all his life and that his criticism of Rumsfeld is about protecting troops on the ground, about winning the war.
We'll talk with more generals tonight.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Five reasons Rumsfeld won't leave easily
Friends and foes alike know Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld does not easily bend. And they suggest at least five reasons why he's unlikely to bow under the current battering
1. It is not the Rumsfeld way -- He is tough and approaches his critics head-on. Here's Nixon's view from 30 years ago: "...At least Rummy is tough enough. He's a ruthless little bastard to be sure of that..."
2. Impact on the military -- The future of Iraq is uncertain, Osama bin Laden remains free, and Iran is rattling its saber. Some military analysts say Rumsfeld bears some blame, but others say Rumsfeld's removal would send a dangerous signal of weakness to enemies.
3. White House wants him to remain -- Through Afghanistan and Iraq, Rumsfeld has led this administration's signature initiative, the battle against global terrorism. The White House stands by him and expects the same in return. Here's Scott McCellan's take: "Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job overseeing two fronts on the global war on terrorism."
4. Politics -- Critics, such as Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, want Rumsfeld out. "It would energize American forces. It would energize the political environment. Yes, he should step down," Biden said. But this administration, Rumsfeld included, seems unshaken, almost oblivious to its political critics.
5. Personal conviction -- Rumsfeld says the war in Iraq is difficult, but he sees progress. And he thinks newsmakers and news reporters, who he says focus on the negative, are mistaken and defeatist. "The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and give heart to the terrorists," Rumsfeld said.
In sum, Rumsfeld has lost bureaucratic and political battles in the past, but it is not his nature to ever go down without a fight.
Herb induces hallucinations, proposed laws
When I told people we were doing a story on Salvia Divinorum, most said to me that they had no idea what I was talking about. And that is one of the major points of this story.
Salvia Divinorum is considered the world's most potent "natural" hallucinogen. It has been used for hundreds of years by indigenous people in Mexico, but very little is scientifically known about it. And that may be one of the reasons that it is completely legal to use and buy in 48 of the 50 United States.
The herb is sold on the internet and in many smoke shops. It is smoked or chewed and can make people feel they are in another place and time. It is not yet used by a lot of youth in this country, but its use is increasing, which brings us to the tragedy that recently unfolded.
Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old Delaware high school senior, committed suicide this past January. His parents knew he had experimented with salvia and asked him to stop. He said it was legal, but he would discontinue using it. But his parents now believe his depression was worsened by the salvia, and they believe it contributed to his death.
A Delaware state senator took notice and sponsored legislation to criminalize its use and distribution. The state senate has passed the bill; the state house is expected to follow suit. The bill is expected to pass. If it does, Delaware will join Missouri and Louisiana as the only states to criminalize the herb.
Advocates for salvia use say it should be regulated, not criminalized. They say it should only be used by adults, and when responsibly smoked or chewed, it can be used as a meditative tool. In addition, some users say it relieves depression. But all acknowledge it can cause serious hallucinations.
So why is it still easily attainable in the great majority of the country?
Well, it's not because politicians are against criminalizing it. The answer is more basic. Most lawmakers and even law enforcement officials know little or absolutely nothing about it. Efforts like Delaware's are likely to lead to many more states looking at criminalizing Salvia Divinorum.
Brett Chidester's parents are broken up about the loss of their only child, but they see Delaware's proposed law as his legacy. The name of the legislation, by the way, is Brett's law.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
New book captures BTK killer
While on assignment recently in Wichita, Kansas, I met Stephen Singular, the author of a new book, "Unholy Messenger: The Life and Crimes of the BTK Serial Killer." Singular spent a year digging through the personal history and motivations of Dennis Rader, aka the BTK killer, a subject we cover in tonight's show.
So what would possess a man to do what Rader did?
Singular said that when he looked in the BTK killer's childhood he learned that Rader would get aroused when his mother spanked him. When Rader visited his grandparents' farm, he would watch with fascination as chickens were being slaughtered. One day, he killed a cat. It may have been an accident, Singular said, but it was an event that had a lasting impact on Rader.
"I think it started the feeling of liking killing," Singular said. "I also think it's about power. It's about being something where you can see and feel a sense of power, and you can see and feel having an affect on the world around you."
Rader was in essence two different people: He was married, had kids, and was active in his church. On the outside, he was the stereotypical guy next door. But on the inside, he was another person, someone who killed ten people.
"He'd gotten to know this other person so well that he'd given it a name and a face -- Factor X, or sometimes Rex - and imagined it as a demon that resembled a small, nasty-looking, demented frog. He drew pictures of the creature who kept coming round and fueling his fantasy of having a live, pretty, helpless woman at his command," Singular wrote in his book.
We all know that BTK stands for bind, torture, kill. It's what Rader liked to do to his victims, but in a way, he identified with his victims too.
Here's Singular's take: "...that image of being tied up...I think it's a two-edged sword. Not only does he want to tie somebody up, but he himself is terribly constrained in this environment that he's in. He can't talk to anybody about it. He can't get out of it -- at least he doesn't think he can."
Rader never talked about what was going on in his head until he was caught. Would these people still be alive if Rader had revealed his inner demons sooner? It's an interesting question, but not one that can ever be answered definitively.
Does immigration debate matter?
Just wanted to say it's really nice to be back. I was off last week -- a rare attempt to actually have a vacation. The truth is, after a day or two off, once I'd caught up on sleep, I looked around and said to myself, "OK, so now what?" So it's nice to be back.
One of our guests last night on the program said she didn't think people in the United States really cared about the immigration debate. She was basically saying it's a creation of "the media" responding to press releases from right wing think tanks.
I didn't quite understand the logic. Clearly, the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who have poured into the streets this week and in past weeks think this is an important issue. There are 11 million illegal immigrants in this country now (Lou Dobbs says he thinks the number is closer to 20 million), many of whom would like some legalization of their status. They must believe it's an important issue. Certainly those Americans concerned about border security believe this is an important issue.
Is it the MOST important issue facing our country? That's an arguable point, but I don't think dismissing the debate about border security and immigration reform is valid. Of course, the debate often just degenerates into a shouting match, which may be entertaining to watch for a while, but doesn't really serve any purpose, so we'll continue to focus on the topic in the coming weeks, and try to look at the issue from as many different angles as possible.
Also tonight on the program, we'll continue to look at the sorry state of America's education system. Oprah Winfrey is devoting two shows this week to the topic, and I went and shot some pieces for her in Washington D.C. Yesterday, I profiled two schools in Washington that are literally falling apart, and today's story is about a school that seems to be working.
What's amazing about this school is that it has taken students from failing Washington schools along with kids who were told by their own teachers that they'd never amount to much, and it has helped those kids become top performers. I was in a fifth grade class in this inspiring school, and all these little kids knew the date they were going to college. Not the date they were graduating high school, because that's not their goal. College is the goal, and these little kids could even tell you what colleges they wanted to attend!
Anyway, I'll be on Oprah today with a report about this school, and we'll talk more about it on "360°" tonight.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Specter of flooding still haunts Crescent City
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently fell on its sword so to speak, regarding the collapse of the levees that protected New Orleans from flooding.
Less than two months before the start of another hurricane season, the Corps admitted that it was their design flaw that allowed soil along the canal to erode, thereby causing the floodwall to cave in. After that, water went pouring into the city, and the rest, as they say, is history.
To local residents, the admission wasn't much of a surprise. Many here never believed early arguments that the flooding of New Orleans by a category three hurricane was caused by water pouring over the top of the levees and overwhelming them.
But the Corps had another shocker. It won't cost $3.5 billion to shore-up the levee system, as the Corps had predicted. No, repairs will cost about $6 billion more, for a total price tag of $9.5 billion. That's because the rebuilt levees have to be higher and need more reinforcement than the old ones.
New Orleans residents fear that if the city floods again it is going to be the death knell here. Take Liane Buchert (that's BOO-shay for those of you outside this area). Her home and restaurant were both ruined by the flood after Katrina.
But she exemplifies the strong character of so many people who remain here. She now sells boiled crawfish in front of her washed-out restaurant, and judging by the lines, business is good. But she thinks it would be too hard financially and emotionally to pick up the pieces again if another hurricane blasted the city.
"If the levees break again, I doubt I will be back," Liane said.
And there is no guarantee $10 billion dollars in improvements will protect the city from the next hurricane.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock of the Army Corps put it this way: "Without being trite or cute here, how do you say to the people in San Francisco that no one will die in an earthquake?"
That's not exactly what stressed-out residents thought they would hear from the man in charge of repairing the levee system as the hurricane season bears down on them June 1.
Politics colors immigration debate
As the bipartisan immigration bill was breaking down in the Senate, I asked Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was standing with the Republicans he had worked with, if his own Democratic party leaders had held up immigration to try to use the potent issue against the GOP during this fall's elections.
He laughed sheepishly, and then quipped, "Ask John McCain, my spokesman."
Well, earlier, Republican Sen. John McCain told me (and anyone who would listen) he did think Democratic leaders made a political calculation not to pass a bill putting millions of illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship. Why?
Because Democratic political strategists knew hundreds of thousands of people were getting ready to march across the country just three days later to express outrage at the GOP over a House bill that would make illegal immigrants felons. Republicans say Democrats didn't want to pass something marchers would like, because it could diminish the impact of the long-planned protests aimed at the GOP.
Democrats insist that's not the reason they let the Senate agreement stall, but a few told me it was an "added benefit."
There is one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on: The massive demonstrations are proof the Hispanic community has exploded into a political force to be reckoned with.
There has been bipartisan awe at what the marchers pulled off. Through Hispanic radio, churches, and word of mouth, organizers were able to stage demonstrations the likes of which veteran political operatives work their whole careers to engineer. And both sides agree the Hispanic vote, which is the fastest growing minority group, is up for grabs, and that the immigration debate will dictate where many Hispanics fall.
Grover Norquist, a Bush ally, put it in stark terms: "If the Republican Party maintains its competitive position with the Hispanic vote -- 40 percent and more -- it will govern America for the next 50 years. If it falls to a low percentage of the Hispanic vote, it won't."
Monday, April 10, 2006
Arizona officer: Illegal immigrants akin to burglars
As of this writing, I'm standing among the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets in Phoenix today to demonstrate for immigration. Because of the size of the crowd, there is a heavy police presence. But one of those standing guard isn't here of his own choosing.
His name is Sean Pearce, and he's a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. In late 2004, he was shot by an illegal alien while executing a search warrant on a murder suspect.
There's no doubt about where he stands on the issue of illegal immigration. "We have laws that you need to enforce, and if you don't abide by those laws...to me it's no different if you're burglar," Pearce said.
He's not the only one with that last name to feel that way. His father, Russell Pearce, is a state representative who is one of the loudest voices in the state when it comes to illegal immigration. His son's shooting has made the issue even more personal to him.
Nonetheless, Deputy Pearce must do his job, even if that job involves standing guard to protect a crowd that includes some illegal immigrants, the very people he says are causing many of the state's problems.
Irish still coming to America
Imagine not being able to get a driver's license, or not having a valid Social Security number, or worrying that any day in the United States could be your last.
That is life for millions of illegal immigrants living in this country, including about 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants. Half of those illegal Irish immigrants live in the New York area, including Brian M. (he asked us not to use his last name).
Brian has been living in the Unites States for 10 years, after first coming here on a tourist visa that has long since expired.
He owns a plumbing company and a home with his wife in Yonkers, New York. He also pays taxes through a special tax identification number, because he doesn't have a Social Security number. He says he's a NASCAR fan and an avid hunter. Yet he lives in the shadows of American society.
For tonight's show, we spent some time with Brian and watched how he struggles daily because of his status as an illegal immigrant. He can't get a driver's license, but works six days a week, so he hired someone just to drive him to and from work.
Until they got married in New York last October, Brian and his wife hadn't seen their families in seven years. Travel, and the risk of being detained at an airport, is just too risky for them.
Brian thinks it's important to put a face on immigration, so he is traveling around the country speaking at any rally he can. He wants illegal immigrants like himself to be granted the same rights as their forefathers. And like the tens of thousands of people demonstrating today across the United States, he wants his voice to be heard.
Friday, April 07, 2006
Medics answer quake's call
The pictures were heartbreaking; the death and destruction overwhelming. Just six months ago, as Pakistan was shaken to the core by a massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake, a group of New York City emergency medical workers was watching too, and immediately started making preparations to travel halfway around the world to help.
The quake crushed towns hidden in the shadows of the Himalaya Mountains. The numbers were staggering: 3.5 million homeless, 73,000 dead, 69,000 injured. When this band of medics arrived, they were stunned to find that many of the injured had never even been seen by a doctor.
"It was incredible that this was two weeks after the earthquake," said Phil Suarez, a paramedic. Phil kept a photographic record of the people he met. A few of his photos are featured here.
Their mission of mercy was beset by obstacles. A language barrier kept patients from communicating their pain. The perilous terrain made moving between camps nearly impossible. Shelter was nearly nonexistent, as were medical supplies. And a punishing winter that would cover the mountains in snow was approaching fast.
But still, the wounded kept coming to their makeshift emergency room. "Four men would be carrying these sick people over this rubble that I could barely walk on with a backpack," Phil said.
For two weeks, the medics worked in the harshest conditions, doing what they could with what little they had available for their very grateful patients.
When they returned home to their lives, their jobs and their families, they knew their work in the mountains of Pakistan was not yet done. In March, they made their way back. But this time, they were armed with donations, supplies, even prefabricated shelters for some of those still displaced by the quake, but unwilling to come down from the mountains.
Six months has passed since the earthquake, and little has changed for the people of the poor Pakistani villages buried under the quake's rubble. But much has changed for these medics, who left their lives behind to respond to an emergency call half a world away from home.
Real life 'Crash' in L.A.
When I first heard about this story, I thought to myself, "No way can this be true." These things simply don't happen. However, despite my natural skepticism as a journalist, the true facts of this story couldn't be ignored.
It goes like this: In 1981, a 13-year-old gay runaway was savagely beaten in a back alley in West Hollywood, California. The group behind the attack specifically targeted homosexuals. After the attack, the victim's life would never be the same. He was fearful of being in public places, even movie theaters.
Fast forward to 2005. The victim is working at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, a place dedicated to educating the public about hate. While there, he meets a former neo-Nazi skinhead who served time in prison for attacking an Iranian couple he thought was Jewish. This man, however, has undergone a personal transformation. He now realizes he was stupid for espousing racist beliefs and acting on them.
Over lunch, the two start talking about their life experiences. They quickly realize they'd met before. Yes, in that back alley in West Hollywood. After all these years, the victim and the perpetrator speak face-to-face. However, this time they're on the same side, both trying to accomplish a little bit of good.
This story is about so many things -- forgiveness, redemption, love, hate -- all the emotions we as human beings are capable of having. That two people could meet like this after 24 years and begin a friendship is astonishing.
I'd like to give a shout out to CNN Producer Stan Wilson for finding this incredible story and pushing it through to air.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Jocks and sex
The accusation has never been definitely proven: That the sports culture in high schools, colleges, and professional arenas spurs sexually inappropriate behavior or sexual violence. But each time another athlete or sports team stands accused of sexual misconduct, the question is raised again: Is jock culture somehow responsible?
In the wake of the controversy swirling around Duke University's lacrosse team, I was given the job of looking into that question, and I found that solid answers remain as elusive as ever.
A study by Rutgers University found that the locker-room mentality of some male athletes provides fertile ground for sketchy attitudes toward sex and women. The study, which examined the 2001-2002 academic year, found many male athletes routinely, sometimes exclusively, refer to women through sexual slurs, especially when these men are together as a team. Some male athletes suggest they struggle with turning on and off the violence that is part of their game. And many believe in "accidental rape," that is to say rape that happens in the heat of a moment, often fueled by alcohol, which they feel no one should be blamed for.
But the Rutgers researchers caution that many other athletes and coaches are actively trying to fight such attitudes, and the entire athletic community should not be tarred by actions of some.
Still, victims advocates say American adoration of athletes is so profound that many victims will not come forward to tell their stories if an admired athlete is involved. So the question remains: Even when sexual misconduct by athletes is proven, does it
reveal rare and terrible behavior or something that is all too common in jock culture?
Get your trailer away from my mansion
You know the phrase "not in my back yard?" Well, how about "not next door to my mansion!"
Homeowners in a private, gated subdivision in New Orleans are furious that FEMA is putting a trailer park for evacuees next door.
The homeowners argue that there's plenty of vacant land in the city. The city councilwoman who represents the subdivision proposed an alternate site. But FEMA ignored the proposal and started moving in trailers.
That has made Mayor Ray Nagin so angry that he says he won't allow any more group trailer sites in the city -- and he wants the FEMA workers kicked-out.
FEMA says the city has "jeopardized" the housing effort, and FEMA says it may demand that the city pay back the $1.5 million FEMA has spent on the site so far. The Mayor says no way.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Getting your share of federal pork?
A half million dollars for a teapot museum; $1 million for the development of waterless toilets; $600,000 for reminding folks about Abe Lincoln's bicentennial birthday. The 2006 Pig Book
is out, and Citizens Against Government Waste
(CAGW) says its annual publication underlines a wide range of tax dollar waste.
On a per capita basis, Alaska is once again on top of the pig pile, pulling in $325 million for pet projects, including the sea otter commission. But the CAGW says there is plenty of other pork for grilling.
The International Fund for Ireland, the report says, was given $13 million, some of which went for the World Toilet Summit. Another $1 million went for development of waterless toilets. Missouri got almost $6 million to relieve traffic in a town of only 50,000 people. Oregon welcomed $400,000 for a museum about two Chinese immigrants. Iowa rounded up $250,000 for its cattle congress. Nevada knocked down a cool $100,000 for a boxing club. New York landed $50,000 for a Tito Puente memorial project.
All of these projects have defenders, people who say this is not pork at all, but money well spent to spur local economies, create jobs, and bring taxpayer money back to the taxpaying communities. Still, CAGW and the elected officials who support eliminating pork say the proof is in the spending, and pork is still king in the capitol.
So what about your state: Are you getting pork...or just a well-deserved slice of the taxpayer pie?
Sexual predators find support systems online
The arrest last night of a Department of Homeland Security official on child predation charges has thrust the issue of Internet pornography/predators to the top of the news today.
Brian Doyle was the deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, a position that puts him on the front lines of helping to protect this nation. If what Polk County, Florida, police allege is true, it would not only be a grievous crime, but an abrogation of trust with the American people. We're going to take a long look at the issue of Internet predators tonight, how prevalent they are, the support systems the Internet offers them, and how the web has truly become an information superhighway for deviant behavior.
You might be frightened to know that as many as 1 in 4 children who go into Internet chat rooms have been contacted or propositioned by a pedophile. As the father of a 14 year old girl, I find that statistic incredibly troubling. What's more, the Internet not only offers perverts a quick and clear line to potential victims, it also offers a network for these deviants to plot and plan the best way to approach young people and how to manipulate them. It even brings pedophiles together in a common community where they assure each other what they're doing is not morally or criminally wrong.
The Internet can be a wonderful tool, but it is also home to a lot of dark places where predators aggressively pursue innocent victims. The exploitation of children over the Internet is already a $20 billion dollar a year business, and business is exploding. A recent survey conducted for the Polly Klaas Foundation found 25 percent of teens say they have talked online about sex with someone they never met in person. Nearly 1 in 5 reported knowing a friend who has been harassed or asked about sex online by a stranger.
Law enforcement does what it can to combat this nightmare of pedophilia. Brian Doyle was caught by a small sheriff's department in Florida that has decided Internet predation is an important enough issue to warrant a computer crimes unit. But for every deviant brought before the bar of justice, hundreds more continue to troll unencumbered for new victims.
Parents play a big role here too. You HAVE to be aware of what your child is doing online. Look at the case of Justin Berry, who testified before Congress yesterday. He ran an internet porn business from his bedroom for years. Where was his mother in all this? She claims to have had no idea what he was up to. Come on parents! What does it take to police your child's online experience? I'm not trying to play holier-than-thou here, but parents MUST take responsibility for their children's environment. It's a dangerous world out there in cyberspace -- and the problem of internet predation should spark us all to outrage.
We're covering all the angles on this important story tonight, and I'll see you for "360°."Editor's note: John Roberts and Heidi Collins co-achor "360°" tonight.
Big screen TVs part of Katrina relief effort?
For months, the people of St. Bernard Parish, a blue-collar community outside New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina, have blasted the federal government, especially FEMA, for the slow federal response. Now, the Empire strikes back.
Local officials say FBI agents are looking into how St. Bernard Parish spent federal relief money. The agents are asking about everything from a $700 million contract to haul away garbage to the purchase of three big screen TVs.
Larry Ingargiola, St. Bernard Parish's emergency management chief, says the feds "are on a fishing trip, and this fish won't bite." He says parish leaders did what they had to do after Katrina as quickly as they could "to save lives."
Ingargiola also says some of the big contracts the parish signed without FEMA approval might not have been legal, but "it was the morally right thing to do."
Neither FEMA nor the FBI will comment on an ongoing investigation. But contractors who did not get some of the early action, who missed out on the big money deals, are crying foul.
Louisiana Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot, the person in charge of going over all the documents, says state auditors are reviewing every single purchase made by St. Bernard Parish since the hurricane -- a review he says will take not days or weeks, but years.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Belay DeLay -- a few thoughts about the "Hammer" bowing out
It's a time-honored tradition in Washington that whenever someone gives you an explanation for something, you immediately start digging for the real reasons why. And so it is with the announcement that Tom DeLay will not seek reelection to represent Texas' 22nd Congressional District.
DeLay said today that the fight just wouldn't be worth it, that "liberal Democrats were trying to steal his seat with personal attacks..." and that while he is confident he would have prevailed, it would have been a nasty and expensive battle, and that he, not the issues, would be the story. While it's an open question whether DeLay would have won reelection, the rest is certainly true. But are those the only reasons?
DeLay's troubles -- the indictments, his forced ouster from the position of majority leader and swirling suspicions about his possible connections to Jack Abramoff -- had made him a lightning rod. Controversy is nothing new for DeLay. In fact, he often relishes it. But in an election year when Republicans are hyperventilating about the prospect of losing the House and Senate, anything that distracts from the issues on which they'd like to run is unwelcome. You'll notice that while Republicans said glowing things about DeLay today, not one publicly encouraged him to stay and fight.
DeLay swears he did nothing wrong in either the Texas case for which he is under indictment or the Abramoff scandal. But the latter hit very close to the bone last week when a former DeLay aide, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his dealings with Abramoff. No surprise that people are wondering how much further the former lobbyist's tentacles reached into the halls of power.
DeLay's departure from the scene -- expected in late May or early June -- robs the Democrats of a potent arrow in their election year quiver. While all politics are local, Democrats were anxious to turn the battle for the 22nd District into a national issue by holding up DeLay as "poster boy" for what they call the Republicans' "culture of corruption." With DeLay off the stage, Howard Dean and company will be left to point to Randy "Duke" Cunningham as the national example of bad behavior. But Cunningham has already been sentenced. There's not much more to talk about there. An active investigation always makes better fuel for partisan attacks.
Any way you shape it, Congress won't be the same without the "Hammer." For some people, that's a good thing. But DeLay is one of those characters, who, love him or hate him, is a rich part of the American political process, one of those colorful figures whom history remembers. What is unclear at this point is what history will remember him for.
Helping college students cope with addictions
I love stories of second chances. While producing our weeklong series on alcoholism, I met many people whose lives were destroyed by alcohol, yet through humility and tenacity, they turned things around.
Samantha Wiegand is one of those people. The first thing you notice about Sam is her contagious smile. But there was a time when that smile was hard to come by.
Sam started drinking when she was in her early teens. She says she did it to fit in and that she wasn't able to function unless drunk or high. Her mom intervened and Sam went off to rehab. She's been sober since 16. But Sam was concerned out about how she would deal with her alcohol problem when she left home for college, where drinking is a major social activity for a lot of students.
Sam found out about an unusual program at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, called StepUp. This program supports college students dealing with drug and alcohol problems. They live in community with others in recovery and meet with counselors once a week. The program boasts an 83 percent success rate.
There are a handful of similar programs at other college campuses in the United States. But the experts we spoke with say more of these programs are desperately needed as more people go into recovery at an earlier age.
Roughly 430,000 teenagers enter rehab each year, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Also, a 2002 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 6 percent of college students meet criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence, aka alcoholism, and 31 percent meet the criteria for alcohol abuse, or drinking too much.
As for Samantha, she is studying psychology and dreams of opening her own recovery center for teens.
Solid brick homes destroyed in seconds
I have seen enough severe storm damage in the last year to last me a lifetime. But every time I arrive at a scene like I came across in Dyersburg, Tennessee, I remind myself that for the people I'm about to meet this is probably the first time they've seen destruction and loss like this.
Yesterday, I drove with Sheriff Jeff Holt through the neighborhoods leveled by the storm. These weren't neighborhoods with flimsy, mobile home structures. The houses that were disintegrated by this tornado were skillfully constructed and made of brick. So when you see wide open fields where 15 houses once stood and all that's left are the foundations, you can imagine how vicious this storm must have been.
Tornadoes, to me at least, are the most frightening storms to cover. Relatively speaking, you have time to prepare for hurricanes. But the people who were killed by these tornadoes only had a few final, frantic moments to take cover. In seconds, their homes disappeared.
When I was with Sheriff Holt yesterday, I asked him what the worst part of the storm had been for him. I could tell he was fighting back the emotion when he said he would never forget the face of an 11-month-old boy who was killed by the tornado.
That's why I remind myself that no matter how many times we cover a story like this, every storm is different.
Monday, April 03, 2006
Cutting themselves for comfort
Tonight on "360," CNN National Correspondent John Roberts and I will co-anchor.
Because of his many years of reporting in the nation's capitol, John will bring terrific insight into one of the topics we are covering tonight -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's seemingly surprise visit to Iraq.
Rice went there hoping to encourage Iraqi politicians to form their own much-needed new government. We'll cover her trip and what it means for the United States and Iraq.
You've probably heard about the devastating tornadoes that struck last night. At least 27 people are dead across eight states. We'll have several live reports from the area and Rob Marciano, a meteorologist, will be in the hot zone where the worst damage took place -- northwestern Tennessee. The video we've collected of the damage is incredible.
We'll also hear some of the first 911 calls that came into emergency dispatch centers all around New York City on September 11, 2001. The sound of the voices of the people who later ended up becoming victims on that terrible day reminds us all how fragile life can be.
Finally, don't miss a frightening segment we'll have on something called "cutting." About 6 million people in this country use razor blades or knives to cut themselves to deal with their angry, depressed emotions, according to experts. But they aren't trying to commit suicide. Instead, they say they are "soothing" themselves.
Inside Tennessee's deadly night
I'm writing this on a plane to Memphis, Tennessee, where after landing we'll drive another two hours north to a spot hammered by storms and tornadoes on Sunday. Sadly, the number of deaths from these storms is in the double digits. Watches and warnings were posted well ahead of time, but the storms moved so fast people were bound to get hurt.
Already this year, we have seen about five times the average number of tornado reports. That's a bit scary, considering the severe weather season is just getting started.
Typically, when daylight savings time begins, tornado season starts to crank up, eventually peaking in May. The main reason this time of year is so active is because the atmosphere is transitioning from winter to summer. This results in a clash of hot and cold air masses. Spring is more active than fall for tornadoes because the upper atmosphere is still cool in spring, making it more unstable. Also, the days are longer and the sun is stronger in late spring.
The most prominent spot for tornadoes is in the plains, stretching into the Ohio and Tennessee valleys. Dry heat from Mexico and moist air from the Gulf only add fuel to the fire. Supercell thunderstorms producing strong tornadoes are often the result.
Tragically, that's what happened last night in northwestern Tennessee.
Drinking and drowning
They drink, they get drunk, and they drown.
That's the tragic scenario that plays out far too often in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where there are lots of college campuses and lots of water. In that region alone, twelve college students have wound up dead in the water over the past decade after wandering away from a party or bar following a long night of drinking.
For "360's" ongoing series on alcoholism, we took a closer look at this phenomenon through the eyes of Patrick Kycia's family. Patrick died last fall after leaving a fraternity party at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, Minnesota. His body was found four days later. No foul play is suspected.
The party Patrick went to that night was just six blocks from his apartment, yet he wound up more than two miles away in the other direction...in the Red River.
Patrick's mother told us she had nightmares for weeks after his death that she was drowning. She'd wake up gagging. That is what a tragedy like this can do to a family. Patrick's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
I've talked with half a dozen parents who lost children this way. Each story involves a great kid who had too much to drink. It breaks your heart. Colleges are trying to make students more aware of what's happening and so are families. But the tragic events continue.
What do you think should be done? And whose responsibility is it to make sure this doesn't happen again?