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Police Take Two Men into Custody in Sniper Investigation; Mysterious Letter's Contents Not Yet Divulged to Media

Aired October 21, 2002 - 16:00   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: I am Judy Woodruff in Washington.
Surprising new twists and more questions in the sniper investigation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two male subjects were taken into custody. Those two individuals are being questioned at this time.


WOODRUFF: Are these men connected to the killings, or is the sniper still out there, waiting for a message from police?


CHIEF CHARLES MOOSE, MONTGOMERY COUNTY POLICE: We are going to respond to a message that we have received. We will respond later. We are preparing our response at this time.


WOODRUFF: We thank you for joining us. We are expecting Police Chief Moose in Montgomery County, Maryland to come out again soon and talk about the sniper investigation. We will carry his remarks live.

Authorities say ballistics evidence confirms that the serial sniper did strike again on Saturday night in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia. But there are growing doubts that two men taken into custody today are directly linked to the shootings.

Our Justice correspondent Kelli Arena has been working the story.

Kelly, they picked up these men a little after 8:30 this morning. But what are you learning about this now?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning that the two men are actually undocumented workers here in the United States -- one Mexican and one Guatemalan. They are being interrogated. There have been several search warrants issued in connection to that investigation.

But so far, sources have indicated that they do not believe that they have the sniper in custody. One source even suggests that this could be a case of these men being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, sources are saying they're still being questioned, and they're still in custody, although we did hear from the police that no charges have been filed. And some sources are suggesting that there might be something suspicious; that there are still some things that just aren't adding up concerning these two individuals.

So, may they have been involved in a peripheral way, may they have been involved in a hoax attempt? Not sure at this point; no official confirmation. But hopefully, we'll find out at 4:15.

WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, very tantalizing information about this letter that was left at the scene of the shooting on Saturday night, and the police got a call directing them to the letter. Now, what do you know about that?

ARENA: Well, sources say that what led investigators to that area in Richmond was, in fact, a call to the tip line that's being manned by the FBI's D.C. field office here. A call comes in, and it was described as a voice with an accent, but they couldn't figure out the origin of the accent. And he said, hey, you need to go check out the woods near the Ponderosa restaurant near the killing, and you'll find a note.

Well, police did go, and they indeed found a letter. We're told that it was handwritten, that it was quite lengthy, and that the letter -- there was something in the letter that suggested, that hinted at a demand for money.

Now, unfortunately, I have not had anybody read me the exact wording from that letter; that's being held very close to the vest. But several sources indicated that it looked like a possible demand for money, which did not seem to fit into the thinking thus far.

But this is only -- if this is a legitimate communication -- and that still hasn't been determined. If this is legitimate, this would be only the second time that the police have had any communication at all. First, the tarot card, and now the letter.

WOODRUFF: And meanwhile, you have Chief Moose this morning, saying, We are preparing our response, to whoever it is who has communicated with them. Perhaps that's what we're going to hear...

ARENA: Right.

WOODRUFF: ... from the chief at 4:15 Eastern time in just a few minutes.

ARENA: We'll see.

WOODRUFF: I mean, we'll see. All right, Kelli, thank you very much.

And now we want to go to the command center of the sniper investigation in Montgomery County, Maryland. My colleague, Daryn Kagan is there.

Hello -- Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Judy, good afternoon to you.

We are getting a little bit more information about what we can expect at this news briefing today at about 10, 15 minutes from right now. As you mentioned, Chief Moose will be coming out.

An important aspect, we're hearing there will be questions and answers -- a period for that, and not just a statement read by Chief Moose. When he came out earlier today at 10:00 a.m., he came out and made a very short statement, where he just said something kind of cryptic.

He said: "The message that needs to be delivered, we are going to respond to a message that we have received. The response would come later. We are preparing that response."

And as I said, that was at 10:00 a.m. this morning. We have yet to hear from Montgomery police since then.

Some other developments. You had mentioned the ballistics test. It is a match on this latest shooting Saturday night. We know that, because last night in the second surgery, doctors were able to remove the bullet that was lodged inside of this latest victim, a 37-year-old man. And they were able to run tests.

So, now the latest toll of victims, nine people dead, three people wounded, and that man in Richmond Virginia continuing to fight for his life.

Here is his lead trauma surgeon.


DR. RAO IVATURY, MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA: Since last night, he has stabilized. He has remained stable. He is conscious. He is responding to his wife's voice. He is moving all extremities. His vital signs have remained very stable, and all of his numbers are coming back to normal.

So, he is in a relatively stable but critical condition. And there is still a long way to go. We expect a lot of complications, because of all of the injuries he has received, all the amount of blood that he has received. It's going to be a stormy course.


KAGAN: That stormy course indeed is ahead. The doctor also adding that this man faces at least two to three more surgeries. Optimistically, he'll be in the hospital two to three more weeks. On the outside, he could be in the hospital as long as a few months.

Well, let's go to the scene of where the action was this morning, and this is what Kelli Arena was talking about, the apprehension of two men in Richmond, Virginia. One of those men taken into custody at an Exxon station in Richmond, and that's where our Ed Lavandera has been there all day.

Ed -- you've had the day to kind of put this into perspective, but I would imagine that as the day has gone on, there have been more questions about what has taken place rather than answers.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, especially for the folks that work in and around this area by this Exxon gas station. The many people who were able to see the actions of this morning -- the events of this morning unfold before their eyes, as a team of officers swarmed onto this Exxon gas station, arresting a man out of a white minivan.

And quite frankly, when people in this area start seeing that much action surrounding a white minivan, you know, the very first thing that pops into many of these people's heads, they believe it was sniper-related. And so, that has stirred up a lot of emotions for the people who witnessed the events of this morning -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Yes, Ed, you had a chance to talk with a lot of people around there, as you indicated. And it was evident to a lot of people that something was about to happen with an incredible police presence long before it did. Any other sign of something like that now, or is it mainly in the clean-up stage?

LAVANDERA: Well, the only thing that's left now is behind me, the Exxon station has already been -- the tape that the officers had thrown up has already been taken down. They've gone through and took away several boxes of what we saw to be labeled as evidence from that scene. They had been working on the pay phones on both of the locations.

If you look over just a little bit here toward my right, there is a Citgo gas station as well. There is still a team of officers over there that are still working the case over there. They had roped that area off shortly after the Exxon area was roped off, and I saw some investigators -- it appears one of the police trucks is backing out apparently -- but I saw some investigators earlier today looking through trash cans over there; also searching and inspecting some of the cars that were parked there in the parking lot.

So, that's about all that's left of the police presence. The roadways here were shut down for quite a while this morning, but now everything is running smoothly now as we're starting to approach the rush-hour time of day -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Ed Lavandera in Richmond, Virginia -- thank you very much.

And on a sad note, it was one week ago today that FBI analyst Linda Franklin was killed in Falls Church, Virginia. She was remembered today at her funeral service that was held in Arlington, remembered as a woman who was soon to be a grandmother, as a breast cancer survivor, and as a very warm-hearted, adventuresome woman. Judy, we're learning a little bit more about this woman. It sounds like the kind of woman you and I would like to spend some time with. She worked all over the world in a number of countries.

And one of the quick stories that was shared about her today from the Reverend Larry Tingle (ph). He shared that when Linda Franklin was teaching in Guatemala, she had a bad encounter. A man with a machete apparently jumped in her Jeep, demanded her car. She refused, but then offered to drive the man wherever it was that he needed to go.

This was a brave woman indeed, will be dearly missed, and she was remembered today in Arlington, Virginia, Linda Franklin, the 11th victim of the D.C. sniper.

WOODRUFF: Daryn, you're absolutely right. I have been reading about Linda Franklin as well. And to think that her life ended this way after all she had been through and all of the battles she had won in her lifetime, not just against cancer, but as you say in her extraordinary career in law enforcement.

KAGAN: In law enforcement, going to school later in life, raising two children, and as we said, about to be a grandmother. Her first grandchild is due in about four months.

WOODRUFF: Just too much, it's too much.


WOODRUFF: Thanks, Daryn. We'll be coming back to you later on.

We do have much more ahead on the "Sniper on the Loose." "TIME" magazine's Michael Weisskopf talks about the latest leads about evidence and theories.

Also ahead, can two candidates in a close House race in Maryland get voters to think about election day instead of the shooting?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's awful that I have to get out of my car and duck; that I don't feel safe. I don't feel safe around here anymore.


WOODRUFF: Plus, is gun control a non-issue as November 5 gets closer and the sniper remains at large?


WOODRUFF: Coming up in just a few minutes, CNN will have live coverage as Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose holds a news conference. There could be further developments in the search for the sniper. We will carry that live as soon as it gets under way.

Again, we expect it to get started in just a few minutes.

Meantime, we continue our focus on the sniper shootings, and the very difficult job facing law enforcement.

With me now here in Washington, Michael Weisskopf. He's covering the story for "TIME" magazine.

Michael, I want to focus for a minute on this letter that someone called the tip line about on Saturday night shortly after this man was shot down near Richmond, Virginia. The letter -- they won't read the contents to reporters yet, but they are giving a little information. How significant is this?

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: It depends on who left it, of course. If it's another hustler -- and we've seen plenty of them in this case -- it's meaningless. It's another awful diversion, exploiting this terrible tragedy. If it is something left by the sniper or somebody connected to the sniper, obviously, it will be a key piece of evidence.

One has to doubt that, however, Judy, because if anything, what we've learned from this shooter is he's been one step away of law enforcers all along the way. He's not making their job easier.

WOODRUFF: And yet, the call came in very soon after the shooting. In order to get the letter to where it was left -- I mean you'd have to -- you know, police were swarming around that area right after the shooting Saturday night.


WOODRUFF: So, for somebody to fake this whole thing seems a little...


WEISSKOPF: Well, the likelihood, yes. The likelihood is, there was somebody who at least was aware of the shooting. Maybe it was somebody who was playing a logistical role. If you believe this can't be done by one man, that it requires a team of some sort, then perhaps somebody on that team, in that chain of evidence, let's say, left something behind.

WOODRUFF: What else are you seeing and hearing, Michael, that perks your ears up here?

WEISSKOPF: Pretty remarkably, this team or individual was clever enough to operate outside the range of reconnaissance aircraft, reconnaissance satellites. That's pretty smart.

WOODRUFF: Which is primarily around the D.C. Metro area.

WEISSKOPF: Yes, yes. And that shows again...

WOODRUFF: He went south.



WEISSKOPF: That shows, once again, the one-upmanship involved. Now, whether or not again this is some type of a game he's playing with police as a way of satisfying his own urge for revenge, or whether or not this is some type of terrorist activity, clearly this is one-upmanship. He is one step ahead at all times, confounding police, leaves (ph) police acting pretty much as a straight man in this whole process.

WOODRUFF: So, what does that tell you about him? You just said he's pretty smart. I mean...

WEISSKOPF: Well, more than -- he's more than a good marksman, or at least a decent marksman. It's somebody with logistical training of some sort, somebody operating more like a guerrilla warrior than a simple sniper.

WOODRUFF: And clearly, planning escape routes is a big part of what he's doing.

WEISSKOPF: It might explain that this is a person with military background, or at least an understanding of the techniques. At the same time, I don't know how difficult it is to plan, even for an ordinary person, a getaway on a road that's behind darkened woods. And after all, the act he committed was like shooting ducks in a barrel. These were people walking in a well-lit parking lot, while he was secreted in darkened woods.

WOODRUFF: All right, Michael, we're going to ask you to stay with us -- Michael Weisskopf covering the story for "TIME" magazine -- while we're waiting for Montgomery County Police Chief Moose to come and talk with reporters. We do expect that to come any moment now.

We are going to take a short break. We'll come back, and as soon as that news conference gets under way, we'll go there.


WOODRUFF: We're continuing to wait for Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose to come and talk with reporters. As soon as he comes out, we will go there.

In the meantime, our Justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, just learned some new information about the two men picked up this morning near Richmond -- Kelli.

ARENA: Judy, sources tell us that the two undocumented workers -- one Mexican, one Guatemalan -- will actually be turned over to INS for immigration violations, and detained until they are placed into removal proceedings.

We know that there was some question as to whether or not they had any link at all to a letter that was found, to a phone call that was made to a tip line. It's unclear at this point what the final findings are.

But this would seem to indicate that since they're being handed over to the INS that no criminal charges, at least involving the sniper investigation, will be filed. And in fact, it's just immigration violations that they are facing now -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Kelli, what do we know about why police were drawn to them in the first place? I mean, we know the van clearly is connected to the type of van police were looking for, but was that it?

ARENA: Well, it was the location, the general location that they were...

WOODRUFF: Kelli, I'm going to interrupt you, because I'm told that Police Chief Moose is heading out to the microphones to talk to reporters in Montgomery County, and we want to hear what he has to say.


WOODRUFF: Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose sending a very clear message to someone out there.

He said -- he started out the news conference thanking the media for its role. And then he went on to say, and we're going to play this for you again as soon as we have it rolled back.

He said the person -- he said, "This is to the person out there." We assume he means the person who put that letter by the shooting Saturday night. "The person you called could not hear everything you said. The audio was unclear. We want to get it right. Call us back, so we can clearly understand what you're saying."

Michael Weisskopf with "TIME" magazine.

Michael, it's pretty clear they are trying to get this person to get back in touch with them.

WEISSKOPF: A couple of things are pretty clear. First of all, they are no closer to finding this guy than they were last night. These two suspects, or potential suspects, picked up today who are now turned over to the INS, we have learned, are -- must have been either victims of circumstance or plotters of a different nature, somebody out -- people out to get money.

The other thing that's interesting from his comment is, this is a guy, he's either operating with a cell phone so he can't be traced, or he's talking into some kind of recording device, because they complained about poor audio. And how else would this happen? He's not calling from a foreign country, obviously.

So, I think that may tell us something about his own skills and operation avoiding a simple trap.

WOODRUFF: Yes, one of the comments we heard Kelli Arena say is that they do say that he had an accent of an undetermined origin... WEISSKOPF: Yes.

WOODRUFF: ... in this call that came in Saturday night.

WEISSKOPF: Yes. Is it the same call, though? Were these people turned over to the INS involved in a call as well? They clearly are immigrants, and they may be the ones with the accent.

WOODRUFF: Daryn Kagan there at Montgomery County -- near Montgomery County police headquarters.

Daryn -- the police chief was very limited in what he was prepared to say.

KAGAN: Yes, he was, and it reminded me a little bit of last night when he first came out and made the statement, which last night to us sounded just a little been convoluted, but afterwards they clarified it and they said, you might not understand it -- whether they mean members of the media or people at home. But they were confident that the person they were trying to reach would understand exactly what it is that they're trying to say. And this would seem to apply here, too.

And just one clarification, Judy, that call that came in about the person with the accent, that went into the tip line, into the FBI tip line very shortly after we reported news of the shooting on Saturday night. This, I think, is a whole different phone number that we're talking about. This is a phone number somehow that was left in a note at the scene.

WOODRUFF: So, when they refer to the voice not being clear enough, and they're asking the person to call again, what call are they referring to there?

KAGAN: Well, again, I think that they would say that the person they're talking to would understand what they're talking about. But I do -- it would be my hunch, we're talking about two different phone calls -- one that came into the tip line saying, "Look for the note." They clearly understood enough of that call to go find a note at the scene. And then, I think this would be a separate phone call.

WOODRUFF: Is that -- Michael Weisskopf back here in the studios, is that how you would interpret this as well?

WEISSKOPF: It appears to have been the first phone call, because if the tipster...

WOODRUFF: The one that went to the tip line?

WEISSKOPF: No, the one that went out last night, either by message, on paper or by call, because it appears that the foreign accent was on the tip line.

WOODRUFF: Yes, right.

WEISSKOPF: And so -- yes. You know, as we try to unravel this, let's step back for a second. This was an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary case. It's almost like a hostage situation, and we're being held hostage. The public is being held hostage, with the police chief sort of negotiating through us and through television to the sniper.

WOODRUFF: Daryn, you were about to say something?

KAGAN: Yes, I was just remarking on this day, which has been one of the more incredible days of covering this story, and what seemed so hopeful this morning when those two men were picked up. Here we are at the end of the day, the relative end of the day, where you have the police chief coming out and sending out another plea through the media. It seems kind of like we're back where we started from.

WOODRUFF: And straight out of a movie. All right, Daryn, thank you very much.

KAGAN: Sure.

WOODRUFF: And our thanks to Michael Weisskopf as well here in the Washington studio.

We're going to take another short break. When we come back, we will talk with criminologist Casey Jordan. She has been talking with CNN throughout this day. We want to check in with her now that we have this second message from police -- another message, I should say, from police to perhaps to the sniper.



MOOSE: The person you called could not hear everything that you said. The audio was unclear. And we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand.


WOODRUFF: That's Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Charles Moose just moments ago asking the news media to carry that message frequently, he said as often as you can to someone out there, presumably the sniper.

With me now: criminologist Casey Jordan, who has been with CNN for some days now.

Casey, what does this tell you? What more do you -- are you picking up from hearing this?

CASEY JORDAN, CNN CRIMINOLOGIST: Today's events are all so fascinating that it just seems to get more and more complex as we go. This seems really an unusual step.

Police would never want to make public the fact that they missed something or there is a technical problem. But they have no choice, because the media is their only pipeline to the person that they want to reach at this juncture. When he says that, "The person you called couldn't hear everything you said and the audio was unclear," this could suggest a number of things: technological problems.

It could suggest that the person had an accent and that's what made it unclear. You almost wonder when he says the audio was unclear, maybe that's a euphemism for, "Your message was unclear," because then he says, "We want to get it right." There could be a bunch of interpretations, but the bottom line is, he wants to reestablish communications. He wants the person to call back.

WOODRUFF: Is it clear to you or any clearer to you how this person has been communicating with police?

JORDAN: It is not.

And it seems, at this juncture -- and, again, we always hate to stretch, because we can easily be proved wrong -- that if the person who is calling is the same person who left the note that had, in the police's own words, substantial text or significant text, that they have established a line that they're supposed to be calling.

My assessment is not that this call is coming through the TIPS line at this point, that it's an established phone line or a phone line which the writer of the note told them to be at, perhaps a public pay phone, for instance. And they are essentially agreeing that they're at the mercy of this person in terms of waiting for further contact. They have no way of calling the person back.

My fear is that, in communicating to the subject, the leaver of the note, that they want to reestablish contact, I'm afraid that person might misinterpret this as a ruse or a con and balk at it, because it seems so unbelievable that the police could have screwed up getting the audio in the first place.

WOODRUFF: What do you mean as a ruse or a con? What are you saying?

JORDAN: Well, I don't think I'm stepping out of bounds here to say -- anybody who has watched television or movies with similar plots knows the police put traces on lines.

And it's always fearful, when telephone communication is established between a subject and police, that the subject is almost always aware that the line might be being traced and that they have only a certain number of seconds in which to get off the line before the trace is complete. And this is, I would argue, common knowledge, just from TVs and movies.

So the person who they're trying to reach out to may have apprehensions or fears that this is simply another attempt to establish contact for the purpose of identifying the number where he is calling from or zeroing in on the location. And I have to caution that I don't think the police would do anything at this point to try to violate the trust of the person who left the note and is trying to establish contact. They are trying to engender trust, get that communication, because, of course, the ultimate goal here is to make the shootings stop.

WOODRUFF: Casey Jordan, one other thing. The fact that -- and I realize we are stepping into the realm of speculation here, which we've been -- which we've, in a way, had to do because there has been so little to go with.

But the fact that this person is reaching out -- assuming the letter came from the sniper, assuming these phone calls are legitimate -- does that tell you anything more about this person, the motives or anything?

JORDAN: Well, there is a positive and a negative aspect we can take on these recent developments. On the positive side -- and it would be rare; it would be unlikely, but I'm certainly hopeful -- this attempt at communication might mean that the person is willing to negotiate, perhaps turning himself or themselves in, might be willing to explain what their mission is or their demands are. And the police have obviously indicated they're willing to do what it takes to make the shootings stop.

On the negative side, it could just be yet another chess move in this horrible game that we've seen played out for the last 2 1/2 weeks. And it could just be another way of showing oneupmanship with the police, showing who is in charge, showing who has power and feeding the ego of a maniacal killer.

WOODRUFF: Horrible it is, 12 shootings in just a matter of days.

Casey Jordan, thank you very much. We appreciate your talking with us.

JORDAN: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: Once again, when we come back on INSIDE POLITICS, we want to take a look at how these sniper shootings are affecting this political season, an election coming up in two weeks. Is it having any effect at all on politics or on discussion of gun control?

We'll be right back.


WOODRUFF: With the midterm elections only two weeks away, is the sniper case having any effect politically?

Well, right now, Maria Echaveste, former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff, is with us, and Betsy Hart, columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.

Betsy, gun control: Some people would say: "Well, wait a minute. A man is out there shooting people. He's killed nine. He's shot others." Why isn't the subject of gun control being discussed any more than it is? BETSY HART, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: Well, I actually think gun control left us as an issue really last September 11, when it became clear to people once again that the government, the police cannot be everywhere.

In fact, I'm not sure we would want a government that could be everywhere and protect us -- not that a gun would have helped on September 11 or even in these sniper shootings, but there is a sense that the world is a dangerous place and we may be called upon to protect ourselves. So the gun control advocates are not finding a big audience these days.


MARIA ECHAVESTE, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I don't think it has anything to do with September 11.

It has to do with the political reality that you have, on the one hand, a great majority of people who favor increased gun control. There is a scary article in this week's papers about how easy it is to get sniper rifles and how easy it is to learn how to operate them. But the fact is, the people who are voting -- we have a smaller and smaller part of the electorate who is voting. And they don't want gun control. And both parties are completely silent on the issue.

WOODRUFF: Well, who are you saying is this small group that's voting who doesn't want gun control?

HART: Yes, I think that's speculation, Maria.

ECHAVESTE: Both parties want the white swing, male swing voter. And he, that elusive voter, is not in favor of gun control.

HART: Well, it could have something to do with the fact there are 60 million legal, law-abiding gun owners in this country. There may be as many as 200 million guns.

And more and more people -- we've seen it both anecdotally and in terms of gun sales -- people who politically would never have thought of owning a gun are now saying: "You know what? I may be called upon to protect myself or my children. And that may mean getting a firearm, something I have never thought about in the past."

ECHAVESTE: But there is a real question as to guns for self- defense and guns that are they meant to kill people -- sniper assault rifles.

HART: If you're defending yourself, you may want to kill the guy who is coming after you.

ECHAVESTE: But the point is that is what's really astonishing is that both parties are silent.

WOODRUFF: And are we saying, even in these very close -- the governor's race in Maryland is the one that immediately comes to mind.


HART: ... because Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is potentially trying to exploit that issue in what is actually a state that favors gun control. But her activities are being seen as very cynical by the voters. So I think that could play against her.

ECHAVESTE: She's been very cautious in taking on this issue, because she knows she doesn't want to scare off the voters.

WOODRUFF: Well, there have been some ads that have been run by independent groups, and she has certainly endorsed those.

ECHAVESTE: But it wasn't her campaign.

HART: That's right. And that could go against her on Election Day.

WOODRUFF: We're going to leave it there.

Betsy Hart, Maria Echaveste, thank you both for coming by.

HART: Thank you, Judy. You got it.

WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.

We'll talk more about the possible political fallout from the sniper attacks when we come back. With the intense national focus on this investigation, can Democrats get a word in edgewise?


WOODRUFF: As we keep a close watch on the sniper story, with midterm elections coming up, newspapers and television screens like this one are full of images of the sniper attacks and the search for the killer. And that may be complicating efforts by politicians to get their messages out.

CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein of "The Los Angeles Times" is here, along with our congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl.

Gentlemen, good to see you both.

Ron, the Democrats really had hoped to use this last two weeks before the election to do what?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: To get the focus from international affairs, national security, toward the economy and economic security.

And what they're seeing is, in a year of frustration, the attention, inevitably, to the sniper attacks as one more source of frustration, because it is drying up the opportunity at the national level to drive any kind of message about the economy. And it's dominating the national news. What it means is, the races will have to create, in effect, their own weather, as they say, and go out and do this at the local level, because there isn't going to be any national tailwind based on national attention to the disappointing economic numbers.

WOODRUFF: Jon, we're showing just a little video of one of the ads the Democratic National Committee is putting out where they're trying to change the subject, talk about the economy, talk about job security. This is a just portion we're showing of that ad.

Why is it so important for the Democrats to get this subject out?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Democrats can't buy a break. They were announcing this ad campaign today. And now, of course, the news is the sniper.

But what they're trying to do with this ad here is, they're trying to ask the question, kind of an old replay of Reagan's famous question: Are you better off today than you were two years ago? We had eight years of economic prosperity under Democratic control. Democrats want you to think, "OK, what have you had under two years of Republican control?"

So they've been desperately trying to get this message out. That ad campaign will be targeted to go along with Bush's campaign travels over the next two weeks, playing in markets where Bush is campaigning. And the Democrats say that they will succeed here because, although the national media is focused on these larger questions of national security -- Iraq, North Korea, the sniper -- as Bush travels to these key competitive races, he is bringing attention to domestic issues.

BROWNSTEIN: And, in fact, just to make an interesting empirical...

WOODRUFF: So they're saying their message is going to get out anyway?

KARL: Thanks to Bush. They are saying Bush is going to help them get the message out.


BROWNSTEIN: But the interesting thing is, they may not even have to get it out. In some ways, this is an interesting test of the role of media, either paid or free, all of us, in shaping the way the election plays out, because the economy is something people experience every day, whether they see it talked about on the 6:00 news, local news or CNN or not.

They have their own perceptions of how the economy is doing. And that shapes the degree to which they will warm toward the power in party, the power holding the White House. And it is still, I think, with or without media attention, the principal concern for Republicans in these last few weeks has to be the very negative assessments of the economy, the last CNN/"USA" poll the worst since October '94, which was right before the deluge that drowned the Democrats.

WOODRUFF: And, Jon, are the Democrats counting on people feeling enough pain to respond to these messages to the extent they see them at all? KARL: Oh, absolutely.

They see two historic trends. One is that the party in power usually loses seats in the midterm elections. And they also see the other trend is, the party in power usually pays a price when the economy is in a downturn. So the Democrats aren't exactly doing rain dances hoping for more economic bad news, but they clearly hope they can benefit from it, and they think they will.

WOODRUFF: Everybody, of course, wants the sniper to be found immediately, no more shootings, no more killings.

Ron, if, God willing, that were to happen, could the Democrats have a little bit of time to get their message out?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, it will be interesting to see at the national level, because this campaign -- and you talked about the local news not really covering it. I think, at the national level, it's very hard to get the focus on the broad...


WOODRUFF: We saw the local newscasts around the country are not covering the campaign.

BROWNSTEIN: Are not covering the campaign.

And I think it's very hard to get the focus on these economic numbers. But, again, the economy is a little different than most issues, because people do experience it every day. They see the stock market. They see what's happening in employment around them. They see what's happening to their friends and neighbors.

So there is an immediacy to that that exists independently of the media. It's sort of like, if no one is there to hear it, the tree can still fall in the forest in this case.

WOODRUFF: So, Jon, you talk to a lot of people, Republicans and Democrats. Are the Democrats upbeat? Are they worried? Are they what? How would you...

KARL: Well, they're not as upbeat as they were in August, that's for sure, since we've seen the issues: Iraq, North Korea, and now the sniper. Clearly, that's a problem for them.

But they believe it doesn't matter what happens in terms of national media coverage. The key races are very localized. They are in a few specific places. And they believe, now that Bush is going to go to these places, the local media may be not covering the campaigns, but when Bush comes to town, it gives them an excuse to cover the campaign.


BROWNSTEIN: ... would still love a little national tailwind in a race this close. KARL: Yes.

WOODRUFF: All right, Jon Karl, Ron Brownstein, thank you both. We appreciate it.

A look at how -- speaking of the news media -- how the media has fared in their coverage of the sniper story. Howard Kurtz of "The Washington Post" joins me next.



MOOSE: The person you called could not hear everything that you said. The audio was unclear. And we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand.


WOODRUFF: Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose just a few moments ago talking to reporters.

With me now: Howard Kurtz of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES."

The chief himself, Howard, said this is -- he thanked the media. But then he said, "I realize this is somewhat awkward for you, to be using you as a message-deliverer." But that's indeed what the media are doing here.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES": I don't have any problem. And I don't feel awkward broadcasting anything the chief wants to say to send a message to whoever this killer may be.

The more frustrating for the media, Judy, is the lack of information, which we saw again this morning: five hours of wall-to- wall coverage. It looked like the coverage of the landing at Normandy, and it turned out to be a couple of guys who probably have no link to the case. But because police officials weren't saying anything, the media had to assume that it might be something more substantive.

WOODRUFF: Well, what should the media do in a situation like this, Howard? I mean, you watch this behemoth, the news media, all the time. In a situation like this, you have got somebody who has tried to kill 12 people, has killed nine. What does the media do? How do you know when to pull back, to go forward, to stay on all the time?

KURTZ: It's a story with maximum interest and minimum information, which is a very frustrating prescription for the media.

And I think there is a growing public backlash against this 24- hour what I call sniper-vision, because, because we have so few facts and because the police are saying so little, what we have is endless hours of speculation by experts and ex-detectives and ex-profilers. I have heard in recent days that the sniper is young, is middle- aged, has a family, doesn't have a family, is a loser, likes video games, must be a Vietnam veteran, possibly linked to al Qaeda. And the problem is that none of these experts has any way of knowing. They're not involved in the investigation. And I've seen anchors ask questions like, "Will the sniper strike again?" or "Will the sniper allow himself to be taken alive?" or, "Is the sniper watching television and enjoying the coverage?"

All very good questions. Unfortunately, we don't have the answers.

WOODRUFF: What's the remedy for the news media? How does the media do a more responsible job than you're suggesting is being done?

KURTZ: Well, nobody is going to take my advice, because I think the remedy is to exercise a little bit of restraint, where we cover the story, a story of tremendous importance, not just in the Washington area, but everywhere, where we dig out whatever information is available, but where we don't fill up hour after hour with uninformed speculation.

When the news breaks, when there's a development in the case, when there is a shooting, we ought to be all over it. But the rest of the time, people are having the sense that we are merchandising this tragedy. They know it's good for ratings. And I think we're about to cross that line where people see us as part of the problem.

WOODRUFF: So you're saying, certainly when Chief Moose is on with reporters, as he was earlier in this hour, sending a clear message to the person, saying, "Call us again; we didn't get your message," that's appropriate. But you're saying, to go beyond that and to speculate in any way about the motives or anything else, stop.

KURTZ: I think it's perfectly fine to talk about what we know: where the shootings have been, what patterns have emerged, what has happened in other serial killings. There are some good people with a lot of knowledge who can help us there.

Where I think we are way off track is in trying to read the mind and read the motivation of this person. We don't know if it's one person, two people. We just don't know a lot. And sometimes the best thing for television to do, particularly in this live age, is to level with the viewer and say: "We just don't know. We'll come back to you when we know a little more."

WOODRUFF: All right, it's healthy to have your perspective.

Howard Kurtz, "RELIABLE SOURCES," "The Washington Post," thank you very much.

KURTZ: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: Our coverage of the sniper story continues. We'll be right back.


WOODRUFF: That's it for INSIDE POLITICS. Thank you for joining us.

I'm Judy Woodruff.


Mysterious Letter's Contents Not Yet Divulged to Media>

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