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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Interview With American Arrested in Philippines; Michael Jackson and the Nation of Islam

Aired December 30, 2003 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Two Americans arrested in the Philippines, suspected of having terrorist ties -- an exclusive interview with a suspect's daughter.
Almost 2,000 international flights enter the U.S. every day. Who is keeping track of exactly who is board? And with the nation under high alert, who is making sure they're not terrorists?

Plus, Michael Jackson and the Nation of Islam, new reports that the controversial Muslim group is taking control of Jackson's life, his decisions and his legal affairs.

Good evening and welcome. Paula is off tonight. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

Those stories and much more straight ahead, but, First, a breaking news exclusive.

In the Philippines, two Americans accused of being linked to al Qaeda are under arrest. Officials there say Jamil Mujahid and his brother, Michael Ray Stubbs, met with terrorist leaders connected to al Qaeda. They appeared before cameras in the Philippines today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are violation of immigration laws. And they are being charged. And they are going to go through deportation proceedings.

JAMIL MUJAHID, ARRESTED IN THE PHILIPPINES: I know. They're not letting me in on anything, nobody. No, they're just saying that we're undesirable. I'm an American citizen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Who are these men and what's their connection, if any, to al Qaeda?

We put that story "In Focus" tonight with an exclusive interview with one of the suspects. Jamil Mujahid is being held in the Philippines. And he joins us this evening by telephone.

Mr. Mujahid, thank you for being with us. Can you hear me?

MUJAHID: Yes, I can. O'BRIEN: I'm told you're in a prison. You're in an undisclosed location somewhere in the Philippines. Give me the circumstances that surrounded your arrest.

MUJAHID: December the 13th, about 4:30 in the evening, there was a group of men, maybe from six -- from 12 to maybe 20, surrounded the residence where I was living.

They came in. And they put guns next to my head and to my wife and to my son. And they handcuffed me and blindfolded me and took me to an undisclosed place, where

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Forgive me for interrupting you, but I'm curious. During that time, did they ever tell you why you were being arrested, why you were being held?

MUJAHID: No. No. No.

They told -- well, I'll take that back. They told me that -- yes, they told me that I was a Jordanian terrorist. That's what they told me.

O'BRIEN: And, in fact, the Filipino authorities believe that you are linked to terrorists. Are you in any way linked to al Qaeda members?

MUJAHID: No. No. No. They don't even think that. They know better.

This is based upon, I think, politics, because, see, look, they -- when I was arrested, formally or whatever, informally, they thought I was a Jordanian or Yemen. They didn't assume that I was an American. And when they started their little investigation, they found out that I indeed was an American, as I had stated, that me and my brother were Americans.

So this changed the whole complexion of what they had planned. I guess the war on terrorism has created a vacuum all around the world, where now, in order for the Third World countries to get money to combat so-called terrorism, this is what they're doing now to get money from the American government, because they know how enthusiastic the government in America is about fighting terrorism around the world.

So now they have a chance to funnel moneys into the Philippines by showing, OK, look we have got two Yemens there that they are al Qaeda-connected. And so, therefore, I became a victim of my religion.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That's why you think you've been targeted.

Have you had any meetings, had any contacts, had any discussions, had any phone calls with anyone who could, in any way, be construed as a terrorist?

MUJAHID: Not of my knowledge, no, not of my knowledge, no.

I talked to a few Muslims here. I talked to one Muslim that was in jail. And he asked -- I talked to him over the telephone. And he asked me if I could get him some chairs, table, some pencils and pens, and a blackboard, so he could teach while in jail. And that was -- and that was the closest thing to my conversation with this individual.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Mujahid, I'm going to ask you to stay on the line with us. Your daughter, Rasheeda Stubbs, is with us now from San Francisco.

Rasheeda, thank you for joining us.

You've been listening, obviously, to what your dad has to say. Why do you think he was targeted in the way that he has described?

RASHEEDA STUBBS, DAUGHTER OF MUJAHID: Because he is a Muslim.

O'BRIEN: That's it?

STUBBS: I think he was targeted -- I think he was accused of these accusations because he is a Muslim.

O'BRIEN: And that's -- so you think only because -- I'm sort of hesitating, because I'm waiting for you to finish your thought. And I guess you're saying that you think the only reason that he's been arrested, held at gunpoint, thrown into a prison in an undisclosed location, is because he's an American citizen who is a Muslim?

STUBBS: Actually, I'm going to playback to what my father said, that it's a way for that country to get more money.

(CROSSTALK)

STUBBS: To fund more money to that country.

O'BRIEN: Has your dad described for you the conditions of the prison where he is? What's he told you?

STUBBS: Yes.

I was told that he was arrested, blindfolded. He was driven around the country for three days. He was unable to use the restroom, was not given any food for three days. They took him to another facility, which he is at right now. And he has to pay for his food. He has to pay for his bedding. Right now, he's sleeping in a hallway.

O'BRIEN: Is your father in any way a member of a terrorist organization?

STUBBS: No, my father is not.

O'BRIEN: You have no hesitation in saying that? STUBBS: No, no hesitation. My father is an innocent man. The allegations that were pointed towards my father are untrue.

O'BRIEN: What's his status now? Has anyone been clear with you about what happens to him and your uncle as well?

STUBBS: No.

O'BRIEN: What will you do? Are you in discussions with the Philippine government?

STUBBS: I have tried to make contact with the Filipino government, and they did not want to speak with me. They hung up the phone.

O'BRIEN: So let's go back to your father, Mr. Mujahid, again, if you're still with us.

What happens next?

MUJAHID: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Have they told you about your situation? And will you be deported out of the country? Where will you go?

MUJAHID: This has a lot to do with the current administration.

There's a lot of money coming in here to this country. And the reason why, like I said, I'm in here, is because of just that. And they feel that this justifies them in locking people -- innocent people up, in order for them to have this so-called -- this terrorist money funneled into This country.

As you know, this country is a Third World and it's a very poor country. It has no economy whatsoever. And what little bit of economy it does have is based upon working in the Middle East and in other countries. So you're talking about a country here that's suffering. People are starving, homeless people, overpopulated, you name it. And corruption is at its highest level.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That's the motivation, you think, for why you've been arrested and you're being held?

MUJAHID: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Jamil Mujahid, I thank you for your time. We're out of time, but I certainly appreciate you talking with us this evening.

Your daughter as well, Rasheeda Stubbs, thank you for being with us. We appreciate it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I once told a Chicago newspaper that Pat Fitzgerald was Elliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: High praise for the new special prosecutor assigned to investigate a possible White House leak of the name of a CIA operation. Today, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft removed himself from that probe. Why would he do it? And what's the White House's reaction to today's developments? And what might the timing of that decision mean?

Well, joining us this evening from Washington is "Time" magazine reporter Elaine Shannon, and from Crawford, Texas, is CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

Good evening to both of you. Thanks for being with us.

ELAINE SHANNON, "TIME": Good evening.

O'BRIEN: Elaine, let's begin with you. The big question, of course, is, why now? Why today?

SHANNON: Well, that's something that Jim Comey, the deputy attorney general, was adamant that he was not going to answer. But it's clear to all of us who cover this that some decisions are going to be made in the next few weeks and months.

And these are probably not going to be easy ones. And they're going to probably be very controversial. So they're getting them off the attorney general's desk, out of Washington, and to a man who's considered a very impartial and fair prosecutor.

O'BRIEN: At the same time, Elaine, this is a man who has done pretty much everything consistently in order to dismiss out of hand any concerns about a conflict of interest, consistently.

So what do you think, then, more specifically, if you can -- I'm asking you to some degree to speculate about what you're hearing -- but what the motivation behind all this might be?

SHANNON: Well, we've all heard speculation about Karl Rove, the president's political adviser.

We know that he has been interviewed by the FBI, along with some other people who are in the political -- or -- also the spokesman for the president. And we know that Attorney General Ashcroft has a political relationship with Mr. Rove. We also know from Mr. Comey today that a number of details have been developed which caused Mr. Ashcroft to make this decision that, this needs to be off my desk and out of here.

Now, one of the things that interests me is something he said: Well, the new prosecutor, new special prosecutor, will be able to make the decision about whether or not to subpoena a reporter. If the FBI has come to these folks and said, well, here's our theory, but the people who know are reporters, and you subpoena a reporter, that's a very unpopular decision. So it's best to hand it off to somebody who's not the attorney general.

O'BRIEN: Suzanne, obviously, you're traveling with the president. What kind of a role did President Bush have in any of this?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Bush was actually notified at the Crawford ranch about noon by his staffers.

We are told that, essentially, he didn't have a role in this, that the Justice Department did not ask for his consultation, that they did not seek it out, but, rather, it was a courtesy that they actually told him about this decision before they announced it formally.

One thing, however. The spokesperson came out and made two points. He said that the president, of course, has confidence in the Justice Department, that it will go ahead and do a fair and impartial investigation. The other thing that he mentioned, however, is that the president doesn't tolerate these type of leaks and that he has instructed his staff to be cooperative with this FBI investigation. He wants to get to the bottom of this.

And so far, there have been nearly 40 White House officials who have been interviewed by the FBI, as you had mentioned before, including his top adviser, Karl Rove, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan. One of the problems, of course, that Ashcroft had was his close relationship, not only to the president, but also to Rove, in recusing himself.

O'BRIEN: Elaine, obviously, this investigation, as many people have pointed out, needs objectivity. It needs independence. Give us a sense of the new special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. What's he like? What does he bring? How much respect do people have for him and his work?

SHANNON: Oh, a great deal of respect.

He got out of Amherst with Phi Beta, went to Harvard Law School, has been a prosecutor pretty much all his career. He's 41 years old. He worked on the follow-up to the World Trade Center bombing case. He prosecuted the blind sheik. He prosecuted Ramzi Yousef, the man who is related to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, most recently, the East Africa bombings case. And he's now got some important al Qaeda financial investigations on his plate.

O'BRIEN: One final questions. Suzanne, I'm going to throw this one to you. Keep it very brief, because we're almost out of time.

Obviously, all this based on the outing of the wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson. What's his reaction been? MALVEAUX: Well, I actually talked to Joe Wilson earlier today. And I'll give you a quick quote. He says that: "Irrespective of the type of relationship you have with the White House, I can understand the loathing about the independent counsel. The fact that attorney general recused himself does indicate that the administration wants to avoid the potential perception of a conflict of interests. And that's a good thing."

O'BRIEN: "TIME" magazine reporter Elaine Shannon, joining as well as CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

Thanks to both of you for being with us tonight. Appreciate it.

The Democrats are going South. With many of the states up for grabs, we're going to see how the presidential candidates are trying to woo voters with charm.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I particularly appreciate all those kind words about a Vermont Yankee coming down here to South Carolina.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Also, was Syria helping funnel weapons to Saddam Hussein? A new article paints a disturbing picture between the two.

And Michael Jackson and the Nation of Islam. There are claims tonight that the controversial group is taking control of the singer's life.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Over the last few days, Syria has put out peace feelers to Israel and suggested making the Middle East nuclear-free. But today, a major investigation by "The Los Angeles Times" found that Syria was the source of billions of dollars in weapons for Iraq until the start of the war with the U.S.

So is Syria really changing its tune?

Joining us this evening from Houston is former Ambassador to Syria Ed Djerejian, who is now director of the Baker Institute and Rice University; and from Washington, regular contributor and former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

Good evening. Thanks for being with us, to both of you.

VICTORIA CLARKE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hi, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Ambassador Djerejian, let's begin with your surprise -- or maybe it's lack of surprise -- by this article in "The Los Angeles Times," reporting truly in the great detail of the level of involvement between Syria and Iraq? Are you surprised at all? ED DJEREJIAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: Well, I think the surprise is the level of detail that is coming out of the documents that we're obtaining now in Baghdad and in Iraq that can trace all these contracts and arms and money deals that Iraq and Saddam Hussein's regime had been conducting over the last decades.

I'm not surprised at the, if you will put it, the economic relationship between Syria and Iraq. These two Baath parties were political rivals, no love lost between Saddam Hussein, Hafez Al-Assad, the former president, and the current president. But they did have a very important economic relationship in terms of oil, goods, and, of course, various arms and other commodities.

O'BRIEN: Torie, from the Pentagon's perspective, are you surprised at all? Or was it sort of long known that Syria had this backdoor relationship with lots of money involved with Iraq?

CLARKE: Absolutely no surprise at all. I mean, the world has known. It's not just the Pentagon. The world has known for years that the Iraqi regime was violating the U.N. sanctions to the tune of billions of dollars in illegal materials and weapons, etcetera.

And given Syria's background and its tendencies, I don't think it's a surprise. I'll be surprised if -- and I think "The L.A. Times" did a fabulous job -- but I'll be surprised if they have been able to document the full extent of the relationship between Syria and Iraq.

O'BRIEN: Syria now, Mr. Ambassador, says that they are an ally in the war on terror. Do you see any clear moves that you would construe as very positive, sort of good-faith gestures that are actually worth anything?

DJEREJIAN: Well, Syria and the United States have a common interest in combating terrorism from political radical Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Syrian regime in the 1980s devastated the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood tried to take over power, political power, in Syria. So there's a common interest there. And, as the Bush administration had made clear about a year ago, the intelligence cooperation between Syria and the United States did lead to very positive results, including, as the State Department said, saving American lives.

I understand that that cooperation is continuing, but at not the intense pace it had in the past.

O'BRIEN: Torie, do you think, then, that Syria fears Muslim extremists, as the ambassador seems to be saying, or do you think that Syria actually fears the U.S., especially in light of what's happened to Saddam Hussein?

CLARKE: I think there's a long way to go and real solid actions that are needed on the part of Syria before we think they have turned a new leaf. And there has been some very sporadic and very limited help over the years. But if Syria wanted to really prove its good intentions, it would be very easy for it to do so. It could stop the flow of foreign fighters and money back and forth across the boarder. It could stop harboring and fostering and sponsoring terrorists, like the Hamas. It could give much more information than it has about the location and whereabouts of people and material.

So it's interesting to watch. Every few months, they seem to spit out a few things, but they certainly haven't turned over a new leaf.

O'BRIEN: You've given a list there. If they don't do those things, do you think that Syria will be a target of the U.S.?

CLARKE: Every country is different and every terrorist state is different. So the U.S. government tries to deal with them differently, and appropriately.

I think these countries tend to sort of nominate themselves for different kinds of actions. I do think, Assad, the current leader of Syria, has got to be taking notice as to what has been going on around the world. There were plenty of people -- and he's probably among them -- who questioned whether or not the United States would go in and get rid of the Iraqi regime. And he's seen that happen. So I don't know if they're fearful, but I do know they're taking notice.

O'BRIEN: And it's an issue, of course, we'll all be watching.

Torie Clarke and Ambassador Djerejian, thank you for being with us this evening. Appreciate it.

CLARKE: Thanks, Soledad.

DJEREJIAN: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: With the nation under a holiday terror alert, we're going to show you the newest methods to screen airline passengers who enter the U.S.

Also, the Democrats are heading South for the winter, campaigning for votes in states that could determine who gets the nomination.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: For the candidates who are running to be the Democratic nominee for president next fall, the South is shaping up to be a critical battleground.

In 2000, the South Carolina primary provided the decisive moment for George W. Bush against John McCain. And now, in 2004, it could be the Democrats' turn.

Kelly Wallace has been on the campaign trail. She filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With the South up for grabs, the Democratic hopefuls mount a charm offensive, Southern style.

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I particularly appreciate all those kind words about a Vermont Yankee coming down here to South Carolina.

WALLACE: Wesley Clark is on an eight-state Southern tour.

WESLEY CLARK (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Like they say, you can take the man out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the man.

WALLACE: His trip, not coincidentally, wrapping up here in South Carolina.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm here. I'm here. Hey, how are you doing?

WALLACE: The Palmetto State is a popular Democratic destination these days, with its February 3 primary, the first primary in the South.

DON FOWLER, FORMER DNC CHAIRMAN: It could be really important. You will remember, in 2000, between George Bush and Senator McCain, it was critical.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you.

WALLACE: Four years ago, South Carolina turned out to be the battleground contest between Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain.

If different Democratic candidates win in Iowa and New Hampshire, it could be a showdown state once again.

(on camera): And right now, this race is wide open. No candidates has broken out of the pack. And the latest poll shows that 30 percent of likely voters still haven't made up their mind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, there are eight or nine candidates. And that's quite a number to go through their qualifications.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm looking for the right candidate that's going to work for my needs.

WALLACE (voice-over): This will be the first primary of the year where African-Americans could make up to 40 percent to 50 percent of those going to the polls.

LEE BANDY, "THE STATE": So this will be a test for the candidates, their appeal to the black community, who can appeal to the black community.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe Lieberman!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

WALLACE: And it will be a test of something else, a candidate's ability to win in the South.

DEAN: We plan to win in the South. I can't tell you specifically where we can win and where we can't win, but we do plan to campaign heavily in the South.

WALLACE: Because Dean and the other candidates know the road to the Democratic nomination and to the presidency passes through the South.

Kelly Wallace, CNN, Georgetown, South Carolina.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Michael Jackson and the Nation of Islam. A new report says the group is controlling the singer, even making legal decisions for him.

Also, the earthquake in Iran. As the death toll rises, the U.S. joins in the worldwide mission to bring aid to treating survivors.

Plus, millions use it to diet, but today, the government is putting the supplement ephedra out of business.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Here are some of the headlines you need to know right now.

More fallout from the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. The government is banning the use of so-called downer cattle, sick animals that can't wall themselves to slaughter. Congress considered, but rejected a chance to ban downers as food for humans earlier this year.

New York City says security in Times Square this New Year's Eve will be the most extensive and the most expensive ever. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says heavily armed police, bomb squads, sharpshooters, and radiation and metal detectors will mean revelers can focus on having fun.

And medical teams from around the world are gathered in the Iranian city of Bam to try to save the survivors of last week's earthquake. The death toll continues to rise. It now stands at 28,000.

And joining us live by videophone is CNN correspondent Kasra Naji.

KASRA NAJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

This is the fifth night that thousands of people here are spending the night out in the open. It's freezing cold here. And they are in tents, if they're lucky. The death toll, as you mentioned, stands at 28,000 officially. But we had President Khatami yesterday -- my yesterday, about eight or nine hours ago -- mentioning the figure of 40,000, saying that he expects it go up to 40,000, but he said certainly not 50,000.

So that's an indication that they are expecting more bodies to come in. In the meantime, the U.S. has joined international effort to help with the victims of this disaster here. And, yesterday, we had a team of 83 nurses, doctors, aid workers, most of them from government agencies here. This is the first time that Americans are here in official capacity. And this has led to speculation that this tragedy may help improve relations within the two countries; something good may come out of this.

But, yesterday, President Khatami poured cold water over this, saying, there won't be any improvement of relations until the U.S. administration changes its policy -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Kasra, we were just looking at pictures that truly showed I think to the greatest degree that we've seen so far the scope, the extent of the damage. When you talk about the aid workers who have arrived, where do they possibly begin when the damage is so widespread?

NAJI: It's not only the extent of the damage, but also the chaotic management here of this crisis. It's been very chaotic, and it's anybody's guess as to how you start helping people. These international teams, Iranian workers coming from throughout the country, they are arriving here knowing little what to do, where to go, but they do their best. I mean, you have to basically get up, get out there, and see what you can do. And the American team that is here, they are concentrating on the medical needs here, and they are basically going around clinics, field hospitals, and seeing what the needs are, and try and meet that need -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Kasra Naji, reporting to us from the devastated city of Bam. Thank you.

A little bit later in the program we're going to take a closer look at the United States and its chilly relations with Iran. Is there a thaw about to happen?

But first on to the Michael Jackson story. Some of the singer's associates are troubled over his reported involvement with the Nation of Islam. Sources tell CNN that say that the Muslim group is playing a major role in handling Jackson's business affairs, setting up his "60 Minutes" interviews and are even working out of his lawyer's office. In just a moment we're going to talk with one of Jackson's former spiritual advisers and a former member of the Nation of Islam, but first CNN's Kris Osborn sheds some light for us on the Nation of Islam.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KRIS OSBORN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A message of hope and empowerment for dehumanized African slaves is how the Nation of Islam describes its founding principles. In the 1930s, this man, Elijah Muhammad, began preaching its core message -- knowledge, devotion to Allah, and unity among blacks.

The message has attracted many over the years, including Muhammad Ali, who converted and joined the Nation of Islam in 1965.

(on camera): In 1977, Minister Louis Farrakhan broke off, to form a reorganized Nation of Islam, now based here in Chicago.

(voice-over): His group endorsed Jesse Jackson in 1984 and brought the group mainstream attention in 1995 with this, the Million Man March.

JOHN HUMWICK, PROFESSOR, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY: One only has to look at the Million Man March to see how many people who do not belong to his organization would turn out and listen to him and cheer him at that point.

OSBORN: This attention also sharpened criticism of Farrakhan's separatist, anti-white and anti-Semitic remarks.

LOUIS FARRAKHAN, NATION OF ISLAM: It's an unclean and dirty religion, using God's name and Judaism as a shield.

OSBORN: Critics argued comments like these undermined the constructive parts of the Nation of Islam's message, such as education and ending black-on-black violence. The Nation of Islam's public face has often emerged when its security personnel have protected key figures, such as Johnnie Cochran during the O.J. trial and former boxing champ Mike Tyson, but these days Minister Farrakhan seems to be softening his stance.

FARRAKHAN: I will spend the rest of my days working to uplift a lost and fallen humanity, regardless of their color, their race, or their creed.

OSBORN: Some believe this represents a more inclusive philosophy, others are skeptical, saying it's merely a change in rhetoric.

Kris Osborn, CNN, Chicago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Is the Nation of Islam controlling Michael Jackson? Joining us this evening in our studios, Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, he is Michael Jackson's former spiritual adviser, and from Orlando this evening is Vibert White, he is the author and expert on the Nation of Islam. He's also a former member of the group.

Gentlemen, good evening. It's nice to have both of you here.

Mr. White, let's begin with you. Were you surprised to read these reports about Michael Jackson and some of the alleged links with the Nation of Islam? VIBERT L. WHITE, AUTHOR: No, not at all. For the past 20 years or so, the Nation of Islam has worked diligently to try to attract celebrities to join the organization. I mean, you had people such as Arsenio Hall, Isaac Hayes, Russell Simmons, and the list can go on, where the organization has went out out of their way to attract these types of individuals.

To have a person like Michael Jackson to be a member or at least connected to the group would be a great feather in the cap of the organization, a great feather in the cap of Louis Farrakhan, because the organization lives off of the media, lives off of the excitement and the popularity that is given to them by the media community.

O'BRIEN: Well, Rabbi, then, in the years before you had your falling out with Michael Jackson a couple of years ago, did you see this? I mean, we hear Mr. White talk about for 20 years, the Nation of Islam trying to sort of insinuate its way into a relationship with Michael Jackson? Did you see any of that while you were his spiritual adviser?

RABBI SCHMULEY BOTEACH, FORMER JACKSON ADVISER: Not at all. To the contrary. Michael was not sufficiently involved in the black community at all. It was a subject of many of our conversations. I said to him that his identity would not be fully formed unless he reconnected with his roots, but he would always say to me, I'm a citizen of the world.

You have to remember, Michael married two white women. His connection with the black community was tenuous.

Now, I don't know if it's a feather in the cap of the Nation of Islam to have Michael, it might be a sign of their desperation, which is we're talking about a very damaged celebrity here, who's facing very heinous allegations. Michael Jackson has become the Humpty- Dumpty of America, he's fallen off his wall, and now all the pieces have to be put together by the king's men.

Now, Michael always turns to people like this in his moments of desperation, because only the king can really put himself together. Redemption is an act of self-redemption, but they are probably coming to him and saying, Michael, you are just the victim of white racism, the white man is out to get you, and we can protect you, and Michael is so desperate now, he's going to hold on to any straw he can get.

O'BRIEN: You know, certainly people who are still affiliated with the singer, they told you that the Nation of Islam is being closely connected to Michael Jackson?

BOTEACH: A close associate of him, of Michael's has visited him in Las Vegas not long ago, called me and said that he was troubled to see the Nation of Islam bodyguards all around him. He did not know the extent to which they were running his life.

O'BRIEN: Were business affairs mentioned in (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BOTEACH: No, he did not mention anything like that. It was more security.

O'BRIEN: Mr. White, explain to me why the Nation of Islam targets black celebrities? Is it only sort of makes them more relevant by having a connection with a black celebrity? And also, how is it done? When you hear that potentially members of the Nation of Islam are running business affairs, and deciding who gets paid and who doesn't, and maybe moving into Mark Geragos' office, these are all things that have been reported so far. Does it sound like it's completely off base or does it sound sort of from what you know about the organization how it works?

WHITE: Yes, of course. I want to step back a second. As far back as 1993, when Michael Jackson was under the same type of investigation that he is in now, Louis Farrakhan was one of the first people to speak out and suggest that Michael was misunderstood, he's a sensitive individual, and that he needs support from the black community, i.e. the Nation of Islam.

Now, the Nation of Islam, as they get involved with the Michael Jackson campaign, is an organization that will quickly and aggressively take over the infrastructure of his empire. Surely they may not say that they're running the business, but they will consider themselves as being an adviser, a spiritual adviser to the group, and isolate and polarize any other individual or organization that comes close to Michael Jackson.

What you have is an organization that is run oftentimes like a military government. Anything that is close to it, they feel very fearful, and they will isolate and make an argument, like the rabbi says, that this is a conspiracy, a white conspiracy, a Jewish conspiracy to control, to manipulate and to dethrone the King of Pop because he is black and he is very influential in American society.

O'BRIEN: Incredibly interesting. Vibert White joining us, and Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, thank you, both of you, for being with us. I appreciate your insight.

Terror from the skies. We're going to hear what steps are being taken to check the identity of passengers on international flights that are heading to America.

Also, we will talk live with undersecretary for homeland security, Asa Hutchinson, to get the latest on the security measures for New Year's Eve.

And the ban on ephedra. The government pulls the weight loss supplement from the market. We'll tell you why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Tighter air travel security will continue through the holidays, and perhaps beyond, according to Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge. Last night we showed you what that means for international airlines. Tonight Kathleen Koch looks at how it affects passengers in part 2 of her report on air safety.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right there, please. Okay. Now, I need your right index finger.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Digit at fingerprints and photographs, a giant leap forward, says the government, of making sure passenger who inter the U.S. are who they claim to be.

The information we collect will be used for the instantaneous check on terrorist watch lists.

KOCH: Starting Monday, every traveler who needs a visa to enter the U.S. Will undergo the new computer check.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's done through the biometrics collection process. The screen will flash and tell me that there's no adverse information about this traveler.

KOCH: Experts believe eventually the new system could make fraudulent documents useless.

LARRY JOHNSON, AIRPORT SECURITY: It makes it easier for us to monitor and gives you a reference point to check.

KOCH: But travelers from 28 countries, mostly in North America and Europe will remain exempt.

TIM MEOGAR, ACLU: Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged shoe bomber, these other suspects have been from France, and Great Britain, and other countries. So exempting those countries they're showing the system really isn't universal, and it's something that does have holes that terrorist could exploit.

KOCH: There's also concerns about profiling and privacy. One program targeted travelers mostly from Muslim countries had to be stopped earlier this month after vehement complaint from immigrant organizations.

FAIZ REHMAN, COUN. OF PAKISTANI-AMERICANS: Thousands and thousands of people were affected, uprooted, destroyed economically because of that program.

KOCH: The U.S. First began collecting and comparing background information with terrorist watch lists just after 9/11. That's when it began screening foreign pilots and crews. In November 2001, international airlines were ordered to start submitting information on their passengers electronically before flying into the U.S. Data like name, address, traveling companions, phone number, even number of checked bags.

(on camera): The federal government admits the background checks have not caught any potential terrorists, but homeland security officials insist they have stopped people from entering the country who have ties to terrorist groups.

Kathleen Koch, CNN, Reagan National Airport.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Joining us this evening to focus on this time of heightened security and the upcoming New Year's celebration is Asa Hutchinson. He is the undersecretary for Homeland Security. It's nice to see you Mr. Hutchinson. Thanks for being with us.

ASA HUTCHINSON, UNDERSECRETARY, HOMELAND SECURITY: Good to be with us.

O'BRIEN: We heard from Secretary Tom Ridge, something to the effect of he's no less worried today about security than a week ago.

Is that because of specific threats focusing on New Year's Eve celebrations?

HUTCHINSON: It's this holiday time. Clearly we winter to higher alert status, orange, if you will, whenever we saw increased specific and credible intelligence indicating this was a time of concern in terms of potential terrorist attack. So we went to this level, and it will continue through the holiday season. We are working very hard to make sure that America and our guests can feel comfortable going about their holiday activities, so even though there's an increased threat, we're trying to respond appropriately.

O'BRIEN: Through the holiday season meaning as of January 1, the level will drop again?

HUTCHINSON: No, we're saying at least through that time, and then we'll have to measure it day by day to see what the threat is, what advice we want to give to America, and whether that threat level should be changed. But clearly it will go through the holiday season.

O'BRIEN: Clearly, international aircraft are a big concern, and they're obviously vulnerable. We heard from the secretary who obviously wants armed air marshals on certain flights coming into the United States.

How can you lower the alert when that issue hasn't been fixed?

It's been addressed, but nowhere near being fixed.

If they're vulnerable now, how can you lower the alert?

HUTCHINSON: If you look at the security measures in place, our international standards are for hardened cockpit doors, that protect the pilot. You have 100 percent screening of passenger bags and the passengers. These are international standards, not just U.S. standards. And then you have other security measures. One thing that we believe, though, that is important particularly for flights that might be of particular security concerns, that are international partners should be willing to put armed, trained, law enforcement agents on those flights for added security measures. And so this is not a broad-based mandate, but we want our foreign carriers to be prepared to do this if the security justifies it. That way we're closing one additional area of concern on flights that might be a concern. All of this gives us a much greater security context in which the passengers should feel safe.

O'BRIEN: But it's the international carriers that do not have the reinforced cockpit doors and if the planes are still going to fly in our airspace to some degree aren't we essential as very well (UNINTELLIGIBLE) today as we were on 9/11?

HUTCHINSON: Well, if they come into U.S. airspace they are to have a hardened cockpit door. Now, that doesn't mean that every vulnerability has been closed. We're still looking at cargo craft, and more that we can do in that arena. We're setting new standards for those as well in terms of inspection. But we are making our skies safer day by day. And clearly anyone who flies sees the extraordinary security measures. Now we are looking more at our international realm and making sure our partners are doing the same. There's the international standards, let me emphasize that they're complying with. We're putting our inspectors out there to make sure they're living up to those standards.

O'BRIEN: Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson joining us this evening. Thank so much and of course have a very safe and happy New Year. Nice to have you here.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: The U.S. and Iran: President Bush said it was part of the axis of evil.

So why are we hearing that Washington is rethinking relations with Tehran?

And we'll take a closer look at the ban of ephedra. We'll take a closer look at the move, and the popular supplement with sometimes fatal results.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Does Iran's acceptance of earthquake aid and money from the United States signal a warming of relations between America and the one part of the so-called axis of evil?

Joining us this evening from Washington is Iranian-born author and journalist Mr. Afshin Molavi. Mr. Molavi, thank you for being with us.

Let me read to you a little bit about what Secretary Powell had to say today. He was quoted today. He said, developments in Iran have been encouraging, and that we should keep open the possibility of dialogue with Iran which he said had a new attitude.

To what degree do you think that this disaster, the earthquake, obviously, could open the door for warmer relations between the two countries?

AFSHIN MOLAVI, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST: Well, I think it already has, to some extent, opened the door for warmer relations between the two countries, but I think we should not expect a significant breakthrough. There are a couple things have happened that are of note in the past two hours.

Firstly, U.S. planes landed in Iran with humanitarian relief. This was the first time U.S. planes have gone into Iran in more than 20 years. In fact, the last time U.S. planes entered Iranian airspace, they were on a search and rescue mission of a different sort, searching for American diplomats who were being held hostage.

One thing that was quite extraordinary is on the tarmac, U.S. soldiers and Iranian soldiers formed a human chain and unloaded the humanitarian supplies. So I think that's an important symbolic move.

Secondly, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage placed a direct phone call to an Iranian official in Tehran. This is extremely rare in the context of U.S.-Iran engagement. They normally engage through third parties or through multilateral settings. So while we're not going to see a significant breakthrough, I think we're a few steps away from the axis of evil.

O'BRIEN: So you read all these as positive steps. At the same time, let me read you what Iranian President Khatami had to say in response to what Secretary Powell had to say. Not quite as optimistic.

He said, "Humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with deep and chronic political problems." Not exactly welcoming and heartwarming words of gratitude there.

MOLAVI: Absolutely. And this is why I describe -- and this is why I say that I don't see any significant breakthrough because differences remain between the two sides, and those differences are significant and they're substantive and they're not going to be changed by humanitarian relief.

O'BRIEN: What's going to change the relationship? And is it to the point that nothing except a regime change will change the relationship?

MOLAVI: You know, right now, both countries are entering election cycles, Soledad, and you know that election cycles are not conducive to risky foreign policy departures, so I don't see anything changing in the next year and a half of these election cycles taking place.

But one thing that I think is important to note, that the United States needs to engage with Iran creatively, perhaps engage in the same way that we engaged with the Soviet Union and eastern European states. This cold war model, limited hard-headed engagement, but we must -- that must not translate to appeasement.

The United States must tell the Iranian authorities, we must tell the Iranian people that they stand by their side in their struggle for democracy, freedom, human rights. As you know, Soledad, there's a gallant struggle for democracy and freedom taking place in Iran, and the United States needs to stand by the side of the Iranian people, but I don't think that's mutually exclusive with limited engagement on issues of mutual interest.

O'BRIEN: So do you think then that a popular uprising is an option, maybe, as you say, not in the short term, given the political circumstances in both countries, but in the long term?

MOLAVI: I think if you just simply look at the demographic numbers in Iran, Soledad, Iran is one of the youngest countries in the world. Nearly two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, half are under the age of 21. That means that about 50 million of Iran's 70 million population were either not born or were simply unwitting children at the time of Iran's 1979 revolution.

From my extensive travels in Iran, I get the sense that this youth bulge wants to engage with the outside world. They are deeply frustrated with government policies, deeply frustrated with some of the oppressive nature of the regime in power right now. I think if you look at it demographically, change will have to come in Iran. The question is whether it comes two years, five years, ten years from now.

O'BRIEN: Many people would say that is, actually the $64,000 question. Afshin Molavi, we're out of time. Thank you for joining us with your insight. Appreciate it.

MOLAVI: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Ephedra, the weight-loss supplements have been linked to heart attacks and deaths, and tonight it's being banned by the government.

One of the hottest franchises around pitches one of the coldest products, ice cream. Cold stone creammery, a premium ice cream chain, recently opened it's 500th store, with plans to open another 450 next year. Its franchises mix flavors together on a frozen stone with names like banana caramel crunch and mudpie mojo, and its locations are diverse as its flavors, with stores from Puerto Rico to Alaska.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: For the first time ever, the federal government has banned a dietary supplement, the drug is called Ephedra, and it was widely used as a weight-loss aid but with over 150 deaths attributed to its use and an eight-year long paper trail of problems, critics say what took so long?

Joining me from Washington is Dr. Sidney Wolfe. He's the director of Public Citizens Health Research Group. Nice to see you, Dr. Wolfe, thanks for being with us. Let's begin with your reaction to the word that the government has gone ahead and banned Ephedra.

DR. SIDNEY WOLFE, DIRECTOR, PUBLIC CITIZENS HEALTH RESEARCH GROUP: Over two years ago, we asked the government to ban Ephedra based on then 81 deaths and clear laws enabling them to ban it. Instead of banning it then, they waited and waited and now we've had 74 more reports of death. The FDA has the same authority today when it banned it as it did two years ago. The question is why wait so long? Unfortunately part of the answer is that it waited until all the major companies had already taken their products off the market because they were being sued so much for all the people they killed. That's not the way for the government to behave.

O'BRIEN: So your theory is it's just too little too late. What is then the real impact if the bulk of the makers, as you say, have already removed their product?

WOLFE: Well, the impact is, at least for some of the smaller manufacturers to get their products out of circulation, because if you are the mother or father of some young teenager, who takes it, even if it comes from a small company, if that company's product is still on the market, even if the large companies have taken theirs off, the death is going to be very painful.

It's unfortunate that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and FDA commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan haven't had to face all the parents, husbands, wives of people who died since the time they should have banned Ephedra.

O'BRIEN: Can Ephedra still be found on the market? And where?

WOLFE: Well, there are still some in stores, convenience stores, gas stations, and whatever. Places like CVS and 7-11 have taken it off their shelves a long time ago. But it's a good example of an industry pushing the government around and getting to sell millions of dollars more of a product after the time when the government knew enough to take it off the market.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Wolfe, we only have time for one more question. I'm curious to know what you think about liability issues, and how it relates to the decision today. Do you see numerous lawsuits coming out of today's decision?

WOLFE: There have already been so many lawsuits that the insurance companies that are insuring the companies making Ephedra have pulled out their insurance. One has to say what is the main reason why there aren't many companies making Ephedra anymore is because their insurance companies won't insure them. It's uninsurable.

One person said, when asked this question, if your house were on fire, would we sell you fire insurance? And the answer is no. The house of Ephedra has been on fire for years, and the fire is now being put out, because the companies will not put their product on the market without any kind of insurance. They've paid out tens of millions, more to follow.

O'BRIEN: We're out of time, Dr. Sidney Wolfe. Thanks for being with us. And thanks to all of you for being with us tonight. "Larry King Live" is up next. Have a great night.

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