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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Securing America's Borders; Tale of Two Soldiers; U.S. Says No to Restoring Hemingway Home in Cuba; "Seinfeld" Holiday Attracts Celebrants

Aired December 23, 2004 - 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: Tonight, a striking and obvious gap in our nation's security, millions of trucks crossing one of America's most vital bridges and borders year-round, 24/7, without being inspected. We'll show you why on our CNN "Security Watch."
And it's called Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us. Tonight, more Americans than ever are celebrating this fake holiday. What is that all about? Some answers later this hour.

But, first, we begin with the overriding reality of this holiday season. It is a wartime Christmas. There were more U.S. combat deaths in Iraq today. And investigators in Mosul say a human torso in an Iraqi uniform could be the remains of the suicide bomber who killed 22 people and wounded 69 on Tuesday. At a U.S. military hospital, doctors and nurses are working around the clock to save the lives of the most severely wounded.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN (voice-over): It is an unexpectedly busy holiday season at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where some 35 soldiers and civilians are being treated for wounds they received in Tuesday's attack on the U.S. base in Mosul. The hospital's commander says about half are in critical condition.

COL. RHONDA CORNUM, COMMANDER, LANDSTUHL MEDICAL CENTER: Many people will be out of the hospital in probably a couple of weeks, but the total recovery of major surgery, whether it was caused by trauma or not, is going to be months.

O'BRIEN: The investigation of Tuesday's explosion at the base mess hall continues to point to a suicide bomber. The U.S. commander in Mosul brought us up to date.

BRIG. GEN. CARTER HAM, U.S. ARMY: What we think is likely, but certainly not certain, is that an individual in an Iraqi military uniform possibly with a vest-worn explosive device, was inside the facility and detonated the facility, causing this tragedy. It is very difficult to conceive that this would be the act of a lone individual.

It would seem to me reasonable to assume that this was a mission perhaps some time in the planning, days, perhaps, that the -- that this particular group and Ansar Al-Sunna has claimed responsibility. I have no reason to doubt that. They are a very vicious terrorist organization. So I think it is probably a very -- a well coordinated action, rather than the actions of one particular individual.

O'BRIEN: The attacker's infiltration of the base at Mosul has the Pentagon reevaluating its procedures for screening members of the Iraqi security forces. General Ham says he doesn't need more U.S. troops, but he adds, Iraq needs better security forces.

HAM: I have enough U.S. boots on the ground. I do not have enough Iraqi boots on the ground. And, ultimately, to defeat this insurgency, it will be Iraqi security forces that will necessarily have to step up and assume an increasing and ultimately total responsibility for security in their own nation. The development of Iraqi security forces has not been as fast as any of us would have liked.

O'BRIEN: The focus is on Mosul, but there is violence all around Iraq. Three Marines were killed in action today. In Falluja, where civilians are finally being allowed to go home after November's U.S. offensive, Marine called in airstrikes after a firefight with insurgents.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: There is disagreement about how many U.S. troops are needed in Iraq. And we'd like to know your opinion. You can go to CNN.com/Paula and tell us whether you think the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is insufficient, sufficient or too high. We'll have results at the end of the hour.

There are about 140,000 American service men and women in Iraq. Now a tale of two soldiers, one on his way into the violence and uncertainty, the other coming home. Our Thelma Gutierrez made the round trip to bring us their stories.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sergeant Robert Morris has seen the reality of war. For four months, he has had one of the riskiest jobs in Iraq, commanding a gun truck and fighting off attacks on convoys traveling the world's most dangerous roads. He's seen a lot, but he doesn't like to talk about it.

Canton, Georgia is far from all of that. And so is this family celebration.

SGT. ROBERT MORRIS, U.S. ARMY RESERVES: We feel real good because I know I'm leaving tomorrow and I'm not going to spend Christmas day with them, so this is the Morris family's Christmas, is today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look, daddy.

MORRIS: Yes.

GUTIERREZ: The Morrises invited us to share their last night together before this father of five heads back to Iraq. Lisa (ph) Morris says it's hard to let go. Her husband has only been home two weeks. Already, their time is up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It puts a lot of tension in the family, the kids. I feel blessed every day that I can sit down and all together as a family.

GUTIERREZ: For as much as he dreamed about coming home, Robert told me, it isn't easy shifting gears out of combat.

MORRIS: When I first got home on the 1st, I was happy. But, in a sense, I still have to get my mind back here in Georgia to get my mind back to be with Lisa again, too, you know, because, I had been gone away, I guess maybe like on the 8th and stuff, and then I snapped myself back to reality. I'm back home. I'm dad now and I'm a husband now.

GUTIERREZ: His time in Iraq also weighs heavily on his children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I worry a lot, especially at nighttime, when I go to sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I miss him and I love him so much and I don't want him to get killed. He gives us everything we need, food on the table, clothes on our back and shoes and everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When he's gone, I have something on my mind and I can't get it off and I fall back in my grades.

MORRIS: Come here. Come here. It's all right. Don't cry. It's all right. It's going to be all right. I'll be back. I promise you, I will be back safe. Trust me.

GUTIERREZ: Twelve hours to go before Robert heads back to war.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mommy, come here. I know.

MORRIS: I have got everything I need, Lisa.

GUTIERREZ: This is the morning the Morrises dreaded.

MORRIS: Rushing. I'm rushing a lot. And, well, not ready to go, but I've got to go. So, I wish I could stay another week, at least.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're just not ready for him to leave right now.

MORRIS: Get your shoes on, baby. We have got to get your shoes on. We've got to go.

MORRIS: I'm all set to go, ready to go.

GUTIERREZ: For the next 30 hours, we'll follow Robert back to his other reality.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Got a few more minutes.

MORRIS: Well, I'll see you all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get the kids out?

MORRIS: Yes.

I don't want to go back, but I got to. Give me kiss. I love you. Give me a kiss. I love you. You all be good.

Back to my journey again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've got a real good understanding with each other. You know, this is the job he has to do, but he'll be all right.

GUTIERREZ: Sergeant Robert Morris and 170 others leave their loved ones behind, not sure when they'll be back. Nine hours later, we stop in Germany just long enough to refuel. As we head for Kuwait, chaplain offers a prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Finally, we give thanks for these soldiers. We're grateful for the willing sacrifice that they're making. We ask, as they get into harm's way, that their minds will be keen, that they'll be sharp, that they'll be decisive.

GUTIERREZ: A reminder that war is much closer now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God bless you all. Now, stay alert.

MORRIS: When we loaded up from Germany, that pretty much triggered it for me.

GUTIERREZ: Five hours later;

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Kuwait.

GUTIERREZ: Robert and the other soldiers board buses and we're off to Camp Doha near the Iraqi border.

MORRIS: Little nervous, like I did when I first came over. You're scared. You're more nervous than anything.

GUTIERREZ: With good reason. Robert tells me he's seen heavy combat. Every time he's gone out, his convoy has been hit by roadside bombs.

MORRIS: We're going to an unsafe zone, so I have pretty much got that in my mind, a lot in my mind.

GUTIERREZ: A few hours from now, Robert and the others will be back in Iraq.

(on camera): Before you leave, your family prepared a couple of messages.

MORRIS: OK.

GUTIERREZ: So they wanted you to take a look.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love you and that you come back safely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll try to be taking better care of my brothers and sisters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dad, you have to be safe and come back home and have a good time with the family. And I'll be taking care of mama and little Tina (ph) and Brandon (ph). And I just want to say bye.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thirty-five. Secure your gear at this time.

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): At the break of dawn, we say goodbye to the husband and father we met in Georgia. Now Sergeant Robert Morris is back in the reality of a soldier at war, back to the dangers of convoy escort duty on the world's deadliest roads.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Thelma Gutierrez reporting.

There's much more ahead, including the emotional return of an American warrior in a season of peace.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN (voice-over): A soldier's long journey from the streets of Baghdad.

SGT. ANTHONY JIMENEZ, U.S. ARMY: Going home, finally, for a little while, anyway.

O'BRIEN: Not measured in miles, but in peace of mind.

A. JIMENEZ: There's American freaking soil out there.

O'BRIEN: Away from death and danger and into a family's warm embrace. Tonight, a soldier's return.

Then, an endless stream of trucks crossing America's bridges, America's borders even before they're inspected, vital spans that could carry loads of trouble. On the CNN "Security Watch," bridging the security gap.

All that and more ahead tonight on PAULA ZAHN NOW.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back.

We continue with our tale of two soldiers, this time with a journey every soldier in Iraq dreams of making.

Once again, here's Thelma Gutierrez.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): Fresh off the battlefield, Army Specialist Anthony Jimenez is about to leave Iraq after six months and all of this behind, while, across the world in Cumming, Georgia:

RACHEL JIMENEZ, MOTHER OF ANTHONY: Santa Claus is coming tomorrow. He's coming early.

GUTIERREZ: Rachel Jimenez nervously prepares to see her only son. Here on the desolate border of Iraq and Kuwait, we begin the long journey home.

R. JIMENEZ: I constantly think about him and worry about him.

GUTIERREZ: But Rachel has no idea just how close her son was to the front. His boots are stained with the blood of combat.

JIMENEZ: Hey, mom. I'm down here in Kuwait now.

GUTIERREZ: She knew little until now.

A. JIMENEZ: I have got two things I have got to tell you. Well, you're probably be upset at one. I haven't been in Kuwait the whole time. Yes, I've been in Baghdad. And it's OK. It's OK. It's OK, mom. I'm coming home.

Oh, yes. Thank you. Yes, she's a little upset about that one. I'm an only child.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make sure you have two tags attached to your gear, one for your Kevlar, one for your vest.

GUTIERREZ: Anthony and the rest of these battle-weary soldiers packing their body armor, the first sign they're going home.

A. JIMENEZ: Glad to be going home, finally. It's a little rough outside the wire.

GUTIERREZ: Camp Doha is the hub of the R&R program. On average, 1,200 service men and women pass through here every day in or out of the theater. I met Anthony for his first taste of home before our 30- hour trip back to the U.S. He says foremost in his mind is his family and how he'll deal with the white lie he told his mother when he sees her.

(on camera): You basically told her the truth.

A. JIMENEZ: Yes. I told her...

GUTIERREZ: What was her reaction?

A. JIMENEZ: Well, she was pretty upset. She started crying on the phone. I think she knew I was in Iraq. She just didn't know I was in Baghdad. She doesn't want me around the Baghdad area.

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): Anthony's job is in Baghdad, where he is the driver and protector of a lieutenant colonel. This is what happened to their vehicle when they were attacked.

A. JIMENEZ: I've been hit three times, so -- and the first time was the worst. It was an ambush. They hit us with three IEDs, four RPGs and small-arms fire. And everybody was walking wounded.

GUTIERREZ: Anthony tells me he will never forget the day a car bomb exploded in Baghdad.

(on camera): You said that when you actually got out of your vehicle that day, you saw some pretty heady stuff.

A. JIMENEZ: Like, I stepped out of the vehicle and like five to 10 feet away, there was like a ribcage laying there and whatever body parts there was.

GUTIERREZ: How do you deal with that?

A. JIMENEZ: We really just try not to think about it.

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): More than 30 Iraqi children were killed that day.

A. JIMENEZ: You learn to appreciate life a whole lot more when you're over here and it can be taken away just like that. In the blink of an eye, you could get hit with something and you're gone. You're no more. And now your family has to deal with that.

GUTIERREZ: At 23, this is Anthony's third deployment, his second to a combat zone. He says his life is forever changed by Iraq.

A. JIMENEZ: It's a big wakeup call, what's going on over here. I remember watching it on the news, seeing what's going on, and, man, I'm glad I'm not there. Now I am here and I see what's going on.

GUTIERREZ: His experience has given him a new perspective on the Iraqis.

A. JIMENEZ: And most of the people that, you know, want to work for us and want us here are very nice people. And they -- you know, there's just some that don't agree with us being here and want to blame us for all their hardships.

GUTIERREZ (on camera): What do you see for your future?

GUTIERREZ: Family, kids, good education, where I don't have to worry about money and my kids don't have to worry about war. I'll gladly fight the war, so my kids don't have to.

R. JIMENEZ: He'll be in tomorrow around 9:45.

GUTIERREZ: Back in Georgia, a Christmas celebration awaits the son, now a soldier, who has always been the center of Rachel's life. Physically and emotionally spent, Anthony and the others fly home. It takes a day and a half. Most sleep the whole way.

GUTIERREZ: It's Georgia out there. It is so pretty.

A. JIMENEZ: Home never looked so good.

GUTIERREZ: There's American freaking soil out there and it's green and there's buildings out there that aren't crumbling.

GUTIERREZ: As we're about to land in Georgia, they tell me they look forward to the simple things.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A real fork instead of plastic.

GUTIERREZ: From here, many soldiers will fly on to their home towns, but Anthony is home. His mother, father and girlfriend anxiously await in the terminal. As we make our way toward them, Anthony tells me he has butterflies in his stomach.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

A. JIMENEZ: It's OK. I'm home now. It's all right.

GUTIERREZ: If only for two weeks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Thelma Gutierrez reporting on a soldier's journey home for the holidays.

Stay right there. Special Jimenez and the people he loves the most join us live right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back.

Our tale of two soldiers, one going to Iraq, one coming home, is being repeated again and again these days; 150,000 U.S. troops will be in Iraq by the time it holds nationwide elections at the end of January.

Joining us this evening from Cumming, Georgia, outside of Atlanta is Army Specialist Anthony Jimenez, who we followed home for an R&R before the break. And with him this evening, his mom Rachel Jimenez and his girlfriend, Autumn Clary.

Nice to see you guys. Thanks for being with us.

Hey, welcome back, Anthony. It's nice to have you back home, huh?

A. JIMENEZ: Yes, it's real nice being back home. I'm so excited about being here.

O'BRIEN: Good.

I have got to ask your mom, though, how she is feeling about having you home again.

What is it like to have your little boy, your only son, home?

R. JIMENEZ: Oh, there's no words to explain how excited I am about this. He's just -- it's wonderful. My life is complete now, now that he's home.

O'BRIEN: Well, we're really happy for you.

Anthony, give me a sense of what you missed the most, outside of your mom and your girlfriend and your family? What did you really want to get home to?

A. JIMENEZ: Just good food. Army food is all right, but it gets old after a while and I really enjoy home cooking, being with the family.

O'BRIEN: Autumn, I know that you moved to Georgia from New York. Why did you do that?

AUTUMN CLARY, GIRLFRIEND OF ANTHONY: Well, a couple of reasons. His mom is alone down here. I worry about that kind of thing. Go to college, work and wait for him to come home.

O'BRIEN: I know, Rachel, we saw in the piece that Anthony told you a little lie, as you well know now. He wasn't in Kuwait the whole time. He was in Baghdad. What do you do with that information? How do you manage to sleep at night when he returns again, as he will soon, back into the theater?

R. JIMENEZ: You know, the first time when he told me that he was in Kuwaiti-Iraqi border, you know, I could rest a little bit better at night, knowing that he wasn't there where the action is.

And now it is really going to be a lot harder to rest at night knowing that he's there. And when I hear something about Baghdad, then I'm going to be a lot more conscious and pay more attention to what they say about Baghdad, when, before, I didn't -- I heard it, but it didn't really sink in, but now it is going to be a little harder to rest at night knowing that he's actually in there in the middle of everything.

O'BRIEN: Yes, I would imagine.

Anthony, I'm curious to know whether you're spending this time watching news reports, following what's going on, or sort of tuning it out.

A. JIMENEZ: I'm just pretty much trying to tune it out. I live it every day while I'm over there, so, you know, I don't want to come home and have to worry about it, too.

I e-mail by buddies back where I'm at in Iraq, and so they keep me posted. And as long as I know they're all right, then I feel a lot better about being home.

O'BRIEN: Were you surprised to hear about this report out of Mosul, this suicide bombing attack on the U.S. base?

A. JIMENEZ: Yes, that was really surprising. I can't believe they actually got that far in. It very rarely happens that way, so anxious to get back and find out exactly how that happened, really.

O'BRIEN: As a soldier, how does that information, the man may have been wearing an Iraqi military uniform, affect sort of how you deal with the people who might be sitting next to you at any given time in the day?

A. JIMENEZ: Very rarely am I next to like the actual Iraqi army. But, I'm sure, for every soldier, it's always going through their mind if this guy is carrying a bomb or this guy doesn't like me and he wants to do a terrorist act against me.

So, I guess now I'm just going to have to be a little more aware of what's going on and a little more of our situation there.

O'BRIEN: I would guess.

I know that you have got a little more time on your R&R. What are your plans over the next week at home? And then after that, what are you doing?

A. JIMENEZ: Oh, I'm just going to relax, stay with the family.

You know, third deployment, this is getting to be a routine and I don't like it. I'd much rather be at home with my family than going to the desert all the time.

O'BRIEN: I bet you would.

Any final thoughts you want to share with us before I let you go?

A. JIMENEZ: Just basically, I just want to say hi to all my 10th Mountain buddies over in Baghdad. I'll be back, you know, as soon as they tell me to be.

O'BRIEN: Well, I'll tell you, we thank you for your time, because I know it's precious time when you're sharing it with your family. Thanks for being with us, you guys. And have a terrific and safe holiday, OK?

R. JIMENEZ: Thank you. Same to you.

A. JIMENEZ: All right. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We want to remind you to weigh in on tonight's PZN meter question. Let us know what you think about U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Just log on to CNN.com/Paula.

Aaron Brown joins us now with what's ahead on "NEWSNIGHT" tonight -- hey, Aaron. AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Soledad. Thank you.

Three more Americans died around Falluja today, a reminder of how important the battle of Falluja was last month, the deadliest month of the war. Tonight, in a special edition of NEWSNIGHT, we look back at the battle. It produced some of the most compelling reporting of the war, perhaps some of the most compelling reporting in the history of war. So, we'll look at the work of Lindsey Hilsum of ITN, Michael Ware of "TIME" magazine, Jane Arraf of CNN. We'll see how they told the story of the battle of Falluja in a special edition of "NEWSNIGHT" tonight.

O'BRIEN: All right, Aaron, thanks.

Well, from the battlefield in Iraq to the home front in the war on terror, why is this door to America being left wide open? The answer in our CNN "Security Watch" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: On to our security watch now. Big cities are getting some good end of the year news from the homeland security department. According to the "New York Times," the department is shifting money around to give the biggest cities a larger share of the security budget. $3.5 billion in annual grants. The "Times" says the biggest winners are New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and Boston. While Memphis, Orlando, New Haven, Fresno and Albany, New York are among many cities that will have less money. Leaders of large cities have complained for years that the formula for spreading the money around was unfair leaving major potential terrorist targets in danger. For the nation's tenth largest city, Detroit, one security gap stands out and if terrorists ever struck there, it could be a national disaster. Here's homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A herd of tractor trailers thunders across the Ambassador Bridge, more than 12,000 every day and none are inspected until after they cross.

SKIP MCMAHON, AMBASSADOR BRIDGE EXECUTIVE: We compare it to having your luggage inspected after you get off the airplane.

MESERVE: The Ambassador Bridge is about as critical a piece of infrastructure as exists anywhere. This one bridge spanning the U.S.- Canadian border between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario carries one quarter of the trade between the two countries. It was constructed to last and has for 75 years. Bringing it down would be difficult. But just making it impassable could be economically devastating. The auto industry relies on the bridge to transport parts just in time for use on the production line. And even the heightened security after 9/11 had a profound effect.

MARGARET IRWIN, AMERICAN TRUCKING ASSOCIATIONS: Post-September 11, the economy was almost shut down at the northern border. I know some of the big five auto manufacturers had to shut down lines, cost them millions of dollars because trucks couldn't make it over the bridges.

MESERVE: Given the economic stakes and the limited options for rerouting truck traffic, there is widespread agreement that the bridge would be more secure if custom's inspections were reversed. The U.S. would check out trucks on the Canadian side before they cross the bridge and vice versa. The idea of swapping the customs stations around has been discussed since 9/11, but more than three years later, nothing has been done. There has been and continues to be a lot of talk between U.S. and Canadian officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not, you know, all straight ahead stuff. There are some complex issues there.

MESERVE: U.S. customs officers have greater powers to search, inspect and arrest than their Canadian counterparts and the Americans carry guns. If they were to operate on Canadian soil, they would have to adhere to Canadian law potentially weakening their authority. One example...

ASA HUTCHINSON, HOMELAND SECURITY UNDERSECRETARY: If you had someone you identified as a suspicious terrorist that would come into the reverse inspection area and you identified them for arrests and they say, we change our mind and we want to turn around and leave, U.S. authorities would not have the capability to hold them at that point.

MESERVE: Officials of the U.S. and Canada say they're in serious negotiations about synchronizing laws or even swapping small pieces of territory on either side of the bridge. But supporters of reverse inspections point to the Channel where the French and British currently practice reverse inspections and to some Canadian airports where U.S. customs already preclears passengers and they suggest that if there was truly political will, a way already would have been found.

SHELBY SLATER, DETROIT HOMELAND SECURITY: It hasn't happened. That's the bottom line. It just hasn't happened.

MESERVE: No one on the U.S. or Canadian side can say when or if it will. So the trucks keep rolling across the bridge, uninspected.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: That was Jeanne Meserve reporting.

Joining us this evening former deputy homeland security adviser Richard Falkenrath. Do you think that a border like the Ambassador Bridge can ever really, truly be secure?

RICHARD FALKENRATH, FMR. DEP. HOMELAND SEC. ADVISER: The U.S.- Canadian border is the most vibrant, economic border in the world. And so you're never going to get perfect security there. There's simply too much commerce that moves across every day. We can get a lot better and we've been trying to get a lot better since 9/11. Your report accurately points out one of the difficulties, which is a very narrow bridge through which a quarter of the commercial transactions daily between Canada and the United States flow. It's an immense problem.

O'BRIEN: So then do you think it's mutually exclusive, you can't have both flow and at the same time have good security.

FALKENRATH: It's hard to have both. But it's possible to get better in both simultaneously. We can be smarter about how we do inspections, we can speed the processing of trusted shippers, as it were, at the same time as we improve our security infrastructure and hopefully increase the bandwidth at that border. But it's constrained by being four lanes and being very old and having immense demand for traffic every day.

O'BRIEN: The border up there is essentially 5,500-mile stretch. Give me as a whole how insecure as a whole that stretch of land is?

FALKENRATH: The rural areas are wide open. There are some technical surveillance, but basically, this is wilderness. Anyone with a backpack who knows how to hike in a wilderness and so anyone with a backpack who knows how to hike in a wilderness area is going to be able to get across it. The points of entry are better secure. They are manned 24/7 and we have people looking at all the traffic that goes through. The fact is, daily, the number of people that cross that border basically preclude up close and personal inspection of everybody. Our customs and immigration inspectors are pretty good. They know what to watch for. They've had one very important success at the millennium when they identified a terrorist who was coming across the U.S.-Canadian border, but the vast majority of people who use that border every day are not terrorists. They're coming across to work or shop or be tourists or whatever.

O'BRIEN: What about what we've heard about for a long time, the biometric tracking systems. How difficult are those to implement?

FALKENRATH: There is a statutory requirement to deploy a biometric entry and exit system at the land points of entry by 2005 and 2006. That system is already up and running at our airports and is a very valuable system. We've had a number of apprehensions of criminals and possible terrorists at our airports because of that system.

O'BRIEN: But given the big exceptions, in this particular case, does that really protect anybody, that biometric system?

FALKENRATH: Well, in the airports, there are no exceptions at this point. Even the visa waiver country nationals now are screened by that system. American citizens don't have to be screened biometrically but every foreigner that comes to America now screened at the airport. The land points of entry are exceptions at this time, but there is a requirement in the law for the department of homeland security to deploy this system at the land points of entry by 2005 in the case of the 50 biggest land points of entry and 2006 with every other one.

O'BRIEN: At the end of the day it really does come down to money. Richard Falkenrath, nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us. FALKENRATH: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Well, here at CNN we're always on the lookout for stories about your safety and your security. From a bridge on the northern border we head south to Cuba. When we return why the U.S. government is standing in the way of efforts to save an important part of American history.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Ernest Hemingway once said a man can be destroyed but not defeated. The same cannot be said for a man's home.

The house in which Hemingway lived in Cuba is falling apart and preservationists say the U.S. is an obstacle to saving it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Set high on a hill, Finca Vigia, the Lookout Farm, faces out to the sea that Hemingway loved. The iconic American writer spent the last third of his life at his Cuban villa, more than 20 years all told.

Hemingway considered it his only true home. And 40 years after his death, it's said you can still feel his presence, as if he just stepped out for a few minutes to take a swim or sip a mojito (ph).

JENNY PHILLIPS, HEMINGWAY PRESERVATION FOUNDATION: It's a real place. It's an authentic place. It's a living museum, which is really -- it's unaltered since the last time Ernest Hemingway was there in 1960.

O'BRIEN: Jenny Phillips is the granddaughter of Hemingway's publisher and lifelong friend, Maxwell Perkins. She first visited the villa in 2001, as much in search of her grandfather's history as Hemingway's.

PHILLIPS: Some incredible things happened in this house. The agony and the ecstasy of being a creative person, all the great literature that was written on that spot on that yellow tiled floor where he wrote his books.

O'BRIEN: It's where Hemingway entertained, where he rested, but, mostly, it's where he wrote. His celebrated novel "Old Man and the Sea" was inspired by local fishermen and finally won him his Nobel Prize in literature.

But recently, soaked by the tropical humidity and the pounding of hurricanes, Finca Vigia is falling apart. There is no furniture in Hemingway's writing room. Huge cracks have opened in the ceiling, and green mold cascades down the walls.

In the bathroom, where Hemingway diligently recorded his weight on the walls, the mold creeps out from under the roof.

PHILLIPS: The frame of the house is cracking, and it's sliding down the hillside.

O'BRIEN: In 2002 a group of American preservationists was permitted to come to Cuba to help in the delicate process of saving the thousands of precious documents and photographs stored in the villa, allowed by both the American government and Fidel Castro, who attended the opening ceremony of the preservation project.

But, now, a second group of Americans, led by Jenny Philips, wants to rescue the house itself. And this time, the U.S. government has said no.

Tom Herman is the lawyer representing those preservationists.

TOM HERMAN, ATTORNEY: The treasury and State Department have told us that we can't go down to Cuba. We can't send the expert preservation architects and engineers, and we can't provide any funds or any equipment to help save this house.

O'BRIEN: Herman applied for permission for them to travel to Cuba and got this rejection in reply: "The issuance of the specific license would be inconsistent with current U.S. policy. As the nature of the services described in your application would facilitate tourism in Cuba."

That's right, tourism. Because the villa makes money for the Cuban government, saving it would also prop up Fidel Castro's regime, says Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary Juan Zarate.

JUAN ZARATE, ASSISTANT SECRETARY, TREASURY DEPARTMENT: We've all read "The Old Man and the Sea," "For Whom the Bell Tolls." These are American classics. So nobody -- nobody is disputing that. What we are trying to effect, though, is the ability of the Cuban government to manipulate those treasures to attract both Americans in violation of law, but also others from around the world.

O'BRIEN: It's true that much of Cuba's failing economy is sustained by the foreign currencies tourists bring with them. And even 15 years after the end of the Cold War, U.S. officials would still like Castro replaced.

ZARATE: The Castro regime presents a national security threat to our country. Not to mention presents a real threat to his own people and has represented probably one of the most oppressive regimes in the western hemisphere.

O'BRIEN: So, Finca Vigia is caught between politics and preservation, a Cuban treasure that its defenders say is America's history, as well.

HERMAN: We're a great democracy. We export, not only democratic ideals, but wonderful culture. I think it's outrageous that the government of the United States is preventing us from helping to save the legacy of one of America's greatest writers.

(END VIDEOTAPE) O'BRIEN: Well, some of us celebrated Hanukkah. Some of us are looking forward to Christmas and Kwanzaa. And then there are those who prefer a real alternative. Up next, the true story behind Festivus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Have yourself a merry little Festivus. Let you heart be light.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): We wish you a merry Festivus. We wish you a merry Festivus. We wish you a merry Festivus and a happy new year.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Today is December 23. You know what that means. Well, maybe you don't. It's Festivus, you know, the holiday for the rest of us. The real made-up holiday made famous by a "Seinfeld" episode.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JERRY STILLER, ACTOR: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As my I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.

MICHAEL RICHARD, ACTOR: What happened to the doll?

STILLER: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born. A Festivus for the rest of us!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Strange as it seems, Festivus is not completely fictional. The alternative holiday was actually the invention of the father of one of the "Seinfeld" show's writers. And his family has been celebrating it for decades. And it's spreading, no doubt thanks to all those "Seinfeld" reruns.

So let's gather around the old aluminum pole and celebrate the day with Sara Leschinsky of Lakeville, Minnesota, and her friend Amy Nelson. The two of them have been throwing annual Festivus parties for the last five years.

Hey, ladies, and your friends. Good evening to you.

Tell me, really, do you celebrate Festivus or are you guys just using this as a reason to have a party?

SARAH LESCHINSKY, FESTIVUS CELEBRANT: We really celebrate it. We've been having Festivus parties for five years now. O'BRIEN: Now do you stick to the rituals? For those who don't know, some of the rituals are the airing of grievances and then there's the whole wrestling thing, the show of strength. Talk about the airing of grievances. How does that work at your party?

AMY NELSON, FESTIVUS CELEBRANT: Well, usually we kind of sit around in a circle and everyone takes turns airing their grievances, anything that's disappointed, anyone who's disappointed them over the past year. And we just kind of take turns.

And then we do move into the feats of strength and usually there's arm wrestling and then we also have an annual trivia contest, all about "Seinfeld" trivia.

O'BRIEN: I was going to say. Trivia contest, that's not part of the original Festivus that we know about. You've made up some stuff in this. Is that how it's gone for the last couple years?

LESCHINSKY: Yes. Well, in the episode on "Seinfeld" they only had wrestling. So we've kind of added to that. Over the years we've added, like Amy said, trivia. We've had a candy bar line-up, which you might remember from one of the episodes. And we kind of just expanded it and gone from there.

O'BRIEN: Of course, the center of the Festivus celebrations is the old aluminum pole with nothing on it. Do you guys have one of those?

NELSON: Oh, yes, we're standing right in front of it.

O'BRIEN: It's lovely.

LESCHINSKY: And our pole has have actually -- it's gotten better over the years. The first year that we had the party it was actually a cardboard tube with tinfoil wrapped around it. So now, as you can see, we actually have a real pole.

O'BRIEN: Sarah, it's a huge improvement. I love it. You've done a lot with it. It looks fantastic.

LESCHINSKY: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Have you guys been surprised at how popular Festivus, this essentially fake holiday has become?

NELSON: Well, not really. I mean, "Seinfeld" is such a popular show, even though it's off the air now. I mean, the reruns are still going and everyone is watching it. And so, it's really a pretty big thing.

And several of us get together every year and celebrate, and I think we're hearing about it more and more.

O'BRIEN: How many people are you guys expecting at your party? I see some of your friends around from age, it looks like 2 weeks to a little older than that. How many folks are you expecting? LESCHINSKY: We've got -- I don't know how many are going to show up. The closer you get to Christmas, it seems like the busier people get. But we're hoping to get a few more. It's a good time for a party, because people tend to get kind of stressed around Christmas. And it's a nice, fun, theme party to have near the holidays.

NELSON: And definitely a family affair. We've got kids. We've got parents, and friends, everyone.

LESCHINSKY: I think the youngest celebrant this year is our little nephew Brady, who is only 2 months old.

O'BRIEN: He looks like he's sleeping. With all due respect to the festivities, Brady looks like he's sleeping through it so far, as far as I can tell.

LESCHINSKY: Yes, he is.

O'BRIEN: Festivus is supposed to fall on the 23rd. Do you always celebrate it on the 23rd, or do you take a little leeway with that?

LESCHINSKY: Not always. We always celebrate it near the holidays, in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, usually.

O'BRIEN: You know, as you well know, the celebrations go on until the head of them family is wrestled to the ground. I'm going to assume little Brady there is not taking part this year.

Who is the head of the family? Which one of you is going to get wrestled to the ground?

LESCHINSKY: Well, it is at my house this year, so it is either me or my husband Bret. We'll have to see who has to wrestle this year.

O'BRIEN: With all due respect, he looks bigger and stronger. I think maybe you should let him do it this year.

LESCHINSKY: Yes, I think he'll wrestle.

O'BRIEN: Ladies, congratulations on your party. Maybe next year we'll come over and check in with you. And we'll start our own celebration.

LESCHINSKY: That would be great.

O'BRIEN: Thanks so much, you guys.

LESCHINSKY: Happy Festivus!

NELSON: Happy Festivus!

O'BRIEN: Same to you. You've been terrible disappointments, I might add. That's part of a Festivus celebration. You guys, thanks.

Well, some laughs from late-night comics are straight ahead. We're going to be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: 'Tis the season for giving, so, we offer you a little ho, ho, ho from the late-night comics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": And man, the stores are crowded. In fact, it was so busy at Wal-Mart they're even hiring people with green cards. OK? That's how desperate.

Well, according to a new poll, 72 percent of pet owners buy their pets a Christmas present. Do you do that? In fact, in Las Vegas Siegfried gave his cats a chew toy, Roy. But that's it.

I tell you, Christmas shopping a lot easier for President Bush this year. We have fewer and fewer allies we have to buy gifts for. You know, it's just simpler. Just get England a little something and then we're fine. Yes, that's it.

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Well, here's the kind of thing that really steamed me. I'm doing some Christmas shopping today. So there's a guy on the street and I buy a watch from him. And I put it on and I said to him, "It runs slow. This watch," I said, "it runs slow."

He said, "So did the guy I stole it from."

You can tell it's Christmas here in New York City: the super markets are trying to pass off their expired milk as eggnog. So be very, very careful.

Well, the Clintons -- remember President Clinton and Hillary? Yes. They're celebrating Christmas up there in Chappaqua, and it's the same every year. Here's what happens. Hillary comes downstairs Christmas morning and finds a surprise under Bill.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Here's the results of tonight's "PZN Meter." We asked what you thought of the number of U.S. troops sent to Iraq. Seventy- seven percent of you say the number of U.S. troops is insufficient. Nine percent say the number is sufficient, and 14 percent say it's too high.

Remember, this is just our web site poll. It is not a scientific sampling.

And that's it for tonight. Tomorrow, a special PAULA ZAHN NOW for Christmas eve. Paula's reviewing conversation with two of Ronald Reagan's children, Michael Reagan and Patty Davis.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is up next with Jack Hannah and a wild hour of amazing animals.

I'm Soledad O'Brien in for Paula Zahn tonight. Have a great night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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