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America Returns to Flight; Deadly Suicide Bombing in Baghdad

Aired July 13, 2005 - 07:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Miles O'Brien at the Kennedy Space Center. Today America returns to flight. The first shuttle mission since the Columbia Disaster two-and-a-half years ago. We're less than nine hours away from launch now, and already NASA with its first gut check of the mission. A last minute repair after a window cover fell onto Discovery's outer shell. The concern now, will the weather hold up? The crew of two women and five men ready for liftoff, on this AMERICAN MORNING.
Good morning, on a beautiful morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Let's hope the weather holds up.

The Shuttle Discovery waiting behind us, three-and-half miles behind me. The launch set for 3:51 this afternoon Eastern Time. Awful lot riding on this one. I don't think I need to tell you that. The big question here, of course, the weather. As we said, it is Florida. It is the summer. So there are thunderstorms in the forecast mixed for this afternoon.

And the other big question appears to be answered. That window cover that fell off from the top of the shuttle, about 70 feet, and hit a portion of the tail as it came down, damage the some tiles yesterday caused a little bit of concern. Engineers were able to replace that panel, and they say it was a good fit. Problem solved.

But we're going to talk more about that and the many other challenges made for this first mission in two-and-a-half years since we lost Columbia and her crew. But before we do that, let's bring in Soledad O'Brien in New York.

Good morning, Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Miles. Good morning, too.

The weather looks very good behind you. Looks like it's a beautiful day. That's terrific. We're keeping our fingers crossed for launch.

M. O'BRIEN: We'll hope for the best.

S. O'BRIEN: Other stories that we're working on this morning, developing stories. A potential breakthrough in the London bombing investigation. A live report ahead on that this morning.

Also, a developing story in Iraq to tell you about. A deadly suicide bombing in Baghdad, 24 people killed, at least 25 people injured. A U.S. soldier is among the dead, seven children as well. We've got a live report on that, too.

More on that ahead, but first, let's get right back to Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, thanks, Soledad.

Of course, NASA says there are a lot of things that could delay a shuttle launch. There are, after all, a million parts on the thing, but the big concern today remains the weather, because all systems are go for the orbiter and the shuttle at this point.


S. O'BRIEN: Another top story this morning to tell you about. A suicide car bomber attacked a U.S. military Humvee this morning in Baghdad as soldiers were handing out treats to Iraqi children. At least 24 people are dead, including at least seven children, 25 others injured.

Aneesh Raman is live for us in Baghdad this morning.

Aneesh, what's the very latest on this bombing?


We're getting now a more comprehensive breakdown of the casualties. Iraqi police telling us that a majority of the 24 people killed were, in fact, Iraqi children. The U.S. military also saying that, as you say, at least one soldier was killed. This attack happened around 11:00 a.m. local time in Eastern Baghdad. As the U.S. military convoy had stopped to interact with Iraqi children, to hand out candy, to hand out treats, a GMC truck with a suicide bomber exploded. The U.S. military is saying this was a deliberate attempt by the insurgents to hit Iraqi civilians.

Soledad, this morning, once again, underscores the brutality and the violence here on the ground.

S. O'BRIEN: It does, Aneesh.

Let me ask you a question about this report about the man described as a significant operative in Baghdad, captured, I guess, by the military. Who is this guy?

RAMAN: His name is Abu Abed Al Aziz (ph). We know very little of how he was captured, except that the military got him yesterday evening local time. They announced it today.

We do know also, according to the military, that he was in charge of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group, of course, headed by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, their Baghdad operations. We don't know much more than that. But clearly, this morning's incident shows that this insurgency is incredibly versatile, incredibly flexible, and incredibly dangerous, even as their top leaders are captured -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Aneesh Raman, in Baghdad for us. Aneesh, thanks. Well, London's terror attacks could be Western Europe's first case of suicide bombings. Police have identified four suspects now, and found evidence that could mean they died in the blast. The route of the investigation begins in Leeds. That's 200 miles north of London.

And John Vause is following the trail there.

John, good morning to you. Any indications officially now that, in fact, these bombings were suicide bombs?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Nothing officially, though, Soledad, but what we have been hearing from police over the last 24 hours, and certainly the reports in the British newspapers this morning, tend to be making that case. In particular, what we're looking at is the forensic evidence from the scene. Without going into too much detail on this, what we're hearing is that the state of the bodies of the four suspected bombers would suggest that they were carrying the explosives at the time of the blast.

Now, the four suspects were seen on King's Cross station platform around 8:20 Thursday morning, about 30 minutes before the first three blasts went off. They were carrying rucksacks, or backpacks. Police say the bombs only weighed about 10 pounds, would easily fit inside one of those backpacks. If indeed they were suicide bombers, the experts say that raises the terror threat to a whole new level, because they say a determined suicide bomber is very difficult to stop -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Three of the bombers, apparently, they believe, are from Leeds, which is a community, as you well know, with this very big Muslim population. Any indication today that there's a retaliation or fears of retaliation in Leeds?

O'BRIEN: Last night we heard from the local police chief here. He put out a call appealing for calm in this community. In fact, there were extra police put on the streets to ensure that there was no backlash against the Muslim community. A lot of people on this street and in this neighborhood fear that that backlash is just a matter of time. In the wake of the London bombings, we saw a number of mosques around the London area that were vandalized. The police chief here said that he will respond quickly to any reports of harassment of the Muslim population, determining that will not happen in Yorkshire -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: John Vause for us this morning. John, thanks very much.

Let's take a look now live. You're listening to -- looking at right now, Tony Blair, the prime minister. He's addressing the House of Commons. Let's listen in to what he has to say.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Fourth, we are talking to other nations, Muslim and non-Muslim, as to how to mobilize internationally the moderate and true voice of Islam. Round the world, such action is taking place, but we need to see how it can be better coordinated publicized and driven through.

Meanwhile and finally, I would ask for the same measured and calm response from the country that has characterized it since last Thursday. This is a small group of extremists, not one that can be ignored because of the danger they pose, but neither should it define Muslims in Britain, who are overwhelmingly law-abiding, decent members of our society. And we condemn any attacks against them unreservedly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE I'm grateful to the prime minister for that answer. I welcome his decisions...

S. O'BRIEN: You've been listening to the British prime minister at the last moment there. He's addressing the House of Commons, and you heard him call for both a measured and calm response for the people not only of London, but of great Britain as a whole. As more information comes out about the suspects now in this four bombs in the London terror attacks that took place on Thursday, what we heard from the prime minister was that the group of suspects belonged to a small group of extremists, and he said, these people should not define the Muslim community as a whole.

We were just talking, just a moment ago, with John Vause about any kind of retaliatory attacks against people in Leeds, which is a -- has a large Muslim community, little bit north of London. And he was saying that some people do expect that there could be some retaliation. So, obviously, we're going to continue to follow the story, not only on the investigation front, but the aftermath as well.

It's time to turn to another top story this morning. "Time" reporter Matthew Cooper, he's expected to testify before a federal grand jury today. He's certain, though, to be asked how presidential adviser Karl Rove fits into the leaking of a CIA operative's name. Top Democrats say rove should be fired.

Elaine Quijano is at the White House this morning.

Hey, Elaine, good morning to you.

What's the mood at the White House?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, they are watching this very closely, but not saying a lot publicly. The president, I should tell you, does not have a lot on his public schedule. He meets with cabinet members this morning, but that's all so far.

Yesterday, though, neither he nor his Press Secretary Scott McClellan could escape the questions about Karl Rove. Yesterday in the Oval Office the president ignored a question about that.

And at the briefing, Scott McClellan was hammered for a second day in a row. He was asked about Rove roughly 30 times, and McClellan did say that any individual who works at the White House has the president's confidence. But beyond that, he continues to insist that he will not answer questions because of the ongoing investigation.

Now, for two years, the White House has said that Karl Rove had nothing to do with the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. Of course, though, it's Rove's lawyer's acknowledgement recently that rove was a source for Matt Cooper that has generated more questions.

But with the White House remaining mum on the issue and some Democrats calling for Rove to be fired, now Republicans are jumping to Karl Rove's defense, chalking up the questions to politics.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's unfortunate that all of these Democrat leaders aren't talking about saving Social Security, aren't talking about how we're going to have an energy plan. Instead, they're engaged in a partisan smear campaign.


QUIJANO: Now Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has said that his client, Karl Rove, is in no way threatened by Matt Cooper's impending testimony, and, again, Soledad, sources telling CNN that's set to happen today -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Elaine Quijano at the White House.

Obviously, we're going to continue to follow this story, not only with Elaine and her reports, but more interviews later this morning.

Let's get right back, though, to Miles O'Brien. He's at the Kennedy Space Center this morning, where all eyes are watching, frankly, not just because of the weather, but, obviously, Miles, because of the historic problems with the space shuttle launches and the disaster not long ago. A really important day today on many levels.

M. O'BRIEN: It is, Soledad. And there's been a lot of work done over the past two-and-half years to try to improve the orbiter, make it safer. I wouldn't say safe, just safer.

Let's take a look, and I'll give you sort of a tour of the Space Shuttle Discovery and give you a sense of some of the improvements that have been made. First of all, god's eye view of where I sit right now. This is the Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39-A and B complex. Right here where the number one is, that's where I am. I don't think you can see me waving there. Out there, three-and-a-half miles away, is the launch pad where the Space Shuttle Discovery sits.

Let's zoom in, and we'll give you a sense of what's going on with the Space Shuttle Discovery and what's new about it. Forty-one distinct improvements have been made in this two-and-a-half year period.

First of all, we're going inside right now, inside the leading edge of the wing. Of course that's a key spot. That's where the breach occurred in Columbia two-and-a-half years ago. There's a series of sensors that have been installed in here. So if something were to hit it hard, NASA would know almost immediately. They'd also have some temperature indications that would tell us there's a problem there.

Let's go and move to the next place on the space shuttle and show you about this bipod. This is the place where that big piece of foam fell off of Columbia two-and-half years ago. It used to be right in this location here there was foam covering that bipod, that pole which attacks the orbiter to the tank. They took it away. They replaced it with a heater, because it was such an at-risk piece of foam, a big piece of foam that could cause trouble.

Let's move along and talk about what else is new on the external tank. Lots of redesigns, including a camera here, which will actually look back at the orbiter when the external tank separates, send back some pictures in case there's a problem. People on the ground will know about it pretty much right away.

Now, let's talk about what's going on a little bit farther down in the space shuttle. Inside the payload bay, there's a new boom in here, an extended boom, which you can see right there. It's stowed there. And it has the capability, when extended, to actually reach out and get pictures underneath. So once they're in orbit, they can do a very scrupulous photo survey of the bottom side, something they couldn't see before, of the orbiter, and get a sense of that.

Final locations, get one more indication of what's new here. Explosive bolts. There was some concern these bolts would cause a debris problem. Now they had these bolt-catchers installed, which cause -- make it less likely that those bolts will actually hit the orbiter.

We can just roll through the rest of the animation because we're out of time here. But basically, what you're talking about here is a crew that is better trained. And finally, a docking compartment which allows it to dock at the international space station, which is, after all, where they're headed.

If all else comes to fail, Soledad, they can go to the space station and wait for a rescue mission, and we hope we don't have to tell you that story, but that is something that they have the possibility of doing.

S. O'BRIEN: You're absolutely right. We hope we don't have to tell that story at all.

I know later on this morning, Miles, you're talking to NASA's top administrator about the decision to go forward with the launch today. We're going to get back to you with that in just a little bit.

Also this morning, we're taking a look at what could be the next big hurricane, believe it or not. We'll find out where Emily is headed. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: The cavernous vehicle assembly building built in the 1960s to house four Saturn V rockets, now part of the operating of space shuttles. NASA says everything looks good for the launch of NASA Space Shuttle Discovery. Technicians working now to change out a bulky backup heater in the fuel tank. I'm told they have enough time to do it. It won't delay the launch. Not an issue.

Yesterday another issue set us on our heels a bit. A cover window panel fell from one of the cockpit windows late yesterday causing some damage. It's a cover panel that was meant to be taken off before launch. NASA is going ahead with the launch. They say the repair is just fine and they are very concerned about safety, of course, especially after the Columbia disaster more than two years ago.


M. O'BRIEN: Mike Griffin is NASA's administrator. Thanks for being with us this morning. You're new to the job. This is the first time you've actually had to sign on the dotted line and say, go for launch. Do you feel good about it?

MIKE GRIFFIN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: I sure do. The team is ready to go.

M. O'BRIEN: But there are all kinds of, as they say in this business, unknowns, unknown unknowns. Have you thought much about that this morning, and do you have a few butterflies as a result?

GRIFFIN: Well, I don't think I have butterflies. I've been through this before in other situations, but it is true, the space business is not one that we have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, to use your phrase. There are unknown unknowns. We hope we don't uncover any of those this morning.

M. O'BRIEN: You talked to the crew yesterday. What did they have to say to you? What was their mood like?

GRIFFIN: The crew is ready to go. They are charged up, and they are happy. They're well trained. I met with Colonel Collins, the flight's commander, right after she had completed some shuttle training aircraft approaches here at KSC. She's pumped.

M. O'BRIEN: And they've been training for a long time. I bet it's hard to keep that kind of intensity for such a long time. But when it comes close to launch, you get focused, don't you?

GRIFFIN: Well, when it comes close to launch the whole team gets focused, and the whom team is focused. I was out here at the pad last night talking with some of the technicians who were doing last-minute work on Discovery, and they were as charged up as the crew.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about that last-minute work. A cover fell off a window, caused a little damage to a few tiles. Turned out to be a fairly routine change-out, but of course the parallel there to Columbia was brought up, because of things damaging thermal-protection systems. Did you take that any other way than just as a minor incident?

GRIFFIN: Well, we're certainly going to look at it and figure out a way to make sure it doesn't happen again.

What specifically happened was that a window cover, which is used to protect the window. It's a lightweight piece of plastic cover, but it falling from a height of 70 feet can damage things, and did. The window cover was -- fell off the orbiter when an air bag, which was also used to retract the orbiter, was retracted. The air bag snagged on the window cover. The cover fell off. The cover fell down and hit on a piece of tile located on what we call a carrier plate between the left ohms pod and the aft body on the orbiter. I can show you on your model here if you wanted.

M. O'BRIEN: You can show it right now, sure.

GRIFFIN: It's located right there, in that little line where my finger is.

M. O'BRIEN: And the change out was relatively...

GRIFFIN: So the change-out was relatively simple because we simply replaced the whole piece of metal with several tiles, including the damaged tile, from a spare on the Endeavor orbiter, which is currently over in the orbiter processing facility.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about this launch. It's sort of the beginning of the end for the shuttle program. The last chapter for the space shuttle. How many more flights do you envision for the shuttle before NASA moves on to another vehicle?

GRIFFIN: Well, we think we can get around 20 flights out by the 2010 retirement date that President Bush has required, and we're looking right now to see what those flights should carry, what the assembly sequence for the international space station should be given that flight sequence, all that sort of thing. We think about 20.

M. O'BRIEN: That's a busty five years.

GRIFFIN: It's a busy five years.

M. O'BRIEN: Can you do that safely?

GRIFFIN: We think so. We will get it safely. If we don't get 20 flights, then we don't. But we will do it safely.


M. O'BRIEN: We thank him for his time on this busy morning.

In a molt, we will check in with the Space Shuttle Discovery, and you'll meet some of the brave men and women embarking on the first shuttle mission since Columbia. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My family to not fly this mission. My parents, my husband, my children, my friends.


M. O'BRIEN: Discovery's crew members reflect on NASA's return to space. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: The former CEO of Worldcom is about to learn how much time he's going to spend behind bars. With that, plus a look at the markets, Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business."

Good morning.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: Good morning, Soledad.

It is judgment day for Bernie Ebbers. The 63-year-old former CEO of Worldcom is looking at an 85-year sentence White when he appears before a judge in Manhattan this morning sometime before 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Of course, Ebbers was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in connection with the $11 billion scandal that brought down Worldcom, the largest scandal in the history of this country. Probably going to get about 15 to 20 years, Soledad, which might amount to a life sentence, of course.

Now, on Monday, CNN producer Winnie Dunbar happened to sit next to Ebbers on a flight up from Memphis, and this is Ebbers getting off the plane at La Guardia, unlit cigar clenched in his mouth. You can see that. His wife Christie there. And what a come-down, Soledad, not only to be flying commercial, but to be flying coach. And Winnie spoke to him a little bit. He said that his situation is completely bizarre. He was wearing faded blue jeans and noshing on Raisinets and potato chips.

S. O'BRIEN: That's what you get in coach.

SERWER: Yes, that's what you get. It's not on the private jet anymore.

S. O'BRIEN: Wow how things have changed for Bernie Ebbers.

SERWER: Indeed.

S. O'BRIEN: Interesting.

Time for a quick market check?

SERWER: Yes, let's talk a little bit about the markets. Yesterday the Nasdaq and the S&P 500 managed to make it four days in a row up. The Dow did not quite do it, though, higher oil prices to blame there. And this morning, futures are looking up a little bit.

S. O'BRIEN: Good. Thanks, Andy.

SERWER: You're welcome.

S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, much more AMERICAN MORNING.

Ahead on "90-Second Pop," Dreamworks having nightmares. We'll tell you how two of its biggest hits are weighing down the studio.

Plus, "The Simple Life" gets complicated for Paris and Nicole. Why the former friends may be forced to get back together, later on AMERICAN MORNING.



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