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The West Wing on Edge; The Aftermath of Wilma in Florida

Aired October 26, 2005 - 08:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The West Wing on edge. Will indictments be handed up today in the CIA leak probe? The grand jury is meeting and we've got it covered for you.
The aftermath of Wilma in Florida. There's damage all over the southern part of the peninsula. Millions without power. A record setting power outage. Tempers flaring. We'll bring you up to date on that, as well.

And 2,000 U.S. service men and women now dead in Iraq. Deep connections and emotion in the military family on this AMERICAN MORNING.

ANNOUNCER: From the CNN broadcast center in New York, this is AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: Good morning to you.

Welcome to Wednesday.


I'm Miles O'Brien.

Soledad is off all this week -- and, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: And am Miles' victim.

O'BRIEN: It's good to have you here beside us.

VERJEE: An important story we're following today, the CIA leak investigation. Nobody knows what could happen. One person told me, though, the only thing that they can say is that it seems like something could happen to someone.

O'BRIEN: There you go. Or, of course...

VERJEE: That's about all.

O'BRIEN: ... nothing could happen to no, one, too.

VERJEE: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: That is where we're at on this story. We're reading tea leaves as best we can this morning. Possible indictments imminent, or not. The White House remaining tight-lipped, however, about the CIA leak case. You can imagine why they would do that. Indictments could, however, if they were to come, would come as early as today.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Bob Franken outside the federal courthouse in Washington.

What do we know? What do we not know -- Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zain apparently knows as much as I do. Really not much more than that. But what we are discerning through our contacts with lawyers involved in the case and those who have watched these cases and the glimmers, the substantial glimmers, actually, that we've gotten out of the grand jury, we've discerned that there's been a particular focus on top White House aides. Among them, Karl Rove.

Karl Rove left his house this morning in the harsh glare of cameras, something that he is known not to particularly like, to say nothing of his neighbors. Leaving to go to the White House with the rumors -- and I underline rumors -- floating that he might be indicted for his role in the public disclosure of Valerie Plame as a CIA undercover agent. She, the wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson.

The other person who has also gotten very un -- very used to having cameras outside his house, and he did again this morning, is the vice president's chief of staff, Irvin Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who is another one who has been the subject of quite a bit of questioning. The special prosecutor has also questioned him about any role that his boss might have had in all of this.

Now, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, is expected here for the grand jury meeting. He's working against a potential deadline. I put it that way because this grand jury's term runs out on Friday and there is an expectation that he'll be taking action or taking no action before that happens. So the lawyers are saying to give himself just a little bit of wiggle room, he would be taking that action today.

The possibilities exist for an indictment or no indictment on the Espionage Act. That would be the violation of the law against discerning an undercover agent's identity, doing it knowingly. But everybody involved says there is apparently an effort on the part of the special prosecutor to look into whether false statements were made before the grand jury or obstruction of justice or some sort of violation of conspiracy laws.

Bottom line is, as I said, Miles, we know nothing.

O'BRIEN: It could have been a shorter report, I suppose.

But let me ask you this, Bob.

We do know this, the investigation has been very active in recent days. Lots of key investigations -- questioning underway. Valerie Plame's neighbors -- this is the outed CIA operative -- among the people being interviewed.

What's going on there?

FRANKEN: Well, the law requires that there is evidence that the government was aggressively trying to make sure that a person was not a CIA agent. The identity would not be known. And what the independent counsel -- I call it that, it's no longer called that -- the special prosecutor apparently was trying to determine is whether her identity as a CIA operative was known.

We're told from various reports that that was not the case, that the neighbors had no idea.

O'BRIEN: The neighbors had no idea.

And what was her cover? She wasn't -- she had, as a business, she had a front business, right?

FRANKEN: That was the cover.

Don't you like using words like that?

O'BRIEN: A greeting card salesman like Max Smart or something like that? I don't know.

FRANKEN: That's right. That's right.

But, in any case, apparently that was the case. And by those interviews, what we've been able to glean from them, there was no indication that anybody did know that she worked for the CIA.

O'BRIEN: Bob Franken at the courthouse watching it for us.


Let's check some other headlines.

Carol back with us -- good morning, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Miles.

Good morning to all of you.

Israeli war planes are pounding northern Gaza after an apparent rocket attack. The Israeli Defense Forces say militants fired a rocket from Gaza into southern Israel earlier today. No injuries reported there.

In the meantime, Israeli police are investigating an explosion at an apartment building in Tel Aviv. Health officials say at least three people were killed there. This week's violence in the Mideast has been among the worst since Israel withdrew from Gaza last month.

A sad benchmark in Iraq. The American military death toll has now reached 2,000. And for the next few days, Cindy Sheehan and other peace activists plan to, well, in her words, "die symbolically outside of the White House." Sheehan says she hopes 2,000 people will attend this kind of vigil. Each will get a bracelet with the name of a fallen soldier. And they might even get arrested, as well. Cindy Sheehan did.

They're hot, tired and anxious to get home. Five days after Wilma, as many as 10,000 American tourists are still stuck in shelters in Cancun, Mexico. While the airport is open, many roads are blocked. Some tourists accuse the U.S. government of leaving them high and dry. The State Department says it's doing everything it can to get them out.

President Bush is set to get a firsthand look at parts of Florida ravaged by hurricane Wilma. He'll travel to the Sunshine State tomorrow. Today, the president is set to address the Economic Club of Washington. CNN will have live coverage starting at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

And kids in the mid-Atlantic may need snow boots for their Halloween costumes. Maybe they can go as Frosty the Snowman. Take a look at what Maryland looked like Tuesday. Parts of the state got more than a foot of snow. Schools were closed and thousands of people lost power.

Virginia also got a blast of winter. Higher elevations could still see several more inches of snow.

And up in New Hampshire this morning, in parts of New Hampshire, it's snowing like the middle of winter. It's a beautiful winter wonderland.

VERJEE: Isn't that a song?


Yes, it is, as a matter of fact.

O'BRIEN: It's no fun trick or treating in the snow, you know.


O'BRIEN: I remember growing up in Detroit. It would always be so cold. We'd have a great costume and then we'd have to put the snow coat on top. It ruined the whole effect.

COSTELLO: Your mom would dress you so you couldn't move.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Superman and you've got the snow coat deal going. It just doesn't work.

VERJEE: We didn't have snow in Africa, where I'm from.

O'BRIEN: I would guess not. Probably not trick or treating, either.

VERJEE: Unless the top of Kilimanjaro, but no trick or treating up on Kilimanjaro.

Any Halloween costume plans, ideas, Carol?

COSTELLO: I love Halloween. I love when the little kids come to the house. I love it. I have all my snacks ready to go.

VERJEE: I had a mud mask on the last time kids came for Halloween and...

O'BRIEN: Oh, really? I'll bet that was really a big hit.

VERJEE: And I thought -- oh, yes, it was, actually. It was.

O'BRIEN: You got to keep the candy because they ran.

VERJEE: Yes. No, it was a good costume. It was unplanned, Miles.

Well, millions across South Florida still without power this morning. Only a few lucky homes and businesses have actually got power. The recovery effort going slower than many people would have hoped. Utility crews, though, are working feverishly to get the lights back on.

And making matters all the more taxing, long lines for relief supplies and gas.

Allan Chernoff has the story from Sunny Isles, Florida, just north of Miami.


ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Without power, residents of the Aquarius condominium are barbecuing on their grill and then carrying food upstairs to frail neighbors who are trapped in their apartments.

PHYLISS MEGARO, RESIDENT OF FLORIDA: We're bringing them up their water and we're bringing them up their food, cooked, because someone, their maid, whatever help they get, they can't come. So we're taking them -- they can't make it, so we have to do it.

CHERNOFF: Not only are the neighbors providing food, but medical necessities, as well.

CHANNA ANTEBI, RESIDENT OF FLORIDA: Yes, there is -- there is some woman, she ran out of oxygen tank. So they ran to Memorial Hospital. They bring one for her, a new one.

CHERNOFF: In a 19th floor penthouse lives a cancer patient on hospice care.

IVNNONE VILLAGRA, RESIDENT OF FLORIDA: In fact, there is a gentleman that is dying of cancer right now. And he's in pretty bad shape, needing oxygen. We have been trying to get oxygen up there to him. We do need to get the power on so that we can get the oxygen for him.

CHERNOFF: Utility crews are working 16-hour shifts making repairs to get power back. (on camera): There are hazards throughout the Miami area. The storm pulled down many of the lower lying distribution power lines. This line normally carries 7,600 volts of electricity, and, as you can see, it's just hanging in the middle of the street.

JIM NAUGLE, MAYOR OF FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA: The residents in condominiums, if you have an elderly resident in a condominium and the elevator isn't working, it can be life-threatening. So the power restoration is our biggest concern, as we get water and other services up in the city.

CHERNOFF: Florida Power & Light says it has restored power to hundreds of thousands of homes. But to get it all back online, the utility says, could take weeks, which may be too long of a wait for some of Florida's frailest seniors.

Allan Chernoff, CNN, Hollywood, Florida.


VERJEE: Florida Power & Light officials say they hope to restore power by late today for residents in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto and Northern Broward Counties.

Well, let's check in now on the weather again.

Jacqui Jeras is at the CNN Center with the latest -- hello, darling.


And hello, everybody.


O'BRIEN: Still to come on the program, more of our series on planning for your dream retirement. It could be harder to get around your house when you get older. We'll show you what to do now to get ready.

VERJEE: Plus, Al Franken talks to us about his new book and the controversies dogging the White House.

That's ahead here on AMERICAN MORNING.


VERJEE: After 31 months, the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq has reached 2,000. And for every fallen soldier somewhere, a U.S. general has personally shared in the grief.

Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us this morning -- Barbara.


And whether it is number one or number 2,000, some of the nation's highest ranking military officers are determined to continue to honor their soldiers.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): So many funerals, so much grief. The Army has been at war in Iraq for nearly three years. And for those three years, it has been burying its dead.

Since the beginning of the war, the Army has assigned a general to each funeral, each time, to render final honors.

MAJ. GEN. WAYNE ERCK, U.S. ARMY RESERVE: This particular funeral, Lieutenant Colonel James, was in my division. He was a battalion commander. So I knew him personally. I knew the family personally. And this is the only place I would want to be today, right next to him.

STARR: It's an extraordinary mission for the nation's highest- ranking officers. More than 200 Army generals have now journeyed, often on a moment's notice, to towns across America, meeting widows, moms and dads they may not even know, telling families the Army is sorry for their loss.

MAJ. GEN. GALEN JACKMAN, U.S. ARMY: There is not a general officer in the United States Army who would not drop what they're doing to participate in a funeral.

STARR: Major General Galen Jackman escorted former First Lady Nancy Reagan through President Reagan's funeral. He has now attended four funerals here at Arlington. This senior officers says the heartbreak of death so young is tough for everyone.

JACKMAN: You see them, they're lance corporals and sergeants and private first classes. And so most of these young and women are probably anywhere from about 18 to 23 years old.

STARR: It begins with a phone call from Major Holly Gay, whose job is to make sure there is a general for every family who wants one there. She says it's the hardest job she has ever had.

(on camera): How many funerals have you coordinated for?


STARR: Give me a ballpark.

GAY: Well, you know, if it's been about 15 months, over 700.

STARR: The names and faces of the fallen are very personal, even after 2,000 deaths.

STF. SGT. TERRELL GANT, U.S. ARMY, GENERAL OFFICE MANAGEMENT OFFICE: You see some of these young soldiers being in the Army for a year, a couple of months and you see what's actually, how -- the sacrifice they have made and you just always think it could be you.

STARR: One reason for the effort? It keeps senior officers in touch with the grief of a life lost.

GAY: When you go to the funeral, you understand the sacrifices that the soldiers and their families are going through.

STARR: Confronting the last full measure of devotion. The generals say they will keep coming to each funeral for each soldier for each family.


STARR: You know, we talked to many generals who have done these funerals. One of them had an anecdote that sort of summed it all up. Remember Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt from the podium in Baghdad, all those news conferences? Well, very quietly, he spoke to us. He told us he has done several of these funerals and he said one of the toughest moments for him as he moved down the line of family members at a grave side, to thank them for their soldier's sacrifice with those immemorial, timeless words on behalf of a grateful nation. He said all the family members turned and thanked him for coming to this funeral.

For a guy who is a pretty tough customer, he said it was one of the toughest moments in his entire Army career -- Zain.

VERJEE: Barbara Starr reporting to us from the Pentagon.

Thanks, Barbara -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Still to come on the show, more of our series on planning your dream retirement. Today, the house, the castle, the home base -- is it put together the right way, though, if you're stumbling around and using a walker, for example, or a wheelchair? We'll explain what you need to do now ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


VERJEE: Political satirist Al Franken last came out with the best-seller, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," that took aim at conservatives and the Bush administration.

Now, the radio host/comedian has a new book titled, "The Truth (With Jokes)."

Al Franken joins me now.

That's a good title, "The Truth (With Jokes)."


VERJEE: Some good jokes?

FRANKEN: What I generally write is what I call nutritional candy. And so I have a nutrition there. It's like CNN International. That's nutritional. That's broccoli. And then I have a candy part, too, which is CNN domestic. So when I do...

VERJEE: Touche.

FRANKEN: Yes. Except that it's -- unlike CNN domestic, it's actually, the candy part is funny. It's not so much crime and violence.

VERJEE: Why is this book the truth?

FRANKEN: Why is it the truth? Because I actually do research and...

VERJEE: What's that?

FRANKEN: Yes, well, you have to ask a lot of right-wing writers.

No, it's the truth because -- it's interesting, in a way the book is prescient because when I was writing it, there were actually Americans who thought this president was competent. And since Katrina and all of that stuff, it -- pretty much everything I say in there has been borne out, which is that this administration is full of cronyism, this Congress doesn't do oversight, that sort of thing.

So that's the truth part.

VERJEE: Well, how do you substantiate that? You talk about smears, fears and queers, and this administration shouldn't be running a small town hardware store.

FRANKEN: Well, smears, fears and queers is -- the book is divided into three parts. The first is called "The Triumph of Evil," which is how they won. And that's where your smear, fear, smears and queers comes, because they -- he kept using 9/11 over and over again. Remember, Cheney said if Kerry is elected, we'll be hit again. And that was fear. And smears was the Swift Boats and all that kind of stuff. And then queers was the gay marriage initiative.

So they squeaked out. And my premise is that America hasn't -- hadn't moved to the right and then it's -- the next part of the book is called "The Seeds of Collapse" and it goes into Terry Schiavo, Social Security and Iraq, and the corruption and the cronyism of this campaign and this administration. And you just show why they're collapsing.

And the last part is the resurrection of hope, where we take back the country. I write a letter to my grandchildren 10 years from now.

VERJEE: At the end of the book, 2015.


VERJEE: Let's talk about today, the CIA leak investigation.


VERJEE: From your impeccable sources in Washington...

FRANKEN: Yes? VERJEE: ... how defining a moment do you think this could be for the White House?

FRANKEN: Well, you know, I'm waiting for Fitzmas.

VERJEE: Fitzmas?

FRANKEN: Yes, yes. It's when...

VERJEE: Fitzgerald.

FRANKEN: Fitzgerald delivers the lumps of coal to the White House in terms of indictments. So I think that'll be an exciting time. I mean right now I'm, as a liberal, I'm just trying to savor this moment. And I...

VERJEE: So you and your other liberal friends are really salivating at the prospect of seeing an indictment here?

FRANKEN: Well...

VERJEE: Are you out in your apartments sort of having a good laugh and...



FRANKEN: Well, I'll tell you why. Because there is an important aspect to this. This is really about covering for lying about why we went to Iraq. So what I see -- and, of course, it looks like definitely Rove and Libby outed a CIA agent, an undercover CIA agent, which George H.W. Bush, the president's father, who was head of the CIA, called treason.

So I think, you know, people ask me what's going to happen. This is treason and I think Libby and rove definitely will be executed. I think that's, you know, I'm not -- I'm against the death penalty.

VERJEE: Executed?

FRANKEN: Yes, it's treason.

VERJEE: All right, Al Franken, "The Truth (With Jokes)."

Thank you.

FRANKEN: Thanks, Zain.

VERJEE: It was a pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Still to come on the program, we'll check in again with one of the Americans stranded in Mexico after hurricane Wilma. Is the U.S. government doing anything to help him? That story is ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: Hurricane Wilma -- when hurricane Wilma first caused difficulty, it was in Cancun, Mexico. And there's actually kind of a grim scene unfolding there right now, with thousands of U.S. tourists trapped.

VERJEE: Exactly. There are about 10,000 U.S. tourists trapped. We spoke to one of them who said that they were not getting enough food, there was not enough water at their hotel and even the babies that were suffering and needing medicine didn't have any.

O'BRIEN: His name is Michael Attardi and as long as his phone card holds out, we're going to hear from him in a little while.

VERJEE: He only has 10 minutes.

O'BRIEN: And what we're going to do is try to hook him up with the spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, see if he can get a little information directly from her. The point is that their situation -- I don't want to overstate this, but it has some analogies to the Superdome scenario in the sense that people are trapped and supplies are running short.

He says he's OK. The hotel people are treating him well. But they'd like to know a little bit more about what their exit strategy is there in Cancun.

VERJEE: Exactly. And they also want to know what the U.S. government is doing to help them. The U.S. has sent some officials there to try and help and see what to do. But we'll speak to him.

O'BRIEN: Don't worry, FEMA is on the way, Michael.

Don't worry.

All right, back with more in a moment.


O'BRIEN: It is a beautiful morning.

Lady Liberty there in New York harbor.

A beautiful morning here in New York City.

I'm with Zain Verjee, who -- I've got to let you know something about Zain.

VERJEE: Uh-oh. I deny it.

O'BRIEN: She is the barefoot anchor, the barefoot anchor.

VERJEE: Miles!

O'BRIEN: Yes, she is. She is. She anchors without shoes on. Can we get a shot of that, Michael? I don't know if that's possible given the angle we're at right now. But she...

VERJEE: It's relaxes me.

O'BRIEN: Well, whatever. You know, I'm going to try it myself.

VERJEE: You know, I feel like I'm at home. I have my shoes off. I have...

O'BRIEN: You know what? I'm taking mine off, too.

VERJEE: Oh, no.


VERJEE: Oh, no.


O'BRIEN: God, I feel better already.

VERJEE: Those are...

O'BRIEN: I can see what you mean.

VERJEE: Those aren't very clean.

O'BRIEN: This is good.

COSTELLO: I came in on something late and I don't know what it is, but...

O'BRIEN: It's nice to have you drop by.

COSTELLO: But hopefully it will stop at the shoes.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes. That's kind of a show.



O'BRIEN: We will.

VERJEE: I don't believe you said that, Miles. At least I have my toes painted.

COSTELLO: Yes, good morning, everyone.

Today could be the day the federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity is set to meet later this morning and indictments could be handed up. On Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney's name surfaced in connection with that probe. Lawyers say he is not expected to be charged with any wrongdoing, but the mere mention could be politically explosive.

The pressure is on at the United Nations. The U.S. France and Britain are challenging the Security Council to adopt a resolution threatening sanctions against Syria. That is, unless Syria cooperates with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. A U.N. investigator has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri's assassination in February.

Do you really want to know how many calories are in that Cesar salad? McDonald's is announcing a change in its packaging. Starting next year, most burgers, sandwiches and fries will list the calories and fat right on the wrapper. McDonald's says it's a way to counter charges that its food contributes to obesity. We'll have much more on the changes. A nutritionist and a columnist for the magazine "Men's Health" will joins us in the next hour.


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