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CNN LIVE SATURDAY

Tom DeLay Clears the Way for New Leadership; Fires Continue to Ravage the Southwest; Many Questions Regarding Israel's Future in the Wake of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Stroke; Sago Mine Disaster Famalies Try to Deal With Grief; New Report Casts Doubt on Protection of U.S. Troops; IBM Reducing its Pension Plan;

Aired January 7, 2006 - 17:00   ET

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


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Giving up his post as House majority leader permanently, Tom DeLay clears the way for new leadership, as Republicans try to shed the taint of scandal.
Also, tragedy at Sago Mine. As the victims' families prepare for the first funerals, the sole survivor hangs onto life.

And record highs combined with dry conditions continue to feed the fires in America's Southwest. When will there be some relief? A live report straight ahead.

Hello and welcome to CNN LIVE SATURDAY.

I'm Fredericka Whitfield.

All of that and more after this check of the headlines.

In Tokyo, a U.S. sailor is accused of robbing and beating to death a 56-year-old Japanese woman. The U.S. Navy handed over the 21- year-old sailor, who holds the rank of airman, to Japanese authorities today.

Banning devastation bus tours in New Orleans. Many local residents were outraged that tour operators were offering guided trips through heavily damaged areas. New Orleans City Council voted to ban the tours, citing health and safety concerns.

Flames out West -- are arsonists to blame? Texas Governor Rick Perry has ordered an investigation into the cause of dozens of wildfires. Firefighters remain on alert today and the weather in the Southwest is not making things any easier. The latest straight ahead.

Up first this hour, Congressman Tom DeLay made it official today. Months after an indictment forced him to temporarily step aside as House majority leader, the Republican has decided to make the change permanent.

CNN's Elaine Quijano is following the story from the White House -- Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Fredericka.

And, of course, it was last fall when Congressman Tom DeLay first stepped down from his post as House majority leader, in what he thought would be a temporary move after being indicted in Texas on charges of conspiracy and money laundering.

But as late as last night, DeLay, through his spokesman, was insisting that he believed he would remain and he would return to his position in the leadership.

But, of course, the political environment changed dramatically this week after the once powerful lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges.

Republicans in general, and DeLay in particular, were rocked by the news, as well as Abramoff's agreement to testify against more than a dozen lawmakers and staffers, including DeLay.

Now, Democrats have seized on the development, calling it evidence that a "culture of corruption" exists among Republicans. Some in the GOP rank and file had feared that DeLay had become the face of GOP ethics problems.

Nevertheless, on the Texas charges, DeLay has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM DELAY (R), TEXAS: In the 21 years I have been in Congress, I have always acted in an ethical manner, within the rules of the House and the laws of our land. And time, once again, will bear that -- bear out that truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

QUIJANO: And that was Tom DeLay speaking a short time ago in Texas.

Now, as for the White House, it was just a few weeks ago that President Bush weighed in on Tom DeLay's situation. In a television interview, he was asked whether he believed DeLay was innocent. He said yes. And he was asked whether Tom DeLay should resume his duties as majority leader. The president said he hoped so, because DeLay had been able to get the votes needed to push through the president's agenda.

But today a notably different tone out of the White House. Spokeswoman Erin Healy saying: "We respect Congressman DeLay's decision to put the interests of the American people, the House of Representatives and the Republican Party first. We look forward to continuing to work with Speaker Hastert and all House Republicans to build upon the important accomplishments we have achieved on behalf of the American people to make America safer and more prosperous."

Now, as for Republicans on Capitol Hill, they, of course, have an eye on this midterm elections coming up in November. All of this happening against that particular backdrop. Still to be answered, whether or not Tom DeLay's decision today to step down for good will, in fact, help Republicans most past the immediate crisis -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: And, Elaine, you have to wonder how much of an influence was the White House on Tom DeLay's decision today, given the fact that Mr. Bush and Mr. DeLay have a great relationship.

QUIJANO: Well, that's a good question, something that we might learn more about in the days to come. But certainly you're right, this was a White House that very much depended on Tom DeLay. In fact, of course, Tom DeLay's nickname, "The Hammer," for his ability to push through some legislation and keep otherwise errant members of the GOP in line, so to speak.

So it'll be interesting to note, as all those details come out, what role, if any, the White House played in Tom DeLay's decision.

WHITFIELD: All right, Elaine Quijano at White House, thanks so much.

Well, whoever fills Tom DeLay's shoes has some tough work ahead of the midterm elections. A new A.P./Ipsos poll shows almost half of respondents would want to see Democrats win control of Congress if the vote were held today. Thirty-six percent would prefer Republicans to stay in control.

And later on in this hour, we'll check in with political analyst Bill Schneider for his input.

It's news a family and a community have been waiting for. Doctors treating the lone survivor of the West Virginia mine accident are using words like "terrific success" and "substantial improvement" today.

CNN's Chris Huntington is at the hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania -- Chris.

CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredericka, indeed, the situation here seems to have improved so much that they are talking about making plans to return Randy McCloy to West Virginia.

Now, let's back up a bit and give you an update on his condition right now.

The latest word is that he has shown such physical improvement in his heart and other major organ functions, particularly his lung -- it had been collapsed, inflamed, even filled with fluid as recently as a day ago -- that this morning they were able to ramp down the sedative, in fact, stop it completely, bring him to a relative status of awakeness so that they could conduct more thorough neurological testing.

Here's how Dr. Rick Shannon described it this morning.

DR. RICHARD SHANNON, ALLEGHENY GENERAL HOSPITAL: Clinically, when we've stopped the sedatives and lightened up on the medically induced coma, Mr. McCloy does move spontaneously. He does flicker his eyelashes. All his brain stem functions appear to be intact. He bites down on the tube. He begins to develop attempts to swallow.

So all of this suggests that, indeed, you know, he is awake underneath our coma.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNTINGTON: Obviously that's positive news, because the biggest overriding concern would be the degree of any long-term brain damage suffered by Randy McCloy. So there does seem to be positive developments on all fronts, philosophical and neurological.

After that press conference, which was around 2:00 p.m. Randy McCloy underwent his third hyperbaric chamber treatment, high pressurized oxygen treatment. That's the main specialty that they can provide here at Allegheny General in Pittsburgh.

Now the talk is -- and it may just be preliminary -- but the talk is possibly returning him to West Virginia, possible as early as this evening, potentially, more likely, tomorrow -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: All right, Chris Huntington, thank you so much, in Pittsburgh.

Well, "CNN PRESENTS" is going inside the Sago Mine disaster. We'll take a closer look at what really happened and talk with the families about how they're coping with the tragedy. "Hope and Heartbreak: Inside the Sago Mine Tragedy" airs tonight at 8:00 Eastern, 5:00 Pacific.

Now to Israel, where doctors are calling tomorrow the day of truth. That's when they'll meet to decide when to start lifting Ariel Sharon out of a medically induced coma. The Israeli prime minister remains in critical condition after suffering a massive stroke.

CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney is in Jerusalem with details -- Fionnuala.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredericka, there has been a slight improvement, but Ariel Sharon tonight remains in intensive care in, as you say, a serious, but stable condition. And this was the assessment given by the hospital spokespeople following another brain scan earlier in the day to determine the condition of Ariel Sharon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SHLOMO MOR-YOSEF, DIRECTOR GENERAL, HADASSAH HOSPITAL: According to the result of the C.T. scan, there is a slight improvement in the edema of the brain of the prime minister.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SWEENEY: They say that this is the most hopeful sign that they have had yet over all the previous scans that have been taken of the prime minister in the last three days or so. But Shlomo Mor-Yosef, in his wide ranging statement to reporters a few hours ago, emphasizing continually that the prime minister's life was not out of danger.

Now, as you mentioned, Fredericka, tomorrow is going to be the crucial day. It is now just after midnight here in Israel and early tomorrow morning, the prime minister will be taken for yet another brain scan. And it will be the results of that that doctors, a team of doctors, will assess. And then, and only then, they may determine to try and wake this prime minister from this medically induced coma into which he has been put over the last three days.

And as they rouse him over a period of hours this process will take, they will be looking for responses to stimuli. They will be looking for his reaction to pain. If there are those signs there, then they will be quite happy that is progress.

What they're worried about is that there may not be any reaction at all.

But, of course, it's just the end of the Jewish Sabbath here. And meanwhile political life is continuing apace. One of the visitors to Ariel Sharon today was his spokesperson and senior adviser, Dr. Ra'Anan Gissin. And afterwards, I spoke to him and asked him whether or not without Ariel Sharon that the helm of Israeli politics, whether or not there was a political void.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RA'ANAN GISSIN, SENIOR SHARON ADVISER: Well, first of all, there's no political void. I think Israel is the kind of democracy that has established procedure, whether it's Sharon or anyone else, to ensure unity and continuity. And you see unity comes immediately when there's a crisis in Israel. We act like a tribal society and we unite. That's happened.

And you can see the whole political spectrum unite behind the new leadership of Olmert, whether it's temporary or permanent, regardless. At this moment, everybody is united. All the political battles end and the government continues to function.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SWEENEY: Well, it may be business as usual on the political front, but all eyes here will be focused on the Hadassah Medical Center behind me tomorrow for the results of that brain scan and a better idea of where Ariel Sharon stands -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: All right, Fionnuala Sweeney, thank you so much, out of Jerusalem.

Well, now to the latest on the fire dangerous in the Southwest part of this country.

Harsh, dry conditions have created an exhausting time for firefighters in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Residents in South Arlington, Texas are dealing with more flames today. And the weather is not helping.

Meteorologist Monica McNeal has the details -- just dry, dry and dry.

MONICA MCNEAL, METEOROLOGIST: Yes, after looking at that video, I'm thinking man, I can remember, I used to live out there and I know exactly what they're going through.

(WEATHER REPORT)

WHITFIELD: Well, bailing out -- IBM joins a growing list of companies giving up pensions. Coming up, we'll tell you why a program that helped create the middle class in America is now being abandoned.

Plus, a startling study that suggests the loss of U.S. Marine lives in Iraq could have been minimized, many deaths even prevented.

And next, as the Israeli prime minister clings to life, the stakes grow increasingly high for Israel, the U.S. and the peace process overall. I'll talk with a Middle East expert, Jon Alterman, about what is at stake.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: The illness laying siege to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has returned the Middle East to familiar territory -- a state of uncertainty. Since the death of Yasser Arafat and the rise of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the peace process has managed to move forward. Terror attacks are down and just last August, Mr. Sharon engineered the Israeli pullout from Gaza.

He has been expected to win reelection.

Coming up, what now? And how should President Bush react?

Our guest from Washington, Middle East expert Jon Alterman.

He is director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Good to see you, Jon.

JON ALTERMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Good to see you again, Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: Well, while we have already seen the transfer of power from Sharon to Ehud Olmert, philosophically, how similar are they?

ALTERMAN: They're pretty, pretty similar. They've worked hand in glove.

My concern for Ehud Olmert's political future is it's my sense that he's a better staffer than he is a leader. That's not to say he couldn't turn into...

WHITFIELD: Why?

ALTERMAN: He has been in a sort of secondary role. He's been the guy who's made things happen for Ariel Sharon.

But Ariel Sharon has been the person who has been able to both show strength. He's built on his military career. And he's also been able to bring on the left.

I'm not sure that Ehud Olmert could do that.

By the way, Ariel Sharon couldn't do that when he first came into office in 2001. He's been building toward it. There's going to be a long, long building process for anybody who's the next Israeli prime minister.

WHITFIELD: But perhaps because of Sharon's military general background, people may have been a little bit more confident that he would be able to step into that kind of leadership, political leadership role, whereas Ehud Olmert, while most Israelis are familiar with him by name, they know him as being someone who has been working with Sharon. They may not necessarily be ready to embrace him as a leader?

ALTERMAN: That's right. You know, but the important thing to remember about Ariel Sharon is just how much he moved. For a long time, Ariel Sharon was really on the border of respectable politics, before you went to the radical fringe. And he really moved to the center and the fact that Shimon Peres left the Labor Party, which he had been in the parliament for almost 50 years, in order to join Ariel Sharon in his breakaway party, shows just how much Ariel Sharon was able to break the old molds of Israeli politics by the force of his personality.

And I'm not sure that anybody else can do that quite as well.

WHITFIELD: So now, with this new party, the Kadima Party, you have to wonder what kind of life expectancy it might have now, without Sharon, even though, as you say, Shimon Peres has jumped on board and some are even looking to, perhaps, Shimon Peres, as being the kind of leader or picking up the leadership where Sharon left off?

Do you see that?

ALTERMAN: Fredericka, the problem with the Kadima Party isn't that there's not enough prime ministerial timber. The problem is there's too much and there are too many people who think they should be next in line to be the prime minister. And without somebody like Ariel Sharon who everybody trusts and respects to set the pecking order, they're going to have an awful time keeping these egos in check.

WHITFIELD: So would there be a departure from the Kadima Party and then going back to Likud, going back to the way it used to be, just to try to get things back in motion, the wheels rolling again?

ALTERMAN: It's my sense that some of the people in Kadima will test the waters about going back. They'll look at what the polls are. If Kadima seems to be doing well, I think people are going to want to stick with a winning course. And if Kadima starts doing poorly, people are going to go back and try to do well.

People are still interested in their political futures.

WHITFIELD: Jon Alterman from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ALTERMAN: Good to see you again, Fredericka.

Thanks.

WHITFIELD: Why a company that had revenue of more than $100 billion last year is now changing its retirement plan for workers. The bottom line is next.

And later on CNN LIVE SATURDAY, predicting the weather. Some say it's impossible. So why is one almanac right about 80 percent of the time? Tricks of the trade, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Other headlines making "News Across America" now.

Members of a historic Chicago church that went up in flames will be holding Sunday services. The Reverend Jesse Jackson today offered the congregation a place to worship at his Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters. The 115-year-old Pilgrim Baptist Church burned to the ground yesterday. The cause still unknown.

Hundreds of Jersey City police officers paid their respects to a fallen officer. Mourners gathered today to remember Robert Nguyen. He and another officer were killed when their truck plunged from an open drawbridge into a river Christmas evening. Thirty-year-old Nguyen was remembered for his willingness to help others.

And the outlook on the U.S. job market is generally upbeat despite a hiring slump in December. The unemployment rate dipped to 4.9 percent and 108,000 new jobs were created last month. But that was weaker than expected. Still, analysts predict the number of jobs will rise, particularly construction jobs along the hurricane wrecked Gulf Coast.

IBM's workforce is crying the blues. Big Blue is announcing a major change in retirement plans. And it's happening everywhere. Leading corporations that are freezing pension funds in favor of 401Ks include Sears, Hewlett Packard, NCR and Verizon.

CNN's Christine Romans reports.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): IBM ending its long time practice of giving solid, dependable pensions to its loyal workers, the pensions that helped build the American middle class. KAREN FRIEDMAN, PENSION RIGHTS CENTER: There'll be thousands of workers who are going to lose thousands and thousands of dollars of benefits.

ROMANS: The company says it's following "a global strategy to move toward defined contribution retirement plans for both existing employees and new hires."

That means freezing pensions and pushing employees into more unpredictable 401Ks.

FRIEDMAN: IBM is saying we are foregoing our pension obligations to our workers and instead we're basically going to tell people that they have to save for themselves.

ROMANS: An IBM employee group that advocates unionizing denounced the benefit cuts: "The next generation of workers will be in worse shape financially than this one. It is obvious the corporations of today do not value the work employees do."

Indeed, IBM is the latest to jettison its pension plan. Nearly half of traditional pension plans have disappeared in the last decade.

At IBM, 125,000 current retirees will not be affected; 117,000 current employees will.

Among the complaints from some IBM workers on a Web log: "Thanks, IBM. What are the executives sacrificing for the benefit of competitiveness?"

"That pension plan was the carrot that kept us from looking outside of IBM for opportunities. IBM, over the next five years, will see a healthy level of voluntary attrition of experienced and skilled professionals."

Pension experts say defined benefits, good for employees, are giving way to defined contributions, good for companies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are going to be those employees who do better under the defined contribution plan and those that don't do as well.

ROMANS: He says IBM's new 401K program appears generous, but the burden is now shifting to the American worker.

Christine Romans, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

WHITFIELD: And for the third weekend in a row, we're seeing more fires burning throughout the Oklahoma area. This is taking place in Lincoln County, just outside Oklahoma City. And so far since these fires, these very sporadic, inexplicable flames that have been raging -- whether it be in Oklahoma or Texas, and now even New Mexico -- so far in Oklahoma alone, 363,000 acres have been damaged as a result of those fires. And the conditions really amount to only getting worse because it's very dry and no rain in sight.

Permanently giving up his post -- what Tom DeLay's decision means for the future of the Republican Party coming up next.

Plus, back to business. They're once again patrolling the dangerous streets of Iraq. So why do these soldiers have Georgia on their minds? We'll tell you straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: A look now at our top stories.

A doctor treating the sole survivor of the West Virginia mine disaster says Randy McCloy is improving. It is possible he may be transferred this evening back to West Virginia from the hospital where he has been treated in Pittsburgh. He has been undergoing some specialized treatment there in Pittsburgh. We expect to get a briefing at the top of the hour.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in critical condition. Doctors say a decision is nearing on when to begin to remove the Israeli leader from his medically induced coma. One of Sharon's surgeons says he's almost certain that he has suffered some sort of cognitive loss from the stroke he suffered last week.

A poll finds most Americans are against government eavesdropping on telephone calls without court orders. In an A.P./Ipsos poll, 56 percent said the government needs to seek warrants. Forty-two percent say the program defended by President Bush is fine as it is, as a tool in the war on terror.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DELAY: I guess, as most of you have probably heard by now, earlier today, I asked Speaker Hastert to convene the House Republican Conference as soon as possible as the -- for the purpose of electing a new majority leader.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Well, that was Congressman Tom DeLay announcing he is permanently stepping down as House majority leader. The Republican was elected to the post back in November of 2002. Almost three years later, he was indicted and forced to step aside. DeLay insisted the move would be temporary. But the indictment in Texas on felony campaign finance charges hasn't been DeLay's only problem.

CNN's senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, joins me now with a closer look -- good to see you and Happy New Year, Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you.

Happy New Year to you, Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: Well, you have to wonder about the timing because at the time of his first hearing in Texas, we saw a DeLay who was very defiant and said he is sticking to his guns. Now we're seeing him say I'm willing to step aside.

What's different?

SCHNEIDER: What's different is two things that happened this week.

First of all, and what made all the difference, was Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist, plead guilty in two different cases and appears to be ready to sing, by which I mean he's going to tell all to federal investigators and prosecutors, as well as prosecutors in Miami. He may implicate a number of other members of Congress, some Democrats, but mostly Republicans; congressional aides, some of whom worked with or for Tom DeLay in the past.

So this has gotten far more complicated. And DeLay cannot argue that the Abramoff case -- remember, he wasn't just indicted, he pleaded guilty to those charges. That's not a partisan vendetta, the charge that he made against the Texas prosecutor who indicted him, who indicted Tom DeLay.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD: He is sticking to his guns. Now we're seeing him say, I'm willing to step aside. What's different?

BILL SCHNEIDER: What's different is two things that happened this week. First of all, and what made all the difference, was Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist, pled guilty in two different cases and appears to be ready to sing. By which I mean he's going to tell all to federal investigators and prosecutors, as well as prosecutors in Miami. He may implicate a number of other members of Congress. Some Democrats, but mostly Republicans. Congressional aides, some of whom worked with or for Tom DeLay in the past. So this has gotten far more complicated. And DeLay cannot argue that the Abramoff case -- remember, he wasn't just indicted, he pleaded guilty to those charges -- that's not a partisan vendetta, the charge that he made against the Texas prosecutor who indicted him. Who indicted Tom DeLay.

And second of all, DeLay is facing a full-scale revolt among Republican members of Congress who were petitioning the speaker to hold an election to go ahead and replace DeLay whether he chose to step aside or not. So he got the message.

WHITFIELD: Wow. And he might also be getting the message from congressional leaders who were saying that they're a little concerned now about Abramoff's plea deal.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, a lot of people are concerned about that. Who's he going to implicate? Both members and staff members? And how much damage could this do to the Republican Party?

Remember, they've got to face re-election this year. The Democrats have been talking about the culture of corruption, which they claim is an issue that will enable them to, they hope, win back control of Congress against a Republican majority. And you've got to say Republicans are very nervous about this and extremely nervous about Abramoff. This is likely to be the biggest congressional scandal since the House banking controversy over 10 years ago. WHITFIELD: Now we still don't know what kind of role, if any, the White House may have played, given that Mr. Bush and Mr. DeLay are fairly cozy friends, both being Texans. But we have to instead potentially wonder if the White House is a little bit concerned or how invested they may be on who the next leader would be.

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think they are a bit concerned because DeLay held the skill to hold the House Republican majority, which is a fairly slim majority, together behind the White House's initiatives. Now they're going to be faced with a new majority leader. The one who's expected to stay in place is Speaker Dennis Hastert. But there is pressure from among Republicans, not just to replace DeLay as majority leader since he's stepping aside, but perhaps to replace the entire leadership team. All new leader in the Republican majority.

This could be a big change and it could well be that these new leaders could include some who are not particularly loyal to the White House and the White House agenda with an unpopular president. They have to face re-election this year. You could find a Republican majority that's going to try to seek its own way and not simply follow the White House.

WHITFIELD: Wow, this is going to be some midterm elections. A hot political year. Bill, you are going to be very busy.

SCHNEIDER: Indeed.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks a lot.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

WHITFIELD: Here's some news from around the world now.

A terror warning for Jordan. The British government closes its embassy in Amman. It says terrorists may be in the final stages of planning an attack against westerners there. The statement urges caution at Jordan's boarders with Iraq and Israel.

The World Health Organization is investigating the deaths of three siblings in Turkey. At least two of whom have died from bird flu. They are the first confirmed bird flu deaths outside East Asia. One of the looming questions is whether the siblings passed the virus to one another or whether each was infected individually by exposure to sickened poultry.

And officials in Indonesia have lowered the number of people listed as missing or dead in mudslides to 180. The government says dozens of survivors were found to be staying with family or friends. Rescue workers continue to search for bodies amid suggestions that widespread logging may have played a role.

Iraqi police targeted in Baghdad today. A suicide car bomber blew himself up as a police commando patrol was passing by. At least 13 people were wounded. Six were police commandos.

A secret Pentagon study is sure to add more fire to the debate over the adequacy of body armor given to troops in Iraq. The study, reported in "The New York Times," finds as many as 80 percent of the Marines who have been killed from wounds to the upper body could have survived had they had better protection. The Pentagon has defended its protection of troops. Will that change now? Joining me with his thoughts is Retired Air Force Major General, CNN Military Analyst Don Shepperd.

Hello to you and happy new year.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Same to you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Well, you have to wonder at this point when we talk about inadequate armor for some of the troops, particularly in the Marines. The Marines -- perhaps the original plan was, the Marines wouldn't be in the line of fire or subject to the IEDs at the scale that it has been and thereby consequently leading to a number of deaths. Is the issue the lack of body armor or is the issue the fact that they are engaged in a war that perhaps no one expected Marines to be in?

SHEPPERD: Well, it's neither of those, Fredricka. First of all, it's not a lack of body armor and it is not the fact that the Marines were not expected to be in combat. It's very clear that the Marines are in a lot of the hot areas. But it's not a lack -- the article in "The New York Times" that really kicked this off in the last couple of days that would lead one to believe that there was not enough body armor out there.

There is enough body armor. Every soldier in the theater over there has the new body armor, if you will. The question is, the armor that you wear is a trade-off between the areas you protect, the weight of it and your ability to do your job. You can't cover the whole body with thick armor and still do your job. So some areas are going to be uncovered and that's what this study really focused on is, how can we improve the body armor that we have in order to protect the troops better.

WHITFIELD: Well, when you say everyone has the body armor and then reportedly, through "The New York Times," this report is suggesting that the Marines perhaps may now have the body armor they didn't have prior to September because the Marines started purchasing and equipping their people with the body armor. But still you have to wonder if this is going to impact any kind of future engagements because there is some criticism that the body armor doesn't go far enough.

SHEPPERD: Yes, remember, we've always had body armor over there, but we are constantly learning -- and the body armor we have now is made up of two types of armor. One of them is a protective vest. It's an outer shield, if you will, and that protective vest will protect you against certain types of weapons. I don't want to go into the weapons because it might help the bad guys.

But also inside that vest then are inserted plates. Now we are constantly improving the plates. The outer vest is made of Kevlar. The inner plates is made of a boride carbon ceramic, if you will. And if you stack more plates or if you stack bigger plates around, it will cover more areas of the body. And then you also have inserts that are available for the throat, for the crotch, for the underarm, that type of things, areas that are unprotected.

So it's a question of, how much of this do you want to put on for everybody, how much does it weigh, and then what will it do to you when the weather is hot and when you're running forward and backward and also shooting. That has to be studied, it has to be tested, it has to be approved and then deployed. So the Marines have gone up and down through several series and now I think everybody is buying the same type of body armor and it's about as well as we can. But we may be able to make better plates and give more inserts to cover more areas of the body.

WHITFIELD: OK. And, quickly, before I let you go. I know we're running out of time. But a quick yes or no answer. Does this underscore the vulnerabilities of the military personnel over there, especially in light of other criticisms about their vehicles not being armored enough?

SHEPPERD: Our military personnel are always vulnerable. When you protect somebody, either in a vehicle or with body armor, it is a question of what size projectile is fired at them, what angle does it hit and the size of the projectile itself.

WHITFIELD: OK.

SHEPPERD: All of that is a matter of protection. You can only do so much, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, General Don Shepherd, thanks so much. Always good to see you.

SHEPPERD: A pleasure.

WHITFIELD: Well in two days an Iraqi baby suffering a birth defect will undergo life-saving surgery in this country. In Atlanta, in particular. Baby Noor arrived in the U.S. one week ago thanks to a team of troops based in Iraq. The troops are back at work in Iraq. But as CNN's Michael Holmes explains, their thoughts are still a half world away.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): Just days ago, their focus was a tiny baby named Noor. Soldiers from Georgia found her while on a search for insurgents. She had spina bifida and would not have survived in Iraq for long. Those soldiers arranged to have her sent to the U.S. for state of the art treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Roger, be advised, audible, small arms fire.

HOLMES: But today, back to business. Another mission for the men of 1st Brigade 10th Mountain Division, including those men from the Georgia National Guard who took on baby Noor as if she were their own. Their west of Baghdad, a rural area, seemingly quiet but intelligent sources say a refuge for insurgents and kidnappers. A place where car bombs and roadside bombs are built before being send to cities and towns. And a growing trend, Iraqis are leading this mission, Americans largely in the background.

GEN. ABDUL AZIZ, IRAQI ARMY: In that time they -- I worry about this area because that is a strategic area (INAUDIBLE) from the terrorists.

HOLMES: It's a big operation, too. Troops, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors. Searchers of humble country homes. Even a chicken farm where several men are detained. The bounty ranges from an old mine's rifle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know you're not supposed to have this.

HOLMES: To literally truck loads of suspects.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: C-4.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. And these batteries for IEDs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, and this is bullet for IED.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right.

HOLMES: To this, in the grounds of a village mosque, an informant tells the soldiers where to dig. They find pipes used for launching rockets, homemade bases from which to launch them, explosives, automatic weapon, artillery shells, batteries. The digging continues. Tense moments as more explosives are found. Also grenades and more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Standing by. We just found another Italian mine.

HOLMES: This mission is the result of months of intelligence gathering mainly by the Iraqis. But this is an area that they have not been able to sweep into, enforce, until now. And so today with several hundred troops involved, is a day that both the Iraqis and the Americans have long been waiting for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It went very well. This is a huge success for the Iraqi army. A huge success for us because, as you know, what's important right now is that we transition the Iraqi security to the Iraqi security forces.

HOLMES: The mission, a morale booster for a (INAUDIBLE) Iraqi army, the Americans, one military operation in a dangerous place complete as they wait for the results of a medical operation on baby Noor in the next few days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The emotions are high because some of the individuals really have taken to this very personally and they want to see that young baby come out of it in good shape.

HOLMES: Michael Holmes, CNN, west of Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: At 10:00 tonight, an update on baby Noor's planned surgery.

Recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Most New Orleans homeowners have had to deal with water damage. Next, we'll show you one community that has a much more crude problem.

And from weather to fashion to lifestyle predictions, the new Farmer's Almanac has it all. And believe us, it's a far cry from your grandmother's planting guide.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: It's an understatement to say that Katrina's devastation in New Orleans is widespread. While the chaos wreaked by water and wind is well known, one community is still dealing with a crude problem. Homeowners say it's certainly more toxic. Here's our Rick Sanchez.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): This is oil, or what's left of 1.1 million gallons of crude oil. How it got here isn't the question, but who's supposed to clean it up is to say the least one huge, stinky mess. These are the Lewis'.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some things are just hard to go away.

NORMAN LEWIS, CHALMETTE, LOUISIANA RESIDENT: We asked your neighbors, are they coming back? Most of them tell you, everybody says they don't know.

SANCHEZ: When he and his wife could finally get home after Hurricane Katrina, their house was inundated with oil. The Lewis' are one of about 2,000 families who live in the Chalmette community of St. Bernard Parish. So many of them are stuck in this mess. After Katrina, more than a million gallons of the thick black crude leaked from a nearby petroleum refinery owned by Murphy Oil. Oil companies normally fill storage tanks before a hurricane hits to weigh them down. But one at the Murphy refinery was three fourths empty. And when the floodwaters rose, it was literally lifted from its foundation. Result, a massive spill.

Who's looking out for these people?

CAPT. SVEN RODENBECK, ATSDR DEPUTY BRANCH CHIEF: Well, there's multiple agencies, but most importantly it's the local authorities.

SANCHEZ: Local authorities? Tell that to St. Bernard Parish Council Chair Joey Di Fatta and you'll get an earful.

JOEY DI FATTA, ST. BERNARD PARISH CO. CHAIRMAN: I laugh at that. How can the federal agency who's tasked with securing safety for the public say something like that?

SANCHEZ: You can still see the smudge lines which illustrate the scale of this mess. We're now in the building that actually houses the agency that monitors toxic substances. In each one of the books, there's a toxicological profile for a different chemical. What we want to know is, is this spill being cleaned up effectively?

What's in crude oil that could cause problems, health risks, for the people in that community?

RODENBECK: Potentially have you benzenes and you have compounds known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

SANCHEZ: Hazardous chemicals familiar to government experts and to Murphy Oil, which is responsible for the cleanup, but not the people like the Lewis'.

NORMAN LEWIS: Ain't had no effects yet and been doing it for about a month now.

SANCHEZ: Environmentalists say residents need to be told more.

DARYL MALEK-WILEY, SIERRA CLUB: You know, it puts all the burden on the person to actually really look for the information, you know. You have to know you have to go to the EPA website.

SANCHEZ: The local council and residents feel confused. The Centers for Disease Control said in November that people should stay away from their homes until they were cleaned of oil. In December, the CDC issued a report analyzing samples from more than 800 homes and concluded they did not contain dangerous level of oil-based contaminants.

What are you telling the public right now?

RODENBECK: We're telling the public right now that there is, in some locations near the Murphy Oil Refinery, areas that have contamination that could potentially be of a health concern and need to be cleaned up before people reoccupy their homes.

SANCHEZ: I have a letter here that Murphy has sent to -- it's addressed to St. Bernard residents. And it says that we're nearing completion of the cleanup. Those are the words that they use. Are they near completion?

RODENBECK: I would rather not speculate on how near they are to completion.

SANCHEZ: In October, Murphy Oil's president sent this letter to residents stating that "nearly all of the oil spilled has now been recovered or evaporated," but the company acknowledged it had more work to do for homeowners.

JIMMY LICCIARDI, HOMEOWNER: Well, this is the family room. And as you can see, most of this stuff here is offered in oil.

SANCHEZ: Murphy Oil is digging up top soil and power washing everything else, including people's walls, but they're leaving it up to residents to throw out their own belongings like furniture and clothes. Jimmy Licciardi says he's not going to do it.

LICCIARDI: Why would I go spend money on something that Murphy and nobody can tell me in six months is going to be safe?

SANCHEZ: Federal agencies insist that Chalmette's spill can be cleaned up and they expect the Murphy Oil Company will complete the job. Murphy Oil says, it will get the job done. The EPA says that given the circumstances, the process is going well. But residents want both to know the toll it's taking on them. And as for those cleaning their community, they want to be sure the feds are keeping them honest.

Rick Sanchez, CNN, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: It was a storm for the record books, but apparently in name only. Zeta began unraveling yesterday. It brings an overdue end to the costliest and busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record. Zeta is the second storm in history to survive into a new year.

For more than two centuries, people have turned to The Old Farmer's Almanac for weather forecasts. It predicted that 2005 would have a very active hurricane season. But the almanac has become rather trendy. It's not like your grandmother's version anymore. John Pierce is the publisher of the old Farmers Almanac.

Good to see you, John.

JOHN PIERCE, PUBLISHER, THE OLD FARMER'S ALMANAC: It's great to be with you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Well, let's go straight to the stuff that are real departures as far as most of the public would expect from the old Farmer's Almanac. You not only focus on weather related predictions, which we'll get to in a moment, but you take a view into other things like people's lifestyles, where they would choose to live and why.

PIERCE: Well, we've always looked at trends, societal trends. And so it's important, you know, where people feel they're comfortable living and certainly weather is one of the factors that influences that greatly.

WHITFIELD: And so nowadays folks aren't necessarily looking to live in places where bigger is better, where they can get those mcmansions (ph), but instead they want to downsize. They want to simplify things.

PIERCE: Yes. Smaller homes are very much in fashion, Fredricka. And interestingly, people are looking for outdoor living spaces now. Outdoor living rooms and even outdoor bedrooms.

WHITFIELD: Really?

PIERCE: Yes. Isn't that fascinating.

WHITFIELD: All right. So I kind of envision that perhaps stock on bug repellent might go up as a result.

PIERCE: Oh, definitely, yes.

WHITFIELD: What's the explanation for that? Why is it people want to get back with nature?

PIERCE: Well, it's two things. Just what you said, Fredricka, getting back with nature. But also it gives you more space without having to maintain, you know, the house itself.

WHITFIELD: OK. So instead of, you know, looking for a place with a big yard, perhaps they're just looking for some open space and they might extend the home beyond what it traditionally would be?

PIERCE: Yes, patios and cooking areas outside.

WHITFIELD: All right. And where we will find entertainment is something that you guys are tracking as well. We know that Las Vegas is always a hot place. Why is it more so now?

PIERCE: Well become it's really become a family destination and it's one of the fastest growing areas in America. So it's become a terrific destination for families and people of all ages.

WHITFIELD: And now folks may want a little taste of the Jetson life. They're looking into robots. Or at least you see, if not this year, then perhaps next year, an awful lot of households will have robots. Well, what do we mean exactly by that?

PIERCE: Well, we're saying that probably within five years, Fredricka, it will be common for people to use robots to clean their windows.

WHITFIELD: Really?

PIERCE: We've all seen the robotic vacuum cleaners . . .

WHITFIELD: Yes.

PIERCE: But soon there will be robotic window washers.

WHITFIELD: Something you just adhere to the window and it would just go do its business.

PIERCE: That's right. Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: But not necessarily like the Jetsons where you have, you know, a human-like figure with robotic features?

PIERCE: No, not yet.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right, let's talk about the weather because you all did predict that it would be a relatively active hurricane season. We saw that, among other things worldwide. How does it look for 2006 this go-around? PIERCE: Well, we're saying that 2006 will be comparably another active season, Fredricka. Not as bad as 2005, we believe, but still well above the average. So it's nothing to sneeze at. And we're also predicting that two hurricanes will threaten the Eastern Seaboard in the United States in 2006.

WHITFIELD: All right, John Pierce, thank you so much, with The Old Farmer's Almanac. Always good to talk to you. Always good to get some insight of what the almanac says we're going to be doing in the new year.

PIERCE: It was my pleasure to be with you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And happy new year to you.

PIERCE: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Now these pictures are just coming in. We showed you earlier of an area out of Oklahoma. Well now, out of Edmond, Oklahoma, a new fire is being reported there. Unseasonably high temperatures, lots of wind, all of this triggering these combustions taking place throughout Oklahoma, Texas and even now New Mexico. So far grass fires have killed two people in Oklahoma and have burned across more than 363,000 acres.

More of CNN LIVE SATURDAY when we come right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Still much more ahead on CNN, including the debate over who should foot the bill for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Will it be you?

And then, combining the best of the Mediterranean with the best of Northern California. I'll talk with the author of "The Sonoma Diet." That's coming up on more of CNN LIVE SATURDAY.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: A look at our top stories.

It's official and it's what most people had suspected. The 12 men who died deep in the Sago Mine in West Virginia did so from carbon monoxide poisoning. The state released the results today. Meanwhile, doctors tending the sole survivor will be holding a news conference which is indeed underway right now out of Pittsburgh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He tolerated the treatment exceptionally well. Following the treatment, he temporarily required an increase in his oxygen content, but we were rapidly able to reduce the oxygen requirements back down to a level of 40 percent. So he basically tolerated the procedure. The procedure does result in some redistribution of fluid, in this case from his abdomen up into his chest, and that may have been the reason why we needed a little extra oxygen at the start. But he basically is now in stable but critical condition. And I would like to just summarize what I believe is the current status referable to where we have come from.

First and foremost, Mr. McCloy's muscle injury, which was very severe, is resolving and continues to resolve. It is not normal but it is clearly getting better and has gotten consistently better over the course of the three days here at Allegheny General.

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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