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AMERICAN MORNING

American Journalist Held Hostage in Iraq; Alleged Kidnapping Plot Emerges Involving Tony Blair's Son

Aired January 18, 2006 - 08:00   ET

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


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.
I'm Miles O'Brien.

An ultimatum in Iraq. An American journalist held hostage may be running out of time. We're live from Baghdad with the latest on this developing story.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Soledad O'Brien.

Was it a threat or was it a stunt? Was Tony Blair's young son in danger of being kidnapped? we're going to take you live to London for new information.

M. O'BRIEN: And teen drivers and death -- a new report out this morning with some sobering news. We'll take a closer look on this AMERICAN MORNING.

S. O'BRIEN: Good morning.

Welcome, everybody.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning.

We're glad you're with us.

We begin in Iraq this morning, where there is growing concern about a kidnapped American journalist. Her name is Jill Carroll and video of her here, seen here, is all over the Arab television network Al Jazeera. Her abductors want Washington to release all Iraqi women prisoners.

Michael Holmes live now from Baghdad.

Dan Lothian in Boston, where Carol worked as a freelance reporter for the "Christian Science Monitor."

Let's begin with Michael -- Michael, the demands of the kidnappers, what specifically do we know about them?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a very -- it's an interesting question, Miles, because here we have demands, as you said, that the U.S. release all female prisoners. Now, if they're talking about female prisoners in general, there are dozens, a couple of hundred female prisoners in jail. But many of those, most of them, in fact, are for criminal offenses and the like. What we're told by the interior ministry here is that there are only 10 female prisoners who have been arrested specifically by the U.S. and are being held as detainees. Six of those were meant to have been released in the next few days anyway completely unrelated to this kidnapping and the demands.

The deadline given, if you like, was 72 hours. Now, when did that begin? In past, in the past, I can tell you, that insurgents have often said it begins from the airing of the video. That was 14 hours ago or so on Al Jazeera.

The group, Brigade of Revenge, they're calling themselves, and like a lot of these situations, Miles, we don't know who they are. They're new. And these groups pop up all the time.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, thank you very much, Michael Holmes in Baghdad.

Let's go to Dan Lothian now in Boston covering that part of the story -- Dan, what is the "Christian Science Monitor" saying? What is Jill Carroll's family saying?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jill Carroll's family obviously very distraught about this. They have been hoping for some good news that their daughter, their sister would be released. She's been missing now for about a week-and-a-half.

The family, through the "Christian Science Monitor," releasing a statement that read, in part: "Jill is a friend and sister to many Iraqis and has been dedicated to bringing the truth of the Iraq war to the world. We appeal for the speedy and safe return of our beloved daughter and sister."

Obviously the family trying to show her kidnappers, her abductors, that this was someone who really cared about the people she was writing about.

The "Monitor," by the way, says that the company is vigorously trying to get her release, her safe release, and also working along with authorities there on the ground -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Dan, do we know anything about if there's any sort of back channel dialogue that may or may not -- they may not want to discuss publicly to try and get her released.

LOTHIAN: It's possible but we have not been told about that. The paper has been unwilling to go on camera and talk about any specifics other than the fact that they are doing everything they can, other media companies and also forces on the ground.

The parents have been unwilling, also, to talk on camera. This statement really giving us the only insight into what they're feeling at this time.

M. O'BRIEN: And it's worth pointing out to people, operating as a freelancer, as she did, she's an independent contractor and thus wouldn't be in a position to ring herself with the kind of security that somebody like Michael Holmes has, situations he would have in Iraq, right?

LOTHIAN: That's correct. Large news organizations, you go in with a trail car whenever you're going out on a story, perhaps even a lead car. You go out with armed security. You go out in vehicles that can protect you in case of small arms fire or some kind of explosion.

But a freelance journalist doesn't have that kind of money. They do take precautions, certainly. And in her case, we're told by friends, she did take precautions. She would go to places that she was familiar with. She would take translators or a driver along who knew where he was going.

So she was very cautious, but certainly in this case got caught up in this act.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Dan Lothian in Boston for us.

Those who know Jill Carroll well say all she ever wanted to be was a foreign correspondent, had a lot of passion for her job and passion for Iraq.

We'll talk to a good friend and colleague of hers in just a little while -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Security is extra tight today around the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his children, too. Police have found out about a possible plot to kidnap his son, 4-year-old Leo Blair, his youngest child.

Let's get right to Robin Oakley.

He's live for us in London -- Robin, how seriously are police, in fact, taking this threat?

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was a story which broke, first of all, in the "Sun" newspaper here in Britain, Soledad. And it has to be said, first of all, that we're not talking here about some al Qaeda terrorist plot or even a criminal plot designed to get ransom from the prime minister for his 5-year-old son Leo.

What we're talking about at worst here is a stunt by extremists attached to a group called Fathers for Justice, a group who campaign for fathers in divorce cases to get greater access to their children, a group who have dressed up in fancy costumes from time to time and invaded the security of Buckingham Palace or, indeed, the House of Commons.

But what it seems to amount to, the police aren't saying anything officially, nor is Number Ten Downing Street, but the police seem to have picked up conversations between some extremists attached to the same cause as Fathers for Justice who were talking about possibly putting together a plot to kidnap Leo Blair. Now, no arrests have been made and no plot was ever put into operation. Indeed, police sources suggest that the group probably never had the capacity to mount something like that. But it's certainly a big talking point here in London on the political scene -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, one would imagine.

Robin Oakley for us this morning from London.

Thanks, Robin.

Time to get a check of some of the other stories making news.

Carol has got that -- good morning, again.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: I do.

Good morning.

Good morning to all of you.

New Orleans' mayor, Ray Nagin, getting some support, not for his remarks about chocolate, but for his apology. The mayor said he was sorry for using the phrase Chocolate City to describe New Orleans and he was really sorry about saying god's anger spawned the hurricanes.

We asked Senator Barack Obama about the mayor's comments. He says the wording was off, but the sentiment was good.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: He apologized and I think that was the -- probably the right thing to do. If I'm the mayor of New Orleans, I want everybody to come back. And, you know, it sounded like maybe Mayor Nagin had been talking a little bit too much to Pat Robertson when he attributed hurricanes to our policies. I think the mayor was correct when he tried to recant the statements that he made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: We will take a closer look at Nagin, the man and the politician. That will come your way later this hour.

A funeral mass will begin in the next hour for a new year girl allegedly beaten to death by her parents. The death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown is casting a harsh light on the city's child services system. A city district attorney says the abuse of this girl is among the worst he has seen. Brown's mother and step father have been indicted on second degree murder charges. Both have plead not guilty.

Nigeria is getting some help from Washington to battle AIDS. The U.S. will commit $163 million to fight AIDS in Nigeria. The gift was announced by First Lady Laura Bush on the last day of her four day African trip. Mrs. Bush also delivered a shipment of life saving drugs to a hospital for AIDS patients. And a real story of Lassie, but with Butch and Dusty. A diabetic man collapsed in an Indiana corn field. A sheriff's deputy was driving at night and he saw some strange lights. He walked over to the strange light and he saw this dog holding a flashlight in his mouth. The other pooch was lying on top of the unconscious man, possibly trying to keep him warm.

The happy ending to the story -- the man spent four days in the hospital but he's doing just fine today thanks to his pooches -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You had one of those pooches, didn't you?

COSTELLO: I did.

MYERS: You see that little golden retriever?

COSTELLO: And I absolutely believe he would have saved me if something happened to me.

MYERS: Yes, I came to deliver something to you and all he did was bring me the paper. He wasn't much of a guard dog, though.

COSTELLO: Well, he was a golden retriever.

MYERS: Exactly.

COSTELLO: But if I collapsed, he would lay on top of me and keep me warm, I'm sure.

MYERS: He was a good dog.

Good morning, everybody.

(WEATHER REPORT)

S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, some alarming news about teenage drivers and the dangerous impact that they have on other drivers. We'll take a look at a new study just ahead this morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Also, the custody battle over a little girl on life support. Her stepfather is accused of nearly beating her to death, but he's demanding a say in her care. We'll tell you what the court told him.

S. O'BRIEN: And coming up next, more on that American journalist who's being held hostage in Iraq. Time could be running out for her. Just how are her loved ones holding up? We're going to talk to one of her friends, coming up next on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: We don't know much about the group that claims to hold hostage American journalist Jill Carroll. But what we do know is not encouraging at all. Now, video, as you see there, of the freelance reporter, aired on the Arabic language network Al Jazeera yesterday. The network says the tape came with an ultimatum that Carroll will be killed in less than 72 hours if all female Iraqi prisoners are not released by the U.S.

Jackie Spinner is a personal friend of Jill Carroll's and a fellow journalist.

Thank you for being with us this morning.

JACKIE SPINNER, FRIEND OF U.S. HOSTAGE: Sure.

M. O'BRIEN: You saw -- you were in Baghdad, or you saw her, issued say. You just came back from Baghdad. You saw her about a month-and-a-half ago.

What was she doing then? Was she nervous about her work in any way?

SPINNER: Well, I think any journalist in Iraq is nervous about exactly what's happened to Jill. It's the thing that we fear the most. It's any journalist's worst nightmare to be kidnapped.

But Jill had a sense of purpose in Iraq and she wanted to be there. She felt that her fate was there. Those were the very words that she used, "my fate is in Iraq." And she was very careful and went about her business and was just trying to tell the truth.

M. O'BRIEN: You say she was careful. We pointed out the difference between working for, say, the "Washington Post" directly and being a freelancer.

What sort of security precautions was she taking?

SPINNER: The same security precautions that anyone takes. I mean she was -- as a woman, she dressed as an Iraqi. She wore a headscarf, the Iraqi Abaya. And she was very discrete. She spoke Arabic, so she didn't speak English when she was in public, and tried to blend in as much as possible into the normal society.

M. O'BRIEN: So you don't feel like, in your conversations with her, that she was taking unnecessary risks?

SPINNER: Absolutely not. I mean there have been a lot of media reports about how she was captured in the most dangerous neighborhood of Baghdad. Every part of Baghdad is dangerous. Every place you go is a potential kidnapping target. And I don't think that Jill was taking any unnecessary risks. That's not what she was about.

M. O'BRIEN: What, you know, if you could talk to her now, what would you tell her?

SPINNER: I would tell her to just hang on, to pray, to not lose hope. I mean I can't imagine how terrified she is and I can't imagine what her family is going through right now. I mean this was what my family feared the most is to see me on television in a situation like this. And my heart goes out to them.

M. O'BRIEN: It is horrifying.

You had a very close brush with all of this.

SPINNER: I did.

M. O'BRIEN: Tell us about your story and what you learned from that.

SPINNER: Well, I mean, I was fortunate. Two men grabbed me outside of Abu Ghraib Prison and tried to kidnap me. And the Marines were there and came out and rescued me. And I never ended up in the situation that Jill is in.

But everybody, every journalist in Iraq is -- this is the thing that we fear the most.

M. O'BRIEN: So were it not for a couple of alert Marines, you could have met with the same fate?

SPINNER: I could have been in the same situation.

M. O'BRIEN: Does it -- you must have searched your soul after that and have thought a lot about whether it's worth the risk being there.

SPINNER: As soon as I got out of that situation I called my editor and I pleaded with him not to bring me home. I mean the story is so compelling there and the resolve of the Iraqis is so compelling that, I mean, everybody who is in Iraq is there as a volunteer in terms of being a journalist. And we're there to tell a story and nothing is going to stop us. And it didn't stop Jill.

M. O'BRIEN: Does that commitment to the story, though, sometimes, and the focus and the desire to get a scoop or the desire to tell that story, does it, in some ways, put blinder on to security?

SPINNER: Absolutely not. I mean everybody has a different idea of security in Iraq. I can say on behalf of the "Washington Post" that my publisher sent me into that country and said no story is worth your life. But the very story in Iraq is worth your life. I mean that's why we're all there.

M. O'BRIEN: Are you optimistic?

SPINNER: I have to be. I mean I have to be.

M. O'BRIEN: Jackie Spinner with the "Washington Post," a friend of Jill Carroll.

Thank you.

SPINNER: Sure.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad? S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, we've got some troubling news about who's really in danger when teenagers get behind the wheel. We're going to tell you why their driving habits are actually your problem.

That story is just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Cnn.com, a good place to go for the latest on the morning's top stories -- aside from AMERICAN MORNING, of course -- including the Nikkei sell-off which we've been telling you about. The question we all have is what happens in about an hour's time, when the market opens here? Will the red ink there come across the Pacific?

Also, among the popular stories this morning, number two on the list, as a matter of fact, California's oldest condemned inmate was executed the other day, Charles Ray Allen. We told you about how he was blind and feeble and so forth. Apparently not that feeble. It took two separate lethal injections -- obviously the first one wasn't lethal -- two separate injections in order to execute him. One of the stories you're interested in on cnn.com.

And if you're about to head out to work, you can stay in touch with CNN and AMERICAN MORNING by logging on the cnn.com and the Pipeline video service. You can watch live commercial feed updates, watch the feeds as they come down all for about the price of a small latte per month at cnn.com/pipeline.

S. O'BRIEN: One of the big stories that we're following today, congressional efforts to crack down on lobbyists. They're often called the fourth branch of government, but really not that much is known about what a lobbyist actually does.

Here with an explainer this morning is AMERICAN MORNING'S Bob Franken.

He's live in the lobby, I guess, ergo, lobbyist, of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

I guess that's where it all got started, isn't it -- Bob, good morning.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is, indeed, Soledad.

This hotel is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its most recent renovation. But the history of this hotel really goes back to 1818. And in the late 1860s, early '70s, President Grant used to come in. And he would come and sit on a sofa that was right here. And those he came to call the lobbyists would give him his favorite cognac and ask for their special favors.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

FRANKEN (voice-over): Now more than 130 years later, lobbyists, backed by the mother's milk of politics, money, prowl all the corridors of government. Hundreds are ex-White House aides or former members of Congress, like Bob Livingston, who left the House after 22 years.

BOB LIVINGSTON, PRESIDENT, THE LIVINGSTON GROUP: It's an adjustment from going from grovelee to groveler.

FRANKEN: The adjustment is made tolerable by the $10 million plus his Livingston Group billed last year lobbying for about 80 clients who felt that his connections were worth big money.

LIVINGSTON: You wouldn't go to an ignoramus. One, presumably, would want to hire an expert.

FRANKEN: In addition to expertise, lobbyists provide campaign money in many different forms, including fundraising dinners. There's also the special treatment -- travel for government officials on corporate jets at cut rate prices, choice seats at sports events, cushy junkets like golf trips to St. Andrews, Scotland, arranged, on occasion, by the now disgraced Jack Abramoff and his associates, gifts that House Republicans now want to make illegal.

LIVINGSTON: Abramoff was an aberration. He did some very terrible things. But he's going to go to prison because he was caught.

FRANKEN: Among the clients Abramoff has represented is Time Warner, parent company of CNN.

Livingston says he has no special seats to offer, does not arrange fancy trips, does not provide corporate jets.

However, he and his clients do make campaign contributions.

LIVINGSTON: The money doesn't go to buy a candidate. The money doesn't go to buy a congressman.

FRANKEN: What it can buy, say watchdog groups, is access without accountability.

ROBERTA BASKIN, CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: There is nothing wrong with lobbying. But it is -- it's become like the fourth branch of government and the public doesn't get to see very much of what's going on.

LIVINGSTON: Lobbyist is not a curse word.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

FRANKEN: Not a curse word, but over the decades there have been plenty of scandals involving lobbyists, efforts at reform. But, Soledad, what's really changed over that time is that they don't operate so much out of this lobby anymore.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, I guess that's one big change.

Let me ask you a question, and it's kind of about another big proposed change -- no gifts over $20.

How are you supposed to possibly get lunch for less than $20?

FRANKEN: Let me give you a hint -- you deserve a break today.

Actually, what they're talking about is -- here at the Willard, they're proposing a $20 lunch and we were talking with them about what they would provide and it would probably be molecule of lettuce. That's about all you can...

M. O'BRIEN: Molecule.

FRANKEN: ... that's all you can get here. It used to be there's no such thing as a free lunch. It's fair to say there's hardly anything as a $20 lunch.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, man, really, or a decent $20 lunch.

FRANKEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: And you know it's like, what, I guess a lettuce and a little water?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. I think they're going to call it the Abramoff diet.

Hey, Bob, let me ask you this.

Is there much talk in the wake of all of this about term limits? Because it seems to me that is really wrapped up in all of this, the entrenched professional, there for many decades, legislators and how that inherently leads to corruption.

FRANKEN: Well, that's one of the arguments. The argument against term limits is it also leads to an expertise, that it's not just for amateurs here.

But, no, that's not really what's being discussed now. What's being discussed now is reform. The Democrats are coming out with theirs today. I should point out that the proposals that are already made have huge loopholes in them.

M. O'BRIEN: Naturally.

S. O'BRIEN: And they have for a long time. Any time there's a reform proposal, often it has many a loophole.

FRANKEN: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Bob Franken for us this morning.

Thanks, Bob.

M. O'BRIEN: Bob Franken in the lobby.

S. O'BRIEN: I loved the history lesson. M. O'BRIEN: The lobby where it all began.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: Now you know.

Still to come, say what you want about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin -- go ahead, insert whatever you like there. He's certainly never at a loss for words there, we know that.

So how did such a blunt talker end up in politics in the first place?

We will take a look ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, we're going to talk about this new study that's come out about teenage drivers. Of course, we know that teenage drivers often have the most accidents. Obviously, they have the highest insurance rates, as well.

But do you know how many other people are injured when a teenage driver gets behind the wheel and has an accident? The numbers are truly staggering.

So what can be done about it? We're going to talk about that this morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Never let them drive.

S. O'BRIEN: No.

M. O'BRIEN: As the father of a 13-year-old son, this is my biggest fear.

S. O'BRIEN: Some people have suggested that...

M. O'BRIEN: It's coming.

S. O'BRIEN: ... and it's been universally shot down as being a little bit impractical.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: But in all seriousness, what can be done?

M. O'BRIEN: It's a serious thing.

S. O'BRIEN: How do you prevent inexperienced and sometimes drivers who are sort of more willing to take those unsafe risks from getting behind the wheel?

We'll talk about all that just ahead this morning.

We're back in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: You're watching AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien.

S. O'BRIEN: It's started. Chad promised us rain and we got it.

M. O'BRIEN: He delivered, didn't he? There is it, Columbus Circle, people with the umbrellas going and, I don't have all the right clothes here today. But that's neither here nor there.

Let's talk about Ray Nagin for just a moment, shall we?

S. O'BRIEN: What's to say? Because there's so much.

M. O'BRIEN: It's many faceted. But one of the things is, you know, who is he, really? He's a cable company executive who really just, almost on a whim, got into politics and ended up in this truly a storm, literally and figuratively.

And we're going to -- Alina Cho has been delving into his background to give you a little sense of what he's all about and perhaps give you some insight into what you saw yesterday with those rather interesting comments.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, always a stream of interesting comments from him.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: It'll be interesting to see if he had those same -- that same style when he was an executive.

M. O'BRIEN: For the cable companies.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: I don't know about that. We'll see.

S. O'BRIEN: Before we get to that, though, let's get another check with Carol.

She's got a look at some of the other stories making news -- good morning.

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