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PAULA ZAHN NOW

United Nations Still Relevant?; Gas Price Mystery; Venezuelan President Returns Home to Hero's Welcome

Aired September 22, 2006 - 20:00   ET

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


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everybody. Thank you all for joining us.
If you're looking for a measurement of success at this week's meeting of the General Assembly of the U.N., you could look at the raw numbers, like the number of countries in attendance, 192 -- number of the world's urgent crises solved, zero.

Of course, it's more complicated than that, but it raises some serious questions about the world body and its relevance in the modern world. That is the focus of tonight's "Top Story."

First, updates on two conflicts taking the lives of U.S. troops -- Iraq's president told the U.N. General Assembly it's essential for U.S.-led forces to stay in his country. President Jalal Talabani also says, Iraq is not ready for talks about a timetable for troop withdrawal. And any withdrawal, when it comes, will have to be gradual, he says.

President Bush and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf discussed the war on terror today, and promised cooperation in the hunt for al Qaeda leaders, like Osama bin Laden. But take note: The two leaders didn't meet at the U.N. President Musharraf came to the White House, which brings us back to tonight's "Top Story."

Sixty-one years after its start, is the United Nations still relevant?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Some of the most powerful people in the world made a pilgrimage to the General Assembly speakers podium this week. Not everyone liked what was said.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): All our nuclear activities are transparent, peaceful.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapon ambitions.

HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Yesterday, the devil came here, right here.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAVEZ: Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today. ZAHN: The speeches have been going on for four days now, testimony to the respect world leaders have for many things the U.N. does. It's worked with refugees, for children, economic development, and disaster aid.

But the U.N.'s critics also have a long list of things they would like to change, starting with what's been called the U.N.'s culture of inaction. It took more than a month for the Security Council to stop this summer's fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Despite more than three years of atrocities and accusation of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, some say the U.N. has been slow to take action.

The huge scandal involving bribes and kickbacks in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in Saddam Hussein's Iraq has led to demands for tougher ethics standards. Reformers are also upset with the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission, which has included members such as Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe, and Cuba.

Today, 192 nations belong to the U.N., but 87 percent of its regular budget is shouldered by only 50 nations, and the U.S. provides the largest share, 22 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget, more than $400 million.

But that's only part of the picture. Add in payments for U.N. peacekeeping, development in other programs, and the State Department says the U.S. contribution last year alone totals more than $5 billion.

The United Nations Association says the U.S. still owes the U.N. about $1 billion in back payments. Some members of Congress are pushing President Bush to withhold more U.S. dues, if the U.N. doesn't change its ways.

So, is the U.N. even relevant? Is it reformable? Is it replaceable? The debate is far from over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And, so, we're going to put that debate to a "Top Story" panel right now, Lally Weymouth, "Newsweek" diplomatic correspondent and senior editor. Also with me tonight, Thomas Kilgannon. He is the author of "Diplomatic Divorce: Why America Should End Its Love Affair with the United Nations." and Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president of the Center For American Progress.

Welcome, all.

So,Tom, if you think the U.S. should get out of the U.N., what kind of message would that send to the rest of the world?

THOMAS KILGANNON, AUTHOR, "DIPLOMATIC DIVORCE: WHY AMERICA SHOULD END ITS LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE UNITED NATIONS": Well, Paula, the question is, is the United Nations relevant?

And I think -- think we saw this week that it is certainly relevant to America's enemies, who are dispensing jihadist claptrap up there to try and undermine our country and denounce our president.

I, for one, am sickened that American tax dollars -- and you pointed out it's about $450 million -- are being used to provide a forum for these enemies of the United States.

ZAHN: All right. Are you saying the U.S. should get out, then, altogether?

KILGANNON: Absolutely. Absolutely. Get out, and take Hugo Chavez up on his offer to move it to Venezuela.

ZAHN: Joe, what about that? I mean, there's no possibility of that happening any time soon. But do you think that the integrity of the U.S. is undermined by what we saw play out there this week?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: No, not at all. We have those kinds of disputes in the halls of the U.S. Congress, in your local town government. It's the nation of human institutions to have debates like this.

Look, the problems we face are global in nature: terrorism, nuclear weapons, pandemics, global warming. You need an international institution like this to deal with these problems. If we didn't have the U.N., we would have to invent it. In fact, we did invent it.

Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, all the great U.S. presidents have used the United Nations to expand U.S. influence and to leverage U.S. power. Any great president would do the same.

ZAHN: But, Lally, should U.S. tax dollars be supporting an institution where, a lot of people would argue, we did not see a debate take place this week; what, in fact, we saw was a bunch of anti-American rhetoric spewed?

LALLY WEYMOUTH, SENIOR EDITOR & DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": I agree more with your last guest.

I think, yes, the U.N. should exist, and I think that the war in Iraq has actually strengthened the U.N., because the Bush administration hated the -- the U.N. And they -- it didn't want to take -- it didn't want -- Bush -- this Bush didn't want to go to the U.N., as -- as his father did, and get other countries to join in a coalition.

And Iraq has been such a disaster, I think, that, in a way, everything that they put to -- that they laughed at and -- and scoffed at has been made stronger, including the U.N.

And I think last summer is a perfect example. They had to go to the U.N. to end the war in Lebanon. The -- finally, a -- a resolution was put through the U.N. that ended the -- the Israeli-Lebanese war -- or Hezbollah war. And that's the only way they could do it. And, right now, the administration is forced -- reluctantly, I may say -- to be at the U.N., negotiating with its allies over Iran.

And, you know, there's -- there's a sideshow of Chavez, and so on and so forth. But, in the halls of the U.N., really serious negotiations are taking place, where the United States is finally working with its allies, in an effort to try to contain Iran's nuclear program.

ZAHN: Tom, do you deny that any progress has been made at the U.N. on the issue of Iran and its nuclear -- what some would say was a nuclear weapon program...

KILGANNON: Well -- well...

ZAHN: ... or nuclear power program, at a minimum?

KILGANNON: Well, Paula, what Lally mentioned is the -- the situation in southern Lebanon.

And I think what we saw the United Nations do here is -- is put Hezbollah and Israel on the same moral plane. They are not. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, and Israel is a democratically elected government, a member nation of the United Nations. They are not on a moral plane, and they should not be put there on that same moral plane by the United Nations.

ZAHN: Are there any reforms, Joseph, that could be put in place that would change that...

CIRINCIONE: Oh.

ZAHN: ... equation?

CIRINCIONE: Oh, absolutely.

There's major bureaucratic problems are at the United Nations, and we do have to get rid of the cronyism and the corruption and the waste there, the same kinds of things we have to do with our own U.S. Congress, get rid of the cronyism and the waste and the corruption. This is a constant struggle.

But you don't throw the whole thing out. Lally Weymouth's point is well-taken. Look at the first President Bush. He used the U.N. when we had to go to war in Iraq in 1991. And, because of that, it was quick, cheap and easy. It hardly cost us anything. We were in and out in two months.

This President Bush comes in and wants to do the same thing, but he doesn't want to use the U.N. As a result, it's been expensive. It's been difficult. We have been fighting the Iraqis longer than we fought the Germans in World War II. And it's turned into -- into a disaster.

This should be the lesson. In order to keep the peace, we need to keep the U.N.

ZAHN: Lally, I need a quick last word from you.

WEYMOUTH: I disagree with your guest that -- about Hezbollah and Israel being equated. I think that the administration used the U.N. to finally put an end to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. And I think many supporters of Israel -- and I would certainly include myself in that -- do not believe there's any equation between Hezbollah and Israel, but they believe the war last summer was a disaster. And the U.N. helped end it.

ZAHN: All right, trio, we got to leave it there.

Lally Weymouth, Thomas Kilgannon, Joseph Cirincione, thank you for joining us.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Happy new year.

Coming up: more top stories we're following tonight, including a provocative theory making waves on the Internet about what's really behind the plummeting price of gas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Politics at the pump: soaring prices this summer, then, suddenly, a nosedive, some say a sinister GOP plot meant to sway November elections. We will go inside the conspiracy theories.

And Kitty Dukakis -- the painful secret she kept from the public, and the controversial treatment she says saved her life -- a rare look at the benefits of electric shock therapy -- all that and much more when we come back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": The good news, oil has fallen to $60 a barrel. Experts predict it will continue to fall until exactly one minute after the polls close on November 7.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Jay Leno joking about the latest theory flying around the Internet that, somehow, the tumble in gas prices just might be connected to Republicans and a tough election just few weeks away.

That is our top consumer story tonight.

Ali Velshi joins me now. He has spent the day looking into some of those conspiracy theories which abound out there, and has the latest on gas prices for the weekend.

Ali, what did you find?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, as you know, your new -- your weekly look at gas prices called the "Crude Awakenings" is actually not so crude these days.

Here's the latest. The states with the lowest gas prices are in green. The states with the highest prices are in red. The average today for unleaded regular, $2.42 a gallon. They're basically giving it away. You can see by the trend gas has dropped about 60 cents a gallon in -- in just over a month.

Now, most folks might be happy to have the few extra bucks in their pocket after the fill-up. But, you know, you don't get something for nothing. Oil prices are dropping, but gas prices have been dropping even faster. And that's got some people wondering if there's an ulterior motive.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VELSHI (voice-over): Cheaper gas, finally. But why?

Well, the legendary summer driving season is over. No hurricanes have damaged Gulf Coast rigs and refineries. Things are calmer between Israel and Hezbollah.

And Iran? Well, at least we're not at war with Iran.

But with a little more than six weeks to the midterm elections, the blogs are buzzing with other theories. Are lower gas prices a Republican plot? This blogger wonders if Republicans are trying to soften voters, who have spent the last year angry about high prices.

"I predict it will work, by the way. The Republicans will retain control of Congress. Those Republicans need all the help they can get, and big oil is doing the best they can to assist."

"I would conclude that falling gas prices is just another example of manipulation of the public by Bush and company."

DOUG HENWOOD, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "LEFT BUSINESS OBSERVER": Certainly, there is a strong statistical relation between Bush's approval rating and the price of gas. Nine-eleven, approval spike...

VELSHI: Doug Henwood, editor of the liberal newsletter "The Left Business Observer,' has charted President Bush's popularity against gas prices. He calls the correlation he found uncanny, but he stopped short of calling it a conspiracy.

HENWOOD: More than three-quarters of the movement in Bush's approval rating can be explained by movements in the price of gas.

VELSHI: But it's not just the blogs.

A "USA Today"/Gallup poll last weekend asked voters: Do you think the Bush administration has deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall's elections? Forty-two percent said yes.

Big oil's P.R. operation calls the whole idea preposterous.

RAYOLA DOUGHER, MANAGER OF ENERGY MARKET ISSUES, AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE: I think, if politicians had -- were really in charge of oil prices, I think that they would be low. They would probably be free right now. And the very notion that we have some sort of command-and-control oil economy is -- is silly.

VELSHI: Back in July, both crude oil and gasoline hit their highest recorded prices. Gas was averaging about $3 a gallon. By mid-September, oil had dropped about $15 a barrel, so, gas should have dropped about 45 cents a gallon. It actually dropped 50 cents a gallon, and it's dropped more since then.

Could President Bush have had anything to do with plummeting gas prices?

We asked Professor Akshay Rao, who studies pricing strategies.

DR. AKSHAY RAO, INSTITUTE FOR RESEARCH IN MARKETING AT THE CARLSON SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Surely, if he picked up the phone and made, you know, five to 10 strategic phone calls, he might be able to influence prices to some degree. But, you know, I -- I think that's a fairly farfetched theory.

VELSHI: What's more conceivable, according to Rao, is that the energy industry cut prices without any prompting from Washington. That's because they're worried that, if the Democrats win, they will follow up on threats to tax the energy industry more heavily.

We put that idea to big oil's P.R. people.

DOUGHER: It can't be done. They couldn't do it if they wanted to do it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: All right, let's find out if that's true, bring in our "Top Story" panel right now on this, Nomi Prins, who's worked for some of Wall Street's biggest firms. She now writes about politics and money. Her new book is "Jacked: How Conservatives Are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not)." Dan Gainor, a former news editor, now director of the Business of Media Institute -- and Media Institute. And Ali Velshi is back.

So, if -- the big oil people are saying, you just can't do this. Can you explain why 42 percent of all Americans in this latest Gallup poll believe that the Bush administration is manipulating gas prices?

VELSHI: Well, two things.

One thing is, people who follow politics more than I do have told me that that 42 percent is closely tied to people who just generally don't like George Bush, or -- or his approve -- disapproval rating.

But, number two, whether or not big oil is doing this is separate from whether or not they can do it. They certainly can. There are all sorts of ways to manipulate the price of gas. So, it could be done. Whether anybody would ever be able to find out if it has been done, I think Dr. Rao might have had -- been on to something, that, if the Democrats take Congress, they have already threatened the oil industry with all sorts of things. I don't think big oil wants to see that happen. They don't need Bush to call them.

ZAHN: Do you really believe that the -- that the president can pick up the phone and strategically place 10 phone calls, and ask his friends in Saudi Arabia to dump a bunch of oil on the market, and -- and -- and that has the same impact as economic and geopolitical forces?

NOMI PRINS, AUTHOR, "JACKED: HOW CONSERVATIVES ARE PICKING YOUR POCKET (WHETHER YOU VOTED FOR THEM OR NOT)": No.

I -- I don't believe Bush called his friends or shorted the market and called his brokers. But what I do believe is that, when the administration, with its friends, as Ali as mentioned, and as we -- we know happened, and looking at the polls, have the ability to do something to manipulate markets, which can be done with both data and psychologically, they will do that.

And this is a situation where they have the price of gas has dropped by far too much, given all the reasons that they used to cite, including supply-and-demand issues, unrest in Iraq, what's going on with Iran. None of that has changed.

ZAHN: Dan, what about it? You have got the consumers out there scratching their heads, saying, wait a minute. In the last six weeks alone, we have seen the price of gas go down, on average, 60 cents per gallon. You understand why they're cynical about this, don't you?

DAN GAINOR, DIRECTOR, BUSINESS & MEDIA INSTITUTE: Well, this is just ridiculous.

I mean, we have got a situation here where gas prices have dropped. They always drop after summer driving season. What we have got instead is several things that were predicted to be bad didn't happen. We have a situation where BP, the -- the pipeline, wasn't as bad as people thought. We didn't have very many hurricanes. And, of course, by the way, we had one of the largest oil discoveries in the history of the United States. It has an impact.

VELSHI: Paula, Dan is half-right. A lot of the bad things didn't happen.

But it's not true that gas prices always drop after -- after the summer driving season. In fact, I researched the last 16 years. Ten times, they went down. Five times, they went up. And, once, they were flat. And one of those times they went up was because of Katrina. So, it's not a given that, when summer driving season is over -- it's probably a big part of the reason, but I -- it can't discount the fact that there are other reasons.

ZAHN: Nomi...

PRINS: Well...

ZAHN: ... if the government has as much control over this as you say it does, why would it let prices get so high in the first place?

PRINS: Well, there's two things. There's the relationship that the government has to the companies that are making money.

After Katrina, you had gas companies have their highest profitable quarter ever. You had a situation. And they were drawn into the Senate and had...

ZAHN: Yes. But, of course, you know what their argument was: That was after making years and years of investments.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: And they were finally reaping the harvest of those billions of dollars they spent.

PRINS: Absolutely. And they went on to do that.

But what was interesting about what is happening now with gas prices is the timing and the other ways that the administration has to manipulate psychology and the market.

On August 7, the Department of Energy came across the street with the fact that gas prices were at their highest over the year, over $3.07, on average, per gallon. The next day, the Federal Reserve comes in, doesn't hike interest rates again, as they have been doing for two years, and says, this is because energy prices are moderating...

ZAHN: All right.

PRINS: ... after the highest day.

ZAHN: Dan, you got 10 seconds to react to that.

GAINOR: Well, the -- the whole idea that the government is conspiring just defies logic, because, of course, if they were trying to help Bush now, why weren't they trying to help Republicans before this? And, you know, he's been getting beaten up on gas prices for two years.

ZAHN: All right, trio, we got to leave it there.

Dan Gainor, Nomi Prins, Ali Velshi, thank you all. You will have to come back. I'm sure we will be talking about this, leading right up to the midterm election. PRINS: Thank you.

GAINOR: Thank you.

ZAHN: More "Top Story" coverage in just a moment -- first, let's check in with Melissa Long, who joins us from our Pipeline studio. She's going to start off our countdown tonight.

MELISSA LONG, CNN PIPELINE: Mmm-hmm. Good evening, Paula.

Nearly 20 million people logged on to the site today. Many were interested in the reaction to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's visit. That story comes in at number 10 on the list. Some of President Bush's harshest critics in Congress have been criticizing President Chavez for bashing Mr. Bush at the U.N. this week.

Story number nine: a deadly train crash in Germany. A high- speed, high-tech train that floats on powerful magnetic fields was taking a test run when it collided with a repair cart parked on the track. Police say at least 23 people were killed and 10 others critically injured. Investigators say they believe human error is to blame.

And story number eight: Federal health officials say two more deaths may be linked to the outbreak of E. coli in fresh spinach. So far, only one death has been officially connected to that outbreak.

And I know, Paula, you will have more on this story coming up on your program.

ZAHN: We will, a little bit later on.

Thanks, Melissa.

LONG: Sure.

ZAHN: We're going to go in-depth on that, of course, but a top international story tonight first.

Guess who has finally gone home and who is getting a hero's welcome? We are going to take you live to Venezuela to show you.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Our "Top Story" coverage continues with the man whose visit caused quite a sensation this week at the United Nations. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is back home tonight, after an incredibly fiery performance here in New York, calling President Bush "El Diablo," the devil, calling him an ex-alcoholic, then pledging millions of dollars worth of heating oil for America's poor this winter.

He can afford to. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil-exporting country. So, Chavez is literally swimming in petrodollars and spending them freely.

Our Rick Sanchez joins us from Venezuela tonight.

Just want to warn you, you are going to hear about a three-second delay between my questions and his answers. There's nothing wrong with your TV set -- Rick.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Paula.

Here's the situation here. He returned. He's back in Venezuela -- and another bullhorn blast -- that might be expected -- toward the United States.

This time, President Chavez was criticizing the U.S. policy on terrorism, saying, in fact, that the situation with the war on terrorism is one that has created more terrorists, according to Chavez.

Well, this is what Chavez has been saying about the United States. We looked into his own policies and talked to a lot of people in this country today about some of the promises and some of the policies in Chavez's own administration, and found that, in some cases, at least as many of the people, rich and poor, here in this country, say they find many of those promises, some of those policies, unfulfilled.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): After firmly planting himself on the world stage with incendiary words about President Bush, Hugo Chavez is back -- back in Venezuela, dedicating a new industrial complex. He boasts of improving his country's economy, and calls U.S. policies a failure.

HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The imperialist government of the United States now says that we have failed, that we are the ones who have failed. The U.S. government has failed everywhere one looks.

SANCHEZ: At the Caracas Country Club, the people who take credit for building the country's economy think Chavez is ruining it. They say he's only about words and no action. And that, they say, is how he get elected.

HERNAN DELGADO JR., RESIDENT OF VENEZUELA: He has a persuasive pitch, you know?

SANCHEZ (on camera): Yes.

DELGADO: In his speech, in the TV, he's convincing people, people that might not have a lot of ethic, education, culture.

SANCHEZ: Mmm-hmm.

DELGADO: So, it's easy to manipulate them by a persuasive pitch, no? SANCHEZ (voice-over): These are the people who live in the big homes, the ones behind the fortress-like walls. What they fear most is that Chavez will turn their country into another Cuba.

(on camera): Do you fear his socialist tendencies?

It's not socialist. It's radical communist.

SANCHEZ: You think he's already a communist?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is. He is, but he can't show it all. He's -- he's -- he's holding himself little by little.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): You don't have to go far to find the difference between rich and poor in Caracas, which is also the difference between anti-Chavez and pro-Chavez.

In fact, we found this little town -- it's called Chapaying (ph) -- after traveling just two blocks from the country club which is directly behind me.

(on camera): Pro-Chavez? (SPEAKING SPANISH) Pro -- pro-Chavez?

(SPEAKING SPANISH) con Chavez, or contra Chavez? Pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Con Chavez.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Con Chavez.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Con Chavez.

SANCHEZ: You're pro-Chavez?

(voice-over): We found, though, that not everyone who's pro- Chavez says they're better off under his rule.

(on camera): You think he's done a lot of good things for the poor people? (SPEAKING SPANISH)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

SANCHEZ: But he hasn't done anything for -- (SPEAKING SPANISH) nothing for you? (SPEAKING SPANISH)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

SANCHEZ: No.

(voice-over): We did find a fisherman who says he's being helped. While scaling his catch, Julio Reales told us he's all for Chavez.

(on camera): This is the best government you think they have had here? (SPEAKING SPANISH)

JULIO REALES, FISHERMAN: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

SANCHEZ: So, you now have your own home, thanks to Chavez? (SPEAKING SPANISH)

REALES: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Then, we ran across Beatrice Gomez (ph), who says the only people being helped are those with connections to the government.

(on camera): (SPEAKING SPANISH) You don't think Chavez is for the poor people?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

SANCHEZ: He's given you nothing?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING SPANISH)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): We were struck by something else on the streets of Caracas. As journalists, we were not alone.

For the second day in a row, we were pulled aside by police. Our names and numbers were recorded, and called into headquarters.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: Interestingly enough, the perception is seemingly the most important thing in this country.

The poor people that you talk to are all extremely impressed by Hugo Chavez. They like the fact that he blasts the United States. They like the talk that he gives about many of his policies.

But, when you actually talk to them, and when you actually ask them about the policies themselves, and the effects they have had on them, very few can actually pinpoint any of them affecting them directly at this particular point in time -- Paula, back over to you.

ZAHN: Very interesting. Thanks, Rick. Appreciate it.

Our "Top Story" coverage continues now in just a moment.

First, let's go back to Melissa. She has more of our countdown.

LONG: Mmm-hmm.

ZAHN: Melissa.

LONG: And Paula, number seven, a story about an urgent search under way in Illinois tonight for three young children who vanished after their mother was killed. Authorities say her body was found in East St. Louis. A fetus had apparently been cut out of her womb and the police have one woman in custody.

Story number six tonight, a sex offender, convicted of murdering a college student in North Dakota, is sentenced to death. 22-year-old Dru Sjodin was killed in 2003. That jury reached its decision after a day and a half of deliberations.

And an alleged school massacre plot number five tonight. Prosecutors in Green Bay, Wisconsin say constant bullying and rejections from girls motivated two teens to plan a Columbine-style attack on their high school. Paula?

ZAHN: All right, Melissa, we'll check back with you in a little bit for the rest of the countdown.

Tonight's top story in religion, is the continuing fury focused on Pope Benedict XVI. It has caused the Pope to make an unprecedented request of Muslim leaders. We'll have all the details for you out of Rome tonight.

Another top story involves more than tainted Spinach. Stay with us for an eye-opening look at other reports of food contamination. It's a lot more common than you probably think.

And she was the wife of a Massachusetts governor, and could have been first lady of the United States, but the whole time she was hiding a devastating secret. Her story in her own words. Kitty Dukakis will be joining us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: In this half hour our top story coverage, an eye-opening look at food contamination. Tainted Spinach is making headlines, but food contamination is a lot more common than you might think.

Also ahead, Kitty Dukakis' devastating secret and the controversial method she chose for treatment.

Then coming up at the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE," Stedman Graham talks about what it's like to date one of the most popular women in American, Oprah Winfrey.

And we turn now to our top story in religion tonight, Pope Benedict still being attacked throughout the Muslim world, ever since a controversial speech in Germany last week. Protesters in Islamic countries have been calling for apologies and the Pope's resignations. So on Monday the Pope was hoping to smooth things over in a meeting with ambassadors from Muslim nations. Faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher has been following this explosive story from its beginning and joins me now from Rome, Delia.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT: Paula, as you say, the effects of the Pope's speech are still being felt and debated around the world, but nowhere more so than here at the Vatican.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Despite a public apology, Pope Benedict XVI is still the object of outrage for many Muslims around the world. Hundreds marched through Kashmir Friday, some throwing stones at the police. The chief cleric at a prominent mosque said the Pope's words of regret were just not good enough. He says we strongly condemn whatever the Pope has said. He has apologized, but we demand he should take back whatever he said in his statement.

In Jerusalem, hundreds gathered outside the al-Aqsa mosque following Friday's prayers at the start of Ramadan. Some carried signs that said conquering Rome is the only answer. Some clerics and religious scholars in Pakistan have called for the Pope's removal. Some more moderate Muslims say though the holy father's choice of words may have been unfortunate, this could be the divine intervention needed to start a solid dialogue among religious groups.

Abdullah Redoin (ph), an Italian Muslim leader, told us he thinks that god probably wanted this tension to create a better environment for cooperation and understanding. Here in Rome, Islamic faithful gathered at Europe's largest mosque for their traditional Friday prayers. While security at the Vatican has been tightened, the Pope is doing what he can to show he's not afraid, even riding around St. Peter's Square in an open Pope-mobile at his general audience on Wednesday. Some visitors who came to see the holy father offered him their support.

GARRY COX, AMERICAN TOURIST: I think what he has said has been enough. It was not an indication as to how he felt at all. I think it was a matter of quoting from a text, and he's made that clear and has apologized. So I think that's sufficient.

GALLAGHER: While the Pope has gone to great lengths to try and ease the anger felt by many Muslims, today the Vatican said he's prepared to go even further.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER: And, Paula, part of the purpose of that meeting on Monday between the Pope and ambassadors and Muslim religious leaders is to open the dialogue that the Pope says he's been seeking all along.

ZAHN: Opening a dialogue is one thing, but realistically does anyone expect this meeting to end this controversy?

GALLAGHER: I think the Vatican hopes it will go some way towards appeasing some of the sentiment we've seen against the Pope around the world, but certainly they are well aware that this is something that is going to continue for a long time. Catholic/Muslim relations are going to be in high relief for some time to come, Paula.

ZAHN: And we'll be following all of this with you on Monday. Thanks so much, Delia.

GALLAGHER: Thank you.

ZAHN: And we move on now to Melissa Long, who has the rest of our countdown. LONG: At number four this evening, Paula, fans of Saturday Night Live wanted a read about a leaner version of that late night institution. The show, SNL, will have 11 cast members this season, down from 16. The executive producer Lauren Michaels (ph) says the move was one way to cut costs.

Number three, Pakistan's President Musharraf visits President Bush at the White House today. Both were asked about a reported threat to bomb Pakistan if it did not join the U.S. war against the Taliban. Mr. Bush said he knew nothing about it and President Musharraf refused to answer, citing a book deal, blaming it on the publisher, Paula.

ZAHN: That's always a pretty easy scapegoat, isn't it?

LONG: It is.

ZAHN: Thanks, Melissa.

Authorities keep getting reports of people getting sick from tainted Spinach. In a minute our top story goes beyond the headlines for an alarming look at common food contamination actually is in this country.

Plus you remember her, Kitty Dukakis, her husband once ran as president. She opened up about the health crisis she kept secret for years and years and years. And then ended up using a very rare and controversial treatment. You'll hear from Kitty herself.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: We've got another top story for you tonight. It's in the consumer department. The scare over contaminated Spinach, which only seems to be getting worse. Health officials say more than 160 people in half the country have gotten sick because they ate fresh Spinach contaminated with E. Coli.

Now while only one person so far has been killed because of it, two new deaths are under investigation, an elderly woman in Maryland and a 2-year-old boy in Idaho. Officials are now focusing on nine farms in California as the source of the bad Spinach. And while the Spinach investigation continues, our Ted Rowlands has a surprising report on just how common food contamination is.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's not just fresh Spinach that could get you sick. Every year dozens of food items that end up on store shelves are potential deadly. In fact, the current list of recalled food over the last 60 days includes more than a dozen items. There's beef with E. Coli, sprouts with Salmonella, and Botulism in Carrot Juice. Food industry experts acknowledge there's a growing concern that more people will get sick before they can figure out what's going on.

BRYAN SILBERMANN, PRODUCE MARKETING SPOKESMAN: This is a moving targets and I think we have to recognize that.

ROWLANDS: In some cases the cause is identify and the problem is corrected, but many times the cause isn't clear. While federal investigators search Spinach fields for clues in the current E. Coli case, the industry is hoping that there isn't another significant outbreak involving another food product.

JOE PEZZINI, OCEAN MIST FARMS: No one in the industry wants someone to be ill from the products we're producing.

ROWLANDS: Joe Pezzini helps oversee thousands of acres of crops in central California, including this 200 acre plot of Spinach, which because of the E. Coli scare, most likely will be destroyed. He says farmers have been aware of the problems for years. In fact, he and other producers received a letter late last year from the FDA that expressed, quote, serious concern with the continuing outbreaks of foodborne illness.

(on camera): Many growers and health officials are hoping that the current investigation going on here in central California into the E. Coli-tainted Spinach will not only yield answers in this case, but will serve as a wake-up call for the entire industry to reexamine their practices.

(voice-over): Growers and food producers are working with federal health officials on new safety precautions. The problem, they say, is that until someone figures out what's causing these outbreaks, it might not be possible to prevent more people from getting sick.

Ted Rowlands, CNN, Salinas, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Health officials say you should still avoid eating fresh Spinach because the outbreak isn't over yet.

(MARKET REPORT)

ZAHN: Moving up to just about 15 minutes before the hour. We want to give you a quick preview with Larry King about who will be joining him tonight. I hear that he's a really tall and handsome guy joining you.

LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: He sure is, right over there. Stedman Graham, the educator, entrepreneur and the man who calls Oprah Winfrey his pillar of strength in his latest book. They've been an item, by the way, for over 20 years.

Plus baby Abby, the two week old who was kidnapped when here mother's throat was slashed, she'll be with us along with her mom and dad and grandparents. It's all ahead at the top of the hour, immediately following Paula Zahn. Have a great weekend, Paula.

ZAHN: Hey, you too, Larry. Happy new year.

KING: Same to you, no, yes, same to you. ZAHN: Are you going to get any time off to celebrate the holiday?

KING: No, but I will on Yom Kippur.

ZAHN: All right. We will count on you to catch up with the holiday you're missing tonight. Thanks so much.

Let's move back to Melissa, who finishes our countdown right now, Melissa.

LONG: And Paula, back on Earth and adjusting to life on Earth, shuttle Atlantis Astronaut Heidi Piper collapsed twice today during a welcome home ceremony in Houston. This story number two tonight. Doctors say she was suffering from the lingering effects of space travel. She's OK, no worries. Atlantis landed yesterday after twelve days in space.

And story number one, in Colorado a woman who died after being dragged behind a vehicle has been identified. State authorities have confirmed that Luz Maria Fracos-Fierros was a Mexican citizen, a mother of three. One man is under arrest in this case, Paula.

ZAHN: Oh, it makes me sick. Melissa, thanks.

We are going to quickly get off that subject and move on to the former first lady of Massachusetts, who tells about a health crisis that got so desperate she resorted to a very controversial treatment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: How aware were you of the risks you were taking?

KITTY DUKAKIS, WIFE OF MICHAEL DUKAKIS: When you're that depressed, I'm not sure you have the kind of awareness that would benefit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Coming up next, Kitty and Michael Dukakis talk about the treatment that they think saved her life. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Tonight, our top story coverage turns to an extraordinary woman, a former first lady of Massachusetts, Kitty Dukakis.

When her husband ran for president in 1988, there was private pain behind this very public smile: A struggle with prescription drugs and alcohol that lasted for decades, along with crippling episodes of depression. Kitty says the depth of her despair was so great the doctors suggested a controversial treatment of last resort -- electroconvulsive shock therapy.

As many as 100,000 Americans are treated with ECT every year. It has improved dramatically since it was first used in the 1930s. Still, it is criticized by some because of some of its unusual side effects. But Kitty Dukakis says the treatment may have saved her life, and she writes about it all in her new book called "Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy," and she was very candid about her life and her struggles when we sat down together.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): For 12 years, Kitty Dukakis was the first lady of Massachusetts, who stood by her husband's side during his 1988 bid for the White House.

But behind closed doors, Kitty's life was falling apart. She was an addict, hooked first on diet pills, and then on alcohol.

KITTY DUKAKIS, FORMER FIRST LADY OF MASSACHUSETTS: I was drinking in ways that were incredibly life-threatening, and I was taking things because there wasn't -- when there wasn't alcohol that were very threatening of my life.

ZAHN (on camera): Like nail polish?

K. DUKAKIS: Yes. Anything I could get a hold of.

ZAHN: Hair spray?

K. DUKAKIS: Yes.

ZAHN: You were so desperate, you were sipping hair spray out of the hair spray bottle.

K. DUKAKIS: Yes.

ZAHN (voice-over): But Kitty would face an even greater challenge, a crippling depression that consumed her for almost 20 years.

Every nine months, Kitty says, she would be overcome by despair. Alcohol helped her numb the pain, but after the 1988 election, she began binge drinking.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS: You'll take anything for relief, and sadly, she did. I would find her unconscious from time to time. It's hard to describe just how tough it was during those periods.

ZAHN (on camera): Is there one memory in particular that you wish you could erase, something that...

K. DUKAKIS: Probably with John, I think with John, my screaming at him to mind his own business when he tried to stop me from getting a bottle. When we didn't have liquor in the house. I think I'd like to take that day away.

ZAHN (voice-over): After years of struggling with addiction and depression, doctors did have one last treatment to offer -- electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, also known as shock therapy. A type of treatment brought to light in the '70s film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Once considered inhumane because patients were given high levels of electricity to the brain with no anesthesia, yet in the past decade, a much more controlled version of ECT has made a comeback for the treatment of depression.

DR. CHARLES WELCH, MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL: Now he's having a seizure.

ZAHN: Dr. Charles Welch is the director of the ECT program at Massachusetts General Hospital and is Kitty's doctor.

WELCH: ECT is nothing more than intentionally causing an epileptic seizure under very controlled circumstances.

ZAHN: Here's how it works: A low dose of electric current is transmitted to the brain through electrodes placed on the head. The current induces a seizure that lasts about 30 seconds, and patients are usually able to walk out of the treatment in under an hour.

Doctors don't really know why it works, but what they do know is that studies in the past few years have shown that patients are overwhelmingly satisfied with the result.

(on camera): How aware were you of the risk you were taking?

K. DUKAKIS: When you're that depressed, I'm not sure you have the kind of awareness that would benefit. But I was so desperate at that time. That doesn't mean that the night before and the day of my first treatment that I didn't think about Jack Nicholson lying on that cot in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." I did.

M. DUKAKIS: We had some of the same apprehensions that most people would have, but after 17 years of recurring deep depressions every eight or nine months, it was obviously that the best docs and the best medication and the best techniques that had been used simply weren't working.

ZAHN: Today, patients are giving anesthesia during ECT, so there's little physical evidence of the seizure.

Still, it's not without critics, those who think that it damages the brain and wipes out memory.

But for Kitty, it worked, although she has had some memory loss. And for the past five years, she's returned to ECT whenever she feels the dark clouds gathering.

(on camera): If you hadn't done this, what do you think would have happened to you?

K. DUKAKIS: I can't imagine. I just don't go there, Paula, I just don't.

ZAHN: Do you think you would still be drinking today if you had not resorted to ECT? K. DUKAKIS: Oh, that's such a difficult question to answer. Probably. I'm not sure I would be alive. I mean, I think that so many people who drink alcoholically just don't live to -- I wouldn't have lived to tell -- have the treatment.

ZAHN: Even with these ECT treatments, have you accepted the reality that you will face depression the rest of your life?

K. DUKAKIS: Absolutely. ECT is not a cure, but it is the hope in my life today, and that's a difference.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And what hope it's given her.

A note about some of the side effects Kitty experienced. She says she has no memory of a trip to Paris that she and her husband took to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She also says from time to time she forgets phone numbers and directions of places she goes to every day, but she feels that that's a small price to pay for being able to function once again and not function under a dark cloud.

Coming up at the top of the hour, Larry King welcomes Oprah's life partner, Steadman Graham. We'll be back after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us here on this Friday night. We hope you have a great weekend. See you Monday.

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