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Rescued Hostages Speak Out; McCain Promises to Balance Budget; Watch List Hits Ignored; Search for Salmonella: Tomato Farmers Suffering Losses; Housing Relief Bill Will Provide Help to Homeowners

Aired July 8, 2008 - 07:00   ET


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: His national security adviser Mowaffak al- Rubaie tells the "AP" the government proposes a timetable based on Iraq's ability to defend its own security. The Bush administration has said setting a timetable would give terrorists an advantage. U.S. officials in Baghdad did not comment on the announcement.
The three American hostages rescued from FARC rebels are talking about five years of torture in the Colombian jungle and remembering hundreds of others who are still out there right now.

CNN's Randi Kaye joins us now with their story -- Randi.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Kiran, few people have endured as much. Held captive five years. Now, they are safe and proudly embracing their freedom. Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell are Northrop Grumman contractors. We've waited so long to hear their stories. Howe was the first to step up to the microphone.


THOMAS HOWES, FORMER HOSTAGE: Almost five and a half years ago, we fell off the edge of the earth. My companions helped me cope with the difficult conditions.

KAYE (voice-over): Howes left it to Marc Gonsalves to describe just how difficult. The rebel group still holds an estimated 750 captives.

MARC GONSALVES, FORMER HOSTAGE: There are people who right now in this very moment, they're still there in the jungle being held hostage. In this exact moment, right now, they're being punished because we got rescued successfully. I want you guys to imagine that.

Right now, right now, they're wearing chains around their necks. They're going to get up early tomorrow morning. They're going to put a heavy backpack on their backs. They're going to be forced to march with that chain on their neck, while a guerrilla with an automatic weapon is holding the other end of this chain like a dog.

Those are innocent people. Those are people that were fighting or working for the country. And all they want is what we wanted, and what God had the grace to give us. Our freedom.

KAYE: Keith Stansell was the last of the rescued men to speak. KEITH STANSELL, FORMER HOSTAGE: To my country, this doesn't run, who never forgot me, never. And especially to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, my heartfelt thanks.

KAYE: Stansell, who's from Florida, had one more request.

STANSELL: And to Governor Crist of the great state of Florida, sir, I don't have a driver's license. How am I going to get home?


KAYE: Officials say each man lost about 30 pounds during their captivity, the result of strenuous activity and a poor diet. However, all three are in good physical shape. Northrop Grumman says it is prepared to assist these men as they adjust to their lives as free men -- John and Kiran.

ROBERTS: Randi Kaye this morning.

FARC, by the way, which has been fighting the Colombian government and other groups for decades, defends the kidnappings as what they call a legitimate act of war.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Turning now to the race for the White House. John McCain says that if he is elected he would balance the budget by the end of his first term. Is that realistic?

Well, we asked Allan Chernoff to look into the plan and he joins us now with more details on it. Good to see you this morning, Allan.

ALLAN CHERNOFF, BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kiran. And you know, in theory, anything can be done. But in practice, analysts are saying let's certainly not count on a balanced budget.


CHERNOFF (voice-over): John McCain claims he can balance the federal budget.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: American workers and families pay their bills and balance their budgets, and I'll demand the same thing of our government, which you're not getting now.

CHERNOFF: Is there any way it can be done? The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says yes, even predicting a surplus by fiscal year 2012 under current law. How? Because the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire in 2010. And the alternative minimum tax introduced in the '70s to ensure the wealthy pay income tax is due to affect more middle income households. But that is not what John McCain has in mind.

MCCAIN: American families need tax relief. And I, not my opponent, will deliver it.

CHERNOFF: McCain pledges to extend the Bush tax cuts. And protect millions of Americans from paying the alternative minimum tax. Those promises, some experts say, would dramatically increase the budget deficit.

BOB GREENSTEIN, CENTER FOR BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES: The chance that he would really balance the budget by the end of his first four years, near zero.

CHERNOFF: On the spending side, John McCain says he won't back down in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the wars are costly, budgeted at $188 billion this coming fiscal year.

STEPHEN BIDDLE, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: To the extent that it becomes possible to draw troop levels down in Iraq, there's going to be a tremendous demand not to bring them home, set them down and not use them but to swing them or at least some significant fraction of them to Afghanistan.

CHERNOFF: Even if U.S. troops in Iraq were cut by 80 percent, the Urban-Brookings Tax Center says McCain would still face a deficit of nearly $450 billion. To balance the budget, McCain would have to make cuts as severe as chopping Social Security by 50 percent, slashing Medicare by 70 percent.


CHERNOFF: Of course, none of that is going to happen. Now, John McCain also is saying to balance the budget, he will need reasonable economic growth. Well, of course, the economy right now is quite lousy. So it's reasonable to assume that when the next president does take office, the economy's growth is going to be sub par, which would mean less tax revenue coming into Washington.

John and Kiran, not more.

CHETRY: All right. Well, we're going to -- Allan, thank you for that. We're also going to ask of the candidate himself when he joins us a little bit later in the show. In fact, John McCain is going to be on our show joining us at 8:10 Eastern time. You'll want to watch for that.

ROBERTS: Definitely.

Meantime, Barack Obama was making his pitch by phone to about 200 people in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was supposed to be there in person, but mechanical trouble forced his plan to land in St. Louis. So there he is explaining his plan, sitting on a chair in a hotel talking on the telephone.

Senator Obama fired back at McCain for criticizing his economic plan saying that McCain's numbers just don't add up.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that during his statements he was also making some suggestions that my plan would raise taxes on the middle class. That is absolutely not the case. And everybody who has looked at it has said that, in fact, my tax cuts are three times more likely to go to the middle class than John McCain's.


ROBERTS: Obama says under his plan 95 percent of Americans would get a tax cut.

Taking another look at the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy." Four retired military officers are saying that Congress should repeal the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the armed forces. They conducted a study and say the evidence shows that allowing gays to serve would not undermine the military's ability to fight and win. One of the officers helped implement the policy during the Clinton administration. That was back in 1993.

CHETRY: Here at home, potential terrorists may be slipping through the cracks because some local authorities are not making a call that could take just seconds. Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has more.

JEANNE MESERVE, HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: John, Kiran, the mantra in intelligence since 9/11 has been connect the dots. But a simple step to help do that is being ignored by some state and local police.


MESERVE (voice-over): Six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, police in Arlington County, Virginia, stopped one of the hijackers for speeding. Even if Hani Hanjour (ph) had been on the terrorist watch list, there was no way for local police to know.

Now, seven years later, a national tool created to close that gap is not being used consistently by state and local police.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE POLICE OFFICER: How are you doing, sir? Your license and registration on you?

MESERVE: When a police officer runs a name through his computer, he gets an automatic alert if the individual is on a terrorist watch list. The officer is then supposed to contact the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. On a typical day, 15 to 20 officers across the nation do that. But many others do not.

LEONARD BOYLE, TERRORIST SCREENING CENTER: On an average day, probably about eight or 10 times, we believe, there is a hit against the watch list by a state or local officer, and that call is not being made to us.

MESERVE: The failure to close that loop is an opportunity lost.

It can really help.

BOYLE: Absolutely.

MESERVE: Find the bad guys. BOYLE: Yes, it can. And develop intelligence about them, develop information about their patterns of activity, their associates, et cetera.

MESERVE: In Arlington County when a police officer does the right thing and follows through with the FBI, they get an Atta boy (ph) in their personnel files and an FBI agent embedded in the department follows up.

CAPT. KEVIN REARDON, ARLINGTON COUNTY, VA., POLICE: They don't just make a report and it disappears. They're contacted. These circumstances are evaluated. And they know that, in fact, somebody's using that information.

MESERVE: Here where patrols pass right by the Pentagon, terrorism is not a theoretical threat.

OFC. KEVIN RILEY, ARLINGTON COUNTY, VA., POLICE: It's a visual reminder every single day, you know, of things that have happened in the past and can happen at any moment.


MESERVE: Some of the theories on why more police departments don't follow through on watch list hits, time, money and training, though the consequences could be deadly. John, Kiran, back to you.

CHETRY: Jeanne, thanks.

The ACLU says close to a million names are on the U.S. terror watch list and it's growing by 20,000 names a month.

ROBERTS: Grounded and going nowhere. Coming up at 11 minutes after, we have got the list of rundown of airlines that have the worst on- time performance. If you're watching this in the airport lounge right now, you're going to want to hear this story.

CHETRY: Also at 19 after, were the tomatoes tainted or not? The nationwide salmonella scare hit American farmers hard. But now the question is, was the FDA too quick to finger one state as the potential source?

ROBERTS: And then at 25 after, a $300 billion bill to help homeowners. But one of the architects of the bill, Congressman Barney Frank, said they'd get things done by the middle of June. So why is it now July 8th and nothing's being done so far? We're going to talk to him in about 15 minutes' time.

You're watching the "Most News in the Morning."




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ninety-nine percent of the people should not do what we did.


ROBERTS: The brothers who got busted trying to save their home from a wildfire. You're watching the "Most News in the Morning."


CHETRY: Welcome back to the "Most News in the Morning."

U.S. Airlines doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time. That's not a typo, Ali.


CHETRY: According to the Department of Transportation, 21 percent of flights were late in May. That's actually an improvement over last year and last month. The worst airline, though, American, was late almost a third of the time, then United and Continental. The worst flight, Southwest Airlines Flight 2709, if you fly a lot, it's from Houston to San Diego. It was late 100 percent of the time in May.


Maybe they should change the time on that.

CHETRY: Right.

ROBERTS: There you go.

A couple of other airline stories for you this morning. AirTran cutting jobs due to financial problems caused by high fuel prices, letting go of 180 pilots and 300 flight attendants. Also cutting flights starting in September. I guess you need the pilots and the flight attendants to fly those planes.

Frontier Airlines also announcing job cuts saying it will eliminate 456 positions in Colorado. Frontier filed for bankruptcy protection back in April and warned that job cuts were coming.

Well, it's 14 after the hour now, and more job cuts to tell you about too.


ROBERTS: And Ali's here.

VELSHI: Yes, last week we just had those jobs numbers and showing that the number of jobs being lost in the United States is increasing every month. And that is worrisome when thinking about the economy. We have more news of job cuts this morning. This is worldwide.

German-based industrial conglomerate Siemens, you all know the name. They make a lot of equipment. They make everything from cell phones to major industrial machinery, health care equipment. They're just announcing now layoffs of 4.2 percent of their global workforce. That's 16,750 people worldwide.

The company says mostly it will be administrative jobs. About 12,600 of them will be administrative jobs; 4,000 positions will be lost in a restructuring of some of its units. The CEO is saying that they would like to try and pursue early retirement and buy out in an effort to avoid forced layoffs. But that 16,750 jobs being lost worldwide, we don't have a breakdown yet as to how many of those are in the United States.

Concerns about the economy both the slowdown in the economy, increased energy prices and inflation, corporate profits, things like that are affecting markets. We had a rough day on U.S. markets yesterday. That went overnight into Asia where we had more than three percent losses across the board. And then into Europe where we've seen losses this morning.

We're expecting a lower open on the Dow this morning as a result because concerns are continuing about whether or not the slowdown that we're in might last longer than we expected. As we talked about earlier, it's a concern that's shared by many of our viewers. Seventy-five percent of -- not even our viewers. Seventy-five percent of Americans polled by CNN, and Opinion Research Corporation say that we're in a recession right now.

ROBERTS: Doesn't look good, does it?

VELSHI: Not right now.

ROBERTS: Ali, thanks so much.

VELSHI: Right.

ROBERTS: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is taking heat for the six-course lunch and the eight-course dinner that he had right before talks on the world food crisis at the G8 Summit. According to the UK's "Telegraph" newspaper, dinner alone included 18 dishes. Caviar, smoked salmon, Kyoto beef, and a "G8 fantasy dessert," wines from around the world, too.

Some African leaders who attended the talks apparently weren't invited to the dinner. On the flight to Japan, Brown urged the British people to stop throwing away so much food and reduce unnecessary demand. No word on whether he finished everything on his plate.

CHETRY: Bad timing. How about that?

Not lost at sea but stuck at sea. And it wasn't a three-hour tour, it was a nine-hour ordeal. We're going to tell you about this cruise's unplanned pit stop, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Also, booted off for bad behavior. Family on their way home dropped off halfway because the airline says the kids were too unruly. You're watching the "Most News in the Morning."


CHETRY: A look now at the top videos on The most popular, booted for bad behavior.

A Seattle woman with her two disabled children said that her family was left stranded by Southwest Airlines on their way back home from Detroit. Southwest claims the family was being disruptive and unruly on the plane and dropped them off in Phoenix where they were supposed to take a connecting flight. Families said police officers brought them food and Motel 6 donated a hotel room for the night.

Also, Christie Brinkley battling a child custody case in a Long Island courtroom. It's the third day of the divorce trial between Brinkley and 49-year-old architect Peter Cook who Brinkley claims had an affair and spent 300 grand on Internet porn, this morning's most popular video right now on

You're watching the "Most News in the Morning." We're back in 90 seconds.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING. News across the nation now.

The U.S. Coast Guard towed this cruise ship back to safety nine hours after it grounded near Glacier Bay off of Alaska's coast. A national park vessel got the passengers and the crew back to dry land. The cruise West ship's operator says they were trying to get passengers to the airport in Juneau.

How green is your ride? In California, all 2009 model cars will be required to display a global warming score. From one to 10, with 10 being the best, the numbers take the vehicles emissions and production into account. California's cars already post a smog score. New York is going to adopt a similar law for the 2010 model year.

And a new government report says almost half of the country's coral reefs are in fair to poor condition. It points to human activity and rising ocean temperatures as the cause. The aquatic ecosystems are home to many of the world's seafood species, and scientists consider them an indicator of the ocean's overall health.

CHETRY: The exact source of a salmonella outbreak that's made hundreds sick is still a mystery. At first the FDA pointed to crops of tomatoes from Florida and Mexico. That has drastically affected the bottom line for many farmers as our Ed Lavandera (ph) found out.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You can't help but think of the campy movie, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes." Only no one thinks it's funny.

Here, row after row of them, thousands of tomatoes rot on the vine. Jimmy Shaffer's won't be picked because the FDA, Food and Drug Administration, concluded Florida tomatoes are the leading suspect in the nationwide outbreak of salmonella.

JIMMY SHAFFER, TOMATO FARMER: I mean, this was a bumper crop. This was a lot of tomatoes.

ZARRELLA: But this is not Florida. This is South Carolina. And because everyone is a little hazy on which ones if any are unsafe to eat, he is suffering, too.

SHAFFER: Instead of the people in charge at the FDA saying South Carolina is starting with new tomatoes that weren't involved, they just kind of threw everybody under a big blanket and let everybody fight for themselves.

ZARRELLA: Before the salmonella outbreak, Shaffer says tomatoes were going for about $16 a box, now, six bucks. Not enough to break even. Farmers are furious.

Shaffer is considering suing the government for compensation. As for those killer tomatoes in Florida, well, Florida farmers insist their tomatoes were never the source.

BOB SPENCER, TOMATO FARMER: If the glove doesn't fit, it doesn't fit.

ZARRELLA: Farmer Bob Spencer says it was defamation. He charges the FDA singled out Florida tomatoes before there was any concrete evidence they caused the salmonella outbreak.

SPENCER: Ten weeks after this supposed outbreak occurred, they have yet to find one tainted tomato.

ZARRELLA: And that's after testing nearly 2,000 tomatoes. The FDA is now expanding its search for the source to include ingredients in salsa, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, onions. But the agency is not clearing tomatoes. Some experts on food-borne illnesses say the FDA and the CDC had no choice but to move quickly.

BOB MARLER, FOOD SAFETY ATTORNEY: Had they continued to wait and wait and wait until the data was perfect, we then would be, you know, criticizing them for letting, you know, ill people stack up.

ZARRELLA (on camera): The tomato scare has had a ripple effect, from the farmer to the vegetable stand. The owner of this stand is carrying 50 percent fewer tomatoes than he normally would.

ZARRELLA (voice-over): Some people still buy them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I'd give up just about anything before I would my tomatoes.

ZARRELLA: But not enough people. Losses in Florida alone may top $100 million, and it could take years, farmers say, to grow back their industry.

John Zarrella, CNN, Palmetto, Florida.


CHETRY: The outbreak has made at least 900 Americans sick so far. U.S. officials are still frantically searching for the source. Yesterday they started checking produce at the Mexican border for traces of salmonella.

ROBERTS: A bill that would provide $300 billion of help to homeowners facing foreclosure has been stuck in Congress. But could it be on the move now? We're going to talk with the bill's architect about that. Congressman Barney Frank joins us coming up.

And a man saves his family's house from a wildfire. But police arrest his brother because of it. You're watching the "Most News in the Morning."


ROBERTS: $300 billion mortgage relief program could be on the way to help struggling homeowners. The Senate voted to advance the bill yesterday. If passed, it will allow debt-ridden homeowners to refinance and to save for more affordable mortgages.

Congressman Barney Frank is one of the architects of the plan. He's also chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and he joins us this morning here in New York. Good to see you.


ROBERTS: Good to not have you on a remote. It's always good to be here in person.

FRANK: Well, somebody once told James (INAUDIBLE), his book was very funny in French. He said yes, I move a lot in the original, but you're never sure whether distance might be better.

ROBERTS: The last time we had you on, which was a little while, you took objection to me suggesting that the housing rescue bill was stalled in Congress. Let me just play back what you said to me that day.


REP. BARNEY FRANK (D), CHMN., FINANCIAL SERVICES CMTE: But nothing is stalled and, no, I'm not part of the problem. We passed the bill in the House. We are together plus 90 percent. There is a fight over a couple of pieces, but that's called democracy.

That's so much the sort of process, and I'm confident we'll have this worked out by the middle of June.


ROBERTS: That was May 22nd. It's now July 8. We still don't have a bill yet. I think some people are legitimately asking, where is it?

FRANK: Well, it's stuck in the Senate. I will repeat what you just quote me saying there's no -- I was not part of the problem, which is what I was taking exception to.

The House did pass the bill. We have had a problem with the United States Senate under both Republicans and Democrats. We've had a kind of a de facto amendment to the constitution so that everything can now be filibustered. And instead of 51 votes you need 60 to pass anything. But the Senate did vote on it yesterday.

I was off by a couple weeks. But it does look to me very much like the Senate is about to pass that bill and I think we will. I'm sure that the bill will be ready for the president's signature within a week or so.

ROBERTS: Uh-huh.

FRANK: Now, there was a question about the signature. But Senator Dodd had a tough job given the 60 vote margin. But with the cooperation of his colleague, Dick Shelby, they've gotten this through. And I think we will get something done this month.

ROBERTS: Let me get to the issue of the president's signature in just a second. But what are the sticking points between the House and the Senate on this? Because if the Senate does vote on it, and they might vote on it by Wednesday, it's still got to go to conference and get resolved between the two.

FRANK: Right. There was a difficulty with the Senate. You know, the Senate says, look, it's so hard for us to do anything. If we do anything at all please accept it. And as much as that is annoying, it's got some accuracy to it.

ROBERTS: But there's an issue of paying for it, right? Fully funded?

FRANK: Yes. That's one of the -- one of the big issues, actually, may appear technical to people. But it's really quite important. It's the single biggest issue. And that is whether or not the new regulation for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the administration is now accepted -- you need a public sector and a quasi public sector role here. So Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA all now play a much bigger role because the private markets pulled back.

The Senate bill says that significant new and changed -- and more intrusive regulation of Fanny Mac and Freddy Mac which we all agree should happen will happen immediately. We say in our bill, let's have a six-month period of phase in. That's also true for the Federal Home Loan banks. This may appear technical issues, but we think it would be very disruptive if on day one you try to make all these changes. The Senate bill says you do it right away. We say wait six months. That's actually become the biggest issue and I think there are ways that we can work that out.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN, ANCHOR: So between April, May, and it looks like June, there will be some 750,000 homes that went into foreclosure. That's 750,000 people at risk of losing their homes. You're fighting over issues like this --

FRANK: Well, it's an important issue. It may seem unimportant to you but whether or not Fanny Mae or --

ROBERTS: I'm not saying it's unimportant but you're fighting over these issues but meantime -- FRANK: I take it, well, you're wrong. That's not what we're fighting over. The Senate didn't pass the bill in April. We weren't fighting over that in April and May. The biggest problem is that the new rules of the United States Senate are you need 60 votes to pass anything. It has been very difficult to work out that deal. And Senator Dodd has done a good job but the House has been ready to pass this for some time. That's not my superior skills. That's the difference between the House and the Senate. The other big difference is, the one that you alluded to, we agree in the House but the Senate leadership that cities should get money to buy up property that has been foreclosed. It sits there. It causes problems. We did it --

ROBERTS: This is a $4 billion fund.

FRANK: We actually set $15 billion in the House in a separate bill. The Senate's put $4 billion in their bill through the Committee on Development Program which I very much support. The problem is twofold. First of all, the President says that's the issue on which he would veto the bill.

ROBERTS: Because he thinks that's bailing out lenders, not saving people from losing their homes.

FRANK: Right. How that makes any sense, I don't understand. How we're bailing out lenders when paying out customers of Bear Stearns at $30 billion, seven times as much money. Remember, this is a President who supported a $30 billion response to pay off the customers of Bear Stearns, which I thought he had to do. But if $30 billion for the people who dealt with Bear Stearns is okay, why $4 billion for the cities of America to buy foreclosed property isn't? It baffled me but there's also an issue, to be honest, in the House. We have a strong group in the house that says you have to do pay go. You cannot incur expenses or reduce taxes without offsetting that to keep the deficit from going. And that $4 billion is now in play over the issue. I hope it can get resolved. I think it's very important to do it.

ROBERTS: So bottom line, when will the help be coming to homeowners?

FRANK: Oh, I think by the end of this month.

ROBERTS: All right.

FRANK: And we hope that the -- and this is important too. The services, the people who are the ones who decide to foreclose, I strongly urge them to forebear for this next few weeks. Knowing this is likely to happen it would be very thoughtless of them to crack down now.

ROBERTS: OK. Well, we'll look at the end of this month and if it doesn't happen by then, we'll get you back.

FRANK: All right.

ROBERTS: Congressman Barney Frank, thanks. It's good to see you again. KIRAN CHETRY, CNN, ANCHOR: It's 30 minutes past the bottom of the hour now. And here's some of the top stories we're following. Three rescued American hostages talking about their five years in the jungle and how it feels to see their families again.


THOMAS HOWES, FORMER HOSTAGE: Almost 5 1/2 years ago we fell off the edge of the earth. My companions helped me cope with difficult positions during these years my company took extraordinary care of our families. Heroes carried out our spectacular risk and the team of caring professional here at Brooke Army Medical Center guiding us through the reintegration process. And my heartfelt thanks to all those people. We're doing well, but we cannot forget those that we left behind in captivity.


CHETRY: Thomas Howes, Mark Gonsalves and Keith Stansell were among 15 hostages rescued a week ago when the Colombian military tricked guerrillas into giving them up.

The world's major economic powers have agreed on a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. A statement urges all mayor economies to contribute. That's important for the U.S. since President Bush has been reluctant to commit to a number without China and India agreeing to be on board.

And making a safer cluster bomb. The Pentagon says it's trying to save civilian lives by requiring that 99 percent of the bombs actually go off when they're supposed to. This way civilians won't accidentally detonate a deadly explosion somewhere down the line.

Right now an evacuation warning for 5,000 more people in California. The sheriff's office says 2,000 buildings are being threatened by the campfire along i-70 near Camp Creek. It's one of 300 fires burning right now across the state. Fires in California have burned an area three times the size of New York City in just two weeks.

And with wildfires burning all over California, firefighters couldn't be everywhere. And that's why one homeowner took matters into his own hands. But our Dan Simon explains that his fire may have landed him and his brother in hot water.


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Kiran, fighting fire with fire. It can be an effective tool. But it's also dangerous. That's why it's best left up to professional firefighters. But one Big Sur homeowner decided to do it himself to try to protect his property. With flames bearing down on Big Sur, Micah Curtis had few good options to save his family's 55-acre property. Firefighters were fighting other fires. So Curtis did what he thought was right. He set a backfire. Something that usually only professionals do to burn the brush that fuels a fire's path.

SIMON (voice-over): How did you actually start the backfire?

MICAH CURTIS, BIG SUR RESIDENT: With highway flares.

SIMON: You used a highway flare?

CURTIS: Which is why we got busted. Because they were two miles away with binocular, watching us. And they say highway flare.

SIMON: Busted is right. Starting your own backfires is illegal because so much can go wrong. A backfire can start other unintended fires and cause massive damage.

Curtis doesn't exactly have a ton of experience. He was a firefighter 30 years ago during his college summers. But he says he knew what he was doing and credits his backfires with saving as many as eight houses on this mountain ridge including this one.

CURTIS: Our backfire saved us. If we hadn't had those backfires we would have been a meat in a sandwich between two flames coming up at 2:00 in the afternoon at 40 miles an hour winds.

SIMON: Curtis says the backfire was textbook perfect. Burning brush and then dying out. He claims some fire crews even praised his work.

CURTIS: Every fireman that comes up here that's a captain or anything like that said we did incredible work.

SIMON: But authorities say the out come is irrelevant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What if this was a bad process with a bad out come, possibly a fatality or burn over of firefighters or other citizens. He was fortunate but that's not something that we subscribe to.

SIMON: Fire crews say they warned Curtis to stop his backfires, but he continued. Curtis disputes that. He claimed that he stopped when he was told. What is not in dispute is the sheriff's office made an arrest. But instead of arresting Micah Curtis, they took his brother into custody.

CURTIS: My brother Ross says, somebody's got to be the fall guy here. It's got to be me.

ROSS CURTIS, MICAH CURTIS' BROTHER: Me and my cousin were talking. I said we need a sacrificial lamb to go down there because they're not going to leave until they have what they want.

SIMON: By taking the fall he says it allowed Micah to continue saving the family property. Ross Curtis could face up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. Was it all worth it?

CURTIS: 99 percent of the people should not do what we did. I'm not even saying it's a good idea we did it. But we did it. We saved our place. The proof is in the pudding.

SIMON: Now, when it comes to lighting your own backfires, there are exceptions here. The law says you can do it if you can prove it was absolutely necessary to save lives and property, so the brothers may actually have a solid legal argument here. Now it's up to prosecutors to decide whether or not they're going to move forward. John and Kiran, back to you.


ROBERTS: Dan Simon in the beauty of Big Sur there today. It's all ablaze though, unfortunately. 38 minutes after the hour, are we in a recession, are we not? Our Ali Velshi has been looking into public opinion on that and he joins us. Hey, Ali.

ALI VELSHI, CNN, SENIOR BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. If you are trying to figure this economy out, join the club. And if you're one of those people who thinks we're in a recession you're in the majority. I'll have that for you and the latest on a CNN opinion research corporation poll when we come back on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: You know, everybody's getting in on the act. I got an e- mail yesterday asking what the chrome dome of doom had to tell us yesterday.

VELSHI: Chrome dome of doom. Nice. Well, I'm going to share some news with you. And that is that we have a poll out from CNN, an opinion research poll corporation, asking how many of you think we're in a recession. Do you think we're in a recession? Here's the interesting news. 75 percent of you think we are. 25 percent of you think we're not. And that's actually down a little since April. Look at the trend there. In October 46 percent thought we're in a recession, then 61 percent in January, 79 percent in April, now 75 percent. That's interesting news. Fewer of you think we are in a recession. If we're in a recession how long do you think it'll last. We asked that question, too. Two percent of you think it will last less than six months, 18 percent think six months to a year, which is interesting because typically recessions these days are eight to ten months. 30 percent think one to two years and 23 percent think longer than that. It would actually be pretty deep for it to be more than ten months or even more than a year. So, we're a little more pessimistic than the data indicates. But the bottom line is we do want to share with you what you tell us. We ask these questions without any weight given to them. We put them out there and see what our viewers tell us, not our viewers, what Americans in general tell us. And that's what you've said. 75 percent think we're in a recession.

ROBERTS: Yes. Well, they could be given reason for being pessimistic.

VELSHI: Absolutely. Yes, the data may not show it but you'll behave a certain way if you think you're in a recession. So, that's what it is.

ROBERTS: Ali, thanks.


CHETRY: Thank you.

Meanwhile, tracking the first major hurricane of the season, Bertha, now a category 3. Rob Marciano is at our weather center for us down in Atlanta taking a look and tracking Bertha. Hey, Rob.

MARCIANO: Hey, Kiran. This thing blew up yesterday afternoon to a cat 3. Looks like it's trying to get a little bit weaker. It looks like it's trying to get a little bit farther to the north. We'll have a complete forecast track when AMERICAN MORNING comes right back.


CHETRY: That's a satellite shot of Hurricane Bertha, gaining strength overnight. The storm now a major category 3 with winds reaching 120 miles an hour. Right now it's churning through the Atlantic and not threatening anything or anyone just yet. But that could change which is why Rob Marciano has been tracking the storm for us. You know, it's interesting because back in 1996, Hurricane Bertha, also a category 3. And just looking at some of the research, it seems to have headed around the same areas or at least that's where it's headed right now.

MARCIANO: Yes. It started in the same area. It was a Cape Verde storm, which is really early for this time of year for that to happen. It started and became a hurricane on the same day, had a same name because they just recycle these names unless they become real bad like a Katrina. They'll actually retire them. This Bertha '96 actually hit North Carolina coast with a cat 2. This cat 3, right now in the middle of nowhere or at least in the middle of the Atlantic. 120 mile an hour winds. The satellite signature here beginning to show a little bit more disorganization, maybe a little bit of weakening. That's the forecast.

Not only is the forecast for it to go north away from the U.S., may even miss Bermuda, that would be nice, but also to head into cooler waters and stronger winds. So, we'll look for the winds and the storm itself to knock down into the 110 miles an hour range, 90 miles an hour range and eventually a little bit weaker than that.

So you are spared, it looks like, I'm pretty confident of that, across the North and South Carolina coastline, Florida as well. Folks out west into California, heat will begin to build. We're already starting to see more of an offshore flow there which would mean down sloping winds, lower humidity and higher temperatures. And that's going to be the on-going threat for the next several days. Firefighters will have their hands full with this really, really warm air. Kiran, and John, back to you.

CHETRY: Don't they retire the names of destructive hurricanes?

MARCIANO: They do. The real bad. Typically there are major hurricanes, category 3 or higher or they do a whole lot of damage. Bertha was probably right on that cusp. They may be saying right now they should have retired it. Maybe they will after this season. CHETRY: Thanks, Rob.

MARCIANO: Back to you, guys.

CHETRY: Well, it's a busy day still ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. Coming up at ten after the hour, presumptive republican presidential nominee John McCain will be joining us. His plan to fix the sagging economy and balance the budget in just a few years.

ROBERTS: Then at 18 minutes after the hour, looking for oil. The largest known oil deposit in the world is not in the Middle East. It's in the middle of Canada. And that's where we find our Ali Velshi on the energy hunt.

CHETRY: In about an hour, we're "Paging Dr. Gupta" and we're talking about your children and cholesterol. A new screening recommendation. What parents need to know in the next hour. You're watching the most news in the morning.


CHETRY: Well, from the sports page to the gossip column, Yankees all- star Alex Rodriguez has been served divorce papers after reports linked him to Madonna. His wife reportedly wants the mansion, the car and the cash. As Richard Roth found out, Yankee fans still just want some clutch hits.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alex Rodriguez, one of the biggest stars in baseball had a great Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, tying New York legend Mikey Mantle for career home runs. Monday morning, this man stepped up to the window, and it wasn't to buy tickets for the next game. He was sending a fast ball at A-Rod as he is known, filing divorce papers in Miami from Rodriguez's wife.

MAURICE KUTNER, ATTORNEY FOR CYNTHIA RODRIGUEZ: She seeks a dissolution of marriage based on the fact that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

ROTH: The material girl, Madonna, has been linked to A-Rod since both have been reported to have marriage problems. New York city newspapers and national magazines have had a grand slam time reporting on sightings of the baseball player with the $275 million contract and Madonna, music and style icon.

IAN DREW, "US WEEKLY": This story is really a nuclear bomb in the stories of celebrity journalism.

ROTH: The divorce papers blame Rodriguez for extramarital affairs and other marital misconduct. The couple have a prenuptial agreement, which could be contested.

RAOUL FELDER, DIVORCE ATTORNEY: If the pre-nup is set aside, we could be talking hundreds of millions of dollars. ROTH: Cynthia Rodriguez's attorney told that A-Rod and Madonna had an affair of the heart but not sexual infidelity. You might say this is home plate in the Madonna-A-Rod connection, the Kabbalah religious center on New York's east side.

DREW: Kabbalah is very key because Madonna is a loyal Kabbalah follower. Everyone in her world, from her manager, Guy Ritchie and now Alex Rodriguez follows Kabbalah.

ROTH: In a statement, Madonna said, "I am not romantically involved in any way with Alex Rodriguez. I have nothing to do with the state of his marriage or what spiritual path he may choose to study."

A-Rod and Madonna recall a past celebrity coupling of a Yankee and a star. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, the fans speak.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think like most Yankee fans, I'm more interested in his on-field activities than what he's doing off the field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know why he's bothering. She's old and worn out. He's a young virile guy. he can get better than that.

ROTH: Richard Roth, CNN, New York.



CHETRY (voice-over): Fighting fire with fire.

MICAH CURTIS, HOMEOWNER: We haven't had those backfires, we would have been a meat in a sandwich.

CHETRY: A controlled burn that saved a home and got a man arrested.

Plus, the McCain makeover, taking on explosive issues, promising to balance the budget, win a war and give money back.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: American families need tax relief and I, not my opponent will deliver it.

CHETRY: The republican candidate is here live, next hour. You're watching the most news in the morning.





JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": Big scare today for Barack Obama. His airplane had to make an unscheduled landing because of mechanical problems. Well, the pilot is steering to the left, the plane was apparently drifting to the right. SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're in St. Louis. We can't get down there fast enough.


CHETRY: That plane trouble forced Barack Obama to land in St. Louis and deliver an economic speech by phone to people in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both candidates making the economy issues number one in the campaign trail today. And Barack Obama says that John McCain's criticism of his tax plan doesn't add up.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that during this statements he was also making some suggestions that my plan would raise taxes on the middle class. That is absolutely not the case and everybody who has looked at it has said that, in fact, my tax cuts are three times more likely to go to the middle class than John McCain's.


CHETRY: Obama says that under his plan 95 percent of Americans would get a tax cut.

Well John McCain is rolling out his re-tooled campaign, focusing solely on the number on issues to Americans right now and that's the economy. It's evident that his campaign is under new management but will this but will this new effort to transform the candidate work. Here's CNN's Jessica Yellin.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's being billed as the new and improved John McCain, a sure-footed candidate working to reconnect with voters and recapture the magic that made him a political superstar. At first blush, the transformation may be hard to detect.

MCCAIN: I have a plan to grow this economy, create more and better jobs, and get America moving again.

YELLIN: OK, so the difference might be subtle, but the campaign team is hailing a few improvements. It appointed a Bush veteran to run McCain's daily operations. Then it named Rudy Giuliani's former campaign manager as political director and the candidate is on message, talking about Americans' top concern, the economy.

MCCAIN: The choice in this election is stark and simple. Senator Obama will raise your taxes, I won't.

YELLIN: Remember that ghoulish green? It's history. In it's place, a people friendly forum and those awkward teleprompter-guided speeches, they've been canned in favor of town Q&A session, which produced can't make that up moments with voters like this woman.

UNIDENTFIED FEMALE: You tax us when we eat, you tax us when we sleep, you tax us every which way. Get off of my back!

YELLIN: The McCain team is touting these cosmetic changes and management improvements, like better coordination with organizers at the local level as signs of a newly revitalized campaign. But a new backdrop doesn't give the candidate new mojo and this political observer sees deeper problems.

STUART ROTHENBERG, EDITOR, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: He started to compromise his own brand in this year when the republican brand is so damaged, having a nominee like McCain with a maverick reputation is absolutely crucial. And to the extent that he loses that reputation, is seen as a cookie cutter republican, just a George Bush republican, then his campaign is in trouble and his party's in trouble.

YELLIN: McCain was the anti-republican republican. The guy who broke with party orthodoxy, opposing Bush's tax cuts, opposing offshore drilling, and bucking the party line on immigration reform. Now he's malding standard republican talking points on all these issues. One reason Barack Obama's branding him the next George Bush.

OBAMA: I often say that John McCain is running to serve out George Bush's third term. But that's not fair to George Bush.

YELLIN: But if there's one thing McCain excels at, it's coming back from behind. He showed glimmers of that iconoclast, criticizing the Bush administration for excessive spending.

MCCAIN: The government has grown by 60 percent in the last eight years. 60 percent, that's simply inexcusable.

YELLIN: But only for a moment and then it was on to the awkward free makeover John McCain.

MCCAIN: If you believe you should pay more taxes, I'm the wrong candidate for you. Senator Obama is your man.

YELLIN: Sometimes it's all in the delivery and for John McCain, practice time is running out. Jessica Yellin, CNN, Washington.


CHETRY: And stick around, we're going to be speaking with Senator John McCain live coming up in just about 10 minutes right here on the most news in the morning.

ROBERTS: Closing in on the top of the hour now. Here's some of the top stories that we're following. A $300 billion bill to help homeowners facing foreclosure is on its way for a final vote after the Senate voted to advance the bill yesterday. If passed, reconciled with the House bill, and then signed by the president, who's threatening to veto it, by the way, it would help homeowners refinance their loans into affordable mortgages. Earlier I spoke to one of the bill's architect, Congressman Barney Frank, about why it's been held up in the Senate.


REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-MA), CHAIRMAN, FINANCIAL SERVICES: The biggest problem is that the new rules of the United States are that you need 60 votes to pass anything and it's been really difficult to work out that deal. And Senator Dodd has done a good job, but the house has been ready to pass this for some time. That's not my superior skill, that's the difference between the House and the Senate.


ROBERTS: Congressman Frank believes that help could be on its way though by the end of this month.

The White House hailing an agreement by the leaders of the G-8 summit in Japan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the year 2050. A joint declaration says all major economies must contribute. That's critical for the United States which has been reluctant to move forward without the cooperation of two non-G8 members, China and India.