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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Plane Catches Fire at Houston-Hobby Airport; Soldier Charged with Killing Five Comrades; GOP Infighting; Pilots' Last Words; Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?
Aired May 12, 2009 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. Tonight we begin with breaking news: drama in the air and then on the ground in Houston. A Southwest Airlines 737 Flight 519 from New Orleans inbound to Houston-Hobby Airport. You see it there. 52 people on board.
Shortly after touchdown, the normal small puff of smoke from the wheels on landing, but then a larger puff of smoke, then flames from the right main landing gear. You're about to see -- the camera will zoom back in. There had been some early reports of problems with the right landing gear.
On the runway there you see upon touching down, the wheel burst into flames. Several minutes went by. The rubber brake fluid was burning. Then a short time later, chutes and passengers fleeing the aircraft; the evacuation happening according to procedure on the side away from the suspected fire.
Everybody, we're told, escaped unharmed. The airport operations went on without interruption.
With us now on the phone staff is Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan. Paul, what can you tell us about this? What happened?
PAUL FLANINGAN, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES SPOKESMAN (via telephone): We're still trying to determine the exact cause of what happened. But at this point what we know is when Flight 519 that came in from New Orleans to Houston landed, the tire blew and caught fire.
And we're very fortunate that we had no injuries, and we're definitely -- we're really happy that our customers and our crew reacted in a really orderly fashion, and they really followed the right procedures. But we did...
COOPER: Had there been any advance notice of any problem?
FLANINGAN: At this time, I'm not too sure about that. All I do know is that when we did land, this did happen. And then an emergency was declared immediately, and the fire trucks were rolled out to the scene.
COOPER: All right. And everyone's fine? No injuries?
FLANINGAN: Everyone's fine. They're back in the terminal and we're definitely making re-accommodations right now.
COOPER: Well, it's good to see everyone got evacuated safely. Paul we appreciate your time. Paul Flaningan.
FLANINGAN: Thanks, Anderson.
COOPER: All right other news now: new developments on that deadly soldier-on-soldier shooting in Iraq. The alleged killer's father, back home speaking out, he says his son broke, and the Army broke him.
Forty-four-year-old Sergeant John Russell, that's him there, is charged tonight with five counts of murder after opening fire at a military stress clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. He's a communications specialist from Sherman, Texas. A 21-year veteran of Bosnia, Kosovo, his third tour of duty in Iraq. He's now in the Camp Victory stockade.
Exactly what happened becoming clear: trouble at the clinic, a fight on the way out, several hours later a struggle, apparently a stolen weapon and a commandeered vehicle, and then the killings. As for the reasons, Sergeant Russell's father says he knows and he blames the Army.
Ed Lavandera has more.
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It started with a fight inside this combat stress clinic in Camp Liberty, Baghdad, between Sergeant John Russell and other army officers. Russell was being escorted back to his barracks when he snapped.
His father talked about it for the first time today.
WILBURN RUSSELL, SOLDIER'S FATHER: He said they got (INAUDIBLE) in the facility; he beat the crap out of the guy and took the gun away from him.
LAVANDERA: Military officials say Sergeant Russell then drove back to the clinic and killed five U.S. soldiers. But Russell's father says it wasn't combat stress that made him kill but fellow soldiers who pushed him over the edge.
RUSSELL: They laughed, he told me. He may have even said he had only two days alive because some of the officers had threatened him.
LAVANDERA: John Russell's father and son spoke extensively with us about the Army sergeant's experience in Iraq.
RUSSELL: They overstressed him. They broke him. They ruined his life. They told him, "You're an idiot. You don't belong in here. We're going to break you. We're going to get you out of here."
LAVANDERA: Russell was on his third tour in Iraq. His family says the 21-year Army veteran never showed signs of post-traumatic stress. And even if he did, he wouldn't have talked about it.
RUSSELL: He wouldn't ask for help if he had to, you know.
LAVANDERA: He would have?
RUSSELL: No, he would not have.
LAVANDERA: You think that's maybe why they...
RUSSELL: He thinks he's a John Wayne, a man's man. He's laid back. He's real quiet.
JOHN RUSSELL, SON OF SERGEANT RUSSELL: Something in his mind just went off, and he just had no control over it is what I think.
LAVANDERA: So you said earlier, he's not a violent guy.
J. RUSSELL: No, not at all. Not at all.
LAVANDERA: Military officials in Baghdad say Sergeant Russell was ordered to undergo counseling last week because of unspecified words and actions.
MAJOR GENERAL DAVID PERKINS, U.S. ARMY: We just know that his chain of command had concerns about him. He had been undergoing counseling within the command. Again, they had already taken the immediate measure of removing his weapon.
LAVANDERA: Wilburn Russell says his son feared some army officers were trying to run him out of the military with a dishonorable discharge five years before he could retire.
(on camera): Sergeant Russell's son says he last heard from his father on April 25th in an email wishing him a happy birthday and saying that he was looking forward to the end of his deployment when he was supposed to come home here for a short visit in less than two months.
Ed Lavandera, CNN, Sherman, Texas.
COOPER: It's a tragedy for so many families tonight. Let's "Dig Deeper" with psychologist Jeff Gardere and Patrick Campbell of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America.
Jeff, what do you make of what you heard from the parent -- from the father of this man?
JEFF GARDERE, PSYCHOLOGIST: Well, from what I heard from Wilburn, I think there are a couple things that are going on. He's saying within the past two days, his son was really despondent. The military was his whole life.
So, it tells me within the two days of these heinous shootings that something was going on, that this guy was at the breaking point. And I find it interesting, Anderson, that they're saying that they flagged him and figured that he needed some help right away. And he was escorted.
So, I see that as a civilian as some sort of an involuntary hospitalization, if you will. And on that particular base, even though people do walk around with guns, they're not supposed to be loaded.
So, there are some questions for me as to why this guy would go in, why they turned him away after they said he had to be there and how he got his hands on a gun with bullets.
COOPER: Patrick, you served in Iraq. The fact that Sergeant Russell's gun was taken from him, that's a pretty extraordinary step in an environment like Iraq.
PATRICK CAMPBELL, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS FOR AMERICA: Right. I mean, everywhere you went, you went to the chow hall, or you even went to the shower, you brought your weapon with you. So, if they took his weapon away from him, that meant that he was either a danger to himself or a danger to other people.
COOPER: Jeff, there are some are calling for face-to-face evaluations for all military personnel who are serving overseas, particularly with folks serving long tours, multiple tours. He was serving three tours. Would that make a difference?
GARDERE: I think it would make a great difference because from the numbers we see, they're saying that people who come back from Iraq, we see about 15 percent of them have some sort of severe depression and PTSD. But in fact, we think those numbers are extremely low, Anderson. We think those numbers are much, much higher.
COOPER: Because the stigma is so great. People don't come forward.
GARDERE: The stigma is really huge. We know that one in six people coming from Iraq have some sort of PTSD, but yet six out of ten will not get help because they're afraid that their superiors and their fellow soldiers will see them as being weak.
So, there's got to be a way that they can break through that stigma and give each person a face-to-face on what may be going on psychologically.
COOPER: Patrick, how much help is there for service members while they're still in active duty?
CAMPBELL: Well, while you're actually in Iraq or Afghanistan, there are these roving combat stress teams that will actually, after a traumatic event, will go and meet with the different service members.
When you get home, there is screening and assessments, but like was just said, these assessments are paper screens. You have to self- identify yourself as having a problem. And I know for myself, even when I did fill out that paperwork, it didn't catch the fact that I had PTSD. And it actually took a friend of mine telling me if I didn't go seek help, that they wouldn't be my friend anymore.
COOPER: So, if you're in theater in a combat zone on a base like Iraq and you're feeling depressed and you're feeling whatever you're feeling, you have to be the one coming forward? I mean, there's no sort of general screening, or do you just hope that maybe one of your commanding officers sees something?
CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, there's no individual in the military, so you hope that your battle buddy or one of your line leaders like your team leader or squad leader is looking out for you.
But if they're not trained on what to look for, then they're not going to be able to make the decisions they need to make to get you off the line and get you the care you need.
COOPER: It's a tragedy all the way around for all these families.
Patrick, I appreciate your time...
CAMPBELL: Thank you.
COOPER: And Jeff Gardere as well. Thank you. I appreciate it.
GARDERE: Always a pleasure, Anderson, thank you.
COOPER: There's a lot more online at ac360.com about the killings and the kind of post-traumatic stress the Camp Liberty clinic was actually treating.
You can also find a video explaining the causes and symptoms of PTSD. AC360 is also where you can tell us what you think of the story. Join the live chat happening right now. And you can also check out Erica Hill's live webcasts during our breaks.
Up next, Liz Cheney, defending her dad, Dick Cheney, defending his record. We'll also look at the infighting in the Republican Party. The latest war of words between Republicans and what it means for the party moving forward.
Then, 50 people died when a plane went down in Buffalo. Tonight some disturbing questions about the captain's record, the airline's training and prohibitive conduct on the flight deck leading up to the crash.
And later, the West Point soldier who's become the first to be let go for his sexual orientation in the Obama administration. He's fluent in Arabic, badly needed in the fight against terrorism and has a distinguished record.
We'll talk with him about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forced him out and the president who promises to change it.
More, too, on Miss California, who now says she's the victim of a campaign to undermine not just her reign but also the Constitution itself; quite a press conference today. Details ahead.
COOPER: President Obama had a lot of fun at Michael Steele's expense at this weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner, the Chairman of the Republican Party. He told the chairman, "No, the GOP does not qualify for a bailout, and Rush Limbaugh does not count as a troubled asset."
Whatever you happen to think of Rush Limbaugh and wherever you stands politically, there's no question the Republicans are taking their lumps right now. And some of those lumps, including another one today, are self-inflicted.
The "Raw Politics" from Candy Crowley.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is the latest in what some party officials see as an unsettling, unhelpful string of Republican-on-Republican assaults. GOP Chairman Michael Steele on why Mitt Romney did not win the Republican Presidential primary.
MICHAEL STEELE, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CHAIRMAN: It was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism.
CROWLEY: Suggesting the most reliable Republican voters are intolerant is called being off message. Suggesting the most reliable Republican voters are intolerant of a man likely to run again is called a double oops.
John McCain does damage control.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think the fact that Mitt Romney succeeded as much as he did and remains an important and central figure in our Republican Party -- and I wouldn't be surprised to see him run again -- is a testimony, I think, to the inclusiveness of the Republican Party.
CROWLEY: Circular firing squads are a Democratic specialty. It's new for Republicans who are rudderless and leaderless and fighting over how to win elections.
Some think the party can win with ideological purity. Others argue you can't make the party purer, you have to make it bigger.
ED GILLESPIE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: In a country of 300 million people, for one party to have a majority of the voters, you have to be inherently a coalition. You've got to assemble a lot of different groups of people. And not all of those groups of people will agree on every plank in the platform.
CROWLEY: And that split explains why the more moderate Mitt Romney sniffed when told that the more purely conservative Sarah Palin made "Time" magazine's "100 Most Influential People" list.
MITT ROMNEY, FORMER REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Was that the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people? I'm not sure.
CROWLEY: Party purity versus the big tent also explains Colin Powell's observation that Rush Limbaugh hurts Republicans. Rush Limbaugh's suggestion that Colin Powell leave the party and Dick Cheney's statement that he thought Colin Powell had already left the party.
Not to be left out, '08 wannabe Mike Huckabee, he launched a rocket at a new Republican group set up as a kind of mini-think tank to push the party forward. The group includes Romney, Jeb Bush, John McCain and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, all big-tenters.
Steamed that they seemed to want to downplay social issues like abortion, Huckabee denigrated the group's plan to go on a listening tour, writing that "it was hard to keep from laughing out loud." He called it sad that Jeb Bush thinks the party needs to get past Ronald Reagan. The hits just keep on coming.
COOPER: And joining us now Candy Crowley and senior political analyst David Gergen.
Candy, these circular firing squads, as you mentioned, I mean, is there any sense of who's going to be left standing? Who's winning at this point?
CROWLEY: Well, they haven't figured that out. And no, it really is early. When a party goes out of power so spectacularly as the Republicans have over the last couple of elections, it's going to take a while for a leader to emerge.
And we should say that when a party is out of power, usually the leader emerges when they nominate their next Presidential nominee.
So it is fairly normal. It's just that it is so public at this point that it's capturing everybody's attention. By the way, the Democrats love it so they stoke it.
COOPER: And no doubt about that. David Gergen, is this normal? I mean, how does this one rank? You've seen plenty of internal party fights.
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's not normal among Republicans, it often happens among Democrats. But Republicans usually heed, and remember Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, and that is "Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican."
This party needs a chairman that can keep his mouth shut and try to keep peace, not one who throws oil on the flames.
COOPER: Yes, we'll ask you about Michael Steele in a moment. And we're going to have more next on the Cheneys and Michael Steele and how the GOP retools to try to take on the Obama administration.
Also tonight, cockpit conversations from that doomed flight into Buffalo. The disturbing revelations about the captain's record and then moments leading up to the icy crash that took 50 lives.
And later, Elizabeth Edwards, what she said tonight on "LARRY KING LIVE" about her unfaithful husband, and his running for President and her decision to go public. That and more ahead.
COOPER: We're back on more about the troubles of the GOP. While some Republicans are targeting each other, Dick Cheney continues to take aim at President Obama.
Defending her father's harsh attacks, daughter Liz Cheney appeared on MSNBC to explain why the former Vice President believes the new administration's policies are putting the nation at risk. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LIZ CHENEY, DAUGHTER OF DICK CHENEY: Because of that, he feels very strongly that he's got an obligation to speak out. It's not -- I know there's this notion of sort of once you've left office, you should be silent. And I would point out that that actually isn't the tradition in that you've got people -- like Vice President Al Gore, who's been very vocal in his criticism of future administrations.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Joining us again, Candy Crowley and senior political analyst David Gergen. Candy, is she right about Al Gore?
CROWLEY: Yes, Al Gore was critical of the Bush administration, not quite as early as Dick Cheney has been about the Obama administration, but he has been, and it's not unheard of that even presidents have been critical.
President Jimmy Carter, for instance, was pretty roundly criticized when he began to vociferously go after the Bush administration. Nonetheless, this is pretty early on. It is pretty constant. The former vice president has been out there a lot. He was out again today talking about this.
So, I actually think his daughter here is telling the truth. He totally believes that he needs to be out there defending the Bush/Cheney record because nobody else is.
COOPER: It's interesting, David, it's not just former Vice President Cheney. His daughter, as we just saw. I just want to play for our viewers something else that she said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHENEY: But my dad feels very strongly that what the current administration's doing is making the country less safe, dismantling the policies that they put in place after 9/11 that were very much focused on what we needed to do to prevent a future attack.
You know, it would be the easiest thing in the world for him to sort of go fishing and spend time with his grandkids, but he worries about the world his grandkids are going to inherit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: If they really believe this, that the country's in jeopardy because of what the Obama administration is doing, you would think that they would also be attacking Republicans for not defending the record of the Bush administration or defending the vice president.
GERGEN: That's a very good -- that's a fair point, Anderson. I do believe that Liz Cheney is right. I think that this is -- does go to the core -- and we were talking about this last night -- I think Dick Cheney almost has a Churchillian view of this, and that is somebody has got to stand up and be the voice in the wilderness. And you can get pounded for it. But, you know, it's ultimately protecting the country.
But I do think that the other Republicans -- he deserves -- George W. Bush deserves more of a chorus. And I think that you've got a good point on that.
It's also interesting, Anderson, isn't it, the way the daughters have now come forward as such staunch and outspoken allies of their parents. We had this with Meghan McCain, John McCain's daughter. We had this with Chelsea Clinton. They're playing a new role in American politics. I think it's striking and actually welcome.
COOPER: Candy, why haven't more Republicans come forward defending the vice president?
CROWLEY: A lot of them actually think -- it's mostly the Bush/Cheney era, I will tell you that a lot of conservatives adore Dick Cheney.
They think he's right on these issues. They weren't all that crazy about him going after Colin Powell and saying that he already thought he had left the party. But they do believe the things that Dick Cheney is saying. And some of them have made the same points he has made.
The problem is, and the way the former Vice President sees it, is that specifically the Bush/Cheney administration is not being defended, and quite frankly, there are a number of Republicans who think that the Bush/Cheney administration is why they're no longer in power.
COOPER: David, does all this -- I mean this infighting, these problems the Republicans are having -- A, does it go away, one, if Michael Steele -- I mean, well, let me ask you, do you think Michael Steele is going to remain chairman of the GOP? GERGEN: I cannot imagine he will be chairman, say, a year from now. I don't know how it's going to unfold, but I think going into the 2010 elections, they're going to want -- I would think there'll be a new chairman.
COOPER: Has he just been a mistake from the get-go?
GERGEN: Well, there's a lot of buyer's remorse, I think, within the Republican Party. I don't think they expected anyone with quite this undisciplined and sort of freewheeling as he is. He does sort of shoot from the hip a lot.
It's been -- does this mean the Republican Party is down and out forever? No. I think that Candy is right, they'll come back. They'll find their voice, but boy, right now they need ideas.
You know, what is the Republican alternative on health care? Do we know? I don't think anybody has any idea what that is. What is the Republican alternative on global warming and energy? Where are they on nuclear power? Why aren't they making the case for nuclear power?
It's very, very odd to have all these recriminations and not a set of ideas.
COOPER: It's interesting, though, Candy, I mean, four years ago everyone is liberals and Democrats were moaning about the death of the Democratic Party and how it's never going to come back, certainly.
I mean, does all it take it is, you know, one or two strong leaders or strong candidates and then it's sort of everything switches?
CROWLEY: Well, taking Capitol Hill first, generally over the course of history, a minority party comes back into power when the majority messes up. I mean, it just -- it's cyclical. Sometimes it takes decades. Sometimes it takes a shorter time.
As far as the White House is concerned, in general, the American people tend to switch over from Republicans and Democrats. Eight years of any one party in the White House tends to be a long time for the American people. They tend to like the idea of change.
On the other hand, there were eight years of Ronald Reagan and four years of George Bush, the father. So it's slightly different on both sides. But I think it is -- it will be a while before we see the Republican Party become a majority party on Capitol Hill.
COOPER: All right, Candy Crowley and David Gergen, thanks very much.
Coming up next on 360 -- disturbing new details in the Buffalo commuter plane crash that killed 50 in February. New voice recorder transcripts tell of panic in the cockpit. Meanwhile, government officials are questioning the pilot's training. Randi Kaye investigates. Also, "don't ask, don't tell": President Obama says he wants to get rid of the policy. So, how come he's not doing anything to prevent a West Point graduate and Arab linguist from being removed from the National Guard for being gay? We'll talk to the soldier, Lieutenant Dan Choi tonight.
And then, keeping the crown but creating some new controversy. The fight and Miss California speaking out in a performance only Donald Trump could have created.
We'll be right back.
COOPER: Quickly updating our breaking news: 52 people safe tonight, some already on their way elsewhere, after a scary landing and evacuation.
It happened at Houston's Hobby Airport. A Southwest Airlines 737 Flight 519 from New Orleans inbounds to Houston, 47 passengers, five crew members.
The approach looked normal then, shortly after touchdown. The camera's zooms out for awhile, it's just going to zoom back in. We're going to show you what happened right after touchdown. The right main landing gear apparently caught fire. At least the tire caught fire.
Several minutes went by as the rubber and the brake fluid burned off. You see it happening right there. Taxis down for a while, then a short time later, chutes opened, fleeing passengers, the evacuation happening according to procedure on the side away from the fire. Everybody escaped unharmed. Airport operations went on without interruptions.
Now, we still don't know whether the crew have reported a problem prior to landing. We're trying to figure that one out right now.
While that investigation gets under way, tonight we have the final word from Flight 3407, that commuter plane that crashed near Buffalo in February killing 50 people. It was the deadliest air disaster in America in seven years.
But exactly what caused the Turboprop to fall from the sky? Investigators are still looking at that. And as part of the investigation, the FAA released the voice recorder transcript which reveals the final few minutes inside the cockpit. But it also offers some perhaps some clues to a possible cause.
Randi Kaye has an "Up Close" look at the investigation.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Continental connection Flight 3407 tumbled to the ground near Buffalo, New York, panic in the cockpit. According to a transcript just released today from the plane's voice recorder, pilot Marvin Renslow blurts out "Jesus Christ" and "We're down." First Officer Rebecca Shaw starts to say something but is cut short by her own scream. Disturbing details as federal investigators gather in Washington this week to figure out what went wrong.
(on camera): Here's what we know. At 10:16 p.m. February 12th, the landing gear was down but the plane's speed had dropped to a dangerously low level. To avoid a stall, an emergency system kicked in known as a stick pusher. That sent the plane into a temporary dive which is supposed to help it regain speed.
Investigators believe Captain Renslow tried to override the system; what experts say may have been a fatal mistake.
WALLY WARNER, CHIEF TEST PILOT, BOMBARDIER: Obviously, the initial reaction to the stall warning was incorrect. And that set the course of action for what followed.
KAYE: The government's animation shows when the pilot pulled back on the controls to lift the plane up instead of letting it dive forward to regain speed, the plane rolled left, then right. In fact, it was practically on its back before rolling left again. It continued to stall. Finally it flipped over and crashed.
(voice-over): Perhaps most shocking, new details about pilot Renslow's lack of training. Colgan Air, which operated the flight, acknowledged the pilot had never trained in a flight simulator with the emergency system that activated on board.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know of any stick training or stick pusher training that was done in the actual Q-400?
PAUL PRYOR, COLGAN AIR: In the simulator, no. In ground school portion, it is covered.
KAYE: Turns out the FAA does not require such hands-on training.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe this was a recoverable stall?
WARNER: My opinion is yes.
KAYE: And there's more. Captain Renslow had just 110 flying hours in the Q-400 Turboprop. Colgan Air says the captain was fully qualified but had failed five training tests.
Margie Brandquist's sister died in the crash.
MARGIE BRANDQUIST, PLANE CRASH VICTIM'S SISTER: We put our lives in the hands that people we assume that the FAA and the airlines are properly training.
KAYE: Training to deal with all kinds of emergencies, even ice which was a concern for the co-pilot. The government's report shows minutes before the plane hit the ground she expressed her fear of flying in icy conditions. Fear it could cause a crash.
In this crash, it may not have been ice at all. But something aviation investigators seem to believe was much more avoidable, lack of experience.
Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.
COOPER: Such a tragedy.
Join the live chat happening now at ac360.com. And also Erica Hill's live webcasts during the breaks.
Up next, President Obama says he wants to overturn "don't ask, don't tell," the law that requires gays and lesbians in the military to keep their sexuality secret, but it hasn't happened yet, and service members continue to be discharged. We'll find out why.
We're going to talk to Lieutenant Dan Choi, a West Point graduate, an Arab linguist recently told he's being discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."
Also speaking out, Elizabeth Edwards on her husband's affair and her choice to write about it.
And Miss California, she's keeping her crown and she got emotional today when talking about her freedom of speech. Was she wrong? We'll let you decide. We'll hear what she had to say.
We'll be right back.
COOPER: Tonight, new controversy over gays in the military despite a promise to repeal the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The White House today confirmed that President Obama will not intervene in current cases against men and women who admit they're gay.
To date, more than 12,000 gays and lesbians have been booted from service and the number is growing even as the president says he believes "don't ask, don't tell" does not serve the national interest.
In a moment I'll talk with an infantry platoon leader recently told he's being dismissed under the policy. But first, Joe Johns reports on a "Nation Divided."
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a campaign promise.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to overturn it now. How am I going to do it?
JOHNS: To this day its critics are still asking, how is the president going to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell?"
(on camera): The law that requires gays and lesbians in the military to keep their sexual orientation a secret and their commanders not to inquire about it has been in place now for a decade and a half. Discharging more than 12,000 military personnel, some since president Obama took office.
(voice-over): Opponents of the law want quick action.
AUBREY SARVIS, SERVICEMEMBERS LEGAL DEFENSE NETWORK: We're urging him to move out with a sense of urgency. Every day service members are being discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" for one reason only, because of their sexual orientation.
JOHNS: The issue could hijack the White House agenda because so many people like Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert MaGinnis oppose gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
COL. ROBBER MAGINNIS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): You have forced intimate situations where you say, look, you know, you're in a room with this person. And that's an order. Then, in fact, you can begin to have the residuals, the morale issue; the whole issue about retention and recruitment come up.
JOHNS: Still, the administration says it's a work in progress.
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president with former members of the joint chiefs and why the administration believes that the policy isn't working for our national interest. To get fundamental reform in this instance requires a legislative vehicle.
JOHNS: Mr. Obama has said "don't ask, don't tell" is a waste of taxpayer resources because it requires the military to get rid of well-trained individuals.
OBAMA: Why would we spend money kicking out Arab-speaking linguists that we need right now?
JOHNS: It happened to this guy, trained as an army interrogator.
ALEXANDER NICHOLSON, SERVICEMEMBERS UNITED: A colleague in my unit, in the intelligence unit, happened to find out I was gay, didn't have a problem with it until a little bit later and decided used it for spite, kicked me out. The army lost a multilingual human intelligence collector just six months after 9/11.
JOHNS: It's clear the president hasn't backed down, even sending this handwritten letter to one discharged lesbian service member promising to fulfill the campaign commitment. The question is how and when.
Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.
COOPER: Well, 1st Lieutenant Daniel Choi is an Iraq combat veteran, fluent in Arabic, founder of KnightsOut.org, an advocacy organization for West Point graduates who are gay. He's also the most recent service member to fall under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Lieutenant Choi joins me now.
It's interesting when you hear then-candidate Obama saying, you know, why would we kick out an Arab linguist? You are an Arab linguist, fluent in Arabic, at a time when we need Arab linguists more than ever before. What do you think when you hear that the White House today, basically confirming that, while the president may oppose "don't ask, don't tell," he's not going to get involved in any individual cases and not really going to do anything about you or the others who are being discharged right now?
1ST LT. DANIEL CHOI, ARMY NATIONAL GUARD: It's really insulting to me. It's really a slap in the face. I've been insulted before, personally. But because it's saying that my unit was not professional enough to deal with the gay soldier that had capabilities, that's really...
COOPER: Your unit knew you were gay?
CHOI: Right, in the New York Army National Guard. They said that they weren't professional, that they weren't, you know, maintaining good order and discipline, which is completely false. That was the argument that was given to me in the letter.
COOPER: Did you have soldiers saying anything to you? I mean, pro or con?
CHOI: Actually when I came out, I thought nobody actually knew, because for four days while we were doing rifle marksmanship and shooting live ammo down range, nobody said anything. So I thought, "Wow, nobody knows. I've got to tell them in a different way."
But afterwards when we all hung out, they said, "We know, and we don't care. It's really what kind of capabilities that you have to the team." And some of them actually went up and said, "Because you were honest with us, because you trusted us enough, that speaks volumes of the kind of confidence you have in the unit." In the end it made the unit stronger.
And so as a family, we're supporting each other. We know. We trust each other enough to tell the truth.
COOPER: I mean, you heard some veterans, some people in the piece, saying unit cohesion will suffer. You don't buy that?
CHOI: Unit cohesion gets stronger whenever you have trust. Unit cohesion is based off of trust.
COOPER: What if there are soldiers uncomfortable with somebody who's gay?
CHOI: I was uncomfortable the moment that I went into the military. There's a lot of things, bringing a lot of people together from all different facets of society. That's what makes the military strong, is the diversity that we have. It comes from all different communities in America.
When we go to war, we all need the support of each other, but we need the support of every community in America, as well.
People are also uncomfortable with a lot of things. I mean, I'm Asian-American. There's people of different races and genders. And it's about working together, when you have a mission.
COOPER: They also say it would hurt people from signing up again to join the military, retention.
COOPER: Do you buy that?
CHOI: Me, I might get kicked out, you know, within a month here. And I'll tell you my secret plan, you know. Once they repeal this law, I'll be the first one right in that recruiting station.
COOPER: You would join again?
CHOI: Oh, yes.
CHOI: Well, it comes back to the reason why somebody joins the Army. Whether they're gay or they're straight or they're black or they're white or a woman or a man, they want to serve. And they're selfless. They're patriotic. That's the reason why anybody joins.
COOPER: What is it like being gay in the military? I mean, at West Point, you knew you were gay? Did -- you didn't -- did you tell the people there?
CHOI: No. I was -- actually, I was very terrified that anybody was going to find out: looking behind my shoulder, careful and parsing a lot of the words that I said. I never had a relationship myself, like, while I was in the military. I lived under "don't ask, don't tell" for a decade. And...
COOPER: You didn't have any relationships while you were in the military?
CHOI: No. And actually, only my last couple of months I started one, and I found out what love was and that I really couldn't stop talking about it. And I was asking some of the soldiers in my unit, what do you do when you have a girlfriend?
COOPER: They were giving you relationship advice?
CHOI: Right. And, you know, I couldn't come out to them. So, it was, like, how can somebody lie about something that's so great or something about their identity?
COOPER: What happens next? You're going to fight this. CHOI: Right. Fight this tooth and nail. I'm going to go up and -- there's going to be a board of officers, and I'm going to explain to them, "I'm still gay. I'm here. I'm ready to serve."
COOPER: And if you get -- if they do, in fact, go through and discharge you, what will you do?
COOPER: You could leave now with an honorable discharge.
CHOI: That's right.
COOPER: But you could risk not getting an honorable discharge.
CHOI: Right. One of the choices is just shut up and go away, and we'll give you an honorable. It will be comfortable.
And really, I will continue speaking out. I will continue reminding all the soldiers -- I mean, if there's anyone that's listening right now, a gay soldier, I just want to tell them that you are honorable. And you're not alone. There's so many of us that are serving. And it's an important time to be serving right now, in a time of war.
And I can't promise anything myself about legislation or when. I mean, I'm not a politician, but I will promise you that I will not shut up. And I will not be forced to be silent.
COOPER: Lieutenant Dan Choi, appreciate you being with us, and thank you for your service. Thanks.
CHOI: Thank you, Anderson.
Should the White House put an end to "don't ask, don't tell"? What do you think? Let us know. Go to ac360.com to read Lieutenant Choi's open letter to President Obama and join the live chat. Let us know what you think.
Still ahead, a "360 Follow" on a story we were first to break. Some cops and the D.A. in Texas -- in a Texas town accused of stealing money and other items from motorists in traffic stops.
The story's unbelievable. Police deny any wrongdoing, but now at least one of them is getting death threats. The startling new details ahead.
And Miss California Carrie Prejean keeps her crown, apparently even as more -- some more topless photos are revealed. Donald Trump calls them risque but acceptable; judge for yourself when 360 continues.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Tonight a "360 Follow" on a shocking story we were first to break. Cops and the D.A. accused of shaking down African-American and Latino motorists driving through a small Texas town. They say they were pulled over, robbed by the officers.
Officials deny any laws were broken. And at this moment there are new developments unfolding in the case, important, and as you'll hear, one new detail disturbing.
Gary Tuchman, who was the first to bring you this story, joins us now from Atlanta with the latest -- Gary.
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, we told you the story about a small town in Texas where African-Americans and Latinos are often pulled over, accused of crimes with dubious evidence, and then have their money and valuables taken away by cops. Well, one of the cops accused of this has taken a dramatic step.
First, we should tell you a class action suit had been filed on behalf of 150 such drivers, which alleges they were ultimately told by the district attorney charges will not be filed as long as they leave their money behind.
We made an effort during our visit to Tenaha, Texas, to talk to one of the three cops being accused. But we found that we're not getting any of our calls returned. That officer, Barry Washington, told us he could not talk because of the civil suit.
We tried to get answers from the district attorney. She would not return our calls and was never in her office when we came by. So we found her performing country music at a weekend fund-raiser. Not only would she not comment; she wouldn't acknowledge our existence. We wanted to ask her about allegations she has spent some of the so- called forfeiture money for personal reasons, including a $10,000 check written to Officer Barry Washington, the cop you just saw.
But now today, after a government open records request we made, we received this letter written by one of those three cops, Constable Randy Watley. It's written to a county judge and reads, "As you may know, due to pending litigations, the death threats I'm receiving and stress I am currently under, I will be taking a leave of absence beginning May 9, 2009." He adds he wishes to do it for a short period of time without pay.
We called his office, and our call was not returned.
The constable saying he's had death threats is certainly unfortunate, but it's clear this situation, which had received almost no national attention, is now having an effect.
The cops and the D.A., Anderson, have responded in legal papers, saying they have followed all Texas and federal laws and have done nothing unlawful. Under Texas forfeiture laws, cops are allowed to confiscate valuables in some cases if a felony is suspected, but it cannot be kept if there are no charges -- Anderson. COOPER: Last week you mentioned that there is a Texas senator who's sponsoring a legislation to toughen forfeiture laws, partially because of what happened in this town. What's happening with that?
TUCHMAN: Well, the momentum has picked up. The bill, which would allow the Texas attorney general oversight into what all the counties in his state are up to, has passed the state senate just this past Friday, unanimously passed the house committee. The entire house may take it up this week, and it could become law before the legislative session ends on June 1st.
COOPER: All right. Gary Tuchman, unbelievable story. Gary, thanks for continuing to follow it.
Coming up, Elizabeth Edwards on "LARRY KING:" amidst the backlash over her new tell-all, Edwards finds common ground with one of her harshest critics. Hear what she has to say about "New York Times" columnist Maureen Dowd.
First, Erica Hill joins us with a "360 News and Business Bulletin."
ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, five of six men accused of the Sears Tower terror plot have been convicted. The suspects were arrested in June 2006 for plotting to blow up the Chicago skyscraper as well as the FBI office in Miami.
The family of the first American to die of swine flu now suing pig farmer Smithfield Foods. Judy Trunnell was eight months pregnant when she contracted the flu and died. Her baby was delivered by emergency C-section and survived. Her husband is suing Smithfield on the grounds that the lethal flu strain was created in part due to unsanitary conditions at a sprawling farm in Mexico.
Smithfield, however, has denied any connection to the swine flu outbreak.
Social Security and Medicare will be bankrupt years sooner than expected. The government today warning that, unless changes are made, Social Security will be depleted by 2037. As for Medicare, it's got less than a decade of funding left. Officials say it could run out in eight years.
Finally, Miss California USA, Carrie Prejean, will keep her crown, despite failing to reveal she had posed for seminude photos. Pageant owner, Donald Trump today announcing his decision at a news conference. The 21-year-old beauty queen also spoke, defending herself against what she called vicious attacks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARRIE PREJEAN, MISS USA RUNNER-UP: Three weeks ago I was asked a politically charged question with a hidden personal agenda. I answered my question honestly and sincerely from my heart. I was very careful to articulate in saying that I did not want to offend anybody. Not only do I hold this belief, but as Mr. Trump said, the president of the United States, the secretary of state, and many Americans agree with me in this belief.
My grandfather served under General Patton during World War II and is someone I admire greatly. He never spoke about the Battle of the Bulge that he participated in as a rifleman or the honorary medals he received because of his bravery. But he did speak about the freedoms he fought for and taught me to never back down and never let anyone take those freedoms away from you.
On April 19, on that stage, I exercised my freedom of speech. And I was punished for doing so. This should not happen in America. It undermines the constitutional rights for which my grandfather fought for. And I find it appalling that a professional photographer would violate my trust by releasing an unauthorized and inappropriate image taken in between posed shots on a windy day, which I was unaware of.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Now, before the conference, celebrity gossip site TMZ released new topless photos, apparently the ones Prejean complained were taken between poses on a windy day -- Anderson.
COOPER: All right. It keeps going on and on. This story, it doesn't go away. I think today it's done, though.
HILL: You promise?
COOPER: I'm hoping.
COOPER: All right.
Stay with us. We've got more beauty pageant moments ahead. Tonight's "Shot of the Day" features an international beauty queen, Miss Panama. You've got to see this. She probably will not be holding any news conferences anytime soon.
First, though, Elizabeth Edwards in her own words on her husband's affair and on facing her own challenges.
COOPER: Tonight Elizabeth Edwards continues to promote her new memoir, this time appearing on "LARRY KING LIVE." In writing very candidly about her husband, John's, affair, "New York Times" columnist Maureen Dowd blasted Edwards for dragging him, quote, "back into the public square for a flogging."
But in a surprising twist, Edwards admitted there's one thing she and Dowd can agree on. Here's Elizabeth Edwards tonight in "Her Own Words."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELIZABETH EDWARDS, AUTHOR, "RESILIENCE": I believe, through this whole thing, John has loved me. I just think that he had a frailty that allowed him to do something which was completely contrary to the rest of his life.
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING": Did you have any suspicion any time?
EDWARDS: No. I saw the way he treated me and the way -- the commitment he had to our family. And I had -- you know, I was perhaps -- the one thing I can agree with Maureen Dowd is that I was probably naive. I was certainly naive.
KING: How do you face the possibility of not being around?
EDWARDS: It's really hard. I try to, you know, to organize their lives so that they will have signs of my presence and memories. Emma Claire wanted to ask, for her birthday, a trip with me. And even though I'm thinking, an 11-year-old, I'm carrying the luggage. Can I really handle all that? I still want to give it to her, even though I think it's going to be a hard -- physically hard thing to do.
KING: You know what's really double sad, if, God forbid, you left, John would probably be double crushed, guilt crushed.
EDWARDS: I completely agree with that. In fact, that's one of the thing -- we've talked about that, and talked about his, you know, his work in rebuilding trust and how it's really important that he get to that place in time, you know, so that he understands that what he took away, he did his very best job to put back.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Elizabeth Edwards earlier tonight on "LARRY KING."
You've been monitoring the live chat online tonight. A lot of you were talking about a lot of different subjects.
HILL: They were talking about a lot of different things. There was a little bit of talk about Elizabeth Edwards. Connie writing, "I believe Elizabeth Edwards should be able to do whatever she wants in order to attain the peace she deserves. I will never understand the meanness directed toward her over the choices she made. Walk a mile in her shoes, and let's see how you do."
Of course, interesting, too when Larry asked her about the possibility of not being around. It's obviously a reality no parent wants to face. And a lot of people talked about that, too. If you're not dealing with cancer, if you're not in this situation, if your husband hasn't cheated on you, then really, should you be judging? So a little bit of discussion about that. But I have to say, what's really, I think, grabbed people tonight, Anderson, is the story that we've been covering about the soldier in Iraq who allegedly shot five of his fellow soldiers and just the tragedy surrounding that on so many levels.
COOPER: Yes. It was interesting. Faye Wattleton made a point last night about Elizabeth Edwards, that, you know, it's the media and sort of the public which is focusing on the affair part of Elizabeth Edwards's book. But actually, it's an entire book, you know, about much more and it's really a book she said she was writing for her kids.
COOPER: Whether or not you buy that, Faye Wattleton was making the point that it says more about us and maybe the public's interest that what we're focusing on is the most salacious aspects when, in fact, you know, the book is a lot fuller portrayal of her life.
HILL: And maybe it's not important whether or not we buy it. Maybe it's just important that this is something she needed to do that was cathartic for her based on what she is facing as a very, you know, real reality right now in her life.
COOPER: And you can join the live chat right now at ac360.com. Let us know what you're thinking and let us know what you want to talk about.
The "Shot" is next. It's a beauty. A pageant contestant becomes an international sensation, all by answering one question. What was it and what did she say that everyone laughing? We'll show you after the break.
COOPER: So for tonight's "Shot," a new beauty pageant contestant has a tough time answering a question.
COOPER: And it's not Miss California.
HILL: Are you sure?
COOPER: She's a Miss Panama hopeful who was asked about a quote from the Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Here's her memorable reply. It's in Spanish. I'll try to read along what she's saying.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GIOSUE COZZARELLI, MISS PANAMA CONTESTANT: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
COOPER: Confucius was one of whom invented confusion, and that's why -- one of the most ancient, he was one of the Chinese, Japanese who were one of the most ancient. Thank you. (END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Thank you for that translation. So, Confucius...
COOPER: Invented confusion.
HILL: ... invented confusion, and was he Chinese or Japanese? Was that established?
COOPER: No, I think -- a little bit of both.
HILL: I thought he was Chinese, but I could be wrong.
COOPER: A little bit of both there in Panama. Her answer was good, but it doesn't come close to our all-time favorite answer, which of course was Miss Teen South Carolina. Do we have that tape of her take on why Americans can't locate the U.S. on a map?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CAITLIN UPLAND, MISS SOUTH CAROLINA TEEN USA 2007: I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have that. And I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere like such as.
And I believe that they should -- our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: OK, time's up. All right.
HILL: Sadly, we've run out of time. You know what I've always been impressed with?
COOPER: Yes. What?
HILL: She did a good job of working in the buzz words. You know, the "like," "such as," "I believe."
HILL: Very important to really send the point home.
COOPER: Exactly. And that's our beauty pageant moment for tonight.
You can see all the most recent "Shots" on our Web site, ac360.com. Also, check out the "Beat 360," which sadly, we didn't have time for tonight. But it will be there.
Hey, that does it for 360. Thanks for watching. "LARRY KING" starts now.
See you tomorrow night.