Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

French Intelligence Reports Osama Bin Laden Dead From Typhoid; Saudi Intelligence Claims Bin Laden Still Alive; Continuing Violence in Iraq; Is The U.S. Military Stretched Too Thin

Aired September 23, 2006 - 16:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Is he dead or alive? Seriously ill perhaps? Unanswered questions today about Osama bin Laden.
Plus, new concerns the U.S. military is being stretched too thin.

Also ahead, the search for three missing children in east St. Louis, Illinois. A suspect has been found, but the kids haven't.

And take a look at this. A tornado caught on tape. The Midwest hit hard by severe weather.

Hello and welcome to the CNN NEWSROOM.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

All that and more after this check of the headlines.

Dozens of deaths and injuries in Baghdad as a religious holiday begins. A car bomb went off at a gas station in Sadr City this morning. Iraqi Muslims started observing the holy month of Ramadan this weekend.

A nationwide search is under way after a gunman opens fire in a place battered women go to find safety. Police say John Woodring tracked his wife Bonnie to a North Carolina shelter Monday. That's where officials say he killed her with a shotgun blast and then fled.

According to an American scholar, North Korea is speeding up nuclear bomb production as a way to restart talks with the U.S. The scholar says the information came from a senior North Korean official.

And now to our top story. We begin this hour with what we know about the fate of Osama bin Laden.

Citing a confidential French intelligence document, a French newspaper is reporting that bin Laden died of an illness a month ago today. No credible source is confirming the claim, and the official reaction is widespread doubt. A Saudi official tells CNN the al Qaeda leader is sick with a waterborne illness, but he says the Saudi kingdom believes bin Laden is alive.

CNN's Nic Robertson has been following this story all day. Here he is from London.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Now, the French journalist who wrote that report said that he saw a confidential French government document that outlined that Osama bin Laden had died of typhoid in Pakistan on the 23rd of August this year and that Saudi officials, through a usually reliable source, had bee made aware of this on the 4th of September.

Now, the president of France, Jacques Chirac, immediately ordered an investigation into the leaking of this document. He didn't deny that the document exists, but he did say he can't confirm the details that are inside that document.

Now, one Saudi source close to intelligence circles who says he hasn't seen this document but is aware of a discussion going on inside Saudi intelligence at the moment, say that he is aware that Osama bin Laden has been suffering from a water-borne disease for the last several weeks. However, he says that it is not known that Osama bin Laden is dead. Indeed, they believe, Saudi officials believe that Osama bin Laden is still alive.

Now, the report in this French newspaper says that Osama bin Laden died in August, died -- died as a result of typhoid. That is not confirmed by this Saudi source. Indeed, as information keeps coming in, we've heard from Pakistani officials who say they have no knowledge of this. And given that it happened in Pakistan, according to these reports, they would have known, they say. And if they had any information, they say they would have acted on it to try and arrest Osama bin Laden.

U.S. government officials say that they have no information to substantiate this, nothing they say that they would put on President Bush's desk at this time. It does appear certainly that the government officials that are examining this leak that we've heard now from the French, the Pakistanis, the Americans, they cannot confirm the details of this report.

We have to urge caution at this time because there have been -- there has been false reporting on Osama bin Laden's health in the past. It is not known how credible this intelligence source is. And the reporter, it says, usually reliable, but we just don't know. Perhaps Saudi intelligence have -- has the best estimate of that.

But given that this is a very sensitive issue, given that there's been false reporting in the past, one has to treat it with a lot of caution. One also has to look at this in another light as well.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that intelligence officials would put this sort of information into the public domain to try and goad Osama bin Laden to appear on television. Let's not forget, he hasn't been seen on camera in almost two years now. His released audio messages, the last one was on the 30th of June, but he hasn't been seen on camera.

The French now may have a very good reason for wanting to goad Osama bin Laden out into the open. The last communications by al Qaeda have been that an Algerian jihadi group has now joined up with al Qaeda. And, of course, for the French, there would be very serious implications, because a lot of Algerians live in France, and that could have serious security implications for France.

There could be any number of reasons why this report has surfaced. It's certainly not clear at this stage how credible it may or may not be. Certainly, the preponderance of information we're getting today indicates that it should be treated with a good deal of skepticism.

Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


WHITFIELD: And as we reported, a Saudi source is telling CNN bin Laden has a waterborne illness. And joining us more -- with more now by phone, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fred, I heard specifically they were talking about typhoid, typhoid fever, which is a bacterial illness. And it is spread usually through the water, contaminated water. And, you know, it's characterized by the fever, which is why it gets its name, which is usually a very high fever, subsequently abdominal cramping, and it goes through these various stages of illness.

Usually for the vast majority of people it can be treated with an antibiotic. Now, it is endemic, meaning it is sort of indigenous to several parts of the world. Not the United States, but certainly in South Asia, most notably India, but also Pakistan and certain parts of Africa.

WHITFIELD: So you said you can treat it with antibiotics. But how long before you need to get it treated or to have a doctor look after you?

GUPTA: A couple of days usually after the diagnosis is made. You need to make sure that you got the correct diagnosis, which means actually confirming that you have the bacterial infection. And then start treating within a couple, three days. And people usually make a pretty good recovery if treated that fast.

WHITFIELD: So what if you don't have that? What if you don't get exposure to some kind of medicine within three to four or five days?

GUPTA: Well, then you do go through these various stages of illness that I was mentioning where the fever continues to grow. You develop abdominal cramping.

WHITFIELD: It can't be reversed at that point?

GUPTA: Well, sometimes it can. It depends. It would be the overall general health of somebody in the first place.

Very young and very elderly are a little bit more susceptible to it, as all people who have chronic disease. But the real problem is dehydration. Someone becomes profoundly dehydrated. You've got to make sure that in addition to the antibiotics they're getting adequate fluids.

WHITFIELD: So it sounds like it could kill you -- sorry for interrupting you -- it sounds like it could kill you in a matter of months?

GUPTA: No, no. It's much faster than that. Usually several days or maybe a few weeks. But, you know, if it catches hold and the bacteria really starts to spread throughout the body, it can be quite fast.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks so much for joining us.

GUPTA: Thanks.

WHITFIELD: And a little bit later, we'll discuss this in greater detail with John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA. He's now CNN's national security adviser. We'll be talking to him about how indeed...

A video posted on Islamic Web sites purportedly shows the new leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq killing a Turkish hostage. An on-screen caption identifies the masked gunman as Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The age and authenticity of this tape has not been verified.

In a Shiite area of Baghdad today, however, a car bomb exploded at a gas station packed with people getting ready for the holy month of Ramadan. Police say at least 34 people were killed. Sunni extremists are claiming responsibility, calling it payback for a deadly attack on Sunnis yesterday.

The rampant violence is changing the way many Iraqis mark Ramadan.

Reporting from Baghdad now, CNN's Arwa Damon.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): On the last Thursday before Ramadan, a wedding guest commented that it was celebrations like these that would eventually change the tide in Iraq.

DR. ALI HUSSEIN, BAGHDAD UNIVERSITY (through translator): The terrorists have to understand, all those that are detonating themselves, let them look to Thursday, see someone getting married, see a man with his bride. They will remember humanity.

DAMON: But far from any act of humanity, the first Ramadan weekend brought a familiar Iraqi sight: another car bomb. Again, in the Shia slum of Sadr City as residents were stocking up on necessary fuel.

Ramadan is normally a month of kindness and peace, a time of compassion. These images, now common, seared into Iraqis' minds, keep many at home, away from crowds.

During better times, this popular Baghdad marketplace would be packed with people. Now Iraqis only hit the street out of necessity. This marketplace has been hit before, so it's not hard to imagine what a single bomb here can do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Ramadan used to be fun, families shopping. Now with no security it's just like every other day in Iraq, bombs and death.

DAMON: Shop owners have noticed a significant change from Ramadan's past. "Each Ramadan the shopping is less and less," he says.

(on camera): Normally the streets during Ramadan would be filled with people, large gatherings to break the fast, even parties. But this year, due to the ongoing violence, many Iraqis will remain where they feel safest, in the relative security of their own homes.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Baghdad.


WHITFIELD: Next week President Bush hosts a meeting with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents, both on the front lines of the war on terror.

Today in his weekly radio address, President Bush praised the men's efforts in fighting extremists and he singled out Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf as someone who is "defending the civilized world."


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Musharraf understand the stakes in the war on terror because the extremists have tried more than once to assassinate him. They know he's a threat to their aspirations because he's working to build modern democratic institutions that can provide an alternative to radicalism. And it is in America's interest to help him succeed.


WHITFIELD: And later on CNN, correspondents talk about the war of words at the U.N., an extended tour of duty for U.S. troops in Iraq, and Muslim outrage toward the pope. That's "This Week at War" at 6:00 Eastern, 3:00 Pacific.

Well, the question of the day, is Osama bin Laden dead? CNN's national security analyst tells us what it means if he is.

Plus, dramatic video out of the Midwest of an approaching tornado.


WHITFIELD: Citing a confidential French intelligence document, a French newspaper is reporting that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden died of an illness a month ago today. No credible source is confirming the claim, and the official reaction is widespread doubt. A Saudi official tells CNN there are reports the al Qaeda leader has been ill with a waterborne disease, but he says the kingdom has heard nothing about bin Laden's death.

Former acting director of the CIA John McLaughlin joins us in a few minutes for more on his take on this developing story.

And take a look at this. This is a massive tornado spotted in Illinois yesterday. Another one touched down in Missouri, knocking down gas pumps, signs and trees. And in Kentucky, storms caused dangerous flash flooding.

It's all part a long line of severe weather stretching across the Midwest. At least six deaths are being blamed on the storms in Kentucky. And more rain is being dumped today.

Jacqui Jeras keeping track of all of it.


WHITFIELD: Well, as America deploys more troops around the world, there are new concerns the U.S. military is being stretched too thin. An expert in international affairs coming up in the CNN NEWSROOM.

And next, the search for three missing children in east St. Louis, Illinois.

You're watching CNN, the most trusted name in news.


WHITFIELD: In news "Across America," the search continues for John Woodring. He's the North Carolina man accused of forcing his way into a domestic violence shelter in western North Carolina and then killing his wife Bonnie. The shooting took place last Monday. Woodring is still on the run.

Spinach is on its way back to the store shelves here in the U.S. Federal health officials say it is safe to eat fresh spinach grown outside California's Salinas Valley. An E. coli outbreak linked to spinach made 166 people in 25 states sick. One death is confirmed.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan lets members of the movement know that he is not well. A letter to followers from Farrakhan says the 73-year-old is seriously ill, comparing the pain to what he experienced when he had cancer surgery eight years ago.

A hunt is under way in east Illinois for two young boys and their 1-year-old little sister. The kids' pregnant mother was found murdered thursday and the children were last seen with a woman who is now in custody. Police describe her as a person of interest in the mother's killing.

Reporter Steve Jankowski from CNN affiliate KSDK is on this story.


STEVE JANKOWSKI, REPORTER, KSDK (voice over): authorities were called yesterday to a house at the 600 block of North 56th Street. There the body of 23-year-old Jimella Tunstall was found. The coroner ruled she had died from an abdominal wound through which investigators believe her 7-month-old female fetus had been removed. That fetus had been passed off as the dead child of another woman now in custody in connection with this case.

CRAIG KOEHLER, ILLINOIS STATE POLICE: We're continuing to conduct our murder investigation and we are considering the death a murder. And we're treating it that way. We're continuing to investigate that, but at this point the focus of our investigation is mainly on the recovery of these children.

JANKOWSKI: Seven-year-old Demond Tunstall is described as a light-skinned black male, 30 to 45 pounds, last seen wearing green and blue basketball shorts and a black or blue short-sleeved shirt. He had no socks on but was wearing gray, blue and white tennis shoes, with his hair in braids and rubber bands.

Three-year-old Ivan Tunstall-Collins Jr. (ph) is described as a light-skinned black male, 20 to 30 pounds, with two bald patches on his head and a low haircut. He was last seen wearing blue and white shorts with white sock shorts and a blue and black shirt with beige or blue tennis shoes.

Also missing is one-and-a-half-year-old Janella, described as an 18 to 25-yearold dark-skinned female, last seen wearing a pink shirt, pink and white striped capri pants, and possible blue and white tennis shoes with her hair twisted back. But her hair itself was not twisted.

Now, information derived in the investigation led searchers to Frank Holden State Park (ph), where police say they hope to cover two angles, hoping to recover the children alive, or find their bodies if they had been dumped. Investigators say they also searched the family angle.

KOEHLER: We have spoken with family members of the children. And none of the family members of the children are considered suspects in their disappearance in any way.


WHITFIELD: That disturbing story.

A newspaper report in France sets off a firestorm of speculation now about the fate of Osama bin Laden. Is he dead or alive? Is he suffering from a severe illness?

Next in the CNN NEWSROOM, former CIA director John McLaughlin gives us his take.

Plus, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, new concerns about how thin the U.S. military is being stretched.


WHITFIELD: Here's what's happening right "Now in the News."

Osama bin Laden, dead or alive? Saudi intelligence sources dispute a French newspaper's report that the al Qaeda leader has died. More on this developing story straight ahead.

Economic sanctions are apparently prompting North Korea to hasten its nuclear weapons program. A senior North Korean official says his wants to force the U.S. back to stalled bilateral talks.

Strong storms have spawned flooding in parts of the Midwest. And in the deep south, the flooding has proved fatal. There were at least six storm-related deaths in Kentucky as well.

Our top story, conflicting accounts on the health of Osama bin Laden. Here is what we know right now. A French newspaper is reporting the al Qaeda leader is dead. The article cites a confidential French intelligence report that claims bin Laden died from Typhoid in Pakistan. But Saudi intelligence sources tell CNN that bin Laden is alive and has been stricken with a waterborne illness.

There is plenty of doubt on the credibility of the French report. Let's get to CNN national security adviser John Mclaughlin in Washington for his take on the latest development, and former acting director of the CIA. All right, John, well how do you verify this kind of rumor? Whether he's dead or alive or afflicted by Typhoid?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well I've been checking with sources all over Washington today and some overseas and you're quite right, there is universal skepticism about this report. That said, in my old business, you got a dozen reports a day that are very sensational and you have to run every one to ground.

So the way you check this one out is the way I'm quite certain the U.S. government is checking it out and the French government. You go to the sources. The Saudis ought to be pretty authoritative on this, given that bin Laden's family is still in Saudi Arabia and you would assume they would get word somehow if he was seriously ill or if he had died.

WHITFIELD: Except has it been really clear whether his family members do have, you know, direct communications with him? If he is somewhere in the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, are his family members in Saudi Arabia, his birthplace, still in contact with him?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we don't know that for sure. But I suspect some way a word would get back on something as serious as a death. I'm sure they don't have some sort of way to track his daily activities or what he's doing minute by minute, but on death, I would expect they would hear it. Now, that said, it takes a number, you know, in recent times we've had four audiotapes from him in the last year. And most of them have taken, we judge, about three weeks to get from wherever he is to broadcast. So he is on a long supply line now.

WHITFIELD: But apparently no new video images of him in two years.

MCLAUGHLIN: No we have not.

WHITFIELD: At the same time, would it seem plausible that bin Laden supporters wouldn't want the public to know of his death, if indeed he died? So that perhaps the power of al Qaeda would still be going strong? The network of al Qaeda would still be going strong even though the public, you know, wouldn't be aware about his death?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well there would be some people who would take that approach in al Qaeda for sure. But I think that American intelligence and Pakistani intelligence, those two in particular, would pick up some indication of his death, largely through supporters who would hear about it and would be lamenting his passage. I don't think that we would be in the dark very long if he were to die.

WHITFIELD: Interesting so --

MCLAUGHLIN: It would be important if he did die, of course, obviously. It would be a major, major blow to the movement in many ways.

WHITFIELD: Well in what way? Let's talk about how it would be a blow to the movement. Because would al Qaeda need Osama bin Laden to continue functioning the way it is, given that it's tentacles are reaching all across the globe. Is he really just a symbol? Does he really help direct each movement of al Qaeda?

MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think he does anymore, in the sense that he did direct very carefully the 9/11 attack. And I think we are past the point where what I would call a decapitation strike would take this movement down. You know, if the plotters who tried to kill Hitler in July of 1944 had succeeded, it probably would have ended World War II. It wouldn't end the terrorist movement to kill bin Laden, but here is what I think would happen, particularly if a successful strike or capture operation took down both bin Laden and Zawahiri, his deputy.

It is important. That's an important point because Zawahiri, really, it runs the movement day to day, is sort of the brains of the movement. Bin Laden is the spiritual leader. Zawahiri is the operational CEO, if you will. If you took both of them out, I think it would be a fractious thing within the movement. You would have debates about what they are to do next, what are their next targets.

Bin Laden is the one who, along with Zawahiri, focused them so intently on what is known as the far target, that is the United States. So, it would be important to take him out.

WHITFIELD: OK, and of course the questions to follow that would be, how would that impact the war on terror, particularly there in Afghanistan? John Mclaughlin, former acting director of the CIA and now an analyst for us, here at CNN. Thanks so much. MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks very much.

WHITFIELD: And this program reminder, our two hour special investigation "In the Footsteps of bin Laden" airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN, the most trusted name in news.

Well they have exceeded recruitment goals but U.S. military units in the field are still being stretched to the limit, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army may need more help from outside its ranks. Here is Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New fears that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may stretch the force more than anybody expected. In Iraq, the military now plans to keep about 145,000 U.S. troops in place until Spring, at least.

GEN. PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We're not comfortable right now with a reduction in the size of our force.

STARR: In Afghanistan, there are now no plans to bring home any of the 20,000 U.S. troops in the foreseeable future. With simultaneous wars, and no immediate prospect of cutting force levels, how long can the military keep it up?

TOM DONNELLY, CTR. FOR STRATEGIC AND INTL. STUDIES: These guys are running as hard as they can on the conveyor belt, simply to keep up with the pace of operations.

STARR: The Pentagon had hoped to bring 30,000 troops home from Iraq by the end of the year. On Capitol Hill, concern about the new reality.

REP DIANE WATSON (D), CALIFORNIA: We need to be sure that we have a game plan for Afghanistan, as we need an end game plan for Iraq. Our military needs further support.

STARR: The key problem? Army active duty and National Guard forces already are being sent back to the combat zone, sometimes within months of coming home.

The solution? Either increase the size of the army, or call up the National Guard more often or send troops back to the frontline with even less time at home to rest and train for the next round of combat. But even if more troops are sent, usable equipment is in short supply, thousands of vehicles and weapons are worn out.

The Army and National Guard say they urgently need $38 billion to fix or replace vehicles, weapons and gear. The Marine Corps says it needs $12 billion.

GENERAL PETER SCHOOMAKER, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: A lot of pressure placed on individuals, leaders, equipment, units and on the force.


WHITFIELD: That was Barbara Starr reporting.

Pentagon sources tell CNN a new round of deployments is likely after the November elections. So how might this affect the National Guard? Christine Wormuth is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and joins us now. Good to see you, Christine.


WHITFIELD: Well are you seeing a mixed message being sent here, that the Army is saying that this year's recruiting goals have been met. Yet at the same time, the National Guard may be called upon because the Army is stretched too thin, because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

WORMUTH: Well it is not so much a mixed message. The Army did have a good recruiting year and that's good news, considering what a tough year 2005 was. But essentially the problem is the recruiting targets that we're surpassing are for an Army that is fundamentally too small for the challenges we're facing and that's why we're going to have to, it looks like, perhaps go back to the National Guard a second time.

WHITFIELD: And so you underscore that the previous year's recruiting wasn't so strong. So you have to wonder did the Army perhaps lower its expectations and so that's why the recruitment goals are being met? Not necessarily because there is a greater interest for people to enlist.

WORMUTH: Well the army did a number of things. It did change some of its standards. It raised the age limit so you can join a little bit older. It has accepted people with slightly lower aptitude scales than it has in the past. But it also put forward a lot of recruiting initiatives, in terms of giving people bonuses. So it did a number of things to help it meet that recruiting target. It also put a lot more recruiters on the street to go out and talk to people.

WHITFIELD: And so while there may be more recruits then, at the same time you have to train folks. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are equipped and ready to be shot out of the cannon right away. That's why perhaps National Guardsmen and women are being called upon?

WORMUTH: That's definitely part of it. Part of it is that the active Army side right now is literally going overseas for a year, coming home for a year and then going back overseas for the year. Usually the active Army stays home for two years to train up and get ready. So to try and avoid putting even more pressure on the active Army, which is already going as fast as it can, they're going to need to look to the guard.

WHITFIELD: So how concerned are you about other potential conflicts? Yes, we've got Afghanistan, Iraq right now, but the U.S. is always being called upon in many different forms to help out militarily. How concerned are you that ...



WHITFIELD: Well in today's installment of our Life After Work series, meet a man who lost his job and took a big pay cut to do something that provides rewards he considers priceless. Here is CNN's Andy Serwer.


ANDY SERWER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At age 60 Peter Le Bough's life has never had more direction. As a Captain in the New York Guard, an executive director for a military nonprofit, his mission is serving his country.

CAPTAIN PETER LE BEAU, VIETNAM VETERAN: Having been in the military, having been in war, I had a firsthand appreciation of what our servicemen and women go through.

SERWER: Le Beau served in Vietnam before a 30-year career in banking. He lost his job in 2002. That's when the Soldier, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen's Club came calling.

They provide low cost accommodations in New York City to active and retired military.

LE BEAU: I took about a 75 percent cut in pay to take this job. But the rewards have been priceless. When those kids come here for two or three days, and there's this feeling of warmth and it's their home away from home.

How's the rest of the building? Are we in good shape?

SERWER: Le Beau's work at the club has inspired him to join the state Guards.

LE BEAU: I couldn't help in active duty because I'm far too old. We do a lot of things that the regular military does, land navigation, search and rescue, and anti-terrorism. And being part of the team of people that are dedicated to preserving our way of life, that's the reward.

SERWER: Andy Serwer, CNN, New York.



WHITFIELD: Well take a look at this, the size of this massive tornado spotted in Illinois yesterday. Another touched down in Missouri, knocking down gas pumps, signs and trees. And in Kentucky, storms caused dangerous flash flooding there. At least six deaths were blamed on the storms in Kentucky. Let's check in with Jacqui Jeras for more on the severe weather.


WHITFIELD: The fallout continues from comments made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. One man in Boston wants this sign right here, Citgo, torn down, all because of Chavez's comments and because Citgo is part of Venezuela's oil holdings.

So what you to think? Should Boston remove it's famous Citgo sign? E-mail us at Carol Lin will have some of your responses in the next hour of the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. That and much more right after this.