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Government Rolls Out New Rules for Nation's Financial System; Autism Times Three for One Family; Severe Weather Threatening Midwest

Aired March 31, 2008 - 10:00   ET


BETTY NGUYEN, CNN, ANCHOR: Money makeover. The government rolls out new rules for the nation's financial system. We have live coverage in just minutes.
TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And autism times three for one family. Our week long series "Unraveling the Mystery" begins today, Monday, March 31st. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

NGUYEN: First up, severe weather threatening the Midwest this morning. Take a look at these pictures. You can see the damage in one Oklahoma City neighborhood hit by a suspected tornado. Look at that. Thousands left without power this morning in that area. So far, we have no reports of injuries. But we are keeping an eye on this developing story. Because more storms are to come. We will bring you the latest just as soon as we get it.

HARRIS: Take a look, Betty. We saw some of these pictures last hour. Worth looking at them again. KWTV in Oklahoma City providing the pictures here of the flooding, obviously roads being washed out. And as we widen now, maybe we'll get a better sense of it. We're talking about a residential neighborhood here. But this is pretty dramatic even of itself. Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras is in the Severe Weather Center tracking all of this. And Jacqui, last hour, we saw folks trying to make their way over a road that was clearly flooded out.

NGUYEN: Don't do it!

HARRIS: Not the thing to do.


NGUYEN: But they always do it.

HARRIS: Folks trying to get stuck and stranded.

NGUYEN: And they wonder what happened.

HARRIS: And now, we got new problems.

JERAS: Why is that. I know. Just don't do it. Find another way around.

NGUYEN: And just don't know how deep it is. And then your car gets carried away.

JERAS: Absolutely.

HARRIS: 18 inches, that's it.

JERAS: And a good example, in St. Augustine, Texas, earlier yesterday, had to do several high-water rescues because people were doing just that. So, you don't want to take that risk. There's also a lot of roads that get washed out. Just find another way around. All right. Tornadoes, this is a problem that we've got ongoing as well. Doppler radar indicating some strong rotation near the Joplin area. This is in Missouri here. So Jasper in Newton county remain under a tornado warning.


JERAS; ...will be heavy at times from Sioux Falls all the way over to Minneapolis. Six to nine inches of snowfall. And travel, forget about it today. Look at this live picture from Chicago, showing you the overcast conditions. It's wet there on Michigan Avenue. But if you're trying to fly into O'Hare, the delays over two hours. That's the worst one across the country. We've got many, many delays, really all across the Eastern seaboard because of the low clouds still.


NGUYEN: My goodness.

HARRIS: Folks at the airport watching us this morning. Sorry about the delays. Will get you there safely, though, and keep you posted on the weather conditions in your city of destination. Jacqui, it sounded like I was working at the airport there, didn't it.

JERAS: It did.

HARRIS: Jacqui, thanks.

Your wallet, the nation's economy, "Issue Number One." And there's more mixed news today. Another roller coaster ride on Wall Street. Boy, this is the last day of the fiscal quarter. A look now at the big board shows us down, up, up five points. We were down as much as 35, 38 points last hour at the open. And a nice rebound, a nice little rally going on right now.

A sour note though overseas. Markets begin the week down there. Japan's Nikkei dropped 2.3 percent overnight. China's benchmark index lost 1.9 percent. U.S. motorists, buckle up, the price of gas has hit another milestone. AAA says it's almost now $3.29 a gallon. That is more than 61 cents above the price we were all paying a year ago.

And minutes from now, huge news on overhauling the nation's financial system. The Bush administration will announce the most ambitious plan since the Great Depression.

NGUYEN: And then, of course, there is this. The Bush administration struggling to deal with the nation's housing crisis. Now word of a key player in that effort resigning. Embattled Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson making an announcement right now. Let's get more from CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry. Have we learned the official reason as to why he's resigning?

ED HENRY, CNN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They have not said anything officially, Betty. Good morning. But the bottom line is that an adviser close to Secretary Jackson told CNN this morning that he has really been struggling privately with the fact that there have been these ethical allegations, these investigations. And that it has been a bit of a distraction, of course, from the Bush administration dealing with what is issue number one, the economy, the housing crisis, the mortgage meltdown.

Specifically, you'll remember late last year the FBI started investigating allegations that Secretary Jackson had steered a federal contract in the neighborhood of about $400,000 to a friend down in South Carolina, a golfing buddy of his. He has denied any wrongdoing. But then more recently there was a lawsuit filed alleging that Secretary Jackson had basically punished federal housing officials in Philadelphia who did not help another one of Mr. Jackson's friend in a land housing deal. Again, he has consistently denied wrongdoing.

The White House has stuck behind Jackson. But we're getting word at this hour that he is expected to announce that he is stepping down. And obviously anything that the administration has to deal with that is not focused on the actual housing crisis. But a personnel matter, now trying to find someone to fill his shoes. That will be difficult with the Democratic senate that is going to be very tough on this president with whomever he picks. Betty.

NGUYEN: So any names being bounced around this morning?

HENRY: There are no names immediately being bounced around. Usually this late in an administration, they end up going with somebody on the inside, the number two or the number three at the department because it's easier for a transition. But it's anyone's guess right now, because, again, the fact that there's a Democratic senate, they'll have to confirm the next secretary. It will be very tough on this administration.

NGUYEN: All right. CNN's Ed Henry at the White House for us. Thank you, Ed.

HARRIS: And now, let's get back to the financial system overhaul that we've been telling you about throughout the morning. There he is, the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

HENRY PAULSON, TREASURY SECRETARY: ... workers, families and businesses, both large and small. Today, I'm pleased to release Treasury's blueprint for financial regulatory reform. Or perhaps I should say, given the last few days' news coverage, that I'm pleased to provide additional details to accompany the release of this blueprint for regulatory reform.

Now, it's been a long road. Because we begin the process leading to this final report a year ago, March of 2007, after meeting industry leaders and policy makers for a conference on capital market's competitiveness. The conference participants concluded that our current financial regulatory system could more effectively promote stable and resilient markets in a more competitive financial services industry.

So in addition to our other capital markets initiatives, last June we began work on a blueprint for financial regulatory structure that would be more effective and more appropriate for modern financial markets. When we announced that we would work on such a blueprint, other than some enthusiastic academicians, a few noticed. Today, of course, capital markets and financial regulations, they're on everybody's mind. As recent events have demonstrated, investor protection and market stability are critical elements of competitiveness. Far from being at odds with one another, they are mutually reinforcing.

We have been undergoing a period of financial market stress since last August. Markets are pricing and reassessing risk, and as we should expect, there are always difficulties during periods such as this. We know that a housing correction has participated -- precipitated this turmoil and housing remains by far the biggest downside risk to our economy.

As we work through this period, our highest priority is limiting its impact on the real economy. I have the greatest confidence in the resiliency, flexibility and strength of our economy and our capital markets. We are focused on maintaining stable, orderly and liquid financial markets, and ensuring that our banks continue to support the economy by making credit available to consumers and businesses.

Our regulatory community is working cooperatively through some very challenging times. Last week, I reiterated my support for the important and consequential recent actions taken by the Federal Reserve. The Fed must have the necessary information to perform its role as it temporarily provides liquidity to non-banks. But it would be premature to assume these institutions should have permanent access to the Fed's discount window and permanent supervision by the Fed.

We will learn lessons from the experience of this temporary facility and those lessons will inform a path forward. Our first and most urgent priority is working through this capital market turmoil and housing downturn, and that will be our priority until this situation is resolved. With few exceptions, the recommendations in this blueprint should not and will not be implemented until after present market difficulties are past.

Some may view these recommendations as a response to the circumstances of the day. Yet that is not how they are intended. This blueprint addresses complex, long-term issues that should not be decided in the midst of stressful situations, and should not be implemented to add greater burden to a market already under strain. These long-term ideas require thoughtful discussion and will not be resolved this month or even this year.

Let me also remind you that two weeks ago the President's working group on financial markets released a series of recommendations addressing issues, including rating agencies, securitization, mortgage organization and OTC derivatives. They are a response to the current market turmoil designed to reduce a likelihood that we will repeat our current problems. We are focused on seeing these recommendations implemented to improve the workings of our financial markets. We will not seek to implement them on a pace or in a manner that interferes with our first priority of working through this current period of market difficulty.

Before I describe our regulatory blueprint, I will briefly outline why updating our financial regulatory structure is essential. Our current regulatory structure was not built to address the modern financial system with its diversity in market participants, innovation, complexity of financial instruments, conversion of financial intermediaries and trading platforms, global integration and interconnectedness among financial institutions, investors and markets.

Moreover, our financial services companies are becoming larger, more complex, and more difficult to manage. Much of our current regulatory system was developed after the Great Depression, and it is developed through reaction, a pattern of creating regulators as a response to market innovations or to market stress. We have five federal deposit institution regulators in addition to state-based supervision. We bifurcate securities and futures regulation. And regulation of one of our largest financial services industries' insurers is almost entirely at the state level.

The bulk of these regulatory responses made sense at the time they were created, but as we look at today's financial markets, the lack of a comprehensive design is clear. The 1991 Bush administration study known as the "Green Book" made the case for many of the changes adopted in the last comprehensive financial regulatory overhaul, the Gramm-Keach-Bliley Act of 1999. That act made important changes to our financial regulatory structure by allowing broader affiliations for financial services through a holding company structure. But it also maintained separate regulatory agencies across the traditional security futures, insurance and banking industry segments.

This functional division is at odds with the increasing convergence of financial service providers and products. It creates jurisdictional disputes among regulators, and it is a likely result that some financial services and products are exported to more adaptive foreign markets. This complex structure can invite regulatory arbitrage where business models are chosen based on regulatory structure, or even worse, based upon the regulator itself.

Regulators have adapted to keep pace with innovation, but they do so within a rigid structure that cannot readily adapt as the financial services industry evolves. The current system fosters duplicative requirements and can allow important regulatory matters to fall through the cracks. That said, I do not believe it is fair or accurate to blame our regulatory structure for the current market turmoil.

As we work through this period, our regulators are cooperating to the extent appropriate, recognizing their different roles, responsibilities and authorities. They are also working cooperatively with their global counterparts. They share information when appropriate, minimize duplication and try to avoid jurisdictional conflict. We are very fortunate to have experienced professionals acting out of a shared sense of responsibility for the public good.

I am not suggesting that more regulation is the answer, or even that more effective regulation can prevent the periods of financial market stress that seem to occur every five to ten years. I am suggesting that we should and can have a structure that is designed for the world we live in. One that is more flexible, one that can better adapt to change. One that will allow us to more effectively deal with the inevitable market disruptions. One that will better protect investors and consumers, and one that will enable U.S. capital markets to remain the most competitive in the world.

This is a complex subject deserving serious attention. Those who want to quickly label the blueprint as advocating more or less regulation are oversimplifying this critical and inevitable debate. The blueprint is about structure and responsibility.

HARRIS: All right. Let's get to Ali Velshi. Ali is our senior business correspondent, as you know, he minds your business every morning here in the CNN NEWSROOM. Ali, great to see you, my friend.


HARRIS: Hey, you know what, look, we like Paulson. But there is some wonkishness in that presentation, to say the least.

VELSHI: It's a 200-page document. Not the speech that he's giving, but this overall. I mean, honestly, when this thing came, when I saw this over the weekend, I, you know, like I say, the few hairs I have are gone. It is very complicated, very wonkie stuff. And it is because it's the biggest overhaul of the nation's financial regulation system since the Great Depression. And what it is basically is this has become a very complicated system. We have markets that trade stocks, markets that trade commodities. We have insurance. He just mentioned insurance in his speech. We have hedge funds. We have mutual funds. We have mortgage. So, these are all -- they all grew up in little silos and they all, many of them had a regulator that dealt with them.

You know, savings and loans are governed differently than commercial banks, which as we know, are governed differently now than investment banks, like the Bear Stearns issue. So, the whole sorts of people looking over this. I kind of liken it to after 9/11 when we discovered how many different federal agencies are in charge of things that would relate to our security. Well, this is the same thing. There are all these different agencies that relate to our financial security. So this is a big year-long, house-cleaning effort to try and, as one of my colleagues just told me, it should have extend the umbrella of oversight over financial dealings and financial operations.

It's not necessarily that it's tighter regulation. It's just that it's more clarity. Now, would this -- the bottom line is, is this going to help us right now and would this have helped get us out of the problem we're now in?

HARRIS: There you go.

VELSHI: Hank Paulson says probably if this were in place it would have. It would have allowed, in this case, probably the Fed, which they're giving a lot more authority to do, is say, we do have a problem coming up. And here's a team we can send in to this industry to do a quick turn-around and a review and request all the information we need. So it's going to make it clear who's in charge of overseeing different parts of the financial system. And maybe addressing the problem faster. And then coming up with solutions.

One of the things I always like to say to you, Tony, is the Fed only has a couple of things it can do. It can increase interest rates, it can decrease interest rates. You know, this may allow greater flexibility about what regulators and the government can do when they see us getting into a financial crisis.

HARRIS: The man. Ali Velshi, well done, doctor, appreciate it. Thanks for breaking that down for us.

VELSHI: Thanks.

HARRIS: See you next time.

NGUYEN: He did break it down, didn't he. We'll we're going to hear more about this. Because we know, we just heard details of a historic overhaul of the nation's financial system. And at Seattle though, reports the Bush administration is finalizing a plan to help homeowners facing foreclosure. So here to explain that, CNN personal finance editor Gerri Willis. How is this going to work, Gerri?

GERRI WILLIS, CNN, PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR: Well, this is interesting. First off, this afternoon we're going to hear from Representative Bernie Frank and Senator Chris Dodd on proposals that would help out the people that were most in trouble right now. Those folks who are having trouble with their mortgage, who are in foreclosure, going into foreclosure. The 8.8 million Americans who owe more than their house is worth. Lenders would forgive some loan debt under the programs that are being debated right now in exchange for government-insured loans. It means the FHA gets involved, the Federal Home Administration.

In fact, up to some $300 billion worth of assistance, this is being suggested by Democrats in Congress. Senator Harry Reid will be talking about a bankruptcy bill that will allow bankruptcy judges to reduce the amount owed on mortgages for people who are in trouble, who are in bankruptcy. And Republicans still wary of such a direct hand in a bailout. Although they have been talking, there have been discussions about some broader policy responses from the administration. Federal Housing administrators talking about these issues and trying to come up with the right plan there.

NGUYEN: All right. Gerri, you know, and Congress coming back into session...

WILLIS: Right.

NGUYEN: Today. And leaders there have a number of proposals to deal with dealing with this mortgage crisis as well. So, kind of run through that laundry list, if you will.

WILLIS: Well, again, it's pretty much Chris Dodd in Congress, who has been talking about these developments for some time and trying to come up with the right mix of proposals. Currently, there's conversations about a program that would really bail out people in the worst trouble with their mortgages. Up to $300 billion being made available, to essentially refinance these loans and to forgive some debt.

Now, Senator Harry Reid has also talked about changes to the bankruptcy code that would allow bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage amounts in bankruptcy court. Really take over that responsibility from banks. And of course, this has been highly, highly controversial with the banking industry. There are many proposals out there. Still, you know, waiting a thorough airing in Congress. We waited some time for a policy response. And it seems like they will be discussing it in the middle of the day with a conference call. And, of course, we'll be following that for you.

NGUYEN: Yes, we will. You know, "Issue number one" is the economy. You're going to be talking about that shortly coming up at noon Eastern. What's on the agenda?

WILLIS: Well, we'll be talking about the things that matters to you most, your debt, your retirement, your savings, your home. We'll be talking about all those issues, noon, Eastern, join us. And of course, we'll be answering your e-mails.

NGUYEN: Good information. Gerri Willis joining us live. Thank you, Gerri.

WILLIS: My pleasure.

HARRIS: And we just want to update you on a story that we've been following throughout the morning. As expected, at the top of this hour, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson has resigned. We still don't know, we'll go through the statement and maybe get a little more clarification on this. The exact reason why the Treasury Secretary is stepping down. We do know that earlier this month, the Democratic senators Patty Murray of Washington, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut sent a letter to President Bush urging him to request Mr. Jackson's resignation.

The senators suggesting that accusations of wrongdoing by the HUD secretary had made him ineffective. But we will continue to follow developments here. And probably get some more clarification on the statement from HUD Secretary Jackson a bit later this morning right here in the NEWSROOM.

But still to come now, will guns fall silent in Iraq? That's the question. Shiite fighters call a truce with government troops. That story coming up for you in the NEWSROOM. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NGUYEN: Well, charges are expected today in a 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Africa. At least 200 people died in those attacks. About 5,000 people were injured. Our Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon today to talk to us about what we're expecting with this. Hey there, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Betty. At this hour, the Pentagon is set to announce charges are being filed against a man from Tanzania, (Ahmed Galani), a man that is alleged to have been very deeply involved in those 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, in particular, the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Daresalam, Tanzania.

Galani was actually captured in Pakistan in 2004 and transferred in 2006 to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. He is one of those so-called high-value detainees. The Pentagon will announce that they are essentially filing charges against him related to the murders that happened in those embassy bombing attacks. They are expected to call this a war crime. They are expected to seek the death penalty when they make this announcement.

But let's be very clear, what is happening here is essentially the equivalent for these detainees at Guantanamo Bay of charges being filed. They then will go through a process of being validated, the charges, and if they come out the other end of that process, essentially that will be the equivalent of an indictment, and then proceedings will begin. That could, of course, be sometime off, again, this man is named Galani, Ahmed Galani, a Tanzanian alleged to be deeply involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassy in East Africa. Betty.

NGUYEN: All right. CNN's Barbara Starr joining us live. We thank you, Barbara.

HARRIS: And this just in to CNN. The Supreme Court today has rejected the FBI's appeal over its search and seizure documents from the Capitol Hill office of Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson. The raid of his Capitol Hill office in May 2006, Jefferson, as you know, is charged with taking bribes. Now the Supreme Court's decision allows a lower court ruling to stand and in effect gives the congressman an opportunity with court oversight to review the seized documents and take out those that are privileged. His federal trial was actually scheduled to begin last month but was delayed until this issue could be resolved. But once again, the Supreme Court rejects the FBI's appeal over its search and seizure of documents from the Capitol Hill office of Congressman William Jefferson.

NGUYEN: Triplets who were typical for 18 months. Then something change.


LYNN GASTON, TRIPLETS' MOTHER: It was almost as if a switch, somebody came to our house and turned the switch off. The boys -- it was almost as if the first 18 months of their life didn't happen.


NGUYEN: Autism times three. One family's struggle.


NGUYEN: Hello, everybody, on this Monday morning.

HARRIS: And hello, Betty.

NGUYEN: How are you, Tony?

HARRIS: Well, I'll tell you what, there is a lot. Just past the bottom of the hour. Welcome back, everyone, to the CNN NEWSROOM.

Severe weather, boy, threatening the Midwest this morning. Take a look at these pictures. You can see the damage in one Oklahoma City neighborhood hit by a suspected tornado. It will take a couple of days to confirm that. Thousands left without power this morning in that area. So far we have no reports, thankfully, of injuries. Though storms also caused some flooding in Oklahoma and Texas.

Here are more new pictures just in to CNN from the Oklahoma City area. You can see the roads completely washed out here. There's not supposed to be that much water there. Rain from these new storms just piling on from a weekend's worth of severe weather. Those storms also battered east Texas. Heavy rains caused flash flooding, as you can imagine. Some areas got more than a foot of rain.

We will continue to follow all of these developing stories.

Look at how high that water was at the gas station alongside the tanks there.

Following these pictures, throughout the morning, and the stories and, boy, the human drama associated with this throughout the morning in the CNN NEWSROOM.

NGUYEN: And speaking of drama, election results, they are trickling in, bringing with them allegations of voting fraud. That's the backdrop for a possible historic change in Zimbabwe this morning.

CNN's Robyn Curnow is in Beit Bridge, on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. There are a lot of warnings that it would come to this. What are you hearing today?


But first, I just want to warn your viewers that CNN has been banned from covering this election. Robert Mugabe's government didn't want in his country, which is wh we've set up our satellite dish between a taxi rank and the local fruit and vegetable sellers here at the border post. Many of these people here, who you can see, are Zimbabweans. Many Zimbabwaens come into South Africa over this border fence here. They come in to earn a living, because about 25 percent of the Zimbabwean population has fled Zimbabwe in recent years because of the terrible situation there and the political oppression.

To give you some sense of just what people have been voting for this weekend and why people are waiting for the results of this election so keenly, is that the economic situation so bad, that this is the worthlessness of the currency. I want to show you. It's a 10- million dollar note. It's not often you can pull one of those out of your pocket, Betty. But anyway, this is probably worth about 25 U.S. cents, and that's how much the currency has been devalued in Zimbabwe. Hyper-inflation. It has the highest inflation rate in the world, at over 100,000 percent, and that's the official figure. Many people say it's much higher than that.

So this is why people want change, because this money really is not worth -- actually, I can't buy anything at one of these fruit and vegetable shops. I mean, even an apple is not worth 10 million Zimbabwean dollars. So that gives you a sense of how poor the people are over there, why they come into South Africa over this border fence, many of them illegally. They swim across the Limpopo (ph) River, which is just over there. You won't be able to see it. There are crocodiles in the Limpopop River. People say they would rather come into South Africa illegally swimming across the Limpopop River than take their chances with Robert Mugabe's government.

So it's very interesting to see what happens with these results. We don't know yet. A lot of quietness from across that border. People say, why are the results being delayed? But many people here saying time to change, after 28 years. This is what's going to kick Robert Mugabe out of power.


NGUYEN: Well, it definitely has been an economic crisis there and a political one at that. And as we wait to hear a lot of people, as you just mentioned, say the longer he waits, the more suspicious people become.

Robyn Curnow, joining us live. Thank you, Robin.


NGUYEN: Right now we do want to talk about an economic trickle- down at the nation's food banks. Fewer donations coming in, while more families are looking for help.



NGUYEN: There is a troubling trend at America's food banks. More people are looking for help, but less have help to give.

CNN's Kate Bouldan takes a look.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The weak dollar, record high gas prices and the mortgage meltdown, all adding up to a financial crisis for many families, and the trickledown effect is even hitting America's food banks. The place struggling Americans should be able to turn to is now struggling itself. Lynn Brantley is the CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C.

LYNN BRANTLEY, CEO, CAPITAL AREA FOOD BANK: We need protein foods. We need them very, very badly.

BOLDUAN: Brantley says donations are down significantly at the same time demand is up and rising.

BRANTLEY: They are seeing anywhere from 20 percent to 50 to 70 percent of increases in the number of people that are coming to their sites for food.

BOLDUAN: Adding to the strain, government contributions, surplus food, are also down. From $240 million worth in 2003 to just $58 million worth last year, says George Braley, vice president of a nationwide food bank distributor.

GEORGE BRALEY, AMERICA'S SECOND HARVEST: And 75 percent of the food surplus we used to get, we no longer get.

BOLDUAN: The Department of Agriculture says it provides $190 million in cash each year to food banks, but acknowledges there is not as much surplus food available to donate.

KATE HOUSTON, DEPUTY UNDER SECY, USDA: In large part, because U.S. agricultural markets are strong and we've seen an increased demand for U.S. agricultural experts.

BOLDUAN: So, many food banks have turned to other donors for help. In December, Wal-Mart delivered a tractor trailer in every state. Major grocery stores, like Giant Foods, also donate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our trailers make weekly deliveries to the food banks and a lot of times we have product that's unsellable but again, it's perfectly good, safe, healthy product.

BOLDUAN (on camera): But food banks are still feeling the pinch and keeping a close eye of the overhaul of the farm bill being debated in Congress. It could include major funding increases that could reach struggling food banks.

Kate Bolduan, CNN, Washington.


COLLINS: And we do invite you to keep watching CNN. Our money team has you covered. Whether it's jobs, debt, housing, or savings, you can join us for a special report. It's called "ISSUE # 1," the economy. it's all this week at noon Eastern only on CNN.

HARRIS: China ignites a world tour. Countdown to the Olympics in the NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: And happening now, live pictures right now. Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, continuing his six-day swing through Pennsylvania with a morning stop at Lancaster. Obama is holding what is described as a town hall meeting right now on the campus of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

If you would like to see this speech real time, go to right now. But of course, keep your television on to the CNN NEWSROOM, as well.

NGUYEN: Well the man whose harrowing ordeal became the award- winning movie, "The Killing Fields" has died. Dith Pran died of pancreatic cancer in New Jersey yesterday. The Cambodian-born journalist survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and he risked his live to save his "New York Times" colleague. Dith Pran was 65-years-old.

HARRIS: In Tiananmen Square today, Chinese president, Hu Jintao lighting the Olympic flame. It marks the official start of the around-the-world torch relay. The games begin in August in Beijing.

China is hoping to showcase the country's rising power. But its efforts to promote the games have been met with the protests over China's human rights record.

NGUYEN: Informing you, and pulling at your heart strings. Touching you emotionally. This week we're focusing on autism. Parents of triplets learn about autism the hard way, and still face a tough road.

Here's our Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Hunter, Nicholas and Zachary Gaston were born seven years ago, their parents were ecstatic. And for the first 18 months, the boys were typical toddlers. Then something changed.

LYNN GASTON, TRIPLETS MOTHER: It was almost as if a switch, somebody came to our house and turned the switch off. The boys -- it was almost as if the first 18 months of their life didn't happen.

GUPTA: Lynn noticed her sons were developing anti-social behavior that scared her. Hunter was licking the wall. Nick wouldn't speak. She went online and typed in their symptoms.

L. GASTON: No matter how many times I changed the symptoms around or left one or two off, it kept coming back up: autism.

GUPTA: But doctors at that time weren't coming to the same conclusions. Finally, when the boys were four, doctors confirmed all three had some variation of autism, a condition they weren't familiar with. L. GASTON: It's not like you can look up autism in the phone book. I couldn't go to the yellow pages and find a doctor. I didn't even know what kind of doctor to go see.

GUPTA: The Centers for Disease Control has only been collecting data on autism since 2001, the year the Gaston triplets were born. And autism is difficult to diagnose. That's because the conditions and accompanying systems vary so widely.

DR. GARY GOLDSTEIN, PRESIDENT, KENNEDY KRIEGER INSTITUTE: We don't have an easy handle on it. In autism, we don't have a test. We don't have a biopsy. We don't have an image.

GUPTA: Although research points to genetic abnormalities in the development of autism, doctors still believe a trigger sets off autism in a child. It's the trigger that's the mystery.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a combination of being genetically vulnerable and then having some kind of social or toxic exposure that tips you over.

RANDY GASTON, TRIPLETS FATHER: There's something that's affecting all these children. And it's unfortunate that these families are left to their own device to find out what's going on.

GUPTA: The Gastons are committed to getting their sons the best medical care possible. Perhaps more importantly, showing their children unconditional love.

R. GASTON: That's one thing he has to know for the rest of his life. That I did everything for him, that's all it ever comes down to. That I did everything for you, buddy.

Right? Yes? Yes, OK. You're a good boy. I love you.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.


NGUYEN: Tune in to CNN on World Autism Day, that's Wednesday, April 2. We go in-depth on the myths, the facts and the reasons for hope. "Unraveling The Mystery," a CNN worldwide investigation. It is all day this Wednesday.

But you know what, you don't even have to wait until then. Check out our special section at, where you can learn more about autism and how you can impact your world.

HARRIS: War on plastic. One town in India trying to start a trend that could spread across the country.


NGUYEN: This is a story, a really good one, of a small town making a difference, one plastic bag at a time.

Here's CNN's Sara Sidner.


SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Before they reach first grade, the children in this village are learning something adults in neighboring villages have never heard of.

Reject plastic, save the environment, they chant. It's a call to action that has captured the attention of almost all the residents of Ira (ph), a remote village of 1,200 families in south India.

I asked why a pre-school teacher why it's so important to teach the young children.

"Children, they learn faster and go and teach their parents," she says.

Ira used to be like any other village or city in India, where plastic waste strangles plant life and chokes animals. Every day an estimated 20,000 tons of plastic waste is added to the overflowing dumps.

KRISHNA MOOLYA, APNA DESH VOLUNTEER: Plastic is a big challenge in our country. Everywhere plastic is thrown.

SIDNER: In this Ira, that is no longer the case. This village is one of the first village in the country to have a successful plastic recycling program. It started at a grassroots level, with the help of a local nonprofit, Apna Desh, which means our country.

(on-camera): What did this village look like before you started this project?

"It looked very bad, but now it's very clean, now I'm very happy and proud of it. Nine out of ten people are practicing recycling," she says.

(voice-over): Zorah Mohasim educates by example. Every week she drags three to four bags filled with plastic she has collected to the drop-off spot near her home. Then a volunteer in a souped-up rickshaw drives through the village to pick it up.

(on-camera): Once it is picked up at each home, the recycled plastic ends up coming here, which is basically villager's version of a recycling plant. This is seven weeks worth of the villagers' work.

(voice-over): Village leader, Sudhakar K.T., says this has been so successful because the villagers themselves took ownership of their surrounding environment, which in turn inspired the government to pitch in and help the village thrive.

He says, "this village will impact other villages, then the villages will impact the state, the state will impact the country, and this will act as a foundation to future change."

Change normally happens slowly here. A generation ago, the village was largely illiterate. Now its children attend schools and education has been the key to enabling villagers to understand the hazards plastic poses to the environment."