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American Morning

Historic Vote; Supreme Court Bound; Katrina Warnings?; Wayward Whale

Aired January 25, 2006 - 06:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

A historic moment in the Middle East, Palestinians are voting, and it could be out with the old and in with the party that many call terrorists. What does it mean for the peace in the Middle East?

Cuban leader Fidel Castro calls Americans cockroaches. We'll tell you why.

S. O'BRIEN: Early warning about Hurricane Katrina. There is new evidence the Bush administration was told about the strong possibility of breached levees and massive flooding.

And the great firewall of China and Google, sensors block one of the world's most popular Web sites.

M. O'BRIEN: And then there's this, that's a Member of Parliament there in Great Britain playing here kitty, here kitty. It was just a warm-up for what else he did. We'll tell you.

S. O'BRIEN: I'm sure there's a very good explanation for that.

We start, though, with the future of Mid East peace, could be in the hands of Palestinians. Voting is now under way in Gaza and the West Bank. And Hamas, the group that calls for the destruction of Israel, is expected to become a significant voice in Parliament.

John Vause is outside of a polling station in Ramallah this morning.

John, good morning.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Actually, we're in downtown Ramallah, al-Manar Square.

But we can tell you that so far there's been a very strong voter turnout at those polling stations. About 20 percent of the Palestinians eligible to vote have done so. It's a lot more than turned out last year for the presidential elections.

As we've said, we're in al-Manar Square. This is a good place to give you a bit of an idea of Palestinian politics and democracy in action. You can see all these thousands and thousands of campaign posters which have been put up over the last couple of weeks. Now there are 11 parties running for power in the Parliament, but really it's this two-horse race.

And if we look up at what they call the Lighthouse Tower here, this is, in fact, the top poster is for Fatah, that's the old dominant party, the party founded by the late Yasser Arafat. You may be able to see a young looking Arafat on that poster. And Fatah is facing its first real political challenge from Hamas.

Now Hamas is running on this platform of change and reform, open, honest and accountable government. But of course most people know Hamas for the wave of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on Israelis over the last five years. And of course Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, refuses to disarm. And so that has a lot of Israelis worried, what will happen to the peace process should Hamas win big in these elections -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: And what's the speculation about that very question, what does happen to the peace process if Hamas does win big?

VAUSE: Well it really depends on the numbers. If they come in and they are significant and they are dominating the Parliament, say, for example, there is a Hamas prime minister, well then no one with the Israelis will not be dealing with the Palestinian Authority. The most likely outcome, though, is that Hamas will end up with a third of the seats.

If they go into government, they'll accept the lower portfolios of health, education, social welfare, that kind of thing. And what could happen is that the Israelis will deal with the Palestinian Authority while not dealing with the Hamas members of the Cabinet.

But all of this, of course, is speculation. No one really knows for sure what will happen. We will get a better result once we know how well Hamas does in this election when polls close in about six hours from now -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: There are lots of speculation, though, that Hamas is going to do fairly well, if not very, very well. Why do you think Hamas has such great Palestinian support?

VAUSE: Well, in many ways this is a protest vote. Many Palestinians are tired of Fatah. They believe that Fatah has failed, failed to deliver, not just on the peace process, or failed to deliver a Palestinian state, but just simply failed to deliver on the basics, education, health, other government services. And there's this perception that Fatah is corrupt and ineffective. So many people, many Palestinians are going to the polls today and casting what is being described as a protest vote and a vote for change -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: John Vause for us this morning.

Thanks, John, appreciate the update -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Well pack your bags, Justice O'Connor, it appears it's just a matter of time before your successor takes your seat on the Supreme Court. After more than six months of waiting, Samuel Alito is one step closer to confirmation.

Ed Henry is on Capitol Hill.


ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Judge Alito was approved on a party line vote with the Senate Judiciary Committee bitterly divided, mostly over the hot button issue of abortion. We're expecting a vote on the Senate floor as early as the end of this week also along party lines. A far cry from last year when Chief Justice John Roberts got 22 Democratic votes.

The difference now is Democrats have calculated that they will not be able to stop Alito with a filibuster. The best they can do is try to tar him as a polarizing figure and taint the White House victory. Republicans reject that, say a victory is a victory. And if it's polarized, it's because of the Democrats' tough questioning of Alito.

But Democrats realize the election is coming up in November. They want a wedge issue and they want to go to the voters and say if you want to stop the president from putting more conservatives on the high court, it's time to put Democrats in charge of the Senate.

Ed Henry, CNN, Capitol Hill.


S. O'BRIEN: No secret by now that the response to Hurricane Katrina was botched, but did the Bush administration ignore warnings about what the storm would do, warnings that came days before Katrina hit? Some Senators say the White House is ducking attempts to get answers.

Homeland Security correspondent Jeanne Meserve has a look for us this morning.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The power and the destruction of Hurricane Katrina should not have been a surprise. The warnings came early.

On August 28, two days before the storm, a Department of Homeland Security analysis predicted a Category 4 storm would likely lead to "severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months." This, the document said, was a "conservative" estimate.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Among the offices receiving that memo was the White House Situation Room, which received it at 1:47 a.m. on Monday, August 29, several hours before Katrina made landfall. What happened to that report?

MESERVE: And why did the president say this three days after the storm? GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.

MESERVE: The White House says the president was talking about the period immediately after Katrina, when it was thought New Orleans had dodged a bullet.

There had been other warnings. In July of 2004, a planning exercise called Hurricane Pam predicted that a Category 4 hurricane would top New Orleans' levees, destroy 600,000 buildings, and kill 60,000 people. Two days before Katrina came ashore, a FEMA PowerPoint demonstration said Katrina would be worse.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Pam became Katrina. The simulation beam reality, and optimism became the awful truth. We were not prepared.

MESERVE: In fact, a document written a month before Katrina and just released said evacuation planning was only 10 percent complete. "If you think soup lines in the Depression were long," said one official, "wait until you see the lines at transportation collection points."

Senator Lieberman says he wants more information about who knew what and when and isn't getting it.

LIEBERMAN: The Department of Homeland Security has engaged in a strategy of slow-walking our investigation, in the hope that we would run out of time.

MESERVE (on camera): But DHS says it has provided 300,000 pages of documents and 60 witnesses and calls its cooperation unprecedented. The administration expects to issue its own study soon on what lessons it learned from its response to Katrina.

Jeanne Meserve, CNN, Washington.


S. O'BRIEN: Senator Lieberman isn't the only senator who says the White House is stonewalling. Senator Susan Collins, who you also saw in that report, says the administration is telling government officials to not talk to investigators.

Ahead this morning, we're going to talk to Senator Lieberman about the Katrina investigation. That's ahead at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time right here on AMERICAN MORNING.

M. O'BRIEN: Well it's January, late January actually, and nary a flake of snow on the ground here in New York City. And it makes us wonder is the world getting a little warmer or what?

A new British study says it's definitely a trend. In fact, scientists say 2005 was the warmest ever on record in the Northern Hemisphere. We jumped by more than a third of a degree overall. The study says greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere are part of this problem. As for the trend, 8 of the 10 hottest years ever on record have come in the past decade.

Let's check the forecast now.

Chad Myers, you're a little bit of a skeptic on global warming, I know.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: No, I absolutely believe that CO2 is heating the atmosphere, but also some of these thermometers that we have had out in the Plains for years or in the cities for years are getting surrounded by more buildings. So you get more buildings, you get more asphalt, you get more heat so the thermometers are different. The whole metro areas are getting warmer.

Where in fact maybe you just see if you put that same thermometer out in the middle of a corn field in Nebraska, maybe it wouldn't be too much different. We'll have to see. You know I know that this is happening, it's just a matter of how much it is. That's all.

M. O'BRIEN: So there's a little bit of global paving, too, along with global warming?

MYERS: Well there you go.


MYERS: Right.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

MYERS: Sure, of course.


Back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Chad, thank you.

MYERS: You bet.

S. O'BRIEN: Here's a question for you, just why did a 15-foot whale swim up the Thames River in London? Remember last week we showed you these pictures of the bottle-nose whale in the shadow, at one point, of Big Ben. You could see her also swim by Parliament. She died during the rescue efforts. And now early autopsy results are coming out that could shed a little light exactly on what happened.

Let's get right to Paula Hancocks. She's live for us in London this morning.

What's the autopsy showing, Paula, good morning?


Well the press conference has just finished into the first indications of why the Thames Whale did die on Saturday. And it does appear at this point, although it will take weeks longer to get a definitive answer, that it could have been that it died from natural causes. It said that it's a combination of factors, really, severe dehydration, some muscle damage and reduction of kidney function.

The most interesting thing that was the reason that it did go up the Thames in the first place. If you do remember back last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, thousands and thousands of people went to the banks of the River Thames and onto roads that had to be closed off to go and see this whale, this 20-foot whale, that was in the Thames. The first sighting since records had begun in 1913.

But the people here are saying that the interesting thing is the reason it could have gone into the Thames in the first place is that it could have just gotten lost just north or east of Scotland which is just north of England. And at that point, to get west, back to the north Atlantic, back to its normal feeding ground, it could have just headed west, its normal navigation system, and just gone right up the Thames -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: It's too bad it ended sadly.

Paula Hancocks for us this morning, thank you for the update -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up on the program, bordering on the absurd. The Mexican government offering maps to illegal immigrants who would like to sneak into the U.S.

S. O'BRIEN: That should make things easier.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Also ahead this morning, Pixar finds a new home in the Magic Kingdom. Disney buys the studio behind hits like "The Incredibles." Is it a match made in animation heaven? We'll take a look.

M. O'BRIEN: And our favorite Member of the British Parliament, George Galloway, lapping up milk like a little kitty on a reality show.

S. O'BRIEN: Here kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty.

M. O'BRIEN: Wait until you see what he's up to now. Maybe you don't want to see it, but you've got to. You know you do. Stay with us.

S. O'BRIEN: Man!


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning to you.

Good morning, Carol, Costello. How are you?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: I'm just dandy. How are you -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Good, thanks.

COSTELLO: And how are all of you? Good morning.

It is decision day for about one-and-a-half million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. They are voting right now for 132-seat legislative council. These are the first parliamentary elections in a decade and could be pivotal in the Palestinian push for statehood. Hamas, the military Islamic group considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, is posing a serious challenge to the ruling Fatah Party.

The U.S.-Cuban billboard wars heat up in Havana. The U.S. intersection in Havana fired up its electronic billboard just as Fidel Castro was about to speak nearby. The message knocked the Cuban government, hinting that it puts pressure on the Cuban people to come out in large numbers to hear Castro speak. But the Cuban leader was not amused.


PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO, CUBA (through translator): They have turned on that little sign. Cockroaches are so valuable. It seems that little Bush gave the order.


COSTELLO: Cuba has set up billboards around the U.S. offices there as well. One has President Bush with vampire teeth and blood in his mouth.

The U.S. Army is feeling the strain of Iraq and Afghanistan. That's the assessment from a retired Army officer who was asked by the Pentagon to review the Army's situation. The study finds the Army can't sustain deployments to Iraq long enough to break the insurgency. It suggests the Pentagon's decision to begin reducing the number of troops in Iraq is being driven in part by the realization the Army is overextended.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says give the administration a break. Gonzales defended the president's domestic surveillance program during a speech at Georgetown University Law School. Several students stood with their backs to the attorney general to protest the National Security Agency program. One protest sign read "those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." Gonzales says it's important for national security to quickly detect who might be speaking with any terrorist groups.

Police are trying to figure out how actor Chris Penn died. An autopsy will soon get under way. Penn is the younger brother of actor Sean Penn. He was found dead in his Santa Monica condo. Police say there were no obvious signs of foul play. Chris Penn appeared in dozens of films, among them, "Mulholland Falls," "Footloose" and "Rush Hour." And police in Germantown, Maryland have arrested the father of an 8-year-old boy who shot a girl at a childcare center. Told you about this story, how a 7-year-old girl was shot in the arm by a little boy. The boy's father now faces several gun charges. Police say he left the gun in a location accessible to his boy. The boy is in the custody of juvenile authorities. The father being held on $750,000 bond.

Let's head to Atlanta now to check in with Chad.

Is there nasty weather out there this morning?

MYERS: Yes. Carol, did you say you were dandy?


MYERS: Dandy.

COSTELLO: I am dandy this morning.

MYERS: You'd be dandier if you were in Miami.


S. O'BRIEN: Chad, thank you very much. We always love to hear that, warming up for the weekend,...

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, we do.

S. O'BRIEN: ... even in the middle of winter. It's kind of odd, but whatever.

Chad, thank you.

Business news now. The company that invented animated movies is buying the company that really reinvented the process.

Carrie Lee has got that for us.

Good morning.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning -- Carrie.

CARRIE LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Soledad and Miles, good morning to you.

The House of Mouse buying Pixar animation studios. This was widely speculated on Wall Street and now it is official. Pixar, of course, the company behind successful animated films like "The Incredibles," which you see here, as well as "Finding Nemo," many others.

Now this is a $7.4 billion stock deal. Disney has released all of Pixar's films so far, including "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" and "The Incredibles." But their distribution deal was set to expire this summer after the release of "Cars." That's the new upcoming film. Now Pixar's Chief, Steve Jobs, is going to be on Disney's board. He, of course, runs Apple Computer as well as Pixar. He is going to be the biggest individual shareholder in Disney once this deal is done. His stake worth a cool $3.7 billion, that's billion with a B.

Did Disney pay too much? That's the question some people are asking. Well, it is a bit of a premium based on Pixar's closing price yesterday, about a 4 percent premium. But some analysts say the risk of losing Pixar to potentially another company simply too great. They didn't want to let this one go.

And here you can see why. Take a look at the box office profits on all of these numbers.

S. O'BRIEN: Look at those numbers.

LEE: "Finding Nemo" by far the most successful. But they really haven't had a miss yet. So Disney has of course some animated films on its own, but not as successful as Pixar's.

M. O'BRIEN: The concern will be will Pixar still be Pixar inside Disney, you know?

LEE: Will they still have the freedom to do what they want?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

LEE: Or once they become part of this corporate...

M. O'BRIEN: Will be Disnified (ph).

LEE: But you can't...

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

LEE: And I almost hate to use this word synergy, but you can imagine the possibilities, Disney has such a history, the...

M. O'BRIEN: God. Hold onto your wallet when you use the S word.

LEE: Yes, that's right. The films, the theme parks, maybe a "Finding Nemo" ride, who knows?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. All right.

S. O'BRIEN: We could see it all right now.

LEE: Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you -- Carrie.


S. O'BRIEN: Thanks, Carrie.

"Morning Coffee" ahead. Hey, Carol, what you got?

COSTELLO: I have a little panda porn for you this morning, Soledad.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

COSTELLO: Just what you wanted to see this early in the morning.

S. O'BRIEN: A little what?

COSTELLO: Panda porn. We'll tell you why they're...

M. O'BRIEN: My god, she's posing right there.

COSTELLO: Exactly. We'll tell you why these pandas desperately need that in "Morning Coffee."


S. O'BRIEN: All right, more like it to start with Prince in the morning. Thank you. Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. What is he...

S. O'BRIEN: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Is he currently Prince or is he still Formerly Known as...

S. O'BRIEN: No, no, no, he's back to Prince. He got out of his record deal and it's over.

M. O'BRIEN: Formerly Known as symbol whatever.

S. O'BRIEN: No, no, no, no, no, that was just a record deal issue.

COSTELLO: You're so behind.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, I am.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, where've you been?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, I am. Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's get right to "Morning Coffee."

M. O'BRIEN: Need more sleep, obviously.

COSTELLO: I know, and we all do, actually.

You know illegal immigrants aren't exactly welcome in the United States these days. You have the Minutemen patrolling the border and you have Lou Dobbs patrolling the airways. Well wait and hear -- wait until Lou gets a hold of this story. The government of Mexico is distributing 70,000 maps showing the best way to cross into Arizona safely. You know a lot of people die in the desert attempting to get into the United States. Well this map also shows how far immigrants should safely travel each day. It shows where other immigrants have died while crossing and where water stations are set up.

As for what the Department of Homeland Security is saying, well, it says it's skeptical. It says the plan won't save any lives.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, and the government produced this?

COSTELLO: The government of Mexico, a commission.

M. O'BRIEN: Government of Mexico.

COSTELLO: And it's working with some group in Arizona, too.

M. O'BRIEN: OK. All right.

COSTELLO: So the maps are going to be distributed pretty soon.

M. O'BRIEN: I think Lou already got a hold of that last night. He's already taken. Yes.

COSTELLO: Yes. He's hot.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes.

COSTELLO: Just think, in 276 hours the Super Bowl will begin.

M. O'BRIEN: Boy!

COSTELLO: Yes, let's dream a bit. Do you have the money to buy a seat at Detroit's Ford Field? Well, let's dream. The $700 seats are now going for well over three grand. And if you want to bring your homies, you could get an eight-person suite at the five yard line for just $200,000. Food and drink are included, though.

S. O'BRIEN: Well then that makes it worth it.

M. O'BRIEN: Now.

COSTELLO: Exactly. I know, Miles, that you made the comment asking if anyone was actually interested in the Steelers and the Seahawks playing in the Super Bowl.

M. O'BRIEN: What, I just said smaller market teams. I was thinking the networks weren't very happy.

COSTELLO: Well I'm pretty happy with Pittsburgh.

M. O'BRIEN: At any case.

COSTELLO: Anyway, our CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup Poll shows 64 percent of people plan to watch the game. Thirty-four percent say they have something better to do, although I can't imagine what that would be. Of the people who plan to watch, the majority will be watching from their own couch. Only 9 percent say they're going to a friend's house and just 1 percent plan to watch the game in a bar.

M. O'BRIEN: Really, just 1 percent of those bars.

S. O'BRIEN: Wow, those are...

M. O'BRIEN: Boy, they are loud and raucous, though. That's a loud 1 percent.

COSTELLO: Yes, you've got that right.

Years ago I did a story on why pandas don't want to have sex. They're not the most sexual creatures.

M. O'BRIEN: And ever since you've been...

COSTELLO: Ever since I've been a changed woman.

M. O'BRIEN: ... hand to nut (ph). Yes.

COSTELLO: No. Anyway, I found it's because zookeepers keep the pandas too clean. You know they wash them and the pandas don't have that panda loving smell. That's one reason. I'm serious.


COSTELLO: This is from the National Zoo in Washington. Anyway, zookeepers in Thailand are taking a different route, panda porn. This pair of pandas will be treated to a DVD demonstrating panda lovemaking.

M. O'BRIEN: She's...

COSTELLO: Zookeepers figure they have never seen it done, because they're in captivity, and watching this DVD will teach them a thing or two about loving.

M. O'BRIEN: Do they like Barry White, too? I mean, do you want to -- maybe we could...

S. O'BRIEN: Candles.

COSTELLO: That's another idea.

M. O'BRIEN: It's another idea. You might want to pass that along.

S. O'BRIEN: Rose petals.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

S. O'BRIEN: OK, under the category weird but true.

Carol, thank you very much. M. O'BRIEN: There you go.

S. O'BRIEN: A look at the day's top stories straight ahead this morning. Remember George Galloway? He, of course, is the British Parliament Member. He was acting like a kitty cat on a reality show a couple of weeks...

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, there, that would be him there. That would be him.

S. O'BRIEN: There he is. You know. Well he's actually topped that. Here's a hint...

M. O'BRIEN: Or bottomed it.

S. O'BRIEN: Or bottomed it, as the case may be.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: There's a red leotard and a singing transvestite involved in what he's doing now.


S. O'BRIEN: Can't wait for that one, right?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: That's ahead. We're back in a moment.