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American Morning

The Fight For Iraq; Thrill Bill; Hidden Treasure

Aired March 21, 2006 - 07:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: So let's get a look at some of the other stories that are making the news. Carol has that for us this morning.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello and good morning to all of you.

How safe are chemical plants in the United States? Not safe enough. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says his department will crack down on chemical manufacturers and storage facilities that he described as free riders, meaning those that haven't beefed up their security measures. Chertoff will give more details at a speech less than two hours from now.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wants the city to rebuild and he's leaving it up to homeowners to decide where they want to live. Mayor Nagin threw out recommendations from his own advisors to turn low- lying, flooded neighborhoods, including the lower ninth ward, into parks. Nagin says he wants people to rebuild wherever they want but at their own risk.

The bird flu is expected to make its way to the United States this year, but Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says just because the virus is found doesn't mean it's a pandemic. Officials say they're stepping up the testing of wild birds and planning to get rid of any contaminated poultry.

Former Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham is in prison for taking more than $2 million in bribes. Now you could own the very things that led him to his life of crime. Cunningham's furnishings are going on the auction block. They include Asian rugs worth thousands of dollars and some very nice French antiques. Not on the auction block, however, Cunningham's 42-foot yacht named The Dukester.

Back to you, John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks very much, Carol.

President Bush is trying to build more public support for his Iraq policy. In his speech on Monday, he praised Army Lieutenant Colonel H.R. McMaster. McMaster led efforts to run insurgents out of a city of Tal Afar. Can success there be a model for the rest of Iraq? Colonel McMaster is the author of "Dereliction of Duty," about mistakes made by leaders, civilian and military, during the Vietnam War. The colonel is commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He joins us from Colorado Springs, Colorado, this morning.

Good morning to you, Lieutenant Colonel.

LT. COL. H.R. MCMASTER, COMMANDER, 3RD ARMORED CAVALRY REGIMENT: Hey, good morning. It's a pleasure to be here.

ROBERTS: We want to talk to you about what you did in Tal Afar, but, first of all, let's take a moment here and listen to some of the praise that President Bush heaped on your operation during his speech in Cleveland yesterday.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By working with local leaders to address community grievances, Iraqi and coalition forces help build the political support needed to make the military operation a success. The military success against the terrorists helped give the citizens of Tal Afar security and this allowed them to vote in the elections and begin to rebuild their city.


ROBERTS: So, Colonel, what did you and the 3rd Armored Cav do differently in Tal Afar than had been done elsewhere in the country?

MCMASTER: Well, really, we were adapting to the unique ethnic, tribal, sectarian dynamics in our area and what the enemy had done to the population. I mean the people of Tal Afar were just utterly brutalized by these terrorists. So a few things I think led to our success.

First, complete unity of effort between Iraqi civil, military leaders, our forces. Also the enemy deserves some credit because they had really brutalized these people to such a degree that they helped isolate themselves from the population. And then the discipline and compassion of our soldiers. I mean our soldiers overwhelmed the enemy in every engagement but treated the people with respect and built very good relationships. So we were able to bring the population with us, clarify our intentions, as the enemy were revealing their true intentions as they brutalized the people.

ROBERTS: But as opposed to a search and destroy mission, this was more of a clear hold and build mission. What's the difference?

MCMASTER: Well the difference is, we were very fortunate to have fighting alongside of us a very capable Iraqi army division and additional Iraqi security forces who joined us, as well as very competent police leaders who helped establish permanent security in the wake of the operation. So it was critical for us to remove these terrorists who were determined to hold on to this support base where they were organizing, training and equipping insurgent cells for employment throughout the region. It was most important for us, though, to, in the wake of that operation, establish permanent security.

ROBERTS: Right. MCMASTER: So what we have now is a reconstituted police force, for example, of 1,700 police who are gaining in capability every day. They're working in very close cooperation with the Iraqi army and our forces. The ready 1st brigade is there now from the 1st armored division doing a tremendous job. And so what the entire operation was designed to secure the population permanently from these murders.

ROBERTS: So this is being sold to us as a relatively new idea. But when I came up through Iraq in the invasion in the spring of 2003, almost to a person, every commander that I talked to at the Marines, in which I was riding with, said, we have enough people here to depose the leadership, we have enough people here to defeat the Iraqi military, we don't have enough people to hold the country and provide security because every time we go through a town and we clear out the bad guys, we move on, we don't leave anybody in our wake and then the bad guys come back in. So was this a mistake? Did you prove that there was a mistake in war planning?

MCMASTER: Well, what we benefited from, as I said before, was this very capable Iraqi army division who we were able to enhance their capabilities, help train them and then employ them alongside our forces. And now, increasingly, they're taking a lead.

Also, we required some skilled American infantry for this very tough fight. So we requested and received some reinforcements from the 2nd 325 parachute infantry battalion out of Ft. Brag, the 82nd Airborne and some of the best infantry in the world, you know. And so we had sufficient forces to defeat the enemy and then to buy enough time to reconstitute that police force and provide permanent security.


MCMASTER: Tal Afar's not the only town we did that in. We did the same thing in the two of Afghani, in the town of Baash (ph), areas that were also brutalized and living in fear. And we took sort of the same approach. Conducted operations . . .

ROBERTS: But it took a year and a half to get there. And I know in your book, "Dereliction of Duty," you point fingers at military commanders, saying that they just didn't have the will, the strength and the courage to stand up to the civilian leadership and say the truths that needed to be said. Were there some truths in Iraq that went unsaid? And that truth might be the idea that the initial invasion didn't have enough people to secure the country.

MCMASTER: Well, you know, really, I can only speak with authority on my personal experience. And I know that within the command that I operated, our senior commanders wanted nothing but candid assessment and candid advice. So I think that was critical to our success as well. I mean to give realistic assessments of the situation.

And what you see across Iraq right now is not just the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment adapting to these conditions and the very complex situation, but all of our Army and Marine corps units are doing the same thing. ROBERTS: Right.

MCMASTER: And I think that what you're seeing is, over time the Iraqis will recognize what the enemy is trying to do. Trying to get them to fight among themselves, create a chaotic condition so they can operate freely and they want Iraq to fail. And what happened in our area is the people recognized that the enemies of Iraq wanted them -- you know, wanted the country to fail and they recognize that we wanted the country to succeed. We wanted Tal Afar to succeed.

And so we were able to bring the population with us on this operation. I mean this was not an attack on Tal Afar, this was an attack for Tal Afar. And that was immensely important. It gave us access to the intelligence we needed and there's a very high degree of cooperation between the Iraqi people, the reconstituted Iraqi police force, the Iraqi army and our forces.

ROBERTS: Well there certainly are a lot of people, Lieutenant Colonel, who hope that that strategy could work elsewhere in the country and we wish the forces the best of luck as they try to engage in that. Thanks very much for being with us, Army Colonel H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cav Regiment. Also author of "Dereliction of Duty." Thanks for being with us.


O'BRIEN: Thirty-seven minutes past the hour. Time to check the weather with Chad once again.

Hey, Chad, you're a busy guy again today.


O'BRIEN: You've heard the saying, of course, cats have nine lives. Blah, blah. I've heard that a million times. But truly that has new meaning after you see this videotape. Look at this. Eighty feet up. This little kitty cat named Piper falls, falls, falls, spins, oh, lands smack on his back. Took a step out. If we show it again you'll see, kind of took a step out on a branch that couldn't hold him.

ROBERTS: Don't, don't, don't, don't step on the branch.

O'BRIEN: Don't do it Piper.

ROBERTS: Oh, it's going to break.

O'BRIEN: Don't do it, Piper.


O'BRIEN: There he goes.


O'BRIEN: Oh, catapults right out of that tree. ROBERTS: Catapults. Watch, he hits another tree here. This flips him over. Boing.

O'BRIEN: And then lands on his back. And then gets up apparently fine. The cat had been sitting in that tree for eight days. The owner couldn't get the poor kitty cat down.

ROBERTS: It just goes to show that dogs are so much smarter than cats because a dog never would have had himself in that position.

O'BRIEN: No. Hey, oh -- OK.

ROBERTS: Are we being a little shot (ph) and Freud some of us this morning?

O'BRIEN: You know, cat people don't want to hear that, John.

ROBERTS: Yes, I'm sure they don't.

Coming up, a Nascar driver who's burning rubber and breaking barriers. Bill Lester talks about what drove him to leave a lucrative job and follow his dreams.

O'BRIEN: Then later, some real life G.I. Joe's. We'll tell you why the Army wants to turn soldiers into action figures. That's ahead. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Timothy Dalton is older than Gary Oldman by a lot?

ROBERTS: Yes, by quite a bit.

O'BRIEN: Wow, who knew?

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Happy birthday, guys.

Let's talk business news. Google.


O'BRIEN: And more Google.

LEE: Expanding.

O'BRIEN: It never ends.

LEE: They have a new financial services Web site. It's called That is the Web site. And it's invada (ph) right now, but basically they want to give financial information, just like everyone else. Like Yahoo! Finance, things like that. Of course, this is a way for Google to sell more ads eventually and it does offer some basic things here. One cool feature to Google's money site is that you can look at a stock chart and if you want to go back to say six months or a year, say the stock really popped or fell, the site will automatically change the news on the side of the screen to give you the news what happened corresponding to that time period. So that's one cool feature. And I'm sure they'll expand on it. But, as I said, it made right now.

ROBERTS: Google could kind of, you know, own the market in that (ph) itself.

LEE: Well, we'll see about that. There are a lot of sites like this. Very easy to find the information.

ROBERTS: What I'm saying is, there's a lot of news about Google out there.

O'BRIEN: I was going to say . . .

LEE: Oh, exactly. Yes, you can Google Google and see what happens.

O'BRIEN: Mostly good news and lately bad news.

LEE: changing the way the search engine handles queries for the term abortion. This is very interesting. After receiving some e-mail complaints that it appeared bias. The way it used to work, and they have changed it, we tested it out this morning, you type in the word abortion, you get some search results, but they also have a prompt asking, did you mean adoption. Of course the words abortion, adoption very similar.

O'BRIEN: Politically charged.

LEE: But you can see how this would bother some people.

ROBERTS: Now what happens if people typed in the word -- if you search abortion do you get adoption?

LEE: Now you -- no, no, it didn't happen that way. Amazon says that this was just a technical thing, that nobody actually sat there and thought this through. But they have fixed it.

O'BRIEN: That's a -- you know, considering the political implications, I got to tell you, and I'm not a big conspiracy person, that doesn't make any sense.

LEE: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Adoption and abortion, the spellings are not that close. And, if that were the case, then when you reversed them, you should pull up the other one.

LEE: Yes. There's an explainer to this. They say you type it in, there are other words that work the same way. For example, if you type in the world plaque, you'd get a prompt saying, do you mean plague, but it doesn't work the opposite way. So I guess it's some sort of, you know, technological . . . O'BRIEN: But plague and plaque could be a typo. Abortion and adoption are actually sort of not that, you know, closely spelled. And when you consider the sort of political debate going on, no one's really worried about plaque and plague, right?

LEE: True. True. Well, that's what they're saying, that this wasn't something somebody actually thought about. It just sort of technologically worked out that way. They do say, though, it raised a valid concern, so they fixed it. But interesting story.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it really is.

ROBERTS: Politics and search engines.


ROBERTS: Thanks, Carrie Lee.

O'BRIEN: Thanks.

ROBERTS: He's burning up the track and breaking a few barriers at the same time. If you're a Nascar fan and you've never heard the name Bill Lester, you certainly will soon. CNN's Ray D'Alessio explains why.


BILL LESTER, NASCAR DRIVER: I come from a fairly atypical background. I mean, I don't know, I look like a typical Nascar driver, right? I mean there's nothing different about me, right?

RAY D'ALESSIO, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): Kidding aside, Bill Lester is all business when it comes to racing. The 45-year-old has been driving full-time on Nascar's truck series for the past four seasons. But on Monday, he finished 38th in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He's just the third African-American ever to compete on Nascar's top circuit.

BILL LESTER: The thing that was cool was just racing with these guys and learning some of the tricks of the trade and hopefully gaining these guys' respect.

D'ALESSIO: Lester might have missed his racing opportunity had it not been for his wife Cheryl. In 1998, he left the security of a six-figure salary at Hewlett-Packard to chase his life-long dream of being a professional driver.

CHERYL LESTER, BILL'S WIFE: And I kept telling him, look, you really want to do this. This is your passion. You need to do it full time. You need to devote all your energy to make this happen, just like all the other race car drivers out there.

BILL LESTER: I didn't want to live my life not being able to do what it is I wanted to do with it. And so I was willing to take the risk and my wife was willing to support me in taking the risk. And so everything so far has been paying it off.

D'ALESSIO: But Lester's opportunity didn't come easy and it didn't come without some second-guessing.

BILL LESTER: There's always been creeping doubt, you know, when you get rejected by, you know, sponsorship proposals or approaching people and, you know, you're not what they're looking for or whatever the case might be. Obviously it's hard to swallow that.

D'ALESSIO: Eventually Dodge sponsored him. Now he's back by Waste Management. Lester is currently the only African-American driver on any of Nascar top three circuits and he's racing for one reason.

BILL LESTER: I'm doing this for myself. I'm doing this for my family. And I'm glad that so many people, especially from the minority community, have taken note of what it is I'm doing. But, you know, I drive for Bill Lester. I mean, at the end of the day, you know, if it wasn't for my self-belief, I wouldn't be here.

D'ALESSIO: Ray D'Alessio, CNN, Atlanta.


ROBERTS: By the way, Bill Lester is going to be coming up on CNN LIVE TODAY with Daryn Kagan at 10:30 Eastern Time.

You know the best part about watching the stock car race in person?

O'BRIEN: What?

ROBERTS: The sound.

O'BRIEN: Really?

ROBERTS: The sound is just -- there's nothing like it.

O'BRIEN: You can't hear anything else because it's so noisy?

ROBERTS: Oh, it's great -- but it's great. It's just the sound that you never hear anywhere is else.

O'BRIEN: That's neat. I've never seen it in person. I've got to go to Daytona.

ROBERTS: It's fantastic. You should go. You should go.

O'BRIEN: Yes. You know, I got invited, actually, to go see that this year. Take the kids.

ROBERTS: You should go do it.

O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, we're talking to Director Spike Lee. He's going to join us live in the studio. He's got a new movie out. It's called "Inside Man." We were telling you about this yesterday. The movie's kind of a departure for him. We'll talk about that and much more just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Plus, we'll introduce you to a couple of college girls. Look at them. Hello, ladies. I'll tell you about their amazing discovery. Went to New Orleans to help with the cleanup over their spring break, ended up literally finding hidden treasure. They'll share their story just ahead.


O'BRIEN: They went to New Orleans during spring break to help out and help gut hurricane-damaged homes. They stumbled upon a hidden treasure. Trista Wright and Haley Barton are students at Armstrong Atlantic State University. They're the ones who made the big find and they're in Savannah, Georgia, this morning.

Hi, ladies. Nice to see you.



O'BRIEN: Good morning to you.

All right, Trista, let's begin with you, because you really were the first person who made the big find. You're 19 years old. You were on spring break cleaning out some homes, doing some gutting, in St. Bernard Parish, which we know pretty well from our stories. When did you realize that you had found something?

WRIGHT: Well, I started raking it out of the air-conditioner vent and I was -- I actually just thought it was garbage and I was going to shovel it up, but I bent down to pick it up and it was a sack of hundred dollar bills and then more and more kept coming.

O'BRIEN: And it was just sort of falling out of the wall? And were they bound in rubber bands or were they loose pouring out of the wall? What was it like?

WRIGHT: I think there was two stacks that were wrapped in rubber bands and the other was just lining the bottom of the floor.

O'BRIEN: OK. So all of a sudden money starts pouring out of this wall. What did you do?

WRIGHT: Oh, wow, I wasn't sure what to do. And we had two adult leaders on our team and so I called over Pastor Steve, one of our adult leaders, and he pretty much took it from there. He knew what to do.

O'BRIEN: I know you yelled and you kind of called everybody else into the room because people each had their own individual places where they were working in this house. So Haley, among some of your friends, comes running in to see what's going on.

Haley, what did you think? BARTON: It was pretty surreal. We sort of didn't believe that it was real money and there was a possibility sort of thought, well maybe this is monopoly money. But we could look at it and tell that it was real money. And so it was pretty amazing. I had never seen so many money in one place at one time.

O'BRIEN: Tons of money. I mean, at the end of the day, it came to something like $30,000. What happened with the money? What did you do with it?

WRIGHT: We gave it -- we returned it to the family, of course. So they were very happy. They said that it was a miracle and it was. It truly was. Christ provided for the family that day.

O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh, yes.

WRIGHT: He worked through us.

O'BRIEN: I mean you can see people who definitely need some money. You know, nobody more maybe than the folks in New Orleans certainly.

Was there ever any little tiny weeny attempt? Having hundred dollar bills pouring out of the wall to say, oh, maybe I could just, you know -- no? Trista knows where this question is going. Not even for a moment?

WRIGHT: No, ma'am.

O'BRIEN: You know other people would say free money. Free money.

BARTON: Yes. I think that it's expected of us as young people or people of any age this day to go ahead and take it or to not be faithful or trustworthy in turning it in. But that wasn't even an option for us. We were there to serve Christ.

O'BRIEN: Good for you. Good for you. Well, that's terrific.

So you gave it to the homeowner and, of course, she was overjoyed. Did she tell you how the money got in the wall in the first place? Do you know? Haley or Trista.

WRIGHT: Well, I'm sorry. It was the mother's home and, after the depression, they just didn't trust the banks and they would just stash their money away.

O'BRIEN: So the fortune once lost has now been found. Ladies, good work. And good work in just going down there anyway. I know so many students have devoted their spring break to helping folks down there cleanup. So, boy, yours really paid off in a lot of ways. Thanks for talking with us this morning. What a great story. Trista Wright and Haley Barton joining us this morning to tell us about their big find.

BARTON: Thank you. O'BRIEN: John.

ROBERTS: And what a nice couple of honest kids as well.


ROBERT: Our top stories ahead.

And attack on an Iraqi police station kills at least 15 Iraqi officers today.

Testimony resumes in the Moussaoui sentencing trial.

Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans unveils a blueprint for rebuilding his city.

The new trial for Andrea Yates, the mother accused of drowning her kids, is delayed.

And a storm dumps more than a foot of snow in the Great Plains. We'll see where it's headed next. Stay with us.


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

ROBERTS: And I'm John Roberts, in this week for the vacationing Miles O'Brien. Good morning to you.

O'BRIEN: Take a look at the pictures. A spring storm dumps more than a foot of snow on parts of the Midwest. Now the severe weather is headed east. We've got your forecast just ahead for you this morning.

ROBERTS: Dozens are dead following a heavily armed jail break by insurgents. We're live in Baghdad this morning with the very latest.

And this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought I was going to die, so I did -- it was horrible, but I did what I had to do to survive.