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American Morning

Pirates Hijack Cargo Ship Off Somali Coast with Americans On Board; Obama Back to Work After Whirlwind European Tour; U.S. Lawmakers Meet With Fidel Castro; What President Obama's Trip Achieved

Aired April 08, 2009 - 07:00   ET


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome once again. It's 7:00 here in New York on this Wednesday, April 8. I'm Kiran Chetry.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CO-ANCHOR: And I'm Carol Costello in for John Roberts. A lot happening this morning.

CHETRY: That's right. We're following breaking news this morning out of the waters near Somalia. Americans held hostage at sea, hijacked by pirates.

A diplomat telling the Associated Press that Somali pirates captured a cargo ship with 20 U.S. citizens onboard. There's a live update coming just moments from now.

Also, President Obama back home. New pictures coming in overnight. Air Force One touching down at Andrews Air Force Base after the president's unannounced visit to Iraq.

Asian stocks tanking overnight in Hong Kong. Stocks shedding more than four percent. In Japan, the Nikkei fell close to three percent as that country unveils its own $100 billion stimulus plan.

COSTELLO: And more now on that big story breaking right now, 20 Americans hijacked at sea by Somali pirates, about 400 miles from the Somali capital of Mogadishu. It's the first vessel with an all- American crew to be hit.

Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has been in those waters. He joins us live with some new information from London.

And, you know, Nic, there are a lot of questions this morning about the situation. I mean, what more can you tell us about the apparent lack of security onboard this ship that Somali pirates were able to hijack it?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, the very latest information that we have is coming from the Danish company that owns the ship, the Maersk Alabama. They say that the 20-man crew were all U.S. nationals. It was flying a U.S. flag, but they won't talk about the security onboard the ship.

What they will say is that this happened in the early hours of the morning. They say 500 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. They will not give any indication whatsoever about whether or not they have, as some companies do right now, put additional security personnel on the ship.

What we do know the advice given to ships sailing through that area is go at speed if you see pirates and turn on your fire extinguishers, your water hoses on the side of your vessel pointing outwards to deter any would-be hijackings. But this is now the sixth hijacking in just this past week, Carol.

COSTELLO: And we do. I believe we have a spokesperson for the ship right now. And we want to go to him. So, Nic, stand by.

CHETRY: That's right. Joining us on the phone is Michael Storgaard. He is the spokesman for the Danish company that owns the hijacked ship.

Thanks for being with us this morning, Michael.


CHETRY: First of all, just please give us an update on what is happening, what you have learned right now about what's happening with this ship.

STORGAARD: Well, basically, we have not learned anymore than just what's reported there. We don't know anything more. And right now, what we are doing and what is our primary concern is, of course, to ensure that the family relatives of the 20 U.S. strong crew, they get the support that they require, of course, in this situation.

CHETRY: All right. Can you give us more information about this vessel, about the -- what we're hearing right now a crew of at least 20 U.S. nationals?

STORGAARD: Well, it was 20 American crew members, that's true. And the vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was sailing for Maersk Line (ph) on an East Africa service.

It's a container vessel, a small feet (ph) of vessel. It can carry around 1,120 foot container, so it's a smaller vessel. It's owned and operated by a daughter company of the AP Moller/Maersk Group. It's Maersk Line, Limited, a U.S.-based company up in Norfolk.

CHETRY: Was there security onboard, their own security on this ship?

STORGAARD: Excuse me, once again.

CHETRY: Did this ship have its own security system? Security detail aboard?

STORGAARD: I'm afraid I'm unable to comment on that. It is our policy not to comment on specific security details for the vessels. And, of course, we do not comment on those.

CHETRY: Can you tell us more about what this ship was carrying at the time? STORGAARD: The ship is presumably carrying a general cargo. That can be anything that you and I use in our daily life, and especially to East Africa, a lot of the cargo is aid cargo, so we would presume it's carrying mostly aid cargo.

CHETRY: You talked about being able to assist the families. Are you prepared to do any negotiating with the pirates that have presumably taken over the ship? I mean, as we've seen in the past, they often directly try to negotiate with the owners of the ships for their release.

STORGAARD: I'm afraid I'm not able to comment or speculate on that. That is much, much too early.

CHETRY: All right. Well, Michael, thanks for giving us as much information as you're able to reveal. I understand this is certainly a sensitive situation. Thank you for shedding as much light as you're able to on it for us this morning.

And again, if you are just joining us, word and now confirmation from the Danish company that owns the Maersk Alabama that a ship with 20 American crew members on it has been hijacked off the coast of Somalia. This vessel was en route to Mombasa, Kenya when it was attacked off the Somali coast by pirates.

Right now, we are, of course, just learning as much as we can about the situation. It's developing. We have calls out to both our Kenya bureau as well as our bureaus in Washington and New York who are working this story. So stick with us this morning. As soon as we find out more details, we'll bring them to you -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Also happening now, President Obama back at the White House after making a surprise stop in Iraq on his way home. These are the latest pictures we have. The president returning late last night after visiting eight countries in six days.

Unemployment here at home hit the highest level in a quarter century while the president was gone. Kate Bolduan joins us live from Washington.

And, Kate, you know, the president's using his surprise trip to reinforce his stance on Iraq. But back home, reality hits him once again in the face about the economy.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so is the life of a president, right? Domestic and foreign policy have to be squarely on your mind at all times.

As you mentioned, it was an unannounced trip but it seems not an entirely unexpected stop in Iraq. You can guess the president during this first trip to the war zone since taking office, he used it to thank and rally the troops. But President Obama also struck a more serious tone saying that the next 18 months will be critical and difficult as they begin to withdraw troops and hand over the mission to the Iraqis. The plan is to have all combat troops out by August 2010, but the president also used this stop to remind that the work in Iraq isn't done. He met with the top U.S. commander there and also with the Iraqi prime minister. President Obama pushing Iraqi leaders to settle their political differences. Clearly, easier said than done -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Oh, boy, you're not kidding about that. Of course, he's got his own Congress to deal with and convincing them to settle their differences. OK. So once he gets over the jet lag, what are the president's big priorities in the next few days?

BOLDUAN: Well, you even mentioned it, the economy awaits him, of course. Unemployment rate greeted him when he arrived back early this morning. The president must stay focused in working on turning the economy around as well as getting stimulus dollars out into the state and local governments. But he also is likely to return his focus to other domestic issues and other priorities and campaign promises, overhauling the nation's health care system for one.

The White House is scheduled to hold an event tomorrow discussing the need to enhance quality health care for service members and veterans. Also, likely on his list, probably energy legislation. This could include what we've heard a lot about recently, a proposed cap and trade system, but both of these priorities are likely to face much longer and a much slower fight with Capitol Hill, much more so than this whirlwind European tour, Carol.

COSTELLO: You know, it just struck me that these pirates taking the ship with 21 Americans onboard hostage near Somalia, I mean, that's going to be on his plate too, you'd think because it's going to may be turn into an international incident?

BOLDUAN: As I said at the top, so is the life of the president. You plan for, you know, he goes on a foreign trip. He's back here to face domestic issues for the next few days before leaving on another trip overseas, but, you know, so is the life of the president. You have to roll with these punches.

COSTELLO: Yes, it will be interesting.


COSTELLO: And, of course, we'll keep watch on all of it.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

COSTELLO: Kate Bolduan, thanks.

CHETRY: Time now to check on some of the other stories new this morning. Actor Kal Penn's next job has nothing to do with White Castle. This one's for the White House.

Penn, you probably recognize from "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and also his recent role on "House," has been tapped by the Obama administration to be its liaison to Asian constituents. Penn campaigned for President Obama ahead of last year's election. Well, Virginia's race for governor is still months away but some familiar faces are already cropping up in new Web videos released by the state's Democratic Party. It hopes that comments from Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee about the difference in urban and rural voters will keep voters in that state from supporting the GOP.

Virginia has elected back to back Democratic governors and senators. President Obama also carried Virginia in the general election.

And now North Korea releases what it calls recent video of an apparently healthy Kim Jong-il. For months, rumors swirled that the secretive leader had suffered a stroke.

It's ten minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. It's sending shivers through Wall Street and every blue-collar town where GM employees work. Word this morning that the biggest American carmaker is thinking about the unimaginable bankruptcy.

Sources say that the restructuring plan could split GM into two companies -- the good GM with brand like Cadillac, Chevy, Buick, and GMC, and then the bad GM that has Hummers, Saturn and some shut-down factories. Bankruptcy for a company this size, of course, not easy.

GM has only until June 1st to reorganize outside of court. Right now, it's surviving on $13 billion in government loans -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Members of Congress confirming what some had doubts about this morning. Former Cuban president Fidel Castro is still alive and kicking.

Both the ailing leader and his brother, the current Cuban president, Raul Castro, met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Havana. It is another sign Washington could be ready to change its policy toward the communist nation.


REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CHAIRWOMAN, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS: We believe that it's time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba. It's time to talk to Cuba. We are convinced based on the meetings which were held that the Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks, and they do want normal relations with the United States of America. And I believe that it's in the United States' best interest to do that.


COSTELLO: I know. It's just kind of strange to see American lawmakers sitting down with Fidel Castro. Let's go to Washington now and check in with Jim Acosta.

It was a strange sight.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was. And this was no congressional junket. These congressmen and congresswomen managed to confirm one thing -- Fidel Castro is alive and well enough to meet with U.S. politicians.

And it's the first time Raul Castro has met with American officials as Cuba president. So there are more signs out there that this could be a thawing in a Caribbean cold war.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Members of the Congressional Black Caucus went to Cuba in search of the Spanish word for detente.

LEE: Given the new direction in our foreign policy, it's time to look at a new direction in our policy towards Cuba.

The Cubans do want dialogue. They do want talks, and they do want normal relations with the United States of America.

ACOSTA: They also got behind closed doors with Cuba's ailing ex- leader, Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since 2006.

LEE: Former President Fidel Castro is very engaging, very energetic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he also asked a very important thing. He said, how can we as Cuba help President Obama?

ACOSTA: In a statement on a visit announced on Cuban television, Fidel Castro left the door open a crack. "We do not fear dialogue with the United States nor do we need confrontation to exist."

The Cuban kumbaya comes as supporters building in Congress to end the U.S. ban on travel to the island, and the White House says it may ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland before the president attends a summit with Latin American nations this month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president has said he's going to do it. He's going to make some changes. The vice president has repeated that, so they're going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We keep talking about change here in Washington. What about change in Havana?

ACOSTA: But Cuban Americans in Congress are outraged. They don't want to see any changes that could lead to an end of the 47-year embargo on Cuba.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Having tourists on Cuban beaches is not going to change the equation of how to create the opportunity for democratic transition in Cuba.

ACOSTA: Restaurant owner Jessica Rodriguez is part of a younger generation of Cuban-Americans trying to overcome the reservations of older Cuban exiles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it would be good to kind of open those doors because, you know, I have so many customers who say, oh, I wish I could go to Cuba. I say, I know, me too. It'd be great if the world could see what Cuba is for Cuba itself.


ACOSTA: And the Congressional Black Caucus plans to deliver its findings to the White House. And they appear to have a message from the Castro brothers. They are ready to talk.

Now during the campaign, Carol, President Obama said he'd be willing to meet with Cuba's leader, Raul Castro. We're not at that point yet, but he may get that chance, Carol.

COSTELLO: I'm just wondering when that might happen because, you know, I just had that thought in my head how strange it would be for an American president, not with Raul, but to be meeting maybe with Fidel Castro?

ACOSTA: That's right. And this was unannounced. This was not something that the Congressional Black Caucus anticipated or at least some members of that caucus did not anticipate. And there lo and behold, they're bust off to see Fidel Castro as somebody that many Cuban-Americans thought was dead.

They thought that the Cuban government was not playing straight with the condition of the Cuban leader -- the ex-Cuban leader. And now we have confirmation from Barbara Lee and some of these other members of Congress that he is alive and well.

COSTELLO: It's a different world.

ACOSTA: It is.

COSTELLO: Jim Acosta, yes. Jim Acosta reporting live from Washington, thanks.

ACOSTA: You bet.

CHETRY: And just you just heard, Fidel Castro welcoming this group of U.S. leaders to Cuba talking tourism, talking trade. So is this the beginning of the change in relations? We're going to be talking to the congresswoman who led the delegation to Havana, Barbara Lee, right after the break.

Also, the first lady and the first grandmother, a new look at their life together in the White House.

It's 17 minutes after the hour.


COSTELLO: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. Looking healthy enough to hit another 11 holes in one in a single round? He supposedly did that, Kiran, 11 holes in one.


COSTELLO: That's according to the North Korean propaganda machine. These pictures just released of Kim Jong-il. It is the first -- these are the first pictures of the so-called "dear leader" since reports surfaced that he suffered a stroke last summer.

They also, North Korea that is, released a photo of Kim Jong-il posing with scientists who were involved in last weekend's rocket launch which, of course, was strongly condemned by the United States. And, of course, North Korea, Kiran, also released a picture of that rocket taking off. But it didn't release pictures of it breaking up and falling into the Sea of Japan.

CHETRY: That's what they're called propaganda, I guess.

COSTELLO: I guess so.

CHETRY: Carol, thanks.

Well, a different dictator just met with U.S. officials for the first time since he became ill in 2006. We're talking about Cuban's Fidel Castro. He met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Havana.

Now, this meeting comes as the Obama administration is reportedly considering possibly ending a half century of cold war isolation.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was one of three members who met with Fidel as well as Raul Castro, and she joins us this morning from Capitol Hill.

Congresswoman, great to see you. Thanks for being with us.

LEE: Good to be with you.

CHETRY: Well, first of all, I mean, this is just a subject of intense interest because we have not seen Fidel Castro, the former Cuban dictator in so long. Now when you met with him, how does he look?

LEE: He looked fine. Of course, he has been ill, but I can tell you one thing, he was very energetic, very clear thinking. He knew what we had been doing while we were in Cuba. He knew our mission. He recognized who we were, and he was very engaging. And we discussed quite a few subjects.

Of course, bottom line is we wanted to talk more about normal relations between our two-countries and how he viewed diplomacy and discussions and dialogue as it relates to ending the embargo against Cuba. It was very interesting because he said, like President Raul Castro said the night before, that the Cuban people want normal relations, dialogue without preconditions. And we know here in our own country, the 68 percent of the American people want normal relations for Cuba and -- CHETRY: Right. But I mean, it certainly is quite a contentious issue and there are passionate, passionate arguments on both sides. Could you just back up and explain for us why the Congressional Black Caucus decided to make this trip?

LEE: Well, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have visited Cuba on many occasions. I have visited Cuba since 1977. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus began visiting Cuba around, I think, maybe 1999.

It's time to change our direction. In our foreign policy, the president is doing a phenomenal job in the world, reshaping America's image and role in the world. And so we want to make sure that we had the proper information to make recommendations to the president, our secretary of state, and our speaker with regard to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

CHETRY: Right.

LEE: As members of Congress, we have a responsibility to help shape our foreign policy. And Cuba is 90 miles away. We've had a 50- year-old policy that did not work. So it's time to talk to Cuba.

CHETRY: Congresswoman, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, they've documented a litany of human rights violations by the Cuban government. They talked about torture. They talked about arbitrary arrest, imprisonment with charges or trials, intimidation of dissidents and even executions. By meeting with the Cuban leadership and pushing for normalization, do you risk appearing to condone some of these human rights abuses?

LEE: Absolutely not. Well, we went down to Cuba to discuss with how we can help push the ball forward, what it would take to begin dialogue. Once, and we heard over and over again that every issue that the United States feels important, wants to discuss every issue that has been raised for the last 50 years would be on the table for discussion. And so our purpose was to see if there were preconditions on the Cuban side. We heard that there were no preconditions. And, in fact, we wanted to find out if they were interested.

We have to remember that every country in Latin America, 15 countries, have normal relations with Cuba. Most of the EU. We're the country which is isolated. The American people should have a right to travel to Cuba to determine their own perspective and so all we're saying is do we need to move forward to have a constructive dialogue based on national sovereignty and mutual respect?

And members of our delegation believe that's the case. We will communicate this to our president...

CHETRY: Right.

LEE: ... prior to the Summit of the Americas which will be held in Trinidad, April 17.

CHETRY: Senator Mel Martinez, as you know, staunchly opposes normalizing relations under the Castro regime. He's born in Cuba. He came to the U.S. when he was 15. And this is the statement he issued to us last night.

"Regardless of one's position on Cuba policy, one should expect that any U.S. official or member of Congress visiting Cuba would have the courage to meet with members of Cuba's struggling independent civil society and to raise concerns about the regime's systematic violation of human rights with Cuban officials."

Why didn't the delegation meet with any dissidents?

LEE: Well, let me say first of all, members of the delegation have met with the dissident community on many occasions. I am one who has done that.

The purpose of this trip was to talk primarily to Cuban officials to determine whether or not we needed to recommend to our president to maintain this 50-year policy or if, in fact, it made sense to recommend that the policy be changed. And we believe that American citizens deserve the right to travel to Cuba and also, we will be recommending that it's about time that we find some kind of avenue to begin to have this discussion and dialogue with the Cuban government so that we can begin to normalize our relations and to end the embargo.

CHETRY: All right. Representative...

LEE: The business community is very interested in this. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce understands that it's in our economic interest to do that.

CHETRY: Representative Barbara Lee of California and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, thanks for joining us this morning.

LEE: Thanks, good to be with you.

CHETRY: Carol?

COSTELLO: Now that the president is back from his whirlwind trip to Europe ending with a surprise visit to Iraq, what did he actually accomplish? We're going to get into that.

And also, GM saying goodbye to the Hummer, and hello to the scooter. Details of what could be your future ride to work.

It's 25 minutes past the hour.


CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. It's 28 minutes past the hour. We're following some top stories for you and a huge breaking news story.

A ship attacked by pirates with 20 Americans held onboard. Just minutes ago, the owner of the cargo ship confirmed exclusively here on AMERICAN MORNING. that this ship did have 20 Americans -- 20 American crew members and it's under pirate control right now off the coast of Somalia. This vessel is the sixth to be seized within the past week off the coast of Somalia. It's the first with an American crew.

A shooting at a religious retreat in Southern California. One person killed, three others critically injured. Officers responded after hearing that a man had shot his wife. Police described the shooter as a Korean man in his 70s.

The D.C. city council voting to recognize gay marriages performed in states where it's legal. It would be a unique test case in the fight for gay rights since Congress has final say in legislative matters there. This comes the same day that Vermont became the fourth state to legalize gay marriage.

And with just one of her eight babies still in the hospital, the octomom is opening up for the first time how she paid for in vitro fertilization.

Nadya Suleman telling "Life & Style Weekly" that she used money from a $30,000 inheritance as well as overtime wages from her job to conceive. The magazine said they did not pay the unemployed mother of 14 for that interview.

COSTELLO: President Barack Obama back at the White House after an eight-day swing through Europe and a surprise trip to Iraq. So, what did he gain from the trip? What did we gain? Will it help the president push his politics through here at home?

I'm joined by conservative columnist and author of "American Grit," Tony Blankley. And Tina Brown, she's editor-in-chief and founder of

Welcome to both of you.


COSTELLO: Tony, let's start with you because I don't think a lot of Americans are used to a president overseas talking about America's arrogance and kind of apologizing for America's past mistakes. Will that go over with the American people now that the president is back home?

TONY BLANKLEY, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN GRIT": Well, I think generally the public probably was pleased to see the world like our president. Obviously, an awful lot of Americans on the conservative side, I'd include myself, were distressed at his characterization of America. Some of it accurate, some of it not so accurate, and wondering whether in the long term that pays any dividends. In the short term, it did pay a dividend.

I think the bigger question is going to be, how did he perform in the substantive negotiations with fellow heads of state, now and what about in the future? And we saw the first exercise of what he promised during the campaign which was to meet with countries without precondition. In this case, he agreed to meet with Russia and China without any talk about human rights, without any talk about having any assistance on Iran, with the Russians or North Korea with the Chinese. We'll see whether this strategy of no preconditions works to the country's advantage in the future where it has the summits or where it does not.

COSTELLO: OK. Tina, do you want to respond to that? I mean, maybe you should respond to the first part about, you know, the president's words coming back to haunt him?

BROWN: Well, you know, in the very same paragraph which, of course, the republicans don't like to also quote, Obama also chastised anti-Americanism in Europe and talked about how people very often in Europe forget how much America does for the world in protecting it and standing firm. And someone like myself, you know, who spent a lot of time in the U.K., boy, I can tell you anti-Americanism in those parts of the world is just right. And he did really well addressing that. Certainly, it wasn't all about saying we're so arrogant. He had a two-part thought there.

COSTELLO: Go ahead, Tony.

BLANKLEY: If I can just throw in, when he talked about the Russians, he suggested that America had let things get off the track with Russia in the last few years. Despite the fact that it was Russia that invaded Georgia. Russia that cut off natural gas to the Ukraine. Russia that has pressured Poland with placing missiles near them. I think it's pretty clear that Putin's revanchism (ph) is what has got us off track, not American policy.

BROWN: Well, I think what Obama was trying to do was to return the relationship with Russia into a much more sophisticated and calibrated relationship. You know, on the one hand, we had Bush saying that he looked into Putin's eyes and seen a soul mate simply because Putin wore a cross which was very, very shrewd, frankly, manipulating of Putin. And on the other hand, America was sort of encouraging that Georgia since that they were now a democratic country that could just sort of really do anything. And actually it was very bad encouragement. Because it meant they overreached.

COSTELLO: OK. Let's switch topic for just a second. Because you know, a lot of people are making -- a lot of people are talking about how when Barack Obama went to Turkey, talked to the parliament. He was introduced as Barack Hussein Obama. We certainly never heard that during the presidential campaign. Some people said they kind of smacks of hypocrisy, Tony?

BLANKLEY: Well, I mean, certainly, it does. On the other hand, it's probably a useful outreach to many of the 1.4 billion Muslims. So, you know, leaders often have to be inconsistent at times. We'll see how it plays out. Obviously his opposition during the campaign was thoroughly attacked if they ever mentioned his middle name. So, yes, it's hypocritical but on the other hand, it's an opportunity for him to exploit. We hope, for the benefit of the United State's interest. We'll see how it follows through in his policies in the future discussions and negotiations. COSTELLO: So Tina, we hear Barack Obama using his middle name more often now that he's back home?

BROWN: I don't think he has to use his middle name. He was really making a point, this is a man who was raised, you know, in Indonesia partly. But you know, what I have to admire about Obama was the way he used the outreach to youth in his trip to Istanbul. Because one of the things he's very shrewd about and we saw this in the campaign was how to create images that are going to reverberate around the world and he has since for instance, YouTube, is a fantastic marketing tool to get his message out.

He understands that a lot of these terrorists are young men. He had to talk to the young. And he did it through those town halls which is then going to be played on YouTube all over the world without the mediation of commentary. I thought it was the most brilliant piece of television theater.

BLANKLEY: There's nothing wrong with that. The president I worked for, President Reagan, went out to Moscow and reached out to university student, the University of Lenin. So I think it's a good policy to reach out to the youth of the world for American president.

COSTELLO: So we have consensus this morning.

Thank you so much, Tony Blankley and Tina Brown. Kiran.

CHETRY: Well, we turn now to some new stories we're tracking for you this morning. For the second time in just three days, journalists were on hand to cover the return of the fallen U.S. service member. The Pentagon's 18-year ban was lifted Sunday. Army Specialist Israel Macchias (ph) arrived last night at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

New video just in to CNN from the quake zone in Italy where rescuers celebrated after a 98-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble alive. Just a glimmer of good news after officials upped the number of dead to 250. Powerful aftershocks also rattled frightened survivors living in tent camps. The Vatican says the Pope will visit the area after Sunday's Easter holiday.

And it's deja vu for residents in Fargo, North Dakota. They are doing more sandbagging again as the swollen red river is expected to crest yet again sometime in the next 10 days. City officials are asking volunteers to fill in another half million sandbags to shore up the levees and plug leaks. It's 35 minutes after the hour.



CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. President Obama in his latest tour of Europe spoke about restoring the United States's reputation around the world. Well now we're seeing that his wife, Michelle, may be helping him in that effort. The CNN opinion research poll was conducted as Mrs. Obama was returning from Europe, 80 percent said the first lady made people in other countries feel more positive about the U.S. Just 14 percent said she made others feel more negative. In the U.S., Mrs. Obama's poll numbers are higher than her husband's. She is just as popular if not more across Europe as well.

And in Washington yesterday, a wax replica of Michelle Obama was unveiled at Madame Tussauds. Only two other U.S. first ladies have made the cut, Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. Michelle Obama often says that her first priority is family. It's a message that cuts across borders of all kinds. In the May issue of "Essence" magazine, the first lady appears on the cover with her own mom. Erica Hill goes up close.


ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She is above all "mom in chief." But event his champion multi-tasker admits she'd never be able to devote as much time to that role without her own mother by her side.

TASHA ROBERTSON, DEPUTY EDITOR, "ESSENCE" MAGAZINE: My mom and dad are busy being, you know, first lady and president, it's -- it's Marianne Robinson who they called the secret weapon to keep the two kids really grounded.

For the Mother's Day issue, "Essence" magazine sat down with Michelle Obama and her mother, Marianne Robinson. The two are incredibly close, something that was obvious from the moment they arrived for the interview.

ROBERTSON: Michelle being a great daughter, you know, hugged her mom and pushed her hair out of her eyes. And they talked and they giggled, and you can tell that there is really this loving bond.

HILL: Mrs. Obama had often talked of her love, admiration, and appreciation for her mother. But this is one of the few times we've heard directly from the first grandmother. "I've always looked up to Michelle because she's been able to do things that I couldn't do emotionally, psychologically, or physically," Mrs. Robinson tells "Essence." "I think she is amazing."

Much of America agrees -- her latest approval rating, 72 percent. But the first lady is quick to point out she's able to do so many things because her mom is there for her and for the girls, because of the White House staff. A luxury many working families don't have. "When you have children and a career or a job and you're trying to make it all work, it's tough," Mrs. Obama says. "We need to have truthful and honest conversation about what it requires to do all that we ask of families and women."

Carol Levans is president of "Working Mother" magazine.

CAROL LEVANS, PRESIDENT, "WORKING MOTHER" MAGAZINE: Because she has been a working mother and is a working mother, she speaks for all of us every day. She is just by being herself, that really strong woman, a symbol for what the average working mother is like. HILL: A woman who is driven, torn, and intensely dedicated to her family. Telling "Essence," "there isn't a relationship in the family that is more important than a relationship a child has with her mother or someone in that role. And we have to value it. We cannot wait to value it. We got to value it each and every day." A lesson learned from her mother and passed along to the first daughters every day. Erica Hill, CNN, New York.


COSTELLO: Won't you love it.

CHETRY: It's nice...

COSTELLO: Don't you love to have your mom living with you in the White House and you can chat with her and tell her about your problems...

CHETRY: Yes, I would.

COSTELLO: Help with the kids and...

CHETRY: Because the White House is so big. You know what I'm saying? So many rooms and wings to choose from.

COSTELLO: You could also have space that you would need after a while.

CHETRY: So close yet so far away.

I'm kidding, mom. She's coming to visit tomorrow. So I don't want to be in the dog house.

COSTELLO: You're in big trouble.

Well, he won't be needing them. Bernie Madoff's Mets tickets are being sold online.

And Bernie may not be done ripping off the average Joe. Wait until you see the price tag for these babies.

And it serves as a reminder, that computers run everything. Overseas cyberspies are tinkering with U.S. systems in ways that could not only crash your PC but put your entire house hold in the dark. We'll explain. It's 42 minutes past the hour.


COSTELLO: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. These are the hot seats. They could be yours. Bernie Madoff, New York Mets season tickets. Madoff's estate wants to post the $80,000 season tickets on eBay to auction them off to the highest bidder. They won't be exactly Madoff seats. The platinum-level seats are switched for gold level, which usually go for a mere $60,000. That's part of what we're following today. And you know, let's toss it to Rob Marciano, because he's going to be talking about snow. But Bernie Madoff won't get the money. Maybe the people he ripped off will get the money. Who knows? But $80,000 for season tickets for the Mets. That's just crazy.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: And that should make up for everything that he stole.

COSTELLO: Exactly. I'm sure it would.

MARCIANO: Allegedly.

COSTELLO: Allegedly.


CHETRY: Do you want to be the one known as having Bernie Madoff's season tickets? You know what I mean? Get tomatoes thrown at you.

COSTELLO: No, I wonder who's sitting by him. Wouldn't that be interesting to know?

CHETRY: Exactly. All right. Well, add wheels to the list of cuts at General Motors. GM has teamed up with Segway to develop a two-wheeled, two-seat electric vehicle for city streets. It's called the PUMA. That stands for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility. It goes 35 miles an hour at top speeds.

According to GM's vice president of research and development, PUMA doesn't need air bags, has only seat belts for comfort purposes because it will never crash. How about, I need this one.

Or how about, thanks to an onboard computer system that avoids obstacles like pedestrians and cars. You know, we'd have to test that on the streets of Manhattan. How do you avoid pedestrians and cars?

COSTELLO: It will be tough. It reminds me of something from the scooter store.

CHETRY: Yes, exactly.

Or like half Segway, half crash test dummies. But you know what, we should try it.

COSTELLO: It's the vehicle of the future.

CHETRY: We'll wheel it around the studio.

COSTELLO: It's going to save GM.

CHETRY: Well, we hope so. They need it.

Here's what we're working on for you this morning. It's college acceptance season. That's right. And CNN personal finance editor Gerri Willis has some advice to help prospective students and their parents navigate the financial aid landscape.

Also, why some Texans are crying foul over the way their tax dollars are being spent. The stimulus money, is it an egregious example of double taxation?



CHETRY: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. If your little ones are a bit plump, you may think it's just cute baby fat, but there's a shocking study saying that 18 percent of America's 4- year-olds are considered obese. We're paging our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Gupta, this morning.

Nearly a fifth of young kids are not losing their baby fat. I mean, is there even such thing as baby fat, or should we be concerned about weight on a child even when they're babies?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, it's interesting because baby fat may not be as sort of benevolent as we think it is. They may be much more to it than people have realized. You know this is the segment I was hoping I wouldn't have do, talking about obesity in four-year-olds.

But people are talking about it more and more because they're realizing it can draw a line between an obese young person, a four- year-old, and an obese teenager, an obese adult and it can also draw a line between obesity at a young age and a lot of the chronic ailments that affect, you know, a lot of the older people, you know, whether it's arthritis, heart disease, stroke.

That's problem, how quickly does this process develop in the body? And you're absolutely right. They looked at the study measuring some of these parameters, weight, height and all that. In 2001, when a baby was very young and then again in 2005, trying to figure out what happens here. What they found is as you said about 20 percent, about one in five of these four-year-olds did meet the criteria for obesity.

And even more to point, if you break down those numbers a little bit more and try and figure out who these people are - that's a pie chart - a little bit tough to read but you can tell 31 percent of these obese children were American Indians or Native Alaskans. 13 percent Asian, 21 percent blacks. 22 percent Hispanics. It does seem to break down along some sort of lines here as well, Kiran.

CHETRY: All right, wow. All right. So you have to be concerned about pretty early on in life and you know, we didn't think that before. Sanjay, thanks so much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

COSTELLO: We're watching a big story breaking right now. Somali pirates seizing a ship with 20 Americans on board. We're working our sources at the Pentagon. We're getting updates on the most dangerous waters in the world. We'll have much more on that.

Plus cyberspies break into America's electrical grids. Where are they from and how are they doing it? We're breaking down this security threat for you. It's 53 minutes past the hour.



COSTELLO: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. It is 56 minutes past the hour. We're following a developing story right now. National security officials confirming cyberspies have infiltrated the country's electric grid leaving behind software that could disrupt the flow of electricity. Officials say the spies come from Russia, China, and other nations. One former Homeland Security official says the cyberattacks don't seem to be targeting any one company or location on the grid.

The report says their aim is to try to gain control of the system and then try to cause a failure during a crisis or a war. But the White House is trying to keep you safe. The Obama administration has given the go-ahead to buy some pricey new spy satellite and more commercial imagery from private companies to some gaps in the current satellite coverage. The new program will take the place of one awarded to Boeing back in 2005. That one was both over budget and behind schedule. Some lawmakers are already complaining about the price tag which is said to be around $10 billion.

Vice President Biden also making headlines this morning. He sat down exclusively with our Wolf Blitzer and CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger. The vice president saying his predecessor is, "dead wrong about President Obama's ability to keep America safe." Wolf is breaking it all down for us this morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Kiran and Carol, the vice president of the United States is known for saying exactly what's on his mind. And he did just that. Joe Biden sat down with our senior political analyst Gloria Borger and me for an exclusive interview. He was candid and at times unflinching and he used some of his harshest language when he was asked about the last administration.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Let's talk about your predecessor for a moment if I might. Former vice President Cheney took a big swipe at your foreign policies, this administration's foreign policies. And he told John King of CNN recently that President Obama's actions all over the world have made us less safe. Was Dick Cheney out of line?

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think that he was out of line, but he's dead wrong. This administration - the last administration left us in a weaker posture than we've been any time since World War II. Less regarded in the world. Stretched more thinly than we ever had been in the past. Two wars under way. Virtually no respect in entire parts of the world. And so we've been about the business of repairing and strengthening us. I guarantee you we're safer today. Our interests are more secure today than they were anytime -

BORGER: So we are more safe.

BIDEN: We are more safe. We're more secure. Our interests are more secure, not just at home but around the world. We are rebuilding America's ability to lead.


BLITZER: The vice president doesn't stop there. In terms of the job loss, Biden suggests, brace yourself.


BLITZER: So far, you know the first three months, two million jobs, five million-plus jobs lost over the past - since January of last year. So what you're saying is that throughout 2009, every single month, it might not be 600,000 jobs lost but there's going to be a loss of jobs every month.

BIDEN: There will continue to be job losses the remainder of this year. The question is, will they continually go down before they begin to rebound in employment. We go down to zero job loss and back to employment.


BLITZER: The vice president also covered foreign policy. He said the violence in Iraq will not affect the U.S. timetable for troop withdrawal. On Iran, he said the new Israeli government would be, quote, "ill-advised to bomb that country's nuclear facilities." The vice president, Joe Biden, always candid. Back to you, Kiran and Carol.

COSTELLO: He is that.

CHETRY: He certainly is.