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American Morning

Tom Ridge Claims Politics Influenced Security Threat Levels; Cash for Clunkers Ending August 24; Shortage of Primary-Care Doctors; Obama Continues Health Care Reform Campaign; Veterans Claims Backlogged; South African Runner Undergoing Gender Test; Atlanta a Hub of Cartel Drug Trafficking

Aired August 21, 2009 - 07:00   ET


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome once again to AMERICAN MORNING on this Friday, August 21st. I'm Kiran Chetry.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. I'm John Roberts. Thanks very much for being with us today.

CHETRY: We have a lot of big stories we're breaking down for you in the next 15 minutes.

Did the Bush White House use the politics of fear during the 2004 election? Well, there are some new explosive allegations this morning that there was political pressure to raise the country's terror threat level. The allegations come from the man hired after 9/11 to stop another 9/11. The first Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge. We're live from Washington next.

ROBERTS: Hurricane Bill is now a powerful category 3 storm, and it could again become a category 4. With Bermuda already in Bill's way, what will it mean for America's East Coast? Our Rob Marciano is tracking the extreme weather for us this morning.

CHETRY: Also from town halls to talk radio, President Obama keeps pushing his make or break plan for health care reform. He says there's still way too much misinformation going around. Plus, we're going to see why the president thinks, quote, "Everyone in Washington gets all wee-wee'd up."

ROBERTS: A what?

CHETRY: Wee-wee'd up.

ROBERTS: My goodness.

And across the country, car lots are bracing for a busy, busy weekend. After a month of nearly $3 billion, the amazingly popular cash for clunkers program ends Monday evening. So just how successful has the rebate program been? Will some dealers ever see a dime? And what's next for Detroit? Some answers just ahead.

CHETRY: And we begin with explosive claims from Tom Ridge, the country's first secretary of Homeland Security and former Pennsylvania governor. In a new book, Ridge accuses top advisors to George W. Bush of playing politics with America's fear of terrorism before the 2004 elections. Our White House correspondent Ed Henry has details.


ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The Friday before the 2004 election. Only two or three points separated Democrat John Kerry from President Bush. Suddenly, a twist. Osama Bin Laden released a shocking new videotape and it played non-stop on the Arab language network, al Jazeera.

OSAMA BIN LADEN, AL QAEDA LEADER (through translator): Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The next morning, just 72 hours before the polls opened, the president's top security advisors, including Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft, huddled for an urgent meeting to decide whether to raise the color- coded threat level from yellow to orange.

Then Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge reveals in an explosive new book -- a vigorous, some might say a dramatic discussion ensued. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Rumsfeld.

He goes on -- "There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, is this about security or politics? Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president's approval ratings in the days after the raising of the threat level."

The Bush campaign was pushing the envelope on frightening voters. Listen to then Vice President Cheney just ten days before the bin Laden tapes.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The ultimate threat is the possibility of their succeeding and getting, say, a biological agent or a nuclear weapon, smuggling it into the United States, into one of our own cities, and raising the specter of being able to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

HENRY: In the summer of 2004, just a few days after the Democratic National Convention, the White House had raised the threat level, drawing charges of political manipulation that were sharply denied by Bush officials like Ridge at the time.

TOM RIDGE, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.

HENRY: But now at the tense meeting the weekend before the election, Ridge writes, it, quote, "Seemed possible to me and to others around the table that something could be afoot other than simple concern about the country's safety."

In the end, however, the threat level was not raised after Ridge claims he and others pulled Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, quote, "back from the brink." But Ridge says the episode left him disillusioned. He writes -- "I knew I had to follow through on my plans to leave the federal government." He tendered his resignation within a month of the election.

He concluded -- "I consider that episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington's recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, fears, credibility, and security."


HENRY: But other officials in the meeting, including CNN contributor Fran Townsend, insist Ridge is wrong. Townsend says politics was never discussed at the meeting and the discussion was based solely on intelligence -- John, Kiran.

ROBERTS: All right, Ed Henry for from the White House this morning. We also want to point out too that we'll be talking to Fran Townsend in this hour.

Right now we want to bring in Jeanne Meserve on this. She covers Homeland Secretary for CNN. Are you surprised that Tom Ridge has come out with the accusations, Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I am. This is a man who I saw never saw pick an argument, even with the press corps, and lord know we're an easy target, a very amiable guy. I was quite surprised to see this man to appeared to be the consummate team player come out with a book.

There's been a lot of speculation about Tom Ridge's political ambitions. Perhaps he's trying to put some distance between himself and the Bush administration, but it's unclear how that might play -- John?

ROBERTS: He also had some things to say, Jeanne, about the interaction between the various agencies and the government and the lack of cooperation between the Department of Defense and the FBI. What did he have to say?

MESERVE: He said, for instance, he had a hard time talking to Donald Rumsfeld, that Rumsfeld, when he tried to buttonhole him, would brush him off. He said he wasn't included in National Security Council meetings. He said the FBI often blindsided him with information that hadn't been shared.

I never knew as a reporter covering Ridge about any of those specific things. But I can tell you that he did talk about problems with information sharing.

This morning I went over the transcript of an interview I did with him when he was leaving office, and he talked about the difficulty of being the new kid on the block, how other agencies simply did not want to share the information and how he felt that was a disadvantage for DHS. ROBERTS: Jeanne Meserve in Washington this morning. Jeanne, thanks.

And again, a programming note, CNN contributor Francis Townsend, who was George W. Bush's homeland security adviser at the time Ridge says these decisions were being made is going to be with us. We'll be talking to her in the next half hour here in the most news in the morning.

CHETRY: Hurricane Bill could hit the East Coast this weekend with dangerous waves and rip tides. Right now, the powerful category three storm is bearing down on Bermuda. The island nation is under a tropical storm warning right now. Forecasters say there will be heavy flooding there as well.


ROBERTS: Seven minutes after the hour.

Fans of Starbucks's fancy drinks will need some extra change for their caffeine fix. The company says it's raising prices on those harder to make beverages like frappuccinos and macchiatos. The hike is between 10 and 30 cents and went into effect yesterday in some cities and will eventually roll out nationwide.

The company lowering prices, though, for simpler drinks like coffees and lattes. Won't that be welcome?

CHETRY: That's right.

Prices are going down, actually, for plane tickets as well. Airlines usually cut fare this is time of the year heading into the slow fall season. But rates are exceptionally low right now. Some Southwest flights, $59 each way. American is flying from New York to California, $109. So you can check out United too, because they have good deals as well.

And hopefully they won't say, wait, we didn't realize so many people will want this. We're going to have to cancel this like we saw with JetBlue.

ROBERTS: JetBlue, yes, $599 all you could fly for a month.

Get your mega-millions ticket. The 12-state jackpot up $207 million. There were no tickets sold with all six numbers in Tuesday night's drawing. The next chance to win is tonight. The lottery says it expects to sell 2 million tickets today.

CHETRY: Someone did hit the Powerball. The winning ticket sold for that one.

ROBERTS: Don't know who or where yet. We'll find out.

CHETRY: South Carolina, come forward. Congratulations.

Still ahead, we're going to be talking about primary care. A lot of people say this is really the key to bringing costs down is that people have proper preventive care with their primary care doctors.

The problem is people come out of med school and don't want to be primary-care doctors. Our next guest takes a look.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to the most news in the morning.

During his make or break push on health care, President Obama has been stressing the importance of having a good family doctor. Here he is at a town hall earlier this month in New Hampshire talking about that.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Primary care physicians, ideally, family physicians, they should be the front lines of the medical profession in encouraging prevention and wellness.


But the problem is, is that primary care physicians, they make a lot less money than specialists.


ROBERTS: So as the president pointed out, medical schools are pushing more students toward lucrative specialties. So if reform gives health insurance to millions of Americans who currently don't have it, will there be enough family doctors to go around? That's something we want to talk about this morning.

Joining us now is Dr. Lisa Sanders. She is the author of "Every Patient has a Story." She is also a technical advisor for the television show "House," and she's a clinical professor at Yale's medical school. She is a chronic underachiever and she joins us this morning.

Dr. Sanders, good of you to be with us this morning. The American Association of Family Practitioners did a survey of fourth year medical students. They found that only 2 percent wanted to be general internists or primary care physicians. Why does nobody want to be a primary care physician these days?

DR. LISA SANDERS, ASSISTANT CLINICAL PROFESSOR, YALE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: Because it's not something that as a society we tend to value. And value has a specific meaning. It's an emotional value, yes. But there's also money. Why would anybody go in to what is clearly the lowest-paid, i.e. least valued of all of the specialties?

There's a guy in San Francisco, Steve Schroeder. And he said if health care continues the way it is now, the only people who will go in to primary care are fools or angels.

ROBERTS: And you're one of those angels, correct? Or are you a fool? We're not sure. Which would you classify yourself to be? (LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Depends on the day of the week, I think.

ROBERTS: And as we mentioned coming in to you as well, if public option or however they do it brings millions of people who are currently in the ranks of uninsured in to health care, they're going to have to go see a primary care physician, how great is the need going to be for the first line practitioners?

SANDERS: It's going to be huge. If you survey people who are going to residencies, as you mentioned, less than 5 percent want to go to a primary care specialty.

And that's crazy. If you look at all of the countries who do health care better than we do, and we've all seen that list, most of the physicians taking care of patients are primary care doctors.

Here, only a tiny fraction of the health care is delivered by the people who are trying to deliver primary care medicine. That's crazy.

ROBERTS: Here's another statistic. Almost 21 percent of general internists who are board certified between 1990 and 1999 have left internal medicine, whereas only 5 percent of people in subspecialties depart. So what can be done to keep more people in that primary care role?

SANDERS: Well, first, what we do has to be valued more highly. We are paid right now -- the way the system is now, we are paid to do, not to think. And it turns out primary care is all about thinking, either diagnosing or anticipating. We have to value that.

Right now, that is care that is completely free. We have to pay for that, because it's important. And it's a way the costs are going to be contained in the long run. So I think that's the most important thing we have to do. Otherwise, we...

ROBERTS: Well, there's a contradiction here, or at least if not a contradiction there is a clash here. You say that primary care physicians need to be valued more, which might translate to you need to pay them more. But everyone is trying to get cost out of the system. So how do you marry those two things together?

SANDERS: Oh, well, that's easy. I mean, even though seeing a doctor needs to be -- seeing a primary care doctor needs to be paid more, the cost savings down the line are huge.

If you treat people for their chronic diseases, and most people in this country go to the doctor because they have -- or an emergency room -- because they have chronic medical conditions. If you treat those well, then it will reduce the number of times they have to go to the hospital, reduce the downstream consequences.

That's why we do it in the first place. The reason we control diabetes and high blood pressure and cholesterol is because we want to prevent heart disease. ROBERTS: And you make the argument that you could get more people in to primary care physicians if insurance companies were willing to do away with co-pays?

SANDERS: Ah, well, you have to encourage people to -- to take care of their chronic diseases. If you -- if you charge them money every time they go to the doctor, they're going to go to the doctor less often. That's why people have co-pays is to discourage people from going to the doctor.

But you don't want to discourage people who need to go to the doctor because they have chronic medical conditions. You want to reduce the number of people who make unnecessary trips to the doctor. And that is not the person who has diabetes or high blood pressure or cholesterol or asthma or any of the chronic diseases that require maintenance.

If you don't go to the doctor to get the basic care, you are going to end up in the emergency room or in the hospital.

ROBERTS: You also make the argument that the average primary care physician works spends about four hours a week doing paperwork, filling out the various forms. And you can save some of time by standardizing insurance forms.

And also, what about this argument that is made that electronic medical records and the portability of those could take a lot of money out of the system?

SANDERS: Well, I think the electronic medical records could save money, but only if they're regulated so every electronic medical record can speak every other electronic medical record. It would be as if every television station could have its own kind of television. We all need to be able to read each other's notes and see each other's tests.

Hat's not the way it's set up now. Now it's every man for himself, every company for themselves. My hospital and my practice, the two medical records, they don't speak to each other. That's crazy.

ROBERTS: Right. What about medical schools? Are they pushing students more towards these lucrative and prestigious specialties? And do they bear some responsibility in all of this as well?

SANDERS: Well, I love medical schools. I went to one. But, yes, the fact that most people who go to medical school are trained by such specialists is not a deliberate effort to get people out of primary care.

But just the people that you're exposed to, they're not exposed to people who are excited about primary care, who are excited about seeing patients and making diagnoses and managing chronic diseases. They're exposed to people who are doing cutting edge research.

Also, extremely important, but you can't have a health care system with only people who are doing cutting edge medical research. We need people who actually take care of patients.

ROBERTS: Dr. Lisa Sanders, it's great to talk to you this morning. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. We really appreciate it.

SANDERS: Nice to be here. Thank you very much.

CHETRY: We're talking about the cash for clunkers deadline. We know the program is going to be winding down.

ROBERTS: Monday night, yes.

CHETRY: Yes, running out of gas. But what about the dealerships? Are they happy that this is taking place? Do they think it's worked out for them? Is it lucrative?

And what about the dealers who say they still haven't seen millions that they're owed from the government for passing on the rebates from their customers. We're going to talk about it.

It's 18 minutes after the hour.


CHETRY: Every time I hear this song I get Donald Trump and Christine.

ROBERTS: Together, like as a couple?


CHETRY: It was -- it was the song they played before his show, you know, "The Apprentice."

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I think of money when I hear this song. I don't know why.

ROBERTS: Every time I think of Donald Trump, I think of Christine.

She's here reporting on Cash for Clunkers this morning. The program is coming to a close on Monday. And a lot of people will be hitting the showrooms this weekend, I imagine.

ROMANS: Yes, they will. And some of the dealers, frankly, aren't doing this anymore. The Dealers' Association is saying let's concentrate you getting paid for the deals you've already done, and we're suggesting the dealers shouldn't do anymore of these.

You have about 85 hours left. If you have a clunker, a junker in your driveway and you want to get it done, Monday at 8:00 p.m. is the deadline for the paperwork.

And there have been a lot of delays. Some of the dealers have been complaining they haven't gotten all of the money left. The DOT says more people are on the case. There will be more people processing the paperwork. They are going to get this done and every one of these deals will be reimbursed.

There have been 457,000 deals so far, about $2 billion in claims. Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary saying now that it's been a pleasure to be -- a thrill, he said, to be a part of the most positive -- the best economic news story in America. And he said now they're working for an orderly shutdown of this program.

A positive economic news story, yes. But there are some economists are starting to raise the question, huh, if you have 400,000 people or so who now have a car payment that they didn't have before, could that hurt back-to-school sales for the retailers? Could that be something we see people pulling back on other spending everywhere else?

ROBERTS: They're always looking for the negative.

ROMANS: There's never two sides to every story. There's nine sides to every story.

CHETRY: I agree with you. And in fact we're talking to a dealer coming up a little bit later who says he's in the hole for $2 million to $3 million that he hasn't seen back yet.

ROMANS: And it's interesting, GM is now subsidizing. So over the next few days, if any of these dealers want to sell a GM car, GM is going to subsidize, float them the cash while they are waiting for the paperwork to get through.

So you might be able to get this done over the week and you can expect a flurry of activity this weekend as people finally get the junker clunkers out.

CHETRY: It's smart of GM to do that, to say we're the ones that will still make it worthwhile.

ROMANS: I know. And they even ramped up production. Even as the deal -- the clunkers deal is closing down, they've ramped up production of the Ford and GM to meet the demands so...

CHETRY: That sounds great. No "Romans Numeral" this hour, but you can check on our Web site.

ROMANS: Yes, we have good ones on the way.

CHETRY: There is a story on getting a lot of attention this morning. You Facebook -- do you still Facebook or are you over it?

ROBERTS: The whole Facebook and twitter thing, it's kind of like -- it takes too much maintenance.

CHETRY: I ramped up the Twitter. I love the Twitter. Facebook -- this is why -- the most annoying type of Facebookers. I had many of these...

(LAUGHTER) We going to go through a few of them. We're going to see what you think. And maybe some of these you'll know out of your buddies.

They are the bores -- these are the ones who post status updates all day long and at every single thing -- having breakfast, walking my dog, changing my dog.

ROMANS: Just woke up.

ROBERTS: My water just broke. Remember that one?

CHETRY: That happened to you again? This happened to you last week.

Then are the lurkers, the opposite of the bores, who never post anything. But they're always logged in, creepy.

How about this one, the chronic inviter. This person has never met a quiz he or she doesn't want you to take. What are your five top favorite animals? And you get invited constantly.

There are many others. The one I love is call the paparazzi, that you pop up in all of the pictures -- you've been tagged in all these photos that you didn't want your mom to see.

ROMANS: And the creepers too, the person who just goes around looking for high school boyfriends and high school girlfriends and trying to see what they look like. They never share anything, but they're looking around.

ROBERTS: It's all getting to be a little too much, isn't it?


ROBERTS: I don't have time for all of that.

It's 24 minutes after the hour. Fran Townsend coming up next to respond to Tom Ridge's charges that politics was behind a desire to raise the threat level just before the 2004 election. Stay with us.


CHETRY: There we go, Washington, D.C. this morning. A beautiful shot of the White House. We want some silence for this picture so we can tell you what the weather is like there -- 79 and sunny right now, 92 and sunny a bit later. So it will be a hot one in the nation's capital.

And welcome back to the most news in the morning. Its 27 minutes past the hour right now.

President Obama continues to make a case for the make or break month for health care reform. He was at a forum in Washington yesterday telling supporters that he does not believe the reports that he's somehow off of his game.


OBAMA: Last year just about this time, you will recall that the Republicans just nominated their vice presidential candidate, and everybody was -- the media was obsessed with it. And cable was 24 hours a day. And Obama lost his mojo. You remember all that?


There's something about August going in to September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-wee'd up.



CHETRY: President Obama also took his health care message to talk radio, and the phone lines were open. Kate Bolduan live from the White House this morning. What the heck does wee-wee'd up, anyway, Kate?


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I decided I'm just not going to take that on.

In other news though, Kiran, the president, as you can see from the town hall to the other events yesterday, the president working very hard to try to regain momentum in this health care debate as the president is also preparing to leave for vacation a little later today.

Yesterday was a perfect example of the fine lines that the president is trying to walk, appealing to liberal supporters in that town hall but also taking his message and trying to appeal to conservatives on the talk radio show live from the White House.

We should say the host did throw his support behind President Obama during the campaign.

Now, speaking of the campaign -- in most if not all of his appearances of recent, the president sure seems like he's back on the campaign trail himself.

The president is trying to correct what he calls the "misinformation and the noise that is out there confusing the debate" as they will say, on topics like illegal immigrations, health care for illegal immigrants as well as much talk about those death panels that we heard so much about.

But really, when it comes down to it, what of the calls we heard so long for a bipartisan solution? The president seeming to signal to host Michael Smerconish that he and the Democrats may be forced to go it alone. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I would love to have more Republicans engaged and involve in this process. I think early on a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, look, let's not give them a victory. Maybe we have a replay of 1993-'94 when Clinton came in. He failed on health care and then we won in the midterm elections and we got the majority.


BOLDUAN: Republican leaders are pushing back on that. A spokesman for Congressman Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House, saying "We would love to know when, exactly, time, date, place, the president or his staff reached out to his Republican leaders."

And that is not his only challenge ahead. The president is also needing to work to keep his members of his own party together. Many liberals upset, angered, fearful that the president is not taking a harder stance to say the public option must be a part of any legislation that comes out -- Kiran.

CHETRY: All right, Kate Boldoun this morning not getting all wee-wee'd up like some people are in Washington.

BOLDUAN: You don't get wee-wee'd up now. Do not get wee-wee'd up on.


CHETRY: I'll try not to. It's a Friday. There's no point.

All right. Thanks so much, Kate.

ROBERTS: This is a no wee-wee zone. OK.


ROBERTS: Crossing the half hour, checking our top stories now. Brand new poll numbers just out this morning shows the health care debate may be taking a toll on President Obama. The latest numbers from "Washington Post"-- ABC News show less than half of Americans, 49 percent think the president will make the right decisions for the nation. Before getting wee-wee'd up there. That's down from 60 percent of President Obama's 100th-day mark back in April.

CHETRY: And the president is taking some time off, by the way, from his make or break push on health care reform. The first family is scheduled to leave Washington this afternoon. They're headed for summer vacation. They are going to Camp David in Maryland and then jetting up to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts on Sunday.

ROBERTS: Plus, if you picked up this morning's paper to check this weekend's movie times, you may think it's missing a few change. The country's two biggest chains, Regal and AMC are pulling more ads from newspapers. Instead, to save cash, they're pushing moviegoers to on-line sites and smart phone (ph) apps like fandangle, movie phone,, and flickster.

Well, during the '04 presidential race, many on the left said the Bush White House was trying to use the politics of fear to get re- elected. Now, this morning, that same claim is coming from a former Bush insider. America's first secretary of Homeland Security - former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.

CHETRY: That's right. He has a new book that's coming out. And in it, Ridge says he was pressured to raise the nation's terror alert ahead of election day. But the former Homeland Security adviser for the Bush administration Fran Townsend says that's not what happened. Fran is also a CNN national security contributor. And she joins us this morning from Washington.

We're glad to get your perspective this morning. We did, of course, reached out to former Governor Tom Ridge and he's not doing any media right now. But good to have you with us. Let's just hear, Fran, how - or how this quote went down from his book. He said "Ashcroft" -- listen to me - "strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department." He's speaking of Homeland Security here. "None. I wondered, is this about security or politics?"

And Fran, you were in those meetings. What is your recollection of how that whole conversation went down?

FRAN TOWNSEND, FORMER BUSH TERRORISM HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: I actually chaired the meeting and called it. Tom Ridge knew very well that I agreed with him that I didn't believe there was a basis to raise the threat level, but I knew there were others in the Homeland Security Council that did believe that and we agreed we'd have the conversation.

By the way, what Tom Ridge's book doesn't say is that the most eloquent case for not raising the threat level was not made by Tom. In fact, it was made by Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell, and Bob Muller at great personal risk. Remember, his boss, John Ashcroft was advocating to raise it based on the fact of the intelligence. Bob Muller himself made an eloquent case not to raise it.

CHETRY: He is basically saying that he felt politics played in to those decisions and it was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of him deciding to get out of federal government. Do you think that politics came in to the equation at all during that time when it came to deciding whether or not to raise the threat level?

TOWNSEND: Not only do I not think that politics played any part in it at all, it was never discussed. In fact, the only thing that was discussed was that summer - earlier there was a threat against the financial district, there was the Bin Laden tapes, and then was another tape, Kiran, by Adam Gadahn (ph), a U.S. citizen who is a member of Al Qaeda. And it was a very threatening tape. So the discussion really revolved around what the intelligence was. There was no discussion of politics whatsoever.

ROBERTS: Hey, Fran. It's John. There was also some controversy following the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston when the threat level was raised and was later found out that a lot of the information, or some of the information that play in to that decision to raise the threat level was three years old.

So there were a lot of people who were already suspicious. I mean, when you take these two things in combination, does it suggest that maybe people were looking at this idea - well, it is, you know, the fall of the election campaign. We're in a tight race here with John Kerry. Maybe we could work some things to our advantage?

TOWNSEND: You know, in fact, not only was there no discussion in those meetings, the discussions on the margins - you know, one of the people who was in that meeting was John McLaughlin, the acting director of the CIA and John Brennan, the current Homeland Security adviser who was then the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. The only discussions I recalled were on the margins of that, there was concern that if the intelligence supported raising the threat level it might actually be down to the detriment of President Bush because people might see it as being political.

You know, in the end, John, people got to remember, you want the cabinet members who disagree to have a healthy debate. And this in the end came out in the right place. The threat level was not raised and there's no reason to suspect that this discussion would have had any impact on the election whatsoever.

CHETRY: One of the other things that people are asking about is, you know, when we talk about whether or not politics played in to any of these equation, a lot of people say that perhaps there were some political ambitions on the part of Tom Ridge and that he wants to perhaps separate himself from the Bush administration in some ways, moving forward. Do you think that what he wrote or what he's alleging here perhaps has a political motivation?

TOWNSEND: I've got to believe it does, Kiran. I'm sorry to say that. Because I really enjoyed working with Tom Ridge. But I will tell you, not only did he never say this at the time, that he thought political influence was involved in the raising or lowering of the threat level, he never said it since when I spoke to him.

And just two weeks ago, I'm co-chairing along with Bill Webster a bipartisan task force to make recommendations to Secretary Napolitano now about these threat advisory system. One of the things we obviously did was asked Tom Ridge and Secretary Chertoff to come in and talk to the panel. This is two weeks ago. And Tom Ridge never in that meeting ever mentioned any concern, and he mentioned what concerns he had. And he never mentioned any concern about politization of the threat advisory system. So you've got to believe this is personally motivated in some way.

ROBERTS: And he's not coming out to talk about this until the first of September, between now and then. Scott McLaughlin, former press secretary alluded to this in a politico article. If he doesn't have specifics to back this up, he's going to get eaten alive by folks like - like you, Andy Card, and other Bush administration officials who are just going to try to slam him down as hard as they can?

TOWNSEND: Well, John, I tell you, you know, last night, I got my hands on one of the books and I looked at it. And, in fact, you know, in other parts of the book, Tom acknowledges that politics never played a role in any of his decisions about the threat alert system. So you know, you got to wonder if this is not just publicity meant to sell more books.

ROBERTS: All right. Fran Townsend for us this morning. Thanks.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

CHETRY: All right. Still ahead, man or woman?

ROBERTS: Oh, yes. The runner?


There's some questions, actually. And this is actually not that unusual in the - in the world of track and field. Some questions about whether or not one of the best runners out there is really who she says she is. Larry Smith reports.




ROBERTS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. They are coming home from the front lines, in need of help from the government they fought to defend. Now they're stuck in a sea of red tape. Today, in our series "The War at Home," Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr looks at the backlog of claims that Veterans Affairs that has left hundreds of thousands of vets in limbo.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, Kiran, President Obama has made helping veterans a top priority. But tens of thousands of veterans are still waiting for that help.



STARR (voice-over): Laurie Emmer serves with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2003. But after getting hurt in a truck accident there and retiring in 2005, she faced a new battle - she is still trying to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to settle her disability claims.

EMMER: I think they're doing the best they can. But sometimes they don't know where you're file is. They can't tell you where you are in the process and so you're in limbo. STARR: When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was nominated by President Barack Obama, he told Congress it was a priority to reduce the number of backlogged claims. Today, some 400,000 cases are still pending.

ERIC SHINSEKI, SECRETARY OF VETERAN AFFAIRS: If you were to walk in to one of our rooms where adjudication or decisions are being made about disability for veterans, you would see individuals sitting at a desk with stacks of paper that go up halfway to the ceiling.

STARR: The flood of claims keeps coming and they're growing more complex with issues like traumatic brain injury so many new vets are suffering. From fiscal year 1999 to 2008, the VA processed 60 percent more claims, but the number of claims still pending jumped 65 percent. Simply put - claims are coming in faster than they can be processed. President Obama is promising to help.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Cut those backlogs, slash those wait times. Deliver your benefits sooner.

STARR: The VA turned down our request for an interview. They did tell us they're trying to improve efficiency. But with two wars, claims continue to mount. Elliott Miller, a veteran himself, helps other vets with their paperwork.

ELLIOTT MILLER, AMVETS/FORMER VA WORKER: Constantly getting more claims in. The VA goes out and advertises and does outreach to get more claims in. They don't have the manpower to handle all the things that are getting in.

STARR: Former Master Sergeant Emmer says the VA also should communicate better.

EMMER: We can't be left in limbo. Because it just adds to the stress.


STARR: Just one statistic underscores the challenge. The VA says every day it receives more than 4,000 new disability claims -- John, Kiran.

ROBERTS: Barbara Starr this morning. Barbara, thanks.

You can watch all of the "War at Home" series on-line. You can find all of the stories on our blog at fix. Forty-two minutes now after the hour.



CHETRY: There you go, 45 minutes past the hour. A little slice of Americana for you this morning. We send our Rob Marciano on a road show every Friday, some place different, some place (INAUDIBLE) people's radar and today it's tractors. ROBERTS: And one of those things was like a 12-point buck of John Deere tractors, isn't?

CHETRY: All that gas.

ROBERTS: This week, Rob is at the National Tractor Pull Championship at the Wood Country Fair Grounds in Bowling Green, Ohio, otherwise know as Pull Town. And Rob is not in the cockpit yet. What's going on, Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I said I'd get on one, right? Here we go. This is one you could handle. Look out. I'm riding in a tractor. Woohoo! Not bad for a city boy. What do you think? They wouldn't let me drive - you think my tractor is sexy? That's about all I got for you. I mean...

ROBERTS: It's a little pocket tractor.

MARCIANO: Exactly. I had to mention this is the Daytona 500 Nascar equivalent of the tractor pull. They're not pulling things like this. They started this decades ago. I mean, they started using horses where guys would jump on the back of the sled to see how much their horse could pull. We ran into a fan yesterday, an old timer. He's been coming to these things since he was a kid. This is what he had to say about it.


LARRY VONDEYLEN, TRACTOR PULLING FAN: I used to sit along side the track. As the track sled came to you, you stepped on the track. Look at it now. You try to step on that thing, you're going for a ride.


MARCIANO: Oh, yes. You're going for a ride. The reason I can't get on one of these bad boys, John and Kiran is because - I mean, they do wheelies. You're looking at right now, five engines and each one of these engines has the equivalent of three times the power of a Nascar engine.

So on top of this bad boy is like 15 Nascar engines. I mean, I can't handle that, are you kidding me? And the sound alone - the sound alone of these things. I tell you what, noise abatement laws started to go off at 8:00. I hope I can expense this fine. But because you asked for it, John and Kiran, we're going to give it to you. All right. Let's crank it up, guys. Let's get it here. Starting one - start five.

ROBERTS: That's a whole lot of tractor. I like the little (INAUDIBLE)

CHETRY: It's a little bit more manageable, I say. Those things scare me.

ROBERTS: I think Rob can handle that. You know, five engines. What was it - 15 times the power of Nascar - I think he could do it. I have faith in Rob.

CHETRY: Now we know why they were talking about the noise ordinance. It's a little loud.

ROBERTS: Nothing sounds as good as an open header on a V-8.

Next week, Rob's road show rolls on. So where should he go? It's up to you. Tell us where to send Mr. Marciano. You can leave your ideas in our show blog at 49 minutes now after the hour.



CHETRY: Welcome back to the most news in the morning. Fifty-one minutes past the hour. There are rumors swirling around one record- breaking athlete this morning. This time the scandal has nothing to do with doping.

ROBERTS: So what does it have to do with? Well, the South African runner Caster Semenya came out of nowhere to become the women's 800-meter world champion in Berlin on Wednesday. But some are asking, not is she on performance-enhancing drugs, they're asking is she really a woman?

Our Larry Smith is looking into the controversy today.


LARRY SMITH, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After Caster Semenya posted a world best time at the African Junior Championships three weeks ago, track's governing body, the IWAAF asked the South African Athletics Federation to administer a gender test. Then on Wednesday the 18-year-old unheard of until this summer pulled off a stunning win in the women's 800 meters at the world championships. Further fuelling speculation.

IAAF confirmed there are currently two investigations underway. One in South Africa, and one in Berlin, where the world championships are taking place.

PIERRE WEISS, AAF GENERAL SECRETARY: I am not a doctor. I'm not a specialist of genetics. But all the doctors who were contacted, who were consulted told us very clearly, this kind of investigation is days and even weeks before we can come to a conclusion. There's one question, which is clear. If at the end of this investigation it is proven that the athlete is not a female, we will withdraw her name from the results of the competition today.

SMITH: Semenya is reportedly unaffected by the gender question. Family member say she was teased as a child about her appearance. Her father is outraged. Jacob Semenya told a (INAUDIBLE) newspaper, "She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times." Caster Semenya isn't the first female athlete to have her gender questioned. Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan had her silver medal in the 2006 Asian Games stripped after failing a gender test. Her genetic make-up reportedly showed a male chromosome. Sprinter Eva Klobukowska of Poland, won two medals in the 1964 Olympics but three years later she failed a gender test and was banned from professional sports.

Polish American Stella Walsh won a gold in the 1932 Olympics, but a postmortem exam after her death in 1980 revealed she had male sex organs as well as male and female chromosomes. South African Olympic officials and the African National Congress are rushing to Semenya's defense and she seems to have the support of her country men and women, as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They shouldn't do this her, this would discourage here - in order to encourager women in sports and also to encourage, they shouldn't be doing investigations like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe she is a woman. I don't think that the athletic committee would've allowed her to go there if she wasn't a woman. And honestly, I think that whole IAAF thing is a serious violation of human rights.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She does look very manly, but I don't know, I don't think they'd be that dumb to let a man run in a woman's race. I think she'll get to keep her gold medal.

SMITH: Until the investigation is complete, Semenya will continue to compete and questions will continue to swirl.

Larry Smith, CNN, Atlanta.


ROBERTS: Wow. Difficult to know.

CHETRY: Yes, I guess so.

ROBERTS: You wonder why it takes so long, though, to do the test. They've got to get the ducks in a row to do it. Because legally they could be in a lot of trouble if they muck it up, I guess.

Well, we talk a lot about the effect of the Mexican drug cartels along the border between the United States and Mexico. But, you know, the pervasiveness of the cartel's influence is expanding. We'll tell you one place where you might not expect the cartel to have a big influence, but it does coming right up. Fifty-five minutes now after the hour.



CHETRY: Fifty-six and a half minutes past the hour right now. A look at Atlanta, Georgia this morning, looks a little hazy out there right now. It's cloudy, 70 degrees, scattered thunderstorms in the forecast for later today with a high of 83.

Atlanta, as we know is home to Delta Airlines, to Coca-Cola, CNN's mother ship. But federal agents know it for something else. The city has become a major distribution hub for Mexican drug cartels. CNN's Brooke Baldwin reports.


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Drugs, weapons, and cold hard cash, it's a lethal combination fuelling the Mexican drug cartels and according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, now a new city has emerged as the staging ground for this deadly trade.

RANDY VINCENT, DEA'S TOP ATLANTA AGENT: Metro Atlanta is a hub for businesses in the southeast. It's also a hub of operations for Mexican organized crimes.

BALDWIN: Atlanta, prime real estate for drug distribution, according to the DEA's top Atlanta agent, Randy Vincent. He agreed to take CNN on a special aerial tour to illustrate how these deals go down. Starting with the southern city's web of freeway.

VINCENT: You can go east, west, north, south for Metro Atlanta, moving shipments and drugs from the southwest border all the way up the eastern sea board.

BALDWIN: Before that can happen, the driver must wait here at truck stops just like this one, often in broad daylight.

VINCENT: Truck driver arriving in a place like this will then wait. It could be as soon as an hour. It could be two or three days. Then they'll receive instructions.

BALDWIN: Next, the driver heads to a warehouse, Vincent says there's plenty to pick from in Atlanta. There the drugs are parceled out and sent to dealers throughout the U.S., but the drivers aren't done. They use the same truck to smuggle money and guns back into Mexico.

In 2008, Atlanta led the nation with $70 million in confiscated cash according to the DEA. And last September, federal agents along with local law enforcement rounded up 34 members of Mexico's Gulf Cartel in the Atlanta area alone. Part of a nationwide effort called Project Reckoning.

(on camera): If you think drug cartels are keeping their high- dollar drug operations in the gritty inner city, think again. The DEA says they prefer the suburbs. They move into quiet, middle-class neighborhoods just like this one where they set up shop stockpiling drugs and cash before distributing them.

(voice-over): Last July, a group of men with cartel connections lured a Rhode Island drug dealer to this Gannett (ph) County home. They chained him, beat him, and held him hostage demanding he pay $300,000 they say he owed. The DEA raided the home before it was too late. VINCENT: There's no doubt in my mind if we didn't act when we did, he would have been dead.

BALDWIN: Three men got caught and pleaded guilty, but the rest escaped. Vincent says the explosive growth of Hispanic immigrants in Metro Atlanta is yet another reason why Mexican cartels come here. Allowing them to blend in and disappear, enabling this deadly drug trade to rage on, spreading roots in this southern city.

Brooke Baldwin, CNN, Atlanta.


CHETRY: And Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin says she's aware of the drug trafficking in her city, though her office is quick to point out the majority of the crime isn't happening downtown, but in metro Atlanta.