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American Morning

Couple Crashes State Dinner; Obama's War Plan; Black Friday Forecast; WikiLeaks Activist Group Posts Texts Sent on 9/11

Aired November 26, 2009 - 08:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! It's Thursday, November 26th. I'm Christine Romans in for Kiran Chetry.

JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Joe Johns in for John Roberts.

Here are the top stories we'll be telling you about in the next 15 minutes.

A stunning breach of security at the White House: a Virginia couple slipping past the Secret Service to crash the Obama's first state dinner Tuesday night, then posting photos on Facebook to prove it. We're live at the White House with the developments.

ROMANS: President Obama set to brief the nation on his plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. And this morning, we have new details about exactly how the mission will go down. 1,000 troops could be there before Christmas.

JOHNS: Black Friday is less than 24 hours away. The deals are there, but will the shoppers be there? Find out if America is ready to spend this holiday season right out of their wallets? Or credit cards, as it may be.

ROMANS: But we begin this Thanksgiving morning with the latest developments on a shocking breach of security at the White House. The Secret Service confirming a Virginia couple somehow got past their checkpoint and crashed Tuesday night's state dinner at the White House.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi were not on the guest list, but the couple got inside and got up close and personal with everyone from the White House chief of staff to Vice President Biden.

Dan Lothian is live at the White House this morning. Dan, what are you hearing now from Secret Service on this?


Secret Service says that an investigation continues and they will be interviewing additional employees. But I'll tell you, as someone who works here at the White House every single day, this is one of those stories that's really hard to believe because security here is so tight. But this couple somehow managed to get around that security and get inside.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. and Mrs. Salahi.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): they sure did make a grand entrance. It's not clear if they ever got a seat at a table or got to eat some of the potato and eggplant salad, but they managed to plant themselves next to the most powerful people in Washington.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi posted a dozen pictures on Facebook. Here they are with VICE PRESIDENT JOE Biden and the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Michaele even got up close and personal with a few Marines.

But here's the one place the couple didn't show up; on the official guest list. The only person who seems to have sensed something was wrong was the reporter who broke the story.

ROXANNE ROBERTS, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": When I saw them come in, I went -- I thought to myself, what on earth are they doing here?

LOTHIAN: So how do you crash a party at the White House? A spokesman for the couple would only say the two had full clearance to attend the dinner. The Secret Service confirmed it was investigating a breach and said initial findings suggest at least one checkpoint did not follow proper procedures. And once inside, the couple apparently just blended in.

ROBERTS: The assumption that everyone had, presumably the staffers, were that these people were meant to be here. They wouldn't have been able to get in unless someone had said it was OK.

LOTHIAN: The pair is described as polo-playing socialites from northern Virginia and are also reported to be in line for possible roles on the upcoming reality TV show, "Real Housewives of D.C." CNN national security contributor Fran Townsend says they might now have an even harsher reality in their future.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: If they lied their way to get in, and it seems they would have had to have done that, that's a federal felony, a false statement to a federal official. So this is a pretty serious crime.


LOTHIAN: Now, the Secret Service is going out of its way to point out that this couple did go through the metal detectors and did go through additional security screenings, as did everyone else who came to the event. Obviously, going out of its way to show that the president was in no danger at all -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Dan. Joe and I were just noticing that on her Facebook page, she talks about Ron Emanuel.

JOHNS: Didn't even get the chief of staff's name right.

LOTHIAN: That's right, she got it wrong.

ROMANS: It's Rahm Emanuel.

LOTHIAN: That's the key right there. She wasn't supposed to be there, right? She didn't know the name.

ROMANS: Ironic that it's the guy who knows everyone, too.

LOTHIAN: That's right.

ROMANS: Dan Lothian thanks.

This state dinner breach has a lot of people wondering about the kind of security usually in place for White House guests.

Here's more in an A.M. Extra. Typically, visitors have to provide the White House with personal information well ahead of time. Things like your date of birth, your social security number. Once you arrive, there are two security checkpoints to clear both require IDs and metal detector screenings.

Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta attended Tuesday night's event. We asked him if he thought it would be possible for someone to slip past security?


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It seems quite possible. There was really one -- that first checkpoint was the time that people were sort of getting scrutinized the most. A lot of times, the social secretary was there and sort of recognized people and then scratched names off a clipboard, literally.

But I'll tell you, it was pretty crowded right outside the East Gate. That's where everyone entered, at that time. Some people were driving up, some people were walking up and it was just a lot of people all clustered around. And there was really one person sort of scratching names off the clipboard at that point.


ROMANS: Dr. Gupta tells us all the guests were free to roam the East Room of the White House with easy access to everyone except the president and first lady.

JOHNS: Also this morning, President Obama is preparing to finally outline his long-awaited strategy for the war in Afghanistan. He'll do it Tuesday in a prime-time speech at West Point.

A large-scale escalation is expected, but it won't be easy getting those soldiers and Marines to the war zone. Our Elaine Quijano is live at the pentagon. And Elaine, what are you learning this morning? Happy Thanksgiving.


As President Obama gets ready to announce his Afghanistan decision next week, we are learning some new details about the military's plans.


QUIJANO (voice-over): the first wave of additional U.S. Forces to Afghanistan will start deploying in late December, according to a U.S. military official. CNN has learned soon after President Obama's announcement next week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will get the paperwork to deploy 1,000 marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Those will be the first of the roughly 34,000 troops anticipated to be added to Afghanistan over the next year.

But getting any additional military personnel into the country will take time. For his 2007 Iraq surge, President Bush added 28,000 troops. It took five months to get them into the country.

By contrast, when President Obama ordered 21,000 combat troops to Afghanistan, it took eight months to get them there.

LAWRENCE KORB, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: You have to develop the facilities to house them. I mean, that's -- I think people forget that. You just can't drop them over there. And you've also got the winter coming.

QUIJANO: Once additional forces arrive, the to-do list is daunting.

FREDERICK KAGAN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: The Taliban now currently has the momentum that I think the Taliban is winning.

QUIJANO: Military analyst Frederick Kagan helped develop the idea of the 2007 Iraq surge. He says one lesson the U.S. learned, you need to convince the local population you can turn the tide against the Taliban.

KAGAN: And whether we're going to win or not, because they don't want to line up with us and then have us bail on them and then have the enemy come and kill them.

QUIJANO: the immediate focus, protecting population centers and prying loose Taliban strongholds, like the southeastern city of Kandahar.

KORB: I think, basically, to secure more of the south and the east, so if you can secure more of that, that will prevent the Taliban from increasing their foothold. And once you do that, I think you'll have to be able to start the reconstruction and training the Afghan security forces.


QUIJANO: And officials say training those Afghan security force is really going to be key. It's been a main focus, Joe, of those White House strategy meetings. The challenge, how to ramp up that training so Afghans themselves can eventually keep hold of the security gains that the U.S. makes -- Joe.

JOHNS: A huge moment ahead for this administration.

Thanks so much, Elaine Quijano.

And of course, CNN will have live coverage of the president's announcement Tuesday night at 8:00 Eastern from West Point.

ROMANS: Other stories we're following today. Wall Street is giving thanks to a drop in unemployment claims and a rise in home sales led the Dow to a 13-month high yesterday. New claims for unemployment fell by 35,000 last week, dropping below 500,000. We have not seen that in a very long time. And new home sales rose 6.2 percent in October, better than expected.

JOHNS: Roman Polanski is cleared to leave a Swiss jail for house arrest at his Swiss chalet. Bail has been set for the Oscar-winning director at $4.5 million. The 76-year-old director pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. He's fighting extradition to the U.S. to face sentencing.

ROMANS: Soldiers from the 32nd Infantry Brigade combat team made up of the members of the Wisconsin National Guard celebrated their Thanksgiving in Baghdad. If you thought you have a lot to cook today, the 185,000 American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan will eat 193,000 pounds of turkey this Thanksgiving. That's according to the U.S. Air Force Web site.

JOHNS: A lot of food.

Deck the halls and wreck the malls. Who writes this stuff?

ROMANS: That was good.

JOHNS: That's right. It's Black Friday tomorrow, but are you buying? We'll ask a retail expert whether shoppers will help save the economy and where the deals are best.

It is 9 minutes after the hour.


JOHNS: I just didn't realize they actually had a gobble connected with the animated turkey. These guys think of everything. Yes, I am the Thanksgiving turkey.


JOHNS: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. We are live in New York City as folks gear up for the 83rd Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. 31 balloons featured this year if you're counting with attractions like the Pillsbury Doughboy and the revamped Spider-Man you see right there.

ROMANS: There he is. Spidey.

We all know today is the day for food, family, and football. But lots of people might be doing a little online shopping too. According to Deloitte Consulting many of you are getting started even before Black Friday. But will all the hype make this a green Christmas for retailers?

John Rooney is leader of the retail practice at Deloitte and joins us this morning from Philadelphia.

Good morning, John, nice to see you. Happy Thanksgiving.

JOHN ROONEY, U.S. RETAIL PRACTICE LEADER, DELOITTE CONSULTING: Good morning, Christine. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

ROMANS: I think a lot of people don't know that one of the definitions of Black Friday that this is, kind of traditionally, before online shopping, this is traditionally the time when if they had a really good day after Thanksgiving, they knew they'd be in the black for the year and it would be profit from there on out for Christmas.

But now you have Americans -- that's right in the black, Black Friday -- but now you have a lot of American families who are trying to get in the black themselves, so that's a real challenge for retailers, isn't it?

ROONEY: It is, Christine. But we're seeing through our annual holiday survey, there's some reasons for retailers to be cautiously optimistic heading into this holiday season. We ran our survey back in October and looked at November, December, and January customer intentions. And then this past weekend, we did a polls check to see what people were thinking about for this particular holiday season.

ROMANS: And what are they telling you? They're telling you that they're going to go out if the deals are good enough?

ROONEY: They're telling us they are going to go out. We showed the people intend to spend more than they did last year. And this most recent weekend, people told us, they're actually thinking about spending more than they thought they would spend, even a month or two ago, which is good signs for retailers.

But you're right, promotions are going to be key. Everybody's expecting a good deal as they get out into the stores this evening.

ROMANS: I mean you're already here in person. We've been talking about it this morning, personal finance experts saying, if it's 20 percent off, it's not for sale. You really have to be smart.

A lot of people have held back all year too. There's a survey from Consumer Reports that said people were going to shop on Black Friday, 66 percent of them, shop for themselves because they've been stingy all year.

So it will be interesting to see how the behavior really stacks up. Last year wasn't great for the retailers. I mean, Americans are paying down their debt and increasing their savings. It's going to be difficult for the retailers to try to convince people that it's OK to go out there and spend money.

ROONEY: Well, for the folks who have already purchased a gift this year, 73 percent of them said they bought it on sale or with a coupon. So the promotions are going to continue to be important.

The folks who said they're planning on spending more money this year indicated that they're getting into the holiday season. Some of them have already spent more than they thought they would. And they're starting to feel a little bit better about their personal economic situation.

You mentioned some statistics right before the break. I think things like that are going to help people feel a little bit better about opening their wallets.

ROMANS: Here's the trick. For the people who have too much debt right now or have trouble with mortgage payments, who are living on unemployment checks, this is going to be crucial for them to be careful over the holiday season, for their own personal finances.

But for the people who are feeling a little better about things, who have a job and who pulled back maybe too much, that's who retailers are trying to get in the store.

ROONEY: Right. And to give you the sense of the challenge that retailers are going to face or the expectations that consumers have, half of the folks of indicated that they're going to buy apparel as gifts and a third of the people said they're going to buy consumer electronics as a gift, they expect a discount of 50 percent or more on the items they buy. So it really is about the promotion. There's going to need to have something - there's going to be a bump to get those people into the party.

ROMANS: Let me ask you something about Black Friday is sort of the result of 30 years, maybe 40 years of consumers and their instant gratification on debt. It really is almost the symbol of the consumer craziness that led us to a real problem with too much debt in this country that's hurt people. Do you think by talking about Black Friday and trying to, you know, trying to pretend or talk line it's 2005 that everyone's going to go out for Black Friday, do you think that we're not recognizing that things have fundamentally changed in this country?

ROONEY: You know people indicated about a quarter of the people in our survey re -- indicated that they have permanently changed how they're going to spend. But I would say as economic news gets better, people are feeling better about it. And they have indicated, at least the ones we've talked to indicated they are paying down their debt and are feeling better about that. So I think it's a kickoff of the holiday season, people are starting to feel better about things. It really is going to be about bargain hunting and finding the right deals for themselves out there. And some of that will be online shopping, some of that will be in store shopping, but I think you're going to see people out there.

ROMANS: All right, John Rooney thanks so much Deloitte Consulting, nice to see you. Thank you.

ROONEY: Thank you.

JOHNS: And we're less than an hour away from the start of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. We're live along the route. Deb Feyerick is out there looking at spider-man. Everybody else, all the kids, and let's get this party started.

It is 16 minutes after the hour.



SECOND CLASS PETTY OFFICER SAMUEL ELLIS: Hi. I'm second class petty officer Samuel Ellis and I'm deployed to Guantanamo Bay. I would like to say happy thanksgiving to my mom in Georgia. I love you, mom, and I miss you.


ROMANS: All right Happy Thanksgiving. Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. It's almost tyke for the bands and the balloons to make their way to Herald Square and it looks like the weather's going to hold. It's nice out there.

JOHNS: At least, so far. This year, there are 300 extra steps. Three new turns and two new avenues for the Macy's parade, not to mention the 76 trombones.


JOHNS: There's the song. Deb Feyerick is out in the thick of it. Deb, how's it going?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): It's amazing because everywhere you look, it's filled with color, you've got raggedy Anns, the balloon handlers, the clowns. It's just incredible energy. And you talk about the distance; well that's an extra half mile. We were talking to somebody whose balloon handlers and they say that they're going to have to walk much quicker than they normally do. Because Santa's got to show up by noon. Like no -- no leeway on that. As you can see, this is the new spider-man balloon. 15 large ones. Kermit coming around the corner. We want to do -- just to show you the range of this parade, where are you from?

I'm from London, England.

FEYERICK: Where you from?


FEYERICK: Where you from? UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Atlanta, George.

FEYERICK: Where you from?


FEYERICK: Where you from?


FEYERICK: Where you from?


FEYERICK: Where you from?


FEYERICK: See, all of these different people just coming and they really look forward to this. Some of these people doing this for some 25 years. Tell me, why did you guys decide to come today?


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: It's a beautiful day.

FEYERICK: What's the most exciting thing?


FEYERICK: Just being here is the most exciting thing, talking to us. First parade?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: First parade, yes.

FEYERICK: What's your favorite balloon?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Spider-man, obviously, he's right here.

FEYERICK: Spider-man! So that's the thing, all people have different favorite balloons. You can see the turkey back there, Kermit the frog; I'm practicing being a balloon handler. They train many months to do this. They do it right. The balloons have been cleared to fly up to 40 feet. That coming straight from the NYPD. Christine, Joe.

ROMANS: And Deb, your daughter's there, right? What is she saying - what's her favorite one so far?

FEYERICK: Well OK. So hold on a second. Hello, little girl.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Who is that little girl?

FEYERICK: what's your favorite balloon?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Well, I really like the spider-man, but I also like the pumpkins.

FEYERICK: You like the pumpkins. What do you have to be thankful for this year?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: I'm thankful for my friends, my family, my health, and my teacher, Mrs. Weisberg.

FEYERICK: OK well there you go. A good teacher means everything. Back to you Chris and Joe.

ROMANS: Deb, that little girl, her mother must be so proud this morning. Happy Thanksgiving, Deb.

JOHNS: Priceless.

ROMANS: President Obama's final decision on a new war strategy will be revealed next week and that strategy is expected to come at a heavy price. So how will the administration pay for it? We're digging for answers. Its 22 minutes after the hour.


JOHNS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

An activist group called WikiLeaks has posted logs reporting more than half a million pager messages reportedly sent on September 11th, 2001.

ROMANS: The group says the data was submitted to them anonymously several weeks ago and they believe the texts are real. Our Jeanne Meserve has more.


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Joe and Christine, the logs report to be records of text messages sent on 9/11 on the arch wireless Metro Call Skytel, and web link wireless networks. There are more than 500,000 of them. It's unclear exactly how much new might be gleaned from them, but they certainly bring back the horror, the panic, and the pain more than eight years after the attacks.

MESERVE (voice over): At 8:45, the first plane hit the World Trade Center. By 8:50, the first text indicating something the wrong.

"An aloe hah call is starting. This is for a fire at 2wt."

"CNN said they think it was a plane that hit the building, Karen."

"The World Trade Center has just blown up. We saw the explosion outside our windows, Teresa."

MESERVE: At 9:05, another plane hits.

"It's a deliberate attack. A second plane just flew into the second tower."

"New York is you aren't a terrorist attack."

MESERVE: But 9:25. The personal messages have grown more frequent and more frantic.

"Please call my work as soon as you get in the office. Need to know you're safe, Yvonne."

"Wondering where you are. Are you OK? Give me a call back ASAP. I just need to know these things. Even if it's collect. Call me, Darryl."

"If I do not hear from you by high noon, I'm going to pick Laura up at school and tell her father is dead."

MESERVE: Texts bring some people good news...

"Urgent, it's Tim, I'm OK. Call me at home. I was outside the building when it exploded, but I'm fine."

MESERVE: ... others have to wait and worry.

"Pete is OK, he can't find his brother who works in the World Financial Center."

MESERVE: The Pentagon is hit. A fourth plane goes down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The Twin Towers in New York collapse and rumors are rampant.

"Dan there was a hijack plane circling Dallas Airport. Please call me."

"Unconfirmed reports of plane crash at Camp David now."

"Think one more plane may have been hijacked and headed toward the Capitol building. Not sure."

MESERVE: And running through the texts, fear, panic, and love.

"I know you have a new relationship and do not care about me. But just in case anything happens, know I love you, hon. Missed ya. Good-bye."

MESERVE: WikiLeaks says they have verified some of the texts and believe all are authentic.

DANIEL SCHMITT, WIKILEAKS: I fully understand, this is very emotional material, but this doesn't mean that it's not part of our historic record.


MESERVE (on camera): WikiLeaks will not say if the source was in government, law enforcement, industry, nor was a private citizen with the capability to intercept messages. Privacy experts not pleased to see personal communications released and even less pleased that they were collected and then stored for these eight long years. Joe, Christine, back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Its 27 minutes past the hour. Here are this morning's top stories. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wraps up his tour of Latin America, visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He received a warm welcome with full military honors. Both leaders spoke against U.S. Imperialism and they signed 12 cooperation agreements between their countries. Ahmadinejad has used this trip as a platform to defend Iran's nuclear program.

JOHNS: A NATO general says the Taliban is gaining momentum in Afghanistan and that they need to be slowed down. He made the comment in response to a message from the leader of the Taliban claiming insurgents are winning the war. Mullah Omar also called on Afghans to break off relations with what he called the stooge government of President Hamid Karzai.

ROMANS: And it's not just Chinese drywall. Some American drywall is now under the microscope. A spokesman for the consumer product safety commission says a small number of homeowners have reported problems with their U.S.-made drywall. They say it's causing the same rotten egg smell and corrosion problems as Chinese-made drywall. The investigation is the largest in the commission's history.

JOHNS: And now, the $1 million men. The President is getting ready to announce his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan with an estimated price tag of $1 million per soldier, per year. Where's it going and where's it coming from? Here with us to break it all down, Mark Thompson, the national security correspondent for "Time" magazine. He's in Washington this morning. Good morning, Mark, and Happy Thanksgiving to you.


JOHNS: So first question is, let's just talk about the general cost. How do you break down that $1 million? What's the biggest cost? What's the most significant thing that you see?

THOMPSON: Well, basically, number one, these numbers are hard to -- hard to break down. And if you talk to people inside the government, the Pentagon will say, you know, it's only about $500,000 per soldier per year. But the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, which is much more sensitive to how much this is going to cost, tags it at about $1 million a year.

And it's important to realize that that isn't just for the soldier, him or herself, that's about $100,000 just in salary for that soldier. But, for example, a soldier forward deployed in Afghanistan requires 22 gallons of fuel per day to move him or her around, to get him or her the stuff he or she needs to wage war.

And each gallon of that fuel costs about $45 a gallon. So that's $1,000 a day per soldier just for fuel. And you go, how can a gallon of gasoline cost that much? Well, in reality, it only costs about two bucks. That's what the government pays for it. But protecting it adds $30 to $40 to that base price.

JOHNS: OK, so, bottom line, and the thing we've been talking about again and again in Washington, New York, and elsewhere is the president's going to go before the American public next week and he's going to have to sell this to the point where the American public buys it. How do you think he does that, given these kinds of costs?

THOMPSON: Well, I think, number one, you hate to say it, but the costs are relatively smaller than what we've spent in Iraq so far. You don't want to call it a bargain, but it is a lesser amount of money for a fewer amount of troops.

Number two, this is basically a new president and he is making his first big decision on a major international issue involving the deployment of U.S. troops.

Remember, President Bush did the surge into Iraq, but that was near the tail end of his second term, and he was basically throwing the dice, knowing he didn't face reelection. President Obama, on the other hand, is taking this decision early in his tenure, and it too is a roll of the dice.

But he's going to give the military most of what they want. He's going before a supportive audience at West Point, the U.S. military academy there. So he's not going, you know, he's going to make the military happy by giving them most of what General Stanley McChrystal wants to get.

And I think there is a sense among most Americans that although they don't like the sort of -- the way this war has dragged on for eight years, they are willing to give this president a chance to get it right, at least for the coming year.

JOHNS: The other half of this, though, is that he's trying to sell a $1 trillion health care plan at the very same time. And there's sort of this balance or trade-off of priorities, if you will, that the whole country is facing right now.

Given the fact that he wants to spend so much on health care, do you think it's a tough sell to come with more troops for Afghanistan?

THOMPSON: Yes, I mean, I was chatting with Congressman Dave Obey the other day, and he's the head of the Appropriations Committee, and he wants the war to be paid for as we go. Don't borrow the money. Don't, you know, just have it disappear into the huge Pentagon budget.

Make it, you know, make the Americans know, hey, this is how much the war is going to cost. Maybe we need a surtax to pay for this. Plainly, the whole guns and butter debate, as Congressman Obey says, really hurt Harry Truman's Square Deal when the Korean War came along in the same way the Vietnam War hurt LBJ's Great Society.

And he and many of his Democratic colleagues on the Hill are concerned that funneling and diverting more money to Afghanistan is going to hurt health care efforts as well as other domestic initiatives that they believe the country really needs amid this recession.

JOHNS: "War surtax," those are two words that just seem to hang up there and wait to be shot at, quite frankly. All right, thanks so much, Mark Thompson. And we will stay in touch with you.

ROMANS: All right, coming up next, hard times for the holidays. Jim Acosta will have an interesting story for us about, you know, maybe giving back a little bit on plastic. Think of it. The Salvation Army. You usually put in a dollar, put in 50 cents. Now you can charge it. That's coming up right after the break.


ROMANS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

October saw America's jobless rate reach 10.2 percent. That's nearly 16 million people out of work. That means more people who need help and fewer people with the means to give it.

Our Jim Acosta is in Washington with a closer look at the hard times, the holiday season, and how charities, businesses, even government agencies are getting creative to help those in need.


ACOSTA: It's a new sign of the nation's hard times during the holidays. Not the ringing of the Salvation Army bell, but the credit card machine that now comes with the kettle.

CAPTAIN BILL CRISS, SALVATION ARMY: It's one more tool for us to be able to use to help people, men and women, boys and girls, in our community.

ACOSTA: The Salvation Army has 300 of these cashless kettles stationed across the country, all in an effort to raise more money to meet a growing demand for assistance.

CRISS: Our requests for assistance are up about 50 percent over last year.

ACOSTA (on camera): Fifty percent?

CRISS: Our telephones ring off the hook all day long for people needing help with rent and utilities, medical care, things like that.

ACOSTA (on camera): So you can feel this recession?

CRISS: We feel it and we see it every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This line is just like -- I haven't seen a line this long, ever. It's just mind blowing.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Coast to coast food banks and other nonprofit groups offering turkey giveaways are being flooded with thousands of families waiting in long lines, many hoping to put a Thanksgiving meal on the table after being laid off.

CASSANDRA WOODS, FOOD BANK PATRON: If I don't come here, I don't have food. And I have to pay my rent and my utilities and try to stay out of being homeless.

TOM VILSACK, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: Frankly, this is not just the government's responsibility. I think we all have a responsibility.

ACOSTA: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is trying to expand the use of his department's food stamps program, now known as SNAP. He even made a personal appeal to the warehouse discount chain Costco to get on board.

VILSACK: I actually called officials at Costco, asked them to take a look on a pilot project basis to see how it would work. We were convinced that it would be a good business decision for them.

ACOSTA: A good business decision because shoppers are already hitting the stores. While consumers are expected to cut back this year, Brian Burton found one credit card machine he just couldn't refuse.

ACOSTA (on camera): Are you going to be cutting back a little bit more this year, would you say, because of the economy and the recession?

BRIAN BURTON, DONOR: Giving to the Salvation Army? No. But for other things, probably.


ACOSTA: Even though times are tight, people are still giving. And 49 million Americans are what the Department of Agriculture calls "food insecure" in this country. Those are folks that have to scramble every month to feed themselves.

And Secretary Vilsack says part of the problem is that many states simply do a poor job of administering federal aid to the hungry, Christine. A very strange development as the Department of Agriculture attracts all of this. They're actually finding some states are just not getting the job done when it gets down to getting this aid out the door.

ROMANS: And when you think of it, the 36 million people in this country, Jim, are subsisting on food stamps or getting food stamps to help them through. It just shows you, that's more than a tenth of Americans need government help to get fed. I mean, it's an important fact not to overlook on Thanksgiving as we're indulging. You know, it's really important to give back. Thanks, Jim. Jim Acosta.

JOHNS: Thanks, Jim.

ACOSTA: Yes, you bet.

JOHNS: Looking pretty good weather wise here in the northeast. Will the weather cooperate with your travel plans today? Reynolds Wolf is tracking the latest forecast. We'll check with him after the break.


JOHNS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. The bustling streets of New York City getting ready for the big Macy's parade. Some live pictures there. What a day for a parade. Temperatures in the mid-50s, no rain, light wind. And for the first time ever, the parade will bypass Broadway as it makes its way downtown.

ROMANS: And when it comes to Thanksgiving, it's all about the traditions, the turkey and the trimmings. But those dishes could depend on where you live. The folks at "The New York Times" tracked what regions looked up what recipes and this is what they found.

The southeast, apparently big fans of the sweet potato casserole. The pumpkin pie belt stretches across the northwest. But when it comes to pecan pie, the honor falls to the Midwest. It was the cooks in the southwest that showed the most interest in mashed potatoes, although I still think mashed potatoes is universal.

While in the southeast, it was mac and cheese. As for yams, it was far and away the most searched for recipe out west, yams.

JOHNS: Oh, yes. Really?

ROMANS: That's right.

JOHNS: You know what -- I didn't see dressing there anywhere.

ROMANS: I guess everyone does dressing. I don't know.


ROMANS: Tonight's the big night when we honor the remarkable CNN Heroes; ten people who are changing the world around them. Anderson Cooper hosts this special night from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. And before the celebration, Anderson takes us backstage to show us how an event like this comes together.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, "CNN HEROES": Hey. Welcome to the Kodak Theater. We're rehearsing for HEROES, just getting ready the day before the big event. You can see on stage, they're getting ready for one of the musical performers to practice. We've got some great musical performances lined up. We also try to figure out camera angles for all; there's a lot of different cameras in here.

So there's actually cards in all the seats for the different people who are going to be sitting here. Like this where Neil Patrick Harris, who's presenting, is going to be.

But the heroes have just arrived here, they just got into town yesterday so let's go meet them. I haven't met them yet, so we're going to say hi.

Hey guys.


COOPER: How are you? How are you? So nice to meet you I'm Anderson. How are you?

JORGE MUNOZ: Hi how are you I'm Jorge.

COOPER: How is it going? I know, nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've seen you on TV.

COOPER: Oh yes. I've seen you on TV as well. How are you?

Have you been inside the theater yet? All right, well, that will make you nervous, actually. I'm not going to lie about that.

We talked to some of the presenters to find out why they wanted to be here tonight.

GREG KINNEAR, ACTOR: The idea that is a very simple one. I mean, to thank people that have done amazing things.

PIERCE BROSNAN, ACTOR: This whole show is inspirational.

COOPER: It takes an army to put HEROES into motion and this is the guy who is commanding the troops, Joel Gallen; he's the executive producer and he's also the director.

JOEL GALLEN, PRODUCER & DIRECTOR, CNN HEROES: We're here for our third year doing the broadcast. We have Leona Lewis, we have Carrie Underwood and we have Maxwell all singing songs that are themed around sort of the message of this show, helping people changing the world.

COOPER: As you can see, there are many people here who are making this special evening possible. All of us are working to help celebrate the lives of everyday people who are making extraordinary differences in the world. Join us as we honor them this Thanksgiving night.



JOHNS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

A follow-up to a story we first told you about this time last year. A California family burned out of their home by a wildfire, a devastating ordeal especially for their autistic son.

A lot has happened to the Reyes family since then, thanks to a tremendous outpouring of generosity. Now, an "A.M. Original"; here's Kara Finnstrom. KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe, Christine, it has been a huge year for the Reyes family. We first reported on them during the immediate aftermath of that fire, when they were bracing for the impact it would have on their son. Losing your home in a fire can be difficult for any child, but their 7-year-old Jonathan is also autistic.


JONATHAN REYES: I am thankful for my house, which is new and keeps me safe.

FINNSTROM (voice-over): One year ago in this class, Jonathan Reyes wrote a note to give his parents on Thanksgiving.

JAN REYES, MOTHER: When he brought it home, we cried a lot.

FINNSTROM: Because before they ever read the letter, their entire neighborhood had been ravaged by a wildfire.

AUGUSTINE REYES, FATHER: This is all that's left of my house.

FINNSTROM: Jonathan's father, Augustine, was the first to see the destruction and the thought of telling Jonathan overwhelmed him.

A. REYES: He's autistic and he doesn't do well with change, so this is going to be very hard to explain to him.

FINNSTROM: Augustine knew his son thrived on familiarity and routines. Now Jonathan was bewildered and afraid.

A. REYES: That's why I want you to be real careful, ok?

FINNSTROM: Everything he'd loved was gone, from the cherished blanket he clutched to sleep, to his fixation more than 500 Hot Wheel cars.

J. REYES: I want my cars.

J. REYES: I wanted to go and try to find him one of his Hot Wheels because he has none.

FINNSTROM: The toll on Jonathan was huge. He cried whenever he heard sirens, refused to eat and suffered from tantrums at school and night terrors at the family's temporary home.

A. REYES: He'd wake up screaming. Really, the autism kind of overtook him.

FINNSTROM (on camera): But then, slowly, over months, the intense therapy started working and the support of hundreds of people touched by Jonathan's story lifted the family.

(voice-over): Letters arrived from others with autism. A parent who'd lost a son to cancer sent his Hot Wheel collection to Jonathan. More Hot Wheels came from Mattel headquarters and even from soldiers in Iraq.

J. REYES: They decided to send me some Hot Wheels and then mommy and daddy started to cry.

JAN REYES: Here, they're fighting for us and they took the time out, a whole troop, who saw Jonathan in Iraq.

A. REYES: We saw how people really opened their hearts to us.

FINNSTROM: And now, one year later, a long-awaited return.

A. REYES: Are you ready to go home?

J. REYES: Yes.

A. REYES: Yes? How long have you been waiting for?

J. REYES: Every day.

FINNSTROM: The Reyes have left their apartment.

J. REYES: Bye.

A. REYES: Bye.

FINNSTROM: And one of the first to rebuild in their beloved neighborhood.

A. REYES: Welcome to the new and improved Reyes residence.

FINNSTROM: Jonathan showed us his room.

J. REYES: Here are some of my Hot Wheels. I bet that you're going to want to see.

FINNSTROM: This Thanksgiving, Jonathan drew his new home for his parents.

A. REYES: I'm sort of just like a, gosh, like a little bird spreading his wings, basically, all over again.

FINNSTROM: And the Reyes say they couldn't be more grateful.

A. REYES: He's Jonathan. He came back.


FINNSTROM: An incredibly strong family. And Joe and Christine, this year they will be cooking up that turkey for family and friends in their own home.

JOHNS: What a great story. Wow.

ROMANS: Really cool.

JOHNS: It is 54 minutes after the hour. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning."

America is crazy about vampires -- vampires right now. "Twilight" set a whole bunch of records at the box office last week and it's not just teen girls driving sales. Many of their moms are coming out with their own vampire lust.

Kareen Wynter has this "A.M. Original".

KAREEN WYNTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe and Christine, "New Moon" is breaking box office records and you'll never guess which fan base is helping to fill those seats.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But I can't help myself. You are so mouth watering.

WYNTER: teens aren't the only ones sinking their teeth into the second installment of the hit "Twilight" series "New Moon." There's a new, more mature fan base that's also been swept away by the romantic storyline of vampires, werewolves and forbidden love.

CHRISTINA FEEDLER, "TWILIGHT" FAN: My name is Christina Feedler (ph), and I'm a "Twilight" addict.

WYNTER: Stay-at-home moms like Christina Feedler are coming clean about their addiction to the series of blockbuster films and best-selling books.

FEEDLER: I hate to say it but I do feel obsessed.

WYNTER: In between all the housework, the stacks of laundry that continue to pile up in her bedroom, and chasing after her 1-year-old son, Joseph, Feedler still manages to spend hours each day wrapped up in the romance novels.

FEEDLER: And I was like, this is ridiculous, Christina, you need to share how embarrassed you are about this and come out of the closet about your obsession for "Twilight."

WYNTER: So she blogged about it and discovered a whole new online community of adult followers.

FEEDLER: So I wrote it for the other moms that are out there like me who might be hiding that book underneath their bed and reading it when nobody's looking.

WYNTER: This escapism allows moms, even grandmothers, to tap into their sexuality, says clinical psychologist, Dr. Jeff Gardere.

DR. JEFF GARDERE, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: These women are saying, you know what, we like looking at these young hunks and what about it? They get to deal with this whole issue of forbidden love.

WYNTER: Gardere says this obsession can actually be healthy. GARDERE: One woman said that when she was reading one of the "Twilight" books, she and her husband were having more sex than they ever had before.

WYNTER: "New Moon's" screenwriter says women are also drawn to the fairy tale about young love.

MELISSA ROSENBERG, "NEW MOON" SCREENWRITER: It really brings you back to a certain passion and romance that as adults we don't have in our lives.

FEEDLER: Want to have a snack?

WYNTER: And for those moms with busy lives like Christina Feedler, it's about getting lost in good read.

FEEDLER: I can let me mind go blank and feel the stress melt.

WYNTER: Melt away in a series of dramatic story lines this Twi- mom hopes will never end.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the last time you'll ever see me.


WYNTER: Feedler says she is already counting down to the next installment of the "Twilight" series "Eclipse". She's read the book, but can't wait for the movie, slated for release next year -- Joe and Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Joe, there you go.


ROMANS: I haven't seen it.

JOHNS: I never really thought of vampires as sexy.

ROMANS: I haven't seen it but apparently my cohort is real into this and that's why it's been such a blockbuster.

That's it for us. Happy Thanksgiving everybody. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHNS: Joe Johns and here's Fredricka Whitfield in the "NEWSROOM" -- hey, Fred.