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The Situation Room

Obama Plane Forced to Land; How Saddam Hussein's Uranium Was Sold; Wildfires Sweep Southern California; Hurricane Bertha Becomes A Major Storm; Skyrocketing Food Prices

Aired July 07, 2008 - 17:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a legacy of Saddam Hussein -- tons of uranium moved out of Iraq in a massive and secret operation paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
Also, the battle against California's wildfires -- hundreds of them burning out of control. We're on the front lines of one of the most threatening of them all.

And their nightmare is over. Now three Americans held hostage in Colombia for five years talk publicly about their ordeal for the first time -- emotional and angry. You'll hear some of that.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Miles O'Brien.


We begin with a developing story -- a surprise detour on the campaign trail for Barack Obama. He was heading to an event in Charlotte, North Carolina when his charter plane had a malfunction and was forced to land in St. Louis. An emergency chute deployed in the tail cone in-flight.

Let's go to CNN producer Alexander Marquardt, who is on the phone. He was on the plane at the time -- Alexander, just describe what you saw and heard.

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Miles, as we're taking off, there was some turbulence. We dropped fairly dramatically, but then we leveled out, taking off from Chicago to Charlotte. About 45 minutes into the flight, we were warned by a campaign staffer that we would be deviated to St. Louis. And then the captain came on the loudspeaker to tell us the same thing. He told us that he was able to -- that everything was well -- going OK, that he had authority over the aircraft, that we would not have to assume any sort of emergency position.

They emphasized that it was not an emergency landing, but said just a deviation.

So we landed in St. Louis then waited on the runway for them to fix the aircraft. In the meantime, Senator Obama delivered a press conference, in which he gave truncated -- a truncated version of the speech that he was to give in Charlotte this morning.

We are now taxiing on the runway, heading for Charlotte in a much smaller plane. We were on an MD-80. We're now on a much smaller Amber Air express jet heading to Atlanta.

O'BRIEN: All right. Alexander, first of all, I've talked to a lot of pilots who say it's very difficult to conjure up a scenario where one of these slides would deploy in-flight.

Was -- was there any indication anybody was back there and that might have pulled a wrong lever or something?

MARQUARDT: No, no,. And we didn't hear anything. There was absolutely no indication from where -- from our vantage point that anything had gone wrong. We simply were being informed by both the campaign and the pilot. And to be quite honest, upon arrival when we landed, it was one of the smoother landings I've ever had. So there really was no indication that anything was wrong with the aircraft.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Thank you very much.

Alexander Marquardt, we're glad you're with us and glad it was a happy landing after all.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. The chairman, Mark Rosenker, joining us live now.

Mr. Rosenker, good to have you with us on the program.

First of all, just tell us, what do we know about the bare bones of this, the basic details?

MARK ROSENKER, CHAIRMAN, NTSB: Well, we know that at approximately 9:30 this morning, a McDonnell Douglas MD-81 aircraft operated by Midwest Airlines was diverted to St. Louis for an uneventful precautionary landing during a chartered flight from Chicago.

It was on its way, as we know, to Charlotte, North Carolina. And the pilots asked for a diversion and landed in St. Louis due to a suspected flight control anomaly.

We know that there were no injuries to the 48 passengers and crew. Senator Barack Obama was aboard the aircraft, reportedly with press.

A post-flight inspection of the aircraft revealed an in-flight deployment of the aft emergency exit slide within the tail cone. Preliminary information indicates, also, that the crew disconnected the auto pilot during its climb out from Chicago, while being vectored around thunderstorms. When they reportedly felt elevator control forces that were heavier than normal, they, therefore, then elected to make a precautionary landing in St. Louis.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mr. Rosenker, let's talk about the elevator controls. That is the control surface up on the high part of the tail there. And as I understand it, on the design of this aircraft, the cables for that would run through that tail section. Is it your feeling, your understanding, your supposition that this inflated chute or this slide made it difficult for those cables to move properly?

ROSENKER: Well, certainly, that's one of the things we're going to be looking at. We do also know that there are hydraulic lines that also go through that area. This is a very -- and I again emphasize -- extremely rare occurrence that something like that would appear or deploy in the rear of the aircraft. Occasionally, it will -- we've seen slides deploy within the fuselage. But this is very, very rare. Again, it's a highly, highly rare event.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I couldn't even find a similar instance. Potentially, a very dangerous event, though, when you talk about this inflated device coming in contact with the pulleys, levers, hydraulics -- whatever you want to call them -- that move the control surfaces.

ROSENKER: You're a pilot, Miles, and you know exactly the implications there.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Investigators currently looking into this MD-80 incident today, which ended, of course, safely in St. Louis. The plane carrying Barack Obama, his entourage and the press.

A top secret transaction revealed tons of radioactive material acquired by Saddam Hussein moved from Iraq in a massive U.S. mission that cost $70 million.

So what was it doing in Iraq in the first place and where is it now?

CNN's Brianna Keilar is live at the Pentagon -- Brianna, is this the same yellow cake that President Bush was referring to way back in that famous State of the Union address?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, it's not. This is decades-old yellow cake uranium, though it is the same type of low grade uranium of which we heard President Bush speak back in 2003.


KEILAR (voice-over): For sale -- a relic of the Saddam Hussein era from before the first Gulf War -- enough yellow cake uranium to produce several dozen nuclear weapons. Iraq sold 550 metric tons of the stuff to a Canadian company in a secret transaction that was months in the making.

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: There were obviously security concerns. This was done out of sight of the media for security reasons. KEILAR: Saddam Hussein never built a nuclear weapon, but yellow cake uranium is the first step in the enrichment process. This is far from energy grade uranium, further from weapons grade. But U.S. officials are eager to clear Iraq of potentially dangerous material.

DARYL KIMBALL, ARMS CONTROL ASSOCIATION: It's a good thing that this material is finally out of Iraq, where it has been less secure than it was before the U.S.-led invasion back in 2003.

KEILAR: A State Department source says the sale tremendously minimizes the uranium left in Iraq. A U.S. military convoy moved 110 shipping containers of the uranium from Iraq's former nuclear site at Tuwaitha to Baghdad. C-17 cargo planes flew it to the U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia, according to Pentagon officials. These pictures show sailors loading containers onto a U.S. government crane ship before a four-week journey to Montreal. That's where the military handed over the yellow cake uranium to Cameco Corporation.

The world's largest producer of uranium, Cameco plans to enrich the yellow cake and sell it to nuclear power plants around the world.

LYLE KRAHN, CAMECO SPOKESMAN: In this case, we're proud of the fact that we're taking uranium from an unstable part of the world and putting it into a stable part and, again, using it for fuel for electricity.


KEILAR: It cost the U.S. military $70 million to secure and transport this yellow cake uranium. And a spokesman for the Pentagon says the Iraqi government will reimburse the U.S. for part of the tab. But just how much, the Pentagon and the State Department not saying -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Brianna Keilar at the Pentagon.

Thank you very much.

Some of the stories we're working on this hour.

A mother and her four children kicked off a Southwest Airlines Flight.

Also, signs Osama bin Laden may be losing support, putting Al Qaeda on the defensive.

And some people now say tomatoes were unfairly singled out in the salmonella scare. We'll hear from one of the scientists investigating.

Stay with us.



O'BRIEN: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says firefighters in his state are stretched thin and exhausted. Crews are working some 330 active fires right now. So far this season, more than 600,000 acres have burned across the state, with 40 homes destroyed. One of the largest fires right now is the so-called Basin Complex Fire, burning near Big Sur. It's now about 18 percent contained. To the south, another major blaze, the Gap Fire, is threatening the Santa Barbara area.

CNN's Kara Finnstrom is there and she joins us live with the latest on the situation -- Kara?

KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, you're taking a look here at some of the hillsides that have been torched by this wildfire. Firefighters have been doing everything they can to keep that fire away from homes. And right now they're getting some big help from Mother Nature.


FINNSTROM (voice-over): Firefighters on the march in Goleta, securing fire lines by extinguishing hot spots, cutting through thick brush and even fighting fire with fire -- all defensive maneuvers to protect homes while the cooler weather cooperates. Right now, the flames are moving into very rugged terrain away from homes. Firefighters are hoping to help keep it that way.

ROBERT BERTOLINA, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: We're not letting our guard down and we have constant patrols and people going back and forth to make sure that all the smokes are extinguished so these folks are safe here.

FINNSTROM: Over the weekend, firefighters in an isolated canyon community used their own trucks and fire retardants to spray down their own homes.

JAN ROHBACK, RESIDENT: Resources are stretched to the limit and there's just not enough people to guard every community and every house. So we realized many years ago that we really needed to be able to have our own resources in order to protect the homes.

FINNSTROM (on camera): Some of the homeowners are also staying, despite evacuation orders.

J. ROHBACK: I lost my house 18 years ago and I'm not going to do it again.

FINNSTROM: Jan Rohback and his wife lived in the house he grew up in. It burnt to the ground during a wildfire that destroyed one third of this community.

J. ROHBACK: We built it back in 1991. So I hope I don't have to put another number on there.

MARY LYNN ROHBACK, RESIDENT: It's been really difficult. I was -- I came up with my daughter and my two grandkids. And I was ready to leave with them, but then I just -- I can't leave. For some reason, I just -- I've got my husband here and my son here and I just can't leave yet.


FINNSTROM: And the Rohbacks do live in one of the handful of communities here that remain under mandatory evacuations right now. Most people who live here in the Galena area have been allowed to return back home, firefighters saying that for now, they feel pretty confident that they've secured all those neighborhoods -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Kara, I'm curious what the cause is on some of these fires, if they know the causes. And while you're answering that, if your photographer could pull back and give us a little bit more of a pan. That is quite an amazing landscape there. It's just so stark.

FINNSTROM: It really is. We'll give you a look at this. This is one of the canyons where this fire just swept through and the wind (INAUDIBLE) come up here at night just really channeled those flames along. And that's been one of the big fears, that, you know, the fire has been away from homes, but if the winds pick it up and sweep it through these canyons, very quickly, that fire can reach more populated neighborhoods -- Miles, remind me of your question there.

O'BRIEN: All right.

And, Kara, what about the cause?

FINNSTROM: The cause, I'm sorry.

Yes, right now they are still investigating the cause of this fire. They do say that it was starting in an area that's accessible to people -- a forested area. So they think perhaps accidentally -- hopefully not intentionally caused by someone. But that cause remains officially under investigation.

O'BRIEN: Kara Finnstrom in an absolutely stark scene out there in California, as they continue to battle those wildfires.

Thank you very much.

Just in to the CNN Weather Center, we have some news on Hurricane Bertha.

Dave Hennen here with the latest -- Dave?

DAVE HENNEN, METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Miles. We have our first major hurricane of the season out in the Atlantic. It developed this afternoon. The satellite estimates of the storm now indicating winds of 115 miles per hour sustained. That makes this a major hurricane, a category three hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. And located about a thousand miles south of Bermuda.

But notice the forecast track pretty much remains unchanged. As of now, it appears like this will not be a threat to the U.S. mainland, but it may affect Bermuda. It is still continuing to forecast to weaken, though, as we head through time. But some uncertainty with that forecast, because, as the National Hurricane Center will tell you, it's the hardest thing to do is to predict the intensity of a storm. And this storm developed very quickly this afternoon into a category three. It continues to move toward the west- northwest presently. But that turn is expected over the next couple of days -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Dave Hennen, thank you very much.

We'll watch Bertha and we'll watch Bermuda very closely.

We appreciate it.

Let's turn to politics now. Flip-flopping was the charge that helped derail John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004. Now Kerry is leveling that same accusation and more at John McCain.

CNN's Dan Lothian joining us live -- Dan, it's kind of surprising to hear that allegation from John Kerry.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, because, Miles, at one time, the two were allies. But this is just another example of how in politics, one can easily go from friend to foe.

John Kerry once considered John McCain a possible running mate. Now he questions his judgment and says the presumptive Republican nominee has changed in profound and fundamental ways that he finds upsetting.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: John McCain has flip-flopped on more issues than...

LOTHIAN (voice-over): An echo from four years ago. Only this time, it's Senator John Kerry doing the name calling on CBS's "Face The Nation."


KERRY: No, I mean this is extraordinary what he's done. He's changed on taxes. He's now in favor of the Bush tax cut.


LOTHIAN: Kerry, who is a Barack Obama supporter, went on to slam McCain on oil prices, health care and the decision to go into Iraq.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: I'm really surprised by how forceful and critical John Kerry has been of John McCain in this campaign. These are two gentlemen who were very close in the U.S. Senate. They were bonded by the Vietnam War.

LOTHIAN: Kerry was the target of Republican attacks as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, accused of flip-flopping on his support for the war in Iraq. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM BUSH FOR PRESIDENT 2004 POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kerry voted for the Iraq War, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again.


LOTHIAN: The label stuck, even as McCain at the time came to his aid.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will not attack him. And I haven't. And I have defended him when I think he's unfairly attacked.

LOTHIAN: Kerry says the reason he's now throwing the same charge is because he's seeing a different John McCain -- not the senator he knows but the "wannabe president."


KERRY: He is not the John McCain as the senator who defined himself, quote, as a maverick.


LOTHIAN: The McCain campaign has not responded directly to Kerry's attack, but in a conference call with reporters, his economic policy adviser defended McCain's support for tax cuts, which he once voted against.

STEVE FORBES, MCCAIN ECONOMIC POLICY ADVISOR: Senator McCain has never voted for a tax increase, which Senator Obama has done at least 94 at the last count. Senator McCain has got some good proposals to give people incentives to invest and reduce the overall tax burden.


LOTHIAN: By the way, Senator Obama has also been accused recently of flip-flopping, criticized by Republicans for saying he would "refine his position on Iraq." Obama has said his position has not changed.

But, Miles, flip-flopper is clearly a powerful and potentially damaging label that both sides are using to raise questions in the minds of voters -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: It seems like it's all a part of politics these days.

Dan Lothian, thank you very much.

LOTHIAN: That's right.

O'BRIEN: Kicked off by Southwest Airlines with four kids and no place to go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They have the symbol of a heart with wings. They have no heart. And I -- I'm really mad about it, I mean, because, you know, it was horrible.


O'BRIEN: A family stranded -- what the airline says they did to deserve it.

And look what was found buried in Baghdad. These classics have a notorious past.


O'BRIEN: Carol Costello is off today.

Mary Snow is watching stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM -- Mary, what's going on?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, Colombian authorities say a U.S. cargo plane headed to Miami crashed near Bogota today. Two people on the ground were killed. A hospital director says one member of the U.S. crew is in serious condition. That's the second time in six weeks that a Boeing 747 belonging to the Kalitta Air of Michigan has crashed. The cause is under investigation.

A new study says Congress should repeal it's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward homosexuals in the military. The research was conducted by four retired military officers and found the presence of gays unlikely to affect the ability to fight and win. The policy was designed to keep the military from asking recruits about their sexual orientation, but still required the dismissal of openly gay service members.

And more evidence of the opulent lifestyle of one of Saddam Hussein's sons has been dug up -- literally. Two Rolls Royces and several vintage classics belonging to Uday Hussein were found buried in the dirt of a Baghdad orchard. They were stolen during the looting after the 2003 U.S. invasion. An officer says a group was planning to smuggle them out of the country when the police were tipped off. Five cars in all. We're not sure what's going to happen to them -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. We'll keep people posted on that.

Mary Snow, thank you very much.

Osama bin Laden said to be losing his influence -- why Al Qaeda may not be on the defensive.

A nationwide salmonella scare. But tomatoes aren't the cause, apparently.

So what is?

And a baseball superstar, a pop music superstar and a high profile, messy divorce. The tabloids love this stuff. What's really going on with A-Rod and Madonna?



Happening now, the Food and Drug Administration is trying to figure out what's triggered a salmonella outbreak that's sickened more than 900 people across the U.S. While it initially blamed tomatoes, it's now also looking at cilantro, jalapeno and other popular salsa ingredients.

The Denver Broncos' Mile High INVESCO Football Stadium will have a special guest on August 28th. In a break with tradition, Barack Obama will accept the Democratic Party's presidential nomination there. The 75,000-seat feet stadium is much bigger than the party's convention hall, to say the least.

And did John McCain get physical with a Nicaraguan Sandinista official?

McCain is speaking out about the allegations and we'll tell you about them.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Miles O'Brien.


Federal food investigators are testing tomatoes from Florida and Mexico as they try to figure out the source of a massive salmonella outbreak. But some farmers say they're getting treated unfairly.

Let's go right now to CNN's John Zarrella in Miami -- John, why are the farmers upset?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Miles, it has been weeks and the federal government -- federal investigators still can't say for sure what has caused the nationwide salmonella outbreak. And they haven't ruled out Florida tomatoes as the cause. They were the initial suspects in all of this. But you know what, it's not just the farmers in Florida who are hurting.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): No one wants Jimmy Schaffer's (ph) tomatoes, even though his crop has never been linked to the outbreak.

Why not?

Because these fields are not in Florida at all. They are in South Carolina.

JIMMY SCHAFFER: Instead of the people in charge at the FDA saying South Carolina is starting with new tomatoes that weren't involved, they just kind of threw everybody under a big blanket and let everybody fight for themselves. ZARRELLA: Before the salmonella outbreak, Schaffer says his tomatoes were going for about $16 a box. Now, six bucks -- not enough to break even.

Farmers are furious. Schaffer is considering suing the government for compensation. And further south, farmers along Florida's West Coast are just as angry, insisting their tomatoes were never the source.

BOB SPENCER, FARMER: If the glove doesn't fit, it doesn't fit. Well, the glove doesn't fit this industry.

ZARRELLA: Farmer Bob Spencer says it was defamation. He charges the FDA singled out Florida tomatoes before there was any concrete evidence -- evidence that still does not exist.

SPENCER: Ten weeks after this supposed outbreak occurred, they have yet to find one tainted tomato.

ZARRELLA: And that's after testing nearly 2,000 tomatoes. The FDA is now expanding its search for the source to include ingredients in salsa, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, onions. But the agency is not clearing tomatoes. Some experts on food-borne illnesses say the FDA and the CDC had no choice but to move quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's possible that the CDC got this one wrong. But had they continued to wait and wait and wait until the data was perfect, we then would be, you know, criticizing them for letting, you know, ill people stack up.


ZARRELLA: Losses in Florida alone could top $100 million. And the farmers in Florida say it may take them years before they can regrow their consumer base. You know, Miles, the bottom line, the experts tell us that the CDC and the FDA simply do not have the manpower to get their arms around such a major, major issue as this kind of a tough one for them to crack. And that's part of the problem -- Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'd bet they'd like to send some rotten tomatoes in the direction of the government, huh, John?

ZARRELLA: Yes indeed, they sure would.

O'BRIEN: John Zarrella in Miami, thank you very much.

Much more on that story tonight on Election Center, 8:00 Eastern, 5:00 Pacific, right here on CNN.

So, did the Food and Drug Administration unfairly single out Florida tomatoes in its salmonella probe as some of those farmers charge? We're joined by Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He's in charge of the effort to look for food-borne diseases. Dr. Tauxe, good to have you with us. It's, first of all, tell us why it's taking so long to track down the source of this salmonella outbreak.

DR. ROBERT TAUXE, CDC: Thank you very much, Miles.

I have to say, this is a complex investigation. It's one that is taking some time. The initial investigation went quite quickly, and the evidence that implicated tomatoes was, we thought, very strong. However, if the outbreak has continued and increased, we have broadened our investigation to look at other foods that are commonly served with tomatoes, particularly in foods like salsa. And that would include the jalapenos and the tomatoes, of course, and cilantro as well.

These are foods that are often served very much together. It may be difficult to find one person exposed to one who isn't also exposed to the others. And they're also foods that people don't remember eating necessarily. What was in a particular condiment or a salsa that one might have eaten three, four, five weeks ago can be pretty hard to remember. And we are depending on people's memories and we're dependent on finding if there was leftover foods and these are not foods that last a long time. There's often very little in the way of leftover foods.

O'BRIEN: So it's got to be very difficult to conduct an investigation under these circumstances. What could be done to improve it? I've heard a lot about, for example how they track tomatoes as they enter into the food distribution system. It's not as if there are numbers or bar codes or ways of tracing their origin. Would you like to see some improvements? Do we need some improvements on that front?

TAUXE: Well, I think there are potential improvements in all sorts of areas. And we would like to be able to answer these questions very quickly. But sometimes it's just plain difficult. We understand everyone's frustration. And we are doing our best to find the answer. I think there's a very hard working team that's been working on this really throughout the -- throughout a number of holiday weekends now.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you this, doctor, would you point the finger at the Food and Drug Administration, have they dropped the ball here?

TAUXE: No, I do not point the finger at the Food and Drug Administration. I think there has been a lot of information that has been followed up on very quickly, and a lot of it is very good information. I think that this is a particularly challenging and difficult outbreak.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about what people can do. Tell our viewers, for example, can they buy jarred salsa and feel comfortable about that? If they want to buy tomatoes, are they OK? It gets to be very confusing for people as to what is safe and what is not.

TAUXE: First of all, there's no reason to be concerned about jarred salsa at all. And our consumer recommendations really haven't changed at this point. We are still quite concerned about the raw tomatoes and the recommendations about raw tomatoes stand exactly as they have been for the last several weeks.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of food-borne diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks very much for being with us.

TAUXE: Thank you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: He's the world's most wanted terrorist but seven years after 9/11, is Osama Bin Laden's influence actually dwindling? New details on al Qaeda, and why it may be on the defensive with militant jihadists.

Plus, an experience some passengers called a nightmare. Why a mom and her four kids were kicked off a flight.



O'BRIEN: News around the world.

Bombings creating chaos and leaving death and destruction in major cities in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. At least 41 were killed when a suicide car bomb exploded on a private street in the Afghan capital of Kabul. It happened near the Indian embassy. The white house condemns the attack.

And a string of explosions rocked Pakistan's southern city of Karachi. At least one person is dead, 35 others are hurt, including some children.

Police reportedly have five men in custody. This comes just one day after a suicide bombing at an Islamabad rally killed 17.

Well, he's the world's most wanted terrorist, but some experts say Osama Bin Laden is slipping, and his influence is diminishing, putting al Qaeda on the defensive.

CNN's international security correspondent Paula Newton shows us why.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: At his most menacing just after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden's words and warnings were breaking news, the world sizing up every syllable, looking for the next threat. But nearly seven years later, his statements are merely reported and cataloged, hardly major news.

And where Bin Laden was an iconic hero, his ancestral home of Yemen, sentiment on the street in some quarters is turning against him. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He kills innocent people; he can't be blamed, like he did with the twin towers. Maybe if he wanted to declare war against America and Israel, he might find support. But he uses unacceptable methods like killing innocent people.

NEWTON: Bin Laden still commands respect for this young student and others here. Some causes do resonate, political ones, anti- American, anti-Israel. Yet Bin Laden and al Qaeda skill at tapping into the anger is slipping.

We've been hearing in Yemen what seems to be unraveling for Bin Laden and al Qaeda is that a sense of cause, a political movement. They've been unable to convince even people here it's something worth fighting for.

Paul Cruickshank has studied the evolution of Bin Laden and al Qaeda.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CENTER ON LAW AND SECURITY: Certainly Al Qaeda remains a threat. But the new critique of al Qaeda coming not just from mainstream critics, but also from jihadists with real credibility amongst the radical youngsters that might be recruited into the organization, it's starting to hit home. It's starting to hurt the organization. Al Qaeda is being thrown on the defensive.

NEWTON: Officials say recruiting in operations have taken a hit. The CIA saying al Qaeda is suffering significant setbacks globally. And even among those who support jihad or holy war, some are condemning Bin Laden and his tactics.

Abdullah Anas fought against the Soviets with Bin Laden in Afghanistan. He believed America's war on terror actually helped keep al Qaeda in business.

ABDULLAH ANAS, FORMER MUJAHID: But this organization have got a very good gift after 9/11, and after the occupation of Iraq. So they are recruiting people as a freedom fighters. This organization is not popular in the Arab world. It's not popular in the Islamic world.

NEWTON: Officials stress al Qaeda remains a threat. Its ability to launch attacks may be compromised by those it once turned to for support.

Paul Newton, CNN, Yemen.


O'BRIEN: A woman, her children and her pregnant sister say they were kicked off unfairly of a flight by Southwest Airlines. But other passengers tell a different story.

And another all-star marriage strikes out. The wife of Yankees baseball star Alex Rodriguez makes some bombshell allegations. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) O'BRIEN: Trouble on a Southwest Airlines flight prompted the crew to kick off a mother and her four children. Two of them disabled. They say they were left stranded with no money and no place to go.

CNN's Mary Snow is following that story.

Of course, there's more to it than that, right, Mary?

SNOW: There certainly is, Miles. This story all started on a four-hour flight on a Southwest flight on Friday. The one thing a mother of four and some of her fellow passengers agree on is that the flight was horrible. They're divided over who's to blame.


SNOW: Wendy Slaughter said she's furious and accuses Southwest Airlines of being unfair. The airline refused to allow her family to board a connecting flight because they were too disruptive. Slaughter was traveling with her four children, one is autistic, another has cerebral palsy. Slaughter's pregnant sister was also with them. The family was flying from Detroit to Phoenix and was supposed to continue to Seattle. Both women told us yes, the kids were anxious and restless, but say Southwest is being unreasonable.

WENDY SLAUGHTER, AIRLINE PASSENGER: I just couldn't believe they could do something like that. And leave us completely stranded with no money. No way to get anywhere.

SNOW: But Pat McElroy, a passenger on the flight, came to Southwest's defense and blamed Slaughter and her children.

PAT MCELROY, AIRLINE PASSENGER: We did indeed have the flight from hell. I've never experienced anything like it in all my years of flying.

SNOW: McElroy said the children kept moving around when the seat belt sign was on, going up and down the aisle, and being disruptive.

MCELROY: Shouting, chaos. It wasn't the kids out of control so much as the adults.

SNOW: In a statement, Southwest Airlines said it needed to address the situation before it escalated saying, "Southwest Airlines is responsible for the safety of all of our passengers, even the passengers whose behavior appears to jeopardize that safety." But Slaughter says the kids were flying for the very first time and hadn't seen their dad in weeks. Slaughter's sister Jennifer Woodward said the kids were just being kids and they were sitting in the back of the plane so they wouldn't cause problems.

JENNIFER WOODWARD, SLAUGHTER'S SISTER: They have this symbol of a heart with wings. They have no heart. I'm really mad about it. You know, it was horrible. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.


SNOW: The Slaughter family said there was no threatening behavior. They said a relative paid $2,000 for them to fly on a different airline to Seattle. The family wants to be reimbursed for those tickets and their Southwest flights for its part. Southwest says it has refunded the family for the tickets on its flights.


O'BRIEN: So the flight they ultimately took, I guess, went off without a hitch?

SNOW: The flight that they ultimately took they say went off without a hitch. But they wound up staying in Phoenix overnight. They said the police helped them get money for dinner at McDonald's, and they stayed at a motel. And then had to pony up $2,000 to get to Seattle on a separate airline.

O'BRIEN: Wow. All right. Mary Snow, thank you very much.

Skyrocketing food prices are triggering protests around the world. And some are blaming the U.S. and other western countries.

CNN's Brian Todd is following that story.

Brian, there's a secret report at the heart of all this. Tell us about it.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a confidential report, Miles, from the World Bank that officials there are still not saying much about. If the numbers are close to what one newspaper says they are, the report paints a picture of major western powers making the food crisis worse in their effort to lower their own dependence on oil.


TODD: Food riots in dozens of countries. Panic caused by a meteoric rise in food prices this year. Experts say 100 million could be at risk for malnutrition. Has the west efforts to lower its own gas prices been the major reason? According to the London Guardian Newspaper, a secret report from the World Bank says the efforts to cultivate biofuels, like ethanol and bio diesel, have forced global food prices up by a staggering 75 percent in recent years, much greater than some governments believe.

Contacted by CNN, World Bank officials wouldn't comment on the specifics of their report. But did say biofuels were a "significant factor in food prices." How do biofuel prices make the food prices worse? You need corn and grain to make those fuels.

STEVEN MORRISON, EXPERT: What that does is take it out of global production and so markets become tighter, excess stocks diminish, and prices continue to get pushed up as a simple matter of supply and demand.

TODD: Expert Steven Morrison doesn't believe the biofuels have had a 75% impact but --

MORRISON: One of the driving factors pushing global food prices up and making them unaffordable for a very large swath of the developing countries.

TODD: Other factors in the food crisis, experts point to drought, the fact that agriculture is fueled dependent and the growth of the middle classes in India and China, hundreds of millions creating new demand for bread and beef.


TODD: As a result, this food crisis may lead to a massive long- term health crisis. Steven Morrison says one very grave threat generated by higher food prices is the risk that the next generations in developing countries could suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth -- Miles?

O'BRIEN: Can anything be done right away to give relief?

TODD: Morrison said one thing that can be done almost immediately, western governments can relax the effort for ethanol from Brazil. They can get it from abroad. But he also they have to accelerate the food based so you don't have to depend on grain and things like that to make it and you can free that up for the market.

O'BRIEN: Brian Todd, thank you very much.

John McCain's temper and an alleged physical altercation. Is it fact or fiction? We talk to someone who was there.

Plus, a conservative group tries to filter the word gay out of its website and has some unintended consequences. Rather amusing. We'll tell you when we come back.


O'BRIEN: Adultery, emotional abandonment, misconduct and even Madonna. Sounds like the recipe for a tabloid feast. And sure enough, that is what the case of Rodriguez versus Rodriguez is turning into.

Let's go to the land of the tabloids, New York City. CNN's Richard Roth is watching it for us.

Hello, Richard.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, there is something for everyone's interest in this celebrity, sports, music, star, saga, baseball's highest player getting knocked down by his wife while he's tied to a singer who used to sing about being a virgin.


ROTH: Alex Rodriguez, one of the biggest stars in baseball, had a great Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, tying New York legend Mickey Mantle for career home runs. Monday morning, this man stepped up to the window and it wasn't to buy tickets for the next game. He was sending a fastball at A-Rod, as he is known, filing divorce papers in Miami from Rodriguez's wife.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a dissolution of marriage based on the fact that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

ROTH: The material girl Madonna has been linked to A-Rod since both were reported to have marriage problems. New York City newspapers and national magazines have had a grand slam time reporting on sightings of the baseball player with a $275 million contract and Madonna, music and style icon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This story is really a nuclear bomb in the stories of celebrity journalism.

ROTH: The divorce papers blame Rodriguez for extramarital affairs and other marital misconduct. The couple have a prenuptial agreement which could be contested.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the pre-nup is set aside, we could be talking hundreds of millions of dollars.

ROTH: Cynthia Rodriguez's attorney told that Madonna and A-Rod had an affair of the heart but not sexual infidelity. You might say this is home plate in the Madonna/A-Rod connection, the Kabbalah religious center on New York's East Side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kabbalah is very key because Madonna is a loyal Kabbalah follower. Everyone in her world from her manager to now Alex Rodriquez follows Kaballah.

ROTH: In a statement, Madonna said, "I am not romantically involved in any way with Alex Rodriguez. I have nothing to do with the state of his marriage or what spiritual path he may choose to study." A-Rod and Madonna recall a past celebrity coupling of a Yankee and a star, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. The fans speak.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think like most Yankee fans I'm more interested in his on field activities than what he's doing off the field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know why he's bothering. She's old and worn out. He's young and viral guy. He could get better than that.


ROTH: Will all the attention impact A-Rod? One way we'll know maybe the weekend of July 25, 26, when the Yankees visit arch rival the Boston Red Sox and they're very unforgiving fans. There's also a deadline weekend coming up where he's due to respond to the divorce filing when they're in Boston, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Yes. And also another celebrity singer involved here, Lenny Kravitz. Tell us about that. ROTH: Yes. A-Rod's wife flew to Paris to escape the misery and the publicity and he provided shelter. They're denying any type of relationship there. The plot thickens.

O'BRIEN: Yes, the tabloids loving it. Richard Roth, thank you very much.

An evangelical Christian group opposed to homosexuality decided to automatically replace all instances of the word gay with the word homosexual on its news website using software. The result had implications for a world champion athlete, however.

Our internet reporter Abbi Tatton has more on this.

Abbi, kind of amusing, isn't it?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Miles, it seems like the Conservative American Family Association didn't want certain words appearing on its news website called One News Now. The word gay appeared in a news story automatically replaced with the word homosexual. That's particularly relevant if you're this guy. This is champion athlete Tyson Gay, or as he was referred to a couple of times last week on this website, Tyson homosexual. His last name automatically replaced with the word. They're leading to headlines like this one, homosexual eases into 100 meters final at Olympic trials.

This was all captured by the liberal website, People for the American Way, posted online. It led to a lot of blog posts. The title of this one, the dangers of auto replaced from the People for the American Way. And lots of people looking for other headlines, other examples.

The American Family Association did not return our calls when we asked about this. But the issue seems to have been addressed in places that records now correctly attributed to Tyson Gay.

O'BRIEN: Abbi, you didn't get a hold of them. But does the website indicate what the problem is with the word gay?

TATTON: They talked to the Washington Post last week and said that they felt that the word gay was too positive for their liking, which is why they were replacing it with the word homosexual.

O'BRIEN: That implies homosexual is negative. Well, whatever. I don't know. Abbi Tatton, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

San Francisco's sanctuary policy back fires. Lou Dobbs is having a debate with the mayor there.

Lou, tell us what is going on there.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: The good mayor Gavin Newsom is something in my opinion and it is only my opinion a bit of a political twit. He's been promoting his sanctuary city. That kind of blew up because he had a policy of where they were flying illegal alien news back to their countries of origins. The city spent something like $2.5 million to do that. Eight of the so-called illegal alien offenders, the city was taking care of them under its little program. And they all walked away, leaving quite a few people a little annoyed. And as this came out it was turned out that Gavin Newsom wants to be governor of California.

It turns out that most people in California consider him now to be, I think, a little bit off his center, if you will, when it comes to responsible public policy.

O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much, Lou Dobbs.

DOBBS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: All right. See you a little later.

Happening now on the program, Barack Obama, back in the air, after an in flight mishap and an unscheduled landing. Federal investigators are on the case right now.

Plus, John McCain's balancing act. He's promising to wipe out red ink in the federal budget. Will voters care?

And a relic of the Saddam Hussein era, an ingredient of nuclear weapons secretly sold by Iraq.

All that and the best political team on television, Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Miles O'Brien.