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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
President Obama Admits Government Failure in Attempted Terror Attack
Aired December 29, 2009 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, we begin with breaking news: President Obama calling this a case of both human failure and a failure of the system, failure to stop the alleged Christmas bomber from getting on a plane. Just hours after he says that, CNN learns the who and the how of a breakdown that frankly was never supposed to happen after 9/11.
Also ahead tonight, we have more breaking news -- what we're learning about possible retaliation on targets in Yemen. CNN's Barbara Starr, the first to report it, will join us shortly.
Plus, Charlie Sheen "Up Close": a history of violence and the allegations this time around -- what he's saying about it now. We will also hear from an expert on domestic violence, who really will bring the story home.
But, first up, our breaking news: new evidence that nothing has really changed. Nothing has changed where, in fact, everything was supposed to change after September 11. Tough to believe, but eight years later, we are still talking about connecting the dots and a failure to communicate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's been widely reported that the father of the suspect in the Christmas incident warned U.S. officials in Africa about his son's extremist views.
It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list.
There appears to be other deficiencies, as well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Not long after President Obama spoke out, CNN learned specifically what he was talking about. And then, a short time later, we learned why he came out to make that statement at all, why the urgency that essentially had him doing a 180. We will have that angle for you in a moment, the why, along with what's next, including the possibility of new airstrikes on Yemen.
But, first, we want to get to Jeanne Meserve, who has the what, the repeated attempts by the alleged Christmas bomber's authority to alert American authorities about his son.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Hi.
According to sources who are familiar with the family's discussions with the U.S., the father met face to face with embassy officials on at least two occasions. There also were several telephone calls and also written communications.
We are told by a well-placed source that the CIA was involved in some of those communications and that the CIA prepared a report on what the father said about his concerns about his son's radicalization and possible trips to Yemen. That report, we are told, was sent to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, but it was not disseminated to the wider intelligence community.
And, according to our source, if it had been, it might have been pieced together with other pieces of intelligence which had been gathered by the U.S., and perhaps they would have gained a full picture and been able to thwart this attack.
HILL: What about the CIA, though? Are they actually confirming the existence of that report?
MESERVE: The CIA is pushing back pretty heavily here. The statement for -- the spokesman, rather, for the CIA put out a statement this evening which said, in part: "We didn't have his name before then, before the meeting with the father. Also in November, we worked with the embassy to ensure he was in the government's terror database, including mention of his possible extremist connections in Yemen. We also forwarded key biographical information about him to the National Counterterrorism Center."
But the CIA is not saying if they forwarded all of the information they had to NCTC. That's the entity that was up after 9/11. The purpose was for it to connect all the intelligence dots collected across the U.S. government.
HILL: And, frankly, that -- that brings us straight to the next question, which I think a lot of people are wondering tonight. Eight years later after 9/11, there is not only that agency which has been set up, but billions of taxpayer dollars spent to overhaul this country's security, the communication between different agencies.
This isn't happening, clearly.
MESERVE: Well, clearly, it didn't happen in this instance. And one can only guess that it might be reflective of a larger problem. That is why the administration has said, the president said very specifically today, I am ordering a government-wide review of what we are doing here in terms of integrating this information, collecting this information.
I want to know what we knew, when we knew it, and who it was shared with. HILL: Many people looking for those answers as well tonight.
Jeanne Meserve, appreciate it.
Now, as we mentioned, we are also learning more about why the president came back and spoke out again today, so soon after he addressed this issue of course just yesterday -- a top administration source telling CNN his urgency almost purely a function of what the early investigation has turned up, how clear and how compelling that information was, this source also saying congressional briefings are set for tomorrow, and Mr. Obama didn't want details dribbling out in advance.
So, on now to the question of what next. Well, we're hearing it could be retaliation.
Barbara Starr has been working her Pentagon sources. She's the first with the story.
Barbara, what are you learning tonight?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Erica, we already know some facts.
And, first and foremost, there have been U.S.-backed military strikes in Yemen this past month. So, what is next? Strikes against al Qaeda? More of them to come. Senior U.S. officials tell CNN that the U.S. military and intelligence services, with their Yemeni counterparts, are now looking at fresh target lists.
If they can make the link, if they can determine that there are al Qaeda targets to strike directly related the Northwest Airlines attack, they will assemble this target list. They will be ready to go if and when President Obama were to make the decision that he wants to engage in another round of strikes, Erica.
HILL: There's the question, too, in terms of those strikes, as to how many people would be targeted. Do we know from intelligence agencies at this point, Barbara, how many al Qaeda militants are either operating or training in Yemen right now?
STARR: There aren't really good numbers, but a senior official says the ballpark that they can come up with is that maybe there are now about 200 al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, a hard-core at the center that's very well organized.
They're looking to see how many of them they got in these airstrikes that happened earlier this month, but there are also training camps now in that country. And they are looking at the possibility that this Nigerian man may have trained at one of those al Qaeda camps in Yemen, Erica.
HILL: There's also the issue, of course, of a general population in the country of Yemen that is not exactly supportive of the U.S. and its policies. That, obviously, is a sensitive issue in terms of the U.S. dropping bombs or helping to drop bombs, potentially, in the area.
How do you deal with that and -- and reconcile those sensitivities?
STARR: That has been the problem, as you point out, all the way along. Why has al Qaeda been able over the years to gain such a stronghold in Yemen? Because the Yemeni government hasn't really gone after them.
This summer, General David Petraeus and John Brennan, the head of -- the -- President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, both went to the Yemeni government, presented them with intelligence, and said, you have a serious problem. Your country is threatened by al Qaeda.
Since then, the president of Yemen has agreed. So, they are working much more closely together, but the real secrecy here is that they are not acknowledging the depth of the U.S. military's involvement in the strikes that have already happened and any possible strikes to come -- Erica.
HILL: Barbara Starr for us at the -- tonight live in Washington.
We want to turn now to national security analyst Peter Bergen, who is joining us as well.
When we look at these strikes that Barbara is talking about, Peter, obviously, they have to be effective, essentially 100 percent effective, or, for some of the reasons that Barbara just touched on, they could do more harm than good. So, how do you go about making sure that they're actually going to work and hit the targets as intended?
PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, the two strikes that have already happened that Barbara referred to on December 17 and -- and December 24 seem to have been quite effective.
The situation is quite analogous to the situation that the United States is in Pakistan, where it is doing strikes with the -- essentially the agreement of the Pakistani government, but, you know, for -- has to sort of pretend that it's not involved, even though everybody knows that it is, because, in both Pakistan and in Yemen, which are the two most important al Qaeda bases at the moment, the population is quite anti-American.
So, this is just a fact of life. The Yemeni government has to balance the fact that it can't advertise its alliance with the United States too loudly with the fact that it needs money for -- it's a very poor country -- to do many of its activities, and the fact that it, too, is, to some degree, threatened by al Qaeda.
HILL: But there are also -- I mean, you touch on that fine line -- and we talked about a little bit with Barbara -- pretending that the U.S. isn't involved. But it's interesting, too, when you actually hear Yemeni government officials speak out -- the foreign minister telling the BBC that, really, it is up to Western nations. They have this responsibility to monitor people, to let the Yemeni government know what's going on.
But then you mention, of course, this sort of private deal that's going on with the United States, $67 million, I think, the U.S. has pledged. How do you -- how do you reconcile those two to make it effective and -- and to make it worthwhile for the U.S. and hopefully to make Yemen think it's worthwhile as well?
BERGEN: Well, Yemen is one -- is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula and is in desperate need of money. So, that's one of the motivations here.
But this is not a particularly new thing, by the way, Erica. I mean, there was a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2002 that took out some of the people involved in the USS Cole attack and actually killed an American citizen, Kamal Derwish, who happened to be in the car that was targeted.
So, it's not like this thing began just a few months ago. This has been going on for -- for some period of time. Obviously, the -- it's been amplified in the last several months, but there's been cooperation with the Yemenis, and also frustrations with the Yemenis, for -- for quite a long time.
HILL: And a lot of practice for the U.S. government walking that fine line.
Peter, stick around. We're going to come back to you just a little bit later in the program.
And a reminder, our viewers, to everyone, you can join the conversation right now. Just live on to the log chat happening at AC360.com.
Still to come tonight: What on earth is wrong with the intelligence community? We're going to talk with a former top security official to get some answers for you.
And then: the alleged bomber's path to terror, in his own words online.
HILL: Continuing now with our breaking news coverage: new facts on the table tonight about just how hard the father of the alleged Christmas can bomber tried to warn U.S. intelligence about his son, the son he feared was becoming radicalized -- also, incredibly, outrageously, sadly -- you name it -- how that vital piece of information did not make it on to the desk of someone who maybe could have kept him off a plane, all of this happening eight years, billions of dollars, one massive new Cabinet department since 9/11.
So many changes on those org charts, but, apparently, so little real change, we're learning tonight, except 86.3 percent more shoe removal at the airport. Joining us now, national security contributor Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, and Jeffrey Goldberg of "The Atlantic Monthly," who has also made a career out of highlighting what he sees as the insanity of airport security.
Good to have both of you with us tonight.
Fran, I want to start with you.
It was your job in the Bush administration, in many ways, to make sure that all these proper agencies were talking to one another. So many people looking at this tonight and seeing that these dots were not connected now, eight years after 9/11. How does that happen at this point?
FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, Erica, I share the American people's frustration and anger over this.
Of course it should have been shared. Now, what we have learned during the course of the evening, though, is, some of the information the CIA gathered was shared, but not all of it. And that may have been because it was fragmentary. Sometimes, information comes in, in dribs and drabs, and you don't realize the significance of it right away.
And that may explain why some of this information that now looks critical, looking backwards, now that we understand the plot, didn't -- didn't look important at the time. That said, Erica...
HILL: But, Fran, shouldn't there have been a red flag?
HILL: I mean, the fact that this man goes in and says, my son is becoming radicalized, I'm worried about it, he sits down with the CIA, I mean, these aren't just random people coming in saying, you know, the guy next door looks a little shady.
TOWNSEND: No. Erica, I'm not excusing it. You're absolutely right.
And that information absolutely should have been shared. What I'm saying is, in the larger context, understanding the role of Yemen and the role of -- the kinds of explosives, fragmentary evidence that you didn't realize was related to this particular individual may not have been shared, but, still, we need to understand and fix that.
I mean, you also have -- this is not just the CIA, Erica. You have the National Counterterrorism Center, whose job it is -- it was created to connect these dots. And, so, the director of national intelligence is going to have to answer for why they didn't do their job either.
HILL: And one of the other things that's come up -- and, Jeff, I want to throw this to you, because, as we mentioned, you have also sort of made a career out of -- out of pointing out some of the issues, some of the many issues and inadequacies with airport security.
We look at how many people knew about this. Fran touched on all of them. We know the dots weren't connected there. But the fact that this guy was still able to get on a plane, when you look at security in a post-9/11 world, are we any safer in the skies or in the airports than we were on September 10, 2001?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, you know, what I always tell people is that it's still safer to fly than drive. That's -- that's true. But, you know, what -- what I hope for is that one day, the American government will actually level with us and say, you know what, it's not entirely safe to fly. It's not entirely safe to do anything in this environment.
I think that, as a general proposition, my rule is that, if the terrorist makes it to the airport, it's probably too late to stop him. That's why, I mean, talking to Fran, you know, that's why -- that's why the intelligence work and the military work and the law enforcement work is so important, because, if these guys make it to the airport, everybody who has been to an airport knows the TSA is a somewhat flawed model.
You know, you can't really count on the system that's been built to stop these terrorists to actually stop them.
HILL: Fran, when you listen to some of the things -- I just want to move on to what happens next here -- Barbara Starr talking about the possibility of retaliatory strikes in Yemen, how much broader do you think the war on al Qaeda could get at this point? And -- and is this the best way to go about it, by moving on to retaliatory strikes?
TOWNSEND: Erica, I wrote an op-ed piece in "The Washington Post" today on this very point.
I will tell you, while we ought to move cautiously, we have tried about everything one can try in terms of convincing -- trying to convince the Yemeni government to build its own capability, to take on these threats because they are self-interested.
We have given them economic aid and civil aid and soft power. And we have tried it all. And, so, there's going to come a point where they're not just a threat only to the United States, but, as we have heard earlier, there was a threat, an assassination attempt against the head of Saudi security that failed. But that also emanated out of Yemen.
Our consulate in Jeddah was attacked several years ago, guns coming from Yemen. We have seen repeated threats both to the United States and to our allies in the region. And, so, we're going to have to act with those allies to try and deal with this problem.
HILL: Jeff, in your research that you have done in the stories that you've covered, is the U.S. prepared to broaden this war to this point, this war on terror, and to be able to support that?
GOLDBERG: That's the biggest question of all. But it's -- again, it's very important to remember we have been engaged in these operations in Yemen since 2002. It might be new to a lot of people around the world, but the American government has certainly been engaged.
But, yes, you ask -- you ask an excellent question. Are the American people, are the Democrats in Congress right now ready to say, in addition to what we're doing in Iraq, in addition to ramping up in Afghanistan, in addition to all of the complicated work that needs to be done in Pakistan, are we ready to ramp up in Yemen as well?
We might be have to be ready to ramp up in Yemen as well, but it's an open question to me whether -- whether we have the will and the fortitude to try it at this point.
HILL: And actually saying it out loud, too, of course does change the game just a little bit.
Jeffrey Goldberg, Fran Townsend, appreciate your insight. Thank you both.
GOLDBERG: Thank you.
TOWNSEND: Thank you.
HILL: And a quick note, footnote for you, for what it's worth: We're actually just learning now that the TSA has extended for another 24 hours the security measures put in place following that attempted terror attack on Christmas Day, among those regulations, requiring airlines to pat down all passengers boarding planes bound for the U.S. and inspecting their carry-on bags.
Just ahead tonight: what Web postings reveal about the alleged Christmas bomber and his apparent journey from Westernized values to radical Islam.
And a bit later: a shocker in the Sarah Palin/Bristol Palin/Levi Johnston saga. They're all involved, and we have got the update.
HILL: We have been focusing tonight on the path to an intelligence failure, the kind that might have ended with hundreds of American fatalities -- in fact, not just American fatalities, others as well -- had that alleged Christmas bomber succeeded.
There is also the path that he took from child of privilege to allegedly soldier of al Qaeda, and some of that story now coming to light through postings online.
Randi Kaye has that angle.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One of his first online postings to the Islamic Forum appeared in February 2005. It reads: "My name is Umar, but you can call me Farouk.
The more than 300 postings paint the alleged Christmas Day bomber as a lonely teen, someone who felt isolated and lost between his Muslim faith and sinful temptations of the secular world.
Farouk1986 writes: "I have no friends, not because I do not socialize. I feel depressed and lonely."
Dr. Jerrold Post studies terror suspects and the online world.
JERROLD POST, AUTHOR, "LEADERS AND THEIR FOLLOWERS IN A DANGEROUS WORLD": This was a man who was struggling between the temptations of the West and the strict precepts of the Koran, and finding himself failing.
KAYE: Authorities have yet to verify the postings were written by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But the information matches what we already know about his personal history. The user name is Farouk1986, a combination of the accused bomber's middle name and birth year.
Qasim Rafiq knew him Abdulmutallab in college in London and describes him as humble.
QASIM RAFIQ, FRIEND OF UMAR FAROUK ABDULMUTALLAB: He never came across as anyone filled with concern. I mean, our conversations mainly centered around, you know, football.
KAYE (on camera): But the posts show he had more than football on his mind. Loneliness gave way to sexual desire, leading to -- quote -- "minor sinful activities" like not lowering the gaze, which he saw as his religious duty. He tried fasting to avoid what he called evil thoughts.
(voice-over): The poster also wrote about life at an elite boarding school in Togo, Africa. That's where this young man first met Abdulmutallab. He remembers him as devoutly religious.
EFEMENA MOKEDI, FORMER CLASSMATE OF UMAR FAROUK ABDULMUTALLAB: He was a peaceful person. He was a friendly person, sociable.
KAYE: The happiest posts are from June 2005, when Farouk1986 writes from Yemen, where he was learning Arabic, "The Yemenis are so friendly and welcoming."
(on camera): None of the postings reveal extremist views or any hint of radicalization. One posting, March 2005, includes his strongest words related to the Iraq war and former President George Bush. It reads, "Why not forgive Bush for invading Muslim lands and killing my Muslim brothers and sisters, all the people who oppress the Muslims and all people who do me wrong, for, surely, Allah's torment is enough for them?"
(voice-over): But are those the writings of a man who, four years later, would sew enough explosives into his underwear to bring down a U.S. airliner?
POST: It's something very seductive about the path of jihad, when you're coming from that psychological state of meaninglessness.
KAYE: Loneliness, confusion, and a desire to belong may have preyed on Umar Abdulmutallab.
Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.
HILL: "Digging Deeper" now, Peter Bergen is back with us, along with Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole and an outspoken opponent of releasing Guantanamo Bay inmates begun during the Bush administration, some of whom reportedly worked with the alleged bomber in Yemen.
Gentlemen, good to have both of you with us.
Peter, as you look at the picture that has been painted by these postings online, what we just learned from Randi here, a young man grappling with his Muslim identity in a secular world, a man who felt alone, was Abdulmutallab just a prime candidate for al Qaeda recruitment?
BERGEN: There is no prime candidate for al Qaeda recruitment, because there are all sorts of people who have been recruited.
I mean, Mohamed Atta, the operational commander of 9/11, you know, he was somebody who spoke several languages, a misogynist, Ph.D. in urban preservation, ironically. You know, Ziad Jarrah, one of the pilots on 9/11, was somebody who drank and socialized and was a fun guy.
So, there's no -- you know, the fact that this guy was lonely, to me, is neither here nor there. That doesn't make him a prime target. He chose this path for reasons that we still don't really quite know.
HILL: And, hopefully, we will be learning more of that as -- as we learn more, and this -- and this proceeds, because, of course, he is still alive.
Commander Lippold, I want to read to you a part of a letter which was written today to the president by Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman.
It says -- quote -- "We write to express our deep concern about reports that the administration is planning to transfer six Yemeni nationals currently being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of the government of Yemen. We request an immediate halt to the transfer of all detainees to Yemen until the American people and the Congress can be assured of the security situation in that country."
There are just under 200 prisoners at Guantanamo at this point, 91 of them from Yemen. Is that a reasonable request, to keep these particular prisoners at Gitmo for the time being?
KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: I think it's very reasonable, and I think it's a very good precautionary move. At this point, not knowing what the situation is in Yemen, to repatriate six detainees that an interagency review board has determined can now be released, with probably some pressure from the White House, clearly, it's time to take a pause and say, keep them where they are. Let's see how the situation continues to develop, and then make a long-range determination whether or not it's in our national interest to continue to release these detainees from Yemen.
Clearly, in the past, they haven't proven their ability to govern their country, so it really doesn't make sense to be sending all these Yemeni detainees back.
HILL: Peter, we should point out that two detainees who were released in November of 2007 were actually Saudi nationals, two -- two men who have been linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group which has taken -- claimed responsibility for this alleged failed attack on Christmas Day, again, from Saudi Arabia, where they were sent to a rehabilitation, not from Yemen.
It is a Yemen-specific problem?
BERGEN: Well, Commander Lippold knows this better than I, but, I mean, you know, the USS Cole attack, there were not -- not one prison escape by people involved in the Cole attack. There were two. So, it's not just that the Yemeni government doesn't have much of a grip on its own country. It doesn't have much of a grip on its own prison system.
And I -- you know, Commander Lippold and I have disagreed in the past on this show about the recidivism rate of the detainees. But whether you think it's -- whether some people it's 14 percent, as the Pentagon says, and I think it's nearer 4 percent, that's immaterial right now.
Clearly, the situation in Yemen is such that it would be fairly irresponsible, I think, just to willy-nilly return people to a place where the -- you know, what we have just seen in the last -- in the last few days.
So, now, the -- the -- I don't know enough about the cases of these guys we're talking about, the six who are being released. Apparently, their habeas corpus hearings were going to come up. They're probably low-hanging fruit. They may not be the most -- there are about 100 Yemeni detainees.
My -- my guess is that these guys are probably some of the -- the ones that there are less concerns about. But, nonetheless, I think it's reasonable to say, let's -- let's have a pause here and let's see what's going on in Yemen before we do anything precipitous.
HILL: And when it comes specifically to the country of Yemen -- you alluded a little bit to this, Commander Lippold -- and there's been so much talk about the government and how, frankly, unstable it can be, definitely depending on which way the wind is blowing at times. We mentioned earlier the foreign minister telling the BBC, you know, we need Western nations to do more; they have a responsibility in the s fight.
The U.S., though, clearly has stepped up, pledging $67 million in 2009. That's up from $4.6 million in 2006. But, sometimes, the remarks from the government seem to sort of be wavering.
Commander Lippold, how willing of a partner do you think the government of Yemen is when it comes to the fight on terror, when it comes to attacking and, frankly, eradicating al Qaeda in their own country?
LIPPOLD: Well, I think you can look at the track record.
I mean, despite U.S. attempts to try and help Yemen out, they have not proven themselves to be a reliable or trustworthy partner. Even today, when you look at it, Yemen is only responding because, suddenly, the heat's being applied to them, and the president is realizing that it could be his skin or his neck on the line by these terrorists that are trying to destabilize various parts of the country.
I think we have to realize that we can push as much money and training as we need to, to try to help the Yemeni government combat them al Qaeda on the Peninsula. But the reality is, unless President Saleh allows these forces to develop, get trained, and be equipped to go into the country to be able to take on some of the tribal regions that are giving free rein to al Qaeda, that we're not going to be able to be effective, and what's going to happen is, we will end up in the same awkward position we were in 2002, where we'll be conducting unilateral operations in order to safeguard our national interest. And we'll do it with or without the Yemenis government cooperation. But it would be much better if we could do it with them.
HILL: Commander Kirk Lippold, Peter Bergen, appreciate both you being with us tonight.
Just ahead, actor Charlie Sheen facing assault charges. You'll hear the 911 call from his wife, who told police she thought she was going to die. We'll also dig into questions about the actor's history of alleged violence.
And remember Octomom? Frankly, how could you forget her? We'll take a look back at 2009's most memorable medical headlines. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here. Strange or serious, they definitely had us talking.
(MUSIC: "I GOT A FEELING" BY BLACK-EYED PEAS)
HILL: Tonight we are counting down the top songs of 2009. That -- 2009. That, of course, "I Got a Feeling" by the Black-Eyed Peas, No. 4 on Billboard.com. Apparently, a favorite of Kevin here, too, our floor director. Coming up, Sarah Palin's family secrets. A judge's ruling could make them fair game in Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston's custody battle for little baby Tripp.
But first, Randi Kaye joining us with the 360 bulletin.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Erica, shocking new video out of Iran tonight, posted on YouTube. It appears to capture Iranian police ramming vehicles into a crowd of protesters, running over at least one. The images were reportedly shot Sunday during violent anti- government demonstrations that left at least eight people dead.
A, quote, "mildewy odor" in Tylenol arthritis pain caplets sparks a massive recall. Manufacturer McNeil-PPC expanded a limited recall of its 100-count bottles after some people experienced nausea, pain, vomiting, also diarrhea. Those who purchased the caplets should stop using them and contact McNeil for a refund or a replacement.
The popular supplement ginkgo biloba has no affect on Alzheimer's. A federally-funded study out today shows the extract does nothing to improve memory or prevent cognitive decline. U.S. sales for ginkgo biloba hit a whopping 99 million bucks in 2008.
And in Tennessee, a Christmas miracle, as a policeman's badge saves his life. Officer Joshua Smith was shot at point-blank range Christmas Eve by a man he pulled over for drunk driving. Desperate to staunch the wound, he was shocked to find there wasn't a wound at all. Doctors say without his steel police badge, the gunshot could have killed him. Actually, it blocked the bullet. Instead, he spent Christmas opening gifts with his kids.
Isn't that a great story?
HILL: I think so. I guess he got everything he wanted for Christmas, huh?
KAYE: That's a miracle.
HILL: Not too bad. Randi, thanks.
Just a reminder. You can join the live chat happening now at AC360.com. Plenty of discussion on the board tonight with all the breaking news we've been bringing you.
Also ahead tonight for you, the medical stories of 2009 that amazed, that outraged. Among them, the Octomom. Yes, Nadya Suleman. Eight babies, and when she did that, she created a new noun for the English language that we're still talking about. Coming up, Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains why.
Plus, actor Charlie Sheen's latest run-in with the law. The actor facing new charges of domestic violence. The allegations are ugly. They are on tape in a disturbing 911 call. And it's not the first time he's been down this path. We'll take a closer look at Sheen's troubled past.
(MUSIC: "JUST DANCE" BY LADY GAGA)
HILL: The third most popular sign of 2009, "Just Dance," by Lady Gaga. That's according to Billboard, and it's also a "360" favorite. We are counting down to the No. 1 hit tonight, and we're capping it all off with one mega number. The top 25 songs, all rolled into one. The kids use the "M" word. We're calling it the AC 360 Monster Mega Slash-Up. Try saying that five times fast, or once, frankly. Your ears will be glad you stayed up for it.
Before we get to that, though, 2009 has been a pretty busy year for our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In tonight's "360 Follow," we want to look back at some of the stories he covered for us this year that really stand out. Stories that did more than make news; they ignited national conversations and, in some cases, bitter debates.
I checked in with Sanjay about that earlier.
HILL: Sanjay, this first one is, while some people may really want to forget, really impossible to forget. Nadya Suleman, also known as the Octomom. We see her here in this photo from TMZ while still pregnant with eight babies. She delivered them in late January, but what followed was, of course, a hailstorm of controversy that didn't just happen among the civilians. There were plenty of people in the mental community who found this just ridiculous and insane on so many levels.
Why was it so controversial?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The ethics of this was being debated, still being debated in many ways. And it really, sort of, I think, in many ways showed how -- how many lax laws there are when it comes to exactly what we're talking about here.
At issue is you have a 33-year-old woman who is getting IVF, in vitro fertilization. That's when they take fertilized eggs, and they implant them in a woman's uterus.
In Nadya's case, it was actually six eggs that were implanted, and this is still being debated in many ways. There is even one state that's introduced a bill to try and prevent this from happening again. Do you have any idea what that's called?
HILL: No. No, there's an actual bill for this? I had no idea.
GUPTA: Yes. It's called the Octomom bill. You know, I think -- I think the attitude toward it will become a little bit more stringent and maybe even some bills within organized medicine and outside, as well. HILL: Let's move on now to actress Natasha Richardson. A tragic death in March. She had a head injury. She fell on the ski slope. I know you covered this story very closely, Sanjay. You actually went up to Canada to retrace her steps. What did you find out in this story? What did it teach us?
GUPTA: Well, you know, I was really fascinated by this, certainly as a neurosurgeon, but also trying to figure out, you know, how someone like this and Natasha Richardson is cared for in this situation.
What happens is she's on a slope. She falls and hits her head. It sounds like she fell just from, you know, a bunny hill. So it wasn't some sort of dramatic fall. And that could have been the first problem, is that no one really took it that seriously, including her.
She had what's known as an epidural hematoma. You don't need to remember that name. But basically, that means that blood was collecting between her brain and her skull. And that can happen in people who have what seem like rather innocuous falls, but they almost always have this -- this period where they're knocked out and they wake up and it seems like they're fine. That's called a lucid interval, and it's something that doctors are sort of trained to look for. That can be a key warning sign.
HILL: In April of this year, the beginning of a pandemic, of course. Now, it's the H1N1 virus, but it's already carving a deadly path in Mexico. You were right there, on the scene, following this as the story was unfolding for swine flu. And of course, we're still talking about it now, Sanjay.
GUPTA: You know, I will remember this, I think, you know, as long as I'm a journalist, maybe as long as I live. We were hearing in April about this deadly virus that was sweeping through Mexico, and some of the numbers that we were hearing were prettying staggering. Seventy percent -- up to 70 percent mortality rate, meaning seven out of ten people who were contracting this were dying.
We were also hearing that a lot of these people were in the prime of their lives, 20s, 30s, and 40s, as opposed to what we normally hear about with seasonal flu, which is that young children and older people are the most affected.
They predicted that up to 90,000 people would die. They predicted half the country would become affected. They predicted it would sweep the world. And it has become a prevalent virus, but not nearly as deadly as people thought, which is obvious good news.
HILL: One of the most controversial stories this year actually happened just recently, those recommendations from a government panel about women no longer needing routine mammograms starting at the age of 40. Talk about backlash and -- and a firestorm over this one, Sanjay. This is one I imagine, too, we could still be talking about into 2010.
GUPTA: Yes, I mean, you know, this task force essentially made a recommendation that women between the ages of 40 and 49 no longer needed routine mammograms. That was sort of the language. And the backlash, as you mentioned, started almost immediately. The Department of Health and Human Services was backtracking from this within a day.
So it was clear that people were, A, confused by this, and B, very concerned about the impact this might have.
The hard part, I think, you know, as a journalist and also a doctor, was this idea that somehow you are placing a value on "X" number of mammograms and was it worth to get those mammograms to save someone's life.
I do think that an important point was brought up about this, and that is that a task force makes recommendations about women now getting this routine mammograms, and insurance companies may follow suit and say, "Well, if they're not recommended, should we pay for them?"
And for women, you know, 30 percent of women who should get mammograms already don't get them. And this could be another reason why they don't. And so, you know, I think there was a lot of confluence of factors there.
HILL: Yes. Yes, and that was, I think, a lot of the outrage, especially because, of course, this comes up as we're in the middle of talking about health-care reform.
Sanjay, I have a feeling 2010 may just be equally busy for you.
GUPTA: I'll be right there with you.
HILL: All right. Sanjay, thanks.
GUPTA: Thank you.
GUPTA: Plenty of stories there that got you talking in 2009. And one more that still has people chatting this year. Charges that actor Charlie Sheen assaulted his wife. She says he threatened to kill her without leaving, quote, "any trace."
Sheen denies those charges. We have the details for you, as well as the 911 call. That's just ahead on 360.
Plus, a child custody battle between Bristol Palin and Levi Johnson going public. The details on the dispute and why Levi wants it all out in the open.
HILL: Turning our attention now to the Charlie Sheen domestic abuse case. The actor today denying he put a wife to -- knife to his wife's throat and threatened to kill her.
Sheen is free on bond tonight after his arrest on Christmas in Aspen, Colorado, an arrest for domestic violence and assault charges.
Meantime, his wife claiming Sheen not only threatened to kill her, but said it could make it happen without leaving, quote, "any trace."
Perhaps even more disturbing, an up-close look tonight shows that, when it comes to Charlie Sheen, accusations of abuse are nothing new.
BROOKE MUELLER, CHARLIE SHEEN'S WIFE: My husband had me -- with a knife. And I'm scared for my life, and he threatened me.
I thought I was going to die for one hour.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, what's your name?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And what's your husband's name?
MUELLER: It's Charlie Sheen.
HILL (voice-over): Charlie Sheen's wife called 911 on Christmas day. She told police he pinned her to a bed, held a knife to her throat, and threatened to have her killed, allegedly saying, quote, "I have ex-police I can hire who can get the job done."
Sheen was arrested and charged with assault, menacing with a deadly weapon, and criminal mischief. In the affidavit, police say Sheen denied striking his wife or threatening her with a knife.
This is not the first time the actor, who first burst onto the scene in the Vietnam War drama "Platoon," has been at the center of scandal. In 1990, while dating actress Kelly Preston, he allegedly shot her in the arm. She later told "Playboy" magazine it was a complete accident.
In 1994, Sheen was the only celebrity client whose name was publicly released during the trial of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss.
In 1996, adult film actress Brittany Ashland accused Sheen of throwing her on the floor and splitting her lip. He pleaded no contest to battery charges.
Sheen entered rehab in 1998 after an alleged drug overdose.
DENISE RICHARDSON, SHEEN'S EX-WIFE: He's my husband, so...
HILL: And who could forget his very public, very nasty divorce from former Bond girl, Denise Richards? Richards abruptly filed for divorce in 2005 while pregnant with their second child and filed a restraining order against him, claiming Sheen tried to kill her. Sheen called the claim baseless. They had a prolonged custody battle over their two daughters, Sam and Lola, and Sheen objected to the girls appearing on Richards' reality show...
RICHARDS: "It's Complicated."
HILL: None of this, though, seems to have hurt Sheen's career. He is still one of the highest paid actors on television.
SHEEN: I figure three's a charm; four is a restraining order.
HILL: And his character on the sit-com "Two and a Half Men" reminds many viewers of his own bad-boy image.
HILL: A popular actor unscathed by his history of alleged reckless, perhaps violent behavior.
Following his most recent arrest, Sheen's representative released the following statement. Quote, "Do not be misled by appearance. Appearance and reality can be as different as night and day. It would benefit everyone not to jump to any conclusion."
We want to dig deeper now with Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
Doctor, good to have you with us tonight. As we just heard in this piece, it's not the first time Charlie Sheen has been accused of abuse. It is possible for someone who is, perhaps, a repeat abuser to actually change?
DR. CHARLES SOPHY, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES: Well, I don't know this case specifically, but in general, if someone is going to stay in denial, they're not going to get some help.
But if they are open to addressing some of these issues, absolutely, changing is all about owning it and knowing it and really moving forward. But you first have to really be able to own it. And owning it means you really step up and say, "I am responsible for those kinds of behaviors, and I want to change them."
HILL: And if a person is responsible for those behaviors, of course, the trickle-down effect can be enormous. Not just the victims, but also others who may not seem to be initial victims, but children here.
You were the medical director of L.A.'s Department of Children and Family Services. Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen have 9-month- old twins. How are kids affected when it comes to domestic violence in the home?
SOPHY: Well, you know, you've got to first remember that domestic violence isn't just something physical. It can be emotional. It could be neglect. So children are attuned to all those kinds of signals, energies, loud voices, et cetera in a home.
So parents need to be very careful and be very aware that their children are sponges. They're hearing this. They're worried about it. They know the tones of your voices. So please be aware, because there is a huge trickle-down effect on your family.
HILL: And when it comes to this incident, I know you're not specifically familiar with this case, but we're learning more details about that night. As we just heard Charlie Sheen's representatives saying, "Look, you don't want to jump to any conclusions here. You need to hear everything out, hear both sides."
There are actually reports now that his wife is recanting, perhaps, her story. Would it be normal in cases of domestic violence, generally speaking, for a victim to change their story?
SOPHY: Absolutely. Oftentimes, domestic violence is referred to as intimate partner violence, because a lot of this stuff happens in intimate relationships, which then leads either the perpetrator or the victim to recant what has happened. They feel guilty. They don't want to get their loved one in trouble. They don't want to disrupt their family.
But that's part of the problem. You need to expose this to begin to get the healing that has to happen.
HILL: Why is this such a serious problem in this country? I mean, this is obviously an actor; it's getting a lot of attention. But domestic violence, if you look at some of the numbers, almost 5.5 million women abused each year, 85 to 95 percent of the victims female. Why is this such a problem?
SOPHY: Well, I think it goes back to the original statement of intimate partner violence. It's a relationship that has gone awry, that is off to a start that is really not solid. And it allows people -- they think the responsibility and the ability within that confines of a marriage or a relationship that's intimate to be abusive, and that's never OK.
HILL: Why -- why can't more women leave, though? Why can't -- since they tend to be the primary victims here?
SOPHY: Well, women are tied into this. They sometimes are predominantly not the person in power. They may not make the money. They may not be the person who really runs the household. Women are at a disadvantage, oftentimes, in these situations.
I've had to go into some homes and have to remove women and sometimes psychiatrically hospitalize them, because they are a danger to themselves by staying and allowing their children to be part of this and not keeping them safe. Women and power struggles within a home often are at the core of a lot of domestic violence disputes.
HILL: Dr. Charles Sophy tonight, thank you.
SOPHY: Thank you. HILL: For families struggling with domestic violence, the holidays can be particularly tough. Log onto AC360.com to learn more about how that added stress can trigger violence. Also, some of the warning signs to look for.
Still ahead, James Arthur Ray. What newly-released documents are revealing about the self-help guru's past and what he allegedly did when people felt ill during his high-priced seminars.
Plus, that custody battle over Sarah Palin's grandson is taking a new turn, and it's a victory for Levi Johnston. Those details are just ahead.
But first, Lady Gaga taking us to break with "Poker Face," the No. 2 song of 2009.
(MUSIC: "POKER FACE" BY LADY GAGA)
(MUSIC: "A LITTLE BOOM BOOM POW" BY BLACK-EYED PEAS)
HILL: "A Little Boom Boom Pow" by the Black-Eyed Peas, the No. 1 song of 2009 according to Billboard.com, which wraps up our 2009 top hits countdown. Thanks so much for playing along.
So what do they all sound like mashed together? I'll give you a hint: it's really good. We're going to play it for you in a second.
First, though, we do want to get you caught up on some of the important stories we're following tonight, as well. Randi Kaye back with another "360 Bulletin."
KAYE: Hi, there, Erica.
Newly-released documents show that long before that fatal sweat- lodge ceremony in October, people were falling ill at self-help events led by James Arthur Ray. The problems ranged from broken bones to blacking out. And witnesses told investigators Ray failed to summon emergency help. No charges have been filed in the sweat-lodge incident.
An Alaska judge has denied Bristol Palin's request to keep the custody fight with her son's father private. Levi Johnston is seeking shared custody of 1-year-old Tripp and asked that the case be conducted in public to protect him from the former Alaska governor, who he described as powerful, with a reputation for being vindictive.
And which celebrity would Americans most like to have as a next- door neighbor? Well, there's a poll for everything, including this. The first family came out on top, followed by Sarah Palin, who tied with TV host Ellen DeGeneres and her partner.
The poll also asked about worst possible neighbors. Get this: Octomom Nadya Suleman and her brood of 14 children topped the worst list. Reality show stars Jon and Kate Gosselin were right behind Octomom with their big brood. And Sarah Palin made the worst list, as well, coming in third.
HILL: How about that?
KAYE: Top three was Elvis, I think, and Trump and Oprah.
HILL: For the worst or the best?
KAYE: No, no. The most favored -- come on, most favored neighbors.
HILL: Favored? Hmm. They all want the rich neighbors, interesting.
KAYE: Yes. I guess they have a lot of parties and stuff.
HILL: Yes, right.
OK, this would be a good one to play at a party. Tonight's "Shot", throughout the night, we've been counting down. We have the top four songs for you of 2009, according to Billboard.com. Check up, though, this mash up of the Billboard Top 25 that our good friend Jack Gray found on YouTube. It is DJ Earworm's United State of Pop 2009.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: The only unfortunate thing about this is that we can't play the whole thing.
KAYE: That is too bad. It's really long.
HILL: It is really long, but it's good stuff. I was rocking out in my office earlier.
KAYE: Yes. Almost as good as Bob and all the studio guys rocking out.
HILL: Almost as good as them dancing to "Single Ladies." You're right. But nothing can really top that.
And now with a nice little break for everyone, but there is plenty of serious stuff coming up at the top of the hour. What we're learning tonight about the intelligence failure and perhaps failure to communicate. All of that which may have allowed a bomber onboard a U.S. airliner.