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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Nashville Under Water; Too Cozy with Big Oil?; New York's RFK Bridge Shut Down; The World According to Bill Maher

Aired May 5, 2010 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight breaking news, a major American city under water, the images heartbreaking, the death toll and damages rising; search and rescue crews working to save lives, recover the lost. We've got the latest from Nashville, we're going to speak with the mayor and country star Kenny Chesney on the story the whole country needs to know about tonight.

Also tonight, the latest on the BP oil disaster and what, if any oversight, did the government have over this company for years. We're "Keeping Them Honest" the bottom line is you'll learn tonight, is the government watchdogs are more like lapdogs, in some cases literally in bed with the industry. I mean, having sex with employees they were supposed to be watching over, even doing drugs with them in some cases.

You will not believe what we found. It's our "Keeping Them Honest" report.

Plus the latest on the Time Square terror suspect breaking news tonight: new information about a dry run a day before the bombing attempt. Also, why so many terror suspects on the no fly list can still get guns illegally in America?

We'll talk to Bill Maher about that, about Islam and the oil spill. Bill Maher is "The Big 360 Interview" tonight.

We begin though with the breaking news on the catastrophic flooding in the south. While a lot of us in the national media have been focused on the Gulf oil spill, the City of Nashville has been under water, at least 28 people are dead across the southeast, 19 of them in Tennessee alone, that's where the disaster has taken its heaviest toll besides the devastating loss of life.

People being swept away, hundreds of homes are damaged or gone. Roads, bridges, washed away. I mean, look at these images.

Tonight, the Mayor of Nashville says the cost of the damages could be more than $1 billion. Search and rescue teams today fanned out in neighborhoods across Nashville, searching homes. Tomorrow, the grim work continues.

The images over the last couple of days have been unbelievable. This one from Nashville; look at that huge object, it looks like a truck or something, right? That structure you see being swept along Interstate 24 is reportedly a portable classroom used by students. It's incredible, no one thankfully was inside. That happened on Saturday.

Now, look at these submerged vehicles in Millington just outside Memphis. Powers out for so many people tonight; for some, hope is gone as well.

Bobby Qualls tried to rescue his 15-year-old daughter, Kiley (ph), his wife was standing and watching it all in horror. Kiley was taken by the water and so too was her dad, Bobby. Sherry Qualls lost her husband and daughter in a split second.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERRY QUALLS, LOST HUSBAND AND DAUGHTER: He was a hero. He sacrificed himself for his kids. That's what I think.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: A lot of people in Tennessee feel the national media and Washington hasn't paid enough attention. We've reported on the situation a little bit but not as much as we should have. And we hope to begin to correct that tonight and tomorrow from Nashville. We'll go there tomorrow.

With us now is Nashville Mayor, Karl Dean. Mayor, it's been five days since the storm first occurred. We're seeing more and more pictures coming in over the city. How bad is it tonight?

KARL DEAN, MAYOR OF NASHVILLE: Well, Anderson, we're really in the recovery stage. The rain stopped on Sunday and the river crested Monday night. And we're in a position now where the river is actually receding.

We are coming out of this thing; we're beginning the cleanup process. We had nine deaths in Nashville; there are a lot of people who lost their homes and there are businesses that are no longer operating.

So this has been devastating. Our heart goes out to the victims of this flood. But right now, we're going to be focused on getting our city back up working. And in essence, the government will report back to work tomorrow completely. And we are going forward with the cleanup.

The downtown area you'll see tomorrow is rapidly coming back. I think the Country Music Hall of Fame will reopen on Friday. Our honky-tonks and Lower Broadway are already up and running. We will remain Music City and will go forward with what we've been doing.

COOPER: At this point, how much water is there still in the streets? In how many areas?

DEAN: Well, the water actually -- the flooding occurred in all different parts of the city. Nashville is a metropolitan form of government, a county and city government, of 503 square miles and we have flooding north, south, east and west. And the areas outside of downtown, which are largely areas that are served by tributaries or creeks, those waters have receded relatively rapidly.

And there was a lot of flooding of homes there. There's flooding along the Cumberland River where probably the most famous damage was done to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. That was been closed now and that should be closed for several months as they repair it. And actually the Grand Ole Opry itself is closed.

Now, the Grand Ole Opry performed last night. They moved those performances downtown, at the War Memorial near the state capital so the performance went on and there are other facilities downtown where we'll continue with our music traditions.

COOPER: Are you getting the help you need from the federal government?

DEAN: Yes. The President declared a disaster area yesterday. Senator Corker and Senator Alexander both came to Nashville. And I visited with them. FEMA is in the city. We set up five or six local disaster assistance offices where FEMA will be working with us.

So far so good and we are just totally committed to getting the city cleaned up and moving forward. And obviously, this has been tough on everybody. We have a long ways to go, it's going to take some time but we're going to get it done.

COOPER: Mayor Karl Dean, we'll see you tomorrow. I appreciate you being on with us tonight. Thanks.

DEAN: Thanks, thank you.

COOPER: Country singer and songwriter Kenny Chesney lives in Nashville. He rushed back to the city to check on his house and his friends only to find his own home flooded. He took some video of the destruction. We're going to show you that shortly.

Kenny Chesney joins me on the phone right now.

Kenny thanks for being with us. Have you ever seen anything like this in Nashville?

KENNY CHESNEY, SINGER (via telephone): Never, Anderson. I mean, I've been here I don't know 14, 15 years now and I have never -- I've never seen anything like this in my life, much less Nashville.

And there's a lot of people in this city that's really hurting now. And I've never seen anything like it. It just -- I was out of town when it happened. And as I was flying back home, you could see all of it from the air. And I just -- I couldn't believe what had happened. I just couldn't believe that -- that this, you think -- you're watching the news and you see all this stuff happen around the world.

You know, this has really had an effect on this town and on this state. And it's really been a really tough thing for people to deal with, including me.

COOPER: And we've been getting a lot of e-mails from viewers in Tennessee, saying where are you guys? That the media, the national media hasn't focused on this. And I've got to say, I think they're right. We have not focused on this to the degree that we should have. A lot of people -- we've been basically distracted by the Gulf oil spill and the terror situation in New York but that's no excuse.

We're going to down to Nashville tomorrow on this program. We'll be broadcasting from there tomorrow.

Kenny, you shot some video when you went to your house today. How did you get to your house and what did you see?

CHESNEY: Well, yes, I was curious because I wasn't able to go until today and because the road that was leading to my house was under about five feet of water. And so they finally receded enough where we could get through there and I got through my property on this John Boat. I was on there with a little small motor.

And I couldn't believe it because I have 40 acres on the river and, I just -- I didn't know what to think. I was numb to it all really.

And I was -- you know, Anderson, I lost a lot, but not near as much as a lot of people. I mean, yes, I've been affected by this tragedy, but there are so many people in Nashville that are really hurting that, you know, the things I lost, I can replace, thank God.

But there have people that -- there have been people that have lost their lives and their livelihood. And I'm glad you said that about you guys coming to Nashville, just to let the world know that people here are hurting because, you know, we need the world's help right now. And it's just really sad thing to see --

COOPER: Yes.

CHESNEY: -- especially because people that you know and people that you love and people that -- that you know, because I do feel like that the people here in this town are a really -- really tight community and it's just sad to see it happen.

COOPER: Now I heard a story today about a woman who watched her husband try to save her daughter from -- her child from racing floodwaters, only to see them both swept away.

CHESNEY: That's right.

COOPER: I mean, it is just -- it's stunning these individual stories that we are hearing. You know, you see the big picture, you see this flooding from the sky but there're just thousands of individual stories of people suffering on the ground. I know you've been tweeting and trying to get people to help and donate money. What's the best thing people can do, you think?

CHESNEY: Well, I think that they -- of course, I'm telling everybody at radio stations and on my own radio station that I have, just to give whatever you can. I mean, people have lost everything.

I know what -- you know, we all saw what happened in Haiti and we see what -- and we all saw what happened all over the world. I mean, these people need just bare essentials here in Nashville. I know it's crazy to think that. But they really do. And you know, yes, you can give money to the American Red Cross, all that kind of stuff but these people need toothbrushes and toothpaste.

COOPER: Yes and we saw pictures of the Grand Ole Opry, a landmark venue in Nashville and one picture of water that's well past one of the doors and other the entrance is just absolutely flooded.

CHESNEY: The Tennessee Titans football stadium is flooded.

COOPER: Is that right?

CHESNEY: It's just amazing at the impact that this storm has had on this city. And you're right. There's a lot of musical landmarks that mean a lot to a lot of people in this country. And it's not only touched the music industry, but it's touched every tourism, it's touched the sports industry, I mean, so many -- so many things that it affected.

And you know, I really appreciate you talking about it and having me on. Because people need to know that this city is hurting in a way that I don't think I've ever seen it before.

COOPER: Well, as you said, property is one thing. And that can be fixed and repaired --

CHESNEY: That's right.

COOPER: -- but the lives are -- you know, the death toll, still frankly being accounted for and we don't know where it's going to go.

Kenny I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

CHESNEY: Thanks, Anderson. Talk to you soon.

COOPER: All right. You take care.

We're going to be live, as we said, from Nashville. We'll also show you the search and rescue operations under way, talk to survivors and turn to those trying to rebuild their lives. We'll also be joined by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, residents of Nashville.

Our special report: "NASHVILLE UNDER WATER" tomorrow 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let us know what you think. Join the live chat now at AC360.com.

Up next, the latest on the oil spill and our "Keeping Them Honest" report. People of the government agency for years that was supposed to be regulating the oil and gasoline industry, well, were they actually doing that? It turns out a handful of them were doing cocaine and sleeping together, high officials we're talking about. We're "Keeping Them Honest".

And later, breaking news on the Time Square bombing attempt, new word that there was dry run -- we're just hearing this for the first time of the breaking news tonight -- a dry run by this guy the day before.

Also "The Big 360 Interview": Bill Maher's take on -- well, the utterly insane story of people in terror watch list able to buy guns and ammo. Well, it kind of a surprised a lot of people around the world today. We'll also talk to Bill Maher about Islam and the oil spill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: I want to bring you up-to-date on the Gulf oil spill and what we discovered about the failure of government oversight over the years. It's our "Keeping Them Honest" report and it is frankly stunning.

Regulators, government watchdogs, playing footsy with the industry they were supposed to be regulating, literally playing footsy, in some cases having sex, sharing drugs with the oil company employees.

First, I want to get you up to speed on what's happening with all the oil. We're talking about 210,000 gallons still pouring out every single day.

Now, crews today managed a pair of what they called controlled burns, lighting off oil patches near the ruptured well head. We don't have any pictures of it. They're skimming as well but have temporarily stopped pouring what they call dispersant onto the slick so that they can do testings to determine how effective those dispersants have been.

Now, another development. One -- let me just move this away here and take this off -- one of the undersea, one of the three undersea leaks was patched this morning, the smallest one. They sealed off the smallest one. So let's just move that out of the picture.

However, the Coast Guard said this is not going to change in any significant way the amount of oil that's still spilling into the Gulf. You still have these two spills, this one obviously the major one.

Today, they loaded that huge four-story containment vessel, this thing right here, they loaded it onto a barge and they began moving it out to the sea. Basically it's a giant box that's open on the bottom, kind of a cone-shaped roof on the top.

Now, what they're going to do, I'm just going to show you this kind of an animation is, here we have the oil coming out is they're going to tow this thing into place and then slowly sink it, dropping it 5,000 feet, nearly a mile onto the seabed, right over the main leak. That's the idea, anyway.

Then, they're going to plug a pipe into the top and they're going to run the pipe to the surface here. They're going to take this out. We'll get that pipe going. Ok, here's the pipe. And then they're going to let the oil spill into a barge or a tanker. The idea is to let it spill and go into the tanker or barge and not into the sea.

Now bear in mind, they never tried this in such deep water, so it's a gamble. We could know by tomorrow night if it's going to pay off.

But the story that you need to hear tonight is about what kind of oversight the government has been maintaining over this industry for years, a piece of safety equipment could have been in place on this well but it wasn't and critics say it could have prevented the disaster. Now we can't say that for sure.

But we do have questions about, why it wasn't in place. Was it because of how cozy government watchdogs have in some cases been with this industry?

Ed Lavandera tonight is "Keeping Them Honest".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's hard to imagine how things could be worse for the Minerals Management Service or MMS. Its 1,700 employees are supposed to regulate the oil industry but a growing chorus of critic says the agency is nothing short of a disaster.

REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: It's very clear that you have a dysfunctional agency. You can't trust MMS. They've shown that they're too cozy with industry.

LAVANDERA: Too cozy indeed.

Two years ago, an internal government investigation discovered ethical failures by more than a dozen MMS employees. Some were even having sex and using marijuana and cocaine with oil company employees.

ISSA: It was very clear. They thought that partying, drinking and accepting expensive tickets in a hotel room somehow made it's easier for them to understand the business of -- of how much ore and how much oil and how much natural gas was being taken out.

LAVANDERA (on camera): CNN has reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and government reports dating back almost ten years, documents that paint MMS as an agency that in the words of its critics, rubber stamps the oil industry's action and is unable to enforce safety regulation.

For example, in 2000 MMS issued a safety alert calling for offshore drillers in the U.S. to have an additional backup system called an Acoustic Switch that could prevent oil blowouts like the one now in the Gulf. They went so far as to call it a quote, "essential component".

Just three years later after complaints from the oil industry, MMS determined it wasn't so essential after all, saying it would too costly and ineffective. Never mind the fact that BP is required to use it on rigs in two other countries.

STUART SMITH, ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY: Let's load up.

LAVANDERA: Stuart Smith is an environmental attorney who has won dozens of cases against the oil industry and is representing fishermen put out of work because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We flew over the spill site with him.

SMITH: That's the slick; it's all over here.

LAVANDERA: In the years before this disaster, MMS and BP downplayed the possibility of a major oil spill. In an initial exploration plan, BP called the spill quote, "unlikely". So when BP sought permission to drill the Deepwater Horizon site, MMS agreed and went along with it and gave the company a quote, "Categorical exclusion from a more strenuous environmental impact study". Environmentalists say such exemptions for oil companies are common.

SMITH: Once you dig into it, I mean, they are treated with kid gloves in every respect. They are the least regulated industry from an environmental point of view in the country.

LAVANDERA: Obviously, they're going to argue just the opposite.

SMITH: Well, they can't.

LAVANDERA: We wanted to ask BP about its relationship with MMS and the oversight of the company's wells. In a statement, BP said simply "speculation over the causes or implications of the Deep Water tragedy would be premature," adding that the drilling rig was owned by another company.

We also wanted to know what exactly MMS would say, but after three days of repeated requests for interviews with officials at the Minerals Management Service, they refused to talk to us.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: More now with Rice University and presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley, he writes at length about the wildlife areas now in harm's way in his latest book, "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America".

Douglas, when you look at the investigation from two years ago, I mean, forget about the drug use, the drinking that they report, and the GAO report last month, it makes it sounds like MMS, these watchdogs designed to regulate the industry basically is a lot more concerned with the health of energy companies than they are about the health of the environment.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN, RICE UNIVERSITY: Well, there's no question about it. MMS is part of the Interior Department. And we think of Interior, we think of the National Park Services, you know Yellow Stone and Yosemite or U.S. Fish and Wildlife who is trying to manage birds and game in this country.

But MMS has to be work -- closely with implementing what's known as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. That happened after the Santa Barbara spill and it was meant to enforce things like Clean Air and Water Acts, you know different type -- the Wilderness Act, for example. And instead, what's happened is incrementally, year by year, but it really happened during the Bush years of late, MMS has really started working way too close with big oil.

And in fact, as the "Washington Post" is reporting, and as you have seen, they gave categorical exclusion, meaning they weren't even checking for some of the environmental measures, MMS, on this very rig, on the Deepwater Horizon rig that they were supposed to.

COOPER: And why -- I mean, why be so cozy with this industry you're supposed to be regulating?

BRINKLEY: Because I think this -- we were in a recession, starting with the beginning of the Obama administration, April 2009. There was a -- for a minute, people thought that the Obama administration might be a little stricter environmentally on offshore drilling but they weren't. They continued Bush policy.

Now, a couple of months ago, MMS has a new head, Lisa Birnbaum, and there's this thought that they're going to clean out the corruption, what you're talking about, the Denver office, problems of getting perks for the job, there was starting to be enforced, and then this oil spill happened. And so now MMS is on the hot seat. And you're going to have to scrap the organization and rebuild it from the ground up.

COOPER: We're going to have more with Professor Brinkley after the break including his take on the White House today slapping down Former FEMA Head Michael Brown's conspiracy claim. You may have heard it on the program last night. Brown believing that the White House basically wants this disaster to spread.

Also tonight, the question, how many people on the terrorist watch list could manage to walk into gun shops and buy firearms or explosives? One in a thousand? One in 10? How about nine out of 10, 91 percent. We'll show you what's being done about it, if anything.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: We're talking with presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley, who wrote, in my Opinion, the definitive book on Hurricane Katrina. Doug, I don't know if you saw Michael Brown go on Fox News stating that he believes the Obama administration wanted this spill to spread because the president wants to secretly shut down all offshore drilling.

White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs singled out Fox News basically for giving Mr. Brown the softball treatment. Here's what Gibbs said today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: For those who weren't let in on the big secret, Mr. Brown, FEMA Director Brown under Katrina, intimated on Fox and it wasn't -- I will editorially say -- didn't appear to be pushed back on real hard, that this spill was leaked on purpose in order for us to walk back our environmental and drilling decisions, and that the leak that we did on purpose got out of control and now is too big to contain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, last night, we interviewed Mr. Brown. He seemed to be trying to say he never said what he had said. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: What evidence -- I mean, as a former government official, I would think you would choose your words carefully. What evidence do you have that they want this? That this is basically a plot to shut down oil?

MICHAEL BROWN, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR: In January, the president gave an interview to the "San Francisco Chronicle" in which he said the cap and trade legislation should be as strong as possible so that anybody that wants to use carbon, coal, oil and gas, whatever, that it would be so expensive that they would end up going bankrupt. The president wants to move this country away from a carbon based energy supply to something else.

COOPER: Ok, but I mean, my question is what evidence -- my question is what evidence do you have that the President of the United States wants this spill to spread, wants it -- that they want it to go up the East Coast, they want this so they can shut down oil drilling?

BROWN: Anderson, nobody, including the President, wants the oil to spread into the wetlands or around the coast. I said that it would. They want to use the crisis. If they can use this crisis to shut down oil and gas drilling, that's what they're going to do. And, in fact, Bill Nelson has already come out and said it. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already come out and said it.

The people who are opposed to oil and gas offshore drilling are using this crisis to shut down a legitimate industry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: It's bizarre and kind of stunning that he -- I mean, it's kind of just -- I don't know if crazy is the right word, but what do you make of this?

BRINKLEY: Well, Michael Brown was the worst director in FEMA's relatively short history but he did an abysmal job handling the Katrina situation; even the Bush administration later recognized it. Michael Chernoff, Head of Homeland Security canning him. I think he's a very wounded person, had some psychological damage from being the Pinata of the press back in 2005. And he's trying to resurface during this particular offshore drilling crisis and offer some kind of conspiratorial theory about President Obama.

It wasn't helpful and it wasn't smart. And I think we've probably seen the last of him on the TV circuit for a little while.

COOPER: You know I'm really trying to show not to take sides, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal; just trying to get facts out there.

To me, what we don't know about the Obama administration's response to this, is what sort of oversight in the early days -- you know they, the Obama administration is basically saying, look, we relied on BP when they said they sort of have this thing under control, that it would -- the leak wasn't as big as it we later learned it was. It wasn't until a week or eight days later that NOAA did over flights and actually saw and figured out, ok, this is actually five times worse than we think it is.

We don't know, it seems to me, at this point, what oversight, if any, they had over BP in those early days, though the Coast Guard was on the scene, you know. We don't know -- I don't know at least what level the EPA was overseeing BP? Do you know that?

BRINKLEY: Yes, to a degree I know it. I mean, what's occurred, really, is that I think, because this is such a politicized atmosphere right now.

People have to understand, President Obama has been for offshore drilling, he was for it in the 2008 campaign, just a month or weeks before the BP oil spill, he was encouraging more oil exploration and possibly offshore drilling in places like Virginia and Florida, Alaska.

In addition to that, as your earlier report on MMS showed, they were being lax, turning a bit of blind eye at MMS and letting companies like BP not have the rigid environmental standards that the National Environmental Policy Act demanded.

Now, a different question is could the Obama administration done something? No. This is British Petroleum's oil spill.

But what you're going to have happen out of this is much tighter looking at a -- not stopping of offshore drilling in the Gulf, but you're going to have tougher enforcement. You're going to have a new MMS that actually does its job.

And I think President Obama has got some big political choices. One is Shell Oil is looking this July to drill off of ANWR in Alaska, it's very controversial. He has the outer Continental Shelf Act on his side to stop Shell from doing that and once and for all, save the Arctic refuge.

So you're going to keep your eye on Shell in Alaska in the coming weeks.

COOPER: Yes, I mean, I'm still curious to learn who they had on site in those early days of the spill, you know, watching and monitoring what BP was telling them, that to me, that'll be an interesting thing to see.

BRINKLEY: It's going to --

COOPER: Yes go ahead.

BRINKLEY: It's going to be interesting. But people have to realize, the Gulf of Mexico it is all sorts, it's an industrial zone. And people are drilling all the time and a lot of offshore oil drilling is done safely.

Where I think the Obama administration is facing a problem is going to be on its left. Environmentalists saying, why weren't you more strictly enforcing the National Environmental Policy Act?

COOPER: Yes. Doug Brinkley, it's always good to have you on, sir. I appreciate it.

BRINKLEY: Thanks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, I'm Tom Foreman in Washington D.C., where we are following some breaking news at this hour out of New York City.

A situation has developed there on the Triborough Bridge, also known as the RFK Bridge now, where traffic has been stopped because police had a vehicle crossing that bridge suddenly stopped, according to eyewitnesses, and it was abandoned by the driver -- a U-Haul truck. They stopped traffic in all situations. It's quite a nerve-wracking situation as you might imagine considering the events in New York for the past few days.

There you see it there on the map, overall. This is a major thoroughfare in and out of New York City. And CNN's Susan Candiotti I believe is going to join us by phone here. She has some more details of what happened. Susan, are you there?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi Tom. Yes, I am.

As a matter of fact, a police official was telling us that this was a Manhattan bound U-Haul truck with Arizona plates coming from the Bronx. And as you said, its driver jumped out of the car, according to witnesses, ran from the truck and a toll booth operator said that when he approached the truck, he then backed off after he smelled a strong odor of gasoline.

So as you said, as a precaution, we are told that officials have now closed the bridge in all directions and the NYPD bomb squad is responding. You can imagine what a traffic backup this would be; it's a very, very highly traveled bridge coming -- serving a number of the boroughs there and also a popular route for people coming back from the airport as well.

FOREMAN: Susan, as I understand, the point of view that we're tending to see here right now on this traffic camera is pointing toward Manhattan from the Bronx. And again, you said this happened just a short distance away from the toll booths on the Manhattan side, is that correct?

CANDIOTTI: That's right.

The driver appeared to have been approaching Manhattan from the Bronx when he just stopped his truck and abandoned it and just ran away from it. Naturally this caught the eyes of the witnesses and one of the tollbooth operators left where he was wondering what this was all about. Wanted to inspect the truck but then he decided -- he quickly turned around, police say, after he smelled a strong odor, clearly to him was gasoline.

So he immediately contacted authorities, they got out there right away and naturally closed the bridge down. And that's where we stand now as traffic is backed up, and authorities try to figure out exactly what they have on their hands.

FOREMAN: Susan, give me a little point of reference here, if you would. Roughly how far is this location from Times Square where we had this incident a few days ago?

CANDIOTTI: Well, this was sort of the north end of the city before you would take -- you could take the expressway down along the East River down to Times Square. So maybe it's about a 15-minute drive from the northern part of the city.

FOREMAN: I imagine you're already --

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: I'll mention to our viewers here, if you're looking at that map right now, we just changed off, just above the E in New York is roughly where Times Square would be. That gives you a sense of where -- Times Square would be right above the E in New York there. And you could see where this bridge is up there.

As we mentioned before, it was known as the Triborough Bridge for a long time. If you're a little confused now, that's just because of the name change; it's now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.

And Susan if you could just reiterate one more time what we do know at this point. You said the vehicle had an Arizona plate but it's a U-Haul truck so that might not be surprising.

CANDIOTTI: Exactly. So, it's a little too early but naturally to try to find out more about this truck but obviously one of the first things that authorities will be doing is to look up the license plate, run that tag and try to trace it back to, obviously, through the company, who rented the truck, as part, of course, of what they're doing. Immediately, they have to try to figure out whether they can safely approach the bridge. And of course one way the bomb squad is used to doing this when they handle situations like this; remember they have that robot that they can send a little closer. A lot of these are very sophisticated and they have scent devices on them as well. So that would be one technique they might use in this particular case.

Of course, it's very early on. But we do understand that they are now on the scene. Again, as a precaution, to approach this truck and see what happened.

Again, a witness reported, that as it approached the toll booth leading into Manhattan, the driver got out of the truck, and according to police, ran away from it. Someone came over to inspect what was going on and that's when they smelled the gasoline and immediately contacted authorities.

FOREMAN: If I'm not mistaken, Susan, when the incident happened in Times Square, I believe the vehicle was left there, I believe, according to police, around 6:30 in the evening. I don't think they had that robot punching into that vehicle until around 3:00 in the morning, if I'm not mistaken, out of an abundance of caution.

CANDIOTTI: Yes. It arrived early on, actually. The bomb squad arrived not long after that incident and started working on it right away and they started removing I know in the early evening --

FOREMAN: Oh, really? Well, that's good.

CANDIOTTI: Removing the propane tanks and the gas cans from it but it wasn't until, you know -- and breaking and smashing windows. That happened like around 9:30, 10:00 or so.

(CROSSTALK)

FOREMAN: Oh, well that's earlier than I had been led to believe.

CANDIOTTI: Yes, before they eventually got all the components out that was around 3:00 in the morning.

FOREMAN: Oh, I see. Ok. So that's when they moved that last box which I'd heard about --

CANDIOTTI: Exactly.

FOREMAN: And then they moved the vehicle at around 6:00, so it was almost 12 hours later before they moved the vehicle. Is that correct?

CANDIOTTI: That's right. We were there when it happened and watched them pull it away. By then the sun had come up, so, it was a long, long night.

FOREMAN: Ok. What else can you tell us at all about the scene there? What else do you know about what's going on or have we pretty much exhausted it?

CANDIOTTI: Well, we're actually going to head out there, momentarily and look around for ourselves to see what's happening. But already, you know -- a lot of times like this, we also check with social networking sites. And people are tweeting about this right now, as a matter of fact and saying that traffic is obviously at a standstill as people are trying to find out themselves what is going on, all those cars and vehicles, you can imagine and perhaps they're listening to their radios to find out the situation.

FOREMAN: All right. Susan Candiotti thanks very much for bringing us up-to-date. That's the story as we know it at this moment.

A U-Haul truck, apparently, according to witnesses, stopped and abandoned on the RFK Bridge outside of New York from the Bronx heading into Manhattan, the driver apparently ran away. One of the toll booth workers went by and said he smelled gas from the truck. The bomb squad is responding right now and again in the wake of events in New York for the fast few days, of course, a great deal of concern about that.

Susan Candiotti brought us up-to-date. We will keep you up-to- date as we monitor this story throughout the night right here on CNN.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight, authorities say that Faisal Shahzad, the suspected Times Square bomber, continues to cooperate with investigators and has actually waived his right to a lawyer.

As we reported at the top of the hour tonight, the breaking news, a law enforcement officer with knowledge of the questioning of the accused terrorist has confirmed to CNN that Shahzad made a dry run the day before he allegedly tried to blow up an SUV in Times Square.

Also today, the government began telling airlines to check updated no-fly lists within two hours of when they're issued instead of 24 hours. Now, that change in procedure is meant to prevent what happened on Monday when Emirates Air didn't even notice that Shahzad's name had been added to the terror watch list and, of course, they let him board -- onboard that plane.

Meantime, in Washington, the Senate held a long-scheduled hearing on a loophole that allows suspected terrorists to buy guns legally, even if they're on the government's terror watch list. "Digging Deeper" here's Drew Griffin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The report says over the past six years, suspects on the government's terror watch list attempted to buy firearms or explosives 1,228 times. And 9 times out of 10, those potential terrorists bought them. That's right: 91 percent of the sales went through.

Fresh from a near-catastrophe in Times Square and armed with a troubling report about potential terrorists buying guns -- MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK: Well, good morning.

GRIFFIN: -- New York's anti-gun mayor, Michael Bloomberg, urged Congress to close a loophole.

BLOOMBERG: We have certain regulations, you can't sell -- they're federal regulations -- the courts have said they're appropriate. You can't sell guns to convicted felons. You can't sell guns to people that are -- have serious psychological problems. You can't sell guns to minors.

GRIFFIN: Bloomberg was one of several lawmakers backing the terror gap bill, a bill that would give the attorney general the discretion to deny the transfer of a firearm when a background check reveals the purchaser is a known or suspected terrorist and believes the person may use the weapon in connection with terrorism.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: Oddly, strangely, in this case, though the Department of Justice may be informed that your name is on a terrorism watch list, they can't stop you from buying a gun. That's what we're trying to -- a gap we're trying to fill here with this legislation.

GRIFFIN: It sounds simple, except for one rather major obstacle: the constitutional right for American citizens to own guns.

Senator Lindsey Graham also pointed out the problem with the watch lists themselves, so fraught with mistakes that CNN reported two years ago, even 8-year-old boys can be listed as potential terrorists.

(on camera): Are you a terrorist?

JAMES ROBINSON, EIGHT YEARS OLD: I don't know.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: There's a disconnect here between what we're saying in reality. The watch list, when you look at the numbers, has so many problems with it that I think is not appropriate to go down the road that we're going, because a constitutional right is involved.

SUNNY HOSTIN, TRUTV, "IN SESSION": Everyone can agree, I think, that we don't want terrorists to be able to purchase guns. But the real issue is -- is how does one get on the watch list, because we know now, you know, the government has released several reports that about 35 percent of people that are on the watch list are Americans that are placed on there, based on, you know, faulty information.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Bloomberg and others are trying to use Faisal Shahzad's attempted bombing in New York as momentum to push the bill through. The Times Square terror suspect bought a rifle just this March.

(on camera): And he did so legally. Faisal Shahzad had no criminal history, and CNN has now confirmed he wasn't on anybody's watch list. But backers of the bill say, even if he was on a watch list, the government report shows he would have a 90 percent chance he'd still be able to buy a gun.

Drew Griffin, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Tonight's "Big 360 Interview," Bill Maher. In a recent "Vanity Fair" article, when asked to describe his current state of mind, he answered cautiously pessimistic. Bill Maher joins me now.

Bill, so should people on the terror watch list be able to buy guns?

BILL MAHER, COMEDIAN: Well, you know, this is America, Anderson. Everyone should be able to buy guns, as many as they want, as often as they want, to use wherever they want. That's the American way.

You know the most important amendment is the Second Amendment. Everything comes after that.

I'm kidding of course.

No, I'm for gun control. You know, that would be controlling guns to a degree. It's an interesting question that sort of catches the right wing, because I mean, they're against terrorism but then again, they're for guns.

COOPER: Well, and it's interesting. The GAO said, like, 91 percent of those on the no-fly list, you know, could pass background checks and get guns. I think it surprises a lot of folks.

MAHER: Right. I also think we should change the no-fly list to the no-getting-on-the-damn-plane list. I think they need to make that a little more clear to people.

COOPER: Be more specific?

You know, the initial reaction that New York's mayor and some other politicians had, was that this was a lone wolf, a one off. Do you think they were being too politically correct?

MAHER: I don't think it matters, you know. I think what matters is that there are a lot of young Muslim men in this country and overseas who are on the edge here.

I mean, this guy, like a lot of the terrorists we find out about, wasn't poor. You know, he was living this middle-class life. And then, you know, the backup plan, terrorism. His wife left him or the house was underwater or something.

And then, you know, I know I'm a broken record about religion, but you know, when that stuff is in your head, it just gives you this neurological disorder, and, you know, anything is possible.

I don't think the problem is that guys like this hate America. I think the problem is that they like America, and they feel guilty about it. You know, they come here, and they like eating at Chili's. And they like the water slide. They like going to the strip club.

And then they get on their Jihadi Web sites and they feel terribly guilty about it. And they decide, well, if things go bad -- or maybe they don't decide -- this guy didn't look like he had much of a plan. But it just hits them, you know, yes, visiting a painful chastisement on the infidel. Yes, that's appealing, too, or I might go home and watch "Nip/Tuck".

COOPER: It's between those two?

MAHER: Yes, it seems like that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Bill Maher is just getting started. More from the interview, ahead.

Also, we want to hear from you. Join the live chat right now at AC360.com.

We'll talk about the oil spill with Bill in a second, also about Islam.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Let's continue with more of the "Big 360 Interview" with Bill Maher.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: On your show last week, you took on Islamic radicals who made threats against the creators of "South Park". I want to show our viewers some of what you said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAHER: When "South Park" got threatened last week by Islamists incensed at their depiction of Mohammad, it served, or should serve, as a reminder to all of us that our culture isn't just different than one that makes death threats to cartoonists. It's better.

Because when I make a joke about the Pope, he doesn't send one of his Swiss guards in their striped pantaloons to stick a pike in my ass. When I make a Jewish joke, rabbis might kvetch about it, but they don't pull out a scimitar and threaten an adult circumcision. And when I insult Scientology, the worst that happens is that --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So I mean, why is Islam the one religion about which so many in America and the West censor themselves when it comes to talking about it or making fun of it? Is it just fear?

MAHER: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely because they're violent. Because they threaten us, and they are threatening; they bring that desert stuff to our world. I said the same thing Friday night. You know, we don't threaten each other; we sue each other. That's the sign of civilized people. And -- and they don't, you know.

Yes, we do have religious nuts in this country. There was a cleric in Iran who recently said that earthquakes were caused by slutty women. Well, Pat Robertson once said that abortions caused hurricanes, I think. But the difference is Pat Robertson doesn't have the power to cut your arms off.

You know, I mean, people who want to gloss over the difference between Western culture and Islamic culture and forget about the fact that the Islamic culture is 600 years younger and that they are going through the equivalent of what the West went through with our Middle Ages, our Dark Ages, when religion had way too much power and we had inquisitions and things like that, do so at their peril.

You know, when they caught this guy -- yes, go ahead.

COOPER: When you hear, you know, the oft refrain from American Muslims -- the vast majority of American Muslims abhor this kind of stuff. You know, they will say, look, Islam is a religion of peace. Do you buy that?

MAHER: Yes, they blow you up. There's a piece of you over there. There's a piece of you over there. There's a piece of you over there.

Is it a religion of peace? You know, I don't know. I have not read the Koran in its original. When you read the translation, there are many, many, many passages that are not peaceful at all, that are about killing the infidel and so forth.

There are many passages like that in the Bible, too. Not as many. And we don't take it seriously. That's the difference. We blow off our religions.

If we took the Bible seriously, we'd look over our fence on Sunday morning, see our neighbor mowing his lawn and think, "Hmm, working on Sunday. I really should kill him." But we don't do that.

You know, there are entire schools -- you know this, Anderson. You're a globetrotter. You've been to Madrassas in Pakistan and so forth. Entire schools where the kids read just one book; they're memorizing the Koran. That's all they do. You know, that's not what we do in this country.

COOPER: I want to talk a little bit about what's happening on the Gulf Coast, the oil spill. How do you think the response has been? Do you think BP is going to pay for it?

MAHER: Well, they may pay for the spill itself. They'll never pay for all the ancillary damage that goes on. So, you know, I have no idea what their response is so far. It's too early. And to me that's not even the bigger question.

The bigger question is, you know, why aren't we moving forward to get off the oil, you know, something we should have started doing in the '70s.

You know that in 1984, the average fuel economy for a car was 20 miles per gallon. Twenty years later, in 2004, and think about all the technological advances that took place between '84 and 2004 -- CDs and the Internet, and you know, whatever's going on with Bruce Jenner -- I mean, there's been a lot of advances --

COOPER: What is going on with Bruce Jenner? This is a question I have been wondering.

MAHER: I don't know. I should not have -- I should not have opened that can of worms.

COOPER: I think everybody has that question, but people are afraid to ask.

MAHER: 1984, average car fuel mileage efficiency, 20 miles per gallon; 2004, 20.7. We rocketed up 0.7 in 20 years. This country has not been serious about reducing our dependence on oil.

COOPER: I've got to say, I had Mike Brown from, you know, "Brownie, heck of a job", from FEMA on the program last night.

MAHER: Sure.

COOPER: And he has this theory that --

MAHER: Right.

COOPER: -- the Obama administration wanted this spill to spread, wanted it to spread up the East Coast, because their secret plot is to halt all offshore drilling, even though the Obama administration has now publicly supported it, and going back to 2008 in the debates, Obama was supporting some forms of offshore drilling.

MAHER: Yes. They're so desperate to make this Obama's fault. You know, as soon as it happened, we heard, "This is his Katrina" because you know, in the minds of those who don't think too far or too deeply, "OK, disaster, Louisiana, OK, that's enough. I don't have to think any further. Bush had his Katrina, Obama had" -- except that, you know, Katrina was something that he was warned about. It was a natural disaster. And they kept saying, you know, days before, the storm is coming.

No one kept saying to Obama, "Oh, the rig is going to blow in three days. It's brewing up there in the Gulf."

COOPER: Bill Maher, always good to have you on. Bill thanks.

MAHER: Pleasure, Anderson.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: Up next, higher learning, kids build a rooftop on their school. "One Simple Thing": helping the planet, when 360 continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And tonight's "One Simple Thing" report: a school where higher learning has taken on a new meaning. As you'll see students in New Jersey are using the top of their building where they're getting an education to help the environment and themselves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Tucked between apartments and vacant factories in downtown Newark, New Jersey, you'll find a rooftop garden.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It also absorbs the what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nutrients.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The nutrients.

COOPER: This 4,500 square foot rooftop is part of a program called EcoSpaces at St. Phillip's Academy, an independent school where 360 kids are learning about sustainability and healthy living.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even if you just go like this and just breathe, what does it smell like, Johnny? It smells like mint.

FRANK MENTESANA, ECOSPACES FACILITATOR: It was a way to create environments for teachers to utilize -- to get kids to learn about the closed food loop cycle, meaning the idea of a seed being planted in the ground, nurturing the seed, growing the fruit of the seed, harvesting, cooking and then actually bringing it back to composting and putting it back to the earth; something that our urban kids generally aren't really getting when they go to a local supermarket and seeing things under plastic and processed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go to our plots.

COOPER: The EcoSpace program includes three main learning environments, the teaching kitchen, the cafeteria and the rooftop garden.

JEN KOTKIN, ST. PHILLIP'S SCIENCE TEACHER: And it's almost like we timed those sirens to go through but when you're dealing with an urban environment and you're dealing with student who have never been exposed to a carrot or a tomato, we decided that when we got to this location, we didn't just want ornamental grasses. We wanted to pull some of these ornamental grasses, sell them to families and orchards and nurseries and begin to plant a sustainable garden.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're going to spread out the flower on the table.

From the garden to teaching kitchen, where students take a hands- on approach to learning fraction. Children embrace the program, taking what they learn beyond school walls.

NONI JACK, ST. PHILLIPS' ACADEMY STUDENT: I actually recycle at home with my parents, and try to encourage them to turn the lights off at home.

KAYA MOODY, ST. PHILLIPS' ACADEMY STUDENT: My daddy, when he sees the garbage, he picks it up and throws it in the recycling bin or trash can.

CHRISTOPHER SCANTLEBURY, ST. PHILLIPS ACADEMY STUDENT: I think it's important because we have to stay green. I mean we only have one earth. The more plants you have, the better it is for us.

COOPER: The teacher hope other schools in urban settings will adopt some of their programs.

KOTKIN: You don't have to be a master gardener; you just want to teach your kids what a seed looks like when it grows. Then you can get everyone else on board and keep it simple.

COOPER: A simple approach using nature as a learning tool.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: St. Phillips is also working with Whole Foods Market, holding workshops and healthy eating. The academy will be hosting a farmer's market in June.

That does it for 360, thanks for watching.

"LARRY KING" starts now.

FOREMAN: Good evening. I'm Tom Foreman in Washington, D.C.