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May 19, 2006
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Transcript - May 19, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

It's coming up on nine months since hurricane Katrina drowned much of New Orleans, and what's going on there now requires our attention. Recovery is slow and painful. Many neighborhoods are still clogged with debris, and occasional bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. That's part of a backdrop for the campaign for mayor of the city. The runoff election is this weekend. But if you look at the state of New Orleans today, the question arises: why would anyone want the job of mayor at this moment in history? Andrew Goldberg produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: Vennie Britton is helping to rebuild his parents' house... destroyed in the flood of hurricane Katrina. They've received very little money from the government. So Vennie, his two brothers, and family friends have been working seven days a week.

VENNIE BRITTON: Work ten, 11 hours at work and then you come home to try to do as much as you can until it's time to go to bed. I was in here 'til 11:00 o'clock the other night, and we were like tired.

BRANCACCIO: Vennie's parents live in the demolished 9th Ward of New Orleans, one of the hardest hit by Katrina's flooding when the levees failed last September.

They've moved back into their home, making them something of an exception in a neighborhood that remains largely deserted or destroyed... a family trying to find hope where there just isn't much to be found.

CATHERINE BRITTON: When people say, why are you crying? You can't help it. I still cry about it. I still cry about it. But I can't do nothing about it.

BRANCACCIO: To be sure, the spirit of New Orleans continues to defy the odds. Mardi gras was considered a huge success, with 70% of the number of visitors from previous years and millions of dollars in revenue. Jazz fest, held earlier this month, drew over 300,000 people. Some are even predicting an economic boom for the city in the coming years.

But for now, some of New Orleans still looks like a battlefield the day after.

LEE: Talking to people around the country, it's impossible for them to imagine the magnitude of the devastation. This looks like a Beirut almost, whereby someone dropped 20 atomic bombs and they just simply blew up.

BRANCACCIO: Silas lee is a New Orleans native. A political researcher and pollster, it's his business to understand the people of this city and what they've been going through these past eight months.

LEE: You're looking at a city where a large segment of this population, their spirit is broken, they really don't feel totally human, fully human.

BRANCACCIO: For all of its cultural diversity, New Orleans has historically been a tale of two cities... divided by race and divided by class. And now in its rebuilding, it seems to be following the same path.

LEE: We're looking at the rebuilding process whereby for African Americans it's going to be much slower and more challenging. For whites it's going to be faster.

BRANCACCIO: According to a report by the Brookings institution, 80% of those living in the city's flooded areas were minorities. Most of those residents were living in the lowest-lying areas of the city... while white residents generally occupied the higher ground.

CATHERINE BRITTON: I lost everything, everything. And when I say everything, we lost, in this house, everything.

BRANCACCIO: So just who will be the mayor to save this city?

NAGIN [April 22, 2006 election night speech]: It's time for black and white, Hispanic and Asian, everybody to come together for one New Orleans. It's time for us to stop the bickering.

BRANCACCIO: Ray Nagin is the incumbent mayor. His emotional cries for help over the airwaves during the botched response to hurricane Katrina brought him into the national spotlight.

NAGIN: [radio interview, 9/1/05]: This is a national disaster, get every doggone greyhound bus line in the country, and get their asses moving to new Orleans.

BRANCACCIO: Nagin, whose office did not respond to our requests for an interview, fared well in April's first round of voting that included 22 candidates. He placed first, ahead of his closest rival by nine points... despite mixed reviews of his own role in the hurricane response.

LANDRIEU: We will not be bowed nor broken.

BRANCACCIO: In second place was challenger Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana's current lieutenant governor. His father, moon Landrieu, was New Orleans' mayor in the seventies. His sister, Mary Landrieu, is the state's senior senator in Washington.

LANDRIEU: I believe that as the mayor of this city that I'll be able to lead us back to where we were and better, I just say this with great temperance, this is going to be the toughest job in America, it's going to require not only America's sympathy, but America's investment.

BRANCACCIO: The two candidates will face each other in a runoff election scheduled for Saturday, May 20th.

But it has to be said there is widespread doubt that anyone can accomplish very much as the mayor of New Orleans. For one thing, much of the population has left. According to the latest survey, of the 463,000 people who once lived here, an estimated two thirds, are gone.

LEE: You walk into certain neighborhoods they are basically a ghost town. You don't see any sense of life. No people, no children, no movement.

BRANCACCIO: And the exodus continues... there were more homes up for sale in the month of April than in any other month post-Katrina.

GRACE: Chevron had 500 jobs, they just left town the other day. They just announced they are leaving town and going to -- well staying within the state but leaving the city. So that was really a big hit.

It's hard to recruit businesses until you have all these other questions answered. Will you have schools? Will you have levees? Will you have police?

BRANCACCIO: Stephanie Grace is a political columnist with the Times-Picayune. After her colleagues were evacuated by delivery truck when Katrina's floodwaters reached the newspaper's offices, she opened her home to some of them to work and live. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage. Now, Grace is covering the mayor's race.

GRACE: This election is not about issues at all, because the only real issue it could have been about would have been -can some areas of the city not be rebuilt.

BRANCACCIO: The city government has been granting permits for rebuilding in every part of New Orleans... despite objections from community experts who argue that portions of the city should never be rebuilt.

GRACE: And what's happened is that nobody is willing to say that during an election. So what the election has really turned out to be about is -- competence, style, you know, who can present a better image.

LEE: Nagin could be equated to Clint Eastwood. And Landrieu can be equated to -- John Kennedy, in terms of style. So Nagin is more the -- gun shooter, let's pull -- shoot from the hip, whereas Landrieu tends to be more calculating, and in terms of inspiring people, he talks like John Kennedy, is constantly articulating a theme and very scripted.

BRANCACCIO: Nagin points to his on-the-job experience and his relationship with President Bush. But grace also points out some political liabilities.

LEE: The feeling is he really hasn't been very effective. His relationship with the governor has been very tense. He has never really learned to work with other politicians very well.

BRANCACCIO: In the final week of the campaign, it appears that Landrieu is ahead -- by ten points in a recent poll. But that may not reflect the views of displaced residents who can vote ...they're overwhelmingly African American and more likely to go for Nagin, according to the pollsters.

It's worth noting that the racial makeup of New Orleans post-Katrina has changed. Current population stats are widely disputed, but the percentage of the black vote has dropped...down 10 percent when people went to the polls in April compared to four years earlier.

Many anticipated that Latinos who came to rebuild the city would settle down and stay. But their numbers remain small and represent a tiny minority of voters.

And it's the issue of rebuilding -- not race -- that is foremost on the voters' minds. Perhaps most importantly: who can convince the federal government to deliver the goods?

LEE: The bottom line is that congress will have to approve and release the money. Now, will Landrieu be able to expedite that process because of the fact that his sister's a U.S. sen- senator? We don't know. Will Nagin be able to expedite the process because he is the current officeholder, if he gets reelected? We don't know.

This is a big question mark. It's a theory that people have.

BRANCACCIO: The state of Louisiana is hoping to distribute 12 billion federal dollars to people for rebuilding... But none of that money has arrived. In all likelihood, according to the state, the soonest anyone will see a check will be at the end of August... almost a full year after hurricane Katrina.

All of this has left some New Orleans residents enraged.

LEE: It's a solid rage, you may not see it on the faces of people, but it its painful rage. What's most telling is when people cry in public. You can sense their pain.

BRANCACCIO: But some are still choosing to return and rebuild on their own. Melvin Robinson was another 9th Ward resident who saw his home destroyed by the storm.

A carpenter for most of his life, he was determined to rebuild the house as quickly as possible so that he and his wife could move back in.

STOKES: He was actually like one of the first ones that came back here in this area here and started on his house.

BRANCACCIO: Clark stokes is Melvin's son-in law. His home was also destroyed in the flood. We met him at Melvin's house.

INTERVIEWER: This is incredible. Who put the electricity back up.

STOKES: He done everything. He done everything -- every from the plumbing to the electricity -- everything.

INTERVIEWER: He must have worked 24-7.

STOKES: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: But soon after he began working, Melvin received some awful news: he was diagnosed with cancer. He only worked that much harder -- completely rebuilding his home. But the hours of physical labor and his illness quickly caught up to him.

STOKES: That was the bed he was in, you know. He was real sick.

BRANCACCIO: Just days after the family moved into the house, Melvin Robinson passed away. He was 63.

Hurricane Katrina still casts a giant shadow over the lives of the hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents displaced by the storm. Do they come back to the city, or make their lives elsewhere?

My grandfather -- that's his church, and he has all these houses, so I say, my parents had moved out here.

BRANCACCIO: Jamar Howard has also come back to the 9th Ward... to see his parents' house... or what's left of it.

HOWARD: This is our living room, dining room. That far to the back was the kitchen and utility room. Oh!

INTERVIEWER: Yeah.

HOWARD: This has been completely gutted.

BRANCACCIO: Jamar's parents are like most people from New Orleans displaced by the storm... wary of returning.

HOWARD: As far as them coming back, they're still very hesitant. They really don't wanna come back.

BRANCACCIO: Still, their son sees an opportunity in the wake of this disaster... a chance for a once-violent neighborhood to start over.

HOWARD: This area here needs to be changed, you know. I respect those who are coming back and rebuilding, but it's like this -- people wanted safer neighborhoods. I think now is really the time to start.

BRANCACCIO: But for New Orleans, time may be running out. Incredibly, New Orleans' levees are still not ready for another big hurricane. The breeches have been closed, but the repairs are temporary at best.

LEE: The interesting thing is that on May the 20th, the runoff will occur. June the 1st hurricane season begins.

BRANCACCIO: And with forecasters predicting plenty of storms, the army corps of engineers just announced it will not be able to repair the levees by the deadline.

Just one more challenge for the next mayor of New Orleans.

VOICE OVER: Once again from New York City, Public Broadcasting's David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: It was just about a year ago, that we traveled to Cuba and to the Middle East to report on how our government has been treating detainees in the war on terror.

Since then, startling new details have come to light on the identities of some of these detainees. What exactly has the government been doing to them and does their treatment violate U.S. law?

Na Eng produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: Guantanamo bay, Cuba -- today the United Nations came down hard on the United States -- with the U.N.'s committee against torture calling for the controversial prison we visited last year to be shut down.

Here's how Brig. General Jay Hood, then the commanding officer in charge, described the men detained in the prison:

HOOD: We're holding enemy combatants here, men that were taken off the battlefield in the global war on terror, many of them who posed a significant threat to the United States and our allies and many of whom possessed intelligence information that would be valuable to us in that conflict.

BRANCACCIO: But are all those imprisoned really terrorists? For the first time, the pentagon has released the names of all 759 detainees who have been held at Guantanamo since the prison first opened in 2002. It was also recently forced to release tens of thousands of documents, including transcripts from hearings, giving the public more clues as to the detainees' side of the story.

One Pakistani man claimed he was nothing more than a chicken farmer who happens to have a name similar to the Taliban's deputy foreign minister.

Another detainee questioned why his Casio watch was considered evidence against him: "if that is a crime, why doesn't the United States arrest and sentence all the shops and people who own them?" He asked. According to the military, one specific Casio model has been linked to al Qaeda bombings. The watch also happens to have a compass feature that helps Muslims find the direction of Mecca.

Tom Wilner represents some of the detainees. He argues that -- guilty or innocent -- everyone is entitled to a day in court.

WILNER: I can't say for sure that each of my clients is an innocent person, although I believe they are. But what I can say for sure as an American, is that they are entitled to due process. That you just can't lock people up and throw away the key without some process, and some reason for holding them. That's what our country is about.

BRANCACCIO: A majority of the detainees have been in this prison for years without a single charge against them.

WILNER: These are the most fundamental rights of a civilized nation. You know, from the time of the Magna Carta, the most fundamental right established on the Magna Carta is that no free man can be deprived of his liberty except by a jury of his peers and the law of the land.

BRANCACCIO: There is no jury or the normal due process you'd find in a typical court room across the country. As an alternative, the defense department has established administrative and combatant status review boards that determine what should happen to the detainees. From that review process, the military plans to release 136 out of the nearly 500 remaining detainees. Only ten have been formally charged with offenses. That still leaves more than 300 prisoners in limbo -- detained indefinitely.

It what appeared to be a reversal of his stance, president bush surprised many when he told a German television program -- just this month -- he wanted to see an end to Guantanamo. He added he was waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on the matter.

BRANCACCIO: In late June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the military commissions the White House established to try foreign suspects. The court will also determine whether or not detainees have a right to challenge their detention through a writ of habeas corpus in federal court.

Then there are the allegations of torture and inhumane treatment that have long been circulated by human rights groups. A new feature film called "The Road to Guantanamo" dramatizes some of the abuses three British men claim they endured during their detention: everything from sensory deprivation, beatings, stress positions and being forced to listen to music at ear-splitting levels.

The film gets into theatres on June 23rd.

The Pentagon warns, however, that terrorists are trained to make allegations of torture to garner public sympathy. And officials insist the detainees are being treated humanely.

BRANCACCIO: Tell me about this. The standards under which the detainees are held, can I with confidence say Geneva Convention?

HOOD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: That's important to you as a soldier?

HOOD: That is absolutely important. The detainees are being ... clearly held in conditions that are consistent with the Geneva conventions.

BRANCACCIO: It's not just Guantanamo where allegations of torture have surfaced. Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is where the photographs of abused prisoners were taken and shocked the world two years ago. Recently, hundreds more of the photos taken at that time have been obtained by the online magazine, Salon... among them, photos of this prisoner we interviewed last year- Ali Shalal Qaissi -- who is also known as Haj Ali. During his three months in Abu Ghraib, his American guards called him "the claw" because of his deformed hand. Haj Ali says his American captors repeatedly tormented and abused him.

ALI: They ordered me to strip naked, but I refused, so five American soldiers forcibly stripped me. They covered my head and chained my legs and hands. Then they kicked me and I fell. Later, they chained me to a pipe, pointed guns to my head, and poured cold water over me.

BRANCACCIO: But was he the man in that iconic photo we've all seen? Last year, Haj Ali told us he was certain that he was the man under the hood.

ALI: I'm the person, I'm a 100% sure of it. I remember the box, the pipes, and the two wires they used.

BRANCACCIO: But earlier this spring, after Salon raised doubts, Haj Ali told the New York Times that he no longer believes he is the man in that specific photograph. Notes from the photo archives salon obtained indicate that the person in this photo was another man nicknamed Gilligan. In our piece last year, we reported Haj Ali was not the only detainee abused and photographed in this way. Haj Ali still maintains that he received similar treatment.

ALI: Once, I bit my tongue so hard, my mouth was full of blood. All this time, they were laughing.

BRANCACCIO: And what's happened to those responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses? Ten low-ranking soldiers have been convicted for the abuses. And the army has filed criminal charges against two others, one of whom is the only commissioned officer to face charges so far: a Lieutenant Colonel who oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib.

Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union says higher ups must be held accountable.

ROMERO: It's not enough to go after some low level soldiers and accuse them of these horrific crimes. We have to look up the chain of command. We have to see who in fact was responsible for approving such a ... Such techniques.

BRANCACCIO: The Bush administration now has plans to shut down its use of Abu Ghraib prison and move the 4,200 inmates to Other jail sites in Iraq under the authority of the Iraqi Government.

And on the legislative front in the U.S. -- late last year, congress overwhelmingly approved a ban on torture spearheaded by a former prisoner of war -- Republican senator John McCain.

MCCAIN: "We feel the provisions in the bill sends a message to the world that We will not engage in cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment..."

BRANCACCIO: The amendment prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of anyone in U.S. Custody, "regardless of nationality or physical location".

At first, Vice President Dick Cheney -- the administration's point man on this issue -- resisted the ban, arguing that it was unnecessary and could undermine interrogation efforts. But the administration seemed to blink first when it ran up against public opinion and determined congressional leaders, including John McCain.

BUSH (Dec. 15, 2005): We've been happy to work with him to achieve a common objective, and that is make it clear to the world that this government does not torture, and that we adhere to the international convention on torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.

BRANCACCIO: But that wasn't the end of the story. While signing the legislation, the President managed to create for himself a little wiggle room on this issue of torture. Bush released what's called a "signing statement" to clarify his position on the torture ban. Look closely at this: the statement reads: "The executive branch shall construe the act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president... as commander in chief."

Critics worry this extra wording allows the president to ignore the torture ban if he chooses to.

In fact, the Justice Department has already argued in federal court that the law that congress passed and the president signed does not apply to the detainees at Guantanamo.



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