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Toyota Finds Fix?; Americans Accused of Kidnapping in Haiti

Aired February 1, 2010 - 18:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There does not seem to be, at least so far, we have not seen sure signs, that President Obama has coattails, certainly very -- still remains popular in these states, but has not been able, at this point, to prove that he's got some power to pull Democrats over the line.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Candy Crowley reporting for us -- thanks, Candy.


BLITZER: Thanks very much.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now.: Millions of Toyota owners and passengers are wondering when their vehicles will be safe to drive. The company says it now has a fix for a gas pedal problem that could lead to runaway cars. We're going to take you behind the wheel to show you what to do in case of emergency. This is information you or a loved one need to know if you have a Toyota.

Meanwhile, 10 Americans accused of child trafficking remain in Haiti. Some are missionaries saying they were simply trying to help earthquake victims start a new life. But Haiti's prime minister is calling them -- and I'm quoting -- kidnappers.

And grounding NASA's moon mission. Will the president's budget keep astronauts earthbound?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's a huge problem that has terrified so many Toyota owners in the United States and around the world and led to the recall of millions and millions of vehicles. It goes by the sterile-sounding name of sudden unintended acceleration, which means the gas pedal can become floored, with sometimes catastrophic deadly result.

Listen to this chilling 911 call.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going north 125.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mm-hmm. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And our accelerator is stuck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold on. Pray. Pray.


BLITZER: Four people died in that October incident, including a state trooper who was at the wheel. It involved a Lexus made by Toyota. And the cause of the stuck accelerator was apparently tied to a floor mat issue.

But this tragedy signaled a much more widespread issue with gas pedals that has idled dealerships and factories. Today, Toyota says a fix is now in the works for the pedal problem, with parts being shipped to dealers.

But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells CNN, they are continuing to investigate a range of potential causes, including issues with the car's electronics.

Brian Todd is over at a repair center in Northern Virginia working the story for us.

Brian, tell us what you're learning.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Learning a lot about what Toyota drivers can do, Wolf, in the meantime, while they're having their gas pedals kind of looked at in this whole process, and even before they take them in to have them fixed.

I'm here with Omar Panjshiri. He's a certified Toyota Lexus technician here at a place Chantilly Repair Center in Northern Virginia.

And Omar is taking us through some of the paces in what Toyota is going to be doing during this process.

First, Omar, let's look at the pedal itself. We have got a typical gas pedal here from a Toyota Camry. What are they going to be doing to modify this?

OMAR PANJSHIRI, CERTIFIED LEXUS TECHNICIAN: They have a template that they lay out on top of this, mark the pedal down, and cut a bottom portion of...


TODD: About an inch of it off, right?

PANJSHIRI: About an inch of it, a little bit less than that. Shave it, round it off, make sure that it doesn't have sharp edges to it, so it doesn't catch on it.

TODD: The metal. Avoid some of the friction that leads to it sticking.

PANJSHIRI: Correct. Exactly.

And also at the same time, they will be removing a white foam that you see there from underneath the carpet of the vehicle, removes that and puts the carpet back on there. And it gives it a little bit more gap in clearance between the pedal and the floor.

TODD: Another thing to kind of eliminate the chances of it just sticking on the floor there.

PANJSHIRI: That is correct.

TODD: OK. Now, in the meantime, if you're driving one of these Toyota vehicles and you haven't yet had your gas pedal fixed, what can you do if that accelerator gets stuck?

Well, Omar and I took a 2008 Toyota Camry on the road just a short time ago to kind of demonstrate what drivers can do in that event. Take a look.


TODD: And let's say, Omar, I'm going about 60 miles an hour here, my accelerator pedal becomes stuck, staying down on the floor. Starting to become concerned here. What's the first thing I need to do?

PANJSHIRI: Shift the vehicle from drive to neutral.

TODD: Got it.

PANJSHIRI: Turn the ignition switch off.

TODD: Just turn it off completely.


PANJSHIRI: Turn it off. Cut the power to the engine.


TODD: Even if this thing is still sticking, the power is off. It's not going to accelerate anymore.

PANJSHIRI: No. It will no longer accelerate. You can apply the break and safely pull over to a safe...


TODD: Now, you will notice everyone will realize that we're losing a little bit of power steering, but that's not a concern, you say.

PANJSHIRI: No. You can lose -- but you will lose some power steering assist, but you will still be able to steer the vehicle to a safe stopping position. TODD: OK. Now, this is a 2008. With some 2009 and 2010 vehicles affected by this campaign, they don't have the ignition switch that turns it on and off. They have a push button. Now, what do you do in that event?

PANJSHIRI: On the push-to-start ignition switch systems, you push the button and hold it for more than three seconds, three seconds or longer. That will cut off the power to the engine. And you will do the same exact thing, shift the drive -- from drive position to neutral and steer the vehicle safely to a shoulder to come to a complete stop.


TODD: Now, that's what you can do on the road if something happens when that accelerator does give you that kind of what they call unintended acceleration. Essentially, it sticks to the bottom and you can't quite control it. That's what you do on the road.

Now, in the meantime, Omar, floor mats have been issues in these Toyota and Lexus models. What do people do if they have these rubber floor mats in?

PANJSHIRI: The rubber floor mats should be removed out of the vehicle, especially the driver's side rubber floor mat.

And the regular floor mats, you want to make sure that they're fastened and that they're clipped into the clips that are coming...


TODD: They come through holes like this on a regular floor mat?



If the clips are missing, you want to make sure that you completely remove the carpets out of the vehicle.

TODD: Right.

Now, one thing we want to talk about is what Toyota is saying it's going to make standard in all of its vehicles from now on, Wolf, something called brake override.

Explain to us what that is.

PANJSHIRI: The brake override is, after they do this remedy, they will be re-flashing the engine computer. And it's a system that cuts power, the engine power, to the wheels when the brake pedal is depressed.

TODD: Just now, just to clarify, it will cut power to the wheels if both the brake pedal and the accelerator are depressed at the same time. PANJSHIRI: Correct. That is correct.

TODD: OK. And that's going to be standard on all Toyota vehicles from now on, they say.


TODD: Do you think, Omar, that this is still a safe vehicle to drive even with this flaw in the pedal, even now while some viewers, some drivers have not yet gotten their vehicles to the Toyota shops yet?

PANJSHIRI: Yes, it is still a very safe vehicle. If, in fact, you do experience something where the pedal you don't think it's coming back fast enough or it is slow, you need to stop and contact your Toyota dealer immediately. If you feel like you have a sticky pedal, do not drive the vehicle, tow it, but overall it's still a very safe vehicle.


One thing we have to add here, what we're being told from an official of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, they're saying that they're investigating all the possible causes of this.

And one of the things that they're looking at, Wolf, is what they call electromagnetic interference, which they say might have caused the throttle control systems to malfunction. They say there's no evidence that this has happened in any Toyota vehicles yet, but they're looking at that as a possibility.

Now, electromagnetic interference, is it what it sounds like? Is it some kind of a radio signal or a cell phone signal?

PANJSHIRI: It could be radio signals. It be cell phone signals. It could be computer signals communicating back in the vehicle itself. But it hasn't been confirmed.

TODD: Right.


TODD: There's no evidence to support that. We have to clarify that. This is just one thing that NHTSA is looking at right now.

Toyota's saying, again, these vehicles are very safe. Just, when you get the notice, get your vehicle in, so that they can basically take a look at it, take a look at the pedals. We're talking about Toyota RAV4s, Corollas, Matrixes that were made between 2009 and 2010, Camrys that were made between 2007 and 2010. But that's not all Camrys.

You have got to take it to your dealer, let them look at it, determine whether it's the right kind of Camry that needs to have its gas pedal replaced, Avalons between 2005 and 2010, Tundras made between 2007 and 2010, the 2010 Highlander and Sequoias made between 2008 and 2010. Those are the vehicles that are affected by this gas pedal fix, Wolf.

And a Toyota official just told me over the phone a short time ago this is going to take months to play out. It's not going to be solved overnight, but they are committed to solving this problem, Wolf.

BLITZER: I was getting a little confused. And maybe you can have Omar explain, because earlier we had been told -- and I spoke with some mechanics who said if you're driving along on a highway, let's say, 50, 60 miles an hour and your gas pedal is just floored and you're increasing speed, what you should do is, first of all, as he says, put the car, shift the car into neutral, then put both feet on the brakes, hold both feet on the brakes, and then steer the car to the side of the road as it begins to slow down.

If you turn off the engine, it's going to kill the power steering and some people won't be strong enough to move that steering wheel. So, they're saying don't turn off the engine. Omar says turn off the engine.

Maybe you could go back to him and clarify that, because that's a significant point that could be life and death for some drivers out there.


TODD: OK. We're going to clarify that.

Some mechanics are telling Wolf, Omar, that essentially they recommend not killing the engine because you're going to lose that power steering, which we demonstrated on the road. You do lose a little bit of the power steering.

They're saying essentially hold both feet down on the brakes when this happens, but don't kill the engine, because you will lose your power steering. Seems to be a discrepancy there. And there's clearly a lot of different advice floating around. What do you think is the cause of that discrepancy and what do you think people should do?

PANJSHIRI: People can certainly -- if, in fact, your throttle plate does get stuck, the accelerator pedal, you should shift the vehicle from drive to neutral.

TODD: That's the first thing you've got to do, right.

PANJSHIRI: That's the first thing you've got to do. Depress the brake pedal, slightly pull over, shut the engine off if need be.

If the vehicle does not slow down, shut the vehicle off.

TODD: Shut the engine off.

PANJSHIRI: If you have a push-to-start ignition switch, you just depress and hold for more than three seconds. That will kill the engine.

TODD: And to clarify, you are going to lose a little bit of your power steering, but you pointed out to me, and we showed this, Wolf, you can still have some control of that vehicle, even though you're going to lose a little bit of the power steering. Just take a really firm grip on that wheel and just guide it over as best as you can, right?

PANJSHIRI: You will lose some power. If, in fact, it does happen, you do not want to pump your brakes consistently.

TODD: Don't pump it. That's right. That's one thing that was pointed out.

PANJSHIRI: Do not pump the brakes, because that would deplete the vacuum assist.


PANJSHIRI: But you will lose some assist. You will still have ability to steer the vehicle to a safe stop.

TODD: All right.


BLITZER: Even if you're not even -- a strong guy, but even if you're an elderly person, not very strong, can you still move that wheel, so that you can get to an area off the side of the road?

TODD: Let me present that to Omar, because a lot of the drivers we're talking about are elderly people. Even if you're not, you know, a person in the peak of their physical health, if you're an older person, maybe someone who is not quite as strong as the average person, can you still losing that power steering get the car over to the side? Do you think that people who are older and maybe not as strong can do that?

PANJSHIRI: You can certainly do that. It doesn't take much effort to steer the vehicle, even if you lose assist.

TODD: Essentially, it's just kind of a guiding of it. You're not making a hard turn here.

PANJSHIRI: No. If you do -- if you feel like there's more brake assist that's needed, do not pump the brakes. It will even make it worse. You just want to put both feet on the brake pedal, if you can, and depress as hard you can.

TODD: Right. OK.

PANJSHIRI: You will have assist with the steering some. You don't have the power assist, but you will be able to steer the vehicle.

TODD: You will have some control over that vehicle. (CROSSTALK)

PANJSHIRI: You will definitely have control over the vehicle.

TODD: All right, Omar, thanks very much -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thank Omar for all of us -- Brian Todd with Omar giving us some important, potentially lifesaving information, if you or a loved one have a Toyota. This is information you need to know.

We're going to stay on top of this story, not go away, because it affects so many people out there, not only here in the United States, but indeed around the world.

Children in trouble in Haiti -- 10 Americans drop everything for what they say was a rescue mission. Now they're in jail in Port-au- Prince. Our Karl Penhaul will have the latest information.

Plus, new information about the underwear bomber. Who made the decision to try him as a civilian? Was the Obama administration involved, and at what level?


BLITZER: Let's bring in Jack Cafferty. He has got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, you got to love it.

The president is submitting a $3.8 trillion budget. It contains a deficit of $1.6 trillion just for this year. That's an all-time record. It will all be done with much hand-wringing about how important it is to get the deficit under control.

And they don't think we know any better. In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed freezing discretionary federal spending in an effort to save some money. The projection is this courageous move will amount to a total savings of about $250 billion over 10 years. That is one-sixth of the deficit for this year.

The White House claims the president's budget will reduce the national debt by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Well, that's making a lot of assumptions about how Congress is likely to vote on the parts of the budget designed to reduce the debt. And history strongly suggests we shouldn't hold our collective breath.

And they say all these things with a straight face, as though we're morons. Maybe we are. We keep electing the same people to Congress, who are bankrupting our country. Last week, there was an estimate that the United States of America will be bankrupt within seven to 10 years.

The mightiest economy the world has ever known is going down the toilet because these clowns in Washington, D.C., refuse to rein in spending. It is an absolute disgrace. But maybe we can help them. Here's your chance. Here's the question. How would you cut government spending? Go to Post a comment on my blog.

Wonder if we will hear from Omar on this...


BLITZER: You have got to cut your...


CAFFERTY: He may have some ideas.

BLITZER: He was good, Omar.

CAFFERTY: He was very good.


BLITZER: He knows what he's talking about. As you were saying, part-time CIA -- no.



BLITZER: That was your question from the last hour.

CAFFERTY: That was last hour.

BLITZER: Yes, just getting confused.


BLITZER: All right. But he's good, Omar.

CAFFERTY: I like Omar. Yes.

BLITZER: New information tonight on the interrogation of the so- called underwear bomber who allegedly tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day. The big question, who approved the decision to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab through the court system, rather than a security trial?

Let's bring in our national security contributor, Fran Townsend. She was the homeland security adviser to President Obama.

Fran, you have been talking to folks out there, and you have some new details on this from law enforcement sources. What are you learning?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, what we're hearing is what happened on the 25th, there was a secure video teleconference and a phone conference that included the inner agency. People like Mike Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, John Brennan, the president's homeland security adviser, and others in the inner agency convened in the late afternoon, early evening, and they were briefed by the FBI and officials about the initial interrogation, the process, and what the plan was for going forward, bringing in a clean team, for example, to do a new interrogation, putting him into the criminal justice process.

Now, those on the administration side are telling us, well, this was an informational briefing, but what the law enforcement officials are telling us is, this is a typical briefing where if anyone had objections, this was the time to raise it, if people didn't think they should take the steps consistent with putting him in the criminal justice process.

BLITZER: But the administration sources, I think, are telling us something very different. They're suggesting that after reviewing the notes of multiple officials who participated in that December 25 conference call, there was no mention of reading Miranda rights to Abdulmutallab.

Here's the question. Why these two very different versions of what happened?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, Wolf, it's entirely possible that they could have had a conversation, here's what Abdulmutallab was saying, here's what our plan is for how we're going to treat him, and the agents might never have mentioned the words Miranda. That would just have been part of the normal process. If you wanted to have it, you would have wanted to give him his Miranda warnings if you wanted to use the statement he made in a criminal proceeding.

So, it's entirely possible that the agents in Detroit or the FBI agents in Washington would've described the process and never mentioned Miranda. And so as usual, Wolf, it's entirely possible that both versions are a little bit true.

BLITZER: Yes, well, that's what happens when you have got a lot of people involved. All right, thanks very much, Fran, for that.

Americans in trouble, deep trouble, right now in Haiti. They say they were trying to help young earthquake victims start that new life in the United States. But Haiti's prime minister is calling them kidnappers. Stick around. We will tell you what's going on. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: We're following some other important stories here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including those 10 Americans jailed in Haiti right now. The country's prime minister says those who took those young kids were kidnappers. Now, they say they were simply missionaries trying to help young quake victims get a new start. Stand by. We will update you on what's going on. And pulling the plug on NASA's mission to return astronauts to the moon. Will the president's new budget keep them earthbound?


BLITZER: There's been an earthquake. We're just getting some information.

Let's check in with CNN's Jenny Harrison. She's over at the CNN Weather Center.

Jenny, what do we know?

JENNY HARRISON, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, what we know so far, Wolf, we have had two warnings about this, the two reports. We had the preliminary report. And we just start out by showing you where we're talking about.

We're talking Papua New Guinea, which, of course, is a long distance away from the United States. This is the actual area. Now, if you can zoom in, we can actually show you exactly where the earthquake took place. Now, it took place, local time, 8:28 in the morning. So, it's daylight hours. And perhaps we can go a little bit closer. Hopefully, we can.

Zoom in a bit closer, and I can actually show you that it was offshore. Now, the first warning that came through or the first advisory actually came through from the USGS saying it was a 6.5 magnitude and 74 kilometers deep. Then, a few minutes later, we have had quite a different revision, 6.2 magnitude, but actually only 33 kilometers deep.

That's about 20 miles deep off the coast. So far, there hasn't been a tsunami warning issued at all from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. What we do know, Wolf, in this region, we have got the Indo- Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. That's where the two meet. And this actual area is actually a convergence zone. That is what -- this how we define this particular area in terms of the plates under the ocean.

BLITZER: We will watch very closely, Jenny. Thanks very much for updating us on that. Let's hope it's quiet, relatively speaking.

HARRISON: Let's hope so, yes.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be good.

The U.S. and Haiti are trying to figure out what to do with 10 Americans charged with child trafficking. The group of would-be Baptist missionaries were to appear before a Haitian judge today, but could eventually wind up facing charges against them on home soil here in the United States.

CNN's Karl Penhaul is in Port-au-Prince and he unravels this story.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They say they were answering Jesus' call. Now these American Baptists stand accused of trafficking 33 Haitian babies and children. The Americans deny the charges and say they believed the kids were orphaned or abandoned. But some were not orphans at all and were crying to go home to their parents, Haitian authorities and aid workers say. Haitian police allowed the Americans out of their jail cell to talk to CNN.

They described a poorly planned mission to bust kids out of Haiti to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. But they denied wrongdoing.

LAURA SILSBY, DETAINED IN HAITI: And we believe we have been charged very falsely with trafficking, which, of course, that is the furthest possible extreme, because I mean, our whole -- our hearts here, we literally all gave up, you know, everything we had to be -- I mean income and -- and use of our own funds to come here to help these children and by no means are any part of that horrendous practice.

CARLA THOMPSON, NEW LIFE CHILDREN'S REFUGE: God is the one who called us to come here. And we just -- we just really believe that this was his purpose.

PENHAUL: Haitian police arrested the 10 Americans from Idaho, Kansas and Texas Friday, as they tried to cross the border from Haiti into the Dominican Republic. Team leader Silsby admitted the children had no documents, no passports nor official permission to leave.

SILSBY: They really didn't have any paperwork. And -- and my -- this is, again, probably a misunderstanding on my party, but that -- I did not understand that that would need -- that would really need to be required.

PENHAUL: The children, between two months and 12 years old, have been temporarily housed here at SOS Children's Village, run by an Austrian charity in Port-au-Prince.

Spokesman George Willeit said initial investigations show at least 10 of the youngsters had at least one surviving parent. He's now responsible for trying to reunite the families.

GEORGE WILLEIT, SOS CHILDREN'S VILLAGE: Some of them, for sure, are not orphans, because immediately as they arrived here, you know, the girl -- she might be nine years old -- was crying loud, "I am not an orphan. I do have my parents. Please call my parents."

PENHAUL: We met 10-year-old Benatine Poulime. She's been on the Baptist bus and was clearly frightened. She gave us the phone number of her mom, Adrian Poulime. In a brief conversation, the woman said she'd agreed to hand over her only daughter to the Americans and said she believed her child would be schooled and be well cared for.

Her mother gave permission to interview little Benatine. In her quiet voice, she told how she was loaded onto a bus just yards from her home with only the clothes she stood up in. She did not want to go.

"I said I wanted to get out of the bus, but they told me I had to stay. I was crying. I said I wanted to go to my mom," she says.

Back to jail and Baptist team leader, Laura Silsby.

(on camera): At least 10 of the children have a mother and father and they have the phone numbers of their mothers and fathers.



SILSBY: Well, I can tell you, our heart and our intent was to help only those children that needed us most, that -- that they had lost either both mother and father or had lost, you know, one of their parents and the other parent had abandoned them.

PENHAUL (voice-over): Silsby told me her Baptist group first met a Haitian pastor by chance as they arrived in the country last week and he helped them gather the children.

SILSBY: And we felt like it was a very God-appointed meeting.

PENHAUL: Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive banned fast track adoptions just after the earthquake and put a stop on Haitian kids leaving without official paperwork. The move was an effort to stop the risk of kids being sold for adoption or sold into child abuse rings.

Bellerive said he believed the Americans had committed a crime and is vowing to fully investigate.

JEAN-MAX BELLERIVE, HAITIAN PRIME MINISTER: For what I know until now, this is a kidnapping case. If we have some related parents involved in a cooperation, the children certainly were not fully willing to go because, in some cases, we -- for what I heard that they were asking for their parents. They wanted to -- they wanted to return to their parents.

So, in any case, really, just are not -- it's not acceptable.

PENHAUL: But the prime minister conceded Haiti's justice system is not fully functioning after the quake. He suggested the 10 Americans could be extradited to the United States to face trial.


BLITZER: Karl, when you spoke to these missionaries, they acknowledge they had no papers, no visas, no passports for any of these kids, is that right?

PENHAUL: Absolutely right. And they simply said that, well, we didn't think we needed it, it was such confusion and chaos. I said, didn't you go down to the social services ministry here, which was open last week? And they said, well, we went down there, but they were busy for a while -- they were busy and so we didn't stick around. And -- and we just put the kids on the bus and left.

But there is another side of this story, Wolf. And it's an amazing side that I want to tell you about, because we're digging on this today. We went up to a mountain village just outside Port-au- Prince and found the place where at least 20 of these 33 kids come from. And we met their parents.

At least 14 of those children have parents. Six others have some other kind of close relative. All told us that they gave away their children to the Americans. They said we simply cannot provide for our own children after this earthquake. They said that the Americans came and, through an interpreter, told us that they were going to take the children to a safe place in the Dominican Republic that had a school, that had a swimming pool, that would have a church, as well, and we gave them, because we believe that this is the best chance for a brighter future for our children.

And when I said to some of those parents, but now -- now, they're not going to the Dominican Republic, do you want them back?, they simply said, what can I do with them if you bring them back here? I have no money. I have no food. I have no water to give them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story. I'm sure it's not going to go away.

And this notion that they potentially could be charged here in the United States as opposed to in Haiti, what are you hearing about that?

PENHAUL: That is something that, right now, is being worked out. I did have the occasion to talk briefly to the U.S. ambassador to Haiti. He said he hadn't heard that yet through diplomatic channels, but he had heard the prime minister referencing that. He's not sure what kind of mechanism would be used, whether it would be a deportation, whether it would be a full on extradition.

But, of course, a big question mark there, if a crime was committed in Haiti and if the evidence is in Haiti, here is where the investigation has to be done. And on that front, I can tell you, that although the Haitian authorities are vowing to investigate this fully, they certainly seem to be well behind the curve.

When I talked to the prime minister yesterday, I gave him some information that we had dug up that he was not aware of. And when we went up to this village where 20 of the children come from, there had been no sign of any Haitian authorities there trying to dig up any information whatsoever -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And these 10 missionaries, they remain in prison right now?

PENHAUL: They are in jail right now and we have visited them twice now since their arrest. They say conditions are Spartan, but they say they're being well treated by the Haitians. They say they're not getting too much food or too much water, but just sufficient.

They have had brief access to consular officials and they say that they are keeping strong by singing hymns, saying prayers and reading passages from the bible -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul.

You'll keep us up to date on this story.

It's got huge interest here in the United States.

Thanks very much for that.

A new appeal for help today from a British couple still held hostage by Somali pirates. They say their three month ordeal is growing more desperate by the day.

And NASA aspirations for the moon grounded -- how the space program is feeling the budget pinch.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now -- Lisa, what else is going on?

SYLVESTER: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, a British couple being held by Somalian pirates are begging the world for help. Paul and Rachel Chandler, who have been held hostage for more than three months now in Somalia, say they're being poorly treated. They were abducted from their yacht after leaving Seychelles. A $7 million ransom has been demanded, but the British, in line with longstanding policy, have refused to pay. A U.K. spokesman says they're doing everything possible to help free them.

And the last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I is 109 today. Former Corporal Frank Buckles celebrated at his home in West Virginia. He has long spoken out for a memorial to his comrades in Washington to be given national status.

And the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery has added this portrait of J.D. Salinger. "The Catcher in the Rye" author died on Wednesday at the age of 91. The portrait by Robert Vickrey first appeared on the cover of "Time" way back in 1961. "Time" donated it to the museum.

And actor Rip Torn appeared in Connecticut -- in a Connecticut court today on burglary and firearms charges. He's accused of breaking into a bank Friday with a loaded gun while intoxicated. Torn's lawyer says he should be able to post bond and he is expected to enter an alcohol treatment center in New York this week -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

We're going to get back to you, Lisa.

Much more coming up.

If you have a big income, you might not like what's in the president's budget. Lisa is going to be coming back to explain the winners and the losers in the president's budget.

And astronaut dreams derailed by the White House -- why the moon may have just gotten a little bit farther away.

Stick around.



BLITZER: $3.8 trillion -- that's trillion dollars, with a T. President Obama unveils a plan to spend enough to boost the economic recovery, he hopes, while at the same time scrimping and saving enough to clean up some of the nation's red ink. He hopes that, as well.

Lisa Sylvester has been taking a closer look into the new budget proposal -- Lisa, what are you seeing?

SYLVESTER: Well, Wolf, there are some clear winners here in this proposed budget, including students and parents -- $17 billion more for Pell Grant -- for the Pell Grant program -- that's a college aid for low income families. Tax cuts of up to $2,100 for middle and low income families to care for a child. Another top one -- jobs, the number one priority for this administration -- small business, getting them to hire. Well, there's 17.5 billion in loan guarantees from the Small Business Administration. There's also a provision that allows firms to expense certain types of investment.

Also another big winner -- clean energy. $6 billion to develop clean energy technology. And, finally, the Defense Department -- the DOD is exempt from a three year freeze of non-discretionary spending. A budget -- their budget, in fact, is going to be increasing of up to 3 -- about 3.4 percent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A nice little raise for the Pentagon.

Who are the losers here, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Oh, well, there are also losers. And topping the list -- the wealthy. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire for families making $250,000 or more and for individuals making $200,000 or more. It's going to feel like their taxes have gone up. Financial institutions, also -- investment managers can no longer declare income as capital gains. This one's going to save the federal government about $24 billion over 10 years.

Also, a proposal that would impose a fee on the largest Wall Street banks and financial firms. Another loser -- oil and gas companies. It calls for an end to the fossil fuel tax -- the subsidies for oil and gas companies.

And finally, NASA -- It kills NASA's big project to the moon -- $3.5 billion cut from the Constellation Systems Program -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What information or assumptions are the -- is the administration using for the basis for a lot of these cuts and increases and budget projections?

SYLVESTER: Well, and that's a really key point, Wolf, because there are a number of assumptions that are built in. One of those assumptions is that the unemployment rate will average 9.2 percent in 2011. As you well know, the unemployment rate right now is 10 percent. So that's a really big assumption that they're -- they're assuming that that's -- that we're going to reach that level; also, that national GDP will grow 3.8 percent next year, considering that we were in negative territory for 2009.

Again, these are very lofty assumptions. I mean, that's not to say that we can't get there, but it is an assumption at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, well, the -- the last quarter, the economy did grow about 5.7 percent. So maybe that 3 percent or so assumption is not too far off the ground.

All right, thanks very much, Lisa.

A good report.

As Lisa just noted, the budget would pull the plug on NASA's massive effort to return astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade.

CNN's John Zarrella is joining us now from Miami -- John, where does NASA go from here with all of the scrubbing of the -- what's called the Constellation Program?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, Wolf, it was just three months ago that the Ares 1 rocket -- the first test flight of the Ares, very successful -- very likely the first and last test ever of the Ares rocket.

The Ares 1 scrubbed. A heavy lift Ares 5 scrubbed. The Orion capsule -- all part of this Constellation Program, is -- is gone.

What did win, though, was the Space Station, which will be funded through 2020, at the very least, with all of the international partners involved. That was critically important to NASA and to the administration to go ahead and fully fund Space Station, because it's only now up and operational to the point where they can start to do real science.

Space shuttles -- five left, that's it. No extension of the Space Shuttle program either, Wolf. And right now, as far as the future goes, the money they save on Constellation will be redirected into coming up with things like new propulsion systems, perhaps in- fuel orbiting of futuristic vehicles rather than going back to the future, building an old style rocket, very Apollo-era technology. They want to try and come up with something new.

But right now, Wolf, there is nothing out there to replace shuttle or to replace the Constellation -- -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Which raises the question, John, how will NASA get astronauts back and forth through the International Space Station?

ZARRELLA: Commercial vehicles. For the next four to five years, the Russians will be the only way, once shuttle is retired, until about 2016. Then after that, the hope is that commercial companies will, in partnership with NASA, come up with vehicles that will carry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station through at least 2020 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sort of like the Delta shuttle, which I take between Washington and New York.

ZARRELLA: Exactly.

BLITZER: But maybe a little bit nicer interior.

Thanks very much, John Zarrella, our man on the scene, as usual.

NASA's space program has led to a lot of spin-offs. And the space agency boasts of technology that now shows up in items we use everyday. Infant formulas are enriched with a nutritional ingredient developed for astronaut food supplements.

Dust Busters, those mini vacuum cleaners -- you remember those?

They were developed by Black & Decker for an Apollo space mission back in 1971.

Padding that protects football players, baseball catchers and the shins of soccer players comes from a foam product developed for NASA. And several types of scratch-resistant plastic sunglasses were developed to be used in space.

Spin-offs, as they say, from all the NASA programs.

NASA isn't the only one feeling the pinch.

How would you cut federal spending?

Jack Cafferty will read your e-mail on that very question when we come back.

Also, one more argument for being pregnant before you hit the age of 30 -- a new study says there may not be enough eggs later on. We'll tell you what we're learning, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: All right. Let's get right back to Jack for The Cafferty File.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, is how would you cut government spending if -- if they asked you in Washington how to do that?

Janne in North Carolina: "Five percent off the top of everything, nothing spared. Then I would charge everybody, from a person making $100 to a person making a billion dollars, a 5 percent deficit tax -- no exemptions, no exceptions. And last of all, I would require a balanced federal budget amendment. I guarantee, by the time we got done with all of that, we'd never again let our elected officials get so carried away with our money. Tell me, does any of that sound complicated?"

Michael writes: "If you want to stop spending, cut the empire. We don't need to spend billions of dollars on a military based on the cold war. China is not going to attack us. We owe them too much money."

Casey writes: "I wouldn't, Jack -- not right now, at least; not at a time when the government needs to be spending to boost the economy. What the real problem here is, is we haven't been oper -- we've been operating under a tax policy for the last decade that refuses to take in enough revenue to cover our budget or even cut down on the deficit to a substantial degree."

Charlotte in North Carolina writes: "Jack, your comments are incendiary. People who serve in government are not infallible, but it isn't helpful to trash them the way you have been doing tonight. They are the people who are in government now. I'd really like to see us communicate more with our elected officials. I worked on the Hill for years and I know they listen."

Brad in Oakland, Carolina: "Seventy percent of the federal budget is spent on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and national defense plus interest on the national debt. Any effort to cut the deficit without addressing those programs is tantamount to trying to save a sinking ship by bailing water with a teacup."

And Ali writes: "Jack, it's simple -- it's time to fire the government. It's time for change."

Vote against all the incumbents in November.

If you want to read more about this, you can go to my blog at and talk to the people on the Hill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, you'll be -- you'll be happy to know a lot of those incumbents are not seeking reelection (INAUDIBLE).

CAFFERTY: Well, good. And they should all leave -- all of them.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty with The Cafferty File.

Thank you.


BLITZER: Now that he's been elected to the U.S. Senate, the Massachusetts Republican, Scott Brown, has to live down a new moniker -- how a magazine photo has earned him the title of Senator Hunk Daddy. We'll tell you what's going on.

And the census comes to the streets of Laredo -- we're going to tell you why some people there might not want to be counted.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts shook things up when he won that Massachusetts Senate race. But now the senator-elect is turning heads and prompting parody for a Moost Unusual magazine photo he agreed to decades ago.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Technically, he's still only a senator-elect, but already he's been anointed Senator Hunk Daddy. Sexy hunk.


SALLY QUINN, STAFF WRITER, "WASHINGTON POST": First of all, Scott Brown is a hunk.


MOOS: "Washington Post" writer Sally Quinn is just saying what others are thinking -- "the hunk factor," "anatomy is destiny" and Scott Brown's anatomy is already fodder for "Saturday Night Live," with Brown played by the star of "Madman."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm looking forward to working closely with you.


MOOS: Seducing Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to introduce something to the floor. It's called your panties.


MOOS: But Senator-elect Brown didn't get his panties in a twist over "SNL." "It was great," he told the "Boston Herald." "I think he's a little bit better dancer than I am."

That "Cosmo" centerfold from his law school days is what turned him into a hunk of burning Senator-elect.


BARBARA WALTERS, HOST: Are you worried that this could make you a little bit of a joke?


Do I regret doing that?

No, because if I hadn't done that, I never would have been sitting here with you.


MOOS: Would he have been sitting on Jay Leno's show impersonating the guy in one of his favorite movies?





BROWN: Adrian, Adrian, we did it! I did it!


MOOS: He did it, all right, made it into Congressman Barney Frank's imagination on "SNL."


BROWN: Are you worried about a filibuster?

Because I'm about to fill a bust out of these jeans.


MOOS: He even got into the head of the Senate's oldest member.

Admirers have put his image to music.


MOOS (on camera): What's next?

A nude action figure of the guy?

(voice-over): Well, actually, yes. has rushed out the anatomically correct Cosmo Man. And the real Scott Brown will be happy to hear that for $34.95, it comes with fig leaf included.

(on camera): And talk about a politician with animal magnetism...

(voice-over): The Web site Urlesque found an uncanny resemblance between the senator-elect and a come hither kangaroo.


MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: And happening now, we're learning more about the federal government's investigation of Toyota and why safety officials may not be satisfied with the carmaker's new fix for its recall nightmare -- information you need to know.

Plus, the president promising not to treat your hard-earned cash like Monopoly money.

Would his new budget plan ease America's debt or make it worse?

We're asking lawmakers if they buy the president's math.

And security concerns here in the United States, as thousands of people prepare to cross back and forth across the northern border during the Winter Olympics in Canada. This hour, the high traffic and the terror threat.