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Heat on Holder; Poison Letter Sent to New York Mayor; Threats to NYC Mayor Test Positive for Poison; Daughter Praying Mom will be Set Free from Mexico; National Spelling Bee Under Way with New Rules; Swat Annoys Singer

Aired May 29, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Dr. Anthony Fauci is here. He will tell us why health officials are sounding the alarm.

Plus, Republicans are turning up the heat on the attorney general, Eric Holder. Did he tell the truth about the administration's investigation of journalists?

And al Qaeda incorporated, airing its dirty laundry, cracking down on a veteran fighter who didn't file his paperwork.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All that coming up, but there is breaking news in New York right now, the New York City Police Department saying that letters containing threats to the Mayor Michael Bloomberg contain material that has now tested positive, positive, initial tests, for the poison ricin.

The deputy police commissioner, Paul Browne, saying the letters were opened in New York on Friday. He said the anonymous writer threatened the mayor, threatened Mayor Bloomberg with references to the debate on gun laws. Civilian personnel in New York and Washington who came into contact with the open letters haven't shown any symptoms.

However, members of the NYPD emergency service unit who came in contact with the letter that was opened at the city's mail facility on Gold Street here in Manhattan on Friday, they are being examined for what are described as minor symptoms of ricin exposure.

A very significant development, potentially very, very disturbing, a letter sent to the mayor of New York, testing -- initially testing positive for ricin.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health is joining us right now.

Dr. Fauci, tell us a little bit about ricin exposure, and what potentially this could mean to someone who went through and touched that letter or inhaled ricin from one of those letters. DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Well, it's one of the most toxic and deadly substances that you can actually have.

So the idea of exposing someone to it, where it could actually get into the system, can be really very destructive. So something like that is clearly an attempt to cause significant and serious damage to the person who would get exposed to it.

BLITZER: I remember from the ricin -- you know, the anthrax letters that came out, you remember that whole crisis that we had...

FAUCI: I remember it well.

BLITZER: ... in Washington and in New York, right after 9/11. All of a sudden, everybody who came into contact started taking Cipro, that antibiotic.

What should those who came into contact potentially with ricin be doing as a preventive measure?

FAUCI: Well, there isn't any preventive measure. If you really were exposed, you will get sick and you need to seen by a physician and go to an emergency room if you get sick.

But there isn't an antibiotic, because it's not a microbe. It's a toxic substance that interferes seriously with some of the metabolic processes in the body. It isn't something that you could give an antibiotic for, because it isn't a microbe of any sort. So there really isn't any effective treatment when someone gets exposed, and the consequences are really very serious, if in fact it's ricin.

BLITZER: If it's ricin, potentially, what I hear you saying is, that could be a lot more serious than the anthrax letters that we're all familiar with about a decade or so ago, because there really isn't a whole lot doctors can do; is that right?

FAUCI: That's correct. There's no remedy for it. There's no antidote for it. There's no treatment for it, except to support the person who, if they get exposed to enough of it, will get seriously ill. And they would need significant medical support.

BLITZER: One more question before we move on to another subject. And I know you're going to be sticking around for us. When they say that some of those here in New York who came into contact with this letter that is believed to have ricin, at least the initial tests tested positive, have what are called minor symptoms, what are you anticipating? What are those minor symptoms that people should be paying attention to?

FAUCI: Well, you could feel nauseated, you could feel sick, you could feel somewhat faint. Again, people need to understand that ricin, unlike an infectious agent, blocks metabolic processes in the body and can shut down some of the systems.

People can feel sick from a variety of things. Just feeling some symptoms, you want to make sure they're real and not because of the shock of thinking that they were exposed. But they certainly need to be seen by a physician or a medical facility that can examine them thoroughly and if they do need support, to get support.

BLITZER: All right, Dr. Fauci, don't go away, because there's another story we're following right now. And I want your expertise on that right now.

The death toll rising right now from a newly discovered respiratory virus that health officials are calling, and I'm quoting them now, "a threat to the entire world." So far, 49 people have been infected in eight countries, most of them in the Middle East. The World Health Organization says, as of today, 27 of those patients have died. And that number will likely get higher, because experts don't understand how the virus is spreading.

Let's get some background now.

CNN's Mary Snow is joining us.

So, Mary, what are you learning? How serious is this?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the big reason the World Health Organization is so concerned about this virus is there is no known treatment at the moment.

Now, scientists around the world are looking for answers, and that includes a team here in New York.


SNOW (voice-over): Thousands of miles away from dozens of people have died, these scientists at New York's Columbia University hunt for the source of a mysterious new virus the World Health Organization calls a threat to the world. It's the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus.

Ian Lipkin is the director for the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.

(on camera): Should people be concerned about this?

DR. W. IAN LIPKIN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: People should always be concerned whenever there's an emerging infectious disease, because we don't really know. We don't have ways in which we can predict and project and appropriately prepare for some of these.

SNOW (voice-over): Lipkin is working with the government of Saudi Arabia, where it's believed the virus originated. The virus is in the same family as SARS. And symptoms include fever and cough that can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.

This man's father is believed to have died from it.

HUSSEIN AL-SHEIKH, SON OF VICTIM: He got something which we didn't know about it. And he was -- like, his condition was getting worse. SNOW: The World Health Organization says it's unknown exactly how it spread.

GREGORY HARTL, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION: This is of grave concern to us here internationally in WHO, because there are so many unknowns around the virus which so far has killed 55 percent of the confirmed cases.

SNOW: Clusters of cases have been transmitted between family members or in a health care setting. And it may have initially passed from animals to humans.

LIPKIN: The original host, the original reservoir for the virus in SARS was a bat. And we think based on our analysis of the sequence of this virus that it also originated in a bat.

SNOW (on camera): Where?

LIPKIN: Well, probably somewhere in the Middle East.

SNOW (voice-over): While the virus has spread from the Middle East to some European countries, no cases have been reported in the U.S. One expert says, while the World Health Organization is concerned about the potential for the virus, that concern shouldn't deter travelers.

DR. MARK DENISON, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: I don't think we should be concerned in terms of travel to the Middle East or to anywhere in the world right now, but to just be aware of it. Most of the cases and illnesses have been associated with the elderly and those with preexisting or severe underlying medical conditions.


SNOW: And in the cases that have been found in eight countries, all have been linked back to the Middle East -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary Snow, thank you.

Let's bring back one of the world's leading experts on infectious diseases. Dr. Anthony Fauci is still with us, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:

How worried are you, Dr. Fauci, about this virus?

FAUCI: Well, as Dr. Lipkin said, you always need to be concerned when you have an emerging new infection, and you don't know what direction it's taking.

Important point to bring out is that although there are family clusters, there's not what we call sustained person-to-person transmissibility. Now, we hope that it stays that way, or just sort of disappears the way SARS did 10 years ago, Wolf. But we don't know that. And there's always the uncertainty, which is the reason why you have to be very vigilant in tracking and following this.

So, when you say concerned, whenever you have a new and emerging infection, in this case, this now Middle East coronavirus, this novel virus, you have to keep an eye on it very, very carefully. We don't know where it's coming from, as Dr. Lipkin said very correctly. If you look at the molecular structure of the virus, it resembles a virus in a bat, so it likely originated from a bat.

But we don't know if there's a secondary host, where the bat infected another animal, and that's the reason why people in the Middle East have gotten infected. We still have to figure that out. We don't know that.

BLITZER: Doctors don't even know, correct me if I'm wrong, Dr. Fauci, how people are getting this disease. And I assume that makes it much harder to fight?

FAUCI: That is absolutely correct, Wolf. We don't know how people are getting it. You can assume, if it's directly from a bat, that it is exposure to a bat.

But if there's a secondary host, a secondary animal like a mammal, you don't really understand, because there's no direct epidemiological link, a common link transmissibility from an animal host to the human. We just have these cases that have popped up first in the Middle East and then some cases that have actually traveled from the Middle East to other countries like the U.K., like Tunisia, like France and other places, where they have actually had people in those European and other countries who got infected in the Middle East and then came back.

And there have been some, what we call family clusters of people who are very, very closely related to the individuals, either in a family or even in a health care setting, but, again, to emphasize, sustained person-to-person transmission has not occurred, thank goodness.

BLITZER: And let's hope it doesn't. The United Nations World Health Organization, as you know, says this is, and I'm quoting now, "a threat to the entire world."

Here's the question for you, Dr. Fauci. How big of a threat right now should we see this in the United States, within the United States? If it went from the Middle East to Europe, could it come here?

FAUCI: Well, it could come here, Wolf, if someone has been in the Middle East and gotten infected and came here, and a case came up.

That wouldn't surprise me. The thing that, again, to reemphasize is that there has not been sustained person-to-person transmissibility. So, although it's a threat, we don't know the degree of the threat, because if it's acting the way it acts now and doesn't change, it isn't sustained transmission. But if it mutates or changes and assumes the capability of going more readily from person to person, that's what you need to be concerned about.

But there's no way at all, Wolf, where you can now predict the likelihood of whether that's going to happen or not.

BLITZER: Dr. Fauci, as usual, whenever there's an issue like this, we come to you. Thank you very much for your expertise.

FAUCI: You're quite welcome, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, even veterans of the world's most famous terrorist groups have to answer to their bosses. Al Qaeda tells a jihadist to -- quote -- "file his expense accounts reports."

Can the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, hold on to his job? Republicans are turning up the heat about the administration's snooping on journalists.


BLITZER: Now growing questions about whether Eric Holder can hold on to his job as the attorney general of the United States. He's launching a review of the Justice Department's controversial investigation into leaks of sensitive classified information. But Republicans and other critics say he's a big part of the problem in an administration that's been aggressively snooping on journalists.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is following this story for us.

What's the latest, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, despite growing concerns over the Justice Department's investigations of journalists, White House officials say President Obama is still confident, still has confidence in Attorney General Eric Holder. That is despite the fact that House Republicans are ramping up their pressure, questioning whether Holder told the truth at a congressional hearing earlier this month.


ACOSTA (voice-over): At a hearing on the recent revelation that the Justice Department had seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked a crucial hypothetical question, whether journalists could be prosecuted for espionage. Holder gave this response under oath.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of the material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.

ACOSTA: But roughly one week after that testimony, the Justice Department acknowledged Holder was involved in the decision to seek a search warrant for the private e-mails of FOX News reporter James Rosen. An FBI affidavit used to obtain the warrant for Rosen's e- mails described him as a potential aider and abetter and/or co- conspirator in disclosing government secrets in a 2009 news story.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are now conducting an investigation into the attorney general's testimony, firing off this letter to Holder, asking for clarification, saying, "The Rosen case seems to be at odds with your sworn testimony." REP. BOB GOODLATTE (R), VIRGINIA: The testimony that he gave didn't limit itself to a prosecution of a reporter. It was broader than that. And, therefore, it seems to be contradicted by the facts.

ACOSTA: But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney argued Rosen wasn't the one being prosecuted.

(on camera): Is it the administration's opinion that the attorney general testify truthfully at that hearing?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Based on what he said, he testified truthfully. I think every published report, I think the attorney general talked about prosecution. Extremely large distinction between, you know, what's at issue here and prosecution.

JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL ATTORNEY, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: There are legitimate questions about the truth of Holder's testimony.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, a fierce critic of the Bush administration and Obama voter, says Holder should resign in an op-ed in "USA Today."

TURLEY: What Eric Holder did is he crossed a line, a very important one. He endangered a free press. If Eric Holder were a rational actor, he would resign. He's damaged goods. I'm not too sure why he would want to keep limping along. But if he refuses to go, he needs to be fired.

ACOSTA: Earlier this month, President Obama offered Holder his full support.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general.

ACOSTA: That hasn't changed.

(on camera): Does he still have confidence in this attorney general?

CARNEY: Absolutely. He absolutely does, yes.


ACOSTA: Now, the Justice Department confirms the attorney general will be meeting with the Washington bureau chiefs of several national organizations over the coming days to talk about these investigations of journalists.

But Holder has asked that those meetings be kept off the record. Meanwhile, the attorney general has hired a new spokesman over at the Justice Department, Wolf. That is a sign that he is staffing up and not stepping down -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta with the latest on that sensitive issue, thanks very, very much. A terrorist is in trouble with his bosses. Coming up, we have the story of an al Qaeda leader who won't answer his phone or file his expense reports.

Also, we're hearing from another daughter of the Arizona woman accused of drug smuggling in Mexico. Her family calls it a setup.


BLITZER: Now to the story of a top al Qaeda operative in Africa.

The man has a fearsome reputation as a fighter, but it turns out, guess what, he's a huge headache for the people on his own side.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is joining us now with details.

What's going on here, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Wolf, we all know that al Qaeda has a long history of ruthless killing. But there's new evidence they also have everyday problems.


STARR (voice-over): Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the notorious veteran jihadist of North Africa, is a lousy employee. His bosses, the leaders of al Qaeda's branch in the region, sent an extraordinary letter detailing his shortcomings.

RUDOLPH ATALLAH, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: In the letter, they air out the dirty laundry.

STARR: The letter found in North Africa by the Associated Press in North Africa pulls no punches. Top al Qaeda make clear in their world of terrorists they are not happy with Belmokhtar performance. They complain he didn't answer the phone, failed to turn in expense reports, ignored meetings, and refused to carry out orders. Belmokhtar, for his part, wanted to be number one.

ATALLAH: He just wants to be the CEO of his own company.

STARR: Rudy Atallah, a former Pentagon expert on African terrorism, has tracked Belmokhtar for years.

ATALLAH: He was part of the corporate board. Think of it that way. But he saw them as all, and I hate to use the word, but prima donnas that are not capable of doing the job better than he can.

STARR: An unhappy Belmokhtar did break away from the rest of al Qaeda in North Africa and then he launched new attacks, claiming responsibility for a deadly raid on a British petroleum plant in Algeria and an army barracks and uranium plant in Niger.

(END VIDEOTAPE) STARR: Now, make no mistake. Experts say this guy is very dangerous, that Belmokhtar appears determined to continue attacking Western business and economic targets in North Africa, and that he's got the money, the manpower and the grassroots support across a wide swathe of the region to carry it all out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Just when you think you know a lot about these terrorist organizations, something like this pops up. All right, Barbara, thanks for sharing. Appreciate it very much.

Up next, an American woman's nightmare inside a Mexican jail. I will talk to her daughter about the fight to free her. Her family says she's facing bogus drug charges.


BLITZER: Happening now: breaking news, poisoned letters threatening the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg. We have new details from police on tests that show traces of ricin.

An American woman is fighting drug smuggling charges in a Mexican court today. She says she's been set up. We will have the latest on her case and I will speak live with her daughter.

And how do you spell difficult? New rules are challenging contestants in the National Spelling Bee.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news this hour, the New York City Police Department now saying that letters that contained traces of the poison ricin were sent to the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

CNN's Mary Snow's got the latest for us.

Mary, update our viewers on the breaking news.

SNOW: Well, Wolf, the New York City Police Department says anonymous threats to Mayor Bloomberg were contained in the letters and that preliminary tests show traces of ricin.

The FBI says it's investigating. According to the NYPD, one letter was opened in New York City on Friday, and the other was opened on Sunday in Washington, D.C., by the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Now, that's an organization co-founded by Mayor Bloomberg. We don't know what the letter said, but the NYPD said they did make references to the debate on gun laws.

Bloomberg has been an outspoken advocate of gun control laws. A law enforcement official tells CNN that both letters had the same postmark. The official wouldn't provide the location of that postmark, other than to say it wasn't D.C. or New York City. Investigators, according to this official, are checking leads in the city where the letters were postmarked -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, very worrisome stuff, especially if some symptoms are already being exhibited by some of those who may have come in contact with those letters.

Mary, stand by.

Joining us on the phone right now is CNN's national security analyst, Fran Townsend, the former Bush homeland security adviser.

Fran, tell us a little bit about ricin, how common it is, commonly used it is out there and the problems that could result from this?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN SECURITY ADVISOR (via phone): Wolf, we ought to start by saying that, as Mary reported, that the preliminary test has shown positive for ricin, and as we often know when we field test these drug tests, the preliminary results are oftentimes not confirmed. So we'll have to wait to see the final lab report.

Ricin is -- is a sort of easily-constructed poisonous substance. It comes from -- its basic component is from crushed cherry pits, if you can imagine. And it is a poison that you have to come in contact with, right. And it enters your blood stream through your pores.

We know that it has been used by al Qaeda, and al Qaeda cells in the past. We know that the recipe for it is, you know, it's another one of these things that's easily available on the Internet. And in training -- in al Qaeda training manuals. And so, you know, counterterrorism authorities associate it with extremist groups.

But again, you know, they'll be working the clues. That is, what was in the letter, what was the postmark, and all the sorts of things that Mary reported that, you know, they're going to follow those leads, indicating where these letters were postmarked from.

But again, we should remind people, these are preliminary test results, and we'll have to wait to see whether or not laboratories actually confirm those test results.

BLITZER: Apparently, the letter also contains some direct threats to the mayor. And a lot of us remember, and you remember, of course, very much a decade or so ago after 9/11, the anthrax, the deadly anthrax letters that were mailed out to government officials, some in the media. And that's a very different substance, anthrax as opposed to ricin.

They're reviewing it now, as you say, over at the National Bioforensic Analysis Center out in Maryland. What specifically -- what will they be looking for?

TOWNSEND: Well, the lab itself will look to see the strength of the compound: how competently was this poison constructed, if in fact they confirm that it's ricin. In the meantime, the FBI will look for things like fingerprints. Of course, people who naturally handled the mail will have fingerprints on it. But they will try to identify those, eliminate people who would have legitimately had contact with it, and see if that -- they can't get some forensics, whether it's DNA, when you -- if you lick an envelope, whether there's hair or there's fingerprints, anything forensically that they can get off these letters or the envelopes associated with them, to try and help them identify who would have been targeting and threatening the mayor.

BLITZER: In the end of the statement that the New York City deputy police commissioner, Paul Brown, released a little while ago, he said the FBI joint terrorism task force and NYPD intelligence division, which is responsible for the mayor's protection, are investigating the threats. What does it say to you that the joint terrorism task force is part of this investigations right now?

TOWNSEND: It's actually the easiest mechanism here in New York City to coordinate between the state and federal government. You've got -- the joint terrorism task force has both local NYPD investigators, and feds, from across the federal family, it's housed over at the FBI and led by an FBI agent. But they have access to all of the federal agencies, including intelligence from the CIA.

Let's remember, Dave Cohen, the deputy NYPD commissioner for intelligence, is a former very senior operative with the federal intelligence agency early in his career. And so this is a very sophisticated capability. And they will look at prior threats against the mayor, prior intelligence they may have on the use of ricin in the city by groups who may have targeted or threatened the mayor.

BLITZER: I'm worried about some officials who may have come into contact with this letter. According to the statement put out by the New York City Police Department, they are being examined for minor symptoms of ricin exposure, that they experienced on Saturday. But which have since abated. I hope they're going to be OK. I hope everyone's going to be OK.

Fran, thanks very much for that analysis. And we'll, of course, have much more on this story as more information comes in. Once again, a very worrisome story. Two threatening letters to the mayor of New York City, now being further investigated after preliminarily being tested positive for the poison, ricin.

Other news we're following, she's an American, a mother and a Mormon. And right now, she's in Mexico. She's fighting to get out of jail and clear her name. Yanira Maldonado's case and her claim that she's been framed, getting attention around the world right now.

Joining us now are her daughter, Brenda Pedraza, and her son-in-law, Sal. They're joining us from Valdosta, in Georgia, where they live.

To both of you, thanks very much for joining us. And I see your baby there with you. Baby boy just three weeks ago. Your mom, Brenda, was there when your baby was born. What's, first of all, the latest information you're hearing from Mexico about your mom's condition? BRENDA PEDRAZA, YANIRA MALDONADO'S DAUGHTER: The latest information that we've heard so far is that yesterday they took, the court trial yesterday, about my mom being able to testify, her own will, and having also witnesses testify of her getting on the bus with nothing in her hands. That was the latest, what we've heard. And I know today they were going to talk to the military officials.

BLITZER: And Sal, you know, your mom was there after the baby was born. The baby that you're holding in your -- in your arms right now. This must be so emotionally difficult for you and for Brenda right now. Walk us through what's going on.

SAL PEDRAZA, SON-IN-LAW OF YANIRA MALDONADO: Well, you know, we got the phone call originally that my father-in-law was going to be the one imprisoned. And then that was -- that was just devastating to hear, as well. Because, I mean, just to be put in that situation, where you don't know what's going on, and we're so far away. And we just saw them.

And then to that hear, no, it's going to be my mother-in-law, you know, it's heartbreaking for my wife, you know. And she was in tears. And just scared. You're scared. You don't know what's going to happen.

She's been to Mexico so many times. They made that trip so many times. And you never think in your wildest imagination that this is going to happen. It's just kind of very scary to think that, if things weren't to work out, and, you know, she was to be incarcerated for so many years, it would be scary to know that her granddaughter right here wouldn't be able to see her and she wouldn't be able to watch her granddaughter or grandson grow up. And it's very -- it's a frightening thought.

But our hopes and prayers, and we're still thankful for all the help we've been getting, all the media, all the attention that we've been able to spread the news about her being a great woman, a great mother, and even greater grandmother. We're just hoping and praying to see her soon and be able to be there with her when she's freed.

But that's all I'm saying right now. And we're very hopeful that the judge will see it in her favor. We're just very thankful that we're, you know, being -- this is being heard, and we're being heard.

BLITZER: Brenda, I spoke to your sister the other day, and she talked about your mom and told us a little bit about her. A mother of seven, and now a grandmother as we see right there.

Tell us a little bit about your mom. What's she like, and why you believe this notion that she was trying to smuggle in, you know, ten pounds, or 12 pounds of marijuana into the United States is outrageous?

B. PEDRAZA: It's very outrageous. My mom, you know, she does have seven children, two grandchildren. And it's just -- it's unbelief, honestly. She -- her whole life, she's just been raising us, as a single parent. You know, me, my sister and my brother. And she's just a wonderful mom and a wonderful grandma. And she would never jeopardize her life for, you know, to lose -- to lose this. To lose her family. It's -- yes.

BLITZER: Sal, you know your mother-in-law. You know her, obviously, well. Is it even conceivable, within your furthest imagination, that she could be trying to smuggle drugs into the United States from Mexico?

S. PEDRAZA: Not ever. You know, I've known my mother-in-law for quite some time now. And she is a great woman. You know, she would do anything for anyone, if you asked her -- asked it of her. If we were back home, we would probably be over at her house every night, for dinner.

And she's just a great supporter. She always has -- even when we're having issues, you know, with being away from home, she's always been so supportive of us.

And it's just -- I could never -- I know my mother-in-law would never do such a thing. She's very grounded in her morals. She's always been a very good, you know, a very good role model to her daughters. And I'm very thankful for her being my mother, as well. My extended mother. And I'm just very thankful that she's -- her grandbaby right here in my arms.

And I'm just -- we're just praying and hopeful that everything will go well. And we'll be able to see her soon. It's very sad and disheartened to hear this.

BLITZER: Brenda, I'll ask you the same question I asked your sister the other day. If Mexican authorities are watching you, watching this interview right now, speak to them. Tell us something about your mom you want to share, and why you think she's got to get out of that prison very quickly, and let her come back to the United States.

B. PEDRAZA: She has to get out of that prison very quick, only -- not only because her family misses her, she also needs to be with my younger brother. My younger brother still needs her guidance. He's still in high school.

And her grandkids are going to need her. And I still need her. You know? Being a new mom. I still need her advice. Her guidance.

You know, we heard that the, you know, the minimum is ten years. Ten years is a whole life span. And it's just -- you know, we don't have that -- that time. Ten years to be separated from your own mother. I just can't imagine that. I wouldn't want to be separated from my own daughter.

So, please, to the officials in Mexico, to please do your part, and really investigate. Because I know my mom has nothing to do with those illegal drugs. BLITZER: Well, our hearts go out to you, go out to the entire family, Sal, and Brenda, and your beautiful baby. We hope only the best. We will stay on top of this story and make sure our viewers in the United States and around the world know exactly what's going on.

Good luck to both of you, Brenda and Sal. Let's hope for the best. Thank you very much for joining us.

B. PEDRAZA: Thank you.

S. PEDRAZA: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: We'll take a quick break. More news right after this.


BLITZER: The Chinese are buying an old top U.S. business. Mary Snow is here. She's got that and some of the day's top stories. What's going on, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for anyone who cooks or appreciates country ham, the Smithfield brand is instantly recognized and universally respected. Now the Virginia-based company is being sold to a Chinese meat producer that's paying $4.7 billion in cash. The deal is subject to review by U.S. regulators. If approved, it will be the largest Chinese takeover of the U.S. company.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee is switching parties, again. Democratic sources tell CNN Chaffee intends to seek a second term as a Democrat rather than as an independent. Before he was elected governor, Chaffee served in the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

And how's this for breaking news? A correspondent in Maine was getting ready to do a live report on the search for a missing man, when that man walked up behind him. Seventy-three-year-old Robert McDonough, who authorities say suffers from dementia, hadn't been seen for 14 hours. Fortunately, he's OK -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fortunately, indeed. Mary, thank you.

Still ahead, the national spelling bee -- yes, the national spelling bee isn't just about spelling anymore. We're going to see how contestants are coping with some brand-new rules.


BLITZER: It's a spring ritual: the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, and guess what? It's become even harder. Mary Snow is back. She's explaining what's going on -- Mary.

SNOW: Wolf, think you have trouble spelling? How about doing it on national TV with $30,000 on the line? It's what nearly 300 elementary and junior high school students are doing this week. And this time they're facing a new challenge.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SNOW (voice-over): Two hundred eighty-one spellers started on this stage.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Realshuba (ph). It's a singular noun.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had this word last time I was here.

SNOW: For a few, the bell tolled.


SNOW: But before the third to eighth graders even made it to the big stage, they went behind this door alone. To face down these computers and a brand-new twist in the 86-year-old Scripps spelling bee.

JUSTIN HAMILTON, SPELLING BEE CONTESTANT: I was only concerned about the spelling at first. But then the vocab came along. I thought this is going to be harder than I thought.

SNOW: For the first time, preliminary rounds demand not only students know how to spell words but also know what some of them mean. Shreyas Parab was minutes away from taking his test, where he would have to define 25 words.

SHREYAS PARAB, SPELLING BEE CONTESTANT: I know this. My parents have always been telling me to calm down, take it easy. Keep calm and spell. And -- vocab this year. But that's all I can do, really. Is use everything that I've learned.

SNOW: Afterwards...

PARAB: It was multiple choice. So when in doubt, go with C. I'm kidding. But I think I did well.

SNOW: And with knowing words like...

PARAB: Humuhumunukunukuapuaa. H-U-M-U-H-U-M-U-N-U-K-U-N-U-K-U-A-P-U- A-A.

SNOW: ... he has good reason to be confident, and he made it through his first round on stage.

PARAB: Bellicose. B-E-L-L-I-C-O-S-E. Bellicose.

SNOW: The point of the change, the organizers say, is to focus on more than just spelling.

PAIGE KIMBLE, SPELLING BEE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: This is all about a very demonstrable effort to inspire children to learn vocabulary as they participate in our program. SNOW: More education or not, a rule change this big, announced just seven weeks before the Super Bowl of spelling, is causing some students a lot of S-T-R-E-S-S.

ABIRAMI RATNAKUMAR, SPELLING BEE CONTESTANT: I'm not saying it's a bad change. But I think they should have announced this for next year's bee instead of right before nationals. Because everyone is already stressed out enough right now. So adding a whole other layer of competition on it kind of -- yes, it really freaks people out.


SNOW: Wolf, get this. Shreyas, the 12-year-old boy we met in the piece, spent four to five hours a day for two months studying for the bee. And he's memorized the spelling and definition for 5,000 words.

Sadly, though, it wasn't enough. We've just learned this hour that he won't be advancing to the semifinals. But, Wolf, I am very sure he has a very bright future ahead of him.

BLITZER: No doubt about that. He was a very, very impressive young man. All right. Mary, thanks very much.

If you're wondering why I'm in New York today, here's why. I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at Hunter College, part of the city university of New York here at Radio City Music Hall today.

It was really, really a moving experience for me to see all these wonderful young graduates of Hunter College. So many of them have gone through so much to get where they are -- where they are right now. I was so impressed with the class of 2013.

The president of Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, who is a wonderful, wonderful host, as well. Thank you, Hunter College.

Jeanne Moos is next.


BLITZER: Jeanne Moos has proof it's better to keep your hands to yourself.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Beyonce may be celebrated for her booty, but she almost had to boot out a fan for celebrating it a little too much.

It happened at a concert in Copenhagen. Beyonce was interacting with fans. She shared her mike with a guy. Then as she started to walk away, he gave her derriere a little slap.

BEYONCE, SINGER: I will have you escorted out of here now. All right? MOOS: Beyonce sashayed away. We're not sure whether the butt slapper went or stayed. Fans captured the swat from all angles and debated it online.

"If you don't want it slapped, girlfriend, stop flaunting it in their faces," versus "Just because she performs for a living doesn't give you the right to violate her space."

(on camera): Reporters wanting to ask Beyonce about the butt grab might as well butt out. "No comment" was all her record label would say.

(voice-over): Now Beyonce is no stranger to administering a little booty love to her dancers and getting it from her husband, Jay-Z. Beyonce seemed to reward Jay-Z for his playful pat.

Not so playful is how some overexcited fans acted in Belgrade, Serbia, pulling Beyonce's hair and touching her face.

Earlier this month a fan rushed the stage where Justin Bieber was seated at the piano. Security instantly jumped in, knocking down the piano in the scuffle while Justin calmly walked away performing.

And who could forget Will Smith when a Ukrainian prankster interviewer tried to kiss him?

WILL SMITH, ACTOR/HIP-HOP STAR: Come on man, what is the hell is your problem?


SMITH: It's just awkward, Dave.

MOOS: Oddest of all is when Britney Spears invited a guy from the audience onstage so she could perform a pole dance on him. He bit her. Bit-ney Spears, they call her.

And now the personification of bootyliciousness...

BEYONCE (SINGING): My body is too bootylicious for you, baby.

MOOS: Had to just turn the other cheek.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.