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Houston On Dangerous Path Before Death; Source: Houston Drank "Large Quantities" Of Alcohol; Deadly Crackdown In Syria; Santorum Releases Tax Returns; Rick Santorum Earned $1.1 Million in 2009; Joan Smalls, Not Just the Newest Top Model, But Also a Star; Violence in Syria Continue to Escalate; Payroll Tax Cut Plan in Place; Iran Flaunts Nuclear Progress; Should States Police School Lunches?

Aired February 16, 2012 - 06:00   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And a very good morning to you. It is right at the top of the hour. It's 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time. It's EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. We are very happy that you are with us. Let's get started here.

Whitney Houston on a dangerous path days before her death. Sources that Whitney Houston drank heavily in the days before her death. She started drinking, where you're seeing those pictures, 10:00 in the morning poolside.

BANFIELD: Also, have we got a deal for you. And I mean it. Late last night, word came out that a payroll tax cut deal is now actually in place. The lawmakers using a word they haven't used in a while, the big c word, compromise.

SAMBOLIN: And Iran showing off a new level of nuclear know-how and playing the oil card, as well. What does Iran want and what is it capable of? We're speaking to an expert who has been inside Iran.

BANFIELD: And if you are about to or in the middle of packing your children's school lunch, you will love this one. Does the government know better than you what to put in that lunch box?

Apparently, in one town they seem to think they do. Is it going too far? Find out what was in the lunch box and what the mom got in trouble for.

SAMBOLIN: What they replaced it with is what shocks me.

All right, but first this morning, a source reveals to CNN that singer, Whitney Houston, was drinking heavily at her hotel just days before she was found dead.

TMZ photo here was taken by the hotel pool where the sources claim she ordered several drinks. We don't know, however, what is in the glass beside her.

But we do know some of those same sources say she was arguing with a bartender because she thought they were putting too much ice in her drinks.

BANFIELD: And all of this comes as investigators say they haven't yet determined the cause of death, have to wait for the toxicology on that, for that take a while, take a look at this.

This is her death certificate and if you zero right in on cause of death, it is listed as deferred. They're waiting to find out exactly what the toxicology may determine and, of course, manner of death after that.

There's going to be a private funeral service on Saturday that's what the family decided. But at least they say they will stream the images online, that there will be television possibly available as well.

Friends and family chose the private service and they wanted to remember Whitney Houston at only they knew her.


PASTOR MARVIN WINANS, GOSPEL SINGER: This is my daughter. This is my sister, this is my mother. This is my friend and we want to do this with dignity. We don't want to have a parade.

We loved her when she was nippy in New Jersey. The world loves her because of her voice. But if she could not sing, the Houston family would love her.


BANFIELD: Pastor Marvin Winans, who actually married Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston and will proceed over the funeral services, as well.

Susan Candiotti is standing with the very latest on the investigation. As the pastor said they want to remember Whitney the way they remember her.

But of course, the new cycle is focusing heavily on what's been going on in the investigation, Susan, and they're now looking at the subpoenas that have been going out to doctors and to pharmacies. What's happening?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's hard. You know, you can't forget about her brilliant career, but this is the hard reality of what coroners have to look at what led to her death.

And so as part of that, we're learning as you indicated some of these disturbing details. Drinking as early as 10:00 in the morning on Wednesday and Thursday.

Remember, her body was found on Saturday. Ordering drinks and then complaining to the bartender that they were watered down and that there was too much ice in them.

People describing her as doing somersaults and running around the pool area, jumping in and out of the pool wearing mismatched clothes, erratic behavior that just didn't sound right.

And so they're trying to piece together medications she was on, what she was drinking and whether there was any interaction and whether any of this had anything to do with her death.

BANFIELD: I'm sorry. I thought you were throwing to a sound bite there. Let me ask you about the people who are expected to be coming to this funeral because it is the invitation only services we are told and there are going to be some pretty significant VIPs and actually even performers, right?

CANDIOTTI: Absolutely. Aretha Franklin, you know, I mean, she's been invited to sing. How could she turn that down? Darleen Love will be there. Obviously, Dionne Warwick, these are relatives, of course. Chaka Kahn, Reverend Jessie Jackson.

I mean, you can go down the list of Hollywood celebrities. Some of them live in New York and some L.A. They're all going to be here, a huge list of invitees. Again, private funeral, you have to have a ticket to get in.

BANFIELD: Susan Candiotti, thanks for that. Keep an eye on it for us.

And of course, we also want to mention that CNN is going to air special coverage of Whitney Houston's funeral hosted by Soledad O'Brien, Piers Morgan and Don Lemon. It gets under way Saturday at 11:00 in the morning Eastern Time.

SAMBOLIN: It is 5 minutes past the hour, switching gears here. China is sending a top envoy to Syria for talks on ending the violence there.

There's been no let up from the government's violent crackdown on the opposition. Syrian forces are said to be storming towns in search of military defectors.

CNN's Arwa Damon is seeing the bloody onslaught firsthand in the city of Homs.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The bombardment at some points was so intense that buildings were shaking, glass was shattering. A 9-year-old girl that was caught in the house that we were in burst into tears and there was absolutely no way to comfort her.

We also spent a couple hours that medical clinic inside the neighborhood that has been the hardest hit in this most recent government onslaught. Nonstop shelling residents here are telling us is going on for 11, 12 days now. The doctors now are beside themselves.


SAMBOLIN: Arwa is there with the CNN news team. The U.N. General Assembly is set to take up a symbolic resolution condemning Syria. China and Russia blocked that Security Council action earlier.

And at 6:20, Ivan Watson is going to join us from Northern Syria with a live report.

BANFIELD: You know, there was a report yesterday that said Arwa Damon is the only one of the major networks in America that was able to breach the borders and now this is two correspondents that we were able to get into that country.

You know, since March we have been trying to get people in and we've been able to go in with, you know, weapons and monitors and that sort of thing.

Weapons but monitors, but this is really quite remarkable and we can't understate how incredibly dangerous this is for anybody to be doing this. This is remarkable risk to them. Just want to make sure we underscore that.

Switching gears, the GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave it up. Tax returns, not just a couple. Four years worth and that would be the most any Republican candidate has coughed up.

SAMBOLIN: And Christine Romans is here with us. She's been pouring over them this morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Taxes are so much fun, you know, first thing in the morning.

SAMBOLIN: He has been on the campaign trail for a while and he's been promising to release them. It has taken him some time because he said, I do them myself.

ROMANS: And we're told that he did consult an accountant on this. It says self-repaired right on his four years of returns, but he consulted an accountant to make sure he was getting it all right.

What we know about Rick Santorum, even as he was trying to put himself very apart from Mitt Romney and his vast wealth. Rick Santorum is in the top 1 percent. He made more than $900,000 last year.

He paid a higher tax rate than Mitt Romney and the others, 28.3 percent was his tax rate there. We also know he gave $16,000 to charity. That's about 1.8 percent of his income overall.

He said he had some setbacks. He had medical bills because of one of his children. Two kids in college and a house that lost 40 percent and he points out that the reason why he pays a higher tax rate because he earns his money. He goes out and works for his money. He doesn't just make money with money. Listen.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't have any income that would come from investments or wealth. I mean, almost 90 percent plus of the money that's on those tax returns I went out and earned and as a result, you know, I am paying Social Security taxes on them. I'm paying all the other taxes that come when you have earned income so that's why I end up paying the higher rate of taxation.


ROMANS: So there you go. Higher taxation, 28 some percent over the past three years and you look at, it's higher than 27 percent and it's 25 percent I think in 2007 so that was his tax rate. But I mean, look he's making more money out of Congress than he made in Congress.

They live with a, you know, maybe if they're lucky double digit approval rating, right? And then they can go and make more money than any of us will likely ever make.

BANFIELD: Triple extra digit salaries. OK, so talk to me a little bit about the policies. You've got the poll that breaks down all the GOP candidates and their policies and what policies favor the rich?

ROMANS: And that's what this whole tax story. Everyone wants to see the tax returns because these candidates are trying to position themselves as relating to us, to real people, to real working Americans, right?

And this poll shows how well they're doing. Who favors the rich? Romney, 65 percent said that his policies favor the rich. Gingrich, Gingrich and Romney are seen as favoring the rich.

But Santorum does better on this front, 39 percent. Ron Paul too and then President Obama, 26 percent. There's a whole narrative right now, right, about rich versus poor, income inequality, who is going to work for me, who's just going to work for the haves and the have notes, class warfare totally.

All playing out on the campaign trail, that's why they're figuring out everyone's tax rates. That interesting poll I think plays into it.

SAMBOLIN: Just very quickly, as you pored over them, did you find anything surprising?

ROMANS: I was actually surprised about the $16,000 last year to charity. They didn't list who they gave money to and the like. I would like to see more about the charitable donations were, especially because you're talking about values so much.

And values and taking care of your fellow man so much in the campaign trail, but you know, I'm still digging into them to find some more.

BANFIELD: I bet charitable donations are down across the board especially for everybody.

ROMANS: Especially if you have college and your house has lost value. You've medical bill, you know, I can see how you have to kind of play defense, but, you know, for people who run charities and religious organizations, they would like to give a little bit more.

SAMBOLIN: Still to come, reports of armed militias running wild in Libya, torturing detainees, the same liberators who toppled Gadhafi.

BANFIELD: First, though, to Rob Marciano with the travel forecast for anybody who might be headed somewhere. Hello, Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, guys. A big shield of rain moving across the eastern third of the country into at some point some colder air, but for the most part it's going to be a rain event.

Raining right now in 32 degrees in Buffalo, this will be spreading into the I-95 Corridor, as well, throughout the day today and into parts of tomorrow, as well. Not a ton of severe weather with this thankfully overnight, but bringing some beneficial rains to parts of the southeast.

This will ride up the Appalachians and tap moisture from the east coast over the next day and a half. Some snow extreme upstate New York and northern New England.

But what we're really worried about is the next storm that will come through the mid-Atlantic come Sunday. You're upstate weather wise. It's 11 minutes after the hour. EARLY START is coming right back.


SAMBOLIN: We are talking catwalks this morning. Reality TV has shown us what it takes to become a top model. But what is it like to actually be on top?

BANFIELD: First of all, (INAUDIBLE) to right side, Fred. I mean, I'm too sexy for -- that was like, I lived that song in the '80s, right? Alina Cho, didn't that song bring you right back? I'm too sexy for this segment.

ALINA CHO, CNN HOST: Well, you know. We of -- listen, it's always fun to follow a top model, right?


CHO: You think about it, Naomi, Christie, Giselle. Now, there is Joan. It's hard to get one name status when you are model, but that is the case for Joan Smalls. Seemingly overnight she went from catalog model to catwalk stunner.

So, what is it like to be Joan? We followed her during fashion week. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHO (voice-over): One look at her and it is clear. Joan Smalls is not just a supermodel. She's a star.

JOAN SMALLS, TOP MODEL: It's kind of like a go-getter heart, like I'm coming. You know, I'm coming to get it. I'm coming to be great.

CHO: On the catwalk at Louis Vuitton, Mark Jacobs, Gucci, the It-girl chameleon designers must have liked Derek Lam.

DEREK LIM, DESIGNER: She's like a seasoned actress.

CHO: Jason Wu.

JASON WU, DESIGNER: Well, what's not to love? You know, I just believe in her.

CHO: And Prabal Gurung.

PRABAL GURUNG, DESIGNER: She represents the girl that I feel that I design for, the girl that who never gives up.

CHO: So, what does it take to be Joan Smalls? How did it happen?

SMALLS: Well, it happened with a leap of faith.

CHO: Born in Puerto Rico, in the early days Joan was a catalog model. Three years ago, she wanted more. She switched managers who directed her to change her approach. For instance, at casting calls, dress the part.

CHO: High heels.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: High heels. Show off those legs and show off that great body of yours.

CHO: Joan started booking jobs. Her biggest breakthrough, an exclusive contract with (INAUDIBLE) in January of 2010. During high fashions, most coveted runway, couture.

SMALLS: My agency comments said, Joan, don't go anywhere else. We got this exclusive and I have goose bumps all over my body and I smiled so hard.

CHO: Did you realize that would be a breakthrough moment for you?

SMALLS: Yes. I think you kind a feel it that when you want something so bad and when something great happens, I think it is instinct. That you say this is going to be the moment that is going to change everything.

CHO: It did. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Her second job was Italian Steven and then shortly thereafter was American vogue and then shortly afterwards to represent Estee Lauder.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Introducing, a major innovation from Estee Lauder research.

CHO: The cosmetic giant's first Latina global face, a multi-year contract at a rate of more than a million dollars a year. Have you seen what it has done to models and career?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. It definitely makes a household name immediately.

CHO: Fitted by Vera Wang. In the ends of Roberto Cavalis (ph), Stella McCartney and most recently Chanel.

SMALLS: I always wanted the greater and the bigger. Like, I came here with a purpose and you know, to finally achieve it, and to also be an inspiration to others.


CHO: What can you say? She's gorgeous and she's nice.

So, what's next for Joan Smalls? Well, she says her big dream is to land the cover of American vogue. Vogue does not comment on covers, but a top vogue editor did tell me that Joan is a pleasure to work with and she is a friend of vogue.

You know, Vogue does not take its relationship with models very lightly. You know, they say they have become ambassadors for the magazine, they nurture these models. They do not discard them. And so, being in vogue as a model, as you know, I'm sure.

BANFIELD: I don't know.

CHO: A very big deal. Trust me.

BANFIELD: Last time I was in "vogue" it was very different.

CHO: But, you know, the one thing I will say about Joan Smalls is that in January of 2010, not that long ago, the designer of Yvonne Chee (ph), Ricardo, very respected in the industry believed in her. Signed her to that exclusive during couture which is high fashion's coveted runway and that was it. The phone never stopped ringing after that.

SAMBOLIN: Here, two things, a good agent, right, and never give up.

CHO: That's right.

SAMBOLIN: That's what she said. And she said I'm coming to get it.

CHO: That's right. You have to want it.


CHO: I mean, listen. Her agent said beauty is the standard in the industry; you have to bring the personality. And she has it.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Alina. Thank you very much.

CHO: You bet.

SAMBOLIN: Don't miss Alina's special, "fashion backstage pass" it airs next Saturday, the 25th at 2:30 p.m. Eastern on CNN. You are not going to want to miss it. We'll be right back.


BANFIELD: All right, so, 20 minutes past the top of the hour now. Let's get you caught up on the top stories as you're heading out the door or just getting ready for your day.

We got a source telling us that Whitney Houston was ordering a lot of alcohol at her hotel in the days just before her death. In the meantime, her death certificate is listing her cause of death as quote, "deferred" until they find out more.

And to see international is reporting that some militias that helped topper former Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, are now engaging in torture and abuse of the prisoners they took.

Libya's ambassador to the United Nations says he is working to try to solve this.

SAMBOLIN: A payroll tax cut deal is in place this morning. Congressional negotiators sealed the deal late last night that legislation to renew the tax cut for 160 million workers and the jobless benefits from millions more.

General Motors is ending pensions for 19,000 salaried workers. The automaker is moving the traditional pension plans to 401(k) s. They hope to lower financial risk for the investors.

BANFIELD: Coming up in just a moment, it's not easily done, but our CNN correspondent Arwa Damon has done it and now a second correspondent for CNN has done it, as well, breached the borders of Syria. And we're going to take you live for a report inside northern Syria in just moment, first-hand look.



SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to "EARLY START." We do have breaking news here. No apparent let up in Syria's government crackdown on the opposition.

BANFIELD: Our Ivan Watson has been able to get over the border into northern Syria this morning. It's an area that has seen a lot of fighting in recent days.

Ivan, I know you're joining us. We're not going to give away your location, obviously. But, are you able to see specific evidence of what has been reported by the opposition members for so many months now?

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ashleigh, I think what is astounding here is that the countryside in northern Syria, much of it is in open revolt. This is a rebellion of farmers, of carpenters, of high school teachers. And we have traveled from village to village to town and sat in town council, village council where people sit in circles, young men, old men, chain smoking and brandishing what appear to be assault rifles that they've gotten within the last couple of months.

It does appear that villages and towns in northern Syria have been, basically, out of government control for several months now except when government forces have tried to conduct deadly incursions into these towns that are temporary at best. Nearly everybody we talked to was able to show photos in their cell phones of neighbors, of relatives who have been killed in some of these incursions.

An additional point that is fascinating is that these communities are now experimenting in self-rule, providing their own services to their communities, in many cases, hosting hundreds of defected Syrian soldiers who they identify as the free Syrian army.

From positions that we have been in, Syrian government forces have only been a few forces away within line of sight, actually. We've gotten one view of one of the largest cities in the region, the city of Idlip (ph) and it's incredible. You can see the Syrian government flag flying in the center of that city, less than a mile away in the center of the city. You can also see the rebel flag flying. These are government and rebel forces very close together and, in some cases, engaging in fierce battles with a daily report of casualties, of civilians dying as a result of these deadly clashes.

BANFIELD: So, Ivan, so many questions. But, obviously, right off the bad, Bashar Al Assad constantly says that he's dealing with a handful of bad terrorists. And obviously, what you're reporter teachers, farmers and carpenters with small arms. Sounds like something completely different.

Are you seeing any evidence of increased artillery or increased armors and weaponry being brought in to help these people to do what they're trying to do?

WATSON: So far the only weaponry we have seen are classic of assault rifles which can't really do a lot of damage, Ashleigh, against the kind of armor and air power that the Syrian government has.

But what we're hearing, but we have not seen with our own eyes from the opposition here is that they're trying to defend their communities, their villages and towns with improvised explosive devices. Land mines and they're using them to ring some of these communities.

Yesterday, we're told, that one of the villages in the area was attacked by artillery, by tank shells and that it killed at least two residents of that community. They do seem to be preparing for the possibility of a Syrian military offensive that they know they won't have considerable weaponry to defend themselves against.

What many of the people here have said is because of the brunt of the Syrian military is targeting much larger population centers like the city of Homs, which are much larger population centers. That is occupying the Syrian military and allowing the people in these areas in northern Syria to continue living, as they call it, in liberated territory.

BANFIELD: Obviously, let's hope that they lay maps when they lay those land mines down because that could be an entirely different crisis later on.

Ivan Watson, it goes without saying, be extraordinarily careful, please. And we do want to remind our viewers the kind of danger that Ivan and Arwa Damon are in by breaching the borders in Syria. Thank you very much, Ivan.

And we will be right back after this break.


BANFIELD: And a very good morning to you. Thirty-one minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

Let's check the stories that are making news this morning.

A source tells CNN Whitney Houston downed large quantities of alcohol just days before her death. Meantime, investigators are questioning her doctor about her prescription. They issued a lot of subpoenas.

Pakistani intelligence officials say a U.S. drone strike killed five suspected militants in the tribal region along the Afghan border. The drone fired at a suspected militant compound.

BANFIELD: The House is expected to vote in the next couple of days on a deal -- a final deal that was reached to extend the payroll tax cut. Deals now are in place according to several aides in Congress.

And if you filed your taxes electronically, it seems you can't track the status of your refund right now. The where's my refund tool on the site is not working. IRS says it hopes to have the glitch fixed soon. The refunds are being processed normally, according to those in the know.

SAMBOLIN: Let's go back to the payroll tax deal. Democrats and Republicans have come together on a deal to extend the payroll tax cut for millions of working families. And the unemployment benefits for millions more.

So, that word came from congressional aides late last night. The House vote could come either today or tomorrow.

BANFIELD: And, of course, what this means to you because the language sometimes become very arcane is that the holiday you have been getting, the paycheck that you have been getting should kind of stay the same. It won't go shrinking at the end of the month. About 1,000 bucks over the course of the year is what it amounts to. If you break it down to the paycheck per paycheck amount, about $40 that you can continue keeping.

And why this is happening? Apparently, the lawmakers are doing something they rarely do these days, compromising.


REP. DAVE CAMP (R), CALIFORNIA: This is a compromise. There are technical issues. But we're going to let lead counsel finish those. And those are going to continue to be worked on. And so, we'll be able to move forward later.


SAMBOLIN: And Christine Romans is here to talk about this.

We talked about the payroll tax cut. We want to talk about the jobless benefits.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Right. Because, you know that in some parts of the country, in some states, you can get jobless benefits for up to 99 weeks. And that has been something that Republicans have said, come on, 99 weeks, are you kidding me? That's just to long. And we've got to figure out how to pay for it.

So, now, they are going to extend jobless benefits, but it won't be up to 99 weeks. So, it will be more like 73 weeks. And it will have to be paid for. It will not be something that they're just going to add to the deficit with.

So, that's what they're working on now. It's going to depend on the state's jobless rate for that. But you can also, interestingly enough, see drug testing for some of these benefits -- which people who are experts in employee rights, they don't -- they don't like testing for benefits. You get benefits or you don't, right?

But if you failed a drug test and lost your job, to get jobless benefits going forward, you would have to take another drug test.

BANFIELD: And pass it.

ROMANS: And pass it.

Or if you refuse to take a drug test and lost your job, or didn't get a job, then you would have to do the same. So, looking into all the language in that, and that's something that's new in here, because there's been a lot of people who've said, you just can't be giving checks to people forever. We have to start thinking about how we're going to be creating jobs, growing the economy and not just giving, you know, jobless checks forever.

SAMBOLIN: So, only under those circumstances, if you have failed a drug test in the past or that's why you lost your job.

ROMANS: Or you refuse to take one. So, we'll watch that.

Also, there's another provision in there about the biggest welfare program, the Temporary Assistance for People and Families. They're going to make sure those debit cards, you can't use those cards in a casino, in liquor store, strip club or something.

I'm not sure how big of a problem that really is, but, obviously a nod to conservatives who are saying, look, we've got to stop paying taxpayer money.

BANFIELD: Did someone actually debate that they should be able to use them in a strip club?

ROMANS: I think it's probably more an oversight. Again, I don't know how big of a problem it is. But that is something in this, as well.

BANFIELD: You know, I know that on its surface -- I want to go back to the drug testing thing.


BANFIELD: It's so controversial. On its surface, that tells us a great thing, because obviously, we're all taxpayers, we don't want to give our taxpayers money to someone who's just going to blow it on crack, but it's expensive to drug test.

ROMANS: I know. I don't know who pays for that or how you monitor and how you make sure -- I mean, it's a hurdle to getting jobless benefits and that's is, I guess, the intent.

BANFIELD: Some communities have found it is a lose-lose. They spend more money drug testing than they save in stopping the benefits for drug users.


ROMANS: They are testing in Florida.

BANFIELD: They stopped the program. It was too expensive.

ROMANS: Yes. I mean, look, the thing is you want to grow the economy and you don't have to have people who need jobless benefits. That's the answer. The answer is growing the economy. And even though there was compromise, they haven't figured out how compromise on the best ways to grow the economy.

BANFIELD: So, it's a small c.

ROMANS: It's a small c --

BANFIELD: But in an election year.


SAMBOLIN: I mean, right? I mean, at the end of the day, we get the extension that everybody wanted.

ROMANS: They've been saying they're diddly for how long --


BANFIELD: I like that, diddly.

ROMANS: Oh, the president says he says he wants to see it signed first.

BANFIELD: I just want to make note that diddly is not the word of the day today.



BANFIELD: Mammonism (ph) is. Mammonism is the word of the day.

ROMANS: How do you get that in?

BANFIELD: That's the only way I get it in. Infinitely saying that mammonism, mammonism, mammonism, is the word of the day.

ROMANS: What does it mean?

BANFIELD: It means the greedy pursuit of riches and I got it. Done.

ROMANS: That works in a congressional story.

BANFIELD: I agree. I should have been more clever and I'm sorry I wasn't.

Coming up ahead, Iran. We talked a lot about them flexing their nuclear muscle. But are they flexing it a little more than usual? And is there something about the way they flexed that we should be more concerned about?


BANFIELD: Welcome back to EARLY START. It's 40 minutes now past the hour.

And Iran continues to thumb its nose at the international community over its nuclear program. It's not a new story, but it's a different version of this story.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wearing a white lab coat in the center of your screen doing a tour at a local Tehran nuclear facility.

What's critical about this tour is that he was actually showing off the very first locally made fuel rods being loaded into the nuclear reactor and the core. That's important because they're banned from getting a lot of that kind of material imported into their country. So, making it themselves gets them on the road to being self-sufficient in a nuclear program.

Iran says it now plans also on producing yellow cake. That's another step towards getting some very fine enriched uranium at weapons grade level.

So, what should America do about it? Anything? Military strike, option? I don't know.

CNN's Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" -- they were talking with the former military intelligence officer Paula Broadwell about some of the possible repercussions if the idea is to do a military strike on Iran. Have a look.


PAULA BROADWELL, FMR. MILITARY INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: We have to look at what Iran's retaliation would be. I think it's pretty likely that they will take advantage of some of their proxies. You know, they have ties with Hamas and Gaza.

They have ties to Hezbollah, who could open up attacks on some of our softer targets like U.S. embassies, U.S. troops abroad, U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Remember, Iran is right next to a country we have a very large unprotected U.S. presence -- unprotected in a sense that we haven't been targeted by Iran in that part of the world yet.


BANFIELD: Jim Walsh is an international security expert from MIT. He's live in Boston with us this morning.

Jim, I've got so much to ask you.

But, right of the bat, what Paula was saying was so significant. But maybe we're jumping the gun here. I think the more critical question at this juncture is, Iran postures all the time. Is there anything different this time?

JIM WALSH, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EXPERT: You're right, Ashleigh. Often, there are big announcements and then the follow through isn't as big as the announcement.

There was not a game changer yesterday. There were several announcements on the nuclear program about that facility near Qom, the underground facility. And as you pointed out, about fueling the reactor, the medical reactor.

But there's nothing that suddenly today Iran is any closer to a nuclear weapon than yesterday. What is missing in all this, though, is at the end of the day, Iran submitted a letter to the Europeans saying they are ready to rejoin negotiations.

So, all of this, this was no coincidence. All of this happened on the same day for the same reason, which is they are planning to reenter negotiations. So, that's actually a bit of positive news.

BANFIELD: Well, when you say negotiations, I saw it in a different way in reading that they were sort of threatening to the permanent members of the Security Council plus one, that they would pull their oil supplies. It sounded less like a negotiation and more like a threat that might have actually some backbone, because I haven't really seen that kind of language before.

WALSH: I hear you on that. But remember, it was the Europeans that first passed a resolution saying they would stop buying Iran's oil. So, this is Iran responding to that form of pressure.

But, you know, Ashleigh, when you go into a negotiation, especially if you think you're the weaker party, you try to improve your leverage going into a negotiation. So, what are they saying? And you said it at the top of the story -- they're trying to communicate a message that they're self-sufficient in different nuclear areas, that they can do things on their own. And the feeling there is that, therefore, when they go into a negotiation, they are in a better bargaining position.

BANFIELD: Let me ask you this.

WALSH: I think, you know -- yes?

BANFIELD: Sorry. Let me jump in, I'm always curious so much of what happens in Iran is actually underground, that I don't just mean philosophically, I mean physically under the earth. It's hard for our technology to spy on that.

So, the International Atomic Energy Association has its inspectors on the ground in Iran, have been there for a long time and they put forth a few reports saying it's not good. We do suspect that there's nuclear activity there that's weapons-related, not science- related.

But what do they really know? What kind of access do those guys actually have? And are they corruptible?

WALSH: Well, I would say in general, no. They're not seen as a corrupt agency. There may be individual inspectors who have issues, but, no. And they do have access. They have access to the underground facility and they have video monitors. They take soil and air samples.

So, the quality of information coming out from the IAEA from people on the ground is very, very good, including that underground facility at Qom. Now, it's not as good as they would like. They would like Iran to sign on to something called the Additional Protocol which would give the IAEA even more access.

But most of the agency's concerns are about things that happened prior to 2003. These alleged weapons-related activities. Not past 2003. The head of that, the DNI, Director of National Intelligence, just issued a report at the end of January saying that Iran has not yet made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon. It's made a capability decision, but hasn't made that bomb decision, which is actually sort of the real deal here.

That's why, personally, why I worry about a military strike. I'm afraid it's going to have the same impact that if Israel strikes Iran, it's actually going to push them to the bomb when they haven't yet made that decision. That's sort of what happened before with Iraq and I fear that here, as well.

BANFIELD: I have ten seconds left enough. I can't leave you before asking you this. Yesterday, Ahmadinejad surrounded himself with a bunch of pictures of dead nuclear scientists, and he said they've all been assassinated, and they were like about a half dozen of them or so.

And it made me wonder, if probably operate looking over the box of their shoulders wondering if Mossad (ph) is just around the corner, I wonder if Iran would be a lot further ahead right now but for the guys who keep getting blown up while they come up with good technology.

WALSH: I think it's a trade-off, because it also makes them more determine. It becomes an issue of nationalism. And as we saw this week, there were reports in Thailand, in Georgia, in India of Iran starting to strike back with attacks of its own. So, I think it's a very mixed bag. I don't think it's a good idea.

BANFIELD: Jim Walsh, you are smart. I'm just going to say that. You're a smart guy and it's great to have you on this morning. Thanks for getting up for EARLY START. Appreciate it.

WALSH: Thank you, Ashleigh.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-six minutes past the hour. Soledad O'Brien joins us now with a look at what is ahead on "STARTING POINT."

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: Did you just mess up my name?


SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You know what, when you have a name like Zoraida, you should be careful with people's names.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: You need to be careful.


O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody. In just about 15 minutes or so, we're going to start "STARTING POINT." One of our topics today is this tweet about a chimichanga. It has kind of erupted into a little bit of political war of worlds -- words. We'll talk about that. The GOP is saying this is the freeze which was tweeted -- re-tweeted by President Obama's campaign manager. Well, GOP is saying that that is insulting towards Latinos.

TD Jakes is going to join us this morning. You know, he was the producer of the movie, "Sparkle," that stars Whitney Houston. He had been working with her. We're going to talk to him a little bit about Whitney Houston and now what happens with that movie now that she has died.

Also, we'll talk a little bit more about Lin-sanity. Jeremy Lin has led the New York Knicks now to their seventh straight win. He has a friend who is an NBA writer, and his name is Bryan Chua (ph), and he's going to join us to talk about their friendship and how it started. All that and much more ahead this morning on "Starting Point," which begins right at the top of the hour. After the commercial break, though, it's EARLY START.


BANFIELD: Weird Al Yankovic singing you in this morning with "Eat It." And there's a good reason for that song. Should a state be determining whether a child's home packed lunch is healthy enough to eat the lunch you packed them? And if they say it's not healthy enough, should the state be able to take that lunch away?

SAMBOLIN: So, in North Carolina, a preschooler's bagged lunch, turkey sandwich, banana, some potato chips was deemed nutritionally inadequate by a food inspector, because it was missing a vegetable and it was missing milk. So, instead, this is what the school did. They gave her a lunch that included chicken nuggets, which was all the child ended up eating.

Reporter, Sara Burrows, broke this story. She joins us live from Raleigh. Thanks for being with us this morning. So, the preschooler brought her homemade lunch. It was deemed nutritionally inadequate by whom?

SARA BURROWS, ASSOCIATE EDITOR: Yes, and one of the misconceptions is that the lunch was actually taken from her. It wasn't physically taken from her. It wasn't confiscated or thrown away. She and the other preschoolers in the classroom that day took their lunches home at the end of the day. And that's what clued this parent into the fact that she hadn't touched her lunch. But what happened -- sorry, go ahead.

SAMBOLIN: We understand that. What we're trying to figure out is why was it replaced with chicken nuggets or why was she offered the chicken nuggets from the cafeteria?

BURROWS: Right. So, the teacher went to the cafeteria and brought every child in the classroom a tray whose lunch didn't meet the standard. The tray, I guess, met the USDA guidelines as far as having two servings of fruit or vegetable, milk, a meat, and a grain, and I'm not sure what these particular trays had on them, but I do know that the girl only ate the three chicken nuggets.

SAMBOLIN: Now, who makes this determination as to what's a nutritionally healthy lunch because what was originally packed for this child seemed nutritionally healthy, maybe except for the potato chips.

BURROWS: That's what the parents thought. The state is the one who decided to adopt the USDA guidelines for all pre-kindergarten programs. I spoke to someone from the director's office in the division of child development, which is under our department of health and human services here. And she said she's not sure why that lunch would not have met the standard because there was cheese on the sandwich, she says, which should have met the dairy requirement.

She said it might have been some confusion on the school's part. I spoke to the grandmother yesterday morning, and she said that ever since this incident for the last two weeks, the girl has been given a carton of milk.

So, either they're not determining that her cheese is sufficient or she's not bringing cheese every day, and the grandmother is assuming that the bill for this milk will be coming shortly. I'm not sure if that's the case.

SAMBOLIN: Well, that's kind of part of the problem here. There are two things that are confusing me a bit here. Is there somebody that is designated to be in the classroom that is to check the children's lunches? Is this a mandate or is it just arbitrarily that the teacher is doing this trying to follow the guidelines?

BURROWS: Well, this day, according to the parent and the principal of the school, someone from the division of child development and early education was at the school evaluating their prekindergarten program and inspecting. I'm not sure that the employee actually went through the lunch boxes or if that was the teacher, but I know that the school lost points for having too many children with home packed lunches that didn't meet the standard.

So, someone had to inspect the lunches to determine that that was the case. On a day-to-day basis, whether it's a private or public preschool or even an in-home day care, it's up to the child care provider to determine whether the lunch is being brought from home meet the standard. And if she determines that they are not, it's her -- his or her responsibility to provide them with supplementary items to meet the standard.

So, I'm assuming that somebody is in the classroom or at the home daycare center looking at these meals.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Sara Burrows, associate editor at "The Carolina Journal," thank you for joining us this morning.

You know what is interesting about this story is that the little girl now is confused about whether or not she's supposed to eat the food that she brings from home or if she has to eat the food from school. BANFIELD: I'll tell you what, the food that she brought from home, I'd be thrilled if my son --

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my gosh!


BANFIELD: Still ahead, just that remarkable story out of the state of Washington, Josh Powell. He blew up his own children. He set his home on fire. He killed his two young sons. should he be allowed to be buried beside them? Not if that town gets its way. We'll explain.

SAMBOLIN: And we have a deal. Late last night, word that a payroll tax cut is now in place. We're really close to a deal here. You are watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: And that is the last of EARLY START. It's the news from A to Z. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" is next with Ms. Soledad O'Brien.


O'BRIEN: I love when you improve that. I love it. I love it.

BANFIELD: I would like to say it with the Irish accent, but I just don't think I can figure that one out.

O'BRIEN: I would love to hear it. It's really Australian. My dad is Australian. I was like --


O'BRIEN: That's for tomorrow.

BANFIELD: That's a new break.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes. Yes.