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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Deadly Car Bombing in Afghanistan; Taliban Poisoning NATO Food?; Anti-Assad Protests In Damascus; Syria Referendum Results Expected Today; Report: Colvin Died Trying To Get Shoes; Gas Prices Rise To $3.70/Gallon; Silence Golden At Oscars; Still "Undefeated"; Dems Urge W.H. to Tap Oil Reserves; Santorum Sliding?; Nine Killed In Afghan Suicide Bombing; "Zombie Mohammed" Controversy

Aired February 27, 2012 - 06:01   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Ashleigh Banfield. We're bring you the news from A to Z. It's 6 a.m., actually 6:01. Let's get you started on the top stories of the day.

This one is coming out of Afghanistan. The Taliban claiming they poisoned food at a military base in Afghanistan. They say it's revenge burning of the holy books of their Muslim holy books on our base over there.

Also some brand new explosions, car bombs, sending advisers running for their lives and a colonel and a major, Americans, shot dead by an infiltrator, as well.

SAMBOLIN: And you probably noticed this, gas prices surging again. This happened overnight. It is not a supply problem, however. Why tapping the reserves may not make our lives any cheaper, like they did last time, actually.

BANFIELD: And first the surge, now the slip. That's how it goes on the roller coaster called the primary season. New poll has shown that Rick Santorum is falling behind Mitt Romney once again.

This is all one day before the big kahunas, Michigan and Arizona. So the candidate is tweaking his strategy and releasing some interesting pros in the newspaper. We'll talk about it.

SAMBOLIN: Did you watch the Oscars? This was a moment at the Oscars that turned Ryan Seacrest as red as the red carpet. Pretty shocked by that moment, actually.

BANFIELD: I think so. I'm wondering if security could have gotten to him sooner.

It's 2 minutes past 6:00 on the east coast. Up first, dangerous and deadly developments in Afghanistan overnight, as you were sleeping suicide car bomber killing nine people and then word that apparent at attempt by the Taliban to poison the food of NATO troops who were stationed there.

It's been confirmed. The food was con a dated at the operating place in Torqom. That is right on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There were traces of bleach found on fruit and in the coffee.

Luckily though, no one was hurt and no one was sickened. Now troops are eating all of those pre-screened meals like MREs to try to stay safe.

SAMBOLIN: Overnight, suicide car bomber kills nine, injuries 12 others. This happened at the gates of the Jalalabad Airport in Eastern Afghanistan. No Americans are among the victims. The Taliban says it is in retaliation for the Koran burning.

Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon with more details for us. Barbara, I got something that you wrote this morning. This is an unconfirmed source. It says, we're not going to settle for what has happened to our troops in recent days. What does that mean?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me clarify, Zoraida. Perhaps not an unconfirmed source, but this is a source, a very top-level official directly involved in what is going on.

Access to the latest intelligence not yet willing to cross the diplomatic line into speak publicly. What he says is, look, there is a trust problem here that has got to be resolved.

The feeling on the part of the Obama administration is that the Karzai government simply has not done enough in these days to restrain the violence, to get control on it, and to get these things moving forward.

The feeling is that the Karzai government needs to step up in Afghanistan, improve security at the ministries. U.S. advisers will not go back until the Afghan can demonstrate the ministries are secure and for the Karzai government to stop the violence in the streets.

Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said it's gotten out of hand and it needs to stop. So is trust shattered now? That's really the question on the table -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: So then what is the next step now?

STARR: Well, to get security back under control and for Karzai to demonstrate to the U.S. military and military commanders to President Obama that he can get some control on this situation.

You know, when you talk about trust, it exists now -- the problem is on so many levels. Trust between the U.S. and Afghan government, trust between elements of the Afghan security services and elements of the U.S. military.

And for U.S. troops to really feel that, you know, they have enough trust that they can continue to do their job. If this goes any further, if it explodes further, it can become a political situation here at home in the presidential campaign.

And it becomes a crisis in terms of U.S. military families, worrying that their loved ones, as dangerous as the war zone is, is facing dangers from within -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon for us. Thank you.

BANFIELD: It's 5 minutes past 6:00 now. Demonstrations have erupted in Syria as that country awaits the results of a vote on its constitution. More about that in a moment.

But protesters are gathering in the streets of Damascus, they're rallying against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad. The results of that referendum are expected to be released today. But the critics say, what a joke.

Nobody can actually get to the polls. Not nobody, but a lot of people can't. The opposition now is saying that at least four people were killed this morning and the E.U. is expecting to discuss sanctions against Syria.

Some tragic details in the death of American journalist, Marie Colvin in Syria. Apparently, she was killed while trying to grab her shoes and run from the shelling attack. Syrian army reportedly targeted that makeshift press office.

Colvin was just following local traditions and customs of removing your shoes upon entering the building. Rockets reportedly landed just a few yards away from where she was trying to get those shoes.

SAMBOLIN: Some very sad detail emerging there.

All right, 6 minutes past the hour here. Gas prices are surging for the 20th day in a row now, the national average, $3.70 a gallon. Some parts of the United States are seeing more than $4 a gallon.

With gas prices suddenly climbing, the political battle over oil prices is heating up. Lawmakers are urging President Obama to tap the oil reserves, but relief may not be that simple.

Talking to Dan Lothian a little bit later in the hour about Iran's influence on the rising gas prices.

BANFIELD: A silent movie is all talk. Yes, the silent movie is causing talk in Tinseltown this morning. It's "The Artist" was all sort of puns about silent being golden and all the rest, but it did walk home with five Oscars, including best picture, best director, best actor.

Martin Scorse says these kids like "Hugo," which I said was animated movie because I'm an idiot. It's not an animated, but it is a kid's movie. It won five academy awards as well.

And the moment everyone is talking about though happened actually before the show even got under way. Sacha Barren Cohen was dressed the dictator for his new film "The Dictator." He dumped an urn of ashes all over Ryan Seacrest's tuxedo. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The interesting thing is actually it's a -- sorry. You've got -- wait a minute. It's OK for you. If somebody ask you --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: If someone asks you what you're wearing, Ryan, say Kim Jong-Il's ashes. Funny, but according to an E-story, Ryan Seacrest could actually press charges against "The Dictator" actor for the stunt remains to be seen whether he would go so far as to do so. It would make headlines, though. That's for sure. I like still hearing it in my head.

OK, but this was a great story here. Undefeated, it won the Oscar for best documentary. Zoraida is happy about this.

SAMBOLIN: An inspiring story. You saw the guys here talking about a struggling high school football team in a poor Memphis neighborhood. We spoke to the director who said he cried making that film or that documentary.

BANFIELD: That's great. Nice to see. I love seeing those pictures.

SAMBOLIN: Young guys, too. You know they put their heart and soul into that.

BANFIELD: Exactly, heart and soul and it pays off.

Still ahead at 6:09 on this east coast, burning anger. Hillary Clinton on the violent Muslim reaction to the Koran burnings in Afghanistan. Secretary of state speaking her mind. Did she go too far in one area though? You'll be the judge.

SAMBOLIN: You know that political roller coaster ride? It continues. Rick Santorum slides, a stunning 12-point swing. Why the fall?

BANFIELD: And, also, it's a good time at this time to check your travel forecast in case you're headed to the airport. Rob Marciano is the best at this. Hello.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, guys. East coast starting off the week fairly quiet, but we're going to see a series of storms roll across the country, some of which are going to be powerful but mild across the northeast.

We are looking at rain across northern Florida again today. They've been trying to run the Daytona 500. They're going to have trouble with it. But I think late in the day and certainly tonight things will start to dry out.

If you are travelling for Orlando, the rain is going to be also. Some rain in through Los Angeles, a powerful storm rolling through there, will get into the Rockies and we have blizzard watches that are posted not for Chicago, on the mild side of it, but for parts of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

You're up to date weatherwise. EARLY START is coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It's 13 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to Early Start. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is defending President Obama's apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the accidental burning of Korans in Afghanistan.

GOP presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, the late to say the president should not be apologizing. Clinton said she's concerned that politics here in the U.S. could inflame the situation in Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I find it, you know, somewhat troubling that our politics would inflame such a dangerous situation in Afghanistan. I well remember during the eight years of President Bush's administration when something happened that was regrettable, unintentional, as this incident was.

President Bush was quick to say, look, we're sorry about this. This is something that we obviously did not mean to do. That's all that President Obama was doing and it was the right thing to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Secretary Clinton made those comments during an interview with CNN foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, who joins me now live from Washington. All right, Elise, let's get right to this.

The Secretary has a tightrope to walk when it comes to the situation in Afghanistan. And I'm curious as to whether the president of that country, Hamid Karzai, got on this issue early enough and was tough enough about it.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Ashleigh, in the beginning you saw his remarks kind of blasting the United States. And some accuse him now of whipping up all of this fury. And that's one of the things about the relationship with President Karzai.

On one hand he needs the United States as an ally, but at the same time a lot of times he's accused of ginning up the Afghan public for his own domestic base and that falls into the whole issue of whether the U.S. and Afghanistan are going to be able to get what they need to get done, training police, training military, and helping boost that civilian presence before the U.S. withdraws in 2014.

BANFIELD: And then try to reduce that horrible trust deficit that is just burgeoning --

LABOTT: Exactly.

BANFIELD: -- at that front. I want to switch gears because I know you had a chance to ask Secretary Clinton about the issue in Syria. And we've heard about this completely bogus constitutional referendum that's been going on.

But I want to ask you about the Friends of Syria, the ironically named Friends of Syria. Perhaps more appropriately named friends of the people inside Syria, this great meeting that went on in Tunis this weekend. What happened? We've barely heard a peep. Was there anything positive that came out of this?

LABOTT: Well, I think this is a start of a process you saw in Libya. You know, the international community coming together trying to find solutions. And the immediate term, they want to get some humanitarian aid on the ground for those people that desperately need food, medicine, those types of things. And they came out with a plan.

But the main problem is that they need to get President Bashar al-Assad's permission to get the aid in. And Russia was not even at this conference. They have the most influence. So now they need pressure on Russia to get him to get that aid in.

Also, boosting up the Syrian National Council. Now, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the group kind of recognized the group as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It's really the only people they can deal with right now. But at the same time, a lot of concerns about the group. Secretary Clinton telling me they're not unified and they're not organized.

BANFIELD: Oh, that is not good news to those people who are so desperate for any kind of outside help. They've even asked for Israeli help which is just remarkable.

Elise, thanks for that. Appreciate it.

SAMBOLIN: It's 17 minutes past the hour. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

The Taliban says it is behind an attempted poisoning of food at the NATO base in Torkham. Ashleigh was just talking about that, that was near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Traces of bleach were found in the coffee and in the fruit. No troops were sickened or hurt. They are doing a full investigation.

They are also overnight, the Taliban claiming responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed nine people outside the gates of an airport in Jalalabad.

Pakistan has completed demolition of a house in Abbottabad where Osama Bin Laden was killed by Special U.S. Forces. Only the wall of the compound remains and no one is being allowed inside.

CNN has learned Rick Santorum will be getting Secret Service protection this week. Mitt Romney already has it. Newt Gingrich has also requested Secret Service protection and is waiting for a response now.

BANFIELD: Silence is golden. The black and white silent film "The Artist" was the big winner last night at the Oscars, winning five awards, including the big kahuna, Best Picture. But Martin Scorsese's 3D fantasy "Hugo" also pulled in five statues. Meryl Streep named Best Actress for her performance in "The Iron Lady." That's her third Academy Award after 17 nominations. There should be more awards for her.

And for the first time in its 54-year history, the Daytona 500 not run on a Sunday, possibly run on a Monday. That's if the rain doesn't postpone it again after yesterday's four-hour wait and washout. They're going to try to get it at noon today. And that is if -- clearly that little girl --

SAMBOLIN: That little girl --

BANFIELD: -- so bored. So bored with it all.

SAMBOLIN: Why are we here, mom and dad? Why are we here?

BANFIELD: Precious. Well, we'll watch for it to see if it happens today. But Rob Marciano is saying that probably not.

SAMBOLIN: Does not look good. Does not look good.

BANFIELD: They know, right?

SAMBOLIN: All right, it's -- I know, right?

BANFIELD: Go figure.

SAMBOLIN: Nineteen minutes past the hour. Still ahead, many experts say it's more of a fear factor, not a supply problem. You know we're talking about here? With the president tapping the U.S. oil reserves be any more than a political move? We are talking about your gas prices coming up.

You are watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is a full 22 minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast, which means get up, get going. You're going to be late.

Gas prices climbing to near record highs. The crowds are growing louder and louder, folks, for the president to dig into those national oil reserves.

SAMBOLIN: But will he (ph)? Many analysts say the supply is not the issue. The problem is Iran. So let's go in-depth this morning. CNN Business Correspondent Alison Kosik is here in New York with us.

But first, let's go to CNN's Dan Lothian. He's live at the White House. Dan, what are the chances that the White House is going to tap into those supplies, those reserves, excuse me? Thank you.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, that's the question. Yes, you know, that's the -- that's the question that a lot of people are asking this morning.

The White House is not ruling anything in or ruling anything out at this point, saying that all options are on the table. But Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner late last week said, quote, "There's a case for the use in some circumstances." So perhaps a hint from the administration but he's still pointing out that they are evaluating the situation carefully.

I think the theme that you're hearing from aides here at the White House is that this is not about any kind of short-term fix. There's no, quote, "silver bullet." But there needs to be a long-term approach and they're just saying, hey, let's release something from these reserves is not necessarily the solution to these high gas prices -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: But Dan, it is an election year. And politically, how is this going to affect the president?

LOTHIAN: Well, you are so right. And no president wants to be running for re-election with gas prices at these levels and inching higher every day.

And the president taking a lot of heat from Republicans who are saying there needs to be more domestic oil production. Even heard from Newt Gingrich out there on the campaign trail saying that under his administration gas prices would be at around $2.50 per gallon.

I'll tell you, though, experts out there staying away from predicting what prices will be down the road.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Dan Lothian live for us at the White House. Thank you very much.

LOTHIAN: OK.

SAMBOLIN: And CNN Business Correspondent Alison Kosik is here in New York. And, you know, you did a really great job earlier talking about the percentages that people are paying for gas.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Right, right.

SAMBOLIN: Will this actually lower the gas prices if this were indeed to happen?

KOSIK: Analysts say not really. And, you know, they point to proof, they point to what happened in Libya. You think about last year in June, Libya's civil war. That pushed oil prices higher because oil supplies were being squeezed. And the Obama administration went ahead and tapped the strategic petroleum reserve in June to keep oil prices from going higher.

But let me pull up this chart here. I'll show you there was barely a change in gas prices. Look, the line is almost flat. You see kind of that dip in June. Well, it went right back up. I mean, it barely did anything.

Now, something actually was done last week. Actually, Saudi Arabia stepped in last week increasing how much oil it exports to make up for the shortfall in Iran's squeeze in supplies happening right now. And while that may have made some -- some impact, you know, you still look at oil prices right now, they're at $110 a barrel.

And then even more proof, you think of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, the strategic petroleum reserve was tapped after Hurrican Katrina hit because production of oil was stopped. And it helped oil prices dip a little bit for a short time.

But the reality is if you tap the SPR it doesn't create a lasting effect, meaning keeping gas and oil prices down for long. So, no, there is no quick fix. We, the U.S., are at the mercy of the worldwide -- of the global oil markets.

SAMBOLIN: Too bad. And I know that you have some really good recommendations for folks who are trying to figure out how to save money. So are you tweeting that out?

KOSIK: I will. That's a golden idea. Will do that.

BANFIELD: How about stop driving?

KOSIK: No, no, biking is just not an option.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, especially when it's really cold out, right, and snow on the ground.

BANFIELD: Take the train. Take the train. Take the bus. What are you going to do?

All right. Twenty-six minutes -- thank you, Alison Kosik. Twenty-six minutes past 6:00. It is a flexuous roller coaster, my friends, this primary season. A flexuous roller coaster, I'm not sure if I really used that word the right way but I used it and that's what counts.

Rick Santorum slipping again. It's critical, folks, because a new poll comes out on the eve of the Michigan and Arizona primary saying he isn't doing as well as he was the last time around.

You are watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-nine minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: Good morning. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's time to look at your top stories making news this morning. Let's start here, shall we?

The Taliban claiming responsibility for a suicide car bombing at the gates of the airport at Jalalabad. Nine people killed. The Taliban also claiming to be behind this, a poisoning of the food supply at a NATO military dining facility near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Everyone is OK, though, thank goodness.

Some deadly explosions rocking Syria this morning as that country awaits the final result of a vote on its Constitution -- whatever that vote actually brings, according to the critics of said vote. Syrian opposition is reporting at least four people killed this morning in government attacks against the city of Homs. Protesters are flooding the streets of Damascus to protest President Bashar al- Assad's regime.

In the meantime, Syria state TV says that referendum and the results of that will be announced this evening.

And gas prices jumped again while you sleep. That's the 20th day in a row if you're counting. Price at the pump is $3.70 a gallon. It is one penny up from yesterday.

All right. Folks just one penny but it's a penny, for heaven's sake. The nation's highest price is in Hawaii, where the average is $4.32. It could be worse.

SAMBOLIN: My goodness.

All right. Eleven thousand anti-Putin protesters marching in the streets of Moscow, ahead of Russia's presidential election. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is running for president for the third time now. Russian state TV reporting two men arrested last month in a plot to assassinate him.

Beating all the talkies. The black and white silent film "The Artist" winning five Oscars last night, including best picture, best director, and best actor.

Martin Scorsese's 3D picture "Hugo" also won five awards.

BANFIELD: And we are just one day before the Arizona and Michigan primaries get under way, all of it as the a brand new poll is showing support for Rick Santorum might be slipping.

The latest Gallup daily tracking poll says that Santorum has dropped seven points in a week. Take a look at your screen. It gives you the numbers. And a week ago and how much they gained or lost.

Mitt Romney has gained five points and now leads 31 percent to Santorum's 29 percent. And that's among the registered Republicans. So, it's all within the margin of error which means statistically tie -- anybody's race.

Let's talk about this -- from Washington, our CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser is going to weigh in. From Chicago, Lenny McAllister, senior contributor with Politic365.com, also with us this morning. And from Washington, Democratic strategist Jamie Harrison to do the job.

All right. I want to start with you, Paul Steinhauser, because you're the number's dude, the number's nerd, if I can.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: It's OK.

BANFIELD: I knew you would like it, actually.

STEINHAUSER: Yes.

BANFIELD: Is anything to be made of this? I'm getting a little tired of sort of following the swishes of the polls and really seeing that they don't necessarily play out in primary night.

STEINHAUSER: Yes. You know, remember, polling is a snapshot of how people feel right now. And, OK, so it's basically all knotted up nationally. But, OK, Ashleigh, let's say Rick Santorum does take Michigan. And right now, the polls indicate it is extremely tight in Michigan.

I bet you the national polls are going to change in a heartbeat and you'll see Santorum's numbers zoom right back up. That's why the state polls in Arizona and Michigan are so telling. Looks like Romney has got a single to double digit lead in Arizona. But in Michigan, it is too close to call.

BANFIELD: I think -- dog or tail wagging? I always wonder if people follow what they see on the polls and then vote accordingly, or if the polls follow what people are seeing on the trail?

STEINHAUSER: It's a little bit of the both. It's the tail wagging the dog and the dog wagging the tail. If Santorum can get a victory on Tuesday night, you're going to see his national numbers zoom and you're going to see his numbers at some of these Super Tuesday states go up as well. If Romney has a good night, it will be reflected in the polls.

BANFIELD: And then I also wonder -- and I'm going to throw this out to you, Lenny McAllister. So, listen really careful. I also wonder just how much it matters when a governor of a state puts his or her support behind a candidate.

Let me play for you what Governor Jan Brewer said on "Meet the Press" this weekend. Have a peek.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: The country is in terrible shape. It's upside down. And we need a leader, somebody that can go out there and make a difference and lead the people and work with governors in the states because we are where the rubber meets the road and I know that Mitt Romney will do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So this was just after the taping of "Meet the Press" but she said exactly the same thing when she was on with David Gregory.

So, Lenny, I have seen this play out before. Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, didn't work so well. And in Michigan, we do have Governor Rick Snyder who's also thrown his support behind Mitt Romney.

But do you think it makes a difference?

LENNY MCALLISTER, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, POLITIC365.COM: Well, you forgot another one. Big ah when it came to Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

BANFIELD: Good one.

MCALLISTER: It probably will play out well in Arizona. We'll see how it plays out in Michigan. When you look at Arizona and Michigan, you have to remember, you're talking about the new population in Phoenix, in Arizona, where people are migrating to. And then you're talking about Michigan where people are migrating from.

And when you talk about the messaging, Rick Santorum still plays well in those areas where's people are struggling, older populations, manufacturing populations, that's Michigan. That's Michigan. That's why that's still very much in play.

You look at Arizona, where Romney is running away to a lead. You're talking about a newer population. Probably a little bit more affluent population. So, that endorsement from Governor Brewer probably will solidify a Romney win tomorrow night.

BANFIELD: That's interesting. I got the question of the day perhaps and this one goes to you, Jamie, and it's if certain comments cancel out certain other comments, because over the weekend, Rick Santorum made a comment about President Obama suggesting that anybody who wants to head of to college, that's just sort of a snob comment.

But if you don't like that comment, you can cancel t it out with Mitt Romney's comment. He has a lot of friends who own NASCAR teams when he was asked if he follows NASCAR. Do those cancel each other out or are people going to resonate and jump on those?

JAMIE HARRISON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think they do. Like I said earlier, it's gaffe after gaffe. This is the B team for the Republican Party.

BANFIELD: Darling, this is the A team. They're at the leader board.

HARRISON: We want to call a time-out and -- I'm sure the Republicans want to call a time-out and get some real starters in here.

BANFIELD: I tell you what, as far as gas goes, if you were to TiVo this show, Lenny McAllister just pointed out my own gaffe. So I give them a big old break because they work word.

MCALLISTER: That wasn't a gaffe, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Oh, now, you backpedal. All right, my friends --

MCALLISTER: Just an addendum, that's all.

BANFIELD: Lenny McAllister and Jamie Harrison, it's nice to see you all three this morning. Thanks for that.

HARRISON: Thanks.

MCALLISTER: Thanks, guys.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It is 6:36 here on the East Coast.

Still ahead, forget about 3D or IMAX or CGI. A silent movie beats all the talkers at the Oscars. How did "The Artist" do it? Senior editor of "Us Weekly" joins us come up shortly.

You are watching EARLY START.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN OGOLA: I'm Danny Ogola and I'm the founder and executive director of Matibabu Foundation. Matibabu (INAUDILBE) for treatment. Matibabu Foundation is a community health initiative that creates a healthy, productive and prosperous society. I'm trying to invest two things. One is health. Two is education.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: You know why we're playing Simon and Garfunkel "The Sound of Silence."

The 84th Annual Academy Awards headline today, silence is golden. The black and white silent film "The Artist" won a lot of Oscar gold.

So, let's bring in our golden boy, Bradley Jacobs.

BRADLEY JACOBS, US WEEKLY: That's nice of you.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, we're going to deal with our predictions a little bit later because you came in earlier in the week and talked about it.

But we want to check Billy Crystal's opening bit. Let's watch this a little bit and you tell me about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: Please wake up. I'm ready for you to come home, where you belong.

BILLY CRYSTAL, ACTOR: Justin Bieber?

JUSTIN BIEBER, SINGER: Yes, man, what's up?

CRYSTAL: What are you doing here?

BIEBER: I'm here to get you the 18 to 24 demographic.

CRYSTAL: Great, great. Thanks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: I didn't watch this. That was pretty priceless.

So, trying to get the young viewers there. How do you think he did?

JACOBS: That was classic Billy. You know, he always does a little montage of all the nominated movies. This time, of course, he had nine movies to get through.

And it was very cute. It was also the opening act. You really had to grab people. And I thought it worked.

It was, you know, it was on the safe side but, like I said, you saw, you had Bieber in there, you had the guy/guy kiss which, you know, it gets people's attention.

SAMBOLIN: A little uncomfortable though.

JACOBS: It did work.

SAMBOLIN: OK. So, Sacha Baron Cohen. We talked about -- would he, would he not show up? And he did. I don't know if he disappointed or not. We're going to look at it in case you missed it last night and then we're going to talk about it.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

SAMBOLIN: What did you think? Any fallout?

JACOBS: This was the moment. If there was anything that really stood out last night on the red carpet, besides the fashion, this was it, was Sacha Baron Cohen surprising the unflappable Ryan Seacrest by dropping the supposed ashes of Kim Jong Il on him. And you know that Ryan Seacrest was not on the joke because you don't mess with that man and his tuxedo.

He was angry. He was doing his best to not blow a gasket.

SAMBOLIN: Do you think there will be any fallout from that?

JACOBS: No. I'm sure Ryan will play right along and say, you know, it was fine. I was punked or whatever.

And you know, it certainly got a lot of press for Sacha's movie "The Dictator" which comes out in May. It worked for Sacha. I don't think people really liked it necessarily, or got it. But I think it got our attention.

SAMBOLIN: Some people say it was the highlight of the evening, right?

JACOBS: Well, because everything is so produced. Everything seems so canned when you watch the Oscars. You just want to throw a brick at the TV sometimes watching them. They're so -- it's all so, you know, planned produced. That was an unexpected moment.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So let's go to the winners.

On Friday, we revealed our Oscar picks. Time to see how we did.

First up, let's go with best actress here. And let's listen to the winner.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the Oscar goes to Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady."

MERYL STREEP, ACTRESS: When they called my name I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, oh, no. Oh, come alive. Her, again. You know.

But whatever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Poor girl.

All right. Ashleigh is the winner here. This is not who I pick. This not who you picked either as a winner.

JACOBS: No, I thought it was going to be Viola Davis. And most Oscar predictors like me also thought it was going to be Viola. So, it was a surprise.

But I think everyone loves the fact that Meryl finally won. It was her 17th nomination within 29 years. We did want to see her win again. That's for sure.

And I have to say I loved that speech. I totally was with her and I just thought it was adorable. And I loved that she thanked her husband first and she made a point about that because everyone always thanks their partner at the very end, after the director, the cinematographer, the makeup artist. They finally get to their partner and she did it first and I thought that was very real and original somehow.

SAMBOLIN: All right. She's always very graceful and classy, isn't she?

All right. Next, we have the best actor. And on this one, I was right.

JACOBS: Good job.

SAMBOLIN: So "The Artist" again wins here.

JACOBS: Nice work, Z. Yes. Clooney had a lot of momentum earlier in the fall, but Jean Dujardin kind of came up from behind and won the BAFTA, the SAG Award, and the Golden Globe, and he just kept going, and he had the power of Harvey Weinstein behind him pushing "The Artist," and he won.

I have to say I was surprised. Clooney has it all. Clooney is Mr. Hollywood, but I think people just went for Jean Dujardin because they were so moved by that and delighted by "The Artist."

SAMBOLIN: And I don't want to leave with that same best picture, right, because at the end of the day, everybody kind of predicted this, except me.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: What happened?

SAMBOLIN: I know.

JACOBS: Yes, no, "Hugo" which was what you predicted also won five Oscars and was a huge winner last night.

SAMBOLIN: But not Best Picture, which is all that matters.

JACOBS: "The Artist" won, and you know, you can't walk out of "The Artist" and not be charmed by it. I don't know that it's necessarily a movie for the ages, but it certainly was the movie of the year.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Bradley Jacobs, thank you so much for coming back. I know you were up really late last night.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Ashleigh, back to you.

BANFIELD: I still really like Brad Pitt. I'm just saying. Soledad O'Brien joins us now with a look of what's ahead on "STARTING POINT." And, my friend, you and I tend to drink a lot of this in the mornings, coffee.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST, "STARTING POINT": Yes, yes. And I give it up every three months.

BANFIELD: No, you don't. O'BRIEN: Yes, I do. Cold turkey.

BANFIELD: How?

O'BRIEN: And then, it lasts about three days.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: There is the answer.

O'BRIEN: I was working on self-improvement. All right. Here's what's coming up this morning on "STARTING POINT" in about 15 minutes. We're going to talk to, as you say, the man responsible for a lot of that coffee, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. He's going to join us to talk about what he's doing, really giving profits to the people in a store in Harlem. We'll chat with him about whether or not that thing is successful.

And we'll talk to Senator Dick Durbin this morning. He is going to give us his assessment of the GOP race. He uses the word disaster when talking about Newt Gingrich. We'll ask him why. That's straight ahead this morning on "STARTING POINT."

EARLY START, though, is on the other side of this commercial break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 49 minutes past 6:00 on the east coast. Time to check our top stories making news this morning.

SAMBOLIN: The Taliban says it is responsible for a suicide car bombing at the gates of Jalalabad Airport. That's in Eastern Afghanistan. Nine people killed there, none of them Americans. The Taliban also says it is behind the attempted poisoning of food at a dining hall used by NATO troops in Torkham, Afghanistan. They found traces of chlorine in the food there.

And gas prices rising for the 20th day in a row now. The national average, $3.70 a gallon. That's a penny more than yesterday. Parts of California, Alaska, and Hawaii seeing more than $4 a gallon.

And in just over five hours, they'll try once again to start the Daytona 500. The race was postponed by rain yesterday. Officials are hoping the wet weather clears out today. Although, Rob Marciano says probably not. Be prepared to run the event tonight under the lights, they say, if that is necessary.

BANFIELD: So, here's a free speech fight for you. A judge in Pennsylvania threw out an assault case involving a Muslim who is attacking an atheist, and here's how it started. There was the parade. It was a Halloween parade, and the man decided to dress as zombie Mohammed. It was a costume.

That's what he said he wanted to do. He was atheist, but he says he was attacked by a Muslim who saw him walk by and didn't like it one bit, and so, he decided to film his own attack on his phone. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am Mohammed the prophet. Ahhhh. Huh? No. Stop, you're on film. Please, hey!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, he's attacking me. Come here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: All right. So, that was the cell phone video and the case ended up in court. But the judge dismissed the case, and now, the judge is facing a lot of criticism for what is being said about what he said. The victim recorded it and released part of what he said happened in court. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak what's on our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures, which is what you did. I'm a Muslim. I find it offensive. I find what's on the other side of this very offensive, but you have that right. But you're way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: You have to listen very, very carefully because there is definitely some argument over whether he said I am a Muslim or if I am a Muslim. We tried to reach the judge in the case, Judge Mark Martin, for comments but we have not been successful in our efforts to do so. But he did release a statement online where he said, "He not a Muslim and actually is a Lutheran."

He said, "I based my decision on the fact that the commonwealth failed to prove to me beyond a reasonable doubt that the change was just -- there are so many inconsistencies that there was no way I was going to find the defendant guilty in this case."

Joining us now is Jonathan Turley who is a professor of law at George Washington University. Professor Turley, I'm glad to have you on. I know you have blogged about this and have been very critical about the judge in this case. Is there any agreement, at this point, on exactly what it was that this judge said about his faith or what he did not say because I'm not so sure I can really put full faith in that recording saying "I'm a Muslim."

JONATHAN TURLEY, PROFESSOR OF LAW, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: In the end, Ashleigh, it probably doesn't matter. It certainly doesn't matter in my view, whether he's a Muslim or not. The objections of the civil liberties community really focuses on his view of the Constitution. He says that he's a Lutheran and that's one who should accept that. The tape probably doesn't capture what he really said, in fairness to him. But it is also fair to hold him accountable for what he said about the constitution. Many people have looked at this and wondered why it wasn't assault, let alone harassment. But they're more concerned with the fact that the judge said this isn't what the First Amendment is supposed to protect.

That's clearly wrong. You know, you can say things that are hurtful to others. We hope that you don't, but you most certainly can be protected. People like Thomas Payne spent his entire life ticking off people across the colonies.

BANFIELD: So, I guess -- I don't get this. I mean, it sounded pretty clear cut to me. A man was attacked for saying something, and yet, the victim was blamed in court and the case was thrown out. Is it possible that this judge could be up for review, some kind of a judicial discipline commission, anything like this? Or is it up to the voters?

TURLEY: Ashleigh, it's interesting. You know, the judge is very upset that he released this tape and has reportedly threatened him with contempt, but the tape has served the public function. The judge's view of the First Amendment is troubling. He, in the tape, makes reference to the fact that this is an offense punishable by death in certain countries. That's under Sharia law.

I don't think he's applying Sharia law. I don't think that's what he was intending to do. But those countries are oppressive countries. They apply a medieval form of law. I don't think they should be given credence. It's not some type of cultural defense for the defendant. The defendant here admitted that he felt he had to do something when someone insults the prophet.

BANFIELD: He should have taken to the blogosphere like the rest of us do (ph). Not appropriate. It is attack some of on the street. Call me crazy. But you know what, we're going to have to leave it there, Professor Turley. Maybe you can come back and talk to us when or if there's any resolution with regards to what's going to happen with the judge.

TURLEY: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Thanks, professor. It's nice to see you.

We will be right back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: That's it for us. Soledad O'Brien here with "STARTING POINT." Good morning.

O'BRIEN: Hey, ladies. Good morning to you.