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Report: Al Qaeda "Caretaker Leader" Nabbed; Interview with Florida Representative Connie Mack; Learning From Concordia Crash; Santorum Looks To Super Tuesday; High-Ranking Al Qaeda Operative Reportedly Arrested in Egypt; Interview with Columbine High School Principal; Ohio School Shooting; The Real Stimulus Plan; "The Escape Artist"

Aired February 29, 2012 - 08:00   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT this morning is this story out of Egypt. Authorities have arrested what they believe to be as a high level al Qaeda militant -- although there is some confusion this morning over who exactly is in custody. It could have major implications. We're going to talk about what's happening there.

Plus, a deadly tornado outbreak. A state of emergency has now been declared in Kansas. One person killed in Missouri. The danger's not over.

And next stop is Super Tuesday. Mitt Romney just squeaks by in his home state. So, is it enough to convince voters next week?

Plus, the 911 calls released from the Ohio high school shooting rampage. You can really just hear the fear in people's voices. Listen.


OPERATOR: 911, where's your emergency?

CALLER: We just had a shooting at our school. We need to get out of here. Oh, my God.



O'BRIEN: Classes are going to resume on Friday. We're going to talk to the principal of Columbine High school about what the school in Ohio should be doing now.

STARTING POINT begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

O'BRIEN: All right. Welcome back, everybody.

We start with breaking news. There is word of another key al Qaeda capture though there are some conflicting reports about whether or not this is the right guy.

Let's get right to Barbara Starr for the very latest on this story. Where does the confusion come from in this report, Barbara?


Well, you're right. Apparently, the Egyptians have arrested a key al Qaeda operative. But the question is which one.

Egyptian state media is reporting the arrest of a man named Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi. Now, he apparently also goes with an alias Seif al-Adel.

That is where the confusion lies because a man named Seif al- Adel, and, we have a picture of him, he may be a different person, he is one of the most wanted al Qaeda terrorists by the United States. He has a $5 million reward on his head. That is his picture there.

He is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in east Africa, said to be a major al Qaeda operative, had been sheltered in Iran for many years and possibly had left Iran. We don't know if the Iranians let him go, went to Pakistan.

The man the Egyptians say they arrested came through Pakistan, through Dubai, back into the airport in Cairo, Egypt, where he was detained.

So, now, the question is this confusion. Which man is it? Is it Seif al-Adel, the man that is so wanted by the United States, or is it this other al Qaeda operative who also uses that name? Very confusing. Working to sort it out as we speak, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. Barbara, thank you. We'll continue to check in with you to see if we can get more details on that.

Let's talk politics now. Intro our panel: Ron Brownstein is with us, David Frum as well, and Jamal Simmons.

Another breaking story, of course, the results last night -- not a shocker, I thought. Certainly Arizona. Michigan was the one that everybody was watching very closely.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That was the marquee contest of the night. I think it told us two things that are important going beyond this, Soledad. One is that Romney's hold is actually pretty strong on the upscale wing of the party. He did very well with upbringing voters, better educated voters, voters who don't call themselves evangelical Christians or strong Tea Party supporters, as he has done in other states.

And my other big takeaway from Michigan is that Rick Santorum seems to be defining himself slightly too narrowly to truly threaten Romney for the nomination. He can challenge him but right now, he's winning only the most ideological elements of the party. He's not, in fact, reaching more deeply into that blue collar core of the party -- non-college voters, middle income voters.

He lost Catholics in Michigan after spending the weekend attacking the first Catholic president on the separation of church and state. He seems to be a little too narrow in his bandwidth to really -- he can win states but he's going to have to expand to ultimately win the nomination.

DAVID FRUM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Mitt Romney paid very heavily for this win. It's not the millions of dollars he spent.

O'BRIEN: What was the price?

FRUM: The price was he was driven on Friday to a speech in Detroit where he announced a second tax cut. He's already -- he's back in September, he committed himself as part of a very comprehensive and detailed and considered economic plan to making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

On Friday, he delivered a speech that was really not very well worked out. It was really on the back of an envelope offering an additional 20 percent tax cut -- cut in tax rates that will again disproportionately affect the high income people. That puts him into a box in keeping his balanced budget plan.

It means he's now deeply locked into even bigger -- he's also said no Medicare cuts for 10 years. That means all of his deficit reduction falls upon the young and the poor. But -- and that is something that was the price -- he thought it was the price of winning. But, boy, will it wrangle.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's get to Republican Congressman Connie Mack of Florida. He joins our panel now. He's a Romney supporter.

It's nice to see you. I guess congratulations are in order as we were talking about. There were two victories last night.

Do you feel like that gives momentum really? Or I feel like this go around momentum is like for 10 seconds, we'll talk about it. And say, on to Super Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no momentum.

O'BRIEN: No momentum. Let's see. What do you think, Connie?

REP. CONNIE MACK (R), FLORIDA: Well, I would thank you for having me on.

And I -- of course, it's momentum. I mean, look, it was a big night yesterday no matter -- people might say three points, four points. He was losing in Michigan by 15 points just a week ago.

I think this is a big win and it's because people look at Mitt Romney and say, he understands the economy. He understands how jobs are created. He understands that people are hurting and that's the message that's resonating with voters.

O'BRIEN: But, you know, when you look at some of those statistics and the exit polling that Ron Brownstein was just talking about, I think I have a graphic of this, who really supported him by income, under 30 k was Santorum, and between 30K and 100K were also Santorum winning that category. It was 100K plus that went to Mitt Romney.

That seems like that could spell big trouble down the road.

MACK: You know, I just -- you can splice and dice all of these numbers all you want. The bottom line is he won Michigan, he won Arizona. He's shown that he can post up with any one of his opponents and win. And I think that is an important thing that people are missing is that when Mitt Romney talks about the economy, talks about jobs, talks about how to balance the budget and move this country forward, people listen and they're interested in what he has to say.

FRUM: But, Connie, this goes to this question about the speech he gave on Friday. People do listen to what Governor Romney said. What they're hearing is an enormous tax cut for their economic matter (ph), Medicare reform not to come for 10 years, and all of the costs to fall on the young immediately and the less affluent. Food stamps, he specifically said are going to be reduced, unemployment insurance is clearly in the gun sights as well -- all that to begin almost as soon after the election, after he's elected president as possible.

Isn't that a heavy price to pay? Doesn't that cloud the much more coherent economic message he delivered in September on that very impressive economic plan?

MACK: Well, I would say this. Maybe we heard a different speech because what I heard was him talking about how to move America forward, how to help people find work, how to invigorate this economy. That's what people are looking for.

Look, whether or not -- wherever you are in this country, you're looking for someone who understands how budgets work, how an economy works, how jobs are created, and that's what Mitt Romney is talking about.

FRUM: How will the 20 percent further tax cut put anybody to work? He offered none in that speech.

MACK: Because when you cut taxes as has been shown in history here in America, revenues go up in the federal government because people have -- are able to keep their own money instead of it being taken by government.

FRUM: That's the case?

MACK: And then spend it in the economy.

BROWNSTEIN: We are facing a situation where there are fewer people working today 10 years after the Bush tax cuts have been passed.

But can I ask you, though, real quickly. The focus on social issues from Senator Santorum obviously dominating the debate leading into the race, what do you the -- leading into the vote in Michigan, what do you think the impact will be on the Republican Party if you continue to have your debate centered on those questions at least as much as the economic issues?

MACK: I would agree that I think Senator Santorum's narrow focus on some of these issues hurt him in Michigan, hurt him in Arizona and will continue to be a weight around him as he moves forward.

Look, people are interested in jobs, the economy, and balancing the budget. That's why Mitt Romney continues to win these primary elections. That's why I believe that he will win, be our nominee, and ultimately beat Barack Obama because he's got a plan on how to turn this country around. And people want to see us get of the road to Greece and on the road to prosperity.


O'BRIEN: Go ahead.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Senator Mack, you just mentioned that people are interested in jobs and the economy. I think people are also interested in leadership out of their presidential nominee. And so far, what we haven't seen from Mitt Romney is a leadership in his own party to challenge them on church and state being separated, to challenge the party to stand up -- excuse me -- on college education being important.

Where are the moments where he stands up and says too his party, listen, I'm the leader, I know where to go, you guys need to follow me, I've got the direction? I don't see him appealing to Democrats or disaffected Democrats or independents by following Rick Santorum's lead here.

MACK: Well, he's shown his leadership in every step of his life. But clearly -- clearly no one else on this panel is a supporter or likes Mitt Romney.

But I'm telling you that as I traveled around with Mitt Romney in the state of Florida and he spoke to people about jobs, the economy, and balancing budgets, they saw leadership. They saw someone who understands whether it was in Massachusetts, whether it was in the Olympics, or whether it was in business or his personal life, this is a leader. He's been a leader at everything that he's done in life.

And so, I don't think that's much of a question other than people who want to try to tear him down instead of lift him up.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Connie Mack joining us, Republican from Florida -- nice to see you. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it.

MACK: Thank you. Thank you very much.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

In just about 20 minutes, we're going to talk with Rick Santorum's press secretary, Alice Stewart, will join us live right here.

We've got other headlines, though, making news. Let's get to Alina Cho for those.

Hey, Alina.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Soledad. Good morning.

A desperate search is underway right now for three missing people in Alabama. It happened after a Coast Guard helicopter crashed last night into Mobile Bay. The chopper went down during a training mission. One crew member who was rescued has since died.

The Coast Guard says dense fog hampered the search overnight. Still not clear yet whether the bad weather caused the crash.

He said he didn't even know who he was shooting. Prosecutors say T.J. Lane, the accused Ohio high school gunman admitted to the rampage that has now killed three teens. He also said his targets were random. Lane, making his first court appearance yesterday, he is expected to be tried as an adult.

We're also hearing from the first time from Frank Hall. He's the heroic teacher and assistant coach who put his own life at risk by chasing Lane out of the cafeteria.


FRANK HALL, TEACHER/ASSISTANT COACH: I just want to say that I'm sorry to the families, to the victims. I wish I could have done more.


CHO: Classes will resume at Chardon High School on Friday. Last night, Ohio's governor joined family and friends and students for a prayer vigil for the victims. The funeral for Daniel Parmertor, the first shooting victim to die is scheduled for Saturday morning.

Minding your business now. U.S. markets poised to open slightly higher this morning. The Dow, NASDAQ and S&P 500 futures all up right now. And the Dow closing above that key 13,000 level for the first time since 2008 yesterday.

Gas prices seem to be rising as fast as home values are falling. They've gone up 22 days in a row. The average price for a gallon of unleaded nationwide is now $3.73. That's up 1.5 cents just since yesterday. In the first two months of 2012, gas prices have jumped 13.8 percent heading toward that $4 level.

O'BRIEN: People are feeling it higher in some places. All right. Alina, thank you.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a couple celebrating their fifth anniversary on a ship. A ship called the Costa Concordia. As you can imagine, it ends in disaster. They're going to tell their story to Congress today, but they'll tell their story to us first.

Also, a new book claims the Obama administration dropped the ball when it came to the economic recovery. We'll talk with the author about that.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: The "Costa Concordia" crash is back in the spotlight today. You'll remember that 21 people were killed when that cruise ship ran aground of the Italian coast. More than 4,200 people were on board, and the captain abandoned the ship. Now, it's under formal investigation, and he's under formal investigation for causing ship wreck. And also, he's facing multiple manslaughter charges.

Well, this week, in the Indian Ocean, there was more trouble for the same company. The Allegra was being towed to safety after an engine room fired knocked out power to the ship. The question, of course, becomes how safe are these cruise ships. And Congress is holding a hearing asking that very question.

Divya and Sameer Sharma had survived the Concordia disaster, and they're going to be testifying in just a few hours at that hearing, but first, though, they're going to talking to us. Thank you for talking with us. We certainly appreciate it. I want you to walk me through what happened. And Divya, why don't you start. You were having dinner. It was your fifth anniversary of your wedding. You're on a cruise to celebrate. What happened?

DIVYA SHARMA, CONCORDIA SURVIVOR: First of all, good morning, everybody, and thank you for having us. It was a very well thought, well-planned vacation, and our first trip abroad like to Europe, and we were very excited about everything. We were on our dinner, and all of a sudden, around between 9:30 and 10:00, this huge scraping noise, and there was a violent shaking of our dinner table.

And everything sort of like just started crashing down. There was a combined gasp in the room. And then, the lights just went off. There was pitch dark, and we were pretty scared. Nobody, at that time, told us what went wrong.

O'BRIEN: What were they saying? What were they telling you?

DIVYA SHARMA: They weren't saying anything at first. I mean, I guess everybody was collectively clueless. Everybody was like just panicked, first of all. They were just shocked. So, they didn't say anything at first. O'BRIEN: Eventually, you made your way to try to get on one of the boats, the rafts getting off the ship. And at that same time, they were still telling people, you know, go back to your rooms. Is that right?

SAMEER SHARMA, CONCORDIA SURVIVOR: That is right. They were keeping on saying at the same time, there's an electrical issue with the ship, and everything is under control. Remain calm and seated and be cooperative. Like, we have everything under control. So, that was the announcement, was keep airing again and again.

O'BRIEN: And they were saying that announcement even while -- Divya, you were in bare feet because you couldn't walk because the tilt was so bad that you had to take your shoes off. I mean, that announcement was still going when things were clearly really bad?

DIVYA SHARMA: Correct. Yes. So, we were trying to make our way on to our room on deck nine. And we didn't have any idea. If we didn't have to go back to our room, where else could we find our life jackets. Since we weren't given any instructions while we were boarding, we had no idea where the muster station was. And, my husband, he kept telling me, he's like, you know, take those shoes off.

And when I did, I found -- we found pretty much impossible to walk up. And at that time, they just kept running the same announcement that, ladies and gentlemen, it's an electrical failure. It's under control. Please stay calm and wait for further instruction. And -- because there was sort of panic in their voice, but at that time, they just kept saying the same thing over and over again.

O'BRIEN: A final question for you. As you've been preparing your testimony, has it been a relief to sort of walk through it and put your thoughts on paper or has it just been more traumatizing as you re-live what clearly sounds like a horrific time for you?

SAMEER SHARMA: It is a little traumatizing, but we are going to tell our story, which is a very important for the industry to know that it was not -- there was no safety drill. Because of that, we were on, you know, third floor, and we had to go all the way onto the ninth deck. Had we known that there were life jackets nearby, we would not have risked that to go to six flights of stairs to get to our room.

And, since we had no idea where our muster station was, that time that we wasted going back and forth many flights of stairs, that could have been saved. And so, that was only because we had no instruction from anybody to what to do and where to meet in case of emergency.

O'BRIEN: Well, good luck as you testify on Capitol Hill today. Thank you for sharing your story with us first. It sounds absolutely terrifying. DIVYA SHARMA: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: That's Sameer and Divya Sharma joining us.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the breaking news to tell you and update you on. There's word from Egypt that they've captured a high level al Qaeda militant, but who is it? Which guy is it?

And it isn't over until it's over. The silver lining in Rick Santorum's primary losses last night. His campaign will join us next to talk about that.

We leave you with Jim's playlist. This is (INAUDIBLE) "Celebrate."


O'BRIEN: After running neck-and-neck over the past few days, it was Mitt Romney who came out ahead in Michigan's primary yesterday, but not by very much, just three percentage points. And that solid showing could give Rick Santorum a lift heading into next week's Super Tuesday. Listen.


RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: First and foremost, I just have to say to the people of Michigan, you know, we came into the backyard of one of my opponents in a race that everyone said, well, just ignore. You have really no chance here. And the people of Michigan looked into the hearts of the candidates, and all I have to say is, I love you back. Thank you.



O'BRIEN: It was a loss, but it was a win. Alice Stewart is the national press secretary of Santorum 2012 presidential campaign. Nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us. Obviously, it was a very close race, and when you look at the delegates, nine went to Romney, seven have gone to Santorum, and there are 14 that are still outstanding and there -- how, overall, did you feel about the race there?

ALICE STEWART, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, SANTORUM 2012 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: We were tremendously satisfied with the results last night simply because, you know, we came into a state, as Rick just said, it was Mitt Romney's backyard. Tremendous name I.D. Father was the governor. Tremendously outspent more than six to one, and we gave him a run for his money.

His back was against the ropes for the past couple weeks, and we're very satisfied with that. The key take away message of this is the delegate count. And we gave him a run for his money in that regard. This is not about necessarily who came in first here, it's who's walking away with the most delegates. And the numbers are still being crunched.

There are still some Congressional districts with the way this is being allocated proportionally by Congressional districts. And there is a good chance we will tie with him in the delegate count, and quite possibly, even surpass him in the delegate count, and that's key.

And if that happens, we are clearly the winner in this case. Whether or not he has the most actual votes, the way the delegates are distributed here, that's the key.

O'BRIEN: That's how I started. I said you could lose but still win. Let me ask you a question about some polling, because two weeks ago, you were actually ahead a lot in the polls. And then, over time, up to just a couple of days ago, you know, that lead really narrowed, and then, you had what was in certain overall voters a loss. What do you think accounts for that declining polling that was happening?

STEWART: Well, a lot of it has to do with the big money Romney machine steam rolling in here and putting up quite a bit of ads and being able to have a much bigger staff. He had certainly a lot of surrogates come in here. He, himself, as well as members of his family coming here in their own home state, and that's to be expected. You know, we came in here two weeks ago --

O'BRIEN: How much do you think it had to do with the conversation over the weekend that really focused on college education and connecting that to snobbery and contraception and separation of church and state, because that was really the topic of conversation over the weekend and then into Monday?

STEWART: Well, I can assure you, as Rick went around to several events over the past several days and weeks, the thing that resonated with the people and what they connected with him were his views and his statements that he made about things that are of interest to them. And that is jobs and the economy. And the past few days, he's talked quite a bit about energy and national security.

Those are the issues that people listen to. Those are the things that they're concerned with. And that is what helped him to come in a virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney in his own home state. He's connecting to people --

O'BRIEN: I'm just wondering if you think it was a mistake to have conversations, because the topic of conversation, you're right now, you know, closer to primary day, the shift was back to jobs and economy, but, over the weekend, it really wasn't. Over the weekend, it was JFK, and it was the First Amendment, and it was separation of church and state, and it was contraception, and it was calling the president a snob about thinking that everybody should go to college.

So, was that shift saying, wow, that's a mistake. Our poll numbers are coming down when we go that direction. We're carving a narrower niche of people who that message is resonating with? STEWART: Well, I can assure you he spent the bulk of his time out there on the stump talking about jobs and the economy and national security. The issues that you talked about are things that were played out in the media. And, specifically on the college issue, he was referring to the fact that college is not the right avenue for every single person in this country.

Trade schools, technical schools, and other training programs that will equip people of this country for manufacturing jobs, which is key, and he sees that as a corner stone for helping the economy. That's the point he was trying to make. But it's the message connected with the people here in Michigan in terms of his 100-day plan for igniting our energy resources here, repealing Obamacare, tax cuts for families.

Those were the issues that connected with people, and as he said in the tape that you played, he got into the hearts of people of Michigan, and they responded very well.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question about the robo calls. Was it a mistake?

STEWART: Absolutely not. And we've said all along that the purpose -- we'll see. We'll see how the next states play out, but the key is we've always said we need to appeal to conservatives and also Reagan Democrats.

And, Rick appealed to them as a conservative saying my conservative views and values will help you as a Reagan Democrat as opposed to Mitt Romney who's sending out fundraising appeals touting his moderate records saying, I'm a moderate. Give to me and I will continue my moderate record. That's not what conservatives want.

They want someone like Rick who is a conservative and will have views and values and ideas and solutions that will help all- Americans, conservatives and Reagan Democrats, independents, people all across the country, but he's appealing as he truly is, as a consistent conservative, and his values will help everyone across this country from all income levels and also all, you know, ideologies.

And certainly, whether we're talking Reagan democrats, conservatives, independents, that's who we're going to appeal with and that's who we'll reach out to in the Super Tuesday states.

O'BRIEN: Why do you think he lost Catholics? When you look at the exit polls, Catholics went for Mitt Romney. Do you think that had something to do with his comments about JFK and saying I threw up when I, you know, basically talking about the role -- when JFK was talking about the role his faith played in how he would govern? Did that hurt him with Catholics?

STEWART: In terms of how the votes break down, we'll look at that over the next few days and look at how we need to move forward on that.

O'BRIEN: In that one I can tell you, I'll tell you, he lost Catholics. That's how the vote went down for him. Looking back would you say, that was a bad strategy, we alienated Catholics potentially by attacking JFK? Maybe we should change things? Is that what you would be considering?

STEWART: No. What we do is reach out to the evangelical community across the state and we appealed to them and the hearts and minds of the evangelicals. We received a great reception. We had a tremendous event yesterday. Quite a bit of members of the faith community came out and as I said, he reached into their hearts and they responded accordingly. They appreciate his views and his values on faith and family and the pro-life issue and that's what we're going to continue to do, reaching out to evangelicals, people of all faiths and certainly conservatives across this country.

Particularly we're doing very well in Ohio. We had a great event in Ohio yesterday. We'll also reach out in Tennessee and Georgia and Washington state. We'll continue his message as the consistent conservative and we'll continue to win voters across this country one person at a time.

O'BRIEN: Alice Stewart joining us, national press secretary for Santorum 2012. Thank you for being with us this morning. Appreciate your time.

STEWART: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning, we'll get back to our breaking news. Dangerous and deadly weather ripping through America's heartland. As many as ten tornadoes are now reported. Got some live pictures of damage over Harveyville, Kansas. Just look at that. There's word that some 60 percent of that town is now gone. It's been destroyed. We're going to get right to Rob Marciano who's tracking the system for us.

Also, another community rocked by a deadly school shooting. We'll talk live with the principal of Columbine high school about how they got on the path to recovery.

And then mistakes that cost you money. Gaffes by the Obama administration that went after claims that they're hurting the economy. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Breaking news to get to. The man who briefly led Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed may be in custody in Egypt. According to Egypt's interior ministry Saif al-Adel was arriving from Pakistan when he was taken into custody at Cairo airport. No confirmation yet from the U.S. government that it is the right guy. In fact, this morning there is some confusion. Let's goat Peter Bergen who live for with us in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Peter.

PETER BERGEN, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Good morning. O'BRIEN: What's the latest and how important would it be if this was Saif al-Adel.

BERGEN: I think it would be quite important if it is Saif al-Adel. He's one of the last remaining kind of founders of the group that's still around. So many of them have been captured or killed. More importantly, if it is him he would be the first senior leader of Al Qaeda who has been captured rather than killed in a drone strike or American Navy SEAL raid as Osama bin Laden was since early 2005. He would be able to give interrogators of where they are. So many colleagues have been picked off by U.S. drone strikes, as the leader of the organization himself, Osama bin Laden.

I think it would be a very big deal. Soledad, there's always been confusion about whether the man that the U.S. government identifies as Saif al-Adel is in fact a case of mistaken identity with somebody who has a similar kind of background, was involved in Al Qaeda. So whether or not -- we are still not exactly certain who was arrested at the Cairo airport. And although the U.S. government identifies this guy as Saif al-Adel, the military commander of Al Qaeda, experts in the region have contested that.

O'BRIEN: Right. The other name that's being brought up is Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi. In some cases the U.S. says those two names, that's the same person, Saif al-Adel and Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi. In others, it seems like the confusion is that maybe Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi is actually a high ranking Al Qaeda operative but not the same as Saif al-Adel.

BERGEN: Yes. So whoever this is, it's kind of interesting that somebody from Al Qaeda, relatively high ranking, made the decision to go to Cairo, which, after all, is quite a risk. We haven't seen Al Qaeda trying to insert itself into the Egyptian revolution as yet. This would be an indication or this is an indication that somebody in the group is trying to get in. But clearly they took a big risk doing that since he's been arrested by Egyptian authorities.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. We'll continue to follow it. Peter is in Washington, D.C. for us.

More breaking news to tell you about. One person's dead. Several other people are injured after severe weather slammed through towns in Kansas and Missouri. It happened early this morning. Take a look at some of the pictures. This is a town called Haleysville, Kansas. Look at that. Just a mess. Buildings or whatever that was, just absolutely destroyed. There are some reports that 60 percent of that town is now gone. As many as 10 tornadoes have been reported. Apparently the severe weather threat is not over. Rob Marciano, where is it heading?

ROB MARCIANO, METEOROLOGIST: It's all heading east and spreading south and the tornado watches continue to pile up and be extended through the afternoon and likely through the evening. Right now the tornado warnings that are up include right along the Ohio river just south of Louisville and just east of Madisonville. This had a history of seeing a tornado touch down. We've had widespread reports of damage in Harrisburg, Illinois. A similar storm just west in Missouri producing some damage as well. These are holding together and they will continue to do so. If anything, get a little more strength as we heat up the day.

These are all reports from last night. Notice one up here in Nebraska. That's the first time we have a recorded tornado in Nebraska for the month of February. So an unusual event, blizzard to the north and severe weather to the south. Over 100 wind reports, some of which up to 70 or 80 miles an hour. At least ten reports of tornadoes. Those reports are beginning to pile up.

Here are the added tornado watches in effect until 1:00 p.m. likely to be expanded off to the east. It will be getting into the northeast soon enough. Here's the blizzard warning. The snow is blowing sideways in places like Minnesota and the Dakotas. All eyes of course on the severe weather heading across the Tennessee valley.

O'BRIEN: That sounds miserable. Rob, thank you.

This just in as well. Some good news. The economy is growing at a rate of 3.0 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. That's good news because it means the Commerce Department upgraded this number from the last estimate which was 2.8 percent. It shows the economy is picking up steam growing faster than we thought and a faster rate than earlier in the year.

O'BRIEN: Let's get inside now the Ohio school shootings. The 911 tapes have been released. You can listen to the moments right after the suspect fled the building. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 911 what's your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's the principal at Chardon again. The alleged shooter ran out the backdoor down the easement towards the tennis courts past the pool.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Do you have any description of clothing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have white t-shirt, shaggy dark hair, tall, skinny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tall, shaggy, dark hair.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a name that we think.



O'BRIEN: So that was the principal of Chardon high school on the phone with the 911 operator. There's a man who has been in those shoes before. Frank DeAngelis is the principal of the Columbine high school and he was there the day the two students opened fire at his high school. And 13 people ended up being killed, two dozen more were injured. Thanks for talking with us. It's nice to see you again, although it's often under these terrible kinds of circumstances. When you heard the news about this school shooting, did it just take you right back to Columbine?

FRANK DEANGELIS, PRINCIPAL, COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL: Most definitely. I think any time there is a school shooting, even though it can be in a different state, different country, it does re- traumatize myself and the Columbine community.

O'BRIEN: Do you have to have conversations with the students, the teachers, because those are the ones who are still there if they've been long-time teachers every time something like this happens?

DEANGELIS: Right. With the students, this senior class that's getting ready to graduate were in preschool. And of course, we have counselors on staff all the time when school's in session. But there's about 25 staff members who are left from when the tragedy occurred at Columbine high school. There were 150 staff members on April 20th, 1999. Out of the 150 there's about 25 left. And we do check in on each other. We have a support system. There's a special bond that was formed as a result of the tragedy that occurred at Columbine high school.

O'BRIEN: I know you've reached out to the principal of Chardon, and I'm sure he's crazed because of course on Friday they're going to reopen that school. What do you want to tell him? Why did you reach out to him?

DEANGELIS: Well, originally when I found out about the tragedy I called and I had an opportunity to talk to their public information officer and left my number and at this point I have not had an opportunity to talk to the principal or to the superintendent. And I can remember back to April 20th, '99, received so many phone calls and there was so much happening that I didn't even realize what I needed at that point.

I think where I could serve as a great resource and in the aftermath, what I could tell him is that there are so many people out there that support him. Columbine high school is sending their love and support, had many of the teachers who were in the building that day on April 20th that offered to go out and help the students and staff and the community members. The one piece of information I think that still rings out in my mind is someone said it's a marathon, not a sprint, and just to know that they're not in it alone.

O'BRIEN: So what has been the biggest challenge for you as you've tried to heal not just the school community but the greater community? What surprised you as an obstacle?

DEANGELIS: I think the most difficult thing, the thing I didn't realize, is everyone felt that there's going to be this one day that people are going to wake up and state, geez, everything is back to normal. What I have told people on numerous occasions, what happened at Columbine high school, what has happened in Chardon, you will not have normal again. You'll have to redefine what normal is. And each day brings certain challenges.

At Columbine it'll be 13 years this April in which the tragedy occurred, and we're still on the road to healing. I think any time a school shooting occurs or a threat occurs, we are re- traumatized. But you just learn that there's a lot of support. A lot of it is trial and error. I think in talking to the public information officer, many of the things that were in place in Ohio were in place as a result of lessons learned from Columbine high school.

O'BRIEN: And when you hear that, how do you feel about that? It's true. A lot of what they talked about people's response being so spot on, and they had practiced it just back in 2010, and that was really credit because of what had happened at your school. How do you feel about that?

DEANGELIS: Well, you know, we'll always remember the 13 who lost their lives and all of the students who were injured and all the community members who were deeply affected, but luckily they did not die in vain. And if what we learn from Columbine high school could save other lives, that is so important. I think what is key is to let students or parents or community members know that there are resources out there to prevent these types of things from happening.

Now with social networking taking place, more plans are placed on the Internet or on Facebook and so if any students suspect anything, they need to alert authorities even though they may think, well, this child is not -- they're not taking it seriously. Do not.

I mean -- you really need to err on the side of caution. And so I think that is so important. And you know, the lessons learned, just how the police respond.

In reading the accounts of what happened in Ohio, the teachers responded heroically, the one teacher who chased the gunman out of the building. They should be applauded for their efforts. It doesn't happen by accident. It's because they practice it.

O'BRIEN: That's correct. Frank DeAngelis is the principal of Columbine High School -- still the principal at Columbine High School all these years later. Thank you for talking with us this morning. We appreciate your insight.

DEANGELIS: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT, the stimulus stumble as some critics think we'd be better off now if the Obama economic team didn't call the shots it did to jump start the recovery. We'll talk about that right after the commercial break.


O'BRIEN: Never before seen memo from inside the White House could have changed the course of economic recovery maybe? So says a new book coming out. An author suggests that the President blew it when it came to the stimulus plan. The book is called "The Escape Artist: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery." And the author is Noam Scheiber who is with us now. It's nice to have you.

NOAM SCHEIBER, AUTHOR: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: I guess we know how you feel about it. You've written --

SCHEIBER: It's out there. Yes.

O'BRIEN: But a lot of it centers around the President's council of economic advisors, specifically Christina Romer. Tell me a little bit about -- about that memo.

SCHEIBER: Yes. It was early December of 2008. Economy was getting very bad very quickly and it fell to Romer to sort of forecast the size of the hole and what it would take to fill that hole on the economy. And when Romer did her number she concluded that it would take $1.7 trillion to $1.8 trillion to get employment back to a healthy level about five percent by 2011.

And so she wrote up that memo and there was a conversation internally about -- ok, that's -- that's the idea but what do you actually show the President. She and Larry Summers sort of debated this.

And Larry Summers concluded that -- you can't actually show the President that memo that says you need to do $1.7 trillion or $1.8 trillion. You'll just get laughed out of the room. The political advisors will just dismiss you as oblivious to the -- to the political realities that they face in Congress.

So basically he pushed back and said, you know what, I don't want to show the President -- the President-elect and his advisors this large a number. Why don't we say we'll push for something that's about $800 billion to $850 billion, huge by historical standards and just hope that we can at least get that and I think that, you know, on one level that did reflect political reality, but on another level I think the President needed to see and really deeply grasp that what might have been politically possible was still very, very far from what this is --


O'BRIEN: Was that $1.8 number ever sort of floated? I mean why not say listen, here's a number that's politically a horrible number.

SCHEIBER: Right. O'BRIEN: Or we're going to show it to you anyway.


O'BRIEN: The number you might want to think about being able to go forward with politically is this one?


O'BRIEN: Was that ever shown to him?

SCHEIBER: It was not. It was not. The final memo did say, or we recommended to do this $850 billion, that's the higher option. There was actually a lower option shown. And that you have to understand that will not do the job. So there are -- there was no illusion that this is perfect, this is going to completely solve the problem. But then there was another statement I was very curious that was added between that draft that Romer did and the final memo. And that said, while theoretically you might want to go considerably higher than this because this is not quite sufficient, as a practical matter just on the economics you wouldn't want to do that because the returns diminish, you start kind of scaring the bond markets and interest rates rise.

So it was really a muddled thing. Even though they did say this is not perfect, they also said you wouldn't want to go too much higher because it has these other consequences that are lousy.

DAVID FRUM, FRUMFORUM.COM: This is a story about a staff process. But if a memo comes to the President that says you've got this crisis and here is something that we think will do the job, isn't the President supposed to go around the table and say, does everybody here agree with that? And sort of look and sense if somebody doesn't. And isn't the President supposed to say is this the ideal plan? Or is this just -- I mean those are --

O'BRIEN: Were not enough questions asked?

FRUM: -- yes. I mean, that -- I mean this is a clearly Larry Summers is to blame for our problems story tooled by the person who says if only they had listened to me we wouldn't have the problem. But I mean the staff doesn't run the country, the President runs the country. And the President has the power to ask all of these questions.

O'BRIEN: David Frum, is there a question in your question for our author?

SCHEIBER: I think it's a very good point. I don't think the President really asked that -- that question.

FRUM: Isn't that the story?

SCHEIBER: And -- and I do. You know, one of the things I struggled with in writing the book was how much blame do you apportion to the staff and how much do you apportion to the President? And in a variety of ways I think even though I do single out various advisors, I think you're absolutely right.

Ultimately the buck stops with the President. And it's not just the stimulus that I write about. I write about -- I'm critical of their preoccupation with deficit reduction which I think was premature and costly to the recovery.

You know, ultimately that falls at the President's feet too. He -- the guy is -- is kind of a deficit hawk.

O'BRIEN: And politically weren't they right? I mean, that was a battle anyway, right, to get the 60 votes? So it's not like, I mean, $1.8 you would have been laughed out of the room.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's the big question. What's the counter factual here? When you say blame, was there a case that you could have gone to this Congress and exacted significantly more stimulus money than they got which was pretty remarkable? And only three Republicans in the end voted for it; one of them was driven out of the party for voting for it.

O'BRIEN: Right.

SCHEIBER: Yes, look, I don't want to suggest that they could have gotten $1.7 trillion or $1.8 trillion or even $1.5 trillion. I do think they left a little bit of money on the table. I think they could have gotten another $150 billion or $200 billion. What was very interesting is they actually ended up proposing even less than that $850. They proposed about $775.

Then a couple weeks later Larry Summers and Rahm Emmanuel went to Congress, to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And said look, this is what we're thinking, we want to work with you on it. Is $775 ok, they were very aware that that would scare them and that would be too high and Pelosi looked at them and said, that's fine. Anything up to a trillion would be fine with us. So they could have easily started with $950, $975.

O'BRIEN: So -- let me stop you there because I want to continue this conversation. We've got to hit a commercial break. But we'll keep talking about this and also the President specifically, what he said about his legacy straight ahead.

We're going to be back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: We're back with Noam Scheiber, the author of a new book, "The Escape Artist: How Obama's team fumbled the recovery". I want to talk to you about a little bit, the talks about legacy for President Obama.

You write this. There's a point where just after the 2008 election Geithner says listen, your signature accomplishment is going to be that you prevented another Great Depression. Basically the president says, yes, that's not going to cut it. Like that is not enough.

You write this, "That's not enough for me", said the president- elect. "If you don't do that, nothing else is possible," Geithner protested. "Yes," the president-elect repeated, "but that's not enough."

Why was it not enough and what were the implications of that conversation do you think?

SCHEIBER: Well, I think you have to understand it from Obama's perspective. This was a guy that has been running for the president when the financial crisis hit in September 2008, for a year and a half. Incredibly grueling process, endless primary with Hillary Clinton.

And there were policy ideas that motivated that run for president. Health care was probably chief among them. Climate change, cap and trade another one. And so he didn't feel like he should then have to devote his presidency to this problem that someone else created. He certainly took the problem seriously. He wanted to fix the problem, but he didn't feel like he should have to completely re-jigger his presidency going in a completely different direction.

And so I think his solution was there are these groups of people who have dealt with these crises in the past. Larry Summers, Tim Geithner. They know what they're doing. If I hire these really smart, experienced people, that will free me up. It wasn't that he was going to ignore the crisis, but it will free up the bandwidth to deal with these other big things.

BROWNSTEIN: Noam, you are very critical in the book on another track about how they dealt with the banks. And I think as I have been out in Michigan and elsewhere, nothing hurts Obama more than the sense that everything that's been done to save the economy since 2008 benefited the same institutions people think broke the economy.

So what was the story of how they ultimately reacted to the banks and how vulnerable do you think he will be on that front in 2012?

SCHEIBER: Yes, it's a huge problem. It remains a big problem. I think, you know, they have this doctrine of overwhelming force, you know? You face a crisis, you've got to overwhelmingly respond to it because far better to spend a little too much money and fix it than spend a little money and not fix it. They followed that doctrine to a tee with the banks. $700 billion in TARP money, trillions in other guarantees and other back stopping from the fed.

They did not do that with the real economy and I think they're paying the price because everyone could see that they left no money on the table to fix the banks. They can also see that when unemployment hovers between 9 percent and 10 percent for 2.5 years, he probably did -- he probably undershot a bit.

So I think that that fact which is very clear to voters continues to dog him to this. O'BRIEN: Yes, I think we'll be at that as we go into the election. Noam Scheiber, the book is called, "The Escape Artist." It's nice to have you. Thanks for talking with us.

SCHEIBER: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: We have "End Point" coming up next with our panel. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: It's the last day of February which means it is the last day of Black History Month. So my "End Point" starts with this book. It's called "Inspiration" and it was written by Crystal McCreery (ph). It is the story of profiles of black women changing our world -- that's the second title there. I'll read you some highlights.

Misty Copeland who's a dancer with the American Ballet Theater says when she first started dancing, she thought ballet was uptight. She said she was going to quit. In fact her teacher said she constantly got praise and confidence and she was able to stay in it and now, of course, she's wildly successful.

Venus Williams, the first black female tennis player to be ranked Number 1 attributes her success to having a supportive family. Gives advice to girls to build a good team around you. Judge yourself by your own standards, not other people's.

And finally Grammy Award winner, Patty la Belle credits tragedy and pain for her inspiration. Her advice to girls, never make the same mistake twice and never be shady in business.

Ron Brownstein, we're going to give you the final 20 second "End Point" today.

BROWNSTEIN: Michigan feels a little to me like a Battle of the Bulge moment for Romney. Only a slim win but one that suggests his coalition right now is a little broader than Rick Santorum's who's relying too heavily on one group, the Evangelical Christians, at least until we go to Ohio next week.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, we'll keep looking at it. Leadership is one word.

Time for "CNN NEWSROOM" -- you guys just keep going -- "CNN NEWSROOM" with Fredricka Whitfield begins right now.

I'll see you back here tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m.