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Explosion in Syria; Presidential Election Poll; Costs of Drilling Oil

Aired July 18, 2012 - 19:00   ET


JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: OUTFRONT next three members of Bashar Al-Assad's inner circle killed by explosions in Syria. Has the bloody conflict reached a tipping point?

And new polls just released in the presidential race, plus fighting words from John Boehner. And more of our investigation into the costs of drilling for oil in the Arctic. We went to Alaska to find out how drilling there might devastate a way of life.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

OUTFRONT tonight, is Syria at a tipping point? The pressure is building on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It was no doubt watching his back this evening after an attack struck the heart of his regime. A regime that's been in power for over 40 years and has launched a brutal crackdown on rebels over the last 16 months, killing more than 16,000 people, according to one opposition group.

Now whether today's bloodshed is the result of a rebel attack or an inside job, one thing is clear -- Assad's security perimeter has been breached. State TV reports those assassinated at a high-level meeting in Damascus include the defense minister, the deputy defense minister who's also al Assad's brother-in-law, an al Assad security adviser and assistant vice president.

Rebels danced in the streets following the explosion. The opposition forces have come a long way since the uprising began. And that has deputy -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta worried the situation is quickly deteriorating.


LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.


AVLON: The pace is also picking up on the diplomatic front. President Obama trying to twist Russian President Vladimir Putin's arm, one of the few leaders still supporting this failing tyrant. According to the White House, the president spoke with Putin on the phone ahead of tomorrow's U.N. Security Council vote on a new Syrian resolution. And the Treasury Department is also turning up the pressure. The agency is slapping financial sanctions on 29 Syrian officials, along with a number of companies that have ties to the country. So what does this all mean? Well, it could finally be the beginning of the end for the Assad regime. I spoke to Arwa Damon earlier and asked whether today's attack might have been an inside job.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they most certainly would have had to have some sort of inside help. This attack happened during an emergency crisis meeting at the National Security Headquarters in one of the more heavily guarded neighborhoods of the entire capital. This neighborhood is where the U.S. ambassador used to live, very close to where the president himself lives.

The streets there are lined with plainclothes undercover government agents, not to mention the numerous Army checkpoints that are there for the Free Syrian Army, this rebel fighting force to have smuggled explosives into the building, into the room where this meeting took place that most certainly would have meant that someone on the inside was helping them. Someone within Assad's inner circle or someone who works very closely with the inner circle and had access to this location most certainly was helping the rebels out to carry out this type of an extraordinary attack.

AVLON: And with this sort of an attack at the heart of the capital city, as you say, what message does that send to the Syrian government and indeed the Syrian elite? Do they feel less safe? Do they feel perhaps a sense of momentum shifting in this conflict?

DAMON: Well, it's pretty safe to assume that the president and those who are still around him are most certainly looking over their shoulders, questioning whose loyalties are going to remain intact the longer this crisis goes on, the closer the fighting gets to the center of the capital. Because at the end of the day, it's not just this one attack that is significant. It's the fighting that we've been seeing over the last few days.

Sustained gun battles in neighborhoods that are just 10 minutes away from the president's seat of power, smoke billowing that those around him and he himself would not be able to avoid when they looked out of their windows. This is still a one-sided battlefield. But the Free Syrian Army is (ph) by the day, growing in sophistication and in capability and now it's seeming to be more on the offensive, determined to take the battle to government forces.

What we're going to have to look for now is exactly how the government responds to this. We're already hearing reports of severe crackdowns in a number of areas. And the government has vowed to take intense, severe, harsh and decisive action.


AVLON: Arwa, thank you. Also OUTFRONT with us tonight, retired general and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark and Jamie Rubin, former assistant secretary of state under President Clinton.

So General Clark, let me begin with you. So far we've seen at least 20 Syrian generals defect. What does this say about the strength and commitment of the Syrian military and what might NATO do to nudge the Syrian regime out of power in the future?

WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well it shows that the military is cracking under the pressure and the general (INAUDIBLE) lost their core. And presumably a lot of other people lower down see that staying on the side with Assad is a losing battle. He's not going to be able to hang on. They know it. They're voting with their feet by getting out.

And so it's a very powerful indicator. Still, Assad is an Alawite and he has the Alawite group behind him. And so this is why this insurrection has had such a difficult time gaining traction thus far because there's two million Alawites in Syria and they're afraid that a radical Sunni regime will take over and repress them.

So this is a lot -- about a lot more than just one authoritarian dictatorship and his family. This is a lot more than that. But with respect to NATO I think what you have to expect is that more diplomatic pressure from NATO. I don't think NATO is going to intervene at this stage. I hope it doesn't.

We've got important diplomatic efforts going on between the president and Vladimir Putin. But it is a time that the nations of NATO can come together and again call on Assad for restraint, certainly no use of those weapons -- those chemical weapons that he's got there and he should get out of power. He's got to let go of the reins of power.

AVLON: Jamie, on the diplomatic front, today President Obama spoke to President Putin and they agreed on the need for a political transition. And yet -- and yet the U.N. resolution was delayed by a day. What is the cause of this delay? Has there been a lack of American leadership on this issue and what can be done to really focus the intensity of the international community on a goal?

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER U.S. ASST. SEC. OF STATE: Well, at this point the problem is that the United States and most of the western countries, the NATO members that General Clark was talking about, want to put real pressure on Assad to comply with U.N. resolutions. That is to pull their weapons out of the main cities and stop the massive crackdown. The Russians don't want to see pressure put on Assad. They are still retaining some relationship with the Syrian military.

They have certain military-to-military ties that they're not ready to give up. So the question isn't, you know would both sides like this to be resolved politically and diplomatically? Of course everybody does. But the Russians aren't prepared to see any real pressure placed on Assad and so they're prepared to veto, as best as we can tell, this resolution that calls on sanctions to be intensified if Assad doesn't stop the crackdown. And that is the prescription for another vetoed resolution and a divided international community.

AVLON: Could something like that have a hope of realistic success, more sanctions toppling the Assad regime?

RUBIN: Well actually no. I don't think sanctions are really going to do it. The fact is that Assad is in a fight for his life. That's clear as we've seen by the events today that fight is even more closer to home. And I think the only thing that's going to convince him to move is if he really sees the whole system collapsing around him.

AVLON: General Clark, speaking of systems collapsing, today, our Wolf Blitzer spoke to the King of Jordan and they were discussing what it might mean for the region if Syria breaks down to the point of no return. Here's what he said.


KING ABDULLAH, JORDAN: The worst case scenario for all of us in the region is when you get full-out civil war there is no coming back from the abyss. Syria is far more complicated than Iraq and other countries in the area.


AVLON: General, what are your concerns with regard to regional stability, specifically Iran and Iraq?

CLARK: Well, first of all, I think that if it -- if the fighting deepens and it intensifies more broadly in Syria, that it could spill over into Lebanon more forcefully. I think that certainly if Iran feels it's losing and has lost Assad and its base through Syria, there's even more pressure Iran's going to put on Iraq. And that country's already leaning toward Iran in terms of giving transit opportunities for Iranian advisers and weapons and other assistance going in to Assad.

So I think that -- you know the early betting on this was the soft underbelly of Iran was Syria. And a lot of the strategists said, look, don't worry about Iran right now, take care of Syria. And they were betting on that putting a lot of pressure on Iran, Iran is certainly vulnerable. But if its ally, Assad goes down, it's going to kick back strongly into Iraq and try to damage other countries in the region.

AVLON: Thank you, General. Thank you both.

Still OUTFRONT, new polls in the presidential race just released.

Plus, John Boehner has some fighting words for the president.

And developments tonight in the disappearance of two girls in Iowa, authorities now turning their focus on family members.

And there are several myths about Mormonism that no one seems to want to talk about. But we are, tonight.


AVLON: Our second story OUTFRONT, with less than four months to go before election day, a new poll just out tonight shows the race a dead heat. "The New York times"/CBS poll finds 47 percent of voters prefer Romney, 46 percent Obama, four percent undecided and what do they care about? Well 26 percent said the vice president choice matters a lot, 48 percent matters just somewhat. And just a quarter said it doesn't matter at all. That's a fact not lost on Mitt Romney who joined two of his surrogates on the ground in the crucial swing state of Ohio today.

CNN contributor Roland Martin and former chief strategist for George W. Bush (INAUDIBLE) No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon join us OUTFRONT tonight. Before we begin, I want to play a clip of an impressive attack today by Ohio's own John Boehner. Let's take a listen.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: I think the president's attack on the private sector in America is exactly what's wrong with this administration. Doesn't give a damn about middle class Americans who are out there looking for work. What he's trying to do is distract the American people in order to win his own reelection.


AVLON: Tell us how you really feel there, John. Let's talk about the importance of Ohio. Take a look at the current CNN electoral map. Ohio is rated at tossup. Now in this scenario by CNN, Obama seems likely to start with 247 electoral votes. Romney is likely to get 206, 85 are a toss-up. But take a look what happens if Obama wins Ohio. Suddenly Obama is within five electoral votes of a second term and Mitt Romney knows that no Republican in more than a century has won the White House without winning Ohio.

But Roland, there's a reason Obama has made eight trips to Ohio so far this year. Romney's made 10. What do you think President Obama needs to do to win over the main street middle class voters in the "Buckeye State"?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well actually if you go back to 2009, the two states he was immediately going to were Ohio as well as North Carolina. And when Governor Strickland lost (ph) that was a big blow to Democrats. Clearly what he has to do is make the point that although it is a slow recovery, had the actions not been taken, we would not be in the situation that we're in now with private sector job growth.

It's still going to be a difficult sell. But he has to be able to say, look, there's progress, do you want to change midstream? And that's why he's making the argument, go back to the previous policies, how did that work out when we were losing five or 600,000 jobs a month? AVLON: Well now Mark, there is one way that Romney could make big inroads in Ohio overnight and his name is Senator Rob Portman, being talked about for VP. What do you think about that potential pick?

MARK MCKINNON, CONTRIBUTOR, THE DAILY BEAST: I think he's terrific. I think it's highly likely that Portman will be the pick. He's solid as a brick and safe as a seat belt. And considering how important Ohio is, I mean we might as well just -- we could just shut down the whole election and just run the whole election in Ohio and -- because that's -- it's so likely that Ohio is really going to be the determining factor just like it was in '04.

It's so critical. And I think Portman would be a great pick. Obviously helpful, the interesting dynamic there that's kind of interesting and a little counterintuitive is that you've got a Republican governor there and the economy is actually doing better than it is nationally. So it's hard for Romney to come in there and talk down the economy when it is actually doing well with a Republican governor.

AVLON: Interesting --

MARTIN: And John --


MARTIN: On that point we saw what happened in Florida with Governor Rick Scott talking up the economy. Governor Bob McDonnell in Virginia and they were helped by the stimulus bills. It's a little difficult for them to criticize the president when it helped their local economies.

AVLON: Roland, I want to underscore the importance of Ohio for a second here because the Obama campaign has just filed a lawsuit against the state for its new rules restricting early voting. What will they have to prove to win this lawsuit? What are the stakes?

MARTIN: First of all they have to prove that it is going to negatively impact minorities according to the Voting Rights Act because that is the critical key. And look Republicans talk about voter IDs all day. What Ohio has done is utterly shameful. When they passed a bill that was so restrictive that the voters got enough signatures to put it on the ballot in 2012. They did not want to be shamed by losing.

So they gutted the bill but left this provision in. What other reason will you stop people from voting three days before the election other than you're trying to keep those black churches from rallying folks to come out to the polls? And so it is ridiculous what they've done. It is clear voter suppression. But again, you have to prove that it was done with the intent to deny minorities the opportunity to vote.

AVLON: Thank you both very much. We're in a dead heat here. Ahead, an OUTFRONT investigation into the costs of drilling for oil. We went to Alaska to find out how a way of life could be changed forever (INAUDIBLE).

And later, our moment of sanity. What prompted Senator John McCain to lash out at members of his own party and defend an aide to Hillary Clinton.


AVLON: Our third story OUTFRONT, as Shell prepares to drill in the Arctic, it's not just environmentalists who are concerned. Some of the natives are worried drilling oil wells in the region will mark the end of their way of life. One town in particular is saying, hell, no, to drilling. Now Shell says if things take off, as many as 100,000 jobs could be created. It's a deal that will generate hundreds of billions in tax revenue, a boon for local, state and federal government. But residents say all the money in the world won't replace what could be lost if there's an oil spill. Miguel Marquez went to Point Hope (ph), Alaska, to find out what's at stake.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know we've been hunting whale (ph) for thousands of years.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Steve Oomittuk (ph) is the mayor here. He and his town are holding out against seemingly the inevitable, oil exploration off their shores, their garden, as he calls it. Sixty-five percent of their diet comes from what they can hunt and gather. Their primary source of life, whales.

STEVE OOMITTUK, MAYOR, POINT HOPE: It feeds us. It's clothed us. It's sheltered us. It's our spirituality. Gives us an identity of who we are as a people.

MARQUEZ: His people (INAUDIBLE) Eskimos, they have hunted just about everything at sea and on land, scratching out an existence here for 2,000 years.

(on camera): But it's not just walruses, seals and whales that the people of Point Hope rely on for food, it's these birds (INAUDIBLE) or Mir (ph) that come here by the hundreds of thousands. They lay these incredibly beautiful decorative eggs. Each one looks like an Easter egg.


MARQUEZ (voice-over): The eggs a yearly favorite. They only have about a week to collect them before the chicks inside mature. To collect them, men brave steep cliffs and flimsy ropes.


MARQUEZ: It's a delicate and tenuous cycle. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We live a cycle of life where we hunt different animals at different times. We know when they're going to be here.

MARQUEZ: This is the fear. If oil spills, even far offshore, the currents will bring it home, possibly taking out one link of the chain of turning everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at Exxon Valdez. Look at the Gulf of Mexico. Look at all the different things -- yes they said they were -- nothing won't happen. You know anything can happen.

MARQUEZ: For the outside world, there is little trust. In the 1800's international whalers (ph) hunted the animals to near extinction. In the 1950's, Operation Chariot was a plan to make a deepwater port here by exploding six nuclear bombs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We could go 300 miles that way.

MARQUEZ: Oomittuk (ph) is sitting at a now an abandoned traditional home made of whale bones, says Shell is moving too fast. What he wants is more study.

(on camera): It does sounds like this is going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, I can feel it. It's kind of scary to see what's going to happen this summer.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): A global struggle for oil, a tiny place and its way of life caught in the middle.


AVLON: Miguel, it's a fascinating series, fascinating story. The people of Point Hope clearly are opposed to drilling, concerned about what could occur, but a lot of their colleagues up there clearly are in favor of it.

MARQUEZ: They did vote in favor of it. The (INAUDIBLE) Point Hope is part of Barrow (ph), Alaska, is the big town up there. Population 4,500, they get four votes in the assembly there. They got other towns to vote with them, so it is going ahead with the OK of many Eskimo clans and tribes up there.

AVLON: And I suppose the big question is what's a bigger threat to their way of life, the risk of an oil spill or the influx of money and technology?

MARQUEZ: Yes, they think about this. The oil spill certainly is the immediate one, but they also fear that you know Point Hope was 1,000 people a year ago. It's 850 now. They fear that people are going to leave, take jobs elsewhere, leave town and they will lose their way of life if the money starts flowing in and jobs has all the people leave.

AVLON: Miguel, great work. Be sure not to miss more of Miguel's special report on Friday.

Still OUTFRONT in our second half, more and more cities are slashing pay and cutting services as they head towards bankruptcy. Are we witnessing the start of a nationwide trend?

And an update on the search for two missing girls in Iowa, what police are focusing their investigation on.


AVLON: Welcome back to the second half of OUTFRONT. I'm John Avlon in for Erin Burnett, is on assignment tonight in Africa.

We start the second half of our show with stories we care about, where we focus on our reporting from the frontlines.

One of the worst droughts to plague to United States in more than five decades is taking a huge toll on this year's corn crops. An additional 39 counties in eight states have been designated as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by excessive heat.

Take a look at this chart from RBC Capital Markets. The dotted line shows the average percent of crop rates, excellent or good, from 2007 to 2011, compared to this year. It's a dramatic decline that could impact your wallet. After all, 75 percent of what's found on grocery store shelves contains corn.

A military official tells CNN's Barbara Starr seven Army soldiers and two Marines will receive non-judicial punishment while in Cartagena, Colombia, as part of President Obama's security team. The military will not disclose the details of the punishments since the nine are not being charged with criminal offenses. Non-judicial punishment refers to things like confinement to quarters or loss of rank or pay.

Though never publicly confirmed, officials said that some military personnel were believe to have been involved in soliciting prostitutes.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was back on the Capitol Hill today for a second time, taking questions from the House Financial Services Committee. It was likely the last time that Chairman Ben will face Representative Ron Paul who has long advocated, end the Fed. Bernanke voiced his opposition to a bill supported by Paul that would give Congress the power to review of the Fed's monetary policy.


BEN BERNANKE, FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN: I want to agree with the basic premise that the Federal Reserve should be thoroughly transparent, thoroughly accountable, I will work with everyone here to make sure that's the case.

But I do feel it's a mistake to eliminate the exemption from monetary policy into deliberations which would effectively, at least to some extent, create a political influence or political dampening effect on the Federal Reserve's policy decisions.


AVLON: Chairman Bernanke went on to add that having congressional investigators in the room when the Fed makes policy decisions would have a chilling effect.

There are reports tonight that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. Sources tell me the reports are credible. Christie's become a star of the Republican Party, appealing to both Tea Party members and independent voters. So, probably it wouldn't be a huge surprise and a pretty good pick.

The convention kicks off in Tampa, Florida, August 27th.

It has been 349 days since the U.S. lost its top credit rating, almost a year. What are we doing to get it back?

Construction of new homes jumped by 6.9 percent in June. That's the highest level since October of 2008. It's just one more bit of positive news for housing, which is crucial to the economic recovery.

Our fourth story OUTFRONT tonight, another California city preparing for bankruptcy. Compton is set to run out of money on September 1st. That would make it the fourth California city to go under since June.

Now, last year, four other municipalities across the U.S. did the same, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Jefferson County, Alabama. Crushing debt left them unable to pay their bills.

OUTFRONT tonight is the former chairman White House Council of Economic Advisers, Austan Goolsbee.

Now, Austan, was this a storm that you saw coming?

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, FORMER CHAIRMAN, COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: In a way, everybody saw this coming, and in a different way, it's still a bit of a surprise. The states and the cities' finances usually lag the national economy by about a half year or a year. So the fact that the beginning of this year, with some of the events internationally, we slowed down some, it's not a surprise that cities would get in trouble.

But, you know, having so many come up all at once, is a bit of a surprise.

AVLON: So, the logical next question is, do you anticipate more bankruptcies in the months ahead?

GOOLSBEE: You know, if the economy doesn't speed up more than its modest pace, yes, probably so. AVLON: We looked in every single city that's declared bankruptcy in the past two years, did receive stimulus funds. And so, the big question becomes, did they just use those stimulus funds as a Band-Aid on their budgets, delaying the inevitable?

GOOLSBEE: Well, I don't think it wasn't necessarily a Band-Aid but it was a lifeline. I mean, it was important. That was the goal of the program, to try to stave off things like these bankruptcies or to keep the states and cities from having to fire their workforces.

If you look at the overall job market of the last three or four years, the thing that's the most notable is actually that the private sector has rebounded, but the public sector workforce did not rebound at all. That's the thing that's really quite different from previous recoveries.

AVLON: That is correct. And it's a very specific drag.

You have a new study out showing that some cities are rebounding, not as fast as we'd like. But Chicago in particular seems to be doing well in terms of economic rebound in job growth.

What accounts for this beginning rebound? And lessons can other cities learn?

GOOLSBEE: I think some of the lessons we see from cities where they're growing faster than the national average are: number one, what industries you focus on make a difference. So San Jose getting driven a lot by the uptick of high tech. In Chicago, more transportation, tourism, business services and manufacturing. So I think there's some story to be told there.

But second, it does matter that you get training to your workforce, that you invest in your infrastructure, and that you try to emphasize and make it easy for economic development.

AVLON: Final question, let me take you back to 2008, when you were one of the chief economic spokesman for then candidate Obama. In one of the speeches that you gave a lot was about President Obama or candidate Obama's commitment to tax simplification. We heard a lot and we haven't seen any action on.

And certainly with Governor Romney's tax troubles, it does raise again the need for some serious tax simplification. This current code is just too complicated.

What happened? Why hasn't it gotten done?

GOOLSBEE: Well, I totally agree that we ought to have that tax simplification. I think two things happened. Number one, nobody was able to change the tax code much at all because of the partisan bickering in Washington. So if you're not going to have any tax reform, you're not going to have any simplification.

Second thing that happened was, I had this specific idea that for about half the country, everything you fill out on your tax return, the IRS already got, your W-2s from your employer, the interest on your bank account. All that stuff's getting sent to the IRS directly. So why do you even have to fill out a return?

But it turns out, there are some people who want the tax code to be complicated. Some of those are Tea Party folks who want taxes to be painful so that nobody will let the rates go up and some of those are in the accounting and tax preparation industry. And they don't want it to be so simple that their business would go away.

So, it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. But hopefully we'll eventually come back to this tax simplification because I think it's important.

AVLON: Thanks, Austan.

Turning now to Iowa and the search for two missing girls, 8-year- old Elizabeth Collins and 10-year-old lyric cook. It's been six days since the cousins disappeared. Tonight, the FBI is sending if a dive team equipped with sonar technology to search the like where the kids' bikes were found. Law enforcement meanwhile has turned their focus on the family of the missing girls.

CNN correspondent Martin Savidge is OUTFRONT tonight in Evansdale, Iowa.

Marty, what have you learned about law enforcement's recent focus on the family?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's clear within the last 24 hours, authorities have been, I guess you could say, more aggressive in their questioning of the family. The family of Lyric, this is one of the young girls that's missing, has been quite open about that fact.

They say the police have at times pressured Lyric's father, that's Dan Morrissey. And that they have questioned him at times severely saying that, we think you know more than you are saying. Now, at one point apparently, he reportedly got up and left. He was not under arrest and they are allowed to come and go.

And authorities continue to maintain that the family is completely cooperative. They show up for every interview that requested of them. In fact today authorities asked if they could go into their home and remove computers. The family said that is fine. If they wanted to search the house, they wanted to go back and look at the attic of the grandmother's house. They did in fact to back and do that. Authorities maintain that this family, both families, are fully cooperative here.

The other element that's come out, of course, is the background of Dan Morrissey and that is that he was recently charged with distribution of methamphetamine. Now, he is still being processed on that and he reportedly has been offer a plea deal. The family will again is saying that all true. They are happy to talk about it and bring it out in the public. But they say one thing, and that is it does not change what needs to be done. The need is to find the two little girls as quickly as possible. They say the father's drug addiction problems has nothing to do with their disappearance.

AVLON: And to the end of the search, the FBI is sending in a dive team with sonar equipment to search the drained lake. Why the special team?

SAVIDGE: Well, a couple of reasons. One, the draining of this lake has taken a lot longer than they first thought. They originally said 48, maybe 72 hours. Well, it's going to be Friday morning before they get most of this lake drained. And even then, there's going to be large areas that will still be under water.

So, rather than wait until it's all drained and dragging out the prolonged wait of families, the FBI is sending in a specialized team with a sonar unit that can take the condensed part of the lake now and focus more clearly on there and say either yes or no that the young girls are in there. If they're not, that, of course, will change the focus and the effort of this investigation.

AVLON: And, Marty, what's the overall mood in the town at this point? Here's a potentially horrific crime in the heart of America.

SAVIDGE: Yes, it is. It's changed summer completely. It's turned summer into a scary thing here in this community because there are a lot of parents that -- it's quite common that their kids could go out in the yard and play while they stay in the house. Parents aren't letting their children out of their sight now. That is an element that at least from the time being is gone from this community. It is the middle of America and it used to be quite common that the kids go out and play. Not anymore.

We talked to parents today who say they keep a tight leash on them and probably will some time regardless of how this all changes here. It's going to hurt this community long after it's over.

AVLON: Thank you, Marty.

Still OUTFRONT, Israel says they know the country that carried out a deadly explosion on a bus filled with Israeli tourists.

And everyone seems to be afraid to talk about Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. We're not.

And Senator John McCain with our moment of sanity.


AVLON: We're back with tonight's "Outer Circle" where we reach out to our sources around the world.

We start tonight in Bulgaria. A bus carrying Israeli tourists exploded today outside the Black Sea airport. The Bulgarian interior ministry said at least 30 people were killed, that they are investigating the cost. Mr. Obama condemned the incident as a barbaric terrorist attack.

Elise Labott is in Israel. I asked her who they think is to blame.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: John, Israel wasted no time at all saying all the signs point to Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to recent attempts by Iran to attack Israeli targets in India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus. And in February 3, Iranians were arrested in Bangkok for accidentally setting off explosives that Thai authorities said were meant for Iran.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it could be the work of other groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but on Iran's behalf. And he said that Israel would hunt down whoever carried out the attack and hold them to account.

Now, meanwhile, the Bulgarian authorities are investigating the incident. They say an explosion was caused by a bomb on the tour bus. They aren't jumping to my conclusions but they're not ruling anything out, including a terrorist attack -- John.


AVLON: Thanks, Elise.

Next to North Korea where the title of marshal of the army was given to Kim Jong-un. The announcement today from state-run Korean central news agency comes on the heels of the decision to remove the chief of the army earlier this week.

Paula Hancocks is following the story and told us what's behind these latest moves.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What we appear to be witnessing at the moment is the North Korean regime's first significant shuffle since Kim Jong-un took power back in December. The new North Korean leader had a promotion on Wednesday. He's also now a marshal.

Now, what we are seeing according to experts is basically Kim Jong-un consolidating his power and making sure he has absolute control of the military. The timing is important to this promotion as well. Remember, it's only two days since the army chief Ri Yong Ho was dismissed from his position which surprised many people around the world. Remember, the military is very significant in North Korea and it was very important for Kim Jong-un to make sure he had credibility and support within the military if he wanted the succession to be smooth.


AVLON: That was Paula Hancocks reporting. Today's moment of sanity is brought to you by Senator John McCain, boldly reclaiming the maverick label, McCain took to the Senate floor today to denounce the fear-mongering claims by several House Republicans, including Michele Bachmann, who said the federal government may have been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Even more outrageous, some pointed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's top aide, Huma Abedin.

Here's exactly what McCain said.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation. And we all grow poorer because of it.


AVLON: John McCain is exactly right. We need more politicians displaying this kind of honor and honesty if we're ever going to break the fever of unhinged type of partisanship that's afflicting our nation. It's going to require good Republicans and Democrats to stand up to the extremes on their own sides.

So, thanks to Senator John McCain for today's moment of sanity.

Now, let's check in with Anderson Cooper with a look at what's ahead on "A.C. 360."

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "A.C. 360": Hey, John, we're keeping them honest on something you were just talking about -- continuing to dig into this Muslim conspiracy theory being floated in Washington by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four of her Republican colleagues. Now, we tried to get an answer today from Congresswoman Bachmann about allegations that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have penetrated the highest levels of government. As you just say, she isn't terribly forthcoming with our reporter Dana Bash. We're going to hear from Dana about that exchange.

And we'll have more on how the allegations with real-world consequences to American foreign policy just don't match up with the facts.

A second keeping them honest report as well tonight, you've heard about the lavish conference in Las Vegas costing more than $800,000 by the agency that's supposed to be a watchdog for government spending. Well, today, Drew Griffin has uncovered more of the stunning culture of extravagance in the General Services Administration.

Also in Kansas City, federal employees took more than $20,000 worth of cooking classes and etiquette training over a number of years in the name of team building. Cooking classes paid for with U.S. taxpayer money. That's not to mention the awards luncheon, the holiday video contest all the company time. We'll tell you what else you're paying for and what's being done about it.

Those stories and a lot more, also tonight's "Ridiculist" all at the top of the hour -- John.

AVLON: Unbelievable, we'll be watching, Anderson.

Our fifth story OUTFRONT: faith in the presidential campaign. After 52 years after John F. Kennedy broke a barrier by becoming the first non-Protestant president, Mitt Romney's Mormonism is proving to be a thorny issue, in part because we don't know how to talk about it, honestly, thoughtfully and respectfully.

Discussion of religion in politics is long been dominated by demagogues and Mitt Romney's deeply held faith is unfortunately no exception.

OUTFRONT tonight, "BuzzFeed" reporter McKay Coppins. He's been covering the Romney campaign from a unique perspective. He's also a Mormon.

McKay, welcome to OUTFRONT.

MCKAY COPPINS, BUZZFEED: Thanks for having me.

AVLON: So, let's just start with stats and facts. A really stunning number of Americans still have some resistance to the idea of a Mormon running for president. When Gallup asked voters what -- whether they would vote for a well-qualified candidate who was Mormon, 18 percent said no.

What do you make of this bigotry? This discrimination?

COPPINS: Well, what's interesting is that number has remained virtually unchanged since Mitt Romney's father George Romney ran for president in the '60s. I think there are a couple of things at play. The main one is that Mormonism is a relatively young religion that most Americans don't understand at all.

There was another study that came out recently that said about 80 percent of Americans said they know little or nothing about Mormonism. And most people, if they don't know anything about it, don't want to talk about it. They fear they're going to cross some line or say something offensive. I think a lot of people in the media feel the same way.

And so, out of respect or fear or nervousness, people don't want to delve into this issue.

AVLON: And let's talk about the role of faith in shaping Mitt Romney's character. This is a core part of who he is, yet he doesn't talk much about it on the campaign trail.

COPPINS: Yes, absolutely. I always that if you're a Mormon and you watch Mitt Romney for about five minutes, you'll see about seven tells that he's a Mormon. I mean, he just --

AVLON: Such as?

COPPINS: I won't go into them now, but I mean -- I think of the way he talks. I think the way -- there will be Mormon lingo that he drops into his speeches and the ways he answers questions. It is at the core of who he is. He spent his entire life serving this church, you know, doing things for the church, paying tithing to the church. He's been a missionary.

And yet he doesn't want to talk about it. That actually is something that's reflective in Mormonism throughout the world. A lot of people feel like we can't talk about our religion without getting burned.

AVLON: And yet but all accounts, this faith has helped shape an exemplary character in his personal life.

Let's talk about some of the misconceptions. We were talking earlier about three stubborn myths about Mormonism that still distract and stop honest conversation. The idea that it's a secretive religion, the idea that it's polygamist or that Mormons are monochromatic.

Let's take secretive first.

COPPINS: For example, a couple of weeks ago, there was a reporter who went to the church that Mitt Romney was at. A lot of people thought she had to sneak into the church, that Mormons don't allow non-Mormons into their chapels. When, in fact, the exact opposite is true. The church tries very hard to invite al to come see the church. There really aren't that many secrets.

There are certain things in the temples, which are separate from chapels that are seen as sacred, but Mormonism is an evangelical faith and we want people to come see it. So, it's not really secret.

AVLON: And polygamy that was something that was done away with a long, long time ago.

COPPINS: 1890. Yes, we haven't practiced polygamy in quite a while.

AVLON: Let's talk about the monochromatic idea. I mean, it's 1.4 percent of the U.S. population, but it's growing hugely abroad in particular.

Talk about how diverse the actual Mormonism community is in reality in America and around the world?

COPPINS: Yes, I think a lot of people don't realize that, in fact, most Mormons don't live in Utah. And actually, most Mormons don't live in the United States. Several years ago, the church passed the point where there were more members outside of the United States than inside the country.

It's a growing global faith, and with a wide variety of political beliefs and religious, you know, religious principles stay the same. AVLON: Let's hope this is the beginning of a longer, most thoughtful conversation about Mormonism.

COPPINS: Thanks for having me.

AVLON: Thank you, McKay.


AVLON: Is the American South resegregated for political gain? OUTFRONT, next.


AVLON: Last night, North Carolina essentially elected its congressman. If you didn't hear about it, don't worry, because most North Carolinians didn't either. In the second round of the GOP primary, just 3.6 percent of voters turned out to vote -- 3.6 percent. That's 126,000 voters out of 3.5 million who are eligible to vote in the runoff.

And as the "Charlotte Observer" wrote this morning, the numbers don't add up. This runoff election cost North Carolina taxpayers about $6 million. That works out to about $47 per vote.

But that wasn't the only money at play, because no election seems too small for the reach of super PACs this psych. In the eight district, super PACs spent almost $1.5 million during this primary. In the ninth district, Robert Pittinger outspent his opponent by almost $2 million, much of his own money, to win.

Now, these are just primaries for congressional seats. But these primaries effectively are the general election. That's right, 3.6 percent of the voters just decided their friends and neighbors' congressman.

You can thank the rigged system of redistricting. In North Carolina and across the country, the system of redistricting has deprived voters of competitive general elections. It's how Congress has 9 percent approval rating, but a 90 percent reelection rate.

The rigged system of redistricting allows politicians to choose their people rather than vice versa.

And listen to this warning by Congressman Eric Mansfield:

"We're having the conversations we had 40 years ago in the South, that black people can only represent black people, and white people can only represent white people," he said. "I'd hope that in 2012, we'd have grown better than that."

With the decline of the Blue Dog Democrats, we maybe witnessing the resegregation of Southern politics, not motivated by racism but by the rank pursuit of political power. It should be said there are some hopeful signs, like the election of African-American Republican Tim Scott in the first district of South Carolina. But the low turnout election last night in North Carolina is a reminder ability the dangers of voter apathy, special interest money, and the rigged system of the redistricting. We live in the world's first enduring democracy, the greatest country in the world. But when it comes to our elections, the American experiment still has a little room for improvement.

Erin will be back tomorrow night live from Rwanda with an exclusive interview with former President Bill Clinton.

"A.C. 360" starts right now.