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Large Areas of U.S. Suffering Droughts; Interview with Richard Blumenthal; Sheriff Joe Arpaio Claims President's Birth Certificate a Fake; Lake Drained In Search For Iowa Girls; Kerry Kennedy Blames Seizure For Car Accident; Alabama Bar Shooting Suspect Charged; Airport Security Breach In Utah; TSA To Help With Olympic Security; Assessing The Threat; Hearing: Decade After 9/11; Suicide Bomber Strikes Syrian Cabinet Meeting; Kim Jong-Un "Promoted"; Knicks Let Jeremy Lin Go; One On One With Sir Richard Branson

Aired July 18, 2012 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Our STARTING POINT this morning: crisis in unfolding in slow motion in our nation's heartland. More than two dozen states have been hit by the worst drought in this country in more than 50 years. Crops are ruined. Livestock and livelihoods are threatened and all of us could soon be paying for it. Rob Marciano is going to join us live from one of the hardest hit states. America is on the edge of a fiscal cliff. Democrats are threatening to let all of the Bush-era tax cuts to expire instead of extending them for the rich. But is it just a threat? We'll take a look.

And a decade after 9/11, could American flight schools still unknowingly be training terrorists? The first look at a disturbing new study that shows some gaping holes in the government's security net.

Plus, part two of our one-on-one with Sir Richard Branson, one of the world's most famous and philanthropic businessmen. Wait until you hear his answer when I ask him about his biggest regret.

It's Wednesday, July 18, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome, everybody. Our starting point this morning, more than half of the U.S. battling a devastating drought, disaster areas have been declared in more than 1,000 counties across 26 states. The bone dry conditions are destroying farm crops and one analyst estimates that 75 percent of the corn crop in the drought region is now wiped out. That could drive up food and fuel prices across the entire country. It brings us to Rob Marciano live in Burnsville, Indiana. Rob, what do you have?

ROB MARCIANO, METEOROLOGIST: We have corn that should be taller than it is right now because of the drought and because of the heat. This stalk should be well up and over my head. There's a couple of examples of ears of corn. This was tough to find, a decent one, what you would typically see in a healthy environment but this is what we've been seeing, ears of corn not even close to developing and not even pollinated. Record heat not only here in Indiana but across the corn belt as far north as the Canadian end across the southern plains. This part of this particular field is pretty healthy, we're right at the edge, the corner, it gets more circulation and runoff from the road. I want to bring in Bob Smok, another local farmer. You have irrigate well water and non-irrigated fields and the non-irrigated look a lot worse, don't they?

SMOK: Some of our stalks did not get any at all and already died. So that little ear, we don't even have that because there wasn't enough water to get to this stage. We have a lot of corn that can be green or starting to yellow up and you see the yellow on the bottom, that means she's starting to die and some of the really drought stressed areas have completely died already.

MARCIANO: The concern I've been gathering, we've reached the point past pollination, is it too late?

SMOK: I would say 90 percent of the area has been passed upon, as far as being able to develop the crop, it's already past the stage, so rain is not going to help.

MARCIANO: Bob Smok, thanks very much, one of the farmers struggling with reality here. They've had a few good years in the past and hopefully many of these conservative folks have saved to get through it. But the fact remains that 1,000 counties across the agricultural belt of America have been declared disaster areas and in this particular area, one of the undersecretaries of agriculture will come through and tour the worst hit area, which is right here, and discuss what kind of aid he's going to give farmers who might not be so lucky financially.

O'BRIEN: It looks like such a mess. Rob Marciano, thank you. How are states coping with the drought's harsh effects? We'll chat with Sheila Simon. She'll join us live.

But first we want to get you the rest of the morning's top stories, and Christine Romans has that for us. Good morning, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Authorities in Iowa, Soledad, draining a lake this morning in the search for two missing girls. Eight-year-old Elizabeth Collins and her 10-year-old cousin lyric cook disappeared last Friday. Their bikes found at the edge of Meyers Lake in the town of Evansdale, it could take three days to drain the lake sufficiently.

Police trying to track down who shot this video of a smash mob of teenagers hurling merchandise through the aisles of Wal-Mart in Florida. WJXT visited the home of the 17-year-old student who posted this video then removed it from his page. There was no response at the door. Police citing a possible link to a nearby house party where gunshots were heard that night.

We're hearing from the president of Penn State, the new president of Penn State for first time since the release of the damning Freeh report. Rodney Jackson says the university must take responsibility at all levels for concealing information about Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the most troubling part was a reading that the judge's conclusion that there was a consistent lack of empathy of concern for the victims.


O'BRIEN: Erickson says they are still deciding what to do about the Joe Paterno statue outside Penn State's Beaver stadium. Yesterday a plane flew over the campus with a banner saying, "Take down the statue or we will."

Disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner breaking his silence about the scandal that forced him to resign. In an exclusive new "People" magazine interview Weiner says he has regrets about what he put his wife through. Weiner was caught sexting and sending lewd pictures of himself to women. The couple has a six-month-old son and for that Weiner says 2011 was the best year of his life. Weiner also shoots down rumors of a run for New York City mayor next year.

New York Knicks fan lin-credulous this morning. Jeremy Lin is heading to the lone star state, the Knicks declining to match the Houston Rocket's offer of $25 million over the next three years. They had until midnight last night to keep Lin. He played 26 games in New York and sent out a few weeks, saying "Extremely excited and honored to be a Houston rocket again and much thanks and love to the Knicks and New York for your support this year, easily the best year of my life."

O'BRIEN: It went by fast, that great month. But it's gone and now moved to Houston. Christine, thank you.

Back to our top story. Four hours from now president Obama will meet with Tom Vilsack and they'll discuss the efforts to respond to the drought. And 55 percent of the U.S. is in moderate to extreme drought. That's the sixth highest percentage in the drought ever recorded. One contributing factor, June ranked as the third driest month nationally in 118 years. More important by the last 12 months have been the warmest in the country since the record keeping began in 1895. Illinois seeing some of the harshest effects.

Let's get right to Illinois's lieutenant governor Sheila Simon. It's nice to see you, we certainly appreciate it. You have 26 counties in your state who are eligible for emergency support from the USDA and the governor is interested in adding a half dozen or so more. All have seen crop losses of 30 percent or more. Do you feel like the response you're getting from the administration is good? How has the help been?

LT. GOV. SHEILA SIMON, D-ILLINOIS: I think we're pleased with the response from the federal administration and as a state we're trying to do everything we can. I think the disappointing thing is that what we really need was rain and some time ago and in this help can provide some support to farmers. Of the impact on the market though will be a little bit longer lasting and will be severe.

O'BRIEN: What do you think the impact is going to be on the market? We have some figures. Your state produces 16 percent of the nation's corn, Iowa, 19 percent, only 31, so a third has been rated good or excellent. Last week it was 40 percent rated good or excellent. Last year this time it was 66 percent that was rated good or excellent. Now really you're in crisis. What will the implications be for those terrible numbers?

SIMON: Well, I think the implication will be significant for our state. Agriculture is a very big deal in the state of Illinois. We export a lot of grain. But the impact in addition beyond those of us here in Illinois will be that the price of corn goes up and that will be felt unfortunately because we deal with global markets, that will have a global impact, causing food to be more expensive in many cases.

O'BRIEN: Outside of rain and lots of rain as you said and maybe a little while ago would have been more helpful. What else do you need?

SIMON: Well, the federal aid is significant. It will allow farmers to keep going to get the crops in next year, to make the payments on their machinery and stay steady and stay in business so that this will not have a long-term impact of removing farmers from the field. The state aid will help, we hope, in places where the federal aid can't get the job done.

So that long-term view we have we hope is a better one. The short-term view though, I live in one of the counties that's most severely affected. The corn is not even close to green and the leaves are all curled up. It's affecting trees in our area that look like they've been in a roaster. So it's -- to use the word "disaster" is not inappropriate. It came on slowly but the impact is just as severe.

O'BRIEN: We wish you the very best in trying to deal with this crisis, which I think is fair to call it at this point, and we hope you're going to get lots of rain in the forecast ahead. Sheila Simon is the lieutenant governor of Illinois. Thanks for being with us, we appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, America on the edge of a fiscal cliff as Democrats rally to try to end tax cuts for all unless Republicans say they will compromise. Is that the right solution? Is it just a political threat? We're going to talk to Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal straight ahead.

Plus, Sheriff Arpaio is at it again with birther claims. Our "Get Real" this morning, we're going to talk about that, goes to the sheriff and his claims. STARTING POINT is back in just a moment


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Minding your business, federal regulators launching an investigation after receiving almost 100 complaints about sticking accelerator in Ford and Mazda SUVs. The investigation involves 730,000 vehicles. The focus is on two models, the 2001-2004 Ford Escape and the Mazda Tribute SUV with a V-6 engine.

The next iPhone could come with a thinner touch screen. The new screen will combine the LCD layer and touch layer to make the phones slimmer. It also could bring down costs.

And 40 to 49-year-olds are the worst at paying student loan bills on time. That's according to the federal reserve bank of New York. That group has the highest proportion of student loans that are 90 days past due, 40 to 49-year-olds.

O'BRIEN: Christine, thank you very much. America's top banker says if Congress doesn't act now we could severely hurt our nation's economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifying at a Senate hearing warning about the consequences of not taking action to avoid dropping off the fiscal cliff.


BEN BERNANKE, FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN: Fiscal decision should take into account the fragility of the recovery. That recovery could be in danger by the influence of tax increases and spending reductions that will take effect early next year if no legislative action is taken.

The most effective way the Congress could help to support the economy would be to work to address the fiscal challenges in a way that takes into account both the need for long run sustainability and the fragility of the recovery.


O'BRIEN: This as Democrats continue to insist, including on our program, that they will let all Bush era tax cuts expire unless Republicans compromise. That brings up to Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. Thanks for being with us.


O'BRIEN: With you heard Ben Bernanke here and his basic message if I can paraphrase, is "do something," but didn't exactly say what Congress should be doing. What should Congress be doing right now?

BLUMENTHAL: Congress should be passing an extension of the tax cuts for middle class, anybody in those families earning $250,000 o or less, that would provide some certainty and stability which is exactly what Ben Bernanke says should happen, so that we can have some long term sustainability, as well as aiding our fragile recovery. Passing the measure that would extend those tax cuts for households earning less than $250,000 is what we need to do now.

O'BRIEN: So Dick Durbin, Senator Durbin, when I was speaking to him yesterday, we should do what Senator Patty Murray suggests, which is less the tax cuts expire because then afterward you could go ahead and reinstate tax cuts, cut the taxes for people in that category, $250,000 or less. Here's what he told me yesterday.


SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D) ILLINOIS: We have to have this day of reckoning in order to finally break through and have deficit reduction that still creates a growing economy, let's face it.

O'BRIEN: Does that mean if we have to have a day of reckoning, you would let them expire which would then raise the taxes for the middle class people you don't want to raise taxes on?

DURBIN: That's a real possibility unless there's an agreement. But people of good in both political parties should avoid that. I want to work to avoid it.


O'BRIEN: What do you think of that strategy? It seems like it could be fraught with risk?

BLUMENTHAL: I think all of our first choice is to have the extension of tax cuts passed now because the markets as well as those middle class families really deserve and need the certainty of extending the tax cuts for them, the middle class families and that's the first choice.

If for some reason political strategy a delay is necessary, of course we would consider it. But really, what we need not only is to pass those tax cuts but also to close the loopholes that will produce additional revenue. Loopholes like the ones that reward companies for shipping jobs overseas, we'll vote on a measure, bring the jobs home. It provides 20 percent tax credit incentives for companies to invest in jobs here in the offshoring and discourage shipping jobs overseas by closing tax loopholes that cost our taxpayers.

So there are loopholes and tax breaks we can end that will produce additional revenue, even as we extend the tax cuts for households earning less than $250,000. My preference is to do those measures now for all of the reasons that Ben Bernanke has said to well.

O'BRIEN: What if you're stuck in a position, you can either extend the Bush era tax cuts for all or you could let them expire for all, what would you do?

BLUMENTHAL: My preference and my belief that the American public would be best served by the option that we extend the tax cuts for households earning less than $250,000 now. I would considerate some later point, perhaps, additional measures that would provide relief for families that earn more than $250,000.

O'BRIEN: But that wasn't my question, as you know. That wasn't exactly my question. I said if you're between a rock and hard place and have two options, one is to let the tax cuts expire or extend them for everybody, which would you choose? Because it sounded like yesterday talking to Senator Dick Durbin and others, that that really could come down to being the choice.

BLUMENTHAL: My preference is to extend tax cuts because I think that fiscal cliff is so ominous and so potentially destructive that we need to avoid it. But we also need to address the needs for cuts in spending, and I think a balanced approach is the optimal way to go. And ultimately one that I think should attract a bipartisan coalition.

O'BRIEN: Do you think the bipartisan coalition cannot possibly happen until after the election?

BLUMENTHAL: Preferably before election, but certainly before the end of the year. If it has to be done after the election but before January 1st, that would be the best way to go.

O'BRIEN: Senator Richard Blumenthal, thanks for your time, appreciate it.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: In our next hour we'll get the Republican side of this conversation. Senator Mike Lee of Utah will be talking with me.

Also ahead, Arizona's controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio says he is certain the president's birth certificate is fake. Hasn't he said this before? To him we say, get real sheriff. Our STARTING POINT team is heading in, Margaret Hoover, Will Cain, Richard Socarides.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. A major high seas drug bust in Jacksonville, Florida in a joint operation by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard netting almost four tons of cocaine and marijuana. Authorities say they are worth about $93 million wholesale. The street value, a quarter of a billion dollars.

The FDA approving a new controversial diet drug under a new name. Q-simia, formerly called Q-nexa, has produced dramatic weight loss in clinical trials. Potential side effects -- increased heart rate and birth defects.

O'BRIEN: Christine, thank you. Welcome to our team this morning. Richard, nice to see you.


O'BRIEN: Writer for Do I owe you money?

SOCARIDES: Somebody owes me some money.

O'BRIEN: We'll talk about that later.

SOCARIDES: You've forgotten about that.

O'BRIEN: Kind of the biggest Supreme Court decision.


WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Richard nailed it. Got to give him credit.

SOCARIDES: I was mocked that day for betting as I did. You laughed at me.

O'BRIEN: I did. I won't deny it and I laughed at the quid itch people and I apologize. I owe you a dollar let's move on. Margaret hoover, nice to have you, I can't speak today. Will cain for Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Our "Get Real" this morning is something we've covered like 100,000 times. Investigators who are wrapping up their investigation for sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona have now finished their probe into the president's birth certificate. And they say it's definitely fraudulent. People, people.


SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY SHERIFF: As we suspect, it is a fraudulent document. My original intent was to clear the president of the United States. But the investigation initiated by our cold case posse found far too many problems on the birth certificate.


O'BRIEN: So I'm going to point out a couple of things. I don't believe his origin intent was to clear the president of the United States.

SOCARIDES: Not very credible.

O'BRIEN: Not necessarily very credible in that. Number two, all of his opponents, especially Democrats are saying he's wasting taxpayer money and causing a distraction, and even Governor Jan Brewer said the birther issue is just leading our country down a path of destruction, it's not serving any good. Recommitted to those --

SOCARIDES: She's not a big fan of the president.

O'BRIEN: And seems to be less of a fan, smaller fan, less big fan of the birther issue. And the folks in Hawaii on Tuesday evening responded to the allegations saying the allegations are untrue, misinformed and misconstrue Hawaii an law and CNN did its own investigation, as well as a bunch of other news organization.

SOCARIDES: You were telling us you have a strong opinion on this.


O'BRIEN: Don't tell me you're a birther. I can't take it.

HOOVER: We thought we would do what we thought this story deserved. We're totally done with this story.

O'BRIEN: Put a nail in it?

HOOVER: I mean, like the sheriff himself even spoke to the secretary of state of Hawaii within a month ago, six weeks ago.

O'BRIEN: Put a fork in it, it's done.

CAIN: You're missing a newsworthy item, and that is the sheriff of Arizona has a cold case posse which is just short of awesome.


O'BRIEN: Or some people could say he has an opponent seeking the nomination against him in November, which some people might be looking to oust him.

HOOVER: What I like, is Will Cain came to the set with a haircut today.

CAIN: I tried.

HOOVER: Looking cleaned up.

CAIN: Shave my face and cut my hair.

O'BRIEN: Everybody comes to it in their own time, it just happens. You're growing up.

SOCARIDES: Maybe you could be investigated by the cold case posse or something.

CAIN: I want one.

O'BRIEN: We're moving on. But we do give him our get real thumbs down of the day. I started that today. It may not come back but today it's here.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, 10 days to the start of the Olympics, how the Brits are turning to the U.S. after fear that security could be in chaos.

Also American flight schools are they still unknowingly training terrorists. A disturbing new study that shows potential gaping holes in the government's security net. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Let's get right to Christine Romans. She's got a look at the day's top stories. Hi, Christine. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Authorities in Iowa are now draining a lake in the search for two missing young girls.

The 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins and 10-year-old Lyric Cook disappeared last Friday. The two are cousins. Their bikes were found at the edge of Meyers Lake in Evansdale.

FBI scent tracking dogs were brought into the area. The mom of one of the girls says the dogs stopped right at the lake's edge. Jim Spellman is live in Evansdale with the latest -- Jim.

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Christine. There are basically two tracks to this investigation. There's the search and rescue piece, that's draining this lake right here.

As you mentioned, their bikes were found and a purse of one of the girls was found right along the edge. They've already been searching this lake, but they want to be absolutely positive so they are draining it.

By later today or tomorrow that should be done. The other track is the law enforcement track that's where the FBI scent dogs come in, they've been questioning people, including family members increasingly the families think that something bad has happened to their girls. Here's the father of Lyric.


DANIEL MORRISSEY, FATHER: Obviously, something bad has happened. I believe that it's not an accident, it's something -- it's something and that's what we're trying to find out.

Two people don't drown in a lake where there's no drop offs or dams or boat accident or something like that. There's -- to me knowing my daughter, this would never happen.


SPELLMAN: The family knows that they are part of the investigation themselves. They've all been questioned. They've been polygraphed. They've even had all the data taken off their cell phones, but police say they've been cooperating.

They really need some sort of lead, something new to happen in this case to feel like they are making some sort of momentum. Basically at this point, Christine, they still have nothing to go on.

ROMANS: All right, Jim Spellman in Iowa. Thanks, Jim.

Kerry Kennedy the ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says a seizure is to blame for her car accident last week, not drugs or alcohol.

Kennedy was driving to a gym last Friday when her 2008 Lexus hit a tractor-trailer. She kept driving. Kennedy spoke to reporters yesterday insisting no drugs or alcohol were found in her system.

She says an MRI revealed an old brain injury and doctors believe the accident was caused by a complex partial seizure. Kennedy is charged with driving under the influence of drugs.

The suspect in an Alabama bar shooting, a shooting that wounded 17 people, four critically is being held on $2 million bond. Police say surveillance video captured 44-year-old Nathan Van Wilkins with a gun outside this bar in Tuscaloosa near the University of Alabama campus.

He faces 18 counts of attempted murder. Wilkins is suspected in a separate shooting earlier that night.

Federal officials are reviewing security at a small airport in Utah, after a Sky West pilot accused of killing his ex-girlfriend scaled a fence and tried to steal a commercial plane.

Authorities say 40-year-old Brian Hedgeland started the plane, but then clipped the terminal building before rolling through a fence into parked cars. The pilot was dead when police got there, an apparent suicide.

Olympic officials in London are turning to the TSA to help shore up security for the games. Media reports out of London say U.S. agents from the Transportation Security Administration will be arriving next week and will be stationed at British airports.

Olympic organizers are getting hammered for not having enough security on hand for the games. The British military is also trying to help plug the gap by supplying 3,500 extra personnel -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thank you. The conversation this afternoon on Capitol Hill will also involve the TSA, but they won't be talking about the Olympics.

This big hearing this morning will try to answer the question, is the United States unknowingly training terrorists? The hearing is going to take place on the Hill happen about two hours from now.

It could have some big national security implications. You'll remember back in 9/11, two of the four hijackers who piloted planes were trained at a flight school in the U.S.

It brings us to Republican Congressman Mike Rogers of Alabama. First look of this report with us this morning. He's going to be chairing that hearing today. It's nice to see you, sir. Thanks for joining us.

A lot of this sort of, I guess, involves the TSA really taking over responsibilities from the FBI when it comes to oversight of people who are foreign nationals in this country going to pilot school.

Explain to me first how it all works. How do those lessons work and how are they overseen when it's done right?

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS (R), ALABAMA: Well, when somebody -- first of all, your flight school has to be certified by the TSA. But when somebody applies for flight lessons, the TSA has up to 30 days to get them vetted and certified to take that training.

Nobody is supposed to be trained until the TSA vets them to make sure that they are here legally and they are properly in this country and available for training.

Apparently, the TSA was falling short on that front and we have had hundreds of instances where people have been going through flight training without their certification.

O'BRIEN: Talk to me about some of those discrepancies because of course when you hear discrepancies of people who are learning to be pilots in the United States and nobody really knows sort of, you know, I guess what their status is when it comes to how they are in the country, whether with documents or without, that kind of brings us back to 9/11.

ROGERS: Well, it does. That's the most disturbing thing about this. People have a right to be extremely upset about it because this is one of the problems that we had 10 years ago.

When two of the 9/11 attackers were trained how to take off and fly a plane and not how to land. You would think at the minimum after 10 years, we would at least have that front covered and apparently we don't. And I'm very anxious in the hearing to find out why.

O'BRIEN: I know one of the cases you're going to talk about in this hearing involves a flight school in Boston. They discovered that eight out of 25 of the foreign nationals there had received approval by the TSA, but had actually entered the country illegally.

Seventeen of the 25 had overstayed status, meaning that they overstayed their authorization and then at that point in the country illegal as well. It sounds like this is a very big problem in the process. Am I overstating that?

ROGERS: No, and it's an unacceptable problem and it gets worse than what you just described. There was one flight school that was being run by a foreign national that was here illegally.

So you know, there are all sorts of problems that are unacceptable 10 years after 9/11. I'm very anxious in this hearing to find out why this is happening and more importantly what we can do to fix it and fix it now.

O'BRIEN: I was going to ask you, do you have any ideas what the fix could be?

ROGERS: Well, you know, what I understand right now and this is just preliminary, is that this responsibility is shared between TSA and DOD, and they haven't been communicating.

As well immigration and customs enforcement has a role and they haven't been working hand in globe with them. Those things obviously at the minimum have to be corrected.

O'BRIEN: I want to take a moment before I let you go to ask you about the defense cuts, $500 billion in defense cuts will kick in on January 2nd as you well know over 10 years.

A Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer was saying yesterday that he thinks the GOP wants it both ways. Here's what he said, they imposed a fiscal discipline and now they don't want to live with the fiscal discipline.

So now they want to have it both ways. Their observation that sequestration will have a detrimental effect on the defense is correct. It will have a detrimental effect on Medicare. That's what he's told "Politico" on July 17th.

Do you think he has a point there, which is you listen, either you want to have fiscal discipline or you don't want have fiscal discipline? You can't have it both ways.

ROGERS: Well, we were looking for fiscal discipline from the "Super Committee," and we didn't find it. That's regrettable. It's also regrettable that Mr. Hoyer and many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are being reckless about this issue.

In addition of serving on the Homeland Security Committee, I've been for 10 years on the Armed Services Committee. I'm very aware of our situation right now and it is reckless to go forward with sequestration or talk about going forward with it.

O'BRIEN: All right, well, Congressman Mike Rogers joining us this morning, a Republican from the state of Alabama. We appreciate your time. Thank you.

ROGERS: Glad to be with you.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate that.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, Linconsolable, New York fans trying to figure out new ways to say we're disappointed, Jeremy Lin is departing the state.

We're going to sit down ahead also with businessman Richard Branson talking about his greatest thrill and his greatest regret. You're watching STARTING POINT. We got to take a short break. We're back in just a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The next step for me is towards future life experiences, like love one day to be able to make the 2001 of interactivity.

You can imagine a experience that is a huge room or building where you move to floor to floor and in each room there was another narrative experience part of a story that's told partially through your relationships with other people.

And also through interactive walls and ceilings, keep your eyes on our web site and you'll see what comes out in 2012.



ROMANS: Breaking news out of Syria, the country's defense minister is dead after a suicide bomber attacked the National Security building in Damascus.

That's according to Syria's government-run television reports. The bombing took place during a cabinet meeting. We hear several others were wounded as well. More on this developing story as it comes in.

And in North Korea, leader, Kim Jong-Un has been named the country's top military leader. Kim's promotion follows the removal of the country's long time army chief supposedly due to an illness -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thank you.

This morning thousands of New York Knicks fans, I should say, on a much lighter note, they are waking up their Lin Consolable, over the loss of Lin Sanity.

Jeremy Lin is going to pack his bags, he's heading to Houston. The 23-year-old point guard turned the big apple and the NBA on its ear last season.

He stole 26 games. He stole millions of heart. Remember we were following that, made me go back and start watching the Knicks again.

Fast forward, midnight, last night he -- the Knicks let the deadline passed and they declined to match the Rocket's offer of $25 million over next three years, which means he goes to Houston. He sent out some really nice tweets.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: He was very classy what he said. He said, this last year, the year I spent in New York was the best year of my life. It's very nice.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Because his professional basketball career and now he's got $25 million contract -- you know, he had a great year and got injured. He didn't even play the whole season.

And now he's worth $25 million and gets to go the Rockets. Look, we decided here yesterday that it was just fine to let him go to Houston.

We thought he was great for the Knicks, but we didn't think it was worth the bet because he didn't play the full season.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Would you agree to that.

O'BRIEN: I would say that I loved him and I loved what Lin Sanity did for the city. I was watching. I was cheering for him and I thought it was great to have someone to root for and my son, Jackson, wearing his little ball Lin, Jeremy Lin t-shirt.

HOOVER: You are not arguing that the Knicks should have put down the --

O'BRIEN: I don't think it was going to be worth the bet and I think the Knicks thought the same thing. I think and a zillion other analysts before me thought the same thing. I'm not surprised.

CAIN: This would have been a lot of Jacksons because it would have been a $50 million cost to the Knicks three years from now when they got two other point guards it would cost $7 million.

O'BRIEN: Couldn't they trade him the last year?

HOOVER: Because you're trading away --

O'BRIEN: You could trade him --

CAIN: Other teams would also have to evaluate their own cap and say is he worth whatever at least $15 million plus their tax penalty. The long story short is the NBA has a real salary cap now. So that's my sports center moment for today, back to the news.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Will Cain. We appreciate that.

Coming up next on STARTING POINT, my one on one with billionaire businessman, Sir Richard Branson. He is going to tell me how he got to the top, the big risks that he likes to take and whether he has any regrets. That's straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Sir Richard Branson is one of the world's most famous and philanthropic businessmen. He founded the Virgin Group.

Now a global brand with more than 200 companies in 34 countries and in between he helps people and animals around the globe through Virgin Unite.

Yesterday, we showed you the first part of our conversation. We're on a boat off the Coast of Mexico about his mission to try to save sharks, whale sharks, as we swam with hundreds of them.

We talked about what makes him such an adventurer as well. Here's that.


O'BRIEN: What do you think was the key for you becoming an adventurer? I think that covers the range businessman, adventurer.

SIR RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GROUP AND VIRGIN UNITE: I suspect that my mother shoved me out of her car when I was 6 years old and told me to make my own way home.

And I got thoroughly lost. No, look, I love adventure. Whether it's going to space, going to the bottom of the oceans, you know, swimming across the English Channel. I love adventure.

Please never buy endangered species products.

I also love, you know, being able to make a difference. And you know, whether it's trying to, you know, save the lemurs or tigers in Africa or the sharks in the ocean. I think if you're in a position to do so, you should try to do it.

O'BRIEN: What's your favorite adventure?

BRANSON: I think my favorite adventure is going to be space travel. We're only months away now from myself and my children going into space. And a whole new era of space travel taking place.

And so to go off on our own spaceship is going to be quite an adventure. I haven't actually been in an office since I was about 18 years old. I mean, you know, since the invention of mobile phones, there's no need to be in an office anymore.

You can get out and about. Meet people working for Virgin, experience life. I think offices will disappear one day. Personally, I never have worn a tie. I find it very restricting and the suits.

And I can't understand how it ever caught on, but I have spent a lifetime sort of snipping people's ties off. The reason I wrote the book was just to try to get every single business person to try and adopt one aspect of the world, which they can help try to protect or save.

And not just leave it up to governments or social workers and there is a movement amongst business people to do that. And if we can get every business to do that, I think most of the problems of the world will be resolved.

We have to say what is an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur is somebody who wants to make a difference in other people's lives. If you can create something that makes a difference in other people's lives, you have a business. And then you can follow your dream, follow your passion, and hopefully make it a success.

O'BRIEN: What regrets do you have, if any?

BRANSON: Not one regret in life.

O'BRIEN: Really?

BRANSON: I've been just the luckiest person that I know. And, you know, I'm sitting here on the ocean. My children are in the boat over there. I have led the most, you know, fascinating, exciting life so none whatsoever.

(END VIDEOTAPE) O'BRIEN: For more of my interview with Sir Richard Branson and a photo gallery of our entire trip, you can go to our blog, which is

Ahead this morning, a disaster of epic proportions. Broiling heat is crippling crops and devastating farmland in the Midwest. It's about to hit where it hurts most, your wallet. We'll talk about that.

Plus, the Boy Scouts keeps its policy to ban gays. Is it out of step with the times? And now they have a new leader that is against the policy, does that mean the fight actually starts all over again? You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.