Return to Transcripts main page
EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN
Mass Protests At U.S. Embassy In Yemen; Benghazi Consulate Attack Planned?; Tightening Embassy Security Worldwide
Aired September 13, 2012 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to EARLY START. We begin this morning with breaking news.
We're going to take you to Yemen. These are pictures of a protest that is happening at the U.S. embassy in Yemen. That is a group that has stormed the U.S. embassy there. The U.S. embassy in Yemen, though, however, releasing a statement saying that they have this situation under control.
We have a reporter there on the ground who has been covering this for us. He is a local reporter there. Hakim, are you there?
HAKIM ALMASMARI, CNN CORRESPONDNET (via telephone): Yes, I'm here.
SAMBOLIN: Hakim Almasmari is covering this for us. What can you tell us?
ALMASMARI: The protests are, right now, they're less than what they were an hour ago, but they're trying -- they're almost -- the security forces succeeded in diffusing the tension at this place, because this could have went way, way out of hand if security forces shot directly at protesters, because there are hundreds of protests -- of security forces near the area, now over a thousand. The security forces knew that if any - if this got violent, this could only get worse, and this protest could escalate and take place on a daily basis.
So as of right now, these forces are diffusing. Many of the protesters feel that their message was well-sent and it was received so they are now leaving the site of the embassy.
SAMBOLIN: Hakim, when we talked to you earlier, they were firing shots into the air to try to discourage the protesters from being there. You're saying that that has worked. How many protesters are you seeing there now?
ALMASMARI: Again, there are hundreds of protesters. And I'm not saying they are only protesting, their burning cars, burning tires, firing embassy wall and burning the U.S. flag.
But again, all of this is to take out the anger that they have. There are protesters on videos. These protesters are gunmen. The Interior Ministry has issued direct orders that anyone seen near the embassy, armed and/or has weapons, should be shot at directly. That is why the security forces at the embassy are not acting with force because they know that they are unarmed and they are given the orders to shoot anyone who is armed.
SAMBOLIN: We're hearing a lot of chanting, a lot of yelling. What are they saying?
ALMASMARI: They are chanting and saying, anyone the prophet Muhammad, why degrade Muhammad when we do not degrade Jesus? It's to show why they believe that the American people are behind the movie that was made, the homemade movie.
And they are expressing their anger, and showing why is Muhammad being attacked by the American people while the Lebanese or the Muslim are not attacking their prophet, Jesus. So it's for religious rather than cultural or foreign policy.
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Hakim, let me ask you something. Do you think the people there have seen this video or are there the rumors of it that are causing all of this anger? Because we have watched a 14-minute trailer for one of the films from this producer, and I've got to tell you, it's kind of unintelligible. It's very low quality and it's a very homemade kind of -- it's not representative of what the American people think about the prophet or the religion.
ALMASMARI: Exactly. I agree with you completely, but they're living in a place that's very undeveloped, but as soon as they hear a video or movie made in the U.S., it immediately comes to their mind from Hollywood.
So, yes, you are right, completely right, that this is not what Yemenis believe. The very few chance they have of the knowledge of the media or who stands behind the movie. But what they know is that the U.S. are behind the movie, then sources reported that that two Americans were behind the funding of this movie, this $5 million movie, and over 100 of the Jewish Americans behind the movie.
So they are trying to make or waiting for the U.S. government or U.S. to condemn this movie or not stand behind it. When they did not hear that, they started protesting and coming near the embassy.
SAMBOLIN: That's interesting. They're waiting for U.S. condemnation of the movie. Hakim Almasmari, stand by. We're going to continue checking in with you. Thank you for your reporting this morning. We really appreciate it.
ROMANS: It really is that cultural difference that we were talking about.
SAMBOLIN: It is.
ROMANS: You know, we see that movie and roll our eyes. Just rumors of that movie on the Arab street are something that is causing protests.
SAMBOLIN: You know, after watching it, I can say, though, it is insulting, right? At the end of the day, it really is insulting so that is what they reacting to. It is a poorly made movie. It is certainly not the way that Americans think, but when you don't know any better.
ROMANS: I should say noontime prayers, Friday prayers tomorrow, and clearly all American facilities are bracing for that.
SAMBOLIN: All right, 4 minutes past the hour here. Planned or not, the consulate attack has raised concerns about security for U.S. diplomats. Within hours of yesterday's deadly attack in Libya, President Obama ordered tighter security for personnel there and for other diplomatic outposts around the world.
ROMANS: Foreign affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, at the State Department right now. Elise, thanks for coming back to us this morning. New information about the investigation?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, Zoraida, yesterday the State Department kind of went through a little bit more of a timeline of what they think happened and how these gunmen breached the consulate walls. And then very excruciating detail about the last -- it was about a four-hour kind of ordeal, but it sounds as if these gunmen breached the embassy, the consulate walls within 15 minutes.
And then there was a lot of smoke and fire in terms of throwing RPGs, these rocket-propelled grenades into the consulate walls. Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador, was in the complex, trying to get out. He was with another gentleman, Sean Smith, who we learned about yesterday, also died in the attack. And really horrible detail about how Chris Stevens got separated, the ambassador got separated from the group, trying to make his way out and was found actually by the Libyans, who took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. So today a lot of talk about how this could have happened, not just why it happened, but how security was breached at the consulate.
And the U.S., what's going on right now, Zoraida, all U.S. embassies, all diplomatic facilities having what they call these emergency committees, where they review the security, what more can be done, what more can be done with those host governments to make sure that U.S. facilities are protected. And you can bet that yesterday Yemen was one of those embassies where they were looking for enhanced security procedures, not just with U.S. security, but with the host government. U.S. embassy in Sana'a sending out a statement this morning, warning Americans the stay home because they knew these protests were coming.
ROMANS: And you talk about, Elise, Christine here, you talk about just the security being reviewed at all of these facilities. And this morning we have news that university students have stormed the -- or gathered, rather, gathered in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to protest this film that now people are so upset about. This is according to Iran's semi-official news agency. And you know, the Swiss Embassy represents American interests in that country as well. So that's sort of the latest in all of this. LABOTT: That's right. And you know, obviously, the Swiss Embassy, the Swiss had nothing to do with this movie. And because they represent the U.S. interests, it just goes to what Zoraida and you were talking about, just moments ago, these cultural attitudes and this kind of lack of knowledge of what goes on.
It just feeds into those stereotypes that Americans don't like Muslims, that Americans have it in for all Muslims and Arabs in the region, and I think the U.S. is looking at right now how it can better educate people in these publics, where education about U.S. is not really taught I in a lot of these schools.
They're taught to hate the United States. But if you are in the United States, you know that there are a lot of Muslims here in the United States, and certainly they don't, as you said, look at the Prophet Muhammad that way.
So, I mean, to go in front of the Swiss Embassy just shows that they really don't understand how this is working and what's going on.
ROMANS: All right, Elise Labott, thank you so much, Elise. We'll check back with you shortly.
SAMBOLIN: Barbara Starr is standing by live at the Pentagon. I want to stay with this cultural discussion, Barbara, because I think this is really at the heart of the matter. It's this movie that has caused a lot of commotion now.
We have students that are going and protesting as well. When we talked to the reporter that's on the ground, he said that it's a group of young kids that are there, that are very ignorant about what they see.
So when they see something like this, this movie, they assumed that it's a Hollywood-made movie, and so then Americans clearly support it, and they're waiting for some sort of a condemnation from the United States on this particular movie.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that's certainly a point of view out there and you have seen the administration, you have seen any number of people condemn this, this film.
I think that there's been another important voice added to it. I understand we now have some sound from the Egyptian leader, President Mohammed Morsi, also weighing in. Let's listen to that for a moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI, EGYPT (through translator): Let me condemn, in the most clear terms, the attacks on the United States diplomatic installation that have caused the deaths of four people in Benghazi, namely the American ambassador. There can be no justification for violence and for the loss of innocent lives. We call on the Libyan authorities to take all necessary measures to ensure such events not reoccur and of course, to protect the diplomatic missions. (END VIDEO CLIP)
STARR: All right, now, you know, what we are also seeing, however, besides the just basic facts of the film, I think there is probably a much deeper issue emerging here. And that is social media.
The issue is, how this, you know, most of these people haven't seen this movie. So what happens is, they may see YouTube clips of it. They may see elements of it on social media, word spreads on social media. They see the videos of these protests around the world.
The concern, of course, now, Afghanistan, this will be the next place, either by video, social media, word of mouth, at mosques, that the word begins to spread about this, and there could be additional violence.
This may be one of the most significant issues for traditional U.S. diplomacy to deal with. How do you deal with social media? How do you deal with the basic facts that these kinds of films and elements get out and move around the world instantly? It is out there before anybody can even react to it.
SAMBOLIN: No, you're absolutely right. As a matter of fact, the Muslim Brotherhood on Facebook has told the protesters, go to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and protest. So when you have organizations like that, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood saying we are encouraging you to do this. It can cause an escalating effect, across the region.
STARR: It can do that. And this is something that the U.S. has struggled with fundamentally in the war on terror, as it emerged after 9/11. For years now, the Taliban, al Qaeda, look, Osama bin Laden came out on videos, didn't he?
Videos that started appearing, he's in hiding for years, and he can still get his message out for so many years, on video, on tape, on internet web sites, that people can log into. This is something that the U.S. has struggled to deal with.
How do they get the word out? The U.S. government always in these situations a bit behind, because, of course, the United States governments around the world having that obligation to look and search for the truth and be able to report facts, to be able to report the facts about what happened in Benghazi.
They can't go out there with just, you know, a YouTube video on a whim. So governments have a different responsibility than these groups appear to have, and that is one of the big problems. Things move instantly around the world. How do you deal with it?
SAMBOLIN: That's right. You can mobilize movements through the internet these days, good and bad. Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon for us. Thank you very much.
ROMANS: And sort of resetting for you where you are right now. We're watching developments in Yemen, where after noontime prayers, men started to gather and then actually stormed the front gatehouse of the American Embassy there actually getting on top of a wall, and it looked like they were trying to crawl over the top of a fence.
The Yemeni government saying, yes, there was a breach. These protesters did breach. They've been turning over cars. They have been -- burning the American flag, burning tires. We're told there may have been some Molotov cocktails. And security forces fired into the air. Now we're told by the Yemeni government that, indeed, have this situation, at least for now, under control. So these are mass protests at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
And the Yemeni government is reporting that the situation is under control now. We're live in Libya and Cairo where developments a still unfolding. That's right after the break.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ROMANS: We want to focus in on Libya right now, where of course the American ambassador to Libya was killed yesterday, Ambassador Chris Stevens, assassinated at the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
In Tripoli right now, we have Jomana Karadsheh. She is a CNN reporter/producer there. And she has been following this story over the past 48 hours.
What is the latest now about what the American and also the Libyan response has been to this attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Jomana?
JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN REPORTER: Well, Christine, the Libyan government here, Libyan authorities have beefed up securities around the different foreign missions here in Tripoli and in Benghazi. This morning, driving around the streets in Tripoli, I did notice an increased security presence around some even government buildings, government installations here in the capital.
We're also reporting and we've heard from the United States that two Navy destroyers equipped with Tomahawk missiles have been moved off the coast of -- are moving off the coast of Libya. And, of course, drones that will be operating in the -- in Libya, to try and track down these militant cells that were responsible for this attack. It does seem that the initial reports that we were receiving, that this was a protest over that video and film does not seem to be the case. More and more indications are surfacing that this was actually a preplanned attack, carried out by extremist groups that are operating in the eastern part of the country.
ROMANS: Jomana, what do we know about those militant groups? Because there are angry, unruly mobs fired up about rumors of this video online. And then there are well-armed militant groups with clear goals to try to strike Western interests. And they have been at work for some time in Benghazi.
KARADSHEH: Yes. Over recent months, Christine, we have seen, especially back in June, we've seen a step up in attacks, taking place in the eastern city of Benghazi, by radical groups, militant groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda, that are operating in the eastern part of the country. We saw them detonate a bomb outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, attacks on the British ambassador's convoy, for example, in Benghazi in June, and other attacks.
It does seem that this might be a continuation of these attacks against foreign interests in Libya. Yesterday, we heard from the country's president, Mohammed el-Megarif, telling a press conference that Libya will not allow its land to be used by groups to carry out what he described as revenge attacks is against the West by these groups.
ROMANS: It must be, honestly, to be in Libya and have gone through the Arab spring and now see this new Libya, this new Libya as the late ambassador called it, it must be a very new moment here, now that you se that it's a very -- a very negative connotation to what's happening, the relationship between the U.S. and Libya right now.
KARADSHEH: Absolutely, Christine. What happened on Tuesday was a great blow for the new Libya. The country has been trying to get back on its feet, get its economy up and running again, after decades of Moammar Gadhafi rule, followed by a year of turbulence, trying to get back and recover from this revolution.
And, you know, as we saw some movement with foreign companies starting to return, businesses starting to pick up again here in Libya, this was a great blow. Now we are seeing reports of evacuations, of nongovernmental organizations, Western ones, leaving the country for concern. So definitely a big blow for the new Libya.
ROMANS: Clearly a country that wants investment in its infrastructure, investment in its oil industry, and the like, and has been courting Western businesspeople. Now, it's been almost a year since Moammar Gadhafi was killed.
All right, Jomana, thank you.
SAMBOLIN: And let's head over now live to Cairo, Egypt, where the protests continue outside the U.S. embassy there. There's tear gas, Molotov cocktails.
Our Ian Lee is there.
And could you bring us up to speed on the very latest? The last time we were there, there were a lot of protesters, a lot of flag-burning. What's the situation now?
IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zoraida, what's going on right now is if you look behind me, you can see roughly about 200 protesters squaring off with police, about 100 yards away from the U.S. embassy. And what we're seeing here really is a battle of attrition. On one side, you have the police, on the other, the protesters.
This battle has been raging for about 12 hours now, neither side really committed to taking on the other and trying to finish this. The police have a perimeter set around the embassy. They're not pushing too far outside that perimeter, and the protesters are able to regroup and retry. The protesters seem determined, but they do not have the numbers, really, to break the police cordon, to go to the embassy. This is really what we're seeing is a battle between protesters and police.
SAMBOLIN: How are the Egyptian people feeling about this?
LEE: Well, that's -- I think what the real big telling sign here is that there are only 200 protesters in this crowd. And I don't know if you can see behind me, but Tahrir Square is full of traffic. If I look out further to my right, I see streets of Cairo going on with their daily business. It doesn't seem like Egyptians are caught up in what is going on on the street.
And it really is basically one city block where you have, you know -- and it's heavy clashes. There's a lot of tear gas, they're throwing rocks. Protesters have Molotov cocktails. Police, when they catch people, we're seeing police beat the captured prisoners.
So it really is an intense battle, but it is only on one city block. And if you go a couple city blocks in either direction, you're really going to see life going on as usual.
So it really doesn't seem like the Egyptian people are too caught up in this current demonstration. I say that, though, but tomorrow, there are calls for mass demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood to denounce the film that defames Islam. They're calling for people to gather around the mosques, demonstrate at the mosques, and they're calling for peaceful protests. They're telling people to stay clear of the U.S. embassy -- Zoraida.
SAMBOLIN: It's always difficult to be able to make those protests peaceful. In the meantime, President Morsi did have a press conference this morning. Did he address any of this at all?
LEE: He did. And this is the one thing that is kind of 180-degree switch. Yesterday, he released a statement on Facebook, and he didn't have harsh condemnation for the protesters who entered the embassy. He said that it was Egypt's responsibility to protect the embassy, just stating the obvious, but not really coming out against the protesters.
He changed his tone with this new statement, harshly condemning those who broke into the embassy, saying that these are not Egyptians, they are not part of Egypt or Islam. He also said that are he will protect the U.S. embassy and what we're seeing today, we're seeing the police pushing the protesters away. So far, he's making good on his promise that he will protect embassies in Egypt.
SAMBOLIN: And all the pictures that we have been showing this morning have been live pictures from the area. You know, sometimes we lose a shot there for a minute, but it comes back there. So we're seeing a lot of smoke. I'm assuming there's a lot of tear gas in the area.
Let's talk a little bit about the Muslim Brotherhood and their call to action, because we've talked about social media and the role that it is playing here. The question is whether or not most of the people who are protesting have even seen this film that they're protesting about, and the impact that it could have.
So, is the Muslim Brotherhood reaching out via social media?
LEE: Well, they are definitely trying to galvanize people for the protests tomorrow. And even if you look at Mohamed Morsi's statements, he reserved his harshest condemnation for the film itself, and said that this is something that they are very much against.
So, you know, they are reaching out to have a larger protest tomorrow, and, you know, this is something that the Muslim Brotherhood, we're not surprised, are shying away from. This is something that they find offensive and they're going to let their voices be heard. So we're expecting large numbers tomorrow for the protests.
SAMBOLIN: All right. Ian Lee live in Cairo for us -- thank you.
ROMANS: All right. CNN has learned -- U.S. officials suspect the attack that killed America's ambassador to Libya was planned in advance. At first, it was believed the killing of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by angry mobs protesting this anti-Islam movie, but U.S. officials believe the attackers may have used those protesters as a diversion for a planned assassination.
SAMBOLIN: The number of West Nile cases has jumped 35 percent, this just in the past week. But federal health officials say the worst to have the mosquito-born epidemic may be over. This year's outbreak of West Nile virus is the deadliest ever on record. More than 2,600 cases have been reported to the CDC this year, and that includes 118 deaths.
ROMANS: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed ban on the sale of super-sized sugary drinks. It could be approved today. The city's Board of Health is scheduled to vote on this plan. It's expected to pass, folks. It calls for a 16-ounce limit on sodas and other sugary beverages sold at restaurants, delis, and movie theaters. If approved, it will take effect in March.
SAMBOLIN: Are you lining up yet? Preorders start tomorrow on the new iPhone 5. Apple is lifting the curtain on the new phone. This happened yesterday. It's gotten taller. It's lost weight. It has a larger 4-inch screen, a thinner design, and will be able to run on super-fast 4G LTE wireless networks. There's new mapping, by turn directions for you, Siri we understand got a little smarter. It also has new connectors. So all your accessories have officially been declared obsolete.
ROMANS: Oh, yes.
SAMBOLIN: So you get to spend more money, though. There'll be a new adapter available for 30 bucks.
ROMANS: We're not going very far from what's happening in the Middle East this morning. We are in Yemen. We are in Cairo. We're also in Libya.
We're going to have the latest from all of those hot spots right after this break.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
SAMBOLIN: We begin with breaking news this morning. We're taking you to the U.S. embassy in Yemen, where protesters have stormed the embassy there.
The U.S. embassy, though, is saying that they have that situation under control. There were thousands of protesters outside. There is a heavy security force presence as well that has dissipated some of the situation there.
We have a reporter on the ground there are, Hakim Almasmari and he has the very latest for us.
ALMASMARI (via telephone): The protests are, right now, they're less than what they were an hour ago. So, they're trying, they're almost -- the street forces have succeeded in easing the tension. Because this sort of went way, way out of hand, as security forces shot directly at protesters, because there are hundreds of protest -- of security forces near the area, easily now over a thousand.
So security forces knew that if this got violent, this could only get worse, and this protest would escalate and take place on a daily basis. So, as of right now, these protests are diffusing. Many of the protesters feel that their message was well sent and it was received, so they are now leaving the embassy. Still hundreds are still there.
SAMBOLIN: Hakim, when we talked to you earlier, they were firing shots into the air in order to try to discourage the protesters from being there. You're saying that that has worked. How many protesters are you seeing there now?
ALMASMARI: Again, there are hundreds of protesters. And I'm not saying that they're only protesters. They are burning cars, burning tires, climbing the embassy wall, burning the U.S. flag. But, again, all of this -- the anger that they have. There are these photos of videos as the protesters armed as gunman.
The interior ministry has ordered direct orders that anyone seen near the embassy armed or has weapons should be shot at directly. So, that is why the security forces at the embassy are not asking with force, because they know that they are unarmed and they are given the orders to shoot anyone who is armed.
ROMANS: All right. That's in Yemen. Let's go to the State Department right now -- or the Pentagon, where Barbara Starr is for us. She's been following this for the past couple of days.
Barbara, I want to start with the response from the Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist Egyptian president. He has said that these are unlawful acts in Cairo and they will not allow any longer anymore violence on American installations in Cairo. He's in Brussels, as a matter of fact, right now.
What can you tell us about the response in Egypt about the violence there?
STARR: Well, actually, people have been waiting for the last couple of days for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to actually come out in public. He had one initial statement, but to come out in front of a camera with his face, his voice, and talk about all of this. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MORSI (through translator): We assured President Obama that we will be keen and we will not permit any such event, any such occurrence in our country against the embassies in our territories. We will cooperate with the European Union, with the other countries, with the American administration, in order to prevent such events in the future.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STARR: So, not yet, at least in that sound bite, an outright condemnation of those involved, but saying that the Egyptian security forces will control the situation, they won't allow this to happen again. We have seen more violence at protests at the American embassy. But this is the kind of thing that the U.S. is hoping leaders around the world come out when violence occurs at U.S. embassies. They need to see local security forces and they need to see those host governments come out in public and condemn it.
ROMANS: And you're seeing on your screen right now, pictures from Cairo about the crowds gathering there -- excuse me, the crowds gathering there after noontime prayers. We're also watching what's happening in Yemen and what's happening in Libya as well. So there are three different sort of fronts here that American officials are confronting.
And there are also students, we're told, the semi-official Iranian news agency is saying that students are gathering in front of the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which is, of course, another sort of representative of American interests.
So tell me, Barbara, in response to all of these different issues, what is the American military maneuver looking like right now?
STARR: Well, mainly in Libya, and it is a response, it is a presence, but it is very controlled, 50 Marines at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. They are there to provide internal security only, nothing else to assist the embassy, to assist American citizens. Two Navy warships, however, now sailing off, towards the coast of Libya. These are equipped with tomahawk missiles.
That will give President Obama -- make no mistake -- a military option should he choose it, to strike targets in Libya, if they can determine, if they can collect enough precise intelligence to determine there is a target, where there may be people or an encampment or a stronghold responsible for the attacks in Benghazi that results in the death of the ambassador and others.
The President said yesterday, justice will be done. This is now an option that he has on the table.
I want to throw in something else here, though. I mean, we are seeing these protests. Make no mistake, they are violent. There have been deaths. This has been a tragedy in Libya for the U.S. mission, and there is great concern about what is happening in these other capitals, in these other cities.
But also, let's remember, within all of these countries, hundreds of thousands, millions of people living very peacefully, not coming to the embassies, not protesting activists acting very peacefully against their governments, perhaps, through social media.
There is violence happening. There is action in front of television cameras, but a lot of people living in these countries, trying to make their way, day by day.
ROMANS: Especially in Libya, where they want a new Libya. It hasn't even been a year since Gadhafi was killed. You know, this was -- this really is a new day, and you're right, I can assume that there are a lot of families who are watching what's happening, and they too are worried about militants and unruly mobs as well.
ROMANS: OK. Barbara Starr, thanks.
SAMBOLIN: And as this all began, as we're getting to know U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed, Chris Stevens, there's somebody who knows him really well. His name is Harvey Morris. He's a journalist, a friend of the Ambassador Chris Stevens.
You knew him for quite some time. You last saw Ambassador Stevens at a dinner in October of 2011.
What went through your mind when you heard that he was killed?
HARVEY MORRIS, EUROPEAN BLOGGER, INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Well, it was just very hard to grasp, because he was so optimistic about the job he was going to take up. In fact, when I last saw him in autumn last year, he was slightly concerned he wouldn't get his congressional approval. It seemed a formality, but anyway, he was worried about anything that might upset his plans to go to Libya.
He went there, he was very optimistic. He said it was great to be an American there, because the people so welcomed, maybe the country, to our perceptions, and they welcomed the presence of Americans and Europeans after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi and he was very upbeat about the whole experience.
SAMBOLIN: He seemed to love the Libyans very much.
MORRIS: For sure. I mean, he spent a lot of time in the Middle East. He worked for the Peace Corps in Morocco, first of all. Then he spent a lot of time in Jerusalem. Previously, he was in Libya when Gadhafi was still in power. So, he had a great time for Libyans and other people in the region.
SAMBOLIN: I want to read something to you. About two months ago, he sent out an e-mail to you and to a lot of other friends, describing his return to Libya. He had just hosted a July 4th reception at the embassy in Tripoli.
And here's part of what he wrote: "The whole atmosphere has changed for the better. People smile more and are much more open with foreigners, Americans, French, and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let's hope it lasts. All in all, it's great to be back, especially in the new Libya, as people here are saying."
That optimism -- is it heartbreaking to you in retrospect?
MORRIS: Well, it is, but I think we always have to remember that, you know, we're talking about tiny minorities of people who try and disrupt a process that they don't like, for whatever reason. And I mean, a lot of the reaction in the Arab world today has been that, you know, there are two sets of extremists here. There are the people who produced the film, obviously a provocation, and the people who responded so violently.
And you've been covering this morning events in Cairo, where we're talking about maybe 200 demonstrators, and some of those, it appears to be from reports from Egypt, are, in fact, local soccer hooligans. So we mustn't get the idea on either side that these extremists in any way represent what either America stands for or what the new regimes in the Middle East stand for.
SAMBOLIN: What do you think his reaction would have been to all of this?
MORRIS: I'm sorry, could you just repeat that?
SAMBOLIN: His reaction. You knew him well. What do you think his reaction would have been to all of this? And what do you think he would have wanted us to take away from this situation?
MORRIS: You know, he obviously would have been deeply distressed by what's happened. I think, knowing him as I did, he would have said, just cool it. Let's stand back.
Let's not make any dramatic statements. Don't let's make any dramatic demands on the other side to make statements. You know, this is something where we want to cool the atmosphere, rather than say anything that might heat it any more.
He was a very conciliatory person and he was quite spoken and I think that would be the advice that he would be giving.
SAMBOLIN: What made him dedicate so much of his life to the people in Libya, do you think?
MORRIS: I think what happened was, you know, he first fell in love with the region when he went to Morocco and he taught English up in the mountains as a Peace Corps volunteer. And I suppose having to go to Libya while it was still under the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, he must have seen the bad side of that regime, he must have seen why the Libyan people wanted to replace the regime.
And so, it must have been fantastic for him to go back afterwards, having actually been involved with the opposition, liaisoning on behalf of Washington, and see that people were a lot happier afterwards than they had been when he first met them.
SAMBOLIN: I want to end on a positive note here. By what we're reading, he seemed to have had a really playful side. At that July 4th party, the staff found a Libyan band that specialized in '80s soft rock, and when he left Syria, he insisted that his party actually be held at a disco.
So he was a fun guy.
MORRIS: He was a very fun guy. He was a great host, a great party giver. He had a vast circle of friends that way went outside the diplomatic community and a lot of people are going to miss him, particularly in the Arab World.
SAMBOLIN: Harvey Morris, journalist, friend of the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We appreciate.
MORRIS: Thank you.
ROMANS: We'll take a quick break and when we come back, we're following all the breaking news out of the Middle East.
We'll also be talking to Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now professor of international relations at Harvard, an old Middle East hand. We're going to get his perspective right after this break.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ROMANS: Welcome back. We're following developments right now -- excuse me. On the left side of your screen, you're seeing video from Yemen, outside of the U.S. embassy there where we saw protesters gather. At its peak, 2,000 protesters gathered and actually climbed the outside gate and the wall to the gatehouse of the American embassy.
We are told by the Yemeni government that that situation is now under control. At one point, you had Yemeni security forces firing shots into the air to try to disperse this crowd -- Zoraida.
SAMBOLIN: Yes. About thousand of them in the crowd there. And on the right-hand of your screen, what you're taking a look at there is Cairo, Egypt. Right outside the embassy, the protests are continuing there. You see all that smoke? There's a lot of tear gas that is being used there.
The military is handling this situation aggressively, according to Ian Lee, who is on the ground there. He actually used the word, beating back the protesters. So, they are aggressively handling that situation outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
ROMANS: Let's bring in Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, also professor of international relations at Harvard University and someone who knows the Middle East very, very well. What do you make now of the escalation or the spread of this unrest and fury at U.S. interest now to Yemen?
NICHOLAS BURNS, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: Well, I think it's a time of testing for the United States throughout the Middle East. What we appear to be seeing in Egypt, in Libya, and in Yemen are relatively moderate governments that are under some challenge from more conservative, I would say, reactionary forces in their own society.
You know, the Arab revolutions that began more than 18 months ago are still continuing, and there are battles within these countries. There are political, there are social battles for the future of Libya and of Egypt and Yemen. And you see these governments reacting to try to maintain their position, fend off these conservative forces.
And unfortunately, the United States has ended up in the middle of this. That's not our fault, but we'll have to deal with that in protecting our embassies as the administration is trying to do this week.
ROMANS: Trying to protect our embassies, and also, there's financial support that the United States has given to some of these countries for many, many years. And now, you've got a group of House conservatives calling for foreign aid to Libya and Egypt to be stripped from a six-month federal spending bill that's going to be voted on today.
Is it the right thing to do to send the message for the assassination of an American ambassador to pull back money to the region?
BURNS: Well, the United States, obviously, has reason to be outraged by what happened to our ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya and also outraged by the fact that the Egyptian government, in my view, just sitting here watching this, did not do enough yesterday to quell the demonstrators.
And we haven't seen from President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt the kind of outright condemnation that's very important. So, I actually think rather than threaten -- rather than to actually withdraw the aid right now, our focus should be on getting these Arab leaders to stand up, be accountable in their own societies, and be responsible for law and order.
I also think we have to be somewhat cool about this, however. We're going to have to let the dust settle to see where these countries are. Yesterday, we saw a very strong statement of apology to the American people, the American government from the Libyan government. So, obviously, it wouldn't make sense right now to withdraw American aid.
It's in our interests to see Libya succeed, and see it become, if it's possible, a Democratic country. And I also think in that respect about being cool, we should refrain from injecting politics, our own politics, of the presidential campaign into what is a very difficult situation for the United States.
And in that regard, I was dismayed to see Governor Romney, essentially, unfairly attack and incorrectly the administration the other day. I think it's time for Americans to stand together, and I hope Governor Romney would stand with the administration.
ROMANS: You're talking about the complicated politics in each of these countries and the complicated politics in the United States. And at the same time, there has to be justice. I mean, an American ambassador was killed. So, the United States government, how do you propose they go forward here?
They need to hunt down and find out who did this and bring them to justice, but that's not necessarily an attack or retaliation against the country of Libya but the perpetrators who did this?
BURNS: I think that's a distinction we have to make. President Obama was very clear yesterday in his statement, justice will be done. That could arrive in two ways. The Libyan authorities could track down the terrorist group that attacked our consulate in Benghazi, responsible for the death of Ambassador Stevens, and bring them to justice, or the United States could do that through its military power.
Either way, we have got to make sure that the people who attacked our consulate are held responsible and are prosecuted for it. And that's obviously the obligation that our government has and the Libyan government has. So, that's exactly the right way to look at it.
But on the other hand, we've got to understand that this terrorist group that attacked the consulate represents a very small percentage of the Libyan people. And the cruel irony here is that the United States is very popular in Libya. The Libyan people, by and large, very much respect the fact that we helped them overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
And so, we've got to be cool about this. We've got to have some perspective about it, but obviously, stand up for American values and American interests.
ROMANS: Ambassador Nicholas Burns, thank you so much, sir.
BURNS: Thank you.
SAMBOLIN: Let's head over to Elise Labott. She's in our D.C. bureau. And I know, Elise, you've been listening to this conversation and you wanted to weigh in on it.
LABOTT: Yes, Zoraida. I think it's very significant that Ambassador Burns, you know, kind of mentioned that politics shouldn't be injected into this. I mean, Nick Burns is a kind of long career diplomat who served both administration, but has -- you know, leaning more towards the Republican administration.
And I think the fact that he has singled out the kind of negative political bickering that went on yesterday in the face of four Americans being killed, particularly, a top diplomat like Chris Stevens, is very significant in terms of that all Americans really now need to come together and face what's clearly a very volatile situation in the Middle East that has very consequential issues for U.S. national security interests.
SAMBOLIN: Let's talk about the late Ambassador Chris Stevens and the attack, because there are some reports that this was a planned attack.
LABOTT: Many sources telling me that they believe that this was clearly a planned attack. Not something like you had in the U.S. embassy in Cairo yesterday as well, when, you know, you had a lot of protests and angry mob. This was not an angry mob. This was clearly a military-type attack.
And they took advantage of other protesters in the area to kind of get in and breach the wall. That these people, so-called extremists, but maybe a group affiliated with al Qaeda, have been looking for an opportunity, looking for an interest to attack the embassy.
SAMBOLIN: All right. Elise Labott live in Washington, D.C., thank you.
ROMANS: All right. In just a few minutes, the "STARTING POINT" team is going to take from here. John Berman is going to talk what you guys are up to.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Even on the breaking news all morning. It is developing minute by minute here. Ahead on "STARTING POINT," as turmoil spreads across the Middle East this morning, protesters furious over a controversial film about Muslims made here in the U.S.
They've now stormed the grounds of the American embassy in a Yemeni capital, Sana'a, and the Swiss embassy in Iran, which handles the U.S. interests there. We're covering this breaking news in the way that only CNN can.
Reporters from around the world live from Yemen, from Libya, from Egypt, from Iran, along with the vast resources in the Pentagon and the Washington. We'll also be talking to guests who've been briefed with the very latest information right now.
We'll talk to Libya's ambassador to the U.S., Ali Aujali, Senator John McCain, House Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer, House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers, and a personal friend to the late ambassador, Chris Stevens, Harvey Morris.
As I said, this is developing minute by minute. Stay with us for the breaking news coverage all morning long.
SAMBOLIN: That's it for us on EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. Our breaking news coverage continues right now on "STARTING POINT."