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Violence in Syria; Taxing Talks; Manning Speaks at Hearing; Obama-Romney Lunch

Aired November 29, 2012 - 15:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Top of the hour. I'm Don Lemon coming to you live from New York City.

But, right now, the developments are pouring in involving the urgent situation inside Syria. First, the Internet goes dark, now a fight under way at the airport in Damascus. One activist says the rebels are closing in on Bashar al-Assad and the endgame is near.

CNN is inside Syria and we will show you what's happening on the ground soon.

But, first, news right now from the White House on the effort to avert the New Year's tax hike and a host of other painful measures designed to trim the national debt.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, has learned some new details of the phone conversation between the president and House Speaker John Boehner.

Jessica, what did the president tell John Boehner and why is this so important right now?


Both sides trying to come to an agreement and we understand in their phone call last night which lasted about 30 minutes the president said to Speaker Boehner that there will be no deal unless the speaker and Republicans agree to let rates go up for the top 2 percent of earners.

Now, this is what the president campaigned on so it might not sound so surprising or newsy, but the reason it's meaningful is because there's been a lot of talk in this town that the way they could raise money for the tax deal is by expanding the tax base through tax reform or closing deductions. And that in itself could take the place of raising rates.

And what we're understanding is that the president and the White House are making it very clear that raising rates is necessary. Jay Carney talked about it in the briefing today and allowed that there could be maybe some flexibility on what that rate would be. But that's, you know, something of a red line.

And for the speaker, he's insisting for the Republicans' part they have to talk spending cuts before anybody's going to agree to anything on exactly what the tax side will look like, Don. LEMON: They have much time so, so we will see. Thank you, Jessica Yellin. We appreciate it.

Let's talk more about this. And for that, we turn now to former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. He served under President George W. Bush.

Let's talk first about the business community. I want to make sure I get all of these questions right. So, as I'm saying them I'm going to read them. Are business leaders willing to absorb a tax hike if that is the end-all, be-all to not get us to go over the fiscal cliff? Keeping that in mind, would that wreck havoc in the business community?

CARLOS GUTIERREZ, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF COMMERCE: Yes. I can't speak for all business leaders, but generally speaking a tax hike, a tax rate increase is not good for the economy especially at this time.

This process is very disappointing. After everything we have been through and after the campaign and after the election, it seems like it's still the same tactical political poker it's always been. And the problem here is the world is watching. And it's almost like our system is being tested. Can these guys still -- can these folks, these people, the Congress, can the system still solve problems?

LEMON: But the system is being tested by the very people who are -- which is odd.


LEMON: They don't have to test it. They don't have to test the system. They can come to agreement without testing the system or going that close...


GUTIERREZ: They should be able to. Right, right. What I would want to do is a spirit of, boy, let's get this done and let's forget parties. Think of the nation.

LEMON: Right. Yes.

GUTIERREZ: You don't see that. It's the same old.

Now, what Speaker Boehner said is, he's got a point. We talk about a balanced approach. Republicans are saying let's do revenues and let's count up the numbers. And there haven't been expenses brought forward by the Democrats. And I don't understand that. So is it a game of chicken or are we really serious about solving this?

LEMON: Let's talk about the influence, especially the titans of business or their paid lobbyists. Do you think they have influence and contact now with the president and also with John Boehner? Because we are talking trillions and trillions of dollars here. How much influence, if any, do you think they have?

GUTIERREZ: I hope -- I think the president, Speaker Boehner, they all listen and they listen well. And I hope a lot of people are talking.

You know, the one thing the business community must have a very interesting point on view on is the process. We're moving around. We are talking about trillions of dollars, taxes going up, taxes going up on the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. There are billions, hundreds of billions of dollars of taxes and fees. What's the four- year view look like? What's the plan look like?

So let's look at the numbers. How much do we get from deductions? How much do we get from expenditures? How much more do we need? How much does Obamacare add? What is our growth rate? You know, we don't have a plan.


GUTIERREZ: And we're throwing these dollar numbers around like if they were nothing.

LEMON: I spoke with James Clyburn, Representative James Clyburn, last hour about the notion of raising tax rates on the wealthy, but not where the president wants them. He admits, he said, I wanted it higher, maybe at a half-million dollars a year. Take a listen and then we will talk about it.


REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA: We know where the president is. And that is $250,000. But there are a lot of Democrats who voiced back before the campaign $500,000. Some say even a million. All of that's going to be negotiated. The president wants 250. If Mr. Boehner wants to come and offer something different, I'm sure he will do that, but the president stands at 250, which is below even where I was, but he won the election.


LEMON: Do you think that's where the compromise is, have it at a higher rate, somewhere in there?

GUTIERREZ: I think what needs to happen is for the Democrats to come forward with ideas for expenditures, because if not, what he's asking for is for Speaker Boehner to negotiate with himself.

LEMON: Right.


So he said, OK, revenues

LEMON: I'm glad you said that. I was thinking -- yes.

GUTIERREZ: Yes. So and it's interesting. We are all talking only about revenues. We should be talking about how are we going to grow, because that's also revenues.

LEMON: Cutting spending. (CROSSTALK)

GUTIERREZ: And cutting spending, and then there's a balanced approach.

LEMON: Yes. Good stuff. Thank you for coming in.

GUTIERREZ: Pleasure.


LEMON: Carlos Gutierrez, thank you so much.

President Obama makes good on an election night promise meeting with Mitt Romney for lunch at the White House. This was their first face- to-face meeting since their bruising presidential campaign and it was strictly a no-cameras, no-reporters affair.

You would like to be a fly on that wall for that meeting.

Blink and you are going to miss this. Our cameras caught a brief glimpse of Romney arriving at the White House minutes before the lunch was scheduled to begin and here he is leaving about an hour and 15 minutes later. It lasted that long. As for what was discussed, no word yet from Romney nor from the White House.

A former president in the hospital today and we're now hearing when George H.W. Bush might get out.

But up next, an Internet blackout, a crucial fight right under way now in Syria. I will speak live with someone who just returned from there and he says today's developments could signal the endgame for Bashar al-Assad.


LEMON: In Syria, Damascus International Airport has shut down. Fierce fighting has closed the main road to the airport. Flights in and out canceled. These clashes happening as the country's Internet goes dark.

Syria now experiencing an unprecedented nationwide blackout, as this a Syrian military jet and two helicopters were shot down by rebels. They used surface-to-air missiles which were seized when rebels captured a key army base last week.

I want to bring in Mohammed Ghanem. He's a strategist for the Syrian- American Council.

Mohammed, you just got back from Syria, where you met with the Free Syrian Army.


LEMON: You say we're nearing an endgame. Why is that? GHANEM: The FSA, that's the main armed opposition in Syria, is closing in on Assad, closing in on the capital and they're tightening the noose around Assad's neck.

So this is a map. And this map was provided by the Assad regime, by the way. The areas in red as you can see are under the control of the Free Syrian Army. The areas in blue are contested and the areas in green are under the control of Assad. As you can see, the areas under Assad are shrinking and the FSA, that's the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition, is constantly gaining ground and Assad is extremely alarmed by that.

And that's why the Internet was shut down today. I touched base with some activists in Damascus this morning and they were concerned that the Assad regime might be readying itself to take major action to keep the FSA at bay. They said it's not that Assad would not commit massacres in broad daylight. In fact, that's what Assad has been doing for the 20 months, but that they're worried about larger-scale action.

LEMON: OK. So, Mohammed, let me get in here, OK, and ask you this, because here's what you write. I'm going to quote you here. You said: "The United States' commitment to aiding the Syrian opposition against a brutal Assad regime has been one of words and few deeds."

So, you're calling for the U.S. to do more. What do you make of the suggestion that the U.S. should provide arms to these opposition fighters?

GHANEM: In fact, like -- we have always called on the United States of America to help the Free Syrian Army, to help the moderates in Syria with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons so that they can fend off Assad's aerial attacks, because the daily death toll in Syria has climbed past 200.

But, however, now there are other thing that is the U.S. is not doing that our European partners are doing. So, for example, the British and the French recognized the national coalition that formed in Doha, the National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. And there is already an embassy in France and an ambassador in London.

What the U.S. needs to do is to recognize the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to funnel the support that the U.S. has already given through the National Coalition. What is happening, when I was in Syria, 65 percent of the country is not under the control of Assad.

In those areas that have been liberated, people are coming together, they're forming local administrative councils, providing basic assistance, goods and services, trying to enhance the rule of law in their localities, but they are severely underfunded. What needs to happen is for the U.S. instead of going through third-party organizations such as the World Food Program and Save the Children, that aid needs to go directly through the councils in Syria.

LEMON: OK, Mohammed, real quickly here, what do you make of the unprecedented Internet blackout?

GHANEM: As I told you, the activists in Syria said they're concerned that Assad might -- the Assad regime might be readying itself to commit larger massacres at a large scale to keep the FSA that's closing in on the capital and making advances, as I showed you on the map, at bay.


LEMON: And by shutting down the Internet, they're doing it so the other side can't make any plans or...


GHANEM: Get the word out about the atrocities that will be taking place, yes.

LEMON: Thank you, Mohammed Ghanem. We appreciate it.

GHANEM: Thank you.

LEMON: For celebrities -- from celebrities to crime victims to the royal family, British tabloids accused of hacking into private conversations, now a turn in this investigation. Find out who could soon track the hackers.


LEMON: Developing right now, former President H.W. Bush recovering after a hospital in Houston, Texas, after a bout with bronchitis. And we're told he's been there for six days now, but is still suffering from a lingering cough. A spokesman says the 88-year-old former president should be discharged by this weekend.

The British press tapping into the private phone calls of celebrities, the victims of crime, and even the royal family. The scandal saw the demise of one of Britain's oldest tabloids, "News of the World." Now the findings of a yearlong investigation calling for independent eyes to watch over the tabloids, but it's already being criticized.

Here's British Prime Minister David Cameron.


DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation. We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.


LEMON: The proposed oversight panel would include academics and former journalists.

Palestinians are celebrating what the United Nations is supposed to approve very soon making Palestine a U.N. non-member observer state. Live pictures of the U.N. on your screen there to the right that you're seeing. The upgrade in status would place Palestine at the same level as the Vatican and it would help Palestine's effort to join the International Criminal Court.

The United States does not approve, fearing it would inhibit peace negotiations with Israel.

A tense hostage situation plays out on TV and a TV anchor is called in to help negotiate. We're going to tell you why he now regrets helping out. That's next.


LEMON: OK. A TV anchor turns in the a hostage negotiator? Police called the Brazilian TV host while he was on the air last night hosting his crime show.

Rafael Romo joins me now from Atlanta.

Rafael, I have never heard anything like this. Tell us about the hostage situation and why the TV host got involved.

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Well, Don, it is a case that strikes right at the heart of journalism ethics.

The question is should we as journalists be allowed to act as negotiators in a hostage situation? You are looking at the images here. A house was surrounded by police after a call came in that a man had two hostages in that house. And the man demanded to talk to this man, Jose Luiz Datena. He's a famous TV host in Brazil.

He anchors a show called "Brasil Urgente," which means "Urgent Brazil." The show deals with crime and police and just issues and stuff like that. The suspect wanted to talk to him. He spoke with him for about 20 minutes at the end of which he was successful. You saw the two women there. The suspect's mother and sister were successfully liberated. Nobody was harmed. But, again, a lot of criticism and questions about the role of journalists in Brazil, don.

LEMON: Yes. And Rafael, even from him, I mean, he regrets it. Right?

ROMO: That's exactly right.

He was interviewed after this episode and asked why he thought about the role he had played and he says that journalists should never play that role and that he regrets it, but he didn't realize the seriousness, the gravity of the situation until he had already taken the call of the suspect live on the air.

Can you imagine that? If we got a call right now when we're live on the air national TV and hearing from a suspect who has two hostages? I mean, it's just an incredible situation that he had to go through.

LEMON: Unbelievable. Rafael Romo, thank you, sir. All right. Let's go "On the Case' now. For the very first time, we're hearing from the Army private accused of leaking all those U.S. government secrets that ended up on the Internet for all to see.

Former intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is who I'm talking about, allegedly stole thousands of classified documents and gave them to the Web site WikiLeaks. Manning is on the witness stand at a pretrial hearing at Fort Meade, Maryland, testifying about the treatment while he was in the brig at Quantico Marine Corps base. He says it amounted to abuse.

CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin is here.

Sunny, this is the first time we have heard from Manning. What was his demeanor while he was testifying?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He spoke in a clear, a calm voice, he was dressed in the Army uniform. He had his sort of signature wire-rimmed glasses on. That is what you want to see when you have a witness on the witness stand.

We saw probably just a model witness today.

LEMON: OK. What does the way he was treated have anything to do with the charges against him?

HOSTIN: That's the question. And his defense team is saying, you know what? He was abused so terribly during his time in prison that he should get a reduced sentence. It should be time served.

And I will tell you having reviewed what allegedly are the facts in the case, Don, it was pretty egregious. Certainly, he was initially put in sort of this security, under security watch, but he was never removed really from that status. He was forced to leave the cell apparently -- allegedly naked, completely naked. He was sort of questioned every five minutes about how he was feeling.

The facts under many circumstances would be considered abuse and torture.

LEMON: And people are skeptical of this. They think it's a tactic for him to get a reduced sentence or have the charges dropped?

HOSTIN: People are skeptical, but his defense team said they want him to plead guilty to a lesser charges that have not necessarily filed yet because he's looking at significant time.


HOSTIN: I mean, if convicted, he's looking at life in prison. If he pleads guilty to these lesser charges, we are talking about max of 16 years in prison, dishonorable discharge. That looks a lot better than life in prison.

LEMON: It's quite a profound case. HOSTIN: It really is. And when you leak allegedly these sorts of documents and we all get to see them, these national security documents on the Internet, that's significant and that can be seen as a threat to our security. So this is something I think that we're all watching because we're now in the digital age. Right?

LEMON: Right. Right. Absolutely. It's always a pleasure when I get to see you.

HOSTIN: Likewise. You are here in New York. Look at that.

LEMON: Yes. Thank you, Sunny Hostin. We appreciate it.

HOSTIN: Thanks.

LEMON: Have something just in now from the White House releasing a statement about the lunch between President Obama and Mitt Romney. We even have a picture now. Take a look. And here's the statement.

You're going to read it right along with me because I have not seen it yet. It says: "This afternoon, President Obama and Governor Romney visited for an hour over lunch in the private dining room adjacent to the Oval Office. Governor Romney congratulated the president for the success of his campaign and wished him well over the coming four years. The focus of their discussion was on America's leadership in the world and the importance of maintaining that leadership position in the future They pledged to stay in touch, particularly if opportunities to work together on shared interests arise in the future. Their lunch menu included white turkey chili and southwestern grilled chicken salad."

HOSTIN: It sounds good.

LEMON: It sounds good. But wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall?

HOSTIN: I wish. I wish.

LEMON: Yes. What you talking about, Willis? Why did you say that about me? What about you? You called me this.

HOSTIN: They were so contentious.

LEMON: Yes. Yes. Oh, well.

Forget what the fiscal cliff will do. One group says we're already in a recession. Ali Velshi has got some thoughts. He's live next.