Return to Transcripts main page


Syrian Reportedly Preparing Chemical Weapons Against Rebels; Interview with Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns, "The Biracial Poem"; Sandy Strikes Students

Aired December 6, 2012 - 08:30   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. In a few moments we'll be talking with Ambassador Nick Burns about the growing fears of Syria putting chemical weapons components into bombs.

First though I want to get right to Zoraida Sambolin. She's got a look at some of the other stories making headlines. Good morning, Z.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": Good morning to you. Internet Security pioneer John McAfee could face deportation to Belize as early as today. Guatemalan officials detained McAfee yesterday, accusing him of turning up in that country illegally. He turned up in Guatemala Tuesday after disappearing from his home in Belize. Police there want to question McAfee about a murder. He says he is innocent and went into hiding because of fears persecution by police in Belize.

The death toll from Typhoon Bopha now stands at 332 in the Philippines with hundreds more still missing. Rescuers did find a 77-year-old man who survived for two days on coconuts. He was rescued while clinging to a boulder near a river with a broken leg.

Washington state is issuing its first same-sex marriage licenses. The first couple to receive one in King Aounty, Katy Peterson and Jane Abott. About 250 couples were lined up at the king county courthouse at midnight to get their marriage licenses signed.

O'BRIEN: They are 81 and 77 years old.

SAMBOLIN: Wow. Together for a long time as well.

Eight years after competing at the Olympics American shot-putter Adam Nelson may take home the gold. Did you hear me? I said eight years. "The New York Times" reporting the Ukrainian who originally won the gold medal was found guilty of using drugs after a reanalysis of his urine. He was stripped of his medal. Nelson must now wait for track and field's governing body if they will officially reassign the medals or just void the gold.

So the man who wants his woman to smell like hand-tossed fresh dough, here's a stocking-stuffer idea for you. Pizza Hut is out with a perfume. The whole idea started as a joke on Facebook. The restaurant's Canadian branch decided to produce a limited quantity of eau de Pizza Hut. That's insane.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The crew likes it. Right, guys?

O'BRIEN: That would be such an insult.

SAMBOLIN: Would someone order that? I want to see what it smells like.

O'BRIEN: Sure. You can wear it.

MARTIN: Can you imagine? Ooh, baby, deep dish. Ooh, deep dish. Yes, baby.


O'BRIEN: I don't know how to turn to the new numbers on the job market. Christine Romans, will you help me with this uncomfortable and awkward segue?

MARTIN: I smell good job numbers.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, there you go. We certainly hope that the eau de Pizza Hut is creating jobs, but it sounds like it's creating jobs in Canada. So let's take a look at what's happening here -- 370,000 jobless claims filed last week. That's down 25,000 from the week before. Remember, we had big jobless claims reports for a few weeks in a row because of Hurricane Sandy, Superstorm Sandy. Now it looks like those are coming down again.

Tomorrow we get the big jobs report will be tomorrow, which will give us the real gauge of what's happening here. Economists surveyed by CNN Money expect only 77,000 jobs were added and the unemployment rate, they think, will tick back up to 8 percent, 77,000, why? Because of super-storm Sandy. You didn't have hiring, people getting jobs in the northeast because during that time the last month or so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can hear Jack Welch right now, they went up after the election.

O'BRIEN: Those Chicago people.


O'BRIEN: All morning we've been following major developments in both Syria and in Egypt. In Syria there are new fears that they could unleash nerve gas on some of the rebels. That's a report from NBC news, that Syria is loading the component chemicals. CNN has not confirmed that report yet.

Egypt, protesters have started to gather outside the presidential palace in Cairo. Lots of anger building after the new president gave himself extra powers. Last night the protests were very violent. The clashes killed at least five people.

I want to get to Nick Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now a professor of foreign relations.

CNN on Monday reported that the Syrian forces, battling the rebels, had started combining the chemicals that could be used to make the deadly Sarin gas. On Wednesday we had that NBC report that Syria is loading those chemical weapons components on to bombs. What is the significance of that reporting? Some of it has not been confirmed, at least by us, yet. Are we right on that red line, as Hillary Clinton has described it?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: Well, it's a very dangerous moment, Soledad. Really, it's a nightmare scenario that we've worried about since 9/11, that a terrorist group might be able to get possession of chemical weapons. You've seen how the United States has reacted this week. President Obama made a very pointed warning publicly to the Syrian leadership. Secretary Clinton has done that twice on her current trip. Secretary Clinton will be meeting with the Russian foreign minister and the U.N. mediator in Syria today in Brevlin.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about those meetings.

BURNS: You can be sure that this issue of chemical weapons will be at the top of the list.

O'BRIEN: No question about that. What are the options there? What can the international community do at this point if, in fact, they are already in a position where they're loading these components on to the weapons?

BURNS: Well, one is this public message from the United States, from the NATO Secretary General and we hope from the Russians that the Syrian government, including Assad personally, will be held accountable. Second is perhaps to see if the Russians can use their influence. They're the biggest arms supplier to Syria, the biggest ally that Syria has, to dissuade the Syrians from letting this chemical weapons loose or using them against the rebel alliance.

And the real fear here is if Assad should fall and there's a chaotic period of time where no one is in charge of the government in Damascus, if one of those radical rebel groups gets control of chemical weapons, that could be potentially very, very dangerous, and that might lead to some kind of military intervention by the United States or other countries to secure those weapons.

O'BRIEN: So would your best analysis be that, in fact, the United States is going to be drawn into some kind of military conflict in Syria?

BURNS: It is possible. I'm not sure it's likely at this point. The Syrian government would have to think long and hard before using those weapons. There will be all sorts of negative repercussions from them, including the threat of military intervention. And I do think the Russian government will not want to see Syria use chemical weapons or let them out to the control of rebel forces. We're really counting on the influence of the Russians and others here in the international system. O'BRIEN: You know Assad. Is he a desperate enough person that in the right situation would use chemical weapons on his own people if the option was losing and being ousted?

BURNS: It's really impossible to tell. The Syrian government spokespeople have been saying over the last couple of days under no circumstances would they use them except for foreign military intervention but Assad is desperate. His back is against the wall. He is going to lose in this civil war. The rebels have made extraordinary advances over the last couple of days. So he has got to be thinking about either exile, or perhaps creating an enclave within Syria where his Allawite clan can defend themselves, perhaps along the Mediterranean coast.

O'BRIEN: Before we run out of time, I want to talk about Egypt and Mohamed Morsi and what's happening in Cairo. Things seem pretty calm at this moment. Last night the clashes were very violent over this proposed constitution. Where do you think this ends?

BURNS: It's a power struggle. And Morsi's called a December 14th referendum on this very flawed constitution. Liberal democratic groups have been much more united than many people expected, in the streets, battling Morsi's supporters. And Morsi will make a speech, Soledad, in a couple of hours. It will be interesting if he decides to postpone that referendum. The opposition to him is much more vociferous than he expected. He didn't plan on this happening, and this may have ended up backfiring on him.

O'BRIEN: And much more coalesced, I think. I think that was a bid surprise, too, that they're really coming together with one voice against him.

BURNS: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: Ambassador Nick Burns with us this morning, nice to have you with us, sir. Thank you for your time.

BURNS: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: We've got to take a short break. Still ahead, many biracial minorities say they struggle to find a place where they belong. One young woman, this lady right here, is turning her pain into art. We'll tell you her story straight ahead.

Plus Superstorm Sandy -- one Queens, New York, family lost their home but say their teenage son saved their lives. We've got his story as well. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: This morning, we have for you the story of 17-year-old Nayo Jones. She is biracial. She was raised by her father, who is white, and teased by her black classmates because of her light skin color. For those reasons Nayo tells me she doesn't feel like she's black. She is the focus of our new documentary "WHO IS BLACK IN AMERICA?" Here is a preview. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: It's a poem about her life, but Nayo Jones is struggling to recite it.

NAYO JONES, PHILADELPHIA YOUTH POETRY MOVEMENT: They always called me white girl. I was never ashamed of myself until they taught me to be ashamed.

O'BRIEN: She calls her poem "Other" or "The Biracial Poem." It's about being bullied by black kids for being light skinned.

JONES: "Weirdo" and "Vanilla" took years to fade, so I became ashamed.

O'BRIEN: Now the tough part -- she has to perform it at the first spoken word poetry competition of the season. But it's painful. And she can hardly get through it.

JONES: I pretended I didn't know they were all wondering if I was adopted. No black mother to explain how this tall, angular white man ended up with this short chestnut girl. They doubted he was ever my father.

O'BRIEN: Only seven hours until show time, and Nayo can't remember her poem.

PERRY "VISION" DIVIRGILIO, PHILADELPHIA YOUTH POETRY MOVEMENT: You got it. I can tell you right now why you're not remembering it. You're not connected to the pieces yet. When they're pieces that are personal, you don't want to connect with it. You're like, I wrote it. I'm done. That's the beginning. Part two is just owning it, proclaiming this is what it was.

JONES: They always called me white girl I was never ashamed of myself until they taught me to be ashamed. I refuse to be defined by it either.

DIVIRGILIO: Don't, don't.

JONES: I don't want -- this is gross.

DIVIRGILIO: It's not gross.

JONES: I'm just so frustrated. I don't know.

DIVIRGILIO: It's OK. I promise you, it gets easier. Come here. Let go. You got this. It's all right, sweetie.


O'BRIEN: Nayo Jones is one of the stars, if you will, of our documentary. Another young woman we talked to is Becca Kalil. She is -- her roots are in Africa. But because it's Northern Africa, that's Egypt.

She says, "I'm black but nobody thinks only I'm black." You know she's like, "I'm more black than some people" who say they are --

MARTIN: Well, I'm truly African-American.

O'BRIEN: I'm truly African. And it's an interesting debate about who counts, if you will, as black in a country that really likes to define people as black or white. We have a hard time I think when it comes to kind of a middle ground of that.

JIM FREDERICK, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, "TIME": When you ask Nayo, what does she say?

O'BRIEN: Nayo will tell you I can't say I'm black. I am mixed. I am biracial. Now Nayo is -- her mom is black, her dad is white. My mom is black my dad is white. We have the same sort of basic racial makeup and yet I was always taught I'm black, my mother is black because of the one drop rule, which we go into this documentary. I'm black.

So we have completely diametrically opposed ideas and identities even though we're surrounded by a kind of the same genetic makeup. So it's an interesting debate.

ABBY HUNTSMAN, HOST, HUFFPOST LIVE: So it's a message to -- to reach those that are also interracial. Or is it to tell other groups, "Accept me"?

O'BRIEN: You know I think she's unclear. It was more of a question. I mean who decides what Nayo is? Does Nayo get to say this is what I am? Does society say, no, listen, this is what you are because this is how we perceive you. Does it even matter at all as we get to younger people in another generation?

SAMBOLIN: That's a very good point. I don't know if it was "Time" magazine that did this. But there was a magazine that actually talked about the fact that most of our kids are going to end up being biracial. They're going to be mixed kids. And so the question really is how do you identify yourself?

I mean I think I'm raising half Puerto Rican, half black kids and my son considers himself black, my daughter considers herself Puerto Rican.


HUNTSMAN: And our own president -- our own president said he struggled with his own identity growing up.

MARTIN: And remember, remember years ago when Michael Jackson came up with that video, "Black or White"?


MARTIN: People were going oh, you're changing the faces or whatever I mean this is -- this is really -- this documentary really is revealing an inside discussion within black America. Because you could talk about society, but within black America, we've had the paper bag test for so many years.

O'BRIEN: We talk about that in this documentary.

MARTIN: It is a major issue. And you go to different parts of the country, especially, Louisiana. You go to some parts of Texas. I mean, it's a major -- look, I go to my family reunion, it's like the United Nations. I'm going, ok I don't recognize a lot of these people here. And my mom said, no, that's your cousin. And I'm going really? OK.

SAMBOLIN: That's a good dialogue to have. It's a really good dialogue.

HUNTSMAN: She have a good performance --

O'BRIEN: She's doing it -- a very talented young woman.


O'BRIEN: She's the heart of the documentary. It airs on Sunday.


MARTIN: No she come to watch this game.


O'BRIEN: I'm not going to tell you. What's wrong with you? 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, our documentary "WHO IS BLACK IN AMERICA" will air on CNN.

HUNTSMAN: I could tune in.

O'BRIEN: Good and I'm going to be live, tweeting the show as well, along with Russell Simmons, who will be tweeting with me and a bunch of other folks as well. So feel free to join us on Twitter as you sit on your couch and watch our doc.

We've got to take a break.

MARTIN: Texas plays on Monday -- I'll tweet with you.

O'BRIEN: Thank you I'd love to you join us.

MARTIN: It's cool.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead a family that lost everything in super storm Sandy except they didn't lose each other. We'll talk about the story of a teenager who bravely jumped into the waters to -- to swim for help, saved his family. That story is ahead.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

It's been just over a month since Superstorm Sandy hit. And many people are still struggling. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie goes to Washington today he's going to lobby White House officials and congressional leaders for emergency funds to try to cover the cost of the devastation.

Meanwhile, amazing stories are still emerging in the aftermath of the storm, like Ryan Panetta, who was victimized twice. Poppy Harlow tells us how he lost his home and he lost his school.


POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY.COM (voice-over): The sun isn't up at breakfast time for the Panettas.

(on camera): How tired are you?


HARLOW (voice-over): Tim, Ryan, Christian and Carley are now living in a borrowed one-bedroom apartment with their parents.

(on camera): How long is your commute to school now?

RYAN PANETTA, VICTIM OF SUPERSTORM SANDY: It feels almost like two hours.

HARLOW: What did it used to be?



(voice-over) 6:30 a.m. and they're out the door. A long car ride.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, have a good day.

HARLOW: Then a bus to Ryan's temporary school, PS-13.

KAREN PANETTA, MOTHER: It's unreal now how much our life has changed. You know, we're trying to make the best of it.

HARLOW: He's an eighth grade honor student, one of 5,400 New York students still in different schools because of Sandy.

CARRIE JAMES: He's the one that I think was probably impacted the most. And yet he has the strongest will to be here every day.

R. PANETTA: When something brings you down, you got to get up.

HARLOW: Are you OK, buddy? What makes you so sad?

R. PANETTA: I honestly don't know.

HARLOW: Everything?

R. PANETTA: It's everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did it go today Ryan?

R. PANETTA: I'm good.

HARLOW: Every day after school, Ryan returns to Broad Channel to help his dad try to put their home back together.

JOE PANETTA, FATHER: Everything I owned, everything I worked hard for. Everything was there and it's gone. There's nothing.

HARLOW: Joe was working overnight and Karen was home with their four children when Sandy hit.

K. PANETTA: It was unbelievable how quickly it came up.

HARLOW: The water rushed into their one-story house. Ryan swam to a neighbor for help.

R. PANETTA: I jumped out.

HARLOW: You jumped out here in the water?

R. PANETTA: Yes. I wasn't even thinking that like a log would hit me or anything.

HARLOW: Or the electrical power lines?


HARLOW: You swam to this house?

R. PANETTA: Yes, right here. And -- they took us in to their second floor.

HARLOW: The neighbor helped to bring the rest of the family over and they watched as the water engulfed the only home they've known.

(on camera): What did you think when your 13-year-old son jumped into the water?

K. PANETTA: I was panicking. I was panicking.

HARLOW: Did Ryan help save your family?

K. PANETTA: Absolutely.

HARLOW: No question?

K. PANETTA: Absolutely.

CHRISTIAN PANETTA, RYAN'S BROTHER: I was thinking that the water was going to come inside.

HARLOW: Do you feel like your brother helped save you?



HARLOW: Now all the Panettas are working to rebuild their home and erase the bad memories.

R. PANETTA: After what I've just been through, like I don't hope I have to see anything that terrifying again.


HARLOW: It's hard to put into words what this family was like. But you saw them. And this is an incredible family. This is a family that has been through so much and is coming together, trying to rebuild their home. They have no idea what they're going to get from insurance, if any money. They had little flood insurance, no content insurance. Everything they had was in that home that they built up over 16 years.

If you want to help victims of Sandy, if you want to help this family, you can go to If you want to help the Panetta family directly get in touch with CNN. You can even e-mail me. We'll put you in touch with them because this family needs a lot of help right now.

That is part one of our series. Tomorrow we're going to bring you part two, showing you more of the impact on the schools themselves across New York city That have been hit so hard by this.

O'BRIEN: That's such a heartbreaking story. What a remarkable kid. Don't you want to see him in 20 years?

HARLOW: He is going to make big waves.

O'BRIEN: Mayor of the city of New York.

HARLOW: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: What an amazing kid.

MARTIN: We spend enough time talking about the Gulf Coast but people across the country really do not understand how folks like this are still impacted. This is going to be just like New Orleans and Mississippi and Alabama -- five, eight, ten-year process.

O'BRIEN: Years.

MARTIN: And Shaun Donovan, HUD Secretary over this effort -- it's a major deal. It's going to take a long time to fix.

HARLOW: This is a whole community. This is a working class community. Firefighters, you know, people that work for the city here that built these homes, these little bungalows right there on the water, put everything into them and they're completely gone.

O'BRIEN: What's the name of the town?

HARLOW: The town is Broad Channel. It's right past Far Rockaway. O'BRIEN: Poppy great story. Thank you.

HARLOW: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: That's a heartbreaker.

All right. "End Point" is up next. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: "End Point". I love the discussion here, but "End Point". Do you want to take it for us? What do you think?

FREDERICK: Yes, I think in America, we're rightfully consumed by the fiscal cliff but I think we'd be well-served to keep our eyes on the Middle East because in both Egypt and Syria, there's life and death things that are happening there now and will have huge implications for the rest of this year and all of 2013. So keep watching the Middle East.

O'BRIEN: Two big meetings that Hillary Clinton is having today that could really move the needle on some of the scary news that we have about these components for chemical weapons now seemed to be combined and put into weapons.

MARTIN: If they go there, the world will be against them. If they think it's not so now, wait until that --

O'BRIEN: It could happen. It could happen.


O'BRIEN: Coming up tomorrow on STARTING POINT, the jobs report, as Christine mentioned, is out tomorrow. We're going to have one of the nation's top economy, Diane Swonk to talk about it with us. Todd Carmichael is the host of the Travel Channel, "On Dangerous Ground", he's going to join us.

John Berman profiled the boxer, Manny Pacquiao ---

MARTIN: Pacquiao --


O'BRIEN: Sorry --


O'BRIEN: Oh my God I had 10 people yell in my ear on -- got it, Pacquiao. Sorry, Pacquiao.

MARTIN: Come on, Soledad.


O'BRIEN: He has a big fight on Saturday. We'll have that story as well.

"CNN NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins right now. Carol, good morning.