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Report: "Systemic Failures" at State Department; Newtown Shooting Ignites National Gun Debate; Back to School in Newtown

Aired December 19, 2012 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Blizzard warning. A major winter storm threatens to cripple to travel from Colorado to the Great Lakes.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Just in time for holiday travel, right?

Silent no more. For the first time since Newtown, we are hearing from the NRA, amid calls for new gun laws.

BERMAN: And check this out. Look at out below, a landslide takes out a freight train. A camera captures the whole thing. Look at that. We'll tell you all about that a little bit later.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It's really nice to have you with us this morning. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And, up first here, systemic failures at the State Department. That is a scathing conclusion of an independent review board investigating the deadly September 11th attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed that day, as you very well know.

The panel finding security in Benghazi was grossly inadequate to cope with the attack, that Washington ignored repeated requests to beef up personnel with the consulate, and ultimately, there was a lack of transparency, responsiveness and leadership at the senior levels both in Washington and in Libya.

Foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott live from Washington this morning. And, Elise, I have to ask you what you make of this report, because a lot of these findings we've been talking about for a very long time.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: That's right, but also in the last few months, there's been so much politicization of this attack, especially with these talking points and the whole issue of Susan Rice, Ambassador Susan Rice and what she said about whether there was a protest.

This report didn't find that there was a protest, but it also kind of really is the first look at what went wrong, a kind of very sobering look I'd say of what went wrong. And they said that basically the State Department and the embassy in Libya kind of missed the warning signs that there was an imminent attack coming.

There wasn't a specific warning, specific threat, but there were a lot of attacks on other Western targets that should have been a clue that there was deteriorating security situation and that resulted in relying on untested militias, local Libyan militias for personnel at the embassy, and also a lack of seasoned security personnel.

Let me read you a little bit from the report. It says, "Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."

And basically what it's saying is, in these kind of high threat environments, Zoraida, you really need to have a real time look at what's going on on the ground and then make larger decisions accordingly.

SAMBOLIN: And, Elise, has there been any response from the State Department?

LABOTT: Well, one of the parts of the report were 29 recommendations that the State Department should look at, particularly in operating in these high threat environments.

In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee presenting the report, Secretary Clinton said she takes all of those 29 recommendations very seriously and she's already working to try and correct these problems. She set up an implementation team of senior officials. They'll be working to make sure that this never happens again.

And then today, there will be a closed door briefing with some of the committees with the top members of the panel. And tomorrow, Secretary Clinton's two deputies will be testifying before those Senate committees -- as you know, Secretary Clinton suffered a concussion due to the stomach virus that she was suffering and now they'll have to be sitting in for her.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Elise Labott, live in Washington, thank you.

BERMAN: We're going to turn now to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. The mass shootings have really created a local new chapter in the gun control debate. Momentum seems to be growing coast to coast to do something.

President Obama is poised to take action. The White House says he will support Dianne Feinstein's, the senator's effort to reinstate federal assault weapons ban. We're hearing from the NRA this morning for the first time since the elementary school massacre.

CNN's Dan Lothian joins us live in Washington. Good morning, Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, gun control and gun violence really have not been on the radar here in Washington after past mass shootings. There's always a lot of talk, but there's no real development. A lot of legislation simply has not gotten to the floor.

This time is different. President Obama coming out right away talking about taking action, but there was a lot of pressure on the White House to give details. Well, now the White House getting more specific.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He is actively supportive of, for example, Senator Feinstein's stated intent to revive a piece of legislation that would reinstate the assault weapons ban. He supports and would support legislation that addresses the problem of the so-called gun show loophole. And there are other elements of gun law legislation, gun legislation, that he could support.


LOTHIAN: Those other legislation that he could support, perhaps looking at banning what Carney said was high capacity ammunition clips. The president would also want to take a look at mental health and how that factors in to all of this.

In addition, for his part, the president for his part did reach out to Senator Joe Manchin, who is a long time NRA member, a West Virginia Democrat who of late has been talking about tougher gun laws.

But throughout this entire debate what we have not here any comment from is the National Rifle Association. That changed with a statement they put out from their membership saying that they were saddened, that they were shocked and that, quote, "Out of respect for the families and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again."

And, by the way, the NRA announced that it is planning to have a major news conference here on Washington on Friday -- John.

BERMAN: That's right. Friday, the NRA will talk in public for the first time. It should be very interesting. Looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

Dan Lothian, in Washington, thanks very much.

SAMBOLIN: It is six minutes past the hour. The grief and good-byes continue today in Newtown. Four more funerals will be held for Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Vicki Soto and three of the slain children, Daniel Barden, Caroline Previdi and Charlotte Bacon. Six- year-old Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli were laid to rest yesterday.

And with the community still in mourning, students in Newtown went back to school. Everyone but the Sandy Hook kids, who will return after the winter break to school in a neighboring town.

CNN's Sandra Endo has that part of the story.


SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The first day back to school in Newtown. Children returning to classes Tuesday and the painful reminder of those who could not.

On the bus ride to school, grief was a constant reminder.

ALEX QUIMBY, 11-YEAR-OLD STUDENT: I noticed it was quiet because people were thinking about the tragedy that happened.

ENDO: At schools, teachers and students spent time to reflect.

QUIMBY: They just talked about how things will get better than they are now. I felt safe because when your teachers talk to and comfort you about everything that happened.

ENDO: For students at Sandy Hook Elementary, the next time they'll return to will be in the New Year. Newtown superintendent says teachers and students need more time to deal with the trauma and get used to the new space in a neighboring town.

State and local officials had no estimate on attendance for Newtown's first day back at school. But returning to a routine was key for everyone.

MELANIE DROHAN, MOTHER OF NEWTOWN STUDENT: You don't want this to affect you forever. You want to be brave and get back into things as normal as possible. We realize that we have to go on. But it's very, have I hard. It's hard to think about what happened.

ENDO: Police grievance counselors and comfort dogs were on hand at schools to help students adjust -- perhaps the new normal now in Newtown.


ENDO: The difference is students are noticing in their schools, one crisis counselor who is working with the district says the only lesson plan before the holidays should be to make sure the students feel safe and cared for -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Sandra Endo live for us in Newtown. And I just have to say yesterday I met with a group of teenaged girls and they are actually assistants at a dance school where three of the little girls that were killed attended. And so they wanted to share their stories.

One of the things they mentioned is as they went back to school on that two-hour delay, they said, we had no school. We were not productive. Except that the teachers told us how much they loved us. And one of the teachers spent an hour telling us how much he love us. That was so therapeutic for them.

BERMAN: (INAUDIBLE) school, the other teacher sent back a note saying it was the best day of school they had all year, the teachers and students feel closer. SAMBOLIN: Isn't that incredible? Hopefully, it's going to bring a lot of people together and start with that healing that needs to happen.

BERMAN: It does need to happen.

It is nine minutes after the hour right now. And while Newtown and the nation mourns, Washington bickers. Just 13 days to go now until we reach the fiscal cliff and while there are some signs that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner might be inching closer to a deal, the speaker is also attempting to make an end run around the White House. He's trying to have the House pass his plan for a tax hike on families earning $1 million and up.

This legislation would not stop the across the board spending cuts to the military and domestic programs. The White House immediately rejected this, saying it simply cannot pass the Senate.

Meanwhile, the president's latest proposal would raise taxes on family incomes of $400,000 a year and higher. That's up from his previous stand of $250,000. And the president is proposing cutting $930 billion in spending.

All right. Get ready for this. You're not going to like it one bit. A massive winter storm stretching from Colorado all the way to the upper Great Lakes expected to cause dangerous blizzard or near blizzard conditions today. In the nick of time for the holidays, right? Also, it is cold and stormy in the Northwest.

Alexandra Steele in our weather center -- break it down, Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi. Good morning to you. Yes, we've got the breadth and depth of the storm is really incredible. Tens of millions impacted from today through until Thursday. And then it all moves east.

So just want to give you the big picture. You can see what we're going to watch in the track of this storm, beginning today, we're going to watch in the Colorado Rockies, moving to the plains, and then make its way into the Upper Midwest and then move into northern New England believe it or not. So it starts here.

So, I'm going to time line it out for you. Snow hasn't started in Denver yet. But it will. We're going to watch it start about 8:00 or 9:00 this morning. And then we're going to watch it move through about 5:00 tonight, beginning with about maybe one to three inches.

But then it really gets a lot of energy with it and we're going to watch it push eastward. So beginning at around 6:00 this morning, there goes the though. One to three inches for you in Denver. And that's just kind of a pittance of what we're going to see with this thing.

And then as we head into tonight, you can se it moves in to Kansas and Iowa, places like Wichita, the north and east of that, in toward Des Moines. We could also see in Omaha, six to 12 inches. And then by tomorrow morning, you can see it begins to move into the Upper Midwest, Milwaukee and Madison, Kansas City still on the back side.

And now not only is this really a veracious snow maker, and Chicago finally gets into the snow one to three inches, but an incredible amount of wind with this. That's why blizzard watches, blizzard warnings are posted as well. Also today, we do have Maine getting into some snow, but that first system makes its way into northern New England from Thursday into Friday, with another six inches.

We'll have more on that, coming up. Back to you.

BERMAN: All right. Alexandra, with a veracious snow maker moving through the plains and Midwest. Thank you so much.

SAMBOLIN: Everybody who wanted snow, right? There you have it.

BERMAN: Yes, be careful what you wish for, though.


Twelve minutes past the hour. Take a look at this incredible video of a mudslide -- this is near Everett, Washington -- knocking seven passing railroad cars right off of their tracks.



SAMBOLIN: Looks like toy cars, right? It's not. The 75-foot wide mudslide knocking out Amtrak service in the entire area. It was caused by a rain soaked 100-foot cliff that engineers were planning to check right after the 66-car train passed through. This was just the latest of several recent mudslides on this section of the track.

BERMAN: They were planning on checking it right after the train got through?

SAMBOLIN: Right through.

BERMAN: At least they were in the right place, right?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. But now, look at the mess they have to contend with. Unbelievable.

BERMAN: I think everyone is OK.


BERMAN: All right. It is 13 minutes after the hour right now. And, of course, just days after the Newtown tragedy, a run on guns in at least one state. A new record set in Colorado, coming up.

SAMBOLIN: Plus, the push to arm teachers in Texas. How one gun shop owner is trying to make it easy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. It is 16 minutes past the hour. It's time for your "Early Reads" -- your local news that is making national headlines.

Beginning with a story in "The Denver Post" this morning. Colorado reporting a state record for the most gun background checks the day after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Colorado's Bureau of Investigations had a total of 4,154 background checks were submitted on Saturday. That's topping the previous record which happened on Black Friday of this year actually. One gun shop owner says for him, the rush began Friday afternoon after news of the shooting broke.

BERMAN: This happens from time to time. When there's an event like this, people think gun laws might tighten, so gun enthusiasts rush to the stores to pick up whatever they can before the laws change.

A lot of news about guns right now. From "The San Antonio Express", a gun shop in Texas offering free conceal handgun classes to educators after the Connecticut grade school massacre. And the owner of the shop says the class is already sold out, 400 teachers signed up in 24 hours. Many Texas officials, including Governor Perry, have been pushing for more guns in schools, not fewer after the Connecticut massacre.

SAMBOLIN: And, of course, this is highly controversial.

BERMAN: To say the least.


BERMAN: All right. For an expanded look at all of our top story, head to our blog,

Also, follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Just search for EarlyStartCNN.

SAMBOLIN: It is 18 past the hour. So let's get you up-to-date.

Christine Romans with all of our top stories. Good morning to you, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to both of you. A blistering report says systemic failures at the State Department are to blame for the September 11th terrorist attack of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. An independent panel finding security was, quote, "grossly inadequate to cope with the attack, that Washington ignored repeated requests to beef up personnel there and that there was a lack of transparency, responsiveness and leadership senior levels in Washington and in Libya.

Their community still reeling. Students in Newtown, Connecticut, returned to classes for the first time since last week's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Two of the first graders killed at the school, 6-year-old Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli -- there they are -- they were buried yesterday. Four more funerals are scheduled today. The National Rifle Association breaking its silence on the Newtown school massacre. The gun rights lobby issuing a statement saying, quote, "Out of respect for the families and as a matter of common decency, we've given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting." It goes on to say, "The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

About half of 22 fraternity members wanted in connection with a hazing death have turned themselves this morning. Members of the Phi Kappa Alpha frat at Northern Illinois University are facing hazing charges after police say a 19-year-old pledge drank himself to death last month. His blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit.

Thousands of fans expected to gather today to celebrate the life of Mexican American signer Jenni Rivera. A memorial will be held this morning at Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles. To prevent out of control crowds, a limited number of tickets were made available to the public yesterday. They sold out this about an hour.

Rivera and six other people died in a plane crash in Mexico earlier this month.

Investigators will be at the scene this morning trying to determine what caused a 1,000 gallon propane tank to ignite and explode at a shopping center in Virginia. This blast damaged half a dozen businesses and injured a firefighter. It happened at the Ambriar Shopping Center in Amherst on Monday.

BERMAN: That's a big tank, 1,000 gallons?

ROMANS: Sure is. They're going back to square one to figure out why it blew up.

SAMBOLIN: Luckily there weren't more injuries. Oh my goodness.

Thank you. We appreciate that.

Twenty minutes past the hour. Main Street might be seeing a run on guns in some places, but on Wall Street, it's quite the opposite. We're going to have a look, coming up.


BERMAN: There she is, New York, New York -- the city that never sleeps, especially us.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning.

BERMAN: It is 5:23. Wake up, wake up, because we're minding your business this morning. U.S. stock futures pointing to a higher open for the markets. Yesterday was a really strong day for stocks.

SAMBOLIN: And Christine Romans is here talking about that and also the stocks of gun maker companies down sharply.

ROMANS: Yes, they were down big time, the gunmakers.

Let me talk first about the overall market because it was a good day for your investments yesterday as long as you weren't invested in gun companies. The Dow up 115 points, NASDAQ up 44, S&P also up. The Dow is now up more than 9 percent so far this year. If it continues like this, it would be the 10th best year since 1950 -- on track for one of the best years ever, the Dow is, despite climbing a wall of worry about the fiscal cliff. So, the feeling is they're going to get that resolved.

Let me talk about the gunmakers, though. Let me show you a couple that are publicly traded companies hammered for three days in a row now. Take a look -- you've got Smith & Wesson shares down 19 percent; Sturm, Ruger & Co. down 15 percent, respectively.

Now, these are stocks that have been up sharply over the past year, very sharply. Why they have been up, because, you know, the fastest growing part of the gun market is high capacity magazines and also these military style rifles, like the one that was used in the attack there in Connecticut. That's a good part of their business. You look at the profit margins of these companies, very, very high profit margins.

You look at the company that makes that Bushmaster semiautomatic, it made something like more than $200 million in profit last year on almost $700 million in sales.

So, this has been a very profitable part of the business. But now, there's a very bad P.R. problem here. You've got some of the big retailers like Dick's taking these things off the shelves. You have a new feeling in the country about how we're selling them, where we're selling them, how easy it is to get them.

Wal-Mart told me they're not changing their policies. They've taken down advertisements for these guns on their Web site, but they are still selling them and planning to continue with their same suite of guns offered to the public.

So, there is a new conversation here, that's why the stocks are down because investors are saying we think that maybe the most profitable days of these companies might --

SAMBOLIN: Yes, this could go south.

BERMAN: The business side of it, a barometer of where things may be headed.

ROMANS: Well, now, big public investors are trying to see if pensions are invested in some of these companies and reviewing that. New York is reviewing it. California is reviewing it. We'll see if they make any divestments of these investments. But we'll see.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thank you so much, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

BERMAN: All right. Twenty-six minutes after the hour.

Airport body scanners under the microscope in Washington. Coming up, the TSA is trying to find out if those X-ray machines are a health risk.