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CNN NEWSROOM

Massive Storm Threatens Midwest; Fallout Over Benghazi Report; Negotiations Paused for Plan B Vote; Daniel Inouye Remembered Today; Holder Schedules Visit to Newtown, Connecticut

Aired December 20, 2012 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, ANCHOR, "CNN NEWSROOM": Hello, everyone, I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

Let's get right to the news and we're going to begin with this massive deadly storm system that's threatening a very big part of our country. It's wreaking havoc right across the United States as we speak and all of this just as millions of us are packing our bags and planning to travel to see our families for the holidays.

Much of the Midwest looks like this -- three screens for you. Some people could be stuck in up to a foot of snow. Half a dozen states across the Midwest from Nebraska to Minnesota and Wisconsin, all under blizzard warnings right now.

In Iowa, tens of thousands of people are already without power, but this storm is not just hitting the Midwest. It's unleashing a chain reaction of extreme weather even farther south, as well.

I want to take you down to Texas. Take a look at this. This is not what you usually see from the tower-cams in Texas. The intense winds stirred up a major dust storm there and this caused a 23-vehicle pile- up. One person was killed and at least seven people sent to the hospital because of this.

In Alabama, not far away, the storm system spun off at least one tornado near Mobile and that damaged homes, as well, and brought down power lines there.

As I mentioned, all of this could not come at a worse time. This is one of the busiest travel times of the year.

This big storm system could spell major trouble for road closures and, of course, thousands of flights, flights especially in the Midwest, including Chicago where Ted Rowlands is standing by at O'Hare Airport.

That is the second busiest airport in the nation, so what are the emergency plans already as you brace for it there, Ted?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ashleigh, as you can see here in Chicago right now, it's raining, which is not a bad thing, obviously. The flight travel should be uninterrupted. However, because of the snow elsewhere in the country, we are seeing delays here and that effect is going to continue throughout the day. Here in Chicago, we're expecting snow, blizzard-like conditions, starting around 4:00, 5:00 this afternoon, so anybody here is trying to get out desperately.

The problem is the airplanes that are coming from other areas that are affected by the storm. Those planes are not getting here. That's where you're getting cancellations and some heavy delays.

Passengers are coming -- obviously Chicago is a hub, so people have come here and some of them are stuck here. Others hoping to get out.

United Airlines is waiving their change fees, basically encouraging people to come to the airport early and get out of Chicago because, by about 4:00 or 5:00 this evening when the blizzard is expected to start, O'Hare is going to be a nightmare and, of course, the roads across the Midwest, as well.

But right now, the big delays are in Iowa, in Wisconsin. Any flights going to there have all been canceled and, of course, those planes are grounded.

BANFIELD: Oh, no. So, obviously thousands of people are going to be affected by this, Ted, but we all ship our presents, too, and a lot of those go on airplanes and go on ground trucking.

And, so, what's the expected impact on all of the shipments that are out there, the holiday presents?

ROWLANDS: Yeah, well, you know, that's an unexpected blip when you're talking about especially ground traffic. The roads in the Midwest are bad now and they are only going to get worse. So, they are expecting some delays.

If you haven't shipped packages, there could be, or if you were kind of rolling the dice and saving a few bucks, hoping to get it there on Monday without the guarantee, you may be out of luck because of that.

BANFIELD: Oh, Ted. And it's only Thursday morning and, all those people already lined up behind you, that does not look good.

All right, you're going to stay there and keep an eye on it for us. Oh, I feel bad. I'm actually headed to one of those airports after the show, so I'm going to cross my fingers.

So, the storm is sweeping through the Midwest, as we mentioned, but brace yourself here in New England, folks. The storm is headed this way. It's going to hit northern New England by Friday night, as well. It is -- to say the very least, it's massive.

And Wisconsin is already under a state of emergency because the storm is hammering that state. So, schools have already been closed and businesses and roads are already in trouble and Governor Scott Walker is mobilizing state agencies, including Wisconsin's national guard.

Major General Donald Dunbar is leading the Wisconsin national guard's response. He joins me now by telephone.

General, just give me an idea, if you can, how many national guardsmen are you having to mobilize this early in the storm?

MAJOR GENERAL DONALD DUNBAR, WISCONSIN NATIONAL GUARD (via telephone): Well, Ashleigh, it's good to be with you.

What Governor Walker did was declare a precautionary emergency yesterday to give us an opportunity to assist local first-responders in preparation.

So, what we have is 11 of our armories manned with what we call a "response package," which includes heavy vehicles and soldiers and airmen prepared, if called out, to assist, whether it's state patrol or a sheriff or motorist.

And we also double the use of our armories as a warming center or a shelter if it became necessary.

BANFIELD: You know, I grew up in Winnipeg in the middle of Canada and, when you had storms like this, it wasn't just so much that your car could get stuck, it was that the temperatures could kill you if your car got stuck.

So, what are the thoughts right now in terms of dealing with the national guard on the roads to make sure that motorists out there don't get stranded and freeze and then cars get covered and next to impossible to even find?

DUNBAR (via telephone): Well, Ashleigh, (INAUDIBLE) weather conditions. Right now, the (INAUDIBLE) of the storm is really just starting to hit Wisconsin.

We do have upwards of 10 to 13 inches along the southwest and the northeast and the road conditions on our major highways are very slow. The county and city work crews are out in force, salting and plowing.

And generally on the main thoroughfare, staying ahead of it, it is moving, but slowly. Some of our secondary roads are having a lot more difficulty.

And you hit the nail on the head. As the conditions get worse as we see the heavy winds pick up, 35-to-45-miles-an-hour, start to dry out some of the moisture from this snow, you could end up with heavy icing conditions and the kind of conditions you're talking about where somebody could get stranded and possibly even have life threatened.

So, everybody in Wisconsin, the national guard's playing a part, but we're certainly in partnership with the first-responder communities and Wisconsin emergency management, state patrol, Department of Natural Resources, one big team prepared to assist as necessary.

BANFIELD: Oh, Major General Donald Dunbar, thank you for talking to us and the best of luck with all of your efforts in Wisconsin.

And, by the way, if you're in Wisconsin and you're watching, if you go out in your car, put an emergency kit in your car and include a candle. Believe it or not, a candle can save your life if you end up going off the road and have to spend the night. A candle can warm your car and mean the difference between life and death.

And I want to turn now to another very big story that we've been following and it's the fallout over that scathing report on the attack in the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Heads are already rolling over this story, people. The release of that report by the independent panel yesterday had quite an impact. Four State Department officials have now been disciplined. Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of diplomatic security has now resigned and three other people are now on administrative leave.

As we reported yesterday, the panel blasted the State Department for, quote, "grossly inadequate security at our mission there."

The attacks on September 11th, you'll remember, killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. It also killed three other people who were working with us at that mission.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accepted full responsibility and she sent a letter to Congress saying that she accepts all of the panel's 29 recommendations.

Our Elise Labott is joining us now live from the State Department. First of all, Elise, lay out for me if you could -- the four people who've been removed from their posts, what is the story about them?

Who were they? What did they do? And why did these people get singled out for punishment?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, these are key people, Ashleigh, in the Department of Diplomatic Security and also one gentleman who was in the Near East bureau, which is kind of the Mideast policy shop.

These people were intimately involved in the decisions about security in Benghazi and didn't name names in the unclassified report that we read, but we understand that in the classified version these people are really singled out for not providing the kind of leadership that was needed in terms of providing adequate resources.

And there -- and it was recommended that there was some kind of disciplinary action against them.

BANFIELD: All right, so the report isn't the end of it. We've got two more hearings on Capitol Hill today about this issue.

Lay out for me what we expect to accomplish with these hearings and just how much more we're going to hear about this.

LABOTT: OK. Well, we had one hearing this morning which was the Senate foreign relation committee. There were some tough questions about the report. I think Tom Nides and Bill Burns, the deputy secretaries, all they could do, Ashleigh, is kind of be contrite. You know, eat the crow and call it caviar and just say, listen, we know we messed up. We have a lot of reforms we have to make, we need to implement those recommendations to make sure this never happens again.

And I think in doing so, there's a lot of questions that all the State Department officials have now that this report is out about things that can be done better.

BANFIELD: All right. Elise Labott for us, reporting live. Thanks very much, Elise.

And I also want to point this out because sometimes it is forgotten. It's been a while since September 11th, hasn't it? Not a single person has been charged in this attack. Not one. And most of those people who were detained and questioned, released.

A Libyan source says that there are indications that the attackers came from outside the Benghazi area and then just slipped away right after the attack.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They've got to take me out of it and think about their voters and think about what's best for the country.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I hope the president will get serious soon about providing and working with us on a balanced approach.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: I hope you can all get along. Complicated, acrimonious and now President Obama says the fiscal cliff negotiations are personal.

Not that negotiations are actually taking place, so far as we know, though. The process has paused while Speaker Boehner holds a vote on a measure that the president and quite a few Republicans, actually, have already rejected.

Speaker Boehner calls it "Plan B" -- "Plan B." As you may have heard, it would raise income taxes on people who earn more than $1 million a year. The president wants higher rates to start at $400,000. Take it way back. Get a whole lot more payers paying up.

The speaker says he would couple his tax hike with a repeal on limits to income tax deductions and exemptions. The White House calls that another gift to the rich.

Both sides want spending cuts, but the president also wants the debt ceiling raised high enough to get us through 2014.

I could go on and on. I don't know if you got all that because it's complicated, but I know that CNN's Dana Bash knows every ounce of this stuff.

So, what's the story about "Plan B" and the vote? You've got to do a lot of math in your job, my friend. Tell me about "Plan B." Is the vote actually scheduled? Is there any hope for this thing to pass? And what's the point of it?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's a vote scheduled. It's going to be probably later this evening, maybe too late for a lot of our tastes around here, but it is going to happen.

And at this point, it does look like, according to a Republican leadership aide I spoke with this morning, they are feeling better inside the House Republican leadership about having the votes to pass it.

But it has not been easy. The speaker himself was working the floor, twisting arms last night during the last vote. They've been making calls, they've been "whipping it," as they call it here, to try to make sure they do have 218 votes to pass it.

What's the point? You know, there are a lot of different political factors in doing this, but the biggest, I'm told by several Republican lawmakers who are involved in these discussions, Ashleigh, is to get the House on record.

And in some ways, it's sort of an internal tactic for Republicans to give, as one Republican lawmaker told me, give them a reality check as to where the votes are or aren't with regard to any tax increases at all, so that maybe -- maybe -- once they -- if they do pass it, they can send it to the Senate.

It is not expected to pass the Senate and that maybe that will kind of bring everybody, you know, open everybody's eyes and say, you know what? We've got to do something by the end of the year or else everybody's taxes are going to go up.

BANFIELD: It just seems ridiculous that anyone needs an eye-opener at this point. I mean, we have been talking about this 24/7 for quite some time now.

Let me ask you about the polling. I don't know if this is making much of an impact. I don't know if anyone's watching the polling that's coming out, but what the heck? Just for grins here.

Some of the most recent polling that's come out shows that when people are asked, 20 percent of them think that this fiscal cliff is really a crisis, 50 percent think maybe just major problems, 24 percent think just minor problems, and four percent feel like it's no problem at all.

So, clearly, the country is very concerned about this, but when they talk about who's to blame, 53 percent of respondents say it's the Republicans who are to blame for this.

You know, who should -- rather, let me pull back on that. Who should compromise more? Who should be compromising more in these negotiations? And 53 percent of respondents say Republicans should and 41 percent say Democrats should.

But then who would be more responsible? Maybe that's more the blame question. Who would be more responsible if we go off the cliff? Forty-eight percent of the respondents say the Republicans would be and that really overshadows the other respondents who say both or the president.

How are those numbers playing? And why isn't that, perhaps, pushing people into more compromise?

BASH: Well, that is another very important -- maybe the most important reason why Republicans are having this vote later today -- to try to take the political blame off themselves.

Republicans know the Democrats have the leverage. The president has the leverage, both in terms of the substance of the argument. You look at all the polls, or at least most of the polls. It shows his position, raising taxes on the wealthy is what the majority feel, even those who are most wealthy in this country.

But also just in terms of the process. If nothing else is done, taxes will go up and Republicans will likely take the blame.

So that's a major reason why they're having this vote today, Ashleigh, so you can say, see, at least we voted to keep tax cuts in place for everybody making up to $1 million. That's 99-point-something percent of the country. That is a big, big political reason why we're going to see that today.

BANFIELD: OK, Dana Bash, stay on it for us. Thank you, my friend, and happy holidays to you and everybody around there. Hopefully, they'll get the spirit real soon.

BASH: You, too.

BANFIELD: Dana reporting for us live.

I don't want to leave Capitol Hill right now because, in the Rotunda, there is something very special. Take a look at some of these pictures. This is long-time Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, lying in state.

A very, very somber procession and it's really remarkable to watch this because this is an honor given to very, very few Americans.

Inouye represented the 50th state in Washington since Hawaii became a state back in 1959. So, you'd think he was the longest serving senator in U.S. history. He ended up being the second longest serving senator in U.S. history.

And if you don't know this about the senator, he was a Japanese- American soldier during World War II. Senator Inouye lost an arm, his right arm, in Italy and he received the Medal of Honor for his service. Daniel Inouye died on Monday at Walter Reed Military Medical Center. He was 88-years-old and I just want you to watch these pictures.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: I have some news just into CNN about the attorney general, Eric Holder. We are finding out now that the attorney general is set to head to Newtown, Connecticut, today after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden at 1:00, but don't expect to see him. This is not a public event.

The attorney general has scheduled, apparently, to meet with some of the law enforcement officials in that town and then also with some of the first-responders who were the first people to enter the Sandy Hook Elementary School and discover the carnage there that ended up being the loss of 20 children and six adults in that school and then, of course, the mother of the killer who was shot in her bed and the killer himself.

The attorney general apparently is not traveling with any other senior Justice officials to Newtown. He will also not be attending any of the funerals or the memorials.

And, again, you will not be seeing the pictures of him. There is no plan for this to be anything public other than these meetings that he's going to have with those law enforcement officials.

But, of course, this is a day of more farewells in Newtown. Six -- six -- funerals in this tiny community. Six visitations, also. So, 12 services.

These people being laid to rest today -- Allison Wyatt, she is just gorgeous. She loved to draw and she told her parents she wanted to be an artist.

Benjamin Wheeler, look at that smile. He's just so sweet. A huge fan of The Beatles, his parents tell us.

And then look at this -- Catherine Hubbard. You almost know her personality from her adorable red hair. She loved animals. Catherine will be buried, as well, today.

The community's going to say goodbye to the principal of Sandy Hook, Dawn Hochsprung, who is going to be buried in New York, privately.

And then two brave teachers, Lauren Gabrielle Rousseau and Anne Marie Murphy. Those two gave their lives trying to save their students.

So, that is quite a list and, if you've been anywhere near Newtown, you know that those funeral processions are becoming a bit of a regular sight through the center of that small town.

And new details are also emerging about the mother of the young man who caused all of this sorrow, a mother who herself was murdered in her bed.

According to her friends, Nancy Lanza had been on vacation, alone at a resort in New Hampshire just before this devastating shooting.

In the past, she said that, if she'd ever been worried about Adam Lanza, her son, she would not leave him alone, but in recent years, they say that she had felt comfortable leaving him alone in the house. Let's not forget, he was 20-years-old.

Hearing about the victims and about those children and seeing their pictures, it has such a profound effect on people across the country and around the world. I mean, really, how can't it?

If you have felt like reaching out in some way, any way, or felt like you just needed to do something for the people of Newtown, Connecticut, you are by no means alone.

That town's post office has been on the receiving end of thousands and thousands of condolence cards and gifts and well-wishes. They are flooding in from all over the world.

The United States Postal Service post office box has been set up just to handle the incoming volume there.

And Christine Dugas, a spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service, is live with us from Newtown to give me a sense of just what's happening there.

Christine, if you can, let me know what you're receiving, what sort of things you're seeing coming in and how much is coming in.

CHRISTINE DUGAS, SPOKESWOMAN, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE: We started out, Ashleigh, receiving a few hundred pieces of mail. And now it's in the thousands, every day.

It ranges from packages to letters to cards as you say. Much of it is becoming express mail. That's how important it is for people to send their love and support to the folks here in Newtown to help them cope with the tragedy.

BANFIELD: And not to suggest with that many pieces of mail that you've been able to see, the addresses, who they're coming to, who they're coming from, but can you give me a sense of -- I mean, is this from all over the world?

Is it primarily from here in the United States? And who are they addressing it to?

DUGAS: Some of these packages and letters are addressed simply to the school, to the residents of Sandy Hook, to the first-responders or to families of individual children.

They're coming as far away as Sicily, England, Australia, all over the world and every corner of this country. Again, people just want to show their love and support and ...

BANFIELD: What ...

DUGAS: ... this is a good way for them to do that. BANFIELD: Christine, what are you going to do with it all? I mean, you can't go to the school, you can't drop that mail at the school.

How are you processing this? And where are you sending it?

DUGAS: We have worked with the town to appoint a custodian of the mail and that person -- those folks are from the Department of Education.

We have a destination that we're bringing it to and then they are separating it out for the appropriate parties to receive when they're ready to receive them.

BANFIELD: Well, Christine, thank you for doing what you're doing and our heartfelt thoughts and condolences go to you and your town, as well.

And best of luck as you try to handle all that holiday mail alongside of all of the condolence material you're receiving. Best to you, Christine, thank you.

DUGAS: We've been doing this for -- thank you. We've been doing this for a couple of centuries, so we probably have a lot of experience at delivering love.

BANFIELD: Delivering love. I'm glad you put it that way because I think that's exactly what those people sending the packages intended.

Christine Dugas, live for us in Newtown, Connecticut.

By the way, if you'd like to send any cards or letters or anything to the families of the victims, you know where it's going to go. You saw Christine. She's going to be receiving it and the post office box address is P.O. Box 3700, Newtown, Connecticut, 06470.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY LOUSARDI, LAUREN ROUSSEAU'S BOYFRIEND: When I wake up in the morning, I can smell, you know, my girlfriend's perfume and it makes me cry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: That's the boyfriend of one of the teachers killed in this horrifying shooting last week. We're going to have more of that interview for you in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is not easy to say goodbye to loved ones, especially when all you've had with them is one year and not the eternity that you had hoped for.

And teacher Lauren Rousseau's boyfriend, Tony, says that he's still trying to come to terms with the cruel way in which she was snatched away from him.