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Winter Storm Pounds Midwest; Major Shakeup at State Department; Fiscal Cliff Stalemate; Bullet-Proofing Kids; Rocket City Rednecks

Aired December 20, 2012 - 06:30   ET



ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: A winter blast just before getaway day, folks. Snow falling from Kansas to Wisconsin with blizzard warnings in effect.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is getting ugly out there.

Meanwhile, the search for answers on the Benghazi attack. Twin hearings today on Capitol Hill amid word of a shake-up at the State Department.

SAMBOLIN: Plus, has it come to this? Bulletproof back packs and body armor for little kids.

So, really, it's an interesting story. We're going to share that with you.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It is nice to see you this morning. It's 31 minutes after the hour.

It's nice to see you in case -- unless you're stuck somewhere watching because you're snowed in.

SAMBOLIN: At an airport.

BERMAN: At an airport.

Holiday travel plans for millions of Americans could be on hold this morning -- thanks to this huge winter storm that's whipping through the Midwest. The blizzard-like conditions have already knocked out power to tens of thousands of people in Iowa this morning. There's a blizzard warning in effect for half a dozen states and the storm is stretching from Colorado all the way up to Wisconsin.

The Rocky Mountain State, Colorado, already been battered -- 156-mile stretch of I-70 shut down in both directions by the heavy snow yesterday.

This storm is packing a lot of wind too. Wind gusts 60 miles an hour and higher in some places. Parts of Iowa, the whole state being hammered, could see a foot or more of snow today. The governor of Wisconsin is already declaring a state of emergency there in advance of the storm's arrival.

So, if you're looking to get out of town before the big holiday rush? Good luck.

Meteorologist Alexandra Steele is live from the weather center in Atlanta. Alexandra, what is in store for us today?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: There's so much. This is so incredibly powerful on so many fronts, John. You know, not only the blizzards that we're going to see and have seen through Iowa today and also into Wisconsin. It's really Des Moines, Green Bay, Chicago tonight. Around 7:00, we're going to see this rain change over to snow.

But the snow won't be the worst part, it's the 50-mile-per-hour winds. So, incredibly tough travel, perilous in a lot of this area. But also, there's a severe side to this.

So here's the warm side. And along this warm side, some incredibly powerful storms as well. Already this morning, we have had a tornado warning for Mobile.

Now, you can see this whole thing in the red box is the tornado watch box. And it's really Mississippi, and Alabama and even portions of Louisiana -- just very strong powerful lines of storms.

We had a tornado warning for Mobile but right now if you're driving on I-65 toward Atmore, this is that incredible storm that had that tornado potentially embedded in it. So blizzard conditions, near a foot of snow with this. Here's the quadrant of it, Des Moines through Green Bay. That's where the heaviest snow and blizzard conditions will be today.

We'll talk about when it moves out, John, coming up in just a bit.

BERMAN: All right. Alexandra Steele in Atlanta, thanks very much.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-three minutes past the hour. Happening today, the Benghazi consulate incident hits Capitol Hill, this after fallout of independent review of that incident. So far, there has been one resignation and now, three more are on administrative leave at this State Department as well.

The independent review examining September's attack blamed systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies as well. The review found that a lack of leadership left the U.S. consulate insecure and vulnerable.

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in that September 11th attack, as you very well know.

Foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott has the very latest for us. And this is a major shake-up, Elise. ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: It is, Zoraida, although the report found none of the officials were legally in breach of their duty, certainly did find that, as you said, a lack of leadership and recommended that these people have some disciplinary action.

That's why the assistant secretary, the top security official at the State Department for diplomatic security, Eric Boswell, resigned. So did his administrative leave, his deputy, Charlene Lamb, who if you remember, had testified before Congress and was cited in a lot of documents, denying repeated security requests. So, she and some other officials placed on administrative leave. But my understanding is they won't be back at work.

SAMBOLIN: And, Elise, there are two State Department officials that are testifying today. What are we expecting there?

LABOTT: Well, as you know, it won't be Secretary Clinton.


LABOTT: She was originally scheduled to testify, but she's still suffering from a concussion. So, her deputies, Bill Burns and Tom Nides will be testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then, later this afternoon, before the House International Affairs Committee.

Very interesting who will be chairing that hearing this morning, John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tapped to be the next Secretary of State, we understand. So he's really trying to walk a fine line of being tough on these gentlemen and also showing some support for the department.

Take a listen about what he said yesterday about why it's so important to make sure the State Department gets the resources it needs.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The report specifically calls on resources. There's a need to put about $2.5 billion a year over a number of years into efforts to strengthen our security status in various critical places.


LABOTT: So if it is John Kerry, as we expect, he could be back before Congress in a few weeks to ask for some of those resources during his confirmation hearing.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, he is walking that fine line.

Elise Labott, live for us, thank you very much.

BERMAN: The other big story in Washington, of course, the stalemate over the fiscal cliff negotiations with only 12 days left to go.

There is growing rancor between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. Rancor is such a good word. There is lots of it there today an it's getting worse.

The speaker expected to call for a vote in the House on his plan B which extends the bush era tax cuts on incomes under $1 million. The president has criticized that bill and said he'd never sign it. And, yet, it's not even clear this morning that the speaker has enough Republican votes to pass this plan B.

I want to turn now to our political editor Paul Steinhauser in Washington for the latest on this. Good morning, Paul. This doesn't seem to be going many places this morning.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: It sure doesn't. What happened to the optimism from earlier this week?

As you said, John, we heard a lot of rancor from both the president and from Mr. Boehner yesterday. The president making his fiscal cliff comments after announcing some new efforts on gun control. About two hours later, the House speaker went in front of cameras and talked to just 56 seconds.

Here's what both men said.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The president's offer of $1.3 trillion in revenues and $850 billion in spending reductions fails to meet the test that the president promised the American people, a balanced approach. And I hope the president will get serious soon about providing and working with us on a balanced approach.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, at some point there's got to be, I think, a recognition on the part of my Republican friends that -- you know, take the deal. They will be able to claim that they have worked with me over the last two years to reduce the deficit more than any other deficit reduction package.


STEINHAUSER: The big question, John, as you said, does the House speaker have enough support from his own party to pass that plan B? He did get some support yesterday from the anti-tax crusader Gover Norquist who backed the plan, gave it his blessing.

And the bigger questions: will this plan B vote side track the bigger negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff -- John. BERMAN: The speaker reportedly furiously whipping votes overnight to help secure, you know, secure the votes he needs there.

Paul, you also have some news about public opinion on this new polling data.

STEINHAUSER: We sure do, from CNN/ORC, a national poll, just out about 90 minutes ago. Take a look at this. We asked, which party's views may be too extreme, its opinions too extreme? You can see more Americans say Republicans rather than Democrats. That was a very different story two years ago.

And finally one more number. The approval rating, President Obama, in our poll 52 percent approval rating, John Boehner, just 34 percent of Americans say he's doing a good job as House speaker -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Political editor Paul Steinhauser in Washington, where there is a lot of rancor -- thanks very much, Paul.

SAMBOLIN: It is 38 minutes past the hour. New details coming to light about the days leading up to the Newtown massacre. Friends of Nancy Lanza, the shooter's mother, saying she was in New Hampshire taking a short getaway at a hotel. That's about four-hour drive from Newtown. They say she felt comfortable enough to leave him alone for three days. The morning after she returned, Nancy Lanza was found dead.

BERMAN: Thirty-nine minutes after the hour right now. And we're going to ask you this question: would you send your child to school in body armor? Sales of things like bulletproof backpacks surging, 500 percent, after the tragedy in Connecticut. Coming up, what some parents and the company selling it are saying.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. Forty-two minutes past the hour.

In the days following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, there's been a surge, a demand for little known products that can literally bulletproof your children.

BERMAN: From backpack inserts to bullet resistant toddler pants, parents are going to extremes to keep their kids from becoming statistics. Here's ABC's Miguel Marquez.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a disturbing sign of the times.

(on camera): You guys make inserts for children's backpacks.


MARQUEZ: Bullet resistant inserts.

BRAND: That's correct.

MARQUEZ: This is one of them?


MARQUEZ: Show us how they work.

BRAND: All right. So, this is our military grade product.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): COO Rich Brand says in the last week, sales have jumped 500 percent and are still climbing. Desperate parents seeking ways to protect their kids in the most extreme situations.


MARQUEZ: The material will not stop high velocity rounds like the ones used in Newtown, but three shots with a 9 millimeter at point blank range --

BRAND: All of the kinetic energy and penetration was actually absorbed with our armor.

MARQUEZ (on camera): Three small holes. The armor is a little stiffer. And the rounds are inside here?

BRAND: That's correct.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): And Amendment II is not alone. In Boston, Bullet Blocker promises your peace of mind is our business.

In Austin, Texas, says sales are up 50 percent. New customers, schools and daily care facilities.

Even the Colombian designer of fashionable protective clothing has a request for bullet resistant garments for a toddler.

(on camera): People do say that you're profiting off of terror and horror.

BRAND: And that's the last thing that we wanted to do. I mean this was something that we put out there at the request of parents trying to meet the needs.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Amendment II says it's proprietary carbon nanotube material lends itself to a product some teachers have asked for, a protective blanket.

(on camera): Because of the lightweight nature of the material the company uses, they say it can be used as a mat in a school and in an emergency for protection.

(voice-over): At Salt Lake city's Get Some Guns and Ammo owner Stuart Wallin says protective gear won't stop a killer. Only another gun will.

STUART WALLIN, OWNER, GET SOME GUNS AMMO: I think if you knew every teacher had a gun, you'd think a little differently about your little plan.

MARQUEZ: Since 1995, Utah has allowed teachers to carry concealed weapons. The law is yet to be tested. But after Newtown, anything seems possible.

Miguel Marquez, CNN, Salt Lake City.


BERMAN: Our thanks to CNN's Miguel Marquez. Now, this is kind of innovation and ingenuity you never want to have to think about.

SAMBOLIN: No, but you do. And now you wonder, do you, don't you, what's the answer.

All right. It is 45 minutes past the hour. Let's get you up to date on this morning's other top stories.

Blizzard warnings in six states this morning. The season's first significant winter storm slamming the Midwest and the Great Plains right before the holiday. Word this hour that the storm has already knocked out power to 36,000 customers. That's in Iowa. And they are getting the brunt of it right now. The storm is expected to dump up to a foot of snow in some places as far north as Wisconsin.

BERMAN: Benghazi report fallout. One State Department official resigns, three others on disciplinary administrative leave this morning after that independent review examining September's attack cited systemic failures in leadership and management deficiencies. Tuesday, department officials are set to testify before House and Senate committees later this morning.

SAMBOLIN: And in a rare move. President Obama found the Secretary of the Army to personally express his concern about reports of abuse at the day care center at Fort Myer in Virginia. This week, two workers at the facility were charged with assaulting a child. A review of all the workers found several with questionable backgrounds, including records of sexual abuse of a minor, sexual assault, and assault.

BERMAN: About three hours from now, the casket carrying the late Senator Daniel Inouye will arrive at the U.S. Capitol. He'll be lying in state in the Rotunda so the public can pay their respects. The Democrat from Hawaii was a World War II hero, witness to Pearl Harbor, and the second longest serving Senator in history. He represented Hawaii from the time it became a state.

SAMBOLIN: Incredible.

BERMAN: His funeral is tomorrow at the National --

SAMBOLIN: And the history-making election in South Korea. The country's first female president has been elected to office. Its ruling party candidate, Park Geun-Hye, she is the 60-year-old daughter of a former military dictator who led South Korea back in 1970s. Park is promising greater engagement with North Korea.

BERMAN: And let me give this a try. To infinity and beyond. Take a look at the new threads at NASA. These are real. These streamlined white and green Z-1 space suits could soon replace the bulkier one astronauts wear now. NASA says they can shorten preparation time, approve safety, and enhance astronaut capability and mobility during space walks. Also, some nice green flare there.

SAMBOLIN: Well, you know, kids, Buzz Lightyear's coming to life. I'm loving this. All right. It's my favorite.

All right. It isn't rocket science. It's good ol' country know-how. How to use moonshine to launch a rocket? Coming up, the star of TV's "Rocket City Rednecks" is going to join us live.


BERMAN: All right. We want you to meet a really interesting man. Dr. Travis Taylor is a former NASA scientist who's worked for the government for the past 25 years.

SAMBOLIN: Now -- well, now he's the star of the hit show "Rocket City Rednecks" where he and his team solve engineering problems using good ol' hillbilly ingenuity. Like how moonshine can actually power rockets or helping build a steam catapult to launch a car forward just like an aircraft carrier catapult. Take a look.


DR. TRAVIS TAYLOR, HOST, "ROCKET CITY REDNECKS": This thing, hopefully, if it works right, it's going to give you a little bit of a jolt. Jay and I got in the car, we buckled up, we got our helmets on, we're ready to go. Here we go in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.



SAMBOLIN: So, do you hear the guys in the background? Yes, yes, we're loving that. So, the show's second season premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel. Dr. Travis Taylor joins us now. Welcome. Very nice to have you.

TAYLOR: Good morning.

SAMBOLIN: This Jay Leno moment, were you a little worried that that was going to backfire on you?

TAYLOR: We didn't want to kill the nation's, you know, talk show funny man. But -- then my dad took me aside and said, son, you better not kill Jay Leno.


TAYLOR: But I asked Jay, I said, Jay, we're going to get kind of a jolt from this. Do you think you can handle it? Do you have any, you know, health issues I need to know about? And he says, well, I pulled 7.3 Gs with the blue angels about two weeks ago. You'll be fine.

SAMBOLIN: He'll be fine.


SAMBOLIN: So, I want to talk about your credentials, because it was shocking to me, quite frankly. So, you worked with the Department of Defense and NASA for 25 years, had above top secret clearance. You hold five degrees. I'm going to name them, optical science, engineering, physics, aerospace engineers, astronomy and electrical engineering and are currently completing a second Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. TAYLOR: Well, I actually completed that Ph.D.

SAMBOLIN: Congratulations.

BERMAN: You're a showoff, let me say that.


BERMAN: You're a showoff.

SAMBOLIN: Why this show with all of these degrees? We're not expecting to see you there.

TAYLOR: You know, that's a really good question. I was talking to my family about doing this show, the idea was we want to get the next generation of folks interested in doing science and math again. We want to get the kids back into doing it thinking it's cool and seeing that it is cool. And so, we can have that next generation of people like Neil Armstrong.

BERMAN: You know, the term "redneck" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and they're not always nice. But you embrace it on your ship.

TAYLOR: Absolutely. And a lot of people don't realize the true origin of the word. We've looked up several different origins of the thing, but the real true one is that the southern share croppers, the farmers, they had everything that they could have on their farm. If something went wrong, they had to fix it with only the things they had because it was long way from going to (INAUDIBLE), right? So, they were hard-working family centric folks.

BERMAN: So, one of the things you built here, some of the ingenuity you've used is to help create a moonshine powered rocket. Let's look at this.


TAYLOR: We're pouring moonshine into the rocket's fuel tank. And then very carefully, we insert that fuel tank into the rocket, which, by the way, is loaded with explosives. It's going, it's going! It's going!


BERMAN: And my first reaction was this is a waste of some good moonshine, but second, the question is, you know, how do you come up with these ideas?

TAYLOR: Well, a lot of people don't realize, but the first American in space, Alan Shepard, he went into space on moonshine. I bet you didn't know that, did you?


TAYLOR: It was about 80 percent moonshine -- SAMBOLIN: What?

TAYLOR: And 20 percent water.

SAMBOLIN: You're being serious right now?

TAYLOR: I'm dead serious.

SAMBOLIN: You have this deadpan delivery that I don't know if you're being serious or not.


BERMAN: Explain what you mean there.

TAYLOR: Well, alcohol is a really good rocket fuel when you mix it with liquid oxygen or nitrous oxide, and it makes a very good rocket motor. So, that's what they used for the first rocket that put Alan Shepard in space.

SAMBOLIN: Listen, I've got to tell you, I'm a believer. I sat last night and watched this with my 14-year-old and we just kept on watching and watching and watching and he was learning in the process. So, congratulations. I think this is remarkable. Have you ever had any close calls?

TAYLOR: Well, we did build a submarine out of a fertilizer tank --


SAMBOLIN: What could possibly go wrong?


TAYLOR: My dad wasn't real happy when me and my nephew got in there and we went underwater. We hit about 16 feet and that turns out to be the crush depth of some of the pieces we were using. And so, we sunk the thing -- we sunk it like twice in 30 seconds. It was a little scary, but we were fine. We got out.

BERMAN: Dr. Travis Taylor, you have to come back and teach us science because --


TAYLOR: Absolutely. Let's do it.

SAMBOLIN: Pleasure to have you. Thank you very much.

BERMAN: All right. Coming up, we knew it all along. The truth behind this viral video, an eagle swooping down and snatching a baby.

SAMBOLIN: And later on "STARTING POINT," what is the deal with Tim Tebow? Why the NFL's most celebrated backup can't get in the game even with the starter riding the bench.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. Fifty-seven minutes after the hour. John Berman along with Zoraida Sambolin taking a look at the top CNN trends on the Internet this morning.

SAMBOLIN: So, it's one of those videos that almost looks too strange to be true. So, guess what, it is. Take a look at this. It looks like an eagle swoops out of the air, picks up a baby, then drops him. So, it turns out that's a really well done fake. It is orchestrated by students studying 3D animation design in Montreal. They made that baby and they made the eagle. I love that.

BERMAN: Such good technology.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, you're going to meet them. Coming up on "STARTING POINT," we'll talk to those three students behind the hoax who are now soaking up all the viral fame.

BERMAN: Talking about viral, this is going viral, too. Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by the Oval Office. This picture of President Obama playing with a kid in a Spider-Man costume, this is spreading all over the web. It was posted on the president's Twitter and Facebook accounts yesterday.

One of the writers here was joking that Spider-Man was mad because he makes over $250,000 a year.


BERMAN: He's worried about his taxes going up.

SAMBOLIN: That is so sweet. All right. That is it for EARLY START. Thanks for being with us today. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien" starts right now.