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Fiscal Cliff Negotiations at Possible Standstill; NRA Calls for Armed Guards at Schools; Violence Continues in Syria; Rumors Indicate Former Secretary Chuck Hagel may be Nominated for Defense Secretary

Aired December 24, 2012 - 07:00   ET


ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Our STARTING POINT, a new possible insider attack in Afghanistan. This time, a policewoman suspected of killing an American.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning from Washington, with the beautiful sunrise behind me. Republicans say they want this -- the president wants this country, rather, to go off the fiscal cliff, to have a sunset when it comes to our fiscal situation is that really what's going on here? Lawmakers are on vacation, so will anything get done in time?

CHO: Lots of people on vacation, Dana. A winter storm may be headed your way. For all of those people traveling, 93 million Americans on trains, planes, and automobiles, what it means for your holiday travel plans.

Good morning, welcome to STARTING POINT. It's chilly in New York City, 7:00 in the morning. I'm Alina Cho in New York.

BASH: And I'm Dana Bash in Washington. It's Monday, December 24, Christmas Eve. STARTING POINT begins right now.

CHO: And our STARTING POINT this morning, a U.S. contractor in Kabul gunned down and killed this morning by a woman wearing an afghan police uniform. It happened inside Kabul's police headquarters, the latest in a string of suspected green on blue attacks that are hitting morale and eroding trust in allies there. Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr up early for us working her sources, joins us live from Washington with more. Barbara, good morning

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alina. In the last few minutes, our NATO sources are confirming privately that, indeed, it was an American citizen. A contractor shot and killed by a woman, an afghan woman in a police uniform inside Kabul police headquarters. What is not known at this point or they are not saying, whether this woman was an afghan police officer or came into possession of the uniform, stole it.

We have seen these kinds of incidents before. People have infiltrated in. They may have Taliban loyalties, may be other issues at work here. They have seen grudges in the past being enacted upon, so not a lot of detail yet.

But this whole issue of both NATO troops and contractors being killed by people in uniform of afghan security forces has been plague the alliance all year long. More than 50 people killed in this manner, a continuing problem. The Taliban may not be winning by U.S. standards in Afghanistan, but they are getting some propaganda value out of the tragic incidents. Alina?

CHO: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us. Barbara, thank you.

BASH: And hope is fading fast this morning for a fiscal cliff compromise. Eight days left until we go off the edge, and with the president and Congress on holiday hiatus, things are looking really pretty bleak. Listen to retiring Senator Joe Lieberman on yesterday's CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN, (I) CONNECTICUT: I feel that it's more likely we will go over the cliff than not. And if we allow that to happen, it will be the most colossal consequential act of congressional irresponsibility in a long time, maybe ever in American history.


BASH: White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is traveling with the president and joins us live from Honolulu, Hawaii, this morning. I'm talking to Republican and democratic sources and they really feel like we're going to go over the cliff. What are you hearing?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'm hearing it's a very real possibility, and as you're hearing, Dana, they aren't even really talking, Democrat and Republicans. Of course the White House talks to Senate Democrats, but at this point the White House is not in any real substantive conversations with both House Republicans and also Senate Republicans as all eyes turn to the Senate. And perhaps because of that, some of the pessimism you heard from Senator Lieberman there is shared by Republicans. Listen.


SEN. JOHN BARRASSO, (R) WYOMING: When I listen to the president, I think the president is eager to go over the cliff for political purposes. I think he sees a political victory at the bottom of the cliff. He gets all this additional tax revenue for new programs. He gets to cut the military, which Democrats have been calling for years, and he gets to blame Republicans for it.


KEILAR: Attention now turns to the Senate, which will reconvene on Thursday, the 27th. House Majority Leader Harry Reid now has the task of trying to cobble something together that could perhaps pass the Senate and also pass the House with some Republican support, and the expectation would be some Democratic support. Publicly the White House is still calling for the threshold on tax cuts to be a quarter million a year. It seems unlikely Republicans would sign on to that.

And officially President Obama is supposed to be remaining here in Hawaii through the new year, and it seems likely he will be heading back to Washington sometimes around when the Senate convenes. And in the meantime, just up in the air about what is going to happen. Is it going to be a very un-merry cliff-mas? Perhaps.

CHO: Thank you, Brianna. I feel like we should pause and listen to the best sound in the world behind you, those waves crashing on the beach.


KEILAR: It's pretty good. Thanks.

CHO: Dana, as you know, the fiscal cliff crisis is bringing out the, shall we say, creative side of the "USA Today" editorial board. It's something that caught all of our attention this morning, right?

BASH: That's right, with the president and Congress on holiday break, the newspaper's editors decide a holiday poem was in in order.

CHO: And we decided it would be a great idea to read some of for you. So, here we go.

"T'was the night before cliff-mas, when all through D.C., not a politician was stirring, they'd decided to flee. Their work was not finished, but what did they care? The fiscal cliff looming, they took to the air. Voters watched this debacle with increasing dread while visions of total victory danced in polls head.

Democrats balked at a tight spending cap. Republicans kept pushing their anti-tax pap. Thursday evening, Christmas, there arose such a clatter reporters sprang to the capitol to see what's the matter. House Dems realized evident with glee, the speaker could not pass his own "plan b."


BASH: Very clever.

CHO: A plus on creativity. Read it all in "USA Today".

And, Dana, something a lot of people know a lot about, just-released poll numbers showing -- OK. We'll bring you those in a second, while we get those, but we want to get some top stories first. Here we go. Leading Republicans refusing to get on board with the NRA's plan forearmed officers in every U.S. school. That's not keeping the NRA CEO from doubling down on the idea, though. Wayne LaPierre telling NBC's "Meet the Press" you know it's the only way to keep our children safe in the classroom.


WAYNE LAPIERRE, NRA SPOKESMAN: If it's crazy to call for putting police for security in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy. I'll tell you what, the American people -- I think the American people think it's crazy not to do it.


CHO: Well, top Republicans have come out against the idea of armed officers at every school. Many are still resisting calls for tighter gun laws. And keep it here, because in the next half hour of STARTING POINT we will talk about the NRA's hardline stance on gun control with the organization's former political director, Richard Feldman.

Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho apologizing to constituents and family after being arrested and charges for driving under the influence in Alexandria, Virginia. Crapo was arrested early Saturday morning after failing a field sobriety test. Police say the Idaho Republican was pulled over after being spotted running a red light and had a blood alcohol level of 0.11. The legal blood alcohol level in Virginia is point .08. He was released on $1,000 bond.

BASH: A senior Navy SEAL commander's death is now being investigated as a suicide. Military personnel in Afghanistan found Navy commander John Price's body after he didn't show up at an appointed time. He was serving as the commanding officer of the special warfare unit called SEAL team 4. Right now there are no indications Price was involved in any military related investigations or controversies.

And the rocket North Korea launched earlier this has the capability to travel 6,000 miles. That means one could conceivably reach the U.S. That's the assessment by three officials in South Korea's defense ministry based in part on a part they recovered from one of the rocket's boosters. South Korea military says the evidence shows North Korea's intent and progress in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

CHO: How badly did Mitt Romney want to be president? Not very according to his oldest son. Listen to this, Tag Romney telling "The Boston Globe," if his father could have found someone else to take his place, he would have been ecstatic to step aside because he's a very private person who doesn't want all the attention. Tag went on to tell the newspaper his father "wanted to be president less than anyone I've met in my life. He had no desire." All right, didn't seem like it during the campaign.

BASH: It sure didn't seem like it. But he is a private person and I think that did cause some problems for him because he wasn't ready to talk about things until it got too late.

Alina, just released poll numbers show a majority of Americans say the U.S. and other countries should not get involved in Syria. And 52 percent against the idea of U.S. or other country's military airplanes and missiles to try to establish safe zones for the Syrian opposition. And 43 are for the idea. All of this as a gruesome scene unfolds there. More than 100 who had gone out to buy bread who hadn't had it for one week, they were killed as they lined up at a bakery to get that bread. The death toll is expected to go.

Mohammed Jamjoom is following developments from Beirut and joins us by phone. We must warn you that some of the video you're about to see is extremely graphic that we're going to see over Mohammed's report. Mohammed, what can you tell us? MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Dana, horrific and very grizzly details that emerged since that attack on that bakery on Sunday. Opposition activists tell us that hundreds were lined up to get bread from the bakery. It was the first time it opened in over a week in the town of Haifa. That's when it was shelled by a warplane overhead and that there were at least 100 people that were killed in that attack.

The amateur video posted online shows an extremely gruesome scene, mangled corpses in the rubble. You can see rebel army officers and civilians trying to help the wounded, just a terrible, terrible tragedy according to whom we've been speaking with.

Now, the residents that we talked to said that that town harbors a lot of antigovernment sentiment, that it had been liberated by rebels free Syrian army members just over a week ago. And they say because of that they were deliberately targeted by the regime yesterday. Now, the Syrian government for its part issued a statement in which they blame what happened on terrorists. That's the term they always use when talking about rebel fighters. The Syrian government says that in fact the townspeople called for help, called for intervention from the Syrian regime, and they sent in military and started killing and arresting terrorists there.

Now, all this happening as diplomacy is still going on to try to forge some sort of peaceful path forward Syria, which is in such dire crisis. Laktah Brahimi, who is the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, arrived in Damascus last night and he met today with Syrian president Assad and he left the country since then, but he spoke to reporters briefly this morning and told them about his discussions with Assad. Here is more of what Mr. Brahimi had to say.

Dana, Mr. Brahimi has since left Syria. He says the situation is dire and he hopes they can come to some agreement to alleviate the misery for the Syrian people.

BASH: Mohammed Jamjoom, I said you are on the phone, and we were lucky enough to get you face to face. Thank you for that and for that report as gruesome and grim as it was.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, criticisms from the right and left, controversy brewing over Chuck Hagel's possible nomination as defense secretary. Will the president go all in or go with someone else?

CHO: And fired for being simply too irresistible, why one state's highest court says not a problem. This is a story you really do have to hear and see to believe. We'll bring it to you, next.


BASH: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. President Obama hadn't even nominated former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel as his choice for the secretary of defense, but he's already getting heat from some lawmakers, Hagel's former colleagues in Washington. Hagel is the target of a new ad opposing a possible nomination. Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon with more. Barbara, what are you hearing about this nomination?

STARR: Dana, you have been following it up on Capitol Hill. I am looking at it from this side here at the Pentagon. Nothing but controversy erupting now. It began, you know, when the buzz started to grow. So there is a couple of issues that Hagel is now facing. One is Iran. Is he tough enough? Did he really support sanctions on Iran?

But the big one, the question of Israel. Criticism all the way back to 2007 when then knife senator Hagel made a remark about, in his words, the "Jewish lobby" intimidating lawmakers in Washington. That remark has come back. Other independent many people say -- independent views that Hagel has separate from the Republican party, separate from the Democrats, about Israel. So now you see the first real public opposition. The Emergency Committee for Israel has put out a commercial opposing Hagel. Have a listen to a bit of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Obama says all options on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran. Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.

President Obama, for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.


STARR: Now, keep in mind, his nomination, as you well know, everybody knows, isn't even out there yet. The White House has not put out a nomination, but you are beginning see that reaction from the Hill. Over the weekend, some very key senators spoke out about Chuck Hagel.


LIEBERMAN: I would have some really serious questions to ask him, not just about Israel, but to me the most significant foreign policy challenge for President Obama in our country and the world in the next year or two is Iran and the nuclear weapons program. Chuck Hagel has had some very outlying votes on that.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't think he will get many Republican votes. I like Chuck, but his positions, I didn't really, frankly, know all of them, are really out of the mainstream and well to the left of the president.


STARR: So on Iran, the rap against Hagel is that he cast some votes not supporting Iranian sanctions. On Israel, these remarks that he's made in the past coming back to haunt him now. We'll have on-to-see in coming days if it becomes the fact that Hagel is White House nominee.

BASH: Barbara, this is such an odd situation because the whole idea of nominating Hagel is it would be a bipartisan choice. He is a Republican, former Republican senator, who would be in a Democratic administration. But it's Republicans who are out against him. Have you heard of any support for him in this process?

STARR: Well, you know there, are people who are coming out and supporting him. There have been public letters from former, very prominent generals, admirals, ambassadors with both sides of the aisle, political affiliations if you will.

But the problem perhaps is this right now it's against the back drop of the Susan Rice nomination that never happened either, right? So the thing that people are starting to talk about, if the Hagel potential nomination sits there too many days without the White House coming out one way or the other, nominating him or cutting him loose, this gives time for opposition to grow, time for there to be more rhetoric on the whole thing, and it may force the White House hand not to nominate him, and that will be a political cost to the president many say, because it will be the second potential nomination he had to back away from.

BASH: And who would be out there if he were to back away? What about other candidates?

STARR: It's interesting. It's really only two people that have been spoken about. One is a man, Ash Carter, currently the deputy secretary, number two here at the Pentagon, the other one, Michelle Flornoy. She was essentially number three at the Pentagon before she left many months ago. A lot of people say the White House political may want to go with Michelle Flornoy to make history by trying to nominate the first female secretary of defense. Dana?

BASH: That would be something, that's for sure. Barbara, thank you very much.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, Prince Harry's turning point in Afghanistan. We'll bring you new details about his latest mission, unlike any he's been on before.

CHO: And from actor to senator? Ben Affleck may be considering a run for office.


BASH: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Some top stories. Investors will have to wait for news on the fiscal cliff until after Christmas. That uncertainty is pushing markets lower. Stock futures for the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 all down this morning. Trading is expected to be light with high volatility today. And markets close early at 1:00 p.m. eastern.

And a red alert for a possible volcanic eruption in Chile. The volcano sits high in the Andes mountains on the border with Argentina and it might be poised to blow. So far, Chile's geological service has not sent out a mandatory evacuation order.

CHO: Meanwhile, there are reports that Prince Harry killed his first Taliban fighter in Afghanistan as he flew to the rescue of a patrol that had come under attack. According to London's "Daily Telegraph" defense sources deny reports that he killed a Taliban commander, but admitted he had deployed his weapon. The prince is nearing an end of a four-month tour of duty in Helmand province.

BASH: And a federal judge has given the final signoff on the BP settlement with the businesses and people affected by the 2010 oil spill. BP expects to pay out $7.8 billion. That class action suit includes claims from thousands of businesses and individuals in five states on the Gulf of Mexico. BP still faces many other lawsuits related to the oil spill, including a major civil trial in February.

CHO: A memorial for Sandy Hook victims and a show of support for tighter gun laws in New York. Hundreds of demonstrators holding candles marched over New York City's Brooklyn bridge and stopped in the middle of the bridge to read the names of the children and adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

And it is Christmas Eve, and around the world some key events are already getting under way. Right now thousands are celebrating in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Tonight there will be a midnight mass at Bethlehem's church of the holy nativity. And at the Vatican, Pope Benedict will celebrate with a Christmas Eve mass at 4:00 p.m. eastern time.

CHO: Incredible live pictures.

And a cyber war with Santa right in the middle. If you and your little ones want to keep tabs on Santa this holiday season, you now have you options, not one, but two Santa trackers. That's right the ever reliable stand by at, currently over Russia, and Google's new version, which includes games and activities. You can find that at Dana?

BASH: I think we could keep it old school with NORAD. We can try both.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, the NRA doubles down on calls forearmed police officers at all schools, but there is a lot of criticism from both sides of the aisle that that's not the right solution. A former political director of the NRA who is a member and owns 140 firearms himself joins us next to respond.

CHO: And it might not be fair, but it's not illegal. A woman fired for being too irresistible, and the court says that's totally fine. You have got to hear this story, coming up.


CHO: And welcome back to a very special edition of STARTING POINT. I'm Alina Cho in New York. It's 30 minutes past the hour. I say special because in the nearly nine years that I've been here, I have never anchored a show with my friend Dana Bash. Hey, Dana, good morning.

KAYE: Hey, it's great to be here, great to be with you, Alina. I am Dana Bash in D.C. Thanks for joining us on this Christmas Eve morning.