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Obama Taps Jack Lew For Treasury; Gun Debate Takes Center Stage; Syria & Turkey Swap Prisoners; 15-Year-Old Bride Granted Special Divorce From 70-Year-Old Husband; Chavez Not Attending His Inauguration

Aired January 9, 2013 - 12:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Welcome to NEWSROOM INTERNATIONAL. I'm Michael Holmes, sitting in for Suzanne Malveaux. We're going to, as we always do, take you around the world in 60 minutes. And here's some of what we're working on at the moment.

Those relentless fires continue to burn across huge areas of southeastern Australia.

Lance Armstrong at the center of controversy again. This after reports that he tried to give $250,000 to an anti-doping agency.

But first, President Obama making another cabinet pick. That's what's topping the broadcast. The president will nominate White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to replace Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary. Let's bring in Dan Lothian at the White House. Also, Christine Romans standing by in New York.

Let's go to you first, Dan. Tell us about Jack Lew.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jack Lew, obviously, he's the chief of staff. Known as someone who's a real tough negotiator. He's someone who the president has complete trust in. In fact, when he was announced as the White House chief of staff, the president talked about the trust that he had in him, talked about how he had taken a part in helping to right the ailing economy. So the president very comfortable with him.

And this is also someone who has worked in a couple of administrations as the budget chief not only in this administration, but also in the Clinton administration. Helped to cut that 1997 balanced budget deal. So the White House sees him as someone with a lot of experience, ready to take on some of the big challenges over at the Treasury Department as we're facing the so-called mini cliffs, the big one coming up, obviously, the debt ceiling. Something he'll have to deal with right away, Michael.

HOLMES: Yes. Now, when is the announcement expected, the formal announcement of the nomination? And, you know, really, I guess, another partisan fight down the road?

LOTHIAN: Very well could be. I mean we've been trying to nail it down. All we have from sources is that it will happen sometime this week. Not certain if that will be tomorrow or Friday or even over the weekend, but it will happen sometime this week.

You know, we have seen already in other nominations that the president has put forward that there has been this pushback not only from Republicans but also some Democrats to the nominees. So, unclear how the Lew nomination will go. I think, by all accounts, everyone believes that he will be able to get confirmed. But there are some concerns, not only from Wall Street, but all the way to main street, that he doesn't have the kind of experience needed to tackle these big challenges ahead.

HOLMES: All right, Dan, thanks for that.

And, Christine, let's bring you in. Timothy Geithner, being with the president from the beginning, they have --


HOLMES: Boy, have they faced financial hurdles together. A lot of back room stuff, a lot of front room stuff, too. Now the government, of course, still facing that $16.4 trillion debt ceiling coming up. Why is the White House so sure Jack Lew is the man?

ROMANS: Because he's a budget guy. He has seen as the OMB director twice. He has overseen budgets in surplus and deficit under two different presidents. I mean he's someone who knows a budget and is known for his attention to detail.

And I think there's no surprise that Timothy Geithner, the secretary of the treasury, the last remaining holdout of the president's inner circle -- original inner circle of economic expert is happy to be moving on to the next thing. He's been serving through an awful lot of crisis after crisis. And now Jack Lew is not going to have any time to kind of like, you know, measure for drapes at the Treasury Department. He is going to have to get right down to business negotiating a very tough, very tough debt ceiling deal.

One of the things that you hear on Wall Street -- I mean most people on Wall Street think he will be easily confirmed. That's why he was a safe choice for the president. Well, you never know in Washington these days. But some folks on Wall Street, Republicans mostly, saying they are slightly concerned that he doesn't have more financial market experience, more business experience. He is a budget guy. But we live in an era of budget wars, so that certainly is a plus in terms of his resume.

HOLMES: What does he bring that Geithner doesn't or does he?

ROMANS: Well, you know, Geithner knew the bankers. Geithner knew Wall Street, how Wall Street works, how the financial markets work. Geithner was a very long, long followed all the inner workings of the international markets. Now, the interesting thing is that Jack Lew does have an awful lot of background. (INAUDIBLE) State Department with international issues and is seen as a real -- a real help on issues of the European debt crisis and European matters. So he does have that breadth as well. Just a slightly different -- just a slightly different background, quite frankly, and more budget focused background.

HOLMES: All right, Dan Lothian, Christine Romans with the very latest. Thanks for that.

All right, another big talker at the White House today is, of course, the national debate over guns. It is front and center from the White House to the governor's mansions. Vice President Biden meeting with victim's advocacy groups and gun safety organizations. Now, Vice President Biden leads that panel that is working on recommendations to reduce gun violence. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to propose new gun regulations in his state of the state address. That's happening in the next hour. And also we're going to have a chat with our very own Piers Morgan, who has found himself under fire, if we can use that term in this debate.

Just moments ago we heard from Vice President Biden. He says he is listening to all sides in the debate and that this is not an all or nothing process. Have a listen.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to make it clear that we are not going to get caught up in the notion, unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing. It's critically important we act. And there are certain things I know a great deal about almost all of your organizations. I've read what you have published and spoken to. And there is a pretty wide consensus on three or four or five things in the gun safety area that could and should be done around this table. You should know that tomorrow I've also invited the gun owners and the NRA to come and make their case as well.


HOLMES: Well, to help us set the stage for all of this, I want to bring in CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Good to see you, Jeff.

The gun lobby says this is all about the Second Amendment. Where is the legal line between the so-called individual right to bear arms and government responsibility to look after people?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Michael, I'm going to give you a ringing "I'm not sure" to that answer, because the Supreme Court has not really classified this. In 2008, a very important case known as the Heller decision, the Supreme Court said there is a constitutional right under the Second Amendment to possess a hand gun in your home for self protection. But how does that apply to larger weapons? How does it apply to weapons outside the home? How does it apply to background checks for the purchase of weapons? These are legal questions that remain open now.

Now, it is probably true that assault weapon bans would have no problems constitutionally. But because the Supreme Court has really changed the understanding of the Second Amendment and people can read it up there on the screen, or at least they could, that is a level of legal uncertainty, as well as the political uncertainty, about how this debate will be resolved.

HOLMES: Yes, you know, because as we said, we've got the vice president holding those meetings this week, working on recommendations to try to reduce gun violence. The president says he wants stuff on his desk this month. Other things the president could do by executive order, once he gets the recommendations, or all -- does it have to all go through Congress?

TOOBIN: There are certain matters around the edges that a president can do himself, but all the big decisions have to be made by Congress. You know, is there some sort of restriction on buying assault weapons? There was an assault weapons ban in this country for 10 years and people disagree about how effective it was, but he -- the president cannot reinstitute the ban by himself. Congress needs to do that.

There have been certain suggestions for restrictions on ammunition. You know, selling -- restrictions on selling bullets. That, again, is in Congress' hands. So it's mostly a congressional decision here and the president is going to have a very tough fight on his hands because there is a very strong lobby against any sort of gun control and a lot of -- a lot of members of Congress simply just don't believe it in.

HOLMES: All right, let's talk states now. New York already has some of the toughest gun laws, really, in the country. But Governor Cuomo wants to make them even tougher. As we mentioned, he's got this state of the state address coming up in the next hour. Expected to call for tightening that state's ban on assault style weapons. And he says the law has already more holes than Swiss cheese, they were his words. "Mother Jones" magazine, now it estimates there are approximately 300 million guns in this country. Look at that. From a legal standpoint, what can a governor do to try to control gun violence? Put any limits on gun ownership?

TOOBIN: Well, governors can do a lot in terms of banning the sale and even possession of certain kinds of weapons within their state. But the problem with guns, if you believe in gun control, is that guns are portable. And one point that Mayor Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, has made many times is that many of the guns that are used to commit crimes in New York City were purchased in Virginia, in North Carolina, in states that have very lax rules.

So, yes, it is true that states can do a lot to restrict gun purchases in the state, but in terms of stopping violence, which is what most people care about more than simply possession of guns, it's very hard to do something on a state by state basis. A national solution is really the only one that would work.

HOLMES: Yes, stick around, will you, Jeff. I want to bring in Piers now. And Piers Morgan, of course, in the middle of this rather fierce gun control debate. He's interview this week with radio host Alex Jones, a hot topic on social media. Piers joins us on the phone.

First, Piers, let's talk about Vice President Biden's meetings on gun violence. I mean what do you -- what do you hope to see come out of that?

PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST, "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" (via telephone): Well, it's time that America's politicians just woke up to the reality of what is happening in their country. You know, the last four mass shootings in America all involved deranged young men using AR-15 military style assault rifles. And these are killing machines. They have no place on civilian streets or in civilian hands. And the politicians can hide behind all sorts of rhetoric about the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms and all of this, but no one can convince me, and nobody has convinced me, the founding fathers ever envisioned a situation where disturbed young men in America could go to a Wal-Mart, or the equivalent, and buy one of these machine guns and go to a movie theater or a school or a church or a temple or just down the street and gun down fellow Americans. That is not what the Second Amendment is supposed to protect. And these politicians have been cowered (ph) by the NRA and the gun lobby for too long and it's time that they stood up and said enough.

HOLMES: Of course, back when it was written, it took 10 minutes to load a gun as well.

Let's talk a bit about that Alex Jones interview and the buzz it's creating. I mean (INAUDIBLE). You're English. I'm Australian. We look at this from an outsider's perspective and some people who do that are quite shocked by what they see in terms of the types of guns that are so readily available. You say Jones' rant about despots (ph) taking away guns backfired. One Twitter follower agrees with that. I think we've got a graphic we can show you. He says this. I think he, meaning you, handled him perfectly. Sat back and let Alex make his own noose. And so you -- I thought the same thing when you -- when you were -- when I was watching the interview. Did you feel that it did backfire on him?

MORGAN: Yes, I -- honestly, I thought it was the best advertisement for gun control that I could possibly have put on air. Alex Jones represents a very extreme, but a very influential and very vocal part of the gun lobby in America. He rants like this every day to millions of Americans. Most of whom believe what he says. This is a guy who believes that President Bush and his administration ordered the 9/11 disaster, for example. So you're talking with people who are scary in their thought process. And they believe that any (INAUDIBLE) who wants any form of gun control after any of these massacres is attacking the Second Amendment. In my case, they wanted to quote (ph) me, which, of course, would (ph) infringe my First Amendment rights, which is ridiculous.

Now you and I come from countries that both suffered in the mid 90s big massacres. In Australia it was actually Tasmania, (INAUDIBLE) Australia. In Britain, it was in Dunblane of Scotland. Thirty-five died in Tasmania. Sixteen in Dunblane. All school children. And in both countries, there was such national outrage and the unanimous view from the politicians of the country, in your case a right wing politician, John Howard (ph). In Britain it was first John Major (ph) and then Tony Blair. So right and left. And really significant gun control was brought in outlawing all forms of assault weapons and most hand guns. And, guess what, in Australia, you haven't had a mass shooting since 1996. And in Britain, we've had two much smaller mass shootings, but not a single shooting at a school and a gun murder rate of about 35 people a year, which I think is similar to Australia. In America 11,000 people are murdered with guns a year, 18,000 take their own life with guns a year, 100,000 Americans are hit by gun fire a year. And every time one of these massacres happens, all I hear is the gun lobbies saying, don't touch our guns.

Well, sorry, we're going to touch some of your guns because that's what a humane society does. It says, these assault rifles are killing Americans. There's no reason for them. We're going to take them off the street. And I applaud Michael Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo and President Obama and Joe Biden and the others for finally, I think, getting what most, I think, decent, civilized Americans want. It's not about taking away people's hand guns at home to defend their family. I get that. That is what I think the founding fathers intended by the Second Amendment. This is about removing machine guns from the streets of America and from civilian hands.

HOLMES: And very quickly, and finally, Piers, you know, I was reading online the Australian papers today and your encounter made the news down there, as it did in Great Britain, as well. Are you surprised by the ferocity of the debate and what it sparked? With your debate and what it sparked? Are you surprised at that?

MORGAN: Well, no, because I think the Sandy Hook massacre was one of the worst mass shootings in modern history anywhere in the world. It resonated all around the world. Twenty school children, six, seven years old, murdered with between three and eleven bullets each by a deranged young man who, by the way, whose mother had six weapons at home knowing he was disturbed and he took those weapons and committed an atrocity. If you can't do something about the gun magnets in America after something of that magnitude, you're never going to.

HOLMES: Right.

MORGAN: And I think it's good that Alex Jones has been trending on Twitter now for 36 hours, almost everywhere around the world. It's good that people see his rant. It's good that people see the very ugly side of the extreme elements of the gun lobby in America because they have had their way far too long.

This is not about taking away an American family or parent's right to have a gun at home to protect themselves or their family. That is what the Second Amendment's about.

It's not about these killing machines and nor is it about magazines, as in the case of the shooter, Holmes, in Aurora, that can have a hundred bullets. That was why he was able to kill so many people.

HOLMES: Right.

MORGAN: And then there are other issues involving the reduced funding for mental health in most states in this country which has to be corrected and the absurdity of 40 percent of all gun sales in America basically having no trace, no background checks and no database. It is absolute lunacy this is allowed to happen.

And, so, it is time the Congress stopped hiding in terror behind the political power they perceive the NRA to have and actually do what is right for the American people.

HOLMES: Right. Piers, good to talk to you, my friend. Piers Morgan there on the line and, also, our thanks to Jeffrey Toobin, too, for discussing this.

And, as Piers says, the debate's not going anywhere. Tonight, in fact, firearms lobbyist Larry Pratt will go one-on-one with Piers over guns in America, CNN tonight, live at 9:00 Eastern. Don't miss that.

Well, it's being called the biggest mass shooting of animals on record in Kenya. Those disturbing pictures, elephants slaughtered for their tusks to feed the demands of a growing -- still growing, believe it or not -- illegal ivory trade.


HOLMES: A huge prisoner swap has been under way in Syria today, the government releasing more than 2,000 Syrian and Turkish prisoners. In return, 48 Iranians were released by rebels.

Ivan Watson is covering developments, joins us now from Turkey. Ivan, you know, what's interesting here is the Iranians were saying these were religious pilgrims, but 48 for 2,000 would suggest otherwise.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean, the Iranians were saying these were pilgrims going to a Shiite holy site in Damascus when they were captured by Syrian rebels last August.

The rebels have been saying, no, in fact, some of these people were card-carrying members of the Iran's Revolutionary Guard corps. And a spokesman for the rebels, Michael, has told us that this prisoner swap is a big victory for the rebel Free Syrian Army. Take a listen.


LOUAI AL MIQDAD, FREE SYRIAN ARMY: It's a huge victory for us, it's a huge victory for the revolution and it's a huge victory for the Syrian people. We exchanged 2,130 hostages from the regime jail. Those people, they are our families, kids, women, normal people, civilian people.


WATSON: So, you can see the rebels are spinning this as their victory, even though it was basically a Turkish charity organization, Qatar and the Iranians that we believe who were involved in the negotiations in brokering this agreement.

Some of the more than 2,100 Syrians who were released, Michael, at least 70 of them were with ...

HOLMES: We lost the signal there with Ivan, but very interesting, too, that Qatar and Turkey are involved there and whether they may or may not at some future point be involved in other negotiations in Syria. We shall wait and see.

All right. She is just a teenager, forced to marry a 70-year-old man. A shocking story out of Saudi Arabia bringing to life a troubling trend.

Stay with us. We will be right back.


HOLMES: Welcome back. Human rights activists expressed outrage this week over a marriage in Saudi Arabia, a 70-year-old man wedding a 15- year-old girl after paying a dowry of $20,000 for her.

Earlier today, Saudi Arabia's human rights commission told CNN a divorce had been granted in this case. Mohammed Jamjoom has been following the case from Beirut. Spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed, tell us something more about this and how people in the region reacted to this because old men marrying young women, not illegal.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Michael. I spoke just a short while ago with the head of the human rights commission, Bandar al Aban (ph), in Saudi Arabia and he said that, as you mentioned, a divorce has been granted.

He said that a team from the human rights commission was dispatched to this small village in southwestern Saudi Arabia, that they spoke with the girl, her family and the husband today, that they resolved the dispute.

And that essentially what's going to happen is this divorce was granted. It's now going to be registered with the court and that this dowry that was paid by the husband to the family will be returned to the husband.

The husband had claimed yesterday that he had been ripped off, shockingly. He said that he paid this money and that because of that this girl, when she left the marriage house, that was going against the marriage contract and he was outraged because of that.

That man had also claimed that the girl was 25, but, in fact, the human rights commission says she is 15 that the girl never wanted to get married, that she wanted to escape the husband, that the marriage was not consummated and that now that marriage is final.

As you said, this caused a huge amount of outrage, not just in the region, but also in Saudi Arabia. A hash tag was actually created on Twitter by Saudi activists in which they were expressing how horrible it was that this was still allowed in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is a country where there is no minimum age for marriage and, until an age is established and legalized, child marriages like this can actually continue. Michael?

HOLMES: Yeah, you know, and so while it did outrage people in Saudi Arabia and certainly outside, it does happen. Is there any appetite for a change in the law or a law that would stop such things?

JAMJOOM: There is a huge appetite for changing the law. There is a growing number of people in Saudi Arabia, civilians, human rights activists, people calling for reform, saying that there needs to be a reform when it comes to the law, that the justice ministry needs to enact a law that would legalize the age of marriage. Many people saying it should be 18 at the very least.

The problem you have in Saudi Arabia is there are these extremely conservative blocs of the clerical establishment that oppose setting a minimum age for marriage.

And because there is such opposition and such heavy opposition from them, it is hard for the lawmakers to try to pass this into law.

So, even though there is a growing movement, you still have people trying to block this and, until it's settled, you're going to see that these child marriages can actually happen.

Yes, there is a growing amount of outrage in Saudi Arabia. Yes, that's a big deal, the fact that people are voicing this kind of criticism within Saudi Arabia, such a conservative kingdom, but these kinds of marriages can actually happen and happen more frequently than the kingdom would actually like to admit until such legislation is enacted.


HOLMES: Mohammed, thanks so much. Mohammed Jamjoom there in Beirut, spent a lot of time, as I said, in Saudi Arabia covering that nation.

Well, the family of a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran almost six years ago has released photographs of him in captivity. They show Bob Levinson in an orange jumpsuit, long unkempt gray hair, as you can see there, and the beard, holding various signs. One of them reads, "Why you cannot help me?" Reading there, verbatim.

A family spokesman says the photos were actually received 18 months ago, the family releasing them now because they haven't seen enough progress in the case. Levinson's family says he was working as a private investigator looking into cigarette smuggling when he went missing on a business trip to Iran's Kish Island.

The FBI has offered a million dollar reward for information leading to his safe return.

Well, it is now confirmed at last that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will not be attending his inauguration. No real surprise in that. Tomorrow is the big day, but the 58-year-old president has been undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba, so he can't take the oath of office in person. Obviously, that has been raising questions about his legitimacy. Venezuela's constitution isn't clear on whether the president can be sworn in on another day or who should be in charge in the meantime.

A ruling has been issued, though, by the Supreme Court there. President Chavez did leave for a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba last month. He's since been battling a severe lung infection.

The government said Monday his condition is stable. The supreme court in Venezuela, just in the last hour or so, saying that the inauguration can, in fact, be postponed which gives a window of opportunity to Chavez's many supporters. The opposition said that wasn't legal. Well, the court has ruled.

A four-month heat wave in Australia has sparked massive bush fires. We're going to take look at how climate change is wreaking havoc down under. Stay with us.