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College Football Player's Tragic Story a Hoax; Americans Held Hostage in Algeria; Boeing Airliner Fleet Grounded

Aired January 17, 2013 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning: a bizarre and cruel joke. Was Notre Dame's star linebacker, Manti Te'O, the victim of the sick prank? It turns out his girlfriend who died, well, she never even existed. We're digging into the mystery this morning.

And Americans taken hostage captured by militants in Algeria. We'll tell you why they were attacked and what's being done right now to help them. A lot of report ahead.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And it just gets worse for Boeing. Dreamliner is now grounded in the U.S. and Europe along with Japan. Weren't they supposed to be the aircraft of the future?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": And the president lays out his aggressive new plan for gun control, but with some Republicans rejecting it and some Democrats cool, does it have any chance to get through Congress?

O'BRIEN: Our guests this morning include ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mark Schlerth; Timothy Burke, the assignment editor who broke the story on this and about Manti Te'O. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine is going to join us. New York Congressman Peter King will be with us.

And then remember Katie Beers. Twenty years ago, her story was headlines across New York and around the nation, her infamous kidnapping experience. How she survived and thrived after it? We'll have that story, too.

It's Thursday, January 17th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome, everybody. We start this morning with the story that everybody is talking about. It is crazy. You will remember that inspirational story behind Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'O's amazing season. His girlfriend, how they met. She was in a car accident, then she died of leukemia. All of it apparently was a complete hoax. Here is what he said at the time.


MANTI TE'O, NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL PLAYER: I cried. I yelled. Never felt that way before. This is six hours ago I found out grandma passed away, and you take -- you know, the love of my life. Last thing she said to me was I love you. And that was it.


O'BRIEN: Over the course of months, we heard about him fighting through the grief over her death as he was leading the Irish to the BCS championship game. But it turned out in fact that girlfriend did not die. In fact, according to the website "Deadspin," she never existed. Notre Dame says that Te'O was the victim of a very cruel hoax.

CNN's Ted Rowlands live for us in South Bend, Indiana, with more details on what's I think completely fair to say a bizarre story. Good morning.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Absolutely there are a lot of unanswered questions. One thing is clear. University of Notre Dame is standing by their football star.


ROWLANDS: University of Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick fought back tears while discussing Manti Te'O at a late news conference. He's convinced that Te'O is the victim of an elaborate hoax.

JACK SWARBRICK, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, NOTRE DAME: That the single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life.

ROWLANDS: The story of the star linebacker enduring the death of his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day transcended sports. People around the world were touched by how in love he seemed to be Lennay Contakakua, the girl he called his soul mate.

TE'O: I cried, yelled, never felt that way before. Six hours ago, I found out grandma passed away, and you take the love of my life.

ROWLANDS: On the day of his girlfriend's supposed funeral, Te'O played football. After the game, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly awarded the ball to the girl that we now know doesn't exist.

SWARBRICK: I want to award this game ball to Lennay, and I would like Manti to have this ball to take back to Hawaii.

ROWLANDS: Te'o told his coaches about the hoax on December 26th. Notre Dame kept the truth under wraps, despite the fact that the media was still telling the story leading up to the national championship game.

SWARBRICK: From the outset, we established the parameter that this was Manti's story to tell. We wanted to know when it would be told, how it was would be told, but it was his to tell.

ROWLANDS: One of the reporter that broke the hoax story doesn't think Te'O's story doesn't add up.

SWARBRICK: Te'O's story that he's completely innocent in this doesn't shake through for us. ROWLANDS: What still isn't clear is why didn't Manti Te'O ever mention that he'd never actually met Lennay when talking about how much he loved her? How did the story about how they first met at a football game start? And if it wasn't true, why didn't he correct it? And how could he have been so in love with someone he ever never actually met face to face.

SWARBRICK: I think as Manti tells the story, you will see the same thing I saw. It does fully line up.


ROWLANDS: And Notre Dame officials say they are under the impression that Manti Te'O will tell his story sometime over the next few days, but nothing from Te'O or his agent how exactly he will do that or when he will do that. He did release a statement which says in part "This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We met, maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew deeply to care about her. To realize I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was and is painful and humiliating."

Soledad, clearly a lot of questions still remain surrounding this story.

O'BRIEN: Questions he has to answer. Ted Rowlands, thank you very much. Appreciate the walk through of that woven story.

There are other stories making news this morning, and John Berman has that for us. Good morning.

BERMAN: Good morning, Soledad. An international standoff happening right now. Americans among dozens being held hostage by Islamist militants at a gas facility in Algeria. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quick to speak about what's happening.


LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: By all indications this is a terrorist act, and the United States strongly condemns these kinds of terrorist acts. It's a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others.


BERMAN: Dan Rivers is live for us in London right now. What do we know about the group taking responsibility?

DAN RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that had are sort of a splinter group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, led by Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar. He fought in Afghanistan in the '80s against the Soviets. He has been involved in people trafficking, drugs, and he has done a lot of kidnapping as well, most of it motivated by ransom and money, which perhaps gives some hope that this might end up getting resolved.

But he's certainly a very notorious character, lost an eye during combat, described by French intelligence as "Mr. Uncatchable," known locally as Mr. Marlboro because he's involved in cigarette smuggling. And one expert I spoke to this morning here said this is part of a wider regional conflict linked to Mali, that these Islamist groups in Algeria are getting in on it, furious that Algeria has allowed French planes to fly over Algerian airspace to attack insurgents, Islamists in northern Mali.

BERMAN: Dan, what about plans or missions to get hostages out?

RIVERS: Well, we know from the ministry of information in Algeria, that they are surrounded, the terrorists, and that a large number of security forces have gone to the gas plant. They were conflicting reports of the Algerians having escaped. We don't know. We can't confirm that.

There's a lot we don't know about the exact number of hostages, and the Algerian ministry of information saying about 20. They were in three cars on their way to the airport when they were ambushed. They go back to the base, Islamists follow them and take them hostage there. We're getting reports from one French source, suggesting that Algerians in the plant are free to carry on, going about their business, it's just westerners being held and who are being videotaped and tied up.

Dan Rivers in London this morning, thank you very much.

One month after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Obama moving to tighten gun control laws and calling on Congress to do the same. Yesterday he signed 23 executive actions that do not need congressional approval, but he wants Congress to ban military style assault weapons and expand background checks to include all gun buyers.


BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If there is even one thing to do to reduce gun violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.


BERMAN: Congress so far appears lukewarm on proposals to tighten gun control laws, and support among Americans has dropped slightly. A CNN/ORC poll shows 56 percent support a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, down from 62 percent in December.

President Obama expected to name his close aide deputy national security adviser Dennis McDonough as his new chief of staff. He will replace Jack Lew, who was nominated to be new treasury secretary.

Check your flights, winter storm warnings in effect today from Mississippi to Washington, D.C. places you don't normally hear.


BERMAN: So part one of Oprah Winfrey's one-on-one with disgraced cycling legend Lance Armstrong will air tonight. It is widely reported now that he will admit to doping. What else is he going to say? The damage control is already underway. A source tells us Armstrong already in talks to return some endorsement money. Stay with CNN tonight for a complete wrap with Anderson Cooper, and Saturday night a closer look at the constant doping chatter that dogged Armstrong for years, "The world according to Lance Armstrong." Remember when Lance Armstrong was the most complicated sports story in the world?

O'BRIEN: And today it's not.

We're going to talk more about Manti Te'O's story and how it's disintegrating straight ahead. First we want to talk about another thing that's falling apart. For Boeing, the Dreamliners grounded. European officials joining Japan and the FAA grounding the 787s because of a fire risk linked to battery failure. It comes after two emergency landings as a result of overheating lithium batteries. United is the only U.S. carrier that operates the Dreamliner. Christine has been following the story for weeks.

ROMANS: And they will be grounded today. What it means for Boeing, Boeing shares down three percent in pre-market trading. Boeing shares have been down the past five days.

The Dreamliner is the marquee aircraft for Boeing. It's lightweight carbon composite materials. Most sophisticated electrical systems outside of space travel, a list price between $260 and $400 million dollars. The lithium ion batteries made by a Japanese company, the FAA before further fight operations of the Boeing 787 aircraft, must demonstrate batteries are safe and in compliance, since September, a fuel leak, oil leak, two cracked engines and a damaged cockpit window.

Grounding an entire fleet is rare. The last grounding on this scale was in 1979 after a crash in Chicago grounded D.C. 10s. Something to remember about this Dreamliner, this was supposed to be the miracle of outsourcing. Boeing was going to take the best engineering and the best companies around the world, design and then farm out production of pieces.

O'BRIEN: Save a lot of money.

ROMANS: Assemble it in Seattle to the best, most high-tech plane out there. From the very beginning, three years late, way over-budget. They would literally get pieces back to Seattle that didn't fit. They had to redo a lot of the stuff. And now they are trying to figure out what exactly are the kinks that grounded the airlines.

O'BRIEN: What a mess since the beginning of the year, just a disaster.

We're also following this morning a story, a developing story of Americans being held hostage in Algeria. Word has come that some hostages have escaped. Which hostages? How many? How does the U.S. deal with a situation like this? We'll talk to a former FBI kidnapping negotiator who has been in this situation before.

Then there's other business news outside of Boeing to talk about.

ROMANS: That's right, new mortgage rules meant to protect homeowners facing foreclosure. Do they go far enough to prevent foreclosure in the first place? We'll look at that.


O'BRIEN: Morning, welcome back, everybody. This is just into CNN. Reports in Algerian media this morning that some hostages are being held by Islamic extremists and they have now escaped. We're trying to confirm that.

Here's what we know so far. We know that there are some Americans being held. We don't know exactly how many or if the Americans are in fact among who have escaped. It happened at a natural gas field operated by BP. An offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb is taking credit for the kidnapping. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta didn't mince words when he described the situation.

We want to get this morning to FBI's former lead international kidnapping negotiator, the CEO of the Black Swan Group, a private negotiating group. Thank you for talking with us, Chris Voss.


O'BRIEN: There's so much we don't know at this time. We do know that the workers were in this gas field, joint venture operated by three oil companies, including British petroleum and the Algerian state oil company and some kind of fire fight. In the end it looks like jihadists control the plant. What happens now? We heard there will not be any negotiations with these people according to the Algerian interior minister. What happened?

VOSS: Well, you establish communication. Let the situation settle down a bit. Terrorists will secure the site, and it was no problem for them, letting some hostages go. Difficult to manage that many hostages, and they want to keep the high-value hostages, the westerners. They will try to settle in and set up their defenses.

And they have to make demands. They have things they clearly want. They want prisoners to be released and some lines of communication will be established, and the authorities will -- ideally will look at communication as a weapon to manipulate them and arrange an outcome, either there is an assault or get everybody released.

O'BRIEN: Kidnappings, hostage taking we know is not that unusual, especially massive international companies, and often the companies will pay out money to the kidnappers. But with this political motivation, seems like it would be less likely. Do you think that's true?

VOSS: Some of the motivation will be a cover because the terrorists here are really bandits. There's a kidnapping industry thriving in this part of the world and used to making money. This is a business for them, an opportunity to make a lot more money. Make noise about political demands in the hopes that money will be offered to save the people and secondarily the facility. They will try to settle this for money.

O'BRIEN: So there could be negotiations that could involve money. What about a rescue attempt. How likely is it that that is being planned by people in the United States?

VOSS: Planning began on this from the moment that it started. Now there, is a lot of approach problems here. It will be difficult to come in by surprise. The facility is also physical very complicated. It's easy to defend, hard to get into. There's a lot of structures that are scattered all over the place. Not like a single retaining wall or series of walls that can be easily navigated. So an assault on this complex will be very, very difficult.

O'BRIEN: Chris Voss is a former lead FBI kidnapping negotiator. Thank you for joining us. We'll continue to follow the story and get information about who exactly the escapees are, and the hostages that remain.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, it's one way of getting out of your work. A program developer, software developer, gets caught outsourcing his work to China. We'll tell you how the company figured out he hired people to do his job. That is ahead.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans minding your business. U.S. stock futures are mixed. Big bank earnings in focus today. Boeing also in the spotlight today as 90 percent of its Dreamliner planes are grounded around the world. Boeing shares are down three percent and the DOW component, it could pull down the DOW.

Gun stocks getting a lot of attention. Shares of commercial gun makers and retailers who sell guns have been up, up, since the school shooting in Newtown. Look at Stern Rugger and Smith & Wesson stockers over the past year. Both of those shares are up since the Newtown massacre.

Also, some of the Calsters, the California Teachers Retirement Fund, a few weeks ago now the New York state comptroller's office saying it is freezing it investments in gun makers.

Amazing entrepreneur, clever delegator, both? A Verizon case study breaks down the life of programmer named Bob. He outsourced his own job to China. The company said they discovered his computer systems were being accessed from China and initially thought hackers were involved. Not so. It turns out Bob, the programmer, hired a firm in Shenyang to do his work, coming in on a schedule that mimicked his 9:00 to 5:00 job, and then Bob paid them just one-fifth of his salary. Bob has been fired.

O'BRIEN: Bob is not so smart in the sense that didn't he realize that people would be able to figure out that someone in China is accessing computers in the company. He sent them his pass key.

BERMAN: But the fact that bob was able to pull it off at all, I don't think he's totally stupid.

ROMANS: Subcontracting his own job overseas, there's some brilliance to it.

O'BRIEN: Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, Washington preparing for a fight over the president's new gun control agenda. Will his own party support the plan? We'll speak with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine who instituted changes to his own state after the Virginia Tech shootings.

Beyonce isn't the only part of the "GQ" issue that has everybody buzzing. There are categories like "hottest Indian chick," and hottest Italian chick." Yes, it's weird and odd. We'll talk about that, straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. Our team this morning, Will Cain is back. He's a columnist for Richard Socarides is with us. He's a writer for And Rana Foroohar is an assistant managing editor at "TIME" magazine. Welcome.

What to talk about this morning, there's a sweeping effort to try to change the nation's gun laws. The president announced a plan, he spoke about how one of the young victims, a little girl named Grace McDonald, a victim of Sandy Hook, inspires him.


BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings, and I hung it in my private study just off the Oval Office. And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace. And I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now.


O'BRIEN: The president's plan includes 23 actions that won't have to include Congress, but he's asking for help from Congress on a number of other measures, including a new assault weapons ban, universal background checks for every gun sale, a ban on high-capacity magazines that will hold more than 10 bullets, and stronger penalties for drug trafficking.