Return to Transcripts main page


Obama Meets with Netanyahu; Allegations of Chemical Warfare in Syria Emerge; Long Waits in Security Hamper Tourists; U.N. will Consider a Global Arms Ban; Some British Moms Angry At Cameron; NASA's Asteroid Plan

Aired March 20, 2013 - 12:30   ET



FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, ANCHOR: President Barack Obama is meeting this hour with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they discuss tough issues facing that entire region.

MICHAEL HOLMES, ANCHOR: Yeah, allegations of chemical warfare now, of course, emerging in Syria. You've got Iran's nuclear program and then the stalled-for-a-long-time talks between Israel and the Palestinians, all of that on the agenda.

WHITFIELD: Wolf Blitzer joining us from Washington to put some of this into context for us.

Wolf, first of all, this is the president's first visit to Israel since taking office. Why now? What's the significance of the timing?

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": I think there's some critical issues going on.

The whole region seems to be in turmoil right now, North Africa throughout the Middle East. If you go through to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I haven't seen so much volatility in this area in a long time, if ever.

And there's real problems in Israel right now. It's got problems, obviously, from Egypt and from Gaza. There's a new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt.

In the north, there's Lebanon with Hezbollah having a big role, the Israelis very fearful of what's going on there.

If you move to Syria, we all know what's happening there, especially over the past 24 hours, reports that maybe chemical weapons were used, reports that haven't been verified by U.S. intelligence.

You keep moving down the road through Jordan and Iraq and Iran.

I think the president wanted to coordinate strategy with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. He's just formed a brand new government.

They both have to work together over the next four years. And I think President Obama wanted to make sure that both of these governments were on the same page on these really sensitive issues.

HOLMES: Yeah, you mentioned Syria, Wolf, and the accusations flying back and forth about chemical weapons. And the Obama administration has said in the past this would be a game-changer, that it's a red line.

You know, as we were discussing earlier with Ivan Watson, tens of thousands of people have been readily killed by conventional weapons, why would this make it different?

BLITZER: I think the great fear that the U.S. has, that the Obama administration has, certainly the Israelis have, is that, if these weapons, if these stockpiles, got into the wrong hands, they sense right now -- I think they still sense -- that the Syrian military of President Bashar al-Assad, even though he's desperate, even though he may be on his last leg, he's probably not going to use extensively chemical weapons.

But they fear that these weapons could get in the hands of terrorists, sympathizers to al Qaeda. Al Nusra, that whole group in Syria, is getting pretty robust right now.

If it got into the hands of Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel see as an extension, in effect, of Iran, there would be deep concern.

I don't think the Israelis would allow that to happen. I think they would use military force to prevent that if necessary. And I suspect the United States would, as well.

So, this is a really sensitive moment right now in the region. And it underscores how delicate these talks are between the president and the prime minister.

HOLMES: All right.

WHITFIELD: Wolf Blitzer, thanks so much.

HOLMES: See you in "The Situation Room" a little bit later, Wolf.

WHITFIELD: 4:00 Eastern time for that.

BLITZER: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right, so, you know, the last time you flew from overseas coming into the U.S., you likely encountered long lines at the security, right? Bag searched and all that good stuff?

HOLMES: If it arrived. Had a couple of those. Had a couple of those happen.

Well, overseas travelers coming into the U.S. say they're sick of it and they're staying away.


WHITFIELD: Why would people not want to come to the United States? Apparently, tourists are becoming very hesitant.

HOLMES: They are. And why? Because a new survey says one of the big reasons is unwelcoming customs procedures, among other things.

WHITFIELD: Lines too long, among other things.

Zain Asher is in New York. Zain, so, what are our friends overseas saying?


Well, according to the survey, it's really not guilty not good. Forty-three percent of visitors say they would tell other people to avoid coming to the U.S. because of the entry process. They're talking about those long immigration lines. We've all been there.

The survey also said that two-thirds of business travelers won't visit the U.S. in the next five years because of the customs process, as well.

So, these are really staggering numbers, especially considering just how important tourism is to the U.S. in terms of economic activity. It technically counts sort of eight percent of all U.S. exports last year.

And I do also want to mention the group compiled this report, that the U.S. Travel Association -- they're a lobby group and they only surveyed travelers from six countries.

So, it may not necessarily be the best representation, but still, you know, if this is how travelers feel, especially business ones, it's a huge problem since they're often the big spenders.

I did some digging myself and I wanted to look at just how long wait times are at international airports across the U.S.

Take a look. Some of them are actually pretty staggering.

JFK, in particular, no surprises there, two hours. Washington, D.C., Dulles Airport, and LAX, both one hour. But Minneapolis faring pretty well, just a little over 30 minutes if you're traveling from overseas landing in Minneapolis.



WHITFIELD: Not bad. Minneapolis, not bad. The rest, bad.

HOLMES: Minneapolis, not bad, yeah.

And it's the lines for the international visitors, too. U.S. lines are always shorter than the ones for us foreigners.

But the thing is, too -- yeah, Zain is nodding. You've got these forced spending cuts. And that's just going to make it worse, isn't it?

ASHER: Yeah, definitely. We're already seeing signs in airports saying that staffing has already been reduced.

Government spending cuts means reductions must actually be applied to almost every Homeland Security program, including customs and border protection.

The agency recently said that budget cuts will, quote, "negatively effect the mission-readiness and capabilities of men and women on the front lines." That, of course, includes border patrol officers.

And since the Commerce Department is actually expecting about a four- percent growth in travel and tourism this year, those wait times, which we all hate, could get even worse.


WHITFIELD: Oh, boy. Thanks for the good news, Zain.

HOLMES: Yeah, thanks for that.

WHITFIELD: You're encouraging.

HOLMES: We'll stay put then, shall we?


HOLMES: Zain Asher there.

WHITFIELD: Zain Asher.

OK, here we go again.

HOLMES: Yeah, here we go again, more harsh comments about stay-at- home moms.

WHITFIELD: Poor choice of words.

HOLMES: Yes, it is.

WHITFIELD: Or is it something more than that? This time it's coming, actually, from the office of the British prime minister.

Much more when we come right back.



This week 193 countries at the U.N. will consider a global treaty to limit the trade of everything from AK-47 assault rifles to hand grenades.

HOLMES: Yeah, the U.N. says small arms are flowing way too easily across borders and landing in the hands of gangs, rebels, pirates and terrorists.

WHITFIELD: The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says these weapons are fueling armed conflicts, crime and violations of human rights.

HOLMES: No kidding.

Well, a rare public appearance today from Britain's Queen Elizabeth who's been a bit unwell lately, accompanied by her husband, Prince Phillip, and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. The royal trio visited London's famed Baker Street tube station.

WHITFIELD: The London Underground is celebrating its 150th anniversary and, earlier this month, the 86-year-old monarch was admitted to the hospital with a stomach bug, and since her release, the palace has limited her schedule.

HOLMES: Good to see her out and about, though.

Now, check this out. It's a bowl that was sold for $2.2 million at an auction in New York on Tuesday.

WHITFIELD: Wow. It's a rare piece from China that's about 1,000 years old. Oh, my goodness. And it looks very delicate, doesn't it? The previous owners bought it for, get this, just $3 at a yard sale.

HOLMES: Don't you love those stories? You know the --

WHITFIELD: If only something like that would happen to me.

HOLMES: Exactly.

WHITFIELD: Then I'd really love that kind of story.

HOLMES: Oh, yes. They didn't -- they didn't know what it was, of course. It was sitting in their living room for years, apparently.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my goodness.

HOLMES: I don't know how it ended up at the auction house. But, boy, yes, I want to find one of those.

WHITFIELD: Well, it's a good thing it did.

HOLMES: Yes, indeed.

WHITFIELD: More than $2 million later.

HOLMES: Controversy here. British Prime Minister David Cameron coming under fire for comments his spokesman made, not him, about working parents. Comments that critics say bash stay at home mothers.

WHITFIELD: The spokesman announced a new government voucher program that pays working parents as much as $1,800 for child care. But then apparently when reports asked if Mr. Cameron was finalizing or rather penalizing stay at home moms, well, the spokesperson maybe didn't use the best choice words. HOLMES: Yes. (INAUDIBLE) you might say, said this. "Very important as part of supporting those who want to" -- and here are the words -- "work hard and to get on." Really? Yes. The spokesman also said, "the announcement is very specifically focusing on helping those who want to work hard and face the very high child care costs."

WHITFIELD: Oh, boy. So he also said Mr. Cameron wants to support aspiration.

HOLMES: So the moms aren't working hard and don't aspire enough, clearly (INAUDIBLE). The prime minister's critics are saying, of course, the implications of stay at home moms don't work hard. But joining us now from her home in Surry (ph) in England is Lynne Burnham with the group Mothers at Home Matter.

It's really hard to believe these comments were even said. Are you shocked?

LYNNE BURNHAM, MOTHERS AT HOME MATTER: I'm very shocked. I'm completely gobsmacked. Unbelievable.

WHITFIELD: So what are moms saying about this? I mean are they really taking it for this spokesperson's words or just thinking that it's an anomaly, the program is not necessarily a reflection of what that spokesperson and how that person articulated it?

BURNHAM: No, it was -- it was certainly meant. It wasn't an anomaly in any way. What happened is over a period of months here in the U.K. is that the government has pushed a program to get mothers, and very young mothers, that means mothers whose children are very small still, back into the workplace. And first of all they did it by reducing and taking away child benefits, which was a universal tax credit that was given to all mothers. They did that five months ago. Now yesterday they announced that they were going to give credit to parents who were going out to work, but they weren't actually going to bring it into place until 2015 until the next government's in place. So we've got a long way to go until it actually happens.

HOLMES: You know, there was an interesting survey here in the United States, And just -- I'll give you the stats. They said that mothers spend about 94 hours a week working on their parental duties. This is no real surprise, I suppose, if you've got kids. Things like child care, cooking and cleaning. And if they were to get paid for those duties with today's sort of average salary rankings, it comes out to $112,000 a year you'd be paying them. So do you generally think that stay at home moms aren't respected in Great Britain or do you think, you know, generally speaking, within the community they are?

BURNHAM: No, they're not respected. They are certainly -- we're invisible in this country. I -- and there are only two countries in the whole world that don't recognize a family, that means a couple with children, in the tax system. That's the U.K. and Mexico.

WHITFIELD: So do you feel like this voucher should be extended to everyone, whether you're a stay at home -- whether you have a parent that's a stay at home or whether both parents are working outside the home?

BURNHAM: Well, yes, indeed. What people don't seem to understand is that the mother at home or indeed the father at home, although we call Mothers at Home Matter, do respect the choice of families to make that decision to have the father at home if that's what their family choice is. But what we wish for is a level playing field to enable a parent to take that decision. And at the moment, the odds are stacked up heavily against the families that decide to have one of their -- one of them at home with the children.

HOLMES: Yes, I think the discussion will continue in the U.K. It's certainly in the U.K. papers today that I was reading. And I want to thank you for joining us, Lynne Burnham with the group Mothers at Home Matter. Appreciate you joining us here.

BURNHAM: You're very welcome.

WHITFIELD: All right, there's one thing you can do if an asteroid is heading your way.

HOLMES: What's that?


HOLMES: That's about all you can do.

WHITFIELD: Real simple.

HOLMES: And that's the advice from NASA. So --

WHITFIELD: We should take their advice.

HOLMES: We should take their advice. Or go to the pub.


WHITFIELD: You'll probably remember this. It was the boom heard around the world.

HOLMES: Yes, that one. Remember that? Last month a meteor exploding over Russia. And on the same day, an asteroid had a close fly-by to Earth.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my. So in the wake of these events, Congress wants to know how the U.S. is actually protecting itself. NASA's chief provided this answer.


CHARLES BOLDEN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: The bottom line, as always, the funding did not come. And I don't care whose fault it is or if it's anybody's fault. We all know what we're facing today. And we're all sitting here today as the Congress and the administration try to figure out sequestration. Something that never should have happened. Nobody planned to happen. But we're facing it today. And so the answer to you is, if it's coming in three weeks, pray. (END VIDEO CLIP)


HOLMES: That's reassuring, isn't it?


HOLMES: Houston, we have a budget problem.

Chad Myers, is the sky falling?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. It isn't falling. We don't know anything that's headed our way just yet. That's good news. NASA says they know where 95 percent of these big asteroids are. That concerns me that they don't know where the other 5 percent are.

And the ones that came across and hit Russia, they know where 10 percent of those are. I don't like those odds. When there's --

WHITFIELD: Ten percent?

MYERS: When there's a 10 percent chance of rain, that means it's probably not going to rain. But there's a 90 percent chance of something else, right?


MYERS: So we don't know where almost 20,000 of these bigger than bus- size rocks are. They're out there. They're flying around. And it's a 3D collision course. No, it's out there. We're going to have to see. You know, they said right now it's still how much doesn't matter. How much money you spend, it would still take five years to deflect anything that we see coming. So not only if it's coming in three weeks, pray, if it's coming in two years, pray, if it's coming in three years, pray.


HOLMES: That's a lot of praying.

WHITFIELD: So we don't -- yes, that's a lot of praying.

MYERS: Right.

WHITFIELD: So we don't want to think that these bus-size rocks are likely to run into something or somehow dissipate or crumble on their own before they were to actually make impact.

MYERS: Something about the Russia size that we just saw is like a one in 100 year event.

HOLMES: Right. I'm still going with Bruce Willis.


HOLMES: Or a chilled sauvignon blanc, or pray, whatever you like. I don't mind.


MYERS: (INAUDIBLE) from New Zealand.

HOLMES: Something like that, yes.

Chad, always good to see you.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you.

HOLMES: Chad Myers there.

WHITFIELD: All right.

HOLMES: All right.

WHITFIELD: Got a little Olympic news, sort of. Swimmer Michael Phelps says he's staying out of the water.

HOLMES: Yes, he's OK with where he's at, at the moment. No more competing. Hear why, coming up.


WHITFIELD: All right, Michael Phelps, new look, new philosophy. And he says he doesn't even miss swimming.

HOLMES: I don't blame him. Imagine all those hours in the pool. Anyway, he's the world's most decorated Olympic swimmer, of course. He says he's not going to be making a comeback. He sat down with our very own Pedro Pinto.


PEDRO PINTO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I have to ask you. Michael Jordan did it. Mario Lemieux did it.


PINTO: Many boxers did it. You don't know what the question is yet?

PHELPS: I do. I mean I already know where you're going. There won't be --

PINTO: So is there a comeback?


PINTO: No way?


PINTO: Not even when you're here in Rio?

PHELPS: I'll be here. I'll be watching. But, no, I mean I've done everything I've wanted to in the sport. And there's no need to come back.

PINTO: What do you think you'll miss the most? The smell of the chlorine? Maybe not.

PHELPS: No. What's funny is, I just had -- I just had my hot tub filled up in my house and they put chlorine in it and I was like, man, I really don't miss that smell. I think it's just really just the people that I was able to swim with and the people that I was able to train with. I mean, I had the best groups. I had the coolest groups. The most relaxed groups of people to swim with every single day.

PINTO: Who do you think can take over the baton for U.S. swimming from you? Who's going to fill your shoes, if that's even possible?

PHELPS: You know, I think Missy has done a remarkable job. You know, Missy has done a great job. Allison Schmitt has done a great job. You know, Ryan is very versatile. We have a lot of great swimmers who can swim multiple events. And, you know, we have a great team. And there could be somebody that's up and coming that's going to be even better. We have no idea.



HOLMES: Yes, that's right.

WHITFIELD: Turning a new page.

HOLMES: Indeed. He, of course, earned a record 22 swimming medals at the Olympic summer games in Athens, Beijing, also London.

WHITFIELD: Still so incredible.

HOLMES: Oh, yes. Yes, 18 of those were gold, by the way.

WHITFIELD: That's right. Oh, my goodness. Well, if you're going to do it, you're going to do it right and he's done that.

HOLMES: He's definitely has. It's a good time to retire.

WHITFIELD: All the best to Michael.

HOLMES: Oh, I've got to go. Time is up, yes.

WHITFIELD: Oh, the other Michael's got to go now.

HOLMES: Lovely to see you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Good to see you too. We're going to have much more --

HOLMES: Yes, I'll see you tomorrow.

WHITFIELD: Yes, I'm going to see you tomorrow.

HOLMES: Yes, you stick around.

WHITFIELD: And we'll have much more in the NEWSROOM right after this.