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Obama About To Land In Tel Aviv; Chemical Weapons Used In Syrian Civil War?; South Korea Cyber Attack; Sanford Wins Special Election; Campus Massacre Avoided?; "That Was Unfortunate"; First Day Of Spring; President Obama Arrives in Tel Aviv

Aired March 20, 2013 - 06:00   ET


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: -- representatives.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And developing this morning, a suspected cyber attack crippling networks in South Korea. Is North Korea behind it? Good morning and welcome to EARLY START, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in for John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It is Wednesday, March 20th. It is the first day of spring so happy spring to you. It is 6 a.m. in the east. Let's get started here.

In less than 30 minutes, President Obama is scheduled to touch down in Tel Aviv to begin a Middle East visit. That's taking on new urgency this morning. There is mounting concern the Syrian government has crossed the president's so-called red line by using chemical weapons on its own people near the city of Aleppo.

Listen to Mike Rogers. He is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He was in "THE SITUATION ROOM" last night with Wolf Blitzer.


REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used. We need that final verification. We need to step up in the world community to prevent a humanitarian disaster.


SAMBOLIN: We're covering this developing story with CNN's global resources. Sara Sidner is live in Jerusalem, Ivan Watson in Amman, Jordan and Chris Lawrence is standing by. He is live at the Pentagon.

So Sara, let's begin with you. Do these developments in Syria change the president's agenda for this trip? We knew that discussions of Syria were already on the agenda, but perhaps this has moved it up?

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly you're hearing from the White House that this could be a game changer if chemical weapons were, indeed, found to be used in Syria. The Syrian regime has been saying that it was the rebels who used them, but the United States doesn't buy that nor does Israel.

So this is certainly something that is going to be talked about. We did hear from a senior Israeli official who told me, look, we will be in discussions with the U.S. as to whether it needs to take some action, instead of, for example, Israel taking action.

You know that on January 30th the Israelis, according to a U.S. official, ended up striking inside Syria to keep Syria from sending missiles, surface-to-air missiles, very dangerous weapons, over to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group that both the U.S., and Israel, considers a terrorist organization.

Now we're talking chemical weapons. That has always been on the agenda, the concern, because dealing with chemical weapons is a very, very difficult thing to do. You can't just hit them from the air. Has to be something that has to go on the ground, to take out or at least try to secure.

So certainly this could ratchet up talks about Syria. But it already on the agenda and something that both Israel and the United States have been very concerned about -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Something else on the agenda, of course, is the peace process. How is the president planning to push that forward?

SIDNER: It's certainly a concern of the president and also Secretary of State John Kerry. We are hearing now that the secretary of state will be coming back here on Saturday to speak privately with Prime Minister Netanyahu about the peace process, trying to figure out what it is that can be done to get the peace process started again between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

You know it's been stalled for many years now, a lot of concern that it is going to die. But we are going to see the president coming here first talking to the prime minister, and then tomorrow he'll be headed over to the west bank to speak with President Mahmoud Abbas, who is going to be talking, of course, about the peace process, a lot of concern that nothing will come out of it -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Sara Sidner, live in Jerusalem for us. Thank you.

HARLOW: Also developing in the region this morning a lot of finger pointing in Syria, the Assad regime and rebel forces both accusing one another of using chemical weapons, Syrian state media yesterday claiming that opposition forces launched a chemical attack in Aleppo Province, killing at least two dozen people, injuring more than 100.

Rebels deny that charge and actually accuse the regime of shelling a town near Damascus with chemical rockets. CNN international correspondent Ivan Watson is in Amman, Jordan, following all of this.

Good morning, Ivan. A lot of questions still, but tell us what we know at this point.

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. What we have, the first news came out from the Syrian government itself, accusing the rebels of firing some kind of chemical weapons against this town to the west of Syria's largest city, Aleppo.

And claiming that at least 25 people were killed, dozens wounded, and Syrian state TV aired some interviews with some of the survivors, saying that they smelled chlorine, and accusing the rebels directly of using chemical weapons. The rebels were very quick to respond, denying these charges, and accusing the regime itself of firing some kind of chemical weapons in this area against its own troops.

Now some chemical weapons experts have gone already on the record saying hey, there is very little conclusive evidence thus far to prove that either side used any chemical weapons in this attack. We don't really know what happened on the ground in this area, some of my contacts in Aleppo say they can't get to this area because it's under regime control -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And I know, Ivan, you spent a lot of time in Syria and will be following this closely. Thank you very much, Ivan, reporting for us from Amman, Jordan this morning.

SAMBOLIN: The White House is monitoring the situation in Syria very closely and chief of staff says the president takes the report very seriously.


DENIS MCDONOUGH, NATIONAL SECURITY STAFF CHIEF OF STAFF: We are going to be very clear to the Syrian regime as we have been throughout and to all the Syrian supporters throughout the world, and then obviously to our partners in the region, that if this is substantiated, obviously it does suggest, as the president just said, that this is a game changer, and we'll act accordingly.


SAMBOLIN: Chris Lawrence is live at the Pentagon for us. And Chris, Senator McCain says that this is the red line that has been crossed. Will the U.S. take military action?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zoraida, we know that the U.S. military has been updating its options as the situation changes on the ground. So that if and when President Obama asks for that military option, they have an updated plan ready.

U.S. officials tell us that the U.S. has plenty of firepower in that region, including land bases, as well as jet fighters on board some of those aircraft carriers in the area. They also have ships capable of firing tomahawk missiles, which are very precision guided and can hit specific targets.

The danger, though, is that when you're hitting chemical targets you may disburse some of that chemical agent into the civilian population. Perhaps, a more specific one, that they're considering, is trying to bomb runways. So that some of the planes carrying these weapons wouldn't be able to take off or disrupting communication, cutting the communication lines. It's something that they did in Libya so that the command to fire could not be transmitted.

The only thing is, in Libya, there was a tighter command and control. In Syria, U.S. officials tell us, they may not be able to know exactly if the commanders on the ground would act on their own, without Assad's OK -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Very difficult situation. Chris Lawrence, reporting from the Pentagon. Thank you for that.


HARLOW: Developing story, a suspected cyber attack crippling computer networks in South Korea this morning. And South Korean officials say they don't know if North Korea is involved or not.

Hackers, leaving computer systems at three major media outlets and at least one major bank just paralyzed. The South Korean government raising its information operations condition to level three this morning. Level one is the highest threat level. More on this story throughout the morning here on CNN as we get more information.

SAMBOLIN: It looks like Mark Sanford has revised his political career. The former South Carolina governor finishing first last night, this is a special election, advancing to a runoff elections two weeks in his attempt to win a House seat.

Sanford had to step down as governor after lying about an extramarital affair in 2009. He registered 37 percent of the vote last night. Well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Still, Sanford says it was a humbling win.


MARK SANFORD (R), S.C. CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: What the voters ultimately care about is not my personal journey, what they care about is what am I going to do, if elected, to watch out for their pocketbook or their wallet.


SAMBOLIN: So if Sanford wins runoff elections in two weeks, he'll face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in May. She is the sister of TV comedian, Stephen Colbert.

HARLOW: A gas explosion in Grand Junction, Colorado, has left at least three people injured and forced evacuations. The Mesa County Sheriff's Office says a natural gas leak caused the house to explode on Tuesday afternoon. The house next door then also caught fire and that explosion forced the evacuation of two nearby schools and all the homes within a 10-block radius.

SAMBOLIN: A 911 call may have prevented a massacre at the University of Central Florida and now the man who made that call is speaking out. Police say suspect James Oliver Seevakumaran called the fire alarm at a UCF when his roommate came out to investigate the suspect allegedly pointed an assault rifle right at him. Here's what he had to say to CNN's Anderson Cooper.


ARABO "BK" BABAHKANI, ROOMMATE OF UCF GUNMAN: I was not going to let him shoot me. I just slammed the door, locked it, and I moved away from the door in case he fired at the door. I took some cover in my room so he wouldn't like be able to -- bullets wouldn't be able to penetrate anything and I called 911.


SAMBOLIN: I can't imagine those moments. By the time officers arrived Seevakumaran was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. And investigators say he had detailed plans for a campus massacre, four homemade bombs, a handgun, an assault weapon, and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

HARLOW: An awful story. Did you happen to catch Kansas City Mayor Sly James state of the city address? You're watching it on Saturday night? He probably never expected it to go viral. But again, he didn't expect this to happen, either.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Man -- talking about, exactly what -- become.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that was unfortunate.


HARLOW: What a way to handle it, wow. Mayor James is a former marine and that might explain why he did not even flinch when the man rushed up there to the podium. That man is a former candidate for the Missouri House. He, of course, has been taken into custody.

SAMBOLIN: Loved his response. That was unfortunate.

HARLOW: How cool, calm and collected.

SAMBOLIN: It may be the first day of spring, but much of the country is still buried in snow. We are live in the Midwest, where the mess is still causing some major problems this morning.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. Just in, you're looking at live pictures in Tel Aviv where President Obama has just touched down. He is scheduled to visit Jerusalem. He is also scheduled to visit Bethlehem.

But as you know, there is growing concern about chemical weapons being used in Syria that will also be high on the president's agenda today as he meets Netanyahu. We're going to continue to follow all of these developments for you.

But again, the president has just arrived in Tel Aviv, just touched down. We -- I don't think he's -- I don't think he's de-boarded the plane just yet. I believe the plane is taxiing right now.

But we do know that of high concern right now is the situation that is happening in Syria and the potential use of chemical weapons there in the city of Aleppo. We do understand that that was on the president's agenda to discuss.

But now growing concern whether or not that red line has been crossed and the discussions that will happen with Netanyahu. We're going to continue to follow these developments for you.

In the meantime, let's head over to Poppy.

HARLOW: Well, it's spring, right? Feels like it outside, folks. Today is officially the first day of spring, but for much of the country it sure doesn't look or feel like it. This is what New Hampshire is dealing with after a late-season snowstorm.

And it's not over. More snow also expected in parts of New England in the Upper Midwest, along with below freezing temperatures. Our Chris Welsh is live in Minneapolis for us this morning. Chris, it's cold, and there's a whole lot of snow behind you.

CHRIS WELCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is cold. Yes, you could tell me it's spring all you want but it doesn't feel like it. I know you know what these temperatures feel like being from part of this country.

Take a look at where I am right now. This is in downtown Minneapolis, one of those piles of snow they basically cleared a lot of the streets downtown and dump it in one of these parking lots. So, it's basically become a 15-foot pile of dirty snow. It's dirty because it's been here for a long time. It's been so cold it hasn't even had a chance to melt.

Now, it's not just here in the Midwest, folks from here all the way to New England dealing with this, and they're saying, enough already.


WELCH (voice-over): When Punxsutawney Phil showed up last month, he told us to prep for an early spring. Well, Punxsutawney Phil might be full of you-know-what.

Today is the official first day of spring, but winter's grip appears far from over. From the Midwest to New England, late season winter storms bringing as much as 15 inches of snow in some areas, leading to another round of school closures and travel nightmares.

In Maine, this was the scene on the roads earlier this week.

Worcester, Massachusetts, saw one of the snowiest winters on record with totals of more than 100 inches. Six of those fell this week. To add insult to injury, all you have to do is think back to exactly one year ago. We were in a heat wave. Sneakers replaced snow shoes in Boston and this was the scene in Manchester, New Hampshire. No snow, maybe just a snow cone.

It was so warm in Fargo, North Dakota, this man could ice fish without bundling up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seventy degrees up here. Down here, you're sitting on an ice cube.

WELCH: This year, that's not the case.

So why the contrast?

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know the old saying, sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. Well, here, sometimes you're under the ridge like we were last year, Fargo, North Dakota, 80 degrees. And sometimes you're under the ridge here, cold weather across the same area. Fargo this morning, 10 below zero.


WELCH: Now, Poppy, last year st. Patrick's day it was 80 degrees. 8-0. Right now, it is a wind chill of minus seven.

HARLOW: Chris, say hi to my hometown. I don't miss it today, that's for sure. Great reporting.

WELCH: I will.

HARLOW: Thank you, Chris.

WELCH: I'm sure you don't.

SAMBOLIN: I want to know where his hat is.

HARLOW: I know.

SAMBOLIN: It's cold out there.

Seventeen minutes past the hour. Christine Romans here with a look at all the top stories.


Let's get right to the breaking news. We just told you, President Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv. You are looking at a live picture of the airport where his plane just touched down a few moments ago.

What you can see there, a lot of soldiers, a red carpet. You can hear some announcements over the P.A., pomp and circumstance. There's the plane. This is the president's first trip to Israel since taking office. Today, the president will sit down for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, just before noon Eastern Time. All of this, his arrival, as there's mounting concern that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons on its own people near the city of Aleppo.

Again, those are unsubstantiated concerns at this point, but something that members of Congress and folks in Washington are very, very closely looking at, and looking to see if there's any verification very soon.

White House officials say, of course, it's a game changer if the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons and the U.S. would act accordingly. The regime claims rebels have launched a chemical attack. Rebels deny that charge, and U.S. officials say Assad's opponents do not have chemical weapons.

Evidence uncovered by "The Washington Post" suggests Pope Francis did not take enough quick and decisive action to protect children from predator priests when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. The human rights group says he didn't meet with or apologize to abuse victims.

But the group did say the new pontiff's resolve to protect children has strengthened as new cases of molestation have surfaced and that he eventually instructed bishops to immediately report all of these allegations to police. There is no evidence that he played a direct role in covering up abuse cases.

The Carnival cruise ship Triumph won't be sailing any time soon. Carnival has canceled 10 scheduled cruises while repairs are made to the fire damaged ship. The Triumph, of course, spent several days stranded in the Gulf of Mexico last month. If you will, passengers subjected to overflowing toilets and food shortages. The ship is expected to return to service in early June.

All right. Lindsay Lohan can now had this picture to her collection of mug shots. Yes, she has a collection of mug shots. The troubled actress turned herself in to police on California Tuesday as a formality for her sentence.

She's 26 years old. She has to spend 90 days in a lock-in rehab facility. Don't drive was the suggestion by a Los Angeles superior judge to Lohan after he handed down the sentence. A spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department said she was booked, then released.

And I haven't -- I don't have a final count in front of me, but I'm told 22 times she has appeared in court? She's in court 22 times. She's 26 years old.

SAMBOLIN: And just 90 days.

Thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

EARLY START back after this quick break as we monitor President Obama's historic arrival, his first trip to Israel. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. You're looking live in Tel Aviv where President Obama's plane just touched down moments ago. This is his first trip to Israel as president of the United States. He will visit Jerusalem. He will also visit Bethlehem and he will meet with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu today, as well.

There's a lot of pomp and circumstance happening today. If we pull out on these pictures you'll see that there's a red carpet that is there to greet him. There are a lot of soldiers on hand waiting to greet him, as well.

HARLOW: I think very significant because in his first term, his team had basically said he won't go there until there is a peace plan he is ready to present. Many this morning are calling this a listening tour, saying this is about managing Middle East problems, not about solving them, about having these discussions, and some are also so frustrated with the fact that he'll be spending more time in Israel than he will in Palestinian territories.

SAMBOLIN: And around Israel, there are actually signs or banners with the president's picture on it, and also the Israeli flag.

But there's a lot of opposition, as well, that's going to face him today. In the town of Bethlehem protesters burned a banner bearing Obama's image. So, he is going to face some opposition while he's there, as well.

HARLOW: And we wonder, I mean, obviously, on Air Force One overnight. We assume they've had discussions about reports from Syria and potential use of chemical weapons, either rebel forces or by the Assad regime, whether the president will make a statement about that, will be very significant.

SAMBOLIN: Well, we know it was on his agenda. It was part of the agenda for his trip. But assuming now that it will take more importance and urgency, and it will move up on his agenda as he meets with the leaders there.

HARLOW: Absolutely. Absolutely. The president, about to, we believe --


SAMBOLIN: Disembark. We're not on a cruise ship, right?

HARLOW: But again, so significant, because this is the president's first trip to Israel as president. You know, it was interesting, because there was a lot of focus on Netanyahu during the election. And backing, you know, who would be backing -- he kept saying I'm not getting involved in the politics of the United States.

But there he is approaching to meet the president as he comes off of Air Force One. SAMBOLIN: And the president has quite an agenda today. He's also scheduled to give a speech to some of the college students, as well. That's about a 40-minute speech that's scheduled for him, as well, on his agenda.

HARLOW: He'll be visiting Theodor Herzl's grave. He'll be viewing Dead Sea scrolls.

SAMBOLIN: That's causing a lot of controversy, as well.

HARLOW: Right.

SAMBOLIN: There was a lot of criticism that he had put those two items on his agenda because that's really a support of Israel and a lot of folks are wondering whether that was a good idea or not. But those are on his agenda.

We're watching here live pictures from Tel Aviv. Air Force One has landed. This is the president's first visit as president of the United States to Israel. He should be deboarding the plane any moment now. We saw the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, there to greet him.

HARLOW: And interesting, also, the president will wrap up this three- day Middle East trip in Jordan, where he will meet with King Abdullah, and that is of even more significance now when you talk about Syrians fleeing constantly over the border into Jordan, and any discussions they'll have with King Abdullah there in Jordan.

But first and foremost, a significant meeting in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all pomp and circumstance pulled out for this very important arrival and meeting.

SAMBOLIN: There are a lot of soldiers standing by there. There's a choir that is expected to welcome the president, as well there in Israel for the first time as president, visiting.

And you can hear in the background, I'm not quite sure what is happening there, but you can hear some announcements in the background, as well, from the military, as they welcome the president of the United States to Tel Aviv. There is a red carpet. Lots of soldiers present.

We saw Netanyahu walk up the carpet there in order to greet the president. We are expecting him to deplane any moment now and for this historic visit to begin.

HARLOW: Very historic visit at a very important time with the focus on Syria, as you said, he will have this meeting and then he's also going to attend a few lighter affairs, a book signing.

He'll hear from a children's choir at Shimon Peres' residence.

There will be a tree planting.

There will be a press statement later this afternoon, and a press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu and also President Obama.

SAMBOLIN: And he is also accompanied by his Secretary of State John Kerry, as well. We would like to bring in Sara Sidner, live in Jerusalem right now.

Sara, can you talk a little bit more about the president's mission?


We should mention that once he gets off the plane, one of the first things he's going to see is the iron dome missile defense system, something that the United States helped fund, the United States giving Israel somewhere around $3 billion per year for its security. They are actually bringing one of the iron dome batteries to the airport so that he can see it for time purposes.

This is the battery that has --


SAMBOLIN: Sara, I don't know if you can see this -- Sara, if I could interrupt you for a minute we are looking at President Obama, as he is coming off Air Force One there, to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- sorry to interrupt you. I don't think you have the pictures. I don't think you're watching them, as well.

A big smile, as he is there to greet Benjamin Netanyahu, or Benjamin Netanyahu is there to greet President Obama. Yes.



HARLOW: Sara, continue if you could --

SAMBOLIN: We can listen in a little bit.

OBAMA: Good to see you.