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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

President Visits Israel; Violence Continues in Syria; Student Thwarts Roommates Planned Campus Massacre; New Details about UCF Gunman; Interview with Mark Regev; Twinkies are Back

Aired March 20, 2013 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I'm Christine Romans. As you can see, the president is speaking in Tel Aviv. Let's listen in right away.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages, to be masters of their own fate in their own sovereign state. And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

As I begin my second term as president, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip. This is no accident. Across this region, the winds of change bring both promise and peril. So, I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.

I want to begin right now by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship. Why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the state of Israel? And the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story. Patriots determined to be a free people in our land, pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.

We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man. We stand together because it makes us more prosperous. Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples. Our partnerships in science, in medicine, in health, bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy, and have helped transform us in the high-tech hub of our global economy.

We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world. When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors, and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering from Africa to Asia we partner to fight disease, and overcome hunger.

We stand together because peace must come to the holy land, for even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.

So as I begin this visit let me say as clearly as I can -- the United States of America stands with the state of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interests to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous and it makes the world a better place.

That's why --

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: That's why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the state of Israel 65 years ago. That's why the Star of David and the stars and stripes fly together today. And that is why I'm confident in declaring that our alliance is forever. Thank you very much.

(END LIVE FEED)

BERMAN: The president wrapping up his opening remarks in Israel. He just arrived in Tel Aviv right there. You see Prime Minister Benjamin Ntanyahu, Israeli president Shimon Peres up on stage with him. I guess a sense of how close they'd like to look like they are right now. They're all wearing the same shirt and tie combination.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: I know, they're going to bring him an iron dome actually near the airport so he can tour the iron dome one of the first things that he's going to do of course that's an important symbol for the country and this is just the very beginning. The first stop of what will be a very, very busy day for the president.

BERMAN: The president said the United States and Israel's strongest ally, and greatest friend. That was the message of his opening remarks. Let's go to CNN's senior White House correspondent Jessica Yellin who is in Tel Aaviv right now. Jessica, you were there for those remarks.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John, yes, what you may not have heart on air is right when he got off the airplane the president said to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres, it's nice to be away from Congress, some of his first words. And then he said good to see you, brother, to Peres.

Here, you know, the president goes on to view the iron dome which is this sort of defense system that the U.S. has helped fund for Israel, and a number of other symbolic visits. In many ways, the trip is mostly symbolic for the president and for the Israelis, a sign of the close friendship, and not so much strategic. That was the plan initially. But after recent developments with Syria and different news events with the possibility that chemical weapons could have been used in Syria, it looks like instead of a largely symbolic trip, there could actually be some significant news that comes out of his visit here. We'll see.

ROMANS: Iran's nuclear progress of course, Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it is Syria that seems to be this new development. How much of, of this meeting do you think will be taken up by what to do about the Syrian situation or how to verify what's happening inside Syrian borders?

YELLIN: I think this is going to be a topic of discussion that will now move to the very top of the agenda. It was going to be Syria and the use of -- possible use of chemical weapons there was going to be on the agenda anyway, but now it's taken on more urgency. This has always been a pressing issue for Israel because it shares a border with Syria, and there are many challenges there.

But you have to remember because of this nation's deep concern about the Iranian nuclear threat for them that will always be a burning question right now. And so while the Syrian chemical weapons is important to them, they're not going to let the question of Iran get overshadowed by the troubles in Syria.

So -- but now they'll have two issues competing for dominance. And you know what ends up getting lost in all this is the press for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That sort of could get pushed down on the agenda even further than it already was.

BERMAN: Jessica, we're looking at pictures of the president getting into his car. Benjamin Netanyahu will be driving off. There were a lot of smiles there. There was a lot of touching, a lot of glad handing right there. It seems as if these two men want to send a message that they are getting along. There's been a lot of questions about that over the last couple of years.

YELLIN: Well, you know they're BFFs all of a sudden.

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: You get re-elected everybody loves each other, you know, absolutely. And I think that you have to remember that the prime minister of Israel just formed a very fragile coalition government. And so the president, it's very shaky ground in Israel, as well, in terms of his approval among Israeli Jews. Many of them are sort of neutral about President Obama. They don't dislike him but they don't adore him.

And so for each man there is a big reason to show that they are in good for the other guy, to get some credit here in Israel. And so, yes, there is good reason for each to show that all those old wounds are well on their way toward healing. Nobody here is going to pretend that they don't have troubles. But they are showing that they can get along.

BERMAN: Keep looking for those smiles. Thanks to Jessica Yellin in Tel Aviv this morning. We will come back to you over the course of the morning. This went from what was going to be a symbolic visit to one where all of a sudden there are urgent matters to discuss with the specter of chemical weapons possibly being used in Syria. We want to go to our senior international correspondent Ivan Watson in Amman, Jordan, this morning.

And Ivan, yesterday Syrian state media claimed that opposition forces launched a chemical attack in Aleppo province, killing at least two dozen people, injuring more than 100. The rebels deny that charge and they actually accuse regime forces of shelling a town near Damascus with chemical rockets. There are these dueling charges of chemical weapon use. What are you hearing this morning?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Some more finger pointing. The Syrian government saying that 9 rebels, as they call terrorists, may have used chemical weapons that were smuggled in by supporters like Turkey or Qatar against this town which is largely a government loyalist town populated by Shiites, and killing 25 people, wounding dozens, and Syrian state TV airing interviews with some of the survivors saying that they smelled chlorine.

The rebels very quickly accusing the regime of carrying out this attack and of course pointing to the fact that the Syrian government has used dozens of scud surface-to-surface missiles against its own cities and towns throughout just the last couple of months. Some chemical weapons experts say there is very little evidence that we've seen thus far from the Syrian state TV reports really conclusively showing that any chemical weapons were used here.

BERMAN: We have these dueling charges there. A lot of people wondering whether the regime is charging the rebels with using chemical weapons as a pretext so that they can then go use chemical weapons as a sort of response, right, Ivan?

WATSON: That is one of the many conspiracy theories out there. We have to remember that just two days ago the Syrian government carried out air strikes deep into neighboring Lebanon to the west. It has ramped up consistently over the course of the last two years its use of force not only against rebels and civilian population centers, but also against neighboring governments.

Now if you ask Syrian people what they think about the threat of chemical weapons, John, many of them will just say we're getting killed as it is. Day to day, more than 70,000 people killed in the last two years, I don't care whether it's bullets or bombs or air strikes or chemical weapons that kill us, something is killing us day after day and it needs to stop.

BERMAN: A dire situation no matter how you slice it. Ivan Watson, our thanks to you.

ROMANS: Of course the movement of chemical weapons is one of the red lines for this White House and what they're watching so closely after U.S. engagement. The White House Pentagon officials closely monitoring these developments. President Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough told CNN's Jake Tapper they take the use of chemical weapons, quote, "very seriously."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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 that the president's just said that this is a game changer, and we'll act accordingly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Game changer, so does that mean the United States would take some kind of military action? Chris Lawrence live at the Pentagon for us. Good morning, Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. U.S. officials are telling us that they have seen the regime moving the chemical weapons away from some of the urban fighting areas over the last month or two. And the Pentagon has been updating its military options so that if President Obama requests them, they're ready to go.

These sources are telling us that the U.S. has plenty of firepower in the area, including fighter jets, onboard aircraft carriers, as well as other ships that have precision guided tomahawk missiles. The danger here, though, is that striking chemical weapons, you know, runs the risk of disbursing this agent out into the civilian population, so some of the other options that they're looking at are trying to perhaps, if they had to, bomb runways to prevent planes from taking off, or even cutting the lines of communication between the regime commander and those troops on the ground who would actually have to push the button.

Bottom line, U.S. officials are saying that the more desperate Bashar al Assad becomes, the more dangerous he also becomes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We've been very clear about our concerns that the Assad regime is increasingly beleaguered, that it finds that the violence that it is using by conventional means is inadequate, including its barbaric use of scuds. And so we are quite concerned that they will resort to other weapons. We've made clear that this would constitute a red line for the United States. The president could not have been clearer about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAWRENCE: There are no plans right now to put any boots on the ground. But last year, the Pentagon did do a report analyzing what it would take to secure those chemical weapons. They concluded it may take up to 70,000 troops on the ground.

ROMANS: All right, Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, thanks. In just a few minutes we're going to talk to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev about the latest in Syria and the president's trip right now to Israel.

BERMAN: A disturbing story just coming in from Colorado. Zoraida Sambolin has that and the rest of the day's top stories.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: This just in to CNN, the executive director of Colorado's corrections department shot and killed last night in his Monument, Colorado, home. Fifty-eight-year-old Tom Clements was appointed to that post two years ago after serving in the Missouri corrections department for over three decades. He is survived by a wife and two daughters.

And according to a local affiliate, police do not have a suspect or a motive for the killing. You know, we will continue to follow this story for you and bring you the latest developments.

In other news, police in Orlando releasing new evidence of what could have been a massacre on the University of Central Florida campus. A 911 call from the suspect's roommate may have put an end to a potentially deadly attack inside a UCF dormitory. Police have released images of suspect James Oliver Seevakumaran, detailed, got a detailed checklist. They have also put out a video showing the moment the officer discovered the suspect's body. CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in Orlando. Good morning to you, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Zoraida. Well, we've heard from that roommate who first stared down the would-be killer in this case who lived in this dorm room on the third floor. And what he describes was extremely chilling.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: The fire alarm is blaring as Arobo Babahkani calls 911. His roommate and would-be killer James Oliver Seevakumaran has just pointed a gun right at him.

AROBO "BK" BABAKHANI, UCF GUNMAN'S ROOMMATE: My roommate just pulled a fire alarm and he's got a gun out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are you at?

BABAKHANI: In the university of central Florida, Orlando. The fire alarm went off, I opened the door to see what was going on and he's there with like some sort of like gun like large assault gun.

I was definitely scared. But I was scared but calm. I was just taking cover, like in my room behind objects.

LAVANDERA: Campus police released this dramatic helmet camera video of officers making their way inside the gunman's dorm room. This might be disturbing for some to watch, but this is the moment police find the 30-year-old lying dead on the floor. They also found that he apparently was planning a massacre with an arsenal of weapons and explosives.

CHIEF RICHARD BEARY, UCF POLICE: I don't think that you acquire two 110-round magazines and numerous .22 capacity magazines, and that you purchase 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and that you purchase 45 ammunition, I don't think you just do that as a joke.

LAVANDERA: Investigators say they also found a bizarre handwritten timeline for the attack. In Seevakumaran's words he would visit this bar called the Mad Hatter, get drunk, then go back to his dorm, take a shower, shave up, and then get equipped. Scratching off items as he went down the list. The last item read, good luck and give them hell. The would-be killer's roommate had lived with him for the last seven months.

ARABO "BK" BABAHKANI, UCF GUNMAN'S ROOMMATE: I tried to get to know him and stuff but, you know, we're not friends. He's just very anti- social. He doesn't -- he doesn't want to know me. He doesn't want to make friends. Just keeps to himself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: You know, the question that remains that many people around here are still asking themselves is why did this would-be killer eventually turn the gun on himself and not carry out what appears to have been a planned massacre? Many people grateful that that didn't happen. But that question still remains out there. The roommate says that he had been suffering from -- struggling with money problems and those types of things and perhaps he felt cornered.

SAMBOLIN: Wow.

LAVANDERA: Zoraida?

SAMBOLIN: That roommate is a hero and so composed even throughout that 911 call just incredible. Thank you, Ed Lavandera reporting live for us. Coming up later this hour we'll hear from University of Central Florida Police Chief Richard Beary.

A gas explosion in Grand Junction, Colorado, has injured at least three people, and it's forced authorities to evacuate the neighborhood. Mesa county sheriff's office says a natural gas leak caused the house to explode on Tuesday afternoon. The house next door also caught fire. That explosion forced the evacuation of two nearby schools, and all the homes within a ten block radius, as well.

Mark Sanford's political career is officially revived. The former South Carolina governor finishing first last night in a special election advancing to a runoff election in two weeks. In his attempt to win a house seat, Sanford had to step down as governor as you know after lying about an extramarital affair that was back in 2009. He picked up 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 victory.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK SANFORD, (R ) S.C. CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: What the voters hopefully 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So if Sanford wins the runoff election in two weeks he'll face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in May. She is the sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert. The next hour we'll be joined by Teddy Turner the son of CNN's founder Ted Turner. He ran last night against Sanford. Didn't fare too well.

BERMAN: Yes. Came in fourth.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: What a family story here, we have Stephen Colbert's sister, who is Colbert. Ted Turner's son who's called Teddy.

SAMBOLIN: You know why?

BERMAN: His name is actually Colbert. He changed it for the TV because he's just funny that way.

SAMBOLIN: What I was told was that the parents offered up to the kids the decision, you could say Colbert, you could say Colbert. And some chose Colbert, some Colbert. So there we have it.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Zoraida.

BERMAN: So next on STARTING POINT the fight to put disturbing pictures on cigarette packaging comes to an end. We'll tell you why the government is giving up.

ROMANS: And more on our top story this morning. We're talking to Israel's government spokesperson Mark Regev about the reports of chemical attacks in Syria, and what these concerns could mean for the region.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT everyone. President Obama arriving in Tel Aviv just in this past hour. This is his first trip to Israel as president and as we've been saying it really is taking on even more significance this morning because of Syria's possible use of chemical weapons.

ROMANS: Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev joins us now from Jerusalem. Good morning. I want to first talk to you about these troubling reports --

MARK REGEV, ISRAELI, GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON: Good morning

ROMANS: From, from a couple of members of Congress talking about people in Washington talking about their concerns about chemical weapons in Syria, that Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people let's listen to what Dianne Feinstein said yesterday to Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) CALIFORNIA: The White House has to make some decisions in this. I think the days are becoming more desperate. The regime is more desperate. We know where the chemical weapons are. It's not a secret that they're there. And I think the probabilities are very high that we're going into some very dark times and I think the White House needs to be prepared.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: And you were seeing there the House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers also in that interview echoing those concerns about where we're headed. In Israeli newspapers this morning are citing security forces there saying that chemical weapons have been used. What can you tell us about this at this moment?

REGEV: Well obviously we share the concerns of people in Washington. And it's not only the Syrian regime that has those chemical weapons but as Syria fragments, as the conflict there continues and we see Syria break up we are very concerned about the possibility that those sorts of very dangerous weapons, chemical weapons and others, will fall into the hands of extremist groups like Hezbollah or al Qaeda. Imagine if those sort of hard-line terrorist groups were to get their hands on chemical weapons.

BERMAN: Well, do you feel, though, at this point, that they have been used based on what we're hearing yesterday and does your intelligence tell you that they are now in play?

REGEV: We're being cautious like the U.S. government. We haven't addressed that issue publicly yet. We might soon. But the concern has been there for a very long time. You have a regime that is falling apart. A brutal regime which is apparently on its last leg, that is fighting for its life. You have on the ground in Syria, on the side supporting Assad you have groups like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the ground with the Assad regime. You have Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground with the Assad regime. On the opposition side, you've got some actors that are also very problematic groups affiliated with al Qaeda. And as we see Syria fragment if we're going to see the linkup between these sort of extremist groups and weapons of that nature, chemical weapons, specifically, that's a problem with a capital P.

BERMAN: What are you going to do about it, then, sir, if it is that big of a problem, if that redline has been crossed, what will Israel do?

REGEV: Well, to be frank, I can assure you that when my prime minister sits down later on today with President Obama in their working meetings, that will be a very high item on the agenda, because this is an issue that we have to discuss. It's clear that we don't want to see the use of chemical weapons and we don't want to see chemical weapons fall into the hands of dangerous terrorists that are all over Syria, unfortunately. And that is one of the items on the agenda. It's very clear that's at the very top of the agenda.

ROMANS: But I'm not hearing from you confirmation that those have been used at this point. You're not confirming that. Mark Regev, thank you so much.

REGEV: Yes, that's correct.

ROMANS: Okay, thank you. Thank you, and of course we'll be following developments in Israel all day as the president is on his first trip there as president of the United States.

BERMAN: Ahead on STARTING POINT it is the return of the Twinkie. The iconic snack cake coming soon to a store shelf near you. We have the blessed details.

ROMANS: And don't forget to watch CNN's new show the lead hosted by there he is --

BERMAN: The blessed Jake Tapper.

ROMANS: Dashing Jake Tapper today at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Welcome back, I'm Christine Romans, minding your business this morning. Wall Street optimistic about today's federal reserve decision. That's pushing up stock futures. Investors hoping to hear the fed reiterate that it will stay the course, staying the course, of course, means pumping money into the American economy especially concerns about a possible bailout in Cyprus flare up.

Summer won't come soon enough for Twinkie lovers. You know who you are. A bankruptcy judge approving Hostess' sale to two investment firms and bringing Twinkies, Ho-Hoes and Ding Dongs back from the dead. The deal said to be worth $410 million. The new owners hope to have Twinkies and its snack cake brethren back on your store shelves by summer so you can stop with the locked drawer in your office and your stash there. You'll be able to replenish it soon.

And think you can trust labels at the shopping mall? Think again. Some clothing labeled as being made with fake fur was actually made with real fur. Neiman Marcus Revolve Clothing and Dr. J.'s.com are settling false marketing charges with the Federal Trade Commission. The retailers will not pay any fines but do promise to label all their products correctly going forward or face penalties.

Imagine if you were going to buy a pair of flats for example, this was a brand-name slippers that had on them fake fur trim. It was real fur. I mean if you were like going for a fake fur product --

BERMAN: That's a serious issue for a lot of people.

ROMANS: It also shows how in some of these retailers in the production of our apparel they've lost control of their product line. They might not necessarily even know what ingredients are going into their -- there you go. Settlement with the FCC.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, we're talking with the police chief of the University of Central Florida as new pictures and details are released of a gunman's deadly plans. Fortunately his plans went astray.

BERMAN: And it is officially spring. Though there is zero proof of it. It happened 30 minutes ago our sources say. Why is mother nature failing to get this message?

ROMANS: And where is the federal investigation into the groundhog lying to the American people? Also, the Carnival cruise ship Triumph, beached even longer than expected. Details ahead. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT everyone. Our morning team is here right now. Katherine Rosman, reporter for the "Wall Street Journal," and Chris Frates a reporter from "The National Journal." Thank you guys so much for coming in here today.

(CROSSTALK)