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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

President Obama in Israel; Chemical Weapons Used in Syrian Civil War?; The Colbert/Sanford Show?

Aired March 20, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Great to see you, guys. Thanks for coming here.

CHRIS FRATES, REPORTER, "THE NATIONAL JOURNAL": Good to be here.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's start with President Obama, shall we, touching down in Tel Aviv, for the start of a historic Middle East visit. And a mission is taking on a new sense of urgency because there are mounting concerns that the Syrian government may be using chemical weapons on its own people near the city of Aleppo.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right. Let's bring in our John King right now, chief national correspondent traveling with the president in Tel Aviv.

Good morning, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Christine.

Look, Syria issue, the Iran issue, big concerns for the president. Odd for a U.S. president to be in Israel, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while on the issue list will be down a bit in part because of the uncertainty of just what's happening in Syria, obviously, a key concern to the Obama administration and a huge concern to Israel. Syria neighbors Israel and much of the intelligence the United States has been getting during a long, two-year-plus uprising in Syria comes from the Israeli government.

So, the president is here. It's his first overseas trip in the second term. It's his first visit to Israel as president of the United States. A lot of questions about his working relationship and his personal relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. They will get to the tough issues, including Syria and the prospect of chemical weapons being used in Syria in the meetings in the hours ahead.

But as the president hit the ground here, the number one priority he wanted to tell the people of the United States, the people of Israel and the people of the world is that this is in his words an unbreakable alliance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: As the president celebrated that bond, he knows how important the next few days are in everything he says and in all the images. You saw a very friendly relationship, an embrace. Both men took their jackets off. People have said they don't get along very well, can they have a working relationship? For them priority number one is irrelevant.

The prime minister wants to send a clear message that the United States wants to give diplomacy a chance but if the diplomacy does not work that President Obama is prepared to use military force against Iran.

Now, then the question of Syria, it's interesting. Neither government -- you played the sound bite from Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, saying there's a high probability chemical weapons were used -- neither government, the Obama administration nor the Israeli government, will say much on the record.

The Obama administration says that if that is true, that would be the red line the president has set in the past but they haven't said whether they have the intelligence evidence to prove it. I spoke to an Israeli high government source this morning who said we're not saying anything about that right now for good reason, but they promised it would be part of the private conversations between the president and the prime minister -- John and Christine.

BERMAN: John, it really does seem like this symbolic trip, was supposed to be a symbolic trip has brought in new urgency with what's going on in Syria.

Let's bring in our panel right now, Chris Frates and Katherine Rosman.

FRATES: Hey, John. I was wondering, what are you hearing from folks on the ground about Iran? You know, the conversation between the president and the prime minister -- is there some sense that there's going to be an announcement at the end of this trip one way or the other or is this all behind the scenes and we're not going to see anything publicly until later down the road?

KING: There's no question both leaders will talk about it because they will be asked about it when they have a news conference publicly and everyone will be trying to see if there's any difference, any disagreement, any space between the president and the prime minister when it comes to Iran.

The president did raise some eyebrows here. He gave an interview with an Israeli television station where he said he thinks Iran is a year or so away from getting to that point of no return, to developing the technology to actually have and deploy a nuclear warhead.

The Israelis think the timetable is a bit shorter than that. But I spoke to the Israeli President Shimon Peres yesterday and he said, yes, there are some disagreements between the United States and Israel about how far along Iran is and when is the point of no return.

But President Peres told me and the key thing will be, Prime Minister Netanyahu said this in public, he says he has zero doubt anymore that President Obama is prepared to invoke the military option if necessary. They may have a disagreement on timetable. But if they are certain about that, if the Israelis have no doubt about the president's commitment in the end, then you'll have a much better working relationship between the president and the prime minister.

That's what I would look for on the question of Iran. Whether there's any space when those two men stand shoulder to shoulder, just how big is the space.

ROMANS: Yes.

BERMAN: All right. John King, we will be watching, no doubt, as this does continue in the next two days.

Meantime in Syria, both the Assad regime and rebel forces are accusing each other of using chemical weapons. As we've been saying, Syrian state media claimed yesterday that opposition forces launched an attack in Aleppo province, killing at least two dozen people and injuring more than 100.

Rebels denied that charge and they accused regime forces of shelling a town near Damascus with chemical rockets themselves.

Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson is in Amman, Jordan, this morning.

And, Ivan, what exactly do we know right now?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the principal source of information about this is coming from the Syrian government, which first came out accusing the rebels of this alleged chemical weapons attack, saying at least 25 people killed, scores wounded, among the dead some Syrian military. This took place in a town west of Aleppo that is described to me by rebels as being government controlled.

The rebels immediately turned around and pointed the finger at the Syrian government, saying that they misfired some kind of a missile that then caused chemical weapons damage to the people there. There have been some interviews from some survivors on Syrian state TV saying they smelled chlorine, that they saw some kind of powder there.

But chemical weapons experts that we've talked to say from the very little amount of evidence that we've seen thus far, there is nothing conclusive that points to the use of chemical weapons on Tuesday in this deadly incident -- John.

BERMAN: And, Ivan, did the Syrian people, do you have the sense they see this as a major development in the country?

WATSON: No, because more than 70,000 people have been killed so far, John, in a conflict that's gone on for more than two years.

When I have asked Syrians in visits to areas right around this town in the past, are you worried that the government might try to use chemical weapons stockpiled against you, they said what does it matter? The government shoots us, they bomb us with jets and Scud missiles. What does it matter which way we get killed, whether it's chemical weapons or bullets or bombs that are used to kill us -- John.

ROMANS: You know, it's interesting, Ivan, because we talked to the Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, earlier, he would not confirm there had been movement or deployment of those chemical weapons. So confirmation not there but it is a fear that's growing, no question in Washington.

Ivan Watson, thanks.

BERMAN: It does seem like a lot is going on in the region, as we've been saying all morning. And to be a broken record here, but this was going to be a largely symbolic trip for the president, a photo-op next to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Now, all of a sudden, a lot of very serious, urgent matters to discuss.

KATHERINE ROSMAN, COLUMNIST, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": I bet in the administration, they're wondering if their hand is being forced to address more directly some of the issues with Syria and maybe Iran. I'm curious if the Israeli government doesn't want the attention to be diverted to Syria when they want him to focus on Iran or if they're glad that he's there in a moment of danger to get a sense of urgency that they deal with every day.

FRATES: Yes, it's interesting, Kate, because the president and prime minister don't have a really great relationship. So this was supposed to be a symbolic trip, a building trip to find of get both countries on the right track and now there's all this stress of these developments while they're there.

And that I think will play very much into the dynamics of what happens. And I wouldn't be surprised if we see a little bit more news made out of this trip than we expected going in. ROSMAN: Yes, it does.

ROMANS: It's funny how the news gets in the way of the theatrics sometimes.

All right. Zoraida Sambolin has the rest of the morning's top stories. Good morning, Zoraida.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning.

And new details from police investigating what could have been a tragic massacre on the University of Central Florida campus. A 911 call from the suspect's roommate may have put a stop to a planned attack inside a UCF dormitory. Police have released images of suspect James Oliver Seevakumaran's detailed checklist. They have also put out a video showing the moment an officer discovered the suspect's body.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in Orlando with the very latest.

Good morning to you, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Zoraida.

Well, imagine being this roommate in the middle of the night. Fire alarm goes off. He pokes his head out of the door only to find his roommate pointing a gun at him.

And we're hearing from this roommate for the first time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The fire alarm is blaring as Arabo Babakhani calls 911. His roommate and would-be killer James Oliver Seevakumaran has just pointed a gun right at him.

ARABO "BK" BABAKHANI, ROOMMATE OF UCF ATTACK PLOTTER: My roommate just pulled a fire alarm and he's got a gun out.

911 DISPATCHER: All right. Where are you at?

BABAKHANI: I'm in the University of Central Florida in 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 you acquire 210 round magazines and numerous .22 capacity magazines and that you purchase a thousand rounds of ammunition and that you purchase the .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.

BABAKHANI: 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. He's just keeps to himself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: Even the would-be killer's own family called him a loner. A lot of questions still surrounding what the motive, what he might have been thinking going into that night, but authorities still say that they have no motive or any kind of clue as to what he was thinking and why he might have been stockpiling all this weaponry. They are going through his computers, trying to go through any kind of emails, or any kind of writings that he might have left behind to see if those would shed any clue into what his motive might have been as well -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Ed Lavandera reporting live from Orlando -- thank you.

And today is the first day of spring, but for much of the country, it sure feels like the dead of winter. This is what they're going through in New England after a late season. The snowstorm dumped several inches there. Snow and cold temperatures are lingering in the Upper Midwest as well.

So let's go straight to Jennifer Delgado.

You know, when we spring forward with the time, we're looking forward to warmer temperatures. What's going on?

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right. Yes, you absolutely want warmer temperatures, but the reality is, Zoraida, we are going to be cool the next couple of days.

I know a lot of people have been asking, why are we so cold right now?

Well, the problem is if you compare it to last year, we have this big ridge in place and it shot all that cold air from the jet stream all the way up towards the North. Now, when you move ahead to now, we are pulling in all that cold air from the jet stream. With a big ridge to the North, that's why we're going to stay that way. It looks like potentially even through early April.

Now, some of these temperatures from last year, we talk about Chicago. Today, you're only going to see a high of 24 degrees. Well, if you went back to 2012, you checked in with 85. That is a 65 degree temperature difference. And for areas like Milwaukee, the high today 21 degrees and 83 last year.

Now, as we go through the end of the week, we are going to see temperatures still running in some locations almost 20 to 30 degrees below average over the next couple of days and potentially another snowstorm could be setting up across parts of Missouri and Arkansas. It could be a major one.

Zoraida, it's spring, it doesn't feel like it. Hopefully, the next couple of weeks we'll see more.

SAMBOLIN: We will patiently wait. Thank you very much.

DELGADO: There you go (ph).

SAMBOLIN: The Justice Department will not ask the Supreme Court to review a federal appeals court decision that blocks graphic new warnings on cigarette packages. The appeals court ruling says requiring such warnings would be a violation of free speech protection. The FDA says it will now work to create new warning labels that comply with the 2009 Tobacco Control Act.

Members of the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Church in Topeka, Kansas, woke up to a rainbow surprise Tuesday morning. Take a look.

A progressive nonprofit group that owns this house right beside the church decided to paint it the colors of the rainbow flag. That is a symbol of gay and lesbian pride. The group eventually intends to turn the home into a drop-in center that will support a variety of LBGT and anti-bullying efforts. It's called the Equality House.

You know, they purchased this a while back for about $83,000 and then decided to wait because the guy who runs this not-for-profit agency said he wanted to take his time painting it so it wouldn't be an eyesore in the community. So there you have it.

BERMAN: Well, you know, Westboro Baptist, as you well know -- thanks, Zoraida -- Westboro Baptist, as you well know, is used to doing provocative controversial big statements right now. So perhaps they can hardly complain when a gay rights group does something provocative right across the street.

ROSMAN: They like the media attention so they're probably happy to have the cameras around.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: I think that's a little classier than what the Westboro Church shows.

BERMAN: You know, it's a good point. It is such a key moment right now in the issue of gay rights and the gay rights struggle. Next week, the Supreme Court hearing the key cases on gay marriage. So, a lot will be going on on this issue in the next few weeks.

Ahead on STARTING POINT: cool, calm and collected. That was the Kansas City Mayor Sly James -- have you guys seen this video? A protester rushes on the stage during his state of the city address and then is dragged off, but the mayor, he keeps on talking. The address must go on and he will join us later today to tell us what that is like.

ROMANS: He didn't even flinch.

Up next, we're going to talk to Ted Turner's son, Teddy. He finished fourth, well behind Mark Sanford in last night's special election for an open seat for a House seat in South Carolina. We're going to hear his take on politics in South Carolina.

BERMAN: And do not forget to watch CNNs new show "The Lead" hosted by Jake Tapper already making waves. See it again today 4:00 p.m. eastern time.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: It all boils down to two in South Carolina's extra special, special election.

(LAUGHTER)

Former governor, Mark Sanford, will move forward into a runoff in the primary to replace Congressman Tim Scott.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK SANFORD, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESS: I am incredibly humbled by the outpouring of support that we've seen tonight. I am incredibly humbled by the trust that's been placed in me and in this campaign. What we've earned is the honor of being on the playing field here for the next two weeks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Now, it's still not clear who Sanford will face in the Republican runoff. The close race for second has triggered a recount. Whoever wins, that will go up against Democrat, Elizabeth Colbert- Bush. She is the sister of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert. She was a runaway winner of the Democratic primary.

ROMANS: Teddy turner, son of CNN founder, Ted Turner, finished fourth in a GOP field of 16. He joins us from Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Nice to see you this morning. You must be disappointed. An eight percent showing, fourth. Mark Sanford seeming to, I don't know, recover some of his lost credibility with the people of South Carolina. What's your take?

ROBERT "TEDDY" TURNER IV, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESS: Well, you know, we ran a great race. We started at zero, we built our way up. You know, we had a couple logs thrown in our way. You know, some things that came out against us, but you know what, we had a great race.

It was a lot of fun. We had a great team. And, you've got to start somewhere. For the political game, I'm a youngster.

ROMANS: Are you going to do this again? I mean, is this just a starting point for you?

TURNER: Well, you know, there's so much work that's left to be done. There are so many issues that we're not even touching on, especially our youth and their loss of the American dream. We've got some problems out there that folks aren't even addressing, and you know what, now that I've been in this game, it's really just -- I want to be here to help push the fight forward for the citizens.

BERMAN: So, the elephant in the room or the elephant in the district in this race was, of course, the issue of former governor, Mark Sanford, and how he went hiking on the Appalachian trail when he was really with his Argentine mistress. He ultimately divorced his wife, had a rough go of it right there. How big of an issue was that in your primary race?

TURNER: You know, that issue in itself was not a problem. You know, there was some other things that were going on while he was governor, while he was a congressperson that I think is much more critical of his record as a politician. But, you know what, now that, you know, basically the primary is over, we've got the two last folks.

You know, now we have to rally behind our conservative candidates and help them keep the seat, and that's really the key. So, you know, the primary is so interesting because you're having to kind of fight against your own teammates. It's a horrible thing to have to go through.

ROMANS: Do you think he can beat Elizabeth Colbert Bush?

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: You know, they're going to come -- you know what, you hate to be a predictor in a way, but I think Governor Sanford does prevail in this runoff and when he does, he's going to fit -- he's facing a formidable challenger and she's moderate, she's smart, she's articulate. She's going to have huge financial support.

But you know, this is a Republican district. So, it's going to be a battle royale and I think I'm going to enjoy seeing it from where I'm going to be sitting.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks so much, Teddy Turner. Thank you for coming in here. You're always welcome here at CNN. We appreciate it.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Thank you very much.

ROMANS: Nice to see you. A high school economics teacher, I think. So, when he talks about the youth, that's what he's talking about.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, a California teenager hopes it's an offer Kate Upton won't refuse.

BERMAN: We would all hope that, no doubt.

ROMANS: Oh, yes. His video's now gone viral. And the supermodel, she has --

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back. "Minding Your Business," stock futures point to a higher open. In just a few hours, we're expecting to hear that the Federal Reserve will keep pumping billions of dollars, tens of billions of dollars into the economy each month, but as the stock market nears all-time highs, a new CNN/ORC poll shows that regular people, they're not buying it.

The poll asked people if they had $1,000, would it be a good or a bad idea to invest in stocks? Fifty-five percent said it would be a bad idea. Guess what, John, all the major averages are up seven to 10 percent so far this year. So, skeptical battle-scarred regular folks are sitting on the sidelines, and other people have been making a boatload of money.

BERMAN: Someone's making money out there.

ROMANS: Yes.

BERMAN: All right. Twenty-minutes after the hour. Trending this morning, prom is coming. So, this guy, he doesn't have a girlfriend. Los Angeles high school senior, Jake Davidson (ph), took to YouTube with a video request for supermodel, Kate Upton, to be his prom date, and of course, this has gone viral.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are the yin to my yang. I'm Jewish, 5'9" on a really good day and I can't dance, at all. You're Christian, 5'10", and that (ph) video should have won an Oscar for best short film. You could say this is destiny.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: You really could say this is destiny. Kate Upton has responded to Jake --

ROMANS: Look at him doing pushups! Hysterical!

BERMAN: He wants to be in shape for the prom.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Kate Upton has tweeted, "You can call me Katie, if you want. How can I turn down that video? I'll check my schedule. So, stay tuned, guys. ROMANS: She's got a very busy schedule, though. I mean --

FRATES: I mean, where was the internet when I was in school?

(LAUGHTER)

FRATES: Cindy Crawford would have gotten a prom ask, right?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

FRATES: Absolutely.

BERMAN: Is that romantic?

ROSMAN: Is it romantic to go on YouTube and have somebody woo you? I don't know if it's romantic, but she's got to be flattered, I guess.

ROMANS: It also becomes a PR episode at some point, right?

ROSMAN: Because other girls are not going to be happy to be upstaged at their prom. It's like wearing white to somebody else's wedding.

BERMAN: Do you think she would upstage the rest of the girls at the prom?

ROSMAN: John, I mean do you?

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Good for him, though. That video is hilarious, by the way. You have to watch the whole thing.

ROMANS: I hadn't thought of that. She's ruining the prom for a bunch of other girls. That's a really good point. All right.

BERMAN: All right. Glass half empty for that Los Angeles prom.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, a lack of sleep can be hazardous to your waistline. We'll tell you about a new study that's a real wake- up call. I'm going home and going back to bed right now.

BERMAN: And Kansas City's mayor keeps his face cool in the face of a heavy rush. Mayor Sly James will join us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)