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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Obama Arrives in the West Bank; Were Chemical Weapons Used?; Colorado Prison Chief Killed in Cold Blood

Aired March 21, 2013 - 05:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, everyone. You're looking at live pictures of President Obama who just arrived in Ramallah in the West Bank. This is the capital of the Palestinian Authority.

This is his -- the second day of his trip to Israel and the West Bank and the entire region right now. He is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a little bit later today. There he is right there.

You can see President Obama with President Abbas at this arrival ceremony in Ramallah. It's already been an eventful day -- an eventful day for the president in the region. Two rockets did strike southern Israel earlier today, about 60 miles from Jerusalem, where the president was.

No changes to the president's schedule, though, as you just saw. He has arrived in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Our John King is helping cover this trip. He is in Jerusalem right now.

Good morning, John.

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

This is a very important visit by the president. You heard when he was in Israel yesterday, President Netanyahu saying sure, I'll go back to the bargaining table. He urged the Palestinians to come back with no preconditions.

We know one of the preconditions of the Palestinians has been that Mr. Netanyahu stop construction in the West Bank. So, it will be a fascinating conversation, and just an interesting moment. Those in Israel believe Prime Minister Netanyahu has to say that, but that he doesn't see an opportunity for peace.

And the big question on this morning is, President Abbas has said he wants to come back to the bargaining table, but can he come back to the bargaining table? Can he deliver the Palestinians? Those rockets fired just this morning from the Palestinian territory of Gaza, controlled by Hamas, of course. A reminder that Mr. Abbas speaks for the Palestinian authority in the West Bank but does not necessarily speak for the Palestinians in Gaza.

So, President Obama is trying to navigate a very difficult challenge. He would like to get the peace process resumed. The question is, can you get people with the political will and the political ability back to the table? So, a big challenge for the president this morning.

BERMAN: Short of a full resumption of the peace process, which seems like a lofty goal, perhaps unachievable goal -- what do you think the White House wants to get out of these meetings today, John?

KING: John, you make a very important point. Again, there are questions about whether Mr. Netanyahu is willing to do what it takes for peace. There are questions about whether Mr. Abbas can do what it takes in terms of delivering the Palestinians.

So, if you're President Obama, you don't want to overpromise, you don't want to raise expectations. You don't want to put the parties back at the table if those negotiations would quickly collapse, because then where would that leave you?

The president's top priority is frankly this. Don't let things get worse. I've been in Gaza. I've been in Ramallah in recent days. I've also been in some of the Palestinian communities and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. By all accounts one thing everybody agrees on is that tensions were rising again.

There was a bit of a calm after the November skirmishes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, there was a bit of a calm. Tensions are rising now. There have been rocket attacks on the roads around those Israeli settlements and some talking about the possibility of another intifada.

So the president's top priority is try to keep what at the moment is a relative calm, emphasis on relative, but a relative calm in this neighborhood, and then, perhaps start to lay the bricks of a foundation for peace talks maybe several months down the road.

BERMAN: Of course, John, the neighborhood has seen its share of turmoil with this debate over whether chemical weapons are being used in Syria. We know the president has already discussed that with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It could even come up with the Palestinian leader today.

KING: Listen, I'm sitting in Jerusalem, 135 miles from Damascus. So, when any of the people -- and Ramallah is eight miles from here in Jerusalem. So, when people talk about the possibility of chemical weapons being used in Syria, it's not just about the regime versus the opposition, it's not just about the West versus Assad, in this neighborhood, it's about a threat to everybody in the sense, that if chemical weapons are lose, whether it is regime using them, whether opposition or jihadist groups have grabbed them, one of the big concerns -- you heard the president and prime minister talk about this yesterday -- does Syria's arsenal and other weapons get in the hands of not just the opposition but perhaps to Hezbollah, to Hamas, other jihadist groups in this region?

So, the word "security" takes on many different shapes, many different wrinkles. When you're meeting with the Palestinian president, it's normally about negotiations and security cooperation with Israel. But because of everything going on in this neighborhood at the moment, John, it's a lot more complicated.

And the situation in Syria, including worries about the use of chemical weapons, you bet that would be a factor as well.

BERMAN: We're looking at live pictures of President Obama and Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas. They are greeting people at the airport in Ramallah. A short time ago, we saw the president shaking hands and reviewing the Palestinian troops.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Similarities from yesterday, this is a red carpet reception, pomp and circumstance also, but there's a lot of protest that is will be greeting him as he lands there and as he goes through the region.

BERMAN: Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is in Ramallah, covering this trip.

And, Jessica, you've been talking to the White House for days now about this what is it that the White House wants to achieve with President Abbas today?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Hi, Zoraida. They're hopeful that the president can begin to lay some kind of groundwork to help jump-start or restart the stalled move toward some kind of negotiations. They're not in any way, in the mindset that this is actually going to lead to some peace deal that is any peace accords right now.

They know that this isn't the beginning, but they do think that Secretary Kerry is coming back here at the end of the week to try to lay the groundwork with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel to start some talks.

And so, President Obama is here to, as he said, listen. He said in the press conference yesterday that his main role in this visit is to just listen to the Palestinians. It's a lesson he learned from his mom, he said, because the Palestinians often feel that they are not heard.

And so, he really wants to see what kind of mood there is now and what it would take to really prod some sort of discussion to come into action. And, you know, they felt a little bit neglected and it's the president's time to remind him that even though he has been working very closely with the Israelis, he has not forgotten that he wants to create some sort of open space for peace talks to come into fruition with Secretary Kerry now at the State Department.

BERMAN: Well, it's very interesting you bring up Secretary Kerry, because just a second ago, Jess, we saw President Obama actually greeting Secretary of State John Kerry who was on the tarmac there. The secretary of state arrived in the region before the president. He will be in the region again just after the president leaves.

So, the United States appears to be sending the message that the president's trip is just part of the overall goal here. YELLIN: Right. So, one of the mixed messages we're getting around this trip is the White House has talked down expectations. We should not expect anything to come of this trip. This is largely not just this trip meaning Ramallah, the West Bank today, but the overall trip to the Middle East is really making good to Israel and touching base with the Palestinians.

But despite the low expectations, there is still a kernel of hope that it could plant a seeds for some sort of negotiations to begin again. And so, we see -- we know that this is a priority for Secretary Kerry. So, as you say, he came first and he'll come at the end.

And the focus for Secretary Kerry will be not so much on the Palestinian end, but the Israeli end, to see what it would take to bring Israelis to the table. Kerry will come back and have dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu and a member of his cabinet, a member of the Israeli cabinet, to see where the Israeli comfort level would be and what it would involve for Israel to sit down and talk with President Abbas and really see if peace talks could get going.

So, there is hope in the administration this could happen, John.

SAMBOLIN: Jessica, it's Zoraida here. He's got a full schedule for the day. Could you walk us through what we can expect for the rest of the day?

YELLIN: Yes. So after -- he'll take this meeting. He will be in the presidential compound for a few hours. He'll hold -- you can't call it a press conference, but he'll take a question from each side, from an American journalist and Palestinian journalist and after --

(AUDIO GAP)

BERMAN: We seem to have lost Jess' audio in Ramallah right now.

But the president has a full schedule, as she said. The day will end with a State Department in Tel Aviv with President Shimon Peres of Israel right now, who'll be hosting the state dinner for the president.

Other interesting stops on his schedule today, he's already viewed the Dead Sea scrolls, those, of course, of enormous significance to Jews in Israel because they do show a Jewish presence in Israel for thousands of years.

SAMBOLIN: But he's received a lot of criticism for actually adding that to his schedule. So, you know, it's one of these yin and yangs here. The president is making these decisions, hes' extending that arm to Israel, and the Palestinians are saying, what about us? What do we get as validation in this trip as well?

BERMAN: It is always a very difficult journey --

SAMBOLIN: It is.

BERMAN: -- whenever you travel to the Middle East. And the president walking that fine line, trying to please all sides.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BERMAN: In the next hour, we'll have much more on the president's Middle East trip and the challenges he faces. We're going to speak with Stuart Holliday, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Security Council.

SAMBOLIN: And dueling written request to the United Nations for an independent investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. President Bashar al Assad and his government accusing opposition activists of using them during clashes in Aleppo, in a Damascus suburb. The opposition pointing its collective finger at the Syrian government. And as both sides continue to squabble, U.S. officials are trying to get proof that chemical weapons were used at all.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is following all these developments for us. She is joining us live.

Where are we right now on this, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Zoraida. The U.S. intelligence community is conducting its own investigation as to what happened there and we have new details about how is that happening.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): As more pictures emerged of hospitalized Syrians, CNN has learned U.S. intelligence agencies are in a massive, around- the-clock effort to determine if these people were attacked by chemical weapons. So far, U.S. officials say there is no corroboration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So far, we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used.

STARR: In a classified briefing to congress, intelligence officials said it's not clear what happened.

But CNN has learned new details about how the CIA is trying to figure out exactly what did happen here.

U.S. intelligence operatives are now talking to rebels and defectors to see what they know.

At Ft. Detrick, Maryland, these videos are being analyzed by the classified medical weapons unit. Officials tell CNN military analysts are looking at the patients' symptoms and conditions, along with reports from Syrian doctors to see if the symptoms of suffocation and convulsions match a potential chemical attack.

Intelligence analysts are also looking at satellite imagery to identify movement of chemical weapons or launches of missiles that could have carried chemical warheads. They're looking of intercepts of cell phone and Internet traffic for chatter about attacks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, officials tell us because the U.S. has no operatives and no U.S. military on the ground inside Syria, this is going to be very tough to prove. It may take them some time, if ever, to figure out exactly what happened here -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: President Obama referred to this as a game changer. If, indeed, these reports are confirmed, what would be the response?

STARR: Well, you know, President Obama has talked a lot about that red line of chemical weapons used in Syria. All indications are if they were to prove this, they would again start working through the international community, get some kind of consensus on how to move ahead.

But if -- if there was an order from U.S. military action, there certainly are U.S. fighters in southern Europe, as well as U.S. Navy warships, surface ships and submarines in the Mediterranean that could carry out -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon, thank you.

BERMAN: It is 12 minutes after the hour right now.

A lot of news going on in the world, including the American Academy of Pediatrics making a surprising statement about same-sex marriage, how it says that gay parents will affect children. We'll tell you all about it, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. Sixteen minutes past the hour.

The search is still on this morning for a killer in Colorado who gunned down the chief of the state's corrections department. The family of 58-year-old Tom Clements says they lost a devoted husband and father. He was shot in cold blood Tuesday night as he opened the front door to his home right outside of Denver.

Authorities have not identified a suspect or a motive. But they want to talk to a woman who may have been seen walking in the area. Investigators are also looking for the driver of a car seen in Clements' neighborhood the night of the murder.

CNN's Jim Spellman is live in Denver for us this morning.

Jim, is there anything new this morning? Do they have any leads?

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They do have the promising lead in that car but still no description of the driver and no suspect.

Look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SPELLMAN (voice-over): Police scouring for potential lead notice shooting death of the head of Colorado's prison system, Tom Clements, as he answered the door of his home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're very sensitive to the fact that because of the position he held, there could be any number of people who may or may not have had a motive to perpetrate a crime like this against him.

SPELLMAN: So far, few leads. Only a car seen idling nearby at the time of the shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That vehicle is described as a late '90s model, boxy style two-door. Something similar to a '90s model Lincoln, although we're not definitive saying that it is a Lincoln.

SPELLMAN (on camera): The same witness who saw the car idling near the crime scene, minutes later saw it driving on this road, towards, near the onramp to the interstate, there numerous cameras. Police are checking to see if they can spot the car.

(voice-over): As police pursue the killer, Colorado's governor signed controversial gun control legislation that requires universal background checks and bans high-capacity magazines.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), COLORADO: As far as we know, two completely unrelated subjects. Tom Clements was somebody who worked in what is often times a cold, dark world with a remarkably open and generous heart. He would have expected us to sign these bills and go forward today. It's just the kind of man he was.

SPELLMAN: The governor was less composed earlier in the day when he remembered the man he had to cajole to take the job.

HICKENLOOPER: Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Lisa, their two daughters, all the employees of the Department of Corrections who Tom worked so hard with.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SPELLMAN: Police are looking to speak with a woman who was seen exercising in the area of the crime right around the time of the shooting. They say she's not a suspect but they hope she might have more information, especially about the driver of that car seen in the neighborhood. And while police are focusing on any connection to the prison system, they're quick to say they've yet to rule anything out -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Jim Spellman live in Denver for us, thank you for that.

And a little later on "STARTING POINT," we'll get more information with Paula Presley, the El Paso County under sheriff. That is at 8:15 Eastern Time.

BERMAN: Nineteen minutes after the hour.

Let's bring you up to speed on all the headlines right now.

No plea deal for Ft. Hood massacre suspect, Major Nidal Hasan. A psychiatrist is charged with killing 13 people at the Texas military base in 2009. His lawyer filed motions indicating Hasan was willing to plead guilty under certain scenarios but his court-martial judge rejected those motions. Jury selection is set to begin May 29th.

SAMBOLIN: Federal authorities revealing a Saudi native described as a hardened al Qaeda terrorist has been secretly held in New York since October. The terror suspect best known to authorities by the nickname "Spin Ghul" was extradited from Italy, he's due in federal court tomorrow on a hearing of charges, including conspiring to bomb U.S. government facilities. If convicted, he faces a possible lifetime sentence.

BERMAN: Two high school football players in Connecticut charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls and the victims are reportedly being taunted and harassed online. Torrington High School football players Edgar Gonzalez and Johan Terivio (ph) have been suspended from school and education officials in Torrington say they are cooperating fully with police.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNETH TRAUB, TORRINGTON BOARD OF EDUCATION: We want to assure our school community that we are very concerned about the safety and wellness of all of our students and that all possible steps are being taken to keep our students safe in school.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Of course, charges in this case come days after two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl.

SAMBOLIN: It is 20 minutes past the hour.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is coming out in support of same- sex marriage. The academy announced its support in a 10-page report. The group says it studied scientific literature from the past four years. The study found that children's well-being is affected much more by the strength of family relationships than by the parents' sexual orientation.

BERMAN: Coming up, when will the economy be healthy enough to stand on its own? According to Fed Chief Ben Bernanke, not for a while. We'll tell you all about it, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Good morning, New York.

SAMBOLIN: Look at that beautiful sight.

BERMAN: The capital of planet Earth. There she is, where all the wheeling and dealing is going on all day, every day, we're minding your business this morning.

And we have an important update on the economy for the man who probably knows it better than anyone. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

And Christine Romans is here with that.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The Fed is cautious. The Fed is still cautious on the economy. And that means they're going to continue to keep their pedal to the metal and stimulate the economy. And that was good for the stock market. Why? Because it means the Fed will keep pumping billions into the economy every month.

Look, Washington is paralyzed with politics but the Fed has a massive stimulus program under way supporting the U.S. economy.

When will the economy be able to fend for itself without Bernanke and company? Bernanke says it could take several years. Sure, the labor market popped last month, adding 236,000 new jobs. So, Bernanke is using history as a guide, he says 236,000 jobs isn't quite good enough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN BERNANKE, FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN: We've seen periods before where we had as many as 300,000 jobs for a couple of months and then things weakened again. I think an important criterion would be, not just the improvement that we've seen, but is it going to be sustained for a number of months?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Here's what Bernanke sees: unemployment in the 7.3 percent to 7.5 percent range this year. That's an improvement from the 7.7 percent rate we have now. Still too high but an improvement.

Bernanke dialed back his expectations for economic growth, saying it will stay below 3 percent. That's pretty much where it's been for the past few months. You can see on the right of your screen, 0.1 percent, that was stumble I would say in the U.S. economy for the most recent quarter. It's not enough to meaningfully lower the jobless rate when you have growth that slow.

Look, Bernanke is going to keep throwing money into the economy. That's the upshot here, $83 billion each month. The economy isn't ready to lose its training wheels just yet, but Bernanke looking off into the distance and trying to figure out when that will be, and what kind of a wind-down they'll have for all of this stimulus into the American economy.

Stocks like it yesterday. And intraday high for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, we've got futures kind of around -- all over the board this morning. But we're watching China. And we'll have jobs and housing data in the U.S. later this morning.

So, still a lot of tea leaves to read about what's happening with jobs in the American economy right now.

BERMAN: We will learn a lot more over the course the day.

ROMANS: We will, we will.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, thanks so much.

Shocking video to tell you about of a bus driver literally kicking a special needs student off the bus. What police say happened, coming up next.

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