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American Woman Killed In Syria; Profiting Off White House Resumes; Tornado Warning In Central Missouri; Is College Worth It?; Asteroid Close Encounter

Aired May 31, 2013 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are keeping our eye on the storms over Oklahoma but right now, it's time for our world lead. An American woman dead on the battlefield in Syria. How Nicole Lynn Mansfield ended up there is a mystery to her family in Michigan, although her father said he had had concerns.


GREGORY MANSFIELD, FATHER OF NICOLE LYNN MANSFIELD: I went to the FBI with my concerns three years ago. Her passport needed to be revoked.

TRIANA JONES, DAUGHTER OF NICOLE LYNN MANSFIELD: I looked at her body, her feet and her hands, and her nose and her mouth and I just -- I just knew it was her. I know that she was talking to people online and that they told her about the project in Syria, and that she was interested in going over there to help, but she didn't think that it would be fighting. She told me there would be no guns or anything. She would never be involved in that. And they lied to her. They misled her. They took her and brought her over there probably paid for her ticket and everything and they kept her there.


TAPPER: Heartbreaking. The father and daughter of Nicole Lynn Mansfield talking about learning that she had been killed in Syria. Syria state run television said three westerners were fighting alongside rebels and were found with weapons. The State Department official told CNN that they were aware of the reports and were trying to get more information on Mansfield and what exactly happened.

It's another complication when talking about these Syrian rebels. Who are they? Do they all share the same motives? Can the U.S. trust them? A good time for a segment we like to call explain this to me.

Joining me now is Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has traveled to Syria and met with the rebels. He is also author of "In The Lion's Den, An Eyewitness Account Of Washington's Battle With Syria."

So Henry, thanks for being here. Again, explain this to me. We know that the Syrian rebels are not one uniform group, but how different are these different groups? How cooperative are the alliances? ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTION FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Yes. Syrian groups vary by location in the country. They also vary in terms of nationalist ideology as well as more Islamist and sometimes Jihadist ideology, right. So it is a completely atomized structure. Many of the fighters fight on a very local level like minute men during the American Revolutions. So it is a very complicated situation and also extremely complicated to deal with them because there are so many voices among the opposition.

TAPPER: When Senator John McCain goes to Syria as he did this week and meets with rebels, who is he meeting with?

TABLER: Yes. Primarily he met with the head of the Supreme Military Council, which is sort of an association of the number of those in the opposition that had been vetted by the United States and Arab intelligence agencies and it is that body that has been used to funnel assistance in some cases weapons from other countries into Syria to support the rebels. It's the armed affiliate of what is called the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

TAPPER: Right. So these are the respectable oppositions.

TABLER: The ones we know about -- within the structure itself though it is complicated. Some of them are nationalists in the structure. Some of them are harder to deal with. We believe some of those that when the weapons are --

TAPPER: Extreme Islamists.

TABLER: Exactly, on the further right end of the spectrum. Sometimes weapons supplied via their unit end up in the hands of extremists.

TAPPER: And when you say extremist, do you mean the Al Nusra?

TABLER: Yes, the Nusra front.

TAPPER: And they are considered to be a front group or alias for al Qaeda in Iraq.

TABLER: That's correct. They actually join together with al Qaeda Iraq in April and now they are one unit and it is a rising force among the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition and is a real worry for Washington and makes arming the rebels much more complicated.

TAPPER: And the U.S. considers them as of December I think to be a terrorist organization.

TABLER: That's correct.

TAPPER: The U.N. Security Council, tough to get them to agree on anything, but they consider them to be an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq.

TABLER: Absolutely. There is a general concern. In each one of these different areas of Syria, regime controlled areas, Sunni air patrolled areas, we have not only terrorist groups which are present, but actually ascendant. Hezbollah in the regime controlled areas and the Nusra front in the Sunni Arab areas and then the local branch, the Kurdistan workers party and the Kurdish areas, very complicated.

TAPPER: It is complicated. I understand it a little bit better now, a little bit. But thank you so much, Andrew Tabler. Appreciate it as always for coming and trying to explain this very complicated situation.

TABLER: My pleasure.

TAPPER: Turning now to the "Buried Lead," that is a story we think is not getting enough attention. Something in the "Washington Post" this morning caught our eye. It was a story titled for Obama's ex-aides, it is time to cash in on experience and the story detailed the ways its former White House aides are making money from those in industry and from advocacy groups seeking to curry favor with the White House and the media.

While President Obama has banned former aides from directly lobbying the government for two years after they leave the White House, there are other ways to influence beyond direct lobbying. There's the vague consulting loophole for instance and of course, after two years all bets are off the table anyway.

But beyond what could be seen as a business as usual story for a president who once promise, the opposite, there was news in the story about a conference held this week in Azerbaijan, a country regarded by human rights activists as repressive and backward. A conference attended by former top Obama aides all of whom were well compensated for their travel and for the trip. Just what's going on? Well, it all has to do with oil, money, and influence.


TAPPER (voice-over): It's common in Washington, people leaving their government jobs and then cashing in for big, lucrative salaries. Those stories tend to make the news. Less publicized are junkets to foreign lands often ones with abysmal records when it comes to human rights and democracy such as the conference held Tuesday and Wednesday in Azerbaijan.

RACHEL DENBER, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: The government doesn't look very kindly upon dissent and in the recent crackdown there have been dozens of protesters and political activists, dissidents, government critics, bloggers who have been arrested mostly on bogus charges, thrown in jail.

TAPPER: Excessive restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of religion, torture. And yet this week former government officials were treated to luxury travel and accommodations in a city where the Azerbaijani government's beautification campaign has meant, Human Rights Watch says, the forcible eviction of thousands of families and illegal demolition of their homes.

When these former government officials speak as did former top Obama White House advisers Jim Mesina, David Pluff and Robert Gibbs, they are handsomely compensated tens of thousands of dollars. Republicans were in attendance as well according to the program online, former top State Department official from the Bush administration Paul Wolfowitz and former Republican Senator Dick Luger.

STEPHEN SPAULDING, COMMOM CAUSE: It raises questions about whether the public interest is always the number one interest when these folks are going abroad and collecting five-figure checks.

TAPPER: Current members of Congress were also listed as attending though they would not have been paid. Where is all the money coming from? Every day Azerbaijan pumps one billion barrels of oil through its new pipeline. So perhaps not surprisingly this week's conference was sponsored by oil and gas companies including BP, Conoco Phillips, Chevron, and the state oil company of the Azerbaijan Republic.

DENBER: Former high level officials convening for an event that brings the country prestige shows how important the country is.

TAPPER: In an e-mail one former government official who attended, but who requested to not be named tells CNN that there is another angle here, that one thing all these stories fail to mention is the alliance we have with Azerbaijan on energy, counterterrorism, and most importantly Afghanistan. Without their logistical and supply routes, we could not do what we do especially when we've had Pakistan shut things down.

SPAULDING: This, you know, could encourage dialogue. This could encourage progress, but certainly we would expect our government officials and we would expect our highest public servants to be good ambassadors abroad. But at the same time, we don't want at all the appearance of selling access.


TAPPER: The former government official also told me that for context it is not uncommon for, quote, "people like us, in fact, former presidents to speak in Russia, China, and many other countries with democracy and human rights progress to make and far less cooperation in other areas than Azerbaijan."

Pluff, Mesina and Gibbs declined to speak to CNN on the record, but they told us that former White House Counsel Bob Bower checked out the invitation and the payment and said there was nothing inappropriate about the trip. They also say they brought up Azerbaijan's human rights record in their speeches.

Urgent news as we warned earlier, the Storm Prediction Center has indeed just issued a particularly dangerous situation tornado watch for most of Oklahoma. That means a major tornado outbreak could happen very soon. We're watching it all.

Still ahead, fellow earthlings it's been said we live in a cosmic shooting gallery. In this hour, the cosmos are about to fire another giant rock across our bow. Did I mention this thing has got its own moon flying shotgun? We'll tell you how close this asteroid is going to get to earth when it flies by just 20 minutes from now. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Breaking news, a tornado warning has just been issued for Central Missouri in north eastern bates county. We're keeping a close eye on that. Meanwhile the Storm Prediction Center has issued a particularly dangerous situation tornado watch for most of Oklahoma. That means a major tornado outbreak could happen very soon.

Now it's time for the "Money Lead." If Debby Downer were giving a speech to this year's class of college graduates it would probably go something like this. Congratulations graduates. Not only have you accumulated decades' worth of student loan debt, but there is a good chance your degree will not do anything to help you find a job to pay it off.

That's a depressing snap shot of the state of the student loan crisis in this country, which has set the stage for another battle between President Obama and Republicans in Congress. Today, the president urged members of Congress to approve his plan, which would freeze interest race on federally backed student loans.

If Congress does not act the rates would automatically double shooting up to 6.8 percent, but the House has also put forth a plan to deal with the student loan issue. Like the president's plan it would keep student loan rates from doubling. It would tie rates to the 10-year treasury notes.

But here is the key difference between the two plans. While the president's plan freezes rates for the life of the loan, the House plan would let lending rates reset each year. Borrowers would have the option for a fixed rate upon graduation. The plans in fact do not seem that far off from each other and independent analysts say ultimately both have short comings that could lead to a dramatic spike in rates for future borrowers.

What we have appears to be more political jockeying with students caught in the middle. Penelope Trunk is the cofounder of the career management site Brazen Careerist. She joins us live from Madison, Wisconsin. Penelope has an interesting take on this all. She says this proves a point few are willing to admit. These days a college degree is not really worth the trouble. Penelope, what do you mean?

PENELOPE TRUNK, CO-FOUNDER, BRAZENCAREERIST.COM: I think the biggest problem is that the debt becomes very limiting so if you think of college as opening doors after graduation, the debt closes those doors. Because you can only go after jobs that can service the debt, which takes out about half the jobs that you could be getting.

TAPPER: What do you mean it takes out half the jobs you could be getting?

TRUNK: Because you won't earn enough to pay back the loans each month. You won't earn enough for example to live in a city where there are other young people and have your own apartment or place to live and pay back the debt. Then you have to start only looking at jobs that pay say $20 an hour as opposed to jobs that pay $10 an hour. The more loans you have the more limited you are in terms of what kind of job you can get.

TAPPER: But statistics show that if you have a college degree you are likelier to make a lot more money, which would obviously enable you to pay off the debt. Isn't it important in terms of your lending power, in terms of your ability to pay off the debts to have a college degree?

TRUNK: Well, it is not causal. So statistics also show all the kids who are most likely to succeed can be identified in preschool. And so of course the kids who are most likely to succeed go to college because we have in our heads that you should go to college. But in general, we are not learning in college anything that is useful in the work force.

Colleges right now are acutely aware of that and are trying to figure out how to reposition themselves either as learning for the sake of learning or becoming more vocational depending on the school. And companies are shifting how they hire people to focus more on what people do as opposed to where they've been educated.

Google is a really good example of that because they have an algorithm for how they pick, who they're going to hire and they've announced they are shifting the algorithm to down play school and GPA and focus on what you do online because it is a better indicator of how well you'll perform at work.

TAPPER: All right, very interesting take on this story. Penelope Trunk from Brazen Careerist, thank you so much.

TRUNK: You're welcome.

TAPPER: Coming up, attention, a giant asteroid is hurtling towards earth, towards being a relative term. The closest it will come is 3.6 million miles away that's about 15 times the distance to our moon. Still, in space terms, that's close. Scientists have been excitedly anticipating this moment since they first learned of this asteroid in 1998. The countdown is on, t-minus 12 minutes away. We are watching the skies. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In World News, a giant asteroid big enough to wipe out the entire species, it's got the tension of everyone from space geeks to the White House and it is about to make a close encounter with our planet within a matter of minutes, 8 minutes in fact.

NASA says it will pass within 3.6 million miles of earth. That is roughly 15 times the distance between the earth and the moon so the good news is we will not need to call on a rag tag team of oil rig workers to save the day or crank up any aero smith.

The bad news, there are actually space rocks the size of the Golden Gate Bridge floating around. We may not always be outside the danger zone when one comes hurtling this way. Tom Foreman is in our virtual room to show us just how big and dangerous these asteroids can be -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake. We're getting warnings about these things every day and this is why. When you think about earth and all the stuff flying around scientists are very interested in sights like this. This is meteor crater, Arizona. You can go see it if you want to. From this edge of this crater to that edge over there is about a mile.

The explosion that caused this was massive. It would have wiped out any city in the country and this was made by a meteorite that was only about 50 yards across. How big is the one we're talking about right now? Is it this big? No. That is about the size of the one that blew up over Russia back in February that everyone got excited about.

Is it this big? No. This is about the size of a football field. This is the size of the one that flew past the earth with no impact the same day. No. This asteroid we're talking about right now is much more like this, absolutely massive traveling some 20,000, 24,000 miles an hour.

Yes, if it hit the earth it would cause a massive trouble. By the way, I think that is about the speed that you commute, Jake. If I had a flag, I'd plant it here right now and claim this asteroid for you. As it is I'll just say keep your bicycle helmet handy just in case they miscalculated.

TAPPER: That is quite a thing. Are you actually hurtling through space right now?

FOREMAN: I am. You know, Jake, we all are.

TAPPER: Very wise. You are very wise. Thank you, Tom. We're just about 6 minutes away from the asteroid fly by. Few people have been watching closer than the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

CNN's Sara Sidner is there live. Sara, the fly by is the exciting part for us, but for the scientists the real interesting stuff comes after the asteroid has already passed us, right?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you could argue before and after. Do you know that they knew about this, the scientists here, 15 years ago? Guys and ladies here doing all this work have been calculating just how close some of these asteroids, particularly the near earth objects, the large ones, have been coming to earth for years and they have to do that because there is one that is coming really close, they want to know about it sooner than later.

I want to let you meet one of those scientists who has been doing these calculations and knows what he is talking about. He is a researcher and scientist here at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. I want to ask you this. The size of this particular asteroid, what would happen if it made contact?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a big one. This would make a global catastrophe if it should hit. It is not quite as big as the one that killed the dinosaurs but in that regime. It's a big one.

SIDNER: We're talking about maybe wiping out the human race if it actually did hit something this large.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something this large if it hit would be millions of megatons of energy and that's a bad day.

SIDNER: Now I got to ask because we were talking about the particular asteroid that hit Russia. How come we didn't know about that? It took us all by surprise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that is on the other end of the scale. That was a small one, a tiny one. So small the atmosphere broke it up and left it in pieces and only pieces hit the ground. We couldn't see that one coming. It was coming from the direction of the sun and we don't scan that region. We always look in the dark sky for the sunlight shining on these things and we also hope to find them years before they approach the earth.

SIDNER: Really, really hard to find the small ones and see them. The sun is blinding. I want you to get a look at this. You won't see this anywhere else. Take a look at this. He's got a piece of an asteroid that actually would be very similar to what this particular asteroid looks like as far as the outside of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right. This is a meteorite which fell in 1969 in Australia. This is the same type as the asteroid passing by right now. It's a C type we call it, very dark, the inside. On the outside of course is burned so it darkens. Even on the inside it is very dark. It's very primitive object. It was formed way out near Jupiter. It could have actually formed before the earth formed.

SIDNER: So this is older than the earth. Thank you so much. You are a wealth of information. Back to you, Jake. By the way, just for the record, we're all safe at least for today.

TAPPER: That's good to know. Thank you, Sara. I would imagine that if we weren't you guys might not actually be talking to me on television right now.

Up next the countdown is on, less than 5 minutes away from a close encounter with an asteroid nine times the size of the a cruise ship. That's next if, you know, the apocalypse doesn't happen. Stay tuned.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our World Lead, we're just seconds away from a massive asteroid big enough to be a potential city killer zipping by earth. On the brink of this near Armageddon, our own Wolf Blitzer still bothered to show up to work. He is even wearing a tie. He joins us now from "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf. It's passing by right now. I don't know if you can feel it, but something this big -- the situation room, I mean, it would be more than a situation room.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We can laugh, 3.6 million miles away not exactly very close. But believe it or not as you know NASA scientists love this because they can actually get some cool pictures of this asteroid and help us better prepare down the road. Who knows when that might be, but the scientists out in California, they are loving every second of this even though it's a mere 3.6 million miles from earth.

TAPPER: Wolf, I have good news for you before I hand the show over to you. We have survived. It passed by. We made it. It's OK.

BLITZER: We're relieved.

TAPPER: Yes. I will now leave you in the hands of Wolf Blitzer who is standing and surviving and was not here despite what you've heard when the last one hit with the dinosaurs and everything --

BLITZER: That was only 65 million years or so ago.

TAPPER: And you were not that old. I'm telling people. Wolf Blitzer, I hand it over to you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.