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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Will U.S. Strike Syria?; Yosemite on Fire

Aired August 26, 2013 - 22:00   ET

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


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.

Tonight, breaking news -- with American warships able to strike at a moment's notice and President Obama about to make a big decision, are we on the brink of a military attack on Syria over the suspected use of chemical weapons? The latest from Washington tonight. We're also live in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Also tonight, why is this woman avoiding our cameras? You might, too, if your charity were raising millions, as hers is, for children with cancer and other deadly illnesses, but spending 97 percent of it on everything but those children. Tonight, a whistle-blower explains how the operation spends your money, "Keeping Them Honest."

Plus, stopping the epic fire that's stopping America's scenic treasures and the water supply for a major city, incredible scenes from the battleground.

We begin though tonight with the breaking news, the growing possibility of military action against Syria with strike options going to the president within the next few days.

Another clear sign of where things are headed, when America's top diplomat abandons the language of diplomacy and speaks bluntly like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear.

The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Secretary of State Kerry this afternoon blaming in no uncertain terms the Assad regime for the suspected gas attack that may have killed upwards of 1,300 men, women and children.

Now, over the weekend, new video surfaced. It's deeply disturbing to watch, but arguably deeply necessary for the world to see. In one utterly heartbreaking clip, a father grieves over the body of his two young daughters, his nightmare come to pass.

The group Doctors Without Border said already it's found signs of a poison attack among victims. Today, Secretary Kerry said the U.S. has additional evidence it plans to make public soon.

Also today, a U.N. inspection team gained access to the attack site after initially coming under sniper fire. Meantime, out in the Mediterranean, four American destroyers wait for orders, able to launch a cruise missile strike on short notice. And back home, a senior administration official tells us President Obama will be presented with final options in the next few days, while House Speaker Boehner warns that Congress should be consulted before any action is taken.

We will talk about the military and diplomatic possibilities and capabilities shortly.

First, let's go straight to Fred Pleitgen, the only Western network correspondent right now in Syria. He's in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

What's the latest, Fred? And has there been any reaction from the Assad regime?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson.

Well, there hasn't been any statement or anything from the Assad regime. However, they have reacted and they clearly are hearing the message. The foreign minister of the country, Walid Muallem, has called for a press conference for 1:00 p.m. local time. And Assad himself earlier today did give some sort of a reaction in general to the rhetoric that, of course, is getting more and more tough towards the Syrians.

Assad said in an interview with a Russian newspaper that he denies all the claims of the Syrian -- the Syrian military using any sort of chemical weapons on the battlefield. And he said -- quote -- that he would be "ludicrous" for the Syrian military to do that considering that it itself has forces on the front line and they would gas themselves if they used chemical weapons.

He also warned the United States about any sort of possible intervention and said the United States had started wars in the past and had never achieved its political objectives. Of course, the United States by no means buying that. We are heard those statements from John Kerry.

One of the other things, Anderson, that's also going on, and this is sort of a Syrian show of force, they have been absolutely pounding the outskirts of Damascus with artillery all day, and of course those are exactly the areas where the rebels say those chemical attacks took place -- Anderson.

COOPER: And what do we know about the U.N. inspection team. Any sense of the U.N. inspection as when they will report their results? PLEITGEN: Well, we're not sure when exactly the final report is going to issued, but clearly they said that they got some good evidence today and they also said that they have been evaluating that evidence. One of the things we are hearing from them is going they're to send that team out again tomorrow.

It's unclear whether or not they will go to the same area that they visited today or whether trying to get some of the other sites where also chemical weapons have allegedly been used. The place they went today, Mouadamiya, is a very hot zone. There's been a lot of fighting there in the past couple of months. It was obviously very difficult for them to get there, but they did manage to spend a good couple of hours on the ground getting samples and especially talking to people.

That's sometimes something that's very underrated sort of in the public sphere, but they say it's very important to get the story from people, what exactly happened on that night and what happened to them. What were the effects that they were feeling? So the U.N. says they're actually very happy with the way things went even after that amazingly rocky start that they had where, first of all, the hotel they're was mortared early in the morning, and then their convoy came under sniper fire -- Anderson.

COOPER: And we mentioned this earlier, Fred. There are four American destroyers in the Mediterranean ready to launch missiles if the order is given and a growing coalition of allies. What is the sense you're getting on the ground? Are people preparing for military action there?

PLEITGEN: Do you know what? That's such an interesting question because the mood here I get the feeling is really changing.

I have been here four times reporting on the ground and what you hear from people in this government-controlled part of Damascus, where many people are sympathetic to the regime is that you will hear the people on the other side, the people on the rebel-controlled side, are all terrorists, they're all staging this.

But you really see that people are starting to doubt that. There's many people that you talk to who say that they're not sure who launched these chemical weapons attacks. And when we got here earlier, people were saying it must have been the rebels who did this, if anyone did this. But it now it really seems that people are thinking about this differently.

And, of course, they're afraid of the U.S. getting involved and more involved in this war and somehow tipping the balance in all of this. It's clearly a fear that is going on. These people have been living in this sort of civil war situation for a very long time, but they also know that the U.S. could change things on the ground very quickly if it chose to do so, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Fred, stay safe, Fred Pleitgen reporting from Damascus. More now on what happens next with national security analyst and former Bush Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend. Fran currently sits on the DHS and CIA external advisory boards. Also, former CIA officer Bob Baer joins us, Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and chief national correspondent John King as well.

Fran, listening to Secretary Kerry today, it certainly seems like the U.S. is determined to do something.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, absolutely.

Let's remember, Anderson, remember, there were reports in the spring that there had been a small-scale use of chemical weapons and the Assad regime very much in keeping with their sort of method of operation tests and then nothing happened, and so then we see this large-scale attack and, frankly, atrocity.

I don't think there's any doubt when you hear the language Secretary Kerry uses that they're talking -- they're looking at one of the options as being one of these missile strikes off the destroyers in the Med in order to try to take out the delivery systems that -- the systems used to actually deliver the chemical weapons. But that's really only a first step and the question is, will they be able to put together a coalition that includes our Arab allies so that there's international support for this that would allow you to actually take it further?

One strike of TLAM missiles we know is not enough.

COOPER: Not going to do it, right.

TOWNSEND: That's right. After the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, the Clinton administration did that and it didn't do much to stop the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

COOPER: Right.

John, your sources are actually telling you expect a military operation within a week.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Within days. They say this will not be a weeks-and-a-month calculation, not weeks -- plural -- calculation.

So, I wouldn't say within days, but I would say days plus, looking inside the time frame of a week. What is that based on? Conversations within the administration. As you noted, the president has asked for a fine-tuned set of options and he is told he will have that within a matter of days.

His phone calls to the leaders of France and Great Britain and other calls from the Pentagon and from Secretary Kerry to the allies, friends, talking about it, to Turkey, to Arab allies saying that to move very quickly, they know want to know what the others are willing to bring to the table. They don't want Assad to think this is a bluff by any means, which is why you see those warships moving into the region.

And all indications are they're moving on a very quick timetable, and again to Fran's point, will we see an emergency meeting of the NATO allies? Will we see an emergency meeting of the Arab League or will the administration just try to make sure it get the blessings after an attack? That's the big question tonight.

COOPER: Bob, what do you expect a military operation to look like?

ROBERT BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's going to hit the obvious targets, armored units, artillery positions, maybe presidential palace in Damascus, which is an easy target.

I think it's going to be more of a deterrence, let Bashar al- Assad know if he continues to use these weapons, we will keep hitting. And, frankly, I agree with the policy. Otherwise, they just would run with this and keep on using chemical weapons against the population. This is a nasty civil war, and, unfortunately, and I don't think this administration wants to get into it. They pretty well have to.

COOPER: Bob, do you believe that there's any chance -- the Assad regime is saying it's the rebels who are using chemical weapons, if anybody. Do you believe there's any chance of that?

BAER: You know, I know some of these people. I just couldn't imagine them combining the chemicals, you know, delivering the stuff, these kind of casualties. Casualties have to be, you know, done by military units. No, I don't believe at it all.

COOPER: Mike, a senior administration official has told CNN the goal of an operation would not be to dramatically change the situation on the ground dramatically, but to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons.

Is that enough, in your opinion? Does that make sense to not change the calculus on the ground?

MICHAEL DORAN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: No. I think it's a strike.

One of the striking things is that the president has been very reluctant to get involved. Public opinion has been against it. There's not a lot of support on the hill. And yet, here we are again.

Time and time again, we get dragged further and further in. But we have to cede, as Bob just said, that we don't really have a lot of choice. We are involved, whether we want to be or not. The problem, this could be a Vietnam-type problem where we kind of back our way into this if we don't come up with a plan about how to win. So it can't just be one and done. We have to come up with a larger plan to topple Assad. It has to be part of a regime change plan.

COOPER: But, Fran, that's part of the concern about the capabilities of anybody who would replace Assad. We have seen there's obviously al Qaeda groups in Syria. The opposition is fragmented in a lot of ways. And a lot of most of the effective opposition fighters are these al Qaeda-linked groups.

Is the regime change something that this administration really wants to provoke?

TOWNSEND: Well, look, let's go back to the example of Libya. We had the same concerns, remember, with the rebels in Libya. They were fractured, they were not well organized, but the answer was it was important enough to topple Gadhafi that we came in, and by the way we hesitated. We did initial strikes and then we hesitated after we took out the integrated air defense system -- it was not a very sophisticated one -- before we went after the mechanized units, those units, those military units that would deliver weapons.

And we saw the rebels in Libya suffer from that. So it can't be a one and done, as Mike Doran just said. You have got to go in. The TLAM strike, a cruise missile strike is worth doing to buy some time. You then need to come in behind that and take out the integrated air defense system, a much more complicated mission in Syria, so that you can then target the mechanized units.

COOPER: But do you have any concern that the rebel movement that's in Syria that is fighting is a lot more -- I mean, it is a lot more diverse than it was in Libya?

TOWNSEND: I do. But, Anderson, you know, my bigger concern -- and that -- you are right to raise that. I think it is a legitimate concern, but the fact is we have to remember the only people who really benefit from the current chaos in Syria is al Qaeda.

The longer you have this ungoverned space, we know from the example of Afghanistan with the Taliban going back to the late '90s, al Qaeda can take advantage of these situations, not only to get access to weapons, but in order to plan, train, equip and fund-raise to then project their power outside of Syria.

COOPER: Bob, you also have the concern, though, say Assad does fall. Say the military collapses there. You have some rebel groups that take over. If you have a slaughtering of Alawites, who have been supportive of the Assad regime, then the administration and the rest of the world is faced with the question of, OK, well, what do you do now to stop a slaughter?

BAER: You know, you are exactly right. We need a peacekeeping force, a U.N. peacekeeping force to go in there once the regime falls to separate these people because we also can't stand by while the Salafis slaughter the Alawites and the Christians as well. We need to separate these people.

But I would like to add that Fran is absolutely right. The longer we let this go on, the nastier it gets and the more it will spread and it will take down Lebanon and it will move in to Jordan and it could move in to the Gulf. It's just the way it's been going for the last year. COOPER: And , Mike, we have already seen that spread, and we have seen car bombings in Tripoli and Lebanon, obviously Beirut, although we're not sure if that's directly linked, but we have already seen the spread of this.

DORAN: Yes. Actually, those bombings that you mentioned, I point the finger more at Hezbollah than at the al Qaeda in Syria.

COOPER: Right.

DORAN: But it's our job -- as everybody is saying, it's our job to build up the moderate Syrian opposition. We together with our allies, that's what we should see as our goal here. Whether we put boots on the ground, don't boots on the ground, every step we take should be designed to build up the moderate opposition.

COOPER: John, this is certainly not the first time we're seeing pretty good evidence of chemical attacks in Syria. Why is it different for the president this time around? Is it simply the scale of it?

KING: Last time it happened, the administration said it was a relatively small-scale attack and the president -- in my words -- used some verbal gymnastics to try to say he didn't have to cross that red line or Assad had not fully crossed or they didn't have the international coalition to enforce him crossing the red line.

And many, including members of the United States Congress, called the presidents' credibility into question saying you can't draw a line and then not enforce it. This time, when you look at these pictures, the scale of this attack, because of the fact the president's credibility has been questioned in the past and because of the circumstances on the ground, and in part because of a frustration with the Russians, you have Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel, two Vietnam veterans, they know personally what it's like to be in a war.

They know personally what it's like to have their government tell them this is a very limited intervention. They're reluctant warriors, but you have a new interventionist national security adviser, a new, more aggressive United Nations ambassador and because of all their frustrations and then because the size and the scope of the evidence they are looking at, this president -- look at Secretary Kerry's rhetoric today. A complete turn of events from where this administration has been, and the president I'm told will be pretty soon behind him.

COOPER: Bob Baer, appreciate you being on. Mike Doran, good to have you, Fran Townsend, John King as well.

Let us know what you think. Follow me on Twitter @AndersonCooper. Let's talk about it during the commercial break. What do you think the U.S. should do, if anything?

Also tonight, we are chasing another charity. We have been doing a lot of reporting on so-called charities that claim to raise money for good causes and really little of the money actually goes to where it's supposed to. This charity raising money allegedly for granting wishes for dying children. So why does it spend, get this, less than 3 cents of every dollar it raises on those kids? A whistle-blower exposes their operation. We're "Keeping Them Honest" tonight. Stick around for that.

And, later, life or death for Jodi Arias. We will tell you why the murdering girlfriend she was back in court today and when she will face a jury again. Mark Geragos and Jeff Toobin join us

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Welcome back.

"Keeping Them Honest" tonight, the latest in a rogue's gallery of charities that raise big money from donors, from people like you, but also spend small of change on the people they claim to be helping.

Now, in the past, we have exposed charities that raise money for veterans, but mainly benefit themselves. We have shown you some examples that frankly will turn your stomach. And if your tweets and e-mails are any indication, this certainly has outraged a lot of people.

This time, along with "The Tampa Bay Times" and Center for Investigative Reporting, we have identified the absolute worst, the rock bottom when it comes to how little out of each dollar raised it spends actually helping those it claims to be raising money for, in this case, children dying of cancer and other deadly illnesses.

That's right, dying children.

Drew Griffin and producer David Fitzpatrick tonight "Keeping Them Honest."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three former employees of the Kids Wish Network say to work here at the charity we rated as America's worst, it appears you have to know how to lie.

We found that out the moment we knocked on the charity's door.

(on camera): Is Ms. Lanzatella in?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, she isn't.

GRIFFIN: She is not?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. She is not.

GRIFFIN: Really? Because that's her car right there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's true. But she is not here.

GRIFFIN: She's not here? All right. (voice-over): Anna Lanzatella runs Kids Wish Network. That is her car. And after waiting in the parking lot for two hours, it turns out she was at work after all.

(on camera): Hi. Ms. Lanzatella? Drew Griffin with CNN.

ANNA LANZATELLA, KIDS WISH NETWORK: Hey, Drew. It's nice to see you.

GRIFFIN: Nice to see you. Can we just ask you questions about all the ratings that have come out?

LANZATELLA: No, I'm sorry. There's been so many misleading reports that have been made that we have asked our attorneys to take a look into everybody. And I'm not going to be doing any interviews.

GRIFFIN: Well, we...

(CROSSTALK)

LANZATELLA: Thank you.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It is perhaps with good reason Lanzatella and the Kids Wish Network don't wish to answer any of our questions, because they all involve how this tiny charity with a sympathetic name has taken in $127 million of your donations over the last 10 years.

Yet, according to the charity's own tax filings, it has used less than 3 percent of that money to fulfill the wishes of sick children. You heard right, less than 3 percent.

(on camera): We have looked at your own tax returns and determined that less than 3 cents of every dollar raised in cash goes to actual programs or children. Can you at least tell us if your own tax filings are true and that's the case?

LANZATELLA: I'm not going to interview and I'm not going to discuss that. We have made a statement, and it's on our Web site, and we have answered all the questions.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): In fact, Anna Lanzatella has never given an interview. The charity's Web site statement says in part: "We are very aware of the high costs involved with fund-raising, and are doing everything we can to allocate more and more dollars to program services every year, while exploring the lowest cost fund-raising opportunities."

But less than 3 cents out of every dollar?

LANZATELLA: That's not true. We're very...

GRIFFIN (on camera): Well, what is the truth? Because that's what's on the tax returns.

(CROSSTALK) LANZATELLA: We're very proud of the good work that Kids Wish Network has done over the last 15 years. We have helped hundreds of thousands of children, and that's what we're going to continue to do.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Year after year, Kids Wish Network continues to collect millions of dollars in donations, $22.8 million in one year, according to its most recent tax filing. How do they raise so much money? Most of it comes from paid telemarketers, most, but not all.

MEANDA DUBAY, FORMER CHARITY EMPLOYEE: My main focus was to grant wishes for children who were suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

GRIFFIN: Meanda Dubay spent six months as a wish coordinator with Kids Wish Network.

(on camera): And how did you do that? You just dipped into the funds that everybody had donated to Kids Wish Network and made it happen, right?

DUBAY: No. I would call and I would get people to grant me parts of the wish.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): She says she would call hotels, airlines, amusement parks, get freebies, even rental cars and meals all donated while at the same time at another desk in this same building, someone else was also making calls to get money to pay for the wish.

DUBAY: We would have one person call to get the actual services donated, while another person is calling to get the money donated for things that I was already getting for free.

GRIFFIN (on camera): So, if you have this entire wish, let's say, a trip to Disneyland or Disney World, donated, where was this money going?

DUBAY: That, I don't know. I have no idea where that money would go.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It turns out now we do. Records reviewed by CNN and "The Tampa Bay Times" show of the $127 million raised in the past 10 years, $109 million was paid right back to those professional fund-raisers.

And you will want to hear about one of those fund-raisers in particular. He is Mark Breiner, the person who actually started Kids Wish Network. In the past five years, the charity he started has paid almost $5 million to fund-raising companies owned or controlled by him. That includes more than $3 million after Mr. Breiner left Kids Wish Network.

DUBAY: My research found that they were in business with their founder, Mark Breiner, and that they had lied on several occasions on their 990s, their tax returns. And I wanted to make sure that people knew, so I brought the information to the board of directors. GRIFFIN (on camera): That they have, in fact, forgot to mention the fact that they had paid the former operator of the charity more than a million dollars?

DUBAY: Yes. I took that information to the board. And I was let go. I was fired about 45 minutes after sending my concerns to the board.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): And not just fired. It turns out the Kids Wish Network reported Dubay to the FBI, claiming she had stolen privileged electronic information from company files and illegally accessed employee credit card data.

Two months after she was fired, Dubay's home was raided.

DUBAY: There was close to 16 or 17 FBI agents that stormed my home with guns drawn on my husband, called all of us out of our home, guns pointing at us, myself, my children. I'm crying because I have two dogs, not knowing what's going on. Had no idea why they were at my house.

GRIFFIN (on camera): The FBI came to your house with guns?

DUBAY: Yes, with guns in front of my children.

GRIFFIN: Because?

DUBAY: Because I had a complaint against a charity that was lying, lying on their tax returns, because they didn't want for people to find out exactly what they were doing.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The FBI's case was closed and Dubay's confiscated computers returned. Kids Wish Network says it was planning on firing Dubay anyway and accused her of stealing documents, even filing a defamation case against her.

An attorney for the charity told CNN, there was "nothing illegal, unethical or immoral about the charity's fund-raising. In the meantime, though, the charity admits it did pay the founder of Kids Wish Network millions and says forgetting to list most of those payments on its tax returns was an error, just one more thing the current CEO didn't want to talk about.

LANZATELLA: I'm not...

(CROSSTALK)

GRIFFIN (on camera): Why did the Kids Wish Network give $5 million to your founder, Mr. Mark Breiner, through his associated companies?

LANZATELLA: I'm sorry. I have already made a statement, and it's on our Web site. Thank you.

GRIFFIN: Well, what about the $109 million?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Drew Griffin joins me now.

These people run away like cockroaches. These people run their charities, and they make all these promises. They claim they're doing good work, and then they won't answer any questions about it. If you're doing nothing wrong, if you're actually running a legitimate charity, you would want the attention, you would want to be able to answer all these questions.

It's just so infuriating, Drew. And you have seen this time and time again in all the reporting. What is the Mark Breiner guy, the founder of this so-called charity, have to say about all this?

GRIFFIN: Well, to your point, he told us, Anderson, he was willing to be interviewed by you, but only if he could do that interview live.

COOPER: Great. Totally.

GRIFFIN: Of course we agreed. And then he backed out.

He said he wasn't feeling well. He sent in a statement instead saying, in part, that failure to list those payments of his companies was an omission. He said, just because his companies got paid doesn't mean he got any money. In fact, he says he personally hasn't gotten one dollar from the charity since he left three years ago, and right now he says his businesses aren't doing business with Kids Wish Network.

COOPER: And what about -- that FBI raid is incredible. Why did the FBI get involved in all of this?

GRIFFIN: You know, I don't know, Anderson.

And, frankly, we have been trying to figure that out. We have been doing these kind of stories a long time. This is the first time I have ever heard of a charity basically sicking the FBI on what is a whistle-blower. We'd like to find out what the FBI was told by this charity that led them to this woman's house, guns drawn.

The FBI won't tell us. The U.S. attorney's office won't tell us. They obviously have no criminal case going on there. We have filed a Freedom of Information Act to find out exactly what was behind this, because that really to us is troubling.

COOPER: It's incredible. And, obviously the FBI, they found nothing there, right?

GRIFFIN: Found nothing. The sheriff's department found nothing to substantiate any of these allegations, so the question is, what did this charity, what information did this charity share, and was that accurate information that they gave law enforcement...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Again, I mean, it's the kids -- what's it called, the Kids Wish Network?

GRIFFIN: Kids Wish Network.

COOPER: Wish Network.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Their Twitter handle is @KidsWishNetwork, which I have just started to tweet them. And I just can't believe these people won't ask any questions. Three cents on every dollar is outrageous. People should know this.

Drew, I appreciate it. We will continue to follow up.

And, by the way, if anyone from this alleged charity is watching, we'd be happy to do an interview live with you any time, even if you're not feeling good. You know, I'm not feeling good often, but I do the show anyway. So, we would like you to come on. If you're raising money, you should answer questions.

Don't miss part two of Drew's report tomorrow on 360. For more on this story, go to CNN.com.

Just ahead tonight, thousands of firefighters working around the clock risking their lives to keep that massive California wildfire from spreading further into Yosemite National Park. We will show you the battle up close.

Also ahead, "Crime & Punishment": Convicted killer Jodi Arias showed up in court today in shackles. We will hear what her lawyers want before her new sentencing trial begins.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Just ahead, a national treasure in danger tonight. The battle to save Yosemite National Park from a raging wildfire. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK

COOPER: Welcome back. In northern California, a giant wildfire that has been raging for nearly 10 days is nowhere close do being contained. Thousands of firefighters are battling the inferno, now the largest ever in the Sierra Nevadas. It's already destroyed more than 150,000 acres, 11 homes. It's only 15 percent contained tonight.

Now, Yosemite National Park is in its crosshairs. The blaze is spread to a remote area of the park. And is threatening a reservoir that's a crucial part of San Francisco's water supply. Gary Tuchman is on the ground. He spent the day watching the battle up close.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the midst of what is some of America's most beautiful wilderness, dangerous flames continue to spread. And they are spreading rapidly, haphazardly, dangerously.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think with this job, everybody gets a little bit scared. If you don't have a little bit of fear, something's wrong with you, I believe. But, you know, courage is having that fear and still going in there and getting the job done.

TUCHMAN: The fire has entered the northwestern portion of Yosemite National Park. The most tourist-heavy southern end has escaped the flames for now. Roughly 235 square miles of forest land burned.

(on camera): To put it in some sort of context, this fire has now destroyed an area that is one and a half times the size of the city of Denver.

(voice-over): This popular campground just west of Yosemite was overwhelmed by a sudden rush of flames. This area utterly devastated. Wooden cabins burned to the ground. You can see the charred beds in those cabins. Tourists were forced to flee quickly. This incinerated car shows how devastating the flames have been.

(on camera): When firefighters come across something like this, their greatest fear is what they'll find inside. Fortunately, nobody was found inside this vehicle. And fortunately, no one has died so far from these fires and there have been no serious injuries.

(voice-over): So what is the most extreme concern right now?

LEE BENTLEY, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: The winds coming back up, the strong winds, the heat coming back up, increasing, low humidities, and the fire itself, creating its own winds, it's been a monster.

TUCHMAN: It has indeed been a monster, one of California's largest wildfires in recorded history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just come out here and try to be as safe as we can.

TUCHMAN: As usual, the firefighters have been heroic in this battle, that is nowhere near over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Those pictures are incredible. Gary -- Gary, the fire is not just a concern, obviously, for residents and tourists near Yosemite. It's also a potential problem for the people in the San Francisco Bay area, right?

TUCHMAN: That's right. We're about 130 miles east of San Francisco, and there are 2.4 million people in the San Francisco Bay area who get their water from a reservoir that's in the northwest corner of the park. It's called the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and that's a great Native American name. But right now, the fire hasn't gotten to the reservoir, but the ash and smoke is above it, so authorities are keeping a careful eye on it to make sure it doesn't get contaminated. In addition, there's hydroelectric facilities out there that provides electricity for the San Francisco bay area, that's a great concern, also. One thing I want to show you above my shoulder, a closer look. That's not a weather cloud behind us. That is the smoke from a fire. When you're under that, it's completely gray. That smoke turns daylight into nighttime when you're standing right under it.

COOPER: That is incredible. I've never seen anything like that. Gary, appreciate it. We'll continue to follow it. Obviously, our best to all those folks fighting the fires.

Coming up in "Crime and Punishment" tonight, Jodi Arias back in court in prison stripes and shackles. What her defense wants before a new jury tries to decide whether she should live or die, next.

Also later, the VMA performance that everyone is still talking about, starring Miley Cyrus and a giant foam finger, we're breaking it down on "The RidicuList."

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COOPER: Jodi Arias was back in court today, this time in shackles and a striped jail uniform, for another step toward learning whether she'll be sentenced to death.

You remember Arias was convicted of murdering her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, after a sensational trial full of lurid details about their relationship.

During the penalty phase, the jury couldn't agree on whether she should spend life in prison or die by lethal injection. Well, now a judge is delaying setting the date for the retrial of the penalty phase while she considered two motions by the defense.

Now, those motions are pretty much a sign of the times. For one thing, the defense wants access to prospective jurors' Twitter accounts. The defense is also asking the judge to limit or ban live TV coverage of the retrial.

Joining me now is CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos, who's the author of "Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works and Sometimes Doesn't."

So not only does this jury have to accept the guilt of Jodi Arias, but they -- they have to accept -- they have to come up with the penalty?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: They do but...

COOPER: How unusual is this?

TOOBIN: Well, it's a very -- Arizona has an unusual system. Think about how difficult and expensive this is going to be. You know, a lot of people find it counterintuitive that the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison. But this case is a perfect demonstration.

The government is going to have to put on basically all its evidence again, because they're going to have to show this jury why they think Jodi Arias deserves the death penalty.

The defense will put on its case. This thing could go on for weeks again, and it may not have a resolution, as well. I mean, it is just an endless process that should have ended in a plea bargain.

COOPER: But this -- this doesn't always happen. It's usually the jury that comes up with the penalty?

TOOBIN: Yes, it usually is, and Arizona has this unusual system of one redo. If this jury doesn't reach a death penalty decision, it will be life in prison. It won't do -- it won't go to a third jury. But I mean, this is going to be a huge undertaking to try this case.

COOPER: and -- and Mark, this motion for the defense calling for cameras to be banned in court, I can hear howls from the world of cable TV and court watchers and HLN but given the number of jailhouse interviews that Jodi Arias did, including the one right after the verdict was read, do you think the judge is actually going to grant that request?

MARK GERAGOS, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I don't know if she's going to grant the request to keep cameras out. I think that, you know, this is a -- this is a case that's drawn all kinds of interest. And she's going to have a very difficult time trying to impanel any kind of a jury.

I would echo what Jeff said. This case, if there was a kind of a test case for why you should just have life without or L-WOP as we call it, this would be it. I mean, why go through this thing again? Other than to get ratings on TV? Why put everybody through it? Why put Travis Alexander's family through it? Why not just give her -- and this is -- this often happens. You give the defense a choice: "If you will waive your appeals, we will take the death penalty off the table."

That gives you some finality. You don't have to go through 10 or 20 years of endless appeals. Death penalty is gone, and you're done with it. That to me, at least, would make all the sense in the world.

As far as cameras, I think one of the things this judge did is postpone it because she'd like to try to encourage both sides to get together and cut a -- cut a disposition in this case.

COOPER: Also, the idea, Jeff, that the defense wants access to the prospective jurors' Twitter accounts. That's -- is that...

TOOBIN: I've never heard of that before, but you know what? It makes a certain amount of sense. Because people are very candid on Twitter. People get information on Twitter. They also put forth their own feelings. So if you have jurors that have expressed some sort of opinion about this case or even criminal justice issues in general, it does make sense to me that you'd want access to it.

COOPER: Mark Geragos, thanks very much.

Jeff Toobin, as well. I follow you both on Twitter.

Up next, a shocking case. A boy kills his grandmother moments after playing a violent video game. Why he will not face charges.

Plus, Amanda Knox decides if she will return to Italy to face the retrial in the murder of her roommate.

We'll be right back.

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COOPER: The gasp heard around the world. Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. But come on. Was it really all that shocking? I ponder the question on "The RidicuList" coming up.

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ISHA SESAY, HLN ANCHOR: I'm Isha Sesay with a "360 Bulletin."

A Louisiana judge ruled today that an 8-year-old boy who shot and killed his grandmother can remain with his parents. Police say the child was playing a video game, "Grand Theft Auto," and accidentally fired a weapon he thought was a toy gun. They say he's distraught and getting counseling.

Amanda Knox is not going back to Italy for a new murder trial. She was convicted in 2009 in the death of her roommate, but that conviction was overturned in 2011 for lack of evidence. A family spokesman says Knox has no obligation to return to Italy for the retrial of the case.

And George Zimmerman plans to ask the state of Florida to cover some of his legal expenses. That's according to his attorney. He says those bills could be as much as $300,000. Under Florida law, Zimmerman's acquittal entitles him to be reimbursed -- Anderson.

COOPER: A recent convocation speech by a sophomore at Georgia Tech, a mechanical engineering major, is lighting up the Internet. He was welcoming the incoming freshman class. The video has gone viral.

Timing could not be better, because it's drawing attention to a tremendous and growing push for many more students to get excited about the sciences. Tom Foreman has this week's "American Journey."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK SELBY, GEORGIA TECH SOPHOMORE: If you want to change the world...

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Maybe no one else in the country whipped up more excitement about math and science this month than Georgia Tech sophomore Nick Selby, whose rousing speech to incoming freshman has been seen more than 2 million times on YouTube.

SELBY: If you want to build the Ironman suit, you're at Georgia Tech! You can do that.

FOREMAN: But at schools everywhere, especially those where science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM studies, are king, a more profound excitement has been steadily growing. Georgia Tech president Bud Peterson.

BUD PETERSON, PRESIDENT, GEORGIA TECH: People all around the world realize that in order for a country to remain competitive globally, they're going to have to have a workforce that's trained and educated in the STEM fields.

FOREMAN: The White House certainly knows it. The president wants to see 100 thousand new STEM teachers trained over the next decade.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future, and I'm proud of all the students who are making that investment.

FOREMAN: And all of this is not just about making the country more competitive.

(on camera): Researchers have found students in STEM fields generally enjoyed better returns on their education investment, with more job options and higher salaries. An average engineer graduate, for example, can easily start at $65,000 a year. And with one out of five American jobs now STEM related, that's enough to make students and parents of many strong STEM schools very excited, indeed.

SELBY: I am doing that!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We'll be right back.

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COOPER: Time now for "The RidicuList." And I hesitate to even bring this up. But look, it has been everywhere today, so at this point it's the elephant in the room. The twisting, twerking, tongue- flashing, scantily-clad elephant.

Ladies and gentlemen, Miley Cyrus did something positively shocking -- shocking, I'll tell you -- at the NPR Awards last night. Oh, it wasn't the NPR Awards. It was that other bastion of restraint and culture, the MTV Video Music Awards. The kids call them the VMAs.

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(MUSIC)

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COOPER: It's an affront to stuffed animals everywhere. That's what people are upset about, right?

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(MUSIC)

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COOPER: That was just the beginning. The VMAs are known for their magnificent duets, matching up artists in unexpected and breath- taking ways. It's kind of like when Salvador Dali did the illustration for a limited-edition printing of Cervantes' "Don Quixote." In this conceit, Dali is Miley Cyrus, Cervantes is Robin Thicke. Please, behold the majesty of the collaboration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

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COOPER: Never seen the finger used quite like that.

That's right. Miley Cyrus pretty much flipped the bird, a giant foam one if you will, to all that is good and decent and proper. It was provocative; it was shocking. It was pro-shockative, and people are outraged, outraged I tell you.

And that, of course, is the whole point. It's all so yawningly formulaic. Frankly, the only way Miley Cyrus could shock me with a VMA performance would be to play a heartfelt and original composition on the guitar and to actually sing.

Remember her performance at the Teen Choice Awards five years ago?

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(MUSIC)

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COOPER: People lost their minds about that one, as well. Personally, I prefer this version of the song.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

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COOPER: Now, that is a collaboration.

Look, to be honest, I missed the whole VMAs because I was watching "Breaking Bad," but then I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out the whole thing about the ricin. I've watched every episode of that series twice. I still don't get what happened. I had to pop an Ambien just to get to sleep last night, I was so worked up about it.

But I watched Miley's performance today. And yes, I think I can call her Miley now. And the truth is, if it actually got your goat, maybe it's time to stop watching the VMAs. They're not going to change the shtick. Trust me. Next year, if Miley Cyrus is still performing, she's going to get up there and undergo a live colonoscopy or something.

Sure, it was tacky; it was tawdry; it was embarrassing, but 10.1 million people watched, and people is talking about it today. So I ask you: Who is getting the last laugh on "The RidicuList"?

Hey, that's it for us. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.