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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Inside Syria; Taking Action Against Syria; Fire Near Yosemite Still Out of Control; Debt Ceiling Deadline; Zimmerman Lawyers Ask for Court Costs

Aired August 27, 2013 - 05:00   ET

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


PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Chemical weapons attack. The U.S. is confident the Syrian government slaughtered hundreds of its people. But did U.N. inspectors find proof of the attack? And will the U.S. intervene? We are live.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: Burning out of control. A wildfire in and around Yosemite National Park spreading. How fast the flames are moving in the uphill battle facing firefighters.

BROWN: And the man acquitted of murdering unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, now wants the state of Florida to pay up. Why he thinks it state owes him some big bucks.

PEREIRA: Good morning. And welcome to EARLY START. I'm Michaela Pereira.

BROWN: And I'm Pamela Brown. It's nice to have you along with us on this Tuesday, August 27th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

PEREIRA: We're going to begin in Syria this morning, where the world is still asking what exactly to do about last week's deadly chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus. The Obama administration is making it clear it believes chemical weapons were indeed used and it blames the Assad regime, that as U.N. inspectors continue looking into the attack and who may be behind it.

Frederik Pleitgen is the only Western reporter in Damascus. He joins us live this morning.

Fred, we ask you. What are inspectors planning on doing today? And what is the government on its part saying?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Michaela.

Well, the weapons inspectors are planning to go out and visit some of the suburbs in Damascus again. Our understanding is they are planning to visit the eastern suburbs of Damascus. In particular, one place called Zamalka. That's what we are hearing on the ground. That hasn't been confirmed yet.

Zamalka is a place that apparently had the highest death toll in the alleged attack that happened last Wednesday. Yesterday, of course, the weapons inspectors went out to the western suburbs of Damascus. Their vehicles got shot at as they were going out there. However, they did manage to, in the end, get on the ground and they say they gathered some valuable information, some very good soil samples, some of very good other samples.

Also, they were able to speak to some doctors, as well as victims of the alleged attack last Wednesday.

The inspectors, so far, have not gone out today yet. What's happened is that earlier today, the head of the U.N. mission, Ake Sellstrom, went out with the U.N. high representative for disarmament, Angela Kane, presumably to complain about yesterday's incident where the convoy was shot at. The U.N. says it was going to complain to the Syrian government. So far, it's not clear what sort of findings they have made. It's still evaluating, but again, they do plan to go out today again and to gather more information -- Michaela.

PEREIRA: Grave concern and eyes of the world watching the situation unfolding. We are hearing some really strong language from Russia, warning that there could be catastrophic consequences if the U.S. intervenes.

Do you think that threat is changing the mind of the Obama administration and their stance or do you think it's an effort to boaster support for Assad's orders?

PLEITGEN: Probably is an effort to support Assad. The Russians went out and said any sort of strikes here would have grave consequences not just for the Middle East but northern Africa as well. They have been speaking against intervention.

The Assad regime for their part has been saying exactly the same thing. Assad came out in an interview with the Russian newspaper yesterday saying that intervention would only lead to the death of innocent people. Also, there's a press conference the foreign minister has called for, which is set to begin fairly soon.

So, it seems as though the Assad regime realizes that right now, the international community, led by the United States, is very angry at what happened and they are willing to act. And so, therefore, they are trying to stop that any way they can. They are trying to plead their case. But it certainly seems as though they are getting the message that it is a very, very intense time at this point.

And the Russians, for their part, are still, of course, hanging on to the Assad regime and trying to stop all of this. But it's unclear whether or not that is actually something that still even in the cards, after all that's happened, especially after we saw Secretary of State Kerry come out with a very, very forceful speech and very emotional speech yesterday. That's certainly something that was heard here in Damascus.

What we are seeing reactions -- it's not statements. But for them to call a press conference so quickly is really something that is very unique. So, they are hearing the message, Michaela.

PEREIRA: They most certainly appear to.

All right. Fred Pleitgen, reporting from inside Syria there in Damascus -- we appreciate that reporting. Thank you.

BROWN: And a senior administration official tells CNN the U.S. is working with its European allies to build a consensus on what to do next about Syria.

As Chris Lawrence tell us, American firepower is already nearby and ready to act if they are called upon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Within days, President Obama's national security team will present him with its final detailed options and the administration is already making the case for taking action against Syria.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people.

LAWRENCE: Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Assad regime of gassing its own people and called it --

KERRY: Moral obscenity.

LAWRENCE: If the president gives the order, a senior defense official says four Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea could execute a mission within hours. U.S. and British submarines are also likely nearby, all armed with cruise missiles.

The extremely accurate Tomahawks can be fired from 500 miles away with an ability to change course in mid-flight. The potentially targets include the delivery system that can be used to launch weapons, militia training camps run by Bashar Assad, and most importantly, the Syrian government's command and control centers.

The options are not designed to overthrow Assad's government, but send a message and deter any further use of chemical weapons, President Obama's red line.

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: And anytime you throw down a diplomatic gauntlet, your words have repercussions.

LAWRENCE: The president is under some pressure to back up his own ultimatum. Ands while the U.S. is consulting with allies, officials say it may not need a formal coalition to execute the response.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PEREIRA: Obviously that situation is changing moment by moment. Stay with CNN for the very latest on what is happening in Syria.

I want to turn our attention now to California. A massive wildfire continues to burn near Yosemite National Park. It is now up to more than 160 acres and it seems just as soon crews get the upper hand, it rages again, taking thousands of acres of land with it.

Here's Nick Valencia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Huge plumes of smoke fill the sky as the Rim Fire continues to rage nearly out of control. Firefighters made small progress on Monday, saying the fire is less than a quarter contained. But the dangerous inferno is still rated for extreme growth potential, as massive flames ignite rows of trees and dry brush.

The fire has inched near Yosemite National Park, growing to an area now roughly the size of Chicago. More than two dozen aircraft are being used to fight the fire, stiff terrain making it nearly impossible to access some of the forest by land.

Camp grounds now turned into ashes, this car, completely charred. But the flames are still miles from one of the biggest Yosemite landmarks, Yosemite Valley, home of the Half Dome, a rock formation that attracts thousands of tourists every year.

LEE BENTLEY, SPOKESMAN FOR THE U.S. FOREST SERVICES: Visitors are through here by the thousands. This year, it's not going to happen.

VALENCIA: The fire also threatens a reservoir that supplies both water and power sources for San Francisco.

GOV. JERRY BROWN (D), CALIFORNIA: Move all the ash and loose debris out of the water and the water gets contaminated. That's bad.

VALENCIA: As well as several groves of towering sequoias, some of the oldest living things on the planet.

Groveland, California, is looking more like a ghost town. The owner of this bar says it's peak season, leading into Labor Day. With the highway closed into Yosemite, she says her business in Groveland is down a staggering 98 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody who lives here and owns businesses here is terrified.

VALENCIA: The economic impact yet to be seen. But businesses and residents are grateful for the 3,700 firefighters risking their lives to try to contain the inferno.

Nick Valencia, CNN, Tuolumne County, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PEREIRA: The very latest there from California. This is a concern, too, of course, is that we're not right in the middle of peak fire season.

Indra Petersons is watching the forecast for us as we start to look at how weather potentially could help or hinder the firefighting effort. BROWN: Yes, we hope it will cooperate.

PEREIRA: Yes, we hope it will.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. I mean, one of the biggest concerns we have actually is just (AUDIO GAP) we'll show you right here on the visible satellite. You can see it from space. You can see really the flames out there. But more importantly, (AUDIO GAP) the fire creating its own winds within it, especially up against those steep mountainside.

As far as the weather (AUDIO GAP) low 70s. We really are concerned about the 30 percent chance of showers today. It actually plays a part. We are getting more moisture in the air (AUDIO GAP)

PEREIRA: OK, we will. We are having some technical issues with the microphone. We will get that because it's important information, especially the folks that are living in and around that fire.

BROWN: Absolutely.

Thank you so much, Indra.

Going back overseas now, Egypt's military planes and their crackdown on protesters. "The New York Times" reporting they've been listed Islamic scholars in a campaign to advise soldiers and police that they have a religious duty to use deadly force against supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy. It's seen as an effort to prevent rebellion in the ranks. Security forces killed hundreds of Egyptians in removing Morsy.

PEREIRA: Emotional testimony from survivors of the Ft. Hood massacre, relatives of those killed by Army Major Nidal Hasan as the sentencing phase of his court martial began. Prosecutors are hoping that victim's testimony will convince jurors to impose a rare military death sentence on Hasan who was convicted last week, of killing 13 people and wounding dozens more at Fort Hood, back in 2009.

BROWN: Army Private Bradley Manning's decision to drop the bombshell he wanted to live as woman named Chelsea happened after the military prison said it would not provide hormone treatment.

His attorney tells "The Associated Press" they were hoping the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, would provide hormone treatment, since Manning had been diagnosed with gender identity disorder by an Army psychiatrist who testified at his trial. His attorney also revealing Chelsea Manning's new middle name, Elizabeth.

PEREIRA: Questions this morning for Attorney General Eric Holder about reports the NSA is giving intelligence information to federal drug agents. A Democratic congressman and senators have asked Holder to respond to the allegations the DEA uses information from overseas wiretaps and phone records to launch criminal investigations against Americans. The lawmakers say if it's true, this is a serious overreach by the government. BROWN: We are learning more this morning about the behind the scenes diplomatic chess game that kept NSA leaker Edward Snowden in that Russian airport for close to six weeks. A Russian newspaper claims Snowden got stuck in a transit zone of a Moscow airport because of a last minute move by Cuba. Snowden reportedly planned to go to Havana a day after arriving in Moscow but Cuba is said to have blocked his entry. He eventually accepted temporary asylum in Russia.

Government is inching closer to another financial deadline. This time, mid-October when the Treasury Department says the U.S. will once again hit the debt ceiling and not being able to borrow more money to pay its bills. And, of course, that is leading to more political back and forth with Republicans saying they won't raise the limit again without more spending cuts. The White House says Congress spent the money and should pay for it.

The debt ceiling was last increased in January after, you'll recall, the fiscal cliff stand off. We'll have more on this ongoing story coming up in "Money Time" a few minutes from now.

BROWN: Here's another ongoing story. You might remember this, we are hearing now from a man at the center of a political controversy. Tuffy Gessling is the rodeo clown who put on a mask of President Obama during a performance at a Missouri state fair, the performance that got him banned from the fair for life and he says it led to death threats. Gessling tells CNN affiliate KCTV it was all a joke, meant to be funny, not racist.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TUFFY GESSLING, RODEO CLOWN: This clown bit has been around for generations. I didn't think anything more of it than what we are done 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago when we have done it with Bush and Clinton and Ronald Reagan. I never did anything because of anybody's race. I don't care what color somebody is, if they are blue, white, green, polka dotted, striped, I have no -- it doesn't bother me one bit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Gessling says that he isn't a Democrat or Republican, just a rodeo clown. And if the president shows up at his next rodeo, he'd be honored to shake his hand.

PEREIRA: Coming up, we're going to take you inside Trump University. The Donald sued by the state for millions of dollars, claiming his university is a fraud. Now, one of Trump's students is sharing his educational experience.

BROWN: And George Zimmerman asking the state of Florida to pay up. Why the man acquitted of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin believes the state should pay his legal bills. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PEREIRA: Sixteen minutes after the hour. Thanks so much for joining us back here on EARLY START. Pardon me.

Former students are now coming forward to talk about the lawsuit against Trump University, the real estate school founded by Donald Trump. That school has been hit with a $40 million lawsuit from New York's attorney general who claims the program was an elaborate bait and switch scam. Some students say they were fleeced for tens of thousands of dollars.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEVIN SCOTT, FORMER TRUMP UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT: They sold us a whole bunch of nothing is what it comes down to. We paid a lot of money. They got a lot of money out of a lot of people in a short period of time, and in the end, delivered nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREIRA: For his part, Donald Trump denies the charges and said most students liked the courses.

BROWN: Well, George Zimmerman wants money back from the state of Florida now that he's been acquitted in the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman's legal team planned to ask the state to reimburse him at least $200,000. That will cover just some of the money spent on expert witnesses, travel expenses and transcript fees.

Under Florida law, an acquitted defendant can ask the court to pay some of the costs in the case.

PEREIRA: Two teenagers are in custody of a brutal beating death of a World War II veteran in Spokane, Washington. Police say the 16-year- olds will be charged as adults in what is now being described as a botched robbery. Eighty-eight-year-old Delbert Belton apparently tried to fight back, something police think may have worsened the attack. Both teens have now been charged with first degree murder.

BROWN: A sad story.

Well, the sports world is asking this morning: where is Lamar Odom. A day after report surfaced that the NBA free agent had disappeared after an apparent fight with his wife, Khloe Kardashian. His agent now tells ESPN.com Kardashian knows where Odom is and he is not missing. ESPN is reporting Odom is at a hotel in Los Angeles getting help for a drug problem.

PEREIRA: A lawsuit against celebrity chef, Paula Deen, has now been officially dismissed. A federal judge in Savannah, Georgia, has signed off on a deal between Deen and a former employee who accused her of racism and sexual harassment. Now, it's not clear if both sides reached a financial settlement but the suit was dismissed with prejudice. Meaning, it cannot be refiled.

It was during a deposition in this case that Deen admitted to using racially insensitive language in the past. That, as you know, sent her career into a tailspin.

BROWN: No more McNuggets?

PEREIRA: What? Wait, what?

BROWN: I bet that got your attention.

PEREIRA: It did.

BROWN: Maybe not. Maybe not. McDonald's branching out and will sell chicken wings. Yes, chicken wings, bones and all. They are called Mighty Wings. Test ride in early September before it's offered to all stores nationwide. Industry experts saying wings are the fastest growing category, the fast food with sale topping $8 billion.

PEREIRA: So, you scared me. You get me into a panic. No more McNuggets.

BROWN: I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that.

PEREIRA: It's OK --

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: It's not fair, is it?

PEREIRA: Coming up, taser shocking investors, stock prices soaring. What's behind a company's sudden success? "Money Time' is coming up next for you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PEREIRA: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is "Money Time". Christine Romans is taking care of it all, giving us advice, sage advice. I need some advice.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

Well, the sage advice is live within your means or slightly below your means. Save the rest for the future. That's the end of it, right? Too bad it's not that easy, right?

Let the budget brinksmanship begin because the big story in Washington and Wall Street this morning is the United States will reach its debt limit, its limit of borrowing authority in mid-October. That's the treasury secretary finally giving us this date. Jack Lew, there he is, he warned yesterday that unless Congress raises that debt ceiling, the Treasury will only be able to pay the country's bill with the cash we have on hand. No more borrowing.

The debt ceiling now stands at $16.699 trillion. That's a level Republicans say we are not going to keep borrowing and borrowing. We are going to start living within our means, bringing back to full circle.

Lew says, "Congress should act as soon as possible to protect America's good credit by extending normal borrowing authority well before any risk of default becomes imminent." All right. A combination of debt fears like that worries, and tension over the situation in Syria sent stocks lower on Monday. It was the 12th down day of this month. That's the longest losing streak since last August.

But, ladies, there's a bright spot for investors. Average 401(k) balances up 10 percent in the second quarter. Fidelity investment's average 401(k) balance, $80,600, up more than 10 percent from the same time last year.

Now, if you have been at a job for 10 years, you've been in the plan for that long, the average balance for those folks, people who have been saving longer, $211,800. That's up 19 percent from a year ago. That is a good number there for people to take home with them today.

Now, taser stock on a tear. I heard you teased this one. Taser makes that well-know stun gun, but the stock surged 30 percent over the past two weeks. Two weeks! Not because of the gun.

PEREIRA: Why?

ROMANS: It's because of expected demand for the company's wearable video camera, something called Axon. It has a little camera you can wear right on a police officer's vest. Stock started rising after a federal judge ruled for the NYPD's stop and frisk strategy. The judge wanted several changes, including a one-year pilot program that would equip some NYPD officers with cameras.

For more on the taser, I want you to check out this story on CNNMoney.com. The story about taser and these wearable cameras, very, very interesting. Any of you ladies surf?

PEREIRA: No, I would love to learn, but I think it might be too late for me.

BROWN: I'm scared of sharks.

ROMANS: Well, excuses, excuses.

Well, you won't be wearing Billabong, because if you are a surfer, or wanted to be a surfer, you've probably heard this name, Billabong. It's with the '90s, surfing era, right?

Well, the name has basically been declared worthless by the company. The Australian company wrote down to zero the value of its brand name after a $773 million company loss. The company struggling to refinance. It has closed 93 stores this year.

Billabong's path to recovery been complicated due to the resignation of its CEO, confusion over successor, kind of a corporate mess story. A story you read about in business school. Billabong. There you go.

PEREIRA: So, we won't be seeing the Billabong surf gear.

ROMANS: I just saw it this weekend at the beach actually.

BROWN: The world's recognizable brand.

ROMANS: A teeny bikini with the Billabong thing, you know? So, we'll see. We'll watch to see if there could be a recovery with that well- known brand name.

BROWN: Sounds good. Thanks, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

PEREIRA: We'll be right back. We'll take a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PEREIRA: Red line crossed. The U.S. confident the Syrian government massacred hundreds of its own people in a weapons chemical attack. Will it be enough to intervene, though, in the country's two-year civil war?

BROWN: And a heat wave blanketing the Midwest.