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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Obama Blames Chemical Attack On Assad Regime; Yosemite Wildfire; Montana Teacher Rape; Town Battles Worms in Water Supply

Aired August 29, 2013 - 05:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Red line crossed. President Obama confident that Syria used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of its people. What will the United States do about it? We are live.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AULIEA HANLON, RAPE VICTIM'S MOTHER: He broke a law. He confessed and he got to walk away.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: A mother's fury when the man who raped her 14-year-old daughter is sentenced to just 30 days in jail. Now, the judge behind that sentence explaining himself.

ROMANS: Worms in the water? Worms in the water. An Oklahoma community warned not to drink from the tap.

Good morning, everyone.

PEREIRA: Welcome to EARLY START. What a thought to begin the show with. I'm Michaela Pereira.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans this morning for you. It's Thursday, August 29th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

PEREIRA: Up first, President Obama says there is no doubt Syria used chemical weapons on its own people and that cannot go unpunished. But just how the U.S. will respond is unknown. The White House intends to brief key members of Congress today and could release the evidence it says points to the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, U.S. military assets are in place for a Syrian strike.

We get more now from CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Obama says he hasn't decided what to do but is determined to hold Syria accountable.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people, against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you are also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected. And that needs to stop.

STARR: In an interview with the PBS "NewsHour," the president left no doubt who the U.S. believes ordered the chemical weapons attacks.

OBAMA: We have concluded the Syrian government, in fact, carried this out.

STARR: Among the evidence, intercepts of Syrian commanders discussing the movement of chemical weapon to the area of attack provided by Israel intelligence.

The potential next step, cruise missile strikes has put the U.S. at direct odds with Russia.

MARIE HARF, DEPUTY STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We do not believe the Syrian regime should be able to hide behind the fact that the Russians continue to block action on Syria at the U.N.

STARR: But behind the scenes, officials are signaling the U.S. may not wait for the United Nations to act. The U.S. military is strengthening its position in the eastern Mediterranean, with the addition of two more submarines. And the Syrian regime is also getting ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in the state of war right now, preparing ourselves for the worst scenario.

STARR (on camera): So, why did Assad do it? Well, there's speculation it might have been retaliation for a failed assassination attempt or perhaps the regime was planning a smaller attack but something went wrong and this became a major incident.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: So, with the U.S. seemingly on the verge of a military strike against Syria, what's going on inside that country?

CNN's Fred Pleitgen spent the last few days in the Syrian capital. He's monitoring developments for us from Beirut, Lebanon. He joins us live.

Fred, bring us up to speed.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Christine.

Well, you can tell that the regime is getting more and more nervous. Now, I just actually left that country only about an hour and a half ago. You can tell how the rhetoric has been toned down a lot over the past couple days. A couple days ago, you would have heard them say, well, we're going to defend ourselves, we're going to stand-up to America. Now, all of that sounds a lot more subdued. As I was actually on my way out of Syria, there are a lot of people who are trying to leave the country now. I wouldn't say it's an exodus or anything, but there are people who say, for the next couple of days, we are going try to leave Syria and then maybe come back when things turn down a little bit.

Now, we were out on the streets of the Syrian capital yesterday to sort of gauge the mood of people. They are nervous.

Let's have a look at what some people had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Even with U.S. warships ready to strike off Syria's coast, the Washington saying it's certain the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its people.

At first glance, Damascus doesn't appear to be on the edge.

This man is with the police force and says he's not afraid of U.S. air strikes. "This is my country, I believe we are winning."

Others are counting on help from above. "This doesn't scare me," she says, "I believe in God so much that I know the USA can't do anything."

The war is never far away with plumes of smoke constantly rising up from the outskirts of the capital. At Damascus University, many students remain loyal to Bashar al-Assad and say they don't believe the military used nerve gas against civilians.

"I believe that chemical weapons were used in some way in certain areas," he says, "but I don't think the government did it because they know what the results would be."

Dig down and you find a sense of unease. The historic market in the old town is far emptier than usual. Syria's economy is in a state of crisis due to the conflict and now, many fear things could get worse.

(on camera): It's quite a strange mood here in Damascus. People really seem unsure what the future will bring with the American air strikes looming. Very few people who will talk about it openly. But there are some who bought additional food stocks, things like canned foods, just in case.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And, Christine, there were some rumors, there were some reports that came out yesterday that apparently the Syrian military was moving some of its top brass out of the headquarters and also moving some of the artillery pieces that were used to pound the Damascus suburbs in fear of U.S. airstrikes. It's very difficult to confirm that or denied that. However, we did see a lot less artillery shelling while we were still there on the ground there last night -- Christine.

ROMANS: Certainly, the message is not, if there will be a response, but what the response will be? Clearly, Syrians are preparing.

Thanks so much, Fred.

PEREIRA: Meanwhile, the U.S. military is beefing up its presence in the Persian Gulf. They're moving a second aircraft carrier, the USS Harry Truman, into place. It joins the Nimitz, which was supposed to head home, but has now been ordered to say. U.S. officials say the decision is prudent planning and does not suggest the ships would play a role in any possible strikes in Syria.

ROMANS: In Iraq, reports of a new wave of sectarian violence in Baghdad. At least 68 people killed in a series of coordinated bombings. Dozens more wounded. Police say the bombs targeting mainly Shia neighborhoods during rush hour, increased tensions in recent months between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq has led to this rising violence.

PEREIRA: Sentenced to death. A military jury deliberated for less than two hours before deciding that Army Major Nidal Hasan deserved the death penalty. For killing 13 people in the Fort Hood rampage some four years ago. Hasan acting as his own attorney during the court-martial and offered virtually no defense. He could become the first American soldier to be executed in more than half a century, and due to the military's lengthy appeals process, it could be years or even decades before Hasan is put to death.

ROMANS: A woman charged of sending ricin-tainted letters to President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been found competent now to stand trial in Texas. Shannon Richardson pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court. She initially told the FBI that her husband has sent those letters.

PEREIRA: Thirty percent containment now on the fire lines in northern California. Some progress there. The wildfire in and around Yosemite National Park has burned through 192,000 acres. The fire does continue to grow, but officials say it is not spreading as quickly. A predator drone has now joined the fight from the air. It will likely take another three weeks before crews can get that enormous blaze fully contained.

ROMANS: Unreal how big that fire is. That there's 30 percent containment is progress and that's great news.

Let's get the latest on the weather out West. Our Indra Petersons has that.

Help for firefighters -- more help I hope in this forecast.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. I mean, the good news is we still do not have those red flag warnings. So, we are dealing with those temperatures in the 70s. Again, the biggest threat really today will be the threat of dry lightning, that thunderstorms are going not going to have that rain reach the ground.

We are going to see some here, winds about 15 to 20 miles per hour. But again, the big problem in that area, as you can see, is the terrain. We are talking the steep cliffs out there. So, it's very difficult for firefighters to get in where they need to get. You can also see some of puffy white here. That's really those afternoon thunderstorms that are popping up here and there. With that, we continue to have that threat of dry lightning we mentioned.

The other thing we are going to be watching is a lot more of this tropical moisture and monsoonal moisture moving into the area as we go over the weekend. Remember what we saw last weekend, we saw some heavy storms in the area. Well, once again, we actually have tropical storm Juliet and the remnants of Fernand.

So, all those moisture making its way into the Southwest could mean one to two inches of rain. It doesn't sound like a lot. The ground is so dry. It's just a half inch of rain in Vegas last weekend produced flash flooding.

So, definitely in the Southwest, a much different picture. They are not used to as much rain as we are in the East Coast. Otherwise, temperatures in the Midwest still hot and it doesn't look like it's going to be cooling down here guys for at least another couple of days.

ROMANS: Look at Des Moines.

PETERSONS: You know what that feels like. It is hot. You would know.

ROMANS: It is flat and it is hot.

PEREIRA: A lot of red on that map.

ROMANS: It sure is. Thanks, Indra.

PETERSONS: Sure.

ROMANS: All right. He thought he hooked a big one, but a Texas fisherman soon realized he was the bait. There was a 200-pound shark on his fishing line and it dragged him and dragged his kayak miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROGRE PROULX, TEXAS FISHERMAN: I didn't know it was a shark at the time. My line bent in half. I was in joy. I was so happy. I was like yes, this is great. The thing is, I set the drag tighter. All of a sudden, my kayak is going deeper and deeper into the ocean.

So, then I thought holy smokes, this is unbelievable. This is crazy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Holy Moses.

PEREIRA: Let go of your fishing line.

ROMANS: He says he still hoped to reel in the shark but his line snapped before getting back to shore. So, have to settle for being alive. That is quite a fish story. I love a good fish story.

PEREIRA: He was being fished.

ROMANS: He was being fished.

PEREIRA: Isn't that a reversal of roles? My goodness.

(CROSSTALK)

PEREIRA: He got out alive, which is a very important end to the story.

We are going take a short break here. Coming up, sentence shocker. A teacher given 30 days behind bars for raping a 14-year-old girl. The judge in that case now speaking out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He wants to brush our teeth with warm water.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Yes, a water warning in an Oklahoma town. We are going to have that for you when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back to EARLY START.

This case has triggered national outrage. A former teacher in Montana getting 14 days in jail for raping a teenage girl, a girl who later committed suicide. The judge fueling that anger by saying the girl looked older than her age. Now, the judge is apologizing for his words but standing by the 30-day sentence.

We get more from CNN's Kyung Lah.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was to be a moment of justice, teacher Stacey Rambold was charged with raping his student, 14-year-old Cherice Morales. He was 49 at the time.

Prosecutors wanted a 20-year sentence. Instead, Judge G. Todd Baugh gave Rambold just one month for the crime.

AULIEA HANLON, VICTIM'S MOTHER: I was floored. I thought there was a minimum sentence. I don't know. My faith in the justice system is gone.

LAH: Especially, says Cherice's mother, when you hear the details. Fourteen-year-old Cherice Morales was a freshman at Billings Senior High School. Prosecutors say Rambold seduced her and began a month's long relationship. Police found out, Rambold was arrested and charged.

As the case lagged through, the justice system, Cherice Morales, now age 16, just shy of her 17th birthday, committed suicide.

With the victim dead, prosecutors struck this deal with Rambold, confess to one rape, complete sexual offender treatment, stay away from children, and they would dismiss the charges. Rambold faced the judge this week because he violated that deal. Yet, Judge Baugh still only gave him 31 days, minus one day served in jail.

Why? In court, Judge Baugh says Cherice Morales seemed older than her chronological age. Later, he told CNN that was not the best choice of words, adding that, "It was not a violent, forcible, beat-the-victim rape like you see in the movies, but it was nonetheless a rape and should not have happened."

As far as Rambold, a man Judge Baugh called treatable, he will be a free man in less than 30 days.

Kyung Lah, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Oh, just a heart breaking story. The judge is apologizing for his words, but not the sentence he issued.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

G. TODD BAUGH, YELLOWSTONE COUNTY DISTRICT JUDGE: What I said was demeaning to all women. Not what I believe in, and irrelevant to the sentencing. I owe all or fellow citizens an apology.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Later today, a rally is scheduled outside the courthouse in Billings, Montana. Protesters calling for the judge to resign and the teacher's 15-year prison sentence to be reinstated.

PEREIRA: Well, here's another story that stirred outrage. You might recall three 15-year-old boys beating and stomping a younger boy in a school bus last month in Florida, the bus driver too afraid to intervene. The whole incident caught on tape. The older boys are in court today facing battery charges. Authorities recommended probation.

The 13-year-old victim survived with a broken hand. His grandmother says it outcome could have been much worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATRICIA YANKEY, VICTIM'S GRANDMOTHER: Children, for lack of a better term have to realize they could be up on murder charges right now. They could have killed him. They could -- as I said, by the grace of God, they didn't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREIRA: She also goes on to say that her grandson is having trouble sleeping now and is too afraid to ride the school bus. Authorities say the beating happened after they tried to sell him marijuana at school, he refused and told a teacher.

ROMANS: All right. A doctor testifying in the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial says the singer asked for Propofol at least 10 years before his fatal overdose on that drug. Dr. Christine Quinn (ph) says Jackson requested Propofol to help him sleep and that she refused his request. The jury also heard from a nurse practitioner Cherilyn Lee who says Jackson asked her for Propofol in April 2009 and she also said no to the star.

PEREIRA: George Zimmerman's wife pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge. Shellie Zimmerman was sentenced to a year's probation and 100 hours of community service for lying about the couple's finances as her husband's bond hearing. She agreed to the plea deal, but her attorney says she could have won a trial.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY SIMS, SHELLIE ZIMMERMAN'S ATTORNEY: She stood by her man, like Tammy Wynette says. And she probably shouldn't have. So, that's pretty much it. She did what was right for her. I think legally, she still could have won.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREIRA: Prosecutors claim taped phone calls where the couples speaking in code to hide the dollar amounts. George Zimmerman, as you know, was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. At the time of the bond hearing, he had collected more than $100,000 in donations on the Internet.

ROMANS: All right. First. there were snakes on planes. Now, worms in the water.

Red worms ranging from a half inch to inch long showing up in the water supply in a town of Colcord, Oklahoma. The worms were found in the filtering system, which was cleaned. Residents are warned not to use the water.

Authorities say there's no health threat here. How the worms got there remains a mystery.

PEREIRA: I kind of don't want water right now. Thank you for that.

All right. Another story I want to tell you about in New Jersey. An appeals court ruling could have an impact on future liability cases involving texting and driving. The court ruled that someone who simply sends a text to a driver is not liable if that driver gets into an accident.

However that changes if the person sending the text knows the recipient is driving and is likely to read the message. That's the interesting change. In that situation, the person sending the text could be held liable for the accident and sued for damages.

ROMANS: That's an interesting twist.

PEREIRA: It really is.

ROMANS: All right. Coming up, why being one of America's highest paid CEO's could come at a price. "Money Time" -- we got "Money Time" for you, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: All right. Good morning. Welcome back to EARLY START this morning. It's "Money Time", Michaela.

PEREIRA: It really is. All right.

ROMANS: Stocks futures higher this morning after the Dow Industrials broke a two-day losing streak. The largest one day point gain in a week. That was nice to see, because look, we had a rough go of it on worries of a Syrian air strike, just couple of days earlier. The major markets are all closing higher a contrast to the sell off day earlier on fears of the U.S. military strike in Syria.

There could be a lot of volatility as this plays out, the U.S. and allies response in Syria. We are watching gold, oil and stocks, of course, and the bond market.

We could be seeing a blockbuster deal in the cell phone business. CNN has confirmed that Verizon is talking to Vodafone about buying its 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless. This deal could be worth up to $130 billion. That's literally a big deal. It could be announced as early as next week.

"The Wall Street Journal" says rising interest rates will change the U.S. cell phone business. It brought the sides back together after talks broken down over price several times.

The city of San Bernardino, California, has the green light for bankruptcy. A federal judge rejected an attempt to kick the city out of bankruptcy court. Powerful pension fund CalPERS wanted to keep San Bernardino from bankruptcy approval because they wanted to sue the city. CalPERS say San Bernardino didn't make a good faith effort to negotiate with creditors before filing for bankruptcy. The ruling is very closely watched because it could have a bearing on the largest bankruptcy case, Detroit. Big cities and municipalities in trouble, going bankrupt, very closely watching those.

OK. The best paid CEOs, the best paid CEOs are often fired or fined according to a new study saying 40 percent of them get the action, they end up in court or they have to accept government bail-out money for their companies.

The Institute for Policy Studies rather used former layman CEO Dick Fuld, he received nearly half a billion dollars in composition from 2001 to 2007. Lehman eventually went out of business. Generally speaking, the study pointed out the chief executives of large companies received 354 times as much as the average worker in 2012 -- 354 times.

PEREIRA: I'm just doing the math real quick to see -- my goodness. ROMANS: I know. It's a lot of money.

PEREIRA: Incredible. How do you break it down like that?

ROMANS: You know, I had a manager once told me, when you see a CEO building a 40,000 square foot house, that's when they sell the stock. That means they are at the end of their long trajectory and focus on other things. The more money they get, the more careful you should be, the less hungry they are.

PEREIRA: Very important woman to keep in your lives.

(CROSSTALK)

PEREIRA: All right. Coming up, battle lines drawn. World leaders cannot agree on what to do about Syria. The government believed to have poisoned hundreds of people. Phil Black live in Moscow with the international war of words on what comes up next. We'll join him after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PEREIRA: What to do about Syria. The government of that nation believed responsible for a chemical weapons massacre. Now, world leaders cannot agree about what to do. We are live.

ROMANS: California on fire. A massive fire in and around Yosemite National Park growing overnight. We are going to take you behind those fire lines.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will always be so grateful for what you did and you will always be our heroes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREIRA: A mother's gratitude for the people who saved her son when a sinkhole swallowed him whole.