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Pro-Assad Hackers Hit Marine Web Site; Obama Lobbies Support for Syria Strikes; Wal-Mart Offers Discounted iPhones and iPads; Tebow's Relentless Pursuit; Fukushima Nuclear Radiation 18 Times Higher; Diana Nyad Just 5 Miles from Home

Aired September 2, 2013 - 09:00   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening in the NEWSROOM, cyber attack calling President Obama a traitor. A Marine recruitment site hacked by the Syrian electronic army. One photo saying, "I did not join the military to get involved in other country's civil wars."

Plus, breaking this morning, swimming into history. Diana Nyad 100 miles from Havana to the Florida Keys. She's just a few miles away from Key West. This is what she saw early this morning. It's a dream 35 years in the making. Will she finally make it?

Also a battle over your paycheck. How much is a living wage anyway? Wal-Mart and Washington going head-to-head. Can the super store afford to pay their part-timers another four bucks an hour?

And no fancy title, no gigantic castle, but he's Pippa's pick. Is another Middleton ready to get hitched.

NEWSROOM starts now.

Good morning from Washington, I'm Carol Costello. And happy Labor Day. We begin, of course, with the crisis in Syria and new developments holding the world's attention.

This morning the U.S. Navy bolsters its military might in the region and sends a new warship into the Red Sea. Today United Nations inspectors send to a lab, the evidence that can prove chemical weapons were unleashed in Syria. In Washington the results are viewed as a mere formality.

Here's Secretary of State John Kerry.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: It has tested positive for signatures of sarin. So each day that goes by, this case is even stronger.


COSTELLO: And making the case to Congress, President Obama faces pushback from both parties and his call to authorize military strikes.

And take a look at this, the Syrian Electronic Army. The same group who took down the "New York Times" has hacked into the Marine's official recruitment Web site and it's taunting us. These are pictures of people dressed up like American Marines holding up signs saying, quote, "I didn't join the Navy to fight for al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war." Another says, and you know, at the bottom, "Wake up, people."

Ridiculous, right? Maybe, maybe not.

Colonel Rick Francona is a CNN military analyst and former military attache in Syria.

Good morning, Colonel.


COSTELLO: So what is this? Is this part of some psychological operation?

FRANCONA: Yes, that's exactly what it is. We've seen these guys before. They've gone after other targets. They pretty much go after easy targets. This is not a very secure site. This is a site on -- in the commercial Web space. It's meant to reach people who are interested in joining the Marine Corps.

I don't know what effect it's going to have. The people that go to this site generally are predisposed to joining the U.S. Marine Corps. So I think they look at it as a target of opportunity. But that's the problem. The problem is what other sites can they hack? Are they going to go after the military Web sites or the government Web sites?

I think this is a -- it's something we need to be aware of.

COSTELLO: Yes, it's just uncomfortable and back to you original point. I think it might make someone wanting to enter the service like even more eager to enter, actually. Perhaps then it's no accident. Syria's deputy foreign minister told the BBC any attack against Syria is support for al Qaeda and its affiliates. It's just weird that the same sort of message is, like, part of this Syrian Electronic effort. So perhaps this is an effective way to wage psychological warfare when you take it as a whole.

FRANCONA: Yes. Well, the Syrians have been putting that -- the Syrian government has been putting out that message for quite some time now. If you look at the Syrian government Web sites and they run a lot of them and it's all over social media, you know, as well as their official broadcast. That's the message they're trying to get across is if you -- if you remove us, you're just bringing in al Qaeda. And it's been pretty effective, I think, in the region.

COSTELLO: Well, let me ask you this, is it true?

FRANCONA: Well, there is an element of al Qaeda affiliate where, let's say, Islamists in the opposition. But the opposition is a wide variety of people. However, if you look at -- actually look at the numbers, most of them are Syrians. Most of them are defectors from the Syrian Army or they're Syrian civilians who have joined the Free Syrian Army.

Now the Islamist and -- you know, you've got to give them credit, they are excellent fighters, they've got a lot of experience, they were fighting in Afghanistan, they were fighting in Iraq. Many of them have come from North Africa where they've received training.

So they're very effective on the battlefield. But there's not that many of them compared to the whole rebel cause. So when this is all over and if they're successful in bringing down the government, is it going to usher in an al Qaeda-based government? I really don't think so. But, you know, that's the unknown that everybody is concerned about.

COSTELLO: All right, Colonel Francona, thanks for your insights this morning. We appreciate it.

Later today the president will meet with Republican lawmakers John McCain and Lindsey Graham. McCain says before he commits to a vote, he wants to know if the administration has a plan to take out Assad's regime.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill this morning.

Good morning, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. Well, the president, the vice president and others are working the phones, having meetings. But probably the meeting you just talked about with John McCain later today is going to be among the most critical not just because McCain has been the most vocal in going ahead and being aggressive with Syria but because he's using this vote as leverage to try to get the administration to better articulate what its plans are after any potential military strike.

And if McCain comes out of the White House and in support of authorizing force for the president, it could help sway some skeptical Republicans. And based on the conversations here, he's going to need all the help he can get.


BASH (voice-over): One after another, lawmakers emerged from a classified briefing intended to convince them to authorize force in Syria, supremely unconvinced. Republicans --

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS (R), TEXAS: The mood at the district that I represent is, do not do this. And I honestly didn't hear anything that told me I ought to have a different position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a no based on the information that I have now.

BASH: And many of the president's fellow Democrats.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: I'm still very skeptical about the president's proposal. It is not clear to me that we know what the results of this attack will be. Meaning, will it be effective?

BASH (on camera): If the vote were taken today, would you be a yes or no?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I honestly cannot say.

BASH (voice-over): Democrat Janice Hahn took the red eyes from California seeking answers, but left with lots of questions.

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: We want there to be some consequences. What is that? Is that just going to war? Is that bombing or is that killing more people? I'm not -- I'm not there yet. I would not vote for it today.

BASH: To be sure, the president does have some support.

(On camera): Where are you right now? Are you a yes or a no?


BASH (voice-over): But to get enough yeses to pass, one thing is clear. This version of authorization the White House sent Congress Saturday night must be changed.

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: The biggest single concern among the members may very well have been a very broad request for authority with a supposedly very narrow intent to do anything.

BASH: That concern is bipartisan. Lawmakers say they want to limit the authority they'd give the president, specify a time frame for military strikes that make crystal clear no boots on the ground.


BASH: That language, in fact, under way already to try to do that, to try to answer some of the concerns of lawmakers.

And, Carol, I just want to give you a window into the political argument that I'm told that the White House is making. At least it was made in the classified briefing yesterday. The gist of it is what would the world think of the U.S. if we were to vote this down? Of course, a lot of lawmakers came out and said what would the world think of the U.S. if we were to approve a military strike that went awry -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Dana Bash live on Capitol Hill this morning.

Other stories we're following at eight minutes past the hour. Nearly two-hour long firefight finally over the U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan. An Afghan official says Taliban attackers detonated explosives at the base near the Pakistani border and then opened fire. NATO and Afghan troops fought back killing all of the insurgents. NATO says no troops were killed. The Taliban disputes that.

A wildfire in Yosemite National Park is now the fourth largest in California's history and will not be fully contained for at least another 2 1/2 weeks. Two-week-old fire has charred more than 224,000 acres, destroyed 11 homes and 100 other buildings. As of this morning, it's only 45 percent contained.

Fast-moving flood waters prove too much for several drivers in the Las Vegas area. They became trapped and had to wait for help. Here you see rescuers pulling a woman and her baby and another woman to safety. They had been stranded for 45 minutes. Heavy rain could bring flooding in -- to other areas of the country on this Labor Day.

CNN's Indra Petersons is in our severe weather center with the bad news.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. Unbelievable. I mean, what you just showed is Nevada, now I'm showing you Baskin Gold, Utah. This is an area where literally 50, if not 100 miles away you can have a rain storm and these cliffs are so steep that you could even have a wall of mud as high as 30 feet high.

So unbelievable, a small amount of rain could produce heavy flooding in the southwest and that looks there'll be the threat again today. Now the reason for that, it's actually quite typical phenomenon. We just have monsoonal moisture. Every time we have this dome of high pressure.

What does that mean? Well, you just see that moisture wrap around it coming out of the Gulf and you get these pop-up thunderstorms. The difference in the terrain in the southwest is still dry and, again, you can get those flash floodings very quickly with some of these heavier thunderstorms.

So that threat will be in the area, again today especially over any of the burn areas. We'll be monitoring that. We are hoping for some thunderstorms, of course, right around Yosemite but and then you also have the concern forget the moisture, but you have the lightning threat and you also have some stronger winds will be a concern. It's always that mixed bag with thunderstorms in the area.

Otherwise, taking you across the country, we're still looking at a big huge cold front sweeping across the area today, which just means rain and more rain. Unfortunately, we're talking about scattered showers in the southeast and making your way up the coast, mid-Atlantic one to two inches and the farther to the northeast, we are talking about two to four inches of rain possible in Maine today.

Do you think I have any friends today, Carol? Probably not.


Happy Labor Day.

COSTELLO: There's nothing -- there's nothing wrong with an indoor picnic, right?

PETERSONS: That's what I'm saying. Right? TV movie. It's all good.

COSTELLO: Rock on, sister. Thanks, Indra. If you're looking to get your hands on a new iPhone, you are not alone. Apple is expected to unveil the latest iPhone in just a few days, but you might want to shop around because Wal-Mart is slashing prices on iPhones and iPads ahead of Apple's expected launch and it's going to be hard for other retailers to beat.

Alison Kosik joins us from New York with the deals.

Sounds too good to be true.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: But it kind of is because you know what, there is a catch. Surprise. And the catch is, Carol, that you have to sign up for a new two-year contract with AT&T, Verizon or Sprint to get this deal. And here's the deal. Wal-Mart says it's slashing the price to 16-gigabyte iPhone 5 to $98. Before these phones were selling for $129.

Wal-Mart also slicing $50 off the price of its 10-inch iPads. Now these are coming in just as Apple is expected to unveil its new iPhone in those snazzy colors we've been talking about like gold. And maybe unveiling a new iPad, as well. All that coming on September 10th -- Carol.

COSTELLO: So why are they offering these discounts now?

KOSIK: Yes. That's a good question. You know, these prices, they usually signify that the retailer is trying to, you know, actually move this inventory off the shelves before the next shipment of new models arrives. So in this case, Apple is expected, once again, to announce these new products next week.

So you're seeing Wal-Mart doing its best, you know, to clear out the space for them. Also, Apple stands to benefit with this because it wants to get the iPhone 5 off the shelves as quickly as possible, too, because the phone has been, believe it or not, one of the most expensive iPhones to manufacture. You want -- Apple is really looking to put the focus on its new line of iPhones coming out. That higher end S and that cheaper 5C as far as those rumors go -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Alison Kosik, thanks so much.

Tim Tebow, he is not giving up. Tebow says he will relentlessly pursue his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback after being cut by the New -- after being cut by the New England Patriots. But does Tim Tebow have a realistic shot?

Andy Scholes is the man with the answers.

Good morning, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Yes, good morning, Carol. You know Tebow's NFL career is pretty much on life support right now. The Patriots were thought of as Tebow's best shot at making a roster because the team's offensive coordinator is Josh McDaniels. He was the one who drafted Tebow in Denver but now after being cut over the weekend Tebow is running out of options leaving many people wondering, is this is the end of his NFL career?


SCHOLES (voice-over): Famed football player Tim Tebow got the ax on Saturday. New England Patriots cut the 26-year-old from their roster just 12 weeks after signing him, five days before the start of the season.

Tebow's NFL future has been questionable since day one of training camp.

(On camera): Do you think it's your last opportunity to be a starter in the NFL?

I'm focused on today, getting better today. Not anything that's going to happen, you know, down the road. But today.

SCHOLES: His release comes just a year after the height of Tebow mania where fans copied his pregame prayer code known as Tebowing, his jersey flew off the clothing racks, while his face filled the magazine racks. He was even parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Holy Bible is my playbook.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Great. That's great. That's great but you need to -- you need to read the regular playbook. OK? Seriously, I'm doing all the work here.

SCHOLES: Tebow's stats once spoke for themselves. He won the Heisman and two national championships while playing for the Florida Gators, then came the NFL and Denver Broncos starting off as a back-up quarterback then building on his record and winning fame after throwing an overtime game-winning touchdown pass to beat the celebrated Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now he can't seem to catch a break.

MIKE FREEMAN, NFL COLUMNIST FOR BLEACHER REPORT: If he's going to stay in the NFL, he has to play another position. He can't play quarterback. He's lost sort of the ability -- what little ability he had to play quarterback.

SCHOLES: But Tebow says his faith and his future remain steadfast. On Saturday he tweeted, "I will remain in relentless pursuit of continuing my life-long dream of being an NFL quarterback." A determination he's shown since joining the Patriots.

TEBOW: I feel like in every situation is a learning opportunity in life, not only football, but in everything you do in life.


SCHOLES: Now Tebow cleared waivers over the weekend meaning every team passed on him. He's now a free agent, once again, looking for someone to take a chance on him.

But, Carol, with everyone's rosters pretty much finalized for week one, his chances of signing with a team are pretty slim.

COSTELLO: Sometimes college stars just can't cut the pros. It's just -- but I do, I feel sorry for him, I really do.

SCHOLES: Yes. I -- I'm hoping someone gives him one more chance.

COSTELLO: You never know. Andy Scholes, thanks so much.

Still to come in NEWSROOM: nuke danger. New reports, new safety concerns that the failed Fukushima radiation levels 18 times higher than previously thought. Find out what Japan is saying about that.


Diana Nyad now just about five miles from fulfilling her 35-year quest. I'll have that story, coming up.

COSTELLO: I can't wait.

One Direction, one movie and one majorly hit. The boy band from Britain and this is us.

NEWSROOM is back after a break.


COSTELLO: Checking our top stories at 18 minutes past the hour.

Radiation levels at a crippled nuclear power plant in Japan are 18 times higher than previously thought. On Saturday, the plant's operator says radiation levels in a tank holding highly contaminated water and a small amount of that water had leaked. Experts say the radiation is not enough to kill someone. In the meantime, a new study says radioactive water from that nuclear plant is expected to reach the U.S. West Coast in 2014, but will be so diluted that it would be harmless.

Mexico arrested suspected drug cartel leader known as Ugly Betty. According to state media, Alberto Carrillo Fuentes is the latest in a series of high-profile drug arrests in Mexico. He was captured in a western state and will be charged with drug trafficking and organized crime.

Ford is recalling 370,000 cars because of potential corrosion that could cause a loss of steering. The recall includes 2005 to 2011 models of Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars.

Florida's A&M marching band returned to the field for the season's opening football game. It was the band's first appearance since being suspended nearly two years ago. You might remember drum major Robert Champion was beaten in a hazing incident and died. University said since Champion's death, it has revised student conduct code and created a new anti-hazing Web site.

The duchess of Cambridge isn't the only one off the market. According to celebrity tabloid "Sunday People," her sister Pippa Middleton is said to be secretly engaged to boyfriend Nico Jackson. Middleton and her stockbroker boyfriend met last year at a nightclub in London. The report says two are keeping the engagement quiet until after Pippa's 30th birthday on Friday.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM: Diana Nyad's epic journey nears the end. The swimmer closes in on Key West, two days after leaving Havana.


COSTELLO: Can I just say Diana Nyad is amazing? For the fifth time, she's trying to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage and, guess what, she's almost done it. She is now just about five miles from shore.

As Nyad said so many times, it's never too late to achieve your dream. She's attempting this swim at 103 miles without a wet suit or flippers at the age of 64.

John Zarrella is in Key West,

And Nyad is expected to swim on to shore very soon. She's already broke a record, though, right?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, she really has. Certainly no one has gone as far as she has, when without being in a shark cage.

And when she does this, which we're saying when she does it, we're expecting she will. She actually will have done about 112 total miles to get here. And this, Carol, is where she's expected to land here at the Smathers Beach in Key West. The time, roughly, they're saying between 4:00 and 6:00. You mentioned she's about five miles out, which puts her right about at the reef line.

So, the last five miles inside the reef here to Smathers beach.

Her team is reporting that she is going about a mile an hour, roughly. She is taking very frequent stops because of just that sheer exhaustion she's facing, and she's been swallowing a lot of salt water along the way, which is not a good thing.

So, they're really, really just doing everything they can now and I'm sure she is to just keep herself going for these last five miles -- Carol.

COSTELLO: OK. So, she's five miles out and the big danger is the sharks in the water and also the jelly fish. So, does the danger of those things become less as she's closer to shore?

ZARRELLA: You know, I mean, I think the jelly fish and the sharks are always a danger. You can have a shark in a couple of feet of water.

You can see, it is a beautiful day here and the water is kind of calm. Not that makes any difference to the shark or the jelly fish, but, you know, they have not seen, they have not talked about sharks and people have said they had not seen any of these box jelly fish, which are so terribly, terribly poisonous. So, that's been a good thing.

And you know that she's in an especially designed wet suit, especially designed goggles that she has on to protect against the jelly fish because that's what got her the last time she tried, were these box jelly fish that just stung her and had stung her face and forced her out of the water.

COSTELLO: Yes, we have a picture, I think we're going to put it up right now. I have not seen it yet. We're going to look at it for the first time together. This was taken, I think, as Diana Nyad can kind of see the shore of Key West. Am I right about that?

ZARRELLA: I'm not sure. I can't see the photo from here either. So, I'm not sure exactly what it shows. Maybe a photo with her closing in.

COSTELLO: Yes, that is correct what I just said to you, John Zarrella. You kind of see the bow of a boat and then way in the distance you can see land.

I just -- I just hope she makes it. Because how terrible if she couldn't make it and she's only five miles out.

ZARRELLA: I know. But, you know what, though, that is very true. But the reality is, what an incredible story of perseverance and endurance. She's been trying this for 35 years, five different times. This is the fifth try.

She said this would be it. This would be her last one way or another. So, you know, everybody's pulling for her with just so few miles to go. But even if she didn't make it, it's just a tremendous accomplishment.

COSTELLO: That's for sure. John Zarrella in Key West -- thanks so much.

Still to come in NEWSROOM: he's seen the brutality of the Assad regime up close. I'm going to talk to a Syrian activist now living in the United States about his experience. That's after a break.