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Kerry to Testify to Senate Panel; Obama Meets with Senators; Rapist's 30-Day Sentence could be Reversed; Impact of Sarin; Diana Nyad Just Five Miles from Shore

Aired September 2, 2013 - 10:30   ET



CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We have a bit of breaking news to pass along. President Obama will meet with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham hat 2:00 p.m. Eastern at the White House. The topic has to be Syria, right? CNN's chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash has more now. Good morning, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. We knew from John McCain who told reporters yesterday he was going to the white house to speak with the president. We now know the time, 2:00 Eastern with his partner in crime, if you will, on these issues, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. I spoke with the senator who said they are well aware of the reason. You and I talked last hour, the main reason why the White House wants to talk to these two people in particular. Part of the issue for them isn't so much whether or not to go ahead and deal militarily with Bashar Al-Assad.

It's whether or not plans they have in place would go far enough and more importantly, whether they can get from the administration a very clear military plan and how to go forward with this in the future. In particular their focus is arming and training rebels in Syria, the people who are trying to fight against Bashar Al Assad. Those are the things they will ask the president. Try to get from the president.

Used as leverage. He said everybody understands that the hope at the White House is that the two men can come out and say, OK, we'll be for voting to authorize this because if they do that, it will give some of those Republicans, even Democrats on the fence cover and assurance that this is the right thing to do. These two have been so out there, even when nobody else wanted to listen on the issue of Syria.

It will be a very interesting meeting. The other thing is I was told by a democratic source during tomorrow's public hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry is also confirmed as a witness. Now we have John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary also. I'm told more will be announced. This is going to be a very, very interesting, important hearing tomorrow.

COSTELLO: OK, so let's talk more about the influence that John McCain and Lindsey Graham might have on other lawmakers. How much influence do they have? A lot of lawmakers are up for re-election in 2014. That's going to enter into their decision, too, right, in a war-weary nation. BASH: Yes. I mean, Lindsey Graham is one of people who is running for re-election next year.

Look, I know, I don't know the answer to how much impact they are going to have on the Senate and the House broadly. I think that it is fair to say though that they are -- when you are talking about members of their own party who, you know, trust their judgment on issues of national security, particularly military issues, there could be a few who might be able to be persuaded by them if they choose to support this.

And given the way the votes are right now which are completely up in the air -- one, two, even three votes -- the President needs everything he can get.

COSTELLO: Well and John McCain at least, I mean his plan for Syria appears to be at odds with the President. Because John McCain is all about -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- regime change. The President's position is not that at least as far as we know.

BASH: There is no question that John McCain wants to go and Lindsey Graham have wanted to go a lot further than the President has wanted to. They have been those who have been pushing the hardest for the President to do that. And there is also no question that the President is not going to be able to give them what they want in terms of promises of further action. What they are generally asking for now is at least some kind of not necessarily time frame but game plan in terms of what the U.S. policy will be going forward after the strikes go ahead.

Part of the -- part of the concern by people who are more hawkish on the issue -- Lindsey Graham, John McCain and others -- is they are concerned that -- is that you do this. You have pin-prick strikes against sites where you know these chemical weapons could be stored and so forth and then what? And then you -- you still not only keep Bashar al-Assad in place buy you maybe even embolden him. And that is the kind of concern that they have militarily. And that's the kind of thing that they're going to want to get answers from the President on today.

COSTELLO: All right. Dana Bash reporting live for us today. Thank you so much.

This past week the Obama administration appeared to be building up to a military strike against Syria but at the last minute the President made a dramatic decision to take a time-out and call on Congress to weigh in.

As senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta shows us the twisting path that leads us to where we are right now.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a city that feasts on political theater, it was high drama just past high noon. As President Obama told the world he had pulled back from the brink of a military strike against Syria.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

ACOSTA: Aides to the President say Mr. Obama decided to go in a different direction at almost the last minute. At approximately 6:00 p.m. Friday the President made the stunning change in plans to seek congressional authorization. And then went for a walk, a 45-minute walk, in fact, with his chief of staff Denis McDonough.

At approximately 7:00 p.m. the President announced his decision to his national security staff, sparking a heated debate. He then started to spread the word, calling Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Saturday morning Mr. Obama convened a principals' meeting with top national security and intelligence officials to finalize the decision.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The question is what are we -- we collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it?

ACOSTA: Just hours before the President's abrupt move Secretary Kerry had made a passionate case for urgent action.

KERRY: Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side-by-side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas.

ACOSTA: But aides say what Kerry and the rest of the President's team didn't know is that Mr. Obama had been privately kicking around the idea of seeking approval from Congress for days. As Kerry was turning up the heat, the President seemed to be turning it down.

OBAMA: You know, I am very clear that the world generally is war- weary, certainly the United States. It has gone through over a decade of war. The American people understandably want us focused on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work. And I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.

ACOSTA: As it turns out, administration officials say, the President was listening to members of Congress who wanted in on the process.

SEN. RAN PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Well it's incumbent to always obey the Constitution. The rule of law is something our country is founded on. And I would ask Congress to come together.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: The 64 members of us who signed our letter want to make sure Congress is called back in session, debate the issues, the facts and then vote on whether or not we should engage militarily.

ACOSTA: So on Saturday the President got back on the phone calling House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders.

OBAMA: Here is my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community, what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?

ACOSTA: Just minutes later the President departed the White House with Biden to play a round of golf leaving administration officials scrambling to show a united front. Despite that fierce discussion inside the West Wing, aides say the President's team is now fully on board.

As for the Defense Secretary one senior U.S. official said as a former senator whose views on the limits of war are well known it's not hard for Chuck Hagel to agree with the President. Another official said of Kerry, "No concerns. He was in the senate for 29 years and has made consultation with Congress a huge priority since he became Secretary of State."

The debate that counts is the one to come in Congress where lawmakers from both parties still have questions.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: In my view, U.S. military force is justified, only to protect the vital national security interests of the United States. And to date, the administration has not focused on those interests.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I don't see where America is threatened. I don't see where our national security is threatened. And perhaps between now and the time we get back on September 9th, the President will have information that would allow the Congress to effectively see where this danger is.

ACOSTA: Administration officials say the President still reserves the right to take military action as one top official put it. The Commander-in-Chief still has the authority to act, even if Congress says no.

Jim Acosta, CNN, the White House.


COSTELLO: Still to come in the NEWSROOM, the outrage and outcry growing over the 30-day sentence for a former teacher convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl. The next step prosecutors plan to take this week.


COSTELLO: Prosecutors in Montana are reviewing the case of a former teacher. He was sentenced to just 30 days in jail for raping a 14- year-old girl who later committed suicide. There's been so much outrage over the sentence, critics are pushing hard to get it reversed.

Miguel Marquez, in Los Angeles this morning to tell us more -- good morning, Miguel.


Yes huge outrage on this one. And the Yellowstone County District Attorney says it all comes down to whether or not Judge Baugh misapplied the law. The district attorney says he did and is willing to take that argument to the Supreme Court -- the Montana Supreme Court.


MARQUEZ: This morning, new details about how the shockingly light sentence of a rapist just 30 days in jail might be reversed.

SCOTT TWITO, YELLOWSTONE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: The dream scenario for us is that he would do 20 years and ten of those years suspended.

MARQUEZ: That dream scenario expected to take a step toward reality this week. On Wednesday, a critical conference call between the Yellowstone County Attorney and Montana's Attorney-General Office.

TWITO: There may be a misapplication of the sentencing authority here and that's where I focused my attention at this point.

MARQUEZ: If the state's attorney general agrees, then Montana Supreme Court would be asked to reverse the light sentence Judge G. Todd Baugh handed up in the case against this man, former Billings High School teacher Stacey Rambold.

Judge Baugh sentenced Rambold to just 30 days in jail after he broke the terms of his patrol for the 2007 rape of then 14-year-old Cherice Morales. During sentencing, Judge Baugh said the 14-year-old Morales was in as much control as her then 49-year-oold rapist and that she acted older than her chronological age. Morales wasn't there to speak on her own behalf. She took her own life before trial in 2010.

JUDGE G. TODD BAUGH, U.S. DISTRICT COURT: What I said was demeaning to all women, not what I believe in and irrelevant to the sentencing. I owe all of our fellow citizens an apology.

MARQUEZ: Despite the apology, the sentence stands. The outrage, growing. Protests so far in both Billings and Butte, more planned across the state and online petition urging Judge Baugh to resign is now nearing 50,000 signatures; another, over 70,000.


MARQUEZ: Now before any of this can take place, one thing has to happen. The judge actually has to sign his original controversial order, sign the paper version of it before the D.A. can then take this to the Supreme Court through the attorney general of the state of Montana. Once he signs that, though the state will have 20 days to try to get this sentence reversed -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Miguel Marquez is reporting live from Los Angeles this morning. Still to come in the NEWSROOM a terrifying scene in Taiwan after a car gets hit by a landslide. You will not believe what happens to the driver.


COSTELLO: Checking our top stories at 45 past the hour.

Egypt's state-run news agency says the country plans to put another former president on trial over protesters' deaths. This time it's ousted president, Mohamed Morsy. Investigators say Morsy and his staff ordered supporters to attack protesters near the presidential palace in December. At least ten people were killed.

Frightening scene in Taiwan after a car is hit by a landslide. Take a look at the video of flying mud and debris. The astonishing pictures were caught on a dashboard camera. As if that weren't enough a rolling boulder stopped just short, just before it crashed into the same car.

The bodies of dozens of children buried in an old reform school in Florida are being exhumed. The Dozier School for boys closed in 2011. The men who had attended the reform school when they were boys claimed other boys were beaten and some mysteriously disappeared. Researchers are hoping to return remains of dozens of missing boys to their families. The cemetery dates back to the early 1900s.

Florida A&M Marching Band returned to the field for the opening football game. It was the band's first appearance since being suspended nearly two years ago. Drum major Robert Champion was beaten in a hazing incident in 2011 and died. The university said since Champion's death it has revised the student conduct code and created a new anti-hazing Web site.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watch this. After Papis finished an interview, bam, a woman confronts Papis.

COSTELLO: Ow. Max Papis made a go at a win during Nascar's first camping world truck series on Sunday. Papis was battling it out with fellow driver Mike Skein for third place when the drivers collided -- actually their cars collided.

When they returned to the track they continued to fight it out, but the drama didn't stop there as you can. Papis wound up getting slapped in the face by his opponent's girlfriend. Papis says he suffered a dislocated jaw from the altercation.

And the Duchess of Cambridge isn't the only woman taken off the market, so to speak. According to celebrity tabloid, "Sunday People" Kate's 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 the two are keeping the engagement quiet until her Pippa's 30th birthday on Friday.

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Signatures of sarin. That's what Secretary of State John Kerry says were found in blood and hair samples the United States obtained from Syria -- samples that are separate from those tested by the United Nations. Leonard Cole is a bioterrorism expert and the author of "The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story". Good morning.


COSTELLO: Thank you so much for joining us.

COLE: Thank you.

COSTELLO: Because a lot of people want to know what this means -- signatures of sarin. What does that mean? Signatures of sarin?

COLE: Well, the signature is just simply a term for identification of whether sarin is present or not. It means that if you would find, say, tissue samples from people who were thought to have been exposed or blood or even hair samples, if they have been exposed for at least some days previously, you can identify by chemical analysis whether you have actually seen sarin present. That would be a signature.

COSTELLO: So is that conclusive proof?

COLE: Yes. You can develop a series of tests and ultimately some very refined determinations through laboratory testing. And you can make a definitive assessment that sarin agent had been -- or the individual or the area that has been presumably exposed was definitely exposed to this chemical.

COSTELLO: But couldn't there be false positives?

COLE: Well, you could initially get some false positives because not all tests are down to the refinement level of the actual definition of what the sarin make is -- the chemical makeup. That is, you can say, if you know that there's been a chemical attack, for example. But you're not sure what the agent has been or you suspect there was a chemical attack and people develop serious rashes immediately you would say this is not necessarily a nerve agent because sarin in particular does not develop into rashes or blisters as would another chemical agent like mustard.

So you begin the broader assessment like a funnel narrowing down until you say, well, this person has all of the symptoms before death, for example, of foaming at the mouth, the nervous system has shut down.

When I wave my hand I get a brain signal that goes through my nervous system that tells my hands and arms to move. The nerve agent sarin and some others will interfere with that impulse transportation so that I will be unable to move. That's one of the signature manifestations of how you behave.


COSTELLO: The hardest question, who's responsible for this? How do you find this out definitively?

COLE: Well, we know for sure that Syria has tons and tons of stocks of various chemical weapons including mustard and sarin. This has never been in dispute. And the problem is that we haven't been on scene -- the international inspectors have not been permitted to get to areas where there have been accusations, allegations of the use. However, we have all seen films of videos of people who had been presumably exposed and showing symptoms that you would expect to see from a nerve agent -- foaming at the mouth, tremors, inability to work their body systems because of the nerve impulse preventions. Those are good starts.

Then in terms of the chemical analysis which is under way at this moment -- I think at The Hague where there are laboratories after inspectors finally were permitted to get to some of the sites they will have more definitive assessments.

But listen, I heard as I'm sure many in the country did, Secretary of State Kerry's comments about the use of these weapons and the likelihood -- the almost certainty that they were by the government of Assad. And I thought his comments were very persuasive.

COSTELLO: We'll see. As you know now, it's all in the hands of Congress, I suppose. We'll see. Thank you very much, Leonard Cole, bioterrorism expert, for joining us this morning.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, Diana Nyad is almost near the end. Here's John Zarrella.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm John Zarrella in Key West. And Carol, you're right -- Diana Nyad just hours away now from making history. I'll have that story coming up.


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 has almost accomplished that feat. She's now about five miles from shore. Nyad's team posted these pictures on her Web site early this morning.

The caption reads: "True story: cruise ships make way for Diana Nyad". But here's more exciting news. John Zarrella is in Key West and we can actually see her team from shore now. This is amazing.

ZARRELLA: Yes. We think so, Carol. People that have been pretty close to Diana Nyad's team have said that indeed those boats we see behind us. They are in the distance -- way in the distance so they're tough to see. It's a small flotilla of boats with doctors on boards and her handlers on those vessels as well making their way ever so slowly.

Now we know, Carol, from earlier on today that she was taking frequent breaks -- she was going less than a mile an hour. And they said that she had swallowed a lot of salt water. Doctors were reporting earlier today that her tongue and her lips were swollen. A little bit of concern then about her airway but they are pressing on.

And that may well be their flotilla out there closing in. We expect her to land somewhere here along Smathers Beach perhaps in the next four hours or so. It's hard to tell. All depends on just how quickly she's making headway -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Quickly, because I don't have much time, what's her secret to success this time? It's the fifth time.

ZARRELLA: those goggles, they're saying, those goggles that were especially made to keep the jellyfish from stinging her which is what cost her the last time she made the attempt.

COSTELLO: Understand. John Zarrella, thank you so much.

And thanks for joining me today on this Labor Day. I'm Carol Costello.

"LEGAL VIEW" with John Berman filling in, starts now.