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Obama's Legacy at Risk with Syria; Deaths at Reform School Exhumed; Digging in Secret Cemetery in Florida; Nyad Completes Cuba to Key West Swim.

Aired September 2, 2013 - 13:30   ET


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This show of force in the Red Sea, that's more about presence. There's no expectation that those fighter jets off the deck of the carrier Nimitz will be used. This is sending a message to Assad and the region that the U.S. military is still there. Of course, politically, it's still awaits a decision by Congress -- Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Barbara Starr, thank you. Appreciate it.

Just ahead on the NEWSROOM, when President Obama went to the White House, he wanted to end wars, not start them. Now he's taking quite a risk with Syria. CNN security analyst, Peter Bergen, joins us to talk about that, next.


MALVEAUX: With intelligence showing that chemical weapons were used on Syrians, the White House is ready to strike against the Assad regime. But some say the president should have acted long ago.

Joining us now, CNN national security analyst, Peter Bergen.

Your latest op-ed, this is, you write that the president came to end wars and not start them. And that there's a real question how he will be judged, whether or not he's been a risk taker or someone who has been an effective commander. How do you see this latest development being played out seeking congressional authorization but also saying I think this is what we should do? We should strike.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Suzanne, I began that column with a speech, a very important speech the president gave on may 23rd when we said we need to start a national conversation about ending the seemingly endless wars we've been in since 9/11. I think that represents his real position. Events changed. What happened in Syria changed and he's in the portion of authorizing a war against Syria. But I don't think it's necessarily surprising that he's gone to Congress for that authorization for two reasons. First of all, by temperament, he's somebody that wants to make wars less easy and not more easy. He's a former constitutional law professor. The speech on May 23rd is part of a conversation he wants with American people to wind down the state of endless wars we've had. One way to do that is to make it harder for future presidents to unilaterally go to war. The other element is there's no international authorization for war. There's no U.N. resolution. NATO has said some nice things but it's said it's not going to participate in some sort of operation. And the Arab League has made -- said some nice things but has also made clear it won't sign off on military operation.

So in the absence of international partners, except France or some role for Turkey, really to shore this up politically, you do need Congress. And also it's a matter, Suzanne, of precedence. I think it's important that if the operation happens it's done with congressional approval.

MALVEAUX: Do you think there was obviously a political component to this, that this does allow the president some political cover. You had more than 200 lawmakers sign a petition saying, look, he should get congressional authorization before any kind of military strike. And now he's calling their bluff, not only consultation and debate but authorization. He's giving them the responsibility as well, is he not, that if we go to war -- or not go to war, but if there's a military strike that it's members of Congress who are also responsible?

BERGEN: Sure. It's a risk. I think he's a calculated risk taker. It was a calculated risk for the junior Senator from Illinois to take on Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. It was a calculated risk to take out Osama bin Laden when many top national security officials were saying, if this goes wrong, it would be damaging for your presidency. This is a calculated risk. We don't know how it turns out. In addition to what you just pointed out, Suzanne, on the right, the Republicans, who are sort of saying we're skeptical about this, will have to answer the question, if they're skeptical about this, why is it they are so concerned about Iran, which has a nuclear weapons programs, which doesn't have nuclear weapons. What signal would it send to Iran to do nothing when they're closed ally, Syria, has actually employed chemical weapons? Then for those on the left, who are generally suspicious of military action, if you're not going to react in the circumstance with 1400 people have been killed by sarin gas, many of them children, when are you going to react?

MALVEAUX: Peter, finally, this is a Congress that the president has had a difficult time with getting things done. He's said, at least in his second term, he's doing a lot of executive orders. He's making end runs around Congress. Is there anything in this scenario where you see that Congress would get on board and authorize a military strike?

BERGEN: Clearly, the administration feels the actual facts, factual case is very, very, very strong. I think if the administration can also make a case about what the long-term strategy is here beyond military strikes, which is a very legitimate concern people have had, I think that will perhaps tilt the balance.

MALVEAUX: All right. Peter Bergen, thank you so much. Appreciate it as always.

Still to come, we're going to take you to Florida. This is a gruesome task being performed at this very hour. There are anthropologists who are digging up the graves of dozens of young boys whose deaths are deemed suspicious.


MALVEAUX: In Florida, families are hoping they'll get some answers. This is as workers dig up this secret cemetery. This is on the grounds of a former reform school.

Ed Lavandera is live at the gravesite. This is in Marianna, Florida, west of Tallahassee.

Ed, explain this story for us. Why are they doing this?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're trying to uncover a mystery that's haunted the grounds of this school. About five years ago, many former students, now grown men, have started coming out with stories of abuse and horrid torture that might have happened at this school. Now about a year ago, researchers from the University of South Florida discovered in this area there were bodies buried where many people didn't think there were bodies.

Right now, we're in the middle of an incredible rainstorm. This is where anthropologists and archeologists have been starting the process of exhuming bodies over the course of this weekend. They're trying to dig up at least two of the bodies. There could be many more in the area we're standing on.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): These researchers are looking for buried secrets, exhuming bodies, perhaps as many as 50 in all, from this hidden cemetery in the Florida Panhandle. The question is, will the dead help unlock the sinister secrets of what happened on these grounds decades ago?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bones will tell the truth. They will be able to study whether there was a fracture or a bone broke or whatever. That will help to bring out the truth and some closure to this whole situation.

LAVANDERA: The Dozier Reform School for boys closed in 2011. Its painful legacy haunts this place. Over the last few years, dozens of former students have come forward to tell stories of how teachers and administrators dealt ruthless beatings, sexual abuse and even murder more than 50 years ago.

For decades, state officials insisted 31 boys were buried here on the grounds. The bodies were never properly accounted for. Then last year, Dr. Aaron Kimmerly and a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida made a stunning discovery. Using high- tech equipment the researchers said they found evidence of at least 19 more bodies buried in the area. Their research of school records showed the bodies of another 22 boys who died at the school were never accounted for. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We approached this with the goal to identify everyone. That's our objective. We know that realistically that won't happen.

LAVANDERA: Owen Smith was sent here in 1940 and his family never saw him again. School officials said he died of pneumonia. Others said he was shot and killed by school administrators.

OVELL KRELL, OWEN SMITH'S SISTER: I believe until this day that they shot my brother that night. I think they probably killed him. They brought him back to the school and buried him.

LAVANDERA: John Due and his family visited the cemetery site and they are hoping to find the body of a relative sent here in the 1930s.

JOHN DUE, FORMER STUDENT'S RELATIVE: We have to dig up the past in order to build a better future. We cannot continue to live like zombies. The walking dead, the past doesn't mean anything.

LAVANDERA: Before Dr. Kimmerly's discovery in the cemetery, a Florida state investigation in 2009 determined there was no evidence of criminal activity connected with any of the deaths or any abuses at the facility. One has denied the accusations but admitted spankings did take place. Many former students called it a cover up and an attempt to whitewash the school's brutal past.


LAVANDERA: Suzanne, right now, these research crews are working in quite a storm. This is a slow, tedious process to uncover the remains and it will take several months to complete and get a handle on this.

But what many of the former students, who were sent to this school long ago, are hoping for some sort of clue that will explain or provide some concrete evidence about what happened to them and prove to the eyes of the world that they're not making up these stories. That's something they grappled with for quite sometime -- Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Absolutely, Ed. Thank you.

We'll take a quick break. After this, we'll have more.


MALVEAUX: All right. You're looking at live pictures there. This is out of Key West, Florida. The excitement of this moment as we get much, much closer now. Diana Nyad is a 64-year-old swimmer. This is her fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. She's less than a mile away. So if you can only imagine what people on that beach are feeling. They've entered the water. They're not going to wait for her to get on the beach. They want to greet her and see her come in as she makes this historic, historic trip. This is somebody who has tried this five times and previously, it's more than a hundred mile swim. Previously, came under attack from these huge box jelly fish, waves and currents and bad weather. This go-around, it looks like she's going to bring it home. I want to bring in Elizabeth Cohen to talk about the challenges, the physical challenges that she has to deal with here. We've talked to her several times on this show and she kept saying should I go? Should I try again? I'm going to do it again. What has she been up against?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: She's amazing. I had the pleasure of meeting her a couple of years ago. And her enthusiasm, her resolve just was amazing to me, especially considering her age. She's doing this and she's in her 60s.

The physical challenges are incredible. One of the things she does as she swims, Suzanne, is that she sings songs to herself to keep the pace. This whole time, she's been singing, I think, the Beatles "I've Got a Ticket to Ride."


COHEN: That's one of the songs she sings.


CNN medical producer, Matt Sloan, has spent a lot of time with her and her camp. They've been with her for years. All the people you see cheering and dancing, they've been with her for years, Team Diana. They have mapped out every little bit of this. What she needs to eat, when she needs to eat. Remember, she's not sleeping. She's not sitting down. There's no chairs in the water.


They're just feeding her food. It's just incredible what she's done.

MALVEAUX: What makes this unique from previous attempts here is that she does it without any protection. It's very minimal protection here.


MALVEAUX: We see the specially designed mask that she's wearing to protect her from the jelly fish. But no shark cage. No wet suit. No flippers. That is what makes this a one-of-a-kind event.

We're still looking at a whole bunch of people with cameras. You can see them holding them up to make sure that they stay dry, that they're out of the water there. Literally, all these people, what looks like they are approaching where they anticipate she will actually swim to shore.

COHEN: Right. They want to be there to greet her.

Again, you're absolutely right. What's notable here is not so much the distance that she swam this distance, but, as you said, did it without a shark cage. Did it without a wet suit. Did it without slippers. Jelly fish stings have really been her nemesis. That's what's really gotten to her before and why she had to pull out early. They've devised this mask. She said it's not the most comfortable thing, not the most fun thing to swim in, but it keeps the jelly fish away. That's what's important.

MALVEAUX: Explain to us. Some people think, look, I've been on the beach. Been on the water. Get stung by a jelly fish. These things are huge. They're massive and their poison is very significant. That was the reason why the fourth go-round and the third go-round she just could not complete the swim. Because of the level of poison that she was dealing with inside of her own system.

COHEN: Right. She would come out of the water with these welts. She would come out not being fully with it. Obviously, physically drained by the whole thing. But it was really those jelly fish bites that really got to her.

There are so many different challenges along here. One of the things that's impressed me as I've watched her go through all these different tries is that they've been so systematic at combating each of them. Every time she does it and it doesn't work, they learn from it, and they make particular attempts to fix it. That's big. To learn from your failures, really important.

MALVEAUX: I want to welcome not only our viewers here in the United States, but around the world.

Because this really is one of those experiences of a human triumph, really. I was so fortunate to be able to talk to her in the last failed attempts, the fourth attempt and the third attempt. You ask her, you know, what keeps you going? What are you doing this? Some people think it's crazy. Why would you do such a thing?

We're seeing our own John Zarrella getting ready for the live shots in her approach.

She turns around and she says, look, you know, this is about proving that you can be your best self, whatever it is, whatever you set out to do. And this is what she wanted to do. And this is a 35-year journey for this woman. She's now 64 years old. But she started a long, long time ago. So much has changed since then. You're talking about communications. The fact that we can, in real-time, we know where she is. We know how far out.

I want to bring in our John Zarrella to just set the scene for us, John. You're there. You're on the beach. This is incredible.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. You know, it was unbelievable. There were hundreds and hundreds of people where I am right now. And when they realized that Diana Nyad was going to land about 200 yards down, this entire throng moved, they moved all of these barricades at the same time. The fire rescue folks were here. They have a gurney with them. They've got I.V.s on that gurney, assuming they're going to put her on there and give it to her right away. (CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: I don't know, let me ask you this if you can. If you can hear me, is she -- can you confirm whether or not she's actually finished the swim? That she's on the beach? Has she actually arrived?

ZARRELLA: No, I can't tell either. We cannot tell if she's on the beach yet.

Is she on the beach? Anybody see? Is she on the beach?

Nobody down here can see it that far away. That's the problem. We can't tell if she's actually on the beach. But the kayaks that were with her are right up by the water's edge. We're assuming she is. But, again, it's at least a couple hundred, maybe 300 yards down the beach where she's actually landed. So it's impossible to tell from here.

MALVEAUX: All right. I didn't mean the interrupt. Go ahead. Give us a sense. Maybe there's somebody there. I see people running towards you. Maybe there's someone who might have seen her land that you can grab. Give us a sense of what this is like.

ZARRELLA: Well, it's just a fascinating experience. Because this morning, Suzanne, you know, there were five people, ten people that come up to you, hey, is she still in the water? How is the swim going? How close is she? Then as the day wore on, more and more people started to gather. But then when it became very evident about an hour, hour and a half ago, that she was really close to making history, that she was about to make history, this place got packed.

And as your video shots can show you, that whole area where she is down there is absolutely -- is she on -- is she on -- can you tell us?


ZARRELLA: What's your name?

JAKOWSKI: Mary Ann? Turn around, face the camera.

ZARRELLA: So she made landfall?


ZARRELLA: Tell us about it.

JAKOWSKI: It was pretty intense. It was pretty hectic. Definitely, she's in another world. But it was amazing.

ZARRELLA: Were you just watching it?

JAKOWSKI: Yeah. I was just watching. Came down with my son. Just want to see history.


ZARRELLA: Last name?

JAKOWSKI: Jakowski.

ZARRELLA: Jakowski. OK, Mary Ann, so fascinating. Did you just decide to come here because of this experience or were you planning on coming to the beach for Labor Day anyway?

JAKOWSKI: No, no. I live here. I've heard about it for years. I just wanted to witness it.

ZARRELLA: You sound like you're about as excited as she probably is.

JAKOWSKI: It was amazing.

ZARRELLA: What did she look like? Did she look like she was in good shape down there?

JAKOWSKI: She did. She was walking.


ZARRELLA: She was walking?

JAKOWSKI: Yeah. I mean, it's pretty shallow when you first --

ZARRELLA: She walked out of the water without any help.

JAKOWSKI: Absolutely. Had people pushing onlookers away. She had to get to land or it wouldn't count. It was awesome.

ZARRELLA: Do you know if they put her on that gurney to give her I.V. or not?

JAKOWSKI: I don't know. I started to walk away. My son's with his grandfather. She made it on. Collapsed into a team member's arms.

ZARRELLA: Everybody cheering there, I assume. It must have been just Bedlam.

JAKOWSKI: Absolutely.

ZARRELLA: Mary Ann, thanks so much for your time. Glad you got to see it. Wonderful.

Well, there you go. That's a firsthand account of what it was like down there. Mary Ann is running off to go get her son right now. But I tell you, she did seem as if she was about as excited, you know, as Diana Nyad must be.

But you heard, she made it on shore on her own. Then she collapsed into the arms of one of her folks up there. But she did complete the swim. We estimated about 110 miles it turned out that -- 110 miles, and 300 yards away from us is where she is actually made landfall. MALVEAUX: So how long was this swim? Do we know? How much time did it take her this go-round to complete this swim based on when she landed?

ZARRELLA: Well, you know, it was -- yeah. It was 46 hours at about 8: 00 this morning. What is that? Another six hours? So 52 hours, roughly, is what I would say. I'm not quite -- I'm not sure, but I think that might be a record as well. Certainly, a record that -- her record that she made it here, endurance, speed, everything. She shattered every record.

MALVEAUX: She's shattered every record. Awesome.

Elizabeth, now that she's shattered every record, are we all going to get out there and try this? I mean, that was one heck of a physical feat there.

COHEN: Oh, it really -- it really is amazing, what she's done.

Actually, we have our CNN medical producer, Matt Sloan with us. He's been following Diana, keeping in touch with her for years now.

Matt, what do you know?

MATT SLOAN, CNN MEDICAL PRODUCER: I'm down here on the beach. I'm a little bit farther down from where John Zarrella is standing. Right at the last minute, Diana actually was a little farther down than everybody expected. This crowd of a few thousand people went running down toward where she was getting out of the water, which is why I'm a little out of breath now.


She did complete the swim. She looks good. She was able to walk up on to the beach. She pumped her fist. There was a medic standing by with a gurney and a couple of I.V. bags. As you know, she's been going nonstop for the last over 50 hours now. Just incredible. As you said, we've been following this story for three and a half years now. I have to tell you, it's emotional even for me to see her finally complete this dream she's had for 35 years.

MALVEAUX: Matt, what have you learned from her, spending all those years with her in this journey?

SLOAN: There is nothing you can't accomplish if you set your mind to it. I have to be honest with you, there are a lot of people that were saying that she was crazy and that she shouldn't try this again. Why does she expect this to be different than any other time? But she proved all those people wrong.

MALVEAUX: Matt, what made the difference? Why did she succeed the fifth time and not the first four?

SLOAN: From what I understand, we actually just got into key west not that long ago. It was all such a scramble. From talking to the boat crew I did on the beach, they said it was a combination of something to do with the phase of the moon and the salinity in the water. It's things as minuscule as that that can make a difference. All the factors were conspiring against here in the other attempts. But they actually only ran into one jelly fish the entire time. As you guys know, that's what plagued her in the last three attempts were these deadly jelly fish. They are potentially deadly jelly fish stings.

MALVEAUX: Matt, we're going to have a lot more of a conversation with you in the moments to come.

History being made. Diana Nyad, completing that swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.

We're going to turn our coverage over to Brooke Baldwin, who takes it from here.