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Obama to Meet with McCain, Graham; Making the Case to Congress; USS Nimitz Enters Red Sea; Interview with Congressman Buck McKeon; Hearing in Navy Rape Case; Cuba to Florida Swim

Aired September 2, 2013 - 08:00   ET




JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Blood and hair samples has tested positive for signatures of sarin.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The case to strike, President Obama in an all out push to convince Congress of the need to strike Syria. John McCain invited to the White House today. Is the president changing minds? We have all angles covered.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, American swimmer, Diane Nyad so close to the Florida coast, her long unattainable dream of swimming from Cuba to the U.S. about to be realized. We're live with the latest.

CUOMO: Bump and run, what drove this racer's girlfriend to slap her boyfriend's competitor. The slap caught on tape and the claims that his jaw is now dislocated. Your NEW DAY continues right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm still very skeptical about the president's proposal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would not vote for it today.



BOLDUAN: Good morning. Welcome back to NEW DAY. It's Monday, September 2nd, happy Labor Day, everyone. It's 8:00 in the East. Hope you're having a good morning so far.

We could see history made today. We mentioned that Diana Nyad is getting closer and closer to her goal swimming from Cuba to Florida without a cage. She's ahead of schedule at this moment. She's expected to make it there this afternoon. It's her fifth attempt and this time, it's already one for the record books. We'll take you live to Florida with the very latest. CUOMO: And we have a very serious story for you out of Japan, potentially lethal threat. We're discovering that radiation levels coming from that crippled nuclear plant are 18 higher times than originally thought. Now, there are growing fears that our shores are in danger.

BOLDUAN: First, let's get to our very big story this morning. President Obama being -- may be waiting on a final decision to strike Syria. But this morning, the U.S. is displaying a pretty show of force. In the meantime, five Navy warships, including the aircraft carrier Nimitz are in the Red Sea.

Meantime, the White House is pushing Congress for a green light to attack.

He meets -- the president meets with two key lawmakers, Senators John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham about this at the White House.

And it appears a Syrian group hacked a Marine Corps Web site urging folks not to attack Syria. We're covering this story as only CNN can with reporters at the White House, on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon.

So, let's start off this morning with Briana Keilar at the White House.

Good morning, Brianna.


Flooding the zone, that's the catch phrase White House officials are using. President Obama, Vice President Biden, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, they've been making one-on-one phone calls up to members of Congress. They did that yesterday. We'll see that today.

Meetings at the White House with members of Congress today. More meetings tomorrow and their message is this, that if Congress doesn't join the White House in acting, it sends a message not just to Assad but also to Hezbollah and Iran that says, go ahead and try us, you may just get away with it.


KEILAR (voice-over): Secret briefings on Capitol Hill.


KEILAR: The White House making its case to skeptical lawmakers.

On CNN, Secretary of State John Kerry revealing new evidence to back claims the Assad regime killed hundreds with nerve gas.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Blood and hair samples that have come to us has tested positive for signatures of sarin. KEILAR: The president's team moving quickly, after his surprise decision to put a serious strike on hold, saying Congress should approve.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And all of us should be accountable as we move forward.

KEILAR: His aides insist he'd been thinking about reversing course even before the British parliament embarrassed Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nays have it.

KEILAR: Friday, though, he sent Kerry out to argue for urgent action.

KERRY: What is the risk of doing nothing?

KEILAR: Later that day, he signals second thoughts.

OBAMA: Nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.

KEILAR: But aides say he didn't tell anyone until Friday at 6:00 a.m., when he takes a 45-minute walk with chief of staff Denis McDonough. At 7:00, he tells his national security staff, sparking a heated debate. Saturday morning, he calls his top team to the Situation Room to finalize his plan. Phones congressional leaders from the Oval Office to get them on board, then heads to the Rose Garden to stun the world.

OBAMA: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.


KEILAR: Now, complicating matters, President Obama has an international trip this week. He heads to Sweden tomorrow night then on to Russia for the G-20. He's not back until the end of the week. A senior administration official says the president will be fully engaged while he's away, but, Chris, you know the proximity can really help if you're a president trying to twist arms of members of Congress.

CUOMO: Absolutely, Brianna. Thank you very much for that this morning.

Now, most in Congress do recognize that they should weigh in on the decision to attack Syria. But what remains unclear is whether the president's plan will be approved. At this point, some serious questions in some lawmakers' minds.

Let's to go our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash following developments on Capitol Hill.

Good morning, Dana. What's the latest?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest is that this is still an unpredictable and partisan Congress and that certainly is going to play into the president rolling the dice and relying on Congress to give them this authorization.

After conversations with countless lawmakers it is clear that flooding the zone is not getting there yet. They still have a lot of convincing to do because the votes are not there yet.


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: Certainly the mood in the district that I represent is, do not do this, and I honestly didn't hear anything that told me I thought 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 would be, meaning, will it be effective?

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

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

BASH (voice-over): Democrat Janice Hahn took the red eye 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? Is that killing more people? 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 yes 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 give to the president, specify a time frame for military strikes that make crystal clear no boots on the ground.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Blank checks or even partial blank checks.

BASH (on camera): And this is a blank check that they sent?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, this is a partial blank check the way it's currently draft.


BASH: Now, of all the meetings the president will have over the next few days, the one today with John McCain is among the most critical because John McCain is saying he effectively wants to use this vote as leverage to get the White House to articulate better the military plans in Syria after these limited strikes, particularly when you're talking about helping the rebels which he is calling for, for a very long time.

And, Kate, if he gets McCain onboard publicly, it could help the president, especially with wavering Republicans and talking to lawmakers. The president needs all the help he can get here.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely right. He could be a very key ally on trying to win that vote in the coming week.

All right. Dana, thank you so much.

Now, from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon now. The U.S. Navy has five ships in the Red Sea, bolstering the U.S. presence in the region.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon with more on this.

So, what does it all mean, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, moving into the Red Sea, indeed, Kate, led by the USS Nimitz, sending a very clear message that the U.S. military is in the region. They still us -- the military says they don't expect to use those fighter jets off the deck of the Nimitz, but they are in the red sea. That waterway that leads to the Suez Canal that leads to the eastern Mediterranean off Syria, they are within range of striking Syria, if it came to that.

So, this is about presence. This is about sending a message -- five warships coming into the Red Sea and several more already in the eastern Mediterranean. A fleet of about nine, ten warships now assembled.

In related news on Syria, the Syrian Electronic Army, which is said to be a pro-Assad cyber hacking group, is claiming this morning that it hacked a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting Web site posting messages, urging members of the U.S. military, especially Marines, not to fight in Syria. This is a claim by this pro-Assad group. We're waiting to hear from the Marine Corps officially what they believe happened here -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Barbara, thank you very much.

So, let's deal with one of the main questions here. Will Congress vote to support a military strike against Syria?

Joining us now is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, California Republican Buck McKeon.

Thank you very much for joining us, Congress. Appreciate it.

REP. BUCK MCKEON (R-CA), HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Thank you, Chris. Thanks for having me.

CUOMO: The president is taking some criticism for going to Congress. But let me ask you, do you believe this is the right move?

MCKEON: I definitely do. I think that I have been calling for that. Many members of Congress have been calling for that. I also think he needs to go to the American people. He needs to explain to them, look them in the eye, and tell them how he went through the decision process, how he came to this point in his decision-making. I think it's very important.

He's the one that is selected by the whole country. He's the one that has all the information. He needs to tell the American public and get their support before he moves forward.

CUOMO: Just talking to somebody on the show and they said, well, Libya is a good example of how the U.S. military went in with surgical strikes. Do you believe Libya is a good analogy for what you would like to see with U.S. involvement in Syria?

MCKEON: You know, over the last couple of years the president has surged the troops in Afghanistan while he cut the military budget. He flew missions over Libya while he cut the military's budget. He changed the strategy to focus on the Pacific while he cut the military budget.

Our military has had over $1 trillion cut out of their budget in the last couple years and going forward. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the chiefs that served with him have not had any kind of certainty in how they plan or what they can look forward to from year-to-year over the last couple of years.

This surge, this sequestration, the president needs to fix. This would be a great time to fix that to show the military that while we're asking them to continue on with mission after mission after mission, instead of cutting back like he told them the day before he announced this decision that they weren't going to receive the pay next year that they had been planning on.

Instead of doing that kind of thing to our military, we ought to look out for them just as we're looking out for those people in Syria.

CUOMO: Strong point. Everybody supports the troops, I would hope. And let me ask you, congressman. Is that your way of saying you're worried about how long and how committed the U.S. military will have to be if anything begins in Syria?

MCKEON: You know, we're still at war in Afghanistan. We have been fighting now for 12 years. These troops have done everything that's been asked of them. What we ought to do is look after them a little bit, too.

And I think it's important that we fix and give them certainty, give our military leaders the ability to plan so that when they get called to perform missions like this, they'll be there and be prepared. And have the where withal and resources to do it instead of time and time again cutting the military back when they've had more cuts than any other department in government and yet they account for only about 17 percent of the spending of government. It's time to really look after and take care of our military.

CUOMO: Where are you right now in terms of your thinking about whether or not you would vote for a military attack on Syria?

MCKEON: I'm still open. I think that when the president said he shouldn't cross a red line, he should have put a little more thought into it before he said it. That's why we're in this position now. It's because of his statement and, frankly, I think that this scurrying around trying to reach congress now is a little bit late. It would have been good to have done this before he ever made the comment across the red line.

But he's done it. We are where we are. I think the prestige of the United States is on the line. It's something that we're going to have to look at very carefully.

But I think that we cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with a sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads. We have to take care of our own people first.

CUOMO: Taking your point, do you have concerns as to whether or not the U.S. military is capable of doing this kind of attack in Syria?

MCKEON: No, I have no concerns of their capability. They're the strongest, best equipped, best trained military. What I'm looking at is what they've been hit with the last couple years. Where will they be the next time they're asked?

The world has not gotten any safer. I mean, we look at -- we look at Korea and they have large quantities of chemical weapons. We look at the whole Middle East that seems to be exploding overnight. We look at China and they're increasing their military budget.

The world has not gotten safer and yet we're cutting back $1 trillion out of our military, asking them to do more with less. That has to come to a stop.

CUOMO: All right. Chairman McKeon, thank you very much for your perspective this morning. Appreciate it on NEW DAY.

MCKEON: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: You see this discussion gets broader and broader. If you're going to do something, is the military probably equipped, especially if you have to sustain it? It gets complicated. We're going to debate the complexities of this serious strike with Republican strategist Ana Navarro and Columbia professor Marc Lamont Hill, coming up.

BOLDUAN: Much more on that ahead. And there's also, a lot of news developing at this hour. So, let's get straight to John Berman, who's in for Michaela this morning.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You heard Chairman McKeon mentioned the fact the U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan.

And indeed, overnight, the Taliban attacking a U.S. base near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Insurgents detonated explosives before engaging in a two-hour firefight with NATO troops. All Taliban attackers were reportedly killed. Several NATO supply trucks caught fire during this violence. The attack led to the closure of a supply route leading into and out of Torkham.

That massive fire burning near Yosemite National Park is closer to containment this morning. Fire crews are reporting good progress against the blaze, which has burned more than 350 square miles, destroying 11 homes. It's now 45 percent contained. That's good news. And crews are using bulldozers to build up the lines on the fire's edge.

More witnesses are expected to take the stand today in a hearing over a rape case at the naval academy. Three former navy football players stand accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman while she was drunk. The alleged victim has been testifying for days about what she experienced. She says she had little recollection of what happened and only found out about it when the players bragged to friends.

So, this isn't much for hospitality. A Chicago taxi driver accused of scamming a college student who just arrived at O'Hare Airport from China. The cabby agreed to a $1,000 fare for the two-hour trip to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign. When they arrived, the driver told him the price went up to $4,200. By the way, the actual fare for that trip, about 300 bucks. Not nice.

The girlfriend of rookie NASCAR driver, Mike Skeen, wasn't happy obviously after he got into a wreck with Max Papis. Look what she did about it. Boom! That after the camp and truck series race. She went after Papis in the race. She slapped him, slapping him hard. Papis says his jaw was dislocated. He also says he might press charges.

Later, he tweeted this. "The deal was only between me and the number 6 driver. We could have solved it alone, but I guess, he needed some, pause, help." And Max's wife jumped to his defense also. She tweeted that it was actually kind of comical. She says, "Hey, other Nascar wives careful or I'll slap your hubby."

I don't know, guys. Sounds nasty there.

BOLDUAN: My suggestion is stay off Twitter. When these fights bleed over to Twitter --

BERMAN: If you're going to slap someone who your husband raced against, you know, stay off Twitter --

BOLDUAN: Just make the slap and stay off Twitter.

CUOMO: As we often tell our children, use your words. Use your words in these situations. Use your hands. Use your words. That would be my thoughts.

BOLDUAN: There you go.

CUOMO: Never admit that getting a dislocated jaw from a slap in the face.


BERMAN: Tweet that.

BOLDUAN: Tweet that. Words to live by.


BOLDUAN: So, let's move to some weather now. Really crazy weather out there right now. Two women and one baby saved from violent rushing water near Las Vegas. Just look at this water. They were inside this SUV when the water pushed them into a tree, but thankfully, they're said to be OK.

Let's get straight to Indra Petersons keeping track of this flash flooding and the rest of your Labor Day forecast this morning.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. I wish I could say that was all we're going to be seeing --


PETERSONS: Yes. We have Utah right here. We're looking at buckskin bulge here and that's where we see these really steep cliffs. They can literally in this area in Utah 50 or 100 miles away and you could see a foot of water. About 30 feet of water can actually go right through the steep canyon and surprise the hikers out there.

So, that's actually -- what we're looking at here is the threat for more flooding across the southwest. Thanks to a dome of high pressure. All you do is you see all that pressure come out of the gulf and you get these pop-up thunderstorms. What's hard to believe is you don't see much rain. It doesn't take a lot to get that kind of flash flooding in the southwest just because it's a drier terrain out there.

So, today, that threat will still remain in the southwest for their Labor Day. And I'm not making friends, more bad news from Labor Day. Anywhere from the northeast all the way down to the southeast, there's that cold front, again, expected to be stronger than the one we saw over the weekend. We're already seeing spotty showers across the area.

As far as how much we're expecting one to two inches anywhere from the mid-Atlantic and the northeast. The higher up you go, especially out towards -- two to four inches of rain is possible in that forecast. You know what, I'm fine. Comfy sweatshirt, TV, relax. See, yey, Labor Day.


BOLDUAN: All right, Indra, fine. Fine.


BOLDUAN: Put a smiley face on it. We'll take it.

CUOMO: We are fortunate that if it's just rain in your life, it's just rain. You know, a lot of these other areas become something much more --

We're going to take a break here on NEW DAY. When we come back, breaking news this morning from Japan. Radiation levels at that damaged nuclear plant 18 times higher than previously thought. There are new questions about a possible threat to the U.S. as well. We'll tell you about it.

BOLDUAN: Plus, she's already a record breaker, but endurance swimmer, Diana Nyad is so close right now to realizing her dream. Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. A live report on her progress just ahead.

CUOMO: Look how strong her back is.


BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY, everyone. Diana Nyad could be just hours away from making history. The 69-year-old swimmer, she is swimming from Cuba to the Florida Keys. It is her fifth attempt at the 103-mile swim. Just imagine that. 103 miles. Trying to become the first person to make it from that coast to the other without a shark cage.

And this morning, she is closer than she has ever been before. CNNs John Zarrella is live in Key West live and in the flesh this time with the very latest. Good morning, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kate. Yes. We're on Smathers Beach here and this is where Diana Nyad is expected to arrive if and when she gets here later this afternoon. And you can see the water behind me here, that's not going to be a problem. Beautiful out there. In fact, you know, if you look real close, I think we can see her out there. No, I'm just kidding. She's about nine miles out.

At about 11:00 this morning, she's going to hit the reef line. From there, it's about five more miles until she gets here to Smathers Beach. But by anyone's standards, this has been a remarkable accomplishment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZARRELLA (voice-over): Seems nothing could keep Diana Nyad from returning to the open waters. At age 64, she's determined to become the first in the world to swim from Cuba to Florida. Last night, she broke the record for distance. Swimming farther than anyone without a shark cage or protection from the elements. She's been swimming for more than 45 hours now and says this fifth attempt will be her last.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a fine line between having the grace to see the things that are bigger than you are and to let your ego go. And there's another edge over that fine line where you don't want to ever, ever give up. And I'm still at that place.

ZARRELLA: Here's what she's up against. A grueling 103-mile swim, estimated to take 80 hours in shark infested waters between Havana, Cuba and key west, and then, there's this, box jelly fish. Their venom is among the deadliest in the world attacking the heart, nervous system, and skin cells. It's the jelly fish that thwarted her previous attempts. So, this time, she's using a custom-made silicone mask to protect her face and lips from jelly fish stings, but it makes it tougher to breathe.

She first attempted the treacherous swim in 1978 when she was 28 years old. Thirty-one years passed before she attempted it again, twice in 2011 and again last year. She kept up her strength eating and drinking while floating on her back. She says this is her last chance to achieve her extreme dream.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hope next time I see you it will be to celebrate instead of to say, oh, here we go, again.

ZARRELLA: That celebration may be just strokes away.


ZARRELLA (on-camera): Now, she's been swallowing some salt water, her team says, and she slowed down quite a bit in the last few hours. That what made the projection time of when she'll get here much more difficult. Her team is saying now som time between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. And if she makes it here to Smathers Beach, she will have traveled 112 miles from Cuba here to Key West -- Chris, Kate?

BOLDUAN: Just an amazing feat already. Thank you so much, John.


CUOMO: John, you need to throw on a T-shirt and get a little sunscreen working. You know, you're hanging out on the beach. You got a blazer on. Come on. I know it's CNN, but you can take it easy.

ZARRELLA: I know. I know.

BOLDUAN: This is, of course -- take away, but you're not an appropriate beach wearer.

CUOMO: Come on, man. Enjoy yourself a little bit. This is a good story you're covering, John. (LAUGHTER)

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Johnny John.

ZARRELLA: Next hour.


BOLDUAN: All right. Deal. Thank you so much.

CUOMO: Coming up on NEW DAY, the U.S. moves as aircraft carriers into the Red Sea. Syria reportedly hacks the U.S. Marine Corps website. Both sides making moves. Is this what happens ahead of a possible strike?

BOLDUAN: Also ahead, a landslide is scary enough, obviously, but this one is followed by a bolder, if you can believe it. It fell just inches from this car. Way too close for comfort for the people inside. How are they doing this morning? Fortunately, OK.