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Another Deep Freeze; Olympic Terror Threat; Al Qaeda Plot Foiled; Syria Peace Talks

Aired January 23, 2014 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: New terror threat against the Olympics. Just two weeks away now, now, there are new, serious concerns about whether the athletes and fans will really be safe. We're live with the latest.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: An al Qaeda plot to blow up a U.S. embassy. New information overnight. We're live with the latest developments.

BERMAN: And cold is a four-letter word. Millions waking up this morning under a dangerous deep freeze. The bad news? It's frigid. The worst news? It's staying.

Indra Petersons live outside in the cold, smiling still, but tracking the brutal weather.

ROMANS: And that's the good news part of the story.

BERMAN: That's right.

ROMANS: Is that Indra's on it for us.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: That's the only good news about the cold this morning. I'm John Berman. It is Thursday, January 23rd, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

ROMANS: We begin with the cold, hard truth. If you dare to crack open your window this morning, you're going to know it pretty fast, it's icy out there. The snow that made getting around treacherous from Kentucky to Maine has now given way to bone-chilling temperatures and windchills, and it has turned deadly. At least three people have now died, apparently because of the cold weather.

Indra Petersons tracking this deep freeze for us from the cold outside in New York City.

Indra, how long is this going to hang around?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: This is the one time I actually have the worst news of all, because as of right now, we're looking at system after system making its way through, each one of these a cold enough system that it's going to continue to reinforce that cold air.

So, to answer your question, as of right now, looks like all the way even in through next week, so the end of the month, we could be talking about this arctic chill out there. This is so painful. We're talking about temperatures already just in the single digits for many places in the Northeast, but we haven't even factored in the windchill yet, right? Once you factor in the windchill, we're talking about subzero temperatures into the Northeast, but check out the Upper Midwest.

There with the windchill, we're talking about a good 20 if not 30 below. So, very difficult. What are we dealing with? They're clipper systems, so they're coming out of Canada, these Alberta Clippers. Each one of these is going to kind of swing through, reinforce the cold air and continue to bring some snow.

So, today, Upper Midwest, maybe the Upper Ohio Valley, and some lake- effect snow. We're going to start seeing some of that, but here's the concern. As long as each one of these systems makes its way through, the cold air is not just spreading in that region, but it's really kind of a jet stream that's diving all the way down even into the Southeast. So, the Southeast also with temperatures ten degrees below normal.

The other thing we're talking about, the Super Bowl is here in New York City in a couple weeks. The concern is, each of these clippers has an interesting track and they're hard to follow, so for now, we're going to be monitoring whether or not we actually have another system bringing heavy snow by next week.

So, we'll be monitoring closely for you guys.

ROMANS: And I know you know at MetLife Stadium, they've already got the big tents, they've already got crews in there clearing out the snow that we have already, because we are getting closer and closer to the Super Bowl and this very cold weather.

Thanks, Indra.

BERMAN: What if there are empty seats at the Super Bowl? That would be scandalous.

All right. We're going to move on now to another big story this morning, the Olympics with new fears leaving athletes and fans on edge this morning. This coming after e-mail threats warning the U.S. and other Olympic committees of a terror attack. Meanwhile, authorities continue the desperate search for a group of so-called black widows. These are women who could be suicide bombers.

And all this is happening with the winter games now just 15 days away.

Nick Paton Walsh is in Sochi this morning with the latest.

Nick, what can you tell us about this?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that e-mail threat you talked about that went to at least four European nations, that was played down by the International Olympic Committee as being a sort of random message, they said perhaps sent by a member of the public, but it contained threatening ideas about perhaps blowing up attendees at the games here and fed into this broader concern about suicide bombers, the black widows being hunted for, you mentioned. There are posters going around the hotels with faces of people they're looking for.

It feeds into the sense of not helplessness, but deep concern ahead of these games. There is a dragnet, there is a ring of steel, hundreds of thousands of police officers here in many ways trying to stop things from happening. They may be successful around the games themselves, but across all of Russia's southern region, very volatile, that's unlikely to be completely successful, John.

BERMAN: The Russian government has faced a lot of questions over the last few days over whether it is ready for the games.

What's the latest on what they're saying, Nick?

WALSH: Well, I mean, I'm going around town here seeing on a private level commercial concerns in a hurry to get things ready. I was inside the cordon. It seemed like they were pretty close to having what they needed, but the real issue is, of course, security.

And speaking to our Christiane Amanpour, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, you know, we're in a constant struggle against terrorism here. Sometimes it's successful, sometimes it's not. They're going to do what they can. They say they hope to keep everything here as quiet as possible.

There is an enormous security separation happening here. Forgive me, there's a plane passing over here, a busy airport here, bringing in guests. But the real fear is no matter how many police officers you have here, the determination of the militant groups determine to strike on this region, or near the games, is much that many are concerned there is not necessarily a huge amount you can do security- wise to guarantee they will not have any kind of success -- John.

BERMAN: That is the big concern, isn't it?

Nick Paton Walsh for us on the ground in Sochi. This will be such a big story over the next two weeks.

Our thanks to you, Nick.

ROMANS: Now to Israel and a terror plot disrupted. Authorities stopping three men who they say planned to blow up the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem Convention Center.

Ben Wedeman live in Jerusalem with the latest for us this morning.

Ben, what can you tell us about this plot?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Christine, this plot was announced by Shin Bet, that's Israel's formidable domestic security agency, which says they arrested these three men, two in Jerusalem, one in the northern West Bank, who were recruited by a man in Gaza. And apparently, the plan was for one of those three men to travel from here to turkey and then into northern Syria where he would receive military training. In the meantime, the same men received instructions from his recruiter in Gaza on how to manufacture explosive devices. When this man returns from Syria, he was supposed to get in touch with what are described as foreign terrorists who would have entered Israel with forged Russian passports.

Now, one of the targets they were looking at was the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, as well as the International Convention Center here in Jerusalem, really not far from where I'm standing. In addition, they would have attacked an Israeli bus on the west bank.

Now, what's significant here, of course, is the whole Syrian element. But also, according to Israeli officials, the direct involvement of al Qaeda, something that really hasn't happened here until now. Now, we spoke this morning with a source at Shin Bet who told us, "I cannot tell you if he, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, spoke to him, the man in Gaza, but the way he operated was coordinated with Ayman Zawahiri."

If al Qaeda is going to start launching attacks here in Israel, of course, they will be facing some formidable security agencies with a long track record of cracking up cells like this -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yes, and the Syria angle is interesting there, too.

All right. Ben Wedeman live for us this morning. Thank you, Ben.

BERMAN: All right, breaking news overnight. We are now hearing a new audio message purportedly from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. You just heard Ben Wedeman speaking about him.

Zawahiri, he is calling for an end to the infighting between rebel groups in Syria, saying all sides need to unite against Bashar al Assad. This as the Assad regime and the opposition are in Switzerland for a conference aimed at ending the war. They're set to spend time independently with the U.N. mediator today, this after a really rocky start to the talks.

Secretary of State John Kerry insisting peace is not possible if Syria's president remains in power, and that's not sitting well with the Syrians.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no one who has done more to make Syria a magnet for terrorists than Bashar al Assad.

BASHAR JAAFARI, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: The statements and the speeches of most of those who took the floor today did not encourage the national political dialogue.


BERMAN: Formal face-to-face talks are tentatively scheduled to begin tomorrow, but the big news today, overnight, this new audio message from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, and that's significant because it may play into Bashar al Assad's scheme. He says he's fighting against al Qaeda elements in Syria. This may bolster his arguments.

ROMANS: Really interesting stuff there.

All right. In Ukraine this morning, there is a tense standoff between the protesters and the government a day after at least three people were killed in explosive clashes. Those protesters are demanding the president call early elections by the end of today. They're promising they will take action if their demands are not met. Both sides have been talking -- they've been talking with hopes there could be a peaceful solution to this tense, tense conflict there.

BERMAN: New this morning, new condemnation of the NSA's phone surveillance program. An independent federal privacy watchdog in a new report set to be released today says the spy program is illegal and should be shut down. The report was obtained by "The New York Times," and the panel says the collection of the bulk telephone data raises, quote, "serious threats to privacy and civil liberties."

ROMANS: Meanwhile, the man who brought the NSA's program to light, Edward Snowden, he's going to go public today, answering questions from anyone in a virtual town hall, or at least any question he chooses to answer. Your query can be submitted via Twitter with #asksnowden. And his responses will be posted on the Web site

BERMAN: #provocative.

All right. This morning, Congress has been put on notice, the debt ceiling is about to be hit again. Are you ready for this?


BERMAN: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate saying the government will exhaust its ability to borrow by late February. Those are the extraordinary measures, right? This means they will have to work together, he says, to raise the debt ceiling or risk default.

There is hope in some circles that the bipartisan budget deal reached earlier this month might be a sign that both sides want common ground to avoid a fiscal crisis, but --

ROMANS: Avoiding a fiscal crisis is a good idea.

BERMAN: You think?

ROMANS: In general. Yes, I'm bullish on avoiding fiscal crises.

A look at the markets this morning, this Thursday morning. Dow futures down a little bit following a slide on the Dow yesterday. In Europe, markets are generally higher. And in Japan, the Nikkei fell just a tiny bit there. A long talked-about deal with s a reality this morning. China's Lenovo will buy IBM's low-end server business for $2.3 billion. Also, the stock of Netflix is up 16 percent after hours. It reported a big jump in new subscribers, its best quarterly performance in three years.

People like the stuff that Netflix has to offer. EBay's stock up 8 percent after it said it had stronger profits, also boosting the stock, shareholder Carl Icahn's call for eBay to convert PayPal into a separate company, split it up, right? EBay says it's not interested in doing that right now, but when you have a billionaire with a big stake in the company who tells you what to do -- actually, Carl Icahn, but anyway, people tend to listen.

BERMAN: That's all right. He can afford the consonant. If he wants to buy an "L," he can buy lots of them.

ROMANS: I know.

BERMAN: From one billionaire to a guy, think maybe a billionaire in times to come. We have a story now of a very enterprising college student who's spending today and the next two months trying to pay off his student loans in a pretty unique way.

Alex Benda (ph) owes about $30,000 for his education at University of Michigan in Flint. So, he started selling ad space on his graduation cap, the mortar board. Each 1-inch square will cost $300.


ALEX BENDA, COLLEGE STUDENT: To pay that type of debt at the interest rate that I have to pay, I'm going to be doing this for a lot longer than I ever went to school. And so, I was just hoping that maybe this might be a way to just see if anyone can help me out there.


BERMAN: I love this idea. If you can't afford the ad space, he does have some lower-cost options, like $1 for a high five or $10 for a handwritten thank-you letter.

So far, he says he's raised 1,550 bucks, so it's working to some extent.

ROMANS: Can we get an EARLY START sticker on the top left corner?

BERMAN: We actually don't have the budget for that. We can get a high five. We can't afford the 300 bucks for the mortar board though.

All right. Twelve minutes after the hour.

And coming up for us, new developments for us this morning into the investigation into New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Who the FBI is asking questions of now?

ROMANS: And their water was contaminated, deemed unsafe for days. Now, there's a new concern for hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia.

That's next.


BERMAN: Breaking overnight, a Mexican national on death row in Texas has been executed. Forty-six-year-old Edgar Tamayo received a lethal execution for murdering a police officer back in 1994. This execution went forward despite pleas and diplomatic pressure from Mexico's government and U.S. State Department. The Supreme Court rejected a final appeal.

The issue was whether he had consular consultation with Mexican authorities when initially charged.

ROMANS: This morning, we're learning about a new twist into the investigation of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. NBC News is reporting FBI agents have begun to question Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and some of her key aides. She has said members of the Christie administration pressured her to support a development project in exchange for hurricane Sandy relief money. The U.S. attorney's office has now told Zimmer to stop giving interviews about her claims as they investigate. Christie's office strongly denies those allegations.

BERMAN: Virginia's former governor will have to appear in court tomorrow now that a judge has refused to delay Bob McDonnell's initial appearance on charges that he and his wife illegally accepted gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman. The pair is set to be arraigned in Richmond on Friday. This is all coming as a former Democratic governor is defending the Republican, former Governor Bob McDonnell.

Senator Mark Warner is saying McDonnell and his wife deserve a presumption of innocence, even though he says there needs to be changes in the rules over accepting gifts.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: We need to have the kind of reform that doesn't leave these kind of gray areas about what kind of gifts can be given and the appropriate level of disclosure.


BERMAN: Just to review what some of the gifts were. We're talking about clothes, shopping sprees, a Rolex watch.

ROMANS: Louis Vuitton shoes.

BERMAN: Shoes, you know, golf outings for the kids of the governor. So, there's a lot going on here. The former governor, Bob McDonnell, is pledging to fight the charges against him, calling it an unjust overreach.

ROMANS: What it a poor judgment or quid pro quo?

BERMAN: They are. And one thing is crystal clear, though, the laws in Virginia incredibly lax on this.

ROMANS: All right. This morning, she says she's still in shock. Nicole Oulson saw her husband killed in a Florida movie theater, shot right there with her, apparently for texting during the previews. Oulson herself was hit in the arm. She wore a pink cast as she spoke with reporters about what happened.


NICOLE OULSON, HUSBAND WAS KILLED IN MOVIE THEATER SHOOTING: Me and my husband didn't get a date night very often, much less a whole day to spend together. So I was just so excited and looking forward to spending the day with the love of my life at a place of entertainment, you know, family entertainment. And just to think that in the blink of an eye, my whole world just got shattered into a million pieces, and now, I'm left trying to pick them up and put them all back together. And it's so hard and it's so unbearable.


ROMANS: Can't imagine how unbearable it is.

BERMAN: Just heartbreaking.

ROMANS: She says their little daughter doesn't understand what happened to her father.

BERMAN: I don't understand.

ROMANS: I don't even know how you would begin to explain it to a child. The suspect in the shooting, 71-year-old Curtis Reeves, there he is, still in jail being held without bond. He's a retired police officer and he told police after the shooting that he was afraid of being attacked.

BERMAN: Eighteen minutes after the hour right now.

An 88-year-old Nevada man who says he killed his wife to end her suffering, he is now facing murder charges. William Dresser told police his wife was paralyzed in a fall two weeks ago. He says he entered her hospital room with a loaded gun, intended to kill her and then himself. She died three days after the shooting. This couple was reportedly married for 63 years.

ROMANS: Classes resume today at Purdue University in Indiana, two days after a student was shot dead in the electrical engineering building and just hours after a new scare on the Purdue campus. There were reports of gunfire Wednesday night at a student apartment complex. Those turned out to be unfounded.

BERMAN: New developments in the chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginia residents without water earlier this month. The company responsible for the spill now says it involved two chemicals, not just one. The second chemical, which made up just a small part of the 7,500-gallon leak, is apparently less toxic than the first. Still, residents and officials are outraged that they weren't told sooner that there were two.

ROMANS: This morning, fire crews in Mississippi are battling a huge blaze at a biodiesel plant not far from Tupelo. The fire burning so hot, firefighters can't get close enough to it to put it out. Several homes nearby have been evacuated.

But, you know, amazingly, no one has been hurt. You look at those pictures. No one has been hurt. Officials say chemical tanks at the facility are secure. That plant converts chicken fat to alternative fuel.



BERMAN: All right. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, he's on defensive this morning. He is refusing to apologize for his latest outburst that was caught on camera. This is the video here. It shows the mayor, what he's doing is he was speaking with a Jamaican accent, seemingly babbling inside a restaurant.

Ford has already admitted he was drinking in this incident. And this is despite declaring himself sober last year. Now, he's telling reporters that what he does on his own time is his own business.


ROB FORD, TORONTO MAYOR: I'm entitled to a personal life. And my personal life does not interfere with the work I do day in and day out for the taxpayers of this great city. Monday was unfortunate. I had a minor setback.


BERMAN: So when reporters tried to ask him about the video and whether he was now taking drugs again, he walked away from the podium. Ford already had most of his power stripped. He insists he is working to improve his health and wellbeing. Again, he said he had been sober for a while.

ROMANS: He has a hard-core set of supporters, though, in Toronto, right? I mean, sort of the regular Joe. He really goes for the sort of regular Joe image. And some of his supporters are really sticking by him.

BERMAN: And he says that he wants to keep his private life private, but he's also said publicly that he stopped drinking. So, there is a bit of a conflict there.

ROMANS: When you're a public figure, it's hard to keep a private life private when you in public are behaving like this.

BERMAN: Good point.

ROMANS: All right, coming up -- BERMAN: The Yankees making a big move for a new pitcher, a big-money big move -- $155 million on the line for a guy who's never thrown a pitch in the big leagues in the U.S.

Andy Scholes breaks down this deal, right after the break.


BERMAN: As far as I'm concerned, the New York Yankees know one way to win, and one way only, and that's to spend money, a lot of it, and they are doing it big time right now. They just signed perhaps the most sensational free agent on the market, Masahiro Tanaka, a Japanese pitcher, never pitched in the big leagues, a monster deal.

Andy Scholes joins us to explain the whole thing to us.

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: Yes. God morning, guys. This is why they call them the evil empire. The Yankees -- they outbid everyone once again and signed Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal.

That's the richest contract ever for an international free agent. Everyone in baseball wanted Tanaka, even though, as you said, John, he's never thrown a pitch in the U.S. Well, it's because he's pretty awesome in Japan.

The 25-year-old is perfect, 24-0 last season in the Japan professional league. Now, with Tanaka in the fold, the Yankees have now spent nearly a half of a billion on free agents just this offseason.

All right. This morning's edition of "USA Today" has a preview of Team USA's opening ceremony uniforms. Unlike the 2012 Summer Olympic unis, which received plenty of criticism for being made in China, these are made solely in the USA by Ralph Lauren and other vendors.

Now, the sweater looks pretty awesome. You can see it right there, the American flag with stars and stripes all over it. But if you want one of these bad boys, it's not cheap. Retails for $598. You can get the reindeer hat, though, for 98 bucks.

All right, one of the top stories in the lineup section on today, an Oakland Raiders cheerleader is suing the team, accusing them of wage theft. The suit claims when the season was all said and done, the cheerleaders ended up making less than $5 an hour. It also claims the Raiderettes incurred other costs, such as being fined for bringing the wrong pom-poms or not bringing a yoga mat to practice.

Now, depending on team you cheer for, cheerleaders generally make between $75 and $100 per game. The Raiders declined to comment on the lawsuit.

All right. There was one positive to the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. It gave the MetLife personnel a dress rehearsal to see how long it would take to get the venue Super Bowl ready. Now, they had 1,300 workers removing the 13 inches of snow that fell in and around the stadium. Now, the crews started removing it at about 8:00 a.m., and they had sections of the stadium and most of the tarp covered, field cleared by noon. So, not bad.

ROMANS: You know, Andy, I've been watching sort of the metamorphosis over there. They have these big -- I mean, they have these big tents that are going up, they're getting super bowl ready, they really are. It's going to be cool.

SCHOLES: Out there in the swamps, right?

BERMAN: Out there in the swamps, Andy.

But they have their fingers crossed, Andy. This cold and snow could be a serious problem for that big game.

SCHOLES: Yes, fans going to the game are actually going to get sort of a winter weather survival kit. You get mittens, a beanie, some lip balm, even one of those --

ROMANS: A flask. Sorry, did I say that out loud?

BERMAN: I'll take the lip balm. You'll take the flask.

All right. Andy, thank you so much.

SCHOLES : Have a good one.

BERMAN: All right. For us, coming up next, the top headlines, everything you need to know for your day, including the latest on this incredible frigid temperatures hitting millions of people this morning.

We'll be right back.