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EARLY START

Another Close Call in the Skies; Anger Grows at V.A. Secretary; Kidnapping Suspect Denies Charges

Aired May 23, 2014 - 04:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: It has happened again! Two huge passenger jets barely miss each other, this time over Houston, after air traffic controllers sent one right into the path of the other jet. Why does this keep happening?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: He's promising to regain the trust of veterans, but this morning there are new calls for the V.A. secretary to resign with even Democrats now furious at the delays that may have cost lives. So, how long can Eric Shinseki hold on? And how long before the V.A. problems are fixed?

ROMANS: Shocking, new developments in a California kidnapping case. The suspect's lawyer says the victim went along willingly and only went to police now because she wants a divorce. A really troubling story that has victims' rights advocates very, very upset.

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

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It's Friday, May 23rd, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

And breaking overnight, word of another frightening near collision at one of the nation's busiest airports. The FAA is now investigating how two United Airlines jets came within a few hundred feet of each other -- that is very close -- after both took off from Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport.

This happened two weeks ago. An air traffic controller told one plane to turn right, directly into the path of the other. They were about 0.9 miles apart and seconds away from colliding when the controller realized the error and told the planes to turn again, avoiding disaster. This is the fourth near collision we've learned about just this week.

ROMANS: All right, embattled V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki is fighting to keep his job, vowing to fix delays in care that may be costing veterans their lives. It would be an uphill battle for the beleaguered ex-general because now some high-profile Democrats are demanding he step down.

Here's chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine and John, V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki was summoned to a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon, not to meet with a Republican, but a frustrated Democrat.

And afterwards, Shinseki told reporters that he has not offered the president his resignation. He said, "You guys know me better than that." But his remaining support is tenuous.

Do you still think that he should be at the helm?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I have not called for General Shinseki to resign, although I have to admit, I'm getting a little bit closer.

The reports that continue to come are appalling. These are men and women who served our country, and -- we've not just let them down, we've let them die!

BASH: Congress is stepping up its investigation of the V.A., but three V.A. officials scheduled to attend a House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting yesterday morning didn't show up. And later in the afternoon, the V.A. general counsel scrapped a meeting with the committee chairman, Jeff Miller, after Miller demanded it be open to the press.

REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: We waited all day long. We called nine times for them to tell us whether or not they were going to come, and he never came.

BASH: All of this while the president's point person on V.A. troubles, Rob Nabors, traveled to phoenix, the V.A. office where problems first surfaced, to interview the interim director, even as congressional investigators warn the problems know about now may just be the tip of the iceberg -- Christine and John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: Thanks so much, Dana Bash.

Five percent contained, not what you want to hear when a wildfire is closing in on your home. That is the situation this morning near Sedona in Arizona. Over 7,000 acres have already burned and hundreds of homes and businesses are in harm's way.

Let's get the latest from Ana Cabrera.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John and Christine, it's the extremely dry conditions that have firefighters really concerned. It's these pine needles, these dry pine needles that are blanketing the forest floor, providing a kindling of sorts for this fire that's now burning thousands of acres.

You can see that huge plume of smoke that's been blowing to the north. The winds have been a huge X-factor for firefighters as they work to try to contain this fire that's burning in very steep, rugged and treacherous terrain. So, firefighters have been relying a lot on the air support in some of those areas, dropping fire retardant to protect the homes that are on the northeast flank.

Still, 300 homes that are threatened right now. There are hundreds of fire crews that have arrived from six different states to help in this fire battle. At least 20 hot shot crews that are also joining in this firefight. Right now it's a race to keep this fire away from the homes as it continues to spread with Mother Nature not lending any reprieve so far -- John, Christine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Wow.

All right. Another day of dangerous weather on tap for much of the country, severe thunderstorms and the threat of flash flooding facing millions of people, from Wyoming to Texas and all the way east to Oklahoma. Lightning and the possibility of wildfires also expected to be a problem in many of those drought-stricken states.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

BERMAN: That is crazy! Look at that!

ROMANS: Call your insurance adjuster.

BERMAN: Call your insurance adjuster -- indeed! Going to be a lot of dented cars there, a lot of insurance claims in central and eastern Pennsylvania.

Now, this is tennis ball-sized hail, as opposed to golf ball or baseball. I think the writers put that in just for me. Tennis ball- sized hail shattering car windshields, breaking windows in buildings all over the town of Reading. Emergency management officials tell us there's a lot more damage.

I can joke about this because, luckily, no serious injuries.

ROMANS: Virginia battered Thursday by hail, high winds, driving rains, tornado warnings late in the day sending people scrambling to find shelter in Richmond. A lot of damage reported throughout the state, with trees down, streets and highways flooded and more than 20,000 homes without power.

BERMAN: Severe damage being reported in Upstate New York. Thunderstorms packing ferocious winds and hail ripping through Albany, Schenectady and Montgomery Counties. Look at that. Many homes in the region just devastated with trees and power lines down just all over the place.

ROMANS: It was devastation in Kent County, Delaware. Look at this home flattened by a possible tornado. Several structure collapses are being reported in the area. Roads closed, power's out in about 4,000 homes. The good news is, no serious injuries reported. BERMAN: Wow, just a lot going on overnight into the morning. Let's get a look at the forecast.

Chad Myers has that for us.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: John and Christine, good morning. Had an ugly afternoon yesterday, although it's better today in the Northeast. We have high pressure pushing some of that moisture away, pushing the humidity away, the heat away, and the potential for storms away, too.

Ninety in Atlanta, 96 if you get all the way down south in south Texas, down around Brownsville, 88 in New Orleans, 89 in Tampa and 91 down in Miami.

For tomorrow, things look wet again across parts of the plains. This is your Saturday afternoon in the heat of the day. That's why the showers pop up here. There won't be as many showers in the morning. Then, 72 for New York, 76 for D.C., and 86 in Atlanta.

For your Memorial Day weekend, not too bad. We go to 72, 76 and 82 for New York City. Now, believe it or not, Chicago's actually going to be warmer, and even San Antonio 87, 85, 86, and Orlando pleasant there, a couple of showers in the afternoon, as always.

D.C., a few miles farther south than New York but significantly warmer, five degrees warmer every single day. St. Louis all the way to 88 for your Monday and pretty decent beach weather down across parts of the Southeast.

Atlanta, you'll see a shower or two on Monday. That's it.

John, Christine, back to you. Have a great day.

ROMANS: All right, you know, and chad, we need it. We need it. It was such a brutal winter in Chicago. Chicago is going to have a beautiful weekend. Up here, terrible, Southeast, terrible.

BERMAN: We deserve it. We're entitled.

ROMANS: I'm going to enjoy it. Oh, wait, I'm working on Monday.

BERMAN: That's right.

ROMANS: All right. Happening today: President Obama set to officially nominate two new members of the cabinet. The current Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan would take over as director of the Office of Management and Budget, replacing Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who's on track to become the next secretary of health and human services.

And San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro would replace Donovan at HUD. The announcement is set for this afternoon at the White House.

BERMAN: As the White House prepares to release a key memo justifying its killing of U.S. citizens overseas, there is word this morning that some in the Pentagon want permission to speak more publicly about the U.S. drone program.

"The Wall Street Journal" says some top defense officials plan to present Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with a proposal that would let them publicly defend drone strikes. The administration in the past has kept most of these details secret for fear of giving too much information to potential targets.

ROMANS: What if terrorists tried to take over a U.S. nuclear missile silo? Turns out, armed security forces of the 341st missile wing in Montana were put through a drill last summer simulating exactly that kind of attack.

As Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr tells us, it didn't go well.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, Christine, it was last summer at an Air Force nuclear base in Montana when a security group, a small team of Air Force security experts failed an inspection. It was an exercise, training about what to do if terrorists took over a nuclear missile silo and tried to get to a nuclear weapon on the base. They failed that exercise.

Now, a report has emerged about exactly what happened. I want to read you a couple of examples of what they are talking about. The report says that the personnel, quote, "failed to take all lawful actions necessary to immediately regain control of nuclear weapons."

And as a result of that, the test found that the Air Force team may not have been able to, quote, "prevent theft, damage, sabotage, destruction or even detonation of a nuclear weapon." Now, the team went through retraining and they did pass, but this comes at a time when the nuclear force has been plagued by some disciplinary problems, morale problems.

Look, the majority of the personnel do perform their jobs very well, but they do have these problems. This is a very high-pressure environment. The nuclear force has to be perfect. That's what the Air Force says.

It's not an environment where they can tolerate any mistakes -- John, Christine.

ROMANS: Wow, that's something.

BERMAN: Yes. Our thanks to Barbara for that.

No room for errors, no room for any wiggle room when we're dealing with nuclear weapons there.

ROMANS: Right.

BERMAN: Ten minutes after the hour.

More layoffs at computer giant Hewlett-Packard. The firm announcing plans to cut 11,000 to 16,000 jobs. ROMANS: Ouch! >

BERMAN: That's in addition to the 34,000 layoffs already in the works. HP says cuts would be across the board and save an additional $1 billion per year. The company's had difficulty as consumers shift away from PCs to mobile devices.

Christine, I thought I read they were having a better time under new leadership.

ROMANS: Well, I mean, I'll tell you, one of the reasons you have a better time is because you restructure and you cut a lot of jobs and you change your strategy, and that's all part of that, cutting jobs. Sometimes what's good for a company is not good for the employees.

BERMAN: I guess it's a matter of perspective.

ROMANS: Absolutely.

More perspective, McDonald's -- McDonald's' CEO responding to two days of protests over low worker pay at the company's annual meeting in Illinois. On Wednesday, police arrested more than 100 people! State police with riot gear in Oak Brook, Illinois, as the protesters forced McDonald's to close one of the headquarters buildings.

The CEO Don Thompson telling shareholders, "We respect the fact they want to challenge us relative to wages. We pay fair and competitive wages and provide job opportunities and training for those entering the workforce."

You know, the average pay of somebody in the fast-food industry is about $9.09 an hour, that's well below the $10.10 the president wants. But what those workers want, they want $15 an hour. They want $15 an hour, and a lot of people think these are young workers, you know -- you hear a lot that these are young workers, these are stepping stone jobs. The average age of the worker is 29, and a third of them, a third of them have some college.

So, it's not the fast-food worker job that we grew up with. It's a different kind of environment. We're going to hear more on McDonald's coming up tomorrow on "YOUR MONEY." That's 2:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Time for an EARLY START on your money.

Stocks in Europe lower this morning. S&P futures, they're flat just one day after the index flirted with another record high.

G.M. is the big money story again today. The CEO, Mary Barra, having private meetings on Capitol Hill with lawmakers. Here's what she has said publicly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARY BARRA, GENERAL MOTORS CEO: We've moved from a cost culture after the bankruptcy to a customer culture. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Behind closed doors, she's been promising lawmakers constant communication, saying they'd receive a copy of G.M.'s internal investigation in early July. She says she will testify at future hearings. Barra became CEO just one month before the first massive recall was announced, and so far, you know, a lot of observers say she has done everything right.

She's appointed an internal investigation. She has put in a safety czar. Recalls may continue through the summer. According to Barclays, G.M. hired 30 investigators to comb through data and find possible issues. That means maybe even more recalls.

BERMAN: Right.

ROMANS: You're going to see even more. Another really interesting twist to that G.M. story, they're having trouble finding the parts. Very few vehicles have actually been fixed yet because they have a big -- you know, they have a rush of people who are going to need parts. Some cases, they don't have the parts.

BERMAN: You don't build your business plan around the idea of recalling tens of millions of vehicles.

ROMANS: Absolutely, absolutely.

BERMAN: All right. So, if you ever doubted that we live in a very connected world, take a look at this. That is the earth covered with dots to represent 50,000 images sent in as part of NASA's global selfie campaign. People in 113 countries took part, posting images to social media of themselves and their pets, because that's important to NASA.

NASA says the goal of this was to get a better look at the people on planet Earth, and apparently, their pets, and to mark last month's Earth Day.

ROMANS: Pets are people, too, Berman.

BERMAN: Pets are people, too. Send us pictures of your pets here at EARLY START.

We love seeing furry animals in the morning.

ROMANS: He loves cats, I love dogs.

BERMAN: I hate cats. No, I don't hate cats, that's going to cause -- no. I just think -- I don't know what cats do, but that's a whole other issue.

ROMANS: Berman editorializing on the feline species.

All right, before you go shopping for the Memorial Day cookout, listen up. New warnings about dangerous contamination in your food! Details next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: All right, this morning, new worries over food that could make you sick. The CDC is investigating an outbreak of E. coli linked to raw clover sprouts. Some 10 people in Idaho and Washington state are believed to have come down with E. coli infections after eating these sprouts. They're linked to an Idaho producer, evergreen fresh sprouts, and there are listeria contamination worries connected with walnuts sold by Sherman produce in Missouri and Illinois, and some hummus and dip sold nationwide at Trader Joe's and Target stores.

No illnesses have been reported from those products, but all have been recalled.

BERMAN: Yes, this Memorial Day picnic's getting smaller and smaller. You know, burgers and hummus and sprouts.

ROMANS: In some cases, these are things that you think are healthy, you know? That's the thing about sprouts in general, you think it's healthy, but when something is raw, there's a higher chance of --

BERMAN: That's why I eat only pop-tarts.

All right, a bizarre twist in the case of a California woman found alive ten years after she was allegedly kidnapped and held captive by her mother's live-in boyfriend. The victim was 15 years old when she says she was drugged and abducted, then systematically beaten, raped and kept locked in a garage to keep her from escaping. The suspect, 41-year-old Isidro Garcia, allegedly forced her to marry him and fathered a child with her.

Now, his lawyers insist that Garcia never hit the victim, never prevented her from leaving, and the claims of abuse are being made up -- those are his words -- because the couple is splitting up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES FRISCO, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Any couple that's going through divorce has problems. Every couple going through a divorce may say things, and oftentimes say things that simply aren't true because they want to get the goat of the other spouse. It appears that's probably what happened in this case.

FARRAH EMAMI, DISTRIC ATTORNEY SPOKESWOMAN: This is a victim who was kidnapped at 15 years old and convinced that she had no one to turn to. She was told her family wasn't looking for her. She was told that he was her only ally. And so, over the course of many, many years, maybe her freedoms did increase, but she was still mentally his captive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: There's the rub. I mean, if she was taken at 15, there's no possible legal justification for what happened there. It's below the age of consent, so no matter what happened, laws were broken. The victim tells a Los Angeles TV station she feels blessed to be back in the arms of her family.

ROMANS: Wow.

All right, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban apologizing for some of what he said in an interview revealing his own prejudices in light of the Donald Sterling scandal. After Cuban said if he sees a black kid in a hoodie late at night, he'll cross to the other side of the street. He took to Twitter to say he regretted using those words.

"In hindsight, I should have used different examples. I didn't consider the Trayvon Martin family and I apologize to them for that."

BERMAN: He also said if he saw a white guy tatted up, he'll cross the street.

ROMANS: Yes, with shaved head, and all tatted up, he'd cross the street, too.

He was trying to say -- he was trying to say that everybody -- you know, you can't pretend you don't have conceptions, misconceptions about people and that he has really struggled with that and tries to teach his children about that, but that's not what everyone's talking about. They're talking about his very bold examples.

BERMAN: And it was in the context of a two-minute example about we need to talk about race and do more to understand our prejudices. So, the context there very, very important, even if the words, that one sentence, may be very insensitive.

All right. Coming up for us, Pope Francis preparing for an historic trip to the Holy Land, already making waves with some of his plans. We are live after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: This morning, Pope Francis is packing his bags. He's getting ready to head west toward the Holy Land. The leader of the world's Catholics is set to embark on a historic visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. He's already shocking some with his choices, bringing with him an imam and a rabbi.

Ivan Watson is live in Bethlehem with more on this trip.

And, Ivan, tell me about the preparations and also the controversy.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, there's a lot of excitement here. You can feel it. I'm in Bethlehem in manger square, just next to the church of, you know, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born, and there are posters up of St. Francis already all over here. We've seen Italian security on the ground getting ready for this visit.

He's going to helicopter in from Jordan to here. Later, he'll move on to Tel Aviv to meet with the Israeli leadership, and then, of course, on to the Holy City, Jerusalem, performing mass here in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem. Again, a lot of excitement here. He's traveling with a rabbi from his home country of Argentina as well as a Muslim cleric, clearly in a sign calling for peace and all of the faiths, the main faiths to come together here. There are a couple of messages he's bringing, trying to bring some hope to the long- simmering Israeli/Palestinian conflict, John.

There's another dimension to this. He is going to be meeting with the most senior cleric in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew. We haven't had a meeting between a Roman Catholic pope and one of these Orthodox patriarchs in 60 years, so that's a big part of this.

I've met with the pope's rabbi friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and he tells me that this pope is a revolutionary, he's a friend of the Jews, and he's also a man of peace. You mentioned some of the controversy. Of course, everybody's looking very closely at his itinerary.

There is a conflict here. There is immense polarization in this region, so people want to make sure that he spends more time with different groups. For instance, I've seen some criticism that he's only scheduled to spend 25 minutes in a Palestinian refugee camp. Some other criticism, that Israeli security is likely to keep many of the Christian faithful away as he moves through the old city of Jerusalem and to mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Of course, Christians in Jerusalem would like to get very close to the pope. This is a man believed to be of the people, highly charismatic, who's known to like to mingle with the faithful, but because of security reasons, that may be harder than perhaps he or some of the faithful would like.

But all in all, it's expected to be a very historic visit to Israel and Palestine.

BERMAN: Well, it's a beautiful location you're standing in right there, Ivan. It promises to be an historic trip. If for no other reason, this pope is a very deft man in the art of symbolism. So we'll be watching these next three days very, very closely.

Our Ivan Watson in Bethlehem -- thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right. Just seconds from disasters, again. Another close call, a near collision over a major airport, hundreds of lives put in danger. The very latest, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)