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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Judge Puts Injunction on Pardons Issued by Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour; Afghan Government Condemns Marine Video; Mitt Romney Painted as Vulture Capitalist; People Speak about GOP Candidates; Judge Halts Mississippi Pardons After Uproar; French Journalist Killed In Syria; Mission To Nome; The Internet, Like Crack; South Carolina: Game On; Romney Rips Obama

Aired January 12, 2012 - 06:59   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. We're back in New York, but we are doing our diner tour, and this, morning we are at the Tick Talk Diner.

We did a tour at diners in Iowa, went through New Hampshire, as well. And we actually enjoy the experience so much because we get a chance to talk to folks around, basically, a table full of food, what's not to love? So, we're at the Tick Talk Diner. It's a place where folks who are in midtown which is where we are but also tourists come, as well.

So, it's a nice opportunity to chat with commuters and folks who are out of towners and folks who are in towners. So, a little bit later this morning, we'll talk to some of the people here who are here already at the Tick Talk Diner. We're going to talk politics with them in a state where they don't have a primary looming around the corner.

Our starting point, however, this morning is this story we were telling you about yesterday. What's happening in Mississippi? Now, a judge has stopped the release of prisoners who were pardoned by the Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, who was going out the door.

The problem is, many of them are already out, including four murderers. And now, there's a possibility that Barbour did not follow his own constitution. We'll discuss what happened there with Jeff Toobin straight ahead.

Plus, you guys talking about the video that seems to show U.S. marines who are urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. New this morning, the coalition is responding. We'll take you live to Afghanistan.

Also, no holds barred in South Carolina, the candidates unleashing brutal attacks trying to stop Mitt Romney from steam rolling straight to the nomination. Can it work? It's Newt Gingrich who said, I'm not going to go negative. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is going to be Armageddon. They will come in here with everything they've got, every surrogate, every ad, every negative attack.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Wait, wait, what happened to the I'm not going to go negative? That's ridiculous. I will not go negative -- until now when I go negative. We'll talk about that.

Plus, the story of a Florida Gator quarterback who is not named Tim Tebow that everybody loves. STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome back, everybody here inside the Tick Talk diner in New York, which is in the lower part of midtown. The delicacy here is this dish. Let me move my coffee out of the way. This is a diner delicacy everywhere. A giant waffle covered in fruit and then smothered in whipped cream. Again, I have been snarfing down food from diners over the last now nine days, and it's been pretty good.

Welcome everybody. We have a lot to talk about, our main story, which is this judge blocking those Mississippi pardons. We told you yesterday about Haley Barbour, and now there's new information that has had a judge say that he's able to block those pardons. That means that some of the people that are about to be pardoned will not be pardoned and it also means the several or many that have been pardoned now will report back. The attorney general in Mississippi says he feels Haley Barbour is showing absolutely no regard for the law.

Lots to dig into this morning with Jeff Toobin, who is around the table with us this morning, our senior legal analyst. Also out panelists join, as well. Nicky Ward from Vanity Fair, a contributor, and Sima Iron, an attorney, as well, and Will Cain is back, too far for me to reach him.

Let's start with what happened. The attorney general has now been able to intervene, and that's because, really, of the constitution.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. You know, it's very weird. I certainly never heard of a provision like this before. But Mississippi's constitution says the governor has the right to pardon, and that's true of the president and true of all 50 governors. But there is their weird provision. The pardon can only go into effect if the person applying for the pardon has published in a local newspaper 30 or more days before the pardon goes into effect a notice that he's seeking a pardon. Well, the attorney general went into court and said we don't know whether this notice provision, whether these advertisements have actually been published.

O'BRIEN: So injunction.

TOOBIN: So, the judge said I'm going to put all these pardons on hold until January 23rd when we will find out, when we will survey and see whether these notices were published. Some of them were, apparently, but some were not.

O'BRIEN: One thing we were talking about with Haley Barbour was sort of like the why behind it. Here's the statement that he released, and I want to read it to you. He said "Approximately 90 percent of these individuals," the people released, "were no longer in custody. The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or require professional licenses as well as hunt and vote."

I thought, well, that's the non-answer answer. We're only talking about the 10 percent that killed people.

TOOBIN: Look at all the banks I didn't rob. And, no, the key, the focus of the outreach are these convicted murderers who worked in the governor's mansion.

O'BRIEN: Four of them killed wives and girlfriends in brutal, brutal ways.

TOOBIN: Terrible. This one woman was holding her baby and she was shot --

O'BRIEN: We talked to her sister yesterday.

TOOBIN: Those people were not recommended for pardons, they were looking for many, many more years in prison. But under this weird tradition that they have in Mississippi of having convicted murderers work at the governor's mansion, Barbour got to know them, trust them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know him, Jeff?

TOOBIN: The murderer?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, Haley Barbour?

TOOBIN: I mean, he's certainly, you know, one of the great wheeler-dealers.

O'BRIEN: Actually, let me play a little chunk of that. This is Jim Hood, the attorney general, who was furious, and I think the reference was to say, you're making us look like a back water. You're going to release these people. Very few people standing up and saying, yes, this is brilliant. Release murderers and make sure they can have guns later for the people who are afraid of them returning. Let me play a little bit of what he said yesterday with Anderson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM HOOD, MISSISSIPPI ATTORNEY GENERAL: Former Governor Barbour, I mean, he kind of ran the state and the government's office like Boss Hog. I mean, he didn't follow the law. This is a very simple constitutional provision and Governor Barbour didn't follow it. It was very clear he had to have this information, he didn't obtain it before he signed these pardons. And that has caused public safety issue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So, the injunction is in place.

TOOBIN: Does it make me a bad person that I don't know who Boss Hog is?

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Boss Hog was the big bad sheriff in "Starsky and Hutch."

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: "Dukes of Hazard."

O'BRIEN: Same genre.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: OK, in any case, here's my question. You can put this injunction in. But, bottom line, for those who have been released, they have to report back --

TOOBIN: Every day to the authorities once a day.

O'BRIEN: So what happens in the end? Is this injunction a way of slowing down, stop it.

TOOBIN: They have to see whether the advertisements were published in the papers.

O'BRIEN: If they were right?

TOOBIN: Then I think they go back to prison.

O'BRIEN: If the governor wanted to pardon them, doesn't this allow them to go back to prison and then they publish it for 30 days.

TOOBIN: No, it's a new governor now. The new governor is not going to do this. Given the reaction, the new governor is not going to reissue these pardons. I think it all comes down to where these ads ran. If they didn't run you can be sure these guys are being locked up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think they were all in prison. Some of them, you have to look at this. Yes, they committed brutal acts, I agree. But it didn't just happen yesterday. They have been out and rehabilitated, treatment, halfway houses.

TOOBIN: But not the murders, they were not out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They were not out. And, what's more, one guy had been dinged for parole like two weeks before. The family members told us yesterday that they were notified. He will not get parole. And then the next notification he got, I believe the next day, was, well, actually, he has been pardoned and then he was released.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can we just come out, what is this working in the mansion thing? It's the ad release program.

TOOBIN: This is interesting. Last night on "AC 360" Anderson was saying when he was a kid --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He had been there.

TOOBIN: His father is from Mississippi and he wrote a book and they got invited to stay at the governor's mansion. When Anderson was a little kid, they were meeting and fixing and cutting the grass, they're all convicted murders. This is how it's done.

CAIN: No matter what we read in "New York Times" and what we talk here, the general tone of this whole story is outrage. So I'm just curious, is there a defense for what Haley Barbour has done here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For the 90 percent, yes. That's his release said. The 90 percent, it's no problem. But the problem with that is that 10 percent are killers who now, with a full pardon, get a weapon.

CAIN: I'm curious, is there not a defense for Haley Barbour?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The pardon issue doesn't need a defense.

CAIN: You know, a lot of people have said, particularly people on the left have said, look, governments don't use pardon power enough. There are a lot of people in prison who should not be there.

TOOBIN: Nonviolent, nonviolent drug offenders.

CAIN: But these are not the ones. Unfortunately --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not a case for any of these guys.

TOOBIN: This will probably lead governors to say, I don't want to take the heat. Barack Obama has pardoned practically no one and I think a lot of people are upset about that, because people in federal prison, it can't be that they all should be there. But the fact that Obama is simply washing his hands of it all --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that upsets the Democrats because they expected some pardons from Barack Obama.

O'BRIEN: First, an update of our top stories and continue our conversation on the other side. Christine Romans is back at CNN Center for us, she's not out at a diner, but I'll bring you food back later.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm still shocked that Jeff Toobin didn't know who Boss Hog was. Once I get over that news flash --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: I'm not playing trivial pursuit with Jeff Toobin on my team, unless it's about the law.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: The South Carolina primary is nine days away. It's getting nasty among the Republican presidential candidates. They're spending millions on attack ads. And to hear Newt Gingrich tell it, it's about to become Armageddon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: Well, I concede that every effort I made to stay positive and every effort I made to talk Romney out of doing this failed. That you can't, you can't unilaterally disarm unless you want to get out of the race. Since this is the objective reality, we have no choice.

This is going to be Armageddon. They will come in here with everything they've got, every surrogate, every ad, every negative attack.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: South Carolina is a crucial state and chosen the eventual Republican nominee since 1980.

Bombshell revolutions in the Casey Anthony case. In court depositions Anthony tells a psychiatrist she may have become pregnant with daughter, Caylee, after being date raped. Anthony also claims her father may have molested and killed Caylee.

Iran calling on the U.N. to condemn the killing of its nuclear scientist. Three Iranian scientists killed in terror attacks over the last two years, including one just yesterday. Tehran claim the U.S. and Israel are behind it. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton denies those charges.

And there's concern this morning about a new outbreak of swine flu. The Centers for Disease Control reports since July of last year 12 people have become infected with a new form of the virus. Cases have been reported in five states --- Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

And severe storms rocking parts of North Carolina. Funnel cloud was captured on tape. The massive twister tore up a mobile home park.

(WEATHER BREAK)

ROMANS: Minding your business now, U.S. stock futures are down a little bit. Futures for the DOW, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 all up ahead of the opening bell this morning.

Two economic reports of note today, December retail sales and the weekly unemployment claims report both later this morning. Economists report 375,000 jobless claims filed for the very first time last week. That is below the key 400,000 level. If it comes in like that, it will show the labor market headed in the right direction. We'll get you those numbers as soon as they're available.

Also new this morning, Realty Track is a company that markets foreclosed properties online. Realty Track says foreclosures are down to 2007 levels. It's good news, but with a big as asterisk. That delay was because of processing backlogs. Banks are taking longer with their paperwork after that notorious robo-signing scandal back in 2010, Soledad, where they just kept foreclosing and foreclosing, rubber stamping the paperwork even when people weren't supposed to be foreclosed on.

O'BRIEN: Christine, thank you very much.

Still ahead this morning, international outreach to tell you about over this video of marines who are urinating on the bodies of insurgents. We're going to take you live to Afghanistan with the latest on that.

Plus, you heard our debate, our spirited debate over the controversial pardons. This morning, we're also going to talk about whether we think Haley Barbour should get real or not. We'll tell you why.

Plus the Internet is like crack, apparently, literally like crack, apparently to a study. That is good news to start your morning with. STARTING POINT is back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. You're looking at the inside of the Tick Tock diner. You know, I've been sent out to the diners. I'm on diner duty now, which -- it means free food paid for by CNN, which I appreciate.

We're talking this morning about international outrage over video that seems to show marines who are urinating on the bodies of dead insurgents. The Afghan government is now condemning the video.

And NATO-led ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, has denounced it that even the Taliban's weighed in to call it barbaric. The U.S. Military is confirming this morning that Naval Criminal Investigator Service, NCIS, is lead investigator on this case.

We got Nick Paton Walsh for us. He's live in Kabul. Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon for us this morning. We're also joined by Retired Army General James "Spider" Marks. He's in Washington, D.C. It's nice to see all of you.

Nick, why don't you start for us? What is the reaction there in Afghanistan?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, to point out what we see in this video, first of all, it appears to show U.S. Marines, according to the posting on the Internet, they are from a company which was in Northern Heldman, perhaps left earlier. Although the authenticity of this and the details are still being investigated by NATO.

Lots of caveats and disclaimers from NATO officials here. Although one U.S. official said it was a reasonable conclusion to suggest that it had occurred in Afghanistan. But less disclaimers from the Afghan President Palace here, Hamid Karzai's people putting out a statement which said quite explicitly the government of Afghanistan is deeply disturbed by a video that shows American soldiers desecrating dead bodies of three Afghans. This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms. We expressly asked the U.S. government to urgently investigate the video and apply the most severe punishment to anyone found guilty of this crime.

So really strong rhetoric here from an Afghan government. These relations with America are often frayed. The Taliban, as you say, coming out, calling it barbaric and also calling it inhuman. And ISAF also saying they want to see that the incident investigated and saying it apparently happened by a unit that may have already left Afghanistan, but they're not exactly sure of the details yet -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's go to Barbara now who's at the Pentagon for us this morning.

So, NCIS, as we just mentioned, is going to be the lead investigator on this and there's no indication that anyone would think that this is not genuine. This is -- does seem to be real. What do we know about this -- this videotape and how it came to be?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Soledad. We've talked to a number of officials who say at this point, although they can't confirm any of it with absolute finality, there's every reason to believe that it's legitimate and it's not a staged event.

You know, who was behind the camera taking these pictures? Who were these Marines that they appear to be Marines by all accounts?

The photo has some very interesting clues in it. If you keep that up for a minute, have a look. You will see that there are sniper rifles in that video that the men are carrying and that a couple of them are wearing helmets, very particular to U.S. Marine Corps Sniper Teams. The shorter front, shorter side helmets so they can hold their rifles up to their face when they're in combat.

These are clues as to who these people might have been and, believe me, the Marine Corps knows exactly where their sniper teams were at all times, what locations that they were in and where they were serving. So they will be able to pin this down very quickly.

NCIS will conduct a criminal investigation. It could, could lead to charges of misconduct, dereliction of duty, any number of charges could be forthcoming pending the investigation, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's return to Retired Army General James "Spider" Marks, who's also in Washington, D.C. When you saw this video, I mean, I thought it was just so really incredibly disturbing. What did you think?

JAMES "SPIDER' MARKS, RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL IN U.S. ARMY: Absolutely, Soledad. I mean there's no other emotion other than this is terribly wrong. It's incredibly disturbing and, frankly, it's aberrant behavior.

And as Barbara has indicated, the Marine Corps, NCIS, the Joint Staffs, et cetera, will pile on to this thing and figure out what went wrong.

Clearly, I'm more concerned about who is the leader of that sniper team that encouraged that behavior. I'm going to make an assumption that all of this occurred, that all of this is accurate. These were U.S. Marines. Let's get that off the table and then what we need to figure out, who is the leader that pushed these young men to do that?

And I would -- I would suggest that you probably have an extremely bad apple who was determined by evaluation to be an Elite Marine. They don't take run of the mill guys to be on these teams. This was an incredibly elite, evaluated through some vigorous training to achieve this great status. They get to operate on their own. They work within the ethos of Marine Corps and these guys completely were outside of that box.

Folks are going to have to try to figure out what went wrong and if it is institutional. I would suggest it's not.

O'BRIEN: Before we get to open it up to our -- to our conversation this morning, General. It sounds like Barbara is saying that it's going to be pretty easy to trace who these guys are and that will also determine if, in fact, this is genuine, which at this point no one saying that it's not.

What could the punishment be? The Geneva Convention, clearly, makes it clear you are supposed to treat the bodies -- the dead honorably interred I think is the word they used. Clearly the training says not to do this. What could happen to these -- to these men?

MARKS: This is -- this is a legal action. This is clearly within the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There will be a determination by the right folks that as we say in the Army, we're the green tabs. Those that are in leadership positions will make a determination as to what will happen. You have to determine what type of event took place, who was culpable. That will all take place. That's all legalese.

The primary concern is how did this occur, let's get to the root cause of that. And I think that will happen in very short order. It will be very detailed.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I have a question for General Marks on that, Soledad. First of all, one point, the Taliban's take on this is completely meaningless to me. This is a group of people that used to debate how do we deal with homosexuals? Do we bury them alive or throw them from the town tower?

O'BRIEN: Or on the other hand, you could say when the Taliban calls something you're doing barbaric, you probably have crossed the line.

CAIN: But let me ask the General this question. It seems to me like we also have a bigger issue to deal with. And that is when you -- when you train men to annihilate their enemy and to kill their enemy, how do you then draw a line to impose normal rules of civilization back on those men? Isn't it a tough line to draw and have them continue to distinguish?

O'BRIEN: But he just talked about -- well, let's get the general answer --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Hold on. Let's get the general to answer that first because it sounds like Will is saying, General, that if you're sort of pushing people to the edge all the time, how do you expect them to not sometimes or occasionally or often step over that edge? What is the answer for that?

MARKS: That's exactly the training that these Marines and all folks in uniform are put through. It's a definition of discipline. It's doing the right thing when nobody is watching. There's incredible emotion. There's incredible adrenaline.

These guys were probably up until that point, let's assume, again, let's assume, I don't know that they were in an incredible dog fight right up until the moment that they chose to do this. They need to compartmentalize. That's how they're trained. Their job is done here.

If those were the enemy, they killed the enemy. Let's get them out of the way. We have another mission to get on to. We don't have to drop our travelers and whiz on the bad guys. That's not within the skill sets. That's absolutely not what these guys are trained to do. It's absolutely egregious. And I apologize for my language.

You can tell I get emotional about this because these guys have given our -- our enemies an incredible propaganda flick and now we've got a Marine Corps in our BLD (ph) diverted on to the activities of about six -- or five or six bad guys that will be disciplined and their chain of command has some reckoning, as well.

O'BRIEN: Then that's making it riskier for every single -- other person who is serving in the military over there. Go ahead, Vicky.

VICKY WARD, CONTRIBUTOR, VANITY FAIR: Well, General, when you say, your exact phrase, sorry, I forget right now. But you said that you always -- we don't want to kill them and is to get rid of them. What --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE).

WARD: What do you do? What does that actually mean? Do they -- do they then dig graves and bury them there? What do they actually do? O'BRIEN: And isn't it spelled out by the Geneva -- I mean, obviously, people aren't making this up as they go along, out in combat. There is a code.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a military code.

O'BRIEN: So, General, let's answer that question for Vicky. So then what is the code? What does it say to do?

MARKS: After you have accomplished your task, you are required -- it depends upon the circumstances. Clearly, what we see is not within the -- not within the rules. That's not one of the options.

Clearly after you've engaged your enemy and if you've killed your enemy, you move them off to the sides. You put them into quick raids. You accommodate for them. There are grave registrations personnel. There are folks that will be assigned to make sure that that is accommodated for.

And if you turn it back over to the local folks, that's what you do with those bodies. So, there is no gray area here. And that clear, as I said, that's not one of the options.

O'BRIEN: All right. General Marks, I thank you for your time this morning. Barbara Starr at the pentagon, Barbara, nice to see you. We used to work together back in the day and now we're back together. I appreciate that.

We're going to take a short break. Straight ahead on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk more about Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. He's explaining his reasons behind the pardon, but does the explanation add up? We'll take a look.

Plus, Republican candidates, South Carolina is the new direction. One is saying prepare for Armageddon. Guess which candidate that would be? Will Cain, any ideas?

CAIN: Can I just going to say, Newt?

O'BRIEN: Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome. We're coming to you inside the Tick Tock Diner in Lower Manhattan today, or really Lower Midtown Manhattan.

We start with our "Get Real" segment now. We've been telling you this morning about the controversy of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour who pardoned just about 200 people as he was making his way out the door. That number included 14 convicted murderers.

Now, we're hearing from the former governor for the first time about why he did it. Here's what he says. He says approximately 90 percent of these individuals were no longer in custody and a majority of them had been out for years.

The pardons were intended to allow them to find gainful employment or acquire professional licenses, as well as hunt and vote. That means that all of these folks not only out of prison, but they're able to own guns.

Barbour goes on to say that the medical expense of prisoners was sometimes costing state too much money, but that likely means that the taxpayers will now wind up with that bill.

Frankly, let's get real, at the end of the day, it's not about the 90 percent. It's about the 10 percent those who were convicted murderers and the governor who used the sweeping power of his pardon to free them.

Well, if the attorney general in that state has his way, some of them will be going right back to jail.

Still to come this morning on STARTING POINT, nine days to the South Carolina primary, I probably shouldn't eat in the middle of my segment. It's really hard to talk and eat.

Already this race, we say this a lot, already it's getting nasty. Well, now Newt Gingrich, the candidate for president, has said prepare for Armageddon, which means it will get really, really nasty.

We're going to bring our panel in to talk about that. You're watching the STARTING POINT this morning. We're back after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Morning, welcome, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT on CNN. We are at Tick Tock Diner this morning, which is in Lower Midtown Manhattan. Actually, I don't live very far from here. I could walk here. We should do this every single day. It makes my life much easier.

Inside this diner, of course, a bunch of folks who are tourists because this is a spot where tourists can have breakfast and locals as well come here.

Ahead in the next half hour, they're trying to stop Mitt Romney from running away with it. Attacking him as a fat cat and why that could back fire. We're going to talk about what Newt Gingrich is saying this morning.

That's what New Yorkers are talking about besides the Giants. We'll chat with some of them here in this diner about how they're feeling about politics.

First, a look at the top stories this morning. CNN's Christine Romans has a look at some of the other stories making news for us. Hi, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, there, Soledad. Thanks.

Syria's opposition this morning is rejecting the government's claims that an armed terrorist group is responsible for the death of a French journalist in a mortar attack.

He's the first western journalist to die in the Syria uprising. CNN has been shutout of the country for months now. Nic Robertson is among the first western journalists allowed back in and he's been talking with anti-government protesters.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The level of anger and passion here is absolutely palpable. We're just a few miles from the center of Damascus and the crowd here --

Thank you. Thank you. This is a crowd here of perhaps several thousand people. They're taking over this whole area and put rocks in the road to prevent police coming in here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want to be free people. Look at him, 32 years only because --

ROBERTSON: Who killed him? Who is responsible?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The government is responsible. Bashar Al- Assad is responsible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm afraid when I'm talking to you right now, why, because I'm going to lift this scarf and going to my home and I'm not 100 percent sure that I'm going to be safe because, if not today, if not tomorrow, they will arrest me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This opposition is not legal.

ROBERTSON: It's not real.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Legal or not so real.

ROBERTSON: How do you mean not legal or real?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think --

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Nic has had his equipment confiscated so he's joining us on the phone from Damascus. I know it has been a frightening probably 36 or 48 hours for the international journalists there in Damascus. What's the latest now?

ROBERTSON (via telephone): Well, the latest is the French ambassador who went to where the French journalist was killed in that mortar attack yesterday. An investigation has begun.

The Arab League who have monitors here in inside Syria that are going around investigating incidents just like this. According to the head office in Cairo, they say they're involved in the investigation and they have a preliminary report tonight.

I spoke to the head of the Arab League mission here, however, just an hour ago and he denied that they were involved in the investigation. There are inconsistencies here in what the Arab League is saying and doing.

But perhaps there will be more information about how this attack took place and who was responsible, but it is very unlikely anyone will provide conclusive answers.

ROMANS: All right, Nic Robertson in Damascus. Please, stay safe, Nic.

Family and friends are trying desperately to find Virginia Commonwealth senior Ian Burnett. He's been missing for nearly two weeks now. He was seen just days after arriving in New York City to celebrate New Year's Eve. His parents set up a Facebook page asking for information.

Mission to Nome, a Russian tanker and a Coast Guard escort continuing to struggle through ice choke waters trying to reach the frozen port of Nome, Alaska, with an emergency delivery of fuel and gasoline. It's the first ever attempt of a marine delivery of fuel to Western Alaska in winter.

A new study says internet dependency affects the brain in ways similar to alcohol, cocaine and marijuana addictions. As many as 10 percent of internet users are believed to be addicted, most are gamers, players have become so absorbed in the activity, they go without food or drink for long periods. And their education, work and relationships suffer -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: I am not surprised. I am not surprised. I agree with that. I think the internet is like crack and guilty as charged. All right, Christine, thank you. Appreciate it.

Let's turn now to South Carolina. The home to gorgeous beaches, great golf and potentially Armageddon we're told. Republican primary is in nine days there and things are getting ugly now and probably going to get more ugly.

Campaign spending millions of dollars now on attack ads and Newt Gingrich has now said, prepare for Armageddon. Back to our panel, we begin with New York Congressman Steve Israel who has joined us for breakfast with Soledad.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE ISRAEL (D), NEW YORK: Where is better than New York diner early in the morning?

O'BRIEN: You sound like a New York elected official. You certainly do. Martha Monhill, as well, is with us.

Let's start with, yesterday I was talking to Debbie Wasserman Schultz and she was giving, in all fairness to her, the spin of a big victory by Mitt Romney.

And here's what she said to me. Well, you know, big problems with that. That number is not so great. Afterwards, when we talked to Governor Romney, here's what he said. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I feel sorry for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she's got to stand up for the president's record and it's pretty bad.

You have almost 2 million people that lost their jobs under this president. You have median income that has dropped by 10 percent over the last four years. You have 24 million people out of work or stop looking for work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So, he kind of said, I don't really care and then listed all the ways in which he plans to focus on trying to beat President Obama. Would he say he feels sorry for you, too, because you're the chair of the Congressional Democratic Campaign Committee?

ISRAEL: I have to say that 10, 15 years ago, Mitt Romney would have been endorsing Debbie Wasserman Schultz. He would have been on every side of every single issue. The reason Mitt Romney can't seal the deal with voters because he hasn't been able to seal the deal with himself.

Quite honestly, look, the House is in play. We need 25 seats to take the House back and the more the Republican presidential candidates are talking about Armageddon and blowing each other up and attacking each other while we're trying to rebuild the middle class, reignite the American dream and pass a full year of tax cuts, the more that happens, the more it benefits House Democrats.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Am I allowed to speak?

O'BRIEN: Go ahead.

VICKY WARD, CONTRIBUTOR, VANITY FAIR: In fairness, this does not happen when the Democrats have their primaries, too. I mean, Newt Gingrich even said yesterday, well, so and so, Mitt Romney is not going to say that during the primaries.

In other words, this is just pondering. They're going to South Carolina and they'll say what people in South Carolina want to hear. They'll say to Iowa --

O'BRIEN: The beauty of videotape is that no matter where you are, you can run clips of anybody, anywhere saying their position on issues.

ISRAEL: But don't you think it's weird that you can run clips on the same guy? You can run clips from the right against Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney is running against Mitt Romney. MARC LAMONT HILL, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Right. Typically, I think what happened is Democrats have made this mistake. They have beaten up on each other in primaries and each other flip- flops we have seen all over the place.

WARD: Flip-flop is a not a new term.

HILL: Republicans typically have been much more disciplined about this particularly in primaries so it's kind of interesting to see the entire field of Republican candidates doing the same thing now to Mitt Romney, who is the --

O'BRIEN: But there's two points on that. Number one, there's a theory that says, put it out there early in primary season. By the general election everyone is like, got it.

Number two, is the dissatisfaction with President Obama so high that ultimately if you're a Republican, once you've gone to the primary like I'm going to vote for the guy who is not Barack Obama, period.

If it's Mitt Romney, no matter what position he held and no matter where he has gone on social issues, which people have covered. Frankly, if he's not Barack Obama, he's the guy I'm going to go for.

ISRAEL: Every national poll over the past several months has said that the American people now prefer a House Democratic majority. So notwithstanding President Obama's numbers, which are challenged right now being a house Republican incumbent is toxic.

People are going to go to the polls in November and they're going to make decisions on who do I want to be president and I'm confident that President Obama will win.

They are going to make decisions. Do I want to vote for the member of Congress who try to end my Medicare, who took health care for himself or herself, but try to repeal it, the American people who try to take my middle class tax cut away.

O'BRIEN: Or are they going to say economy, economy, economy.

ISRAEL: I hope so because on every level, they're making those decisions on the economy. We were for a full extension of middle class tax cut. They were against it. It's 350,000 millionaires had to help pay for it.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Congressman, you're not going to gives us a spin that Debbie Wasserman Schultz. You can admit, this is a strong start for Mitt Romney -- Republican nominee to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants us to believe he is in a weak position right now. He's strong --

O'BRIEN: You said absolutely, yes. It's terrible. He is up by a lot and won by much more than he won the last time. Do you think there is any chance he will not be the nominee? ISRAEL: Well, they don't invite me to the meetings. But, look, there's no question that Mitt Romney in the Republican primary is in a very good position. We can't wait to engage this general election and Mitt Romney in every House republican.

O'BRIEN: So let's play a clip of Mitt Romney. He was talking to Matt Lauer on the "Today" show about the economy and millionaires and billionaires, even I believe. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?

ROMNEY: You know, I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the president has made this part of his campaign rally.

Everywhere we go, or he goes, we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executive and Wall Street. It's a very envy-oriented, attack oriented approach and I think it will fail.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So, for me, there's a little challenge in that, right, which is not just the president talking about the wealth gap. He's not the president only who is saying there are people in this country who are very poor.

And you're looking at some executives of big companies and they're very wealthy and there's a big space in between those. That's what "Occupy Wall Street' is about. There are a lot of regular folks.

Is it a mistake? I will let Will Cain who is our conservative at the end of the table, who's my friend, my conservative friend. What did you think I was going to say? Isn't this strategically not so wise because no one is going to say, it's not just the president saying that.

CAIN: No, I'm going to agree with the congressman. I think conservatives are looking forward to this election and this narrative.

The best thing that happened to Mitt Romney in the last week was not the fact that he won New Hampshire. It's the fact that Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have brought this argument out that Mitt Romney is this vulture capitalist. He's the representative of the elite. We're ready to have the fight on that level. This is a narrative that people are ready to have.

O'BRIEN: But he's saying -- listen to what he said. He said, when people raise the question about income distribution, that that's an "envy" question. It's such a weird question, almost like you're jealous of our money. That's weird.

CAIN: When you advocated persistently for higher taxes on a certain group of people, it comes across as you want to take the one group and benefit another group. Do we have any appropriate progressive tax rate? I don't know. The narrative that continues to come across is one group of society is responsible for our problems. Let me say this, as a conservative, I've had a hard time mustering enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, but I can muster enthusiasm to defend the free market. And he's --

(CROSSTALK)

CAIN: -- being put on trial as a representative of the free market.

O'BRIEN: That's our final word here for a moment because we have to go to commercial and I have figured out, with this team, you've got to jump in early or you're in trouble.

(LAUGHTER)

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk to some folks in the diner about the election, as well, see how they're feeling. We'll see if what the Congressman is telling us is really true -- economy, economy, economy. Back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. And we are inside the Tick Tock Diner, which is in lower midtown Manhattan. A bunch of locals come here but also some folks who are from out of town.

And this morning I'll introduce you to Dan Meyer, who has agreed to let me interrupt his breakfast.

Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for talking with us.

DAN MEYER, NORTH CAROLINA RESIDENT: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: You've described yourself as a conservative Republican.

MEYER: Yes.

O'BRIEN: And you live in North Carolina.

MEYER: Yes, I do.

O'BRIEN: Tell me what you have thought about the Republican primary race so far.

MEYER: It's great to hear that there's a lot of the issues that they're really taking to heart and they're -- you hear a lot of opinions. To me, the military is very important, that we will maintain the strong military. I believe lately it's lacking. It's slipping.

And, I also think that our economy -- could help if the small businesses could be empowered to actually grow. And as they grow, they're going to hire people. And as they hire people, that's income tax.

O'BRIEN: So, for that -- all that means to you, you're supporting who?

MEYER: My neighbors.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: And who as a candidate?

MEYER: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm kind of leaning towards Ron Paul.

O'BRIEN: Really?

MEYER: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. So he has said no to the military.

MEYER: Still, there's bigger issues, too.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. Interesting.

All right, Dan, nice to see you. Thanks for talking to us.

MEYER: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: We bring you over here to Melissa Moore. She's with Adam Mukosy (ph).

Nice to see you.

You are both Democrats?

MELISSA MOORE, DEMOCRAT: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Is that right? Tell me how you view the race so far because, in some ways, you're watching it from a distance.

MOORE: Right. So what I'm watching right now with the primaries is to see who's eventually going to get the nomination.

O'BRIEN: Who do you think that is going to be?

MOORE: Right now, Mitt Romney is getting the bulk of everything.

O'BRIEN: As a Democrat, what does that make you think?

ADAM MUKOSY (ph), DEMOCRAT: I would be open to look at these other candidates. I feel whoever they are, they're going to be forced to hit the Republican agenda. So I like Mitt Romney but I don't know what he would do once he's in office.

O'BRIEN: You are both Democrats, is that right?

MUKOSY (ph): Yes. Yes.

O'BRIEN: So if it were Barack Obama/Mitt Romney kind of match- up, how do you think it would go?

MUKOSY (ph): I think we'd see a very close fight like we saw four years ago.

O'BRIEN: What do you think?

MOORE: Absolutely. Same thing.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. Interesting.

Thanks for talking with you. Thank you for letting me interrupt your breakfast this morning.

So you hear it here. And we will talk to some more folks in this diner all morning as we have an opportunity to gauge the sense about how people are feeling about politics, who have not been knee-deep, as we saw in Iowa and New Hampshire in those political races.

Coming up next, we'll talk about Tim Tebow. He's very, very, very popular. But is he the most popular? That's straight ahead when STARTING POINT continues. Back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody. Football fans will know the name Danny Wuerffel. He is a Heisman Trophy winner. He led the Florida Gators to a national championship back in 1996. Now this former star is battling a rare neurological disorder. Dr. Sanjay Gupta has his story in this week's "Human Factor."

(HUMAN FACTOR)

O'BRIEN: Still to come this morning on STARTING POINT, keeping jobs in the U.S. The president says he has a plan to stop outsourcing. But the bigger question is will CEOs go along with it.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back after the short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)