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CNN NEWSROOM

Severe Winter Storm on the Move; Tornadoes Rake Alabama; Syrian Officials Defection Reported; Shinzo Abe Back on Top; Insider Attacks Rising in Afghanistan

Aired December 26, 2012 - 12:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

Here's what's going on right now. The news today is the weather, of course. If you're in the eastern half of the country, chances are good the weather outside is intense outside. We have heavy snow stopping highway and air traffic across the Midwest. It's all moving toward New England. Down south, tornadoes ripped across the gulf coast in the past few hours, and could be more today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look at them. That's like two tornadoes. It's two funnels on the ground. Oh, lord. Look at there. Wow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Wow is right. This is how people in Mobile, Alabama, spent much of Christmas Day. They were hunkered down. They were watching at least one tornado rip up trees, whip around power lines. And in this -- just this one spot from east Texas to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, you have weather officials counting 28 tornadoes that hit ground on Christmas Day. Now, in southern Alabama, right now, more than 200,000 homes are without power. We are live from Mobile in just a minute with the full picture of the damage there.

All right. You are watching -- this is an enormous funnel cloud. It formed and touched down near Interstate 165 in Mobile. David and Whitney Saraceno were driving to see their family for Christmas and realized they were headed right into the tornado.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the first thing was, I had asked my wife to pick up the camera and start getting some footage of it, because I know that the local news stations and everything were wanting to see what was going on. At that point, we just kind of drove as fast as we possibly could get out of the way.

I know we were actually on I-165 northbound when I looked over to my left and noticed that it was forming. And instead of stopping, we just went as fast as we could to get past it, to get on 65 north and get off on the Fairland, Alabama, exit to turn around and actually go back home. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And look at it coming down. This is in southern Indiana. The Christmas Day blizzard still dumping snow on much of Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Now, the storm smashed a snowfall record for Christmas Day in Little Rock. Nine inches of it made dangerous driving. Several highway accidents as well. The Arkansas National Guard is out helping ambulances reach people who are in trouble there. At least two deaths are blamed on the weather. One in Texas and one in Oklahoma.

I want to bring in Alexandria Steele. She is watching all of these storms throughout the country. Give us the big picture here.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, the big picture, and you said so much of it, the legs on this thing from the severe weather, to the winter weather. You talked about the historic nature in Little Rock, nine inches, breaking the old record from 1926. Dallas, four inches, breaking the old record from 1926. And on the severe note, it was the worst Christmas Day tornado outbreak on record. So, certainly substantial.

Here's the big picture. Let's starts with the severe threat. And here you can see in eastern Carolina, South Carolina and North Carolina, we do have a tornado watch posted through 5:00 tonight. That watch, of course, means that atmospherically conditions are right for tornadoes to develop. So it doesn't look as though it's as severe in nature, and the breadth and depth of it not as great as yesterday, but certainly still keeping an eye on this. You can see all the lightning, but a lot of its now moved off the coast east of 95. So that is the good news. But, still, we do have that in effect until 5:00 tonight.

All right, on the winter side you can see, here's where the snow is, of course. Right along where kind of that rain/snow line, that's where the front is. And just north of that, that's usually where the axis of the heaviest snow will be. So it's called the snow sweet spot. And we're going to see that. From Cincinnati, just north of that, through Indianapolis, Cleveland, and into Buffalo. So, I-90, I-70 perilous travel tonight in through tomorrow. That's kind of the time line of it.

And in addition, why we've got blizzard warnings, and I'll show you where they are and they're till 7:00 tonight, it's because not only is the snow coming down in earnest, could see one to two inches an hour, it's the winds. And whether we're seeing winds in Washington and New York already slowing down travel tonight. They won't see the snow accumulation, but it's the winds with this system that's such a big deal. Indy gusting to almost 40 miles per hour. Roanoke, Virginia, to Chicago. So we're talking a big geography here in terms of the impacts of it.

Here's where the blizzard warnings are. Now, of course, the blizzards are for snow. Six to 12 inches of snow coupled with winds gusting to 40, 50 miles per hour, making it really difficult to see. And visibility's down near zero. So that's kind of the blizzard warning scenario. There's the blizzard warning. You can see that in areas of Indiana and Illinois and moving in toward Ohio. These in the pink, those are all winter weather warnings. So we're going to see that. And here's the snow. Twelve inches at the very least. And in upstate New York, Suzanne, we're going to see at least 12 inches of snow. So the timing in and around western New York, we're going to see the snow tonight to tomorrow.

And, you know, Suzanne, I know you travel a lot, and it's those big cities in and around New York and New Jersey, Washington, big-time travel delays at the airports. Already canceling hundreds of flights because of the winds tonight into tomorrow.

MALVEAUX: I think I got lucky just being here in the Washington, D.C., area.

STEELE: Yes, it is.

MALVEAUX: Looks like one of the few people that's going to avoid all of this stuff, this big mess for the holiday.

STEELE: That's right.

MALVEAUX: Alexandria, thank you very much.

STEELE: You're welcome.

MALVEAUX: We hope everybody is safe in their travels.

There are emergency crews that are working to get the power back on in more than 200,000 homes -- this is along the Gulf Coast right now. The tornado that touched down in Mobile, Alabama, did major damage to this one school. This is the historic Murphy High School. It's almost 100 years old. Well, it was smashed by trees. It is missing its roof today. Well, that is where Christina Leavenworth is from our affiliate WEAR.

And, Christina, essentially give us, if you can, a tour of that area and what you have seen in terms of the devastation.

CHRISTINA LEAVENWORTH, WEAR REPORTER: Absolutely, Suzanne. For the most part, the damage is widespread. Murphy High School, the worst hit. But right behind me, this is a baseball facility, completely destroyed. But beyond that is these portable classrooms. You can't even tell that they were classrooms unless you can zoom in and see some desks and chairs. So definitely, definitely hit hard. And right here is this mangled window screen. So that just gives you an idea of how powerful this storm is.

I want to show you a few more things over here. This was a barn. But right beyond that is the field house. People actually sought shelter there and they bunkered down there just to be safe. And it's a good thing they did because a lot of these items inside all these places flew more than two football fields into the main building, pummeling plywood into the cafeteria. So that's what they're dealing with over there. A lot of those red tiles gone. The band hall -- the actual -- the roof lifted up and moved.

And it is tough for a lot of the people here because this is a historical campus built in the 1920s. There's more than 2,000 kids that go here. And the main thing a lot of people are really paying attention to is, if this would have happened while school was still in session, this whole area would have been packed with children with after school activities. Just, you know, with any sort of extracurricular activities. So as much as it's awful to, you know, have this happen at their school, they really do feel fortunate everyone is OK.

Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Yes, Christina, I was going to ask you that. Essentially it's quite amazing, but there are no injuries. You look at the damage there. But, fortunately, nobody got hurt.

LEAVENWORTH: Absolutely. And when you saw that size of the tornado, I think everyone's just, you know, stomachs dropped. You're like, oh, my gosh, I hope everyone's OK. So that's kind of how everyone here is feeling. The interesting thing is, I don't know if we can show you, these houses across the street, not touched at all. They look perfect. And all surrounding houses in this area, pretty good for the most part. So that's just what's kind of so interesting and bizarre, that all of this can happen and then just 100 feet away, houses look completely fine.

MALVEAUX: All right, Christina, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Many Americans have adopted children from Russia, but that might be coming to an end thanks to a controversial bill that has passed in Russia's parliament.

He is taking a bow. He's getting a second chance at a job he quit five years ago. Japan's new prime minister making a stunning comeback.

And as the sound of gunfire rings out in Syrian neighborhoods, the country's military police chief has reported defected to the other side.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: In Syria, the military police chief has reportedly defected from President Bashar al Assad's government. Now, this video, which was posted online, shows a man identified as the official. I want you to take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAJ. GEN. ABDUL AZIZ JASSIM AL-SHALLAL, HEAD OF SYRIAN MILITARY POLICE (through translator): I announce my defection from the regime and I'm joining the people's revolution because the Syrian military has strayed from its core mission in protecting the homeland to become nothing but an armed gangs that kill and destroy the cities and the villages, carrying out massacres against our innocent civilian population that came out demanding freedom and dignity. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Pretty strong words. This would be one of the highest level defections in the 21 months that they've been fighting. The prime minister and a general, they were close to al Assad. They also left the regime in recent months.

I want to bring in our Mohammed Jamjoom in Beirut.

And, first of all, Mohammed, tell us, this guy, I mean he essentially says that these guys are thugs. That they're going after their own people. This seems pretty significant.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. He's identified on this tape as Major General Abdul Aziz Jassim al-Shallal. Aside from the video, we also spoke with members of the Free Syrian Army earlier today and they confirmed to us -- they say that they helped this man escape Syria. That he's now in Turkey. And they say that it is significant because of how high ranking he is.

He's only the latest in a list of officials who have defected these last several months, including a man by the name of Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, who was very close to Bashar al Assad, as well as the former prime minister of Syria, Riad Hijab. That was just a couple of months ago as well. So it certainly does seems that this is significant.

The Free Syrian Army told us that they have no problem accepting, up until now, other military officials who may want to defect, but they say that window is closing. They say that after the next few days the amount -- no longer going to take mercy on members of the Syrian military regime who want to defect to the popular uprising.

Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: So who is this guy? Tell us who this guy is. Because I imagine being the chief of the military police, that he knows what's going on inside of the country. Perhaps he has even seen some of the things that have gone on when you talk about the carnage and the civilian casualties.

JAMJOOM: Well, that's the key question right now, how much intelligence is going to be able to be gathered from this man. On the face of it, he seemed to be a very high-ranking official. The Syrian government has not commented on this just yet. We've not heard yet personally from the major general since the defection took place, other than seeing this tape and speaking to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

In the past we've heard about other defections, other officials who have left Syria. We don't know where they've ended up after that. There's always a lot of rumors in the days after these defections take place. So it's really yet to be seen where he's going to end up, what kind of intel he's going to provide, and how significant that will be either to the rebels or to the international community in facing Bashar al Assad and in trying to find out what exactly -- what other crimes, perhaps, his regime may have been responsible for.

Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Is there -- Mohammed, is there a safe place for these guys to go once they defect? Are they going to Turkey? Are they going underground? And is there a risk to their families essentially who are still there, that the government might take revenge?

JAMJOOM: One of the key things that we hear about defectors, a lot of times when there's rumors about officials who are planning to defect or who have defected, a lot of times we hear after they've left the country that it took them a while, that they weren't talking about it even after they left the country because they want to make sure that their families were spirited to safety as well.

One of the prime destinations when it comes to military officials who have defected has been Turkey, because a lot of the contingent of the leadership of the Free Syrian Army have been in Turkey as well. So that's a prime destination. It's close to Syria.

But today, when we were speaking to members of the Free Syrian Army, they were saying that it was extremely difficult getting this man out of Syria. They said they had to ferry him by scooter. That it took hours longer than they thought it would. That it was a very, very difficult, tricky, risky operation. And, yes, there is a lot of fear for these people who defect, what's going to happen to any family members they may have left in Syria. That's a critical concern for whether it be government officials or military officials who leave the government.

Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Sure. Right. Mohammed, I want to remind our viewers what we're talking about here when we talk about Syria. Just in the past few days we are talking about at least 365 people who have been killed. That is on top of more than 100 people who were killed in an air attack Sunday on a bakery. When someone like this, of this high stature defects, what does this tell you about the state of the rebel forces? What does this tell you about the possibility of this thing ending anytime soon?

JAMJOOM: The news out of Syria, especially in the last few days, just gets worse and worse. You still have diplomatic talks going on within Syria. Lakhdar Brahimi is there, the joint U.N. Arab League envoy to Syria. And yet every day the news seems to be getting more horrific.

Each day the last few days, more than 100 people killed on each successive day, including today, according to the opposition activists that we're talking to. We're hearing from opposition activists and rebel Free Syria Army members that they are gaining momentum. That the rebels are taking over more territory in and around the capital and in parts of the north of the country.

It seems to suggest, when you hear about defections like this, that Bashar al-Assad seems to be losing more of his grip on power. And, yet, the Syrian regime maintains that are battling terrorists there, that they have the upper hand and that they will return stability to the country.

But what you hear on the ground there from the opposition activists, a very different picture and, from the videos we've seen in the last two days and accounts we've heard, it does seem that the rebels are gaining momentum in key areas of the country.

Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Mohammed, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Well, if you thought our political process has been painful, just imagine seven leaders in six years. That's right. Japan has a new prime minister. He's facing some of the same challenges as President Obama when it comes to the economy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Once again, there is a new prime minister in Japan. He is Shinzo Abe. The Japanese parliament elected him today five years after Abe abruptly resigned from the job. Well, he is Japan's seventh prime minister in six years.

Alex Zolbert reports from Tokyo.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX ZOLBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A remarkable political comeback is now complete here in Japan. Shinzo Abe is once again prime minister, elected in parliament on Wednesday following his party's landslide victory in general elections earlier this month. He has now taken the reins and unveiled his cabinet as well, which includes former Prime Minister Taro Aso who will now be deputy prime minister as well as finance minister.

But, as the 58-year-old Abe returns to the top post that he vacated in 2007, his to-do list this time is very long. Front-and-center is the economy, which has sputtered along in Japan for the better part of two decades and is in recession once again.

Many will be watching to see how Abe handling heightened tensions with China, as the two countries spar over disputed islands, as well as North Korea, which defied the international community, recently launching a rocket that skirted Japanese territory. There's also Japan's energy policy, with Abe suggesting nuclear power will remain on the table despite ongoing troubles at Fukushima.

One last issue, just staying power. This country has seen a well- documented revolving door of prime ministers with Shinzo Abe now becoming the seventh different leader in just six years.

Alex Zolbert, CNN, Tokyo.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: It appears to be a growing trend in Afghanistan. They are insider attacks. A U.S. contractor was killed in Kabul police headquarters. This time, the attacker is a woman. We've got a live report from the Pentagon.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: A car bomb exploded today outside a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan. A security guard and two truck drivers were killed. Six civilians were wounded.

Now, the Taliban say they carried out the attack which happened after a mini bus stopped at a security gate. The same base. Camp Chapman, was the site of a 2009 attack that killed seven CIA contractors and a Jordanian intelligence official.

Officials in Afghanistan are learning more about the woman who shot and killed an American contractor. That happened on Monday inside the Kabul police headquarters.

I want to bring in our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. And, Barbara, some of the things we hear about when you talk about these insider jobs are the Taliban dressed as women with the hijab and everything. But now we know that this really was a woman who was responsible for the attack. What have we learned about her?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, not very much, because the Afghans have her in custody and, apparently, by all accounts, she's not really talking. But the Afghans did hold a press conference and showed an Iranian passport. They say this woman is an Iranian national, that she came from there and married an Afghan, became a member of the Afghan police force.

None of this, again, independently verified by the NATO alliance, that she went to the compound with a weapon hidden under her clothing, that she wanted to kill someone she thought was important. She walked around looking for somebody and came up behind this American contractor as he was walking towards a canteen and shot and killed him.

Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Is it clear whether or not she was a member of the Taliban or the Taliban have claimed her. Do we know?

STARR: You know, it's interesting. The Taliban haven't been all that vocal about this one and usually they are quick to claim responsibility. And I think it's important to say that Afghans, also, if you look at the record, they very often will tell you that it is someone from Pakistan, that it is someone from Iran

It may well turn out to be it in this case, but this one seems to be one of these so-called "green-on-blue" incidents that is really unexplainable at this point. Very tragic for the American family.

MALVEAUX: And do we have any more information, Barbara, about the contractor who lost his life? STARR: Yeah, we do. His name is Joseph Griffin, 49-years-old of Mansfield, Georgia. He worked for DynCorp International. This is a major American contractor in Afghanistan that works on police training for the Afghan forces. He had worked in law enforcement, we are told. He also was a U.S. military veteran, Suzanne.

Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: All right. Condolences to his family. Thank you, Barbara. Appreciate it.

It is hard to believe, but 2013, less than a week away. So, we're going to look back at all the science breakthroughs of the last year, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: So, Starbucks is now pushing politicians to avoid the massive tax increases, the spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff," due to affect -- to go into effect about six days from now.

CEO Howard Schultz is asking employees at the D.C.-area stores to write "come together" on their coffee cups tomorrow and Friday. So, in a letter to employees made public today, Schultz says -- and I'm quoting here -- "Rather than be bystanders, you and your customers have an opportunity and I believe we all have a responsibility to send our elected officials a respectful but potent message, urging them to come together to find common ground."

In an interview with our Poppy Harlow earlier this month, Schultz talked about the consequences of not reaching a deal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWARD SCHULTZ, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, STARBUCKS: Let's talk about the people who are being left behind. There's still about 13, 14 million people in America who are still unemployed and we still have the overhang of $16 trillion of debt. And, so, consumer confidence has not been very good for a long time and we still have a high level of unemployment.

So, first, I would say that the people who are -- who need it the most are going to be affected in a significant way because there's just no hope and opportunity for them to have any degree of confidence in the future of America if, in fact, we do not get a compromise from the Republicans and the Democrats.

Now, segmenting the rest of the population, I think that the financial community and businesses at large are in a very uncertain place, waiting for some signal. You're certainly seeing that in the stock market. And I would say that the unintended consequences of every day between now and the end of the month becomes harder and harder for people to make discretionary decisions, whether it's a ...

(END VIDEOTAPE)