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Bipartisan Budget Vote; Signer at Mandela Memorial; Pastor's Wife Fights for His Freedom; Families Hope Diplomatic Thaw Will Help Release Americans Imprisoned in Iran; FCC Debates Lifting Cell Phone Ban on Airplanes; EU Diplomat Catherine Ashton Says Ukraine to Sign Deal With E.U.; Flash Floods in Rio; Snow in Jerusalem

Aired December 12, 2013 - 12:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Also, debating cell phones on plane. Very soon you may be able to make calls while flying, but do you really want the person next to you chatting on the phone?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: And a super-secret Air Force drone that can fly up to 24 hours and spy on other countries. Some say it is hiding in the famous Area 51 test center.

Welcome to AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

HOLMES: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for your company today.

A bipartisan - yes, we could use that word -- bipartisan budget proposal about to be put to the test. The House getting ready in the next few hours to vote on a deal designed to keep the government running and prevent another shutdown.

MALVEAUX: Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan helped draw up this bill. It has caused some squabbling, some disagreements, of course, among the GOP. Ryan was asked about this earlier. Here's how he shot back.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Said that this much (INAUDIBLE), quote, "advances our principles." Marco Rubio said this, though, last night, quote, "either your deal is going to make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream." What would you say to Marco?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: Read the deal and get back to me.


MALVEAUX: Read the deal. Wow. Democrats also have issues with the bill, as well.

I want to bring in our Dana Bash on Capitol Hill.

Read the bill, Dana. That was pretty harsh there. Do we expect that they -- first of all, sometimes they don't read the fine print, they don't read the deal, but have they read the deal and are they ready enough on the House and the Senate to go ahead and pass this thing later this afternoon?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, definitely the drama and this story appear to be on the Republican side. Let's just put the Democrat aside for now because Nancy Pelosi, this morning, said she doesn't love every detail of it, but she thinks that enough Democrats are going to support it because they think it's better than nothing.

So let's just focus on the Republicans and this whole concept of the split. And some conservatives, not just Marco Rubio, but these powerful, outside groups continuing to pressure House members to vote no today. Yesterday the House speaker lashed out at them. Today he didn't back down. Not even close. Listen to what happened.


BASH: Mr. Speaker, you were pretty tough on outside conservative groups for their criticism of the budget deal. As you well know, I mean just to be candid, they've had a lot of sway in a lot of the decisions that your members have made over the past couple of years. Does this budget mark a turning point, and are your members, at your behest, going to be more focused on maybe compromise and less on what the outside groups are pressuring them to do?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Well, listen, I take my fair share of criticism from the right and from the left. You know, I came here to fight for a smaller, less costly, more accountable federal government. And this budget agreement takes giant steps in the right direction. It's not everything I wanted. But when groups come out and criticize an agreement that they've never seen, you begin to wonder, just how credible those actions are.

And so yesterday, when the criticism was coming, frankly, I thought it was my job and my obligation to stand up for conservatives here in the Congress who want more deficit reduction. Stand up for the work that Chairman Ryan did. He did good work on behalf of the American people. Yes, it's not everything we wanted, but our job is to find enough common ground to move the ball down the field on behalf of the American people who sent us here to do their work.


BASH: And, Suzanne and Michael, that was just one part of the continued criticism that he had throughout the press conference, going on and on and on about the fact that he really, I think these were his words, doesn't care what the conservative groups do.

And it might seem sort of like a minor thing, but these groups have had such influence, such power on the rank and file Republicans for so many reasons, most importantly because so many of the conservative members are more worried about a primary challenge from the right, maybe sponsored by and funded by these groups, than a challenge or being defeated by a Democrat. And that is what drives their decisions. This is John Boehner standing up, trying to protect them and trying to push back against these group who are not back down, even in the hours leading up to this vote today. MALVEAUX: Sure, Dana, very significant that that's the case. And do we think it's going to pass? Do we have a sense that they do have it on both sides?

BASH: It looks that way. Certainly, when you have the speaker coming out and being this forceful, when you have his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, saying virtually the same thing, it's not everything that they want but they feel that enough Democrats are going to vote for it, it certainly looks like it is on the road to passage. But, you know, we'll wait and see how it shakes out. It's going to be pretty dramatic because I think a lot of people are going to take it slow in how they vote to sort of see the way - the way the wind is blowing as the votes are going on.

HOLMES: Yes, and the question, of course, will those outside groups have less pressure going forward on the GOP in the Congress? That's going to be an interesting development to see. Got to leave it there. Dana, thanks so much. Dana Bash there.

MALVEAUX: We're also following this. This is -- a lot of people are talking about this. This is the man who did the sign language at Nelson Mandela's Memorial. Well, now he is telling CNN, he's defending himself, saying that he is a legitimate interpreter with many years of experience. A lot of people really don't believe it.

HOLMES: No, no. Those who've been watching and commenting -- there he is on the right of your screen -- a lot of people who are deaf and work for deaf groups say the man's a fraud. CNN spoke to him at his home in Soweto. But rather than clear up the controversy, his answers really raised just more doubts about his credentials. Now, when CNN asked him, for example, to demonstrate a few signs, including the name Nelson Mandela, he refused. David McKenzie joining us now from Johannesburg.

You know, in some ways this is becoming a bit of a sad story in a way. He said that he's not well in some ways. He's also defending his position. He says nobody's ever challenged him before now. Is that true?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, that's not true in fact. The Deaf Association of South Africa said, Michael, they challenged him some years ago when he was doing sign for President Zuma. And just for the record, the sign for Mandela is a hand like this and the finger over the head, which indicates the haircut he used to have the '60s.

If you look at the gentleman who was doing the sign through some four hours of speeches from world leaders, including President Barack Obama, he looked pretty confident, at least I thought so when I was watching, but people who understand sign here really said what he was saying was rubbish. When I met with him today, he defended himself.


THAMSANQA JANTJIE, SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETER AT MEMORIAL: For the Deaf Association, if they think that I've done wrong interpretation, I ask forgiveness. But for deaf South Africa, if you tell me that I was doing wrong interpretation, then they should answer me why they were silent all the time.

MCKENZIE: All these years?

JANTJIE: All these years, why they were silent.

MCKENZIE: People have complained before when you interpreted for

JANTJIE: I've never had them -

MCKENZIE: President Zuma before.

JANTJIE: Listen - listen, I've never, ever, ever, in my life, have anything that said I've interpreted wrong. You can go through all the medias of South Africa, been (ph) interpreting too, all the medias of South Africa. Even if you can see my portfolio, I've been in (INAUDIBLE) for a very long time, no single one said I'm interpreting a wrong interpretation.


MCKENZIE: Well, Michael and Suzanne, one twist to the tale is that he said he was on medication for schizophrenia. He didn't say that this really affected his performance at all. The South African government is saying they're investigating this, but they dispel any questions of security lapses. They say, well, it's not as if he just, quote, "walked in." But the question is, why someone who appears not to have potentially the credibility for the deaf community in South Africa or the rest of the world got into such an important event for this country and it's, of course, it's deeply embarrassing for the government and the ruling ANC party.

MALVEAUX: And, David, what I like about your interview, specifically, is you really tried to get some answers from him and you don't get very many answers but you really try, even to try to get him to sign just the simple things here. Do we have a sense of any of these -- where he came from, who hired him, whether or not he was -- he even went through the proper security channels to be there?

MCKENZIE: Well, the government says he did go through, Suzanne, the security channels. And when I pressed him on his credentials, several times asking repeatedly the same question, well, what training did you do, what qualifications do you have, he just referred me to his resume and then wouldn't elaborate.

When we went to the office where he says his company that he works for, they were an events company, that appears to have no connection to this. So it's unclear at this stage what the key issue is here, but certainly it's very embarrassing for the country, and he's remaining defiant.

Suzanne and Michael.

HOLMES: Yes. David, thanks so much. David McKenzie there in Jo-burg (ph).

And the sad thing about this, in many ways, is that it's detracting from the focus of all of this, which is Nelson Mandela. Today was day two of paying respects to Nelson Mandela. The viewing day, second of three days. It ended just a short time ago. As we said yesterday, they, out of respect and culture, they take the body indoors when it gets dark.

MALVEAUX: He is lying in state in Pretoria so that South Africans can come and say farewell and mourners have one more opportunity tomorrow. His funeral set for Sunday.

And here's more of what we're working for AROUND THE WORLD.

This American pastor has been detained in Iran for more than a year. Well, now his family is intensifying its fight to free him, set him free. We're going to hear from his wife, up next.

HOLMES: Also, details about a super-secret military project. We're going to show you the new spy plane that might be sitting at the famous Area 51 test center.

MALVEAUX: And the smog so bad in China, they are now teaching pilots how to land planes in this heavy, heavy pollution.


MALVEAUX: The wife of an American pastor who has been in prison for more than a year in Iran spoke out on Capitol Hill today pleading for help. Saeed (sic) Abedini says her husband went to Iran to build an orphanage but was thrown in prison unjustly because of his Christian beliefs. Well, the couple is from Idaho and has two young children and Abedini was sentenced to eight years, accused of undermining Iran's national security. His wife says her 33-year-old husband is in poor health. She is angry at the U.S. government that it did not make a deal with Iran for his freedom when they negotiated the nuclear deal.


NAGHMEH ABEDINI, WIFE OF PASTOR IMPRISONED IN IRAN: My husband is suffering because he's a Christian. He's suffering because he's an American. Yet his own government did not fight for him when his captors were across the table from them.


MALVEAUX: Our own Jim Sciutto spoke with the pastor's wife about her battle for his freedom.


Saeed Abedini went to Iran to visit relatives there. He's an Iranian- American. And when he was there, he was arrested, in effect, because of his faith, accused by the Iranians, because he's Christian, that he's trying to convert Muslims in Iran to Christianity.

They call that a national security crime. They accuse him of, in effect, trying to overthrow the government, waging, in their words, "a soft war," and he's been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Leaves his family back home, his wife, two children of 5 and 7.

I was able to meet with his wife, Nagameh, yesterday, and she describes how difficult it's been for him because they keep telling him that he may leave, he may not leave, and his hopes are raised and then crushed, a form of psychological torture, she says.


NAGAMEH ABEDINI, SAEED ABEDINI'S WIFE: Psychological tortures, I know the first few months they would say, You're going to go free. Pack your stuff and go.

And he would get everything ready and be excited to be able to come see the kids and I, and they would say no. And the next day, they would say, We're going to hang you today for your faith.


SCIUTTO: Now, Nagameh told me last night that she and her children dread another Christmas separated from her husband, from the children's father, and he's one of three Americans, it's believed, are held in Iran right now.

There's another, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, who, like Saeed, went back to visit relatives in Iran. He was captured, accused of being a spy, now in prison.

And then there's the case of Robert Levinson. He's disappeared since 2007 in Iran. The Iranian government has never acknowledged he's there, but it is believed he's there.

And when you speak to the families, as I've been able to do, they're hoping this new warming of relations between Iran and the U.S. will give them new hope that their family members may be released as a result, but they haven't seen that happen yet. U.S. government has raised their case, but they're really hoping for a real change.


MALVEAUX: And, meanwhile, U.S. senators, they are meeting on Capitol Hill today to discuss whether or not to impose additional sanctions against Iran because the Obama administration has insisted that any sanctions would violate the terms of the new interim agreement to curb Tehran's nuclear perhaps. That agreement would limit Iran's uranium enrichment in return for easing some international sanctions.

HOLMES: All right. Now, you would expect to hear certain noises on a plane. You might hear the crying baby down the back, some coughing, some sneezing, maybe a little snoring if you're on a long flight.

Soon you could hear cell phone chatter from the guy behind you or the teenager sitting next to you. Sounds great, doesn't it? The FCC debating now whether to lift the ban on making calls or texts during flights. CNN's Rene Marsh joins us now. Rene, we've been talking about this for a long time now, but today's the day when they're really talking about it.

Officially, how big of a step could this be today? I, for one, would hope they say no.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're hoping they say no. So here's the good news, Michael, it will be a year or more before you can call into the newsroom, call Suzanne there, midflight.

That said, today, the FCC is moving forward with its proposal. It's a small step, but it is a move forward to allow flyers to text and talk on their cell phones during flight. Now a short time ago, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, he defended the proposal at an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill.

The FCC says that technology is advanced enough to allow people to talk and text on cell phones above 10,000 feet without interfering with cell towers on the ground.

Here he is.


TOM WHEELER, FCC CHAIRMAN: I'm the last person in the order who wants to listen to somebody talking to me while I fly across the country. But we are the technical agency and we will make the technical rules that reflect the way the new technology works.


MARSH: All right. Later on this afternoon, all five FCC commissioners, they will vote on whether to consider lifting the ban after the FCC vote. The issue will open up for public comment, so you can weigh in, Michael.

HOLMES: Yeah. You can give them a call, if you like.

I don't think I'll be calling Suzanne from the plane, but, look, I've got to ask you, though. It then goes to the airlines, doesn't it? Can the airlines make their own rules even if the officialdom say you can do it? Can the airlines say, well, not on our planes?

MARSH: They absolutely can.

So this is just simply so consider lifting the ban. However, if you're an airline, you decide you do not want to allow this sort of thing on your flights, you have the opportunity to say that, and you would not need to apply for this license.

So all of these airlines would have to apply for a license to have this wireless connectivity. So the answer's simple, some airlines will go for it, and others will not. So you'll have to decide which one will you want to be on. HOLMES: And when it comes to the decision-making on the ruling, I think there's been polls that show that most Americans would like it to stay non-telephone on the flight, would that public opinion have anything effect on them?

MARSH: Well, they will be analyzing all of the public comments. So, they'll take all of that into consideration.

But I think what they're really going to be looking at is, what are potential safety and security issues that could come as a result of lifting this ban. So they'll be looking at that seriously, but of course look at those comments, too from people who think that this is just a bad idea.

HOLMES: My vote, it's the only time you get away from the phones. We'll see what happens.

Rene, thanks so much.

MARSH: Sure.

HOLMES: Let us know what happens.


MALVEAUX: Come on, Michael. I know you want to call me. You want to call me from the plane. I know you do.

HOLMES: I don't want to call you.

MALVEAUX: All right.

With all the cold weather hitting the U.S., you think these might be pictures from the Great Lakes or Northeast, but would you believe this is actually Israel?

They're having a really cold December. That story, up next.


HOLMES: Welcome back.

A day after riot police were criticized for storming thousands of protesters in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and even using chainsaws to bring down barriers, we're now hearing maybe there could be something of a breakthrough.

The European Union's chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton, now says that she's heard the president of Ukraine intends to sign a deal on closer ties with the European Union, which is what this thing has all about. That's what protesters wanted.

MALVEAUX: The protests began after the government's decision last month to reject a free trade agreement instead of favoring something that was closer economic ties with Russia, with Moscow.

Diana Magnay walked among those protesters in the hours after the riot police crackdown.

Watch this.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: These barricades were torn down by riot police in early hours of Wednesday morning, but now they are back and possibly bigger than ever, protesters using anything that they can get their hands on, but a lot of snow, which they've packed into these white bags.

Now, it's a symbol, if you will, of their resilience, their determination to keep protesting until their demands are met.

The Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych says that he is now prepared to talk, that he won't use force against peaceful gatherings.

Also, the opposition say, fine, as long as those talks follow an agreed road map, and not this vague roundtable notion that the president is suggesting, one of them saying to me, you can't fit a roundtable into a square prison cell.

But, ultimately, their demands remain, the resignation of the government and fresh elections.

Michael, Suzanne, back to you.


MALVEAUX: Homes and cars under water, this is in Rio de Janeiro, after torrential rains triggering those flash floods. The city is literally paralyzed.

HOLMES: Yeah. Wait till you see the pictures.

Shasta Darlington, covering the story for us from Brazil.


SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Heavy rains flooded much of Rio de Janeiro, submerging cars and toppling some houses.

In fact, the mayor urged people to stay home and avoid the chaos gripping the city. Cars have been abandoned, flights and trains canceled, and some residents were rescued in boats. The flooding comes as Rio struggles to improve its infrastructure for the World Cup, just six months away.


HOLMES: And, in the United States, weren't we just talking about how cold the U.S. is, despite it's still fall?

MALVEAUX: I don't like the weather. It's too cold.

HOLMES: I don't like it either. Yeah, too wet, too cold.

Yeah, take a look at what's happening now, though, another blast of cold air hitting right across the country.

MALVEAUX: People from the Great Lakes to the Northeast, they're trying to keep warm. Take a look at all that snow. It was three-below in Chicago this morning. People in upstate New York, they're getting buried, just buried in all this stuff. More on the way to the region this weekend, as well.

HOLMES: As if you needed it.

People in Syracuse are used to the snow, at least. People in Jerusalem, not so much. It does happen, but not often. It rarely gets below freezing, particularly in December.

MALVEAUX: But right now, there's a winter storm bringing snow and cold, really cold, to the area. Schools have closed. Getting around, of course, a big hassle.

Here's more from our CNN's Karl Penhaul.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is what Jerusalem woke up to this morning, driving snow and freezing temperatures. This really is quite unusual in the city. The last time there was a significant dump of snow in the month of December was all the way back in 1953.

Now, weathermen say there's an icy blast coming down from the North Pole that could last through to the weekend. School classes have been suspended for many, so time now for a little bit of fun.


HOLMES: Karl Penhaul, always -

MALVEAUX: He was not going to let them win.

HOLMES: -- violent that man.

With the bald head? Put a beanie on, Karl. Goodness, me.

MALVEAUX: He looked like he was having a little fun there.

HOLMES: He was.

MALVEAUX: We're watching this story, the House vote to fund the federal government, just hours away.

We'll show you -- take you live to the White House for the reaction there to the bipartisan -- we're talking bipartisan deal here.

HOLMES: Nice to use that word when you're talking Congress.

MALVEAUX: All right. HOLMES: We'll check it out after the break.