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EARLY START

Bridgegate Investigation; Officers Suspended in Cheating Scandal; House Approves Spending Plan; Iraq's Dark Days

Aired January 16, 2014 - 05:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Called to testify. Subpoenas could start flying in New Jersey today as Governor Chris Christie meets with voters for the first time since the bridgegate scandal brought down his key aides.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Inside a school shooting. This morning, we are hearing dramatic, heartbreaking 911 calls from the New Mexico middle school and new details of what was found inside the alleged gunman's home.

ROMANS: Dozens of Air Force officers are now off the job, suspended in a cheating scandal involving the nation's nuclear weapons. The Air Force promises reforms, but are our nukes safe?

BERMAN: Nuclear weapons and cheating, a bad, bad combination.

ROMANS: Bad combo.

BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Thursday. It's January 16th, and it is exactly 5:00 a.m. in the East.

BERMAN: And we are going to begin this morning with subpoena time! And that is a dreaded time that any and all politicians hope to avoid, but that time is coming as early as this morning for key players in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration. Christie today is set to visit the Jersey shore for a talk with voters about Hurricane Sandy relief money -- money, by the way, that his administration is accused of misusing for an ad campaign.

This is the first time the public will be able to see the governor in person since e-mails and text messages indicated that his aides were responsible for shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge. Of course, this was apparently all as political payback against a mayor who would not endorse their boss.

Now, this is all coming as a new state committee begins its work, looking into what happened there. That committee could issue subpoenas today, and they've also hired a former federal prosecutor who helped bring down Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. He will be the special counsel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ASSEMBLYMAN VINCENT PRIETO (D), NEW JERSEY: I think Reid Schar is the best person fit to lead this in a mindful direction and give us guidance, especially there may be other agencies investigating. And with his expertise, you know, we look forward to doing this properly and getting down to finding out some answers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Now, despite all this stuff happening, polls from a NBC/Marist poll shows most people have not changed their opinion of Governor Christie and still consider him to be a strong leader.

ROMANS: Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, New Mexico, reopens today as we're hearing for the first time the 911 calls from inside the school, calls describing the terrifying moments after police say a 12- year-old boy opened fire, severely wounding two classmates.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

CALLER: Berrendo Middle School. A kid just shot a gun.

911 OPERATOR: Berrendo Middle School?

CALLER: Berrendo Middle School, someone just got shot.

911 OPERATOR: Who was it?

CALLER: A kid just killed a kid. I don't know. The guy walked away --

911 OPERATOR: Where is the kid that has the gun?

CALLER: I don't know. He's on the floor right now.

CALLER: Talk to me, baby.

I can't let you go into shock. You have to wake up and talk to me, OK?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ROMANS: A law enforcement source tells CNN the shooter had a journal at home, a journal that described his plans. And the source says the boy told some students in the gym to get out before he fired his sawed-off shotgun, but the motive still not clear. The parents of the boy say the incident has left them heartbroken and they offered condolences to the families of the victims. Today, counselors will be on site at the school to help.

BERMAN: So sad.

Breaking overnight, three people are dead after a shooting at a grocery store in Indiana. This happened in Elkhart, about 150 miles north of Indianapolis. Police say a 20-year-old man shot a store employee and a shopper, and then opened fire on police before officers shot and killed him. At this point, police are not revealing any motive. We'll stay on this looking for more details.

ROMANS: This morning, there is new pressure on Congress to not issue new sanctions against Iran. The president telling Democratic senators in a rare nighttime meeting at the White House that any new sanctions could damage the already delicate talks over Iran's nuclear program. Iran next week is set to begin eliminating some of its enriched uranium under a temporary deal with world powers.

BERMAN: All right. This morning, words you never want to hear spoken in the same sentence: nuclear weapons and scam. Today, some three dozen Air Force officers have seen their security clearances suspended after a major cheating scandal. This involves some of the people who keep an eye on the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns has the details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It started with an investigation into illegal drug possession but led to an Air Force cheating scandal. The three dozen airmen are mostly from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The Pentagon says some cheated on a proficiency test last August and September. Others apparently knew about the cheating but didn't stop it or report it.

All have been decertified and restricted from missile crew duty. The cheating was apparently accomplished using text messages. There is a long list of scandals involving missile defense personnel. An Air Force major was fired after drinking too much and got in trouble in Russia. A missile unit at Malmstrom failed a safety and security inspection last year.

And in the nuclear business, where there's absolutely no room for error, a little thing like napping on the job has become an issue.

The defense secretary recently visited one of the missile bases to try to lift morale, but it's not just the Air Force. A Navy vice admiral overseeing nuclear weapons was recently removed from command after being implicated in a gambling investigation.

Studies show manning the missiles can be a very lonely, isolated job, and DOD personnel assigned to the nuclear arsenal have suffered burnout, gotten into domestic violence. But military experts say cheating on tests must be dealt with as a question of character and can never be overlooked.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: You know, zero tolerance when it comes to nuclear weapons seems like a pretty good policy.

ROMANS: Yes, I would say so. Seems like all of the things he mentioned should be attended to, not just the latter.

BERMAN: Bad idea.

All right. All eyes are on the Senate now that the House has given its OK to the $1.1 trillion spending plan that would keep the government running through October. The vote was overwhelming, 359- 67.

This is really seen as a rebuke to conservative groups, including Tea Party groups who rallied against it, and may be a little bit of a boost for Speaker John Boehner. Senators are expected to give their OK by the end of the week.

ROMANS: President Obama is closer this morning to announcing his plans for reforming the NSA. Details set to be released in a speech tomorrow, but there are reports today that the president believes the NSA should be allowed to sweep up phone records and may ask Congress to make the call on new restrictions.

BERMAN: This morning, Washington is still abuzz about a new bipartisan Senate report that blasts the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies for missing warning signs that it says could have prevented the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in Libya in 2012. Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed. The report is also critical of Stevens himself for rejecting offers for extra protection weeks before the Benghazi attack.

ROMANS: There are new details this morning on the status of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier missing in Afghanistan since 2009. As first reported here on CNN, the U.S. military has obtained a new video showing Bergdahl alive but in declining health. That video has not been released, but the military believes it was recorded recently. Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in June 2009. He's believed to be in the custody of insurgents.

BERMAN: Got to be so difficult for his family, but maybe a glimmer of hope as well.

ROMANS: Yes.

BERMAN: Now to Iraq, waking up this morning in the midst of one of its deadliest weeks in years. At least 61 people were killed on Wednesday, dozens more killed earlier this week, leading many people to ask, is this country returning to those awful, chaotic days in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion there?

Michael Holmes, live in Baghdad this morning.

Michael, what does it look like today?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John.

I got to tell you, this time yesterday, we're in the midst of that string of bombings that went. There were nine bombs in all, seven of them were care bombs, two of them were roadside bombs. Mercifully, today, it's been relative quiet. There have been some isolated incidents around the country, but not like yesterday's string of bombs.]

But, you know, the thing is here in Baghdad, it's all about dread anticipation and fear. The Iraqis I speak to every day here say it is not an exaggeration or melodrama to say every time they leave their house at this time, they don't know if they're going to come back. People actually say good-bye to their family and mean it, just in case something goes wrong, because the vast majority of these people are, of course, innocent civilians.

Security very tight around the capital at the moment. We just talked to somebody out driving around, and the traffic here is horrible because of it, but it's necessary. But even with that security presence, the bombs continue to get in -- John.

BERMAN: A very, very tense situation in Iraq today.

Michael Holmes, thanks for being in Baghdad for us. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: There are growing concerns today that the West is getting drier, and that could mean a really bad fire season. New figures from government scientists show drought conditions in California and elsewhere in the far West intensified dramatically last year. California, for example, received the lowest amount of precipitation in more than 100 years. Scientists are warning there may be water shortages in the coming months. And again, huge fire risk.

BERMAN: You know, Indra Petersons has been warning us.

ROMANS: She has.

BERMAN: That things could get bad in California over the next few days.

Let's go to Indra now for a look at the forecast today.

ROMANS: Hi, Indra.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning.

Yes, that's usually the biggest concern. It's January and February. It's the one time in California really not talking about drought conditions, because it's when you typically get the rain. That is the opposite of what they've been seeing in what should be their rainy season.

In fact, high pressure still dominating, bringing in the typical Santa Ana winds. When that happens, you start seeing humidities that go down to single digits. Hardly looking at the 60 percent and 70 percent humidities they should be seeing this time of year. Of course, we're also looking at temperatures there -- looks like the clicker's not working for us today.

We're talking about drought conditions really extreme at this point. Notice, this is what the drought conditions looked like last year. Now, notice they are in the extreme condition here.

So, what are we looking at? We're going to be looking at temperatures here really going down. Dry fuel levels out there. With that, that red flag warning is high.

So, let's talk about what's going on across the country today. East Coast still looking at this little, tiny wave making its way through, a tiny bit of a chance for showers -- Boston, Philly, New York City. You're still looking for that. Otherwise, another system, a clipper, will be making its way through.

So, really, the Northeast, look for showers throughout the entire weekend. Look for showers throughout the entire weekend. Very minimal, they're both clippers are minimal, small systems, but either way, blizzard conditions farther back in the Dakotas and Minnesota and it's something we call a ground blizzard.

The winds are so high, even the snow levels aren't that high, you're still talking about low visibility. And for that reason, they have those blizzard warnings out there today.

Otherwise, take a look at the temperatures starting to cool off today. First, kind of starting around Minnesota. Eventually, that cold air kind of spreading into the Southeast, making its way into the Northeast for the weekend.

BERMAN: A ground blizzard.

PETERSONS: A ground blizzard, yes. A lot of high winds but not really that much snow. Either way, still can't see.

BERMAN: Thanks, Indra.

PETERSONS: Sure.

ROMANS: All right. Dow futures lower right now, but that's not unusual after the Dow had its fourth highest close in history. The Dow gaining 108 points, the NASDAQ gaining almost 1 percent. You know, the S&P 500 eked out a record, erasing all of its 2014 losses.

In Europe right now, London, Frankfurt, Paris, mixed. In Tokyo, the Nikkei closed 61 points lower.

And here in the U.S., JCPenney's stock is lower in premarket trading. The ailing retailer is going to cut 2,000 jobs, close 33 of what it calls underperforming stores. It has been a brutal year for JCPenney. The stock is down more than 60 percent over the past year. The company's been losing hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter.

BERMAN: You've been talking about JCPenney, I feel like, for 18 months, and none of it has been good news.

ROMANS: No. It's going to be one of those case studies when you go to business school how not to run a company. JCPenney had a turn- around that just flopped. And now they're trying to turn back around again. BERMAN: This is a story that everyone knows. Everyone's shopped at JCPenney.

ROMANS: Yes, got to know your customer. Don't abandon your customer. That's what JCPenney did.

BERMAN: All right. Coming up for us next -- we know our customers. This, though, has been called unthinkable and unimaginable. The angry words now being directed at rescue crews in San Francisco after we showed you this video of what they did after the crash of a jet. We'll have the latest.

ROMANS: And voting is now over in Egypt, where a new constitution was on the line. So, what did the country decide? We're going to tell you, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: This morning, there is more fallout from video we first showed you yesterday. This firefighter surveillance footage from the moments after the crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco.

It shows 16-year-old Ye Mengyuan lying on the runway and rescuers telling colleagues to be mindful of a body. They knew she was there, but she was later run over twice by firefighting rigs and killed. Her family is suing San Francisco, and their lawyer tells CNN the footage shows rescuers didn't even do the basics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUSTIN GREEN, FAMILY LAWYER: The first step in triage is to take the pulse, check the respiration. That was never done. And the video, which I think is the best evidence of what happened, shows at least five firefighters who saw her, who understood she was there, and none of them did the basic step of checking if she was alive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The city of San Francisco and its fire department have declined comment, citing pending litigation. But at the time of the crash, the fire chief apologized for the accident.

BERMAN: Some top Vatican officials for the first time are being questioned at length today about child sex abuse in the church. A United Nations committee in Geneva will meet with the Vatican's top sex crimes prosecutor to ask what the church did and did not do when officials became aware of so-called pedophile priests. In written testimony submitted last month, the Vatican argued it is not responsible for the individual actions of every priest around the world.

ROMANS: Egypt this morning appears on its way to a new constitution. Voting is now over and it appears most Egyptians said yes to a new charter and a new start for the country's experiment with democracy.

Reza Sayah's live in Cairo with the latest. What can you tell us, Reza?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine, the official vote count not in yet, but according to state media, 98 percent of Egyptians voted yes on the constitution, 2 percent voted no, and that's really no surprise. Even before this referendum, it was widely believed that this charter was going to pass.

The bigger question, voter turnout, state media also reporting that was impressive -- 55 percent voter turnout, which is somewhat of a surprise based on the relatively short lines we saw at a lot of polling stations throughout the past couple of days.

The big question now, what does this mean for Egypt's military-backed government? It means they'll probably use this to bolster their credibility. It could set the stage for a run for the presidency by the top army chief.

Washington is watching closely as well. It could mean the restoration of Egyptian aid that Washington froze over the summer because of concern over repressive tactics. But we simply can't ignore some of the repressive tactics that are continuing, some of the brutality, according to rights groups.

Two thousand two hundred people, according to rights groups, have been killed ever since the ouster of Mohamed Morsy, thousands of others arrested, including secular activists, including journalists. That includes some of our own former colleagues. And many rights groups say restoring aid by Washington in Egypt in essence is condoning some of these troubling developments, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Reza Sayah for us in Egypt -- thank you, Reza.

In Washington today, two top officials set to testify before a House committee on the security of personal information on Healthcare.gov. The Obamacare Web site has come under fire not only for its well publicized sign-up problems, but also because of concerns it's not secure enough to keep personal information protected.

BERMAN: A Navy pilot in critical condition this morning after his jet crashed into the Atlantic near Virginia Beach. Dramatic video shows him being taken to the hospital in Norfolk. The Navy says the plane, an F/A-18E Super Hornet, was taking part in a routine training mission when it crashed and the pilot was picked up by a civilian fishing ship nearby. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

ROMANS: Controversy this morning for the wife of a Miami Dolphins player. Lauren Tannehill, the wife of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, apparently left her rifle in the back of a rental car. This happened in Ft. Lauderdale earlier this month. The sheriff's office says she rented a car at the airport, then went back a few hours later to swap the car for another one, but she left a rifle behind.

The next renter found the rifle, turned it over to police. No charges are expected.

BERMAN: Leave the gun, take the cannolis.

This morning, we have some information you need to know if you like alcohol. A study that says heavy drinking is bad for your brain. I think that's a shock! The new study shows a steep decline in memory for men who have more than 2 1/2 alcoholic drinks per day.

Now, heavy female drinkers, or females who drink a lot, also showed some problems with planning and focusing, but apparently not memory. So, if you're a woman, you can drink a lot and not lose your memory.

Surprisingly, a woman who abstained from alcohol completely showed the greatest loss of brain functioning.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: I can't focus or follow this story at all. I don't know why.

BERMAN: It seems unfair on many different levels.

ROMANS: All right, this morning, "12 Years a Slave," one of the year's most celebrated films, expected to be one of the most nominated when the Motion Picture Academy reveals the best in show. "Gravity," a Sandra Bullock 3D space drama, did you see it?

BERMAN: Not yet.

ROMANS: It's also expected to receive multiple Oscar nominations.

BERMAN: I saw my twins a lot.

ROMANS: "American Hustle," David O. Russell's long con with a great cast, great pair and also great costumes, another pre-Oscar favorite. The best picture category can have anywhere from five to 10 nominees. We're going to bring you the Oscar nominations live on "NEW DAY" at 8:38 a.m. Eastern. This is the first year I've seen most of the films.

BERMAN: "Iron Man 3", I'm going with that "Iron Man 3".

Among the films we should say up for best documentary today is CNN films' "Blackfish", about SeaWorld and the alleged mistreatment of orca whales in its parks. This morning, the company says it earned record profits last year, despite many musical acts saying they would not perform there. SeaWorld says attendance numbers were up, up for them in the fourth quarter.

The company says it is launching a new orca whale show this summer.

ROMANS: I think the CEO of the company's ringing the closing bell at the big board at the New York Stock Exchange.

BERMAN: Interesting timing, very interesting timing.

ROMANS: They had very good numbers.

All right. Coming up, danger at the Australian Open. It is so hot, matches being delayed as the mercury climbs. I don't know how can you do anything in that weather, let alone play your best game ever.

We're going to have details in the "Bleacher Report," next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: You know, weather has become a major issue at the Australian Open. By weather, I mean heat.

BERMAN: Yes, it's hot!

First, it was the extreme heat, now it's worse, the matches are being suspended because of rain and lightning.

Joe Carter here with a messy, hot, lightning-filled "Bleacher Report" -- Joe.

JOE CARTER, BLEACHER REPORT: Hi. Good morning, guys.

All right. So, Australia's about 16 hours ahead of us. So, right now, it's about 9:24 in the evening. Earlier today, the high temperature was 109. Obviously, that's extremely dangerous temperatures to play outdoor tennis in. So, officials when it came to the three arena courts, they decided to close the retractable roofs.

As far as the outdoor matches were concerned, they decided to push those matches to start later in the afternoon, around 4:00, 5:00, but that's when the rain and lightning came through, forcing 14 matches to be suspended.

Now, Friday, it's going to be another scorcher. Temperatures are expected to reach about 111 degrees. So, probably going to push those matches outside to the late day again, but major relief is in sight on Saturday. Temperatures will drop nearly 40 degrees, so it's going to be great weather this weekend for them, somewhere around 73-75 degrees Fahrenheit come Saturday and Sunday.

All right. So, trending this morning on bleacherreport.com. Get this, a Little League Baseball coach is suing his own player for more than $500,000. Now, the coach says that his Achilles was severed when he was struck by the 14-year-old's helmet. Now, the kid accidentally hit the coach in the leg with his helmet while he was celebrating a game-winning run. The coach, though, is suing this kid for lost wages and medical bills, nearly $500,000.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually thought it was a joke at first.

REPORTER: You didn't think he was serious?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

REPORTER: And now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now, I think it's absurd.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARTER: All right, let's end on a good story here. Twin sisters Tracy and Lanny Barnes share Olympic dreams, but only one is headed for Sochi. Tracy last week qualified for a spot on Team USA's biathlon team, but her sister, Lanny, fell short because she was too sick to compete. That's when sister Tracy stepped up and gave up her own spot in the Olympics so her sister could go instead.

Now, Lanny originally said no to the offer, but then she finally accepted. Tracy said her sister, Lanny, deserves the offer more, deserves the opportunity more because she had a better year competing and she didn't think it was right to let an illness during their final qualifying event keep her from achieving her Olympic goals.

And here's the kicker, too, here, guys. Tracy, the one who's giving up her spot, back in 2010 fell short of making the Olympics. So, essentially, the last two chances that Tracy has had to get into the Olympics, she hasn't been able to go. Obviously, the first time she fell short in competition, the second time giving up her spot to her sister.

So, obviously, a great act, but I'm sure some time in the near future, she's going to come back to her sister and say, remember that time I gave up my spot to you? How about some mortgage money or --

ROMANS: Sisters never forget, and it's never without payback.

BERMAN: They did both go to the Olympics in 2006, so they have both had a chance to go before, so at least it's not the biggest sacrifice you could make.

Joe, really appreciate it.

CARTER: Thanks.

BERMAN: The top headlines and everything you need to know for your day, including the latest on the bridgegate scandal, including subpoenas that could be coming within hours, right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)