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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Coast-to-Coast Winter Storm, Snow and Rain from California to Massachusetts with Parts of the U.S. South Getting Hit Next; Lockerbie Plane-Bombing Suspect in Custody; Russia Demands a German-Held Spy. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 12, 2022 - 05:00   ET



KRISTIN FISHER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START, coast-to-coast Winter storm, snow and rain from California to Massachusetts with parts of the south getting hit next. Plus, a suspect in the Lockerbie bombing now in custody almost 34 years after the attack that killed 270 people. And a Russian spy being held right now in Germany, could he be the key to getting imprisoned American Paul Whelan back home?

Hello, and welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Kristin Fisher. This morning, snow walloping the U.S. from coast-to-coast as a powerful Winter storm moves across the country. More than 15 million Americans in 14 states under some sort of Winter weather alert right now.

The storm has shattered major highways in parts of the west, even bringing avalanche warnings. Snow has blanketed mountain areas of drought-patched, California with thick snow. This is Soda Springs which saw 60 inches in just 48 hours. Britley Ritz is in the CNN Weather Center. Wow, how much more can we expect as this storm makes its way eastward?

BRITLEY RITZ, METEOROLOGIST: Yes, we're still getting snow by the way, Kristin, in the Sierra mountain range as of this morning. And it's just going to be a continuing thing over the next 24 hours for the Sierras, and then it pushes into the Rockies. And well, you know what? We've already started picking up snow in the Rockies. It travels all the way up into the northern plains.

So 60 inches in Soda Springs, forecast snowfall totals expected for the central Rockies in marble and uptick forecast total, this is over the next three days by the way, just over a foot, nearly 13 inches. Many of us, you heard Kristin say 15-plus million are under some sort of Winter weather alert. We now have Winter storm warnings going into the northern plains where we once had Winter storm watches.

Blizzard warnings extended now into parts of Colorado where we have 35-plus-mile per hour winds for over three-hour period of time, knocking down visibility to a quarter of a mile or less. And I told you there's still snow falling through parts of the Sierra mountain range, and that pushes on to parts of the four corners into the central Rockies as of this morning. And we'll continue over the next 24 hours. This area of low pressure eventually takes it track farther east, and on the back end of that low, now we're dealing with a threat for ice across the northern plains and upper Midwest. Now, Kristin, a quarter of an inch of ice to a half an inch of ice doesn't seem like much, but it's enough to cause widespread power outages and then wind up with tree limbs down and treacherous travel conditions.

FISHER: Yes, that sounds like a lot of ice. But hey, at least the folks going out west to go skiing and snowboarding over the holidays are going to get --

RITZ: Yes --

FISHER: Some fresh snow there, so some good news at least. Thank you so much.

RITZ: Yes, absolutely.

FISHER: So, the Libyan man accused of helping build that bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 is finally going to answer for it in a U.S. court more than three decades after the jet was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board. CNN's Nic Robertson is live in London this morning. Nic, wow, what are officials saying about how they'll prove this decades-old crime and how this suspect came into U.S. hands to begin with?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, it's a huge deal. He's the first suspect in this bombing to be in U.S. custody, the last trial of the last alleged bombers and convicted bomber, was back in the late 19 -- was 1999-2000. And that was -- that was held under Scottish jurisdiction in Europe, in the Netherlands.

But to this case, this man, alleged bomb-maker, he'd been a Libyan Intelligence agent for about 40 years. Back in 2012, he was questioned by Libyan law enforcement in connection to something else, but it came out in that questioning, that he said that he was -- he did make the bomb for the Lockerbie bombing, 2017 was when the FBI heard about this questioning and 2020, the FBI actually got to speak to the Libyan law enforcement officer who took that alleged confession.

And this is part of the track that's led to him coming to United States, quite how he got there is unclear. Although, the Libyan law enforcement officer said that he would help U.S. officials if the Libyan government signed off on him doing that. So it does appear that the Libyan government has been giving a helping hand here.


But the whole investigation here into this horrendous terrorist attack has been very long and very painful, but very thorough.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Almost 34 years since the deadliest terror attack in British history, and the man accused of building the bomb that killed 270 people, mostly Americans, is finally going to face justice in a U.S. court. A huge moment for victims' families.

KARA WEIPZ, LOST BROTHER IN PAN AM FLIGHT 103 BOMBING: It has been one of our -- it has been the top priority to find the truth and hold these people accountable. And the fact that this is now going to happen in the U.S. is monumental.

ROBERTSON : Libyan Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi was arrested for his alleged role in blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, 38 minutes after it took off for the U.S. from London, killing everyone on board and 11 people on the ground. The U.S. first charged Al-Marimi for his involvement in the attack two years ago while he was already in custody in Libya for unrelated crimes.

MICHAEL SHERWIN, FORMER ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY: It is alleged in the criminal complaint and the indictment that at that time, all co- conspirators worked together to arm the explosive device in the suitcase.

ROBERTSON: The Justice Department expects Al-Marimi to make his first appearance in district court in Washington in the coming days. For years, the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing case was Abdel Baset Al-Mohammed al-Megrahi. Al-Megrahi; a former Libyan Intelligence official was accused along with another Libyan man who was acquitted for planting the explosive inside a portable cassette player in a suitcase on the plane.

Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison. But eight years after his conviction in 2008, he was released from a Scottish prison with terminal prostate cancer. Arriving home in Libya, he received a hero's welcome. In 2011, following the revolution that toppled Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi, I visited al-Megrahi at his home in Tripoli. He was near death, his family as they always had protesting his innocence.

(on camera): Has he been able to see a doctor?

KHALED AL-MEGRAHI, SON OF CONVICTED LOCKERBIE BOMBER ABDEL BASET AL- MEGRAHI: No, there's no doctor. There's nobody to ask, and we don't have any phone lines to call anybody.

ROBERTSON: What's his situation right now?

AL-MEGRAHI: He stopped eating, and he sometimes come in coma.

ROBERTSON: Coma, he goes unconscious.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): He died the following year without ever proving his innocence. Al-Marimi's trial will likely revisit parts of Megrahi's defense, particularly alleged inconsistencies about how the bomb came to be in the plane.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROBERTSON: Detail on some of the complexity of the investigation that

debris field scattered over 845 square miles. It was a tiny fragment of the circuit board of the bomb that was discovered and embedded in clothing. It was -- investigators figured out that the clothing was purchased in a store in Malta, and this is what led to the unraveling of the plot and the involvement of these Libyan Intelligence agents. Mas'ud now, perhaps, offering up details previously unknown.

FISHER: Yes, Nic Robertson, thank you so much. So the top U.S. Hostage Affairs official says that Brittney Griner spoke about her ordeal as a Russian prisoner during her flight to the United States. But Ambassador Roger Carstens told CNN on Sunday that Griner was healthy, in good spirits and mainly focused on gratitude towards those who helped get her home.


ROGER CARSTENS, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR HOSTAGE AFFAIRS FOR UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: When she finally got onto the U.S. plane, I said Brittney, you must have been through a lot over the last ten months. Here's your seat, please, feel free to decompress, we'll give you your space, and she said, oh, no, I've been in prison for ten months now listening to Russian, I want to talk. But first of all, who were these guys?

And she moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing.


FISHER: Officials say Griner is now recovering and recuperating at an army medical facility in San Antonio, Texas. National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby says that the U.S. is still negotiating for the release of Paul Whelan who the Russians convicted of espionage.


JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL, WHITE HOUSE: They hold Mr. Whelan differently because of these espionage charges. And so we're working through that now. We are now more informed, clearly having gone through this process over the last few months, we're more informed, we have a better sense of the context here where the Russian expectations are, and we're just going to keep working at it.



FISHER: U.S. officials say Russia is insisting that they want U.S. help securing the release of a Russian spy imprisoned in Germany, as part of a plan to release Whelan. So let's get more on this and just who this spy is from CNN's Fred Pleitgen live in Berlin. So, Fred, who exactly are we talking about here? And how would this even work? I mean, we're essentially talking about a three-country prisoner swap. FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we

would be talking about that, and that's certainly something that makes it very complicated. The person that we're talking about is called Vadim Krasikov, he's known as the "tear garden killer" here in Germany. And he murdered someone execution style right here in central Berlin in 2019.

The person that was murdered was actually a Georgian who fought against the Russians in the Chechnya war. So certainly someone that the Russians wanted out of the way. There was a big trial here in Germany, and the court then found out and ruled that this murder was actually orchestrated by Russian Intelligence Services.

The Germans obviously were very angry about this, they've expelled two Russian diplomats, and since then, Vadim Krasikov has been serving a life sentence here in this country. Now, we've known since about August that the Russians wanted Krasikov back, and they were sort of coming to the U.S. and demanding Krasikov's release if Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner were to be released. That all that was being debated.

We also know that the U.S. actually did make an inquiry to the German government about all this, it was a low-level inquiry, it was never discussed at the top levels here of German politics, and certainly, it was never viewed as a serious offer. So far, what we've been hearing from the Germans over, I'd say the past half year or so is that they say that Krasikov is a non-starter for him to be released from German prison because he is such a high-profile prisoner and certainly someone who obviously the Germans wants to remain in custody.

So it would definitely be very difficult to make something like that happen. Nevertheless, of course, we do know Germany and the U.S., big allies, so unclear how that is going to go in the future, definitely so far though, the Germans are saying is a non-starter for them.

FISHER: Got it. Fred Pleitgen, thank you so much live in Berlin for us. So, the Biden administration is sending a group of senior diplomats to China today, they will follow up on President Biden's talk with the Chinese president on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit in Bali last month. CNN's Kristie Lou Stout is live in Hong Kong. So Kristie, what exactly is the U.S. team hoping to accomplish here?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to the U.S. State Department, this is another move to manage competition and define other areas of cooperation between the U.S. and China. This is a senior high-level U.S. delegation that is making this visit this week to Asia, making stops in South Korea, Japan as well as China.

And it follows closely on the heels of that high-profile meeting between the U.S. President Joe Biden and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping that took place on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Indonesia last month. Now, this latest meeting between this senior U.S. delegation and their counterparts in China is to set the stage for an upcoming visit by the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken due to visit China in early 2023.

And interestingly, according to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting between both sides has already happened. Let's bring up the statement for you. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, quote, "the two sides agreed that the meeting was candid and constructive and agreed to stay in communication", unquote.

So that's a rather positive signal there from Beijing, even after the fact that Secretary Blinken quite recently praised the zero-COVID protests that took place earlier this month in China, protests that were widely censored in China. Back to you, Kristin.

FISHER: Kristie, thank you so much. So NASA is celebrating the success of the Artemis One test flight around the moon, a 26-day mission after what officials called a textbook return to earth on Sunday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Splash-down. From tranquility base to Taurus- Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA's journey.


FISHER: No crew was aboard NASA's Orion spacecraft for this first test flight of the Artemis program, just mannequins to gather some data and a snoopy doll, that's him in red right there as zero G indicators so that they can see one of these wait-list. Now, the ultimate plan someday is to land humans on Mars, hopefully by the end of the 2030s.

But until then, NASA has planned quite a few intermediate missions, orbiting the moon and then landing astronauts back on the moon for the first time in about half a century, hopefully, by 2025.


Some tense moment as security guards rushed a legendary singer off the stage right in the middle of the show. Plus, what will Senate Democrats do now that Kyrsten Sinema has ditched the party? And the latest on another American citizen still held right now in Russia.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Are there negotiations with Russia taking place right now for his release, and if so, can you tell us about that?



FISHER: New details are coming to light about the Biden administration's efforts to free other detained Americans after that prisoner swap with Russia that led to the release of Brittney Griner. More now from CNN's Brian Todd.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): With Brittney Griner's arrival home, there's now

increasing focus on dozens of others who have shared a similar fate.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also remember, the other Americans that are being held hostage and wrongfully detained in Russia or anywhere else in the world.


TODD: There are some 60 Americans being wrongfully detained or held hostage by foreign governments, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation which advocates on behalf of American hostages and wrongful detainees. "The New York Times" citing a State Department official put the number at between 40 and 50 back in July. One of them is Marc Fogel, I spoke to his attorney Tom Firestone.

(on camera): We're frustrated with the Russian judicial system, which has given him 14 years --

(voice-over): Fogel is a 61-year-old school teacher who's been detained in Russia since August of last year after medical cannabis was found in his luggage at a Moscow airport.

(on camera): Are there negotiations with Russia taking place right now for his release, and if so, can you tell us about them?

TOM FIRESTONE, ATTORNEY FOR MARC FOGEL: We don't know what's going on. Obviously, that's all done behind closed doors for very good reasons of confidentiality. The U.S. government has assured us that it is doing what it can to get Marc out.

TODD (voice-over): Marc Fogel has not been declared wrongfully detained by the U.S. government, Paul Whelan has. Whelan, the best- known American detainee has been held in Russia for almost four years, serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, charges the U.S. says are bogus. Whelan spoke to CNN on the phone after Griner's release.

PAUL WHELAN, ARRESTED IN RUSSIA FOR SPYING: In these conditions, who knows how I'll come back or if I'll come back. What I don't understand is why nothing has happened to this point.

TODD: The Biden administration consistently says it's doing everything it can to bring Whelan and the other Americans home. Several Americans are being detained in Iran, including Emad Shargi, held there since 2018 on dubious charges of violating Iran's national security. His sister told CNN she's begging the Biden team for FaceTime and telling her brother to hold on.

NEDA SHARGI, SISTER OF EMAD SHARGI: Well, when I talk to my brother, I tell him that all he has to do is survive every day and to leave the work to me and to his family to bring him home.

TODD: The cases are complicated, difficult and murky. American journalist Austin Tice vanished a decade ago in Syria. Last Summer, President Biden said his team knows with certainty that Tice is being held by the Syrian government. The Syrians deny it, but experts say, striking a deal with Syria, Iran, Russia or any country for the release of an American detainee carries risks.

TOM PASQUARELLO, FORMER DEA REGIONAL DIRECTOR FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA: But I think this sends a message to any group that's interested in kidnapping a U.S. American, it puts a price tag on their head with the assumption the U.S. will negotiate.

TODD (on camera): Tom Firestone and Jason Rezaian; an American journalist who was detained in Iran say that one person who could make a huge difference in these cases is Brittney Griner if she chooses to do it after she gets acclimated. Rezaian wrote in the "Washington Post", that people with Griner's reach and visibility are needed in this fight. Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


FISHER: Thank you, Brian. Time now for some quick hits across America, L.A. City Council member Kevin de Leon says he was acting in self-defense after a video shows him shoving a community organizer. Calls for his resignation date back to October after he was heard in a taped conversation featuring racist remarks.

Patti LaBelle rushed off stage in the middle of a show in Milwaukee.





FISHER: The entire audience at the Riverside Theater was also evacuated over a suspected bomb threat. An investigation is now underway. The eruption of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano appears to be winding down. Geologists say its lava flows are expected to stop altogether in just a matter of days.

It has put on quite a display for us over recent weeks. Coming up though, more pandemic rules are eased in China. And --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another one died from that harsh weather condition. One, my colleague died, another one was beaten and was -- and he went missing.


FISHER: Migrant workers sharing their stories of abuse and mistreatment at the World Cup.



FISHER: It was another weekend of thrills, chills, even a little history-making at the World Cup in Qatar. Morocco became the first African nation to advance to the semi-finals after defeating Portugal on Saturday. And they will take on the defending champions, France, after that team beat out England also on Saturday. CNN's Amanda Davies joins us live with the latest. Amanda, I mean, set the scene for us, here we are at the World Cup boiling down to just four teams after such an exciting weekend.

AMANDA DAVIES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, morning. And I have to say it's a more slower start to Monday here, that feeling of the calm before the semi-final storm, with these four sides now within touching distance of the big one. Today is what's known as match day minus one for the first semi-finals, Croatia against Argentina.

We get the final glimpse of the teams in training, access the mood in the camp, and then hear from the two managers ahead of that clash at the Lusail Stadium. Of course, Croatia back in the semi-final for the second straight World Cup after finishing runners-up four years ago in 2018. They've already seen off the threats of Neymar and Brazil.

Next up for them, they're hoping to do the same with Lionel Messi and Argentina. Messi though has scored four goals in five games, as he looks to lead his side to that first World Cup since 1986. But for all the talk around the seven-time Ballon d'Or champion, and what this tournament means for him. The word from the Croatian camp is that they're not just focusing on him, it's more about the collective.