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August 30th, 2013
05:49 AM ET

Pres. Obama Calls Lawmakers With No Doubt on Syria

Since congress is not back in session yet, President Obama takes to the phone to get his point to lawmakers that action needs to be taken in Syria, CNN's Dana Bash reports.

Top White House officials tell CNN the president called lawmakers Thursday night to say the administration has no doubt President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria is behind deadly chemical attacks.

Though CNN's Frederick Pleitgen reports the Syrian defense minister recently sent a letter to the defense minister of Iran saying the rebels are the ones responsible for the attacks in the country.

Secretaries of State, Defense and others, refute this claim and assured the group the U.S. has intercepted communications "from a high level Syrian official which clearly indicates they were responsible for these weapons."

One key GOP senator, Bob Corker, emerged from the briefings to announce support for what he called "surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime's continued use of chemical warfare."

Democratic Senate foreign relations chair Bob Menendez reaffirmed his support too, saying "a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted."

Others argued the president still has to come before congress and the American people before he acts.

For more information on this story visit CNN.com. 

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Filed under: Syria • World
August 29th, 2013
06:33 AM ET

President Obama: "There Must Be Consequences in Syria"

The White House could release evidence the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people as early as Thursday, CNN's Barbara Starr reports.

In an interview with PBS Newshour, the President left no doubt who the U.S. believes ordered the chemical weapons attacks, saying:

"We want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people – against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you're also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop."

Among the evidence proving the Syrian regime's hand behind chemical weapons use: intercepts of Syrian commanders discussing the movement of chemical weapons to the area of the attack, provided by Israeli intelligence.

The U.S.'s potential next step, launching cruise missile strikes, has put the U.S. at direct odds with Russia.

"We do not believe the Syrian regime should be able to hide behind the fact that the Russians continue to block action on Syria at the U.N., State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf tells the press.

"But behind the scenes officials are signalling the U.S. may not wait for the U.N. to act," Starr says.

"The U.S. military is strengthening its position in the Eastern Mediterrrean with the addition of two more submarines."

The Syrian regime is also getting prepared.

Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, says "We are in a state of war right now preparing ourselves for the worst     scenario."

But the rhetoric from the Syrian government has also become more subdued now.

"You can tell that the regime is getting more and more nervous," reports CNN's Frederik Pleitgen.

Pleitgen says many Syrians are also getting fearful and trying to leave the country now. 

“People seem unsure what the future will bring with the American air strikes looming.”

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Filed under: Syria • Syria • Uncategorized
August 28th, 2013
06:25 AM ET

U.S., Russia Trade Barbs Over Syria

A U.S. response to Syria is imminent after clear word from the Obama Administration insisting the Assad regime is to blame for a deadly chemical weapons attack near Damsacus, which rebels say left some 1300 people dead.

Plans are apparently in the works for a U.S. response, but the White House says nothing has yet been decided.

CNN has learned the National Security Council met Tuesday night at the White House, to discuss Syria. The president did not take part.

Meanwhile, Russia is warning the U.S. against an attack.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted Tuesday: "The West handles the Islamic world the way a monkey handles a grenade."

“There's no love affair between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but their countries have been in a tight embrace since Soviet times,” reports CNN’s Jill Dougherty.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has said, “The Russian-Syrian relationship is a historical relationship that goes back decades back and is still continuing in the same momentum till this day.”

From military ties to those of blood and religion, the Russians and Syrians have a clear vested interest in one other.

“Syria has been buying its military weapons from Russia since Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled the country and Moscow is still fulfilling some of those Soviet-era contracts,” Dougherty reports.

Also, Russia's naval facility in Syria's port of Tartus is Moscow's only remaining Mediterranean repair spot for its ships.

According to Russian media, at least 25,000 Russian women are married to Syrian men.

And the largest Christian denomination in both Syria and Russia is the Orthodox Church. Moscow fears that if Islamist rebels win, they will be decimated.

“But the deepest reason the Kremlin sticks with Assad is Russia's anger over any unilateral military action or regime change by the West,” Dougherty explains.

“It started with NATO's 1999 air campaign against Russia's ally, Serbia.”

Matters worsened when the west launched airstrikes against Libya's Muammar Gadhafi, in 2011.

Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “Mr. Putin basically came to the conclusion that never again, this will never happen again. That they will stick by Mr. Assad and Syria. Not because they particularly like Mr. Assad but because they see him as the legitimate president, or the legitimate leader of Syria.”

Dougherty says, “Russia now claims there's little difference between President Obama and President George W. Bush. And they predict that if Assad falls what comes after him could be even worse.”

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Filed under: Russia • Syria • White House • World
August 28th, 2013
06:15 AM ET

'Rim Fire' Becomes 7th Largest in California History

 A massive wildfire raging in Northern California continues to burn out of control, becoming the seventh largest in the state’s history.

The Rim Fire has now grown to some 281 square miles - and has destroyed more than a hundred buildings, including some homes. Thousands more are threatened.

“Walking into the burning timber on the edge of Yosemite National Park, the loud crackling of burning trees and the crash of trees falling is unmistakable,” reports CNN’s Casey Wian.

Johnny Miller of Cal Fire says, "One of the biggest concerns is that obviously you see these large trees out here, so we have a lot of those trees that are dropping or falling in isolated areas, so our firefighters really have to be heads up when they're out there putting water on the fire."

In several hot-spots, there's no water in sight. Firefighters are dealing with conditions that make it apparent the fire will continue to burn for longer yet.

“It's not just fire, the smoke is so thick in areas surrounding Yosemite that visibility is reduced to less than 100 yards,” Wian says.

“The good news, most of Yosemite National Park, famous for breathtaking scenery that attracted nearly four million visitors last year, remains untouched by the fire.”

“The park is a large park it's 800,000 acres so we're in about 24,000 acres of it burned, so there is a large area of the park that is still accessible," Miller says.

But much of the main portion of the fire, which has spread to 180,000 acres, is not accessible by either vehicle or on foot. Firefighters are relying on aircraft dropping water and retardant to slow its spread in those areas.

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Filed under: California • Wildfire
August 27th, 2013
06:12 AM ET

Fire Near Yosemite Still Out of Control

A massive wildfire continues to burn near Yosemite National Park, posing a threat to a landmark that attracts thousands of tourists each year.

Scorching up to more than 160 thousand acres now, huge plumes of smoke fill the sky as the Rim Fire rages out of control from crews attempting to reign it in.

“Firefighters made small progress on Monday, saying the fire is still less than a quarter contained, but the dangerous inferno is still rated to have extreme ‘growth’ potential as massive flames ignite rows of trees and dry brush,” reports CNN’s Nick Valencia.

“Nearly two dozen aircraft are being used to fight the fire, the steep terrain making it nearly impossible to access some of the forest by land.”

Turning camp grounds to ashes and even charring a car in its path, the Rim Fire also threatens a reservoir that supplies both water and power sources for San Francisco, as well as several groves of towering ancient sequoias.

Close to the frontlines, Groveland, California is starting to resemble a ghost town.

The owner of one bar says it is peak season leads into Labor Day, but with the highway closed into Yosemite, her business in Groveland is down a staggering 98%.

"Everyone who lives here and owns businesses here is terrified," Iron Door Saloon owner Corinna Loh says.

While the economic impact yet to be seen, businesses and residents are grateful for the 3,700 firefighters risking their lives to try and contain the blaze.

August 27th, 2013
06:11 AM ET

U.S. Weighing Options Against Syria

The word on Syria is that American firepower is nearby, and ready to act if it is called upon.

A senior administration official tells CNN the U.S. is working with its European allies to build a consensus on what to do next about Syria.

Within days, President Obama's national security team will present him with its final, detailed options in response to allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people, which Secretary of State John Kerry called  "a moral obscenity."

The White House is already making the case for taking action against Syria.

According to Secretary Kerry, "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people."

Hence, “if the President gives the order, a senior defense official says four Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea could execute a mission within hours. U.S. and British submarines are also likely nearby, all armed with cruise missiles,” reports CNN’s Chris Lawrence.

“The options are not designed to overthrow Assad's government, but send a message and deter any further use of chemical weapons, President Obama's ‘red line.’”

President Obama is now under pressure to keep his word and support his ultimatum. "Any time you throw down the diplomatic gauntlet, your words have repercussions,” Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas says.

While the U.S. is consulting with allies for a plan of action, as Lawrence reports, officials say it may not need a formal coalition to execute the response.

Follow along at CNN.com for developments.

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Filed under: Chemical Weapons • Syria
August 26th, 2013
06:12 AM ET

Yosemite wildfire Scorches 144,000 Acres

A massive wildfire in northern California, scorching an area about the size of Chicago, has burned nearly 144,000 acres by early Monday.

The Rim Fire just keeps growing and is only 7% contained right now.

Encroaching its western end, the spread is threatening not only homes but also San Francisco's power supply.

“Thousands of firefighters are battling this massive blaze raging out of control in California's Sierra Foothills,” reports CNN's Nick Valencia.

Veteran firefighters are calling the blaze burning in and around Yosemite National Park one of the worst they've seen.

Vickie Wright of the U.S. Forest Service, PIO says, “So our main objective’s right now structure protection, just making sure we keep everyone safe and that we protect that park at all costs."

“Because of the steep terrain, parts of the fire are only accessible by air,” Valencia says. So bucket drops from aircraft is a crucial way that firefighters, taking shifts on the frontlines, are battling the blaze.

The Rim Fire has threatened small communities, including Groveland, located just on the outskirts of the fire line.

Evacuated by the fire, Susan Loesch and Curtis Evans wait for news about their vacation home.

"It was a little nerve-wracking when they came and knocked on my door, And then when we came up here yesterday morning it was very thick coming through the valley.  And then it cleared so I thought maybe we were still okay, so we're hoping,” Loesch says.

Follow along at CNN.com for developments.

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Filed under: California • Wildfire
August 26th, 2013
06:12 AM ET

Judge May Set Date for Arias Penalty Phase Retrial

Convicted murderer Jodi Arias will be back in court this morning and a judge could set a date for her "penalty phase" retrial.

After listening to four months of testimony, it took the three days for the first Arizona jury to find Arias guilty of killing her boyfriend.

But they could not decide against the death penalty or life in prison.

According to Arizona law, prosecutors are allowed one more chance at death.

“If a new jury still can't decide, Arias will get life in prison and a judge will determine whether or not she's eligible for parole,” reports CNN's Ted Rowlands.

The new trial won’t be as long because the original first degree guilty verdict still holds and the new jury will not hear as much information as the first.

But finding impartial new jurors who haven't heard of the Arias case will be difficult, given the wide media coverage of the first trial, as will finding witnesses that will stand-up for Arias.

Pleading for life after 18 days on the witness stand during the trial, Arias had asked the jury to spare her life for the sake of her family saying, “Either way, I'm going to spend the rest of my life in prison, either a life that is shortened or not. if it's shortened, the people who will hurt the most are my family. I'm asking you, please, please don't do that to them.”

So in the end, Arias may end up being her own best chance for avoiding the death penalty. What, if anything she says to the new jury may determine if she lives or dies.

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Filed under: Jodi Arias • Law • Murder trial
August 23rd, 2013
08:18 AM ET

Syria and the Obama's 'Red Line'

International eyes remain on Syria, where anti-regime activists say hundreds were killed in an alleged massacre.

At least a thousand victims, many of them women and children, are reported dead in a possible chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

Disturbing images from that alleged attack continue to call more attention to the region, raising questions, once more, about President Barack Obama's "red line."

State Dept. Spokeswoman, Jen Psaki addressed the situation to the press, saying “the president has directed the Intel community to, here in the United States, to urgently gather additional information. That is our focus on this end.”

“The U.N. is asking the Syrian government to allow a chemical weapons inspection team to investigate,” reports CNN’s Jill Dougherty.

“U.S. officials say, so far they, cannot ‘conclusively determine’ whether chemical weapons were used. And they're not saying exactly what President Obama would do if they were.”

If these reports are found to be true, Psaki said “this would be an outrageous and flagrant escalation of the use of chemical weapons” by the regime and “the president has a range of options to consider” in that case.

Just last August, President Obama drew his red line, saying: "A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

But Senator John McCain argues that means nothing to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sen. John McCain told CNN, “The president of the United States says, that if he uses these weapons that it would be a quote "red line and a game changer". He now sees that as a green light, and that is the word of the president of the United States can no longer be taken seriously.” 

McCain believes it's time to take military action, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey urges caution.

"The use of U.S. Military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict."

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Filed under: Chemical Weapons • Security • Syria
August 23rd, 2013
08:18 AM ET

School Shooting Heroes Meet

Just days after a school bookkeeper in Georgia averted what could have been another tragic school shooting, she met with the 911 dispatcher who was on the line during the entire harrowing experience.

Antoinette Tuff stayed shockingly calm as a man with a gun invaded her school. But helping to keep her cool was 911 operator Kendra McCray, on the other end of the phone while Tuff negotiated with the suspected gunman and convinced him to step down.

"We made it,” Tuff said when she met McCray for the first time, exclusively on CNN’s "Anderson Cooper 360."

Like everyone else who have since heard the recording of that emergency call, McCray said she was in awe of Tuff.

"She is a true hero. I say that she missed her calling.”

McCray said she was “terrified” for Tuff while she was face to face with a mentally unstable gunman.

“But their fear was never evident in the 911 call that riveted America,” reports CNN’s Martin Savidge.

Tuff says the scariest moment was when she watched the man methodically load his gun.

"He had bullets everywhere, on top of magazines,” Tuff described. “So I knew when he made that last call that he was going to go. Because he had loaded up to go."

“Yet instead of feeling fear or anger, Tuff says she felt compassion, recalling her own personal heartbreaks, even contemplating suicide,” Savidge explains.

"I had been in that situation. I had been in that devastating moment when all of the things happened to me. so I knew that that could have been my story," Tuff said.

Just before she sat down with Cooper, Tuff got another surprise–a phone call from President Obama.

"He just wanted to let me know him and his wife and his family is very proud of what I did and everybody wanted to thank me."

Crediting her faith, Tuff said she believes her role was part of a heavenly plan, to help somebody in need.

“The suspect had walked in with an assault rifle ready to kill,” Savidge says, “but in the end was no match for a book keeper armed with love backed by a dispatcher who was her life line.”

Below, watch how the scene played out for TUff at the Georgia elementary school she saved from a potential massacre.

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Filed under: Uncategorized
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