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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Super PACs; Stereotyping South Carolina; Fighting Obesity

Aired January 16, 2012 - 19:00   ET

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


ERIN BURNETT, HOST: Thanks, John. Well the showdown between Iran and America escalating. Tonight Iran says it has proof the CIA was involved in the murder of its nuclear scientist. The U.S. still denies it. Is war becoming more inevitable?

And a cruise ship aground in Italy this weekend, six dead, 29 missing and the "Bottom Line" on super PACs, the controversial groups that can raise and spend unlimited money. Well, guess what we're going to do tonight? We're going to have peace in the Middle East of PACs.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett and OUTFRONT tonight, are super PACs super shady. The presidential candidates seem to think so.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The people of South Carolina need to know the truth and when they know the truth, I think they'll find that it's not surprising that Governor Romney is not as conservative as his PAC and his campaign has said that he is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: So super PACs were born out of the controversial Supreme Court case Citizens United in 2010. The ruling allowed so- called super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns, but what they're not allowed to do is take any direction from the candidate. They have to be independent. But are they?

We looked into it and what we found was that the ties between the candidates and the super PACs do seem pretty close. For example, the pro Mitt Romney super PAC's treasurer is Charlie Spies. Spies was Romney's chief finance officer and general counsel in 2008. The pro Gingrich super PAC well that was founded by Rick Tyler. Turns out Tyler is Gingrich's former press secretary and the man who co-founded the pro Obama super PAC is Bill Burton, who is the president's former deputy press secretary. Well these super PACs do seem to be run by some of the candidate's super close friends. If you listen to the candidates, you'd think they want nothing to do with the PACs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Campaign finance law has made a mockery of our political campaign season. We really ought to let campaigns raise the money they need and just get rid of these super PACs.

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Millions of Americans are struggling to get by and their voices shouldn't be drowned out by millions of dollars in secret, special interest advertising.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You'd get rid of the super PACs, you'd get rid of all the negativity, and then the candidates would be in control and the candidates would be responsible. It would be a dramatically better system and a more honorable system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: So, where's the disconnect? All right, we're joined now by Bill Burton, who runs Priorities USA, the major pro Obama super PAC and Charlie Spies, the treasurer of "Restore our Future", the major pro Romney super PAC. OK, so let me just put the question to you both directly. You friends with Mitt Romney?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: Yes. Friends with Barack Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love the guy. I think he's doing a great job as president.

BURNETT: But you know him personally --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: -- obviously for a long time. OK, so, when regular Americans hear this super PACs are supposed to be separate from the candidates, how do each of you answer the question that guys you're obviously fond of personally, you know personally and you are fighting for professionally, that there's a line?

BILL BURTON, CO-FOUNDER OF PRO-OBAMA SUPER PAC: Well Erin, it's no secret that we support the candidates who we support in this race and that we know them from before. But there are rules that people have had to follow throughout the time there's been campaigns and elections in this country, we're certainly following the letter and the spirit of those rules and you know I have no doubt that we'll be able to all the way through the election.

BURNETT: So do you have conversations with the governor or anyone close to the governor, as, you know just to figure out what they want or what you're doing or what?

CHARLIE SPIES, TREASURER, RESTORE OUR FUTURE: Absolutely not. It would be sort of strange if the people running PACs weren't strong supporters of the candidates, so there's nothing strange about that, but there are clear legal rules about what we can and can't do in terms of coordinating on message, timing and communication and we of course fully abide by those rules. BURNETT: OK, but you guys got to admit from a regular person's perspective, it does seem -- I get that you want to support, that you're both supporters of the guys that you're fighting for. But the personal connection, how does the president not influence you, Bill, when you're coming up with ads and plans for your PAC?

BURTON: Well we do our own polling. We have our own strategy meetings. We have our own consultants. We have our own group of people that we go to in order to make strategic decisions for where we're going to advertise, what we're going to say in those advertisements and why we're going to run those advertisements, so it's not that hard to follow the rules. We strongly support President Obama. That's why we got involved in putting this PAC together and you know we're going to continue to follow the rules.

BURNETT: So both of your -- the president and Governor Romney, they've said that they don't like super PACs. You saw Governor Romney saying that with Joe Scarborough and obviously the president referring to super secret money. Now, this is a tough situation, right, because the law is the law so you got to go ahead with it, right even though both of you don't theoretically want to --

SPIES: I think Governor Romney makes a good point that the current campaign finance system doesn't make a lot of sense. I would argue, however, that it's based largely on McCain-Feingold, which was the campaign finance law that pushes money to outside groups. Candidates would rather control their own message.

They'd rather have the money flowing to their campaigns and that would provide more accountability, but due to the campaign finance restrictions of McCain-Feingold, money, there's restrictive limits on what can be given directly to campaigns and even to political parties that pushes money to outside groups, which sometimes are helpful to the campaigns. We certainly hope that we're helpful to Governor Romney's campaign.

BURNETT: Well, you all again, the personal connection there I think is highly important to most people, that you are on the same page as them. But -- (INAUDIBLE) if not you, if you, Bill Burton, didn't go do a super PAC for the president, someone else would.

BURTON: Well the issue is much less who on the Democratic side would. It's the fact that who on the Republican side is doing it. We didn't start this because we thought the Citizen United decision was the right one or that we like the rules as they are, but we weren't going to let Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and the private equity guys who are helping Mitt Romney's super PAC get in there and raise millions and millions of dollars while the president just stood by and his supporters did nothing. We thought if there's going to be -- if those attacks are going to coming --

BURNETT: So, he's saying you started it.

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: Well, Bill likes to use sort of the buzz word Karl Rove and Karl Rove has nothing to do with our super PAC --

BURNETT: He has his own super PAC --

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: I wish he did.

BURNETT: Yes.

SPIES: That would be great if he did, but to my knowledge, he and American Crossroads are neutral. Our super PAC is in contrast to Bill's group. Everything we do is above board. We fully disclose all of our donors and so it's very transparent and it's open for scrutiny. Everybody --

BURNETT: Every single donor.

SPIES: Every single donor to "Restore our Future" is fully disclosed --

(CROSSTALK)

BURTON: Because early on one of your very first donations from the Spawn Corporation (ph) actually did not disclose its donors and it wasn't until there was public pressure to disclose the donors that we found out who was behind it, which was a former partner of Governor Romney's at Bain Capital, so maybe you've been pushed in this position, but maybe you ought to tell your political director, who you share with Crossroads, who will also be dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into this race on behalf of Governor Romney, that Governor Romney doesn't support donations from groups that don't disclose their donors.

SPIES: Bill, you've cherry picked one example of a corporation that there seems to have been a mix-up in terms of whether it was the corporation or the individual that was giving. Yes, the reason that was -- came to light is because it was disclosed. You and the supporters of President Obama do not disclose your donors, so in contrast to what we do with "Restore our Future", Priorities USA doesn't disclose who's giving. So all this talk about secret money being used, you're part of the problem and I would recommend that you follow our course and disclose everybody who's giving. You could voluntarily give that -- you could voluntarily do that. There's nothing stopping you from disclosing and being transparent.

BURNETT: Now, will you do that, Bill?

BURTON: We're going to follow the same rules that Karl Rove is following here and the way we set up our organization was we have a super PAC, 527 Priorities USA Action, which discloses all of its donors and we've got a Five in One C3 (ph), which is just like Crossroads, who shares employees with the super PAC to Restore our Future --

BURNETT: Right. BURTON: So it's so funny to hear that these groups seem so unaffiliated when they have the same goal. They're raising hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure that Mitt Romney is elected president.

BURNETT: And let me just -- so people understand, the deal with super PACs, for those of you out there is you're supposed to disclose your donors except for if you basically have a chartable ARM (ph) and if you have a charitable ARM (ph) associated with your PAC then you don't have to disclose any of your donors. (INAUDIBLE) kind of simplifying it, but that's what it is. But if you sat here tonight and said I'm going to be the hero and say I'm going to disclose it, don't you think you could force Karl Rove and others to do it?

BURTON: I don't think that Karl Rove is taking my lead when it comes to ethics. That really hasn't been his calling cards throughout his career in public service. No, what we're going to do is we're not going to give Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, the private equity guys who are supporting Mitt Romney any more advantages. They've already got hundreds of millions of dollars. We're not in the position of saying you know we're going to step aside and let you play by a different set of rules.

BURNETT: But you guys are sitting here, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. You're the proxies. And I think I should say you didn't -- you hadn't met before tonight, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Correct.

BURNETT: Even though you're technically (INAUDIBLE) full on war, OK, but why not just sit here and shake hands and say we're going to do it different.

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: Restore our Future fully discloses and I'd encourage you to do the same thing.

BURTON: Well I appreciate that, but as we discussed already, some of the seed money from your organization did not come from a disclosed donor. Governor Romney still benefits from hundreds of millions of dollars, undisclosed donations and we're not going to stand on the sidelines and let folks drive a right wing Republican agenda in a way that you know unfairly allows them to play by a different set of rules.

SPIES: I understand you -- it's probably good for your fundraising to take cheap shots at Karl Rove, but this hundreds of millions of dollars of undisclosed donations is -- you're making that up.

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: Every penny of the money that is going towards Restore our Future and going to support Governor Romney is fully disclosed. BURTON: That's actually not true. I mean you should check out some of the press clippings, but Karl Rove has pledged $300 million through Crossroads and --

SPIES: But that is not --

BURTON: -- to support the Republican nominee, which --

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: We don't have a Republican nominee yet. I certainly hope that nominee is Governor Romney and I would like nothing more than to have support from other groups, but --

(CROSSTALK)

BURTON: You know you can throw out this smoke screen and make it seem like one group is for one thing and other folks are other things, there should be different -- a whole different set of rules, but until there are, we're going to fight with the same fire that Karl Rove and his allies are fighting (INAUDIBLE).

BURNETT: All right, well thanks very much to both of you. I appreciate your coming in and doing it together. I hope you'll come back and everyone let us know what you think about this, what you think about their point of view and arguments they made about how close they are to the guys that they're pushing for and what you think about super PACs.

All right, well we're just five days away from the South Carolina primary where super PACs have been spending twice as much actually as the candidates on advertising. How much do we really know about South Carolina? Native John Avlon OUTFRONT to debunk the myth.

And "Under Surveillance", schools giving students high-tech watches -- we're going to show you one -- counts calories and weight and then it tracks it. What are they doing with the information? And a lot of Americans bought guns at Christmas. Were you one?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: So just five days until the South Carolina primary and if you listen to pundits and Washington insiders you might think to quote our own John Avlon, South Carolina is a quote "swamp of sleazy politics and brutal attack ads" -- you say it better than I do -- and quote "bible belt bashed (ph) of rednecks and racism", but Avlon who is from South Carolina would say you are dead wrong. He's OUTFRONT now to debunk the top three myths about South Carolina politics.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, they're all-this is that time of year, you know, these ugly stereotypes disfiguring a beautiful state, so we're going to take them on --

BURNETT: All right, so let's take on stereotype number one. Rural, white social conservatives rule. AVLON: That's right. This is the old stereotype for back in Strom Thurmond days, but it doesn't fit the facts of how the state has changed. Just take a look at how the state has changed enormously. It's got a 15 percent population growth in the last 10 years alone. Those (INAUDIBLE) red counties along the coast, those are -- those are out of state immigrants, retirees looking for a better quality of life. They've changed the character of the state enormously and then just look at the --

BURNETT: And a lot of those people are coming from the north --

AVLON: From the north, the northeast, a lot of jobs, manufacturing plants as well, so it changes the complexion of the state. That's not all. We've got an Indian American governor, Nikki Haley, James Clyburn and then the new representative from South -- from Charleston, Tim Scott. This is a great symbol. He's an African- American Tea Party leader representing the first district. He beat Strom Thurmond's son in the primary, so you've got an African-American Republican representing the district of Fort Sumter (INAUDIBLE) Civil War. It's a great story and it's a sign of how the stereotypes just don't hold.

BURNETT: All right and let's get to stereotype number two then, and this one has a lot of staying power, oh, they say, South Carolina, it's all about evangelicals. Is it?

AVLON: No. This is -- Bob Jones University seems to become shorthand for the entire state's politics and it's just not true.

BURNETT: That's right.

AVLON: In fact, in 2008, these are the returns, you see John McCain won the state. He didn't have evangelical support, but he was able to win those coastal areas -- cities because the majority of people do live in the cities in suburban areas. Mike Huckabee did well in the rural areas. Mitt Romney had gotten Bob Jones University's endorsement. He came in fourth. So the point is that there's a lot of room for a strong center right candidate to play in South Carolina.

BURNETT: All right. And now let's go to myth number three. You mentioned her, Indian American Governor Nikki Haley. Nationally, lots of attention --

AVLON: That's right.

BURNETT: A darling, but locally, darling ruler of the Tea Party?

AVLON: No and this is one of the most fascinating things. She's a national rising star, but her reputation is out stripping her current poll numbers in the state.

BURNETT: Wow.

AVLON: Her poll numbers right now only 35 percent approval. To put in context that's less than Barack Obama in the state of South Carolina right now, so while it's a great endorsement to have and Mitt Romney's saying it and signifies Tea Party support, not so fast. In fact, the numbers tell a very different story.

BURNETT: And this means that well we'll see how it'll go this weekend.

AVLON: That's right.

BURNETT: People think the evangelical sign-on means everything or Tim Scott means everything, no.

AVLON: No.

BURNETT: All right, well --

AVLON: Stop the stereotypes --

BURNETT: We shall see. All right, thanks very much to John Avlon.

"Under Surveillance" tonight, your children, the government is monitoring the weight of students. Now this is an effort to curb childhood obesity. Schools are giving kids high-tech watches to help them count calories and lose weight. Now school officials then track the data, but it's unclear where the information actually goes from there. According to several published reports, students have received the devices in New York, New Jersey and St. Louis.

(AUDIO GAP)

BURNETT: Joining me now is CNN legal contributor Paul Callan and Meme Roth, president of National Action against Obesity. OK, good to have both of you with us. I got one of those watches.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very nice -- very nice.

BURNETT: It's actually pretty cool. I would think a kid would like to have this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.

BURNETT: I would have loved to have this, especially if it came in you know pink or yellow or something like that. All right, so what do you think about this whole idea?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, on the surface, I think it's not a bad idea. Obviously we want to encourage fitness among our kids and this is a way to monitor it, but I worry about the privacy implications. Do we have the right for instance to find out how active a kid is after school, track his sleep patterns? You know these devices are getting very sophisticated now and I'm wondering if maybe they're going to get too intrusive and we're going to become a nanny state with the schools raising the kids.

BURNETT: Meme, what do you think about this and I will only say this in the context of the percentage of childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years. Kids between 6 and 11, with seven percent of them in 1980 were obese. Now, it's 20 percent.

MEME ROTH, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ACTION AGAINST OBESITY: It's awful and I love how Paul invokes the word, nanny state. Well, where -- you know what about the people who pushed these kids into becoming fat in the first place? (INAUDIBLE) also nannies. They were bad nannies.

(CROSSTALK)

ROTH: Wait -- wait -- let me have my moment to answer -- no, I just think that you know --

CALLAN: Teachers are responsible for that --

ROTH: Look these kids got -- these kids got fat and it was adults who did it to them. That's what I'm saying. So I think it's a great thing and this is why it's a great thing. It's information. Teachers can use the information, the parents can use the information, and interestedly the kids have access to this so they can involve themselves in making good decisions based on the information they're getting back from these devices, so I think that's great.

CALLAN: Fitness is a great idea and anything that will encourage it, I'm for, but we of course have to worry that some of the information could be leaked to sources that maybe shouldn't have access to it.

BURNETT: Well let's put one of those sources out there.

CALLAN: Sure.

BURNETT: The insurance company. Kid who and again, this is an issue of whether it's the kid or the parent or the teacher. But is not exercising, isn't doing what they're supposed to do and is eating too many Twinkies.

CALLAN: Yes, we would worry about that --

(CROSSTALK)

CALLAN: Now I spoke to --

(CROSSTALK)

ROTH: Let me tell you what's not going to be news to the insurance company that the kid is fat, which means diabetes, which means probably stroke, heart condition. They're already tallying up that bill before they find out this other information. These kids are doomed.

CALLAN: Meme has -- Meme has very little appetite for privacy, so let's get back to --

(CROSSTALK)

ROTH: Wait. Where do you get that from? I didn't say anything about that. I think they should --

(CROSSTALK)

CALLAN: You know I wanted to add another thing to this that I think -- I found to be very interesting today. I was talking to Dr. Michael Nagler (ph) who is the superintendent of one of the largest school districts on Long Island. He was telling me you're thinking of this as monitoring the kids. You know what this is really about, it's monitoring the teachers because we're looking for a way to figure out how for instance, Phys Ed teachers are doing with respect to their kids. Well they are not taking a math test these kids, but these watches are saying what the heart rate is and how fast they move and how much activity there is --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- get more than a treadmill used to get.

(CROSSTALK)

CALLAN: We're not arguing here. We're not arguing here Meme. What we're saying is this information is flowing in both directions. We're monitoring the effectiveness of teachers and whether the kids remain fit.

ROTH: Here's what I have to say.

(CROSSTALK)

ROTH: Forget all this other stuff. These kids are doomed if we don't intervene. I applaud New Jersey and Long Island, New York for doing something to intervene. These kids deserve a chance to have -- have the right and the chance to grow up healthy.

BURNETT: All right, thanks to both. We'll hit pause on this, everyone let us know what you think. Paul v. Meme, we'll tell you who wins in the (INAUDIBLE) war.

CALLAN: Until the next time --

BURNETT: All right, until the next time. OUTFRONT next, three Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated. Iran says it has proof the CIA was to blame and how many guns did Americans buy at Christmas? We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Guns were a hot item this holiday season. According to the FBI, there were 129,166 requests for instant background checks from firearm retailers on Black Friday. That of course is the day after Thanksgiving. It was a single day record in the United States and it beat the previous high, Black Friday 2008, when everyone was so worried about economic collapse, it beat that by 32 percent, which brings us to tonight's number, 1.8. That's how many million background checks were submitted to the FBI in the month of December. Over 102,000 of those checks occurred on December 23rd, the second busiest gun buying day in American history after Black Friday. Now even though they don't track gun sales, the FBI points out the number of guns that were actually sold during the holidays could be even higher if customers who passed the checks bought more than one gun. Only 1.3 percent of people who apply for permission to buy a gun are denied.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Still OUTFRONT, the "OutFront 5", the politics of Paul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Also the only candidate with a plan to restore America.

BURNETT: Italy's cruise disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And as we were being lowered in our lifeboat, we actually slammed into the side of the boat.

BURNETT: All this OUTFRONT in our second half.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: We start the second half of our show with stories we care about where we focus on our reporting, do the work and find the "OutFront 5" and tonight first super secret is super PACs. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. But what they're not allowed to do is take any direction from the candidate. They're supposed to be independent, but are they?

Well, we look into it. It turns out super PACs favoring Romney, Gingrich and Obama are run by the candidate's former staffers. Two came OUTFRONT tonight. Bill Burton was one of them, Obama's man. And Romney's man, Charlie Spies. Both men say they're following the rules, but say they will continue their super PAC work even though each candidate has publicly criticized the groups.

Number two: Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia will shut down for 24 hours on Wednesday in protest of SOPA. That is an online privacy act, a story a lot of people are passionate about we brought to you last week.

Wikipedia is going to join Reddit and several other sites in blocking Wednesday out as public protest of the antipiracy legislation being considered by Congress. Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy says the site averages 25 million visitors a day.

Number three, the online shoe store Zappos has been hacked, compromising 24 million accounts. Zappos is owned by Amazon. It sent an e-mail the customers this afternoon telling them that their passwords were compromised by the hack. But the company insists the passwords were encoded, and that no credit card information was stolen. But we talked to an online security expert who tells OUTFRONT there's no question about this one. If you use a password or logon, as Zappos that use anywhere else, go change them immediately.

Number four, fewer Americans describe the current economic conditions as very poor. But the number calling it somewhat poor has gone up to 42 percent. It looks like a marginal improvement at least in category. And this is according to a new CNN/ORC poll.

The same poll found Americans' view of Congress has reached an all-time low for a CNN poll. Just 11 percent of people approve how Congress is handling its job. This comes out after the super committee failure and the fierce fights over the payroll tax extension and raising the debt ceiling -- which brings me to number five.

It's been 164 days since the U.S. lost its top credit rating, which happened right after a fight in Congress over the debt ceiling. What are we doing to get it back?

Well, OUTFRONT tonight, the showdown between the U.S. and Iran may be reaching a boiling point, crucial for our country's military and for this election. The war of words is rapidly escalating and on many fronts. Iran says it has proof the CIA is directly involved in the mysterious murder of a nuclear scientist and today rounded up several suspects in connection with this assassination.

And then there's Iran's threat to cut off the Strait of Hormuz. Roughly 40 percent of the world's traded oil passes through it. You saw the video we showed you last week of those Iranian speedboats approaching U.S. naval ships in the strait.

Today, Tehran said it received a letter from the U.S. and would not disclose its contents.

Now, American has two aircraft carrier fleets in the region and warned that closing the strait would be a red line that should not be crossed.

Tensions are rising, the rhetoric is as well. Many people say this time, though, is different and could lead to conflict.

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen knows how dangerous and predictable Iran can be.

Secretary Cohen, good to see you again, sir.

WILLIAM COHEN FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good to see you.

BURNETT: All right. So, it does appear, and we've been talking about this a lot over the last few month, but this has escalated. Is that -- is that a fair interpretation?

COHEN: Well, I think it has escalated and I think we have to be careful that the heated rhetoric doesn't really turn to action. We want to avoid a conflict if at all possible. Part of the difficulty is that the Iranians are now starting to feel the bite of these sanctions. You had the E.U. on the verge of declaring even tougher sanctions and boycotting the purchase of oil from Iran.

And so, this is really starting to hurt the Iranian economy and as a result of that, the tensions within Iran are starting to ratchet up and therefore, they start to make declaration they're going to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, which would, of course, if they were successful, cut off the supply of 20 percent to 30 percent of the world's oil supply that transits through the strait.

So I think that after the rhetoric ought to be cooled a bit and they have to understand that the United States and other countries are going to intensify those sanctions until such time as Iran understands that it has an option. The option is to give up its nuclear weapons program and then be welcomed back into the international community.

But absent that, I think sanctions are going to be intensified.

BURNETT: Secretary Cohen, I'm curious, though, because, you know, if Iran has reached a point of no return, the more isolated they become, the less they have to lose by using their weapons, by killing a lot of people.

COHEN: Well, they've painted themselves into a corner. Some of the academics have said that we have painted them into a corner at which they have no option. Not true. They have painted themselves into a corner by violating international rules as such, in violation of U.N. sanctions.

And so, they have an opportunity to step back from their nuclear weapons program to allow the progress of a nuclear program that will be for civil purposes only, which they have declared to be their goal.

BURNETT: Right.

COHEN: So there's an option available to them other than what they're doing now, but they refuse to take that. At least more recently, they talked about opening up to discussion. So, we'll see whether they have a real interest in revolving this peaceably.

BURNETT: Secretary Cohen, what would cause military conflict in your point of view? What could Iran do right now that the U.S. would actually -- would fight back militarily? Because that is clearly something the United States does not want to do and Iran repeatedly is calling that bluff.

Well, the one thing that they have declared they would do would be to try to shut down the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz. Number one, they could certainly disrupt traffic for a few days or longer, but I'm confident they could not shut it down. But that would be red line that would be crossed and I think they would have difficulty from that point forward.

I think the response of the United States would be vigorous. It would inflict great damage upon Iran's ability to sell oil in the future for some time.

BURNETT: Right. COHEN: So I think it would be a very serious move for them to take. Hopefully, it's just boasting at this point, chest-pounding. But if they were ever to take that action, I think the international response would be one that would be quite vigorous and unanimous, that would be very critical of Iran and certainly have long-term consequences for its future.

BURNETT: All right. Secretary Cohen, thank you very much. We're going to talk about the Republican candidates view on Iran tomorrow.

COHEN: Great to be with you.

BURNETT: So is Ron Paul surging or slipping further from the pack? A new CNN poll out today shows the Texas congressman in a statistical tie with President Obama if they were to face off in a general election today.

Now, this is pretty amazing. It comes after Paul finished a strong second in New Hampshire last week. But he is currently running third in South Carolina. He's fallen to fourth in Florida. And despite that challenge, Paul is on the trail today pushing his message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to look into the morality and constitutionality of our monetary system, which means we have a full audit of the fed and a new monetary system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Appealing to a wide range of voter, Paul has picked up considerable interest from young voters. And, you know, we've seen -- we were up in New Hampshire. We saw it there and just wondering, why the love affair? The young with the oldest candidate. It's pretty amazing.

Lisa Car is a chapter leader with the Youth for Ron Paul at Clemson University. Paul Mazurek is a student activist at Fordham University. And Trip Davis is the chapter leader of Youth for Ron Paul at the University of Central Florida.

So, good to have you with us. And really appreciate it.

And you're going to, you know, make this clear for a lot of people watching who are older than you that may not understand the passion that you have for Ron Paul.

So, let me start with you, Paul. Why Ron Paul? What is it about him that makes you make calls, volunteers since the summer, read his book and like him so much?

PAUL MAZUREK, RON PAUL STUDENT ACTIVIST, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY: I like Ron Paul because of his honesty, integrity and respect for the Constitution the way the founders intended it. And he's the only candidate with a plan to restore America and to balance the budgets, which is the greatest problem facing the youth today.

Also, I believe that personal liberty and limited government and sound money have made us the most prosperous and free society in the world. And Ron Paul is the only candidate with the plan to do this.

BURNETT: Lisa, what about you? What makes you spend as you said, hours and hours researching every candidate before you settled on Ron Paul and now spend a lot of your time door to door canvassing on his behalf?

LISA CAR, YOUTH FOR RON PAUL CHAPTER LEADER, CLEMSON UNIVERSITY: Yes, absolutely. As a college student, I know firsthand that the economy is our biggest issue right now and Ron Paul's the only candidate with a clear plan to restore America's prosperity and that's why I'm supporting him with all that I have.

BURNETT: Trip, you?

TRIP DAVIS, YOUTH FOR RON PAUL CHAPTER LEADER, UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA: Ron Paul is a only constitutional candidate. And he's not just about running for office and not just about getting elected. It's about spreading a message.

And you can tell he's honest. You can tell when he speaks to supporters, he's actually talking to them. He's not just trying to find the next sound bite. Or he actually -- after New Hampshire, he was actually thanking his supporters and I really appreciated that. And he's definitely going to be a model.

BURNETT: So, let me just ask you the question that people have, that are skeptical of Ron Paul. They say, all right, get your passion for some of the things that you're saying, but cutting a $1 trillion in one year, getting rid of the Federal Reserve, and cutting all foreign policy entanglements is insanity.

How do you respond to that, Lisa?

CAR: Oh, well, I think that a lot of that talk about cutting of foreign policy ties is really correct and that's not Ron Paul. That's not what he's advocating right now. And cutting the federal government's budget by $1 trillion is essentially what we need right now.

We need to stop spending money. That's not going to get us out of debt. We need to face this debt crisis head on and deal with what we can right now.

BURNETT: Paul, what about you? What do you think about -- are there some parts about Ron Paul that you say, OK, I don't really like that?

MAZUREK: I agree with his message. I think that we need to look in the Federal Reserve and restore accountability and we need -- because this affects the right of the people. The Federal Reserve has been, you know, they've been bailing out big banks and we -- Ron Paul -- partial audit of the Fed which allowed us to -- he was able to unite Democrats and Republicans to audit the Fed and find out that they're bailing Gadhafi and other countries. And this is hurting the American people the most.

BURNETT: All right. Trip, let me ask you though, because this is a crucial question for this election. If not Ron Paul, do you not vote at all? I mean, I'm trying to figure what happens to passionate people like you all if he's not running. Do you vote for Barack Obama? Do you write his name? What do you do?

DAVIS: If Ron Paul doesn't get the nomination, I'm probably going to write his name in. I mean, I've worked a long time on his campaign. He's the person I want to be president of the United States. And my vote doesn't belong to the Republicans or Democrats. My vote belongs to me and I'm choosing to vote for Ron Paul.

BURNETT: Would you hope he runs as a third party candidate, even if that means Barack Obama wins, Ron Paul doesn't win and neither is the Republican nominee?

MAZUREK: No, and Ron Paul said countless amounts of times that he will not run third party and he's not going to attempt to doing so. And it's very important to remember that he ran as a congressman 12 times with the Republican Party and he's won. And running as a Republican for president.

So, I think his best shot is the Republican Party and that's the way he's going to run and he's the only one that can win.

BURNETT: Lisa, what do you think about what some might say is the irony of the fact that here you are at age 20, passionate about the oldest guy running this time, who would be the oldest president ever of the United States if he won?

CAR: Well, what I think is that his message of liberty and personal liberty and prosperity is one that's pretty young. I mean, our nation was founded on it. It's a message that's been around for over 200 years, but it reaches out to the younger generation.

As we know, as lot of college students know, that in order to secure our futures, we need to look seriously at this economic crisis that we're in and Ron Paul's the only candidate that's prepared to do that right now.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Lisa, Paul, Trip, thanks very much to all three of you. We appreciate your taking the time to explain how you feel and just people are really happy to hear people so passionate about a candidate. Thanks.

CAR: No problem. Thank you.

BURNETT: All right. Now let's check in with Anderson.

Anderson, what's coming up on "A.C. 360" tonight?

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "A.C. 360": Well, we're starting with a story, I know you've been covering the desperate search and rescue efforts off the coast of Italy. Twenty-nine people from the capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia still unaccounted for right now. We're going to have a live report from the scene of the disaster. We'll also speak with a rescue diver about what they are up against.

Also ahead tonight, keeping them honest, one opponent lobbed a money bomb. Another tried scare tactics while at the same time backing away from his super PAC campaign ad. Nothing seems to be working. Mitt Romney is the clear front-runner in South Carolina.

Could the GOP presidential race be over in less than a week? We're going to talk to our panel about that tonight.

Those stories and tonight "Ridiculist" at top of the hour, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thanks very much, Anderson. We're looking forward to that.

And Anderson talked about that cruise ship -- was human error behind the death of six people?

And in tonight's "Outer Circle," hundreds of contractors being detained in Iraq. Many of them, Americans working at the American embassy.

We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: We do this at the same time every night, our "Outer Circle," where we reach out to sources around the world.

And tonight, we begin in Iraq and reports of mass detentions of international contractors. According to the "New York Times," many of the hundreds that have been detained in recent weeks are Americans working at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Now, formal charges haven't been filed, but these detentions have lasted from a few hours up to a few weeks.

Geoffrey Batt is the managing director of the Euphrates Iraq Fund and we asked him why this is happening.

(BEGIN VIDOE CLIP)

GEOFFREY BATT, MANAGING DIRECTOR, EUPHRATES IRAQ FUND: They are detaining contractors because they do not have the proper documentation when they enter the country. Since the U.S. troops withdrew, it seemed stricter security measures were put in place and for reasons that were made unclear at this time, that information was not clearly conveyed to contracting companies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: And next in Nigeria, and unrest over the government's decision to get rid of fuel subsidies. There's news today that the country's president Goodluck Jonathan has decided to slash fuel prices, but not down to prior levels. Two labor groups suspended their nationwide strike and urged demonstrators to go home. But another group calling for strikes to continue.

We asked Nima Elbagir how the striking has affected Nigeria's economy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIMA ELBAGIR, LAGOS, NIGERIA: It estimates that each day of striking has cost the Nigerian economy nearly a billion dollars and that's not taking into account the impact it's had on investor confidence. The threatened oil workers union strike which was called off at the 11th hour of the weekend sent shivers through international markets and most investors will be asking themselves, what happens next time the labor unions and the Nigerian government face off -- Erin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: All right. Thanks, Nima.

Well, tonight, an American couple from Minnesota, among the 29 still missing in the capsized cruise ship off the coast of Italy. Gerald and Barbara Ann Heil have four children and 15 grandchildren. They were on a 16-day cruise with 4,200 passengers and crew aboard the luxury liner Costa Concordia.

As you know, it ran aground off the coast of Tuscany on Friday. And the captain was arrested and may face manslaughter charges after he abandoned ship before all of the passengers evacuated.

Authorities say human error was the cause and the ship was sailing too close to shore, perhaps to literally greet a friend. The scene aboard the doomed ship was one of absolute chaos as passengers scrambled for lifeboats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRANDON WARRICK, CRUISE SHIP SURVIVOR: We were waiting for like, two, three hours.

VIVIAN SHAFER, CRUISE SHIP SURVIVOR: The crew was so young. And you would have thought they could have handled it better.

NANCY LOFARO, CRUISE SHIP SURVIVOR: We were fortunate. We boarded a lifeboat early enough. We were taken to shore early enough.

MARK PLATH, LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS: We were helping the staff more than they were helping us. They weren't in control.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Divers continued to search the flooded cabins for survivors and it's a disaster.

But exactly is the captain and his crew accused of? Jim Walker is a maritime lawyer in Miami. He specializes in cruise ship safety.

Jim, nice to have you with us.

The 29 people still missing as we have been reporting, six confirmed dead. Who is accountable for this?

JIM WALKER, MARITIME LAWYER: Well, the captain, first of all, is obviously accountable. He's the master of the ship. He has the ultimate responsibility. He should be the last one on the ship if he's not going down with the ship.

So, he's clearly responsible. But in addition to the master, the cruise line itself seems to be accountable as well. They didn't have any type of lifeboat drill to begin with. They should have known that this captain apparently had a history of deviating from his scheduled course. And there's a lot of responsibility to go around, Erin.

BURNETT: Jim, you know, a lot of people take cruises and they're perceived as one of the safest vacations you can take. We're coming into now to spring break and cruise season. I think a lot of people are wondering how common is this, that you have crew that seem inexperienced, and you don't have proper lifeboat procedures, et cetera?

WALKER: Right. Well, a week ago, another Italian cruise liner, the MSC Poesia, ran aground over in the Bahama Islands going to Freeport. No one was injured but a large cruise ship with a 30 foot draft found itself in 14 feet of water sailing into a fragile reef and running aground.

That was a week ago. That had no press because no one was injured. But if you look at Costa, in the past two years, two other Costa ships, the Costa Europea and Costa Classica both had serious collisions resulting in injuries to passengers and death of crew.

So, just in the past two years, this Carnival subsidiary, Costa, has had three very serious fatally, casualty situations. There's not a lot of press but these types of incidences are not as rare as the cruise lines want you to believe.

BURNETT: I mean, 14 million people take cruises every single year. It's a huge industry. I believe something like $30 billion.

If you're going on a cruise, how do you know? I mean, how can you find out about the record of the ship or of the captain? And I'm also curious in this case, Captain Schettino could be charged with manslaughter, did he even have a record? What did he even have shown up?

WALKER: Well, there's no place to go for the public for that type of information unfortunately.

There is an organization called International Cruise Victims, internationalcruisevictims.org, where you can go and read stories about different types of injuries, sexual assaults, crimes, groundings and fires, that's a pretty good source to go to.

There's also a professor in Canada, ironically enough, professor Ross Klein (ph), who has a website called crewsjunky.com. It's kind of a silly name but has valuable source of information.

The cruise line industry -- they're not going to tell you about all the bad things. They want you to come aboard and have a good time.

BURNETT: Right.

WALKER: But if you look back in the past two to three years, there have been 15 major casualties -- groundings, collisions and fires, primarily with the Carnival cruise line, the Carnival Splendor a year ago, had a major catastrophe, with an engine room fire. It was disabled international waters off the coast of Mexico. And our U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, we had to send and aircraft carrier out there to retrieve the ship back to a U.S. port at U.S. taxpayer expense.

So, these are types of things that do happen on somewhat of a routine basis.

BURNETT: It's amazing. I think a lot of people were not aware.

Thanks very much, Jim.

WALKER: Thank you, Erin.

BURNETT: We've all heard a lot about economic troubles in Europe. But tonight, a human face and a truly disturbing one.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Today's essay comes from Ireland's County Kerry, where a medical examiner believes the country's new drunk driving laws have actually led to more deaths. The county's coroner believes tougher laws led to more suicides among older men who live in isolated rural communities because they have stopped driving to the local pub for company while they drink.

But it's actually a sign of an even bigger problem in Ireland, because one of the reasons the people have to drive to the pub in the first place is because the bars in Ireland are now few and far between.

James Joyce once suggests that it would be tough to cross Dublin without passing a pub in his book "Ulysses." But since the country's economic peak, almost 1,300 bars have closed their doors, and a country which was once known as having a pub on every corner, only 7,500 left in the entire country. Suicide rates have risen sharply with 13 percent of all people taking their own lives as they face a bleak economic outlook.

And in that, Ireland is not alone. Things are even worse in Greece where protests rocked the nation last year and the suicide rate in Greece is up by 16 percent. Now, that's an incredible number when you consider a couple years ago, Greece actually had the lowest suicide rate in Europe.

Even worse, just this week, the Greek Orthodox Church reported that there were more and more cases of parents abandoning children in Athens because they can't afford to support them.

That's an amazingly horrible thing and amazing to happen in a place like Greece. Europe's leaders are not hopeful. French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls the situation in Europe the gravest since the Second World War.

And Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, says the current crisis could trigger, quote, "retraction, rising protectionism and isolation. This is exactly the description of what happened in the 1930s and what followed is not something we're looking forward to."

It's pretty amazing to think of what has happened in Europe and everybody thinks, you know, gosh, you could never have anything happen like World War II again. Certainly, they would have thought that in World War II, right, when World War I was a very current memory.

Now, World War II is a long time ago and we say it could never happen again, could it?

No one country is in this economic crisis alone. Like the old man in County Kerry, countries can also feel isolated and helpless. And just something we thought about today, there's a human side to even deserved austerity, even if your country drinking the punch bowl way more than you deserved, still a real tragedy. And we're all in this together and we all need to get out of it together.

(AUDIO BREAK) comes back from recess. Are they ready to get something done?

And later this week, OUTFRONT to South Carolina, ahead of the country's primary.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.