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Recapping the Week's Interviews

Aired June 1, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program, in which we bring you interviews that we've done on the most important stories of the week.

In a moment, Barack Obama's personal war on terror, a fascinating debate over a new kind of warfare, kill strikes from thousands of feet in the air, the most sensitive ones personally ordered by the American president.

But first, of course, to Syria, and the story that's dominated the headlines all work and the one that sparked worldwide outrage, the horrific massacre of more than 100 people, including the execution of innocent children in the village of Houla in Syria.

The news of the carnage and the terrible pictures have created an international firestorm of protest. At the United Nations emergency meetings have gone on all week and into the weekend amid a loud chorus of calls to do something about the Assad regime's endless slaughter of the innocents.

However, in Washington and in other Western capitals, there is the fear that intervention in Syria could turn into a protracted military operation because of the supposed strength of the Syrian military itself. But I had the rare opportunity to speak with a former general in the Syrian army, a genuine insider, who paints a much different picture of the capabilities of Assad's army. Listen to what he told me.


AMANPOUR: General Akil Hashem, welcome to the program.



AMANPOUR: Thank you for coming in.

HASHEM: Let me start to say, I am a big admirer of your job. I appreciate you inviting me to your program. I consider this an honor and I appreciate that you will give me the chance to explain so many things to the world for the benefit of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people.

AMANPOUR: Well, I do appreciate you coming in and saying such kind words.

But let me ask you very, very bluntly: one of the reasons the rest of the world says they can't go to help the Syrian people, like they did in Libya or Kosovo or wherever, is because the air defenses are very sophisticated, because the military is very sophisticated. Now I have you here, what is the state of the air defenses there?

HASHEM: To be frank with you, it's just excuses. They know more than me that this is not the truth, and these air defenses and all this arsenal of the Syrian army is not big enough or strong enough. It is good to face on civilians or light armed freedom fighters, like the FSA. But --

AMANPOUR: That's the Free Syrian Army.

HASHEM: Yes. But what it says, a superior forward (ph), that will collapse right away. I'm saying that with all sadness, because this is the army I served like for 27 years. But this is not the army of the people any more or the country. It's the army of the regime itself. It's a group of gangs, doing all the atrocities and the barbaric acts in Syria.

AMANPOUR: Let me just -- before I talk about the shabiha and the gangs, let me just play what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the U.S. military said this weekend about the Syrian military.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: They have approximately five times more air -- more sophisticated air defense systems than existed in Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain. All of their air defenses are arrayed on their western border, which is their population center.

So five times the air defense of Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain, and about 10 times more than we experienced in Serbia.


AMANPOUR: Well, that was indeed in March. However, he's describing the military that's arrayed. So is he just not aware? Or what?

HASHEM: As I said before, it's just excuses to give them a chance to delay the intervention, because this is their duty. They cannot turn their face what's happening in Syria forever and ever. But let me explain something.

When we balance the forward between two sides, this, you know, the amount of weapons, the amount of soldiers, everything is accounted. But there is most important thing, the morals. And the moral in the Syrian army -- or the regime army; I don't call it the Syrian army -- it's very, very low.

AMANPOUR: You mean the morale?

HASHEM: Yes, the morale. Yes, and then the corruption is eating and killing and destroying every possibility of being a powerful army, because everybody is corrupted.

AMANPOUR: Well, as you know, one of the main things that people are hoping for, the outsider, they look in, try to figure out what can make a difference here, is for a lot of defections. There have not been that many defections.

HASHEM: It's very obvious why. First of all, the security measures are very, very, very strong in the military and all over Syria. So every small unit, even a company of 20 soldiers, there is an -- there is a person who is the security undercover person, OK? So while they are monitoring everybody --

AMANPOUR: So they're spied on all the time?

HASHEM: -- everybody. And the loyal -- before the people who are suspected by disloyalty. Now everybody -- and these people, security people, have the authority to execute right away any high-ranked officer, not because he is defecting, because they think that he is going to defect, by the intention, if they believe, this small soldier who work in the security, if he believes that this officer is going to -- is going to defect, he can execute him right away, on the spot, without any hesitation and no question will be asked.

AMANPOUR: And you saw that in your time there?

HASHEM: I know that because I receive every single day over 2,000 to 2,500 messages from all the freedom fighters inside Syria, civilian and defectors. And they send me videos. They send me proof about that. So I'm talking from a position that I know everything happening in Syria, minute by minute.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that there will be -- do you think the Syrians can liberate themselves, these people who are conducting the uprising?

HASHEM: I can tell you -- I can answer you in a different way. These Syrians will continue fighting this regime forever and ever. The only way for this regime to put an end to this revolution is to kill all these cities and towns and department are fighting against him, which is like 15 to 18 million people. If he kills 18 million people, yes, he will put an end to this revolution.

Other than that, there is no way. But this will make this struggle so long and this will cause so many other thousands of innocent people being killed. The only way to stop this massacre, I said that 700 times for seven months, the only way is to intervene militarily in Syria.

AMANPOUR: And do you think that you know the Assads, you knew the father, you know the son. Will they agree to a political transition? Will they step down? Will he step down?

HASHEM: No way ever, everybody talk about that. I disagree with the -- with all respect to the ambassador, who was with you just a few minutes ago. There is no way. I told people so many times that this person -- allow me to call him the criminal Bashar al-Assad -- this guy have all the power, the utmost power, the absolute power in Syria.

He control everything except one thing. He has no authority on to give up the authority or the power. He cannot do that because this is -- doesn't concern him alone. It's concern a huge establishment of so many thousands of people benefiting from this regime, like commanders of army, head of the intelligence and others, even in the economy. He cannot do that.

So there is no way for a peaceful solution in any way.

AMANPOUR: General Hashem, thank you for being here.

HASHEM: You're welcome.


AMANPOUR: So General Hashem has deep personal and professional knowledge of just what's going on inside Syria and inside the military. He has unique insight also into the shabiha, the paramilitary thugs who do President Assad's dirtiest work. So check out what he told me about them in our Green Room chat that we conducted after our formal interview, and that's at

And when we come back, three years ago, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let us reach for the world that ought to be, that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.


AMANPOUR: He received the Nobel prize for the promise invested in him for a more peaceful world. And so his aggressive stance on terrorism has confounded his supporters here in the United States and around the world, because now we know that he personally directs a kill list for drone strikes. So I'll ask two top legal advisers under former presidents Bush and Reagan.

Is there, in fact, a moral line in the sand, even when dealing with terrorists? That's when we come back.


AMANPOUR: And welcome back to the program. Now to the United States and President Barack Obama. "The New York Times" reports this week on the evolution of the U.S. president when it comes to national security.

From a man who once wanted to shut down Guantanamo Bay prison to a man who takes no prisoners, increasing drone strikes abroad and even using secret kill lists to personally decide which terrorists deserve to die, this has caused a predictable uproar amongst human rights groups and others, worried about the lack of transparency and the killing civilians.

Yet here in the United States, the program seems to be overwhelmingly popular, some 83 percent of the American people support the secretive program.

John Bellinger, a top national security lawyer under the Bush administration, and Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, join me right now.

How are you both? Thank you both very much for joining me.

Let me turn to you first, Mr. Bellinger. What is it about this that is surprising? I mean, basically everybody thought they knew President Obama. Umpteen speeches, umpteen press conferences, and people are somewhat baffled that this person, who they believed was a liberal, no-war, no-intervention kind of guy, is really one of the most aggressive counterterrorism presidents.

JOHN BELLINGER III, FORMER LEGAL ADVISER TO NSC: Well, it is kind of remarkable. Here's the guy who got the Nobel Peace Prize within his first few months of being in office and who all the Europeans thought was going to stop and reverse all of the policies of the Bush administration, in fact, has ramped up drone strikes, killing several thousand people through 300 drone strikes in four different countries around the world.

And now today's story is saying that he's been personally directing this. It looks like he's trying to speak to two audiences and do two things at the same time. On the one hand for a domestic audience, he's trying to look extremely tough.

He's personally directing this war on terror, but at the same time trying to speak, to a certain extent, to human rights groups and maybe even to the international community by saying, but look how carefully I'm doing it. I'm doing this much more carefully than George Bush ever did. I'm taking things off the table and doing this only in the most precise and legal way.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you then, Mr. Fein, you used to work for the Reagan administration. One of the things "The New York Times" described the president as was trying to keep American values and ideals even as he pursues this policy.

There is the little paragraph about how he pays very careful attention to the war writings of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Do you believe that this is a policy that is consistent with American values?

BRUCE FEIN, FORMER ASSOCIATE DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, and it's not consistent with the rule of law or the Constitution. The first observation I'd make is from Tacitus, as the Roman Empire -- the Roman republic tumbled into the Roman Empire, and he said, "The worst crimes were dared by few, willed by more, tolerated by all."

Simply because they're tolerated by all doesn't make them correct. For example, the fact that there's no attempt to capture any more, there's just kill strikes, is a violation of the rules of law. We have a president who thinks that he needs to inquire of St. Augustine rather than checks and balances and transparency here.

We even have, in the quotation, Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency saying, "In a democracy, you don't go to war based upon legal memos locked up in a vault in the Department of Justice."

You have this secrecy. We have one branch of government playing judge, jury and prosecutor as well as executioner. The very definition of tyranny in that combination of power is according to the Founding Fathers.

AMANPOUR: All right.

FEIN: And all of this is done well beyond the authorization used military force, passed by Congress, which limited the universe of targets to those who were directly implicated in 9/11 or harbored those who were.

AMANPOUR: All right, Mr. Bellinger, is that correct? Is that definition of what's allowed and not allowed under the law correct? I understood that there have been authorizations by the Justice Department for these kinds of strikes.

BELLINGER: Well, I think Mr. Fein's criticism probably goes farther than I would want to say. I mean, these programs did begin, although not nearly at this robustness during the Bush administration. Now President Obama has ramped these up enormously. He really is conducting a global war on terror by using drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The remarkable thing is, frankly, that we don't see the outrage amongst the Europeans. I think they were outraged over Guantanamo, where we were holding people, most of whom were let go, but most Europeans and even human rights groups around the world have essentially looked the other way while these targeted killings are going on.

I personally believe that they are permissible under both international and domestic law, and the administration is trying to do a better job in laying out the legal rationale but it's a very edgy program. No country in the world has come out and said we support what the Obama administration is doing. We believe it's lawful. So I think they're on thin ice here.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me read to both of you this from Dennis Blair, who was the former director of the national intelligence before he was fired. He has said that this is, in fact, a very seductive policy, that it's politically advantageous.

It's low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness, plays well domestically and -- here's the rub -- it's unpopular only in other countries. It's unpopular only in other countries. So what do you think of that? Is that something that could compromise long-term national security goals, Mr. Fein?

FEIN: Of course it could, because it creates resentment on the other side. And just think of the double standard. You may recall, Christiane; I'm sure you covered the poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko in London by polonium 211 (sic) and Vladimir Putin and his defense was the same one we're making here. Well, Mr. Litvinenko was an enemy of Russia.

He's an imminent threat, even though something's not going to blow up in the next day, and the United States denounced it. Great Britain wanted to prosecute the person in Russia who was responsible, perhaps, for putting the polonium 211 (sic) there.

We are doing exactly the same thing. This is the Putin defense now, that we can assert and we would never and have not accepted it with regard to Mr. Putin.

And with regard to Mr. Blair's statement, what it shows in international law, if you have to create a force that's proportionate to the military objective, and Mr. Blair and others who are military people say there is no military objective in the predator drones, it doesn't take you anywhere other than showing that you're muscular and you have a lot of power.

And if you have no military objective in mind, it is a war crime to kill. And that's what's happening in this situation.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, Mr. Bellinger, because you have spoken about this, and I believe you were in the Obama administration, correct? I mean, you were there until 2009.

BELLINGER: Well, only for about the first day of the Obama administration, yes.


AMANPOUR: But do you think then that there is a potential backlash when it comes to foreign policy? Do you think more needs to be done to explain this policy? Or do you think it needs to be reined in? Do you support this?

BELLINGER: I do generally support it, but I think it is a dangerous policy to rely on for too long. I mean, remember in 2001-2002, when we were holding people in Guantanamo because there was no other place to hold them, it was not unpopular. And we all know what happened with Guantanamo. So drones, I think, have been effective. I believe they are lawful.

But it could change very quickly, and I do think that what Dennis Blair said raises some concerns. Also we are opening up a Pandora's box here that other countries may start using drones. And if we don't carefully state what the parameters are for use of drones -- which I think the administration's been trying to do recently, is to cabinet more clearly.

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and we've got to be prepared Russia or China or other countries begin to use drones that we have laid out very strictly what the legal rules are for doing that.

AMANPOUR: And what about that --


AMANPOUR: Go ahead, Mr. Fein.

FEIN: The backlash has already occurred. Read the front page of "The Washington Post" today about Yemen. Those are now turning to Al Qaeda because they're totally furious and outraged that innocent civilians are being targeted and killed by our predator drones.

The backlash has already occurred. We don't have to wait. This is mindless. It's making us less safe in the name of politically trying to show that Mr. Obama is tough and he doesn't flinch at killing.

BELLINGER: Well, again, Bruce, in any war, I'm sure the enemy is not happy when you're dropping bombs on them and we have to have a balance here. On the one hand, the drones are effective in knocking out some bad people. But we have to be looking extremely closely at whether we are creating more bad people by the use of drones.

AMANPOUR: Well, Mr. Fein talked about in Yemen that it's become a recruiting tool. We've also seen the so-called Times Square attempted bomber, used the drones as a rationale when he was in court for his attempted bombing. And we're seeing the hullabaloo that's been created all over Pakistan.

And what I want to ask you, Mr. Bellinger, is, is there sort of a moving target? At first, these drones were meant to be used against top level Al Qaeda, maybe even Taliban. But it does look that some of them have now been more mid-level. Added to that, there is this question of civilian casualties. How can one really be so sure, from 15,000 or 30,000 feet, that you are killing just military targets?

BELLINGER: Well, those are exactly the questions that the world -- to the extent that there is growing discomfort, and I have to say there's really not a lot, is that most of the world seems to be looking the other way -- but the discomfort is, exactly who are these people who are being killed?

How many civilians are being killed? Are the right people being targeted? There's not a lot of information out there. The administration has been doing a better job through a series of speeches in explaining who's being targeted and what the legal rationale is.

But the latest controversy is the administration focusing now not on particular individuals who they even know who they are, but in so-called signature strikes, where there seems to be a group of people who look like they might be Al Qaeda, but without even knowing who those people might be.


FEIN: (Inaudible) ridiculed by the CIA is three people doing jumping jacks is a signature target for killing and using the predator drones there. And with regard in general to the idea of civilian deaths, we know that they're large because the CIA standard is to prove that they are innocent is after you've killed them, if they come up with intelligence that shows that they were not involved in Al Qaeda, then they confess they made an error.

But the assumption is that anybody within the vicinity of someone who they think is Al Qaeda must automatically be of a part militant because Al Qaeda doesn't permit -- they're paranoid and doesn't permit anyone to be close to them otherwise.

AMANPOUR: OK, Mr. Fein --

FEIN: Something never verified (ph).

AMANPOUR: Mr. Fein, I just need -- I can't let you go without asking you, how does this differ to the air strikes under President Reagan that were designed to kill Moammar Gadhafi back in the '80s and did kill civilians around him?

FEIN: Yes, that was a specific retaliation for acts of terror that occurred in Berlin that Mr. Gadhafi, we had intelligence and it confirmed later on was responsible for. It's a one-time reaction in some sense self- defense. It wasn't a continued policy and there was a particular crime that we associated with the target.

AMANPOUR: All right. Bruce Fein, John Bellinger, thank you so much indeed for joining me.

BELLINGER: Nice to be with you.


AMANPOUR: And finally, how can children be targets? In Bosnia 20 years ago, Muslim boys and girls were butchered by the thousands in ethnic cleansing. And in Syria this weekend as we've seen, children were singled out for slaughter. Eyewitnesses describe executions of the innocent by government paramilitaries known as shabihas, we've just been talking about.

Instead of ending up on a slab in a morgue, imagine a world where a child's Saturday mornings are for sleeping late and being tickled and waking to the sweet sound of a mother's voice.

Bassel Shahade, a film student here in the United States, a Syrian, returned home last year to document the uprising. Two years ago, he made a short film based on the true story of a child caught in the Lebanon war in 2006. It's called "Saturday Morning Gift."




AMANPOUR: Bassel Shahade, the young man who made that film, was killed Monday while covering the violence in Homs. He was 28 years old. And now we also remember Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and other fellow journalists who were killed this year, documenting the unchecked atrocities in Syria.

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching.